A Weird Tale by Wade Rockett
"Now ain't that an ugly mug?" Captain Brockhard of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department grunted as we gazed up at the grisly idol before us. "You ever seen anything like it?"
I shook my head. The statue that sat on the altar had been the object of worship for the dozen or so cultists that Brockhard's men were leading away in handcuffs. Responding to an anonymous call, they'd sped to the scene to find an orgiastic ceremony in progress at this abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of the city - a ceremony that, from the testimony of the terrified girl whom the cultists had bound to the altar, was to end in ritual murder.
Brockhard turned to address my employer. "How about you, Professor? What's your opinion?"
Philosophus Stone, police consultant on occult matters, stepped out of the shadows. He was dressed as always in impeccable style, this evening in a three-piece suit of white linen and a black-banded white fedora. He raised his eyes to the grotesque object that leered down at us; his round glasses flashed in the light of the torches fastened to the rusted metal walls of the warehouse.
The statue depicted a crouching beast whose appearance combined the most unsavory aspects of a bison and a crab. It squatted atop a mound of human skulls and held an obsidian-bladed dagger in one raised claw. Professor Stone stroked his gray-streaked black goatee and furrowed his brow as he took in every abominable detail.
"Well, Professor?" I blurted. "Surely you know what it is!"
He spoke without taking his eyes off the idol. "Indeed, Johnson. If I am correct, the presence of this idol points toward the existence of a web of evil that - unless we act swiftly - will ensnare not only you and I, not only this city, but perhaps the entire world."
He turned his burning gaze upon me. "And when the web ensnares, the spider strikes. Captain, my assistant and I have much work to do. I shall be in touch shortly. Good night!" With that the Professor spun on his heel and strode back into the darkness. I raced to follow.
We left the lights of Las Vegas behind us as we drove deep into the desert. Amid the scrub and the dry creek beds Professor Stone made his home on a plot of land known for the strange behavior of compass needles within its boundaries, and the odd lights that shone atop its hills at certain times of the year. The large house was built in the Spanish style; in a moment of whimsy the Professor had ordered a wrought iron sign installed over the front gate that read "Rancho Misterioso."
Even before I brought the black Mercedes to a stop in the driveway the Professor was out the rear passenger door and striding toward the entrance. "A martini, Johnson," he called over his shoulder. "I shall be in the library."
As I made my way through the house's vast interior, I wondered – not for the first time - at the strange fortune that led me to this house and its singular owner. Job opportunities are scarce for a young man with a freshly-minted bachelor’s degree in Comparative Occultism. When my old mentor, Doctor Lucan Orbius, recommended me to Professor Stone I was profoundly grateful.
Yet honesty compels me to admit that this seeming stroke of good luck has propelled me time and time again into the most hair-raising scrapes imaginable. I wondered what there was about that pagan idol that drove my employer to move with such unwonted haste, and had to take care not to spill his drink as my hand involuntarily trembled.
I found the Professor poring over a thick, leather-bound book at the library's long mahogany table. I handed him his martini and peered over his shoulder at the open page before him.
I recognized the ancient and crumbling volume from my undergraduate days. It was On The Divers And Terrible Customs Of The Inhabitants Of The New World, by the missionary friar Antonio Cabrera. The good friar lived with the Indians of central Mexico for twelve years before word of his unorthodox methods of spreading the gospel reached his superiors. When representatives of his Benedictine order came to remove him from his post, he murdered them and sent their mutilated and, most unnervingly, gnawed remains back to Rome. He was later shot to death by soldiers and his writings were locked away in a vault deep within the Vatican. This copy had somehow escaped seizure, and like many forbidden books had eventually made its way to the library at Rancho Misterioso.
"There's a familiar face, eh, Johnson?" the Professor said, tapping an engraving on the page. It showed, with chilling realism and detail, a group of naked Indians performing unspeakable acts of barbaric cruelty around the base of a grinning statue.
"That statue..." I gasped.
"Is the same as the one we saw in the warehouse earlier tonight."
"But how can that be? That statue seemed new, while this engraving is hundreds of years old!"
The Professor adjusted his glasses. "Forgive me, Johnson. I did not mean to imply that the object Father Cabrera saw in the jungles of Mexico now rests in the evidence room at police headquarters. What we saw tonight was a cheap imitation. The original was destroyed, smashed to bits by the conquistadors. But," he raised a finger, "it is true that one piece of the original survived to the present day: the obsidian dagger it held."
I waited, confident that the Professor's brilliant intellect would cut through the fog of mystery that swirled about us. "What you see depicted here is the ancient worship of the god X'tloktl. Outlawed by the conquistadors, it surfaced again many years later as the religious underpinnings of a Thuggee-like cult of political terror called 'El Clavo' – in English, ‘the Nail’.
"The region’s instability proved to be a fertile ground for El Clavo. The cult has resurfaced several times throughout history, even in the American Southwest. In fact, before tonight the last appearance of the X'tloktl cult was here in Las Vegas at the turn of the century. Members were suspected of involvement in a series of ritual slayings, but the ringleader, a man named Egon Reich, was never convicted.
"And now..." He sighed, staring down at the engraving. "Now of all times, the demon god raises his bloody head again."
"What do you mean?"
"Surely you saw the monthly Arts calendar in the paper? A traveling exhibit of pre-Columbian artifacts is coming to the Museum of Art and Natural History this week. Included among the items is an obsidian dagger - the same dagger held for centuries by the statue of X'tloktl in central Mexico."
"And you think this Reich person will try to steal the dagger?"
He nodded grimly. "Recently, I discovered evidence that the cult is still active in this area. I urged the museum not to display the knife. The fools wouldn't listen to me, as usual; but they may yet have cause to regret their decision."
"But why? What is the significance of the artifact?"
"It is said that one who knows the proper incantations can unleash the power of X'tloktl through the dagger, becoming almost a god himself. These incantations are written down in the Magnes Codex, the only surviving copy of which is in the possession of none other than Egon Reich."
I shivered. "So what are we to do?"
"I'm afraid I must consult with Dr. Luis Trigo. He is scheduled to speak at the exhibit’s opening ceremony."
"You sound as if you know him."
"I do." Professor Stone drank deeply from his glass, then set it down and exhaled bitterly. "I once called him friend and colleague. He is a brilliant scholar in the field of Meso-American magical systems, but we had a falling out some years ago. He delved into regions where even I am loath to trespass. But we have no choice: only Luis Trigo can help us."
The next morning we stood in the grand entryway of the Museum of Art and Natural History near downtown Las Vegas. We had been kept waiting for some time when finally a tall, slender man with oiled hair and a thin mustache walked up, his shoes clattering on the marble floor.
"Dr. Trigo." The Professor inclined his head slightly.
"Ah, Professor Stone," Trigo said smoothly. "It has been a long time."
"Jakarta, 1922. The affair of the Jade Dragon Crown." He raised an eyebrow. "I assume you know why I’m here."
Trigo snorted. "Yes. That ridiculous band of ignorant Anglos posing as the heirs of El Clavo. Rest assured, Professor, the museum has taken my recommendation of increased security to heart. They obviously recognize that I speak with authority in these matters."
I glanced at the Professor. There was no way he could have missed the insult contained in Trigo's remarks, but he remained coolly impassive. "Excellent. Perhaps you could show us where the dagger is being displayed, and the measures the museum has taken to protect it?"
"Of course. Follow me." Trigo led us through the marble halls until we stopped at a dim alcove. A single shaft of white light illuminated a glass case set upon a central pedestal that was watched over by two armed security guards. There, on a scarlet pillow, lay the obsidian dagger whose copy I had glimpsed in the decrepit warehouse. Its black blade glittered in the light.
"You see?" Trigo said. "It is under constant guard, twenty-four hours a day. In addition, this case is alarmed. There is no chance of it being stolen while the exhibit is in town."
A female voice echoed through the hall, rich with mirth. "I wondered when the nose of the great Philosophus Stone would catch the scent of black magic and come sniffing around." We turned to see a heavenly vision approaching: a dark-haired beauty in a crisp suit and a mischievous twinkle in her eye that made my knees tremble. Even the Professor drew a sharp breath, although he quickly regained his composure.
"Allow me to introduce my assistant, Sam Johnson. Johnson, this is Miss Ivelisse Montez. Another old colleague."
"Miss Montez." I bowed.
"Mister Johnson." She turned to the Professor and smiled. "It is good to see you again, Philosophus. When Luis was asked to speak here in Las Vegas, I begged him to let me come along too. I was hoping we could get together and talk over old times."
"Luis...? Then you are working with Dr. Trigo."
"Yes." Trigo smirked and put one arm around the woman's waist. "Ivelisse is my personal assistant. We work very, very closely together."
Up until this point Dr. Trigo had seemed merely abrasive, but now his behavior had become intolerable. I felt like striking the cur for laying his hands on such a lovely creature. From the corner of my eye I saw the Professor stiffen and turn white.
"I sincerely hope to take you up on your offer once this terrible business is over," he said to Miss Montez. He turned his attention to Trigo. "But I'm sure you have some inkling of the power this dagger possesses. You can't believe that these two guards will deter -"
Suddenly the lights went out. I heard a scream, two sickening cracks, and the shattering of glass. I cried out as I felt a shove that nearly bowled me over.
"Silence!" the Professor's voice thundered. Instantly the darkness fled before the unearthly radiance of the mystical Lens of Alhazred, which Professor Stone had drawn from his breast pocket and now held before him.
The glass case was smashed to bits. The guards lay sprawled on the floor, their necks bent at an angle that Nature never intended. Trigo and Montez stood confounded, staring at the pedestal. The obsidian dagger of X'tloktl was nowhere in sight.
"Good Lord!" Trigo said. "The guards, dead!”
“And the dagger?" Miss Montez cried.
"Gone!" The Professor's eyes flashed like drawn swords. "But where?"
I remembered the jostling I'd received in the darkness. "I thought I felt someone run past me, this way."
"Then let us be after him!" We ran in the direction I supposed the murderer had taken. After some time searching the premises, though, we returned empty-handed to the spot where Trigo and Miss Montez waited.
"No luck," the Professor said grimly.
Trigo's face contorted with rage. "No luck, you say! A priceless historic treasure has been lost! What do you propose to do about it?"
The Professor did not spare him a glance. "Johnson, did you get Egon Reich's address as I asked?" I nodded. "Then we will go at once to his home and see if we can uncover any clues as to the dagger's whereabouts. Dr. Trigo, be so good as to remain here with Miss Montez and await the police."
"Please be careful, Philosophus," Miss Montez said.
The Professor smiled and tipped his fedora to her. "My dear, I am the very soul of caution. Now let's be off."
The Mercedes fairly flew as we drove through the streets of Las Vegas toward a neighborhood of shabby houses with weed-choked lawns. We came to a stop before the address I'd gotten the night before. As we sprang from the car we saw that the door had been broken down.
We stepped carefully through the doorway and came to a dead halt. There on the floor before us was the body of an elderly man. He had been disemboweled, and then strangled with his own intestines.
"Egon Reich, I presume," the Professor muttered.
"Dead! But why?"
"I believe your answer lies there." I looked in the direction the Professor was pointing and saw a wooden cupboard carved with occult symbols, also broken open. "Doubtless that is where the poor wretch kept the Magnes Codex."
"Look!" I hurried over to the nearby dining table where a large scrapbook full of newspaper clippings lay open. "Something’s been torn out, here."
"Quite right, Johnson. But look: our thief was careless. These scraps of newspaper were left behind, showing the date of the missing article. This was the lead story of the Las Vegas Review-Journal on July 17, 1910."
"But why would a thief take that?"
"Precisely what we must find out. Call the paper and have them find that story for us. We must know what information that article held."
I used the dead man’s phone to call my good friend Henry at the paper. While I waited for him to return with the clipping, I listened as the Professor muttered to himself. "What I don't understand is who would do such a thing. I know every occultist in the Southwest, and none of them..." Suddenly his head jerked up and his eyes went wide. "Oh, no. Oh, what a fool I've been!"
Henry's voice came on the line. "Sam, I got that story for you."
"Hold on," I said. My employer had run out the front door as if the hounds of hell nipped at his heels. I got to the door in time to see him start up the car and tear off down the street.
When the car pulled up to the curb again an hour later, the police had arrived and were photographing the crime scene. As the Professor emerged from the vehicle his face was pale with grief. "How could I have been so blind?" he groaned. "He is gone, and Ivelisse with him! All is lost."
"What do you mean?"
"It was Trigo all along. Trigo stole the dagger there in the darkness and pretended amazement later. Trigo has the dagger now, and has vanished along with Ivelisse Montez - his sacrifice to the evil god!" He shook his head. "I pray that you at least have some happy news."
I handed him the notes I'd taken after he'd gone. "Henry found that missing article. It describes the 1910 police raid on the El Clavo ceremony."
"Along with the ceremony’s location!" the Professor exclaimed. "Atop a cliff overlooking Mouse's Tank in the Valley of Fire state park, a natural well considered by the cultists to have great magical power. I am sure the villain will enact his own terrible rite at that very spot this midnight! We must be there to meet him."
A few hours later I stopped the car and looked around at the moonlit desert around us. "It's the end of the road, Professor."
The Professor peered out the window of the Mercedes at the rocky path that wound through the canyons beyond. "Indeed," he said. "From here on, we walk. Are you ready, Johnson?"
We left the car and set off up the trail, each carrying one of the deadly black automatic pistols that lay in a secret compartment in the Mercedes. The Professor also had his silver-tipped walking stick, engraved with various arcane symbols to ward off evil powers, as well as the Lens of Alhazred which he always kept in his breast pocket. I carried no other weapon. A two-time boxing champ in college, I preferred to rely on my fists in a tussle.
The desert around us was eerily silent save for the sound of our own footsteps and the occasional curse that escaped me when I tripped over a rock or was snagged by a thorny desert plant. For his part, the Professor glided through the night as if possessed of some preternatural ability to see in the dark. His was the sure, steady tread of the avenger.
Professor Stone abruptly motioned for me to halt. He stood stock-still on the path with his hand raised, his glasses glinting in the moonlight. At length I heard a faint, dry whispering in the distance, like the wind over the desert rocks.
The Professor hefted his walking stick. "Trigo has woken the Whisperers in Dust. They will be upon us in a moment."
"Shall I assume that these Whisperers in Dust do not enjoy being awakened?"
"Indeed," the Professor said.
At once a swarm of fearful creatures rushed at us. Their appearance was, as best I can describe it, like a mummified invisible reptile of human shape, rendered visible only by a thin coating of dust. They slashed at us with long talons and their jaws stretched open as they emitted whisper-quiet howls of bloodthirst.
I cried out in pain as one opened a fearsome gash on my right arm. I drove a fist into the creature's stomach and was amazed when it immediately crumbled into dust that blew away on a breeze.
"Why, these creatures are made of nothing at all!" I said. "We'll make short work of them." I dispatched another one with a right cross.
"Don't be so confident," the Professor warned. Two hissing Whisperers menaced him, held at bay by the silver-tipped cane. With one swift slashing motion he downed them both. "True, their physical forms are composed of little more than dust. But their claws and fangs are deadly, and they never attack in small numbers."
As if to underscore that last remark, a horde of the monsters boiled out of the hills around us and descended with faint screams toward our position. I drew the pistol and fired twice into the mob. The bullet passed through them as if through air and I saw a satisfying number of them fall. But it was not enough, and in a moment we were surrounded.
The next few minutes were like a nightmare. The monsters were everywhere, and no sooner had I dispatched one when seven more rushed up to take its place. I was bleeding from a dozen wounds. The Professor had his back to mine and was striking at them with his cane; but even his strength was failing, and I could see he had been hit several times as well. Then one of the beasts slipped past his defenses and fastened its cruel jaws around his wrist. The Professor’s hand spasmed and his cane fell to the ground.
"Enough!" he snarled. "Once more I must call upon the mystic might of the Lens of Alhazred, however much it drains my strength." He drew forth the strange relic, and again its sorcerous energies blazed forth.
A fiery whirlwind of power erupted around us. Terrible faces swirled in the coruscating light, the angels and demons of some forgotten race. When it had faded and all was still, the Whisperers in Dust were gone.
"Come, Johnson," the Professor panted as he slipped the Lens back into his jacket. "Trigo surely knows that we are near. The hour of fate is at hand!" He snatched up his cane and we ran.
Soon we stood beneath the cliff overlooking Mouse's Tank, a deep natural depression filled with rainwater. A voice rang out above us.
"Too late! Far too late!" A figure clad in ceremonial robes and a grotesque headdress stood silhouetted against the moon at the top of the cliff. In his hand was the obsidian dagger. At his feet lay the bound and gagged form of Ivelisse Montez.
"Trigo!" The Professor called. "For God's sake, man, remember that you are a scholar, not a butcher!"
Trigo leered down at us. "Scholar or butcher, all of that is about to change. The incantation is nearly complete. Witness now my transformation into a god!" He threw back his head and shouted the spell's last syllables into the night sky. The earth shook violently, and I lost my footing and fell to the ground.
When I looked up, I saw that Trigo's form had begun to change. He was growing, his limbs becoming warped and misshapen as his body transformed into the earthly vessel for the power of X'tloktl. He opened his muzzle and roared in triumph, a sound that made me clap my hands over my ears in pain.
He spoke in a voice so vile that it seemed to defile the air itself. "At last I am one with the demon god X'tloktl. Now shall I seal this transformation with a blood sacrifice - the first of millions to come!" He lifted the dagger high into the air.
I fired my automatic pistol at him again and again, but Trigo only laughed. I realized with horror that there was no way to stop the murder of Ivelisse Montez and the ultimate victory of the demon god.
Then Professor Stone stepped forward. With a look of deadly resolve he drew back his arm and threw his silver-tipped cane through the air like a Zulu spear. It flashed in the moonlight as it sped onward, and struck Trigo in the forehead just as the knife began its downward arc.
With a bellow of pain Trigo tottered on the precipice. Then, arms flailing, he fell off the edge and plummeted down into the water of Mouse's Tank. There was a titanic splash, then silence.
We raced up the cliff to where Ivelisse Montez lay unconscious. We untied her and, with the aid of smelling salts, brought her around. When she saw the Professor she threw her arms around his neck and wept. As he consoled her I looked over the edge of the cliff to where Trigo had fallen. No movement marred the dark stillness of the water below.
I returned to where the Professor was helping Miss Montez to her feet. "There is no sign of Dr. Trigo," I said.
The Professor sighed. "No, I did not think there would be. Luis Trigo is gone for good, undone at last by his own cruel ambition and lust for dark knowledge."
"But how?" I asked. "That fall was scarcely enough to kill an ordinary man. And Trigo said he had become one with the god X'tloktl."
My employer cocked an eyebrow. "My dear Johnson, the old legends are quite clear on certain points. X'tloktl was a being of great power, true. But the one thing he absolutely could not do was swim."
With that he offered his arm to Miss Montez and together they walked back down the path toward the car.
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