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  Table of contents Issue Twenty-six MUSHIKAGO



hough it was September, a hellish heat still held the city of London in its remorseless grip. Its claws reached from the docks of Limehouse to the parched trees of Epping Forest. Horses panted with effort as they drew carriages through the serpentine lane below Archibald Glass' townhouse. A humid haze from off the Thames hung low over the streets, blurring brick, iron, and stone into one great, amorphous mass.

Glass looked out from one of the oriel windows of his second-floor study at the park opposite. Between the cypresses, a group of children playing tug-of-war was just barely visible. The rope jerked back and forth with their efforts, sawing the afternoon air, and their dim cries floated up to him.

"A fitting symbol for life, that. Straining every muscle, but never getting anywhere." He turned to his guest. "At least, it describes your life rather aptly. Wouldn't you agree?"

The man whom he addressed, a lanky, bronze-haired fellow in an ill-fitting secondhand suit, tugged nervously at his handlebar mustache. "I suppose you could say so, yes."

Both men glanced at the morning edition of the Telegraph, which Glass had left conspicuously unfolded atop the haphazard pile of papers on his writing-desk. Roughly a quarter of the page was occupied by the headline "TRADING SHIP SCYLLA LOST OFF MALACCA; ALL HANDS REPORTED DROWNED"; beneath it, an imaginatively vivid artist's rendering showed the doomed vessel foundering on the rocks as tiny figures leapt for their lives into the churning waters of the strait. As the man with the mustache studied the illustration, his hands began to shake.

"You knew the captain, I understand, Bellington?" Glass' voice emerged from his barrel chest in a rumble, like the echo of a far-off rockslide.

"...Yes. He was a fine man. We were bunkmates on a cruise to the Sandwich Islands, back in the day."

"How dreadful this must be for you, then. Personally, as well as financially." There was an added emphasis, slight but unmissable, on the last word.

"I'm ruined," Peter Bellington whispered. "I sank every pound I had into that ship."

"I take it, then, that your outstanding debts to me have no hope of repayment in the foreseeable future?"

Bellington made no answer. His spine seemed to soften into jelly, and his head wilted, bit by bit, until his empty gaze fell on his lap.

"Oh, come, come, that won't do. What kind of a man are you? Where's the mettle that saw you through three voyages 'round the world?" Glass laid a hand on his prized 17th-century globe, with the continents inlaid in Florentine pietre dure, and gave it a half-spin with one flick of his powerful wrist. "At least take some brandy. Curlew!"

In answer to his bark, Glass' manservant slipped in, silent as a cat. With a few quick, lithe movements, he poured a snifter of brandy, set glass and bottle on the sideboard, and was gone again into the afternoon shadows.

Bellington took up the snifter hesitantly and downed its contents. When he looked up, his chestnut-brown eyes were shot through with an uncanny mix of despair and alcohol-induced fury. "So what will you do to me, then, sir? Debtors' prison is a bit out of fashion, I think. Perhaps play the Shylock and exact a pound of my flesh?"

"Human flesh," Glass answered coolly, "has little value in English markets. And in any event, I can well afford to absorb your debt. Indeed, I'm quite happy to do so...should you be willing to accommodate me in one small matter."

Hope flickered across Bellington's sagging face, then was pushed aside by suspicion. "How do you mean?"

"That splendid Japanese incense-burner of yours. The Iwanaga Mitsunori. It would make a fine addition to my collection. Deliver it to me by this evening, and I'll tear up your promissory notes before your very eyes."

A moment passed as the demand sunk in. Then Bellington's lips contorted in dismay, and he gripped the arms of his chair tightly, small patches of white showing through his tanned knuckles. "That...that was a gift for my daughter."

"Yes. And your daughter is now quite dead, which means she's unlikely to miss it."

"I brought it for her - all the way around...around the world..." Spasms in his throat broke up his words.

Glass snorted and returned to the window. "Let's not be coy, Bellington. You'll have to sell it sooner or later anyhow. Here it will be safe and well-cared for. Why make such a shameful fuss?"

For a moment, both men were silent. Into the stillness crept a muffled cacophony of clockwork, as hundreds of mechanical devices ticked away in cabinets, on shelves, and behind paneling - fruits reaped over the course of twenty years' constant collecting. The sun, on its slow swing to the west, threw gaudy light on a wall decorated with sky-blue tiles covered in golden Arabic calligraphy.

"This is damned cruel of you," said Bellington at last.

"Cruelty is the charge men level when they know they've been outplayed. Accept your defeat, my good fellow, and move on. Perhaps you'll get your own back...in time." Glass chuckled and gave an affable shrug of his broad shoulders.

"I'll bring it by at seven," the other man replied dully. Suddenly he seized the snifter of brandy, poured another glassful, and bolted it down, amber liquid dribbling down his shirtfront. "What will I tell Elaine?"

"Why tell her anything? Your property is yours to dispose of as you see fit." Glass shook his head. "I tell you, man, marriage is the only shackle men don of their own free will."

Bellington staggered to his feet. Glass rang a bell, and Curlew materialized again, proffering his guest's hat and coat.

"I hope it brings you much joy, Mr. Glass," the bronze-haired man spat. "As much joy as it ever brought my daughter!" He turned his tear-streaked face away and fled the room.

"What a distastefully demonstrative fellow," murmured Archibald Glass, wiping spilled brandy from his morocco-bound edition of Tristram Shandy.


As the clock struck seven, thunder rumbled to the East, over the Channel. Glass gave a heavy sigh, for he knew what the thunder meant: soon one of those fierce storms that were a special product of this turbulent time of year would sweep over London, smothering the day's heat with torrents of rainfall. Why must the heavens always be so chaotic? They should be regulated precisely, like the workings of a watch. When Glass met the Maker, he fully intended to offer extensive suggestions for improvements to the celestial mechanisms - and perhaps a few sly reproofs regarding His ineptitude, if the opportunity presented itself.

Still, it was impossible to be too angry about the matter. His belly was exquisitely stuffed with Peking duck and truffles; the taste of 1797 port lingered on his lips and thrilled his tongue whenever it brushed them; and besides, he would soon come into possession of a pearl of great price.

As he waited, he absentmindedly shuffled papers to and fro on the desk. His eye fell again on the illustration of the foundering Scylla. It was a horrible accident, to be sure. Perhaps he ought to have conveyed to Bellington the gossip he had heard about the helmsman's drunkenness at the time they struck their deal. Bellington might then have reconsidered. But why stoop to such idle talk? If Glass was known for any quality, it was discretion. And in this case, his discretion had paid off handsomely - for he would have forgiven a dozen such loans in exchange for the incense-burner.

The sound of thick, heavy raindrops filled the room. He went to the window. The park was empty now, save for a few foolhardy souls who had extended their Saturday merriment a few minutes too long and were now dashing along the paths with umbrellas or newspapers over their heads. A terrific flash of lightning on the horizon illuminated their faces for the briefest of moments, enough to show their discomfort and confusion. Glass thought of Lucretius' wise man looking down unmoved on the foibles of unenlightened humankind, and smiled in deep self-satisfaction.

A hansom cab pulled up at his front door below, and a hatless, mackintosh-clad figure leapt out, barely maintaining its balance on the rain-slick cobblestones. In the figure's arms was a tightly wrapped bundle. At last, he thought, and licked his lips as he waited for the inevitable pounding on the door.

Curlew gave a polite cough to announce his otherwise unheard entrance. "Mr. Bellington to see you, sir."

"Show him in at once."

Bellington shouldered his way past the valet. His mustache drooped, and the rain had reduced his hair to a flat, heavy swirl atop his scalp. There was a listlessness to his movements that gave Glass a sudden and distinctly unpleasant impression of an ambulatory cadaver, not helped by the sunken, wheezing breaths the man was taking.

"Think I've caught a chill," he said, or rather croaked.

"Makes you long for that old sea air, eh?" Glass laced his words with a feigned cheeriness, but his gaze was fixed upon the bundle with the intensity of a falcon that spies a field mouse amidst the grass.

Bellington lifted his burden slowly, as if it might fall to pieces at any moment. Glass bit his lip, fighting back the swell of impatience. At last, it was within his grasp. He reached out, ready to snatch it away.

"My wife's turned me out, you know," came the quiet, matter-of-fact utterance, and Glass' fingers froze as if he'd received an electric shock. "She wants nothing to do with me. Says I'm desecrating Anne's sainted memory. Not sure she's wrong; come to that."

"Your wife was always prone to melodrama, I recall, even by feminine standards."

"Don't do this." Bellington's gaze caught him, held him fast. "Be merciful. I beg of you."

There was an urgency in the man's voice that could not be dismissed, much as Glass would have wished to. His vest suddenly felt exceptionally tight around his ribs. As Bellington continued to stare at him, never blinking, a trickle of sweat at the back of his neck made itself felt. He became aware of Curlew, who stood just outside the door, the newly arrived evening paper underneath his arm. At first glance, the valet was as placid and blank-faced as ever, but on closer inspection, there seemed to be a wry little twist to his lips, as if he found the whole spectacle...amusing?

Annoyance swelled in him, breaking the momentary trance. What an intolerable disgrace - to appear weak in the eyes of his own servants! When he spoke again, his voice was as cold as the waters of the North Sea. "We have a deal, Bellington, and I know that you're a man of your word. I suggest you weigh your wife's temporary flight of displeasure against the prospect of permanent financial ruin and then make the prudent choice."

The other man paused a moment, then thrust the bundle viciously into his hands. "You'll destroy the promissory notes?" he spat.

"The kitchen maid is stoking a fire as we speak. They'll make for splendid kindling."

"Very gracious of you, I'm sure." The momentary flash of rage that had animated Bellington sputtered out, and he sank back into himself once more. "So your victory is complete, then."

"It would seem so. But surely you know there's no shame in being bested by your better."

"And what would you know of shame, Mr. Glass?"

"Very little. It's one of the few subjects concerning which I find it advantageous to remain ignorant. A very good evening to you, Bellington."

The moment he was gone, Glass sent Curlew off for a knife. He cut away the layers of cloth and twine with as much haste as he dared permit himself, grinning broadly in the lamplight. The loudening peals of thunder scarcely penetrated his consciousness, even as they shook the windows in their panes.

At last the glint of metal appeared within the cloth. Fingers trembling, he unwrapped the last of the packaging and set his prize, with the utmost care, atop the desk.

It was a truly exquisite work of art, such as only a master craftsman like Iwanaga Mitsunori could have produced: an incense-burner that precisely mimicked the shape of an insect cage, or mushikago, as the Japanese called it. Slender silver bars enclosed perfectly formed crickets, cicadas, and stag beetles made of gold; the fine filigree of the cicadas' wings was almost invisible in the dimness, detectable only by the fractured, wavering shadows that the lamplight threw against the desk. A small mock sliding door had been built into one of the long sides of the oval, to allow the "insects" passage. Glass fingered it gently, and found, as he had suspected, that it could not be opened. A pity - he had a sudden, intense longing to caress the golden insects with his fingertip.

The base of the burner was shakudo, that peculiarly Japanese copper-gold alloy that shone a soft blue when light struck it. All around it ran painted chrysanthemums and lilies, in a recurring pattern like a musical leitmotif. The symmetry of it delighted him. Such order; such precision. Not a wasted inch of space. A legend was bruited about in Hokkaido that Iwanaga's career had begun when he made a bargain with dark spirits dwelling in caves beneath the earth, promising them the souls of his family in exchange for talent beyond any other man, living or dead. Now, as Glass turned the burner around and around in his hands, he could almost believe the story to be true.

His probing fingers brushed against a jagged, irregular outline that broke up the otherwise perfect smoothness of the underside. Puzzled, he lifted the burner high. The letters A-N-N-E had been incised on the bottom with a penknife, the unsteady hand no doubt that of a child. His face darkened. That wretched little vandal. So unfit to possess such beauty. There was no telling how long it would take to sand the damage away. Well, Curlew could surely handle it. Still...such an insult. One might as well fling a pot of paint on the Madonna of the Rocks.

"Welcome, my beauties," he whispered to the tiny insects, frozen in precious metal. "I hope you find your new home far more congenial than the old."

With reluctance, he set the burner down at last, poured himself a nightcap, and settled into his armchair to peruse the evening paper. The storm had entirely stripped the sky of both moon and stars, and the gaslamp's light was barely enough to read by; his tired eyes drifted shut, blurring tales of skirmishes in the Punjab and tables of stock prices into one confused alphanumeric jumble. The room alternated between the deafening noise of thunder and a near-total silence. A thought half-formed in his sleep-fogged brain: the usual ticking of his various clocks and automata was nowhere to be heard. Even the great grandfather clock whose shadow split the room in two passed the quarter-hour without a single chime. But he was by now half-sunk in dream, and accepted the anomaly with the equanimity the mind grants to all dream-oddities.

Bit by bit, the gas-flame sank, its hot blue turning to yellow, then a weak, desperate orange. Its last force was abruptly spent, and the sleeping man in the chair was left in pitch-blackness.

From the desk came a tiny buzzing noise. It was barely audible, yet it pierced the heavy veil of slumber around Glass and struck him awake as if someone had applied a goad directly to his brain. He started from his chair, and the sweep of his hand sent both his glass and the paper to the floor.

"What in the world?"

Bit by bit, the noise rose in volume. A curious rasp blended into it, as if someone were shaving off slices of metal with a file. Listening, he felt a pain in his eardrums out of all proportion to the sound's magnitude. He winced and staggered to his feet, trying to find his way through the darkness to his desk. It was slow going - though he knew the room like the back of his hand by daylight, its dimensions seemed now to have been altered in some fashion that defied logic, so that things were both closer and farther away than they should have been. More than once he struck protruding shelves with elbow or knee and gasped in pain.

"Curlew! Bring a light, man! I can't see a damned thing!"

No answer. That was the oddest thing of all; Curlew had ears so keen a cat would envy them, and in his ten years of service he had never failed to heed his master's summons, no matter the hour. Cold sweat began to moisten Glass' brow.

He increased his pace, and instantly regretted it. Something heavy and metallic - an andiron, perhaps? - greeted his unwary shin, and with a grunt of pain, he was on all fours, his hands digging into the weave of a Persian rug.

"CURLEW!" His bellow was as loud as human lungs could manage when it left his lips, yet as it entered the heavy, choking pall of darkness it faded swiftly to the barest whisper. Glass moaned in despair. His heart was now pounding so quickly that his chest could barely contain it. He gulped in shallow breaths, then coughed as an acrid taste, like wood smoke, pricked his throat.

The rasping noise multiplied. It came at him from left and right; from above; from behind; even from below, making the floorboards vibrate beneath his palms. Other noises joined it, one after the other: chirps and hums, clicks and whirrs. A hellish symphony encircled Glass. A warm liquid trickled down his temples, and he dimly realized that his ears must be bleeding.

Abruptly the darkness was broken by a soft light. Mouthing a prayer of thanksgiving, he looked up at it. The glow rose from the top of his desk, gentle and warm, like a beacon for a drowning man — the incense burner. Somehow, without the intervention of any human hand, it had lit itself and was driving away that dreadful curtain of nothingness. A miracle! On hands and knees, infant-fashion, Glass groped forward.

He stopped as he noticed that the glow was spreading. Long cords of luminescence reached out from the incense burner, down the legs of the desk, and onto the floor, flickering and flashing. The whole of it gave the impression of some immense, phosphorescent octopus or squid, hefting itself with slow majesty out of its tank into full view.

As his eyes adjusted, the great mass resolved itself into a near-infinity of smaller particles, all moving in coordination. What was more, one of the particle-columns was heading directly toward his prone form. His brain sent a command to his right hand to jerk itself out of their path, but the muscles refused to obey. The tip of the stream scaled the back of his hand, and he felt a tickling sensation.

Then everything was agony. Red-hot pain radiated through his flesh, and he howled.

The tiny creature responsible for his suffering withdrew its mandibles from his skin. Through eyes stinging with salt tears, he recognized the curving horn that gives the rhinoceros beetle its name. But instead of the black and green carapace that true beetles wore, this monstrosity was made entirely of gold leaf, lit from within with an inexplicable, pulsating fire. It lifted its head towards him, and though no eyes were visible, he instinctively knew that it was regarding him with a look of pure, unalloyed malice.

With a whir of filigreed wings, the creature behind it lifted into the air. He had just enough time to identify it as a wasp before it darted toward him and drove its stinger into his cheek. Screaming, he slapped blindly at it and struck home. The ductile metal crumpled beneath his blow and floated lazily to the rug.

This small victory gave him a wild, irrational burst of hope. He thrust himself to his feet and lunged for the fireplace, snatched up the poker that leaned against the brick. Again and again, he beat at the encroaching streams around his feet, swinging wildly whenever a swarm rose to attack his face. A Ming vase shattered; he ignored it. His 1645 Augsburg apothecary cabinet absorbed a blow that sent splinters of ebony into the air. Sometimes he managed to make contact with his foes, but it made little difference - their numbers were, to all appearances, limitless.

The only option was retreat. Hurriedly he backed toward the door at the far end of the room, never once taking his eyes off the attacking horde.

There was a knife-sharp pain in his heel. Immediately following came a numbness, first in his toes, then his ankle, swiftly working its way up his leg, rendering the muscles rigid as marble, entirely immobile. He looked down at his shoe. A tiny, brilliant scorpion eased itself out of the gap between his ankle and the shoe leather, raised a pincer as if in mocking salute, and joined its brethren.

The rigidity had now claimed the entire lower half of his body. Patient as mountaineers, the golden messengers of death ascended his trouser legs. His hands were too flaccid to grip the poker any longer, and it fell noiselessly. Even to scream demanded more strength than he now possessed: all his lips could form was a feeble, unvoiced plea for mercy before they were covered by the swarm.


"Was your employer prone to hallucinations, Mr. Curlew?" While Inspector Wilkins waited for an answer, he cast a swift glance over his shoulder at his two constables, who were gawking at the corpse over which they stood. "Oi! Why don't you two tend to your duties? This isn't a bleeding show at the Alhambra!"

"Sorry, Guv'nor," said the taller of the two as his face flushed red. "Just...just a strange sight, is all."

"It is that," the Inspector muttered.

The valet calmly replied, "No, sir. To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Glass was of entirely sound mind up until the moment of his untimely demise."

"I see. And you heard nothing?"

"Upon my good name, sir, not a sound."

The Inspector pointed to the remnants of a smashed Chinese vase. "How d'you suppose you didn't hear that?"

"I honestly don't know. Perhaps I had dozed off...but I'm a light sleeper. Surely it would have awakened me." The valet scratched his chin. "If only I had known Mr. Glass was in distress. But he never once called out for me!"

"Hmm. The question is, what kind of distress? His skin is unbroken - no wounds, no punctures. As far as I can see, he just had some sort of - vision? Nightmare? - that terrified him until his heart gave out."

"You don't believe foul play was involved, then?"

"Nothing to suggest it..." A thought flashed in Wilkins' eyes, and his mouth curled into a cunning grin. "Unless we can find some trace of poison. Smyth! Collect every glass and bottle in this room!"

The constable left the room with an armful of tumblers and snifters. He took care to avoid the outstretched legs of the late Archibald Glass, who lay on his back, ramrod-stiff. Vacant, bloodshot eyes stared upwards at nothing; purple lips and yellowed teeth framed a horribly protruding tongue.

"Is there a will?" As he posed the question, the Inspector studied Curlew's face carefully.

"Yes, sir. Mr. Glass had no living relatives, so he left half his estate to the Crown, one-quarter to the British Museum - he was a frequent patron, you know - and the remaining quarter, including this house...to me."

"To you? Oh ho! This does shed an interesting light on things."

"I would point out, sir," said Curlew with only the slightest trace of irritation, "that I am not the only member of staff. If you speak to the kitchen help or the parlor maid, I think you'll find that my movements are well accounted for and that none of them heard any commotion either."

"Don't tell me how to do my business, Curlew."

"My apologies, sir. I meant no impertinence. ...May I ask whether I'm under arrest?"

"...No. But you're to stay in London for the time being, is that understood?"


Curlew was greatly relieved when his employer's remains were at last carted away, and the Inspector and his subordinates had departed. Mr. Glass had never been fond of hubbub in the house, and though he might have shuffled off this mortal coil, it still seemed unfortunate to see his sanctum sanctorum disrupted by brutish policemen. Especially, the valet thought wryly, when that sanctum sanctorum would soon be his own. It was not that he rejoiced in his employer's death, but thirty thousand pounds can go far to soften the bitterness of mourning.

There would still be the unfortunate business of an inquest, though. For the time being, he remained a domestic, and his instincts commanded him to clean up the dreadful mess.

It seemed fitting to start with the desk. Curlew began picking up loose papers and straightening them into some semblance of order. The incense-burner his late employer had recently received was in the way, and he moved it to the sideboard. Sooner or later, he mused, he ought to return the wretched thing to poor Peter Bellington. He had no use for it himself, and what better way to smooth his imminent ascent on the social ladder than a public act of magnanimity?

He lifted the artifact and held it in the morning light streaming through the window to examine it more carefully. It was really quite baffling why Mr. Glass had been so enamored of it. Yes, the base with its painted flowers was remarkable; but the bulk of the thing was nothing special. Merely an altogether empty cage - an oval set of thin silver bars, broken, on one of the long sides, by a wide-open sliding door.




Thomas R. Keith is originally from Austin, TX, but currently resides in Chicago. He has long been an aficionado of horror and dark fiction, especially that of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In addition to writing fiction, he is also a published poet.

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