A graffito cartoon of a man with a shovel over his shoulder walking a T-Rex on a leash caught Lesser’s attention as he strolled through a district of gentrified brick factories and warehouses near the Missouri river. The Tyrannosaurus was fifty feet high and sported a Donald Trump wig. Tiny Little Hands, a caption said. Lesser smiled, shook his head.
Omaha, unofficial capital of Flyover Land, birthplace of the legendary Conor Oberst, a poor man’s drunken Dylan with Bright Eyes, no Nobel on his horizon, was the largest city in sparsely-populated Nebraska. It sprawled in a drift-zone straight from a 1940s atomic bomb chart, following the rads of money. As the city’s center moved westward, fleeing the Missouri River and the bluffing threat of Iowa, its old hub had first been abandoned, then ruined, then homesteaded, then bought up by developers, then reborn as upscale, atmospheric Old Market apartments, roof-top garden restaurants, and walking-only shopping streets paved with bricks. Some of those ankle-daring bricks still bore embossed maker’s marks. In season, a farmer’s market was held each Saturday in a lot across from a brewery.
Visitors called it quaint but locals took it in comfortable stride that often bordered on a complacent stumble.
Quaintness kicked in big-time in winter, when snow and Dickensian carolers added ambience to the sparkling covered walkways and Old Town decorations. Lesser lowered a shoulder and ducked past a clot of singers, cringing as one of them shouted, “Jingle bells,” into his ear as if she alone were responsible for clearing the area so another bomb could streak down upon them.
Not that one ever had, outside the metaphorical.
At least that strident quarter-tone-off note had loosened his sinuses, he told himself. Always look on the bright side of Monty Python, after all.
Lesser’s thoughts kept him on an edge between a hair-raising past and a truncated future. Imagining fat, wobbly atomic bombs arcing down from the bare-aluminum bellies of B-29s practically defined a large part of his personality. Writers of fiction, as he was, who wanted to earn even a pittance, as he did, learned melodrama was one of the tarnished brass keys of the abandoned amusement park called publishing. Melodramatically imagining atomic bombs falling toward his head struck Lesser as a fine allegory for life in general, from his view.
Now there was Trump and Kim Jun-On of North Korea to worry about.
He ducked around a railing, painted black each spring without bothering to remove old pain, which made it lumpy. He trotted down a flight of stairs, entering a door into the Passageway, a covered alley lined with shops and cafés, some straining for upscale, others embracing toadish underground shadiness.
Two-thirds of the way northward along the Passageway, to the left of Belcher’s & Gravy’s Canteen, a kind of restaurant for those with boozier appetites, a door cowered, its windows painted black, its door residential rather than commercial and painted a bloody crimson. Most took it for a service entrance and ignored it. Its bright color gathered shades of green from the moldy milked-glass ceiling three stories overhead. This murk made the door both less bright and more sinister. Brass fixtures painted black, in the form of exposed hinges, with a black iron latch handle and an ornate lock to match the black brass bracket had been mounted askew above the door. From a black iron rod with a leaf-spear tip dangled a British-style Pub sign. It was cut out and painted flat black as a silhouette of a black cat, back arched, tail straight up. Under the cat, as if providing a perch, was a word in Black Letter, painted gold: ARCANA.
Lesser heard a little boy in round spectacles, his hand tugging on his mother’s coat as she scanned for Christmas gift ideas, ask, “Mommy, look, is that a Harry Potter shop, mommy?”
Oh, child, he thought. If only you knew.
It pleased him that only the imaginative ever seemed to notice ARCANA’s door. This kept out the mundanes, as he thought of literalists and worse.
He pulled the red door open, thinking the name Harry Haller as he entered, noting again how counter-intuitive it was to open a shop door outward. It forced once to step away from the shop, not into it. Gave time for second thoughts.
Even the dim light from the Passageway blinked into darkness when the door nicked shut, as if embarrassed by the lack of invitation or even decorum.
“Here, back here.”
Lesser followed the gruff voice down a narrow aisle between shelves of old books, glass boxes holding such things as stuffed ravens, the skulls of raccoons, and other curios, and scrolls, endless scrolls, some on parchment, others on vellum, most rolled and tied with fraying ribbons and stacked in seemingly-random pyramids. There were ornate daggers, clay marbles said to date older than the United States, and bowls of Japanese, Navajo, and Unearthly design. There was incense in stick and cone form, there was an array of essential oils, and there were jars of dark, tangled things thought to be insects used in potions. Bundles of sage, copper pots and pitches in grotesque and arabesque, and stones tumbled, polished, carven, and plain. It was a shop and a collection, it was a grab-bag boxed in neglect, in short, a cabinet of curiosities on a cash-and-carry basis.
The Major, Maks Welle of Cøpenhägen, OxBridge, and now UNO, a professor of abstruse maths and engineering analysis for Omaha’s Kiewit Institute, glanced up from a vintage journal that lay open on the counter before him. A heavy-set man, squat, solid, and strong, with a full mane of white hair swept back from his bespectacled face, he glanced at Lesser, tapped the journal, and raised a finger, indicating a moment of listening.
“Birth is death, life is dying.
“Fact is fiction, truth is lying.
“Welcome home, we burned it down;
“It’s Samhain now, you killer clown.
“Kick off those shoes, it’s flooding here,
“We need canoes; our course is clear:
“We’ll boat your shoes to a better shore.
“We’ll prove that nothing is always more.
“‘Trick or treat’, you shout in glee;
“You’ll take what’s given or cop a plea.
“A night for blood — Sabbath’s delight:
“Flock to dark thoughts shining bright.
“Cut a swath, renew a vow,
“Confirm it while we’re all here now,
“Attend and learn the why and how of
“What the Snow Cry Tarot will allow.”
/ W B Kek, bard & prophet, poet & proclaimer of esoterica
“What do you think of that? Found it in this journal, Kek’s own, one of many. No one knows how many journals he filled. So many gems.”
Lesser thought it doggerel but did not say so. “Was he local?”
Welle nodded. “Bellevue resident for much of his life. Likely in hiding. In fact, he lived there longer than anywhere else.”
“Explorer, world traveler?” Lesser leaned on the counter and looked at the journal; strong, clear hand-writing, not the spidery script he’d expected. A man of competence and confidence had written these lines.
“An Air Force spouse and kept man, a true poet, mysterious but his influence is found in so many places. His work’s influence is ubiquitous, although unacknowledged, from the late Twentieth Century on. Influence both literary and otherwise. Socio-political. Esoteric. Mystical. Been tracing his work for years.”
Major Maks Welle’s rank came from the Danish military; he was retired from upper-echelon brain-soldiering and semi-retired from academia and corporate consulting. Occasional jobs brought breath-taking sums into his coffers but he needed no such pay-days to get along nicely. His hobby, more avocation if compulsion were factored, was finding esoteric items and references to let him further decode reality, to reveal hidden hints, patterns, and truths.
Such insights he wrote in journals of his own.
Lesser, aware of all this, nodded. “I recognize the name Kek, yes. That poem was both accessibly banal — the opening couplet, for example — and topical — referring to killer clowns, which seems modern with the clown scare going on again.”
“It flares up now and then. As we’ve discussed, it could well be cover used by a fraternity or cult of some kind. Distraction from the drownings.”
“The smiley-face murders, yes. Pure urban legend. Like Slenderman. Or that ridiculous Pizzagate.” Lesser’s endless conversation with his partner and mentor, Welles, kept him well-versed in fringe exotica and the darker shadows of society’s ragged edge. “Is that what we’re after today? Shadowy pedophile rings and satanic ritual goofs?” Lesser tended to side with Umberto Eco’s stance, taken from Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum, concerning conspiracy: Conspiracy revolved around a still-point that could be anywhere.
Welles turned the journal’s pages. “This is what we must find.” He turned the old Pentalic notebook so Lesser could read it, holding it open as it proved reluctant to stop closing like a slow-motion Venus Fly-Trap.
Lesser could read the clear words easily, but did not understand them. “The Snow Cry Tarot. What’s that mean, snow cry? What’s a snow cry?”
“Part of what we must—“ Welles stopped speaking to pull his iPhone from a pants pocket. He glanced, smiled, and poked at the screen, then said, “Hail, Ayesha.”
Ayesha, Lesser knew, was She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, which Rumpole of the Bailey called his wife in mock terror in John Mortimer’s insouciant, sardonic Rumpole stories. Ayesha was also a referent from She by H. Rider Haggard, a novel of lost civilization and mysterious, mystical matriarchy.
By all this, Lesser knew the call was from Welle’s wife, Pernille.
She was asking if he’d ordered a crate of something from Peru.
“What’s in it?”
“I’m not to open it. Only you.”
“Have you called EOD?”
EOD meant Explosive Ordnance Disposal, the bomb squad, a joke, or so Lesser hoped.
“It weighs a ton? If it’s from Peru, as I said, I’d have to. Yes. No, my love. Have you pissed off the Shining Path again?”
This, Lesser hoped, was a joke to counter his silent one about a bomb. With their globe-trotting background and many international connections, not to mention the dark spots in their resumés, it was often hard to tell how deep the sardonic references went, or how serious the threats they often bandied about, when it came to Max and Pernille Welle.
“Bill of lading? Oh, yes, yes, those will be my Cuzco relics. Entirely slipped my mind. I’m to examine them for possible inclusion in. Yes. Yes, I know, my love. Yes. Okay, I understand, yes. Have the crate placed in my study, in that corner we cleared.” He listened for a few seconds. “Already done? Good, good. What? They’re saying we owe them money?”
Welle began pacing behind his counter, an area allowing only three paces each way. He bit his lower lip.
“The delivery people? No, they’ve been paid. Don’t hurt any of them, dear wife. They’re just working men. Put the foreman on.”
Lesser, who ordinarily found Maks Welle approachable, affable, and kind, heard military steel in the older man’s tone now, as Welle stated clearly that the delivery had been paid for and tips were not negotiable. He ended by stating that his wife would speak to him now. “I’ve set them straight.”
“Everything okay at home?” Lesser leaned on the counter and fiddled with a set of fountain pens carved from human bone in elaborate Islamic patterns.
Welle nodded. “Yes, they’re leaving. They claim it’s a mix-up. I know full well it was sexism; they saw a woman and decided to extort lunch money.” Into the phone he said, “I’m just glad you called me instead of rendering them unconscious and bruised. I should be home for supper; will let you know if we’re delayed. I love you, too. Soon.”
Lesser found their interplay charming and slightly intimidating. Pernille Welle was tall, slender, and deadly, a black belt in several martial arts and an ex fighter jet pilot. Her name meant “stone” and it fit; she was harder than rock. She’d met Welle at a college, he teaching, she learning, and they had been inseparable since, according to the tale they told. For Lesser, it was a lesson in match-making. Not only was the gap between their ages at least 16 years but their bond was palpable; he could not imagine either with anyone else. Together, they were truly One, and that counted for Lesser as one of the many esoteric discoveries he’d made since meeting Welle in, what else, a symposium on UFOs held by Jack Kasher at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Kasher and Welle got on splendidly, the former a professor emeritus in Physics, the latter a Maths & Engineering professor at the same school, both drawn to the outré and the eerie, the quirky and the odd. Kasher’s blunt assessment of many UFO examples as most likely of extraterrestrial origin meshed well with Welle’s knowledge of MIB and links between military, government agencies, and the realm of occult societies. They shared an in-depth knowledge of black budget research and other hidden pursuits, too, with some hints from Welle’s quarter that he’d perhaps benefitted from such hidden funding now and then.
Having then been a graduate student working with Welle at the Kiewit Institute, using the wetware AI unit to analyze sub-molecular and atomic patterns that promised to increase tensile strength and flexibility in a wide array of materials, including a matrix of Buckyballs earmarked for a possible Space Elevator, or at least for the cable to connect the two capsules in a bolo centrifugal gravity set-up for a Mars mission, Lesser had been the third guy at the table at the pub later as the two white-haired older men delved deep into beer, the paranormal, and friendship. It was that very night, as Lesser gallantly escorted Welle on foot back to his house in Dundee and a worried Pernille, who he met for the first time then, he became first Welle’s personal assistant, then his partner in his extracurricular investigations from the shop Welle owned and often ran in his spare time, Belcher’s & Gravy’s ARCANA.
Lesser’s first impression of Pernille was that Welle had a lovely daughter. His immediate replacement impression was that she was obviously Welle’s wife and inamorata, and a sharp, decisive woman; she thanked Lesser by name, proving she knew who he was, and told him to come by next morning around nine for any tasks Welle might have for him then. Thus he’d become the PA, and after a few weeks of that arrangement, Welle, at the shop, one day said, “We should act more like what we are, you know. A team. Partners in these endeavors.”
By endeavors, he meant searches and researches, digging and sifting, looking for esoterica’s spoor in a mundane world. So Lesser had become half of Welle & Lesser, or, to use the Tarot reference, Major and Minor Arcana, the recherché being their business, Arcana their shop appellation.
Pocketing his phone, Welle picked up their conversation as if it had not been interrupted. “Part of what we must uncover, although with W B Kek, we may be looking at a poeticism.”
“If it’s a metaphor, it’s not well-rooted in experience.” Lesser, who’d briefly studied fiction for extra credit one semester under a guest-lecturer ironically named “geste”, lower case and all just like e e cummings, knew his way around metaphor, simile, and even tropes and topoi. His one short story, written for that class, concerned vagina dentata and revenge against an arrogant lawyer from the rape culture. He’d gotten an A from geste but after having it rejected even by an editor who’d specifically called for the most transgressive, outrageous, and raunchy manuscripts possible, Lesser had trunked it in a bottom drawer. He stuck with writing the occasional précis of research done for their arcane enterprise.
So now they ran a business the business of which was to hear about in the first place, then learn about, then begin looking for books, letters, and other ephemera left by researchers into occult matters. They worked for wealthy clients and, often, for Welle’s curiosity.
Try explaining any of that on a tax form. They called it a curio shop. It sufficed for the IRS and, to cut down on accidental foot-traffic or tourists looking for a goof, they did not advertise. Those who did not need to find the place rarely did. The few who blundered in usually stumbled out quickly, appalled by some of what they’d seen on those tilted, crowded shelves.
Welle scratched his right elbow where one of the dead insect mandibles had given him what Lesser instantly dubbed a zombie bug bite. “Fool the eye, you’ll know why we cry.” He said this like a mantra or a snippet of lyrics running idly through his head but Lesser knew better and quipped, “Trumping again?”
Trompe l’oeil art was among both their favorite kinds of art, fine and low both, along with anamorphic and other hidden or emergent image styles.
Welle looked up and smiled. “Just hounding a bit.”
If Welle ever had a dog, he’d name it Arcanus, barking on the pun, Lesser thought. “So you think it’s encoded?”
A shrug. “I was reading some of the word patterns vertically, to see if he’d left any near-clear messages for us. Nothing of much import so far.”
“It may be just a poem.”
“This is Kek. His work is never simple, remember. Precious at times, twee now and again, even supercilious, but usually deep, entangled, and encoded, so that grasping it becomes revelatory. Part of the Ficta Mystica school of writing.”
Lesser nodded, knowing about such layered, nested writing and art. He stepped back, glanced up and to the left, then frowned. “You know, another word for ‘cry’ is ‘squall’, which is another word for a blast of snow.”
Blizzards were common in the midwest, especially so in Nebraska, where the interstate highways were closed at least a few times each winter. Or had been, until climate change brought a cycle of low-snow winters to the midwestern plains.
“Snow squall leads us where?” Welle placed both hands on the counter and stretched his back, having been hunched over the journal studying the poem for a bit longer than comfort allowed. “Perhaps a year? Was there a particularly large, fast snowfall in the past two or three decades?”
Lesser whipped out his iPhone and began asking Siri, Google, Alexa, and doing his own searches. “Two major contenders. January twelfth, 1888, started unseasonably warm, then a huge storm hit, trapping schoolchildren at schools and people at work or in homes. Few had sufficient coats with them. Two-hundred thirty five died trying to walk to safety or froze in their places. Then, on the second of January, 1949, a massive blizzard buried several Nebraska counties under drifts as high as thirty feet. Only 76 died but the National Guard dropped supplies and saved two-hundred thousand people and four million head of cattle.”
They leaned on the counter contemplating blizzards in silence for a few minutes. Welle said, “I don’t think it’s that.”
Lesser began to agree, then his eyes got wide. “I do. Look at this.”
On his iPhone a site had come up showing images from what was labeled a ‘legendary Snow Cry Tarot set of cards, now thought lost’. It showed images echoing standard Tarot card iconography, except each figure or pose was depicted as a dead victim in ice and snow. The brief description stated that rescuers were tortured for years after by the cries they’d heard as they searched in futility through the frozen dead for survivors. “It’s 1888.”
“Jack the Ripper,” Welle said at once. “Same year.”
Whitechapel and white death, Lesser thought; hold the sharks. “Different country,” he said aloud.
“Probably. Saucy Jack may have come stateside.”
“And died in a blizzard in Nebraska, as chronicled in the legendary Snow Cry Tarot, which this poem will lead us to, once we find the key to the code, end of story, case solved, what’s for supper?”
Both laughed. “If only it were that easy.”
Welle & Lesser.
That’s what the business card said. That and the single word under the names, ARCANA. “It’s simple.”
“Too simple?” Pernille seemed pleased. Black script on dark grey flecked stock, with an embossed frame, the business cards could, she thought, be given out at the shop to potential clients as a reminder.
“No phone number or address.” Welle examined a card the way he’d studied the W B Kek journal, as if it might hold a secret.
Pernille touched his shoulder. “If they have a card, they’ve found you once and know what you represent.”
Lesser nodded. “True. I can see only one mistake.”
She looked at him with amusement. “And what would that be?”
“Names are reversed. Should be: Lesser & Welle. Alphabetical.”
“I ordered half that way, half the proper way.” She plucked a card from the middle of the box and sure enough, it read Lesser & Welle. “I know how you think, and order matters little. In this instance.”
“In this instance,” her husband echoed, as they both laughed.
Lesser smiled. It felt good to be so accepted.
That feeling instantly made him insecure.
Lesser paid for the veggie dog and strolled to a corner, to get out of the wind. He ate slowly, taking big chomps as he gazed at passers-by, the buildings, the bricks, the essence of Old Town. The cart vendor was doing brisk business in the crisp Autumn weather, even though it was the first week of December. No snow, no hard frost, and no sign of an actual Omaha winter had yet driven the vendors or food trucks in for the season. Suited them; they were having a great year, and everyone knew snow and cold would come soon enough.
As he ate, Lesser thought about pursuing things that chased him. That’s how hunting down esoterica and arcana felt. You spent years of focused effort to find the few small things that haunted you, that chased your dreams. Haystack needles and the glitter of fool’s gold, those were his stock-in-trade.
A collector’s fever, like a miser’s illness, some called it.
That others paid him to do this fringe job on their behalf amazed him at times, disgusted him at others. It depended on if the client was a sane collector or mad hoarder, a reflective seeker or a driven fanatic. Superstitious twats pretended magic was real while cynical twits swore magick was not. Ignorance reigned, and many had more money than mind in the game. They wanted keys to unlock treasure chests that did not exist.
Were he and Welle falling into this sort of folly by looking so hard to confirm the existence of the Snow Cry Tarot?
H. P. Lovecraft had invented the Necronomicon, a lost book of forbidden knowledge, in an off-hand aside to prop up a mere four of his stories, yet many believed it a real volume. HPL had named it after the Egyptian Book of the Dead, with Necro meaning dead, Nom meaning name, and Icon meaning image or face. The Book of the Dead Faces or Names, or the Dead Name Image book, or something like that, would be the loose translation. Pulp era confabulation, yet people insisted it was real, somewhere, somehow. Several spurious editions had been written and sold, some fun, a few keyed to mysterioso gullability, and at least one full of serious esoterica but still thought to be a higher-level joke to amuse the cognoscenti. That there were such struck Lesser as increasingly unlikely.
The faked Necronomicons were money-makers, too, of course. Suckers bought dreams and treasure maps and secrets to power. It defined the sub-genre of publishing that sustained this cottage industry of sucker bets to offer the quick, the easy, the cheat.
So why not the Snow Cry Tarot as yet another cobbled con?
An artist could be found easily, to draw or paint Snow Cry Tarot imagery, using a standard Tarot deck as a foundation for elaborated blizzard deaths to stand in for the people of the Fool’s journey. As for the suits, coins still worked, staves could easily become arrows or spears from the Plains tribes, cups could be wooden bowls, and swords could be either cavalry swords or Bowie knives.
As he contemplated faking such a thing, it seemed easier with each idea, until he’d talked himself into thinking the chances of it being real had to be perishingly small.
Lesser carried his doubts mostly in silence, kept them mostly to himself, venting slivers of steam only when the pressure inside his worry box became too much to bear. Welle had once told him, when confronted by Lesser’s fear of being made a fool, “It is The Fool on which the entire Tarot is founded. We are all on a fool’s journey, after all. We stride happily along, unaware of pitfalls and warnings. To be reminded now and then is not a bad thing. To feel foolish, it’s a good thing. It refreshes our zeal. It keeps us focused.”
“Where others see blush, she sees blood.”
Lesser glanced at Welle as they walked through the hushed, expansive library on the UNO campus. Relatively new, the building offered breadth and depth for serious researchers, in comfortable, well-lighted surroundings, and this change from Wells’s own cramped aisles zig-zagging through crammed shelves had brought out the mutterer in Welle.
The older man smiled. “It’s the first line of a story by Samuel Gyre. ‘Whisper Bite’ is the story.”
“Tells me almost nothing,” Lesser said, “but speaking of whisper, keep your voice down or we’ll get booted out of here.”
Questing, Welle called it. Seeking unknown things. They were at the library with special permission to see a restricted collection of papers from a local donor known as the Sage of Omaha, no less than Warren Buffett of Berkshire-Hathaway fame, the richest man in the world. Actually, he was richest some years, second or third other years, depending on which other billionaire’s current assets buoyed and bobbed up or down. Consistently, Buffett beat them all over a long view.
Among other things he and fellow Omaha billionaire, Walter Scott of Peter-Kiewit construction, collected art, letters, journals, and other items relating to the Pioneer Days, when Nebraska was being settled. Among the items gathered were personal accounts of the Great Missouri earthquake of 1811-1812, when the New Madrid fault had let go in what many seismologists think was the strongest quake on record, perhaps a 9 on the Richter Scale. It was felt in many states, including Nebraska, and some of the accounts tell of entire towns subsumed by earth that churned like turgid water. Many died, although exact numbers are unknown due to lack of census for those places and years.
Welle hoped that, among the material, later items might reach as far forward as 1888, and reveal accounts of the blizzard from that year. “It’s a cache we haven’t examined, and it’s worth the effort, given how random luck determines the contents of these collections.”
They had already checked with the Joslyn Museum in Omaha, where Walter Scott’s fine, wide-ranging collection of western art dominated the core contributions, along with a set of rare Monet paintings and a Degas statue of the skirted bronze ballerina superior to its more famous cousin in the Louvre. The Joslyn proved to have little to help with Lesser & Welle’s quest.
They spent the day going through accounts written in decorative Spencerian, rounded Copperplate, or loopy Palmer hands, jotting down a few notes. Wearying, with strained eyes, they stretched as they stood to depart. “Think we should come back tomorrow and keep at it?”
Welle shrugged. “We’ve looked at the most recent papers. Older won’t help us, as far as I can see.”
“I might take one more shot.” Despite striking out for the most part, having gleaned only faint descriptions of people found frozen in positions that might have resembled the poses in a Tarot deck, or inspired a warped artist to create a deck from such horror, despite it seeming futile, Lesser had a tingle of anticipation, as if that cosmos-bending beautiful woman were right around the next corner, as if his lotto number was about to come up, as if lightning were about to blast sense into him from on high. He could not explain it but it was synchronicity, or perhaps the Chapel Perilous, where stars align at the gazer’s risk.
He did not need to understand the feeling to follow it, and Welle, on their short drive home, spread his hands in a gesture of generous apathy. “If you want to continue digging in those papers another day, I will accede to your wishes and accompany you. I have a hunch you have a hunch, and hunches are ignored to our detriment.”
It was during the next day’s sifting through journals and letters dated far earlier than 1888 that Lesser came across an explicit mention of the Snow Cry Tarot itself. “Professor, look.” His hands trembled as he handed over an 1811 letter from an Alma DeLatre, apparently a Pioneer wife who’d lived through a devastation from the Missouri quake. She described how they’d fled into open fields, fearing trees or their farm buildings falling, only to have the ground crack open as if trying to swallow them. She had seen several cattle fall into such crevasses, their piteous screams endless as they seemed to fall to the Earth’s core.
Her hand, a rounded, even Copperplate, was clear, easily read. She speculated for half a sentence about the Hollow Earth theories she’d heard the men discuss, then picked up her tale of wandering away from their destroyed farm, at first to round-up scattered animals, later to find others, to see how bad it had been over a wider area. It was during that trip to what they hoped was still a town that they came upon a pit. She said it resembled a crater, which she’d seen as a girl on a trip to Arizona, but this one was pointed downward at the bottom, an inverted cone. Along the sides, debris clung as if refusing to be sucked down.
Within arm’s reach was a traveler’s writing desk, a wooden box with compartments inside, with a slanted top, on which one could write. It sported a leather-padded handle. Many used them on laps when riding in trains or wagons. Inside would be ink,pens, pen-knives, and extra quills or nibs, depending on its age. People used them both when traveling and at home, held on a lap in bed or while sitting in an easy chair, or set upon a desk or table to provide a raised, slanted, comfortable writing surface.
It was Alma herself who dropped flat on her belly, as she described it, and stretched down her arm until the tips of her fingers managed to snag the leather-clad handle. She pulled the writing desk up.
She described it as neither scratched nor staved in, and said the latches were of either brightly-polished brass or some gold alloy. It was, she said, a gentleman’s, and she speculated perhaps a fine coach and fours carrying such a gentleman had been taken by the conical sink-hole. His last act, she imagined, was to hurl the writing desk out, in hopes of preserving his work.
Lesser smiled. “She’s thinking of Dickens, I would bet.”
Welle chuckled. “Too early for Dickens. He was born a year after the Great Missouri Quake.” He clapped Lesser’s shoulder. “Probably thinking of a lawyer or man of business. She was responding mostly to how fine the item itself was.”
Alma’s account then came to the part that had raised Lesser’s hackles when he discovered it. She wrote that, upon opening the writing desk, she found many papers, pens, jars of ink, and so on, as expected, but had also found a linen sack cinched at the top with a black ribbon. Opening it, she found the sack was lined with silk, and inside, a deck of cards much larger than those the men used to play whist. She then described her increasing horror as she realized the images on the cards showed icy death in all its forms, faces in rictus, limbs distorted, eyes gone.
She called it a picture book of a blizzard’s gloating, a phrase Welle quite liked. Both Welle and Lesser found her last line concerning the deck of cards literally and figuratively chilling. She wrote, “On the reticule one word had been embroidered, that word being LISTEN.”
“It’s the Snow Cry Tarot.” Lesser wanted to giggle and cry.
Welle frowned, probably to keep from being giddy. “Yes, it certainly seems to be. But, so early.”
“Seventy-seven years before the Nebraska blizzard.” As he said this, a thought made Lesser shudder. “What if it wasn’t inspired by the blizzard’s aftermath. What if it was a curse.”
Welle tilted his head, the way a dog will do at a puzzling sound. His frown deepened. “It’s not possible. Is it?”
Lesser warmed to his idea. “Tarot readings often predict future events, why can’t they prompt or even control them?”
Welle stood and began pacing. His study, lined with books, had enough floor space for him to take several steps before having to turn around. “We must avoid magical thinking,” he muttered. “No jumps to cause.”
“It makes sense, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t be the first documented prediction.”
“Surely you don’t refer to Nostradam—“
“No, no, Professor. I’m thinking more of Poe, Richard Parker.”
Both knew Edgar Allan Poe had written, in 1838, The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, his only known novel, focused on a mutiny, then a counter-mutiny aboard a whaling ship that ventures to Antarctica and is lost due to mysterious influences and a storm. Starving, the survivors, including one Richard Parker, only still-living original mutineer, draw straws to see who’ll be eaten, cannibalism having been an unwritten law of the sea. Parker loses, and is eaten.
In 1884, in real life, four men on a yacht were capsized by a rogue wave while en route from England to Australia; the down-hill run, as it’s known.
They managed to survive for awhile adrift, eating stored turnips and a captured sea turtle, but they had no water, and resorted to drinking their own urine. The cabin boy refused, drank seawater, and got much sicker and passed out. At this time, they drew straws, including drawing one for the unconscious cabin boy, who surprisingly lost the draw.
His name was Richard Parker.
He was killed and eaten, and the others survived, only to be tried and convicted in R vs. Dudley, Stephens.
Many of the details, along with the actual victim’s name, Poe got right in his story from forty-six years prior. It is one of the well-known literary mysteries, or coincidences, if one is inclined to believe in such things.
Welle referred to resonance.
Welle unfrowned his face and raised his brows. “You’re suggesting this Snow Cry deck anticipated the blizzard, all blizzards being similar, is that it? A kind of remote viewing of the then-future?”
Lesser did not know if that’s what he’d meant. “Well, that, I guess, and maybe more. Maybe Poe glimpsed a future event that would get a lot of newspaper coverage and somehow, I don’t know, attracted it. Drew it into realty. So why not the artist who drew this Snow Cry Tarot catching a glimpse of a terrible blizzard and what it brings to the people? Or, well, what if using the Tarot in some way brought the blizzard?”
Welle continued pacing but was now also touching the spines of books, picking up knick-knacks, and swiping dust from flat surfaces. “Or more, you say. Caused the blizzard, you’re suggesting. Magical thinking. The running rabbit causes the chasing dog fallacy. Yet think: If the Snow Cry Tarot existed, why were there not blizzards happening from its creation, at its inception? Why seventy-seven years of nothing?”
“Maybe the deck has to be used in a certain way to cause the effect.” Even as he pursued his thought, Lesser knew Welle had muttered Magical Thinking again, and he’d been right to do so. A deck of cards, no matter how imbued with symbolism and human intent, did not control weather or anything else. The weather-cock did not control the winds, merely spun to them. It was a tool to make the unseen visible. Still, the notion struck Lesser as somehow correct, in some way he could not nail down. “All I’m sensing, Professor, is that there’s power in those cards. The Snow Cry Tarot is more than folk art.”
The Tarot Deck was sometimes called a Book of Life. It offered a set of situations, abstracted into symbols and placed into five categories of life, common and royal. It offered a way to sift the patterns of reality into a coherent reading of the current moment, with a link to both past and future probabilities.
Tarotiers, those who uses the Tarot, interpreted the cards as they were revealed in various patterns representing past, present, and future situations clustered on the person asking for the reading.
It worked along the lines of the I Ching, or Book of Changes, in which hexagrams were used as patterns, and elliptical advice linked to what hexagram was revealed by tossing yarrow sticks or coins to produce the pattern. Randomizing was part of the process, as was interpretation.
People swore by both methods and results could indeed seem uncanny, eerie, or downright frightening. The visionary, erudite writer Philip K. Dick had plotted his most admired novel, The Man In the High Castle, using I Ching coin tosses.
No one but the most superstitious thought the Tarot or I Ching coins in any way controlled weather, life, or “the future”. They did not address destiny, only likelihood. Probability assessment might be a phrase to better describe the function of these old forms of taking stock of one’s life, although naturally Gypsy Fortune Tellers tended to portray it all as divination, along with their crystal gazing balls or scrying bowls, palm reading, and tea leaf dregs. It was really just a way of accessing one’s subconscious, of getting the monkey mind of consciousness out of the way to allow a genuine self-aware insight.
What Lesser had proposed, and what he felt increasingly might be true, however outré, weaponized an old method of taking stock.
Could that explain W B Kek’s poem, with its cautionary tone and dire imagery? So many of this obscure poet’s works held such contrasts.
During an NPR segment on whether changes in American sexuality were more superficial than profound, a brief discussion of what one’s first time was like, then versus now, prompted Welle, to Pernille’s amusement, to say, “An exercise in clumsy ignorance and eager stupidity.”
“Who was she?” Pernille, wife and breakfast companion, buttered a wedge of toast and studiously did not glance at her husband.
“If only I knew.”
This prompted a barked laugh from Lesser and, inadvertently, from the waitress, who’d been pouring coffee.
They sat in a restaurant overlooking the section of town they would search that morning for signs of occult activity. Or so Welle had promised. “We are looking for symbols in chalk, or perhaps small stickers placed on the backs of street signs, or arrangements of solid things forming interesting patterns.”
Lesser thought it a likely waste of research time but did not mind a good walk in the morning’s cool air, and the neighborhood was older, with more ornate architecture and only some eye gloss of gentrification. Much to his taste were the patterns in brick at the top edges of windows and along the tops of buildings. He’d learned, too, that bricklayers used patterns to sign their work. “In Britain you can find whole walls set with interesting diagonal patterns that tell you company and even individual bricklayers. Some of that tradition was carried on here.”
Welle had nodded during this part of their talk, as they ate eggs, toast, and coffee. “Some also hint at guilds and other hidden societies.”
They hoped to find hints of what groups had been active but not advertised back when the blizzards happened, back when the Missouri quake might have knocked some Omaha buildings flat.
Precious few buildings dating back that far survived.
One, a schoolhouse in Bellevue, a town that was being subsumed into a suburb of south Omaha, dated to the 1700s. Bellevue had been the first town founded in the Nebraska territory, and was home to Fort Crook and more recently to Offutt Air Force Base.
Welle referred to it as Offset Airforce Base, which made Lesser smile.
Pernille, having joined them for breakfast, kissed Welle goodbye and headed for UNO, where she would do follow-up research at the library to see if the hidden history of the region mentioned any Tarotiers. They knew already of the famous hermit magician, a designer of stage illusions considered by many working illusionists as a genius and the best ever at certain conjurings, such as the levitating ball. He’d died not too many years before and many a famous stage illusionist either appeared at his funeral or sent various manifestations of their debt of gratitude and inspiration.
Welle, Pernille, and Lesser had often sought the more esoteric sort of occult folks, those chasing philosophical insight rather than ways to awe audiences, but this delving into the past was proving a challenge.
Lesser followed Welle on foot from the restaurant across the through street and past the commercial strip. Soon it was old warehouses changed into loft apartments for rent, brick and stone houses with elaborate floor-plans and decorative façades, and a few clapboard houses that strained to be Victorians from years just before or just after that era.
“Look, there.” Welle pointed to a triskel, the three-lobed loop Celts used to indicate Brigid’s three aspects. It appeared on an enamel disk set above a front door’s lintel, under a triangle of decorative brick that mimicked a roof. “Not sure it’s original, but isn’t it lovely?”
They strolled, Welle explaining the joys of being a flaneur, as they kept their gazes flitting over buildings of many kinds and ages. Welle, despite age and dimmer vision, spotted chalk marks, runes, and other symbols, some of which he could interpret for Lesser, who always suspected such ephemera were simply Hobo Marks, to indicate which houses to avoid and where a meal or handy-work might be obtained. He was impressed that Welle looked beyond such things and found Old Norse, Astrological, and Esoteric symbology subtly displayed all around them.
At a corner, waiting to cross another commercial street, a man in a suit, younger than Welle but prosperously plump, stood alongside them. When the light changed, just as Welle and Lesser stepped off the curb, the man said in a clear baritone: “Reality is a solid.”
Startled to hear such a phrase, one from esoterica that came even as he and the professor sought hints, Lesser glanced at the man, only to find no one there.
There were two women who gave Lesser the impression of co-workers out for a brunch, a teenager carrying a dozen or so vinyl records in sleeves bound with cord, and Welle, but no successful-looking man in a suit.
There was nowhere such a man could have gone to be out of sight so fast.
As they reached the other curb, Lesser stopped and scanned the area, tapping Welle’s arm. “Did you see—?”
Welle smiled. “Yes I did.”
“What’s it mean? Are we attracting ghosts now?”
Welle’s smile wilted. “Perhaps so, in a manner of speaking.”
Leading Lesser around a corner into another residential area, Welle considered. “Attention. That’s what we seem to be attracting. And perhaps from the right people. Or perhaps not. Hard to tell, with spooks.”
Their meandering walk through the Blackstone District, (“Did you know the Reuben Sandwich was invented in a restaurant at that hotel?” Welle asked as they walked by, making Lesser’s belly growl), and through the Dundee District, (Welle pointed. “That’s Warren Buffett’s house. They say he answers his own door; shall we knock?”) eventually took them to the Scottish Rite Masonic Building on Douglas Street in what had once been West Omaha but was now East Central Omaha. As they stood before the imposing ediface, as a Victorian writer might have described it, Lesser said, “We could’ve gotten here more directly,” meaning by car.
“Nice day for a stroll, through.” Welle all but winked.
They entered, Welle being welcome there despite not being a member because he’d consulted with them and had done some work for them of a private nature a few times. They wended their way through the forest of columns inside, on the black-and-white checkered floor tiles, and climbed to the second of four floors, to inquire about the Snow Cry Tarot.
Ornate, the building dated to 1914 but Scottish Rite Masonry had come to Omaha in the 1850s and began thriving in the 1880s along with the city itself as the stockyards, railroads, and mercantile commerce along the Missouri River flourished. Lesser had never been in so fine a building. He could not help but gape at the seemingly endless examples of detail work and quality materiel used throughout the 47,000 square feet.
“Feels like a church or bank or something.”
“A little of neither,” came Welle’s wry response.
They met with an older man, heavy to the point of being ponderous. He had white hair, gold-framed glasses, and a light, airy voice accompanied by much panting. He seemed so fat his lungs had no room to expand, Lesser thought.
He sat at ease behind a desk clear of papers, his puffy hands folded, several rings subsumed into his flesh.
Lesser wondered about the possibility of gangrene, yet found the man’s face, though flushed, animated and happy. “Mr. Welle, how good to see you again.”
“Bernard. Thank you for seeing me.”
Lesser glanced at Welle, suspecting some sort of invisibility humor, but found Welle’s expression sincere. Perhaps this giant man was a pope or chief of some sort, whose audience had to be granted. He had no idea who Bernard was, what rank he may have held, or why specifically they’d come until Welle spoke.
“Bernard, we’re looking for something called the Snow Cry Tarot, have you ever heard of it? I’m hoping a thirty-third degree Mason might help a widow’s son.” At this, Welle held up his hand and displayed a ring Lesser had not seen his professor and partner wear before. It had a Cross of Lorraine on it, in silver set into onyx. Beside it, Welle’s usual oval flat blank onyx ring in gold.
What’s next, Lesser wondered, a secret handshake?
Sure enough, the two older men shook hands.
“I’m told reality’s a solid.”
“By compassed circle and closed square, it is.” Bernard nodded.
Lesser thought of call-and-response in liturgical churches. Such formality, such ritual, struck him as both antiquated yet somehow dignified, yet he also knew Masonry had been revealed as bigoted against QUILTBAG folks, for example, and steeply leaned toward certain streaks of Christianity despite a nondenominational public stance. It was a group he himself would not join.
Lesser also had read books claiming that the Great Secret protected by Freemasonry had been lost. This secret itself supposedly came from the Knights Templar, after they had been shattered on that Black Friday by the gold-greedy French King. The king had been in great debt to the Knights, who’d invented credit banking, so the king had simply ordered them slaughtered and their treasure seized. Nine ships, it was said, escaped, even as Jacques DeMolay and the others burned at the stake.
Those ships sailed, it was said, to Scotland, where, at Roslyn Chapel, some of the treasure was hidden, the bulk having been sent on to America, there to be lost to history. Merica, incidentally, was a Masonic term, the name of a mystical land of Freedom, Liberty, Equality, and Justice where they hoped to found such a society. Many thought the Templar treasure ended up in the notorious Money Pit on Oak Island, Nova Scotia. Others claimed it lay in caches and hordes scattered across the entire North American continent.
Myth, legend, and foggy history kept things lively for the cottage industry of treasure hunters, sketchy archaeologists, and other prowlers of the fringe.
Lesser thought about all this and listened as Welle and Bernard talked about who might know something about an icy Tarot. “Millicent Caprielli might know something of use to you.” Bernard said this as if it had popped into his head unbidden, then blinked, as if amazed at himself.
They were directed to the third floor, to Ms Caprielli’s office, in which they found a young man in tee shirt and jeans renovating a section of plaster on a wall showing exposed lathing. “Oh, she’s over at the Joslyn,” this worker told them. “She’s a curator there, lower floor.”
Welle stepped through the large, well-lighted workroom into a short dark hall, then into an office illuminated mainly by a desk lamp shining on paperwork. He smiled as Ms. Millicent Caprielli, a small, slender woman with a strong face and graceful hands, glanced up. “What is it about folies-a-deux that so often turns their fancies and fantasies dark?”
“A turning away from the world.” She smiled and stood, reaching her right hand across the desk.
He stepped closer, took her hand, then turned to gesture at Lesser, whom he introduced. “We are here to quiz you about an Ice Tarot.”
“The esoterica or the treasure map puzzle?”
Lesser chuffed out a breath, feeling as if he’d been punched in the belly. He glanced at Welle, who sat and said, judiciously, “Both?”
She knew scattered facts about the artist who’d done the uncolored pencil sketches, which had later been painted into colorful images by others. “He was destitute, stranded in Omaha, and trying to work up enough money to let him travel back to Boston, where he had family. That’s the story, anyway.”
Lesser pulled out a notebook and prepared to jot notes.
Ms. Caprielli frowned, then rifled through a few desk drawers before standing and heading for the door. Crossing the office, for a person of normal size, would have been a tight squeeze with the two men there, one sitting on the only guest chair, the other standing hunched over his notebook near the door. As it was she slipped by them like a stray thought of sex or food, saying something about fetching a book. Lesser thought it not unlike encountering a pixie.
She entered talking. “He’d worked as an anonymous illustrator for a publisher in Boston, Ticknor, Fields, Miller, no relation to the more famous Ticknor & Fields apparently. Deceptive naming, no doubt. They probably aped their competitor’s books appearance, too. In any case, anonymously or under many house names, he produced most of the interior illustrations, in many styles, until he was let go, charged with pilferage.”
“He stole from them?” Welle seemed to find that significant.
She squinted at the battered, tattered Moleskine. “Can’t read my own scrawl. Oh, okay, it could have been something as petty as taking a pencil home with him accidentally in his jacket pocket. Apparently he gambled, and wasn’t much liked. Drank, too. Typical artist, hm?” She laughed.
Lesser chimed in with a chuckle. He wondered what the point of any of this was, but Welle and Caprielli seemed to be on a wavelength, communicating beyond or past or under the words somehow, so he played along, refraining from interrupting with his own harder-edged questions.
“I took these notes during a seminar. Visiting scholar, very informed about nineteenth and early twentieth-century artists. Their migrations, there peregrinations, and their limitations. That’s actually one of my notes; nice phrase, huh?” She laughed again, with Welle, enjoying the ribbing she was giving herself.
“Pomposity becomes you.”
“It will if we let it take root. Okay, so. He did the so-called Snow Tarot after the blizzard of —“
“For whom? I take it he’d been hired.”
Caprielli and Welle both blinked at Lesser as if he’d been forgotten. His question he’d intended as a sharpening of details but instead it derailed her train of thought and scattered the cars over a wild strawberry patch as she and Welle huddled together giggling and whispering.
Welle stood and hugged Caprielli, who squeezed back hard enough to lift her feet from the floor. Glancing at Lesser, Welle said, “Okay,” and strode out of the office without a backward glance.
“Nice meeting you,” Lesser could not help saying, scurrying after his fearless leader. He wished he’d thought to list questions ahead of time, to make sure at least one of them stayed sober enough to gather useful details.
She’d never said the artist’s name, he realized.
Welle he found at the end of the hall, studying a Monet temporarily displayed near the base of the basement’s public stairs, pink marble matching the exterior of the building. “It fascinates me how he manages to imply so much detail without providing it.”
“Yeah, I’m beginning to feel the same way.”
Welle ignored Lesser’s pointed remark and up the stairs and outside they went, for a scuttle to the car in a light rain. “Where’d that come from?”
Once in the car, Welle told Lesser to start the engine and warm up the interior, to clear the steamed windows. He also put on the radio and, uncharacteristically, chose a hard rock station, which he turned up. As he met Lesser’s surprised expression, Welle raised a finger to his lips. In a low voice, he said, “We are being watched.”
“Should I kiss you or something?”
“Doubt that’d accomplish much. Why don’t you drive us back to the shop? We have some things to look up and discuss.”
“She managed to convey information to you?”
Welle smiled. “Of course. We have both lived under harsh regimes and know how to dissemble and talk past and around important things.”
Lesser thought he was learning but knew he was way behind the curve when it came to living in an informant’s society of surveillance, eavesdropping, and oppressive intrusions into privacy. He was not yet in spy-world mode.
The light rain had passed by the time they reached the Old Market area. It felt as if the rain had been a signal of some kind. Lesser thought of French movies and the smell of stale popcorn, a girl’s soft hands and gasps in the dark.
On an upturned face,
Darkness engulfing us.
Down on us
From unreachable heights
To blind us.
Dark holds us
Secure in eternity’s
Our only certainty.
/ W B Kek
“This can’t be right.”
Welle looked up from the item he was studying, a hollow billiard ball from the Nineteenth Century in which Civil War messages had been hidden. “What?”
Lesser tapped his iPad screen. “I was researching a set of clay marbles found in Western Pennsylvania in the 1970s. Turned out to be maps on them, incised or embossed into, or onto,” he shook his head, “the clay. Possible maps of ambuscades, stashed munitions and supplies, travel routes, battle grounds—”
“Yep. Fired clay. They could’ve had little kids carrying them and never suspect information exchange and spying was going on. We’re thinking they were Union, from the few actual places we’ve managed to cross-reference.” He heaved a sigh. “Anyway, I was researching them when I came up with—“
“Wait.” Welle held up a palm. “How were these marbles read, used?”
A blink. “Oh. Well, you find the divot, and put your finger on it. That’s the top. You either ink the marble, or press it into clay or compressed soil. Then you roll the mable in increasing concentric circles, and it prints out a map.”
“That’s ridiculously complicated.”
Lesser grimaced. “I see clay balls and a mess in our near future.”
“Empirical testing is the only way to be sure.”
Another sigh, louder, more decisive, escaped Lesser. “Okay. Fine. We’ll make map marbles and test them. But listen, all right? When I was researching them I came across a mention of the Snow Cry Tarot.”
Like the marbles, the Snow Cry Tarot was said to be in the possession of one Pauline Elder Smeal, of Altoona, Pennsylvania, a one-time railroad town and home of the Boyer Candy Company, once bigger than Hershey’s. It was famous now for the Horseshoe Curve, the PRR Railroad Museum, and the “world’s best Big Mac” made at the McDonald’s at the Station Mall in Logan Valley, where once Logan Valley Boulevard, with miles of entrances and exits to stores and malls and plazas, had been the single most dangerous strip of road in the United States.
Among the art and artifacts collected by Mrs. Smeal, heiress to Elder Lumber fortune, had been the contents of the Altoona History Museum, which had gone under once the vaudeville circuit cut Altoona out of its loop. She bought the contents and sorted through them, finding one item of historical value in particular, a secretary desk with bookcase. A fine quality piece of tropical hardwoods would fetch upwards of two to five thousand dollars, but this one was ill-made of scrap pine, somewhat battered, and badly varnished.
It had, in fact, been a hotel piece, hard-used. Put together with both square black-iron nails and square dowels, with a dovetail-joint drawer and obviously hand-made scalloping that did not quite remain consistent, and crystal handles, with holes on top for some sort of faux Chippendale crown, it featured a sloping front for writing on. This lifted to reveal a large compartment with the pigeonholes missing. It all looked amateurish, a barely-able cabinetmaker’s attempt to copy a finer piece. Rustic described it.
The hotel it had come from, according to provenance papers, had been the Ebensburger, in Ebensburg, PA, a county seat thirty miles or so from Altoona, atop the third of the three highest peaks in the area, Cresson, Munster, and Ebensburg, with Anderson’s hill between the latter two. Being a county seat with a huge, fine Stanford White courthouse, Ebensburg’s hotel was large and, for the times, lavish, meaning the best available in that area.
It was to this place none other than Mary Todd Lincoln, sudden widow of Abraham Lincoln, 12th President, first to be assassinated, came by train in shock and mourning, and she was put into the suite of rooms that featured, among other furniture, the crappy writing desk. She used it while she was there, claimed the provenance papers, to write letters and perhaps diary entries.
It was of tremendous historical, if very little intrinsic, value.
In the flat, wide drawer, shoved into a back corner, a small wooden box, thought to be of cedar, silk lined, was found. On the silk lining lay a beautiful Tarot deck showing scenes of a blizzard, desperate heroism, pathetic failure, death, and revelation. The Snow Cry Tarot had been left in that desk.
“You think Mary Todd Lincoln left it?”
Lesser shrugged. “Can’t tell. But it makes sense that she’d have such a thing, given her overt superstition, and the deep shock of her husband being killed that way, right beside her. She likely caught blood, brain, and bone spatter.”
“He died in a house across the muddy street, in a back bedroom, on a bed far too short for him. He lingered almost twelve hours.”
Lesser nodded. “But he was shot right beside her, and she watched the assassin severely wound the brave military officer who was sitting with them. Booth used a large knife before he leaped to the stage. He’d fired a single-shot derringer of large caliber. Why he hadn’t used a revolver for extra shots, I never understood, but I suppose he was at pains to sneak in the weapon. Had to be small, so he could hide it.”
They contemplated things for a few moments, Welle tapping his fingers on the hollow billiard ball. “Guns, always guns,” Welle muttered. “But not always. Sometimes it’s snow.”
Welle broke a strained silence. “If we can trace the artist to this Ebensburg hotel.”
“The Ebensburger.” Lesser said it deadpan, mocking Welle’s oblique evasion of saying one extra syllable.
“Yes. Then we might be able to prove they could have crossed paths, Mrs. Lincoln and our artist.”
“Who’d be a lot easier to trace if we had his name.” Lesser was exasperated to be so temptingly close, yet so far. It was more maddening than the Jack the Ripper or Black Dahlia cases. Or Zodiac, for that matter.
Welle smiled. “I think his name is known to us.”
Lesser took a deep breath, trying to control his annoyance.
“Her name, not his.” Welle smiled as he let Lesser drive them back to the Freemason temple. “Sara Payne Beckwith. Illegitimate daughter of Susannah Payne, noted artist, mostly portraits. Her mother had a miserable, abused life mostly in Boston. Apparently a sympathetic comforter impregnated her and she gave the child away to Charles Allerton Beckwith, who may have been said provider of tea, sympathy, and sperm. He raised the infant as Sara. Sara took the name Payne when she ran off at fifteen, probably having heard the truth of her lineage. She headed west as so many did then. By all accounts she was a tomboy if not a mannish woman, and dressed in trousers. She made a living at various small-town newspapers as illustrator, having inherited an artistic bent.”
Lesser, swerving in to do a three-point park job, sighed. “How do you know all this?”
Welle held up his cell phone. “Pernille texted me some files. Her research paid off, and some folks at the Joslyn museum helped pin it all down. Apparently they have some of Sara Payne Beckwith’s sketches there, although not on display.”
Lesser felt superfluous. Had his time been wasted, trying to be of help in this inquiry? Remove him from the calculations and Welle would still have ended up cracking the case. “I just wish I could’ve—“
“Stop it.” Welle’s voice snapped sharply, a whip near the ear. He opened his door and struggled to get out despite the high curb. He used both elbows to lever himself onto his feet, grunting with an old man’s effort and succeeding before Lesser could hurry around the car to help him.
They entered and once again Welle was met with deferential welcome and escorted to the illustrious, ponderous Bernard. “A pleasure to see you again so soon, my friend.”
They went through other niceties, another handshake, and this time Welle introduced Lesser as his “assistant”, making Lesser wince and think Oh, an upgrade from Mere Slave, then.
Welle and Bernard spoke partly in code, but Lesser followed the gist, which amounted to Welle demanding Bernard come clean and hand over the goods, more or less. What goods, Lesser could not tell.
Bernard, showing great reluctance, waddled to his desk and pressed a button on a many-buttoned telephone console. “Sir?” chirped a young man’s voice.
In a few seconds, via a door that Lesser had taken for a book case until it opened, came a slender, fit-looking man in his twenties, who walked with a spring and gazed at them as if daring them to find the slightest fault. No doubt he’d pounce to a vicious defense if one had such temerity. He wore a tailored dark suit, white shirt, and muted gray and yellow tie.
“Lysle, please.” Bernard withdrew an envelope from a desk drawer and handed it to his secretary, personal assistant, and amanuensis. “Give these gentlemen all due assistance, on my word.”
Lesser swore Lysle clicked heels as he gave a perfunctory bow and accepted the envelope with both hands. All he lacks, Lesser told himself, is white gloves.
Lysle broke the red wax seal, its black ribbon rippling to show it was of silk, then opened the envelope, a rich, thick paper of #10 size, and took out three sheets of creamy vellum. A spiky hand written in fountain pen with an italic nib left margins ten centimeters on all sides, as if pooled into the center of the paper.
Conspicuous consumption, wasteful excess, and impressive quality all in one, Lesser thought, giving Welle a glance and feeling a toe or two out of his depth. It was as if he’d been transported back in time to some court intrigue.
Welle, for his part, stood watching, calm but alert, even as Bernard lolled in his creaking leather swivel chair, looking disinterested.
Reading the document, Lysle did not so much as fidget a lip or flutter an eyelid. Waxed to the third sheet a key-like item waited. Having scanned the third sheet’s scribbled instructions, Lysle re-folded the papers, put them back into the envelope, and slide the packet into his inside jacket pocket. He gazed directly into Welle’s cosmic soul for the smallest fraction of obligated time, clicked heels softly again, and pivoted. He led the way to the door.
Welle followed, gesturing for Lesser, who, wanting out of there, did not have to be told or encouraged.
They entered a gilded cage-type elevator set into an alcove Lesser hadn’t noticed. They descended silently but for the mechanism’s sensuous groans past the ground floor to a garage level. Lysle led them to a Lincoln town car, opening the back door and gesturing.
Welle shooed Lesser in first, who ducked through and scooted over. Both men could have brought dates and still had plenty of elbow room on that back seat, which was upholstered in black leather that showed no wear or cracking.
Lysle drove them smoothly, professional chauffeur duties apparently not outside his wheelhouse. Up a ramp, into an alley, and onto a dedicated lane that gradually merged with Dodge. He drove them only a short distance, turning onto Farnham at 13th Street, to the Gene Leahy Mall area, a park with a canal at the bottom of a ravine, a plank bridge, a big permanent three-slide play area for kids in the shadow of the Burlington building, and walkways around both upper street level and lower canal level. It was a pleasant bit of greenery right in the middle of old downtown Omaha. High buildings loomed south and west, while older, shorter buildings stood like proud dowagers to the north as if guarding the Hollings Performing Arts Center, and the larger Mall of the Americas park and the Missouri River sprawled to the east.
At the center of the north side of the Mall’s three block length stood an arch, a salvaged architectural folly, one of two grand arched entranceways from a U S Bank building remodeled in 1979, that now served as a grand gateway into the lower areas of the park. Ohio Blue Stone, twenty feet tall, with a squat column at eye level on either side, weather-worn yet dignified, the arch is impressive and gives ambience to a comfortable public area for families to stroll and take some shade. An ice cream vendor often set up a cart by the arch but was not there that day, as dusk began to fall and a chill took possession of the breezes.
Under the right-hand column a bronze plaque told the history of the arch’s origin and dedicated the park. Lysle parked the town car near this arch, then got out, followed by Welle and Lesser. Approaching the bronze plaque, Lysle glanced left and right. Seeing no pedestrians particularly near-by, the Mason took out the envelope, opened the document, and with a bit of difficulty prized the metal object from the third sheet’s wax.
It proved to be a key, which fit a hole in one side of the plaque, which could then be slid out like the front of a drawer. Behind it, in the drawer, lay a metal box wrapped in newspaper itself covered in thick wax. Lysle took this out, handed it to Welle, and slid the drawer back into place. A faint click was heard.
“Listen,” a man’s baritone said as a large man in a black suit, wearing a bowler, strolled by. When Lesser looked toward the man’s face, he found him gone, as if he’d ducked into one of the cars, or had scrambled down the grass slope toward the canal, or had simply vanished.
Welle, holding the wax-covered box with both hands, ignored the dark man. Once back in the town car, being driven back to the Masonic Lodge, Welle said to Lesser, who was now examining the box, testing its heft, shaking it gently, “Listen can mean to pay attention to what one is hearing, or it can mean to obey.”
This gave Lesser a shiver and he handed the box back to Welle.
They walked out of the cage elevator and left the Masonic Lodge by the route they’d followed to reach Bernard’s office. No one escorted them and Lesser did not notice where Lysle went once they left the elevator.
In their own vehicle, Lesser felt a kind of pressure around him lessen, as if a storm front had come through. “That’s the Snow Cry Tarot in that box, isn’t it?”
“I presume so, yes. We will know when we open it, which we’ll do carefully. Slowly. After we eat some dinner, which I imagine Pernille is fussing over now.”
“She takes great care of you.”
“As do you, my friend. Colleagues do such things.”
Welle’s wife did indeed have supper waiting, a meal of vegetarian meat loaf, scalloped potato slices, haricot vert, and a dessert of sliced peaches, pears, apples, and cherries over a small piece of shortbread.
After coffee, they all three went to Welle’s study, where the wax-covered box waited on his cleared desk, on the green blotter.
As they entered, they found Lysle sitting in an easy chair.
Welle did not act surprised. “Shall we?”
Lysle did not so much as nod, but he stood and stayed well back, observing.
Welle sat and used an X-acto knife to slide the wax so it could be opened by pulling apart the top and bottom halves. After this, he unwrapped the newspaper, which was dated to 1893. It was pliant and as-if fresh but quickly began yellowing and going brittle. Inside this wrapping lay a rose-wood box, inlaid with mother-of-pearl in a checkerboard pattern, with a triskel design in silver on its clasp.
“This is it.” Welle’s fingers trembled slightly as he opened the box.
Inside, a black velvet bag lay, cinched at the top. He opened it. It was lined with red silk that held a large Tarot deck depicting all Major Arcana cards in a blizzard motif.
It was Pernille who noticed there was an extra card, one depicting a dog crouching in obvious frozen misery under a pine tree, icicles descending from its mouth like extra fangs, its ribs visible, its eyes rimed, the tail tucked under. It was vivid and appalling. “You can feel how it’s suffering,” Pernille remarked.
Welle’s voice held less pity, more academic detached interest. “That means either there is another card missing or there are seventy-nine in this deck, making it very unusual indeed.”
“It’s the dog that’s warning the Fool of the cliff in the first card,” Lesser said.
Perhnille nodded. “It is. Same dog. Alone now, suffering, taking insufficient shelter.”
Kings, queens, knights, and knaves all twisted in frozen agony, each delineated so delicately, with such artful and telling detail, that the illusion of life, or at least of photography, kept flickering in each observer’s mind’s eye, even though the art itself was obviously ink and paint. Coins, Sticks, Bowls, and Knives were depicted as frozen, snow-covered, or blown in icy wind.
On the back of each card an eye-confusing repetitive pattern of diamonds, triangles, and circles wove a spell all its own. “You could use this as a mandala, it practically drags you by the face into meditation.” Pernille blew a puff of air. “Makes me dizzy, even.”
It was Lesser who pointed at the window and said, “Look.”
Feathery flakes of snow the size of a baby’s palm drifted densely through the night air to touch the ground with infinite lightness.
Welle nodded. “Please, the good camera.”
Pernille crossed the study, opened a wall cabinet, and took out a .35mm Pentax with a straight lens. She also fetched a metal stand.
They arranged the camera so it faced the desk from the stand’s grip, at a distance of a foot. A desk lamp shined light from an angle, and each Tarot card was set under the lens, which was adjusted to capture each card in precise focus.
They took two pictures of the front and back of each card.
Once finished, they repeated the process with a digital SLR Pernille used for her art preservation and inventory work. She also insisted upon video of the deck being fanned, then each card being dealt.
Welle stopped her when she wanted to throw a spread and do a reading.
When the cards had been catalogued and recorded, Welle, still wearing his cotton archive gloves over a set of silicon kitchen gloves, put the deck back into its silk cocoon, then into the rose-wood box. “We’ll use today’s newspaper.”
Lesser fetched that day’s copy of the Omaha World-Herald from the den. He also took on the duty of videoing the process of re-sealing the package.
Welle let Pernille, who declared herself much better at it, to wrap the box in the front page. Once that was done, they discussed covering it in paraffin wax. They decided to do so, and Pernille first wrapped the newspapered box in a layer of plastic wrap, then a sealed plastic bag, before lowering the whole thing into the pot of heated paraffin. They waited for it to solidify, then prized it from the pot and shaped it into a rounded rectangle.
“Not bad at all.” Welle was pleased with the result and took some pictures.
Lysle, all but forgotten, stepped from a shadowed corner and held out the key, which Welle accepted. “Thank you.”
A slight click of heels, a brief hint of a bow.
As they stepped outside Lesser’s left heel went out from under him. He caught himself on the railing. “Whew, slick. Getting deep out here already.”
“It will keep snowing until we put this back.” Welle said this as if to himself, a musing pleased inadvertently as a small cloud of condensed breath.
Pernille accompanied them.
Lysle once again became unaccounted for, leaving no footprints.
This time Lesser drove, with the other two in the back seat. It made Lesser feel like a chauffeur and he tried to emulate Lysle’s smooth driving. On the slick streets it was hardly possible. He never lost control but never felt fully as if he had much, either. Their city lay under an unseasonably early blanket of fluffy snow that lifted into flurries and swirls with the slightest breeze.
Remembering the Snow Cry Blizzard, Lesser shivered.
They stood before the arch. As Welle placed the key and gently jiggled it to figure out how the lock mechanism worked, Lysle appeared from around the back of the arch. Lesser swore there must be tunnels riddling Omaha’s foundations, for him to get around so quickly and silently. Beside him, Pernille held the box.
When the plaque loosened, Welle began to pull it.
“Remove the key first.” This from Lysle.
Welle started, nodded, and took the key out, which Lysle immediately took.
Pernille stepped up and set the box into the revealed drawer.
A sound fell from the sky, at first distant and soft, but swelling until they heard children, dozens of them, maybe hundreds, crying out in fear, lost in terror, wracked by pain. It lasted for a few seconds, so withering a sound that Welle nearly toppled, to be caught by Pernille, while Lesser covered his ears and crouched down, as if expecting a chunk of night to fall on them.
Welle’s shaking hand pushed the drawer closed. It shut with a faint metallic click that silenced the crying from above.
At the same instant, the last of the snow fell.
All stopped, silence pausing reality to take a breath, and then the normal murmur and susurration of city sounds returned, flocking like the Monarchs that used a nearby town, Papillion, as a migratory rest stop.
Welle arranged for a facsimile Snow Cry Tarot deck to be printed by one of the major game-card manufacturers, on a standing small-lot order, and ARCANA became the only shop known to carry such an item.
So few knew of it that Welle had to renew the order only every other three years, which was fine by him. He’d retrieved a bit of esoteric history, revived a version of it to be proliferated, and contained its secrets inviolate.
For her part, Pernille wrote a treatise on the art, and researched the mysterious artist further, discovering a full, rich, varied life well worth a full biography.
Lesser contented himself with writing an account of their quest to be included in each deck sold, a personal contribution to a larger, more subtle, more complex unseen world.
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