“Firewater” – A Weird Pulp Horror Tale

This is an excerpt from “Firewater”, a novella taken from Volume Two of the Alternative History series “Dimensions Unknown”, released August 20th 202o.

This was the time of day that Brandon Stone loved.

He stood at the huge windows taking up most of the west wall, looking down at the street grid of Salt Lake City stretching out beneath him. The building’s address was the corner of South Temple and Main Street, Blocks 72 and 73, but it was unofficially known as the Stone Tower, 422 feet high and occupying 26 floors. It was also the headquarters of Stone Industries, the weapons and ammunition manufacturers that Stone and his father had built up together. As President of the Board of Directors now, it was his firm, his building … and he often thought of Salt Lake City as his city.

The view around him took in the other skyscrapers that formed the skyline of downtown Salt Lake City; the Regent Street Hotel, the Templeton Hotel, and the Deseret News Tower with the brand-new radio station perched atop it. At this time of day, when the sun sank beyond the Wasach range, the skyscrapers turned into mountains themselves, and the streets into oceans. Neon lights, crackling with warmth, burst forth from the advertising hoardings, making them float above the dusk like lightships. The electric trams turned into lantern-eyed sharks and the sedans and jalopies into darting, luminous fish in a waterless deep sea, while in the complex grid of streets the partygoers walked shoulder to shoulder to each other, showing off their finest ties, furs, hats and pearls. The Zeplin cargo airships floated serenely in the twilight distance, two of them moored to the docking towers at the edge of the city, bathed in the glaring cross-fire of the searchlights that swept the sky in silently swinging circles, casting yet more advertising slogans upon the clouds.

In the midst of it all, taking pride of place in the downtown grid beneath the Stone Tower, graced with the twin symbols of the All-Seeing Eye and the Angel Moroni, lay the gray granite steeples of Temple Square in all their New Gothic glory, the Tabernacle and the Brigham Young Monument, the pale and ghostlike gardens, fountains and statues, their magical shimmer keeping the evening shadows at bay.

In the huge window running the height and length of the west wall, Brandon Stone studied his own reflection. He was a large but compact man, the sharp angles of his square face accentuated by dark hair in a military cut. His eyebrows were also dark and straight, and tucked in below them were two sharp and steady green eyes, a classical nose, and lips in a thin, wide line. He was dressed in a roomy, black, single-breasted suit, a white boiled shirt and an almost bootlace-thin black tie, held in place by a gold tie clip in the shape of a sword.

“Mr. Stone? Excuse me, Mr. Stone? Your guest has arrived.”

“Yes! Dammit, Brandon, when are you going to stop admiring yourself?”

Emerging from his reverie, Stone turned to give his full attention to the restaurant and ballroom that took up the entire top floor of the Stone Tower. The Maitre D’ was approaching him with tonight’s guest, Police Chief Walter Joseph Reddick, right behind him.

“Brandon, so good to see you again, old man!” The police chief shook Stone’s hand with a fierce intensity.

Reddick looked pink and well-scrubbed. The lined face, with gray mustache and eyebrows above the stiff white collar and spotted bow tie, was brisk and business-like. He was tall with a thin bony frame and his lightweight, tan-colored suit hung loosely from his shoulders.

The Maitre D’ seated them both at a table close to the panoramic window, away from the other diners so obviously watching them from the corner of their eyes and gossiping over coffee.

“We’ve got a new singer tonight,” said Stone, carefully arranging the napkin over his lap. “Her name’s Jenny Miller, from New York City. She’s doing a tour of the Southwest. Here tonight, and the Alta Club tomorrow.”

Reddick’s eyebrows went up. “New York, you say?”

“She’s got a regular gig at the Chatham Club on the lower east side. They say Irving Berlin himself worked there too!”

“You get some mighty fine talent at your club, Brandon, much better than the usual stand-up comics and leg shows. I had a ball at the Ipana Troubadours last month. Have you ever thought about getting Red Godfrey?”

“Red Godfrey?”

“Sure. The Warbling Banjoman himself!”

The Maitre D’ returned to carefully set plates of tiny discs of seafood before them. “Maine scallops, gentlemen,” he announced, “with pickled mustard seed and pistachio.”

“Maine? All the way from Maine?” Reddick said, frowning at the plate. “You’re kidding. How on earth did you – oh, well, I might have guessed.”

“The pleasures of Zeplin distribution, Walter!”

Reddick carefully squeezed a slice of lemon over the first scallop and took his time over chewing it, nodding to Stone in appreciation.

“The guys at the downtown station have been sharing the latest scuttlebutt about your bodyguard the Pendulum,” he said, sipping at his mineral water.

Stone busied himself with knife and fork. “Really?” he said distractedly.

“Oh yes. Apparently, some hoods made the mistake of driving out near the Flats to collect protection money from a nearby town. The Pendulum raised up a cloud of salt and sent it at the hoods like a sandstorm. It took all the paint off the car. The hoods got out with their guns but they were shooting blind, of course, there was nothing to see but a big cloud of white. The Pendulum took ’em out with a few punches and left’em gift-wrapped for the cops.”

Stone gave Reddick a broad smile. “Now that would have been something to see,” he said. “Shame we didn’t get a ringside seat.”

“And it’s a darn shame you were nowhere near the scene of the crime,” Reddick said, with a knowing gleam in his eyes.

Stone nodded to the stage. “Looks like Jenny’s ready to start.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” announced the M. C. over the loudspeakers, “Miss Jennifer Miller, and the Meyer Lopez Sextet!”

The stage lights darkened, and the spotlight fell on a tall, highly attractive woman, wearing a powder blue sequin lattice dress with three tiers of fringe. Her pearl choker set off her dimpled throat and full, gorgeous lips, and her hair – held in place by a tiara – had that soft, fluffy, clean look of the movie starlets. Her blue eyes twinkled as she shot a look directly at Stone’s table.

 “There’s a saying old says that love is blind,

Still we’re often told, seek and ye shall find,

So I’m going to seek a certain lad I’ve had in mind,

 Looking everywhere, haven’t found him yet …”

The waiters brought the baked ham and stuffed celery, and as they dined Reddick was highly appreciative of the quality not only of the food, but also Jenny’s singing. She gave an encore of “I Love My Baby” and “Where’s That Rainbow?” before leaving the stage in a flurry and applause and sequins.

At length the waiters carried away the empty plates and brought coffee in delicate china cups. Stone sipped his, and then peered at his guest thoughtfully.

“Well, Arthur, you’re a busy man. You didn’t drop in here only to swap true crime stories and admire the girls?”

There was the rasp of a match against a box and Stone watched Reddick tamp down the burning tobacco in the bowl of his pipe, then tilt back in the chair, in his favorite attitude of reflection.

“We’ve had a number of mysterious fires starting up recently. Mostly at the Indian reservations out east.”

Stone frowned. “You suspect arson?”

“We did at first. Arson mixed with sheer carelessness, Indians drunk on bad home-made hooch and accidentally burning down the hut, that kind of thing.”

Reddick took the pipe out of his mouth. “The truth is much more awkward and … difficult to discuss. A number of people have been killed by fires that started in extremely strange circumstances. Our Medical Examiner has called it …” He lowered his voice. “SHC. Spontaneous Human Combustion.”

Stone raised his eyebrows. “I’ve heard of SHC, but it’s never been scientifically proven to exist.”

“No it hasn’t. According to the M. E., it’s incredibly rare. But now we’ve got what could be … what should I call it …”

“An epidemic?”

“No, of course not, man,” Reddick snapped. “Keep your voice down!”

The police chief leaned forward, putting his elbows on the table. “We had another … incident, last night, but this time it broke the pattern. It was the first case off the reservations … and the first victims who weren’t Indian.”

“Who were the victims?”

“Two small-time criminals. A bag-man for the Utah mob and a rum-runner.”

“Does that mean that Alex Carver is involved?”

Reddick sighed. “We can’t answer that with any certainty. One thing we do know is that the two victims have worked for him before, and our informers tell us ‘Meat’ Carver is shifting a lot of moonshine at the moment – but we don’t know where it’s being brewed. Apparently, he’s got a new cookhouse and new routes for moving it. Oh, yes – this is probably nothing to do with anything, but he’s frequenting the Alta Club a lot more, recently. He’s even booked the place out for a private party the night after tomorrow. Whoever the guests are, it’s a mighty big secret, because nobody on the street wants to talk about it. Not yet, at least. Dollars or threats of billy clubs won’t loosen their tongues.”

Stone arched an eyebrow. “The Alta Club. I wonder …”

The police chief reached down, took a slim cardboard file from his briefcase, and slid it across the table. “There were no IDs on the bodies, but from a witness’s description, we’ve narrowed it down to two suspects. This file has the two gangsters’ names … their addresses … and their known underworld contacts.”

“You know,” said Stone, “it looks a little embarrassing that you’re only talking to me after the first white men have been killed. I presume that’s due to some kind of … miscommunication.”

“Yes,” said Reddick, his face flushing. “The police department didn’t know about the cases on the reservation until a couple of days ago. The Indians tend to keep things to themselves, and they’re very reluctant to get the white cops involved.”

“Well, who can blame them?” Stone winked and reached out to take the folder. “I’ll ask the Pendulum to look into it,” he said quietly.

Reddick’s eyes glittered across the table.

“I’m afraid that’s not all, Brandon. Apparently, there are rumors on the reservations. The Indians are saying that the fires were caused by evil spirits. Spirits raised by a powerful sorcerer and sent out to slay their enemies. They call these spirits … Skinwalkers.”

Stone’s fingers curled softly around the arms of the chair. “Interesting.”

“But then, you know what a superstitious lot these Indians are,” Reddick added. He forced a smile, but at the same time, raised his handkerchief to wipe sweat from his brow.

“Please … pass the message on to your, er … bodyguard. And tell him to be careful.”

*

 Although the good folks of Salt Lake City enjoyed a promenade along the city streets after dark when the weather was good, only the bravest or the lost ventured into Commercial Street.

This long clutch of streets and colonial tenements south of downtown was the place where the city’s criminal element went to party. With the police department keeping a wary but attentive distance, the small-time hoods, drifters and grifters hung out at the flophouses, speak-easies and gambling joints, keeping themselves to themselves so the uptight Elders of the city wouldn’t find an excuse to get heavy on them.

Tenements, jammed one against the next, stretched all the way down south to Liberty Park. At the ground floor level, most of the soda pop stands, drug stores, laundries, and five-and-dimes had hidden back doors that led into smoky gin joints and speak-easies. There were stoops out front of the tenements where kids smoked and boasted, and above them were flights of shadowed stone steps where hands fumbled with brown paper bags holding illicit booze, or with suspender belts holding a different form of intoxication.

At the corner of one block stood a brownstone filled with flophouses for the Commercial Street short-stays and no-goods. Inside were long narrow corridors that reeked of sauerkraut and bathtub gin, and were littered with empty wooden crates, broken baby carriages, and junk of all kinds left abandoned in corners.

At the back of the brownstone, a shadowy figure climbed the fire escape swiftly and silently.

He wore a dark suit and fedora hat, and his face was covered by a white mask blank except for one horizontal eye-slit. Gloved hands adjusted the cape fastened to his shoulders by silver clasps in the shape of lions’ heads. If anyone had seen him, they would have instantly recognized the Pendulum – Salt Lake City’s ghostlike guardian of the night, protector of the defenseless, scourge of the underworld.

The Pendulum reached the window he’d been searching for. He crouched on the sill, gripped the casement with both hands, and pushed upward. The rotting wood offered little resistance. The night vision visor built into his mask allowed him to scan the room quickly.

It was a one-room efficiency apartment with second-hand furniture, a worn-out rug, stained curtains on the windows, a bed with a mattress probably infested with bedbugs. The room had been turned over twice. Once by the cops, but before that, by Wolski’s fellow mobsters, who’d no doubt removed anything that might link him to Carver or the moonshine routes.

He jumped down into the room and raised his hand to the radio earpiece built into the mask. “Alice?”

A young female voice instantly crackled in reply. “Hai! Stone-san?”

“I told you not to call me that when I’m in uniform,” he muttered. “I don’t think this radio link can be intercepted, but nothing’s impossible.”

“Yes, Tono. Very sorry, Tono.”

“I’m in the apartment. Stay in the car, I’ll call you when I’m on the way down.”

He cut the link, then walked softly into the room. He took in every inch of the surroundings, meager as they wore. The relics of a man’s wasted life … pathetic, and mournful …

The illuminating moonlight suddenly faded, like the throwing of a switch. The Pendulum whirled round, his gloved hands raised for action.

Someone stood in front of the window. Someone else had entered the room right behind him, without a sound. At first, he couldn’t believe what his night visor was telling him.

It looked like a wooden cigar store dummy had miraculously appeared in front of the window. The intruder was built thick around the chest and upper arms, and his nut-brown flesh glistened with grease or sweat or both. Muscles writhed beneath his naked torso, and lines of blue and white war-paint crisscrossed his great chest and shoulders. Naked to the waist, he was clad only in buckskin leggings, moccasins, and a breechclout of faded burlap. His face above the mouth was concealed by an ornate mask and headdress of hawk feathers knotted into bone cross pieces. The room’s dim light, enhanced by the visor, glinted on a row of polished stones woven into the headband.

“What -”

Before the Pendulum could move, one of the gems in the intruder’s headdress glowed with a soft green light. He felt himself hit by a solid, invisible wave, and thrown backwards.

He didn’t even feel the wall when he hit it. The moonlight flicked out and a host of stars dropped down to dance a frenzied Charleston through his skull, before vanishing and leaving him in total darkness.

 

 “Tono! Tono, daijobu desu-ka?”

The Pendulum opened his eyes, memory rushing back, anger following a few seconds later. Soft hands had removed his mask and were patting his cheeks, shaking his shoulders. The worried face of a young girl stared into his. She had the almond eyes and skin tone of an Asian, but the strong nose and full lips of a Western girl. Long black hair was tucked into a shiny peaked cap, a few wisps escaping at her ears. She wore a double-breasted jacket over a man’s white collared shirt and black knotted tie, and her black pants were tucked into shiny leather boots.

The Pendulum sat up and let his chauffeur, Alice Kawasaki, swiftly check his physical condition.

“I thought I told you to stay in the car,” he mumbled.

“A swift strategic assessment told me to offer to you reinforcements,” said Alice. “I came up back way. What was happened?”

“I was bushwhacked,” he said wearily.

 “Sore-te nani?”

“A sneak attack,” he said, getting to his feet. “Blindsided. Someone got the drop on me.”

“Aha!” she said triumphantly. “Then there is another Ninja in Salt Lake City. I shall track him, behead him, and place the skull on your fine mahogany desk. When Japanese revenge, we revenge harder than any peoples, Tono!”

“Thank you, Alice, but I don’t particularly want bloodstains on my desk, and it wasn’t a Ninja,” the Pendulum said. “Did you see anyone going out that window?”

She shook her head, her eyes glittering with emotion. “Nothing. Shall we burn down this residence as a warning to other doers of evil?”

Stone frowned. “That won’t be necessary, Alice. I’d rather like to know more about … whatever’s going on.”

“Of course, Tono! A full briefing is necessary to a successful military campaign. But I promise I will find the enemy that attacked you, Tono, and there will be nothing more honorable or satisfying.”

The Pendulum replaced the mask over the face of Brandon Stone. He scanned the room once more and stared at a stub of pencil and a sheet of notepaper by the telephone. Crossing over to the table, he picked up the notepad.

“This guy’s cronies would have destroyed any notes or memos, of course. But if he wrote anything on this pad while he was on the phone …”

The Pendulum reached inside his jacket and took out something long and golden, about the size of a cigarette case.  “Time to try out the latest bright idea from Professor Gardosi, over at the Stone Industries R & D department.”

He opened the case, revealing two glass panels on each side. He ripped the top sheet of blank paper of the notepad, put it on one side of the glass, and snapped the case shut.

“Wait a second,” he said to Alice.

“What manner of weapon is this, Tono?”

“When someone writes on a notepad, the pen or pencil can leave impressions on the paper beneath. This little gadget can chemically treat the paper and bring out those impressions clear as day.”

He swung his mask toward Alice. “Or that’s what Gardosi and his boffins say!”

When he opened the case again, there were soft marks on the glass opposite the paper. Lines, circles and squares that were obviously meant to be roads and buildings.

“Well I’ll be,” said the Pendulum, when he realized what he was looking at.

“It is a map,” said Alice in wonder.

“Yeah. And look at the name written and underlined.”

She peered closely at it. “It says … Rasmussen Estate?”

Beneath his mask, the Pendulum was frowning. “Now why would a mobster in a flophouse have a map leading to land owned by one of the most respected men in Salt Lake City?”

*

 The Rasmussen Estate Foundation was located on South Main Street, a few doors down from the head office of Zion Bank, and tucked a few blocks way from the all-seeing eye of Temple Square. Alice parked Stone’s Duesenberg Model A outside the imposing Romanesque facade of heavy sculptured masonry, spotless and gleaming in the morning light, and then accompanied her employer as he pushed open the door to the lobby.

Inside was a reception area in warm reds and browns, and a secretary seated behind a Macassar ebony and brass table. “Good morning,” she said, getting to her feet. “I’ll inform Mr. Rasmussen of your arrival.”

She wore the plain cream dress and flat shoes favored by Mormon women, but her hair was longer than usual, and her features had a slight half-Indian cast. She disappeared through a door at the back, and Stone and Alice were left to gaze around them.

On the left side of the room across the close-fitted dark red carpet stood a tall display cabinet in dark wood and ivory inlay, with a crowd of china horse figurines pressed up against its glass doors. Next to it was a Brandt console table in wrought iron with a marble top, holding two bronze and ivory figurines of the Angel Moroni blowing his characteristic horn, along with this morning’s copies of the Deseret News, Salt Lake Tribune and LDS journals. Above it a mirror hung on the wall, with the familiar symbol of the All-Seeing Eye taking pride of place in its pewter frame. Stone picked up one of the journals, sat down in an Art Nouveau leather armchair with oval back and tapered saber legs, flicking through the pages. He waved Alice to a chair, but she continued to stand.

The door opened, revealing an elderly man who looked to be in his seventies, wearing pince-nez and a funereal black suit, a walking stick straight at his side. He looked somehow puzzled at finding the waiting room occupied, despite the secretary having informed him of the appointment.

He walked slowly into the front room, putting his weight on the stick. “My name is Alvin Boydell Rasmussen,” he said, his voice creaking with age. “To whom do I owe the pleasure?”

“My name is Brandon Stone.”

Stone took in the single-breasted black suit with a shallow-collared white silk shirt, the blue and green necktie with a Three Nephites motif, the wide expanse of wrinkled face surmounted by the short abrupt cliff of white hair, the unsmiling dry mouth and the impressive straightness of the shoulders. The whites of his eyes, which showed all around his irises, gave something massive and statue-like to his gaze. Stone felt like he was looking at a marble bust from the Hall of the Elders itself.

“Mr. Stone of Stone Industries? Well now, this is an honor as well as a surprise.” Rasmussen’s eyes flicked to Alice, standing at the doorway. “And who might your … companion be?”

Stone doffed his hat. “Allow me to introduce you to Alice Kawasaki, my chauffeur.”

The old man looked mortified. “Your chauffeur?”

“Well, she’s far more than a chauffeur, really, more like one of my bodyguards. She entered my employment as a kind of debt of honor to her father, and she has saved my life on several occasions.” He turned to smile at her, and Alice gave a deep bow in return. “Alice even beat me at chess once. Only once, though.”

Rasmussen clucked his tongue. “I’m sure you must be a busy man, Mr. Stone, as I am. What business brings you to my door?”

“I’m here to make a donation,” Stone said brightly.

Rasmussen’s scowl disappeared. He studied Stone’s face gravely, feature by feature.

“I’m very interested in the work you’re doing,” Stone continued. “You’re giving our Indian brothers and sisters a new place to live, on your own land, and helping them build a new community. Clean water. Honest work. Helping them find the true way of the Lord. I hold that in high respect, Mr. Rasmussen.”

“Really?” The old man arched an eyebrow. “We’ve tried to contact you before regarding donations, Mr. Stone, but we’ve never received a reply from your office until now. Where has all this high respect suddenly come from?”

Stone’s eyes twinkled. “It might take me some time, Mr. Rasmussen, but I do get around to everyone eventually.”

The clergyman smiled mockingly. “Well, the Book of Moroni says – as the Lord is patient with us, let us be patient with those we serve. See my secretary, and she will take the details of your donation and method of payment on your way out. Good day to you, sir.”

“One moment,” Stone said. “I have a request.”

Rasmussen’s heavy brows went up again.

“I would like to see the reservation, if possible. I regard this donation as a kind of … investment.”

Rasmussen made an impatient grimace. “You mean, more publicity for you? The philanthropist with flowers in one hand, and a gun in the other.”

“I wouldn’t put it quite like that, but if I can see the reservation with my own eyes, I can get an idea of where the funds could be the most useful.”

“I shall be the judge of that. But still …”

Rasmussen smiled, and it was like a crocodile smiling. “Why not? I think this will work out to our ultimate … mutual benefit.”

He crossed slowly to the writing desk and took up fountain pen and paper. “I shall give you a letter to give to the supervisors, and my secretary will call to inform them of your arrival. When do you think is suitable?”

“No time like the present,” said Stone. “How about this afternoon?”

 

“You don’t often meet a nut as tough as that one,” Stone observed, as Alice started the car.

“What is your assessment of the enemy stronghold, Tono?” she said, her eyes filling the rearview mirror.

Stone shrugged his shoulders. “Enemy stronghold? Who says he’s the enemy?”

Alice glowered. “He has the stink of death about him.”

“And I thought it was his pomade. Seriously, I don’t know what to think yet, but I was glad to get a look at Mr. Rasmussen. Quite a guy.”

“This afternoon, may I ask you to arm yourself with a sword, Tono?” Alice said urgently. “The one that belonged to my honored father himself?”

Stone frowned. “Why would I need your father’s sword?”

“Because we are going to the reservation of the Red Indians. They are a race of brave and fearsome warriors, Tono. Almost as brave and fearsome as we Japanese.”

Stone relaxed back into his seat. “Thank you, Alice. I’ll remember that.”

Want to read more? You can find the full story in Volume 2 of “Dimensions Unknown”, released August 20th, 2020. If this has piqued your interest and you’d like to read Volume 1, you can find it here! 

If you can’t wait, you can receive the full story as a free download if you join the Excalibur Books Newsletter list …

You can also read the full story on the Excalibur Books Patreon …

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About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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