Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

Advertisement

Fiction

Mysterium Tremendum

May first came, and it was still snowing. Marjorie Olenthiste was sick of it, of the storms that kept blanketing Arkham in identical, endless, silent white drifts; of needing to change her shoes after trudging through the resulting slush to the university library every morning; of woolen coats and hats and woolen scarves and gloves and woolen skirts and woolen underwear and wool in general. That afternoon, when the flowing white clouds again clotted into dreary leaden masses, and the first flurries began swirling down, she found herself musing on whether it was ever going to stop snowing—or if springtime would pass her by, and hot, muggy, cicada-haunted summer, and autumn with its rainstorms, until winter was the only season in her life.

Though, she mused, if it had to snow this late in the year, there couldn’t have been a better day for it. The weather had ruined her father’s meticulous plans for his annual spring garden party. Alas; even that was cold comfort—as it were. Professor Olenthiste would never disappoint his guests, especially when they were comprised of Arkham’s academic elite. More snow simply meant that instead of ambling through the wisteria trellises, swatting at early mosquitoes, Marjorie was stuck inside in a dungeon of dark wood and cigar-smoke, sipping a hot toddy and wishing she could get away from her father. The ticking of the various clocks maddened her, a metronome letting her know precisely how often she was contemplating escaping to her room so she could do some work on her proposal for an in-library display of apotropaic hippopotamus miniatures.

But work never excused Marjorie’s absence at a social engagement, not to Professor Olenthiste. Therefore, she was about to claim her tried-and-true standby of “a headache” when Harriet Quildring, the old battle-axe her father was trying to butter up, said:

“I am indeed looking to sell some of my late husband’s collection, Thomas—but nothing that would interest you, I’m sure. I adored Geoffrey’s taste in Tiffany glass and plan to keep the lot. On the other hand, his collection of mummies, especially the animals . . . they’re just too ghastly for me to enjoy. I’m hoping to find a buyer for them soon.”

To Marjorie’s great, if childish, pleasure, her father’s hopeful expression soured, though his face was still rendered softly beatific in the light of the Favrille and floral lamps he’d spent many years acquiring. He was clearly searching for the right way to push his enquiry further, but before he could say a word, Marjorie swooped in like a hawk to change the subject from Art Nouveau interior decorating to something she cared about, and thus hadn’t expected to discuss that night: Archaeology. If her father wanted to keep her by his side like she was his wife and not his daughter, he could certainly deal with her speaking every once in a while.

“Did you say animal mummies, Mrs. Quildring?” Marjorie smiled cheerfully when the old woman peered at her with as much distaste as if Marjorie had asked if the widow had considered mummifying her husband instead of laying him to rest in the family mausoleum. “Forgive me, but I’m currently very interested in them—especially if they’re for sale.”

“Ah, yes.” Professor Olenthiste’s tone was indulgent. “My daughter has recently been promoted to—what is it? Junior Acquisitions Librarian for the Francis Morgan Antiquities Collection at Miskatonic’s library, yes? You see, Marjorie’s set her cap for a career rather than a man; she’s got herself a job—and told me only yesterday she’s saving up to move out and live on her own. For someone so concerned with the ancient world she shows a distinct lack of filial piety, don’t you think?”

By the time he’d finished, Marjorie was regretting speaking up. Blushing furiously, she was all set to back down, like she always did, when Mrs. Quildring unexpectedly saved her.

“Are you all finished, Thomas?” Mrs. Quildring held her glass out to the now twice-defeated professor. “I seem to have finished my champagne—do be a dear and get me a fresh glass while Marjorie and I chat about why she’s so curious about my disgusting menagerie?”

As Professor Olenthiste stalked off, Mrs. Quildring put a rose-scented arm around Marjorie’s shoulders and led her to a quiet corner of the parlor. There, she said, they could more easily hear one other above the din. Though they settled on a divan large enough for three, when Marjorie’s father returned with Mrs. Quildring’s drink she bluntly shooed him away. Then she patted Marjorie’s tweed-covered knee.

“Now then,” she said. “Oswald was obviously an Egyptologist, which explains his fascination in preserved creatures. As for you? Something to do with the library, according to your father?”

“We—the library, I mean, of course—we’re seeking to expand our collection of Egyptian antiquities, and one of the things we really need right now is animal mummies.”

Marjorie fell silent, recalling just how she’d come by that information: Lingering out of sight of Dr. Ingelstadt’s office door as he spoke with Richard Warston, the other junior acquisitions librarian. Somehow, though he had fewer connections and was infinitely less of a go-getter, Warston was always informed of library needs and wants, while Marjorie was kept more or less in the dark. She’d be inclined to believe Dr. Ingelstadt was purposefully funneling all the good leads elsewhere, but she didn’t want to be paranoid about it. He had hired her, after all. Thus, Marjorie had come to the conclusion that she would just have to prove she was worthy of the kind of work they always gave Warston, and if she had to get tips by eavesdropping, then so be it.

“I see,” said Mrs. Quildring. “Well, I’d be happy to let you come by and take a look at the lot. I know Oswald had several foxes, some . . . weasels, or something like that, a few birds, a baboon—horrible, looks like a child—and of course, some cats. Those are the worst, in my opinion. I adore cats, I have several.”

“Dr. Ingelstadt mentioned specifically wanting cats.” Suddenly cold, Marjorie shivered; farthest from the fireplace, this divan was likely empty as it stood against a large window that was leaking in the chill from outside.

“Well, you’re in luck . . . depending on your budget, I suppose.” The older woman’s smile was sly as she sipped her champagne. “The prize of our collection is a mummified cat said to have been the personal pet of Nehesy, also called the Black Pharaoh.”

The electric lights flickered and then went out entirely. Marjorie shivered, a weird, prickly sensation suddenly flowed up her spine as guests gasped at the sudden darkness; a few wits in the parlor made spooky ghost noises, ooooOOOooooh, and there was the tinkle of a glass breaking. But just as Professor Olenthiste was announcing he’d find someone see to the problem immediately, the lights came back on.

Squinting in the sudden brightness, Marjorie rubbed at her right eye with the back of her hand. When she could see again, she found two gentlemen standing in front of the sofa where she and Mrs. Quildring still sat. One was a paunchy youth with fair, messy hair. He was smiling, displaying uneven teeth, and was listing slightly to his right. Marjorie suspected he’d had more than a tipple that night. His companion, on the other hand, was sober, well-dressed, slender, and mustached. His dark hair had been parted precisely down the middle; indeed, everything about him was precise.

“What is it, Edgar?” Mrs. Quildring’s tone was icy.

“Oh, Auntie, don’t be like that,” slurred the blond man. “I just want a bit of oof, you know, for cab fare home. I’m ready to go, but you’re still socializing with the eggheads.”

“You will not take a cab.” She sighed and turned to Marjorie. “Young men these days don’t seem to understand that when they take a woman somewhere, they should see her home.” Marjorie, for her part, was more annoyed that just as her prize was in sight, these two had come and interrupted her conversation with Mrs. Quildring. Things had been going so well. Looking everywhere but at the bickering pair, she caught the other man’s eye. He shrugged and smiled slightly, as if to say what can you do?

“Let me see you home, then,” urged Edgar.

“All you want to do is put me to bed so you can go straight back out again with your disreputable friends.” Mrs. Quildring seemed to notice Edgar’s associate for the first time. “Though I concede that this one looks all right, for once. Who are you, sir, that you voluntarily choose the company of my repugnant nephew on a Friday night?”

Marjorie noticed that Edgar startled a bit when he saw the man standing beside him, as if unaware of his presence until that very moment. He stammered, then seemed to come back to himself.

“This is Maestro Petar Zupan, of course.” He spoke as if the name should mean something, and indeed, it did sound somewhat familiar. When Edgar went on to say, “We’re going to his show tomorrow, remember? He’s the famous stage magician who’s been impressing everyone from New York City to Atlanta this winter,” Marjorie realized she’d just read an article in the Advertiser about this man’s arrival in Arkham.

Zupan’s magic was said to be mesmerizing, full of tricks with light and sound and colored vapors. The piece had made a lot of hay out of the supposedly strange reactions of audiences to his show; the reporter had claimed that during Zupan’s performance in Baton Rouge a man had begun to scream and speak in tongues, resulting in his being hospitalized for a fortnight, and that in Chicago, a woman had allegedly returned home from the opening night only to decapitate her beloved Pomeranian and parade its head on a stick through her neighborhood, calling all to worship the “true god.” The stories had sounded like a load of hooey to Marjorie, and she discredited them even more upon meeting the man. A milder-seeming creature she had rarely encountered.

Zupan, as if to confirm her impression, inclined his head in a little formal bow. “A pleasure to meet you at last, Mrs. Quildring. And you, Miss . . . ”

“Olenthiste,” supplied Marjorie. She smiled at him; she liked his faint European accent and quaint, formal manners.

“Ah, my hostess, I did not know,” he said, extending his hand. She offered him hers, but instead of shaking it he turned her wrist gently and kissed her knuckles. “You have a lovely home.”

“Quite a fellow with the fillies, isn’t he?” remarked Edgar to no one in particular, which brought a blush to Marjorie’s cheeks. She was sure Zupan had only meant to be polite.

“So in all ways your opposite,” cut in Mrs. Quildring. “Not only am I told that you are the rottenest magician ever to pull a rabbit out of a hat, you seem to enjoy driving all decent women away with your rudeness every chance you get.” She shook her head. “Stupid boy, I suppose you’ve achieved your goal. You’ve exhausted me, go get the car. But I’m driving home.”

Edgar, red-faced, opened and closed his mouth several times. Zupan looked appalled. Marjorie felt a little bad for him, too, even if he was a boor.

“Please,” she said, getting to her feet, desperate to smooth things over, “let me—”

“There’s nothing you need to do, Marjorie,” said Mrs. Quildring, tugging her back down again. “You stay here with me. Mr. Zupan—I’d appreciate you making sure my nephew describes the correct car to the valet? It’s a green Bentley 8 Litre.” She sighed as Zupan bowed once again, and the two men retreated, Edgar stony-faced and stiff-legged as they walked off, Zupan looking back at them over his shoulder. “Edgar is hopeless,” she said, shaking her head. “Magic! God help us all. I suppose I should be pleased he doesn’t spend all his time chasing girls and spending his money in those disreputable ‘speak-easies’ downtown. But card tricks? Those clinking rings? What he needs is a sensible young woman in his life to, keep him in check, reign him in . . .”

The older woman paused, then smiled. Marjorie suddenly felt uncomfortable.

“Do you . . . do you enjoy magic, Marjorie? You seem so studious and serious—are you able to get out much and socialize?”

“Well, as for your first question, I’m not sure.” Marjorie had had her fill of people attempting to set her up on dates. She didn’t have time to be frivolous, she had work—no, a career to keep her busy. How had they even gotten on this topic of conversation? All she wanted from the old bat was to see her cat mummies and get some price quotes to see if the library could afford them. “My job does tend to keep me busy, and I work until late most—”

“Surely not on a Saturday? Are you free?”

“Um . . .”

“You see, I was just thinking, I don’t particularly care for magic, but Edgar is obviously dying to see this charlatan perform his little tricks.”

Marjorie’s heart sank. She didn’t want to go anywhere with Edgar, he seemed like terrible company. But she couldn’t refuse without reason, not since she needed to stay in Mrs. Quildring’s good graces. She fumbled for words, but before she could get out more than an “Oh, I—” Mrs. Quildring cut her off.

“It would be so lovely if you two had a nice time together, wouldn’t it? Then you could come back for a nightcap, and I could show you Oswald’s collection of mummies.” Mrs. Quildring smiled. “As I said, the best of the bunch will cost whoever wants it a tidy sum—but of course, I’d be more likely to haggle with a friend of the family.”

• • • •

“Want a sip?”

Edgar’s Adam’s apple bobbed as he took a few swallows of his own before surreptitiously offering Marjorie the flask.

“What is it?”

He glanced at the well-dressed theatre-goers surrounding them, and grinned. “Apple juice. It’s the eel’s hips. Hits the spot on a warm night.”

It was warm, she realized—the snow had all melted away, and spring had seemingly arrived overnight. Funny how she hadn’t noticed it before.

Edgar was still proffering the flask, but Marjorie declined. A drink would be nice, but then again, she wanted to be keen for Zupan’s show. The opening act, a short silent film, had been excellent if exceedingly strange, featuring women and men in black, body-hugging outfits dancing wildly to music played by an orchestra of masked demons.

“Enjoying the show so far?” Edgar tucked the flask back into his jacket’s breast pocket.

“Oh yes. And it’s a beautiful venue, too—I’ve never been to the Coliseum before.”

Edgar made no reply, and they stood in silence for a few moments. Marjorie felt like she should be making more of an effort to be pleasant and sociable, since he had been treating her more than kindly, and scrambled to keep the conversation going.

“Have you performed here?” she asked.

Edgar’s face fell. “No,” he said, after a moment. “I . . . mostly do smaller events.”

“Like what?”

His cheeks reddened. “Well, you know, there are so many, I tend to forget, but—oh, look, the lights are dimming. We should . . . we should go back in.”

Marjorie fell in behind him as he trotted back to their seats. She felt bad; she hadn’t meant to make him feel ashamed, though she didn’t see exactly what was shameful in being a hobbyist at something like magic. Maybe his distress was related to his friend being such a legend. Hoping it would do something to dispel the tension, after they took their seats she leaned toward him.

“How do you know Zupan?”

Again, Edgar got that confused, faraway look in his eyes. “I can’t recall,” he said slowly. “Isn’t that funny? But we’ve known each other for a long time. Terrible good friends, he and I, that’s why . . . why I brought him to your party.” He raised his hand to his breast pocket, slowly, like he was moving it through water. “Did I mention we have backstage passes, for after?”

“How lovely!” Marjorie’s enthusiasm was genuine. She’d never been backstage at a theatre. Maybe Mrs. Quildring’s requirement that she spend time with Edgar before getting a peek at her collection wouldn’t turn out to be a waste of time after all.

Edgar had gone all quiet again, and Marjorie was just contemplating what next to say when the lights went down—all of them, even the footlights—and the same bizarre, prickly feeling she’d experienced last night once again made her shudder. Then, from behind the curtain, there was a popping sound and bright bluish-white light streamed from the sides of the red cloth, and down the middle, where it would part. Marjorie squinted; she could have sworn she saw the faint outline of a tall, skeletally-thin man wearing some sort of elaborate headdress.

After the blaze dimmed the curtain parted, and for a moment the phantom of the tall man remained—but when the real figure on stage moved, stepping forward with his arms outstretched, though it was only Zupan in a formal evening wear, the remaining illusion was just as unbelievable. Lightning appeared to be shooting from each of his four fingers and his thumb, writhing like white serpents reaching up to lick the vaulted ceiling of the Coliseum. Zupan’s top-hatted head was bowed forward, and as he reached the edge of the stage, he looked up. From his wide eyes flowed yet more lightning, and when he opened his mouth, a massive bolt shot out, drawing gasps and screams from the audience.

With a dramatic sweep he lowered his arms, closing his eyes and mouth at the same time. The theatre went completely dark. Marjorie clapped along with the rest when the footlights came up, though the applause was more sporadic, hesitant than for the film. Everyone seemed more confounded than impressed by Zupan’s first trick.

This proved to be the case for most of his act. Unlike many magicians, he used no equipment beyond a few handheld objects—a glass sphere threaded with silver glyphs that, when he held it above his head, glowed bright enough to cast shadows like a forest all over the walls and people, a flugelhorn that emitted mist that changed color with the tone, a tiny blue bottle full of something that turned to cobalt flame the moment he dripped it onto the stage with an eyedropper, a white pigeon in a bronze cage that he bewitched with a touch, and without a cry of pain submitted to having its beating heart plucked out and replaced with a candle, whereupon it flew about, shitting wax all over the audience. He spoke but little, making no claims beyond avowing the reality of what he showed them, and how instead of presenting illusions, he was sweeping them away.

“Remarkable,” murmured Edgar, his eyes shining like a child’s. “I’ve never seen such magic—never knew anything like it could be done.”

Marjorie, distracted, ceased applauding for a moment. “You haven’t seen his act before?” she asked, over the din. That seemed queer, if they were such good friends.

Edgar never got a chance to answer. As he turned to face her, cloudy-eyed once again, there was a powerful crackle from the front of the theatre. Question forgotten, Marjorie gaped, heart pounding, to see Zupan suddenly standing atop a small pyramid that had not been on stage a moment before, dressed in the robe and headdress she’d thought she’d seen at the beginning of his act. The headdress was Egyptian, of the nemes-style made famous by Tutankhamun, except that Zupan’s looked to be of no real substance, comprised instead entirely of chryselephantine electricity. As were his robes, Marjorie realized, when as he began to descend the pyramid one bolt of crackling energy moved strangely, momentarily revealing a flash of flesh that left her blushing. She kept her eyes on his face after that. He was naked under the garment—if garment it was.

“For my next trick,” he intoned, “I require a volunteer from the audience. A brave volunteer, I must specify—and one, hopefully, familiar with certain rites known to the ancient peoples of Egypt.”

Marjorie dreaded his gaze as it raked over the audience. She knew that unless Zupan had been listening in to her conversation the previous evening, there was no way he could know her interest in matters Egyptian . . . but just the same, after his queer displays that evening, mind-reading didn’t seem so very unbelievable. Thus, when one of the tendrils of light jetted out from his heart and touched her on the forehead with a faint thrill, like static shock, Marjorie wasn’t entirely surprised—just alarmed.

“Go,” hissed Edgar. He looked almost jealous, to her surprise. So did most of the audience. She stood, dazed, and begged the pardon of those sitting between her and the aisle, making her way toward the leftmost steps to the stage with trembling legs.

Zupan greeted her solemnly, kissing her hand like he had the night before. She tried not to let her eyes slip downward, acutely aware of his nakedness now that they were so close.

“Miss Olenthiste joins me in a sacred ritual tonight,” he said, holding her hand aloft as if declaring a simultaneous victory. “Tonight, my delightful assistant had no idea that journeying to the theatre would be her final trip. For tonight, she leaves us not by cab or by car—but by spirit journey down the Nile, to stand before Osiris and have her heart weighed against a feather. Are you ready for this, Miss Olenthiste? Are you ready to cross over?”

Marjorie knew it was all an act, but all the same, his words put the spook on her. Still, the audience was clearly enjoying the spectacle, and she hated to disappoint them. She nodded, but was too nervous to speak.

“Then come with me,” he said, and led her up the steps of the pyramid.

Once they were atop the structure, she noticed that four cages had appeared on stage below them, each with a creature trapped inside. The three larger cages sat on the stage itself; the smallest, atop a pedestal table. It contained a hawk, and the other three she recognized as a baboon, a jackal, and—was it possible? A small man-like creature, pale-skinned as a mushroom and just as puffy. She knew then that Zupan’s trick would involve something having to do with mummification, as these creatures represented the four sons of Horus, the guardians of sacred human organs in traditional Egyptian canopic jars. Zupan confirmed her theory by explaining exactly this to the audience as he produced from nowhere the hilt of an ancient-looking knife.

“Are you ready,” he murmured. The hairs on the back of her neck all stood up. “Are you sure?”

“I think so,” she murmured back. “It’s just . . . just a trick, an illusion—right?”

Zupan smiled at her, his eyes dark limpid pools, comforting and yet somehow satyric, mischievous. “Your belief makes it real,” he said. “Shall we give them a show?”

Before she could answer, a blade of pure light erupted from Zupan’s dagger-hilt being, deadly-sharp and yet ephemeral. Marjorie trembled but he steadied her, moving behind her and grasping her around the waist with his free hand. She was again very aware of his being largely nude, but had no time to think about it—he brandished the knife and then plunged it into the fleshy area just above her right hip, and then slid it upwards and along the area under her ribcage. She gasped; the sensation was not so much painful as peculiar. Peculiar, too, was that she felt anything at all. It was all supposed to be an illusion . . .

Marjorie gasped. Something, some part of her, flopped onto Zupan’s waiting palms, translucent as a jellyfish and colored like afterbirth. He held it delicately in both hands as he began walking back down the steps of the pyramid. Marjorie, horrified and fascinated in equal measure, found she could not move, had no power to control her limbs whatsoever. This was for the best, however, as she could not actually faint when Zupan released the horrible pale man-thing and it accepted whatever Zupan had taken out of her into its sharp-toothed maw, chewing and swallowing each bite thoughtfully.

The moment it finished its bizarre meal, the thing froze, and—in a flash of lightning, disappeared—only to be replaced with an alabaster canopic jar, the head of which was the exact likeness of the creature.

Zupan cried out, “Thus, Imsety!” and bowed deeply . . . but the audience did not applaud. They looked, instead, revolted, and began to murmur and shift as he repeated the process three more times, with the baboon, jackal, and hawk consuming and being transformed by ghostly illusions of Marjorie’s lungs, stomach, and large intestine.

“The ancient Egyptians knew that proper mummification cannot occur until the four organs are removed,” Zupan told the audience, as he walked backwards up the pyramid, creepily sure-footed. “Then the body may be wrapped, dried, so that the person may live forever in the afterlife once the ka—the soul—has returned to the body in the sight of Osiris. Therefore, my assistant is now ready for her final voyage. Aren’t you?”

Marjorie found she could nod—and did. She was uncertain, but no harm had come to her so far. The only consequence of Zupan’s strange actions was her feeling slightly light-headed, but that might have been stage fright, being up so high, or realizing she was no longer frozen in place.

Zupan was now holding held a large bolt of rough linen cloth and, kneeling, began wrapping her legs together at the ankles. Marjorie blushed at the indecency, but quickly enough he moved up her legs, binding them together, then wrapping her arms at her sides, her neck, and then her face.

“You kept your heart, for your judgment,” he whispered in her ear, as he tucked the end of the binding somewhere behind her head. “Do not be afraid. If there is nothing you leave this world wanting, it will be lighter than Maat’s feather.”

Marjorie briefly imagined the treasures waiting for her in Mrs. Quildring’s collection—and how, when she told the tale of how she’d submitted to everything this night, even public mummification, the woman better cut her a deal. Then Marjorie felt a sensation like thunder sounded, screamed, and knew no more.

• • • •

She came to in Zupan’s dressing room. Someone had put a pillow behind her head and under her knees, so she was resting comfortably on the couch. She felt fine. Really good, actually—euphoric, almost, like the time her grandmother had given her some Bayer Heroin for a toothache.

Unfortunately, given the conversation occurring as she returned to consciousness, that sense of peace left her quickly. Before she opened her eyes, she heard Zupan speaking in a louder tone than she had yet heard him use. He was talking to—arguing with, really—Edgar. Over her, of all things.

“You just had to wow her like that, didn’t you?” Edgar sounded really angry. “I . . . we . . . things were going well, even coming to your show and her knowing I’m a magician and . . . oh, bushwa!”

“I don’t see why you are so put out,” replied Zupan, who, she noted with relief, had donned his suit once again. “I needed an assistant, so I chose your friend. I daresay she won’t forget this night any time soon, yes? But you are not pleased?”

“No, I’m not pleased!”

“That was not my intent.”

“Well! Now all she’ll talk about when I take her back to Auntie’s is you,” said Edgar bitterly. “I liked her, you know. She was all right, for being dumpy and boring.”

Any goodwill Marjorie had for Edgar disappeared, like one of Zupan’s tricks. Boring! The nerve! All she’d done was try to talk about him and his interests. So much for the rules in that one issue of McClure’s she’d read on how to behave on a date!

“You’re no prize yourself,” she said, still reclining on the couch. When both gentlemen turned to her, surprised, she sat up, glaring at Edgar. “I don’t know who you think you are, but your company wasn’t the most pleasant, either.”

Edgar sneered at her. “I know very well you weren’t ever interested in my company. Well, trust me, I’ll make sure you never so much as see that disgusting mummy you were using me to get at.” He turned to Zupan. “I was going to bring her back stage, you know, impress her, show her a good time . . . thanks a lot, you oily little bohunk. But you always had all the advantages. Manners and a three-letter mustache, that’s what woman want.”

“Stay,” urged Zupan. “It is a misunderstanding.”

Edgar looked to Marjorie. Marjorie shrugged, not really interested in prolonging his stay.

“So long, Marjorie.” Edgar tossed two backstage passes onto the carpet. Zupan twitched as the door slammed behind him. Then he turned to Marjorie, and smiled shyly.

“I am sorry.” He shrugged. “I did not realize, did not mean to upset him. And it turns out you had a stake in all this?”

She nodded. “Yes, actually. His aunt has a mummified cat I wanted to look at. My library—well, the library in which I work—got a grant, was looking to purchase more Egyptian antiquities. Oh well.”

Zupan sat carefully beside her on the couch. She tried not to think that just a while before—how long had it been?—they had been pressed close together, him naked. He really was very handsome; something about him was electric, magnetic, even when he wasn’t actively performing miracles.

“Let’s go to their house,” he said. “I can explain what happened, apologize for my lack of understanding. I happen to have a bottle, a real bottle, of Glenmorangie, that I smuggled across when I came to America . . . that should help smooth things over, don’t you think?”

Marjorie considered, then nodded her assent. However their plan turned out, Zupan’s company was proving to be immensely pleasant; his chivalric concern for her was endearing, if unnecessary. If only the dates her friends and family pushed her into were with this sort of enjoyable young man! She might actually contemplate matrimony if someone like Zupan made her an offer . . .

She had no notion of what time it was when they left the theatre through the back, but it felt very late indeed. The streets were dark and empty, and there were so few cabs still on the road that they began walking toward the wealthier French Hill district. She began to sweat, much to her embarrassment. Not only had winter finally yielded to spring, spring had apparently had yielded to summer. Much to her relief, eventually they were able to hail a cab and arrived at Mrs. Quildring’s house—which, surprisingly, was entirely dark.

“What do we do?” she asked. “Looks like they’ve gone to bed.”

“No matter,” said Zupan. He leaped from the cab, handed some money to the driver, and opened her door, bowing her out onto the dark street.

“How so?” Marjorie’s heels made a clicking sound as they connected with the pavement. The driver tipped his hat to her and then sped away. She wondered if she’d made the right choice, accepting Zupan’s help.

“You wanted to see the mummified cat, did you not?” Zupan smiled at her, and she melted a little inside. “I am a magician—many things that are impossible for regular mortals are possible for me.”

“On the stage, maybe.”

Zupan looked at her. “You saw my performance tonight,” he said softly. “Do you believe my powers are purely illusion?”

Marjorie, never one to believe in ghosts and magic, found she was unsure. Zupan was holding his hand toward her; after hesitating for a moment she took it, deciding to trust him.

“I just want to look at it,” she whispered. “To see if it’s worth all this trouble, you know?”

He nodded. “Then let us go look at it.”

Despite Marjorie’s expectations, Zupan performed no further feats of magic to get them into Mrs. Quildring’s darkened home. Instead, he helped her hop the fence, led her around to the back door . . . and picked the lock.

“What about burglar alarms?” asked Marjorie, as Zupan put his hand on the doorknob.

“What about them?”

“What if we set one off?”

“I do not think we will,” he said. “This door feels fine.”

He was right, though what Zupan meant by “feels fine” eluded Marjorie. The door opened without a creak, revealing the service area of Mrs. Quildring’s modest mansion. They made their way carefully through the kitchen, into the living room, and then down a carpeted stairwell. Zupan seemed to instinctively know where to go, which further baffled her, but when they came down in what was essentially a museum in miniature, and Zupan flipped on the lights, revealing all kinds of fascinating Egyptian artifacts, she forgot everything but the pure joy of discovery.

“Amarna-period glassware,” she whispered over her shoulder. “Look at the little—hello?” Zupan was not behind her.

“Marjorie.” She heard his low voice from a different corner of the room. “Come and see.”

She padded over and found him standing before a glass case. He had an irresistibly warm, loving expression as he looked at the mummified creature inside. To her surprise, he put his arm around her waist, pulling her in closer as he gazed. She did not protest.

The unfortunate animal had been mummified in the traditional way, limbs bound into a flat-bottomed cylinder, with a clay head atop. This specific cat-face was more feral-looking than most of the photographs Marjorie had seen over the years. It was beautiful in its own way, however, and certainly the best of the lot. The best she’d ever seen. A small label of yellowed cardstock was at its feet, saying only Mummified Cat, Allegedly Belonging to The Black Pharaoh.

“It’s a lovely specimen,” whispered Marjorie, knowing she was making the understatement of the decade; knowing, too, that she would need to make up to Edgar, and to his aunt. If she could get this artifact at a good price, let alone a bargain, her reputation at the library as an employee of quality would be assured. “Definitely worth it.”

“Oh, I know.” Zupan squeezed her playfully. “Mau-Mau was mine. Half wildcat, if not more. Such a little menace! Claws like you’ve never seen, and when she bit you, if you didn’t bleed, you’d bruise. When they tricked me into sleep, twenty-seven long centuries ago, she was sent with me. They did us that honor, at least. But when that man Quildring discovered my tomb, he separated us, keeping her but destroying me. He was a fool, but he knew he had not discovered the final resting place of Nehesy, but another Black Pharaoh entirely.”

Marjorie, though intrigued by Zupan’s odd speech, was extremely discomfited by it. Zupan had seemed reasonable up until this point, but was now raving like a madman. No, not raving—chatting like a madman, which was even more disturbing.

“He burned my corpse to ash in the belly of a steamship heading up the Nile,” continued Zupan. “He thought that would be the end of me. But I had been mummified with my mouth and eyes closed—so to speak—in order that my soul should not reunite with my body in the afterlife. When they burned me, however, my soul became free to find a new body, and live again.” He turned his head to meet Marjorie’s eyes. “But how could I live without Mau-Mau? She was the only creature in the world who was never afraid of me. Curious, awed, but never afraid. So I listened, biding my time in ways that seemed more or less interesting, until I heard her mentioned.”

It was, Marjorie decided, time to go.

Zupan’s speaking volume had increased over the course of his declamation, and so not only were they risking being overheard, he and the situation were becoming increasingly unstable. She inched away from him, hoping his grip around her waist would loosen, but instead he slid his hand down to her hipbone and clutched her there so hard she cried out.

“Your part in this is not yet done,” he said. Marjorie gasped, the strange knife from his final trick back at the Coliseum was in his hand, glowing and jagged with writhing tendrils of light. He flipped it up, improbably grabbed it by its blade, and used it like a hammer to strike at the glass of the display case. It shattered loudly and rained down glass upon the carpet.

Her first instinct was to run for it, but like earlier in the night, when she was atop the pyramid, Marjorie found herself rooted to the earth. Helpless, she watched as Zupan took the cat from its pedestal. She observed him in abject horror, as he used the blade of his knife to cut through the elaborate wrappings around its body, turning them to scraps and dust, revealing the desiccated corpse inside. She wished she could look away; watching a valuable piece of material history destroyed so wantonly was fundamentally repulsive to her.

Yet more repulsive was when, just as suddenly as the knife had appeared, the four canopic jars from the earlier illusion were with them in the room. One by one, the kneeling Zupan decanted them into the open mouth of the cat’s corpse. As he did so, the cat—somehow—grew more and more alive before Marjorie’s eyes. The creature’s skin softened, its patchy fur hair turned softer, thicker, and in some places grew back entirely, and its limbs began to loosen. After all four ghost-organs had been funneled into the animal, he applied his mouth to the cat’s snaggle-toothed rictus and breathed into it.

The long-legged, fat-tailed, slender, fox-eyed and—now—whole and live tabby-cat got unsteadily to its feet. After washing its left paw with its pink tongue, it meowed once before jumping into Zupan’s arms and nuzzling his chin with a bone-to-bone thonk. Zupan scratched it behind its ears, whispered something, and got to his feet.

“Thank you, Marjorie,” he said kindly. “Your assistance for my final trick tonight has been invaluable. But now, my show is at an end . . . as is yours.” Zupan shook his head. “I’m sure the police will be able to concoct some theory around why such a promising young acquisitions librarian would sneak into a home and destroy a priceless Egyptian artifact. Possibly they will blame your coming to my show. That’s a popular one these days. More likely, they’ll see you as a jilted young woman out for revenge on a man who treated you shabbily.” He manipulated her still-motionless body onto the carpet, beside the ruined bindings and ancient dust of the formerly-mummified cat, and placed the hilt of his knife in her hand, where it lengthened into a common ball-peen hammer.

“Here they come,” he said, winking at her—and disappeared.

Only when Mrs. Quildring, in a flowery night-dress, and Edgar, looking like he’d been hitting the “apple juice” all night, rushed into the room, could Marjorie move again. She sat up, hammer in hand, mouth open to explain . . . but no words came to her.

Marjorie?” Mrs. Quildring looked appalled. “After all I did for you, how could you?”

Enjoyed this story? Get the rest of this issue in convenient ebook format!

Molly Tanzer

Molly Tanzer

Molly Tanzer is the author of Creatures of Will and Temper, Vermilion, and The Pleasure Merchant, as well as the British Fantasy and Wonderland Book Award-nominated A Pretty Mouth. She is also the co-editor of Mixed Up: Cocktail Recipes (and Flash Fiction) for the Discerning Drinker (and Reader). For more information about her critically acclaimed novels and short fiction, visit her website, mollytanzer.com, or follow her @molly_the_tanz on Twitter or @molly_tanzer on Instagram.