Oblivion, a Robert Asher StorySaturday, June 11, 2016 at 12:00 am
by Adam Casalino
October 2, 1965
Robert Asher was on hold. Easy listening music, meant to sooth the caller, was playing on the other end. The rumba sounded like it was coming through a crushed cigarette box. Asher was not one for rumba music, or dancing for that matter. He didn’t like waiting on the phone either. Leaning out of the phone booth, he looked up and down the train platform. He checked his watch. Almost out of time. The rumba music played on.
Finally a voice spoke through the phone.
“This is Mr. Hargrave’s office, may I asked who’s calling?”
“My name is Robert Asher,” he said. “I need to talk to Hargrave immediately.”
“What is this in regards to?” the woman asked.
“I’m working for him,” Asher said. “Is he around? It’s urgent.”
“Mr. Hargrave is in a meeting right now, can I take a message?”
“No, not really.”
A ball of fire bloomed out of the wall several yards away. The train station shook with the force of the explosion. Asher picked himself up, hung up the phone, and started walking. Panicked voices came from everywhere. Smoke rapidly filled the station. Asher covered his nose and mouth and searched for a way out. A crowd formed around him, the same idea on their minds.
People pushed each other to get to the exit doors. Grown men laid waste to anyone who got in their way. Nobody touched Asher. A sandy-haired man brushed passed him, knocking down a woman in from of him. Asher stopped to help her up.
“What’s the big idea, jerk!” she yelled at the man. Her eyes met Asher’s and she smiled apologetically. “Thanks.”
“Don’t worry about–”
The ground shuddered. There was a sound like girders being twisted into pretzels. Fire burst from the tracks behind them, tossing a train car into the air. It slid across the platform, plowing through pedestrians. Asher picked up the woman and ran for the doors. He didn’t stop to open them.
Pointing his shoulders forward, he jumped through the glass. He cleared the steps of the station and landed on the sidewalk. Carefully, he let go of the woman, setting her on her feet. They both looked back at what was left of the train station. Fire lapped at the mangled doors; bodies hung from the train car like Christmas lights.
“What the hell is going on?” the woman said.
“You don’t wanna know.”
The walk from the train station to Hargrave’s office was short. Asher left the woman with an emergency worker and started marching. Sirens blared through the air as relief vehicles cast red against the buildings. The ground rumbled again. A gout of fire broke through the asphalt, flipping a fire engine onto its back.
People were crying for help, but Asher had to keep moving. He entered the office building and crossed the foyer. The ground still shook. As he reached the elevator, he encountered the first one. It was a woman, her eyes fill with terror. Maybe it was panic, maybe it was something else. Either way, as the doors opened and she lunged at the first thing she saw: him.
Asher got an arm up in time to block his face. She forced him back into the wall. He turned, using her momentum to throw her off balance. Her screams filled the alcove. Asher grabbed the woman before she hit the ground. He held her with both hands. Looking into her eyes, he saw an orange light threading through their veins. That confirmed it. He carried her into a utility closet and broke off the handle.
He decided to use the stairs.
The top floor was oddly quiet. Asher saw no one. Last door at the end of the hall was Hargrave’s. He went in without knocking. The short man with undone tie and loose collar was standing by the window, watching the street.
“We have a problem,” Asher said.
“No kidding,” answered Hargrave. “What the hell is going on?”
“Those artifacts you hired me to look into? They activated.”
“Activated?” Hargrave asked. “How so?”
Asher walked over to the window and pointed at the orange glow of the fires.
“I mean, activated. The whole block is going up.”
“The crates I had at the station?” Hargrave asked.
“Blew up like the Fourth of July.”
The man moaned as he rubbed his temple. “My hypothesis was correct. Those weren’t simply pieces of art or jewelry, but conduits of ethereal power.”
“I don’t know the exact term,” Asher said. “But yeah.”
The door to the office opened. Both men turned around to see a small woman in a brown skirt and pink sweater step inside.
“Hattie, what do are you doing?” Hargrave asked. “I told everyone to shelter under their desks.”
“I’m sorry, sir, I noticed the man come in and was worried,” Hattie said, nodding to the large man in military boots and bomber jacket.
“This is Robert Asher,” Hargrave said. “He’s a private detective, working for me.”
Asher nodded. “You should do what your boss says.”
“It’s just, the walls are talking too loud,” Hattie said. “They speak the lost words of an ancient age.”
“What was that?” Hargrave said. “Hattie, what’s wrong with you?”
Asher grabbed Hargrave by the shoulder. “You mentioned jewelry?”
“You gave some to your employees?” Asher asked.
“Nothing valuable,” Hargrave said. “Why?”
He followed Asher’s eyes to the chain around Hattie’s neck. The intricately cut gem hanging from it began to glow. Hattie coughed. Her head snapped back. There was a foul, cracking sound as her limbs contorted and stretched. The small woman in the brown skirt and pink sweater was gone. In her place was a creature with leather skin, long arms, and radiating eyes.
Asher pushed Hargrave down and drew his gun. Thunder filled the office as he blasted holes into the abomination. It collapsed into a pile on the floor. Through the open door, Asher saw more office workers convulse.
“Hargrave, you’re way too generous.”
Taking the man by the scruff of his neck, Asher dragged him into an adjoining conference room. Two of the creatures dove through the office after them. Asher took the head off one, knocking the other back with a kick. Hargrave and Asher pushed the conference table against the door, piling chairs onto another door leading to the hall. As the businessman paced, Asher looked out the room’s only window. No balcony or fire escape, just a sheer drop.
“I don’t understand,” Hargrave said.
“Let me clarify, then,” Asher said. “Your boy’s club got their hands on some pretty nasty stuff.”
“Don’t insult the Antiquarian Brotherhood,” Hargrave said. “We’ve collected hundreds of artifacts over the years. None of them have blown up city streets or turned humans into… into monsters.”
“Now you have,” Asher said. “We need to figure out how to stop this. Tell me everything you know about these artifacts.”
“I told you everything when I hired you,” Hargrave said. “They came from a newly discovered site in East Asia. No one knows its full history. It’s one of the most exciting archeological digs of the Twentieth Century.”
“You bought a boatload of artifacts,” Asher said, “from a strange dig site, without knowing a lick about them?”
“If we didn’t, someone else would have,” Hargrave said defensively. “The world of antiques is notoriously cutthroat.”
“Rich man’s problems.”
“Look, I admit we were hasty,” Hargrave said. “I hired you because I thought there was a problem. You were supposed to find out more. Have you?”
“I–” Asher was interrupted by a thump at the door. They both started. When nothing broke through, he continued. “I learned the site was a temple from the Second Century, B.C. It belonged to a cult led by a renegade monk called Rams’va. He promised his followers eternal life if they stored their ashes in sacred urns. Rams’va promised to reanimate them once he ruled Asia. His neighbors didn’t like that, so they destroyed the temple. Rams’va and his cult were sealed away for good, until you brought them here.”
“But the jewelry?”
“Belonged to the cult members,” Asher said. “They were to be used to reanimate their ashes. I’m guessing since the urns just blew up a train station, they had to use other bodies.”
“How did you find all this out?” Hargrave asked.
“Because, I spoke with Rams’va himself.”
The conference room lurched to one side. Asher leaned against the wall, catching Hargrave as he fell toward him. The lights dimmed. Explosions on the street cast an orange glow on the ceiling.
“I don’t think this building’s entirely stable,” Hargrave said.
“It’s not the building I’m worried about,” Asher said.
The chairs piled against the hall door moved on their own. The door opened, revealing a desiccated figure wrapped in linen strips. What was left of a long cape hung from its shoulders, ending near its feet in shreds. A circle of gold was on its head, its gem socket empty. Leveling its sunken, orange eyes at the two men, it raised a bony finger.
“Rams’va,” Asher said. “You look terrible.”
Hargrave grabbed Asher’s coat sleeve. “How is he here?”
“What did you think was in the really big sarcophagus?”
The corpse opened its jaw, a dry, sucking sound coming out.
“This is not my true form,” Rams’va said. “When we spoke, you saw me with your mind’s eye while I still dwelt in the Otherworld.”
Hargrave looked at the private detective. Asher shrugged. “How did you think I did it?” He looked back at Rams’va. “You should have stayed there.”
A thick, wheezing laugh came out of the corpse. “Give me the focusing stone.”
“W-what is he talking about?” Hargrave asked.
“My focusing stone,” Rams’va said, taking a step into the room. “With it I can command my subjects and bring life back to my body.”
“Now why would I give you that?” Asher said.
“Without the stone, my subjects will run unchecked through your city,” Rams’va said. “Bringing death and destruction.”
“And what will you do if you get it?” Asher asked.
“I will leave with my subjects and return to Asia,” Rams’va said.
“You think I’m going to let you take over an entire continent?”
“Better that land than yours,” the corpse said.
“W-we don’t even know what this stone looks like,” Hargrave said. “We only took a few artifacts from the site.”
“It’s near,” Rams’va said. “I can sense it.” He crooked his head as he looked around the room.
Asher placed a hand over Hargrave’s, covering up the ostentatious ring with the indigo gemstone. He spoke to the businessman under his breath.
“When I move, run.”
Asher hooked a chair with his foot and launched it at Rams’va. Roaring, he threw himself at the corpse. Bowling into its torso, he pushed Rams’va into the hall. The mummy recovered and lifted Asher into the air, tossing him into a row of filing cabinets. As Asher picked himself up, drew his gun, and fired. The slug struck Rams’va in the side of the neck. Asher grabbed the corpse by the collar and pulled it to the ground.
From the corner of his eye, Asher watched Hargrave dart down the hall toward the stairs. Rams’va grumbled. It broke free of Asher’s grasp.
“That one has my stone!”
“Looks that way.”
Picking up the side of the receptionist’s desk, Asher flipped it on top of Rams’va. Its legs were caught beneath the heavy desk. Asher left it clawing at the carpet as he ran after Hargrave. He found the man at the end of the hall, cornered by two of Rams’va’s abominations. Asher made short work of them, emptying his gun into their skulls. He pulled Hargrave to his feet.
“What do we do now?” Hargrave asked the private eye.
“Gimme the ring,” Asher said.
Hargrave put a hand over it. “Why?”
“Rams’va’s power is linked to it. If we can shut it down, we’ll shut him down.”
“And just how to do you suppose we do that?” Hargrave asked. “Shoot it?”
A growl filled the hallway. There was a crash as the receptionist desk was hurled against the wall.
“We can figure it out as we run.”
Asher pulled Hargrave into the stairwell. The businessman began to go down.
“Are you crazy?” Asher asked. “You want to lead that thing into more people?”
“The only other way is the roof. What the hell are we going to do up there?”
Asher grabbed Hargrave’s arm. “Doesn’t matter, we’re going up.”
They reached the roof. Smoked filled the night air, as the disembodied sound of sirens floated from the streets below. Asher led Hargrave to cover and told him to hide.
“Don’t move until absolutely necessary,” he said. “I’ll need you when this is all over.”
The stairwell door slammed open. Rams’va voice echoed across the roof. Asher stayed low until he reached the building’s electrical transformer. He waited until Rams’va found him. The corpse hovered in the air, its eyes like torches as they watched the man.
“Give me the stone,” Rams’va said.
“You mean this?” Asher held up the ring, its gem glowing in the city light.
Rams’va moved forward. Asher pulled it back.
“You know all I need to do to stop you is destroy the stone.”
“You cannot destroy it,” Rams’va said.
“If I could, you and your minions, it’d all go away,” Asher said.
“The stone is adamant,” Rams’va said. “As strong as my will. Not even with your strength could you break it.”
“No, but given enough electricity, anything’ll go boom.”
Asher turned around and plunged his hands into the transformer control box. There was an explosion of light and sound. Sparks scattered across the rooftop as electricity surged into Asher. Rams’va flew at the man. He never reached him. The corpse splintered into pieces of flesh that were carried away by the wind.
The building went dark as the circuits blew. One last jolt knocked Asher off his feet, sending him across the roof. He lied still, the ring was still on his finger. The gem was cracked and black. Hargrave emerged from his hiding spot and ran to him. Tentatively he examined Asher, afraid to touch him. His clothes were warm. Leaning forward, Hargrave tried to listen for breathing.
Asher sat up with a start, knocking back the antiquarian.
“What happened?” Asher said.
“Y-you did it,” Hargrave said, pointing at the stone. “Rams’va is gone.”
“Oh good.” Asher looked around. Already the city sounded quieter.
“How… how are you alive?” Hargrave asked.
“You were most certainly electrocuted,” he said. “I’m no doctor, but that amount of electricity would have stopped your heart, among other things.”
Asher rubbed a hand over his face. His skin felt dry. Lips were definitely chapped. He shrugged. Smiling, he patted Hargrave on the back.
“I guess I got lucky.”
Hargrave looked at him closely. “There’s more about you than you’re willing to say.”
“Not my business to share my secrets,” Asher said.
He pulled the ring from his finger and tossed it to Hargrave.
“Keep that safe, yeah?”
“Of course.” The man helped Asher to his feet. “And the rest of the collection?”
“Whatever’s not already blown up should be sent back to the dig site,” Asher said.
“The Brotherhood will not approve,” Hargrave said.
“I’m sorry for their loss,” Asher said. “Tell your friends to keep their noses clean. I don’t want to have to babysit them.”
Hargrave shook his head. “Trust me, this is the last time the Antiquarian Brother dabbles with dark forces.”
Robert Asher grunted. He started for the door. Hargrave stopped him.
“You said you needed me when this was over. What for?”
“Oh yeah.” Asher turned back around. “Your bill comes to fifteen hundred bucks.”