Chapter 1.SIX RED TEARS
Catalina Gomez was making the bed in room 203 when she felt something cold brushing against the small of her back, like the touch of a butterfly with frozen feet.
"One minute, Seņor!" She turned around, but when she didn't see anyone there, she shrugged it off. Must have been a muscle-twitch
. Catalina stretched and massaged a sore back muscle with her thumb. With only the manager and herself to run Hotel Kisanti
-and the handsome Miguel in the garden, they were all overworked and muscles were always sore. Oh, how she wished Fernando would hire extra hands to help around the hotel, but business was slow outside the tourist season. In a month or so, summer would attract surfers and scuba divers to the city of Ra'gasso and its colorful coral-reefs.
Catalina made a mental note to put in a vase of fresh flowers from the garden. Hotel Kisanti had been in business for more than a hundred years and it was custom to welcome new arrivals with a fresh bouquet from the hotel garden.Not my lilies!
Complained Miguel every time Catalina picked his prize flowers, but she loved the antique white lilies, and she loved Miguel. The flowers went well with the dark wooden interior of the rooms, and they brought a welcoming vanilla fragrance to the place; fresh but not overpowering, unlike honeysuckle. Besides, the lilies were pure in their whiteness.Like me
, thought Catalina. She was twenty one and attractive. A Latina beauty with an almost heart-shaped face and sparkling brown eyes. Catalina sighed, "And a great butt
". She had heard that remark so many times from drunk sales-representatives, it had almost grown second nature to introducing herself with a "Hello, I'm Catalina. I'll be your room maid and yes, I have a great butt
"Just smile and ignore," said Miguel but it was easy for him. It wasn't him every desperate sales representative or lonely tourist took for an object to stare at, like some complimentary room service: a chocolate heart on the pillow and a great butt to gawk at.
Two sales representatives stayed with them right now, but they didn't seem too bad. Mr Phelps in 104 was some kind of shoes representative. He'd given her a generous tip before calling his mother to say he'd arrived. That type never caused any problems. The other guy even brought a niņo with him. Again, no sign of trouble with this one either.
Catalina noticed a smear of dust on the window and went over it with her towel. When it didn't come off, she reached for the spray can of detergent. In the garden below, Miguel was busy mowing the lawn, but not too busy to smile back at her.
"I love you!" she mimed through the closed window. Someday soon, they would get married and maybe start their own place
In that moment something brushed against her again, this time it was a gentle touch, like that of a cat rubbing against her leg, but Whiskers was never this cold. So cold
. She looked down, expecting to find Fernando's grey tabby begging for scraps, but the sight that met her, made her cry out in horror. The face looking up was not that of any earth creature, but a hideous distorted head, almost flat and hairless, and with eyes black and unblinking. The head connected to a long, boneless tentacle that poked out of a strange dark cloud floating in mid-air. Its skin was moist and grey like an overgrown intestine. But intestines don't writhe on the ground and reach out for you.
Catalina screamed and tried to kick the creature away, but it wrapped itself around her legs and around her midriff in seconds, taking her into a cold, wet embrace.
The creature opened its mouth, revealing thin rows of tiny, but razor sharp teeth. A forked tongue, bluish grey like a throbbing vein darted forth and licked at her face and a smell of rotting carcass seeped from the creature's mouth. Catalina retched from the stench as she struggled to keep her foothold. But the creature slithered and pulled at her, dragging her towards the dark cloud that remained fixed five feet above the carpet, between the freshly made twin bed and the window.
From outside she could hear Miguel scream her name, over and over, until the world faded into darkness and with it, Miguel's desperate cries.
- - -
Chief inspector Amari Quinn of the Oakenford police pushed a crude handmade drawing across the desk.
"Does this look familiar to you?"
It was a pencil sketch drawn by an amateur. The lines were shaky and the artist pressed too hard on the pen. The grooves were so deep into the paper you could trace them with your fingertips and feel the drawing, as if the image was stamped in braille.
But did the image ever look familiar to me? Oh man!
The flat, white head with expressionless eyes mounted on an endless body was forever etched into my memory. To most people, a living intestine, thick as a log, snaking its way through space and French-kissing its victims, happens only in direct-to-DVD movies. But Quinn and I were not most people and I'd met this creature before. Thankfully it happened in one of my hallucinations only, but it still filled me with dread. Months ago I had a living vision of being stuck in a place my brain calls the abyss: another world that sometimes spills into our own. It's a place of endless darkness with no fixed dimensions, and filled with insane, writhing creatures that defy description. One creature, like the one in the drawing almost collided with me as it came screaming through the void, narrowly missing me by inches before making a leap into another dimension. It was like watching a whale diving into the depths and vanishing, leaving behind only a ripple and a gut-wrenching stench of rotting intestines.
At the time I thought the experience was for real, but my brain acts up now and then, and I can never be sure. In case we haven't met before, You'll need to understand that I've been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and I have trouble telling reality from nightmare. It makes life difficult and lonely at times, but my disease also makes me sensitive to little details other people miss: like a faint smear on a cup, a misplaced newspaper, or a lingering sensation in the air. All this makes me a better detective than most amateur sleuths and this has gained me the friendship of the Oakenford police.
Strangely enough, Inspector Quinn is convinced there's nothing wrong with me, that the abyss is all too real, and I have the ability to change into a demon-like form when I'm in danger . Then again, he also believes himself to be a werewolf, and gladly drives for hours to the Farvale District
every weekend. Here he roams the forests all night, howling and doing - whatever his kind does up there.
While I studied the pencil drawing, Quinn made espressos on the expensive GAZZIA Brewmaster
he'd bought for the precinct.
"The artist was upset when he did this," I noted, which was the understatement of the decade. When I'd met the same creature, I froze in panic. The mouth was nothing but a lipless crack into flesh, white like yesterday's cod. With two fangs protruding from the upper jaw, the creature was a mile-long feeding machine with a mouth and a gut. If it had an asshole, you would have to look for it a few miles down the void.
"Panicky," Quinn repeated. "The hotel manager emailed this drawing, he called twice on my mobile, five times to the office and left twelve messages on my answering machine at home."
"Why would some hotel owner from Ra'gasso
have your home-number? It's not your district; Ra'gasso isn't even in the country."
Quinn stabbed the drawing with the tip of his pen.
"Fernando is an old friend of mine. I've got to help him."
I nodded. "I've seen something like this before. It was a bad hallucination."
"Hallucinations don't grab people and drag them into the abyss."
"So, how did Fernando come face-to-intestine with the thing?" I asked.
"He was outside," Replied Quinn, "unloading tins of tomatoes when he heard the maid screaming. When he reached room 203, that... thing was wrapping itself around Miss Gomez."
"I see creatures like that," I acknowledged. "Did he hallucinate, or did it really suck her into the void?"
"Thankfully, Fernando did the only thing he could think of: he threw the maid's vacuum cleaner into the rift."
The idea of an aging manager attacking a monster with a household appliance struck me as equally insane and funny, and I burst out laughing. "Fighting creatures from the abyss with a Hoover
, now that's a new one."
"Apparently he hit something and the creature let go."
"So, there's no body and no Hoover
Quinn held up his hands. "And the girl doesn't remember a thing."
"So all you have is one panicky manager with a talent for drawing monsters, but no victim and no witness? Not much of a case."
The situation was confusing; if my friend was concerned about people losing their vacuum cleaners to the abyss, he was even crazier than me. Quinn frowned and his voice grew deadly serious.
"I'm not worried about what goes in.
It's what comes out that scares me shitless."
It began to dawn upon me why my friend had asked me to come down to the station, and I didn't like the idea; not at all.
"Ra'gasso is out of my jurisdiction," said Quinn. "I'd travel down there myself and calm the old man, but I'm tied up with a gang shootout from last night."
He reached into his desk drawer and took out a small pouch that contained six red gems, each the size of a peppercorn. He pinched a gem between his thumb and index finger and held it to the desk lamp. The light shone through the crystal illuminating the reports on his desk in a deep shade of red.
"Genuine, but are they really worth killing for? I've got five dead gang-members on the slab downstairs."
The rubies were all of the same size and cut: round in one end and pointed in the other, like six red tears.
"It's an unusual cut for jewellery. What's the street value?" I wondered.
Quinn shook his head. "Fifty bucks, maybe one hundred; rubies don't have street value. Diamonds yes, but never semi-precious stones like emeralds, sapphires
- or rubies." He scratched his red beard and stared at the handful of stones.
"Why couldn't they just duke it out over drugs? My sense of smell is a hundred times better than that of a human. I can smell the grade of cocaine in somebody's pocket from across the room, I can tell the amount of money in a gym-bag by scent alone, but THIS!"
Quinn held the tiny pouch to his nose. "Gunpowder and blood, but no trace of drugs." He dropped the pouch back on the desk. "These rocks are as cold as their owners."
He reached me the pouch. "Maybe you can sense something?"
Thanks to my condition, I can often sense what happened in a place, or feel the history of an object. But it normally requires me to provoke a schizophrenic episode through heavy drinking. I shrugged and rolled a ruby between my fingers.
"Smooth," I noted.
"It's outstanding craftsmanship, but they're so small."
"Maybe they were part of a watch movement?"
I tried to get a vibe on the rock, but I was growing queasy and a visual disturbance intruded into the corner of my eye. The sun cast moving shadows where there shouldn't be any, it grew increasingly difficult to remain focused, and I had a creeping sensation of someone waiting for me on the other side of the office door; someone who meant evil.
"I'm not feeling well," I said. "I've been having small episodes since the Gill case and I'm seeing things right now."
"You need a vacation," said Quinn.
I stiffened in my chair. "You're sending me to Ra'gasso, aren't you?"
"Please, Carter. Help Fernando before the poor man has a melt-down."
"I'm not a cop," I objected. "I can't go snooping around, doing police business."
"Then go as yourself, said Quinn. "You're a musician; you can stay at the hotel and play a gig. It'll give you the perfect cover - and maybe... just maybe, roll in some generous tips."
I sighed; I could use the dough.
"Alright, I'll pack my guitar."
Quinn patted my shoulder.
"Listen," he said. "The flight is already booked, and Fernando will put you in his best room. Just go and calm the old man down, stay for the week and slurp Mojitos by the pool. What's the worst thing that could happen?"
"This!" I pointed at the creature on the drawing. "This is the worst thing that could happen."
- - -
I walked briskly towards the precinct exit with a plane ticket in my hand. "Damn you, Quinn" I muttered and felt manipulated. I leaned against an ionic replica pillar in the hallway and heaved for fresh air while the shadows danced. Alice the secretary eyed me for a while.
"You look pale," she said. "How about a nice cup of herb tea before you go?
"I don't drink tea," I rasped and hoped not to puke in front of her.
"You should always settle your stomach with a cup of green tea before you travel," said Alice and poured hot water from an electric heater into a large mug adorned with the picture of a white cat with blue eyes. "Hang loose," said the grinning feline in a large speech bubble. But I couldn't stop staring at the little string connecting the label to the tea-bag. The way it wiggled in the cup reminded me of disease and mouse guts. It moved on its own accord, wiggling and trying to escape the cup and brought back memories of the people I'd torn into in my demon shape,
-and of the creature from Fernando's drawing.
Remembrance of the creature, the sensation of touching its hide, cold and pocketed like diseased skin and its horrid stench got to me quick. I made a dash for the nearest restroom, and overcome with nausea I dropped to my knees and puked violently into the toilet.
"I can't do this," I thought. "I can't face the living memory again."
But if I were scared, Fernando would be even worse off. He was the only living person apart from me who had encountered the creature, and I had to meet him. Maybe we shared a common symptom, a popular hallucination like the tunnel during near-death experiences, or the flashing zig-zag of a migraine.
"Oh God!" I sighed and spat out half dissolved breakfast and bile before the next wave of sick washed over me.
I'll go, I decided. I'll go to Ra'gasso and...
"You're in danger!" Said a voice behind me. I knew the voice well for he had been my companion since I was seventeen: the disembodied voice of a human male that existed only in my brain, but spoke to me as clearly as any living person in the room.
"Go away!" I cried. "Can't you see I'm busy throwing up?"
"He's in here with you, the killer!" It was a woman's voice. Like the male voice she's only in my head, but she could just as well have been an invisible woman standing right next to me.
"Bullshit!" I argued. "The door is locked."
"Someone opened the door and now he means to hurt you," said the male voice. "He's right behind you."
The voices were right; I felt the malevolent presence in the room with me, and the awareness tingled down my back like a frozen glove. Someone was after me and looking over my shoulder while I was on my knees and at my most vulnerable. Son of a she-dog
! I cursed and spun around, and I stood face to face with my would-be killer:
It was my reflection in the bathroom mirror.
- - -
- - -
 in "My Guardian Demons".
 in "A Fall From Grace".