In the pocket of his tailored suit, his mobile buzzes. He doesn’t answer. A cocktail of adrenaline, sparkling wine, and ecstasy thrums hot and loud between his temples like the syncopated voice of God. Breathless, he replies, “Don’t stop. Whatever you do, don’t stop…”
He comes, and a thousand gold and silver party balloons descend upon the jubilant crowd. Again, his mobile buzzes. This time he picks up. “Niko speaking. This had better be good.”
“Nicolas? Nicolas, c’est toi?”
He recognizes the tremulous twang of his kid sister, Solange, immediately. “Yes. Oui, Solange, it’s me. What’s wrong?”
“C’est maman. Il y avait un accident…” Her voice is lost amid the rising pandemonium.
The young man still on his knees wipes his beautiful mouth and watches as Niko buckles his trousers and hastens from the coat check room without so much as a goodnight kiss. He barges out into the honey-coloured light and relative silence of the mezzanine beyond, the words “Hey! Fuck you, pal!” barely registering from behind. The scrolled railing steadies him. Two hundred pounds of tot muscle suddenly gelatinous.
Solange comes through clear as a bell now, but all his brain can register is radio static. Behind the static, the voices of those conspiracy theorists on television talking about Y2K. Nuclear Armageddon. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but—
He surveys the hotel around him, the resplendent lobby below. Nothing and nobody. No harbinger of End Times. No herald of impending doom. Just a Christmas tree bedecked with white bulbs aglow, towering past him toward a vaulted ceiling. There, at the summit, a pensive angel spreads her wings and smiles mysteriously.
Niko glances toward the darkroom and the red bulb glowing just above the lintel.
He waits, wanders the spotless white studio, pauses beside the glass wall overlooking a hazy metropolitan skyline. He thinks back to summer of ’92.
He was in those days a bouncer at The Cherry Pit, a popular nightclub in Toronto’s burgeoning Gay Village. On a certain Saturday night, a patron was found bloodied and bruised in one of the toilet stalls. He described his assailants to Niko, who later that same night found them passing around a bottle under the neon sign of an all-night diner. The tallest and seemingly drunkest among them still sported their victim’s blood on the laces of his motorcycle boots.
They spotted Niko walking slowly toward them across the rain-slick parking lot. They might have run had they seen the brass knuckles. Niko dropped the trio one by one then walked away without a word. What he didn’t know, couldn’t possibly know, was that Motorcycle Boots was the son of the Regional Superintendent of Police.
The red light dims, the darkroom door creeks open. Though the strands of silver about his temples have perceptively multiplied, Bernard looks much the same now as he did the night they locked eyes across a crowded jail cell eight years ago, after the cops raided The Cherry Pit, arresting patrons and employees alike. Bewitchingly handsome in herringbone suit and polka dot cravat, nursing a bloody lip, he’d smiled. Niko longs for that smile now.
Yolanda brings lunch at a quarter to twelve, arugula salad with a citrus vinaigrette, and pours two glasses of sparking water. Niko prods a red sliver of apple with his fork while he waits for her to quit the room. “It’s Jacqueline,” he says. “There was an accident. She slipped walking up the stairs to her apartment. Nothing serious. Minor cuts and bruises. But Solange…”
He pauses, raises his glass to his lips. Bernard simply watches him, countenance cold and inscrutable behind Versace corrective lenses.
“Solange has decided the best thing to do would be to put her in a nursing home. And I support her decision.But her husband lost his job last month, and the twins just started school…” He sips tentatively. “I told her maybe I could help.”
“How much do you need?” asks Bernard, taking a bite of arugula.
“I can cover one thousand for the deposit.” Niko hesitates, then concedes. “But if I had ten, they wouldn’t have to worry about their share of the fees for a while, and…”
Bernard places his cutlery aside. “Who do I wire the money to?”
“Maison Sainte Jeanne, Retirement Community. Or communauté de retraités. Montréal.”
Bernard pulls a PalmPilot from his breast pocket. Niko’s heart clenches behind his ribcage. His hand, not quite steadied by that morning’s double vodka Caesar, itches now to reach across the Scandinavian table and touch him, caress him. He knows he cannot. Those days are behind them.
“Thank you, Bernard,” he says. “I promise I’ll repay you.”
Bernard drags the stylus across the PalmPilot screen. “Are you headed out as well?” he murmurs.
“I leave Thursday morning. The assistant curator will watch the gallery until I return.”
“I’m not worried about the gallery. I’m worried about you.” He sets the device aside. “How long has it been?”
“Since I’ve been back to Québec? A couple of months, at least.”
“No. How long since you’ve last seen your mother?”
Niko drains his glass. His eyes meander from his uneaten salad to the wall where once a canvas hung: his portrait in elegant monochrome. Where now hangs nothing.
Much is changed, much is unchanged. He recognizes the delicatessen, the boulangerie, the Gothic Basilica looming over all. As a boy he would run errands with his mother: him at her side, baby Solange before them in the pram.
Nicolas had known his mother was beautiful by the way men looked at them on the street. Her husband, his father, lived with some other woman in some other town; but Jacqueline, a devout Catholic, didn’t believe in divorce and thus remained Madam Demers. This piety however did little to dissuade the local men. Indeed, she had been driven out of a good job at the garment boutique by the lecherous advances of her employer. Still, despite her modest income as a seamstress and the mounting expenses of raising two small children singlehanded, his mother was ever the vision of elegance and poise. Thus have the memories of youth immortalized her.
The cabbie lets him out in front of a tenement on the Rue Saint-Paul. The night is cold beyond cold. Yet he lingers on the sidewalk, suitcase in hand, staring up at the retired couturière’s apartment. His hatred of this place runs marrow-deep.
A powdery layer of dust enamels everything within: bolts of cloth, spools of thread, a tailor’s dummy headless in the corner of the room. He pockets the spare key, drops his luggage where he stands. He navigates mouse droppings and the corpses of spiders, cardboard boxes brimming with moth-eaten junk.
He strikes a match to light the primitive stove, waits for the kettle to boil. Beside the kitchenette, the Murphy bed lies open and strewn about with Jacqueline’s old mail and other miscellaneous documents. He discovers a volume of Reader’s Digest hidden among the yellowed copies of Harper’s Bazaar and cracks a vulnerable smile. Many a bedtime, Jacqueline read aloud to her children from such a volume as this, Benson & Hedges in hand, her long black hair tied up in clouds of pale cigarette smoke. He scans the spine. Condensed Books: Achilles and the Trojan Horse, Pandora’s Box, and his personal favorite, Homer’s The Odyssey.
Niko looks up. The hexagonal mirror, the red velvet couch. A scene from his past. He regards it as he might one of Bernard’s photographic tableaux.
This piece is titled An Unexpected Visitor. The subjects are three. The Mother and the Monseigneur together seated upon the couch, Mother gazing absentmindedly out the window, her olive wood rosary dangling from one hand. The Son stands before them, contained within the mirror. He’s pale and thin. He totes a heavy leather satchel, having just come home from school. He recognizes the Monseigneur from Sunday service at the Basilica: this grotesque man with his distended stomach, his gin blossom nose.
“Nicolas, je suis venu vous parler aujourd’hui a la demande de ta mère. Elle m’a parlé d’hier soir et ton annonce troublante.” Nicolas, I’ve come to speak with you today at your mother’s request. She told me about last night and your troubling announcement.
Radio static. Nothing but radio static.
“Bien que ce soient des temps déroutants, nous devons toujours nous souvenir des Corinthiens. Ni adultères, ni homosexuels, ni les sexuellement immoraux héritera du royaume de Dieu.” Although these are confusing times, we must always remember Corinthians. Neither adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor the sexually immoral will inherit the Kingdom of God.
The kettle sings.
Niko pillages the cabinets for camomile and a mug, his mobile cradled in the crook of his neck. He gestures at the boxes, though Solange cannot see him. “Why didn’t you tell me things had gotten this bad?”
“Would it have changed anything if I had?”
He fills a clay mug. Steam rises from the brim like an aromatic specter. “I haven’t spoken to her in seventeen years. What am I supposed to say to her now?”
“Je ne sais pas,” Solange replies. “All I know is you may not have another opportunity like this to say it.”
“Puis-je vous aider?”
Niko turns to see a tall young man in black standing behind him. “I’ve come to see Jacqueline Demers.”
“Yes, of course,” the man says. “You must be Nicolas. I’m Father Luc, humble chaplain of Maison Sainte Jeanne. Come with me.”
He follows the chaplain down a vaulted corridor lit by morning sun on stained glass windows. He nods to a young woman in a strange black tunic – a nurse, he guesses, judging by the laminated badge on her lapel. He cannot decide which he hates more, hospitals or churches, but the manor house represents a uniquely dismal hybrid of the two. This chaplain, Father Luc, must be just out of the seminary. Twenty-six at best. His black robes and white collar evoke memories of the late Monseigneur. But the slant of his jaw, the slick swoop of his hair: these conjure something else altogether.
“Your sister says you’re something of an artiste.”
“Truth be told, I haven’t got an artistic bone in my body,” Niko corrects. “I manage a small gallery. My partner, ex-partner, gave me the job.” No hesitation to allow partner to imply, to hell with churchly edicts. Yet the chaplain merely smiles and nods and leads them down a connecting corridor. Three more young women, all in matching black tunics, pass them along the way. “What kind of a nursing home is this exactly?”
“Before becoming a retirement community,” the chaplain says, “this was Le Couvent de la Vierge Mère. The building was donated by the Archdiocese back in the late seventies. The sisters are all practicing caregivers – licenced, of course, by the Province of Québec. They devote their lives to Christ and to the service of all who come to live with us at Maison Sainte Jeanne.”
They proceed then out into a courtyard, cutting across a cloistered garden to the western wing. “It might seem strange to an outsider,” he continues, opening the door, “but I promise, your mother is in capable hands.”
The common room is crowded with decrepit bodies. They move about with steel walkers and walking sticks and some in wheelchairs, some with saline pouches or oxygen tanks in tow. They play Chinese checkers, dominos, Canasta. They knit scarves and sip chocolate from ceramic mugs around a great stone fireplace and converse among themselves. And sometimes to themselves.
Niko stamps the snow from his boot and surveys the sedentary crowd, expecting to find Jacqueline holding court at the centre table, cigarette in hand, luminous and convivial as ever. The chaplain beckons to a mousy nun with long cornsilk hair. “Sister Dominique. Allow me to present Nicolas Demers, Jacqueline’s son.”
The young novice looks more like the president of a second-rate sorority than a newlywed bride of Christ. “Welcome, Nicolas. Let me bring you to your mother.”
Together they detach from Father Luc toward an isolated corner of the common room where a heavyset woman with deep-socketed eyes drowses in front of the television. They slow to a halt beside her chair. “Jacqueline, regarde qui est là.”
The woman says nothing.
“I’ll give you two some time alone.”
He turns to reply but the Sorority Sister has gone, receded into the crowd. There must have been a misunderstanding. This bedraggled woman in the musty-smelling bathrobe the colour of melted strawberry glacée cannot be Jacqueline Demers. Yet coiled around the woman’s wrist hangs his mother’s wooden rosary: the Our Father’s painted black, Hail Mary’s tinted white.
The television plays a rerun of The Dating Game, the volume high, though Jacqueline seems oblivious to both it and the world around her – including Niko’s presence. “A former Miss America contestant, she loves horseback riding and musical theatre. She joins us from Corpus Christi, Texas. We’re delighted to welcome to The Dating Game, Candice McCormick!”
Niko steps closer.
Gone is every trace of the statuesque woman from his childhood. Her spine hunches, her bosom droops. Her pale, pearlescent skin has become sallow, tracked by liver spots and sinuous varicose veins; lustrous black hair become ghostly silver-white. He notes a small bandage on her cheek. Another on her chin. “Hello, Jacqueline. Do you remember me?”
Her head lulls. No response.
What kind of pills have these bible thumpers been giving to her anyway? He straightens his back. “It’s me, Jacqueline. Your son. Nicolas.”
No response. He steps closer still. Her lips are moving, almost imperceptivity, muttering something to nobody. “Minuit. Minuit. Minuit…”
Niko shrugs. “Midnight… yes, okay… what happens at midnight, Jacqueline?”
“Bachelor No. 1: you’ve invited me to join you for dinner, tonight, at your place. Tell me, what’s on your menu?”
He winces at the blaring box and sighs, bends to her level.
“Minuit. Ces gens vont me t—”
“Well, Candice, I’d start by setting the mood: a little music, maybe some candles, mix us up a couple of Margaritas. Then, I’d blow your mind with my world-renowned Chili con carne. What do you think about that?”
He stares at her still fluttering lips, not sure if he heard it right. “Jacqueline, what are you telling me?”
“Muy caliente! Bachelor No. 2, same question—”
Jacqueline seizes hold of his arm with surprising strength and speed, and whispers up at him. “Ces gens vont me tuer.”
He pulls his arm free, and just as quickly she subsides to her mumbling again. Niko straightens, looking around the room at the feeble and the aging, and a slight, dark-clad figure moving promptly amongst them.
These people are going to kill me.
Something about the lounge reminds him of Bernard. He glances down the bar, perchance to see him sitting there with his polka dot cravat. He finds instead a pair of stockbroker-types in last season’s Armani discussing the dot-com bubble.
The hotel barman brings a menu, but Niko just waves his hand. “Cosmo. Make it a double.” The barman says nothing, only stares. “Cos-mo-politan,” Niko snaps. This time the runt obliges.
He dials Bernard’s number. Yolanda picks up. “I’m afraid Mr. Lyon is unavailable at the moment. Would you like to leave a message?”
Niko disconnects, and drains his martini glass in three slow gulps. “Another,” he says.
The businessmen snicker down the bar. “Putain de pédé,” hisses one to the other between long sips of ale.
The slur plunks down hard like a stone in water, sending ripples of rage across his body. He strikes a match, lights a cigarette, watches them in the mirror above the beer taps. He wants to break that heavy bottle of Black Label over Tweedledee’s bulbous head, maybe stick the bottleneck in Tweedledum’s eye. He nurses Cosmo number two, searching his pockets for brass knuckles which are not there.
Don’t be stupid, says the voice in his head. You’re not a bouncer in the Village anymore. You’re thirty-six years old and a dilettante and a drunk.
Outside, the buzzing music and neon of the Red-Light District beckon to him like ghosts in the night. Yet daydreams draw him backward in time, back to the Maison Sainte Jeanne. He remembers an article he once read in the Toronto Star, some exposé regarding negligence in Canadian hospices and nursing homes. Widespread reports of misconduct, abuse, even accounts of so-called “mercy killings.” Had those bandages on Jacqueline’s nose and chin been covering the “minor cuts and bruises” of her fall, or were they evidence of something sinister?
Another Cosmopolitan, another cigarette. He recalls the trial of Orville Majors down in the States just last summer. Killed six people with potassium chloride while working as a nurse at Vermillion County Hospital, senior citizens all. And there was the case of Kristen Gilbert who similarly poisoned three people at the veterans’ hospital before that. The headlines dubbed these killers Angels of Death. And, of course, these are just the ones who were caught.
Niko watches the pendulum swing beneath an antique wall clock near the door. The businessmen have long since departed, leaving him alone at the bar. Twenty minutes to midnight, now. What happens at midnight, Jaqueline? What was it you said?
These people are going to kill me. Ces gens vont me tuer.
At length he comes to a map of the house framed and mounted to the wall, emergency exits and the routes there-to. By the dwindling Aquarius Moon he scours the directory, decerning nothing else of aid. Another light draws his gaze down a connecting hall: a candle sputtering behind frosted glass. He diverges toward the light and the door containing it. Black lettering on the window reads “Bureau de l’aumônier”. Chaplain’s Office.
He taps twice on the glass. “Hello?” he says quietly, before stepping inside.
A lone-lit candelabrum illuminates the room. A mahogany desk, a leather chair, files and book-laden shelves, a portrait of the Virgin Mother. And there behind the chair, a second slightly smaller door. A closet perhaps, bright red, blood red.
He closes the door behind him, approaches the chaplain’s desk. The candelabrum is heavier than it looks. Was it cast from solid gold or plated lead? He raises the light in one hand, twists the round knob of the vivid little door with the other.
This piece is titled The Stairs Behind the Closet Door.
The subject stands back from the opened doorway and its winding stairwell descending into blackness. He is silhouetted by his candelabrum, raised high to cast its glow into those mysterious depths, as if torn between the sinister lure of the unknowns below and the warm comforts of the room at his back. All is Caravaggio on the finest pearl finish.
Niko steps forward. Perhaps that same liquid courage that led him to this place now presses him further still. Or perhaps it is the voice inside his head which tells him: No, he will not add another link to the chain of abandonment his progenitors began so long ago. Tonight, he must break it.
He tightens his grip on the candelabrum and slowly descends the spiral stairs, legs quivering, teeth chattering. A languid miasma rises to greet him like a stench from the bowels of hell. He comes to the bottom step and halts at the mouth of a wide tunnel, the chitter of distant voices on the heavy air. A sprawling catacomb unspools before him. His light plays upon the stones and all around the dead entombed in oblong niches, their bones in white cloth bundled tight.
“Good God,” he says, his voice a rasping brittle sound.
From one among the grinning skulls, a thick rat crawls forth and squeaks and scurries away down the tunnel. His gaze gives chase. The dust on the ground ahead is recently trodden, these tracks undoubtedly human. Following the rodent he spies an olive wood rosary. Jacqueline’s, of course. Now yonder voices have begun to chant. He cups his mouth against the dust and stench, and proceeds among the bones toward the choir.
The sinuous tunnel terminates at the glowing entrance of another candle-lit room. He blows out his light, sets the candelabrum down beside him. The chamber is vast, with a high smooth ceiling and painted walls the same scarlet red as the door at the top of the stairs. A multitude of men and women are joined within. All young, all naked despite the cold, broadly smiling with arms upheld.
They stand together around a large pit: a medieval stone well at the very centre of the room. Beyond them is a golden alter, and behind it against the crimson wall hangs a white banner baring the Templar Cross and a line of arching script: “Nous, les Chevaliers du Temple Lunaire”. We, the Knights of the Lunar Temple.
Niko recognizes one of the women: the blonde-haired nun, Sister Dominique. And another. All of them. All of these women are nuns. Their chanting is meaningless to him, just distant sounds coming to him from far away, beyond the hot buzzing between his ears.
Radio static. Nothing but radio static.
Blood races to Niko’s head. Cranberry-flavoured bile bubbles up in his throat. Maybe he was drugged. Maybe the hotel barman spiked his drink. All of this, the stairs, the crypt, the secret naked rite, has been a waking dream. A dream from which Niko must now wake. Awake!
The chanting ceases, and for a moment Niko imagines all this madness will likewise be instantly gone. Then a figure appears behind the golden altar, the chaplain, the black pelt of a goat draped around his otherwise naked body. Its stinking head perches atop his own like a diadem from which horns protrude backward, blood trickling down. In grandiose tones, he addresses his flock.
The sermon is in Latin, a smattering of which Niko still recalls from Catholic school. Something about casting lots. Yes, a lottery. And something else… “sacrificium”. Just then, two more acolytes enter from a second passage, carrying a kind of stretcher between them. Upon it lies Jacqueline, swaddled in the same white robes as her many rat-infested predecessors in the tunnel.
The acolytes hoist Jacqueline onto the alter and insinuate themselves among the circle. Her hands lie crossed at her chest, bound together with a length of rope. Heavily sedated or already dead, Niko cannot yet determine – but who would bind the hands of a dead woman?
He hazards a single step closer.
All heads tilt skyward, as does his. There, suspended from the ceiling, is an enormous glass disc, directly above the well. It seems reflected in that strange glass less like a well than some portal into dark oblivion, at once bottomless and without depth altogether.
A low rumbling rises from the darkness: a voice, deep and guttural.
Chanting resumes in clouds of warm breath as the deeper voice begins to quaver, a sound rather like whale song, whooping discordantly from the bottom of the well.
Niko cranes his neck as do they all, all eyes on the mirror. Something solid materializes amid the cosmic dark. A pinprick, growing steadily larger as the whale song swells in tandem. A bioluminescent body, vaguely anthropoid. The limbs long and spiderlike, the head strangely geometric, mouthless, rotating clockwise about the base.
His breath catches when he registers the wings. Angel wings of purest silver branching out from a torso which pulsates with ethereal amber light. The disciples drop to their knees and Niko staggers backward.
“Rejoice!” cries the chaplain.
“Rejoice!” cry the supplicated, and the winged monster sees them. A thousand lidless eyes peer out from their sockets, not just in the head but along the scapulars and coverts of the very wings themselves.
The light crests the rim of the well. None dare look upon the source directly, its double hovering in the mirror above, its whale song echoing around the room.
The song, thinks Niko. Might that be the root of this madness? Like some hypnotic radio wave beaming that eldritch nightmare into the vulnerable minds of the crowd.
He wastes not another second trying to comprehend it. Niko bends to the still-smoking candelabrum, scrapes together two clumps of melted wax, inserts one into each ear: a lesson from Odysseus. The wax blocks out all noise but the treble of his own thudding heart. A third ball of wax Niko tucks into the pocket of his jeans.
Rising, he discovers the congregants in the red room have likewise risen. They watch him. The smiles have all evaporated. His next breath he loads into his lungs like a suicide’s bullet. He removes his coat and lets it drop, and with a violent cry and candelabrum as his sword he charges headlong into the chamber toward Jacqueline.
The vanguard lunge to meet him while the goat-headed chaplain spectates beneath his gruesome visor of teeth. Niko bucks against the tide of bodies until the current overtakes him. A dozen groping hands entwine to tear him limb from tender limb. They tug at his clothes. A woman’s long thumbnail gouges his eyelid. The one called Domonique sinks her teeth into his face. When the sister’s head pulls back, a piece of cheek dangles from her blood-red mouth.
Niko leverages what little space he can to cock his own head back. His brow connects hard with her brittle nose – once, twice. Blood sprays and Domonique stumbles backward, toppling over the rim of the well. Voices ring out, unintelligible through the clumps of candle wax, and their struggles freeze in a tableau of chaos. All gaze up at the mirror as the young woman goes cartwheeling into the void and incinerates like a phosphorescent meteor spectacular in its demise.
The monstrous head stops turning. Tight grips slacken and Niko plummets to the ground as his attackers disperse in vain. He rises, choking, to see angel wings spread wide : an explosion of liquid-metal plumage undulating across the darkness like the molten clockwork of a sentient mandala. The chamber trembles as the whale song becomes an apocalyptic trumpet.
The sonic boom strikes Niko hard in the chest and Jacqueline wakes, delirious. He scrambles to her, collects the wax from his trouser pocket, plugs both her ears. Then he slings her still-bound arms around his neck and hoists her weight onto his back.
Nobody stops them. The crowd is a quivering pantomime of silent screams.
The chaplain behind his alter seems to vibrate, every muscle twitching beneath his rancid pelt. Eyes bulge and red runs from his ears. The tremor splits Father Luc from widow’s peak to pelvic bone and a geyser of hot blood erupts from the negative space between. His bisected figure stands wobbling a moment, then crumples to the ground.
One by one, the naked torsos of the congregants come apart. Like great seething pustules, they burst until nothing remains but a havoc of tangled limbs and viscera. Broken mirror glass hails down, cutting the Templar banner cross to ribbons.
Niko clambers through the chaos, the carnage, the jutting ribcages, toward the exit. The trumpet blasts louder and louder still. Spidery cracks crawl up the painted stone, the walls crumble, and the ceiling of the red room collapses behind him.
He gasps for breath. Jagged pebbles bite at the soles of his feet. A billowing cloud pursues him as he charges blindly down the tunnel. Then, all goes deathly quiet.
Dust settles in the dark and he lays his gore-drenched mother down. He strikes a match, illuminating nothing but rubble and bones. A cul-de-sac in the necropolis.
Jacqueline’s eyes dart about, her pale visage a kabuki mask of chalky dust and blood and horror. Niko bends, claws the wax from her ears and his. He fumbles at the rope binding her, picking at the knot with one hand while the other protects the flame.
“This is the way the world ends,” he mutters, “this is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends…”
The knot comes loose, her hands freed, and as the two lock eyes something sparks in hers. “Nicolas ? Nicolas, c’est toi ?”
Niko sighs. “Yes, Mom. It’s me, Nicolas. I’m with you now.”
“Nicolas… my son…” His mother smiles, grazes his cheek. “My son. I’m… I’m…”
He nods his head. “Je sais, maman.”
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