The Black Planet

You may have heard of Planet X or Nibiru. Ghostly planets said to haunt our solar system. Today we’re going to look at a forgotten hypothetical planet first encountered on a cool autumn night in 1934.

But this planet, like the astronomer who discovered it, vanished just as quickly as it first appeared, leaving only questions in its wake.

This mysterious celestial body was simply known as the Black Planet.

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Dust Lake

High up in a dry plateau in southern Peru, winds blast across a strange, alien landscape. It is flat for as far as the eye can see. And excessively dry.

Salt paints the landscape white, mingling with the sand to create a mottled ground. The ground is cracked and crunches like frost underfoot as sand swishes around your legs, carried on the strong wind which blows grit into your eyes.

This land, itself a subregion of the greater Atacama Desert, is strange enough. But if you go just a bit further toward the Peruvian Andes, you will find a place beyond this world: a place which very well might touch another.

The Dust Lake. Welcome to one of the most mysterious sites in all the Andes.

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Wormwood’s Sting

For our first look into the supernatural, we’ll investigate a story that involves a peculiar piece of art and a string of disappearances, tragic accidents, and murder. Wormwood’s Sting is still a name that evokes fear and curiosity in the right circles of the art world.

Discover the haunting circumstances of this painting’s creation in pre-WWI Paris and follow its strange journey through time that led it to be rediscovered in the Massachusetts home of an old woman who thought the painting showed her dead son.

And also see the fate of the desperate, mad artist who made Wormwood’s Sting, the world’s most haunted painting.

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The search so far

Well it’s been a very long and sleepless couple week. It took a whole lotta work, but I think I’m close. Yet I don’t like what I’ve discovered.

I spent the day after my meeting with the Lanky Man chewing over everything we’d discussed. Inside, I was a wreck. Forces of equal strength writhed around as they fought. I had to fish any coherent thought out of the turmoil. I was curious, dead curious, to learn more about the Lanky Man and his “organization”. Doing what he wanted seemed a good way to get close to him. I knew the man was a ghost: only a little digging told me that. I’d have an easier time flying to the moon than figuring out who my mysterious sponsor was.

At the same time, a voice inside me screamed in warning. None of this was right. I knew that of course. None of this was normal. If the Lanky Man was a decent guy, he would’ve told me more. Criminals and the like have things to hide, and he was hiding a lot.

Eventually I’d sat around long enough and simply decided to do something—anything. So I did what the Lanky Man had told me to do.

I went to Ed Slezawski.

Ed was busy tracing neat strokes with his pen on an article draft when I walked in. He looked up; his face fell.

“Ah, Madsen, it’s you. What do you want?”

I sat down opposite from him without being invited.

“I want the Wicker Man story.”

Ed blinked once, twice, then said, “You can’t have it. I’ve already given it to Katie.”

“Well, take it away from her. She can’t be too far in writing it, the theft is too recent.”

Ed set the stack of papers he had been editing on the table. I read the title upside down.

“Ah,” I said, not sure what else I could say. I pushed my brain into full-gear, “Well … Send it back to her and give the story to me.”

Ed leaned back in his chair and looked at me for a long time through his glasses, “No, I’m not going to do that,” he held up a hand to cut of what I was about to say. “She has the story, the draft has been written, and it’s good. There is no plausible reason I’d throw her story out and give it to you instead. Now if that’s what you barged in to say, please leave.”

“I don’t think I will,” I said, crossing one leg over the other and leaning back into the chair.

“Sit there then,” Ed said and went back to his editing.

Several minutes passed. I never took my eyes from Ed. I reached out and began rearranging Ed’s pens. When he told me to stop, I switched to tapping my fingers loudly on the arms of the chair.

Finally Ed slapped the papers on the desk and stared at me with his cold gaze.

I thought of something and blurted it out, “How about I write an article and you see which one you like better. The winner gets published.”

Ed inclined his head so he could look at me over the rims of his glasses, “You really must love missing art pieces. You want the story this badly?”

I nodded my head.

“Even though I’m almost certainly going to publish Katie’s, you still want to write your own article?” He picked up and shook the stack of papers.

I nodded again.

Ed let out a long sigh, “Alright, Ray, go on and do it. It’s a waste of time though: I’ll pick Katie’s. But please, by all means waste your time. See if I care.”

That was all fine by me. I didn’t need my article to get published, I just needed a cover to talk with the police and get inside the museum. After making some calls, I went next to the Gordon and Mariam Chesterfield Museum. The detective working the case met me outside.

He was smoking a cigarette and when he spoke, he had that characteristically coarse South Boston accent.

“You the newspapah guy that cawlled?” He asked.

“I am,” I showed him my journalists’s ID. “Raymond Madsen, Boston Crier. I—”

“Yeah, yeah, Detective Flaherty. Come inside, pal. I’ll show you the place.”

Detective Flaherty flung his cigarette into the bushes and led me inside.Even though the museum was closed to the public, inside it was a-buzz with activity. The museum was installing all new, high-tech security systems after the theft. Flaherty led me up to the third floor. It was quieter up there. We ducked under the yellow tape and came to the spot.

Flaherty pointed unnecessarily at the dark rectangle of wallpaper where the painting clearly had hung, “That’s whe’ it used to be, you know.”

“Thanks,” I said as I snapped some pictures. The Wicker Man‘s plaque was still there.

Detective Flaherty then ran me through everything he knew, which wasn’t much. That shocked me a little. I mean, yeah I know, it’s a caper and all. still, this quickly appeared to be no ordinary theft.

“You haven’t found any fingerprints?” I asked in disbelief.

“None, pal. No prints, no hehs, no bits o’ clothing. Nu’ittn. None of the windows we’ opened, eithe’. All the doors we’ locked too.”

I paused in my note-taking, “You mean the building was locked tight the night of the robbery?”

“Dat’s what I said, pal. No one knows who done it o’ how. You know what I says? Houdini done it,” Flaherty chuckled, then continued. “The’ ain’t much moah we can do. We spent days lookin’ ove’ the place, but found nu’ittn.”

“But there were cameras in here. Surely they saw something?”

Flaherty shook his head, “Naw, cameras crapped out for five seconds,” Flaherty held up as many fingers, “One minute painting the’, then some static, and boom! it’s gawn. Security gawds saw nu’ittn either.”

After exhausting what little information Flaherty knew, I thanked him and asked him to keep me apprised of the investigation. He promised he would and led me back outside.

I have to say, this isn’t what I expected. Either the Wicker Man was stolen by legendary art thieves—in which case, Boston’s finest may be a little outclassed—or there is something very strange going on. And all over a silly painting—I mean, yeah, it’s alright. I’ve seen it before. But it’s not exactly the Mona Lisa we’re talking about.

I spent the last week investigating. But as Flaherty said, there ain’t much. I talked with the museum management, the watchmen the night of the theft, and I spoke with half a dozen experts on the painting and on art thievery. I called Flaherty two times asking for updates. He had none, and was a little more terse each time.

I was going nowhere fast and I knew it. But just last night, after pouring over all my notes and photos for the hundredth time and pouring myself several drinks, I dozed off. It must have only been for a few minutes, but that’s all it took.

I had a dream—or it might have been a flashback. I saw that familiar, dusty corridor. It felt real though, too real to be a dream this time. I was carrying something. Something fragile, delicate. I walked to the end of the corridor and opened the door. That’s when my vision got blurry, but hovering before my eyes was the Wicker Man painting, as I had seen it five years ago.

When I woke up I knew what I had to do, I just didn’t want to do it.

The painting was at the address 341 Newcastle Street. The only problem was that a fear—a nameless, sourceless yet biting fear—told me not to go there.

But what could I do? I had to go and look.

Hunting the “Lanky Man”, part 2

Just got back from my second meeting with the “Lanky Man”. It was as weird as I was expecting.

Getting to McAffrey’s Place was as thrilling as usual. After riding the T as close as I could, I took a cab. The driver let me out by the dilapidated brick warehouse. The only remaining part of the old advertisement on the side of the warehouse was the single word “McAffrey”. Because of the late hours, the place was dotted with shadows and dark alleyways. It looked like a rat’s warren.

Walking fast, hands tucked in pockets, I rushed down the sidewalk, keeping my eyes alert for the sign for Wither’s bar. Once a thriving center of Boston’s sea trade, McAffrey’s Place had fallen into ruin over the 20th century. Rotting warehouses and the skeletons of once prosperous hotels now housed grimy nightclubs, bars, crack dens, illegal casinos, human traffickers, and who knew what else. The Boston mob had planted roots in McAffrey’s Place a decade ago and had been using it as a haven for their illicit activities.

A gang of three teenage guys emerged from an alley, crossed the street, and started following me down the sidewalk. With every step, they got a little closer. If they were going to mug me, they could’ve gone ahead and done it: no one who was watching would have cared. But they didn’t. They just stalked me for more than a block. When they had gotten close enough I was sure they would attack me, I saw the battered, old sign for Wither’s up ahead. I dashed inside. The boys didn’t follow me.

Inside the bar was pretty much what I expected. Dim lighting and blaring music. Groups of lonely souls huddled in booths or at the bar. TVs showed a baseball game in Fenway Park.

I felt terribly out of place. People watched me as I approached the bar. I put my hands on the bar and leaned on it uneasily.

The barman said over the music, “You look lost, pal.”

“I’m looking for someone—”

“Doubt any you’d know end up here,” he sneered, his ugly face wrinkling.

I sensed rather than heard someone walk up behind me. Fearing the worst, I spun around. The Lanky Man, in all his narrow height, stood behind me. He smiled pleasantly at me then looked at the bartender.

“This is the man I was expecting, Charlie. Be a good host and fix him whatever drink he wants.”

Barman Charlie’s face changed immediately when he saw the Lanky Man. He nodded his head and looked attentively at me. I was glad for the drink: I needed something to ease my nerves.

With my White Russian in hand, I followed the Lanky Man to a private backroom. We both sank into leather chairs. The room, while lit only by one incandescent bulb, was much nicer than the rest of the bar. And quieter too.

“Well, Raymond, you said you had questions for me. Here I am. Ask whatever you want, but I cannot guarantee an answer to everything—not yet.”

“What do you mean not yet? When will you answer me, if not now?”

The Lanky Man grinned and said nothing. I muttered swears to myself but tried not to let my mood show.

“Alright, how about I start?” he said. “I represent a private organization that is very, very interested in you.”

“What for? My writing?”

“No, Raymond, for you—the person of Raymond Madsen. You are much more than a journalist, shackled to the whims of editors and critics. You’ve begun a journey; one which you’ll need a guide. We want to be your guide, Raymond.”

“Ok, well ‘guide’ me this: what the hell was that box you gave me? It made me black out for a whole fucking week? This seems to me like some sick … prank, I guess.”

“If I were to explain to you everything concerning the chest, you would not understand. Suffice to say, you had a strong reaction: stronger than we thought. But everything is alright. That was your first tentative step. Now time for the next one. I have a job for you: one that will put your investigative skills to the test. You like a mystery don’t you, Raymond?”

“I suppose,” I grumbled as I swirled my drink. I felt like I was being jerked around, which I  was. But I had to learn everything about this guy and his organization.

“We want you to find the missing painting, the Wicker Man. I suppose you saw the news?”

I peered at the Lanky Man. Did he know I was connected to that? Not that I myself was sure, I just had a strong feeling I was. His face was completely unreadable, betraying none of the thoughts that moved behind it. It was the face of a marble statue.

“I did,” I said.

“Good. Find the painting. Once you have it, contact me and I will retrieve it. In return, I promise you more answers and more knowledge. Not just of the events that are moving like invisible gears around you, but of the inner workings of your own mind. You are a key, Raymond. This job is as much for your own benefit as ours.”

I downed the last my drink as I though it over, “How will I even begin investigating? I know nothing about the theft, except that it happened.”

“You’re a smart man, Raymond. Convince your editor to give you the story. Therefore, under the guise of writing an article about the theft, you can talk to the museum and the police. Get whatever details you can. Piece the mystery together. I believe you can do this.”

He made it sound doable. I wasn’t wholly convinced, but I felt I had no choice. He was offering me an opportunity to get closer to him and his organization. The art theft isn’t going to be the only thing I’ll investigate.

“What is this organization? Why are they interested in helping me—if that’s what they call fucking up my life?”

The Lanky Man smiled and said nothing. That habit of his was getting highly annoying.

“Alright, I’ll do it,” I said in frustration. I wanted to get back the safety of my home as quick as possible. And I was afraid to discover what would happen if I said no to the Lanky Man.

I continued, “But only because I’m in the mood for some field work. And this could actually turn into a nice story to add to my portfolio.”

When our meeting ended, the Lanky Man rose and escorted me personally out of McAffrey’s Place. No hooligan teens even showed their faces. If Bostoners were afraid of McAffrey’s, then McAffrey’s was afraid of my narrow-shouldered  mystery guide.

So, now back in my apartment, I’m gathering myself for the task ahead. I need to find a priceless painting that’s gone missing and which I believe I stole while sleepwalking.

This is going to be a really weird month.