Piper Houdini Nightmare on Esopus Island298
Piper Houdini Nightmare on Esopus Island298
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TANTUM MORTUUS VINCIT MORTEM
"Master, I've failed you."
The dark-haired girl knelt on the grotto floor wearing a shredded Vionnet dress. She had plucked the shards of glass from her porcelain skin and her wounds had already healed. But the outfit was beyond repair.
"How have you failed me?" asked the hulking figure standing in the center of a raised dais.
In place of the friar's robe that the girl had grown accustomed to seeing him wear, Master Therion was sporting a casual cotton shirt and Riviera pants. A walking stick, a dagger, and a lifeless snake lay at his feet. The snake had two heads.
"I accidentally zotzed Houdini's niece." Flapper's confession echoed off the bare stone walls like it was mocking her. "She's dead."
This time, there were no sycophants chanting around the dais, no public displays of debauchery. It was only herself, Master Therion, and a slender man whose back was to them. The man's scent was familiar to her keen nose.
"What makes you so certain she's dead?" Beneath their wrinkled lids, the Beast's eyes bulged with froggish strain at his faithful servant. But his lips were curled in mild amusement.
"I lit a fire to smoke her out of her hiding place. It backfired," answered Flapper. At any other time, she might have snickered at the pun.
"Then you didn't stay long enough," Master Therion said. He stepped closer to the other man on the platform. "I made the same mistake thirteen years ago. I was led to believe that the life of a certain child had been terminated by one of your ilk, and I pursued the matter no further."
"Killed by a dewdropper?" Flapper asked, using the term she had coined for her people. She thought vampire sounded fluky. And nightgaunt was just plain creepy.
Master Therion nodded. "But it has recently come to my attention that the girl was brought to the Island of Coney instead. Interesting that the Houdini girl should now find refuge there."
Beneath the light of a powerful acetylene lamp, the lean man continued to toil over seven closed coffins that were lined up along the back of the platform behind the stone altar. Tubes that pumped goop in and out them connected all but one.
"I've arranged for one of my agents to keep an eye on the girl," the thin man said, turning to address them as though it were a laborious chore. Flapper recognized his bookish appearance at once. It was the doctor whose wedding she had attended with Master Therion in Boston eight years ago.
"Flapper, you remember Dr. Crandon," the Beast said flatly.
"Posalutely!" Flapper replied, attempting a curtsy. "Good to see you again, doc."
Crandon ignored her. In his hands he held out a ghastly thing.
"Aleister, look!" Crandon bellowed, completely disregarding the vamp. "I have successfully reanimated the subject by introducing the serum into its bloodstream intermittently over the course of several weeks!"
Flapper looked at the thing. It was a large toad. In fact, it looked like the same toad her Master had crucified on her last visit. It had three eyes and six limbs. But its middle eye and middle legs were now grossly disproportionate. All three eyes glowed red — and the poor creature was very much alive.
A loud belch escaped the toad's mouth, exposing rows of razor-sharp teeth that would have been more suitable for a piranha.
"You see?" the doctor continued. "Creatures that manifest with mutations are more resilient to the procedure! The solution lies in a property of the ectoplasm. It targets and modifies the singularity of a species, not the similarities."
"What's he beatin' his gums about?" the vamp asked her Master in a loud whisper.
"Manners, Flapper," admonished the Beast.
Peering over the rims of his glasses, the surgeon replied, "I'm saying that freaks of nature have what it takes to return from the abyss because they have developed a means to overcome similar afflictions in life," he explained. "Perhaps the parts of them that die in the womb are replaced by some sort of metaphysical coping mechanism."
"Tantum mortuus vincit mortem, to paraphrase Cagliostro," said Master Therion.
"I don't speak Martian," Flapper said.
"Only the dead can conquer death," the Beast translated.
Just then, the toad creature leaped from the doctor's hand onto Flapper's upper chest, latching itself to the flesh left bare by her torn dress. The attack was so swift that even her superhuman reflexes couldn't thwart it.
"Get it off! Get it off!" the vamp screamed, slapping at the amphibian to dislodge it. But it remained on her flesh, dangling by a perverse suction mechanism at the end of its overgrown fifth leg.
The mutant toad bit into Flapper's alabaster flesh. A stream of blood flowed down her chest and she howled in agony.
Flapper's tolerance for pain had grown considerably since the night she had been "revamped" by Master Therion, and she wasn't accustomed to feeling it so acutely — one of the advantages of her transformation. But the toad's attack not only reawakened Flapper's physical awareness, it dredged up emotions she thought she had buried long ago.
"Get it off me, please!" she pleaded. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she tried to rip the thing off.
"Seems my pet has an appetite for the arcane," Dr. Crandon said to the Beast, showing no regard for Flapper at all. "It's trying to consume the very thing that makes your pet special."
"Enough!" Master Therion shouted, raising his walking stick. The ruby eyes of its cobra-headed tip gleamed with menace and shot two fiery beams at the mutated amphibian. An unearthly croak erupted from the creature's throat and it fell to the bedrock in a smoldering heap.
"No!" Dr. Crandon screamed, leaping off the dais and kneeling before the ashen remains of the misshapen toad. Cradling the thing in the palm of his hand, Crandon sobbed as its charred sac expanded once, twice, and then no more.
The Beast glared at Crandon from the edge of his altar.
"My dear doctor. You will be permitted to gloat when you can devise a creature that is impervious to the light of this world in all its manifestations — including the light of my staff."
The doctor reeled to face the Beast.
"And I will not be able to produce such a creature until you deliver the wormwood star! I grow tired of all these setbacks, Aleister. The time to strike is now!"
Master Therion shook his head and his jowls bounced like gelatin.
"The time will not be ripe for another few months, Roy. You know that."
Dr. Crandon turned away, dismissing the necromancer with a wave of his hand.
"You and your damned occult timetables. This is science we're talking about!"
"And science demands that we obtain the proper test subject," Master Therion insisted. "We have no evidence that the Houdini girl is anything but a mortal vessel."
The Beast shifted his vast bulk to address his servant.
"Flapper, did you notice anything out of the ordinary about your quarry?"
"She's one smart cookie, I'll give you that," the dewdropper replied. "But I didn't see no earth-shattering miracles."
Therion rubbed his fleshy chin.
"I'm sorry I disappointed you, Master," Flapper said, casting her eyes to the floor.
"Nonsense, my dear. The mission wasn't a disappointment at all. You flushed the prize into the open and pursued her to the one place we can keep an eye on her night and day."
"So my job is done?" she asked with a hopeful lilt to her voice. "Absolutely," Master Therion replied. Flapper began to smile.
"But I will need to keep you here by my side for the next several months."
Her smile faded.
Dr. Crandon sneered. "Don't worry, doll. Your Master's acolytes may not be the most fashionable bunch. But they're real party animals once you get to know them."
The perpetual shadow around Flapper's eyes made her glare all the more insidious. Crandon turned away to avoid it.
"The sun's up outside the cave," he said, trying to change the subject. "You can sleep in one of the unoccupied coffins until nightfall. But you'd better start making other arrangements because I expect there to be one less vacancy by the end of the week."
Flapper glanced at Master Therion who nodded in consent. She floated up to the altar and swanned over to the tubeless casket. She climbed into the pinewood box and thought about the events of the last few hours. All in all, it had been a real lousy evening.
Some milquetoast teen had made her look like a sap.
The toad's bite wasn't healing, nor was the swollen red hickey where the toad had stuck to her chest.
And she was pretty much grounded on this rock from now till Doomsday, which wasn't far off if her Master's predictions about teeny Houdini were right.
She allowed the lid to close. Before slipping into oblivion, one last thought pierced her mind like a stake through her heart ...
How the hell am I gonna find anything decent to wear on this godforsaken island?
NORMAL IS RELATIVE
Piper Houdini had been as thrilled as a chocoholic in a fudge factory when Sam Gumpertz offered her a job that would let her mingle with the freaks morning, noon, and night. To get the Dreamland Circus Sideshow up and running by opening day, the showman had to put all his employees to work.
But now, as she shoved a cart loaded with huge platters of meat, buckets of mashed potatoes, and a pail of green beans, she was having second thoughts. Dressed in a blue-striped bistro apron, Piper pushed the heavy cart from the mess tent to the dining area outside the Circus of Freaks.
Feeding the Living Skeleton wasn't as easy as it looked. Piper wondered how he maintained his sixty-pound frame when he ate almost as much as his wife did.
Bunny Smith's daily diet consisted of several pounds of meat and potatoes, several loaves of bread, a gallon of milk, and enough desserts to keep Betty Crocker in business for a year. Even though she weighed as much as a dozen of her husbands, she had a very pretty face and her weight was evenly distributed all around. Piper understood why Mr. Gumpertz had nicknamed her "the World's Most Beautiful Fat Lady."
Jan the Giant and Travis the Strongman also took some work to feed. But they weren't as pleasant as Bunny. Pounding the table with their knives and forks, they shouted "More food! More food!"
Piper had only been here a few days and already she was fed up with their poor manners. "No third helpings!" she yelled. "You freaks are working me to death!"
The word "freaks" slipped out of her mouth before she could stop it. A silence came over the dining hall. Piper could feel her cheeks burning bright red as they all glared at her.
Johnny Hart hoisted his half body onto the table, took the fork out of the strongman's hand, and smacked it over his shaved head. The strongman growled at him.
"Don't worry, Piper," the Half-Boy said, turning to his new friend and winking. "In our family, 'freak' is a term of endearment. It's just another way of calling us unique."
The strongman began to laugh. A cheer went up among the others. Lionel the Lion-Faced Man gave the girl a jaunty slap on her back, making her drop the ladle of potatoes.
Piper smiled. Yes. Definitely a family, she thought.
As the cheering died down, Piper continued to hear the rasping sound of lungs struggling to clear themselves. Ever since the fire, Zip had been coughing like a sick walrus. At first, she thought maybe he had gotten too much smoke in his lungs. But his condition had been growing worse each day.
"Here you go, Zip," Piper said, handing over a steaming bowl of chicken soup she had made especially for him. "Not as good as my aunt's, but better than what passes for food in this place."
Zip smiled and nodded his appreciation.
When Piper finished serving the others, she pulled off her apron and went looking for Mr. Gumpertz. In addition to telling him about Zip, she wanted to beg him for a different job. Perhaps she was more like Houdini than she wanted to admit, but a job in the food service industry wasn't her cup of tea. Piper wanted a chance to be in the spotlight.
She turned a corner and a familiar sight caught her eye. Across the boardwalk, standing beneath the marquee of the dime museum, was the odd-looking girl she had seen in the same spot two months earlier. Her head was shaped like Zip's and Piper guessed that she was part of the sideshow. But why hadn't she seen her at any of the meals?
"Hello?" Piper called out to her. "Remember me?"
The girl in the pink muumuu gave Piper a big smile and waved her over. Then she disappeared into the museum.
"No wait!" Piper shouted, running after her. "Don't be scared!"
The exterior of the museum portrayed crudely drawn images of "the living and unliving wonders of the world," which included mermaids, five-legged cows, and giant killer rats. Piper brushed aside the burgundy curtains and stepped into a room bathed in a ghostly red light.
A sickly odor hung in the air. Shrunken heads, medieval torture devices, and skulls of creatures both real and imaginary were displayed on polished wood cases. Jars filled with formaldehyde flaunted the pickled remains of Skipper the two-legged dog, a two-headed calf, and a human fetus with a smiling face on one of its conjoined heads and a frowning face on the other.
Piper took dainty steps through the strange exhibits, looking high and low for the girl with the small head. Then her eyes fell upon a large vessel covered in a white cloth. Something deep inside her — an urge, an instinct — compelled her to remove it. She gave the cloth a quick tug and it slid to the floor. Piper gasped at what was hidden behind it.
The container looked like a washbasin made of thick glass. A seal with some sort of arcane symbols covered its top. Inside the receptacle floated a globular mass somewhat larger than a football. A dense system of blood vessels pulsed along its transparent skin.
Piper looked at the thing with nauseating memory. It was the same type of creature that she had seen nursing on the pinheaded girl's blood. The same thing that had attacked her in Margery's study.
Suddenly the thing heaved with a steady motion and opened its pink eyes.
"It's alive!" Piper cried.
"Of course it's alive," said a deep voice directly behind her. Piper jumped and whirled around.
"Mr. Gumpertz!" she exclaimed, holding a hand to her beating chest.
"Call me Sam," the showman said, smiling awkwardly to keep his cigar clamped between his teeth. He walked toward the container and placed a hand on the glass, almost petting it. The thing inside the tank jolted like a startled fish. "Living oddities are always preferable to dead ones, don't you think? Nothing special about a moon child in a jar if it ain't moving around."
"They're called pseudopods," Piper said flatly.
"That a fact?" Sam replied. "We call 'em moon children on account of the way sunlight makes 'em go poof! All white light for that matter."
Piper nodded. She was about to tell him how she saw one "go poof" when she felt a jerk on her overalls. She looked down and saw the girl with the tiny head smiling up at her.
"Oh, hello there!" she said, kneeling down to the girl. The girl in the muumuu smiled and blushed.
"Piper, meet Elvira Snow," Sam said. "She's a pinhead. Doctors call it microcephalia. It's when your face grows faster than your noggin and the body doesn't grow much at all."
"Pleased to meet you, Elvira," Piper smiled.
Elvira caressed the glass case that contained the tiny creature. Then she pointed to Piper and embraced herself.
"Elvira thinks of herself as momma to all the moon children," Sam explained.
"You mean there's more?" Piper asked.
Sam sighed. "Not anymore. You were the last." Piper raised an eyebrow.
"The Nightgaunt started bringing 'em to us in the summer of 1913," Sam explained. "We had no idea what they were or how to care for 'em. Neither did the 'gaunt."
Piper didn't ask who the Nightgaunt was. She had a pretty good idea.
"Didn't take us long to figure out what white light does to 'em." Sam shook his head. "But even when we kept 'em in the dark, they'd eventually wither and die.
"We started to bottle 'em up like this during the day. By sheer accident, someone cut themselves and got blood in the tank. Water never even turned pink — disappeared instantly. Turns out blood keeps 'em alive. Human blood. But the dang things still never grew.
"One day we found Elvira with this one latched to her chest like she was its nursemaid. Only it wasn't sucking milk."
The tiny woman hugged Sam's leg and buried her face into his hip. Inside the glass tank, the creature's pronged mouth began to open and close.
"It's feeding time. Let's give momma and her ugly duckling some privacy," Sam said, putting his arm around Piper and leading her out of the museum. She looked back at Elvira who blushed and wiggled her fingers at her.
"Mr. Gumpertz ... Sam?" she asked, squinting up at him as they walked into the bright sunlight. "What did you mean that I was the last one?"
"When the Four-Legged Woman found you, they all assumed you were another moon child. Elvira still thinks so. I don't suppose you have a hankering for blood, do you?"
She knew he was joking but shook her head emphatically.
"I'm not a pseudopod!"
"Too bad," Sam said, taking a puff of his cigar. "I could use a new act. My old ones are dropping like flies. Last year we lost Myrtle — the four-legged gal who found you. This year I lost my rubber man and my bearded lady. And right now I only got one new act to replace them."
Excerpted from "Piper Houdini"
Copyright © 2017 Glenn Herdling.
Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
What Has Gone Before, xi,
Chapter 1 Tantum Mortuus Vincit Mortem, 1,
Chapter 2 Normal is Relative, 6,
Chapter 3 Monsters and Mobsters, 20,
Chapter 4 Sodom by the Sea, 40,
Chapter 5 A Freak among Freaks, 52,
Chapter 6 The Beast at Bay, 64,
Chapter 7 Pulp Fiction, 68,
Chapter 8 Fade to Black, 96,
Chapter 9 Birth of Abomination, 99,
Chapter 10 Return of the Sheik, 115,
Chapter 11 The Whole Ball of Wax, 133,
Chapter 12 The Carnival of Plenty, 137,
Chapter 13 The Magician Must Die, 141,
Chapter 14 Truth or Dare, 153,
Chapter 15 The Curtain Falls, 172,
Chapter 16 Dead by Sunset, 179,
Chapter 17 Dreamland's Dozen, 184,
Chapter 18 The Half-Boy, 195,
Chapter 19 The Pinhead's Progeny, 201,
Chapter 20 The Professor's Prodigy, 209,
Chapter 21 Salvador, 214,
Chapter 22 Black Henry, 217,
Chapter 23 The Rube, 219,
Chapter 24 The Painted Lady, 227,
Chapter 25 Superfreak, 234,
Chapter 26 Into the Cave, 241,
Chapter 27 Uncle Walt, 250,
Chapter 28 Deadly Sins, 256,
Chapter 29 The Wand is Broken, 275,