Friday, July 22, 2011

The American Guild of Occult Detectives

The American Guild of Occult Detectives
Bobby Derie

The instructions on the back of the invitation led to a secluded neighborhood of Washington, D.C., one of those tree-shrouded lanes with narrow, snaky alleys claimed by vines, and where here and there one could still glimpse crumbling red-brown bricks that might date back to the founding of the city. A small bronze plaque on the door proclaimed the correct address, which looked much like a mason’s hall—all red-brick, two stories high, though with sunken windows that bespoke a large basement, a short flight of steps leading up to a pillared entranceway, and above all a domed bronze cupola with a film of light green verdigris. A tug of the old-fashioned pull-cord gave vent to a deep, resonant gong from somewhere in the depths of the building.

“The devil comes for you!” squawked a voice as the door opened. A swarthy, dark-skinned man stepped forward, a wicked grin upon his face, a small loop of raw gold through one ear, with the grandfather of all parrots perched on one tall, bony shoulder. He examined the invitation carefully, then bowed at the neck and moved aside to allow ingress. He introduced himself as Old Bill, and though he bore a vest and tie, the man looked a rogue through and through. There was a loping ease to his movements, a wiry strength and hard calluses in his grip that spoke of hard labors besides housework, and the dark tan that spoke of long years at sea.

“Welcome, to the American Guild of Occult Detectives. Right this way, detective.” he said, leading the way down a long hallway festooned with framed photographs. Old Bill’s feet followed an old track worn in the wine-colored carpet. “Know you much of the history of this institution? No? Then let Old Bill tell yer.”

“Master Carter—that’s him, there.” Old Bill pointed to one of the photographs, of a pale, long-faced man dressed in a turban, dated 1928. “Was Guild Secretary in the Twennies, and liked to claim the association dated back to a meeting between Dr. Abraham van Helsing and Dr. Martin Hesselius in the late 1870s. If ‘t were so, there’s no record of it, an’ the old Judge told me once the guild formed in December 1910 by Prof. Armitage, Inspector Legrasse, and the Judge himself—though he weren’t yet a judge then. Now the Judge and Armitage had met previously in 1890 on some business, and kept up a limited correspondence by letters; the three met together at a law enforcement conference, and formed the association when they realized their mutual interests. The Guild remained mostly an informal affair, with each man recruiting their acquaintances in the occupation.”

Here Old Bill stopped to pick out different luminaries—the kind-eyed professor from Massachusetts, the playboy from New York, the rough mountain man with a guitar at his back, a pair of slightly theatric men dressed in outlandish Oriental garb, the striking Southern gentleman dressed in white with a string tie, a young Native American woman at his arm; the reporter in a seersucker suit and ratty hat, and a few more scattered across feet of hallway and decades of time. The pictures told the tale as well as Old Bill did—pictures of a few individuals gave way to group shots, first three or four together, and then up to eight or nine crowding in the picture, with formal placards denoting the meeting and the year.

Old Bill pointed out a smudge in the upper right corner of the photograph from 1919. “Apologies about that one, detective—first time I’d ever used one of them picture-makers before.” The houseman held up his thumb by comparison, and the trace of an old scar on it could just be seen on the shadow at the edge of the photograph—then continued on the tour.

“The Guild remained fairly informal, with meetings held annually at the Judge’s mansion, which usually involved retellings of their adventures for the year and the sharing of notes on the occult and the means to combat them. Mr. Carter, upon admittance in 1920, formalized the Guild with a charter that prescribed a binding oath, communal properties, and other procedures, and he led the purchase of this property in the fall of that year.” Old Bill continued on, leading from the Hallway into a great round-tabled meeting room, each chair an unbacked wooden seat at a table marked out like a great zodiac. Quilts hung on the wall were in a European castle might have hung tapestries—old, strange designs from the Pennsylvania Dutch and Native Americans, like the Witch Blazing Star.

“Now, there are some as suggest that the American Guild, like the later United States government paranormal investigation organizations, was based on or inspired by parallel groups in Britain—the Sevens, them folks at the Chinese Laundry, the Qs—and it’s certain there were other folks that ran their own circles, but it’s important to remember that this was the American Guild. Honorary membership was extended to certain foreign occult detectives, particularly if they visited or operated on American soil. Mssrs. Carnacki and de Grandin were honored associates. Efforts to draw the ellusive and pre-eminent Holmes and Houdini into the association failed. An honorary membership was extended to Simon Iff due to his prowess and reputation during his visit to America, but was quickly rescinded after his affiliation with some of the darker members of the occult underground became apparent, such as the sorcerer Rowley Thorne, cultists, survivors of pre-human races, and members of the degenerate Whateley and Marsh families. Those were dark times.” Here Old Bill stooped and grabbed at the rug, and the great parrot roared a “Xuthulla!” and took off. The houseman peeled back the fabric to reveal circles of black coal in the wooden slats of the floor. “That was ’44, when the Arkham sect tried to get in.”

“Now, Mr. Klaw died in ’25—not unexpected, given his age—the Judge and some other individual guild members took steps to obtain part of his estate, which included an occult library and modest collection of arcane artifacts. This caused a bit of dispute, as Klaw had willed them to his “successor”—Master Carter—who had studied long on dreams with the old man. This began a series of internal disputes about how such matters should be handled in the future, particularly whether certain items ought to be destroyed or retained for use by the guild at large. The death of Armitage several years later exacerbated the quiet conflict, as John and the Judge used their fortunes to purchase the bulk of the collection before the others had the opportunity. When Carter disappeared in ’29—and was finally announced dead—the disputation of his effects was a subject of considerable quarrel.” Now Old Bill fetched at his belt for an old-fashioned set of long iron keys, which he applied to a set of doors at the far end of the chamber with the table.

“The Judge established a communal library and museum for the Guild to hold the personal collections and affects of members in trust for the Guild as a whole, in the care of the Guild secretary—formerly Master Carter, though with his absence it fell to his successor, Dr. Silence—and the Judge himself willed his library and collection to the Guild upon his death to cement the pledge. This dispute had the effect of changing the concept of the Guild and its membership considerably: where once it had been a source of camaraderie and allies, now it was a center of arcane scholarship and power.”

Old Bill threw open the doors, revealing a vast space full of the occult treasures of the ages. The great parrot perched atop a golden Egyptian death-mask, and upon a far wall above a fireplace were a pair of strange, thing silver blades. Old filing cabinets painted in military olive drab took up nearly a whole wall, and one corner was given over entirely to a maze of high, heavy wooden bookshelves groaning with volumes in cracked leather bindings, some stacked on the floor for lack of space. There was a large table given over to chemical apparatus, and every manner of skull and skeleton seemed to hang from the ceiling. To each curious dagger, statuette, skull and soiled page was attached a small tag and bit of card. Old Bill looked over the collection and smiled.

“The Guild did not maintain relations with other occult organizations, such as the American branch of the Freemasons. While individual members enjoyed links with certain government bodies, the Guild as a whole did not—and thus avoided the fate of some of its British counterparts. For while the majority of British occult detectives began and remained independent, a number of individuals became associated directly with the crown and eventually established or became government departments, reaching its height during and immediately after World War II. The bulk of these departments degenerated, sapped of personnel and resources, and finally closed—or went underground. The Guild maintained its distance from the government expressly to avoid this fate, although in doing so many of its members felt they had missed out on important opportunities, such as the FBI raid on Innsmouth in 1936, and collaborative efforts with British paranormal groups against the German occult war apparatus in the 1940s.” Old Bill moved over to the fireplace, and began feeling under the lip—with a soft click, the floor of the fireplace fell away, revealing a narrow, steep set of stairs leading down, lit by soft electric bulbs.

“As rumors of the Guild library leaked it became a target for the forces of darkness. Thieves, sorcerers, and monsters. Guild business took more time and effort from private investigations, and with each breach the gentlemen and ladies of the Guild had to erect and rely on stronger and stranger defenses, utilizing their dark treasures to protect themselves. Guild membership, never extensive, became more exclusive and slowly dwindled from WWII onwards as certain government agencies were established to quietly handle some of the larger threats. Efforts were made to recruit Guild members for these organizations, but occult detectives are a highly individualistic lot and resist being shackled by needless bureaucracy, even the most well-meaning.” Old Bill went on as he climbed down the stairwell, words echoing a little. “Several novitiates in occult detection made efforts to ‘buy’ their way into the guild with tomes and artifacts of power—an’ with the old Judge gone, and many of his friends, I’m sorry to say some of them were accepted, at least until their intentions became clear.”

The cellar beneath resembled some ancient temple, though of what culture it was hard to say. There was a great square full of clean sand which had been swept clean, and on the four cardinal pillars were carved strange hieroglyphs. The walls sloped inwards towards a ceiling that was not level with the ground, and from each corner glared a curious disembodied stone head with a Hebrew character carved on its head. Vast conduits of wires were visible along the edges of the room, and all over the ceiling. The walls, save for the one with the stairwell, were covered with thick curtains. There was the whiff of ozone and old herbs, the buzz of old bulbs and a slight moaning.

“Now, the old Masters are all gone in their graves. Thunstone and Zarnak in ’88, and Master Spektor just a few years ago, and there’s only been Old Bill to collect their things and file them away.” Old Bill said, hunched over a great lever jutting out from one of the columns. “Oh, there are still occult detectives in America—Mr. Boy, formerly with the Bureau, and McDonald in Los Angeles now—but they’re not exactly the traditional types, and they have their own way of things. There are still mysteries in the night, old things that awaken in the darkness when called, and needs be put down again. That is why I’ve invited you here, detective. To join the ranks of the American Guild of Occult Detectives, and continue its mission.

Old Bill threw the switch, and the curtain immediately across from the stairwell whisked aside on electromechanical tracks. Electric pentacles blazed in the darkness, row on row of them, light streaming up from the floor and down from the ceiling, with only a narrow, dark path between them, and in the center of each pentacle was a figure. Each prison was unique, though based on the general design of the luminous, baroque circles that glowed an eerie blue. One corpse-thing with a club foot and dried skin was surrounded by crosses of different wood, and strands of garlic, but it opened its eyes and hissed as Old Bill passed. Another held a book, a thickish tome surrounded by squiggly lines that seemed to twist under some optical illusion, and looked otherwise empty—but as Old Bill neared, the light darkened on one corner of the star, and something like a tremendous face seemed to press at an invisible boundary towards the old servant—and Old Bill smiled back at it, and walked on to a small door, set in a wall that was far older than the rest of the house.

“Now detective, before we go any further, it’s time for your interview.” Old Bill said, and reached once more for his keys, opened the door, and turned on the light. It was a small room lit by a dim bulb, with a single card table, on which rested an old, primitive-looking telephonic device—little more than a few blocks of wood with wires and a speaking-tube—and a chair. “Necrophone, for speaking with the dead. Was scavenged from Tesla, after that business with Houdini and Mr. Fort.” Old Bill explained. “An’ it’s the easiest way for the Judge to interview potential candidates these days. No messing about with candles or whatnot. Well, I’ll leave you to it.” Old Bill sketched a bow and retreated, closing the door behind him.

A croaky, whispering voice came from the speaker, monotone and buzzing. “Let us review some of your cases…”


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