Raul Nunez - Zugzwang (Chapter 1 of Cosmic Banality)
Judit Goodwin awoke to the annoying cry of her motel alarm screaming in her ear. She opened her eyes, and the room looked as if it was underwater. She rubbed her eyes and furrowed her brow. She stepped away from the dirty bed and onto the dull red carpet fully clothed. The alarm itself was enough to give her a headache, and the hangover was not helping. It was 7:03. She yanked the alarm's power cord from the wall. Once disconnected from its power source, the numbers of the alarm sank into the dark void of the black screen. Goodwin continued to rub her eyes until the room became clear.
She scanned the place for the first time sober. The small room was dirty and average for a motel room. The two things that stuck out to Goodwin were that the room had no windows and that instead of a Bible resting on the nightstand, there was an obsidian knife in its place. Goodwin's new trench coat was sleeping on a chair. The absence of sunlight and the lack of fresh air made it easy for the room to assault its guests with an onslaught of moldy stenches.
Taking a deep breath, Goodwin resented the room's inhospitable odors as she walked to the bathroom. She inspected herself in the mirror to see how much damage the night had caused to her face and spoke in a low and tired voice.
"Why do I do this to myself?"
Goodwin's raven hair was a mess. She quickly wrapped it in a ponytail. She pressed on the dark bags under her eyes. Goodwin grabbed the hem of her shirt and pulled it down. She smacked her cheeks with both of her hands in an attempt to energize herself.
She coughed trying to clear her throat as she walked back into the room.
Goodwin kneeled. She inspected her open suitcase. A mess of papers and clothes rested in front of her as she rummaged through the files to find her current case.
Two weeks ago, Goodwin had been hired to find the missing son of a wealthy bank owner, Mr. Dewitt. His son, John, traveled to France for spring break, and they lost communication with him some time at the end of April of last year.
Goodwin found and opened the file referring to this case. She pulled out two newspaper clippings, the first an American article detailing how John went missing and the second a French one asking about his whereabouts.
Usually, authorities go above and beyond to find a lost kid from a wealthy family, but after a month of searching, the investigation was dropped. Mr. Dewitt had exhausted all of his diplomatic connections and began to hire multilingual PI's left and right. After a year of failed investigations, Mr. Dewitt finally contacted Goodwin, offering her enough money to buy a private island if she could find his kid. Goodwin cared about the money, but she cared a lot more about fame. She wanted to build up a better reputation to get more compelling cases.
She pulled out a printout with all of the transaction histories of John's credit card. The last purchase dated May 6th of last year in a small café in a small coastal city of France. Goodwin read the address out loud.
"49 Rue de Cynothoglys."
Judit Goodwin grabbed her trench coat carefully. She had decided to buy herself a trench coat from the advance she received from Mr. Dewitt. She could feel a joyous warmth from it; same as a fresh newspaper coming off the presses. Judit hugged it and slipped it on. The coat sagged down due to the weight of her gun. Her voice shook a little as words escaped from her lips.
"Dress for the job you want, huh pops? You miserable, old dog."
Judit wrapped herself in the trench coat; it embraced her figure comfortably.
"Custom clothes are the way."
Judit hid the file inside one of the large pockets of her trench coat and took out the gun from another pocket. The heft of the weapon spoke softly to Judit as she checked the chamber. 10 rounds. Judit spoke softly.
"Not like I will be using you today, old friend."
Judit then placed the gun in her concealed holster, and after making sure she had her smartphone and wallet with her, escaped the confined space that was the motel room. She grabbed the handle and pushed the door. It made a rusty screeching sound as it opened and closed.
The hallway was dark and in disrepair. The hairs on the back of Judit's neck stood up. She felt as if something was watching her, something old. Judit's eyes darted back and forth instinctively while walking towards the elevator. The red floral pattern of the hallway was torn and filthy. Judit tried to guess the original color of the brown carpet in the hallway, achieving only a gag reflex. The elevator light flickered in the dim-lit corridor.
The elevator rattled as it carried Judit to the lobby. Even though breakfast came with the room, she figured that the quality of the room was a glaring warning sign not to eat there. She had another place in mind to grab breakfast. Judit walked past the small lobby with quick steps.
The air outside assaulted Judit with a strong mixture of rotting fish and salt before she could notice anything else. All the buildings on the street with the motel were the same. All of them were three-story squares with no windows and a single door. The sky had an unnatural crimson glow. Judit grabbed her arm to keep it from shaking and whispered.
"Oh shit, is this some Jonestown situation? Creepy houses and the sky is red?"
She stepped onto the road, heading towards 49 Rue de Cynothoglys. As she walked down the busy cobblestone road towards the main square, she continued to whisper to herself. Her fellow pedestrians seemed to ignore her. She was bad at stopping herself from talking out loud, but made the false assumption that, due to the language barrier, she was being ignored.
"Ok, so maybe someone spiked my drink? Not the first time. Fuck, I wish I could remember last night. But what kind of drug would last this long? Max of 12 hours I believe."
Judit gave her phone a glance. It was 8:15.
"Ok, so it is a possibility. Perhaps Psilocybin. I don't feel particularly relaxed or introspective, more so than usual anyway. Other than hallucinations and slight paranoia. I don't feel panic, nor does it appear I have a fever."
Judit placed her hand on her forehead.
"Nope. Nada. Either way, the best option would be to let it flush out of my system while keeping my guard up."
Before the town square, at a corner street, sat a little French café exuding the aroma of freshly-brewed coffee. 49 Rue de Cynothoglys. The only building Judit had seen today that seemed normal. The typical Parisian café had tables and chairs sitting in neat rows outside of the establishment. The locals of the city ate their breakfast and chatted amongst themselves about the trivial matters of life.
Judit walked past the row of tables. Each time she passed an empty table, she traced her index finger across the said table. The door was spread open. She walked across the frame of the open door, and the intense aroma of coffee welcomed her inside.
The inside of the coffee house had only two tables and a long counter. Displayed at the top of the bar in heated glass cases rested a dainty assortment of freshly baked traditional French pastries.
A short barista walked up to the counter. The middle-aged bald man had a neatly-trimmed handlebar mustache and was wearing a plain dress shirt with black pants. A black apron draped down from his waist. The apron was clean. A towel hung from its waistband.
The barista spoke in a low, warm tone.
"Comment puis-je t'aider."
Judit's French was rusty. She took out her phone and pressed on an application with a French vocabulary list. The barista noticed Judit struggling and spoke in English with a minimal trace of a French accent.
"How can I help you?"
Judit spoke a bit flustered while her lip quivered.
Judit paused to look for a name tag.
"Might I have a cup of coffee and a croissant, and could I also have your name on the side, please?”
The barista chuckled with a tired grin and answered.
Daniel took out a small airtight container full of coffee beans and began grinding the beans on a coffee grinder behind the counter. Daniel then poured the ground coffee into a french press. Judit could not help staring at the barista’s process. She had questions for the man but remained silent. Daniel noticed that Judit had been staring and spoke to her.
"Do you have any questions or concerns?"
Judit was trying to smile and spoke back in a low, gentle tone.
"Oh, I am sorry it's nothing. I am more used to just pressing a button and bam! Coffee. I was just admiring your process. It's fascinating. I am happy to see the old arts being alive and well in this part of the globe."
Daniel's face twisted into a tired smile as he poured boiling water into a french press.
"Flattery will get you nowhere. This is not a tourist location, so my guess is you are here for business."
"Ok, I am going to be honest. I was hired to find this young man."
Judit took out her phone and opened a picture of John Dewitt.
"His last credit card transaction was made here a year ago. I know it might be a long shot, but might you perhaps be able to tell me anything you know?"
Daniel poured Judit's coffee into a small white cup. He placed a small plate with two croissants and the coffee cup on a tray. Daniel spoke as he used a tiny brush to coat the top of the croissants with a thin layer of butter.
"I will tell you what I have told every other halfwit that comes to my store and bothers me about this boy, John. He was drunk enough to see god. He came by my store. Ordered escargot, got insulted that I didn't have it. Then he stumbled out of my store, and last I saw him he was laying down on one of the benches in front of the fountain covered in his vomit."
Judit had been typing out the information on her phone.
"Well, could you—"Judit asked, tapping frantically on her phone to change apps.
Daniel interrupted, crossing his arms.
"That will be 6 Euros. Have a nice day."
Judit placed a 10 Euro bill on the counter.
"Now could you please elaborate—”
Daniel stressed out his voice and slammed his hands on the counter. He leaned forward.
"Have. A. NICE. Day."
"Thank you for all the information you have given me and also the food. Keep the change!"
Judit gave Daniel a half-hearted smile as she grabbed her tray. Daniel began to clean his counter.
Judit took her tray outside and sat down at one of the empty tables overlooking the fountain.
She took a sip of the full-bodied coffee. It was a simple take on a cup of coffee. Nothing added beyond the perfect water temperature to brew it and the ideal ratio of water and beans. The bittersweet flavor washed away her worries, the bitterness alone enough to get rid of the rest of her hangover.
"Finally!" she said.
The atmosphere was tainted with a deep crimson, and the clouds stretched across the horizon. Judit took out her file while muttering to herself.
"Just a normal day with a bloody sky. Perfect to take the kids out for a picnic." She was trying to keep herself calm as if it was any other day. Just in case someone was looking.
Judit smacked herself on both of her cheeks with her hands. She grabbed a croissant, feeling the warm butter stick gently on her fingertips, and fixated upon the fountain.
"Great! Where do I go from here…."
She rested her head on her arm as she slumped her body forward.
"What a dull fountain..." She flicked a piece of dust away from the table.
Judit bit into the croissants. It was a pure taste of butter, sugar and bread, a flavor only possible when using fresh quality ingredients. The texture spoke of the level of care that each sheet of dough was folded with before baking. It was the platonic ideal of a croissant. The ideology behind the croissant was just like the coffee: extraordinary by maintaining a pure and simple idea of being.
Judit looked back at the busy square. She looked at the cobblestone streets. The small square was empty aside from the people sitting at the café and the fountain. The daily chatter of the French countryside felt foreign and odd. Her gut was telling her something was off.
“Eh, it’s just a different language.”
The fountain was old and was from a decade that Judit had never seen. The stone surface looked jagged and malformed. The square lacked any other feature and landmark. The earth shook gently beneath Judit's feet, and she felt something crawl up her spine.
Judit took another bite of the croissant. This time the feeling of the croissant was different, and she could taste everything the croissant was, is, and would be. She tasted each processed ingredient of the confectionary while at the same time sampling the finished product and everything in between. Then the taste of rot and mold dominated her mouth, overpowering all other flavors. For a brief moment Judit transcended her insignificant human understanding of time; she tasted the croissant outside of time. Despite her disgust, she swallowed. Judit broke into a cold sweat and tossed the croissant on the ground. The confectionary broke into several pieces as if she dropped glass. Each piece slowly decayed into nothing, leaving only dust.
"What the fuck was that?"
The locals around her stood up and looked at the sky on top of the fountain. Judit noticed that their bulging eyes were completely white. She finally woke up to what was happening around her. She set her sights on the top of the fountain.
At first, the vacuous being hung motionless in a red, forbidding sky, and at first, Judit thought it could have been the sun, but that thought quickly faded as the spot in the sky began to grow. It did not shed any light, and yet it was visible through the clouds. It broke a chasm on the clouds in its descent. The more it became evident, the less it could be defined. At first, it was a simple circle. Then, an asymmetrical shape with sharp bumps and round spikes. From the border of the center, small tendrils began to grow, like a Tesla ball with electricity of flesh. It stretched far trying to grab the ground with its tendrils, but before the tendrils could reach any possible structure, they decayed back into nothing. A hole originated at the center of the thing, and from the middle of the crevice, an eye boiled in and out of existence. It was no mere object.
Judit stared in disbelief as the creature's imposing size reaffirmed its existence to her. Her muscles tensed up as she tried to move to no avail, shaking, working hard to look away but failing.
Judit lowered her vision and noticed one utility hole on the cobblestone street flung open. Ten hooded figures crawled out and, like a swarm of insects, surrounded the fountain.
The purple hoods had golden shapeless patterns in the borders of the fabric. The purple figures raised their hands together while holding stone chalices. Their surfaces were rough and malformed like the fountain. They start to chant in an inhuman, old language. The Elder creature bestowed upon its worshipers the gift of blood by shedding a single crimson tear from its boiling eye and into the spout of the fountain.
Thick rotten blood flowed out of the fountain instead of water, a foul miasma like mist rolling out from the fluid. The cultists filled their cups with the fresh blood from the basin with glee. As they drank from the chalices, the old god retreated into the cosmic background screeching. The cultists abandoned the square and walked back to their sewer.
Judit leaned back on the chair, her body motionless as she tried to comprehend what had just transpired. A low deescalating hum rang out of the sky as everything gradually disappeared. Until the sky turned blue and the people went back to their daily routine.
Judit covered her face with her hand and whispered to herself.
"I have a horrible feeling that…well whatever that was, has something to do with my case."
Judit took a deep breath, and smacked her cheeks much harder than before.
"At this point, my best move would be not to move." She hung her hand over the table as if she was playing chess. She grabbed an imaginary piece and hovered it back.
"If I go back empty-handed, I would have wasted the time and resources I have already invested in the case. Plus the therapy bills."
Judit picked up her coffee cup with her other hand out of habit and stopped herself. She sighed deeply while looking at the liquid. The coffee appeared to go on forever despite having no visual depth. She moved the imaginary piece forwards and placed it down.
"The other option is to go down the sewer and meet a horrible death trying to solve this case."
Judit stretched her arm out to her side towards the utility hole. She turned the coffee cup upside down, letting the liquid spill onto the cobblestone road.
"Funny how life works out. Unfortunately not moving is not an option. Time keeps on going, and you eventually have to make a choice."
Judit jumped from her seat and walked towards the utility hole inconspicuously. She kneeled next to the utility cover and ran her fingers around the rim of the lid. She noticed a strange asymmetric symbol on the cover filled with little bumps on the surface. One of the bumps was beating red as if it was hot metal.
“A glowing red button? Sure, why not?”
Judit pressed on it with her index finger.
The cover folded into the size of a notepad and dropped down into deep darkness. Judit stared down the hole; there was a ladder leading down, and it seemed to call her to it. She furrowed her brow and threw up her arms furiously, shouting out into the sky:
"Yeah! Why not? Embarking upon the endless void underground it is. Great idea, Detective Goodwin! What will you find? I wonder."
Judit took a deep breath and stepped on the ladder. Her voice echoed up from the darkness.
"Piles of shit!"
RAUL NUNEZ is a 29-year-old writer and philosopher and a graduate from Harvard Extension. Inspired by Noir, Scifi, and Western stories, he likes to explore frustration through writing. He hopes to write a space opera in the future.