Chapter One: The Woman in the Ugly Clothes; or, Recipes From Under the Earth
I wasn't sure if I heard the question right. I turned toward the voice and stared. An old man stood to my left, toothlessly grinning at me through a scraggly beard and moustache. His eyes looked two different ways.
"Pardon me?" I asked.
He repeated the question, adding a slight cackle. I looked more closely. One of his eyes was blue. The other was bright lavender.
"No, sir, I don't know how to prepare ramen noodles," I said, amused by the question. I always like to interact with the people I meet on the street. You never know when something like this will be important later on. There might be a time when I needed to know how to prepare ramen noodles.
"You see, young man, ramen noodles are the cornerstone of our civilization. Therefore, they must be prepared in a special way, in order to simmer in the mind and heighten our perceptions. When they are prepared properly, one can approach the mind of God."
"Of course! Pay attention, young man." The old man licked his fingers carefully. His tongue was blue. "First, you get a pan. Into this pan you pour peanut oil and a dollop of brandy. Place the pan on the stove and boil this mixture. Add the noodles, reduce the heat, simmer for eight to ten minutes, season with paprika. This is the ingredient that the lamas of Tibet use when they are eating ramen noodles and commiserating with the Buddha."
"And how did you come by this knowledge, sir?" I still had a few minutes until my appointment, and I was very suddenly very interested in this recipe.
He grinned again and stood up on her toes briefly. What he was looking for, I never knew. "Well, young man, can you keep a secret?"
I assured him I could.
"When I was young, like you, before I fell into this pitiful state, I was an important man. I traveled the world in search of knowledge - I was never satisfied. My father had left me a considerable fortune, and I believed that the search for knowledge was the only purpose a man could have in life. I saw many marvels - the great spiders of the Yucatan jungle, that are as big as a basketball and eat dolphins out of the surf; the monk of Ekaterinburg, who channels the spirits of the Romanovs to foretell the future; and the head chef of the Emperor-Under-The-Mountain, who sleeps the sleep of the just until the world recalls him in a time of great need. This chef had a weakness for chocolate chip cookies, and I enticed him to tell me the secret of ramen noodles with promises of more to come. I thought this recipe would bring me fame and fortune, but when I returned home, I got too greedy and approached the wrong people. There were many problems. I was ruined. I lost everything, except the recipe. That is all I have."
I looked at my watch. I had to go. "Thank you, sir, for that story and the recipe. I will cherish it. But now I have to go."
He hopped away, trailing a brown cape that hid his threadbare clothing. He turned a corner and disappeared. I smiled and went on my way.
I was outside the Winchester Hotel when the old man stopped me. The Winchester is a venerable institution in downtown New Alexandria, yet I had never been inside, despite having lived my whole life here. For some reason, I had always been scared of it. It sat on King Richard III Avenue like a squatting potentate, ugly and menacing, dwarfed by the newer building alongside it. It was only six stories high, yet the rumors were that it had sub-basements that extended below the street almost as deep as it was high. I would have dismissed those rumors, but I had seen far too much strange stuff in the Alex to do so. The Winchester's grand entranceway gaped like a tiger's maw, its overhanging draperies tooth-like, while the stone pilings on either side of the front steps lay like feline paws on the sidewalk. I walked up the steps and pushed the ornate glass doors. As I entered the hotel, I felt like I was walking a century into the past. The Winchester had been built during the great boom of 1898-1902, when the Alex expanded outward from its core and Octavian Bench III remodeled the downtown. It was one of the few buildings to survive the earthquake of '06, and for that reason, all sorts of superstitions grew up around it. Whenever any city councilman proposed tearing it down, he would surely contract some disease that would incapacitate him past the vote date. Whenever a businessman tried to buy it from the Ursus family with plans to renovate it and make it "modern," some economic calamity would befall him and he would go bankrupt. Major Ursus, the current patriarch of the family, lived on the top floor of the Winchester with, apparently, no money, as his family's fortune had been diminished over the years. It was with these thoughts swirling in my mind that I entered the hotel.
The interior had the feel of a Victorian living room, but one in which strange rituals had long ago been performed. It looked soothing enough, but there was an unmistakable feeling of uneasiness one got when one entered. Behind the main desk hung red curtains, the color and tackiness of dried blood, which muted light and sound in the large foyer. When people walked into the Winchester, they immediately slumped under the weight of the building's self-importance. I turned to the right and headed toward the main sitting area, between the front desk and the café, where several chairs clustered together like cavemen huddling around a fire, while along the front wall of the hotel, placed against the towering windows, three sofas lay lizards in the sun. The street noises and sights were muted by curtains matching those behind the desk. Thin, weak beams of sunlight nervously shuffled into the sitting area. I looked around for my appointment.
I saw her sitting in a high, straight-backed leather chair that made her, a rather small woman, look even more shriveled. I tried to walk boldly over to her, but the atmosphere in the room and the thick carpet slowed me down and stooped me over. By the time I reached the chair opposite her, I felt as old as she looked.
Pulling myself up and taking a deep breath, I extended my hand. "Madam. You wished to see me?"
Yolanda Thrackton (for that was her name) looked up from the cup of tea she had been contemplating like a yogi. There was no change in her expression. She reached out her hand, but instead of taking mine, she simply waved me to the chair. I sunk into it.
"Mr. Shaw." Her voice was squeaky but surprisingly fresh-sounding. Ms. Thrackton herself was anything but. Her face was lined deeply, and her dull eyes stared out through large bifocals. Her hair was dyed an ugly orange and fell to her waist, which surprised me. She wore the ugliest clothes I had ever seen - a garish purple gingham cowboy shirt and orange culottes, with white-and-red-striped stockings covering her legs. I am no fashion guru, but even I could tell she knew nothing about matching clothes. It was not, however, her dress style I was interested in.
"Ms. Thrackton." She nodded. "Shall we conduct our business?" I am not a man for small talk, and I could tell she was the same.
"I called you because of your reputation, Mr. Shaw," she said, drawing out the esses in "mister" and "Shaw." "You come highly recommended in some circles. Circles in which I travel."
"I'm honored, madam. I have some knowledge of what you are offering. I am, of course, overcome with curiosity."
"Yes." She sat back in her chair, and for a moment, I wondered if she was going to nod off. Her eyes closed and her breathing became more even. I contemplated my next move, but then her eyes snapped open again.
"I was a great beauty in my day," she said. I thought of the old man outside, regaling me with stories of his youth. What kind of signal was I giving off that senior citizens wanted to share their stories with me?
"I danced with President Hoover, did you know that? I was six. He was a kind man. A year later he lost the election. He came back to the city - he was born south of here, you know - and we had a party for him. I danced with him again. I was seven. We could not believe such a pious man had been rejected by the country. My mother was crushed. She wept for six days after Roosevelt won. She took it as a personal insult."
She took a long sip of her tea, coughed, and set the cup down. "All the men in town were interested in me. So long ago. I wanted none of it, you understand - I was a modern woman, and the war was on, and I thought I could create a life for myself. I didn't realize."
She paused for almost a minute before I said, "Realize what, madam?"
She smiled, and I knew that was what she had been waiting for. "We all have a past, Mr. Shaw. We are all bound by it, whether we know it or not. Especially in this city, this grand and glorious place. We are of the New West, but we are also of the Old World. When Octavian Bench came here and stole this land from Hieronymus Janowicz, he brought with him the legacy of his childhood in Europe, a legacy he could never escape. It's the same with all of us, and I foolishly thought that as an American in the 1940s, I could break free of that. Then I received the book when my father died in 1949. Suddenly, I was no longer free. That is what the book does, Mr. Shaw. Do you understand?"
"The book ties you to your past?"
"Not your past, Mr. Shaw. The city's past. The pasts of every person in the city. You become the caretaker of memory. It is not something to be taken lightly."
"Ms. Thrackton," I said, leaning forward, "I have been searching for this book for eight years. I never knew it was so close. I know exactly what the book is, and what it does, and why you have kept it hidden. I know exactly why you want to give it to me, without payment on my part, and why I, too, have to keep it hidden. I understand your concern. Believe me - it has become an obsession with me. I understand."
She took another sip from her tea, coughed, and slowly licked her lips with her short, stubby tongue. "I appreciate your research, Mr. Shaw. I just wanted you to know that research cannot, in this instance, substitute for real-life experience. You can say that you understand what the book is and what it does, but it cannot prepare you."
She looked over at one of the sofas along the front windows. "See that couch? On that couch Charlotte Carnavon, the famous silent movie star, was impregnated by her uncle, the famous director Foley Graham. See that chandelier?" She pointed directly above us. "In 1919 the concierge found the illegitimate child of Warren Harding hanging from that light. Behind the main desk, Harlan Koin strangled his wife Lucretia when he discovered she had embezzled all the money from his secret slush fund. You remember Koin? He retired" - she made quotation marks with her fingers - "in 1976 to Bora Bora? You never heard about the crime, did you? So how do I know about it?"
I suddenly found myself afraid to ask. She grinned, a ghastly smile through thin lips. "The book told me, Mr. Shaw. The book tells me everything."
I had had enough experience with people like Ms. Thrackton, and had done enough research on her, to know not to scoff at her pronouncements. Whether or not I believed her, she believed it, and that was nothing to laugh at. I simply asked if I could see the book.
She reached into the bag next to her chair and extracted a smaller paper grocery bag. She handed it to me. I pulled out a book secured with bubble wrap. I gently unwrapped it until I held the book and only the book in my lap. I could not believe it actually existed.
"The Liber Draconis Mundi," I whispered, savoring each word in my mouth.
"Mr. Shaw," she said, and I had to drag my gaze away from the reddish leather-bound treasure I now held, "I implore you. The Dragon of the World is real. It hears everything. It wraps us in its velvet coils and lures us to dark corners where it can feast on our hearts. If you read this book - and I have no doubt that you will - you must heed it." Her hand shot out and gripped my arm. I felt her fingernails dig deep into my skin. "You. Must."
I pulled away slowly, thankful that her claws had not drawn blood. "I will, madam, I will. You can be sure of that."
"I am an old woman, Mr. Shaw," she said, huddling back into her chair. "I am not long for this world. When I heard of you, I studied you. I know a great deal about you, Mr. Shaw, and I knew that you were the person who could carry on with the book and understand its burden. Thank you for meeting me."
I began to speak, but suddenly her eyes glazed over and she sank a little further back into her chair. I slipped the book back into the grocery bag and stood up, leaning toward her. A chill crept through me as I realized that she was dead. I looked around the room, but all the people in it were busy discussing their own secret things, and no one was paying any attention to me. I had a sudden suspicion, and bent over her tea cup, carefully avoiding contact with it. I sniffed. My suspicions were confirmed: poison. I can identify several kinds of poison, and I recognized the vague scent of sweaty socks that can only come from the extract of the rare Brazilian daffodil, one of the deadlier poisons known to man. The only reason Ms. Thrackton had managed to survive long enough to give me the book was the small dosage and the poison's relative slowness. I had been lucky. Had I been a few minutes late, she would have been dead when I arrived and I would have not gotten the book.
I shed no tears for Yolanda Thrackton. She was an old lady, and she had lived a full life. Now, however, I had to think of myself and the book. Someone had poisoned Ms. Thrackton, someone who wanted the book. They must have known they couldn't make a bold move in public, so they poisoned her in the hopes that in the hue and cry over her death, they could swoop in unnoticed and snatch the book. At least, that's what I believed. That meant I had to leave before anyone noticed Ms. Thrackton was dead. Luckily for me, she looked 90 percent dead when she was still alive, so it might be a while before anyone checked on her. I scanned the room quickly to see if anyone was watching, but could not tell. I might be safe, at least for another few minutes. Perhaps whoever poisoned Ms. Thrackton thought it would take longer. I tried to walk casually out of the hotel, willing my feet to take even strides. As I pushed the door open to leave, I kept expecting shouts of "Stop!" to freeze me. None did. The afternoon breezes hit my face as I stepped into the street, and I drank them in gratefully. I walked slowly but purposefully toward the bus stop, clutching the grocery bag under my left arm. I knew I had been dragged into something far bigger than I. I looked forward to discovering what it was.
More Adventures Behind the Fold!