Our Lady of Darkness

Chapter 8

Cal said, "Franz, I've been thinking on and off all day, in the corner of my mind that wasn't Brandenburging, about that '607 Rhodes' that drew you to move here. Was it a definite place? And if so, where?" "607 Rhodes - what's that all about?" Saul asked. Franz explained again about the rice-paper journal and the violet-ink person who might have been Clark Ashton Smith and his possible interviews with de Castries. Then he said, "The 607 can't be a street address - like 811 Geary here, say. There's no such street as Rhodes in 'Frisco. I've checked. The nearest to it is a Rhode Island Street, but that's way over in the Potrero, and it's clear from the entries that the 607 place is here downtown, within easy walking distance of Union Square. And once the journal-keeper describes looking out the window at Corona Heights and Mount Sutro - of course, there wasn't any TV tower then - " "Hell, in 1928 there weren't even the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges," Gun put in. " - and at Twin Peaks," Franz went on. "And then he says that Thibaut always referred to Twin Peaks as Cleopatra's Breasts." "I wonder if skyscrapers ever have breasts," Saul said. "I must ask Mrs. Willis about that." Dorotea bugged her eyes again, indicated her bosom, said, "Oh, no!" and once more burst into laughter. Cal said, "Maybe Rhodes is the name of a building or hotel. You know, the Rhodes Building." "Not unless the name's been changed since 1928," Franz told her. "There's nothing like that now that I've heard of. The name Rhodes strike a bell with any of you?" It didn't. Gun speculated, "I wonder if this building ever had a name, the poor old raddled dear." "You know," Cal said, "I'd like to know that too." Dorotea shook her head. "Is just 811 Geary. Was once hotel maybe - you know, night clerk and maids. But I don't know." "Buildings Anonymous," Saul remarked without looking up from the reefer he was making. "Now we do close transom," said Dorotea, suiting actions to words. "Okay smoke pot. But do not - how you say? - advertise." Heads nodded wisely. After a bit they all decided that they were hungry and should eat together at the German Cook's around the corner because it was his night for sauerbraten. Dorotea was persuaded to join them. On the way she picked up her daughter Bonita and the taciturn Fernando, who now beamed. Walking together behind the others, Cal asked Franz, "Taffy is something more serious than you're making out, isn't it?" He had to agree, though he was becoming curiously uncertain of some of the things that had happened today - the usual not-unpleasant evening fog settling around his mind like a ghost of the old alcoholic one. High in the sky, the lopsided circle of the gibbous moon challenged the street lights. He said, "When I thought I saw that thing in my window, I strained for all sorts of explanations, to avoid having to accept a... well, supernatural one. I even thought it might have been you in your old bathrobe." "Well, it could have been me, except it wasn't," she said calmly. "I've still got your key, you know. Gun gave it to me that day your big package was coming and Dorotea was out. I'll give it to you after dinner." "No hurry," he said. "I wish we could figure out that 607 Rhodes," she said, "and the name of our own building, if it ever had one." "I'll try to think of a way," he said. "Cal, did your father actually swear by Robert Ingersoll?" "Oh, yes -'In the name of...' and so on - and by William James, too, and Felix Adler, the man who founded Ethical Culture. His rather atheistic coreligionists thought it odd of him, but he liked the ring of sacerdotal language. He thought of science as a sacrament." Inside the friendly little restaurant, Gun and Saul were shoving two tables together with the smiling approval of blonde and red-cheeked Rose, the waitress. The way they ended up, Saul sat between Dorotea and Bonita with Gun on Bonita's other side. Bonita had her mother's black hair, but was already a half-head taller and otherwise looked quite Anglo - the narrow-bodied and -faced North European type; nor was there any trace of Spanish in her American schoolgirl voice. He recalled hearing that her divorced and now nameless father had been black Irish. Though pleasingly slim in sweater and slacks, she looked somewhat gawky - very far from the shadowy, hurrying shape that had briefly excited him this morning and awakened an unpleasant memory. He sat beside Gun with Cal between himself and Fernando, who was next to his sister. Rose took their orders. Gun switched to a dark beer. Saul ordered a bottle of red wine for himself and the Luques. The sauerbraten was delicious, the potato pancakes with applesauce out of this world. Bela, the gleaming-faced German Cook (Hungarian, actually) had outdone himself. In a lull in the conversation, Gun said to Franz, "That was really a very strange thing that happened to you on Corona Heights. As near as you can get today to what you'd call the supernatural." Saul heard and said at once, "Hey, what's a materialist scientist like you doing talking about the supernatural?" "Come off it, Saul," Gun answered with a chuckle. "I deal with matter, sure. But what is that? Invisible particles, waves, and force fields. Nothing solid at all. Don't teach your grandmother to suck eggs." "You're right," Saul grinned, sucking his. "There's no reality but the individual's immediate sensations, his awareness. All else is inference. Even the individuals are inference." Cal said, "I think the only reality is number... and music, which comes to the same thing. They are both real and they both have power." "My computers agree with you, all the way down the line," Gun told her. "Number is all they know. Music? - well, they could learn that." Franz said, "I'm glad to hear you all talk that way. You see, supernatural horror is my bread and butter, both that Weird Underground trash - " Bonita protested, "No!" " - and the more serious junk, but sometimes people tell me there's no such thing as supernatural horror anymore - that science has solved, or can solve, all mysteries, that religion is just another name for social service, and that modern people are too sophisticated and knowledgeable to be scared of ghosts even for kicks." "Don't make me laugh," Gun said. "Science has only increased the area of the unknown. And if there is a god, her name is Mystery." Saul said, "Refer those brave erudite skeptics to my Mr. Edwards or Mrs. Willis, or simply to their own inevitable buried fears. Or refer 'em to me, and I'll tell 'em the story of the Invisible Nurse who terrorized the locked ward at St. Luke's. And then there was..." He hesitated, glancing toward Cal. "No, that's too long a story to tell now." Bonita looked disappointed. Her mother said eagerly, "But are e-strange things. In Lima. This city too. Brujas - how you say? - witches!" She shuddered happily. Her brother beamed his understanding and lifted a hand to preface one of his rare remarks. "Hay hechiceria," he said vehemently, with a great air of making himself clear, " Hechiceria ocultado en murallas." He crouched a little, looking up. "Murallas muy altas." Everyone nodded pleasantly as if they understood. Franz asked Cal in a low voice, "What's that hechi?" She whispered, "Witchcraft, I think. Witchcraft hidden in the walls. Very high walls." She shrugged. Franz murmured, "Where in the walls, I wonder? Like Mr. Edwards's pain-ray projector?" Gun said, "There's one thing, though, Franz, I do wonder about - whether you really identified your own window correctly from Corona. You said the roofs were like a sea on edge . It reminds me of difficulties I've run into in identifying localities in photographs of stars, or pictures of the earth taken from satellites. The sort of trouble every amateur astronomer runs into - the pros, too. So many times you come across two or more localities that are almost identical." "I've thought of that myself," Franz said. "I'll check it out." Leaning back, Saul said, "Say, here's a good idea, let's all of us some day soon go for a picnic to Corona Heights. You and I, Gun, could bring our ladies - they'd like it. How does that grab you, Bonny?" "Oh, yes," Bonita replied eagerly. On that note they broke up. Dorotea said, "We thank you for the wine. But remember, double-lock doors and close transoms when go out." Cal said, "Now with any luck I'll sleep twelve hours. Franz, I'll give you your key some other time." Saul glanced at her. Franz smiled and asked Fernando if he cared to play chess later that evening. The Peruvian smiled agreeably. Bela Szlawik, sweating from his labors, himself made change as they paid their checks, while Rose fluttered about and held the door for them. As they collected on the sidewalk outside, Saul looked toward Franz and Cal and said, "How about drifting back with Gun to my room before you play chess? I'd sort of like to tell you that story." Franz nodded. Cal said, "Not me. Straight off to bed." Saul nodded that he understood her. Bonita had heard. "You're going to tell him the story of the Invisible Nurse," she said accusingly. "I want to hear that, too." "No, it is time for bed," her mother asserted, not too commandingly or confidently. "See, Cal goes bed." "I don't care," Bonita said, pushing up against Saul closely, invading his space. "Please? Please?" she coaxed insistently. Saul grabbed her suddenly, hugged her tight, and blew down her neck with a great raspberry sound. She squealed loudly and happily. Franz, glancing almost automatically toward Gun, saw him start to wince, then control it, but his lips were thin. Dorotea smiled almost as happily as if it were her own neck being blown down. Fernando frowned slightly and held himself with a somewhat military dignity. As suddenly Saul held the girl away from him and said to her matter-of-factly, "Now look here, Bonny, this is another story I want to tell Franz - a very dull one of interest only to writers. There is no Story of the Invisible Nurse. I just made that up because I needed something to illustrate my point." "I don't believe you," Bonita said, looking him straight in the eye. "Okay, you're right," he said abruptly, dropping his hands away from her and standing back. "There is a Story of the Invisible Nurse Who Terrorized the Locked Ward at St. Luke's, and the reason I didn't tell it was not that it's too long - it's quite short - but simply too horrible. But now you've brought it down upon yourself and all these other good people. So gather round, all of you." As he stood in the dark street with the light of the gibbous moon shining on his flashing eyes, sallow face, and elf-locked, long dark hair, he looked very much like a gypsy, Franz thought. "Her name was Wortly," Saul began, dropping his voice. "Olga Wortly, R.N. - (Registered Nurse). That's not her real name - this became a police case and they're still looking for her - but it has the flavor of the real one. Well, Olga Wortly, R.N., was in charge of the swing shift (the four to midnight) in the locked ward at St. Luke's. And there was no terror then. In fact, she ran what was in a way the happiest and certainly the quietest swing shift ever, because she was very generous with her sleeping potions, so that the graveyard shift never had any trouble with wakeful patients and the day shift sometimes had difficulty getting some of them waked up for lunch, let alone breakfast. "She didn't trust her L.V.N. (Licensed Vocational Nurse) to dispense her goodies. And she favored mixtures, whenever she could shade or stretch the doctor's orders to allow them, because she thought two drugs were always surer than one - Librium with the Thorazine (she doted on Tuinal because it's two barbiturates: red Seconal with blue Arnytal), chloral hydrate with the phenobarbital, paraldehyde with the yellow Nembutal - in fact, you could always tell when she was coming (our fairy snooze mother, our dark goddess of slumber) because the paralyzing stench of the paraldehyde always preceded her; she always managed to have at least one patient on paraldehyde. It's a superaromatic superalcohol, you know, that tickles the top of your sinuses, and it smells like God-knows-what - super banana oil; some nurses call it gasoline - and you give it with fruit juice for a chaser and you dispense it in a glass shot-glass because it'll melt a plastic one, and its molecules travel through the air ahead of it faster than light!" Saul had his audience well in hand, Franz noted. Dorotea was listening with as rapt delight as Bonita; Cal and Gun were smiling indulgently; even Fernando had caught the spirit and was grinning at the long drug names. For the moment the sidewalk in front of the German Cook's was a moonlit gypsy encampment, lacking only the dancing flames of an open fire. "Every night, two hours after supper, Olga would make her druggy-wug rounds. Sometimes she'd have the L.V.N. or an aide carry the tray, sometimes she'd carry it herself. " 'Sleepy-bye time, Mrs. Binks,' she'd say. 'Here's your pass to dreamland. That's a good little girl. And now this lovely yellow one. Good evening, Miss Cheeseley, I've got your trip to Hawaii for you - blue for the deep blue ocean, red for the sunset skies. And now a sip of the bitter to wash it down - think of the dark salt waves. Hold out your tongue, Mr. Finelli, I've something to make you wise. Whoever'd think, Mr. Wong, they could put nine hours and maybe ten of good, good darkness into such a tiny time-capsule, a gelatin spaceship bound for the stars. You smelled us coming, didn't you, Mr. Auerbach? Grape juice chaser tonight!' And so on and so on. "And so Olga Wortly, R.N., our mistress of oblivion, our queen of dreams, kept the locked ward happy," Saul continued, "and even won high praise - for everyone likes a quiet ward - until one night she went just a little too far and the next morning every last patient had O.D.'ed (overdosed) and was D.O.A. (that's Dead on Arrival, Bonny) with a beatific smile on his or her face. And Olga Wortly was gone, never to be seen again. "Somehow they managed to hush it up - I think they blamed it on an epidemic of galloping hepatitis or malignant eczema - and they're still looking for Olga Wortly. "That's about all there is to it," he said with a shrug, relaxing, "except" - he held up a finger dramatically, and his voice went low and eerie - "except they say that on nights when there's a lot of moonlight, just like this now, and it's sleepy-bye time, and the L.V.N. is about to start out with her tray of night medicines in their cute little paper favor cups, you get a whiff of paraldehyde at the nurses' station (although they never use that drug there now) and it travels from room to room and from bed to bed, not missing one, that unmistakable whiff does - the Invisible Nurse making her rounds!" And with more or less appropriate oohs, ahs, and chuckles, they set out for home in a body. Bonita seemed satisfied. Dorotea said extravagantly, "Oh, I am frightened! When I wake up tonight, I think nurse coming I can't see make me swallow that parry-alley stuff." "Par-al-de-hyde," Fernando said slowly, but with surprising accuracy.

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