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A Chunk of Hell
By Steven Sidor
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2010 Steven Sidor
All rights reserved.
Some men are born in Hell, others are dragged to it. Rick Conner found his way there by accident. It began in the wee hours, in Brooklyn, New York. The Little Caughnawaga neighborhood was home to ironworkers transplanted down south from Canada. They were mostly Iroquois, and they came for the jobs. Whole families migrated to the city. Sometimes only the men would remain, sending their pay back to wives and children living on the reservation, and visiting them when they could. There's a myth about the Iroquois having no fear of heights. Conner doubted it. The men took pride in hiding their fear, acting with warrior spirit, proving themselves day in, day out. That's what put the salt on their meat.
Made life taste good.
It was something Conner appreciated.
He'd spent the night drinking in an Indian bar with a half-French, half-Mohawk named Lucien Deerhouse. They'd met in the Marine Raiders and fought at Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. These days Lucien built Manhattan skyscrapers, walking six-inch beams on high steel in the clouds. He wasn't exactly a talker, and when something important needed to be told, he took even longer getting to it. As the sun readied to light up the Atlantic, Conner waited for another kind of illumination. He wanted to know why his friend had called.
Lucien's Bethlehem Steel hardhat rested on the bar next to a full glass of beer. He drained the glass. Set it back on the mahogany with a loud click.
"Up in Montreal I hear stories."
"What kind of stories, Luc?"
"Sort of thing you been doing since we dropped the bomb on the Japs."
Lucien nodded. But there was more.
He needing nudging and Rick obliged.
"I work for hire, cash paid up front, and I'm not cheap," Rick said.
"You look for lost property, not just people?"
"That's right." Rick lit a cigarette and blew out smoke like years of dust. "Old buddy, just tell me what we're talking about. I'll tell you if I'm your man."
The ironworker leaned back on his barstool. Seeping smells – yeasty beer, damp bricks, and sawdust – conjured a crowd of men who sweat for their pay. Rick, Lucien, and the bartender were the only three present. The bartender brought out a mop and bucket. He filled the bucket with steaming bleach water and pushed it on squeaky wheels into the bathroom's dimness. The door closed.
Lucien said, "Couple friends of mine are working a thirty-floor apartment job on the Upper West Side, two blocks from Central Park. It's a weird building."
"They say the plans make no sense."
"Luc, you could fit what I know about architecture in a thimble and still have room for your thumb."
Lucien shook his head. "It's not technical, nothing like that. The construction – well, it's like there's a building within the building. Running up inside, like a tower." Lucien used his hands to shape a box around his empty beer glass. "No access except from the penthouse. Once the job's done, a tenant could move into any of the other apartments, live there for years, and never stumble on the tower, or even suspect the thing existed. Damn clever when you think about it – the twisting passageways, windowless rooms. A spiral staircase connects them all up, neat and tight. More tricks than a magician's cabinet. The steps lead down to the basement, a sub-basement, and another one under that."
"A sub sub-basement?"
"We think it connects to tunnels under the city. Sewers, maybe, or old underground transit rails. Nobody goes down that deep. Funny thing is, we can't find out who did the foundation work. First day, when my friends arrived on the site, the project was already up to street level."
"Sounds like your friends might be pulling your leg."
"They brought me there. I saw it with my own eyes."
"We went at night. Hopped the fence, took a couple of flashlights, and followed the stairs down."
"What did you see?"
"Bottom of the steps, there's a gate with a lock on it big as your head. Everything's wet. The walls thick with slime. We got out because of the rats."
"Big ones, huh?"
"Never actually saw them. But they were making a racket. The stink. The splashing around. You could hear them rubbing against the walls. Sounded like a team of horses coming for us."
"But it must've been rats."
"That's what we said. Rats."
"What'd you do?"
"We hightailed to the surface, and that's when they caught us. He did, anyway. He was the only one there. We practically ran into him before we saw him."
"No, the doctor."
"I don't –"
"He's the owner of the building. A doctor."
"Oh," Rick said. "Maybe he can fix this crick in my neck."
"Not that kind of doctor, he's a philosopher or something. He's the one who's going to be living in the penthouse."
"Sounds more like a witch doctor."
Lucien didn't laugh.
"We figured he'd call the cops. Throw us in jail for trespassing. My buddies would get fired. Even worse, the doc had a pistol strapped to his leg."
"Did he let you inspect the barrel?"
"He talked to us. Friendly, acting like he didn't care we were down there snooping around. He brought us over to the watchman's shack and gave us coffee. Says he can't sleep, so he comes to the building at night. He didn't have a radio in there to pass the time, not a magazine, or a dime store novel. Nothing."
"That's all that happened?"
"We talked for about an hour. Then we went home."
"What'd you talk about for an hour?"
"Boy," Conner chuckled, "I never would've guessed that in a million years."
"He asked me if I would call you."
Conner gagged on his last sip of beer.
"Me? How'd he know my name?"
Lucien shrugged. "I don't remember telling it to him. Maybe you got a reputation. He's looking for something that belongs to him, but it's been lost for a long time, far away from here. He thinks this thing is in the city now. Rumors are going around. Other people, rivals of his, are interested."
"And he wants me to find it before they do?"
"You'll have to ask him. Want my opinion? Stay away. But I thought I'd leave the choice with you. He's a rich man."
"I like the sound of that." Rick drummed out a soft rhythm on the bar.
Lucien reached over, put his big calloused hand on Rick's arm, squeezed.
"One of my friends is missing. Nobody's seen him for two weeks."
"Want me to look?"
Conner was puzzled. "I'll talk to your other friend."
"No, you won't." Lucien let go of him. "They're calling it an accident. He was distracted by his missing pal. Out of sorts, saying strange things to the rest of the crew. The jobsite is temporarily shut down for a safety investigation. They aren't going to find anything. A clear morning, the weather good. Lady across the street saw him from her bedroom window. Said he didn't look down, just walked off the end of the beam. She said he was smiling."
"I'm damned sorry."
Lucien took a folded piece of paper out of his pocket, slid it along the bar.
"That's the doctor's address."
Conner took the paper, read it.
"Dr. Lazlo Belzoni." He frowned. "The doc's got the money to own an apartment building and he's living here?"
"That's where he finds what he needs."
"Meaning what exactly?"
"You'll see when you meet him."
The conversation was over. His friend picked up his hardhat and tucked it under his arm. His gaze found the floor, the walls, the doorway – anything but Rick Conner's face.
Jungle fighting. Hand-to-hand combat.
Luc pulling a Jap officer with a samurai sword off his back.
Yet Conner had never seen this.
Lucien Deerhouse was scared.
* * *
The place was in a slum, no other word for it. The building he was looking for – when he finally found it at the back end of the last weedy lot abutting the river – seemed abandoned. A spiked fence encircled the property. He grasped one of the spikes, felt the pits and rough scabs of rust. A heavy chain coiled around the gate above the latch. The chain was bright, new.
He squinted through the twilight.
Maybe somebody does live in there.
He heard a cough and turned in the direction of the water. Conner wasn't worried about running into any unsavory denizens of the riverfront. He had a knife hanging in a scabbard between his shoulder blades. His jacket was loose and his hands were quick. He'd killed men before. Not in anger either. And he'd do it again. Rick Conner was a sleek deadly machine, as cool as if his parts were made of oil and gears instead of blood and bone. Action was his gasoline.
The barrier on the river side of the street was wood, most of it missing, probably burned for heat or cook fires. He heard the cough again.
Dry, nearly breathless.
The river didn't smell like water anymore, but from the things people put into it that they wanted to float away.
He stepped closer to the snaggletooth fence, boards split and cracked.
A low shadow shifted, filling up a hole. Knee-high.
Conner's eyes locked on it. In two long strides, he stood near enough to kick it backward into the flowing umber sludge.
It was a man.
Conner didn't speak.
Because it was clear he wasn't going to get a response.
The man wasn't dead. Not quite. Not yet. It was impossible to tell his race or age. He was a creature raised from the mud, of the mud. There was no meat on him. His bones were jumbled sticks, unable to stand, but sufficient to crawl. Which is precisely what they did. A knobby head, boiled to the bone, beard dragging – pressed into the gap, staring right at Conner.
Hot glaring eyes. Unblinking. Tears streaked the grime on his cheeks.
The look said pain. It said misery.
Finally, I can't look away.
And neither could Conner.
The man coughed. His toothless mouth muttered silently. Conner didn't know what he wanted. It wasn't food or drink. He was beyond that. He wants me to kill him, Conner thought. He couldn't determine why he thought it, but he knew instantly and deeply, it was true. He's begging me to kill him. Why?
Conner backed off.
The man didn't have the strength to crawl through the fence.
But his eyes – jittery, red-rimmed, and highly alert – followed Conner's every movement. The man's trembling fingers searched his own face. Traced his splayed eyelids, touched his eyeballs.
Conner moved left, then right, then far to the right.
The eyes stayed with him, never closing, never blinking. The man was trying to stop them with his fingers. He poked and prodded with his filthy digits. He coughed, weakly. His hand fell to the soil and dug in. Like polished binocular lenses, the trained eyes of the half-dead mud crawler never left their target.
Behind Conner metal creaked.
The chain was gone. The gate swung wide open.
So they were watching me. And you distracted me, Conner thought. But when he looked for the man all he saw was a drag mark in the clay.
Time for my appointment.
Someone waited on the porch. Beckoned in the new darkness with a light.
From the wavering, it was composed of flame.
* * *
The servant holding the lamp was a giantess, at least a foot taller than Conner. She wore a fez and a purple tunic, and was surprisingly light on her feet as she led him through a maze of corridors, gliding under interwoven streams of rippling fabric tacked to the ceiling; her broad shoulders parted curtain after curtain of multicolored glass and painted wooden beads. At the terminus, in an octagonal room, the floorboards of which depicted an astronomical nebula, she halted. She ushered him over the threshold but did not cross it herself.
He walked in.
Sweet smoke ghosted from a ball censer hung at eye level.
The giantess motioned to an empty chair, one of only two furnishings in the otherwise barren room. Then she retreated.
Conner listened to the fading clicking of beads.
"I am so delighted you telephoned me. Last night I dreamed you ended this frustrating ordeal. I hope it is prophetic," said a baritone voice.
Conner hadn't taken the chair offered to him. He stood in front of a heavily draped window, his back to one of the eight corners of the parlor.
"I don't encourage unrealistic expectations, Doctor."
Belzoni reclined on a divan piled with silk cushions. His head was shaven so closely it gleamed. From the eyebrows down, coarse raven hairs grew thick as an enchanted Russian forest. Out of the forest shined two chips of cobalt glass.
"You should!" The doctor laughed. "Come and sit, please."
Stubby black candles melted in sconces. Luminescent paint used in the galactic floor art interfered with Conner's depth perception. He sensed each step might take him through the boards into a void. Vertigo made him nauseated.
"I would offer you a drink, but I'm afraid we don't have any alcohol."
"I can get a whisky on my way back to the subway. What is it you wanted to talk to me about, Dr. Belzoni?"
"Down to brass tacks, eh?" The doctor had an accent. Brazz tucks.
"I got the impression your time was valuable. I know mine is. I'm trying to save some for both of us." Conner took off his hat and wiped his forehead. They must've had the boiler glowing cherry-red in the cellar. The floating waves of incense made it look how it felt – like a steam bath.
"If only we could abolish time, then what would our desires be?"
Belzoni didn't wait for an answer. He sat up and planted his black marching boots firmly on the border of an exploding star.
Conner noticed a holster belted around the doctor's ample waist.
He nodded at the revolver.
"You worried about me?"
Belzoni tutted. "I have enemies, sadly. But I suppose it is a habit formed when I captained a steamboat on the Amazon. You never know when you will meet up with a jaguar." He laced his fingers, flexing his stout arms.
"Or an anaconda," Conner said.
"Exactly," the doctor replied.
"My friend told me you were looking for –"
"A stone box, Mr. Conner. I am looking for a stone box smuggled into New York Harbor last month. It is highly collectible. I paid for the box years ago, though its delivery was ... incomplete. In short, I was the victim of a confidence game, a grifter. This criminal did not know the significance of the artifact. He assumed it was, like he, a fraud. My exuberance at finding the stone box in such excellent condition after so many hoaxes and false hopes proved my vulnerability. He tricked me into paying him a second time. A much greater sum, of course."
"And you refused?"
"He died prior to the transaction."
"And the box wasn't with him."
"Unfortunately, no." Belzoni made a sour face. "That unforeseen complication led to a series of others, which brings us to the present. I have verified the box currently in question is mine. I am also willing to pay its possessor, a Rhodesian gentleman." Belzoni handed Conner a card with a number written on it.
"I have that in cash, available immediately."
"You want me to be your go-between?"
"It's more dangerous than a courier job. The trader who holds the box plans to have an auction, illegal since he is not the true owner, but I won't argue the point. My problem is several other collectors may have resources I do not."
"Looks like you're flush to me."
"I will not risk it." Belzoni leaned into his pillows. "Money is not the only resource I'm talking about. At least a dozen men have been murdered while searching for the whereabouts of the stone since it was brought ashore. That is why I am willing to pay you half the amount on the card to acquire it for me. I see you are surprised. Don't be. Tell me, what do you know of the occult?"
"You mean like voodoo, tarot cards, reading palms?"
Belzoni scoffed. "More con games. We are beings of spirit as well as flesh and blood. To tap into the mind of man, there is a challenge; to erase fear and grow our powers beyond former limits. With the right knowledge and training, the mind muscle, for years contracted into a knot, expands."
"What's in the box?"
The doctor smiled. "What do men dream of when no one is looking?"
Conner heard a grunt from one of the corners. There was someone standing there, silent and motionless until this moment.
Without turning, Belzoni answered, "One of my children."
Excerpted from A Chunk of Hell by Steven Sidor. Copyright © 2010 Steven Sidor. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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