Furious Eye

 

DOBVAtticus Brood, Purveyor of Periodicals, Publisher of Strange Fictions, and Broadcaster of the Unsounds, tossed the manuscript into the waste-paper basket in disgust. Fucking nonsense. Was he really this desperate, to be actually reading his slush-pile? Perhaps it was boredom. Certainly nothing much of publishable interest had surfaced of late, despite his having increased the number of miscreants in his employ, conning, cajoling and manhandling their way into the back rooms of antiquarian bookshops, or north shore mansions with their private collections and gullible trophy wives.

He took his feet off the desk and leant forward, stubbing out his cigarette. Aside from the space his boots had just been, the ashtray and the towering pile of unsolicited crap were the only points of order amid the chaos of his desk.

Louisa always tried to tell him his desk was a metaphor for his life, as if this was somehow insulting, or meant to inspire him to rearrange things. Chaos, as most people—Louisa foremost among them—failed to grasp, was merely a system incomprehensible to anyone other than its creator. Just take the universe. An eternal mystery, to be sure, random, chaotic. But God—assuming he existed—without a doubt knew exactly where he’d left everything, and where to find it when he needed it.

Yet, if the desk was representative of Atticus’ life, then what was Louisa? The ashtray? The slush-pile? Or maybe the place he rested his boots?

Speak of the devil, he thought, as he heard her pushing at the door behind him. The stack of Scratch & Snuff magazines he’d shoved against it to keep it closed toppled, releasing a faint whiff of death, and adding appealingly to the room’s clutter. Louisa stuck her head through the gap. He swivelled his chair around. A shaft of sunlight, struck through the lone gap in the heavy curtains, swirled with stale smoke. He fixed her with a furious eye.

“What?” he asked.

“Why are there magazines piled against the door?”

“To keep it closed, because I. Am. Working.”

“I’m making tea.” Louisa pursed her glossy dark blue lips at him sulkily.

“The kitchen’s at the other end of the house.” Atticus swung his chair back to the desk.

“You’re an arsehole Atticus,” Louisa said, presumably as punctuation to her exiting.

“That’s why you’re here,” Atticus called over his shoulder.

He thought momentarily about getting up and shoving something else against the broken door to keep it closed, but then thought fuck it. Louisa was too docile and off with the fairies most of the time to make much noise.

Lifting a few sheets of scattered paper, Atticus retrieved his slate, lit another cigarette, and slouched back in his chair, returning his feet to his desk. He swiped a pattern across the slate’s screen, and behind his desk a dozen flat panels of varying sizes sprang to life.

Dwarfing the rest, the centre panel was a blend of shifting images. Currently, an armoured figure, straight out of some horrendous pulp fantasy novel, rode a vast, green-scaled dragon between cold mountain peaks, shrouded in grim cloud. Overlaying the scene, in lurid detail, was a monkey, crouched in the corner of a cage, masturbating.

Atticus shook his head. This was coming close to the longest, unbroken broadcast of Unsounds to date. At seventeen days and four hours, he was astounded the recipient’s skull wasn’t now filled with mush. Still, on the visions went, so clearly there was some degree of healthy brain activity. Perhaps he’d finally got it right. He doubted it, but if he could manage to keep this going without scrambling people’s brains, he’d change the world… Atticus shook his head. It just didn’t bear getting excited about.

For all that he had access to the most personal details of all Unsounds recipients, Atticus made it a general rule to keep them anonymous, at least beyond checking their initial enrolment. They didn’t last very long for the most part, and at any rate, though scoundrel he may be, Atticus tried to maintain certain professional standards.

This, of course, was an exceptional case. On a smaller panel, he brought up the recipient’s file. Yasmine Petrarch Happ: Female, 27, 175.2cm, 54.09kg, black hair, green eyes.

He watched the centre panel, as the monkey’s masturbation grew more furious, and the dragon abruptly swooped down to land on a rocky outcrop. Standing on the ornate saddle, its rider began peeling off her armour, twirling the pieces around her head and flinging them down into the darkness in some bizarre striptease. As she revealed more of herself, Atticus realised that the woman on the dragon matched the description in the recipient’s file perfectly. Lovely. He wondered if he ought to screw decorum completely and go out and find this Yasmine Petrarch Happ. Louisa, with her wayward piercings and tired burlesque routines, was by comparison beginning to seem even more tedious than usual.

He heard the phone ring out in the hall, and ignored it, expecting at any moment Louisa to come through the door and hand it to him. He heard her nattering away out there, but soon forgot about it as he continued to watch the screen.

The gyrations of the dragon rider as she tossed away the final plates of armour became almost hypnotic. Atticus paid the monkey no mind, and barely noticed the ash from his cigarette falling onto his trousers as he applied a steady pressure to his crotch with the slate in his other hand. It was only when she slid down and began humping the saddle horn that he caught himself.

He shook his head. If he didn’t watch himself, he’d spend the afternoon tossing himself off to someone else’s fantasy. He tossed the dog-end of his cigarette in the ashtray and brushed the ash from his lap. To take his mind firmly away from his cock, he spent the next several minutes perusing his investment portfolios, keeping, as always, a close eye on the rising stock of his personal favourite VatVag, developers of lab-grown, near-life prostitution dolls, and checking the list of next week’s Unsounds enrolments, no doubt another string of apathetic Ben Buckler residents, at least if the size of their “donations” was anything to go by.

Before long, however, his indifference to it all began to creep back in. Being mildly rich was nice enough but it was all becoming so fucking humdrum. There were no more issues of Between The Cheeks being found, no Presidential Blood Pens, or Royal Semen Fertility Candles turning up. He was beginning to think that there was just nothing old, filthy, and/or supernatural left to find. On the other hand, surely there was someone out there producing new literary atrocities, dabbling in things they didn’t understand. He wanted something fresh, arousing.

Or perhaps he just needed to go for a walk. It had been over a week since he’d breathed what passed for fresh air out there after all.

Atticus pushed himself out of his chair and wandered over to the crack in the curtains. He looked out and winced. Even beneath thick clouds, the glare of the day was painful compared to the gloom of his office.

The street below was bustling. The road-side stalls, hawking everything from hybrid fruit, to genuine tiger-penis aphrodisiacs, where mobbed by passersby, people spilling out from the footpaths and slowing the traffic to a crawl. Drivers, already behind schedule, leant out of windows waving fists, their faces contorted in screaming at the crowds. Filth-ridden children, up from the harbour slums, pinched shiny fruit from the stalls and ducked away beneath the cabs and delivery trucks where they hovered over the cobblestones. Smoke drifted out of alley mouths, where ash-nomads burnt whatever they could get their hands on to keep warm. Atticus didn’t understand it. Sure, it was winter, but it wasn’t like it was fucking snowing or anything. Christ, it barely got below ten degrees here anymore. Still, he supposed, the ash-nomads were a scrawny lot, lacking a certain layer of insulation.

It was bedlam, the enjoyment and aggravation of each and every outing. But from up here, it was silent, like the chaotic swirl of galaxies through the void of space.

Atticus was pulling on his coat, readying himself to go out into the madness and chilly air, when his slate rang. He crossed to the desk and answered it.

“Yes,” he said.

“Mr. Brood, it’s Jim.”

“Ah, James.”

“Jim.”

“Jim. What’s occurring?”

“I’m at the auctions, at the old Wharf Theatre.”

“You’re at the auctions, and you’re fucking calling me? On my phone? What the fuck is wrong with you?”

James had been Atticus’ shill a long time. Long enough to bloody well know better.

“No, you don’t understand,” James said. “I’m not bidding, I’m–”

“You’re what James?”

“Look, you should really just come down here Mr. Brood, and quickly.”

Atticus hung up. He had no idea what persuaded the man to call him, but he was going to find out, and possibly give him a good belting. If his thoughtless call came even close to revealing the games Atticus played at the auctions however, James was going to get to get a hell of a lot worse than a belting, long standing partnership or not.

He folded up his slate and put it in his coat pocket. At the door of the office, he glanced down briefly at the scattered Scratch & Snuff magazines. On top of the pile lay the Tri-Centennial Issue, filled with the scantily clad, decomposing “great women of Antipodean Politics”. Atticus hadn’t read that one for years. A brilliant issue.

He pulled the door closed behind him, and strode along the hall. From the stand by the front door, he took down his top hat and cane.

“Louisa?” he called. No answer.

“I’m going for a walk,” he called again. Nothing. “Cranky bitch,” he muttered, and stepped out onto the landing.

 

*           *           *

 

The Bellhop, Staley, stood slumped by the elevator. For some reason, he always seemed to be on Atticus’ floor, as though no one else in the building ever went in or out.

Atticus jabbed him savagely in the ribs with the butt of his cane. Staley slowly raised his head, which then flopped backwards to bang against the wall. Now that he thought about it, Atticus realised, everyone else in the building probably just took the stairs. He shook his head, there was just no tolerance accorded a healthy fondness for opiates these days.

Atticus pulled open the door to the elevator himself, and took Staley by the shoulders, helping him into a corner of the box. Staley grinned at him, a long line of spittle escaping one side of his mouth. Atticus smiled back at him, remembering fondly his own days of chasing dragons.

With Staley ushered out into the lobby and left happily drooling beside the potted datura, Atticus stepped into the street. He stood outside the grand entrance to the Observatory Tower, breathing in the heady stench of the city, allowing the cacophonic mixture of the wealthy, the destitute, and the struggle to sell both necessities and extravagances waft over him. After a moment, suitably acclimatised to the pungency, he began weaving his way through the throng toward the piers.

The old Wharf Theatre, once home to the finest of Shakespearean productions, was now little more than a gilt facade, housing the sale of contraband, temptations for the obscenely well-off, and the compulsive excitement of a well-worn gavel.

Atticus shoved his way through the three lower auction houses, packed like sardine-cans with gamblers, pickpockets, and the odd plutocrat having a crack at real life. He had no need to look for James, the published commodities and supernatural paraphernalia that Atticus Brood peddled to the filthy rich was not to be found down here in the lower houses. In fact, the increasingly menacing security that occupied the transition from each room to the next knew Atticus by sight, and ushered him amicably through to the upper house.

Such was the exclusivity of its clientele, that the uppermost house took up barely a tenth the floor space of any of the four that occupied the lower level of the wharf. Atticus betrayed not the slightest hint that he had recognised James upon entering, and instead took up position close to the auctioneer, where the patrons of the house could get a good look at him.

Atticus rarely graced the auction houses with his presence, unless he had something of particular interest, or exquisite value upon the table, and thus made an effort to put himself on display. Despite the soiled nature of his trousers, what with their patches of cigarette ash, and decidedly more dubious stains, Atticus maintained such an imperious demeanour as to impel any would be bidders to either keep their mouths shut, or at the least place a bid that would not earn them a sneer – or worse – from the iniquitous Atticus Brood.

The position of Auctioneer, in any of the old Wharf Theatre’s houses, especially the upper house, while lucrative, was not necessarily a highly sought-after placement. The frequent exchange of massive fortunes, the overwhelming despair at the loss of coveted items, did not, after all, go very far in ensuring an auctioneer’s ongoing safety. As a result, there tended to be quite the turnover.

Atticus was not familiar with the current wielder of the gavel, but apparently – judging by his style – the man had received his training, not in the distant Sotheby’s or Bonham’s as was more often the case, but on a bloody Tamworth cattle station. It took a few moments for Atticus to realise what it was the man was selling.

“I’vegottwelveandahalfmillionherefolks,DiamondsOnBlackVelvet,theonlycopyinexistence,twelve andahalfmillion,doIheartwelvemillionsixhundredthousand,twelvemillionsixhundredthousand,twelve millionsixhundredthousandtothemaninthecrimplenesafarisuit,doIheartwelvemillionsevenhundredthous- and,I’vegottwelvemillionsevenhundredthousand,doIheartwelvemillioneighthundredthousand,I’vegot twelvemillioneighthundredthousand,doIheartwelvemillionninehundredthousand,twelvemillionninehund-
redthousand,I’vegottwelvemillioneighthundredthousand,twelvemillioneighthundredthousand,twelve
millioneighthundredthousandgoingonce,goingtwice,twelvemillioneighthundredthousandgoingthreetimes
… sold! Twelve million eight hundred thousand to the man in the blue, crimplene safari suit.”

If it had taken a moment for Atticus to digest the fact that, apparently, a two-bit manuscript he had taken from his slush pile and tossed in the waste paper basket had just been sold – despite him never having offered it up for auction – it took him some time longer to register the fact that it had been taken for a sum that exceeded his entire net worth ten times over.

He was still reeling, and wondering if perhaps it was not the copy lying on his desk that had sold, when the auctioneer took his hand and shook it with vigorous congratulations.

“Yes, yes,” Atticus said, in response to whatever platitudes the man had spouted, extricating his hand from his clammy grip. He scanned the crowd, seeing James nowhere, but spying a man in a horrid, cornflower blue safari suit shoving his way toward him.

Waiting until the apparent buyer was almost upon him, Atticus took hold of the auctioneer, turned him about, and thrust him into the man’s path. He made a quick exit, taking the back stairs down to the wharf. There he stood for a moment while the foetid water of the harbour lapped at the decaying concrete beneath his feet.

It didn’t quite make sense. Never in all his years of doing the city’s elite out of their inherited wealth had Atticus seriously thought he’d earn such a sum in a single transaction, let alone for something that had been gathering dust on a disregarded corner of his desk for twelve months or more. In fact, now that he thought about it, he had absolutely no idea when the bloody thing had come into his possession. Whose was it again, Somebodyorother Smythe-Something? A nobody… or not, perhaps, as it seemed. Summer, that was it. Who came up with these fucking names?

He needed to go and find James, and discover exactly what was going on. At the end of the wharf, rather than turning back up the hill toward home, Atticus made his way around beneath the Harbour Bridge into the slums, making for the Quay and his usual meeting place with James. He trod a winding path among the tenements and long-abandoned public houses. Once he was sure that no one had followed him, Atticus pulled out his folded slate, and called James as he walked.

Nothing. Knowing how often the low-tech denizens of the slums dragged down transmission stations, Atticus checked the signal. He was in no dead zone. He tried the number again. Still nothing. He called home instead. The phone rang and rang, and after a long while the line went dead.

“Louisa,” he said aloud to himself. “I’m going to wring your fucking neck when I get home.”

Atticus stopped walking. He had been paying no attention, and he found himself in a dead end, a narrow close with an old collapsed staircase at the far end. He turned around to find the mouth of the alley occupied by an unlikely looking trio, a scrawny rodent of a man, all long whiskers, and ratty clothing,  flanked by two hulking, neanderthalian creatures. The smaller man was holding a pistol that looked to be several centuries out of date, and the other two were empty handed, though by the size of their fists, it didn’t look as though it was going to make much difference.

“Gentlemen,” Atticus began. “You really ought to find someone else to ruff up. It’s for your own good.”

The slight man in front smiled, a crook in one corner of his mouth. “I reckon, Mr. Brood,” he said. “You should let me be the judge of that.”

Atticus sighed. Putting his slate away in his pocket, he dragged a rapier blade out of his cane.

 

*           *           *

 

Atticus waited in the mouth of quiet, narrow street at the edge of the slums. He watched on his slate as the brougham he’d called approached. As it arrived, Atticus stepped out into the main road. His top hat was gone, and his coat was awash with blood.

The driver stopped, the cab hovering silent over the cobblestones. He looked down at Atticus from his high seat.

“You’ve had better days mate,” he said after a moment. “Reckon all that sauce on your coat belongs to some other bloke but.”

Atticus said nothing, not quite sure if the man was expecting a reply, and not quite giving a shit in any case.

“I’ll have to ask you to take it off before you get in though mate,” said the cabbie.

Atticus shrugged and took off his coat.

“Rightio, where to?.”

“The Observatory,” Atticus said, opening the door.

“In ya get then.”

Atticus climbed aboard, and the cab pulled away from the curb. Settling back in the seat, Atticus closed his eyes and let his mind wander back over the last couple of hours.

The cab coming to a stop brought him out of his reverie. At some point, unnoticed by Atticus, the clouds had broken, and the street outside the Observatory Tower was virtually deserted. Atticus was always astounded at the way the place emptied when a storm hit. Beggars and slum-rats could always find a hole to crawl into, but where the street sellers fucked off to with all their goods and stalls so bloody quickly was beyond him.

He got out of the cab and stood beneath the Tower’s awning while he fished in his pockets for some change. The cabbie sat hunched in his Drizabone, the collar pulled up around his ears, and the water pooling around his feet. Atticus tossed him a hand full of coins and stood a while after he drove off, looking out at the deluge.

Atticus had come to the conclusion that something fucking dodgy was going on. Hardly a great intellectual leap, he realised, what with shitty unpublished manuscripts worth a fortune, and some filthy rich bastard in a blue crimplene safari suit. Really? Crimplene? There was something really not right about that bloke.

He hadn’t quite put his finger on it yet, but Atticus Brood, Peddler of Peculiar Prose, had a nose for the strange, and right now, it was full of the reek of it. He turned around and stepped up to the door of the Tower. As he reached out, the door swung inwards and Atticus started in surprise. Staley stood to one side, holding the door open.

“Afternoon Mt Brood,” he said, altogether livelier than Atticus had heard him in… well… ever.

Atticus stared at him a moment, and then stepped inside. He watched intently as Staley let the door swing shut, and turned to face him, attentive and waiting. Staley shifted uncomfortably under Atticus’ glare, his gaze flicking nervously to the sanguinary coat Atticus had bundled under his arm.

“Is there something I can assist you with Mr. Brood?” he said eventually.

“You can get the fucking lift Staley,” Atticus snapped.

“Of… of course sir.” Staley hurried across the lobby to the elevator. Atticus stared after him. He couldn’t remember the last time, if ever, that Staley had opened the front door for him. He was, however, quite certain he had never seen Staley hurry before.

At the penthouse, Staley opened the elevator doors for Atticus, and stood aside, giving him deferent nod, almost a bow, as he strode past. At his front door, Atticus heard the lift close as he reached into his pocket for his keys. He glanced back, half expecting to see Staley slumped against the wall with his customary drool, but the hall was empty. Odd, decidedly fucking odd.

Inside Atticus reached up for his hat, with the intention of hanging it on the stand by the door.

“Bastard,” he muttered. That was a bloody expensive hat. Not that the expense was particularly important to him. It was more the fact that the thing had been lovingly made almost two hundred years ago. And now it was gone.

Speaking of which, he thought, looking down, his coat was going to have to go as well. It was possible that the former owners of all that blood may have just been a few overconfident thugs, but given that they knew his name… alright, well, one of them knew his name. He doubted the other two could string more than a single syllable together… at any rate, he had the distinct feeling that holding onto the coat might come back to bite him on the arse.

He wandered into the parlour… and stopped. Had Louisa been on one of her rare cleaning binges? He doubted it, he hadn’t seen one of those in… years. The place was immaculate. The ramshackle stacks of books and vintage magazines, piles of sheet music that had covered the sofa since the turn of the century, his decade old collection of cigar stubs… gone. Horrendous. How the fuck was he supposed to find anything in a place like this? Even the fireplace, which was kept perpetually alight was stone cold and looked like it had never been used.

Atticus dropped his coat on the hearth, annoyed that he was going to have to build a new fire to dispose of it. But first things first. Louisa was going to get the hiding of her fucking life.

“Louisa,” he called, heading for the kitchen.

If there was one room that managed to remain perpetually unaffected by the whirlwind of disorder that seemed to trail Atticus about the house, it was the kitchen. No doubt due to Louisa spending most of her time in there drinking tea, smoking Gitanes and practising her be-feathered dances. Atticus, as a result, avoided it like the plague. It was quiet and bare now, save for a half drunk cup of cold tea on the scarred, wooden table.

“Louisa,” he called again, louder this time. Silence. He couldn’t even remember the last time she had left the building. He wandered along the hall sticking his head in each door he passed. Perhaps she’d got stuck into the sherry again while he was gone and had passed out. He might have his way with her, he thought, when she was insensate and at her most exciting.

One by one, he looked into unoccupied rooms. But they weren’t just devoid of Louisa, they were clean, fanatically so. It wasn’t right. She might have hated his ubiquitous mess, mostly because it was his, but Louisa was no ataxophobe.

He reached the end of the hall. Fuck it, he thought, Louisa would appreciate the back of his hand just as much whenever she decided to put in an appearance. He turned to walk into the study, shoving the broken door as he stepped forward. The door didn’t move however, and he walked straight into it, cracking his forehead against the heavy wood.

“Cunt!” Atticus swore. He stepped back. So she’d closeted herself in his office had she? He rapped smartly on the door.

“Open the door Louisa.”

Silence. He leant forward, his mouth close to the crack between the door and jam.

“Louisa,” he said softly. “This will be a lot messier if you stay in there.”

Silence.

“LOUSIA!” he roared, kicking the door repeatedly. “Open the fucking door!”

Silence.

Atticus stepped close, putting his head against the seam of the closed door. He leant without thinking on the old, brass scroll-lever handle. The door sprang open, and he spilled through into the office.

Atticus stood in stunned silence. His office was gone, it was as simple as that, undeniable. The room he stood in was clearly the work of someone lacking any taste whatsoever, some soulless, feng shui obsessed, minimalist nonce.

Who the hell could work in such an environment? Gone were the books and magazines, centuries of strange and dangerous printing; gone was the dust, the gloom, the atmosphere; gone was the smell of stale smoke and the scattering of notes, ideas, and crumpled papers; gone was the slush-pile, the waste paper, and the manuscript by Summer Smythe-Lamont; gone was anything and everything resembling Atticus Brood. The whole room was a sickening shade of off-white, for fuck’s sake.

Caught by a sudden suspicion that he was in completely the wrong house, Atticus went out and opened the front door. No, there was the brass plate: Atticus Brood. Publisher.

Atticus’ mind reeled. Nothing here made sense. How the fuck did Louisa manage this in the scant hours he’d been gone? She must have had help, but from where? She didn’t know anyone. Was it James? But no, he had seen James at the auctions, there’d have been no time.

Taking out his slate, Atticus tried calling James again.

The number you have called has been disconnected,” said the polite, inhuman voice. “Please check the number before trying again.”

He scrolled back through the call register to find the number that James had called him from earlier. There was no call. Then Atticus remembered the phone call that morning, Louisa’s unintelligible drone coming from the hall. He went to the phone in the hall, and scrolled back through the calls there. Nothing. No calls, in fact, since Tuesday last week.

Phone in hand, Atticus tapped the button for the lobby. It rang twice and then Staley’s voice, or rather a disgustingly chirpy approximation of Staley’s voice, answered.

“How can I help Mr. Brood?”

“Staley, did Louisa sneak out of here while I was gone today?”

“Who sir?”

“Louisa you fucking idiot. My wife.”

“Um… is this a trick question Mr. Brood?”

“Fuck!” Atticus swore, and slammed down the phone. And then, almost as an afterthought, he picked it back up and hurled it at the wall where it exploded into shards of glass and cheap plastic.

Atticus stared blankly at the floor for a few minutes, his mind flitting from thought to thought, unable to focus. He felt like his grip on reality had gone limp and greasy, and something important was about to slip through his fingers.

He wasn’t particularly bothered about the manuscript, and in fact was beginning to doubt the veracity of his entire trip to the auctions. Nor was he much concerned by the absence of Louisa, after all, he wouldn’t have to put up with her maudlin stomping about the house and nagging about the disorder… which, now that he thought about, might have been a figment of his imagination to begin with; but what did that say about the state of his head.

No, he was far more disturbed about the nature of the delusions. Why the fuck would he conjure someone to constantly harangue him or, more importantly, who was about as sexually exciting as poached fish? Neither did it sit comfortably that he might be mashing his own brains, being exposed to the Unsounds. Perhaps he’d been stupid enough to try the Unsounds on himself, but the question was, was this still part of the fantasy? Or was this all of the fantasy?

Still, he supposed with a grin, and shaking off his unease, he needn’t have any adulterous twinges of guilt about finding that Yasmine Pertarch Happ and playing the part of the dragon. Who knows, maybe he’d find a monkey to bring along too.

With that happy thought, and forgetting for the moment all about his delusory nag of a wife, he wandered into the kitchen to make tea. He picked up the half empty cup from the table, and dumped the contents into the sink, not bothering to rinse the cup.

A short while later, feet contentedly up on his spotless desk and slate on his lap, he sipped at the steaming Earl Grey, failing to notice the smudge of dark blue lipstick on the rim of the cup.

 

 

 

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