Iniquitous Desires — A psychological Gothic novel set circa 1920. Tentative publication date 2019.
INIQUITOUS DESIRES (excerpt)
© Hanley Peterson
The saloon was practically empty, not that it was particularly surprising. It was a Wednesday evening, and most honest, hard-working men were home with their families, recuperating from their day’s labors and readying themselves for what awaited them the next. Husbands who, with gratitude, partook of the evening meals prepared by their loving wives; fathers who, with pride, listened to their children’s nightly prayers, as any God-fearing Christian would. These are the men to be admired; sober, virtuous, and uncomplaining of the burden they shoulder. An invisible burden, of which they may not even be aware…
Ches Nuckley paused and raised his eyes from his writing tablet in order to scan the room before him. The light was murky as decades of nicotine clung to the glass lamp shades overhead like a wanton woman to her lover. Beneath a stationary milky haze of cigarette smoke, two men sat opposite each other at a small table, engaged in a game of cards. Was money exchanging hands? he wondered. Gambling, yet another enticement of the devil. At a table nearer his own, a lone, flat-capped man sat with his elbow on the table, fist to chin, as he skimmed over a newspaper, several empty shot glasses littering the table’s surface. The glass of beer on Ches’ own table was untouched, purchased only to avoid arousing suspicion. The Vanguards would understand, for he was on a mission to expose the evil and vice that corrupted the good citizens of Briddington. He had become committed to his crusade one fateful night eight months ago, when he had come across a man in a drunken stupor sitting slumped against the side of a building, attired in a tattered overcoat and trousers stained by his incontinence. A portrait of a life destroyed by the evil of alcohol, a story he had shared via the pages of Valor, the Vanguards of Virtue’s monthly magazine. If only he could persuade the one seemingly literate man here now to read its pages and thereby set him on the righteous path of sobriety.
“You think there’s a secret below the city?” a portly man seated at the bar was saying to the man next to him. “Pfft…there’re secrets all through the city. There’s one in the heart of it, and you don’t even know it.”
“But you do?” the weary sounding barkeep asked.
“Do I know? Of course I know, since I’m a part of it.”
“Ya don’t say?” the fellow imbiber replied.
“Say? I know. And, brother, the things I could tell you would give you nightmares.” He paused to swallow, in one gulp, the liquor in his glass, then tapped the empty vessel on the bar twice to indicate he wanted another. “And that’s just scratching the surface,” he slurred, “if you knew who was involved —”
“So, what is this earth-shattering secret?” the skeptical bartender asked as he refilled the self-aggrandizing man’s glass.
“He can’t say,” the other drunk responded, “it’s a secret! But, hey…hey, give us a hint.”
“Society…hush, hush, society.”
“You mean the Suhbally —”
“That creaky old organization?” the bartender scoffed.
“It’s a front. Burrow down far enough, and you won’t believe what you’ll find.”
“Sinister doin’s, huh?” the other man said.
“I’m not at liberty to say. As it stands, I have probably said too much.”
“Ya don’t say?”
Ches quickly surveyed the sparsely populated room. The card game continued, the flat-capped man still read, swiping at his runny nose with his shirt sleeve. Apparently, they were not in the least bit interested in the bombshell revelation that a nefarious secret society was in their midst. Though there was something officious in the speaker’s manner that bordered on parody, Ches detected a sincerity in the man’s attitude and was eager to hear him out.
“Wilbur,” the bartender sighed, “I never know when you’ve had enough. Sober or drunk, your talk is always crazy.” It was common knowledge to the regulars of several establishments in the area that the boastful man was prone to exaggeration, had quite the imagination, and anything he said should be taken with a healthy dose of salt. In other words, his claims were habitually ignored.
“I’d be careful if I were you, he’s a Suhbally,” the other man warned, then slid from his stool and shambled in the direction of the men’s room. Nuckley, seeing an opportunity, pocketed his tablet and pencil and walked to the bar.
“Another beer?” the bartender inquired as Ches fished through a small purse and set several coins on the scuffed and gouged bar top.
“Whiskey, if you please,” Ches replied, and, after a moment’s pause, added, “and another round for this gentleman here.”
“Well, that’s damn decent of you!” the porcine-faced man replied. “Much obliged, much obliged!”
“It’s the least I could do. I found your conversation to be both entertaining and enlightening.”
“Did you now? How ‘bout that?” Wilbur bellowed with glee, swiveling his head to address the other occupants. “The first intelligent man I meet in this place, and he’s a complete stranger.”
“Could I persuade you to join me?” Nuckley asked. “My interest is decidedly piqued, I truly would like to learn more.”
“I certainly won’t say no,” the man replied. The two gathered their drinks and returned to Nuckley’s table, which was tucked away in a poorly lit corner of the room. “Wilbur Metzger,” the talkative patron said, extending a soft and clammy hand.
“Good to know you, good to know you. So, you want to hear all about the seamy underbelly of Briddington, do you? Well, it’ll cost you…” Wilbur emptied his glass and Nuckley pushed his full one towards him. Metzger winked in approval. “As long as we understand the terms. What would you like to know?”
“First and foremost, is it true? Is there really a secret society that you’re a part of, or is it just saloon talk?” Nuckley inquired, believing his new acquaintance to be a bit of a braggadocio.
“It is true.”
Chester’s reply was a cautious one. “But, if that’s the case, and it is a secret, forgive me for saying this, wouldn’t it be wiser to not speak of it?”
Metzger laughed, as if he found the question supremely amusing. “You don’t understand, we can always use another for the murder.”
“Murder?!” Nuckley repeated with alarm.
Again, Metzger chuckled. “Just a bit of Fellowship humor,” he explained. “I’m speaking of recruitment, my friend, recruitment.”
“Thank heavens. Please, go on. What are the requirements to join? Is a considerable fee involved? Is membership limited to those of certain professions, or education level?”
“Oh, no, no, there are all kinds of people, from all walks of life. You’d recognize the names of a few, you may even personally know some. The man who cuts your hair, the bus conductor, the coal man. Physicians, lawyers, stockbrokers. Elites to laborers are among the ranks. You’d be surprised who’s in the Fellowship.”
“Is that what it’s called? It’s not the Sibylline Society?”
Metzger deliberately cleared his throat and managed to produce a short series of dry coughs, no mean feat, considering the amount of liquor he had already consumed. “I seem to be a bit parched,” he declared. “It must be the air in here…” He said no more, leaving the request unspoken.
Nuckley, in the space of a second, debated whether to open his wallet yet again or forget the enterprise entirely. He rose to his feet. “The same, I presume?” he asked and, after receiving a nod and crooked smile in response, made his way to the bar. He returned a minute later, two glasses in hand. He set one down in front of his thirsty acquaintance but, once he took his own chair, he turned and placed the other on the table behind him, intending to use it as leverage later, should the need arise.
Wilbur took a small sip of his drink, then smacked his lips. “Much better. I find conversation flows easier with a well-oiled throat.”
Nuckley ignored the comment. “The Sibylline Society,” he reminded the inebriate. “Isn’t that a philosophical group?”
“No, no, prophecy,” Metzger corrected. “The Sibylline Society was originally founded for like-minded men to gather and discuss or debate various prophecies of old. Nostradamus, Johannes Friede, the Mirabilis Liber, the Prophecy of the Popes, the Tiburtine Sibyl, et cetera, hence the group’s name, Sibylline. But today, that aspect of the organization is as dead as the ancient prophets themselves. It’s used as a respectable front for the Fellowship.”
“What is this ‘fellowship’ you keep mentioning?”
“The Fellowship of the Corvid.”
“And what does this group do?”
Metzger’s chuckle was slightly unnerving. “Things. All manner of interesting things…”