Cans of Laughter, Jars of Tears
~ J. P. Oakes
Detective Ansible presses two fingers to the bridge of her nose and tries to will her headache away. “And we’re absolutely sure that this guy was dead when he showed up for work this morning?”
The ME pokes in the chest cavity with a ballpoint pen. “Time of death is probably two days ago.”
Ansible releases a sigh that is almost a moan. “Goddamn East Theoran bullshit.”
Two bodies lie on a hotel-room floor. CSU techs bustle around them. Out in the hall, West Theoran security forces swarm like wasps.
“You know what I would give,” Ansible asks the ME, “for this to just be another dumb zombie case?”
The corpse by the ME’s feet—until recently a bellhop—is a body become a cavity. The chest has been opened, ribs splayed, reaching imploringly for the heavens. Inside: no lungs, no heart, no liver, arteries, or veins. A space as dry and empty as a butcher’s carcass.
The ME straightens, points her ballpoint at the second corpse. It’s painted with a filthy palette of bruises, but it has all its organs at least.
“You know who that is, right?”
Ansible wishes she didn’t. Wishes it wasn’t Konstantin Böhm, part of the delegation come to this hotel to negotiate with the East Theorans; wasn’t the main voice of dissension to the trade deal being organized. Wishes that if he was going to get murdered, he could have at least waited until her shift was over to do it.
“A moment detective?” one of the CSU techs calls to her. He’s by the door with a brush and jar of black powder. His look doesn’t telegraph good news.
“No useable prints?” she asks.
He sucks his teeth and steps aside to reveal the door.
It is like a monochromatic finger painting by a class of deranged toddlers. Fingerprints overlay each other on the door, the wall, the mirror. A veritable trail of them.
Ansible’s headache intensifies.
After the Hierophantic Wars, the surviving factions fought over Theora like it was the last pie on the dinner table. As Ansible understands it, the only solution they could agree on was the worst one: slicing the city down the middle; splitting it into East and West. East Theora would belong to the Selazzi Regime, while West Theora would remain under Empirical control.
Border disputes had been constant since then. East Theoran agents—and other more outré things—are forever slipping into the West, and conversely, the West sends its own spies East, although from what Ansible has heard, even with modern technology the number returning sane enough to have useful information is still below ten percent.
And yet, despite all the bad blood, and the history, and the vigorous, violent differences of opinion, the diplomatic process has picked up momentum. And now a trade delegation is visiting from East Theora.
Except now, despite the eyes of the world on this microcosm, and despite all the security, the man who led those railing against the deal is dead, and Ansible is left holding the bag.
Ansible follows a trail of radial loops, tented arches, and plain whorls plastered on walls, stair railings, and doors. She drags two security guards after her, and chides at the CSU tech as he paints his dust on the prints, trying to follow them across patches of carpet and rug for empty, tantalizing yards, before they reappear on an oak door, an elevator panel.
Two floors down from the murder scene, they enter a service corridor, and find a hallway become an abattoir. Organs are spread across the floor—greasy intestines; a glistening liver; two lungs spread like sagging wings. A maid stands at the corridor’s far end, facing the corner, shrieking.
The two guards turn ashen-faced. One bends over breathing deeply. Ansible pushes through the gore, past the heaving guards. As she reaches the corridor’s far door, she flashes a glance at the screaming nurse. She’s halfway through the door before she registers what she saw: fingers protruding from the maid’s screaming mouth, tucking away behind her teeth.
Ansible scrambles to bring her gun to bear, screams, “Freeze!”
The maid backhands her, sends her sliding through gore. Ansible tries to pick herself up, limbs responding distantly, and then the world above her detonates. Behind her, a guard’s rifle blares a wild, fully-automatic burst of fire. The maid reels through the far doorway as the rounds strike her.
The gun runs dry. Ansible leaps up, scrambling gorily after the fallen body.
She’s not fast enough.
When she punches through the door, the maid is bucking on the floor. Then she erupts like a piñata, ribs flying like candy.
Something bursts out of her. A ball of hands—some white, some black, some spattered with freckles, others knotted with arthritis. Some nails are blunt, others chewed, others manicured to sharp points. The creation—roughly the size of the beach ball she once tossed back and forth with her father on a childhood vacation—is too densely packed with digits for her to see how the palms join together.
It scrambles wildly down the hall, fingers dragging it along at madcap speed. Ansible fires, can’t tell if she hits it or not, gives chase.
There’s a stairwell ahead. It plunges down, sliding from railing to railing, barely controlled. She crashes after it, hearing the guards clattering after her. But by the time she reaches the bottom of the stairs, it’s long gone.
She doubles over, panting, horrified.
Goddamn East Theoran bullshit.
The East Theorans aren’t keen on her questioning their ambassador. She doesn’t give them a choice.
They meet in a conference room attempting grandeur and failing. He’s smaller than she expects, narrow and red-headed, wearing a sharply tailored pin-stripe suit. His face is a blizzard of scars, lines of white puckered flesh intersecting like webbing. Both his ears have been removed. He sits in a chair opposite her. Behind him hulks his bodyguard, looking somehow pieced together, as if not all of his body is organic to him. Next to him sits his translator, a young man dressed as if for a funeral, a slight plastic sheen to his skin.
“We’ve had an incident,” Ansible says as she sits, then lays it out for him—the bodies, the chase, the creature. He doesn’t blink. “Anything you want to say?”
For a long moment, she thinks he’s just going to sit there staring through her. Then he lets out a long, shuddering hiss, slowly building in pitch until she thinks he’s about to scream. Then it cuts off. “It reaches,” he says in a voice painfully dry. “It grasps.” The he reaches out toward her with a closed fist and pulls a heart out of nowhere. He tucks the bloody organ into a pocket inside his suit.
The translator leans forward. “The creature you encountered,” he says, “is known as a Manus Dei. It is a summoning, brought here by a practitioner. It is used to take possession of a host and enslave it to the practitioner’s will.”
Ansible waits for more. It doesn’t come. “The practitioner’s name ?”
The heart in the ambassador’s pocket is staining his shirt red. He spits something thick and black onto the floor, scratches at it with his shoe.
“The ambassador is committed to the peace process,” the translator says. “He believes trade agreements are the first step to a more open and trusting relationship. He is as horrified by this murder as you are and swears he has no idea who would act against him.”
“Against him?” Ansible loses the struggle to suppress her incredulity. “The main opponent to his deal was just killed.”
The ambassador leans forward, smiles. All his teeth, she sees, have been filed to points. “Through night I wander while around me birds flaps with wings like dark silk borne of worms grubbing through leaves infested with a mushroom that claws like a tower toward the heavens.”
The translator runs a hand through his hair. “This deal is delicate,” he says. “How does someone painting the East Theorans as murderers help us?”
Later, Ansible sits in a makeshift incident room with a member of Empiricist foreign office, an emaciated-looking woman called Jennings.
“You think the East Theorans put some of it on?” she asks. “I mean, how would we know if they’re just hamming it up for us?”
Jennings shakes her head. “I was part of a delegation sent there once. It gets-” She shudders. “-so much worse.”
Unsettled, Ansible changes tack. “Is the murder of the ambassador’s main opponent really bad for him?”
Jennings huffs mirthless laughter. “You hear that?” she says.
Ansible does. Böhm’s supporters flood the streets outside, their screams and protests breaking against the hotel’s thick walls like surf.
“Does that,” Jennings says, “sound like good news for this deal?”
“But the talks are still going on, right?”
Jennings chews her lip. “For now.”
“So, what’s riding on this deal?”
Jennings’s attempt at a smile is horrific. “The specifics of the legislation aren’t as important as the two sides just working together, coming up with some consistent rules, working on common problems, moving away from being opponents and toward being partners.”
“But the specifics?” Murders, Ansible knows, rarely happen because people look at the big picture.
Jennings shrugs. “Updating tariffs means there are some winners, sure. Losers too.”
“I’ll want a list of those losers.”
Jennings calls people. Ansible writes names on a chalk board. Goes back to one that Jennings paused over.
“Pierre Mercier? As in the industrialist?”
Jennings’s rictus smile reappears. “As in Konstatin Böhm’s former business partner, and biggest financial donor.”
Ansible noses her car out through the crowd around the hotel. Protesters smack her windshield with placards, utterly disinterested in who she actually is. The surrounding reporters are no better behaved. But finally, she’s out into the densely woven streets of downtown, traveling past the financial spires and into the poor, run-down suburbs. Then she’s through those, moving out to where the money accumulates again in great sprawling estates.
Pierre Mercier lives in a large limestone building ensconced in carefully manicured grounds. At the door, a young man introduces himself—without a hint of irony—as, “Mr Mercier’s most personal and personable assistant.”
Mercier himself—as sprawling as his estate—waits on his patio, trademark cigar firmly clamped between his teeth. It all feels very staged, very indicative of a fragile ego.
“I imagine,” Ansible says, “that you’ve heard the news.”
He stares at his box hedges and rose bushes for a moment. When he finally responds his voice is bearish. “The markets have responded . . . sympathetically.”
Ansible isn’t sure what she’s supposed to say to that.
He turns red-rimmed eyes on her. “My stock is up, yet I am poorer.”
She hesitates, then decides that, yes, she’s willing to be the asshole. “You stood to lose a lot if the talks are successful.”
“This is more than I calculated.”
“But unsuccessful talks would be to your advantage.”
He shifts his weight at that one, leans forward. “You think my objections to the talks are financial? Do you know what it is I export to East Theora, detective?”
“Cans of laughter, and jars of tears. Specifically of widowed men aged fifty-five to sixty-seven. They take shifts laughing into empty tin cans, which we seal up with wax. Then they go and weep continuously into glass mason jars.”
“And is that profitable, Mr. Mercier?”
He waves a hand, indicates the estate. “I take advantage of their insanity, yes, but the thought of normalizing relations with people so abnormal . . .That neither Konstatin nor I could abide.”
He leans back but his eyes are still lively. “It seems to me,” he says, “that if I were in charge of a case where an opponent of the trade talks was killed by an East Theoran Manus Dei, I might look at an East Theoran who stood to gain a lot from the talks.”
“You’re very well informed, Mr. Mercier.”
The hand waves at the grounds again—all the explanation she’s going to get.
“Did you know,” he says, “that the East Theoran ambassador leads the largest exportation program East Theora has? Do you know what is going to happen to his profits, detective?”
She chews on that. “Thank you,” she says finally. “You’ve been very helpful.”
She doesn’t like Mercier, but doesn’t like him for the murder either. Killing a friend to just to make a little more dough is hardly a solid motive for someone as rich as Mercier. Although, she thinks, you never can tell with the rich. They’re as bad as junkies sometimes, it’s just they’re addicted to the cash.
Back at the hotel she finds Jennings again. “Tell me about the ambassador.”
“He’s as deranged as anyone in the Selazzi Regime.” Jennings’s vehemence surprises Ansible.
“But he stands to profit from this deal?”
Jennings hesitates. “In a way.” In the light from the window her hair looks thin, patchy.
“To the East Theorans, money is just a way of dealing with us. Otherwise, it’s basically meaningless to them. They care about currying favors with their gods, with the Selazzi themselves.”
The Selazzi—vast abominations rotting, and pulsing, and eternally failing to die far beneath the earth, their psychic extrusions leaking into the nightmares of the Empiricist Empire.
“The ambassador has high standing with one of the Selazzi,” Jennings continues. “A successful deal will increase his standing with it, make the standing of other’s less meaningful.”
“So . . . he’ll profit.”
“He won’t want to talk to you again.”
“Well, then it’s bad days all round then, isn’t it?”
The ambassador expresses his displeasure by making her wait. She expected something more creative from him. He leaves his bodyguard behind too, just bringing the translator. A bold move given the events of the day, or perhaps just a way to show how little she means to him.
She starts talking before the ambassador has a chance to sit down. “You weren’t wholly forthcoming with me about your stake in these talks.”
He doesn’t sit down. He grabs his chair and swings it at her.
She yells, dives away. The translator shrieks, apparently as caught off guard as her.
The ambassador advances, chair held aloft. She flings herself sideways as he smashes it down with stunning force. It comes apart, spattering splinters in a detonation of wooden shrapnel. The seat cushion flaps wildly.
How could someone so scrawny have so much strength inside him, Ansible wonders?
Inside him. Oh shit.
Outside she can hear people yelling.
The ambassador holds two chair legs reduced to stakes. The translator is screaming, high and shrill. She’s pulling her gun. If she’s wrong about this, this is about to be one hell of an international incident.
The ambassador looms over her. She fires.
He lurches sideways but she wings him, spinning him around and sending him to the floor. They both scramble up, her into a crouch, him onto all fours.
People are bursting into the room, screaming at her.
The ambassador darts forward. She fires again, puts three rounds into his looming head.
They are the eye of the storm—an utterly still pair, while around them security forces from both sides of Theora whirl. The translator is on his knees, shaking and muttering to himself.
Someone puts a gun to the back of her head. She doesn’t know if it’s someone from her side or theirs. It only matters if she was wrong though.
The Manus Dei bursts from the ambassador’s back in a spray of blood and bone. People scream, shoot. The gun leaves the back of Ansible’s head, and she starts firing, but the thing makes a powerful, hundred-handed leap into the air, sailing over everyone’s heads, crashing into the still-swinging doors.
She’s after it in a flat sprint, but by the time she’s shoved through the crowd of bodies and out of the doors, the corridor outside is empty.
She seethes, turns around. Chaos still churns the conference room, but the ambassador’s eviscerated body and the quaking translator still sit in the quiet eye of it all.
She grabs the translator. “Why didn’t the bodyguard come?”
He stares at her, wild-eyed. Up close, the sheen on his skin looks like plastic. There’s an edge near his hairline looking red and raw.
“The shimmer in the eyes is the glow that bakes-”
She rattles him hard. “Translate!”
He swallows, his burnished Adam’s apple bobbing. “I don’t know. In the ambassador’s room? I waited for them both but only the ambassador came out. He told me he didn’t need his bodyguard.”
Because, Ansible knows, he was already dead.
The bodyguard is gone by the time they toss the ambassador’s room. Jennings is there, looking like she’s shedding another pound of hair into the room, her skin almost as shiny as the quivering translator who Ansible has dragged there in case he can find anything out of place. She knows she certainly won’t. The logic of the room is opaque to her: furniture set on angles perpendicular to her expectations, books spread out in a grid, all open to the thirty-seventh page.
“Tell me more about a Manus Dei,” she tells the translator.
He coughs. “In among the gloaming waves I wander…” He shakes his head. “Sorry. I mean, it’s a religious vessel, a vehicle for an operator’s intent.”
“An operator,” Ansible repeats. The bodyguard?”
“These people are fucking monsters!” Jennings kicks at the books in disgust. She seems on the verge of screaming.
Ansible ignores her. “Is it . . . made? Summoned?”
It looks like the sweat is stuck under the plastic sheen on the translator’s skin. “It’s a ritual. The investment of a piece of the Selazzi into a clay model.”
“So, the ritual requires clay?”
“Erm . . .” A set of rapid blinking. “Cans of laughter. Jars of tears.”
“Like this?” Jennings stands in the closet holding up a can and a jar. Emblazoned on each is Pierre Mercier’s logo.
It would be neater, Ansible thinks, if she didn’t get a call on the radio on the way over to Mercier’s saying that he’d just reported a break in. It’d make more sense if when they pulled into the estate the most personable of personal assistants had been standing over the bodyguard’s dead body, tying up his boss’s loose ends.
Instead, Mercier and his assistant are locked in a panic room. Security guards have the bodyguard trapped in a windowless study.
Ansible has West Theoran security pull the bodyguard out. He tries to fight, but the rifles on him settle him down.
“You’re under arrest for murder,” she tells him.
He sneers at her. “Diplomatic immunity.” It sounds like a phrase he’s memorized.
“He’s right, I’m afraid.”
Ansible has arranged another meeting with Jennings. The foreign office woman is looking calmer, as if the ghosts haunting her have taken a step back.
“So, the bodyguard just gets to walk?” Ansible’s headache is back.
“East Theoran justice is far worse than anything we can offer.” She curls her lip. “Those people are animals.”
“You’re not the most diplomatic diplomat I’ve ever met.”
Jennings shrugs. “They’re not in the room. I don’t have to pretend.”
“How long were you over there for?”
Jennings shudders. “Six months.”
Another shudder. “No, it was official. That was the worst of it. They would parade their insanity in front of me. They showed me things they were actually proud of.” Her voice is rising. She takes a breath, steadies herself. “Did you,” she asks, “arrest Mercier?”
“At what point,” Ansible asks her, “when you were over there, did you learn about the Manus Dei?”
Jennings blinks slowly.
“Or maybe a better question,” Ansible continues, “is when did you meet the ambassador’s bodyguard? Maybe the Manus Dei was his idea. You’ll have to explain it to me.”
Jennings takes a breath. “What are you talking about?”
“It was easy to like the Ambassador for this,” Ansible says. “Böhm cast himself as the villain, and so the natural role for the Ambassador is the avenging hero. Plus he had a vested interest in the deal going through.
She strokes her chin a bit. It’s showboating, but she’s feeling smug. “Except if the government really thought Böhm could affect the outcome,” she says, “would they really have let him attend? Because his failure to derail everything would be a great way to de-fang the mob out there.” Ansible points to the window and where the protesters still chant.
“But if I didn’t bite on the ambassador,” she continues, “well you were there to point me at Mercier. And he’s an asshole. It’s easy to want to pin this on him as well. And when I didn’t quite take the hint, you even had the can and jar as props. That was a nice touch. Except your assassin had failed in his job when he got to Mercier’s, hadn’t quite sealed the deal.”
Jennings looks wild now, her thin face working. “Maybe there was evidence pointing his way,” she shouts, “because he’s guilty! Maybe the solution is just obvious!”
Ansible sighs. “You know they keep records of who they sell that stuff to, right? I had Mercier look it up. There’s not many people in West Theora who buy it. And I checked your bank accounts.”
It’s so fast, it catches Ansible flat-footed. Jennings breaks for the door at a sprint. But the security guard she posted there catches Jennings by both wrists.
“They’re monsters!” Jennings screams as they cuff her. “They’re rabid! We have to keep them out!”
“The only thing that mattered to you,” Ansible says, more for her own satisfaction than anyone else’s, “was that the talks were destabilized.”
“We have to keep them out!”
Ansible smooths her hair. “The East Theorans have requested that you be sent over there for the trial,” she tells Jennings. “From what I hear, your colleagues are thinking of letting them have you.”
Inside the hotel where she orchestrated the murder of three men, Jennings starts to scream.
J. P. Oakes is a writer and creative director living on Long Island. His debut novel, City of Iron and Dust is available from Titan Books, and according to Publishers Weekly “offers lovers of the bloody and fantastical plenty to enjoy.”
He can be found online at jpoakeswrites.wordpress.com.