is a curated collection of classic and original short fiction highlighting authors from yesterday and introducing the storytellers of tomorrow.

Plague Doctor

By Tom White & Miles Hubley
“Because you can be what you’re not for only so long…”
 — Tiger Face, Stephen Dunn
The assassin feared most in The City is called the Plague Doctor.

     He is called the Plague Doctor because he wears a plague doctor mask when he kills. He likes his designation. He likes it because it is precisely how he estimates himself: a doctor who is sent to cure a plague. That plague is sin. Sin has many faces.

     The City is a boiling surfeit of these many faces.

     He has never lost a night of sleep over his killing. And he kills frequently.

     The Plague Doctor is large in all respects. He has wide shoulders, meat-tenderizer hands, and feet like mountain rubble. Yet he kills with ballerina’s grace. In hand-to-hand combat, he moves lighter than air. His face, that is a more arcane matter…

     For the Plague Doctor has never seen his adult face. As a small child, abused ruthlessly by his Father, he was regaled most frequently of his hideousness. He made a pact with himself to never again behold a mirror. He has kept that pact. All day long he wears his mask. He only takes it off to sleep. When he wakes, the first thing he does is put his mask back on.

     The mask is his face.

     All he knows of his adult countenance is the obsidian-blackness of his eyes.

     The Plague Doctor has no friends, and, since killing his father during bloom, he has not the existence of kin either. So far, the Plague Doctor likes it this way. The only person he knows is the Entity who writes the Notes that come down the Dumbwaiter into his spartan basement dwelling. The handwriting on the Notes is something he likes to consider. It is terse. It is elegant. 
He likes to pretend that it belongs to the manicured fingers of a tall, inimitable Female. Perhaps her skin is cold to the touch. Perhaps she wears red lip stick. Perhaps she dabs her lips on snow- white napkins. On occasion he has had vivid fantasies about her. But suppresses them.

     According to his Book of Terms, Fantasy is defined as, A Deviation of Pure Certainty. 

     He must not deviate.

     His life is about killing. Killing is about Certainty. He must be monastic in his Certainty.

     Every morning, the gears of the Dumbwaiter make their slow grinding music and descend from Above. The Plague Doctor’s body relaxes. He likes this sound. From inside the wall, the Note makes its slow pilgrimage to his basement dwelling. He opens the hatch. The Note, always tucked into an elegant, gold-flecked envelope, begins:

   ATTN: Plague Doctor.

It gives a name, a crime, a location, and the Note-Writer’s suggested method of death. The Plague Doctor prefers methods that are most gruesome. His ethic, if you are comfortable calling it that, is that plagues deserve proportional cures. In a trap door beneath his bed is a formidable cache. The Plague Doctor has many ways of killing.

    But today, something in stark defiance of routine will happen.

    As directed, the taking of a life will indeed transpire, but so too will the saving of one.

* * * 

The Plague Doctor has just awoken from a dream.

     It is a reoccurring one. About his mother. Who, despite her sick addictions, had a heart worth repeating. In the dream he is an infant in her arms. She is gazing down at him. She is singing. A small hole begins to form on her forehead. Before long it is clear that the hole is a bullet wound. The hole expands. The gore spreads. Blood begins to stream down into her eyes. But she never stops singing. Nor smiling. There is both everything and nothing wrong.
     The Dumbwaiter’s gears engage.

     The Plague Doctor sits up. He takes his mask from the small side table and fastens it to his face. He makes breakfast. It is prosaic. He does sit-ups, pull-ups, push-ups. He likes to start his morning before opening the Note. The Note is his reward.

     There is a game of chess in progress in the corner. He is playing as black. He glides rook to E4. Finally, he moves to the Dumbwaiter. He moves indulgently, perhaps.

    He opens the hatch. The envelope. The Note.

    ATTN: Plague Doctor 

    Target: The Three-Eyed Man
    Crime(s): Extravagant Thought 
    Location: Elixir
    Method: Pfeifer-Zeliska .600 caliber

    (Addendum: must shoot directly into 3rd Eye in order to sever reincarnation loop)

     The Plague Doctor turns the note over. On the back:

     Bishop to F3

     He walks to his chessboard, makes the lateral move for white. He considers it a moment. It was a prescient maneuver. The Note-Writer must have anticipated his rook. Again, he suppresses vivid, entangled fantasies of the NoteWriter. He drinks a glass of something like milk.

     He lifts his bed.

     Inside the cache, he finds the Pfeifer. It is a large gun. Made for giants, perhaps. It is like a sawed-off shotgun in the shape of a revolver. It goes into his worn tweed trench coat.

     On the other side of his basement dwelling, there is another trap door. This trap door is also his front door. It descends into a subterranean network of tunnels. These tunnels are how the Plague Doctor comes and goes. And now he goes.
     He has trained himself to navigate them blindfolded. He proves that now. His large feet splash in manifold shallow puddles. Perhaps a mile later, he arrives at a ladder, which he climbs to a sewer lid. The sewer lid opens without resistance. He emerges into…

     The Upper World of The City.

     It is always raining in the Upper World of The City.

     The City’s buildings are all scarred limestone. Their spires disappear into a thick brown canopy of cloud that sits permanently above them. Like the lid of a jar, perhaps.

     The Plague Doctor has often imagined The City as a jar; and that it sits on a shelf with countless other jars — that some Entity collects these jars, and shakes the jars randomly.

     Now there is a crack of lightening in his head, a dazzling flood of pain. This pain happens too frequently now. His thoughts, he knows, have become too Extravagant.

     The Note-Writer has warned him of this. The Note-Writer controls the levers of pain. 

     He must think in simple terms. Killers do not Contemplate. He must not Contemplate.

*  *  *

The Plague Doctor lopes in shadow through the permanent drizzle of The City.

     The City’s Denizens do not look at one another. They are simple machines moving through gloom. An hour later, perhaps, he stands before it — the Elixir. A squat building set between two larger ones. Something about it is incorrect. It is an aberration, perhaps. Its facade is neon. It is the brightest thing the Plague Doctor has heretofore seen.

     Inside is what the Note-Writer calls, a Den of Vice. According to his Book of Terms, a Den is defined as, An Aberrant Dimension, and Vice as, The Violation of Pure Certainty. The Elixir is an Aberrant Dimension in which Pure Certainty is Violated.

     The entrance is guarded by men as large as the Plague Doctor himself. However, most critically, they are not simple doormen. No. They are, there is a word…
     Believers, perhaps. But Believers of what? Pain seers through his mind again.

     The Plague Doctor waits for the pain to pass. As it does, it erases all stray ribbons of Flawed Thought. Finally, he approaches the doormen. They are contrary to simple Denizens also. They meet your eyes directly. Already, he knows they are wrong.

     What is your business at the Elixir?
     I am here to see the Three-Eyed Man.

     The Plague Doctor’s voice is a gravel driveway.

     No one sees the Three-Eyed Man. You are mistaken.
     In what way are we mistaken? 
     I see the Three-Eyed Man.

     With his discordant grace, the Plague Doctor slings from his trench coat the large revolver and uses it promptly. He makes two bullet wounds in the doorman’s broad chests. They are dead quickly. Before they even touch the ground, perhaps.

    The Plague Doctor enters the Elixir.

*  *  *

As the Note-Writer predicted, everywhere is found the Violation of Pure Certainty.

     There are people altering their minds. There are people in profane entanglements. There is music pounding; it consists of a rhythm that plays your bones. There are people wearing opaque glasses; they are interacting with entities not there. A quality to it all, ancient and modern, pressed together. The Plague Doctor senses a word stalking the edge of his mind. It is a word he wants to think, and then say aloud, perhaps.

     Rightly, he stops himself.

     He raises the large revolver and fires into the ceiling. There is no surprise at how many screams he hears. Everything that is alive in the room scatters. More men like that of the now-extinct doormen approach. The Plague Doctor puts large holes in their chests as well. One bullet finds his shoulder. He will extract it with blank affect later.
     He kills his way calmly up a spiral staircase; to what is an attic, perhaps. The Plague Doctor is not accustomed to interior ascension. What he finds there he would find interesting, were he not afraid of the pain that is the twin of Extravagant Thought.

     What he finds there is not surprising; yet, in other ways, surprising. This:

     The Three-Eyed Man. The Three-Eyed Man holding a Three-Eyed Woman. The Three- Eyed Woman clutching a Three-Eyed Child. All three are terrified. The Plague Doctor likes their terror. The Note-Writer does as well. The Plague Doctor likes that she knows that he likes it.

     The Third-Eyes are Jewels. It is unclear if the Jewels are real or installed.

     The walls of the attic of the Elixir are papered in unnatural images. Of unnatural worlds. 

     Like a conspiracy, perhaps.

     If the Plague Doctor knelt to Extravagant Thought, he might say:

     Deep blue expanses crashing against long white strips of grain. Naked Males and Females reclined, frozen in epitomes of leisure, joy. Large, cone-shaped rocks staggered infinitely with white hats at their acmes. Light blue skies. Wild birds made of metal catching reflected orange light as they soar. Images of infinite blackness pock-marked with small diamonds. Spherical explosions of technicolored gas.

     The Plague Doctor pauses. For a moment, hypnotized. And then he isn’t. 

     The Three-Eyed Man begs:

     Take me if you must, but please, spare my family.

     The Plague Doctor opens his forehead with the revolver. He then opens the forehead of the Mother with the revolver. The Infant crashes to ground. It cries hysterically.
     He presses the scolding barrel to the Infant’s emerald eye.

     But its cries cause the Plague Doctor to pause again. For an improper increment of time, he stands over the small wailing machine. A chord, suddenly, is struck behind his ribs. Or, better stated, something stirs inside him — perhaps.

     What stirs is powerful.

     What stirs is not defined in his Book of Terms.

     A dilemma, then, presents itself to the Plague Doctor: If he allows the stir to continue stirring, the Note-Writer will cripple him with requisite pain. Conversely, if he denies it, he suspects that he is, ironically, violating some deeper, truer Pure Certainty.

     The moment of inner conflict steps out of time. Eternity, or something like it, elapses.

     The Plague Doctor then commits an act he cannot recall ever committing. It is this: he bisects thought and action. With one half of himself, loyal to the Note-Writer, he thinks loathsome things of a wailing byproduct of Three-Eyed Vice, and with the other half, he lifts a soft, Fragile Creature and conceals it in the sanctum folds of his large tweed trench coat.

*  *  *

The Plague Doctor retraces his path through the wet shadows of the Upper World of The City.

     He travels back down into the Basement World beneath the Upper World of The City. He closes his eyes and works the maze by memory, his large feet smacking the shallow puddles; the Fragile Creature whimpering in the lining of his large tweed trench coat.

     And still, he remains split in two.

     Back in his basement dwelling, the split becomes more treacherous to maintain. He senses the halves wanting a return to wholeness. But the Plague Doctor discovers a trick: if he pretends that the Fragile Creature is a weapon, perhaps, he is able to care for it without tempting Extravagant Thought. He makes a nest of blankets in the cache beneath his bed, and places the Fragile Creature amongst the many tools for killing.
     The Plague Doctor relinquishes his clothes. His naked body is astounding. He is a man of marble. His marble flesh is streaked everywhere with runnels of blood. He extracts the bullet from his shoulder, blankly. He cleans himself. He removes the plague doctor mask from his face in darkness. He places the plague doctor mask on his bedside table.

     He lies down.

He dreams of his mother. The soft lullaby and the eyes pooling with gore.

*  *  *

The Dumbwaiter’s gears engage.
     It is morning.

     He does not like the Dumbwaiter’s soft music this morning.
     He registers a new sensation: a flicker, perhaps, of Authentic Fear. The Dumbwaiter makes its whirring downward pilgrimage. It stops at his basement dwelling harshly. As if an articulation of reprimand. He straps the plague doctor mask to his face once more and moves toward the Dumbwaiter, but stops himself —

     He has forgotten the chess match. He examines the board for a sinfully short increment of time. Quickly, castle to L9. Then, the hatch, the envelope, the Note.

     The Note-Writer writes:

     ATTN: Plague Doctor

     Target: The Three-Eyed Child 
     Crime(s): Birth
     Location: Your Basement Dwelling Method: Hunting Knife.

     (Addendum: Stab Directly into Third-Eye, Reincarnation Loop Must Be Severed) 
     (Addendum 2: Our Disappointment in You is Boundless)
     He turns over the Note:

     Queen to G8. Checkmate.

     The Plague Doctor returns to the board. The Plague Doctor makes the Note-Writer’s move for white. The Note-Writer is correct. The match has ended.

     The Plague Doctor tips over his king. Before the Plague Doctor understands what he is doing, what he is doing is crushing the king into a fine powder in his mighty hand.

     And for the second time in one Sleep-Wake Cycle, he commits an act he cannot recall ever committing. The Plague Doctor sends the Note back.

     But first, he writes a single word on it. The Plague Doctor writes:


     And even as he writes it, he already knows that he is ending his life. But that stirring has built momentum inside him. He would… Prefer, he suspects the word is, to die than to receive another Note from the Entity who is the Note-Writer.

     Before he has even finished drawing the question mark, the lightening storm inside his head is waging its hemispheric war. It is as if an unquantifiable number of knives are all at once cutting the wet matter of his mind into smaller and smaller ribbons…

     The Plague Doctor completes the grammatical mark regardless. He registers a suspicion. The suspicion is molecular at first, but expands. As it does, the pain becomes luminescent. The suspicion is that on the other side of this pain is a more Extravagant version of himself, a Self that references a different Book of Terms. Both of these things, and more, exist in an infinite landscape on the other side of pain.

     He sends the Note up. The Dumbwaiter recedes.

     The Plague Doctor examines the Fragile Creature as he waits. It looks up at him. The Fragile Creature does something that the Plague Doctor has never seen.
     It smiles.

     The light from his basement dwelling’s single bulb articulates itself photonically in the emerald Third-Eye of the Fragile Creature. The stirring inside him stirs even more conspicuously. The Plague Doctor does not know how to smile. So he does not smile. But perhaps behind his mask something occurs that is oddly equivalent.

     The Dumbwaiter’s gears engage.

     He turns. He grits his massive jaw; though the plague doctor mask belies this. 

     The hatch. The envelope. The Note is a new Note.

     The Note-Writer writes:

     ATTN: Plague Doctor

     Now, beneath the directive to kill the Three-Eyed Child, is yet another directive:

     Target: The Plague Doctor 
     Crime(s): Extended Disobedience 
     Location: Basement Dwelling 
     Method: Self-Administered Hanging.

     There is no Addendum this time. The Plague Doctor turns over the Note:

     Collect the pieces and arrange them for your replacement.

     The Plague Doctor walks to one of the four corners of his squared basement dwelling. He removes his plague doctor mask and presses his broad, naked face into it. The back of his bald head is gruesome and immense. It is scrawled with looping, knotty veins; it is scrawled with scars that suggest imaginative cruelty. He takes a deep, approximately human breath.

     The Plague Doctor returns the plague doctor mask to his face and then slams his forehead against the wall. He slams it against the wall again. And then again.
     The pain of Extravagant Thought is now counterbalanced.

     The Plague Doctor turns back around. There is a zig-zag crack running diagonally across the plague doctor mask. There is a thick rivulet of blood issuing from a gash on his forehead that intersects with the crack on the plague doctor mask.

     He is a creature from a nightmare, perhaps.

     The Plague Doctor returns to the cache where the Fragile Creature lies. The Plague Doctor considers a fact that he enjoys while considering it. The fact: he had already made his decision regarding his predicament even before the Note-Writer’s response.

     There is a feeling attached to the fact:

     Enjoyment is perhaps too timid a word. Better might be, Pleasure.

     He leans over the Fragile Creature. The Fragile Creature stares up into his cracked, bloodied, beaked mask. The Fragile Creature does not seem to find him horrid.

     The Plague Doctor lifts the Fragile Creature gently, and returns it to the inner sanctum of his large tweed trench coat. He pulls from the cache a tenfold grenade belt. He then places that grenade belt onto the tray of the Dumbwaiter.

     All the while, the unjust pain of Extravagant Thought competes unsuccessfully with the liberative pain of his self-mutilated skull. He sticks all ten of his thick ten fingers through all ten pins of the ten grenades. He pulls all ten at once.

     He has the following Extravagant Thought, Why is Cruelty so often well-organized?

     He begins a countdown from ten… 
     Nine. He shuts the hatch.

     Eight. He presses the Up Button.

     Seven. The Dumbwaiter rises with ten live grenades.
     Six. He picks up his revolver and rests it against his shoulder. 

     Five. He looks around his basement dwelling.

     Four. He disappears into the subterranean maze.

     Three. He coos into the sanctum of his large tweed trench coat.

     Two. The Fragile Creature eats the coo and promptly closes its three eyes. 

     One. The Plague Doctor turns back one last time, considers things…

     He closes his eyes and lopes through the tunnels as everything he has ever known explodes into atoms. A wet world shakes. The tunnels collapse in domino fashion. The Plague Doctor is large, but he is agile, and stays one stride ahead of the alliterative demolition.

     The pain of Extravagant Thought suddenly vanishes. As he moves, he feels unlimited. An infinite landscape expands before him. But there are so many others to un-limit.

      So many other Note-Writers to erase.

     The Plague Doctor arrives at the ladder which ascends to the sewer lid which opens to the Upper World of The City. The Fragile Creature purrs in one side of his large tweed trench coat, the Pfeifer-Zeliska .600 caliber purrs in the other…

     The Plague Doctor emerges as his Burgeoning Self into the Upper World of The City.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Originally from Boulder, Colorado, White/Hubley have been creative partners since second grade. After several years working in film editing, culminating with the Academy Award winning documentary, “The Cove,” they transitioned to screenwriting in their late 20s. Their projects have sold and been set up at Mandalay Pictures, Focus Features, AGC, Cinetic, and Gaumont, among others. They are represented by WME and Writ Large.

The Big Trip Up Yonder

The Big Trip Up Yonder

By Kurt Vonnegut, Jr

Let’s Get Together

Let’s Get Together

By Isaac Asimov

You May Also Like

Escape into groundbreaking short fiction every Friday with us.