THE MESMERIST: A skeptical young cop and a federal agent with a taste for the occult become embroiled in a series of bizarre killings in an alt-version of 1979 New York City, where looks can kill and hands can heal.
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I popped a stick of Clove gum in my mouth and stared at the door.
At the bottom of the pebbled-glass window were a line of letters in black paint: Federal Bureau of Investigation. UC-13.
The Federal Building in downtown Manhattan was only ten years old, but the paint on the door already looked chipped, as if the feds knew it was only a matter of time before this team got axed. The second line told me that there were at least thirteen other teams in the country that were saddled with everything from cattle mutilations to little green men.
The door was unlocked, so I helped myself.
It was a long, windowless cinderblock room, heavy on the fluorescent lighting, and designed to look like a classroom. Two blackboards at the front and back, a platform or stage with steps under each of them. Sad-looking US and bureau flags on either end. The bulk of the room was occupied by rows of metal shelving.
I called out the agent’s name.
I headed to the other side of the room, picking my way past shrunken heads, maracas fashioned from possum skulls and chicken feet, handmade dolls impaled with needles, and giant jars of colorless fleshy objects swimming in formaldehyde. There were books and religious statues and skeletal creatures suspended on thread from the shelves above them. By the time I’d emerged from the aisle, I’d been saluted by Buddha, Ganesha, and a porcelain phrenology bust.
I don’t know what any of it had to do with law enforcement.
A man sat cross-legged on the rear platform, eyes closed. Weird-looking dude, I thought. He could have been any ethnicity under the sun. Indian. Black. Hispanic. I had no clue. His skin was brown. His head was bald, the top of it shaped like the business end of a torpedo. He wore a shaggy Fu Manchu.
The body under the collarless ribbed shirt was lean and powerfully muscled. Old jeans clung to him tight. No gut. A semiautomatic in a rig around the left shoulder. Sandals on his feet, which was also weird. I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw another detective’s toenails. His were thick, yellowed, and curled at the tip.
After a while, the eyes opened.
“Detective Fisher,” he said.
The voice was clear, rich, booming: Fish-ahh.
“Doctor Soul, I presume?”
He leaped from the platform and came over to crush my hand. “Call me Ishmael. Let’s set up over here.”
A couple of desks stuck out at right angles to the stage. The desks looked abandoned, though ugly green phones still squat on them. His desk held a rotary phone, paperwork, empty takeout bags that smelled as if something had died in them, and a beige metallic box with a glass window.
That threw me.
New York was mired in a fiscal crisis. The nation and I were only a handful of years out of a war and enjoying our well-earned slide into amnesia. The Oval Office was occupied by a well-meaning peanut farmer. And this guy had on his desk the first personal computer I’d ever seen.
He rooted in his desk for a business card, which he handed to me with a flourish; I felt obligated to go digging for mine.
He opened the first of my files and spread the crime scene photos on one of the clean desks.
“When did they start?”
“That’s the embarrassing part. We missed them. The first was three weeks ago. A Monday night. Transit cops found her in a utility room at the Fourteenth Street station. On the track level.”
“Door was unlocked?”
“Officially, no. But you know how it is. They had a padlock on it with a chain through a hole in the door where the lock used to be. Fucking city’s a dump.”
“Excuse me. Official COD was a heart attack.”
“Which is why no one thought to flag it.”
“Exactly. But I did. There were a few other weird things that no one else noticed, apparently. Wrinkles. Loss of muscle tone. Hair loss. Basically what you’d see in a case of premature aging.”
“How old was the victim?”
I pressed my lips into a thin, disturbed line. “The first one? Twenty-one.” He said nothing, so I continued: “They all figured that the girl felt chest pains, wanted to get to a bathroom, tried the first door she came to. She’s disoriented. Boom, she drops. Found her there next to some cleaning supplies. How many twenty-year-olds you know die of a heart attack?”
“It happens. The vie, she is tragique.” A hah! escaped his lips. He was cracking himself up.
“Okay,” I said, “but how many women that age look like this when they die?”
I held up the photo. Andrea Brandon had been a thin waif of a woman clad in a sundress. A purse and an artist’s portfolio had been among her personal effects. She stared out of the photo, wide-eyed, in disbelief.
She looked like a woman three times her age.
Soul regarded the dead girl’s face calmly. “Okay,” he said, “but it’s all still in the realm of the possible. A hard life. Alcoholism. Drug abuse. Undetected heart disease. Cardiomyopathy. All these things could, conceivably, lead to the death you describe. But what did you see that your colleagues didn’t?”
“A tarot card left at the scene. Yeah—that’s the photo. The Page of Swords. The number 1 was marked on the card in blue ink. Smudged prints, nothing usable. Not hers, not anyone’s. At the time, they assumed it was either hers or it was trash on the scene.”
“The Page, huh?”
Soul looked at the photos.
“I’m convinced he’s on an eight-day schedule,” I told him. “Always hits at night. The second was George Baraut. Forty-six, a commuter. Same MO. They found him in a toilet stall at Port Authority on the ground floor. Heart attack. Possessions, wallet untouched. Same physical signs. Hair loss, wrinkles, et cetera. Two in eight days’ time, with a tarot card at the scene. Still in the realm of the possible, Doctor? I’m not buying it.”
The photo: a dead man seated, fully dressed, on a toilet seat. Head and shoulders lolling back against the bus station’s wall of filthy white tile.
“If the cat had a sense of humor, he would have left a card showing a throne,” Soul said. “Plenty of thrones in the tarot deck. Pen mark on this one, too?”
“Yep. The number 2, scratched into the coating. And then last night—eight days later, like clockwork, the two in the park. They found them come morning near the Alice statue on the East Side. A witness, a homeless woman, is down at Bellevue. We haven’t gotten much out of her.”
“He’s coming out of the shadows,” Soul said. “The first two were hidden. A toilet stall. A utility room deep underground. This is his first foray out of doors, and he takes two. This them?”
He held up some photos. Grisly ones. The girl’s hands were still locked around the boy’s throat.
“Young couple, presumably out walking their dog after coming home late,” I told him. “Anna Cifuente. Stephen Worwaski. Hispanic and white. Both late twenties. Lived together on the East Side. I gather they worked on Wall Street. They had dinner with some friends till well after 11:00 p.m. They were anxious to leave because they had to walk their dog. The animal had been cooped up all day, they said. We haven’t found the dog.”
Soul leaned in. His breath was hot. “One card or two?”
“One tarot card. The Six of Wands. Marked with a number 3.”
Soul nodded. “Mmm-yeah. Interesting, isn’t it? Either he was planning only one victim, and fate handed him two. Or the digit on the cards is meant to denote the episode, not the number of victims. Either way, the cards don’t seem to correspond to the victims.”
“So you agree it’s murder?”
“Of course. Why else would you be here?”
“Heart attacks aren’t murder—”
“Semantics. We’ll get to that. How’d he pull off the latest one?”
“Well, that’s the thing. They both have the skin and muscle tone of much older people. The girl died of a heart attack.”
“And the boy?”
I smiled. “Well, that’s really why I’m here, Doctor. Why my genius captain insisted I talk to someone who had the, excuse me, right expertise. Worwaski was clearly murdered. Strangled. Judging from the skin and blood under his nails, the girl choked him to death. He didn’t go easy. Practically tore her face off, scratching her, trying to get her to stop. Not one of those wounds bled, Doctor. Not one. She was dead before she laid a hand on him. Which is impossible.”
“That depends on your point of view, now don’t it?”
“She drops dead of a heart attack, then killed her boyfriend? It’s illogical.”
“Oh ye of little faith,” cracked Dr. Soul. “If the rational isn’t working for you, isn’t it time to look at the irrational?”
“Which is what?”
The federal agent’s eyes narrowed for a second. He smiled, mustache twitching grandly. “Well, Detective. Looks like you’re presiding over a case of murder. By zombification.”