Lilies Wilt on the Wheel of Time
by Steven Lombardi
Steven Lombardi is an award-winning speculative fiction writer and copywriter who lives in New York City. Graduating from the School of Visual Arts with a degree in screenwriting, Steven has been published in Flame Tree Press, Air and Nothingness Press, and others. You can find him on Twitter @_sl_ or online at stevenlombardi.nyc.
Julius found the bouquet splayed atop his dusty desk at the Gotham Gazette. It had been a perfect curation of his favorite flowers—hellebore blacks, daylilies and Carolina allspice—paired with a hastily scribbled message that threw him off balance. It read:
“My love, you won’t see me for a while. Don’t try to find me. I hope to explain it someday. M.R.”
But a person needs closure, and if not closure, then enough details to arrive at a conclusion.
He asked the receptionist Daisy whether she saw who delivered the flowers, if they looked sad or delighted or utterly apathetic. As she inhaled the flowers’ rich fragrances, Julius noted her lips. Still ruby red, not yet dimmed by coffee. And a stack of envelopes beside her rotary phone suggested she hadn’t stepped away to distribute the mail. She held the office key, and unlocked the building each morning, meaning the flowers arrived during the dead of night, manifesting somehow through locked doors and windows.
“You’re seeing a Runewald?” Daisy gasped. She ran a finger over the famed family embossment on the note, a radiant crown upon a bed of roses. “Maggie Runewald?”
“Let’s keep it between us, darling. The tabloids can be so tiresome.”
“Of course, Mr. Cleopatra,” she said teasingly. “Let me know if you need tricks to keep the lady coming back.”
What Julius truly desired was a trick to get his lover Malcolm to return.
Julius needed to walk. He needed to get lost in the bustling city, lost among the trams and bridges, between the tenements and canals. In the early days, he had trouble eating beside Malcolm because of the giddy rumble in his stomach. That rumble had returned, only it felt sinking. Like he was slipping into a hole, becoming afraid, turning into a creature that avoided daylight. If only he could taste Malcolm’s kiss, he’d be full again with courage and magic and self-worth.
Was it his absentmindedness that led him to the impoverish areas of the East End, or a subliminal yearning? He never understood the place’s appeal, its ancient buildings, filthy cobblestones and pungent food smells, yet Malcolm lived for it. It offered what Malcolm’s rich blood craved, a sort of mysticism he found to be magnetic.
Julius entered the towering Victorian on 442 Penwood Avenue, and no sooner did he knock on the weathered door of 2B that a thin voice beckoned him to enter.
All was as Julius remembered. Layers of carpet made the floor explode in clashing colors. Makeshift surfaces filled the walls and the spaces in between, upon which sat colorful collectibles and Indian spices that dusted his tongue. The place resembled what chaos felt like, yet there was an order to it. It had remained unchanged since the first time Julius visited, preserved like Madame Nigma herself.
She sat behind a circular table, her leathery skin barely visible under sheets that doubled as table clothes, as if woman and wood were one.
“Julius,” she said by way of introduction. He was impressed she remembered his name after all this time, with all her clientele. “You seek something.”
“Everybody’s seeking something, darling. Not everybody puts in the footwork.”
A smirk crept along Madame Nigma’s thin lips, a smile that hid a secret.
“You know my price.”
“Of course.” He placed a silver dollar on the table. “Where’s Malcolm?”
“He hasn’t come by this week, which is unusual. But the cards see all.”
Julius breathed a heavy sigh as she fanned the tarot cards across the table. The hand-painted cards in eddying purples, blues and golds resembled the deck Malcolm coveted and read. He stored it under his pillow at night, hoping the worlds within the cards would open themselves to his sleeping mind. Julius mistrusted the things. The pictures were crude and hideous. And worse, he didn’t know whether the cards revealed the future or bent it to their will.
“Did he say anything about skipping town? Or mention any sort of trouble?”
Madame Nigma mixed the cards along the table. “Malcolm doesn’t talk during his visits. He listens. As a journalist, you could benefit from his example.”
“If you don’t know where Malcolm is, that’s fine. But I’m leaving with my money.”
Branchlike fingers beckoned him to wait, then turned three cards whose faces were of no consequence to Julius. The first, six of cups, featured three golden-haired children. Next, three of swords, showed a heart pierced through by blond triplets. The last card, the tower, elicited a hoarse groan from Madame Nigma. It showed a mausoleum being destroyed by dynamite, with flames so bright they stung Julius’s eyes. He looked away, wondering how the old crone pulled off such a silly trick. Probably mirrors.
“He’s in many places, all at once, and on the move and dead as stone.”
“Thanks. That’s as helpful as a rash.” Julius snatched his silver dollar back and squeezed past the cluttered shelves, when Madame Nigma called out one last message. “This I give you for free. You’ll find him faceless, but know an end is not an end when it’s a loop.”
He grew drowsy from missing a lunch he wouldn’t have stomached. On his desk he found a brief, beside the ill-given flowers. He was in desperate need of a distraction, and eagerly opened the folder despite his trembling fingers.
Inside, he found more tragic news. Police had fished a body out of the river, which wasn’t uncommon.
What stole the breath away was that the victim’s face had been savagely effaced with various sharp instruments.
River Belaview was the city’s main artery, with ports at its very center to facilitate the flow of various steamships. The levees ran deep, exhaling warm plumes of smoke, and made a stitchwork of bridges, footpaths, tramways and stairwells necessary for easy travel. Julius descended one such stairwell in the South End, down river, in an impoverished community known for kidnappings.
As a journalist, he often broke scenes like this apart like one would disassemble a puzzle, scrutinizing the finer details of each piece before reconstructing them in his mind and reports. Only now, his normally sharp train of thought failed him. A drowning normally attracted two police officers. Julius counted a dozen standing at the river’s edge, ten in long black coats and two in suits.
The body must have belonged to an important person. And even though the odds of it being Malcolm were impossibly slim, he still scanned the area with wild desperation. Instead, he saw an officer with meticulously plastered hair, as gold as any other Runewald, though flecked with white with age. But police chief Robert Runewald, Malcolm’s older brother, didn’t travel into the field if it could be avoided. The realization loosened his knees as the cobblestone softened into molasses.
“Where’s the body?” Julius asked. He tried to steady his breath, if only to calm his hammering heart.
“And who the fuck are you?” asked an elder officer, a tomato of a man.
Julius flashed his credentials. “Press.”
“The vultures are out early, eh? You’ll like this one. Bleeds well.”
“Baker, show some respect,” barked another officer. An exchange of heated words filled the canal, though it all sounded far and away to Julius. He had found the body. The hair, the razor-thin trim, the lean muscles, they were unmistakable. He had caressed and cherished every line on countless nights. But the face was all wrong. A knife had attempted to erase its features, the high cheek bones and aquiline nose. The lips that were softer than rose petals, not gutted like weeds.
He staggered to the river to spit out the stinging vomit as the old tomato laughed.
“Feeding the young, vulture?”
When the dizziness faded and his legs were able to follow directions, Julius found himself face-to-face with Robert Runewald. The man’s features were calm as a lake’s surface, dark creatures stirring in its deepest depths.
“Robert.” His voice cracking.
“Stop. I know what you were to my brother. I want the hell out of my sight. Got it?”
Behind him, black coats gathered like an impending storm. When Julius looked at the corpse one last time, he tried desperately to see the smooth features of the face he loved more than anything else, yet all he saw were knife marks.
Climbing the stairs, he heard Robert say, “Baker, keep an eye on the pansy. Make sure he doesn’t leave town.”
Leave town? What a laughable thought. Julius felt lost within the confines of his very skin. If he ventured beyond the city limits, he’d likely not be found. He returned to the Gazette and left only to fetch whiskey to drown his trauma. He smelled the daylilies with liquor dribbling down his chin and thought only monsters trampled on flowerbeds, only monsters could harm someone like Malcolm.
Who did it? An up-and-coming serial killer? A crazed bigot? A scorned lover? The last possibility turned his stomach a different direction. Grief is bad enough without jealousy, and so he chugged the whiskey to erase every thought and emotion, until the world spun into darkness.
He awoke aching for water. His temples clanged to the incessant typing from the hall, each strike hammering inside his head. He startled Daisy on the way out, shuffling into the early morning light like the reanimated dead.
“Julius?” Her nose wriggled at the smell of sweat and liquor. “Are you okay?”
His head felt so heavy. “Malcolm.”
Daisy’s eyes softened with understanding. “Oh, Julius.” She hugged him despite his stench and didn’t let go until Julius said, “Okay” and “Thank you.”
“Are you taking time off? I’ll tell the boss.”
Julius shook his head. “I won’t stop until I find out who did this.”
Answers have their price. Being a journalist, Julius often knew the cost as well as who possessed the information he needed. When he arrived at the morgue, he looked odd, with his skin slick with tears and a half dozen cheery strawberry donuts in his hands. They were rare treats, the sort that people lined up for hours to purchase. And the rumor was they were painful to create, though Julius never asked for details. He called in a favor for the donuts, and when Dr. Abu, the mortician, saw the box and the berry-red rims of Julius’s eyes, he showed little interest.
“You knew Malcolm,” Dr. Abu said, cutting straight to the point.
“I need to know what happened.”
“Why not let the crumbs trickle in and publish them as they come? You’ll have people eating out of your hands.”
“Let me see the body. Please.”
Dr. Abu hesitated, his eyes flashing from Julius to the pastry box. “Five minutes. The police got off their asses for this case. They’re breathing down my neck. So no touching anything.”
Julius descended into the cool cellar, his handkerchief over his nose to lessen the stench of formaldehyde. Dr. Abu opened the door to the preparation room, and from the angle, Julius could only see Malcolm’s feet. His legs were white, his heels blue, but otherwise he looked like he could be sleeping. When Julius stepped into the room, taking in all of Malcolm’s nakedness, his knees almost buckled. Gaping cuts criss-crossed his torso. Finer slices marked his face, the work of a more delicate instrument, though done to a more devasting effect.
Julius exhaled, squeezed his eyes shut.
“Water in the lungs?”
“And how long would you say he was in the water?”
“Based on the putrefaction, sixteen hours.”
“Time of death?”
“Probably an hour before that. Whoever did it dumped the body as soon as possible.”
Those numbers didn’t add up. If the Gotham Gazette was vacant from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., when Daisy arrived, and if Julius received the brief at 3 p.m., then Malcolm was dead when the flowers reached Julius’s desk. Yet the ink on the note was still fresh.
“Two types of blades were used. Why?”
“That I can’t say.”
“If his face was mutilated to hide his identity, why not carry on with the thicker blade?” Julius’s fingers hovered over the gashes, estimating the width of the blade. A piece of him dared to touch the body, to hold it close, as he held back his tears.
“This is the work of a gut hook,” Julius said. “Though I’ve rarely seen one so thick. Perhaps owned by a whaler or deep-sea fisher. And this.” He pointed to the face. “A needle point blade. Perhaps a letter opener.” Malcolm owned a quite extravagant one that was exceptionally sharp. “Perhaps there were multiple killers. Or else many people in on the plan.”
“Interesting theories.” Dr. Abu fixed the glasses on his nose.
“You have any better ones?”
“There’s a saying at the Bureau—if you see hoof tracks, don’t looks for zebras. I think he was attacked by an animal.”
“That carries a knife?”
The mortician shrugged. It seemed an odd suggestion but Malcolm had traveled in odd circles. There were animal keepers. Julius vaguely remembered a lion tamer friend, though her name escaped him.
“Have the police mentioned any motives?”
“Not that they’re sharing. All I hear is that the man was well liked.”
Is there any motive stronger than love? As he left the morgue, he spotted Baker’s red face in the crowded street. Julius walked quickly into the throng, catching glimpses of the officer in the reflections of window displays. He wondered if other former lovers were being tailed by the police, and the cool grip of jealousy seized his heart.
The logs at the port indicated that no deep-sea ships had visited or left the city for a week. When Julius pressed the local bladesmith about known sales of thick gut hooks, the bladesmith said there hadn’t been out of sheer impracticality. Finding Malcolm’s former lovers seemed to be the hardest task of all, because many kissed but none were willing to tell, not in this city, and in some neighborhoods, prying for information was an open invitation for violence.
His only lead came from the records at the Gazette, where he found the name Clare Clairvoyant, Malcolm’s lion tamer friend. But shortly after, he also found the reason they had stopped talking. Her own tiger had ripped her throat out five years ago.
When the hopelessness and loneliness reached a peak, he returned to his office to drink away the sadness and found a new brief on his desk. How any editor could give him extra work in his current state seemed cruel. Unless they thought it would be good distraction. Or something more.
The brief outlined information about Maggie Runewald, Malcolm’s dear sister. She had been in a carriage accident and was receiving treatment. Not at a hospital, but at Saint Gabriel’s Asylum.
Julius hailed a carriage and went to check on her.
From afar, the asylum looked like a white brick atop a hill, dropped on a bed of flowers. It seemed a fitting place for one to quiet their mind, here in the aromatic gardens that ring the city. Inside was blistering white, with orderlies in white robes blending into the sterile environment. It was all to add to the calming aesthetic, yet all the patients twitched and jerked, the skin doing what it could to hold the skulls in.
Maggie looked as pale as her linens. Streaks of mud still clung to her golden hair and the only color in her face came not from her lips, but her eyes, wrapped in purple.
“Sweet darling,” Julius cooed, soft to soothe. “I hope you’re not hurt.” She looked at him for a long moment, trying to recognize him. But they had seen each other so often, going on weekly dates in the basement restaurants of the East End. Then she shrieked and the orderlies were upon her, Julius’s heart frozen in his chest.
“They died!” she screamed. “Everyone in the carriage! Impaled on the street signs!”
Julius intervened by placing a calming hand on both Maggie and an orderly. “Maggie, my love, you have my heart. Let’s not give in to hysteria.”
“They’re dead!” Maggie cried. “Samantha and my dear Lucy! Dead, everyone I love, dead!” Her screams rose to a shriek when an orderly took Julius by the arm and walked him to the door.
“Sir, you’re overstimulating the young lady.”
It was a short visit and a waste of time that did more harm than good. Julius yearned to hug her, to tell her everything would be okay, to promise her he’d bring the killer to justice. But if recent days proved anything, it was that Julius Cleopatra wasn’t effective at things that matter.
“It was Malcolm,” Maggie screamed. “He came down from heaven and made the carriage swerve!”
The orderly forced Julius out of the room and closed the door, but her screeches penetrated concrete. “Malcolm saved me! Malcolm saved me! Malcolm saved me!”
At the courtyard, Julius paused to gather his thoughts. The sky began to darken, yet the orderly glowed, emitting his own light.
“There were two fatalities in the crash, but what of the driver?”
“Ms. Runewald was the driver. She was touched with madness after hearing about her brother’s death. Her friends tried to stop her, and, well…” The orderly shook his head, lips firm. “They careened off the side of the road. But if they hadn’t, they would have flown straight off the levee. Robert Runewald would be fishing two siblings out of the Belaview.”
“She said she saw Malcolm.”
The orderly looked to the sky as if it held answers. “People imagine strange things when faced with such grief.”
Julius needed to walk. He needed to stop thinking of the horrors that plagued his mind, to stop picturing Malcolm’s sliced face and Maggie’s shrieks. He went without intent, hoping his brisk walk would burn his anxieties as the engines burn steam, all to evaporate to nothingness. He let hazy daydreams of his past life guide him, and when his eyes refocused, he found himself before Malcolm’s apartment building. But he did not want to be here… the place housed too many memories. Though it had keepsakes, too, and Julius had a key, long and slender, and topped with a crown. He debated entering, perhaps to spray Malcolm’s cologne on his wrist and pocket the bottle.
Reaching for the gate, a gloved hand seized his arm.
“Let go,” Julius demanded. He tore himself free and found Baker before him.
“I appreciate you taking me on this little tour of the city. Those pink donuts you left at the morgue…” Baker kissed his pudgy fingers. “But here’s where I draw the line. You ain’t tampering with evidence in young Runewald’s apartment.”
“I’m not tampering. I have things that I need to retrieve,” Julius said.
His eyes drifted to the window of Malcolm’s apartment, where a dark shape whisked through the room. A wrapped paperweight shattered the window, and out stepped a man dressed in black stood, with black goggles and a black scarf. From the windowsill, the man scaled the five-story Art Deco building before disappearing over the roof. What’s strange, if Julius’s eyes could be trusted, were the claws marks that scraped the brick in the man’s wake.
Baker muttered a curse and ran into the building, as if he could catch the acrobat. Julius snatched the paperweight—it appeared to be wrapped in paper—and ran into the apartment. If the man left clues, Julius wanted to see them before the police could manipulate anything. But the apartment looked just as it should, with nothing out of place, except for strange claw marks on the hardwood and a letter left on the bed that read:
“The guardians are angry. They won’t let me open the gate—I’m trapped and I’m tired of running. Please, I saved Maggie, it should be enough. Don’t open the gate.”
Julius stepped into the hallway and unraveled the note around the paperweight to find a message hastily written in the same hand that read:
“Destroy Vanderbilt Mausoleum before it’s too late. Love you forever. M.R.”
Vanderbilt Mausoleum was a landmark in the city, one that everyone knew as sure as they knew the name Atticus Vanderbilt. The name of the millionaire occultist and ceremonial magician was stamped on countless plaques in the East End, where Atticus had become a legend. The tea readers invoked his name when the waters were cloudy, the fate-stitching seamstresses sewed his initials in golden threads. Even the islanders who read chicken blood and rolled dice made of bone offered fruit at his tomb. In death, the man remained what he was in life—a conduit of power.
The prospect of Malcolm being alive made Julius dizzy, perhaps giddy, but all the same edging closer to madness. But if he lived, it would only be through the power of someone like Atticus. And that Malcolm could scale buildings was odd, but not inconceivable. He had a colorful past and traveled with circus performers for a time, and it would explain the flowers on his desk and Maggie’s claim that he fell from the sky.
With too many questions bubbling in his mind, he rushed to where answers were exchanged for silver dollars. His invitation to apartment 2B came the moment he stepped on the welcome mat. Madame Nigma sat before the three card she had pulled earlier, as if she had been frozen for days.
“Welcome back,” Madame Nigma said. She regarded him with cloudy blue eyes.
Julius tapped on the third card, the tower in future position, which so clearly featured the Vanderbilt Mausoleum being exploded with dynamite. And the second card, three of hearts, pictured three Malcolms penetrating a heart. The six of cups could have been a family portrait of the Runewald siblings in their younger years. But these weren’t the same cards he saw…
“You altered the pictures! Why?”
“I did nothing,” Madame Nigma said.
“What does Vanderbilt Mausoleum have to do with any of this?”
Madame Nigma closed her eyes, as if to see more.
“You have to know about the tomb,” Julius continued. “You East Enders are obsessed with Atticus.”
“Why is that?”
“I don’t know. You think you can syphon his magic or something. That doesn’t explain why Malcolm is still alive.”
Her withered hand caressed the three of hearts. “Malcolm lives, and he is dead, and he lives.”
She spoke in threes. Magic always dealt with threes.
“You’re telling me there are three Malcolms?”
“I’m saying there are dangerous magics imbued in that tomb.”
Julius wasn’t getting where he needed to be fast enough. He slammed a silver dollar onto the table, hoping to loosen the old woman’s lips.
“Please. No more riddles.”
Madame Nigma drew a deep breath and flipped her final card. The Wheel of Time. She shook her head, pruning her lips. “Time magic is complicated. When things find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, the guardians get upset. They’re nasty creatures.”
“Guardians.” That was the name Malcolm referred to in his note. Julius recalled the claw marks that appeared on the building, marks that roughly matched the width of the gashes on Malcolm’s body.
He ran to the ports. Heath Mining Corporation, outside the main port, sold him one hundred pounds of TNT, which he loaded into a carriage. Then he rode to the cemetery, trying to piece together the puzzle.
He assumed it was all real, that time magic was possible. If one Malcolm went to the past—perhaps to warn his past self of something—then he had died at the hands of the guardians. But why vandalize the face? It seemed silly, short-sighted and unnecessary, but if Malcolm had watched himself get ripped apart before his eyes, what were his options? How would he explain his own dead body to another? He panicked and the best solution at the time seemed to be a sharp letter opener.
And if the Malcolm from the apartment was also being chased by unseen guardians, that meant he too was from a future. And if future versions of Malcolm had gone into the past twice, then the Malcolm of his timeline would likely be considered going back, as well. That meant he was still alive. Only, he didn’t understand the risks. Or he did, and thought the sacrifice was worth it.
Malcolm lives, and he is dead, and he lives.
The carriage jolted over flat tombstones, nearly bucking Julius headfirst into the earth. He continued at a suicidal pace, unwilling to stop for anything. Even if Malcolm materialized out of the sky.
Was that why he went in the past twice? First as a test. Second to save his sister? Was she meant to die in the crash? What could he hope to save now, if not her sanity?
He cracked the reins against his steeds when Vanderbilt Mausoleum came in view. Golden plates featuring eyes, fingers and geometric shapes decorated the white stone. Scattered on the floor were offerings of fruit beside fresh meats, liquor and smoldering cigars. Before the golden doors stood a man clothed in black, with a shock of blond hair hanging over his black goggles.
“Malcolm!” Julius screamed. He yanked the reins as hooves skidded on the dirt. “Don’t!”
The man in black looked at Julius, then made a series of gestures, and whether the clouds parted or the golden plates caught fire, Julius could not say. But where a man stood was now nothingness.
His Malcolm had left.
Julius collapsed to his knees, the pain of loss fresh in his heart. Through teary eyes, he watched another approach the mausoleum. A man dressed all in black, running at full speed.
“Blow it up!” the man cried, seeing the pile of TNT. “Before it’s too late!”
But the time had passed. When the man in black realized that, they shared a quiet moment, dumbfounded with disappointment, too far apart to touch or console one another.
Julius looked away before the unseen forces tore the man in black to shreds, but he couldn’t block his ears enough to drown the screams.
The tickling sense of madness spreading from nerve to muscle as he returned to the East End. His mind raced, unable to focus, unsure of how to process his grief. And from the dark recesses of his mind, he remembered something he had heard:
Know an end is not an end when it’s a loop.
Under the burning gas lamps, the golden plaques of Atticus Vanderbilt shone like fires burning within stone. Dreams of the past filled his mind and made his heart flutter. And why shouldn’t he go back to experience those moments again? Why shouldn’t he attempt to go back and set things right?
He had nothing left, and nothing more to lose, other than the silver dollar in his pocket. The answers he’d get in exchange gave him something he hadn’t felt in too long… hope.