Mandragora by Andrew Johnston

“Someone really lives here? Geez. Always thought the place was abandoned.”

Detective Kolar undid her seat belt and opened the door to the cruiser. “Even in this state, it’s still a multi-million-dollar home. I’m sure he can’t sell it, plus you know how stubborn these old guys can get.”

“I guess,” said Detective Slaski. “Still, you’d think he’d put some of that website money into renovations. It’s…I don’t know, a little creepy keeping it like this.”

Not that she’d ever admit it to her freshly minted partner, but Officer Kolar was also unsettled by this particular visit. It wasn’t the house, although the hideous, crumbling Gothic revival mansion offered its own special sense of menace. It was more the kind of man who would opt to live in a place like that. On some irrational level, she could understand why everyone in the department was so unnerved by this funny old shut-in. He was a childhood horror story, Boo Radley without the charm and grace.

Detective Kolar shook off the tension and approached the door. “Look, there’s nothing to it. We’re not grilling a syndicate boss or serving a warrant to some heavily armed tweaker, we’re just talking to an old man who knows some things he shouldn’t. The only thing to fret over is the paperwork that’s waiting for us.”

Detective Slaski leaned in and rapped on the door. “Or falling through the floor. He must have salvaged these boards from the Mayflower.”

“You’re going to have to knock a hell of a lot louder than that,” said Detective Kolar. “No way he heard that.”

“No, but he saw it.” Detective Slaski nodded his head toward the lamp affixed over the door. “Take a look.”

There was a faint glint nearly lost in the grimy glass of the fixture – the lens of a camera focused on the space before the door. “A lot of people have those these days,” said Detective Kolar. “Old people can be very security conscious, especially when they live alone.”

“Especially if they’re hiding something,” said Detective Slaski.

Detective Kolar slammed her fist against the door. “Don’t get spooky on me now. You won’t make it a day if you can’t handle the occasional odd situation.”

There was a mechanical click within the door frame, followed by a spray of static as a concealed speaker sprang to life. “Door’s open,” hissed an unseen voice. “Grant yourselves entry. I will be out presently.”

Detective Kolar tested the knob, and the door swung open with unexpected smoothness. “Ten minutes, tops, and we’re out. Lunch is on me, all right?”

“Sure.” Detective Slaski reluctantly followed his partner into the old house, though not before casting one more sidewards glance at the old man’s monitoring system.

The interior of the house was half-buried in boxes and other shipping debris, spilling over the furniture and settling in piles just inside the door. This was probably a sitting room once, though there was barely enough room to stand amid the stacks of shipping crates. The stairway leading to the second floor was blocked off, and most of the other visible doors were bolted shut. Naked cables, held in place by awkward wire rigs, squirmed through holes in the walls. Ancient floor fans peeked through the trash on the floor, struggling to mitigate the stifling heat that filled the room. Detective Kolar considered taking pictures of the mess, musing to herself that they could one day be used as evidence in a competency hearing.

Then there was a raggedy sigh, the sound of a bolt being thrown open, and a door in the rear swung open. The figure on the other side was the image of decrepitude, his age beyond any casual estimation. He would have been barely five feet in height even if the ravages of time hadn’t cruelly bent him forward. His face was broad and eroded, overcast eyes vanishing into the crags that sundered his loose skin. At the sight of the detectives, he smiled, a gruesome grin filled with jagged, rusty teeth.

“Mr. Hornik?” Detective Kolar flipped out her badge. “Detectives Kolar and Slaski. We’d like to ask you a few questions.”

“Eh, I always welcome the boys in blue…even the ones who wear skirts.” Mr. Hornik let out a rattly chuckle. “I suppose you’re here about Mandragora Blog, eh? You wanna see the rig? It’s just in the next room.”

“If you’re more comfortable speaking there,” said Detective Kolar, flipping open a memo book. “We really just need to ask a few questions.”

Mr. Hornik nodded and made a little wheeze. “Sure thing. And you do want to see it, dear. Thing of beauty, it is.” He turned and opened the door. “Ladies first…eheh.”

Detective Kolar couldn’t quite decode what purpose this room was originally meant to serve, but the old man had turned it into mission control. At the heart of it was an enormous desk that held a bank of sizable monitors, including one the size of a large television. Before the desk was a well-worn leather wingback chair that probably cost as much as a car when it was new. The rest of the room was a clutter of scanners, other computers in various states of disassembly, machinist tools, and black towers that connected back to the main machine via fat cables. There were more fans here, turned on full blast in a futile effort to dissipate the heat of the overpowered computer rig, and more cables and wires weaving into other rooms.

“Just did a little upgrade, hence the mess.” Mr. Hornik patted the odd-looking computer tower that straddled the desk. “State-of-the-art it is, at least for a few minutes. Heh…not that I’m a trend whore. Nothing here I don’t need to make the magic happen.”

Detective Slaski stared at the extensive rig in awe. “Wow, who’d you have help you with this?”

“Help?” Mr. Hornik grunted and waved off the question. “Heh…you want to know what ‘tech savvy’ kid helped the fossil? Tech savvy…the gadgets those kids play with do everything but clean their nuts for them. I was an operator when I was your age, a programmer – machine code. Real code, straight mathematics. Talked right to the machines, no interface, no special tools, just me. God speaks in math, you know. Why else do you think those equations are so powerful, eh?”

“Mr. Hornik,” said Detective Kolar, tapping her memo book. “We can be out of your hair if you’ll just answer these questions.”

“All right.” Mr. Hornik lowered himself into the chair. “Prediction: You want to know how I’m so good at forecasting bad things, eh?”

“Two things in particular,” said Detective Kolar. “Two weeks ago, you announced on your blog that the Polaris Hotel wouldn’t finish construction because the building was going to collapse.”

“Insurance.” Mr. Hornik grinned and waved a finger at the detectives. “Happens with mobbed-up builders, eh? Finances go south, and…” He slapped a hand on his desk. “…here comes a Sicilian hurricane to clear things out.”

“That may well be, and given that three workers died, it is a potential homicide if it was deliberate,” said Detective Kolar. “But you didn’t just know that the property owner had those connections. You knew when the building was going to come down within the hour.”

Mr. Hornik nodded. “…Wanna search me for explosives? I haven’t left this building in a decade. Heh…flattered that you think that I could sneak onto site and fix the thing to come down all by my lonesome-”

“No one suspects you of participating in the bombing,” said Detective Kolar. “We do wonder if someone contacted you regarding the incident.”

“Eh, heh…gangsters do love to spill their plans to random bloggers,” said Mr. Hornik. “It’s just adds a bit of spice if the cops are on to them in advance, eh?”

“Uh…we do have another case we’re wondering about…” Detective Slaski fumbled for his own memo book. “…This would have been a little more than a month ago, a man electrocuted in his own home.”

“Heh, yes, quite the freak accident that was,” said Mr. Hornik. “Readers love the freaky stuff, heh. You looking at that one as a homicide, too?”

“He did have enemies,” said Detective Slaski. “Lots of threats, people who lost money on his scams.”

“And you think one of these desperate, emotional souls let me know in advance that he was gonna cook the con?” Mr. Hornik wheezed out a funny laugh. “You two can’t be so bright, if these are the questions you’re bringing.”

Detective Kolar slapped the memo book shut. “Mr. Hornik, this is serious. Your blog contained specific information on four homicides and numerous other crimes before they happened, with specific details no one else could know. Someone must be contacting you, and we need to find him before someone else dies.”

“So that’s what you think it is, eh? You think this ‘source’ told me about that tornado last week, eh?” Mr. Hornik smiled, showing off each of his gnarled teeth. “You think he told me about that quake that hit in the Midwest a couple months back?”

“Mr. Hornik, if you don’t…” Detective Kolar peered past the old man at one of the screens. “…Did you put up another post?”

“Eh…not yet. Not my best work, to be straight.” Mr. Hornik waved for the detectives to come closer. “Go ahead, tell me what you think. Give me your professional opinion, heh.”

“I…that’s not necessary,” said Detective Slaski, taking a half step back.

Detective Kolar stepped to the bank of monitors and read the contents:

A pair of fine young fascists met a swift and glorious end today. Returning from an interview that was as productive as anything produced by modern policing methods, the two were t-boned by a runaway truck and met an immediate and inglorious end. They had been investigating a number of unexplained deaths, all of them linked to your favorite old fart. Of course, as of 2:00 this afternoon, the two detectives must also be part of that great investigation. Still, does anyone want to lay bets on how long it will be before the cops dispatch more of their brothers and sisters to scrutinize this invalid? 

“Now, I know what you’re going to say, heh.” Mr. Hornik raised his hands in mock surrender. “But don’t put any worry lines on that pretty face, I’m thinking I won’t post it. Two cops dead in a traffic accident won’t exactly fire up the masses, heh, especially not these days.”

Detective Kolar locked her jaw. “…Mr. Hornik, I could bring you in for this.”

“For what? Unapproved typing?” Mr. Hornik laughed, a painful sound that threatened to collapse his lungs. “You’re so far off track.”

“You’re telling me that this isn’t a threat?” said Detective Kolar.

“To assassinate you with my fleet of trucks?” Mr. Hornik nodded again, this time without the smile. “Heh, or maybe it is a threat and you just don’t get it. You think someone’s telling me about all this. But maybe I really am causing it, eh?”

“You’re making all these things happen?” said Detective Slaski, inching forward. “How?”

“How can I do it? Because I’m the Devil!” Mr. Hornik wagged his tongue at the detectives and made any number of hideous sounds but stopped when he was met with only silence and frozen expressions. “…Eh, not much of a sense of humor. Stupid and dull, you sure you even got brains in those heads, or just tightly knotted bundles of wire?”

Detective Kolar looked back at her partner, then back at Mr. Hornik. “If anyone else dies, we’ll be back, and you’ll be in holding. Let’s go.”

“Enjoy life,” said Mr. Hornik.

Neither of the detectives spoke until they were back in the cruiser. “You think the old man is really crazy, or was that some kind of act?” said Detective Slaski.

“Both, maybe.” Detective Kolar put the vehicle into drive and sped away. “He probably knows that we can’t do anything.”

“Why don’t we get the FBI involved?” said Detective Slaski. “They can do a lot that we can’t.”

“They’re not interested,” said Detective Kolar. “The Federal agents just think he’s a crazy old man. It’s unusual, but they don’t-”

There was a loud crunch of metal as the semi slammed into the side of the police cruiser. Neither detective saw it coming – it was only a moment, one noisy second, and then it was over. The wreckage spun wildly for a few seconds before coming to a halt on its side, the bodies of the two officers trapped within. It had transpired so quickly that neither of them had the time for panic or pain – they were simply gone.

*  *  *

Mr. Hornik admired the flaming wreckage, neatly captured on one of his video feeds. An ugly grin briefly crossed his face, then vanished with a sigh. Letting out a grunt, he pushed himself back to his feet and walked to another locked door. The keys trembled in his aged hands as he fought with the lock. On the other side was a staircase leading down. Keeping both hands on the railings, he unsteadily descended the stairs, stepping carefully around the cables. The air grew warmer with each step, not that this ever bothered Mr. Hornik.

“Everything running smooth?” said Mr. Hornik to himself. “Feeling all right?”

The basement of Mr. Hornik’s house was larger than one might expect from the outside, but the mass of machinery within made it truly claustrophobic. It was a hideous Frankenstein beast, a strange blend of antique and cutting edge – modern servers wedded to old mainframes and great electromagnetic storage systems, leaving only a narrow passage to admit an operator access. Arcane symbols were carved or burned into the surfaces of each component, the meanings a mystery to all but the one who assembled the abomination. The air glowed with a hellish heat as the curious supercomputer whirred through its wretched tasks.

Mr. Hornik laughed to himself as he admired his handiwork. “Heh, yes, God speaks in math,” he said. “Devil does, too.”

 

Andrew Johnston

Banner Image: Pixabay.com

 

2 thoughts on “Mandragora by Andrew Johnston

  1. Hi Andrew,
    There is something relevant and believable connecting the devil with computers!!
    This was a well crafted, dark tale.

    All the very best my friend.
    Hugh

    Like

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