The order came all the way from Houdini himself, the messenger adding that protocols weren’t a problem; just worry about nailing this guy. I took the file she slid across my desk, wondering just what protocols he was talking about.
Then I opened the file, spilling a bunch of bitter memories into the world.
I locked eyes with a registry photo of a man. Late-twenties. Porcelain complexion. Absolutely clean-shaven. Hair short and parted with the sort of precision that marines spent whole lives trying to obtain. No smile. Green, green eyes staring into my soul…
I didn’t even need to read the name.
The messenger wiped the grin off her face, cleaning her throat. “So, yeah, they suspect that he might’ve degraded. At least partially.”
”Interview?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
The messenger nodded with a resigned shrug. She said that- if push came to shove- Houdini could give the case to someone else.
I responded with a firm no.
After all, I dreamt of this moment for years.
Mom slid Emil- then five months old- into my young arms. She needed a break, the weight of all the swaddling probably to blame.
Not that mom would’ve wrapped him in any less cloth anyway. With dad suddenly dead shortly after Emil’s conception, she treated the pregnancy as though she carried the messiah. And after his birth, she became convinced that the world wanted to crucify him.
In more honesty that I like admitting to, I could see the world’s motive.
Emil had a deafening silence when looking at me. Specifically, right into my eyes, his own already green enough to practically shimmer. They burned too much. I had to look away. Or perhaps- in retrospect- it was merely an animal instinct.
I listened to mom prattle on the phone with a doctor- I can’t remember which one- for a while, before I noticed the babbling in my arms. I slowly looked down. Sure enough, Emil prattled on, articulate even in baby talk. He looked dead upwards, not breaking eye contact with the ceiling.
I looked up. Nothing but air.
Then fate stepped in and cut the power. A green light shown onto the ceiling, flickering. Almost like…
Mom poked at the phone receiver, already fretting about getting the power back on. She noticed the light before she actually heard me call her, almost collapsing when she noticed the its source.
In my arms, Emil’s eyes shined emerald, sending the room briefly back into darkness with every blink. He still babbled, as I later discovered, to the universe itself.
Had Doyle and Houdini’s seance a couple years back not been a rousing success, things would’ve been different for me and Emil.
For one, Emil wouldn’t have lived in the countryside home- either a small mansion or large cottage, interpretation pending- that the government set him up in. Nor would that same government had shelled out more taxpayer money to build a crystal pyramid in the backyard that Emil deemed necessary to speak with the Emissaries of the Cosmos.
The names of which apparently caught the attention of Houdini, now the head auditor of Department of Abnormal Affairs. I glanced at his notes- handwritten and bearing his stationary header- in the file in between watching the empty road.
Inconsistency in naming of cosmic beings (ref: theoretical extra-dimensional linguistics disertation) and lack of corroboration in preexisting texts (ref: abnormal anthropology studies). Predictions and information provided are only liberally valid at best, in addition to being symptomatic of cold reading. Assessment: department member might have had connection with cosmos severed (ref: personality).
Driving cosmic beings away just by being himself. Yeah, I’d believe that.
Other people in town- all of whom mom kept away from Emil after that fateful power outage- assumed that Emil never spoke. Only sort of true; he just never spoke to anyone he didn’t absolutely have to.
Or rather, only when it benefited him in some way.
Emil’s first words were demands, most of which I had to carry out thanks to mom’s chronic exhaustion. Other than that, he communicated to mere mortals in complaints and more abysmal silence, both equally capable of driving our mother up the wall. Praise- its authenticity generally dubious- became a currency he had mastered even as a kid. Something to keep her just barely functional for another day.
No, most of the time, he talked to the very universe itself. Cosmic beings that swam between layers of reality, staring at us just past a thin dimensional veil. According to Emil, the only reason they even bothered to speak to us was because of people like him.
“Not only can I hear them, I can understand them.” Emil explained, eloquence absolutely jarring on a seven year old.
Emil was homeschooled, mom acting as teacher until she surrendered the duty to his cosmic contacts. Aready worshipping Dick Tracy, I located his Tome of the Ancients- a Mickey Mouse journal he attached a fancy name to- and glanced some of the names of Emil’s teachers.
Hruptnar, the Teal King. Urso-Maveth, the Hand of Madness. Nyamnaha, the One Who Whispers Destruction. Gurathul, the Great Gatekeeper.
I think Gurathul might’ve been watching, because Emil caught me flipping through the pages and demanded how I found it.
“How else? Figured it out.”
He called me a liar, eyes glowing green and no longer the least bit scary.
“It’s true. I just pieced together all the stuff you’ve been saying.” I hadn’t seen the Cosmic Ones actually do anything, so I added “Not my fault you don’t talk about anything else.”
So, two big mistakes on my part. Ones that I still paid with all the nights that I still can’t sleep right.
The government scooped up Emil by the time I applied to the police force, already trained and ready to do classified work by the time I made detective.
Not that Emil needed training. He already started the day I found the Tome of the Ancients.
See, his specialty lied in interrogation, the Cosmic Ones using his voice as a conduit to invade the minds of those he spoke to. And once he had that down to pat around age eight, he went to public school with a smile.
Longest he lasted was about half a year, before he’d have to transfer schools. Bullies were found scrunched up in cranies, sitting in puddles of urine and tears and sucking their thumbs. Teachers who got on Emil’s case walked naked in the street, screaming nonse at traffic and ruining their careers. Nice kids who actually felt sorry that nobody liked Emil- after they got on his nerves- collapsed from insomnia, nightmares draining them of sleep.
And let me tell you, Emil’s nightmares had a tendency to stick around even years after the fact.
And now I was going to talk to him?
As I walked down the path through a meticulously-tended front lawn, a bitter laugh almost slipped out. I had wanted this after all. It was why I joined the Department of Abnormal Affairs myself.
Whereas Doyle set up the Department to understand and employ the abnormal, Houdini insisted that it also weed out the fakes. No sense in wasting money on cut-out fairies in photographs, after all. Which is where I came in; if an asset no longer seemed legit, they sent someone to investigate it.
And as it turned out, Houdini actually didn’t take my wildest dreams into consideration. He had shopped around to other investigators first, but Emil’s reputation had proceeded him. Nobody wanted to share my nightmares.
Before I had a chance to knock, the door ripped open, a maid nearly bumping into me as she yelled something about not taking this anymore, the government checks be damned. I watched her stomp down the lawn, wondering which number maid this was.
“Hard to find good help these days.”
I froze, the cold voice in the house gripping me by the brain stem. I turned, putting on my best smile. Not that Emil smiled back; the world was one big inconvenience after all.
He looked me over, eyes glowing green ever so slightly. “Well, we should get this over with I suppose.”
“You know why I’m here?” I ask, immediately feeling stupid.
Judging by Emil’s leer, he shared my self-depication. “Of course, I do. Come in already. It’s not like I have a maid to shoo out any bugs, now do I?”
Prior to storming out, the maid had finished Emil’s daily tea. He partook, while I got out my tape recorder- kicking it on- and notebook.
“They’re jealous of me, you know.” Emil said, lower face twisted as though he caught a rank stench. “Houdini especially. Did you know he actually opposed the spiritualist movement?”
I did, but didn’t say so. Emil did his best work when you replied.
“And honestly. Causing a fuss just because the names of the Cosmic Ones don’t strike his fancy. He just wishes they would speak to him.”
“Yeah, well, it’s not just that.” I immediately wished I didn’t say that.
Emil immediately pounced, his eyes shimmering green light. “What other slander does he want to pin on me? Ah, don’t tell me…he believes I’m cold-reading?”
I considered opening the file to make absolutely sure my memory rang true, only to find that my stupid self had left it wide open on the table. Did Emil really get a tip from the universe or did he just read it? Idiot.
“The Bringer of Secrets. The one who told me about Houdini’s theories.” I started scribbling down the name, Emil not liking what I wrote. “No, Dzurgath with a D.”
“But I thought you said-”
“There’s a silent D at the start. Honestly...”
My face went hot. I had to swallow my heart. Be calm. Be Dick Tracy, dammit.
“He’s a new one, huh? Dzurgath?” I asked.
Emil sniffed. “Yes, but I assumed you knew that, being an investigator.”
My stomach did backflips. I swore that something danced along my back. I looked Emil in the eyes, now glowing green. He smiled.
“Honestly, why is the Department so keen on wasting my time? I’ve been meaning to visit mother. It’s such a drive to the sanitarium after all.”
“He told you his name?”
“Your keeper of secrets.”
“And how is it spelled?”
Emil sighed. “I thought investigators were supposed to have a good memory…D. Z. U. R. G. A. T. H.”
“Did he have to spell it out for you?”
Emil took offense to that. “Of course not. Unlike someone, I can sound out names nicely.” He raised the tea cup to his mouth. “Not that the Cosmic Ones care how our infantile alphabet presents their names.”
“Yeah, but they have a thing for silent letters. That’s my problem.”
“Your problem being…?”
“My problem being that if they only spoke to you and never spelled it out, how did you know there was a silent D in the name?”
Emil’s smile died. I didn’t think he could get even paler.
“Unless you wanted to be fancy when making up their names.”
It took a little fumbling before Emil found his voice. It shook a little. “He spelled it out.”
“Not according to you.” I pointed my thumb at the recorder. “I can play it back. You said something about that twice.”
Emil’s mouth flapped a bit, stillborn words slapping out as I started gathering my things.
“Damn Emil. First the Tome of the Ancients, now your whole damn career.”
He twisted his face into a snarl. “This is hardly the ground for dismissal!”
“No, it’s the start of one. Not like anyone needs to be afraid of you anymore.”
Emil lurched across the table and threw himself in my arms, his tears glowing green. “N-No! Please! I can’t be…!”
I pushed out of his embrace. “One of us.”
Emil sank into his chair, the light finally dying in his eyes.