In the midst of a torrential downpour, I arrived at the gate of (the name was illegible), the estate where my friend Donald Hardesty was embarking on the culmination of his life's work. I noted with growing apprehension that the wind sounded more like the bellow of some outraged beast than the energies of a fully natural storm, but at the time wrote off that impression as mere suggestability. After all, I knew full well what Donald was up to in that dark, faintly decayed old mansion: the first English translation of the Festa Magotta, a book that had been known to drive men to madness.
I, in fact, owned the very copy that Donald was using for his translation. I had purchased it from the family of Dr. Wolf von (again the name was illegible), following the elderly physician's death from madness-induced dysentery. Wolf had read the book, had in fact breathlessly telephoned me as he finished each chapter, until he reached the final one: that he finished it was generally assumed, but not known for certain, since he never spoke a coherent word again. The horror he beheld on those heavy pages remained locked within their random combination of words in Latin, French and other languages, including some that might not be languages at all.
Only one man, in fact, had ever read the cursed book cover to cover and lived to tell: Jean-Paul Lohardi, who had translated it into French and claimed to remember nothing about it. But that story had a different kind of unhappy ending.
I parked near the front door and braved the slicing wind. When I pounded the knocker, I heard from within the rapid barking of Donald's obnoxious little poodle. Except for that insipid canine and his prodigal daughter Kiska, who had also just arrived from America that very afternoon, Donald was alone in the grand old mansion that once belonged to the celebrated mystic Count Daughn.
After several moments of insistent knocking, the door opened and a tall, unmistakably American man greeted me. "Yeah?" he snarled.
"I am Sir Francis Colby, here by the invitation of Mr. Hardesty," I said.
"Yeah, well, the doc ain't receiving. Beat it."
He started to shut the door, but I braced it open; I suspect he was startled by the strength of such an apparently elderly gentleman. "I have known Mister Hardesty since we were at Oxford, and I am certain he would not want a friend sent away in this weather."
The large man reached inside his pinstriped coat, and instinctively I readied myself for a fight; but before he could withdraw the weapon, and thus before I had to reveal all my resources, another man stepped up behind him. "Take it easy, Joe," the new arrival said in a smooth, accentless voice. "Sir Francis is right, I'm sure Mr. Hardesty would like to see him."
I was instantly on my guard. These men were singularly out of place here, and I knew they were in fact no friends of Donald's. I exaggerated the limp from my war injury, the better to be underestimated, and entered the warm, dry house.
Count Daughn had been a wealthy dilettante, and the house was still filled with relics of his debauched life. Artworks once scandalous lined the walls, and objets d'art were in evidence everywhere. The enormous chandelier, allegedly filled with diamonds stolen during the Indian Mutiny, lit a scene I instantly understood, yet pretended not to comprehend.
Donald sat behind his paper-spattered desk, the enormous volume of the Festa Magotta in front of him. His eyes were filled with panic. The man called Joe moved to stand behind the desk, very close to Donald, as if to insure he remained within arm's reach.
On the luxurious couch sat Kiska, Donald's daughter. She was in her early twenties and bore the outward signs of her education in America: she wore her hair loose and brazenly displayed her decolletage in a way no proper Englishwoman would dream of doing. I noticed an even stranger detail: she kept her hands in her lap, covered by a shawl, and made no sign of recognition.
But my immediate attention was drawn to the smooth-voiced man who had pulled firmly upon Joe's metaphorical leash. He wore expensive traveling clothes and carried himself as one accustomed to being obeyed. Unlike Joe, I saw the glint of intelligence in his eyes, and something darker that I had often glimpsed in men of singular ambition.
"Sir Francis," he said, and extended his hand. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am John Slanicky of Chicago. This is my employee, Mr. Joseph Glack. We're friends of Mr. Hardesty."
I looked at Donald. "Is this correct?"
"Yes," he said too quickly, with a glance at his daughter. "They arrived with Kiska only this morning. It was quite a surprise."
"Indeed." I turned my attention to Mr. Slanicky. "And what brings you to this part of England?"
"Actually, the book on Mr. Hardesty's desk. The Festa Magotta." He walked past me to stub out his cigarette in a cherub-held ashtray. "You see, in my line--"
"And what would that be?" I enquired.
Slanicky looked at me with the gaze of one not accustomed to interruption. Coolly he answered, "I am in specialized distribution of items that, in the current political climate, are difficult to obtain in America."
"A bootlegger," I said.
He shrugged. "A businessman. However, I wish to expand my interests to include large-scale management of resources and personnel. I believe this book may help me achieve that goal."
"The Festa Magotta is a work of alchemical history," I said. "It is based on obsolete ideas of the workings of the universe. It is a curiosity, nothing more."
He smiled. "Sir Francis, my mother may have had her faults, but she was not in the habit of raising mentally deficient children. I know exactly what the Festa Magotta is, and its history. I intend to take advantage of it. And I intend for your friend to help. Otherwise--"
Joe had moved to stand beside Kiska, and at that moment he yanked the shawl away to reveal her wrists bound in prison manacles. It also proved that what I originally thought to be the typically outre American fashion was in fact her undergarments. She shoved against Joe indignantly, but he merely snorted and leered.
Slanicky struck a match and lit another cigarette. "You see, Sir Francis, as they say in my country . . . I'm holding all the cards."
I smiled. "Let us hope they are the cards noted in another American proverb: aces and eights."
"What's he mean by that, boss?" Joe asked.
Slanicky's smile did not waver. "He means a dead man's hand, Joe."
Alisa glanced over her shoulder, through the reading room's glass wall. The vile librarian was at her desk, upbraiding a young student for some infraction. The boy looked like he might cry.
As she turned back to Colby's narrative, her eye fell on the red square at the top corner of the Festa Magotta. The same emblem was found on every page, and a large version of it marked the cover. Known as the Bloody Sign, legend said it was actually drawn using human blood; the source of that blood varied among the sources. As always, the ink looked disturbingly fresh, as if the sign had been engraved mere days before, not centuries.
Alisa shivered. The library was always cold, but her deteriorating condition made her even more sensitive to it. She resumed reading.
"The task at hand is relatively simple," Slanicky continued. "I've read Mr. Hardesty's translation so far, everything up to the final chapter. It makes clear that the final chapter is where the real revelations are, secrets that allow the information from the rest of the book to be used . . . well, for whatever the reader wants to accomplish."
"Donald," I said, "how can you allow this--"
"I cannot," he said grimly. "I have resisted, and they were beginning to provide me with incentive by describing the tortures they had in mind for my daughter. But I cannot finish the translation." He grew even more serious. "I believe the stories, Frank. I believe that this final chapter will, in fact, drive any who turn its pages mad when they recall what they've read."
"Do you hear?" I said to Slanicky.
"You want I should show him, boss?" Joe said, and yanked Kiska to her feet.
"Daddy!" the girl cried.
Hardesty's eyes reflected his pain, and his resolve. "I am sorry, my daughter, but the secrets in this final chapter must stay hidden, even at the cost of my life . . . or yours."
Joe's massive hand closed around Kiska's throat. "Daddy, please!" she screamed. The big hoodlum shook her like a rag doll. "Daddy, he's killing me!"
"Stop it," I said with disgust. "Donald, this is all some trick. She is in 'cahoots' with them."
"'Cahoots'?" he repeated.
"It is obvious," I said as I whipped off my greatcoat. "She brought them here, intending to frighten you into revealing the book's secrets. How the devil do you think they even knew about it?"
Joe released Kiska. The girl rubbed her throat. "My God, you old bastard," she croaked at me, "he just tried to strangle me! How can you say that?"
"You, young lady, are most likely romantically involved with this Slanicky gentleman," I said. "You were not the least bit embarrassed by your state of undress, and I noticed the way Joe made sure not to seriously injure you."
Kiska turned to Donald. "Daddy, please, I--"
Suddenly Slanicky drew a pistol, aimed it at Kiska and shot her through the heart. The echo rang through the room, and the outrageous little poodle began to bark again. Slanicky also shot it. Donald jumped to his feet and stared at his daughter and pet, both lifeless on the floor.
"This old wiseacre was right," Slanicky said, and jerked his thumb at me. "But I have to tell you, Hardesty, your daughter was only slightly less annoying than that damned dog."
"Cute, though," Joe said without remorse.
"Cute doesn't purchase the services," Slanicky said, and aimed the gun at Donald. "Now, old man, sit down, open the book and finish the damned translation."
Donald, deathly pale, sat heavily. He opened the book slowly, picked up his pen and began to write. I turned to Slanicky. "You will never leave England alive," I said as I draped my coat over the dead girl. "You will do well to exit this house still sentient, if the stories of the book are true."
"Shut up, you," Joe said.
"Joe, please." Slanicky put away his gun. "You misunderstood my motives, Sir Francis. I seek only the removal of barriers that we are all aware do not work. People will always pursue their vices. It's a sign of cultural maturity to abandon hypocrisy and instead focus on providing the population with the diversions it seeks."
"Sacrilege," I growled. "Our baser nature is something to be overcome, not indulged."
He shrugged. "And that, in a nutshell, is the difference in our philosophies."
Suddenly Joe tapped Slanicky on the shoulder. "Hey, boss--the skirt's old man! Look!"
Donald sat staring at the manuscript before him, his hand still poised to write even though the pen had fallen from his fingers. As we watched, blood trickled from his nose, and tears gleamed in his eyes. He looked up at us as if he no longer knew us, then quietly closed his eyes and lay his head upon the book. By the time Slanicky and I reached him, he was dead.
"The book killed him," Joe said, aghast.
"Pipe down," Slanicky said. "Somehow the old geezer iced himself, that's all. But we got another geezer right here, and I bet he can read this stuff, too." He produced his revolver and pressed the end of the barrel against my temple. "Am I right?"
"If I read it," I said, "it may be the death of us all."
"If you don't, I guarantee it'll be the death of one of us," Slanicky said.
Resistance seemed futile at that moment, since they had proven their willingness to kill. And while I might have successfully overpowered one of them, the other would have plenty of time to make good on the threat.
And I admit, on another level I was dangerously intrigued. How could mere words, printed on a page, cause a man as hale and hearty as Donald Hardesty to literally drop dead? What secrets could be so great that minds would snap rather than recall them?
Joe roughly removed Donald's body and placed it beside his daughter. I took the seat, still warm from my friend's presence, and looked down at the page before me. The text alternated sentences in French, English, German and Latin. At the top of each page, a dark red patch displayed the imprint of the Bloody Sign. Something about this patch held my gaze, and I recalled what I knew of the history of this noxious volume. Jean-Paul Lohardi had translated it and survived, only to see the entire printing of his translation destroyed in a warehouse fire. His own life ended in a mysterious kiln explosion, both allegedly engineered by the Catholic Church. And to his dying day, he claimed to remember nothing of what he'd read.
I continued to gaze at the Bloody Sign. The ink seemed different from that used for the text. And I noticed something buried in the Sign itself, in the very texture of the brushstrokes. It was the word J'oublie--"I forget" in French.
Suddenly I knew how Lohardi had done it. I looked up at the two gangsters, determined to keep the triumph from my face. "Very well, but you have only yourselves to blame for your fates." With that, I licked my thumb, touched it to the Bloody Sign at the corner of the sheet and turned the page.
My head swam with the hallucinogenic effect of the chemicals in the J'oublie sign. The substance erased all short-term memory, and with it Lohardi had been able to translate the Festa Maggotta and forget it as he went. After all, to experience the madness, one had to remember what one had read; I had no clue.
I closed the book, and my vision rapidly cleared. Joe lay curled in a corner, whimpering, his left thumb in his mouth. Slanicky sat bolt upright on the couch, the cigarette still clutched in his fingers and burnt almost to his knuckles. But he didn't feel it, and never would, because his wide-open eyes were already glazed with the cold mist of death.
I left the house to its collection of bodies, and took the book with me. The Festa Maggotta must never be destroyed--the curse, if that should happen, would be far worse than madness--but it must also be kept safe and away from all eyes. I will include the transcription of these events as a warning to any future speculators who find themselves in possession of it.
Or it in possession of them.
Alisa sat back and sighed. The book had originally come from the Sir Francis Colbly collection held at the Red Palace Museum, so it made sense that this note from the famous spiritualist and adventurer would be here. But the story it told was clearly fiction, designed to add to the book's mystique. Alisa had been working on it for years now, and had suffered no ill effects.
Then the librarian's words came back to her.
She shuddered at the chill.