In 1925, earthquakes and a rising sea level left Lower Manhattan submerged under more than thirty feet of water, so that its residents began to call it the Drowning City. Those unwilling to abandon their homes created a new life on streets turned to canals and in buildings whose first three stories were underwater. Fifty years have passed since then, and the Drowning City is full of scavengers and water rats, poor people trying to eke out an existence, and those too proud or stubborn to be defeated by circumstance.
Among them are fourteen-year-old Molly McHugh and her friend and employer, Felix Orlov. Once upon a time Orlov the Conjuror was a celebrated stage magician, but now he is an old man, a psychic medium, contacting the spirits of the departed for the grieving loved ones left behind. When a seance goes horribly wrong, Felix Orlov is abducted by strange men wearing gas masks and rubber suits, and Molly soon finds herself on the run.
Her flight will lead her into the company of a mysterious man, and his stalwart sidekick, Joe Golem, whose own past is a mystery to him, but who walks his own dreams as a man of stone and clay, brought to life for the sole purpose of hunting witches.
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MIKE MIGNOLA is best known as the award-winning creator/writer/artist of Hellboy. Mignola lives in southern California with his wife, daughter, and cat. CHRISTOPHER GOL DEN is the award-winning, bestselling author of such novels as The Myth Hunters, The Boys Are Back in Town, Strangewood, and Of Saints and Shadows. He co-wrote the lavishly illustrated novel Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire with Mike Mignola, and the comic book series featuring the same character.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Orlov the Conjuror dreams he is a ghost. He floats in the corner of a strangely ornate room, a tiny cathedral of Moorish arches and aquarium-glass windows, beyond which are only sea grass and barnacles and a host of fish of various species, all of them aloof and indifferent to the screams and the bloody perversions occurring in that peculiar chamber of horrors.
The ghostly Orlov weeps tears of anguish and futility, for he can do nothing to help the woman splayed grotesquely on the yellow marble altar, its surface cut through with runnels to capture her blood and other fluids. They pour into a pair of downspouts at the lower edges of the altar and run down into a small hole in the dark, and somehow the Conjuror knows that the blood and offal and birthing fluids are sluicing down into the floor to feed something hungry.
The woman has been chained ankle and wrist with rusted iron—incongruous against the clean Numidian marble. The chains are secured to iron rings set into the floor around the altar. An impotent specter, Orlov can only watch as her body betrays itself, jerking and shuddering. The chains bind her not to keep her from escaping but to prevent the eruptions occurring in her flesh from jerking her off of the altar. Her distended belly undulates with movement from within, as three crimson-robed figures hover around her, poking and prodding her flesh and her orifices with clinical interest. They have daubed her skin with ochre paint, inscribing her with sigils whose meanings Orlov cannot deduce. As she bucks against the altar, the ochre paint begins a slow, acidic burn, branding the sigils deeply into her flesh.
Orlov hates them. He clenches his phantom fists as rage fills him, but it is a hopeless, useless fury. Here in this dream, he is nothing. Less than nothing. He can neither move to aid her nor shout curses down upon her tormentors.
Nor can he curse the capering madman orchestrating it all. The occultist’s filthy hair is tied back with a rusted metal ring, and two others bind the twin braids of his beard. While his servants work the woman’s flesh with calm detachment, his prancing enthusiasm combines childlike glee with almost sexual arousal. As he circles the altar he darts in between the three crimson-robed figures to utter a string of guttural chants, all the while passing a strange object over the woman, inches above her flesh.
Somehow, Orlov knows this object. He wonders if he is dreaming the madman’s dream, or if he is merely haunting it, a ghost lingering in the house of the lunatic occultist’s unconscious mind. Regardless, the artifact is familiar to him.
It is Lector’s Pentajulum, a knot of tubes and small chambers reminiscent of a human heart but made of a colorful, unknown substance with properties akin to both amber and sea glass. The Pentajulum appears inert, and yet a tiny shift in position seems to alter its design—a trick of the light or of the eye, or some queer geometry the human mind cannot perceive.
The occultist gazes into the Pentajulum as if it is his life’s only hope, and Orlov understands that it is precisely that. The occultist’s wife is dead, crumbling to dust in her tomb, and the madman believes that the Pentajulum is capable of resurrecting her, of allowing them to live a hundred lifetimes together, if only he can make it work. The Pentajulum’s arcane science requires something to ignite it. The occultist believes that death is the key, that the agony and pain and surrender as the candle of human life is snuffed out can be channeled into the Pentajulum through the sigils branded on the woman’s flesh.
Straining against her chains, the woman screams. The occultist smiles in anticipation. His moment has arrived. He holds the Pentajulum above the center of her chest. But then his brow furrows and he shakes his head. Stubborn, he refuses to retreat, but Orlov can see that his plan has gone awry.
In the shadowy eaves of the room, something stirs. The woman and her tormentors have been joined by some unseen observer, but not a dream-ghost—not a visitor like Orlov himself. The others in the room take no notice. Even the occultist seems not to be aware of the arrival of this presence, and Orlov cannot understand how the massive weight of its attention can go unnoticed. But the occultist’s focus remains on the pregnant woman, and his expression turns to panic as his efforts unravel.
Her belly splits. Orlov the Conjuror stares in horror so profound that it makes him wish for the ignorance of the abyss and the darkness of eternity. Her distended flesh has not torn, nor has she pushed forth some monstrous issue. Orlov can think only of flowers blooming as her abdomen unfurls into petals of ridged, purple-veined flesh.
The occultist screams in fury, his anguish echoing off the vaulted ceiling, caught in the arches, ignored by the fish swimming past the windows.
The woman’s body continues to blossom, opening up until there is almost nothing recognizably human about her. Then, just as the flower bloomed, it begins to wilt and turn brown. Deteriorating, the woman cries out weakly. Shaken, the ghost of Orlov the Conjuror screams for her, but he makes no sound.
Orlov is certain that he smells something burning.
And he wakes ...
* * *
Stiff and aching, Felix Orlov shifted in his bed and rolled over. He opened his eyes to narrow slits and stared at the dusty gloom of his room, hating the weight of his age-diminished frame and the demanding pressure of his bladder. On another morning he might have sought a more comfortable position and tried to fool his bladder into giving him another hour’s sleep, but today sleep held no sanctuary. His dreams were no haven from the mundane, shuffling boredom that his life had become.
Not these dreams.
Unsettled, he lay waiting for the horrible images to crumble and sift out of his mind, the way dreams were meant to in the moments after waking. His eyes widened and a strange panic began to set in. Felix did not want these things inside his head. They were meant to linger as cobwebs and then be dashed away as the morning progressed, yet as he lay there they became, if anything, more vivid.
“Get out,” Felix whispered as he rapped his arthritis-swollen knuckles against his forehead, as if somehow that might reset some mental switch.
With a dry, humorless laugh, he peeled back the bedclothes and swung his legs over the edge, sitting up. He pressed his hands against the small of his back and rotated his head, stretching his neck. Pops and clicks reminded him of past injuries and the onset of age. He rose and shuffled toward the bathroom door.
Felix never looked at the details of his bedroom anymore. He chose not to let his gaze linger upon the faded scarlet curtains from Thailand or the posters hanging on the walls in their cracked frames—posters that boasted astonishing feats of magic by Orlov the Conjuror, as well as the astounding performances of those who had inspired him as a boy, Thurston and Fezzini, Blackstone and Houdini. Though Felix no longer liked to look at the posters, or the many mementoes displayed around the room, he could still see them in his mind’s eye. He knew that after all this time they were cloaked in a veil of dust, as obscured as his memories of that long ago time when audiences had cheered him, women had bought him drinks, and he could travel from his bed to the toilet without pain.
This morning, however, Felix’s only wish was a gauzy veil of dust to obscure the vividness of the dream still lingering in his head. How could he possibly have known the motivations of the man he had thought of as the occultist? The dream had felt like a memory, but he knew it was not his memory. Not at all.
Dreams or memories. The distinction wasn’t really important. Felix had some small facility for being able to peer into the dark corners of the human mind, and a certain spiritual sensitivity as well, but nothing like this had ever happened to him before. It felt like he had been sleepwalking in another man’s mind.
With a sigh, he stood at the toilet and relieved himself, massaging the small of his back and hating the way even his eyes felt heavy and gritty. As a young man, Felix had taken to repairing clocks almost as a sort of hobby. It kept his fingers limber, an absolute must for a stage magician. How many times had he dismantled clockwork, cleaning and oiling the parts and rebuilding a clock so that it worked smoothly, so that its innards snicked together properly, tight and strong and accurate?
Felix would have given anything to be a clock that some enterprising young man with nimble fingers could dismantle, oil, and rebuild, good as new.
“Damn,” he sighed, careful not to fall as he reached down and flushed the toilet.
Normally Felix avoided the mirror, and had done so for years. This morning he shook his head as though he could dislodge his bad dreams and bent over the sink, splashing water on his face. And then he looked at his reflection.
To his surprise, he was not entirely horrified. His nose had grown larger and his cheeks were more sunken, but there were still wisps of white hair on his head, and the corners of his mouth were turned up in a rueful sort of amusement.
Not a cadaver after all, he thought. And sure as hell not a ghost.
Stretching again, Felix felt somewhat better, and he managed to walk back into the bedroom without shuffling. Eighty-two years on this earth and he was still able to take care of himself, more or less. It made him stubborn and it made him proud, but not so proud that he wouldn’t have admitted that it also made him lonely ... if there had been anyone who would listen, and give a damn.
There’s Molly, he reminded himself. But Molly was a kid, and he wasn’t about to dump his old man’s woes on her.
Felix took the worn gray trousers off the footboard of the bed, whe...
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