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“Satan sum et nihil humanum a me alienum puto.� (I am Satan, and nothing human is alien to me.) - Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Horace Jeffery Hodges

Published by

The Williamsburg Circle


Illustrated by Terrance Lindall


By Horace Jeffery Hodges Illustrated by Terrance Lindall



Story copyright Horace Jeffery Hodges 2013 Art and Design copyright Yuko Nii Foundation 2013 An earlier version of the story appeared in Carter Kaplan’s Emanations: Second Sight ISBN: 978-1-4675-6145-7 Library of Congress Control Number: 2013930113 To play exotic music with this book, click here: CLICK HERE TO SEE THE MOVIE TRAILER:


To my Wife and Children


Acknowledgements The following individuals read this story in manuscript and offered advice: Jae Youn Chung, Wallace L. Daniel, Kent Davy, Herschel Ducker, John L. Heilbron, Bradley Patrick Hodges, Joseph Shannon Hodges, Sa-Rah Ahyoga Hwang, Sun-Ae Hwang, Carter Kaplan, Kevin Kim, Terrance Lindall, Dario Rivarossa, Eli Park Sorensen, Meergul Uzbekistani, John Wells, and Seung-Tae Yang.


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“Satan sum et nihil humanum a me alienum puto.” (I am Satan, and nothing human is alien to me.) (!"#$%&$ . . . '$(# )%*$# "# '$+" )*,-.-#)

- Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Horace Jeffery Hodges 1. Notes from Underground “The devil only knows what desire depends upon . . .” THE WORLD SOMETIMES just declines to cooperate with my good intentions. I had been drinking a bit more than my wife thought reasonable for my health and our pocketbook, and after a close encounter with a breathalyzer that I managed to confound by sheer dint of will, I bowed to her legalistic position on laws against drunk driving and even agreed to stop drinking altogether. I didn’t intend to pursue the twelve-step route to complete spiritual indoctrination, so I resolved to quit entirely on my own. But I reasoned that such a significant occasion called for a drink, and I wanted that drink to be extraordinary, even unforgettable. My wife grudgingly acceded to my desire for just one more bottle to celebrate my decision, and I began to wander the town looking for that perfect beer.

Duis Sed Sapien



Illustrated by Terrance Lindall My quest took me down to an old part of the city that I’d never seen before, and I was surprised at its narrow and twisting, cobblestone streets. The area looked vaguely European, too archaic for the New World. At length, on a back street that twisted like a wandering maze, only to decline into a dead end, I came Nunc Etabove Orci Morbi upon a shop whose door was a metal arrowPosuere extending, sharp point outward, perpendicular to the shop’s façade and from whose shaft, suspended by two hooks, was a small sign bearing some rather puzzling words in Gothic script that I managed to make out after a fair bit of close inspection… Page





OUR BACK’S RATSKELLER, MR. FALAND EM PROPRIETOR I could at first only imagine an exterminator of rats, but the word was not “Ratskiller.” Definitely “Ratskeller.” Was it a misspelling? Curious, I attempted to peer through the window, but the shop was dark, and I could make out nothing of the vague room’s shape, nor of anyone within, nothing distinguishable in member, joint, or limb, just seemingly insubstantial shadow.


Overwhelmed with curiosity, I tried the door and found it unlocked, so I entered. The room was indeed dark, and there seemed no electrical lighting, nor any switch near the door, though I fumbled for one. Gradually, my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, allowing weak light filtering in through the front window to provide sufficient illumination. I still saw no one present.


C 8

“Mr. Em?” I called out, though weakly, unsure I should be in the shop. I waited a moment and was ready to turn facilisi. and leaveNulla when I heard a creaking to the Mauris laoreet aliquet left. I looked in that direction mi. and in the midst of dim obscurity glimpsed a tall form entering the room through a door that had been pushed open. Or I thought the form tall; as it limped toward me, it seemed to diminish in height. “A man?” I wondered. As I looked more closely, the form appeared no longer to limp. I accounted my errors in vision to a trick of the poor lighting. “Mr. Em?” I asked the form. “Yes,” came the reply in a smooth, rich baritone, a lovely voice with a wisp of smoke in its timbre. “I’m Mr. Em. How might I help you?” He had by now crossed the room, more quickly than expected, and I seemed to catch the slight hint of a foreign accent.


“Well . . .” I hesitated. “I D really don’t want to trouble you.” I looked him over, trying not to stare, but the person was somehow compelling. He had very dark eyes, though the room was not welllit enough to judge clearly, but I hazard toA. sayVestibulum that the irisquam. of each eye was fully as dark as its pupil. Like deep wells into which one might stumble. His hair was dark, too, jet black. In contrast, his skin was light, though not fair. One might find him handsome. I thought some woman might, some eve or other, find him seductive. He looked to be in his forties, and he waited patiently, perhaps accustomed to being looked at. “I don’t really wish to trouble you,” I repeated. “Oh, it’s no trouble at all,” he assured, putting me entirely at ease. “I was wondering about the name,” I said. “The name?” He sounded puzzled. “Yes, this shop’s name.” “Ah, I see. You mean ‘Our Back’s Ratskeller.’” “Yes.” 9


“Well, it should more correctly say ‘Our Back C Ratskeller,’ but the ones who made the sign weren’t proficient in English. ‘Our Back’ refers to this shop’s location here at the back end of the street.” “I was particularly curious about ‘Ratskeller,’” I admitted. Mr. Em smiled sympathetically. “Ah, that. My apologies. I should have understood. The word is German. ‘Keller’ is the same word as ‘cellar,’ and ‘Rat’ is short for ‘Rathaus,’ or ‘city hall.’ It refers to the basement of a city hall. Beer was traditionally served in such places.”

C. Vestibulum quam.

“Beer?” I echoed, surprised. “Oh, yes. Beer,” he affirmed. “It’s conducive to discussion. Think of how much advice bartenders offer when talking to drinkers. There’s even an English philosopher who has scrutinized the culture of alcohol and claims that virtuous drinking has contributed to the Western tradition of democratic rule because it loosens the tongue without loss of reason.” I stared at the one standing before me. Who was this individual, I wondered? Was he from England? He’d mentioned some English fellow, yet I hadn’t caught an English accent. But there was definitely some obscure hint of an accent, though he spoke with fluency. I glanced about the room, seeking some national clue . . . a flag, a map, a C foreign book, but nothing. At that moment, I saw the cat. It was an enormous, black tomcat, heavy, nearly as large as a hog, sprawled out in an armchair and apparently napping. The fellow noted where I was looking “Oh, don’t mind Behemoth,” he assured. “My friend is harmless . . . for the most part.” I stared at the oddly named, grotesquely large cat and vaguely remembered from some history course a book of that title about Nazi Germany. I looked again at the stranger beside me and recalled the detailed Ratskeller explanation. “Are you German?” I asked. “No, no,” he replied, then fell to thinking and reconsidered. “Yes, perhaps I am German.” Bewildered, I sought familiar ground. “You mentioned beer.” “Yes, I did.” He smiled again, an encouraging smile. “Why?” “I’m looking for a fine beer. I need the best. Do you deal in beer? I mean . . . this being a Ratskeller.” “Certainly. Precisely what we deal in. We have an excellent stock of truly magnificent beers. What, might I ask, is the occasion?” “I’m a little embarrassed to say,” I admitted, “but I plan on drinking just one more bottle of beer and then swearing off alcohol.” F 10

“Ah,” he remarked, his voice full of proper sympathy. “I see.” He considered the complicated situation for a few long moments, as though scanning with his mind’s eye an endless list of potential beers. Finally, he focused again on me. “I believe we have just the one for you, something we call ‘Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar.’ In the Triple B selection, naturally.”




“Triple B?” “Oh, goodness, but I’m not being clear, am I? The Triple B is our Bottomless Bottle of Beer.” I stared at the stranger. What was he talking about? What in hell was a Bottomless Bottle of Beer? Was the odd fellow joking? How could a bottle without a bottom ever hold beer? He seemed to understand my visible perplexity. “Come,” he beckoned. “We have several below, down in the cellar.” He turned toward the door to the left, and I followed into a narrow hallway lit by candlelight. As we passed through the doorway, he said, “Behemoth, close the door behind us, please.” I looked back and from the dim, yellow light saw that the huge cat was following close behind. The creature appeared to be dropping down onto four feet, as though it had been standing fully erect on its hind legs to pull the door to. That was surely an optical illusion, but how had the cat tugged the door shut? “Watch your step,” cautioned Mr. Em, drawing my attention from the cat.


The narrow hallway began a steep descent by stone steps as the left wall abruptly ended in darkness, leaving the steps to descend along a narrow ledge. I followed carefully, keeping to the remaining wall, but glancing fearfully into the abyss of darkness to my left. The steps continued their descent, growing darker, then brighter as we ventured from one candlelit spot to the next. I found myself wondering who maintained all the candles. Mr. Em had mentioned others responsible for the shop sign, but that number would surely be small, no more than two, maybe three. Far too few for the scores of candles. “What the hell am I doing here?” I muttered, considering whether to complain. A prospective customer surely ought to be served, not made to wander dangerously along the margin of such utter darkness, where a single false step would send one plunging confounded from the light, however dim. I had just opened my mouth to express my reservation when Mr. Em announced, “Ah, here we are.” I looked and saw that while the ledge kept descending, we had stepped down onto a landing, a pause in the descent. The wall to our right was hollowed out into an unilluminated room whose entrance was blocked by a massive portcullis. 13

Mr. Em gestured with a downward motion. “Would you please open that for us?” I naturally assumed he was speaking to me, but as I prepared to protest that I knew nothing of such infernal devices, I heard chains clanking and gears grinding, metal against metal, as with impetuous recoil and jarring sound, the portcullis began forthwith to screech its way rapidly up. I looked behind me and saw with astonishment that Behemoth was pulling down on a great chain, the large cat’s claws hooked into two of its links. At that very moment, I began to think of Behemoth more as person than cat, like a short, stocky fellow in a catsuit, and I watched as he quickly drew the chain down, unhooked the lower claws from their link and reached high to rehook those same claws into another link, all the time continuing to pull as he alternated paw over paw. When the heavy grating had been harshly and completely raised, Behemoth caught one of the chain’s big links onto an iron hook set firmly in the stone landing, and the portcullis remained open. The room must have been very large, and it was seemingly markedly darker even than the abyss now behind us, for though my vision was no longer disturbed by the grating of the now high updrawn portcullis, there stretched out before us a dark illimitable ocean without bound, without dimension, where length, breadth, and height, and time and place were lost, or so it seemed, but the undaunted Mr. Em took up an unlit torch from among several lying on the floor, ignited it from the flame of a nearby candle, and motioned me to advance. “Stay close beside me, within this light.” I saw that Behemoth remained behind, as if to guard the opened way, but against what? Mr. Em strode forth with remarkable alacrity. I hurried to follow close behind, wondering how he knew his direction in such thick darkness, by what angle’s ken he judged, but we hadn’t proceeded far when he stopped so suddenly, I very nearly crashed into him. “Yes, here it is,” he declared. He extended the torch into what seemed a nook, but a nook within what, I was unable to determine. We entered the small alcove, where Mr. Em located a hole in the wall at arm’s length above our heads and slipped the torch handle in. Apparently, it was designed for that. I then saw lining the walls of this small room hundreds, maybe thousands of bottles, each one corked, like wine. “Wines?” I guessed. “Why, no,” Mr. Em softly murmured, as though reluctant to contradict. “These are corked beers.” I peered more closely in the flickering torch light. What he said was true. Not only were the bottles stubbier than most wine bottles, their labels identified them as beers in the broadest sense: ales, wheats, porters, stouts, whatever sort one might care to tally. “These all look old,” I remarked. “They must have lost carbonation from their long storage.” “None,” he assured. “What about cork rot?” “Never.” “Never?” I challenged.


“Our firm guarantee,” he promised. “Contract immediately dissolved if that should happen.” I looked at him, puzzled. Who would ever contract for a beer? Were these so expensive? “The bottles can also be recorked if you’re momentarily satiated and wish to return to the beer later,” he added. “Just press the cork back in.” That was simply too much. If there were a good beer’s worth of carbonation, the cork would pop right out. I looked more closely at the bottles. The corks were held in place by nothing at all. There could certainly be no carbonation in these dusty old bottles. Mr. Em seemed to read my thoughts. “Let me assure you with more than words,” he said, selecting a bottle and holding it up in his left hand. “Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar,” he declared, “exactly as promised.” I studied the proffered article. The bottle was covered with dust and tangled with cobwebs. No beer could possibly stay good that long. It would be flat and long since turned. “No thanks,” I retorted. “We might have spared our coming here. I wouldn’t taste or touch that stuff.” Mr. Em drew himself up to his full height. I shrank back involuntarily. “Can you,” he queried solicitously, “already drink no further drink? Is one last beer then forbidden you?” “Of course not!” I protested. “I can drink any bottle of beer I wish so long as the beer is good. This one is obviously bad.” “Ah,” he murmured, “opportunity lost is opportunity cost, and you have been misled. Corked beer of this sort keeps its taste and effervescence forever, as I have already promised. What do the beer snobs know?...


…They care only for their reputation and influence, and would keep you low and ignorant that you might revere their great knowledge of beer and denigrate yourself. Oh, yes, they and their great knowledge.” Mr. Em, waxing indignant at the wrong done to a beer lover like me, seemed to grow in zeal and passion. “Those great snobs know that if they not let you taste the beers they forbid, you shall never truly know beers good and bad, nor the real distinction between virtuous and vicious drinking. But just one sip of this, and your eyes that seem so clear, but are yet dim, shall perfectly be then opened and fully cleared, and you shall know all these things. Believe me, for I have tasted and now know. Or --” he said, popping the cork, which made a satisfying whump, proof of strong carbonation, “-- take some, and freely taste for yourself.” Could the odd fellow be right, I wondered? He was right about the carbonation. But the flavor? Surely that had turned. I then caught a whiff of the beer’s fine bouquet carrying with it a promise of great pleasure for the tongue, and I suddenly realized how thirsty I was from so much walking, not only outside, earlier, but especially down those long steps. Moreover, I’d had no alcohol for several days while searching for the perfect beer. I desired a drink. Was there a downside to this? Surely, the drink would not kill me. I reached for the bottle. “There’s just one more thing,” Mr. Em admitted, sounding diffident as he drew the bottle back out of reach. Somewhat cross, I stood there, my hand stretched forth and suspended in the emptiness, grasping nothing. “What?” I groused. “Once you have tasted this beer,” explained Mr. Em, enunciating his words carefully, “you will not be able to stop, so you first need to fully understand the precise conditions for taking possession of this drink before its spirit takes possession of you.” What an odd manner of speaking, I thought. But the fellow was a foreigner. Nor could I deny sometimes acting like a man possessed after a few drinks too many. “What manner of conditions?” I inquired. “Well . . .” he mused, as though waiting for the proper words, “I’m a collector of curiosities. I’m not in this business for material reasons, but you might say I have spiritual needs. Yes, that might be the best way to put it. I deal in spirits.” A curt nod of his head indicated the countless bottles, and I noticed the room was larger than I had initially perceived. “In return for the spirits I offer, I ask a spirit from you.” He extended the index finger of his left hand in my direction, the other fingers wrapped firmly about the Shoggoth’s.

“I’ve nothing to trade,” I confessed. “I’m out of alcohol.” “Not that sort of spirit from you,” he said, “just your spirit.” I was baffled. “My spirit?” “Yes,” he confirmed. “Yours.” He offered a smile of gentle irony and added. “I understand your confusion. After all, what is a human spirit? I’m told it’s nothing, and perhaps that’s true.” The fellow paused, giving me a chance to interrupt. “My human spirit,” I said. “You mean something like my soul?” “You might say that,” he acknowledged. “Do you have one?” “Metaphorically speaking, I suppose I do,” I replied, giving myself time to think. After all, what did these words “spirit” and “soul” mean? Did they even refer to the same thing? What kind of thing, anyway? I had never given the matter much thought. There was soul music and soul food, but that just meant something ethnic. If I thought of my own soul, it seemed to have some connection to my feelings. As for spirit, I could only think of things like team spirit or school spirit. Those seemed to mean a kind of energy . . . maybe like “spirited”? Feelings? Energy? Not much difference between the two, really. Both rather fleeting, insubstantial. “You don’t seem to want very much,” I finally observed, though I felt a slight unease about his intentions. “As you say . . .” he conceded, and beckoned me to a shagreen-topped table, previously unnoticed, about which were positioned a couple of chairs. I sat down as he placed the uncorked bottle there on the flat, carefully burnished surface of Oriental leather and opened a drawer from which he produced two large sheets of paper. In artistically beautiful and large calligraphy were written the following terms: The undersigned contractee agrees, in exchange for possession of the spirit of a bottomless bottle of beer, to tender to the contractor, Mr. Faland Em, possession of the spirit of the contractee. Below this agreement on each sheet were the words “Contractee,” “Contractor,” and “Witness.” “Witness?” I remarked, looking about. “Is Behemoth going to come and sign, as well?” “No, certainly not!” replied Mr. Em, looking aghast. “Cats are slippery, ambiguous creatures who never mean what they say and thus cannot be trusted with contracts. Especially Behemoth. Besides, he has difficulty grasping fine pens, and his signature is illegible. I like a clean, clear contract.” He pointed to the two sheets, evidently (or so it seemed to me) with pride at their unstained beauty, then added, “As witness, we have Azazello.”

I looked up from the contracts and was nearly startled from my chair at the abrupt appearance of a third individual seated alongside the table in a third chair. His sudden presence was frightening enough, but far worse were his looks, for one eye pierced me to the core, but the other, as if askew, gazed steadily at something unseen, and though his mouth was grimly shut, a single sharp tooth -- one might even say a fang -- protruded over his lower lip, lending the fellow a menacing appearance. My alarm must have shown, for Mr. Em reassured me. “Oh, don’t worry about Azazello. He’s entirely reliable. Why, one time in Moscow . . .” Mr. Em began, then seemed to reconsider and decide not to recount the anecdote. “But I don’t wish to take up your valuable time with tiresome stories of faraway adventures. Let us proceed so that you might enjoy your drink.”

I remembered my powerful thirst, further whetted by the ambrosial ambiance with which the Old Peculiar’s fine bouquet had filled the room. “Do you have a pen?” I asked. “Not exactly,” replied Mr. Em. “We have a pin instead.” Uncomprehending, I looked at him and saw that he was holding a long, sharp pin. “It’s to draw a little blood.” This was beginning to sound creepy, and I wondered if I should back out, but I again recalled my intense thirst and inhaled once more the wonderful bouquet. “Blood?” I said. “Instead of ink? Why?” I’d heard of sacred oaths signed in blood, of course, but I had never taken such stories seriously. They were just stories. “Why blood?” Mr. Em replied, nodding. “Yes, good question. Why indeed? Well, there’s a venerable old view that ‘the blood is the life.’ You might have heard the expression.” I shook my head. “Regrettable,” he observed. “Wisdom of the ancients should never be neglected. I can, however, briefly explain. One ancient view -- a view I’ve long shared -- is that the seat of the soul is the blood, indeed the blood itself is the soul. If we take ‘spirit’ as synonym for ‘soul,’ then you see what I’m intimating.” “Not entirely,” I admitted. “By signing in blood,” he explained, “you are offering a promissory note on your agreement to provide your spirit.” “I see.” I didn’t especially like the suggestion, or demand, for my blood, even if merely a small amount, but my great thirst had by now grown overpowering. “Fine,” I agreed. “Excellent,” Mr. Em announced. “Let us, as I earlier said, proceed.”

Azazello seemed to know precisely what to do, almost as if the procedure were routine. He rose from his chair and wordlessly came to me, took the ring finger of my left hand, squeezed hard above the final joint, and jabbed the tip while squeezing more firmly so that the blood oozed forth and, much to my wonderment, into what turned out to be a hollow pin. Upon judging it full, he stopped and held the pin out for me to accept. I took it.

“Now,” instructed Mr. Em, “sign your name.” The small pin, now a pen, was awkward to hold and manipulate, but I managed to twice scribble my signature, even, much to my surprise, quite beautifully. I watched as the steaming, bright red blood quickly darkened, congealed, and began to harden. Mr. Em and the person known as Azazello produced hollow pins of their own, also drew blood, and signed twice their names with their own lovely penmanship. We waited until all three calligraphic signatures on each of the two sheets had dried. “Good, very good,” was Mr. Em’s judgment. He took the contracts, rolled them up and tied each, then returned one to the drawer but handed the other over to me. “Here,” he said. Azazello remained silent, but placed upon the table before me a large glass that I first took for a nonic, before peering more closely and finding it too ornate for that. “A Belgian Tulip?” I wondered, noticing its stem. Large enough for a pint, it was hardly a nonic. Mr. Em drew me from such thoughts, pointed to the Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar across the table, and prompted, “Reach, then, and freely taste.”

I fixed my gaze on the drink, reflecting that this proffered taste hadn’t come quite so freely as I had initially anticipated, but to obtain an entire bottle for a few drops of blood was surely a good bargain and therefore a wise choice. So thinking, I reached across the table in that moment and plucked the oddly heavy bottle from where it invitingly sat. Intent now wholly on a taste and regarding nothing else, I poured the big glass full to the brim with the heavy, dark beer and took a sip. It had the kind of flavor that one could describe as full-bodied, but there was also a possible hint, strangely enough, of something eldritch and gamey . . . something redolent of goat. Maybe satyrical? Was that even a word? And where had I picked up “eldritch”? I sipped again. No, no gamey taste at all. I had been in error. The flavor was delightful, as if the brewed barley had come from a perfect garden of earthly delights…

…Whether the bottle was truly so good, or merely fancied as such due to my thirst, I now drank greedily, without restraint, knowing not the drinking depth of that bottle, which easily filled the glass a second time full, again to the brim with the dark, strong beer. Downing it all, I poured another, and another, and another. Satiate at length and heightened with the alcohol, jocund and boon, feeling as though all of nature were as trembling with intoxication as myself, I thought, “Ah, virtuous drink, I now know, what I earlier held in obscure infamy, defaming at a glance Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar, to be a blessing in disguise, for experience is the best teacher of wisdom in this, as in all things…

…I recorked the bottle, still surprisingly heavy, and stumbled off up the steps and out the front door as if the way down had not been so far, nor do I recall being accompanied by any of the three odd acquaintances I had met, though I must say that in my peculiar, spirited state of mind, I was having difficulty keeping apart their faces, not to mention their names. As I made my way along the scenic, charming, and delightful old cobblestone streets of that odd part of town, I had only the bloody contract, the weighty brown bottle, and my pleasing intoxication to remind me that I hadn’t dreamt the entire affair. By the time I reached home, dusk was falling, and all the pleasure had worn off. In fact, my head was pounding, and a bad, vaguely gamey taste pervaded my mouth. I felt as though I’d come down from a week-long drunk and awakened on a cold hillside with a hangover from an oppressive sleep encumbered by conscious dreams. My wife met me at the door, but said nothing, visibly annoyed at my late return. I mumbled words about finding a beer to celebrate my alcoholic decision, feeling worn out from all the walking around on my quest, and needing to hit the sack early for rest and recovery. I put the beer in our fridge, but hid the contract among my documents because I suspected that my wife wouldn’t approve of what it stated. I fell into bed exhausted, and was soon fast asleep.

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I AWOKE THE NEXT MORNING with a vague but disquieting sense of buyer’s remorse, not just from a malingering hangover that refused to get up and leave, though I felt it should’ve long been gone, but from something else troubling my mind. How had I managed to drink so much? I tried to recount the number to myself. The first posed no difficulty, nor did number two, but numbers three, four, and five threatened to slip away, and numbers six and beyond, if they existed, now slept deep in oblivion. Something was wrong, though. The bottle couldn’t have held even five pints. Four alone made half a gallon, but that stubby bottle contained less than a quart. I dismissed three, four, and five as imaginary drinks. But two was no imaginary number. Had I truly filled that big glass a second time entirely to the brim? No, I concluded. Numbers don’t lie. The bottle was definitely smaller than a quart jar, so there couldn’t have been two pints. My second drink had simply foamed up to the brim, merely seemed full. Probably half foam. The beer had been strong, I remembered. That first pint must’ve gone to my head. A pint and a half, I judged. That was what I’d had. The bottle would be empty now. But why so heavy? Thick glass? For carbonation? Yet . . . the cork had no brace. Odd. I got out of bed and went to the fridge. My wife was at the breakfast table, drinking coffee. Her eyes narrowed as I took the bottle out. “You’re not going to drink already, are you? At nine on a Sunday morning?” “The bottle’s empty,” I said. But it still felt heavy. I set it on the table. “You drank it yesterday?” “Apparently.” “Don’t be coy,” she said, annoyance creeping into her voice. “I’m not being coy,” I protested. “I don’t remember finishing the bottle, but I must have.”

“You don’t remember?” She grew suspicious. “How many other bottles did you finish?” “None.” “None?” “Scout’s honor,” I vowed, raising my right hand to form the Scout sign. “The brew was strong.” My wife glanced at the bottle. “How strong?” “I don’t know,” I replied, pulling out a chair and sitting down, the bottle between us. I leaned forward to check. “I don’t see it given, either.” My wife reached out to take the bottle and check for herself, but she had no sooner lifted it from the table than she set it back down again and rubbed her wrist, grimacing ruefully. “What’s wrong? Is it so heavy?” “It’s heavy, yes,” she confirmed, “but I don’t like that bottle. Anyway, are you sure it’s empty?” “Let’s see.” I popped the cork to an unexpected whump. “What the hell!” I exclaimed. “Doesn’t sound empty,” she remarked. I stared at the bottle as our kitchen filled with the familiar ambrosial bouquet. “Strange smell,” she added, wrinkling her nose. “Not quite like beer. It doesn’t smell bad, but there’s something in this I really don’t care for.” I slid the bottle over to my side of the table and looked down into its mouth. Too dark. I got up and went to the kitchen counter. “What are you doing?” asked my wife. I pulled a drawer open. “Looking for that small penlight.” “Try the next drawer.” I did and found it. Returning to the table, I sat down and flicked the light on, directing its concentrated beam through the mouth and down the neck. Still nothing. Dark as a deep well. “See anything?” “Not a thing,” I muttered.

“Nothing? It’s empty?” “I mean I can’t see at all. The light doesn’t illuminate anything. Neither beer nor bottom.” “Maybe the beer’s too dark.” “Maybe,” I conceded. I pressed the cork back in and tilted the bottle to look more carefully at its label, reading aloud, “Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar.” “What?” “Shoggoth’s,” I repeated, adding, “Old Peculiar.” “What’s ‘Shoggoth’?” she asked. “The brewer?” “Don’t know,” I admitted. “Never heard of a brewer by that name.” “Sounds Irish.” “Or German,” I suggested. “Like the Goths.” “Goths? Aren’t they those weird people who like to pierce themselves with safety pins?” “I meant the original Goths. A German tribe.” “Germans have tribes?” “Two thousand years ago, they did,” I explained. My wife gave me a skeptical look. “This bottle doesn’t look quite that old.” “The fellow who sold it said he might be German.” “Might be German?” Her tone was ironic. “The evidence is overwhelming. And, of course, a German would sell only German beers.” “Okay,” I conceded, “but I don’t think this is Irish.” “Show me the label.” I turned the bottle around for her to see. “Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar. Well, it’s in English, so it’s probably not an import from Germany.” She peered more closely. “It’s Irish. See the leprechauns!” “Leprechauns?” I looked closely and saw two small creatures drawn dancing. Their torsos were shirtless, their legs hairy. I looked closer. “Aren’t those horns and hooves? These aren’t leprechauns. They’re satyrs.” I showed her. “Okay,” she accepted, “so they’re not leprechauns, and the beer maybe isn’t Irish. Where’s it from, then?” “Hold on,” I said. “There’s some small print. What’s it say?” She looked where I was pointing. “Too small,” she said and got up to retrieve a magnifying glass from the penlight drawer. We both peered through the glass as she held it close to the bottle and adjusted its nearness. “Nonredeemable,” I read. “Well, that’s no help. Oh, wait . . . Innsmouth, England.” She nodded agreement. We both considered the source. “Never heard of the place,” she finally admitted. Nor had I, though I didn’t let on. One place or another, what did it matter? “But I wish you’d just toss that bottle in the recycling bin,” she added. “Maybe I should,” I said. “It must be empty. What we smelled were surely fumes.” I took the heavy bottle from the table and dropped it into the bin for glass, relieved with my wife’s suggestion…

…I spent the rest of the morning stretched out in an easy chair and reading the Sunday edition of The Times. Several leisurely hours. Ran out of sports coverage and business news. Scanned other pages. Skimmed a long article about a coup in some obscure country. “Devil You Know,” or some such title. Also happened to look at a review of works by Walter Mosley, some writer of hardboiled detective stories. Interesting stuff about one of his novels, Devil in a Blue Dress, I think. I vaguely wondered if I ought to get a copy. Maybe it was like Dashiell Hammett’s books if it had a hard-boiled style. I wasn’t big on stories, but I liked that sort and reflected that being a private eye would have suited me since I quickly pick up on clues . . .

As I was considering this, I heard my wife exclaim, “What! I thought you tossed this in the recycling!” “Hmmm?” “This bottle!” “What bottle?” I asked. “Your Shoggoth’s,” she replied. “That’s with the recycling,” I reminded. “No,” she informed me. “You forgot and stuck it back in the fridge.” “Impossible!” I exclaimed, astonished. I clambered from my chair and joined my wife at the refrigerator. There sat the bottle of Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar. I could only stare. Was I going crazy? “That can’t be here!” I finally cried. “But there it is,” my wife insisted. My eyes didn’t lie. I then looked at her, my turn to be suspicious. “You put it there, didn’t you? To play a trick on me.” My wife gazed at me a long time, as though intent on reading my mind. “No trick,” she finally said, her voice even. I stared at her, then at the beer, in consternation. I took the bottle from the fridge and dropped it again in the bin. “There,” I announced, “you see! You’re a witness this time!” “Good,” she said. “Make sure it stays there.” She turned to close the fridge door, but stopped and gasped. “Now what?” I asked. For a long moment, she said nothing, then turned to look at me, her eyes narrowing from dumbfounded surprise to hard suspicion. “Didn’t you claim you’d gotten just one last bottle?” “Claim?” I said, annoyed. “Spoken like a true-blue lawyer. But yes, just one. Why?” “What’s this, then?” she demanded, pointing into the refrigerator with her left hand. I went to stand beside her, and stared in shock. Within the refrigerator was a Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar. “This can’t be,” I muttered…

…My thoughts turned to the day before. Had I been so drunk as to bring along an extra Shoggoth’s? Without noticing? I took the bottle out. “I don’t remember this,” I said, as much to myself as my wife. I set the beer on the table and returned to the bin. “What are you doing now?” my wife asked. “Comparing.” I rummaged in the bin. “You want to taste both?” “Not the flavor. The bottles, but I can’t find it.” “The first bottle?” “Yeah.” “Men can never find anything,” she complained, and came over to look. She looked long into the bin, saying nothing. Finally, she bent over and rummaged herself. “Odd,” she said after some time, clearly baffled. “I can’t find it either. I don’t think it’s here.” We looked at each other, then slowly turned to stare at the bottle sitting on the table. “No way,” I said. We went to the table together. I picked the bottle up and inspected its label. “Looks the same.” “It is the same,” said my wife, also looking quite carefully. “It’s the very same bottle.” “You sure?” “Yes. See that smudged letter ‘B’? I noticed that before.” “This is weird,” I said. “It’s more than weird,” she retorted. “It’s downright uncanny.” “There must be some trick to it,” I insisted. “Right,” my wife agreed, without conviction. “No, really,” I insisted. “I read once about scientists who managed to teleport a photon. That was a few years ago. It must be perfected by now. They could probably teleport a man from here to Yalta in a nanosecond. Like in Star Trek. You know,” I reminded her. “Beam me up, Scotty.” My wife looked at me as if I were insane. “Sure,” she said. “The scientists have perfected the technique and are now using it to transport this bottle from our recycling bin to our refrigerator. For some reason, they don’t want us to recycle it.” “You make it sound crazy.” “Crazy is how it sounds!” I thought it over. “You’re right,” I admitted. “But how did this bottle get back into the fridge?”

“I’ve no idea,” she said, “but I want that bottle out of here.” “How?” “Is it really empty? Maybe it has to be empty.” “That’s as crazy as my idea.” “But is it empty?” “It must be!” “Open it again,” she said. “Fine,” I said, pulling the cork out. Whump went the bottle. I stared. “See?” Despite her rising tone, the word was no question. She went and took a pint glass from the drinks cabinet. “Here.” She set the glass on the table, near the Old Peculiar. I tilted the bottle, and out came the dark, heavy beer. I poured until the glass was entirely filled to its very brim. My wife looked at the drink, then at me. “Bottoms up.” I followed directions, turning the bottom of my glass ever higher as I drank the jet-black, viscous brew. Again the initial hint of goat, quickly drowned out by the delightful garden. Draining the glass, I immediately poured another. Then a third, and I began to feel a hint of the previous day’s heightened sensation, though more as enticing memory and distinct craving. “Stop!” ordered my wife. Something in her voice I’d never heard before, possibly an undertone of panic, brought me to my senses and my drinking to a halt. “What did you pay for this?” she asked. I looked into her eyes, saw the pupils constricted . . . not with suspicion this time, but what? With fear? Cautiously, I explained, “I didn’t exactly pay anything.” “You mean,” she concluded, “it was free?” “Not quite. I traded.” “Traded what?” “The Old Peculiar . . .” I hesitated. “The Old Peculiar for a few drops of my blood.” My wife turned pale, and I worried she might faint, but she steeled herself, her training as a lawyer standing her in good stead. “Why,” she asked, “was your blood needed?” “To sign a contract with Mr. Em,” I admitted. Again, my wife turned pale. “A contract? With a Mr. ‘M’? What’s the initial stand for?” “That’s no initial,” I explained. “It’s a name -capital ‘E,’ small ‘m.’” “And you signed in blood?” she asked. “We each signed in blood.” “You and Mr. Em,” she stated. “And Azazello,” I added. “The witness.” “Ass . . . Azello?” “Just a single word. Azazello.” “An Italian?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “You have a copy of this contract?” asked my wife. “Yes.” I went to retrieve it from my things. “Here,” I said, upon returning, and handed her the contract. She took the document, untied the string and unrolled the paper, flattening it upon the table, and quickly read it, then frowned. “Your spirit?” “Yeah, but that’s nothing, right?” “Right,” she conceded, “but I still wouldn’t trade it. Certainly not without knowing what Mr. Em means by ‘spirit.’ He uses the word twice, but in different ways. Once as alcohol, the other as . . . as what? It’s not clear.” “Oh,” I explained, “he means my blood. He told me he believes blood is spirit.” “You traded your blood?” she said, looking aghast. “In a manner of speaking,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant. “I’m not sure Mr. Em meant it literally.” “You’re not sure,” she said, “but you don’t know. Well, do you know when he wants your ‘spirit’?” “Uh, not really, no. I presume at the end of my life.” “If he takes it,” she pointed out, “wouldn’t that be the end of your life?” I hadn’t thought of that. Why hadn’t I thought of that? But he can’t take something that doesn’t exist, I thought, like my ‘spirit.’ But what if my wife were right and he wanted my actual blood? There was that thing about the promissory note. I suddenly recalled Azazello’s tooth and shivered. But I didn’t think he was a vampire. Of course, he couldn’t be. Vampires didn’t exist. The supernatural didn’t exist. But what about the eerie bottle? How explain that? My wife was also thinking about the bottle. “You traded your spirit, or your blood, for that bottomless bottle of beer?” “I didn’t know what that expression meant. I couldn’t imagine it meant a bottle of beer that would never run dry!” “And you didn’t ask?” “Even if I had, I’d’ve thought Mr. Em a joker, a trickster of some sort. Scientific law says you can’t get something from nothing,” I reminded her, “but that’s what would have to happen if a bottle were to hold endless amounts of beer.” “But that’s what is happening,” she pointed out, “and you know that you also can’t get something for nothing. There is no free lunch. Your spirit must be endlessly valuable to Mr. Em if he was willing to barter that endless bottle for it.” She had a point. Whatever Mr. Em meant by spirit, he must really have wanted mine very badly. I managed to quell the incipient panic threatening to rise from within the pit of my stomach, and asked, “What should I do?” “You’ve got to get out of this contract,” she declared. “How?” “I don’t know,” she said. “I’ll ask some of the lawyers at work what they’d do. I can pretend it’s a hypothetical case -- or a real case I was asked about.”


MY WIFE CAME HOME from work the following day to say that she had a strongly recommended contact. “I asked an expert on business law about getting out of contracts. He asked what sort of contract. When I explained, he didn’t even bat an eye, just said he’d heard of such business agreements before. They seem to be far more common than you’d think.” “He can help us?” “You mean help you?” she retorted. “I’m no party to your agreement, am I? You surely didn’t put me up as collateral!” “Of course not.” “Thank God for that,” she remarked, her tone ironic. “Anyway, he can’t help, but he knew someone who might be able to. He promised to call and get back to me. I was surprised when he dropped by my office within half an hour to give me a contact number. The man’s name is Dan Webster, and he can meet you Wednesday afternoon at three in Café Griboyedov’s.” “Griboy . . . yedov, say what?” “I’d never heard of it, either, but it’s apparently a Russian café downtown,” she said. A Russian café? I wondered. Russians have cafés? I pushed the thought aside and asked, “You spoke with this fellow, Webster?” “By phone. He wants you to bring the contract and the bottle.” “Anything else?” “No. Except be prompt.” “Prompt, hell. I’ll be early,” I promised.


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Bottomless Bottle of Beer