The Long Goodbye
rating: +36+x

Previous: Hartliss Detective Agency


I'm sinking.

And sinking.

And sinking.

And sinking.

And sinking.

And sinking.

And sinking.

And sinking.

And sinking.

And sinking.

And sinking.

And sinking.

And sinking.

And…

—the hell am I?

I yell: "Hello?"
huh?
Nothing. Not even the sound of my voice. At least, I don't think—
hello?
—wait. Did I hear something?
is someone there?
No. Just endless white void, as far as my eyes can see. It's like an ocean — or maybe a desert. There's no texture, no sound, not even the steady thud of my own heart. I try to look at my hands — can't see them, can't even feel them. It's like they're not there. I try to close my eyes, but I still see white.
please talk to me.
Am I dead?
i'm so alone.
Think. I've got to think. I try coaxing up some memory, some thought of how I might have ended up in this miserable place. There was a room — right. A room, and an old woman, and her wheezing laughter, and then there was the grenade, and…
i'm so scared.
…oh.
please say something.
Right.
i've been here so long.
Shit.
i just want to hear a voice.
There was an explosion, and — without even thinking — I dove down through the veil to escape. As deep as I could. Deeper than I even knew was possible. And now, I'm…
maybe you're scared too?
Shit.
don't be scared.
What the hell is this place? How many layers deep have I gone? I concentrate, focusing — searching for the invisible tether that connects me to my world. I wrap my consciousness around it — and start to pull.
wait what are you — no.
I drag myself out of this endless ocean of white — inch by excruciating inch. I feel myself press against the boundaries of this place. I feel myself pushing through them…
please, don't go.
…and then I feel something grab me.
YOU FUCKING WHORE HOW FUCKING DARE YOU
I can feel my limbs. My hands, my feet, my body — I still can't see them, but I can sense them. Something has me by my ankle. It's trying to pull me 'down' — deeper into the layers beneath this one. A level below whatever this… emptiness is.
THIS IS MY REALM HERE I AM GOD
I pull with everything I've got. It feels like an anchor tied to my foot — my muscles spasm as a sharp stabbing pain lances up through my calf and knee. It feels like whatever's pulling on me might take my whole foot with it.
I WILL RIP OUT YOUR FUCKING EYES
If it means getting the hell out of here, it can have my foot. Hell, it can have the whole damn leg. I rear my other boot up and slam down, feeling the heel collide with… something. Suddenly, my ankle slips free.
AAAUGH FUCK FUCK FUCK
I reel myself up, squeezing against the membrane, pressing through it —
please no please i'm so sorry i'll be good don't go —


— and into an apartment.

Thick, plush brown carpet coats the floor. The walls are a hideous shade of peach-pink. The air is stale and old. I squeeze the pommel of my .45 and give the room a quick sweep, looking for anything out of place. Am I back? Is this Chicago? My Chicago?

Everything looks ordinary: Table, desk, sunlight pouring in through a window. I take a step toward the light.

Outside, I see a small corner diner; further in the distance, I see a hot-dog cart. I see sidewalks and lamp-posts, store-fronts and automobiles…

…but not a single soul.

When I take a step back, my boot sinks deep into that thick carpet. I look down. It's not just brown; there's streaks of black, gold — even an occasional wispy curl of copper-red. Something about it catches my eye. I crouch down to examine the fibers. They're fine — too fine. The material is…

Hair.

My eyes drift to that grotesquely pink wall. I start to notice the imperfections — blemishes, pock-marks, scars… beauty marks.

Skin. It's made of goddamn skin.

I close my eyes, grab hold of that tether, and climb as fast as I can. I feel myself slip through —


— a world of rotting, putrid flesh filled with the deafening roar of billions upon billions of buzzing flies, gathered into blankets of writhing black so dense they blot out the sky —

— an abandoned factory so immense that it contains all of Chicago, contains the entire sky, contains the sun itself

— Chicago, but choked with smoke and flame; the sound of gunfire rattling off in the distance, with every single door throughout the city flung open wide —

— a sea of screaming faces, all squeezed together so tightly that they constantly burst into a bright pink-red pulp, only to reform an instant later —

— and then —


— I'm in what looks like a hospital room. There's only one door, and it's behind me; solid steel. It looks like the sort of thing you'd use to keep the monsters out.

A wizened old woman stands in front of me, cloaked in dark fabric.

Or maybe it's for keeping the monsters in.

I point my .45 straight at her ugly mug. "Alright, lady. Talk." I'm trying to pull on my tether, but it's not working. I can't sense it — as if it's just been snipped.

Her eyes brighten with amusement. Something snakes its way out from beneath her clothes — it looks like… hair. Dozens and dozens of strands of gray hair, writhing out past her feet and slowly extending across the floor.

She clucks her tongue. "Really, now. You don't recognize me? After you went through so much trouble to find me."

Iga Volodya. My eyes narrow. "Your face is different. Also? Pretty sure you're dead."

"I have many faces. More than there are stars in the sky." She chortles to herself, then grins. Her teeth gleam like a platter full of steak-knives. "Today you have seen two. Perhaps — if you are very clever — you will see more."

Alarms shriek around us. The room is flooded with a bright, flashing red light.

"But enough reminiscing. I did not pull you here to chatter. We have business to attend to, you and I. Follow me — I will show you the way back to your precious city, Yashenka."

She turns, and we —


— are back in Chicago. The city is in a state of decay. Buildings have come crashing down; cars are flung over to their sides, torn asunder. The streets are covered in rubble.

In the distance, I see the Roanoke Building. It's littered with dozens of human-sized holes, with the contents of each room dangling out like flapping tongues. I feel a dry, scorching wind blowing against my back. A strange force tugs at me — drawing me toward the source of that heat.

Iga Volodya walks ahead, moving with a surreal calm.

I look back. The sky is a horrible shade of tangerine; in the distance — far past the city — there is a bright, burning light. It is toward this light I feel myself being pulled.

I turn to Iga. A newspaper brushes past my ankle; I catch the snippet of a headline before it blows away.

MYSTERIOUS FORCE DRAWS CORPSES TOWARD—

We keep walking. "What the hell is this?"

"Have you ever thought about how many ways the world can end?"

"Is that what this is? The end?"

"It is every end." She looks back to me with that horrible grin. "And do you know why none of them have come to pass?"

I open my mouth to reply, and —


— we're standing in a kitchen. A family of four sits in front of us, preparing to enjoy a warm meal.

But the family isn't right. They aren't people — not anymore. They're made of pink, pulsating flesh; heaps of it, piled into the vague semblance of human beings. Too many arms, too few legs. Bulging mounds of meat that throb with every heartbeat.

The food is the same. Plates full of quivering tumors, spreading their tendrils out across the table. To my left, I think I see the family dog — just a mound of rolling, convulsing muscle. It extends a ribbon-like 'tongue' out to lick at a bowl filled with wriggling, squealing tissue.

Iga Volodya surveys the scene beside me. She looks annoyed.

"Your work?" I ask.

"People always think so. But no — we did not do this."

"'We'?"

She looks to me. "Practitioners of Nälkä. The Children of Ion."

"Sarkites."

She nods. "Like yourself."

I tighten my grip on the .45. "I ain't one of you."

The flesh around us stirs. Although they have no eyes, the family seems to have noticed us. A deep, dark, hateful growl emerges from their bodies. I point my pistol at the biggest one.

"But you are, Yashenka. You see it just as clearly as me. The corruption. The wrongness. And you fight it."

With a horrible, gurgling roar, the family lunge to their feet. I squeeze the trigger, and —


— I'm pointing my gun at a wall. We're back on the city streets. It's night-time; there are people here, running past us and yelling. I glance behind me — we're standing in front of the Chicago Theater. I can hear the sounds of screams coming from inside.

"Again: Do you know why these ends do not come to pass?"

A man in a suit leads a squad of police past us, charging for the theater's doors. They're packing serious heat — and their faces are all business. I turn to the city skyline. It's dark, but I can make out distant fires. The screams aren't just coming from inside the theater. I think I hear them everywhere. All around us.

My eyes drift toward the theater's marquee:

FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY — THE HANGED KING, LIVE ON RADIO

"They do not come because they are ends. Because to end is to cease. And our suffering is not meant to cease. Our suffering is to be eternal."

I turn back to her, lowering my pistol. "You done with the cryptograms, grandma?"

She smiles, exposing those sharpened teeth. "And so we fight fire with fire; corruption with corruption. The universe is sick — and we seek to use that sickness against it."

"Enough. Tell me who —"


" — cut you open. Who's using you to harvest the worms — to help Weiss? Who's — ugh —"

The ground beneath us is a spongy mishmash of colors churned together into a mush-like brown. The smell of sweetness is overpowering; it leaves me doubled over and choking. The earth gives underneath my weight. My left foot sinks down into the loamy soil with a horrible schlrp. A thick, white froth seeps up from around my ankle. That sickening sweet odor intensifies.

Iga looks down at me.

"Someone who perverts our beliefs. Someone you will find. Someone you will stop."

"I don't —" The earth beneath me is slowly sucking me in. My ankles are gone; my calves are sinking. More of that cream gushes out, rising up past my knees. I try to push myself up, but my palms sink down. "I don't — work for you." My eyes focus on the landscape behind her. Rolling hills, plateaus, mountains of mush. I think I see a rock formation poking up somewhere — no, not rocks. That's the top of a steeple —

"You do not work for me, but we are on the same side. The side of the angels. The side of Ikunaan."

Down to my waist, now. I try to move my legs, but the mush just squishes out of the way — and I sink faster. "That's the side that eats babies, right? Just checking. I read your file. You're a goddamn monster." I'm about to drown in a sea of sugary mush and she's Baba Yaga. Pissing her off feels like the right move.

She doesn't seem offended. Instead, she just smiles and reaches down to stroke my cheek with one of her gnarled, wrinkled fingers. "Oh, my dear, dear little Yashenka," she coos. "Of course I'm a monster. What else but a monster could ever hope to defy the stars themselves?"

Down to my shoulders, now. Her cruel hand snaps up and seizes me by the hair, forcing my head back; I open my lips to say something — maybe just to yell — but she spits straight into my mouth. Something wet and awful hits the back of my throat. I feel it burning — everything is burning. I feel like I'm on fire. Her voice rumbles above me, crooning with a hateful, loving snarl.

"Avenge me, Jacob Hartliss. Do it as a favor — from one monster to another."

She whispers into my ear.

The universe dissolves.


The remains of a cramped little tenement room smolder around me. A wispy haze of smoke fills the space; the scent of burnt meat and burning wood is everywhere. The canisters have all shattered, spilling nauseous chemicals and glass shards across the floor. A fresh coat of charred Iga Volodya — with some scorched worm-meat thrown in — decorates the walls.

Sirens wail in the distance.

The wall behind me has all but disintegrated; I step over what's left of the door and into the hall. A family of four — ma, pa, two kids — stand at the other end of the hall, staring at me.

I glance back at the ruin, then look to them. "What?"

They rush back into their apartment, slamming the door behind them.

I make my way down the stairs, out the door, and back into the bustling streets of Chicago. I take a good, long moment to savor the sights and smells of the Windy City — and then I go hunt down the nearest pay-phone.


"So it's not Sarkites." September sounds annoyed.

"I didn't say that." I rub at my neck. My voice is hoarse; I keep having to clear my throat. "Just saying it ain't Iga Volodya."

"You're sure?"

"About as sure as I am about anything. I got a name," I tell her, fishing in my pocket for another stick of gum.

"You already had a name."

"Well, now I got a better one." My fingers tremble a little as I struggle to unwrap the foil, jamming the stick into my mouth. "Wilhelm Reinhardt."

"Doctor Reinhardt?"

"Yeah. You know him?" I stop to chew and give a smile to the flat-foots running by. They're chasing the fire-truck on its way to Volodya's former residence.

"He's a highly respected alienist and physician."

Waitasec — physician. Didn't Weiss bring his personal physician with him to visit the stoolie who pulled that one-day Lazarus act? "He ever work for Weiss?"

"He's a private physician. It's possible, but…" She sounds unconvinced.

"Pull whatever you got on him — send it to my office. Also, I'm gonna need…" I take in a deep breath and steady myself. "I'm gonna need a favor, September. Need you to arrange a meet-and-greet for me."

"With who?"

"Richard Chapell."

The line goes quiet for a little. I let her have that one — hell, I wouldn't know what to say either.

"Are you… uh, are you sure?"

"I don't like it, but yeah. I'm sure."

"Alright. Uh…"

"Call my office tomorrow with the details. I'll be in."

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