The Transmutation of Mister Lang

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“Saddle up, honey,” she said.  “This is just the beginning.  You haven’t even started bleeding yet.”

“Are you sure you want to be here when it’s done?”  I remembered what that little girl’s dad looked like.  All those gashes and puncture wounds.

“I didn’t want either of us to be here, remember?”

I groaned and doubled over on my desk.  I heard ripping and tearing.  It was the back of my blazer and my shirt.  My skin felt like it was bubbling and boiling.  I heard little liquid pops behind me.

“Can you put that out?” I asked through clenched teeth.

I was still hunched over the desk, but I could smell it.  Her cigarette.  It felt as if every particle of ash was boring its way up into my nose, past my eyes, into my skull.  When she dimmed the lights, I’d been mostly suspicious and partly curious about what she had in mind.  But now I was just thankful.  Because it felt as if every pinpoint of light was focusing through the lenses of my eyes and drilling through my brain.

***

It all started when that little girl walked into my office and tried to hire me to find her dad, whom she said, had been taken by a “monster.”  She had already gone to the police and reported her dad missing.  She had called everyone she could think of who might know where he was.  People were helping, but no one was moving fast enough for her.  It had been less than a day, but she was in a quiet panic about what might be happening to her dad as we spoke, about whether or not he was even still alive.

She was fifteen, so I was a bit surprised when she revealed who she thought had taken her dad.  But before I could say anything, she admitted that she knew how crazy she sounded.  And that she was too old to believe in monsters.  But she still swore up and down that she saw her father being dragged off by something big, something that definitely wasn’t human.  I suggested it might just be a really big guy.  I asked her if she knew of anyone who had any grudges against her dad.  She shook her head, certain and adamant.  The way the thing was moving, she said, wasn’t the way a man of any size moved.  I asked her if she heard anything.  If the so-called monster made any noises.

She said it was completely silent.

She skipped school that day to search for her dad, but a particularly involved teacher called her and convinced her to return.  It was this teacher who recommended that the girl enlist someone else’s aid, a private investigator maybe.

I took her case but not her money.  There was no proof of foul play that I could see at her house.  No knocked over lamps.  No evidence of blood.  No signs of a break-in.  No one at his work reported anything unusual.  The police hadn’t found any more than I found.  So I started knocking on doors around the neighborhood and asking if anyone had seen anything strange on the night the girl’s dad disappeared.

Turned out that little girl wasn’t the only one who’d seen something that matched the description of her monster that night.  A man taking out his trash in an apartment complex a few blocks away had seen something that gave him the heebie-jeebies.  He’d heard it first.  He thought it was raccoons rooting around in the trash.  He’d heard raccoons were nasty, so he hesitated and tried to see in the dim light.  Whoever—or whatever—it was must have heard him coming and run off.  A dark shape dashed away into the alley.  The man dropped his trash and hurried back inside when he saw how big the “raccoon” was.

I followed that lead, not expecting much.  But it paid off.  A few hours or so later, I found the guy.

He was at the bottom of a ravine behind another apartment complex, hidden from the view of anyone walking along the top.  If he’d called out, someone would have heard him.  But he couldn’t.  He was still alive, but badly hurt.  Cuts, bruises, and scratches all over.  And he was barely conscious.  At first, I thought the wounds were from actually being dragged.  But then I saw tears and puncture wounds.  It looked like he’d been attacked by a wild animal.  Attacked by something that one person had described as a monster and another person as a giant raccoon.

I called the police, so they could come and gather evidence, and go after the guy who did this to the girl’s poor dad.  They let me ride to the hospital with the guy, after I called his distraught daughter.  It was just the two of them.  I figured I’d stay with her while they patched up her dad.  Make sure she had a sandwich or something if it took a while.

***

In the ambulance, I tried to talk to the guy, keep him alert.  The poor guy seemed dazed, maybe even catatonic.  But he had a sudden attack or something.  Started thrashing around and snarling.  In the struggle to tackle and hold him down in the back of a moving vehicle, I got hurt.  I didn’t notice until we got to the hospital and the paramedic pointed it out.

Near the outside of my left elbow, the guy had managed to tear through my blazer and my shirt, and scratch deep enough to leave a wound that required three stitches.

A small price to pay, I thought, for bringing the guy back to his daughter.  At least, I had done my part in bringing him back.  Now it was up to whatever kinds of doctors he needed.

***

By the time I checked up on the girl the next day, my next client had already walked into my office.  She must have been on her way to some kind of gala or something.  She was dressed to the nines.  Red hot and cucumber cool.  Everything was red.  Her satiny dress.  Her ruby necklace.  Her lips.  Her nails.  Her hair.

We all have our weaknesses when it comes to the kind of people we find…alluring.  But I’m a professional.  She’d come looking of for me because she needed a PI, not a date.

I walked over, welcomed her in, and offered my hand.  And even before she took three steps into my office, I suspected she would be trouble.

She took my hand and shook it.  And I felt a pinch and a tug as she pulled her hand away.  The palm of my hand began to bleed from a scratch.

The woman’s eyes widened, and she apologized.  She took off the ring that had scratched me and dropped it in her little red purse, from which she produced a clean handkerchief that she insisted on pressing to my palm.

She’d been calm when she first walked in, but she seemed flustered and nervous now.

I smiled, and to put her at ease, I told her I’d suffered worse in recent days.  I rolled up my sleeve and showed her the bandage on my arm.  I insisted she sit, and asked her what I could do for her.

“I heard you’re the man to go to if I’m looking for a missing person,” she said.

“Provided the person wants and needs to be found.”

She nodded.   “Well, if that’s so, you might not take my case.”

“Why is that?”

“I’m looking for my sister.”

“And she doesn’t want to be found?”

“I don’t know.  She doesn’t know I exist.  I only just found out that she does.”

She gave me some documents and all the information she’d managed to gather from a few family members who were willing to talk about it.  No one out-and-out said so, but she suspected there was some scandal involved.

I didn’t leave my office that day.  This current case wasn’t urgent so far as I knew, and I deserved to stay off my feet after the excitement of the previous day.  But paperwork can be draining too.  I was beat by the end of the day.  The office felt hot.  My stitches were itching.  And I felt like someone had stuck a straw in my brain and sucked out all the good stuff.

***

Normally when I had days like that, I’d conk out on my couch before I had time to kick off my shoes.  But that night, I flipped over about a dozen times trying to ignore that prickling under my skin.  It didn’t stop even after I’d taken a shower.  I traced my steps and wondered if I could have picked up fleas from somewhere.  I checked my bed for other kinds of bugs.  But it didn’t feel like bug bites.  I checked that wound on my arm, and even the scratch on my palm, to see if anything looked out of the ordinary.

I finally dozed and slept a restless sleep.

By morning I felt okay.  So I went to work.  A couple of days passed.

Then, my latest client called to check on my progress.  Even though I didn’t have anything to report, she insisted we meet for lunch, so I could update her in person.

I wasn’t too hungry by the time lunch rolled around.  I started feeling tired again.  I wondered if I was coming down with something.  But I didn’t have any muscle aches or a sore throat the way I usually did before I came down with something.

When I actually got to the place, I was ravenous.  My client had asked to meet at a diner.  I’d been there a few times before, but they must have gotten a new cook, because the burger I got that day was superb.  Juicy and savory.  The fries tasted as crispy golden and salty as they smelled.

“Enjoying your meal?” my client asked, just as I took a sniff of a fry before biting into it.  I looked up and found her smiling at me over her coffee cup.

I swallowed and apologized for eating like a caveman.  But she didn’t seem fazed.  As she smoothed a crease on her dark red frock, she told me she wasn’t upset that I didn’t have much to report about her missing sister.

Getting out of the office was a good move.  I felt much better.  My sinuses felt open and clear.  My vision too.  Edges and shapes looked…crisper.  Colors looked richer.

I noticed a creep in a dark suit staring at my client when we were settling the check.  She said it was her driver.  I recognized him later when I realized I was being followed around as I went about my day.  Maybe she had hired someone to watch me while I investigated.  Maybe there was something fishy about why this woman wanted to find her sister.  I decided to be careful and not to say anything…yet.

After I closed up shop for the day and headed home, I spotted the guy across the street from my office building.  Suddenly, my heart started pounding.  I imagined I could even hear it.  My eyes got wide. Even though it was dim on the street, I felt like I could see everything clearly.  Edges, shapes, colors.  I clenched my fists and felt the muscles in my arm grow taut.  The hair on my arms and my neck stood up.  As lousy as I’d felt that morning, I felt the opposite in that moment.  I felt the sudden urge to dash across the street after the guy.

I inhaled.  A car was approaching.  I took a step, waiting for it to pass, ready to launch into a run.  But as the car passed, I saw the guy in the dark suit get into a car and drive off.

I let out the breath that I’d been holding in.  And suddenly I was gasping.  My heartbeat slowed.  The street grew dimmer.  I blinked and blinked, and I squinted, but I couldn’t see as clearly as I did before.

***

When I woke up, the feeling that my skin was itching and prickling had intensified.  I almost fell out of bed trying to get out.  I’d gotten tangled in my sheets from all the moving around I’d done the night before.  It felt like bugs were swarming under my skin.  I turned on the lamp on my bedside table and looked at my arms.  I expected to see my skin seething with tiny little bumps, but there was nothing.  The skin of my face felt dry and tight.  The skin on my neck, chest, and back burned every time I moved.  I rushed to the bathroom mirror to take a closer look at my face and the skin of my chest and my back.

But there was nothing.  No redness.  No rashes or flaking.  No boils or blisters.  No changes in color.  It was all in my head, I thought.

By the time I got to the office, the prickling in my skin was mostly gone, but my muscles all felt loose and watery, and I had the start of a stomachache.  I decided I must have caught something, and I was about to lock up and go home, when my newest client showed up.

After being followed by her driver all day, I thought it might be time to confront her.  When she raised the bag of donuts and the coffee she’d brought, I realized I hadn’t had any breakfast that morning.  Maybe that was why my stomach felt so strange.

I decided I’d enjoy the lady’s hospitality, and then tell her I was dropping her as a client.  If the only intriguing thing about my client had been that she always wore red and seemed to like buying me food, well that kind of intrigue was all right by me.  But possibly having some nefarious reason for hunting down her sister, and having me followed by some goon, now that kind of intrigue, I didn’t need.

I let her into my office and told her that I might need to take a sick day.  She insisted I take as much time off as I needed, and then insisted on my having a decent breakfast before I headed home.

I let her in and dragged myself back to my desk.  My client went to go open a window, so we could have some fresh air.  Feeling suddenly chilly, I removed the lid on the coffee cup and let the steam rise up to my nose.

A sharp bitter odor was riding on that steam.  It was not the bitterness of coffee.

I held the cup away from me and glanced at my client.  I was about to warn her that something was off about the coffee when I caught her expression.  Eyes slightly widened.  Lips pressed.  The fingers of her hands hooked together.  Expectant.  She looked expectant.  And she wasn’t looking at me.

She was looking at the coffee cup.

I stood up.

“What’s in this?” I said, holding the cup out to her.  “Did you spike my coffee?”

And the rest came out.  I asked her if she’d had her driver—or whoever he was—follow me.  I asked her what her real motive was for finding her sister, and that made me remember something I’d forgotten since it had been a few days.  My palm was already healed from that scratch.  I asked her if that was on purpose.

“Wait…”  I took another sniff of the coffee as a notion occurred to me.  “Are you trying to poison me?”

Her eyes widened further.  “Of course not.”  She glanced at the coffee cup.  “You…you smell something in that?”  She sighed, composed her expression, and sat down on the chair across from me.

“It’s further along than I would have thought,” she said, peering at the bag of donuts.  It was almost as if she were talking to herself.

I sat down too.

“If you’re not trying to kill me, than what are you trying to do?”  I looked at the coffee again.  “Was that supposed to knock me out?  Then what?”

She held out a hand.  “All right, Mister Lang.  I’ll talk.”  She leaned toward me.  “I know what’s going on with you,” she’d said.  “You’re not going to believe me.  You’re gonna tell me to get lost.  But I’ll tell you anyway.  Because when you’re ready, you’ll need someone to be with you.  Somewhere comfortable, like your home.”  She held out a card.  “And I hope you remember to call me.”

I frowned.  It was some kind of business card.  I took it and threw it in my top drawer.  I might need it as proof later, if it turned out my so-called client was pulling something, a con maybe.

“No more games, lady.  Tell me what the hell is going on.”

She began by telling me that she knew that I wouldn’t be feeling well before she walked in my office that morning.  She tracked me down as soon as she learned that I’d been wounded by that little girl’s dad.

“There was a chance you’d be okay,” she said.  “But there was also a chance you might not be.  I had to check, so I ‘accidentally’ scratched you with that ring to get some of your blood.”

She needed my blood to test it and see if I was negative or positive for something she called the “compound.”  If I didn’t have it, she’d have left me alone.  But I did have it.  And that compound would begin changing me.

My sharper sense of smell meant that change was already happening.  The man she’d had following me had noticed a few things too, and that’s why she came that morning, to try and administer the first dose of a treatment meant to slow and halt the change.

“But you can already smell it,” she said, “It’s happening so fast with you.  And this was just the first of many doses.  So I can’t trick you into taking it, make sure you’re okay, and be on my merry way, as I’d planned.”  She leaned back.  “I need your cooperation now.  So I’ll explain to you what’s happening, because we need to act quickly.  The changes already made by your body may be irreversible.”

“What kind of changes?  Are you a doctor?  Did that guy have some kind of disease?  Something rare?  Is he gonna be okay?”  I leaned away from her.  “Wait, is it contagious?  If I’m dangerous to other people, you need to tell me.”

She smiled and pursed her lips.  “How very telling your reaction is.  I really hope you let me help you, Mister Lang.”

“You can start by telling me what’s happening to me.”

She did.  She told me why my skin was prickling.  I would become hairier.  That sounded harmless enough.  She said my eyes would change color, and I would see differently.  That sounded a little more serious, but still not alarming.  She said my ears would grow bigger and longer.  She said my face would change, my mouth and my nose.  And my teeth.

I didn’t believe any of it.  I could believe I had a disease.  Something rare.  But I didn’t believe my body would change the way she said it would change.

“Is that all?” I asked when she was done.  “I’ll just look different?”

“Not if we start treatment right away,” she said.  “We can stop the rest of those changes from happening.”

I shrugged.  I could live with looking different.  “Maybe I’ll just wax it off,” I said about the hair.  “I’ve heard that lasts for about a month.”

I thought she would lean toward me again and try to convince me, tell me she had proof.  But she sat further back in her chair and crossed her arms.

“Oh yeah, tough guy?  Say you can handle having your entire body waxed every month.  You gonna trim down your ears?  Take a few inches off the snout?”  She raised her brows.  “When it’s done, there will be no hiding what you look like, hon.”

I wanted her to go, so I could check up on that little girl and her dad, and make sure this lady wasn’t harassing them too.  But I’d been feeling an uncomfortable pressure on my tailbone for the better part of the morning, and sitting only made it worse.  My skin started to prickle again, even though there was nothing visibly wrong with it.  Something was going on with me, so even if I didn’t believe her answers, I wanted to hear them.

“You’ve been changing on the inside for almost a week now,” she said.  “An impossibly rapid change.  That’s why you feel so uncomfortable and raw.  That’s why you’re so delirious and disoriented.  I have a scientist friend who’s been trying to study the process.  But as you might imagine, that’s difficult.  As soon as we know someone is going through it, our obligation is to try and prevent it, which we can, about half the time.”

A shiver went through me.  She couldn’t have known what was going on with me.  Not all of it.  I hadn’t told anyone else.  I hadn’t written it down.  But she the way she described it, she hit the nail square on the head.

“How do you know so much?” I asked.  “If you haven’t gone through it yourself?”

“Who says I haven’t?”

“You look like a normal woman to me.”

“No such thing as a normal woman, honey.”

I didn’t let her deflect.  “Like I said, how do you know so much?”

“The boring way.  The way you know so much about your job.  Years of study, observation, making and learning from mistakes, experience.”

“You have references?  So I can check up on what you’re saying?”

“I do, but even if you had started checking them on that first day I found you, you wouldn’t have been able to trace the references back to someone you trusted before it was too late.”

“The full moon is still two weeks away.”

She sighed.  “That has nothing to do with what you’re going through, hon.”

“What is your motive for helping me?”

“It’s my job.  You find missing persons.  I do this.”

“Who do you work for?”

“That’s none of your concern.”

I frowned.  “The hell it’s not.  You’re trying to sell me snake oil.  But you won’t even tell me the snake’s name?”

She was silent for a moment.  Then she took a breath and exhaled slowly.  “Snake oil wouldn’t work for your situation.”

That was about as much as I could take, especially with my stomachache returning.  I kicked her out of my office and went home.  I left the coffee and donuts.  I’d ask my friend on the force to check it out.  Do some tests of my own.  And I’d find a real doctor to check me out.

***

The very next day, I saw my doctor, and found out that I was in great health.  I had gained some weight, but it was all muscle, he said, because I actually looked leaner.  I didn’t tell him that all that change had happened in a week.  They drew some blood and I went in a cup.  Those tests would take some time.  I wondered if I should ask my doctor if he’d ever heard of the “compound.”  But I didn’t know its exact name.  And even if I did, I had a feeling they wouldn’t know how to test for it.  If there wasn’t anything wrong with me physically, then it had to be in my mind.  So I got my doc to refer me to a psychologist.  He told me to take it easy in the meantime, and get a lot more sleep than I was getting, and maybe buy some softer sheets.

A few days passed.  Changes crept up.  It was hard to tell at first, because I stare at my face in the mirror every day.  So when my lips looked a little thinner, I wasn’t sure.  When my ears looked a little bigger, but otherwise the same, I wasn’t sure.  But for the past two days, I’ve been wearing a hat to hide how long they’ve gotten.  And my hair.  It’s grown five inches in two days.  And my clothes feel too tight.  I won’t be able to button anything if this keeps going.  My jaw has been aching, and I’ve lost a few teeth.

I’m trying to keep working.  It’s been harder over the past few days.  Not because of aching and the discomfort, or even the ill-fitting suits.  I’ve followed up with a few clients, and they keep thinking I must be a new associate of the guy they hired.  I look different enough to them already.  My voice sounds different, too.  It’s deeper, rougher.

Every night, I’ve been going up on the roof of my building, looking up at the sky and the stars.  It’s the only time I don’t feel strange in my own skin these days.

I wonder if I should go away for a while.

***

That morning was the worse I’d felt since the whole thing began.  I threw up a few times, and felt a bit better, but then my stomach cramped up, until I had some toast.  I pulled myself together, deciding I wasn’t too ill to work.

She was waiting for me in front of my office.  Rosy red coat over a red dress.  She stepped aside to let me unlock the door.

“No food today?” I asked, and I noticed that she froze for a beat when she heard my voice.

“Quick, inside your office before anyone sees you,” she said.  She pushed the small of my back with one hand, and my shoulder with the other.

I stumbled into my office, groaning from the nausea that even those few steps triggered.  I felt the sweat trickling from my temple and beading over my upper lip.  I straightened and that seemed to help the nausea.  It felt too warm in the room.

I turned and saw her peeking out of the almost closed door.  She closed and locked the door, and then switched off the overhead lights.  She turned to me.

“You know what’s happening to you, don’t you?” she asked, a little breathless.

I tried to grin, but it turned into a wince.  “Let me guess,” I said, still trying.  “I’m overwhelmed by passions I can’t control.”

She closed her eyes and shook her head slightly.  With a sigh, she opened her eyes again.  “You still don’t believe what’s happening to you is real.”

“Why are you here?  I didn’t call you.”

“You should have.  You’re in the last stage.”

I sighed.  I wasn’t really angry.  Not with her anyway.  It was strange.  I wasn’t scared either.

“So isn’t it too late?”

“It’s too late for your other organs, Mister Lang, but if you trust me now, we might still save your brain.”

I started to shiver, despite feeling warm.  “What do you mean?”

“I mean if we can keep the compound out of your brain, you’ll still be who are now, the core you.”

“And if you can’t?”  A sudden pain clutched my middle, like someone just stabbed me through the belly button.  I doubled over, and she rushed to me and helped me to my chair.

“Listen, we should have given you the treatment weeks ago.  There’s a chance it won’t work.  That the compound is already in your brain.  That you won’t be you when you wake up tomorrow.”  She moved to the other side of the table and sat down.  She pulled a cigarette from behind her ear and lit it.  That was strange.  I’d never seen her smoke before, but she took a few puffs.

“Well…done is done,” I said.  “You tried to warn me.  I wouldn’t listen.”  I grinned at her.  Because for some reason that I didn’t understand myself, it was at that moment that I finally trusted her.

I thought she would raise one of those perfectly penciled eyebrows at me and say something smarmy.  But she frowned a little and pressed her glossy red lips together.  “I should have tried harder,” she said, her voice quiet.  She put a hand over mine, a soft but solid hand, and she squeezed slightly.

She dropped her gaze.  She pulled her hand away and when she raised her gaze, she was herself again.  Red hot and cucumber cool.

“Saddle up, honey,” she said.  “This is just the beginning.  You haven’t even started bleeding yet.”

“Are you sure you want to be here when it’s done?”  I remembered what that little girl’s dad looked like.  All those gashes and puncture wounds.

“I didn’t want either of us to be here, remember?”

I groaned and doubled over on my desk.  I heard ripping and tearing.  It was the back of my blazer and my shirt.  My skin felt like it was bubbling and boiling.  I heard little liquid pops behind me.

“Can you put that out?” I asked through clenched teeth.

I was still hunched over the desk, but I could smell it.  Her cigarette.  It felt as if every particle of ash was boring its way up into my nose, past my eyes, into my skull.  When she dimmed the lights, I’d been mostly suspicious and partly curious about what she had in mind.  But now I was just thankful.  Because it felt as if every pinpoint of light was focusing through the lenses of my eyes and drilling through my brain.

“Sorry about the cigarette,” she said.  “But without it you’d be overwhelmed by all the things you smell in this room.”

“Is that why you’re not wearing perfume?”

“Bingo.”

“Couldn’t you just have lighted some incense?”

“Trust me it would have been worse if you smelled pleasant smells alongside unpleasant ones.”

Still hunched over, I nodded.  I hadn’t believed her when she first told me that this would happen.  I could feel it happening, and I still couldn’t believe it.

When I was younger, I would sometimes wonder what it would be like, as I brushed my teeth in the morning, to see my face change.  To see my hair turn grey and skin thin out, to see wrinkles radiating from the corners of my eyes.  One funny thing, based on my observation of my dad and grandpa, I actually did expect my ears to get bigger and hairier with old age.

There are no remedies, she had told me.  No vaccines, no rare herbs, no spells, no amulets, no cutting-edge treatments.  Nothing in the realms of either science or spirituality could stop it at this point.  There’s no reversal either.  Not like in the stories and legends.  This was a one-way trip.  And it promised to be a painful passage.

***

If I was still me when it was over, I would try to get back to doing what I do.  What I’m meant to do.  Bringing people who were torn apart and deserved to be together back together.  I’d have to figure out how to do it without showing myself in public.  She said there would be help for me when I really needed it.

“I’ve been meaning to ask about something that’s been bothering me,” I said, and there was a growl to my voice that hadn’t been there before.  I glanced up at her and noticed the dim light glinting off her red-gold hair, and her bangles, and the buckle of the belt around her dress.  The colors in the room seemed different.  Her red dress wasn’t so red anymore.

She took what looked to be a bracing breath.  “What’s that?”

“Do you even have a sister?”

She breathed out a chuckle.  “I do.  She’s older.  We’ve been best friends ever since I was born.  Though we did lose each other once or twice.”

I felt tears along my shoulders, and I gasped.  These tears were not in my clothes.  I lowered my head again as I felt the warm blood beginning to seep out and soak the back of my shirt.  The tip of each finger felt as if it had been pierced with a needle.  And drops of blood mingled with the sweat that was dripping from my swollen nose.

But I smiled.  Because I knew she would stay with me.

 

Copyright © 2017  Nila L. Patel.

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