Deck of Cards I: The Tower

by Travis Clark


In this universe there are millions of worlds with millions of probabilities and possibilities. For all things are probable, but not all things are possible. Some Earths, other probable earths, are very much like our own.

This is not one of them.

*

The Tower is the most talked about building in New York, at least for the last three decades, since the Mad Governor John Kennedy had it built.

Some say it was where poor Mad Jack kept his wife while he had his trysts with buxom countesses. Some say it's where Mad Jack lives, that his assassination was a sham, and he secretly rules New York through his brother Edward. Others say Jack's advisor, Lyndon, lives there, practicing his black arts, calling up the dark gods from the nether realms, or even keeping Mad Jack's body alive until his soul can return.

The tales of The Tower are multitude, and the tellers range from the waif to the ancient. But one night of the year - the same night in which Jack Kennedy, Mad Governor of New York, was killed by a "rogue bullet" through his right eye as he walked down Queens Boulevard, towards his home after a day of ranting and raving - the master tellers of tales, from as far West as Los Angeles and as far East as Mother Britain, gather in the Broken Flute to weave their tales of The Tower.

It's a night that draws thousands of people, from the near-royalty in their "street-clothes" which usually cost more than the cobblestones that make the street itself, to the paupers dressed in burlap that grovel for two or three pence just to have enough food for a day. It is rumoured that the Rebels from Berkeley even make the trip incognito, just to hear the master tellers.

Governor Edward never ceases to protest the event, for the sake of his and his family's name. His advisors always talk him out of it. The event brings in too much income. Grudgingly, the Governor leaves it alone.

So, tonight, of all nights, the third of November, in the year of our lord Nineteen-hundred and ninety-six, it snows. In the swirling snow, hundreds of people crowd into the Broken Flute, searching for the truth about Mad Jack and his ominous tower.

What can be said of the tower itself? It is exactly 1,366 feet high, circular in nature, except at the top, which comes to a hexagon shaped plateau. A red light, said to be Mad Jack's good eye glaring at the city, is set at the top to warn off the dirigibles.

There is one door, banded steel, with one lock. Only the governor has the key, and Edward lets no one in. One window at the very top of the tower is always dark.

The stones of The Tower are imported from the granite mines in Oklahoma Territory, and are pieced together so that there are no seams. This is another mystery of The Tower. Some say sorcery, some say undead built the tower by night.

But enough of idle speculation and on to more idle speculation. The Broken Flute is full and the masters are beginning to speak.

*

"The Tower," says William the Blind. "The Tower is the one thing that keeps this city safe. It is the safeguard of the city, the mystic watchdog. John Fitzgerald Kennedy built the tower to keep the denizens of the nether realms away from ours."

Several snorts fly from the crowd and the harpers play notes of derision. William the Blind, though he can see physically, is named for his overlooking the obvious, the fact that he is not taken seriously. He is a sight that encourages ridicule. His frame is large enough to put great strains on whatever couch or chair he happens to be lounging on at that moment. His white beard droops, weighted down with bits of food and foam of ale. His eyes are wide and has the frantic look of a religious zealot, which can be true. He is known to be a follower of Mister Crowley and his ways.

"Silence!" he bellows. "I have the floor, I may tell my tale with no interruptions. That is the rule."

"It was in 1961 when Mad Jack met August Derleth. It was a meeting he had been awaiting for years. Jack had been a great admirer of Derleth's works. Derleth had come to the mansion almost offhandedly, as if he cared not whether this man had been appointed by His Majesty or not. He seemed indifferent to politics, high society or anything else that truly mattered.

"He was dressed in, of all things, a suit, tie and fedora. No regal robes, no rings, only a medallion around his neck which was imprinted with the sign of the Lovecraftian Order of High Sorcery.

"The audacity of the man! No finery in the halls of a royal-appointed governor. But Mad Jack did not care, he was too much in awe of Derleth. Though, poor Jacqueline sniffed in disdain at the charlatan. Derleth, of course, cared not whether the lovely lady approved of him, but saw Jack as a way to further his dark ambitions. And to fill his own order's coffers with the hard-earned taxes of New York.

"Being a Lovecraftian, he sought to use Mad Jack's position to further their work. Their cruel gods have tried to break into our realm for millennia, or so they say."

At this, a young maiden giggles and others sneer. The feud between the Crowlians and the Lovecraftians is somewhat a joke in New York. The massive duchy is almost total Puritan, though there is a commune of the order of Nostrodamus near the Bangor-township.

Sanity, however wonderful that state of mind might be, is not one of William's stronger points. As the crowd jeers at him, the farther away from the real world he gets.

"You mock me," he roars. "You will see! They say they protect us from their dark gods, but they lie!"

"Soon, with in two nights, Derleth had moved in to the mansion. He took a bullwhip to the hand servants, and took the maids to his bed-chambers. The royal governorship was turned from a house of honor to a house of whoring!"

William stands, gesturing with his right hand. "Plans were made, not for the tower, no. Derleth had the architectural plans for that monstrosity before he even set foot into that honorable home.

"Plans were made for five more towers! One for every major city on the continent, besides the papal-state of Florida. Chicago, San Francisco, Charleston, Maine and Austin!

"These towers would connect to make a symbol which would call their dread gods to this earth, where the loathsome beings would ravage the planet."

This is where the crowd starts laughing. The populace just does not believe in high sourcerous magic, dread gods and mystic planes.

"They will destroy us all! Soon Ragnorok will be upon us!"

The crowd is in hysterics; laughter fills the air, mocking the fat bard, driving him on past the edge of rationality.

William's mouth opens to rave on, but a younger member of his society, a blond man named Paul, lays a hand on William's arm. The fanatic, one hand raised as if to strike, notices who it is. William looks into Paul's eyes, and a change occurs. The mad bard rests his huge frame down on the couch, mutters the words "Excuse me," and promptly falls asleep.

This spectacle silences the crowd more than anything the wild man had said. The patrons look at Paul with wonder as he covers the old fanatic with a quilt.

Paul stands and faces the audience.

"The Master is tired; please excuse him and continue."

Their trance broken, the crowd looks around and calls for the next master of tales. The bar girls start to serve again, and the next master walks up.

He makes his way from his table slowly, steadily. His clothes are plain yet clean. His burlap cloak marks him as commoner, yet his stature and gait speak of one who is usually treated with respect.

The chanting stops as he steps into the center of the tavern. The master stops, removes the hood of his cloak. His face sports a beard, neatly trimmed, black with flecks of red. His eyes sparkle blue, and he smiles slightly.

"My name is Ivan Michaelovitch Rasputin," his voice, a low pitch with a slight accent, echoes against the silence.

A few gasp as they realize the name given, the direct descendant of the Russian wise man! Whispers spread the knowledge around the room, and Rasputin is now the center of attention.

"My father knew John Fitzgerald Kennedy," Ivan says. "They met in 1962. 'They call him Mad Jack,' my father said to me. 'But he was the most sane man I ever met.'

"I, of course, scoffed my father. 'Sane?' I asked. 'Sane? The man who put that gods-awful statue in the middle of the harbor? The man who sent 10,000 men to build that canal, knowing that half of them would not survive, because it was in the dead of winter? Sane? Father, in honor of our ancestor, I might ask if you are sane.'

"He slapped me, of course. He had every right to. I was a disrespectful son. But then he pulled me close to him. 'Yes,' papa said. 'I should question my own sanity. But he made sense.

"'I was at the mansion, which was decorated grotesquely decorated. One room was totally in ebony, while the next was burgundy. Pictures by the Mad Dali hung on the wall beside masterpieces of Renoir and Picasso.

"My father paused, and scratched his red beard. I consider myself a master storyteller. But he... papa was the master and his father was even better," Rasputin's eyes look into the distance for a moment. He shakes his head and continues.

"I never knew why my father had even met the Mad Governor, but meet him he did. Kennedy seemed to hold my father in a kind of awe, because of our ancestor. My father seemed irritated about the fact, but said nothing.

"'He called me 'Master Rasputin,' as if I were a great man,' papa said. 'I tried to correct him, but it was still 'Master Rasputin.' But he was a very charismatic man, this Kennedy, this governor. He knew what he wanted, and he pushed and got what he wanted.

"'The governor showed me his plans, his grand designs for the city... there were going to be five more towers! I looked at him, my jaw open. 'More towers? What is the use of more towers?'

*

For the first time, the crowd interrupt the storyteller with gasps, bards write down furiously this piece of information. For if Rasputin says it is true, there is no doubt. But a few snorts of derision are heard above the chattering, but glares of hatred silences them.

The master teller speaks on, ignoring the interruption and the room falls silent.

"'The skinny man looked downfallen, as if I were to know what was in his mind. But a gleam came to his eyes, as the idea of educating the master was too tempting to pass up.

"'You look at my work and call it mad. The statue? What use of the statue? Nothing. A gaudy piece of artwork. But, the governor put up a hand, but how many people received work from that artwork? 10,000 people profited from that gaudy monolith. Stone cutters, sculptors, iron workers, grunt labor. There were jobs! For the first time since the Sixteenth Crusade there were jobs!

"'The canal of Eerie? Diggers, movers, every able man out to work. Yes they died, but those that lived were working, and they died with jobs! Dead of winter or not, my people were starving!

"'The Governor stood with his arms wide. This is my city, he said! They have to live. The tower did not go up overnight, as some say. It went fast, but it provided my economy a boost of income. Life is better. And you ask why five more towers!

"My father looked ashamed when he told me this, for he knew it to be true. 'The man was the saving grace of this society,' papa said. 'And when they killed him, they killed hope.

"'The years after he died, this duchy met the greatest depression it had ever known in centuries, and it was all blamed on Mad Jack. But his people are to blame for it as much as anyone else."

Ivan Rasputin stands, bows and says "Thank you."

He walks back to his table in the silence that encompasses the tavern.

After a moment, another walks to the center and tries to tell his tale of the tower, but is shamed by how it contrasts what The Bear, Rasputin, has said.

This night, which people await anxiously for every year, has been ruined. For no one dares counter the word of Rasputin, the wise man's descendant.

One by one, the crowd leaves and over a period of four hours, Rasputin watches them all disappear into the snow covered streets.

The clock strikes ten and the tavern is empty. Besides Ivan Michaelovitch Rasputin, the tavern holds four royal guardsmen at a table, a sole man in the corner, his hood covering his face, and a gentleman and his lady, chatting away about their ideas about the tower.

As the lady and gentleman stand to leave, the hooded man walks to Rasputin's table and sits across from him. He carries a mug and a walking stick, gnarled and ugly.

"So," the hooded man says. "Made Jack out to be a Mad King George kind of person, eh?"

His voice betrays him as a New Englander, not as north as Bangor-town, but definitely New England.

"I have no idea what you are talking about," Ivan says stiffly. His eyes glaring at the idea that he would lie.

"Oh, don't give me that. Your father knew better. Now, listen, and I will tell you the tale of the tower."

The hooded man consciously pulls his hood father down, to hide most of his face. His chin sports a few days growth, all gray. His mouth is slim, and smiles constantly.

Rasputin rises to leave when the hooded man shoots out a hand and grabs Ivan's arm. The hand is twisted and white but immensely strong.

"Sit down," He says. "I had to listen to your crap, now you have to listen to me.

"It was 1961, and Lyndon was getting more erratic. He was a Texican. Did you know that? It isn't widely known, because Jack didn't want it so. At first, Lyndon was an asset. A heck of a politician, knew which buttons to push, knew who to talk to.

"But he had his failings. When Johnson was sixteen, he met a fellow Texican (this was before the sixteenth crusade) who was a Lovecraftian. In fact, this one actually held correspondence with Lovecraft himself! Unfortunately, Robert Howard became as mad as the father of that religion did. And he passed on the seeds of that madness to Lyndon at an early age.

"Lyndon spent many years in Cross Plains, Texas, sitting at the feet of this mad writer, learning the twisted ways of that religion. Howard was brilliant, weaving him tales of romance and adventure, throwing in bits and pieces of Lovecraft's theology with it.

"Howard wasn't much older that Johnson, and Lyndon's world came crashing in, when the madness claimed the writer. Howard put a revolver to his head and blew his head off in the summer of 1930.

"The seed of madness was there, but would not resurrect until later on in his life, at the worst possible time.

*

The hooded man stops, drinks from his ale. His mouth slowly turns into a grin.

"The Tower is part of this, so hold your horses. Trust me."

Rasputin tears his eyes away from the hooded one. Thoughts of walking away dance across his mind, but he is too entranced. Now he wants to listen to this insane man. And just what exactly is the man hiding underneath that hood?

Read the rest of this story...


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