Mulholland Books Popcorn Fiction Popcorn Fiction - The Demon Forge by Mark Wheaton
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A professional forger is hired to find a needle in a forgery haystack in this smart story from screenwriter Mark Wheaton.

The Demon Forge

"Feel free to inspect each one, but I assure you they're your work."

The sixteen paintings hung in a semi-circle around the alcove's curved wall illuminated by small overhead lamps. Trying to shake off my surprise, I took stock.

The high-dollar pieces were a Picasso, two Courbets, an obscure but recognizable Van Gogh, and a Turner landscape. The lesser, yet still expensive others included a seventeenth century wooded scene by Wang Yuanqi, a kacho painting from Watanabe Seitei, a fourteenth century triptych by Bernardo Daddi, a Debret, an Andrea del Sarto, an extremely rare eighteenth century Sim Sajeong from Korea, a Marrel featuring mating insects, a late Millet landscape, and three 13th century monochromatic works from Muqi Fachang.

The man with thinning hair who had introduced himself as "Mr. Kiyokata" was correct. I had painted each one.

A day ago, I'd been working a simple documents job in Houston. "Simple" because it involved forging 800 documents to be "found" during the discovery phase of a trial. A trial at which I was to be the expert witness proving their veracity. I pitied the associates who spent months combing through files in a sweltering corporate documents warehouse to find what I'd fabricated only weeks before, but they had their job and I mine.

My second day on the stand, I noticed a well-dressed Asian man in the gallery. The trial had garnered its share of attention in the financial trades but was sparsely attended. By his attentiveness to my testimony, I took him for a prospective client.

"Mr. Pinder?"

I had just been excused by the bench after a day of cross-examination when he approached me outside the courtroom, hand extended.

"At your serv…."

The Taser was concealed in his palm. I saw only the tiniest spark as 50,000 volts entered my body and corrupted my plane of vision. He had three compatriots who were at my side before I hit the ground.

"You okay, buddy?"

"Just breathe."

"He's okay, folks. Food allergies. We'll get him to his car."

I was just recovering my faculties enough to protest when a needle pierced my neck and I blacked out.

I awoke in the first class section of a commercial airliner. I was tucked into a sleeping pod and everyone around me was asleep. As I groggily sat up to raise the alarm, a man to my right discreetly injected me a second time.

I next awoke in Japan. From a speeding car window, I recognized the long depopulated stretch between Narita Airport and the sprawl of Tokyo. Work had taken me here once before, but that was years ago. I couldn't imagine this was related.

This time, my minders allowed me to remain awake. I was wearing a new, perfectly-tailored suit and shoes and tasted vodka. I wondered if the outfit and a few derogatory comments about Americans unable to hold their drink was all it took to get me through Customs.

We reached the city as the last rush hour commuters hurried to catch morning trains. Snaking around the odd delivery truck, we followed mostly empty streets to a non-descript office high-rise in Shibuya.

Leaving the car in an underground garage, we rode a glass elevator that afforded a widescreen view of the skyline up through the building. The higher we rose, the more expansive the city appeared to become.

We arrived at one of the highest floors and I was escorted through a residential apartment that took up the entire level. There was little in the way of furniture but a great deal of art, mostly antiquities from Japan's feudal past but also rare pieces from nearby China.

At the end of the tour was the alcove of my paintings and Kiyokata.

After a moment spent recovering my wits, I inspected the older paintings first for signs of degradation. Each had required a different aging process, one that could withstand the visual scrutiny of a multitude of experts but also intensive scientific testing. I'd once been commissioned to fabricate a replica of a painting that incorporated a pigment derived from a plant now extinct. I solved this by cultivating my own strains from similar and contemporary varietals of the same genus. Compared on a genetic level, the differences would be minute to negligible.

"After all that's happened, the artist still cannot help but admire his own work."

"If you wanted to kill me, you could've done it in Houston," I replied. "Though the sales were kept quiet, I'd heard these pieces had changed hands."

"And you suspected nothing?"

"Why assume someone knowingly paid millions for fakes?"

If I thought a blasé attitude would confound my host, I was mistaken. He merely smiled and indicated the trio of Fachangs.

"I have long studied the work of Wujun Shifan and his disciples but particularly that of the Monk of Sichuan. When these surfaced, I knew they must be forgeries. But the scientists did their tests and were convinced of their authenticity allowing their sale to set a record for works of this period."

"But you knew otherwise."

"Beyond a shadow of a doubt. I believe in what is in my heart. But I also knew I had to meet the perpetrator of such a fraud. You made a small fortune on the sale of these pieces?"

I had.

"Many of these sales were tinged with what I judged to be relief on the part of their former owners, so I doubt I'm the first to question their authenticity. Someone was eventually going to knock on your door."

I knew this as well.

"Why am I here?"

"I wish to contract your services. Your usual fee and a bonus but as I want your undivided attention, I wanted to offer you these paintings as part of the arrangement."

I had anticipated blackmail, so I tried to cloak my enthusiasm for such a proposition. Of course, a normal man might take this opportunity to destroy them. But I was already tabulating their current market value. An astronomical sum.

"What's the job?"

By way of response, Kiyokata summoned the minders. We were escorted out of the alcove, back to the elevators, and brought to the roof where a helicopter waited.

"It'll be a short ride," Kiyokata grinned.

Once aloft, we flew east over the city. It was mid-morning but Tokyo Tower was still lit up, a stalagmite of orange flame against the gray. We passed the waterfront and I glimpsed the Rainbow Bridge where it connected with the manmade island of Odaiba. Its sprawling entertainment-plexes, a garish World's Fair of a crass and dystopian future, continued to spill the previous night's revelers.

We turned north at the Arakawa River.

The city eventually gave way to suburbs, rocky scrubland, and isolated factory towns. We slowed as we neared a chemical plant, soon landing in its parking lot. The signage was in kanji except for a logo that read Ajibana.

Exiting the helicopter, I was led past a pair of cooling towers to an administrative building. The plant was completely lit up, but I saw no workers. We entered the building, dead silent save the insect-like thrum of fluorescent lights.

Upon reaching a stairwell, Kiyokata indicated for the minders to stay behind.

"What you are about to see has taken my family four generations to assemble," he explained as we headed down. "It's a legacy that has survived war, political, economic, and environmental disaster, and my own father's descent into madness."

We reached a watertight door and Kiyokata typed a code into a keypad. A magnetic lock released and the door swung open on a wave of pressurized air. The room beyond was brightly-lit with long work tables, high-definition displays that took up half the wall space, and powerful ventilation equipment. I recognized its design at once.

"A cleanroom?"

Kiyokata nodded. Hundreds of drawers were built into the walls. Kiyokata pulled one out revealing stacks of flat translucent boxes inside. He plucked one out and offered it to me. Within the box was a single piece of parchment, like an insect under glass. Two vertical lines of Chinese writing stretched down the page alongside a rendering of a small, gear-like object. I eyed it for a moment before handing it back.

"Definitely Chinese, looks like late Yuan dynasty. Paper made in the traditional fashion, pulped elm mixed with bamboo hemp. Ink, also made in the traditional fashion, pine resin cooked into lampblack. The writing comes from a skilled hand, probably the work of a monk. Likely authentic, but I'd want to test it."

"It is authentic. Created at the Beiyue Temple in 1344 most likely by the temple master at the time, Jing Dao. Discovered in a Florentine vault at the beginning of the nineteenth century by Baron von Ungarn, an Austrian. He accumulated 121 of the documents we now have here and had begun work on a device when he died. He couldn't have known that all of his pages were forgeries."

"You said it was authentic."

"The document itself is not a reproduction. It is the information on the page that is the fabrication."

I took a second look at the page. My Classical Chinese was perfunctory at best.

"You need a linguist, not a forger. I don't recognize more than a couple of these characters."

"Precisely why I brought you here," Kiyokata enthused. "My father thought the answer lay in the interpretation of individual characters, their phonetic complexes and ideographs. This is what drove him mad. But a man who sees only the hand of the forger may succeed where others have not."

"What am I even looking at?"

Kiyokata smiled.

"Blueprints, Mr. Pinder. Blueprints for a device so diabolical that monks would spend two centuries creating thousands of false copies to prevent anyone from building it again. This cache is the most complete ever assembled, 30,000 documents in all. They knew those in the future would come looking."

"What is this device?"

"The demon forge, Mr. Pinder. The holder of which becomes master of this world and the next."

I was shown to my quarters two hours later, a small building on the grounds that had once housed the plant superintendent and his family. Once alone, I sank onto the bed relieved to find my sanity intact.

The story I had just heard was one of the most seductively mad I'd ever encountered. Though he had kidnapped me, I'd worked for unorthodox employers before and hadn't been prepared to hold it against him. Now, I realized he was completely insane.

"Though my great-grandfather was the first to begin collecting these documents, our family's first encounter with them came during the seventeenth century," Kiyokata had explained. "We were Chinese then, Kiu, a lower-class name. An ancestor learned of the demon forge from a traveler and immediately believed he'd seen the fabled blueprints in the vault of a temple he'd been to as a boy. He waited until a night of no moon, stole the pages, and fled, leaving his family behind. He could not have known that his prize was meant to be stolen. The traveler, likely a monk, had recognized in my ancestor a naïve and easily corruptible soul.

"Whatever the case, my ancestor sold the pages for a small fortune and bought a boat. This became a fleet and, generations later, the basis of a shipping empire. War brought the family to Japan and our fortunes only increased. Kiu became Kiyokata, which means 'purity of form.' We are now one of the wealthiest clans in the country. All from a whispered lie."

"So what was the demon forge?"

"In the thirteenth century, one of Emperor Kublai Khan's court magicians decided to surprise him with a gift. In Chinese mythology, the deities control demons or yaoguai that would do their bidding on Earth. As the Khan was considered a god by many, the magician decided that he should have the same abilities and set out to create a forge imbued with magic capable of spawning demons. It was no easy undertaking, but the machine was finally presented on the Khan's fiftieth birthday. To the surprise of many, the device worked. The Khan conjured demons up out of Diyu and entertained the court by having them do his bidding. Even Marco Polo wrote of seeing this magic.

"But following the Khan's death, the forge went missing. It is believed to have been destroyed by those who feared its power, but the blueprints were to have escaped intact. Knowing that man's thirst for this knowledge would be insatiable, to protect the true blueprint, the monks of the temple began creating thousands upon thousands of fabricated versions of the blueprints to be distributed across the kingdom, each imbued with undetectable imperfections. If offered freely, they knew no one would fall for the hoax. But if locked up in the temples, they knew it would be a matter of time before thieves came after them."

Kiyokata's smile was almost wistful. "Their plan betrays an elegant understanding of human nature, no?"

Back in my room, I considered all I had heard. Unlike Kiyokata, I thought the monks' plan only provided an illustration of the lengths alleged holy men would go to have power over the masses. Everything we say exists, exists; the proof resides with us alone. This sort of thing had taken hold in Europe, aided by illiteracy. Only the ruling elite and the clergy could read and interpret the Bible to commoners leading to the worst abuses and subjugation. The fanatical perpetuation of a "demon forge" by these monks felt like much the same thing.

Kiyokata was the desired result, the religious hysteric who took their word at face value. The monks' mythmaking had taken up residence in the minds of his family members like a genetic abnormality. Somewhere in their past was proof that there was more to life than what was and what we could see and each generation would die trying to find it.

If I could prove otherwise, I imagined I would be doing them and perhaps thousands other infected with this knowledge a great service.

The next morning, I laid out my parameters for taking the job. I was not to be interrupted or asked for progress reports, my budget would be bottomless, my deadline would be when I thought the job done, and my fee would be locked in whatever the result. When this was deemed acceptable, I followed up with a list of supplies and equipment. These arrived within a day.

A chef was hired to provide my meals. I had my bed moved to the cleanroom. Soon, I was ready.

Calligraphy brushes in ancient China had animal hair tips tied to bamboo handles. Black ink was made by burning pine resin into a sooty substance known to westerners as lampblack. Colored pigments came from grinding dried plants or rocks into dust and adding them to a gelatinous base that hardened into clay. To paint with them, these pigments were mixed together with ink and water until the desired consistency and color had been created. This was brushed onto a paper or silk surface.

In trying to affix a date-of-origin to this material, several problems arise.

First, this basic process went unchanged for centuries so a painting from the twelfth century shared many characteristics with one of the eighteenth. Ink and pigments were kept dry until use, so a single batch could be used sparingly for years. Paper was the same.

The solution was in genetic testing. If this was any other job, the budget required to test 30,000 documents would make it unworkable. But with Kiyokata's deep pockets, I commissioned a team in Stockholm that had done several jobs on the cheap for me over the years. A full-freight contract like this would ingratiate myself to them for years to come.

The other lead, the one I'd be chasing furthest down the rabbit hole, was in identifying the bimo and zhongfeng on each page, the fingerprints of Chinese painting. I didn't need to know the name of an individual calligrapher, just which pages to ascribe to them. To do this, one identifies a distinctive character style or style of brushstroke (bimo) and matches it with the way the brush holder held the brush ( zhongfeng). As with western handwriting, a calligrapher's bimo was identifiably distinctive. Similarly, though calligraphers were trained to hold their brushes perpendicular to the page, no two zhongfeng were identical either when viewed under the microscope.

Though identifying the bimo and zhongfeng to group the 30,000 documents according to their calligraphers would take even an army of researchers months, I knew this was the key to solving the mystery.

I worked around the clock, often seventeen or eighteen hours a day. I'd sleep three or four hours and immediately return to work. To keep my mind fresh, I jogged around the compound. When this took me away from the work for too long, I implemented a training regimen I could do next to my workstation. I imagined it was the kind of confined-space routine you'd develop in prison or aboard a submarine.

The first time I matched the bimo and zhongfeng on one page to another, I almost lost my mind to the excitement. I redoubled my efforts and more matches turned up. I was becoming as obsessed as Kiyokata and his forbearers.

Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months. The seasons changed and changed again.

Almost a year to the day I was brought to Japan, I had finally identified the creators of all 30,000 documents by their bimo and zhongfeng, just over 700 individual calligraphers in all. My Stockholm team had identified genetic strains within individual pigments that were used by more than one of these calligraphers. This allowed me to group calligraphers by their temple. I used the genetic traces of pine resin to confirm or disprove these assertions and mapped the groupings regionally, tying them to known temples.

The age of the paper was near-impossible to determine down to the decade, so I had focused on the dissolve rate of the ink compared across the several thousand documents. Graphing the results across the entire sample, I soon had an estimated creation date for each document.

As the end neared, one document class stood apart. Originally a slush pile of unidentified remainders, it contained pages with pigments that didn't overlap with any at the known temples. It wasn't until I looked closer that I discovered their bimo and zhongfeng suggested the work of a single calligrapher.

Early on, I'd considered there might be no "subject zero," all the documents identifiably originating from the temples. Locating an alpha document, one that was older, that's genetic breakdown was unlike any others, turned my zeal into a fever.

Finally, there it was: seventy pages from the same hand, on the same paper, created at the same time. On a hunch, I had even dispatched a researcher to the Great Khan's former capital city Dadu, now Beijing, to compare samples of the ancient pine resin to living trees. When genetic testing proved a handful were tangential descendants, I had my magician.

I waited a week before summoning Kiyokata. I had not contacted him once in the past year. He reached the plant within hours.

"Tell me," he said.

"The demon forge is not a device," I began, projecting images of the magician's pages on the wall. "In fact, it's an elaborate horoscope created for the Khan that looks decades into the future linking demons of specific personality and power to dates. For instance, there's a demon named Chi You who is a bringer of war. 'Conjuring' it meant the Khan would know victory in battle."

I pulled up three pages featuring the horned Chi You in battle dress.

"Chi You was predicted to appear on dates in 1274 and 1281. The Khan waited for those dates to launch his two invasions of Japan. He was set to appear on a date in 1287 that coincides with the Khan's second invasion of Vietnam."

I projected more images of demons and explained how the position of celestial bodies and influencing planets were included so no one would mistake the dates. I was prepared to discuss all seventy pages, but then I saw the mortified look on Kiyokata's face, his mouth open in disbelief. I fell silent. I'd never seen a man lose his faith before.

Slowly, Kiyokata lowered himself into a chair.

"But what of the diagrams indicating a machine?"

"Exclusive to the monks' fabrications. A brilliant misdirect."

Kiyokata laced his fingers through his thinning hair.

"Of my many fears, this was the greatest, the most unimaginable," he said.

I nodded.

"The original blueprint must have been destroyed," he sighed. "Maybe during the Cultural Revolution when so much was thrown onto the fires or, more likely, at the time of the Khan's death like the device itself. But seeing what you've accomplished gives me a new thought. What if this 'horoscope' was intended as the original fabrication but one so distanced from the actual forge that the monks realized it would fool no one? They then decided their work should be much closer to the original. You believe the science tells us to look at one thing, but I'm beginning to think it's telling us to reconsider the work of the monks."

He talked fast. I watched as something he conceived as a possibility moved quickly to probability and, seconds later, to fact.

"There must be things in the temple-created blueprints that are true and constant across the documents. It becomes about points of comparison. One thing is real, one the fabrication. We isolate the real and that is the forge."

"To what end?" I asked, knowing the variables of what he described were almost infinite.

"The ability to control one's destiny," he barked hoarsely. "What else is there? He who holds mastery over the demons can alter his own path and that of others. They may shape the world as a god upon the Earth like Kublai Khan did."

I didn't tell him that both times the Great Khan invading Japan, his fleets were destroyed and his men defeated. I didn't tell him that his invasion of Vietnam ended in failure, too. How he would rationalize that away was of no interest to me.

I dutifully encouraged Kiyokata in his endeavor but told him that the work of the scientist was done and a historian was now required. He agreed, said that the paintings were mine, and that I would receive a substantial bonus. I thanked him and rode his helicopter back to Tokyo alone.

I had held back a single piece of information, one I still puzzled over. A single date in February of 1294 indicated the conjuring of twin demons Hei Bai Wu Chan who led the newly dead to the Underworld. How was it, four decades prior to the event, that the court magician had accurately predicted the date of Kublai Khan's death?

The obvious answer was that the astrological chart was on its own a fabrication created after the death of the Great for a reason too obscure to divine, but that would mean the basis of my every scientific result was flawed despite having been proven correct a thousand times over when dating the other pages. But if not that, could it be he had correctly guessed the date of the Khan's passing from over 10,000 possibilities?

The third possibility was too shocking to consider. Actual foreknowledge.

Rather than return to the States, I checked into a hotel in Shinjuku to puzzle over this. I realized quickly that this wasn't the end of the search but the beginning. Through my own more scurrilous contacts, I located thirty pages missing from Kiyokata's collection in a private library in Jakarta.

As I boarded a plane for Indonesia, I marveled at Kiyokata's words. To control one's destiny. What else is there?

What else indeed.

About the Author

Mark Wheaton would like to use this space to thank the feral cat that recently chased the skunks out from under his house over successive nights of violence as he had been praying the Universe would take care of it in some way that didn't impede his writing time.