Root Causes: A Tale of Zodom
by Stuart North
I was about to close shop and settle in for the night when the stranger knocked at my door. “Go boil your head!” I said. “We’re closed.”
The knocking continued, slow, insistent.
“Rats!” I cursed, and went to slide back the spyhole. A grim black face stared back.
“Well,” I said, “what do you want?”
“Is this Bandar the potion dealer?”
“What type of customer?”
“A rich one,” he said, holding up a gold piece. It gleamed in the moonlight.
I unlatched the bolts and slid back the door. The black face was joined to two black arms, bone-thin, and dusty. A desert robe covered most of the body.
“You’re an assassin,” I said.
He flicked the coin to me and I caught it with both hands. One of them contained my knife. I grinned sheepishly, sheathed the knife, and shrugged. “Precautions,” I said. “Do come in.”
He brushed past me and I smelled a whiff of incense. And something else I didn’t like at all: a sharp, predatory smell that caused my hair to stand on end and my sphincter muscles to clench.
“A putrid little place,” he remarked, gazing about.
“One does what one can.”
He gazed about some more. I was warming up to give him my standard spiel when he turned and said, quite matter-of-factly, “I’m told you sell dibbuk root.”
I stared at him. “Sir,” I managed to stammer, “whatever do you mean?”
He reached into his robes and withdrew a small clay marker, stamped with Sumet’s personal hieroglyph. “As I said, I’m told you sell dibbuk root.”
The silence stretched out like the hand of an executioner. Stretched out and waited to close. The assassin was staring at me.
I took a deep breath. “Yes,” I said, “I sell it. One proviso however.”
“You don’t breathe a word of this to anyone.”
I held out my hand.
“Do I have your word then?”
“You will,” he said with the briefest hint of a smile. “But not yet.”
“Very well. Follow me.”
I took him to the back of the shop. A string of my most potent potions sat gathering dust on a dozen shelves. Business had been slow since the last temple decree banning or limiting the sale of any drug that was deemed ‘of a corruptible nature’ by holy writ.
The ban was part of the plan to clean up Zodom, though only a fool would have believed that. There were just as many addicts as ever; they were just all centered on the kifwa dens. Needless to say, Sumet and his friends were making a killing.
I pushed aside the third cat-skull on the right, twiddled the dial and pulled back the lever. The door clicked open and we descended the few steps to my secret room. I’d already taken a small oil lamp for illumination, without which we’d have been plunged into darkness. The dim light threw wavering shadows across the walls and floor, and the distant roar of water came faintly to my ears.
Behind me I heard the assassin stir. “This is it?”
“This is it.”
“Show me the root.”
I waded through the clutter of pots and urns that crowded the floor and came back with a tall green glass jar in which floated a fat wormlike thing preserved in oil.
“Set!” he exclaimed. Even by the lamplight I could tell he was impressed. Reverently, almost tenderly, he whispered, “Is it alive?”
“It’s in a dormant state, but yes, it’s very much alive.”
He turned to me. “Then you’ll ask a very great price for it.”
“I’m afraid I must insist on no less than one thousand gold marduks. Gems of equivalent value are also acceptable, though I’ll need time to have them verified before the transaction can occur.”
“That’s more than I thought.”
I shrugged. “You’re free to go elsewhere if you like.”
His eyes narrowed. “I could. But what’s to stop me from murdering you right here and taking the root for myself?”
“Why nothing,” I said, fumbling for the dagger at my side. “Except that it wouldn’t do you much good, being locked in here with me.”
“What do you mean?”
“This chamber can only be opened with the right code.” Almost on cue I heard the click of the door sounding shut above me. “And I didn’t think to fill this lamp with any great sufficiency of oil.”
He took the hint. “Shall we conduct the transaction here or in the room above?”
“Whichever is convenient, sir. But we must hurry, for the lamp is starting to sputter.”
He withdrew a wax tablet and scribbled something on it. Then he handed the tablet to me along with a tiny gold scarab that seemed to spring from his sleeves. It glistened like liquid fire. Or did it wriggle?
“This,” he said, pointing to the tablet, “is a contract from the Assassin’s Guild of Zodom promising to pay you, Bandar Seri Begawan, one thousand gold marduks upon successful completion of my task. And that,” he said, pointing to the amulet I’d just pocketed, “is the seal of that promise.”
“What do you mean?”
At that moment I felt a sharp prick in my hand. I hissed and drew it out and saw that the scarab had embedded itself in my palm. I suddenly felt very sick.
The assassin was smiling again. “Do you know what that is?”
I nodded slowly.
“Then you’ll know the penalty of your double crossing me” — he held up his own palm, his own kindred seal gleaming in flesh — “and I of you.”
I don’t know what happened next. I may have yelped, or dropped my lamp but, the next thing I knew, we were back in the shop. My eyes stung from the brightness and the endless rows of colored glass reflected my pallid face in a thousand bulbous reflections.
The assassin turned to me and bowed. “A pleasure doing business with you.”
“Get the hell out of my shop.”
He turned, root in hand, and sauntered out the door and into the night. I hastily scanned the contract he’d left me. It was a standard non-disclosure agreement, a gag order, so to speak, preventing me from telling any of the authorities about the assassin’s work until his intended target was eliminated.
Not a problem in ordinary circumstances. Only this time it was. See, this time the target was a man very close to my own interests, the High Priest Nanuphari, paragon of virtue and the biggest private benefactor of the legal and illegal drug trade in Zodom. And I’d just signed his death warrant.
Was there any chance the assassin could fail? Not likely. A dibbuk root is used for one thing only, the summoning of Abyssal flesh-eaters from the Ninth Demon Planes. Once summoned, the flesh-eater never fails in its purpose, which is, funnily enough, to eat flesh, along with bone, fat, blood, sinew and anything else that makes up the walking meat sack unfortunate enough to be its prey. Not even the High Priest’s holy wards would protect him.
I sat there. I sat there a long time.
I glanced once more at the tablet. Then I glanced at the scarab, snug in its bloody bed. As I would have been had it not been for... And then it came to me: the way out of the impossible web. A loophole.
I bound my hand, fetched my cloak, and went to pay dear Sumet a visit.
* * *
Halfway down Grope Street, I ran smack bang into a guard swaggering out of a doorway.
“Bandar!” he exclaimed. “What are you up to this time of night?”
“I might ask you the same thing, sir.”
“I’m on my nightwatch.”
“Is that what they call it?” I replied, noting that his pants were still half undone. A giggle came from the doorway behind him.
He scowled. “You’re a maggot, Bandar, you know that? A maggot.”
“Thank you, sir. Now, if you’ll let me pass—”
“Hold. I asked you a question.”
I sighed. “Must we go through all this? I have a delivery, all right?”
“To a man who doesn’t like to be kept waiting. Anur to be precise.”
“Yes, Anur. Now, may I be on my way, or do I have to tell your captain just why, exactly, his weekly package was delayed?”
“Oh. Ah. Um.”
“Yes, yes,” he stammered waving his hand. “Carry on.”
“Thank you, sir. And be sure to give her my love.”
I hurried away before he could reply.
I crossed the canal and turned onto Weedsmoke Street. The sound of pipes and drums came drifting on the air. A moment later two priests came staggering past, giggling and pointing inanely at the stars. Lights blazed up ahead.
Yes, this was the House of Dreams all right.
* * *
Kifwa hit me like a door in the face. I coughed and spluttered, my eyes watering. Lounging about on silk cushions sat several indistinct figures in various states of consciousness.
A Batalan slave girl approached me, all tassels and skimpy loincloth. She smiled, fluttered her painted black eyes, and said, “Welcome to Zee House of Dreams! Let us fulfill your wildest imaginings, take you beyond zee stars to zee—”
“Save it,” I said. “I’m here to see Sumet.”
“But, sir, no one sees zee master unless on business. It is not permitted.”
I sighed. “Do I look like a fog-head to you? Hurry and tell ‘zee master’ that Bandar the potion dealer wishes to see him.”
A flurry of wrinkles passed over her face. Then she turned and disappeared behind a curtain.
Sumet came waddling through a moment later, a big grin on his baby-fat face.
“My friend!” he exclaimed. “How is life treating you? I had not thought to see you so soon.”
“You’d rather not see me at all, eh?”
“Ah now, surely you jest!”
“Hardly. I’m here about that client you sent me.”
The grin vanished. His eyes darted to left and right. He hissed, “This den of vice is no place to converse. Come. Let us retire to my private quarters.”
We retired to his private quarters. Sumet settled in behind his desk. “You would like to sample a new wine I purchased from Kidesh?” He clapped his hands sharply. “It is wonderful. Most potent.”
The serving girl that had greeted me came through with two frothing glasses. Sumet leered. “Delicious,” he said. I wasn’t sure if he was referring to the wine or the serving girl. The sounds of giggling and the bleating of flutes came distantly to my ears. The drumming had stopped.
I sipped the wine and found it to be pleasant. Sumet was regarding me from across the desk. “Now, my friend, what did you come here for?”
I undid the bandage and placed my hand palm up on the table. He glanced at the scarab, shrugged. “Very pretty. Is it a new fashion?”
“Hardly. Do you know who that assassin was?”
“I didn’t ask. Seemed a shady customer, but he had gold and need of a... certain root. Naturally, I recommended you.”
“And did he tell you what he wanted it for?”
“Why no, old friend.”
“He means to murder Nanuphari.”
His mouth gaped once, twice. “The... High Priest?”
“The very same.”
“But... what... when?”
“It’s happening tonight,” I said, passing him the tablet. “He’ll use the root to summon a Ninth Plane Abyssal flesh-eater, straight into the priest’s bedroom. See? It’s all written down.”
He put down the tablet and drained his glass. “This is not a good thing.”
“No, Sumet, it’s not.”
“There’s only one solution.”
“You must turn yourself in. Tell them everything.”
I laughed. “Very selfless, I’m sure. But you forget one thing.” I held up my palm. “If I so much as breathe a word of this to the authorities, this will hatch, and whatever’s inside will eat me alive.”
“I’ll tell them, then.”
“No you won’t.”
“Because then I’ll spill the beans on your involvement.”
“I’ll deny it.”
“Will you also deny giving your personal marker to the assassin when they draw him in for questioning?”
He was sweating. His fingers played about the hem of his robe.
“You know I was only helping you out there, don’t you, old friend?”
“Oh yes,” I said. “One more scrap for your good friend Bandar, eh? Drop the act, Sumet. You knew exactly what you were doing when you sent that killer to me. Only you didn’t know the target was your own private patron. And now it’s you squirming on the end of that hook, old friend.”
His eyes hardened. He got up from the desk, went to his safe, brought out a bag of clinking coins and dumped the lot in front of me. “How much?”
“Well, since you’re so insistent, shall we say... two hundred marduks?”
“Fine. Now what’s your plan?”
I sipped my wine. Slowly. Finally I said, “It’s simple. We get a double.”
I picked up the tablet.
“When the assassin wrote my contract he was very strict in its wording. If I went to the priest: death. If I went to the authorities: death. You get the picture.
“But there was one loophole which he failed to spot. He never actually mentions Nanuphari by name, merely by his title of ‘High Priest’.
“Now this title, as anyone familiar with temple law is aware, is intimately tied to whoever wears the sacred gold mask at any one time, which is why no one ever sees Nanuphari in public without it. Therefore, if we can make it appear as if he’s been killed—”
“By getting a double,” he nodded. “But who?”
I shrugged. “A slave. A criminal. What does it matter?”
“Nanuphari is a hard man to mistake, being seven feet tall.”
“True,” I agreed. “But that’s not the problem. The problem lies in obtaining his mask. That’s where you come in.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“First, I’ll need your temple pass.”
He scowled, pulled the amulet over his neck and passed it to me. “I’ll want that back,” he said. “All right, now what?”
“Now you call Nanuphari here. Say you have urgent business with him. Something illegal, something profitable. He’ll know to come anonymously, so as not to be noticed. That means without mask or robe.
“While he’s gone, I’ll go and sneak the poor sod who’s to replace him into the bedchambers, garb him out in the priest’s gear, wait for the demon to arrive, do the grisly deed and depart, and there you have it. Problem solved.”
“That’s a fine plan,” said Sumet.
“Why, thank you.”
“There’s just one problem.”
“Well,” I said, getting up and pocketing the coins. “We’ll just have to live with that little difficulty for tonight.”
* * *
I stopped in an alley a few blocks down. It was dark and smelt of pee. Looking back I saw the two thugs close behind. I waved to them. They waved back.
Sumet likes to keep an eye on his investments.
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Stuart North