Copyright © 2015 J. Zachary Pike
Published by Gnomish Press at Shakespir
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Gnomish Press, LLC
P.O. Box 64
Greenland, NH 03840
Death and Taxes
Arthur C. Torr met Buford Lafont when Arthur was still a young man. One might think the pair had known each other forever, given the length of Arthur’s gray beard and the wrinkles that spiderwebbed across his leathery skin, but unfortunately for Arthur that was not the case. Remarkably, only a few days passed between his first encounter with Lafont on the narrow streets of Portsmouth and the withering onset of old age.
Arthur had recently graduated from the local branch of the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in philosophy and anthropology, which was useful for reinforcing his budding atheism but not good for much else. For several months, he did little but live as he wanted and enjoy the freedom of youthful ambivalence. But when the grace period on his student loans expired, Arthur was forced to seek out gainful employment. Failing in that, he decided to get a minimum-wage job to pay his debts while living in a friend’s basement.
The job market, however, proved distressingly uncooperative. All of the local barista positions had been filled by more enterprising philosophy majors, and Arthur lacked the skills to do much beyond make a cup of coffee. The fast-food managers didn’t like his attitude, the retailers found his style lacking and his personal manner a bad fit, and the owner of the local hardware store just laughed him off the premises. By the time he took the bus to Portsmouth, Arthur had exhausted the Internet job listings and was on the last ad in the Help Wanted section of the paper, so his mood was both dour and desperate as he hiked through the crusty slush covering the treacherous sidewalks.
Blue’s Doughnuts sat on the corner of Islington and Cunner, in a decrepit New England saltbox that had been repurposed as a simple storefront. The door was locked and the windows were dark when Arthur arrived, which struck him as odd given that it was just after seven in the morning—presumably the best time for doughnut shops. His mouth slowly twisted into a grimace as he waited outside, and he was about to trundle back to the bus station when an old, navy Crown Victoria came roaring around the corner, tires squealing in protest, and pulled into the driveway beside the shop.
The man who struggled to emerge from the car put Arthur in mind of a walrus; he was enormously fat, clad in a rumpled brown suit with a green necktie, and sported a thick, salt-and-pepper mustache that obscured his lips. Cursing, the man pulled himself from the Crown Victoria and brushed past Arthur with a muttered apology.
“Sorry. Sorry. Damn traffic,” grunted the fat man, fumbling with his keys at the door. “It’ll take a half hour for the doughnuts, but the coffee should be ready in ten minutes.”
“That’s okay,” said Arthur, stepping into the shop. It was an old living room, with elaborately antiquated wallpaper and a painted tin ceiling. The landlord had installed a glass counter along the back wall, and a few mismatched tables dotted the worn hardwood floors. An ancient woodstove sat in one corner, flanked by a pair of faded, comfortable-looking armchairs. “I’m here about the job,” Arthur added.
“What? Oh, good! You can see why I need help.” The big man extended a meaty hand. “Buford Lafont.”
“Arthur! Good. Tell you what. There’s a box of stuff in the back of my car. Bring it in.”
“Uh, I thought there would be an interview,” said Arthur.
Lafont turned and looked Arthur in the eye for the first time. “There is. It starts with a competency test. Let’s see if you can manage to get the box from the back of my car.”
It was a testament to Arthur’s desperation for employment that he returned a few minutes later, box in hand. When he did, he was dismayed to find that Lafont had locked himself in the back room, and left a list of tasks and a recipe for doughnuts on the front counter. With a burdened sigh, Arthur set to work. He mixed and fried and scrubbed and swept for well over two hours before Lafont finally emerged, carrying a wooden sign and some tools.
“See you found the list,” Lafont said as he grabbed some nails from the box that Arthur had retrieved. “Good man.”
“Am I going to get paid for this?” asked Arthur.
“We’ll do questions later,” said Lafont brusquely. He pulled a plain doughnut from the tray beneath the counter and sampled it. “Not bad, Art. Not bad.”
“Arthur. And I couldn’t find a recipe for anything but plain and glazed.”
“Right. That’s all there is,” said Lafont. “Come on. Grab the small ladder there.”
Arthur took the step stool from behind the counter and followed Lafont out into the cold. “But what about chocolate? Or coconut?”
“Look, there’s two types of doughnuts. Doughnuts, and glazed doughnuts if you’re feeling fancy.” Lafont set up the step stool beneath the signpost. The aluminum ladder squealed in protest as he climbed it. “Everything else is just a cake with a hole in it.”
“People seem to like other flavors,” said Arthur.
“Then they can go somewhere else,” said Lafont, nailing the new sign to the post.
Arthur looked back into the empty shop but decided to drop the subject. “About my interview?” he asked, shivering in the bracing March air.
“Right, right,” said Lafont during a break in his furious hammering. “Can you work mornings? I mean be here at four, that kind of thing.”
It pained Arthur incredibly to say that he could.
“Good. And do you mind doing work outside the shop?”
Arthur looked at the forlorn counter through the dusty window. “I think I’d prefer it, actually.”
“Right.” Lafont stepped back down and examined his handiwork. Beneath the Blue’s Doughnuts sign he had added a smaller sign that read, “Private Detective Available.”
“This is a detective agency?” asked Arthur.
“It wasn’t supposed to be, but these yokels up here can’t appreciate a good doughnut,” grumbled Lafont. “Now I gotta pick up a side gig to stay open, and I used to be a private detective back before I joined the NYPD. Anyway, last question: anything strange ever happen to you?”
“You mean besides this interview?”
“I mean like weird things. Shadows that whisper or odd lights outside, that sort of stuff. You ever seen any of that?”
“No. Should I have?”
Lafont scratched his mustache as he scrutinized Arthur for a long moment. “Yeah, all right. You’re good, kid. Job’s yours if you want it.”
Against every instinct, Arthur accepted the position.
It was Arthur’s fourth day on the job when she walked into the shop.
The woman wasn’t like most of the customers Arthur had seen, and not only because she was walking into Blue’s Doughnuts. She moved like a panther, her raven hair flowing, her green eyes sparkling with life. She wore a long black coat to guard against the cold, but it also served to accentuate her figure. It took considerable effort for Arthur not to stare as she looked over the doughnuts displayed in the glass counter.
“Looks like we got a case,” whispered Lafont when he emerged from the back room a short time later.
“How can you be sure?” asked Arthur, never taking his eyes off the woman.
“Well, for starters, look at how nervous she is,” observed Lafont. “The furrow in her brow, the worry lines by her mouth, she’s under a lot of stress. She needs help.”
“She was probably hoping for a chocolate—”
“Plus, nobody takes that long to decide between glazed or plain,” said Lafont, blithely ignoring Arthur. He waved to the woman. “How can we help you, miss?”
The woman stopped pretending to examine the available doughnuts and turned to Arthur and Lafont with a demure smile. “Oh, hello,” she said. “I’m here to see the detective. Is he in?”
“That’s me,” said Lafont, jabbing a thumb at his chest. “Buford Lafont, at your service.”
“Oh thank God,” cried the woman, rushing to the counter. “Please, you have to help me! Is there somewhere we could discuss things privately?”
Lafont looked around the room, which was typically empty of customers. “I’d say here is private enough, unfortunately. This is my assistant, Arthur.”
“I just started here,” babbled Arthur. “I have a degree.”
“Good for you, kid,” said Lafont. “What do you need, miss?”
“Well, you see, it’s my Nicky. My boyfriend.”
“Has he done something wrong?” asked Lafont.
“Oh no. Nothing like that. It’s just that he…he’s gone missing.” The woman pulled a crimson handkerchief from her pocket and dabbed her eyes.
“And how long has he been gone?”
“Four days now.”
“And you’re sure he didn’t just run off? Maybe another woman?”
“Of course not!” interjected Arthur, earning himself an elbow to the ribs.
“Oh, no, Detective,” said the woman. “Nicky and I…well, it’s the real thing, you know?”
“I’ll take your word for it,” said Lafont. “And have you noticed anything strange about him lately? Anything weird happening around you guys?”
“He’s been sick lately, but it’s not that serious. One day we were happy, and the next he was…he was gone. Oh please, Detective, say you’ll take the case. I’m so scared. What if he had an accident? What if someone took him?”
“Yeah,” grunted Lafont. “All right, seems pretty straightforward. We’ll take the case, Miss…”
“Miss Green. But you can call me Lillian.”
“Great. Nice to meet you, Lillian.” Lafont wrapped her delicate hand in his meaty paw and shook it firmly. “All we need to get started is your address and a deposit.”
“Oh wonderful,” said Lillian, pulling out her checkbook. “When can you start?”
“No time like the present,” said Lafont. “Get ready, Arthur.”
“What, really?” asked Arthur, finally peeling his eyes off Lillian.
“I said you’d do off-site work in the interview.”
“But what about the customers?” asked Arthur.
“Way ahead of you,” said Lafont. He pulled an old coffee can from behind the counter, set it on top of the doughnut case, and propped a small paper sign next to it that read, “TAKE DOUGHNUTS—LEAVE CASH.”
“You’re replacing me with a coffee can,” said Arthur, staring at the smug little Colombian man on the label. “I have a degree, and a metal cylinder can do my job.”
“Don’t worry. It can’t sweep,” said Lafont. “Come on. We need to get to Miss Green’s place.”
They arrived at the apartment just before noon. The space that Lillian had shared with Nicky until recently was a small unit in a decrepit colonial off Middle Street. The old building creaked mournfully as Lafont stomped around the living room, but the apartment itself was clean and decorated tastefully.
“No sign of forced entry around the doors and windows,” Lafont muttered to Arthur, stepping away from the windowsill. “Write that down.”
Arthur heaved a sigh and made a note in the small leather book Lafont had given him. He’d been hoping he would be asked to do an in-depth interview with Miss Green or at least investigate a crime scene. Instead, he mostly sat and watched the fat man roam around the room, writing down whatever trivial observations Lafont dictated. Lillian, for her part, seemed to appreciate Lafont’s efforts. She followed the detective closely, watching his progress and purring compliments as he worked.
Buford stepped up to a wall of photographs, all of them set in simple, black frames. Arthur shuffled over and joined him. The photos depicted Lillian posing for the camera with men in dark glasses, button-up shirts, and wide grins. The men in the photos ranged from heavyset and hairy to thin and frail, so it took Lafont and Arthur a few moments to realize they were all the same person. “These are of you and Nick?” Lafont asked.
“Yeah,” said Lillian, looking over Lafont’s shoulder wistfully.
“He lost a lot of weight,” Lafont said.
“Oh yes,” said Lillian sadly. “At first we thought he was just doing great on his diet, but then he got so skinny so fast. The doctors can’t figure it out.”
“How long have you two been together?” Lafont asked.
“Almost a year.”
“Interesting. Write that down,” Lafont added.
“Already did,” said Arthur to anybody who was listening. Nobody was.
They moved through the apartment with brisk efficiency, Lafont’s experienced eyes scanning each room. The contents of the kitchen cupboard indicated that Nick’s diet was at odds with his recent weight loss, a noxious blend of snack foods coated in orange cheese dust and baked goods coated in powdered sugar. The bedroom was neat and sparse. Nick lived out of two drawers in a dresser—one for his T-shirts, socks, and underwear, and the other for several pairs of jeans. The bathroom was cramped but serviceable, with a medicine cabinet overflowing with painkillers and strange pills.
As they investigated the rooms, Lafont asked Lillian questions one by one. Her story was straightforward enough: On the previous Monday, Nick Morgan told his girlfriend he had a couple of meetings to attend after breakfast, which was common given his occupation as a programming consultant. He left the apartment sometime before Lillian woke up Tuesday, which was also common given her habit of sleeping until well after noon. He didn’t meet her for a late lunch, as was their daily routine, and by evening he hadn’t called to check in. She contacted the police immediately, but their investigation had proven fruitless and Lillian was convinced it would end up lost in the bureaucratic shuffle.
“That’s why I brought you here,” Lillian said, placing a hand on Lafont’s expansive shoulder.
The last room they searched was Nick’s home office, an orderly cube furnished in glass and steel. Shining silver computers hummed and whirred on almost every surface. The shelves were mostly dedicated to books about software engineering and coding language, with more photo frames interspersed among them. Lafont quickly focused on a black folio placed neatly on the desk. It was crammed with receipts. “He keeps a lot of paperwork.”
“He’s a consultant,” said Lillian. “But he was probably going to throw those out soon. He digitizes all his receipts every few months or so. I think he finished that batch recently.”
“Fair enough,” said Lafont. “Arthur—”
“I’m writing it down!”
“Don’t bother. We’ll just take the receipts.” Lafont handed the folio to a sputtering Arthur and turned back to Lillian. “Now, did Mr. Morgan keep a calendar or a schedule? Journals, that sort of thing?”
“Only on his computers,” said Lillian, bobbing her head toward a silver laptop.
Lafont gave the machine a distrustful glare and snorted. “You got his passwords at least?” When Lillian shook her head, Lafont closed the laptop and handed it to Arthur. “Okay. I know someone who can get us in.”
“Do you think that’s necessary?” asked Lillian. “Nicky hates it when people touch his computers.”
“Desperate times, Miss Green,” said Lafont. “Right now I know just about everything about your boyfriend except the one thing I really need to know: where was he going last Tuesday morning?”
Their first stop after leaving Lillian’s apartment was The Cat’s Curios. “I know the woman who owns the place. She can get us the info from Nick’s computer,” Lafont explained as they trudged through the slush that covered the sidewalks of Portsmouth’s downtown. Every building packed along the streets of the historic district was either original colonial red brick or a reasonable facsimile thereof. The ground floors were now occupied by trendy shops and tourist traps baited with small nautical trinkets of the sort that seaside vacationers cannot resist.
Though the city at large had mostly left its colonial roots behind, its snow removal methodology had lagged regrettably. “Doesn’t the city ever plow here?” said Arthur, stepping over a large puddle of slush and ice.
“I’m sure it’s happened before,” said Lafont as he turned to wade through a slurry of ice and salt down Commercial Alley, Nick’s laptop and receipts tucked firmly under one arm. The detective’s plodding trudge through the snow reminded Arthur of Hannibal’s elephants marching through the Alps.
“So, Lillian seems nice,” said Lafont, a broad smile twisting his mustache.
“She does,” said Arthur warily. “But why do you say it like that?”
“I dunno. I’m not saying anything,” said Lafont. “But she was being very helpful.”
“Yeah, because she’s looking for her missing boyfriend.”
“I’m just sayin’,” said Lafont, unfazed.
“Well you shouldn’t,” said Arthur as they arrived at The Cat’s Curios. It was the lone shop on Side Street, which was little more than a narrow walkway off Commercial Alley. Arthur ducked quickly through the front door, mindful of the menacing stalactites of ice hanging from the eaves above.
Once inside, however, Arthur decided the deadly looking icicles were likely the least menacing thing about the shop. “This doesn’t seem like a place where a hacker would hang out,” he said, staring at shelves laden with animal skulls, ancient tomes, and strange devices bristling with runes and crystals. He peered into a murky, green aquarium, then jumped back as something inside opened a single red eye and retreated deeper into the tank. “This is just about the last place I’d go if I wanted to get at computer files.”
“I’ve got my methods,” Lafont grunted. He slapped at a small bell on the front desk. “Viv! You around? Come on!”
Arthur jumped as a reptilian head popped up from behind a dusty bookshelf. The yellow eyes and crooked teeth suddenly thrust upward as the iguana they belonged to was lifted by a graying tangle of hair it was perched atop. A short, round woman peeked at Arthur and Lafont, then walked out to greet them. She had a wide face and a grin like a skull’s as she looked from Lafont to Arthur with black eyes set in sunken sockets.
“Detective Lafont,” the woman said with a nod that nearly dislodged the lizard from her head. “What a surprise to see you.”
“Vivianne,” said Lafont.
“It’s especially surprising given that you swore you’d never be back.” Vivianne’s voice was almost as grating as the smirk she wore.
“I’m here on standard detective business. Nothing else,” said Lafont emphatically. He held out the laptop. “I need to get at this guy’s calendar for last Tuesday.”
Vivianne slithered up to the front desk and picked up the laptop. “Should be simple enough,” she said, lifting the computer close to her face for a thorough examination. She stared at the lights and ports on the side intently, sniffed at the power indicator a couple of times, and ran her thick tongue over the case. “Yes, I think I can get it.”
“See, I’m pretty sure that’s not how computers work,” said Arthur, taking a step back toward the door. “This is getting weird.”
“Nothing strange is happening!” Lafont insisted with forceful determination. “This is all normal detective work.”
“If that were true, why come to my shop?” asked Vivianne.
Lafont stared through narrowed eyes at the shopkeep and spoke through gritted teeth. “I’m…pretty sure everything is normal. Just get me into that computer.”
“Of course, Detective.” Vivianne gave a smug bow. “It will take a couple of hours.”
Lafont snorted, put his business card on the counter, and stormed out into the slush with Arthur at his heels.
The detective fumed in silence as he drove, making every turn with extra force and vigor, as if to punctuate some point in an imagined argument. Arthur, however, found that his initial unease about the strange events at The Cat’s Curios was giving way to curiosity, excitement even, by the time they reached Blue’s Doughnuts.
The store was almost exactly as they’d left it. The doughnuts remained undisturbed, and the coffee can that had served as Arthur’s substitute was empty save for a note that read, “No chocolate?” Arthur hoped to have the opportunity to ask several pressing questions concerning the strange shop they had visited and Lafont’s hunch that the case wasn’t as straightforward as originally thought. But the detective immediately sequestered himself in the back room to “think a little bit.”
Disappointed, Arthur set about his more typical duties. He started the batter for tomorrow’s doughnuts, swept the shop, and checked the balance on the cash register—it was still zero. When he had exhausted his supply of work, he sat down and started idly leafing through Nick Morgan’s receipts.
At first, the receipts seemed like customary business expenses for a consultant—mileage notes for travel to clients, software packages and programming books, and a lot of lunch meetings. He first noticed something out of place when he came across a slip for the purchase of a pearl necklace, marked as a gift to a client.
“What kind of client would want a pearl necklace?” Arthur wondered aloud, just before the phone rang. He picked it up with an unenthused, “Blue’s Doughnuts.”
“Hello?” said an unfamiliar old man’s voice, high and tense. “Hello? Young man, this is Professor Gary Hermitage. I must speak with Detective Lafont immediately.”
“Is that Vivianne?” shouted Lafont from the back room.
“No, it’s some professor.”
“Tell him I’m not interested and hang up!” hollered the detective.
“Uh, can I take a message?” said Arthur softly into the receiver, letting his curiosity get the best of him.
“You must tell him that the moon has entered the twelfth phase of Io, marking the return of—”
Arthur looked up as the voice cut off with a click. Lafont had a single finger on the cradle of the old phone. “I said, ‘Hang up,’” he growled.
“Something is going on here,” said Arthur. “This isn’t normal at all. This case, the shop, the call, something bigger is happening here. And I think you know what it is.”
“I don’t know what it is,” said Lafont. “More importantly, I don’t want to know what it is.”
“But you know it’s there!” said Arthur.
“Don’t get that look,” said Lafont. “Stop thinking that way.”
“That oh-maybe-magic-and-pixies-and-stuff-do-exist look,” snapped Lafont. “You’re thinking that you’ve stumbled upon some terrible and secret knowledge that changes everything, and now everything’s gonna be different.”
Arthur wanted to launch a stinging comeback, but the detective had summed up his thoughts quite well. “Well, it does change everything,” he protested. “For one thing, it makes life a lot more interesting.”
“Not if you’re lucky, it doesn’t,” said Lafont. “Listen, I’ll tell you one thing for sure about magic and cults and the dark powers: they’re a pain in the ass. Trust me, kid. A boring life is the best kind.”
“So I’m just supposed to—”
The tinny wail of Blue’s Doughnuts’ outdated phone cut Arthur off. He and Lafont looked at the ringing phone and then back to each other. With a grimace, Lafont picked up. “Hello…yeah, what do you got?”
Arthur could only hear Lafont’s half of the conversation, but the greasiness in the muffled voice on the other end of the line told Arthur it was Vivianne.
“Yeah…yeah, I, hang on—got a problem?” The detective glared at his staring assistant.
“No, sorry,” mumbled Arthur and turned back to the receipts with feigned interest.
“Okay, what was it?” Lafont asked Vivianne. “Nothing? No calendar at all?…Well what was he doing then, keeping it all in his head?…Well, yes, I suppose some people—…Oh, you do?…Well, I suppose if you have a good memory for that—…Fine! If there’s no calendar, what the hell do you think he was doing last Tuesday?”
“Seeing a good accountant, I hope,” quipped Arthur, holding up a receipt with a scrawled note on the back. “This guy was writing off diamond earrings as a business expense.”
“And other jewelry. And a lot of lunches, even though Lillian says that she ate lunch with him every day.” Arthur leafed through the receipts. “I’m no expert, but I don’t think you can legally expense lunch dates with your girlfriend.”
Lafont gave him a strange look, but rather than replying the detective just spoke hurriedly with Vivianne. “Hey, can you get into his contacts? Okay, good. See if you can find an accountant in there…Really? Great. Give me the address.” Lafont hastily scribbled a note on a scrap of paper. “Got it. I owe you, Viv…Wait, how much do I owe you?…For two hours’ work? You can’t be—hello? Hello? Damn it!”
“Are we going to the accountant?” asked Arthur, already putting on his coat.
“I am,” said Lafont, slamming down the receiver. “You need to mind the store.”
“Way ahead of you,” said Arthur. He set the coffee can on the counter and propped the sign back up next to it. “Let’s go.”
Lafont only shook head in reply as he pulled on his coat.
After another treacherous hike over Portsmouth’s ill-kept sidewalks, Arthur and Lafont stood outside the office of Don Dullahan, CPA. It was in a small, red house near Strawbery Banke, the neighborhood that was home to the city’s oldest buildings and its oldest money.
“All right, we gotta be careful in there,” said Lafont, checking the Beretta that he had concealed under his coat.
“It’s just an accountant,” said Arthur, eyeing the pistol.
“It’s probably just an accountant,” said Lafont. “But we might be dealing with the improbable here. Wipe that grin off your face.”
Arthur tried to contain his excitement as they walked through the door, and the interior of the office made it easier. They entered a small waiting area, with four chairs, a coffee table, and folksy watercolors of the harbor and lobster boats hanging on taupe walls.
“Well this is anticlimactic,” said Arthur.
“Stay on your toes,” said Lafont, ringing the bell.
A moment later, Mr. Dullahan emerged from the back office and introduced himself. The accountant was tall, but age was starting to stoop his shoulders. He had pale blue eyes and a bit of black peppered throughout his gray hair. “Can I help you, gentlemen?”
“We’re looking for Nick Morgan,” said Lafont. “We hear he’s a client of yours.”
“Oh?” said the accountant. “I mean yes, he’s a client, but is something wrong?”
“We hope not,” said Lafont. “He’s missing.”
“Oh my,” said Mr. Dullahan. “Yes, come with me.”
Dullahan ushered them into a spacious office appropriate for an accountant save for the odd geometric shapes that covered the walls and the carpet. The strange lines were made from cherry inset on the walls, swaths of gray paint on the ceiling, and red carpeting cutting through green swirls on the floor, but they seamlessly met at the corners so that the alien pattern entangled the entire room.
“That’s some strange geometry,” Arthur muttered to Lafont.
The comment seemed to worry Lafont. He just shook his head.
“Ah, yes, Mr. Morgan did visit last Tuesday,” said Dullahan.
“Good,” said Lafont. “That’s all we needed to know.”
“I might be able to give you some more information about his visit,” offered the accountant, walking to a side door and holding it open. “We’ll just have to go check the files.”
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” said Lafont.
Arthur, however, caught a glimpse of something unsettling through the door, and he rushed forward to get a better view of the dim room beyond it. In the faded light he could just make out a row of yellowed shapes arranged along the back wall. Another step and he could see the empty sockets and morose grins of the skulls.
Arthur tried to jerk back in that instant, but the air felt like a thick liquid, with a current drawing him into the dark room. And now he could see that the room that this room was covered in the same sinister patterns, all of them pointing toward the door he had stepped through. He could hear shouting behind him, muffled and distant as though Arthur was underwater.
Then the pain set in. It wasn’t sharp or stabbing, but a dull ache that started in his back and worked its way out through his bones. His joints felt like they were growing pitted and brittle. His skin seemed stretched and loose at the same time, pulled by the current that was dragging him forward. Something brushed across his face, and he realized it was his own hair waving in the flow, graying as it rippled. Arthur screamed and found his voice hoarse and weak.
He heard a muffled gunshot behind him, and a moment later a meaty hand clamped down on his shoulder. Arthur felt himself being yanked back from the current. As he was pulled from the office, Arthur caught a glimpse of Dullahan snarling and leering despite a bullet hole above his left eye. A deep terror helped Arthur find his footing, and he turned and ran past Lafont as they fled down the streets of Portsmouth.
“What the hell?” gasped Arthur. “What the hell?”
“How long has he been like this?” asked Vivianne.
“We came straight here after the attack,” said Lafont.
“What the hell?” said Arthur.
“He’s saying that a lot,” said Vivianne, with more academic interest than concern.
“He hasn’t said anything else since we left.”
“Do you think he hears us?”
Arthur heard them. He just couldn’t focus on the conversation, at first because the memory of the leering accountant haunted him, and now because he had seen his reflection in several of the old mirrors that hung throughout The Cat’s Curios. He looked to be in his midseventies, with bedraggled white hair down to his waist and a curly, silver beard that hung almost as low. He reached up and touched his wrinkled cheek with a bony hand.
“What the hell?”
“So what is this guy, Viv?” Lafont asked. “There was bad trigonometry all over his office.”
“The forbidden geometry, you mean.”
“Whatever. Just tell me what we’re dealing with. Some sort of cult leader? A sorcerer?”
“I think you’re dealing with something far more…special,” said the shopkeep. “Let me find that book.”
“Must be my lucky day,” grumbled Lafont, watching Vivianne scuttle away.
“What the hell?” said Arthur.
“Sorry, kid,” said Lafont. After a moment of awkward consideration, he added, “Er, sir.”
“Shut up!” snarled Arthur.
“Oh, you’re back with us now,” said Lafont.
“I…how…what the hell happened to me?” Arthur sputtered.
“You let your guard down, that’s what happened,” said Lafont. “You should have followed my lead and gotten the hell out of there.”
“I don’t know. We ran into some sort of necromancer or something.”
“Not a necromancer. A baleful accountant,” said Vivianne, placing a thick, leather-bound book on the front counter. The old tome was opened to a page with a woodcut of a man in dark robes writing in a ledger with a quill. He would have looked unremarkable, save for the forked tongue down to his chin and the rows of skulls behind him.
“This was more than just an accountant,” said Lafont.
“Right. It was a baleful accountant,” said Vivianne. “An accountant will tell you that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. A baleful accountant can help you cheat both of them. They use the forbidden maths to extend the life span and wealth of their clients, but then they take a cut for themselves. And of course, if they choose, they can swindle you out of the time you have left.”
“Like what he did to me,” said Arthur, looking at his wizened face in the mirror.
“They can live forever stealing other people’s time. Wounds that would kill a man will take a hundred years from a baleful accountant, but what is that when you’ve stored away thousands of years stolen from your clients?”
“So Nick Morgan gets on his accountant’s bad side, and Dullahan takes the rest of his life away,” said Lafont.
“It is a bit unorthodox,” conceded Vivianne. “Baleful accounting isn’t really a flashy form of evil. Those that practice it prefer to pose as normal accountants, quietly cheating death. Many of their clients might not even know that it’s happening.”
“So they don’t usually kill young people off,” said Lafont. He picked up Vivianne’s old book, flipped to a different page, and scowled.
“Not usually. But if you cross or threaten one, and they think they can get away with it, they’re certainly capable of…ah…draining your remaining balance.”
“But how do I get it back?” asked Arthur. “How do I become young again?”
Lafont shook his head, but Vivianne looked thoughtful. “I suppose you could learn the forbidden maths,” said the shopkeep. “Then you could take up baleful accounting and—”
“Nobody’s doing anything like that,” snapped Lafont. “I don’t know if we’ll get your time back, Arthur, but one way or another we’re going to straighten this out. Viv, we’re going to need a gun.”
“Oh? I was under the impression that you always carried a Beretta, Detective.”
Lafont grimaced. “A bigger gun.”
“I thought you said we were going to straighten this out,” said Arthur as Lafont opened the car door.
“We are straightening it out,” said Lafont. “Now give me the letter.”
“Why did you even buy the gun, anyway?” he asked, nodding to the .44 magnum in the backseat. The firearm was covered in strange runes, and it came with silver ammunition tipped with glass beads that held strange liquids and fragments of foreign materials. The gun had impressed Arthur when Lafont purchased it and given him hope that a slug of enchanted lead through Mr. Dullahan’s skull would end the accountant and return Arthur’s youth. But there was no magic bullet to solve Arthur’s problems, at least not in the metaphorical sense, and since leaving The Cat’s Curios the gun had remained in its ebony case in the rear of the Crown Victoria.
“Don’t worry about the gun,” said Lafont. “We can’t take on that powerful a wizard no matter what we’re packing. Just trust me and give me the letter.”
Arthur sighed and handed over the third account he’d written of the events that had left him prematurely aged. Lafont stuffed the letter into an envelope, sealed it with a strange green wax, and tossed it into the woodstove that heated Blue’s Doughnuts. The flames turned cobalt and rushed up the stovepipe with a violent sound, leaving nothing but ashes behind.
The sorcerous effect didn’t surprise Arthur at this point. The first letter had been bound as a scroll with locks of Arthur’s silver hair and placed in the center of a strange circle Vivianne drew at Lafont’s request. The scroll had folded in on itself several times at impossible angles before finally winking out of existence. The second letter had sailed onto the river in a small copper raft bearing only the pages and a lit candle. Arthur swore it wasn’t the current that dragged the raft under the water, but a thin, black tentacle that briefly surfaced for that purpose.
The letters came after a day filled with ritual. Lafont and Arthur told the story of their encounter with Dullahan to each other while wearing hats made from animal pelts, whispered Arthur’s wish to regain his youth to gold coins that they cast into fountains, and even went into the confessional booths to cajole a couple of confused priests into praying for Arthur’s condition. Arthur felt extraordinarily weary after it all. He attributed the ache in his bones and droop in his eyelids to his new oldness, which only served to further darken his mood.
“None of this is going to work,” he grumbled, watching Lafont walk over to the front window of the doughnut shop. “I’m just going to miss out on all of life and sit here old and helpless until I die. Probably tomorrow.”
“No, not tomorrow,” said Lafont, a look of grim satisfaction on his face. “Come here.”
“Come and see,” said the detective.
“Perhaps you’ve spotted a rabbi we can harass?” snarked Arthur as he hobbled across the room. “Or maybe a shaman is across the street selling stationery? Or maybe…” He trailed off as he reached the window. Overhead, black clouds were spiraling in a twisting cyclone, with the eye of the storm somewhere over Strawbery Banke. Crimson arcs of energy crackled and pulsed through the clouds, looking like blazing veins in the malignant darkness.
“Come on,” said Lafont, running for the door. Arthur hurried to follow him. They piled into Lafont’s old car and roared out onto Islington Street, heading toward the harbor and Strawbery Banke.
Arthur stared up at the black clouds circling above. “What is that?” he asked. “Did we do that?”
“No, we didn’t,” said Lafont, running a red light. “But there’s a reason that people like Dullahan are secretive, and there’s a reason they call them the forbidden maths. And if enough of the right…well, we can’t call them people, but if enough beings start hearing about some accountant practicing the forbidden arts, those are flags, right? Rumors start. Someone might notice.”
“And what then?” said Arthur, watching the black spiral intensify.
Lafont shrugged. “Let’s call it an audit.”
The explosion was a pillar of green fire, rising high over Portsmouth’s skyline. A glowing fireball erupted from what Arthur could only presume was the former office of Don Dullahan, CPA. A split second later, the lightning followed, but rather than striking down from the clouds it shot up from the middle of the explosion and through the center of the black cyclone. The spiraling clouds rumbled and crackled with more crimson lightning as the cyclone pulled itself tighter and tighter, winding into a ball of energy before disappearing in a flash of light. The sky was left full of dark clouds, and an unseasonal but otherwise unremarkable thunderstorm began.
“Whoa,” breathed Arthur, watching the sky where the cyclone had been. He felt a certain vitality returning to him, a vigor that had been acutely lacking since Dullahan’s attack. Excited, he looked at his hands, but they remained pale and withered, the appendages of a septuagenarian. “But…I’m still old.”
“Yeah,” said Lafont stoically.
“But…they did the audit!”
“Yeah,” agreed Lafont. “Look, I don’t know much about the powers that be, and I like it that way. But I’d bet frying a rogue math wizard was the easy part. How many years did he steal? From how many people? How do you give that time back to people like Nick Morgan? That sounds like a real headache, and any bureaucrat I know, in this dimension or another, would find a way to bury a case like that at the bottom of a file.”
“So…what? I’ll just stay like this?”
Arthur felt a rising panic. “But…that means I only have a few years left!”
“Oh, I doubt that,” posited Lafont. “I bet you won’t age a day until they get the accounting sorted out. You’re not really old. You’re just…not currently young.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Arthur.
“I’d never get anywhere if I stuck to what made sense,” said Lafont. “We’re here.”
They pulled up beside the former site of the offices of Don Dullahan, CPA, and the current site of a strange crater. The building that housed Dullahan’s office had been neatly excised from reality, leaving the buildings, sidewalks, and even shrubs around it largely untouched, save for a bit of ash scattered about. Already, police had surrounded the blast area with yellow tape, and bewildered firefighters stood awkwardly at the site of a very large, very hot explosion with no fire remaining to fight.
“Detective Martin,” said Lafont as he and Arthur walked toward the police line.
“Mr. Lafont,” said a young officer, giving Lafont a nod. “Glad you’re here. We’ve got a real mystery on our hands.”
“Oh?” said Lafont. “Seems pretty straightforward to me. Gas leak exploded.”
“What? No,” said the officer. “I’ve never heard of a gas leak that triggered a green explosion. And then there’s the storm with strange red lightning that struck right after the blast.”
“Yep,” said Lafont. “Gas leak. Classic case.”
“I’m telling you, it wasn’t,” insisted Detective Martin. “The house had electric heating, by our records. This street doesn’t even have a gas line! How could it possibly be a gas pipe explosion?”
“Maybe you’re right.” Lafont gave Arthur a knowing look. “Maybe it was some strange power that could summon an unnatural storm from the heavens and blast an entire building from existence for some little offense.”
Arthur saw where Lafont was going and took his lead. “Maybe you should investigate this strange phenomenon. I’m sure some people won’t mock you as a madman.”
“I’m sure you wouldn’t lose sleep at night, wondering if the power that could vaporize a house in moments is happy with the fact that you’re after it,” said Lafont.
“Wondering if you’ll be caught in the next blast of red lightning,” added Arthur.
“Or maybe it was a gas leak,” said Lafont.
The policeman considered this for a moment, and then with a wisdom Arthur envied he said, “Gas leak caused an explosion. Classic case. Thank you, Mr. Lafont.”
“Any time, Detective,” said Lafont. He handed the officer a small slip of blue paper. “Have a coupon. Two free doughnuts.”
“Thanks! Do you have Boston cream—hey!”
Lafont was already storming back to the Crown Victoria. “Come on, Arthur,” he snarled. “We’ve got unfinished business.”
Upon returning to Blue’s Doughnuts, Arthur and Lafont discovered that the day’s batch of pastries had been ransacked, but only a handful of change was left in the coffee can. “That’s people for you,” grumbled Lafont. “Come on. Let’s clean up.”
“Do I still work here at my age?” mused Arthur, mustering a halfhearted smile.
“Where else are you going to go with your resume?” chuckled Lafont.
Arthur gave a small laugh and started to pack up the register. “I take it you’re headed home? It’s after five.”
“No,” said Lafont. “I think you and I should hang out here tonight.”
“Call me Buford.”
Lafont thought about it. “No,” he decided. “Just call me Lafont.”
“Okay, Lafont. It’s been a really long day. A fifty-year day, in fact. I just want to go home and get some sleep.”
“Sleep in one of the armchairs,” said Lafont. “It’s warm over there by the woodstove. I don’t mind telling you that I’ve taken more than my share of naps there.”
“Arthur,” said Lafont, picking up the phone. “You need to trust me.”
“Are we in some sort of danger?”
Lafont shrugged. “Probably. I’d say more if I knew for sure. But as it is, we’ll find out.”
Arthur sighed and reluctantly turned back to the register.
Lafont dialed a number and tapped his foot impatiently as he waited. “Hello? Hello, Lillian…Yes, this is Detective Lafont…Yes. Look, unfortunately we found very strong evidence that Nick Morgan is deceased…Yes, I’m very sorry…No, I can’t prove it…No, we don’t know who or why…”
Arthur nodded to himself as he fetched the broom. It seemed best that Lillian not know the truth of Nick’s demise. Arthur wished he didn’t know it either.
“Yes, we’re ending our contract,” continued Lafont. “I just don’t think we’ll be able to tell you how or where he passed away…Right. No, we don’t need any more money. The deposit was enough…Right. And I’m very sorry again…Yeah, well, I think Arthur and I are going to be working here at the doughnut shop very late tonight…Yeah, a lot of cleaning up and such to do…Okay. Best of luck, and my condolences…Goodbye.”
“How did she take it?” asked Arthur.
“As expected,” said Lafont. “Hang on a moment.” The large man disappeared into the back room and returned a few moments later with a small, gray box.
“This is the Black Book of Om Noibous,” Lafont said, handing the box to Arthur and taking the broom in exchange. “I keep it on the top shelf above my desk. It’s an encyclopedia of secrets and magic and forbidden things, written by some mad monk from a few centuries ago. I was warned not to read it, but I was young and stupid and I liked the idea of learning the secrets of the universe. So I read part of it, and ever since strange things seem to follow me.
“It may be a bad idea for you to read this book. Or maybe it’s already too late for you to avoid the strange anyway, and reading this would help you be young again. I don’t know. But I’m gonna let you decide for yourself whether or not to read it. I owe you that much.”
Arthur looked at the plain gray box in his hands. “Thanks,” he said.
“Don’t mention it,” said Lafont. “Look, why don’t you go sit by the fire? I’ve got some stuff to get out of the car, and then I’ll tidy up the shop.”
It sounded like a good idea to Arthur. He hobbled to the easy chairs by the woodstove, threw a log into the fire, and settled down. For a moment, he thought about reading the black book in the gray box, but it seemed best not to decide yet, and weariness was catching up with him. He set the box on the table and settled back to watch the traffic pass, and sometime shortly thereafter he fell asleep.
It was well after dark when Arthur stirred again, roused by the tingling of the bell on the front door. Through a haze of half sleep he made out a familiar figure in a long coat. “Lillian?”
A gunshot roared from the back room, bringing the world into sudden focus. Lillian staggered, clutching her shoulder. Arthur leapt to his feet, which was a longer and more involved process than usual given his recent aging.
“What the hell?” shouted Arthur.
“Stop!” shrieked Lillian. “It’s me!”
“I know who you are!” bellowed Lafont, stepping out of the back room with the rune-covered Magnum in his hand. “And I know what you are, too.”
“Arthur, please help me!” said Lillian, falling back against a wall. “He’s clearly gone mad!”
“Don’t listen to her, Arthur,” said Lafont.
Arthur wanted to listen to her. He found that the stereotypical beautiful young woman calling out to him in distress had a distinct appeal, and it did seem that Lafont had gone insane. But the fat detective had seemed mad more than once since Arthur took the job, and while “trust” was perhaps too strong a word for his stance on Lafont, Arthur was learning not to disregard what the detective said. “What’s happening?” Arthur asked as he stepped beside Lafont.
“Lillian’s come to kill us,” said Lafont. “Isn’t that right, Li—”
Lillian cut him off with an inhuman hiss. She rushed forward with incredible speed, her long coat tearing as four black arachnoid limbs sprouted from her back. Lafont cursed and fired, but the creature that had been Lillian moments ago leapt to the ceiling and clung to it as a massive spider would. Six red eyes opened on the sides of her forehead, and all of them stared down at Lafont and Arthur with undisguised malice.
“What the hell is that?” shouted Arthur, backing away.
“A succubus,” said Lafont. “A demon that seduces unwary men.”
“They enjoy it well enough,” said Lillian, her voice warped and guttural.
“Right until you drain their life force—damn it!”
The succubus launched herself at the detective in one fluid movement, easily dodging another shot from Lafont’s Magnum. Demon and detective went down in a flailing ball of limbs and fangs. The Magnum slid across the floor, and Arthur scrambled to retrieve it. When Lillian reared for a vicious strike, Arthur took his shot. The silver bullet struck the succubus squarely in the chest, throwing her like a rag doll from Lafont and slamming her into the counter. She lay amid the broken glass, breathing heavily and oozing green blood onto the floor.
“Thanks, kid,” said Lafont as Arthur tried to help him to his feet.
“Don’t…ergh…mention it,” grunted Arthur.
“How…” gasped Lillian, struggling to breathe, “how did you know?”
“Nick Morgan was killed by Don Dullahan, a baleful accountant,” said Lafont. He finally heaved himself to his feet and stamped over to her. “But Vivianne told us that dark accountants like that usually don’t kill anyone quickly or directly, so they can stay hidden. I had to wonder why Dullahan would risk his cover to kill Mr. Morgan. And then I recalled Nick’s mysterious illness, the one that was making him thinner and weaker, when Dullahan’s art would have made him older instead. So I figured Nick was already dying when he went to see Dullahan.”
“Because Lillian was already killing him,” said Arthur.
“Right,” said Lafont. “I assumed Nick was the victim of some other wizard or monster, and Dullahan decided he could take whatever years the kid had left and let the original attacker take the fall.”
“Nicky was mine. Mine!” Lillian hissed through razor teeth. “But how did you know it was me?”
“I could see all the signs by the time I looked up succubi in Vivianne’s big book of deadly monsters,” said Lafont. “I realized that you didn’t just stumble on the one detective with a paranormal background in town; you came looking for me because you suspected something else had taken your prey. And then there’s the fact that you were way out of Nick’s league, and his receipts told us he was obsessed with you enough to commit tax fraud.”
“Mine…” hissed Lillian.
“Once I had my suspicion, I set a trap.” Lafont smiled proudly as he stroked his mustache. “If you were a normal person, I doubt you’d have insisted on paying for a job we didn’t finish, and I know you wouldn’t come by the doughnut shop after we closed without an ulterior motive.”
“Most people won’t even come before we close without an ulterior motive,” added Arthur.
“Maybe so,” grunted Lafont. “But I thought Lillian here would show up, especially with the way she’s been flirting with me—”
“Wait, what?” said Lillian.
“The way you were flirting with me,” said Lafont. “It’s clear I was to be your next victim—”
“Ew. Ew. No.” The idea seemed to pain Lillian more than the shards of glass puncturing her carapace. “Gods, no. You’re so old. And fat. And you smell like cheese.”
“Hey, with the way you spoke to me…” said Lafont, looking a little flustered.
“I was being polite!” said Lillian. Coughing up some green blood, she added, “God, men are pigs. This is why I don’t feel guilty about eating them.”
“But…you’re a succubus.”
“That doesn’t mean I don’t have standards,” Lillian snarled. “It’s not like I sleep with every guy I kill.”
“But…Arthur, back me up here,” said Lafont. “I mean, come on.”
Arthur shifted awkwardly. “It does seem like you’re being a little presumptuous,” he told Lafont with some reluctance. “I mean, just because a man-eating demon is nice to you doesn’t mean that she’s into you. You can’t just assume these things.”
“Thank you!” snapped Lillian. But her voice was weaker now, and her words came out as a rasp. “Gross.”
“All right, you’ve made your point,” said Lafont sullenly. “Back to the hell that spawned you and all that.”
“So…gross…” gasped Lillian one last time and then fell silent.
“Is that it?” asked Arthur.
“Almost,” said Lafont.
A moment later, Lillian’s body erupted in a violent, violet flame that consumed her with an inhuman wail. There was a blast of heat, a whiff of lavender, a rush of wind, and then she was gone, leaving nothing but a bit of soot staining the shattered counter.
“That’s it,” said Lafont.
“Now what?” asked Arthur.
“Now I’m going home to bed,” said Lafont. “You should do the same. We’ll get this mess cleaned up tomorrow. And then, hopefully, we’re all done with this strange stuff, and life gets back to normal.”
“Except I’m perpetually old but never aging.”
“Mostly normal.” Lafont gave an apologetic shrug. “Life goes on. All you can do is just try to keep up with it.”
“I suppose,” said Arthur. He looked around the room. “I think I’ll tidy up a bit and then sleep here tonight, if it’s all the same to you.”
“Sounds good,” said Lafont and bid Arthur good night.
Arthur watched the detective leave, then set about sweeping up the glass and ash as best he could. It was past midnight when he started and almost one in the morning when he settled down into the armchair closest to the woodstove. It was nice, sitting by the fire, letting the warmth seep into his bones. Compared to the brushes with death Arthur had experienced recently, a mostly normal existence didn’t sound so bad. He could understand why Lafont tried to cling to such a life.
“It’s just not for me,” said Arthur aloud, pulling the Black Book of Om Noibous from the gray box on the table beside him. With a deep breath, he opened the book and began to read.
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For my children, who support me in ways that they cannot understand, and for my wife, who supports me in ways that she understands very well. I love you all.
About the Author
J. Zachary Pike was once a basement-dwelling fantasy gamer, but over time he metamorphosed into a basement-dwelling fantasy writer. A New Englander by birth and by temperament, he writes strangely funny fiction on the seacoast of New Hampshire. Learn more at
The self-publishing community, both local and global, has given me the inspiration to take this step. A special thank you goes to , , and the rest of my writing group. Thank you as well to Josh Cole for your invaluable opinions. And thanks to all of my family for your love, support, and efforts.
Karin Rubenthaler at copyedited the story, and did a fantastic job. Thank you, Karin.
Cover artwork by J. Zachary Pike. Icon made by from is licensed under
When Arthur takes a job at a Blue's Doughnuts, he has no idea that his fat, obstinate boss Buford Lafont has a secret: in addition to running a failing bakery, Lafont moonlights as a private investigator and a reluctant expert on the paranormal phenomena that threaten humanity. Detective Lafont wants little to do with the darker side of his small New England town, but the spirits and powers that lurk in the shadows won't leave him alone. His first case with Arthur at his side starts out as a simple disappearance, but quickly draws them into the realm of occult mathematics and sinister rituals. It will take all of Lafont's skill and cunning if they're to survive the dark truth behind the victim's death and taxes.