And go we did, to the place I didn’t want to admit gave me the screaming heebie-jeebies, and made me feel cold and depressed, because it had been the setting for the final act of my life, the play I had not known was a tragedy. I insisted on dropping by a liquor store for fortifications. Dana looked askance at that, but made no comment, for which I was grateful. She remained similarly silent when I slammed back a manly-sized dose of the quart of whiskey I’d purchased, though I could see she was practically strangling on everything she wanted to say.
She must have sensed that I knew what it was, that I’d already heard it a thousand times from a hundred people. For my part, I never understood people’s need to belabor the obvious. I mean, were they under the impression that I thought excessive drinking day and night constituted a healthy regimen? That I was somehow unaware I was killing myself? Might that not be what I wanted, and did I not have the God-given right?
Well, actually, I didn’t think in those exact terms. Killing myself., I mean Suicide would have been redundant. I had already been killed. My whole life had been ground into mulch and spewed all over the landscape. I was a golem. For just a moment, after I had encountered Johnny’s ghost and received my mission, I thought I had a purpose again. But it was turning out to be just another bunch of senseless, confusing bullcrap. I was thinking maybe it was time to forget the whole thing, get my trust fund, and finish out my life’s work in relative peace.
We got into Dana's car and started off. We had what they call an uncomfortable silence going on, and I hate those, so I asked her a question, just to be saying something.
"So, is your family name really 'Unknown?' I've always wondered about that."
"No," she replied. "I mean, yeah it is now, but Dad had his name legally changed to that a long time ago. Before I was born. When he decided he wanted to be a superhero as well as a Magus and a CPA. He was a notary public, too. Anyhow, he wanted something that said 'superhero sorcerer.' He was big into marketing."
"That's what I figured. As superhero sorcerer names go, it isn't a bad one. It's a little awkward, but I suppose all the obvious ones were taken. So what was the original family name?"
"I'd rather not tell you."
"I would not."
"You would. I know you would."
"I won't, I swear to God. If I do, you can kill me. I won't laugh, Dana."
"Oh, okay, if you’ll shut up! The original family name was Macabre."
Of course, I immediately proved that Dana had been right about what I would do. I had to hand it to her. Fortunately, before any talk of retribution could commence, we arrived at our destination.
The place looked nothing like it had 12 years ago. If I hadn’t known, I never would have known.
Johnny had been killed on top of a 12-story building. The building was no longer there. Nothing was there. It was a vacant lot. Vacant, that is, but for piles of junk and weeds and other assorted squalid crap. Pretty much what you’d expect to find in a declining downtown area where gentrification never ventured. With one odd exception.
I saw none of the spoor one would expect to find left behind by the city’s homeless. No wine bottles, no cardboard shanties, no discarded clothing, nothing. The only alcoholic derelict in evidence was your humble narrator.
Dana stood still for a few seconds, her eyes screwed shut, biting her lower lip. “Crap,” she whispered. “This is like… Crap…”
“Yes,” I agreed, kicking at a little pile of dry white dog-doo. “It certainly is.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head in annoyance. She opened her eyes. “None of your flippancy, please. This patch of ground is… really, really effed up.”
“Well, see, that’s why you need a Twelfth Level Magus on these trips, so you can get all the technical terms for things.”
“You’re gonna want to quit being snarky,” she said distractedly. I didn’t know what “snarky” was, but I didn’t think I was being it. I had intended the remark as a good-natured jibe, almost a sort of peace offering. But she must have found a barb in it. People frequently do that with me.
I took another pull from my bottle. To my astonishment, Dana snatched it away from me and gulped down a healthy slug of her own. She wiped her lips with her sleeve and handed the bottle back.
“Maybe I’m too judgmental,” she said, gazing out over the lot. “Some stuff is a lot easier to take if you’ve got a bellyful of cleaning fluid.”
“That ‘cleaning fluid’ is 28 bucks a quart, Dana.”
“That’s unconscionable. Only a moron would put that shit into his body. I wouldn’t embalm a corpse with it.”
“You want some more?”
We walked slowly around the lot, Dana twisting her head this way and that, closing and opening her eyes, mumbling under her breath. When we came to the exact center, she looked straight up, jabbing a finger into the air.
“Right there. Something happened right there.”
“Yeah,” I said, distracted in my own way, feeling numb from something other than the booze. “Twelve stories up, twelve years ago. There was a bomb.”
“I know about the bomb. I remember.” Dana was feeling something, a nasty something judging by the look on her face. I didn’t know if it was an echo of what I was feeling, or something else entirely.
“I was eight years old,” she said, standing stock still, rigid forefinger pointing up at nothing. No, not nothing. A day. A moment. A bad one. “I heard about it on the radio. Professor Ulysses Ubik.”
Professor Ubik. The thought of that man still made my flesh crawl.
“He’d been out of jail for two hours,” I said.
Ubik had been jailed the previous week for the awful thing he had done. They had him locked down tight while the police and the district attorney tried to figure out exactly what that awful thing was, and what he should ultimately be charged with. They had him on murder one for shooting the boy, but nobody knew who the boy was. Commander Power had been at the scene shortly before that happened, but eyewitness testimony had been vague and confused.
Ubik had taken a young girl hostage and dragged her up to the roof of the Zenith Opera House of all places. He then threatened to pitch her off that roof unless his demand was met. Just one demand. That Commander Power come there alone. When the demand was broadcast, Commander Power showed up. He and Ubik had exchanged words. No one knew what had been said.
Then there was an explosion.
Then Commander Power was gone, and the boy was there.
Then Ulysses Ubik, scientific genius, mad doctor, inventor of a dozen different death rays and arcane weapons of mass destruction, pulled out a chillingly mundane .38 caliber pistol and shot the boy dead, for no reason anyone could find. The girl hostage managed to squirm out of his grip then and hauled ass to the trapdoor from which they had emerged onto the roof. Ubik himself had not spoken a single word since the incident. Not a burp. He took his right to remain silent very seriously.
After that day, Commander Power was never seen again.
Which was distressing, because Power was one of the big guns. He could fly, he was insanely strong, bullets bounced off him, the works. He was right up there with Tomorrow-Man.
Nobody had known anything about him. Who he really was, where he got his powers. And now he was gone. The whole thing scared the hell out of a lot of people, myself included.
Anyhow, Ubik broke out on a Monday morning. Nobody knew how. By Monday afternoon, Johnny and I had tracked him down. We found him right up there where Dana was pointing. Johnny told me to stay back. I begged him not to go up there. I knew something bad was going to happen. But up he went.
Dana finally let her arm drop and said, “Jack, I don’t know what I’m seeing here.” She shook her head rapidly, as though trying to clear it of something. “I’ve never… I don’t know what this is, but it isn’t death. Not specifically, anyhow. There is treachery. There is pain. There is hate. It just hangs there like a stain. And somebody… something… made a hole. Right up there.” She pointed again. “And something passed through the hole. I don’t know what. I don’t even know whether it came in or went out.
“I need some things. I’m gonna need a copy of the Crowley Grimoire, to begin with. Dammit. I don’t like messing around with that thing. Damn if I know how, but this may…” She shook her head. “No, it just isn’t possible.”
I had no idea what to say. I just stood there waiting for her to continue when I heard a noise. Nothing that would ordinarily give me pause, but it stood out against the eerie silence. Something like paper rustling, or maybe lots of little feet shuffling around in a pile of leaves. I looked around and almost didn’t see anything. But a spot… no, two spots… two bright red spots, barely visible among the overgrown weeds at the edge of the lot. They were bobbing ever so slightly up and down. I couldn’t see what, if anything, they were attached to.
I looked back at Dana. Her head was tipped back and she was motionless, like every bit of her attention had been snagged by that invisible stain in the air.
I looked back at the clump of weeds and I couldn’t tell if the red spots were still there or not. I kind of thought I saw them, but I also kind of thought I didn’t. Then I heard another sound, like metal scraping on metal. I couldn’t tell where it came from.
I was feeling very, very uncomfortable and I turned toward Dana to tell her so and to suggest that we go someplace else for a while. She was standing there, just as she had been seconds before. No, not exactly. Something was wrong. Then I saw it. A rather minor difference, visually, especially in the dark.
There appeared to be a small steel scalpel sticking out of her neck.