Read Dreamlands Online

Authors: Scott Jäeger

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Horror, #Sea Stories

Dreamlands

ADS
9.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
READ BOOK DOWNLOAD BOOK

 

DREAMLANDS

Scott Jäeger

Copyright
© 2014 Scott Jäeger

Cover Art Copyright © 2014 Matt
Bradbury

~

All entities appearing in this work
are fictitious.  Any resemblance to actual beings from the void is purely
coincidental and not intended as an invocation of said entities.

A Walk on Boston Commons

What
a pretty mess I found myself in, that summer of 192–.

Three
years before, I had graduated from Northeastern University, a placement secured
by virtue of family name and pity after my forced departure from Harvard.  With
the completion of my degree, my inheritance was converted from trust to capital
and I embraced those aspects of my character which had, barely, been held in
check by my responsibilities as a student.  I began a regular circuit of counting
house to gambling hell to drug den, until my personal resources followed the
same path as the Sloan’s greater holdings.  My friends soon went the way of my
wealth, and over the past six months I had made the transition from quietly not
being invited to the social gatherings of my peers to quietly being refused
entry.

The
hour was close on midnight and I ambled down a gloomy corridor of
starved-looking elms like a man at the end of a long drunk straightening
himself out for his wife.  The moon’s pale eye followed me, as well as a police
constable, who had dogged my creeping steps from Beacon Hill to the Commons,
the two of us like a pair of tortoises engaged in a footrace.

I paused
to take my ease on a bench kindly provided by the City, while my admirer
stopped ten paces away to fiddle with his club.  My lazy gait and worn shoes suggested
I was a vagabond, but the cut of my suit gave him pause.  Did it indicate a
grandeur that was not quite so faded I should be stopped and quizzed for taking
the air after dark?  Then again, I may have come by my clothes second-hand.  Perhaps
he was waiting on me to leave the nacreous glow of the electric lights so he
could pursue a more vigorous sort of questioning.

I
pushed myself up and moved on, driven not so much by the constable as by the
itching which had begun in my palms and the thirst which water could never
slake.

My
options were dwindling, but I could still wash up on the doorstep of my Uncle
Eamon, who after months of silence had recently urged me to visit him in
Arkham.  However no rail ticket, and more critically no funds, had accompanied
his telegram, and my subsequent response to him had gone unanswered.

It
came to me that the regular echo of the policeman’s hard-soled steps had ceased. 
Raising my head, I saw that my legs, to which I had given over my navigation,
had treacherously taken a shortcut between two textile mills.  It was a risky
sort of place for a man to find himself, if he had anything to lose.  Walking
in a narrow strip of moonlight as if it were proof against the encroaching
shadows I mumbled aloud the timeworn adage of mothers everywhere:

“There
is nothing to threaten in the dark that isn’t there in the light.”  Except
when there is, I added to myself as I was tripped to my knees by a man’s walking
stick.

I
scrambled to my feet, my path blocked by a brown-skinned hulk who stared down at
me from beneath a single black brow.  His nose was beakish, his face scarred,
and he wore a drab brass-buttoned shirt issued by some foreign military.  The rank
had been stripped away, leaving less dull green squares in place of insignia.  I
stood there gaping until his companion, who had moved to block my retreat,
prodded me with his stick.  In contrast to the hulk, Jacob Roth was lean, feral
looking, and unpleasant.  Actually, I had a feeling they would both be
unpleasant.

“If
it isn’t Isaac Sloan,” Roth said heartily, “still living each day as though it
were his last.  In your case I would call that a prudent philosophy.  Tom and I
have been trying to catch up with you for the past –what is it?– two weeks, I
believe.  It appears you changed lodgings again and left no forwarding address.

“I’m
sorry,” he said, touching my shoulder.  “You seem distracted.”  I couldn’t drag
my eyes from Tom’s face, the left side of which was a map of shallow scars, as
if it had been flayed by a tiny elf.

“What
happened to him?” I asked.

“He
handles my birds.”

“Birds?”
I said, the tremor in my voice matching that in my knees.  Though my pointless
inanities must seem like some kind of tactic, my mind was dulled to everything but
my sickness.

“Roosters,”
Roth said.  “Cocks, as in cock fights.”

My
head moved in a small gesture of negation.

“You
know what cock fights are,” Roth said, incredulous.  “Fighting birds, you dunce. 
You put two roosters in a ring to slash each other up and men place bets.  There’s
a match tomorrow night in the West End.”

Recalling
the business at hand, he stopped himself from extending me an invitation and
nodded to Tom.  Despite the blow being signaled well in advance, Tom’s fist hit
my gut like a hammer, and left me stretched out on the cold bricks.  For a long
while I focused on expanding my lungs.  When I had recovered enough to sit up, Roth
was in the midst of a monologue addressed to the rectangle of stars framed by
the close walls overhead.

“–the
matter of several trips to that Beacon Hill cathouse, not to mention the debt
at Fox’s.  Let a man do what he will with his money, it makes no difference to
me.  What that man does with
my
money however, is a matter of utmost importance.” 
The usurer dropped his philosophical tone to nudge me with his boot.  “Wake up,
man.  This subject concerns you directly.  It should concern you very much.”

Following
the unmistakable rasp of metal on leather, the point of a crescent-shaped blade
came to rest beneath my chin, coaxing me back to the conversation.  From a long
ago museum exhibit on India, I was able to identify it as a
khukuri
.  I
made a sound which could easily have been mistaken for a sob, and Tom’s mouth
twisted into a grin like that of the very devil.

“This
is an awkward topic to broach with a gentleman," Roth continued, "but
it is unavoidable.  I require payment in the amount of six hundred and fifteen
dollars.  This sum includes accrued interest and other expenses incurred by
your difficulties as a client.  I will also accept, with an additional fee for
the exchange, the equivalent in pounds sterling.”

I
had not the value of the buttons on Tom’s shirt, and had I any coin at all I’d
spend it on laudanum –threats, thugs, and khukuris be damned.  Before I could
gather enough sense to disappoint him, we were interrupted by a shrill tweet
not entirely like that of a policeman’s whistle.  Everyone present jerked in
alarm as a tall figure stepped into silhouette against the light of the street beyond,
one hand raised to its lips, the other bearing a long club.  The two villains withdrew
immediately at sight of this spectre, their mismatched footfalls and a last
barked curse vanishing into the night.

The
shadowy figure grew taller as it approached, until I confirmed it was no member
of the constabulary.  He was a giant, taller than Tom, but leaner than
whippet-like Roth, with skin as black as polished obsidian.  Carrying an iron
shod walking stick that would serve a normal sized man as a staff, he was
dressed in a tailored linen ensemble more suited to the parlour of an English
nobleman than the back alleys of Boston.

My
saviour squatted down beside me.  Pressing a finger against my cheekbone, he
gently shifted my head to one side and inspected the black blot flooding over
my shirt.  Tom had left me with an unsightly, but luckily shallow, souvenir.

“Do
not worry,” he said calmly, “those ruffians won’t be back.  No rat will stand
to an even fight.”  His accent had nothing in common with the slack-mouthed
drawl of the Bostonian.  With one hand he hauled me easily to my feet.  Seeing
that with the wall at my back I could stand, he gripped my left hand to shake, and
with his right gave my forearm a friendly squeeze.  It was an oddly comforting
gesture.

“Better
now, my friend?  Can you walk?”  I managed a halfhearted nod.  I could walk, but
would take no pleasure in it.  He studied me awhile longer, then added, “You
know, I feel that you and I are already acquainted."

“Mister,
umm?” I said.

“Jarvis,
my friend, just Jarvis.”

“I
am Isaac Sloan, and happy to meet you, sir.”  I took a few tentative steps, as
if trying out a circus clown’s stilts for the first time.

“I
do not wish to contradict you, Mr. Sloan, but I am certain we have met already,
and more, that I owe you a debt.”

“You
make a striking figure, Jarvis,” I said, drawing the words up from inside like
water from a well, “one I would never forget.  As for owing me a debt, please
don’t embarrass me any further than I have done myself.  You may have saved my
life just now, and I–  I thank you.”

It
was weak tea as far as gratitude goes, but that other brain of mine, the one
that thinks most clearly when my need waxes greatest, was busily preparing a
short but eloquent series of lies.  If I told this man of means that I had been
robbed, he would plainly not refuse the request of a small loan.  A few dollars
for a flop and a dose of medicine would see me through the night.  Tomorrow
would be soon enough to deal with my numerous other dilemmas.

Mercifully,
I did not have the opportunity to sink so low before collapsing altogether.

* * *

I strolled
along the avenues of a different city.  It was midnight as before, and just as
ill-lit and foreboding as dockside Boston, but crowded with people.  As these
folks stepped aside to retire to their homes and traffic thinned, I noted those
who continued alongside me were all dressed alike in cowled robes, like a
monk’s costume.  I thought at first they had something to do with the
anniversary of the Tea Party, but that event took place sometime in winter. 
Also odd was the proliferation of candles, both in the hands of the mummers and
in the windows facing the street.  I supposed the electricity had failed again.

As
I walked on, thinking on no destination, my strangely garbed peers grew more
numerous.  They were watching me, probably because I was dressed as a normal citizen
and not for some idiot festival.  Their faces were obscured within cowls as deep
and black as the openings of a hundred identical caves, but I sensed their surreptitious
glances changing to bold stares.  The mob and I were moving in lockstep, and it
came to me that in the back of those caves was a secret too terrible to admit
the ubiquitous candlelight, or any other light of this world.

At
the height of this unbearable tension, I understood this was a dream, a
recurring phantasm which had many times rattled my drug-sick slumber.  But despite
this, what happened next never failed to prickle my skin with sweat and make
every hair rise to attention.

It
began with a murmur from one of my antagonists, who to this point had been
perfectly silent.  I stopped and, as if connected to me by wires, so did each
of the surrounding figures.  The sound was answered, then repeated, and I heard
from someone standing nearby three hissed, unintelligible syllables.  I spun
about, trying to keep them all in view, wishing to lay my hand on a stick or a
knife or any kind of weapon, as now the whispering came from every side.

My
heart beat like the hammer of an alarm clock as the susurrus rose to a shout
imbued with the frenzy of a dog running mad.  I gasped for air, on the verge of
hysteria myself, as they reached the climax, in which the syllables formed a
word I recognized but had forgotten, a word I fervently wished never to recall. 
I was not certain I could remember it and remain Isaac Sloan.

In
one motion I sat upright, threw off the bedclothes and staggered to my feet.  My
brain leapt at once to my little bottle, the distilled essence of sweet dreams. 
However I was not in my room– in fact, I had no room anywhere.  I was in quite
a fine hotel suite.  Though I had no reason to think I should find anything
like medicine, I groped about the cabinets of the en suite bath, absently
noting what items might be pawned for ready cash.  Instead of any paregoric, I
found a miracle:  beside the water jug sat a square brown bottle, eyedropper,
and glass tumbler.

I
cried aloud and, when I was able to control my trembling hands, decanted a
glass of water and imbued it with six drops of tincture.  I downed the measure
at one draught and the relentless itch within me subsided to a pleasant tingling.
 I prepared and consumed a second dose of my vital tonic and sat in a deeply
cushioned Chesterfield to wait.  Dawn was just past.  A robin was singing close
by as the light changed from rose to cream.

The
sofa embraced me, as firm and gentle as a mother’s arms, when the second measure
overcame me in a flood.  I was filled with the intention to perform noble deeds
and the satisfaction of having done them, both without the inconvenience of
rising from my seat.  In such a state I observed a stripe of light allowed by
the slightly parted curtains as it followed the sun from horizon to zenith.

When
I could feel the carpet once more beneath my feet, I rose to see myself in the
cheval mirror wearing a man’s dressing gown and a gauze bandage, like a
Frenchman’s jaunty cravat, about the slash on my neck.  Thinking of Tom with
his pauper’s coat and scarred face, wandering the alleys of Boston carrying a
weapon like a machete, I laughed.

There
was a suit of new clothes laid out on the divan:  charcoal trousers, cream-coloured
shirt, dark checked coat, and brogues with a low heel.  For these boons I proclaimed
my thanks to Jarvis, a mighty friend indeed.  I remained convinced we had not
been previously acquainted, but I was already imagining a future in which we
would become bosom companions.

Other books

Unwrapping the Playboy by Marie Ferrarella
Crushed by A.M. Khalifa
Life Mask by Emma Donoghue
Moth to the Flame by Joy Dettman
Breaking the Greek's Rules by Anne McAllister
A Convenient Husband by Kim Lawrence
Looking for X by Deborah Ellis