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"’Thou art a creature of the magicians. Return to thy dust’.”
(TALMUD: Sanhedrin, 65b)
“Writing long books is a laborious and impoverishing act of foolishness …
a better procedure is to pretend that those books already exist …”
(Jorge Luis Borges)
“Your assistant is remarkable, Mr. Ashe,” the customer commented before he paid for his books and left. “He knows where everything is. He never hesitates and can locate anything in the store, no matter how obscure.”
He regarded me over the top of his eyeglasses before continuing.
“Just a few moments ago, the young man located a 1904 first edition of Runeberg’s Krist och Judas from deep in your stacks, as well as Pierre Menard’s masterful translation of Don Quixote. You’re fortunate. It’s so hard to get good help these days.”
To call Menard’s Quixote a mere ‘translation’ was, of course, blasphemous, still, the man was right in at least one regard. I had gone through numerous assistants over the past few years and Gus was easily the best. I owned a large antiquarian bookstore specializing in metaphysics and, well. the esoteric, and thus couldn’t offer much by way of pay or benefits. Frankly, I made just enough to keep body and soul together by catering to a small but devoted clientele. By no stretch of the imagination, however, could I compete with the large chain stores such as Barnes and Noble or the Internet behemoths like Amazon … that abomination!
But then, the people who frequented my shop weren’t likely to find what they were looking for in those places in any case. To be sure, anyone who went to work for me had to be willing to do so for far less than what they most certainly would have been offered somewhere, anywhere, else. Not only was Gus good at what he did, he did it for next to nothing. You might even say that he was heaven-sent.
Gus had what could only be described as an eidetic memory as to the placement of every volume in the shop, and that was something considering that I had books stacked upon books and crammed in every nook and cranny of the two creaking floors that make up my aging establishment. Just last week, for example, a South American collector dropped by looking for an early edition of Marcelo Yarmolinsky’s History of the Hasidim. I knew I had a copy of that learned rabbi’s work … somewhere. I was about to ask the man to call back in a day or two, thus giving me a chance to hunt it up. Gus, however, had the book in a matter of moments.
I should also say that Gus did his work efficiently and without hesitation. No matter how menial or how daunting a task was set before him, Gus got to it without complaint. He was virtually tireless and, at times, would work for hours (literally!) without so much as looking up.
I have a few close friends who own businesses, and they are forever complaining about how much time is wasted by their employees; taking cigarette breaks, making personal calls and otherwise frittering away the hours on their personal devices. The fact that Gus did none of those things made it easier to put up with his other eccentricities. For one thing, Gus couldn’t talk; he was mute save for the ability to make a grunting sound which served, most of the time, as a means of expressing agreement or compliance.
Then there was his appearance, which could only be characterized as disheveled. That effect was further reinforced by his shambling gait. Arguing that the image of the store was in some regard dependent on how he looked, I took the liberty of buying him some clothes. Nothing Gus wore, however, seemed to fit him properly. Everything hung off him in a vaguely disturbing fashion. The only thing that didn’t look strangely askew or out of place on him was the back watch cap that he always wore no matter the weather.
Having no family or friends to speak of apart from me and no where to live, Gus stayed in a small room located to the back of the shop on the first floor. I trusted him and was more than happy to have someone on the premises at all times. When people questioned me about our rather strange arrangement or, as was more often the case, asked where I had managed to find Gus – who seemed simply to appear in the store one day – I explained that he was a distant relative from Eastern Europe. His parents had been killed during one of the numerous ethnic conflicts that simmered continually below the surface of life in that ancient and tribal part of the world and which were fanned into flame from time to time even in our own day. The peculiarities that beset Gus, I would continue, were the result of the consequent trauma and deprivation he experienced as a child.
“It’s so nice of you to take him in like that, Ashe,” a long-time client said once after I finished recounting Gus’ story. Gus, had, by the way, just fetched the 1939 edition of the ill-fated Jaromir Hladik’s The Enemies from somewhere on the second floor for the man. And so it was that, in very little time – and no doubt in part owing to his uncanny ability – most of my customers accepted Gus without further inquiry and certainly without complaint. Many of my patrons whose tastes, admittedly, ran toward the eccentric and the arcane, undoubtedly also felt that the presence of someone like Gus added a certain charm, or more accurately, a degree of rather outré character or ambience to the establishment.
And that, I think, is where the trouble started. One or more of my competitors, of which there were a handful, fed up with the antics of their own employees and searching for that certain je ne sais quoi with which to set their shoe-string operations apart from the pack in these tough economic times, must have approached Gus in an attempt to lure him to work for them. Obviously, that was something that I simply could not allow.
The change in Gus was quite subtle. Indeed, anyone who did not know him as well as I would probably not have noticed anything untoward. Yet both his work ethic and, so far as it could be established with one so singularly uncommunicative by nature, his attitude, took a decided turn for the worse. His background notwithstanding, I was stung by his lack of gratitude considering everything that I had done for him. In fact, it would not have been an exaggeration to say that everything he had become – such as it was and given his incredible limitations – had been because of me. That a creature like Gus could fall prey to something akin to ambition was, well, remarkable, unprecedented even.
As the days and weeks passed, it became clear to me that drastic measures had to be taken. The thought of Gus turning on me or, worse, being lured away by an unscrupulous bookseller was more than I could bear. Besides, explaining why it would be unthinkable (impossible, even!) for Gus to work for anyone else would have been uncomfortable in the extreme. Although deeply regretful of my subsequent decision, I knew precisely what had to be done.
One night while Gus was sleeping – or while he was doing what for him passed as sleep – I returned to the shop and let myself into his room. The fact that he lay with his eyes open only made matters even more distasteful. When I lifted the watch cap off his forehead exposing the word Emet that was written there he, of course, offered no resistance. “I’m truly sorry, my friend,” I said. Then quickly, reluctantly, I erased the first letter of the inscription. With that the dread term Met resulted and Gus gave a shudder. In a matter of seconds, all that remained of him was a pile of the dust from which he had been formed.
Explaining the sudden disappearance of Gus to my customers, who are in general a credulous lot, has been far simpler than finding someone to replace him. Once again, I’ve hired, fired or received resignations from one assistant after another. I have a particularly prickly buyer waiting to receive a promised copy of the extremely elusive Volume XLVII of The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia from 1917. I know it is around here somewhere. If things continue like this, I’ll have no choice but to bring Gus – or someone very much like him – back. The problem is, I can’t remember the formula. I’ve spent what little free time I now have searching for a tome by R. Eleazar ben Judah of Worms which contains his famous Commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah but so far, I can’t find it. If Gus were here, though, he’d be able to put his misshapen hands on it in an instant.
Author’s Note: All the texts mentioned in this story, save the Talmud and the Commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah are, so far as I know, non-existent; they are the invention of the great Argentinian fantasist, Borges.
James C. Clar is a teacher and writer who divides his time between the warmer climes of Honolulu, Hawaii and the much more inclement wilds of Upstate New York. His work has recently been published in the Potato Soup Journal, the Sci-Phi Journal as well as in other Internet and print publications.
Stuffin' Hec, by Roly Andrews
“What…, no way,” she said, “… For real?”
“Uh-huh, but keep it on the down-low. It’s very hush-hush.”
“Well, if that’s true, where do you go?”
“Just where you’d expect; it’s where people usually go for that sort of stuff.”
“You mean Stiffy Joe’s?”
“Bullshit, I’ve never seen any in the shop window. Never seen it advertised. You’re having me on, Tim.”
I laughed. “’Course you’ve never seen any, you silly moo. It’s illegal, be bad for business, wouldn’t it! Frighten the punters away.”
“As if hunting trophies don’t? But anyway, how much does it cost?”
“Well, how long does it take then?”
“No idea; it’s not the sort of thing I’ve done before or am ever likely to.”
“Well, you’re not much bloody use then, are you!”
“Excuse me for trying to help, Liz – I told you, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, I s’pose, thanks. Can I ask another favour?”
“Is Joe in?” Liz asked.
I shuffled about, surveying the macabre interior. There was no one else in the shop, the place was like a morgue. I re-directed my eyes from a dead opossum clutching a fake tree to a rigid bichon frisé urinating underneath. I exhaled loudly, totally avoiding eye contact with a goth shop assistant who had miraculously appeared without an accompanying flash of sulphur and smoke. Clearly, she was also trying to avoid eye contact with me.
“The jerk’s on his constitutional.”
“You mean the toilet?”
“No, a coffee break: an americano every day at 1.45 pm. His constitutional right, he says. The 9th amendment, the unenumerated right to a coffee break. Friggin’ freak!”
The shop assistant added without intent, “Can I help?”
Liz hesitated, pacing side to side.
“… I’m… not… sure.”
“I’m fully qualified, you know. I apprenticed with Joe – for three years!”
“Oh…” Liz started.
I interrupted, trying to sound important: “It’s a special job,” parenthesising ‘special’ with my index fingers.
The shop assistant immediately changed her attitude. Not for the better.
“Come back after 2 pm.”
She turned and walked away.
Bats don’t like the light, I thought, She’s probably gone out the back to hang upside down.
“I guess it’s not everybody’s cup of tea,” I said, trying to reassure Liz.
“Coffee?” she prompted.
“Rum?” I countered.
36DD’s – The Dyslexics Bra
“Better than Hooters,” I said.
Liz rolled her eyes like she always did.
Our drinks arrived.
“Why,” I asked, “… why?”
“You mean Hector?”
“I just want him around forever, I s’pose.”
“Still don’t get it!”
“Well,” she said, “Can’t live with him, can’t live without him. Isn’t that what they say?”
“Can’t argue with that,” I said. “Up your bum,” I added, raising my glass while checking out the barmaid.
“Have you thought where you’d put him?”
“I guess you have to be a bit careful about that.”
“What ya mean?”
“Well…,” I said, just as the hot chips arrived. “Could we have some ketchup, please?”
“Lots of it,” Liz chimed in. “It always reminds me of thick sticky blood – sweet.”
“Good chips,” I said after a minute. “Pass the salt.”
Two hours later, chips and ketchup and a few rums onboard, we were back at Stiffy Joe’s.
“I’ll let him know you’re here.”
“Snooty bitch,” Liz cursed quietly.
“Shush! She’s getting him, isn’t she?” I said.
Thirty seconds later, a disheveled man escaped from the plastic strip door curtain.
“I’m Joe,” he announced. “Whatcha want?”
“A private chat about a private job,” I said, tempted to use my index fingers again to emphasize ‘private.’
“A private chat about a private job,” I repeated.
“Why are you whispering, you fool? What do you want?”
“A private chat,” I said, now surprising and frightening myself with my increased volume.
“Is that right?”
“I think we should go,” Liz interrupted, clearly feeling uncomfortable.
“Your choice,” the sasquatch hippy with Joe engraved on his badge said.
“Hang on, Liz, are you sure?”
She looked at me, eyes searching for her thoughts.
“… Um… Um.”
“Can we go somewhere private?” I suggested, this time pulling the trigger fingers.
He looked at me strangely, then said, “Come through then, follow me.”
Wild-eyed birds watched our movements as we entered the bowels of Stiffy Joe’s. The stench of stringent chemicals hit me hard, nearly bowling me over.
The shop cat stared, frozen to a spot on the back bench.
“Well…?” he asked, reaching for his tobacco pouch.
I gulped. “We heard you did special jobs?”
“Who said that?” the old man responded, suspicion in his eyes, tobacco shred in his moustache.
“Just a rumour I heard.”
“Rumours are like dicky spirit levels. They can put you wrong, my friend. If they’re not correct, they make things unbalanced. Put you out of kilter. Make you make bad decisions.”
Liz and I jumped, my heart froze, my mouth opened involuntarily.
I spun around, spied a red squirrel dead on the concrete floor; it must have fallen out of the faux fir tree in the corner.
Joe ejected a single expletive. “Crikey.”
Heart beating again, I asked, “Okay… okay, let’s say you did ‘special jobs,’ how much would that kind of thing cost?”
Taking his time, the old man deftly rolled a cigarette – then expelled air from his lungs, preparing for an onslaught of incoming smoke.
“Same price range as a funeral,” he answered. “Some people want bells and whistles; some just want a cardboard casket. Some people send their loved ones off in a golden shroud and a Mercedes Benz; others, well, they can’t get rid quick enough, no-frills, nothing fancy. A sheet, a hole in the ground, or a can of kerosine, and a lighter.”
Liz shook her head, looked down at her feet.
It was my turn to expel air. “Even an el-cheapo funeral is $5k. That’s pretty expensive.”
“Piss off,” the old man spat back. “It’s friggin cheap at twice the price. Think of the advantages. Cemeteries are running out of room; they’re starting to double-deck plots, bury people standing up. Do you want that? Cremation pollutes the air – releases carbon into the atmosphere. What I offer is a chance to be with your loved one forever. Do burials and cremation offer that?”
“So, is there a top end, then? You say minimum $5k, what’s the upper limit?”
“Most people spend between $12k and $15k. That’s a quality product that will last a lifetime. So, what do you think?”
I deferred to Liz: “What do you think, Liz?”
“I’m not sure, I don’t know,” she replied timidly.
“Jesus, Mary, and the whole freaking cavalcade of saints; don’t waste my time, lady: I’ve two dogs and a cat to mount.”
I stalled for time. “You got a portfolio or something? So my friend can see what you can do.”
“Guy or girl?” he asked.
“The bloody model, the specimen: guy or girl.”
“She better not be a friggin’ tyre kicker, mate.” He said staring at me as if I was in charge. He stormed over to the back bench, threw some papers around then came back with a chemical-stained folder.
“This is what I can do.”
Inside the folder was a catalogue filled with models in different poses.
“Let me walk you through it.
“Picture One is our base model. The price of $5k includes mounting but minimal animation. What you see is what came in. Might not look glamorous – but it’ll never age, and it comes with our thirty-year guarantee.”
Liz recoiled and grunted, “Yuk, it’s not very flattering.”
“Natural though: this guy fell off a ladder, landed in a thorn bush, and broke his neck. His wife was very pleased with the realism.
“Now, number two is $6k. It includes a more natural look, with a bit more animation.”
“Erg, gross.” Liz turned her head away.
“This guy was frightened to death, but his wife didn’t want to change a thing! She liked the idea that he saw it coming.
“Number three – sports pose! I was told this weedy guy was a wimp but always wanted to be a boxer. His girlfriend wanted his dream to come true. Not my cup of chimp juice, but she was happy enough.”
Liz shook her head.
“Now, number four, very proud of this one - $7.5k. He was a writer. The main difference is the facial hair. You see? That stubble will be there for eternity, and he’ll never have to shave.”
“I’ve seen that guy before,” I interrupted.
“Yeah, probably; he’s parked in the west corner of the town library. He wanted to be put there, close to his precious books. Patrons of the library think he’s a statue. The pipe isn’t really lit – the library is a public building, you see – non-smoking.”
I smiled. “Yeah…yeah…that’s right, that’s him!”
At last, Joe decided to light his rollie – inhaled a deep draught of rum-soaked tobacco. My nostrils flared in attraction. Rum, I thought.
“Number five. Similar, but the props are more elaborate, fancy. Came with the chair, trilby, and mohair suit—$ 10k.
“Number six. Wannabe gangster look. In fact, this guy was a gangster. His father is a crime lord. He wanted a reminder of his son. The old man ordered a hit on him. The unfortunate lad had eyes for his father’s missus and a bit of a sweet tooth!”
“A sweet tooth?”
“Yeah, he got caught with his hand in the cookie jar!”
“Oh,” I said.
“Rigor mortis had set in by the time I got to him, so I put a gun in his hand. Good thinking ae’, and quality all the way with this one. $12.5k – worth every cent.”
“Number 7, top of the range! $17k! This guy was in the military, killed on active service. His wife wanted something to remember him by. Better than a flag and a medal – don’t ya think?”
“Was he killed in a battle?” Liz asked
“Hell, no, he was electrocuted repairing a hot water cylinder; he was an army electrician. Must have been a shit one at that.
“So, that gives you an idea of what I can do; whatcha think? You interested?”
I looked at Liz.
“How much did you want to spend then?”
“Um,” she said, “$10k, but that would be my top budget for sure – the max.”
“Good, we’re getting somewhere now.” Joe smiled. “Thought of a pose or style?
“Something natural, nothing too posed.”
“Okay, good. What did he like? Tell me something about him.”
Liz smiled. “He loves… I mean, he loved parties. He loved football. He’s Dutch… I mean was Dutch – from Holland.”
“That’s good; it’s given me a few ideas – maybe a party pose, a football celebration, something like that. Put him in an orange tee. I could do that for $10k. When can I see the model? When can you bring him in?”
Liz hesitated, turned bright red.
I jumped in to help her. “That’s where there’s a bit of a problem.”
“Problem? For God’s sake, you are freakin’ wasting my time. What problem?”
“Well… Shall I tell, or will you?” I asked Liz.
Joe looked at me expectantly; I could tell it was more than gravity wearing his smile down. He was pissed off.
“Well… He’s not dead yet!”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake!”
“But, he will be, will be soon,” Liz quickly added.
Hands-on hips, Joe rolled his eyes.
“I take deposits,” he said, after a minute. “10% non-refundable. I’m the only guy in town who does this kind of work – so I reckon you got no choice.”
“That’s ridiculous; why would we pay you a deposit?”
“Because if you don’t, I might say no, and then you’ll have a body to dispose of, a body due to an unexplained death, or I just might tell the cops what you told me! Your choice.”
I looked about the backroom; dozens of marbled eyes inserted into manky pelts stared back at me. It was clear Joe traded in misery and revelled in it.
“We need time to think.”
“Fair enough,” Joe said, throwing the butt to the floor, stubbing it out with his hairy feet, then kicking it toward the staring squirrel. “But don’t take too long. I’m having my brother over for lunch on Sunday afternoon. He’s a cop. Me and him like to spin a few yarns, share a drink or two. Who knows what might pop up after a couple of beers?”
I looked about again. Well, it won’t be a live meerkat, I thought.
“What’s the best way to kill him?”
The unabashed tone and gravity of Liz’s question stood out like the balls of the mangey elk standing in the east corner. Like me, it looked confused, although it was standing spread-legged in front of a pathetically painted mountain diorama. I think I knew how it felt.
What the hell? I added to my thoughts. I turned to Liz, wearing a what-the-fuck face.
She had steely eyes; determination engraved on her face.
“What’s the best way? A way that doesn’t affect the skin and a way to make sure I won’t get caught.”
“Poison,” Joe responded immediately. “Yep, poison’s the go, doesn’t leave a mark, difficult to prove.”
Liz smiled. “Let me think about your offer then; give me a chance to raise the $1k deposit. I’ll only need 24 hours. I can come back tomorrow at 1.30 pm; I can bring some coffee if you want?”
“Well, that’s about when I take a coffee break, so why not? I drink Americanos.”
Liz turned to me. “What about you, Tim? Can you make it?”
“Sure, why not?” I parroted, “I’ll try an Americano as well.”
Liz’s flat - reprised
“Thanks for coming with me today, Tim.”
“No worries, but are you sure you want to do this?”
“Well… you know what I mean… Do this to Hec, get into bed with that freak Stiffy Joe?”
“I’m doing it for him! Securing his future.”
I stared back at her; she was deadly serious. She was clearly deranged. I started to question my involvement.
“You still cool about tomorrow?” she asked, perhaps sensing my fading enthusiasm.
“Sure,” I lied.
“I’m phoning Hec tonight; I’ll ask when he’s coming back. He’s at a Gun conference in Wellington. Hopefully, he’ll be back the day after tomorrow. He’s sure in for one hella-of a big surprise!”
I gulped and decided to have a tall rum when I got home.
Stiffy Joe’s - again
The shop doorbell chimed as I walked in.
I’d arrived five minutes early, so I looked around the shop. Stiffy Joe’s was a carrion cornucopia for the depraved; what once were beautiful lythe breathing animals were now buckram beasts of grotesque rigidity. I shivered.
The goth appeared out of nowhere. “Oh, for God’s sake, it’s only you.” She rolled her eyes and blew a ginormous strawberry coloured bubble gum bubble. It popped, making me jump.
She looked pastier than yesterday, crispier whitewashed face, shinier bottle black hair. The coloured language stayed the same, though.
Not surprised, I thought, working in a place like this, with a boss like Joe.
“I’ll let him know you’re here,” she said.
The doorbell chimed again. Liz walked in carrying a cardboard tray with three coffees safely inserted.
I smiled a half-smile. The goth returned, offering a quarter smile and a wink to Liz.
“Come through,” Joe called from behind the tacky red and black plastic curtain, bringing back childhood memories of old butchers’ shops.
No greeting. I wasn’t surprised.
“You got the money?” he asked.
Liz nodded, smiled. “Coffee?”
I’d only taken a sip when I felt my throat clamp shut; I struggled to breathe. My guts were set alight. I was on fire. I felt my body start to shake, my eyes bulge. I began to convulse; I tried to focus. I saw Joe lying on the ground, holding his throat. I fell. I looked up, squinted, saw Liz standing over us. She was smiling.
Liz’s flat - again
“Mmm, so nice to see you, Hec! I missed you so much!”
“Whoa, settle down, Liz, aren’t you Miss Frisky today? I’ve just walked in the door; there’ll be plenty of… Whoa, you have missed me!”
Liz looked up. “You not like?”
“You know I do, but I’ve just got in; I didn’t shower this morning. Let me have a coffee and a shower first!”
“Oh, you spoil all the fun. I might change my mind, you know – you might not be so lucky later!”
Hec smiled and helped Liz off her knees. “I’ll take that risk!”
“Let me make you a coffee,” she suggested. “You go have a quick shower now.”
“Awesome, I’ll be quick; I have so much to tell you about the conference.”
Five minutes later, Hec exited the bathroom.
“Phew, that feels better.”
“Here’s your coffee,” Liz said. “Sit down and tell me about Wellington.”
“Well,” he stated, “I’m pretty keen to get started; after talking to lots of people, I reckon there’s still a market out there.”
“I’m so pleased you said that,” Liz said. “I’ve got something to show you; follow me.”
Hec grinned. “I’m up for anything, Liz; you look so naughty today.”
Hec followed her to the garage.
“Look in the freezer Hec; I think you’ll like what you see.”
“Oh my God, Liz, oh my God, what have you done? Oh fuck, that’s Tim, isn’t it? And– oh shit, oh shit, is that Stiffy Joe?”
“Yep,” she beamed. “Got rid of the competition for you; now you can open your taxidermist shop and not worry about the competition. And you get a chance to practice on some models. I’ve even got your first employee for you. She’s fully qualified!”
“Holy fuck, Liz! You know when I said I wouldn’t mind stuffing some people...You know I was joking, right?”
Roly Andrews lives in Nelson, NZ, in his spare time he enjoys tramping. After many years of practicing, he is still trying to learn to play the trombone! A champion for everyone, he has mentored rough sleepers and supported people affected by suicide. He advocates for the rights of people living with disabilities.
Don't Touch That!, by B. C. Nance
Hesitant doors opened in fits and jerks, and the aging elevator disgorged its human cargo. A wide-eyed Tom Gray led his family through the collection of aging scientific devices, many of which looked like props from a B-movie mad scientist’s laboratory. When Tom was a boy, artifact displays were the focus of the children’s museum, but the emphasis now was on interactive exhibits, and the few remaining artifacts had been relegated to the seldom visited fourth floor. When the museum moved to its new home in two weeks, the rest of the artifacts would be packed off to other facilities, so Tom wanted to immerse his young family in one of his fond childhood memories.
“Look at it, Abby,” said Tom to his wife who smiled at his boyish excitement. “I haven’t seen these things in twenty years.” Neither of their children would remember this trip, but Tom would one day reminisce and show the newspaper headline: “Mysterious Find Linked to Missing Man.”
“Don’t touch that!” a rusty voice slashed across the room, sending two young boys running and hurling Tom back in time. He was ten, and he stood staring at the blue and yellow electric sparks leaping and dancing on a glowing orb. The thing was old and should not have been on display, but there it was, beckoning young boys like the siren’s call.
“Touch it, Tom. I dare you,” said Rusty O’Meara. “See if it shocks you.”
“You touch it,” Tom said to Rusty. “I double dare you.”
“Tom’s chicken,” chimed in Petey Marshall. Petey was the smallest kid in the fifth grade, but he had the biggest mouth.
“I’m not chicken, boner-head,” snapped Tom.
“So,” said Rusty, “you gonna touch it?”
Tom sneered at his friends and reached toward the sphere, stopping with his hand poised inches from the target, preparing to strike.
“Don’t touch that!” The grating voice from behind the boys startled all of them, and Tom felt as though he had been shocked. “These aren’t toys, you little hooligans.” Red-rimmed eyes glared down at the boys as Micah Larkin, considered by most children to be the meanest man alive, gave the trio his death stare. Larkin had worked at the museum for as long as the boys had been alive, and he was a man to be avoided. He pulled a yellowed cloth from his pocket and wiped at the base of the device, pausing to turn a small knob on the back.
“Now I’m warning you,” he said, leaning close enough that they could smell his rancid breath, “Keep your grimy little paws off my displays.”
Larkin had thrown down the gauntlet, and the kids’ code dictated that they must now do exactly what they had been told not to do. They waited until Mr. Larkin had disappeared. Tom had hoped that, in light of the new circumstances, Rusty would take the lead and touch the orb, but it was clear that the boys were still looking to Tom to do the honors. The sparks looked brighter now, and the soft hum of the device seemed to be a menacing groan. Tom reached out and quickly poked the shiny surface. A jolt immediately ran up his arm, and his fingers felt as if they had been struck hard with the thick wooden ruler that their schoolteacher always used for discipline. Tom’s hand tingled and he would have a blister on his finger, but the worst part was that hateful laughter that echoed across the room from Larkin’s hidden vantage point.
“I warned you,” Larkin said as he disappeared again.
“Honey, are you all right? Tom?” Abby’s voice brought Tom back from his unpleasant daydream. “What’s wrong, Honey?” Abby said in her sweet nurturing voice.
“That’s Mr. Larkin,” Tom said, pointing to the old man across the room. “He’s been here forever. He’s the meanest man that ever lived.”
“Oh, Tom,” said Abby. “I’m sure that’s just your childhood perception of him. He’s probably a sweet old man.”
“No,” said Tom, “He was always playing mean tricks on children. I heard that he even cut off a kid’s fingers.”
“Tom,” said Abby, “that’s ridiculous.”
“No, no, it really happened,” Tom insisted. “The kid went to my school for a while, but they took him out because he was slow, you know.” He tapped the side of his head. “Anyway, he was fooling with some contraption they had here, and it started up and ripped off some fingers. The kid said that Larkin turned on the machine, but no one believed him.”
“Tom,” said Abby, “I’ll bet that was just a rumor, and if you talked to the man, you would find that he’s really quite nice.” Tom, though doubtful, knew that Abby’s advice was usually sound.
“Mr. Larkin,” said Tom as he extended his hand, “I’m Tom Gray.” Tom left his hand out though Micah Larkin showed no sign that he would shake it. “I used to come here as a boy,” Tom continued, “and I remember you from way back then.” Larkin still just stared with those same red-rimmed eyes that Tom remembered, and Tom gradually lowered his arm. He laughed nervously and cleared his throat. “Now I’m back with my own family,” Tom said, gesturing toward his sweetly smiling wife and two children.
“So?” Larkin replied in his vinegar tone, and Tom could smell his rancid breath with a hint of whiskey. “You want a medal for bringing two more snot-nosed brats into the world?” Larkin spat. “Well, you won’t get it from me.” The old man turned and shuffled away, hate dripping from his scowling face.
Tom turned to Abby, her mouth gaping, and said, “Told you.”
Tom’s nostalgia trip was short because the children needed to eat and take their naps. They strolled down the old building’s marble-floored corridor toward the exit, passing the janitor who was just starting his work day. The man was about Tom’s age, and he smiled at the children and nodded a greeting. Tom returned the nod. There was something familiar about the janitor.
“Here you go, Micah,” said Cora Lewis, “I made this for you for your last day on the job.” Cora handed Micah Larkin a white box tied with red and blue ribbons. Cora was a middle-aged woman who, unlike Micah Larkin, would be moving on to the new museum. “It’s from the staff,” Cora said, though she was the only one who ever had a kind word for Micah.
Larkin opened the package without the slightest acknowledgment of Cora’s kindness. He knew what it would be because Cora was famous for her homemade fudge, and when he opened the package Micah Larkin found that he had hit the mother lode, four different varieties. Larkin just stared at the gift with his permanent scowl.
“Well, Micah,” said Cora, knowing that she would get no thanks, “I wish you the best in your retirement.”
Cora began to turn away, and Larkin noticed that she held a second, larger box in her hand. This one was tied with a simpler ribbon, but what stuck in Larkin’s mind was that the box, which obviously contained more of the delicious fudge, was larger. “Short end of the stick again,” Larkin muttered under his breath.
Cora turned back. “What was that, Micah?”
“Nothing,” he spat. “Thirty damn years of service to this dump,” he continued, “and they force me out to bring in those college kids with their fancy notions of learning and child development. The little punks don’t care about physics principles; they want to see the goods. They want the displays. They want this.” Larkin held up an antique mahogany box inlayed with a brass eagle. Cora recognized it immediately as the museum’s pair of antique dueling pistols.
“Oh, Micah,” said Corah with wide eyes, “you’re not stealing those are you?”
“Of course, I’m stealing them,” he said. “Thirty years of service,” he growled, “and what do I get for it?” He shook the box of fudge at her. “The small box again!” He flung the fudge at the trash can, stuck the pistols under his moth-eaten coat, and stormed away.
“Good evening, Henry,” Cora greeted the janitor.
“Hi, Mrs. Lewis,” he said with a broad smile.
“Henry, I made this for you,” Cora said as she handed him the big box of homemade fudge. “It’s just a small thank you for all the hard work you do.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Lewis,” Henry said slowly. “I love your fudge.”
“Just don’t eat it all in one night again, Henry,” she warned. “You know what happened last time.” Henry bowed his head in embarrassment, the smile still on his face.
“Good night, dear,” said Cora. She saw that Henry was mopping the floor and offered to let herself out the back door.
“Oh, don’t worry about the floor, Mrs. Lewis,” said Henry. He took her arm and helped her walk across the slick marble. When she was safely out the door, Henry returned to the mop bucket and swished the mop in the gray water. Micah Larkin stomped heavily on the marble as he made his way toward the door, the pistol box tucked under his arm. He scowled at the sight of Henry mopping the floor and never considered any route but straight through, but he slowed when he saw the large box of fudge on Henry’s janitorial cart.
“You,” Micah spat. “She’s wasting fudge on an idiot like you.”
“Mrs. Lewis is a nice lady,” Henry said in his slow speech. “You’re not a nice man, Mr. Larkin.”
“You’re not a nice man,” Micah repeated with cruel mockery. “Get the hell out of my way, moron.” Henry stepped back and Micah began walking across the wet floor, but he stopped beside the mop bucket and eyed it with malicious intent. Micah raised his foot and placed it on the rim of the bucket.
“Don’t touch that,” Henry said in a surprisingly clear voice, but Micah kicked over the bucket and let the dirty mop water spread over the marble floor.
Micah laughed as he turned to walk away. His feet felt wet, but it was worth it put the dimwit in his place. With his next step Micah found himself walking through ankle deep water. He sped up but with the next step he found the water was halfway up his calf. This was impossible. He was on a level marble floor that was simply wet. Micah tried to retreat toward Henry who stood passively on dry ground gripping his mop. Micah had sunk waist deep and was in a panic.
“Help me, boy,” Micah called to Henry. “You know I didn’t mean any harm.”
Henry reached out to Micah, the old man sinking deeper with each step. Micah held both arms high, trying to reach for Henry with one hand and keep the purloined firearms above water with the other. With just his head and arms above the murky gray water, Micah lunged forward as Henry reached out. Henry grabbed the box.
A surprised Micah Larkin wailed. “No, you idiot. Those are mine.” He spat a mouthful of foul water and clawed at the box, dislodging the brass eagle. He looked at Henry’s hands clutching the box and noticed that the young man was missing some fingers. Micah looked at Henry’s face and recognition of a boy from years ago dawned. “You,” he screamed. The scream became a gurgle as Micah lost his grip and disappeared under the water. Henry placed the pistols on his cart beside his box of fudge then picked up his mop and went back to work.
Cora looked at the mahogany box on the museum director’s desk. “That’s it, except the eagle is missing” she said. “Micah must have had a change of heart.”
“I have serious doubts about Micah’s heart changing,” said the director, “and he still hasn’t been seen since Saturday. But there’s something I want you to see, Cora.”
The two walked to the front hallway with its immaculate marble floor. The director bent down and pointed at the floor. Cora looked closely and saw the brass eagle on the floor.
She tried to pick it up and found that it was not on the floor but in the floor. She ran her hand across the glassy smoothness of the polished marble with the eagle perfectly inlaid in the swirling gray stone as if it were floating in water.
B. C. Nance is a writer who hasn't given up his day job. A native of Nashville, Tennessee, he works by day as a historical archaeologist and literally knows where the bodies are buried--most of them anyway. At night, after roaming his neighborhood, he writes fiction and poetry, then stays up too late reading. His stories and poems have been published in a diverse selection of publications.
Honour had been the watchword in the early life of Penner Viscount-Alexander. Not under that name of course, that was the name The Nu Community had given him in their inscrutable process of manufacturing identity. Having worked under a bewildering plethora of aliases all his professional life for security reasons, the subject had thought his new soubriquet only mildly quixotic in comparison.
Aliases had begun for him just after his National Service, drafted directly from his hometown and state into the overseas theatre. Having just missed getting into college for the first 1949 semester Penner found himself shipped out to Burma for training with seasoned British commando units. It was just on the eve of the Korean War being declared and those same units were shortly posted to the Korean peninsula.
So after the merest basic training he was flying in a military plane for the East across the great Pacific. Penner had never been far from his hometown apart from a few trips to the state capital. His world contracted even further as he found himself dumped into the middle of the great struggle by his country to contain International Communism.
Bewildered and green and thoroughly terrified by the stark brutality of the conflict, Viscount-Alexander had expected to die in some botched combat mission. Again and again he heard of mismanaged battles, hideous lapses of judgement on the part of officers, catastrophic breakdowns of vehicles and equipment. Little more than a boy still, he resigned himself.
Oddly however despite his fears he never even saw a battle during his entire three years there. Expectation of seeing combat had provoked him to train hard. Finding a talent for sharpshooting he practiced until he became a high scoring sniper. He took jungle survival, foraging and language courses to increase his longevity in hostile foreign environments.
Linguistics were another talent he discovered in himself. Never having taken language classes of any kind at his very provincial schoolhouse, Penner learnt he could catch the rhythm of a tongue or local dialect swiftly. As long as there was a chance to converse he picked it up and accents almost at once.
Repeatedly he found himself mixing with the British. All of them battle-hardened veterans from the Pacific war against the Japanese and then the communist and nationalist insurgencies that swept across South Asia after the Empire of the Sun had been defeated. Between them and his courses he became a thoroughly professional soldier without quite realizing it.
Withdrawal of American and British forces and the division of the peninsula into North and South Korea saw him enlisting with the British army forces in Burma instead of going home with the rest of his unit. Unusual as the transfer was he was liked and respected by the officers he knew and they made it easy for him. Despite a career spent almost entirely in quarter-mastering and prison compound guard duty, M.A.S.H. security and the like he was seen as solid and competent and stayed in Asia.
After his three years’ tour of duty he knew where good money and opportunities were to be found, and had the skills in the present to take advantage of them. All he had to do was accept some risks. He was young and could leave the studious existence for later in life once he’d made his fortune.
Combat became part of his life for the first time. By now however he didn’t fear the accidents or incompetencies he’d dreaded before. Trusting and respecting the men he now served with, Penner didn’t have that empty doom-laden despair he’d first known on arriving in war-desolated Korea.
Burma, eventually to become the Republic of Myanmar, was for a time on fire with a violent anti-colonial insurgency. Penner was now one of the soldiers helping to suppress it, their actions now described in terms such as counter-terrorism. Effectively he was a mercenary and the guerrilla units he served with not officially listed as British military personnel.
Operating out of mobile camps and temporary bases supplied by airlift, these units combed the jungles and broad sparsely inhabited districts where the insurgents hid out and drew their strength and supplies from hapless villagers. Hunting them ceaselessly. Disrupting their sources of food and shelter.
Frequently they burned crops as punishment for alleged collaboration. Sometimes entire villages, emulating the terror tactics of the insurgents themselves. Officers always called it counter-terrorism.
Penner hadn’t been shocked by that. Commonplace in Korea, it wasn’t merely a question of regular armies fighting each other. All too often the enemy troops or terrorists were relatives or tribesmen or kinfolk otherwise of the local villages and towns. Easy distinctions between combatants and civilians were more blurred because those linkages meant a flow of food and help and sheltering the enemy that escaped detection.
Attrition and counter-terrorism the enemy really seemed to be the key to it. Penner served with a highly professional unit whose combat specialization was trailing and running to earth key terrorist leaders and their most loyal soldiers and bodyguards. Hard-core and highly mobile targets which were elusive and difficult to hit.
Assassination missions. Small and tightly coordinated commando units circulated in areas where rebel leaders were suspected to be resting and planning their forays. A combination of army intelligence and local sources were used to build up the picture and decide how to take action.
Murder at its most cold-blooded was what it usually was. After a rebel commander or terrorist had been caught and interrogated, usually tortured if he wouldn’t talk at first, a knife or single pistol shot would be the end of it and the man. Cruelest part of it was the lot drawing for who would do the job.
That part was always shared out impartially and Penner had done his fair share. All of them were involved in a given mission and all of them were guilty. There were no degrees of culpability in the field so everyone shared both that and the risk and the rewards with a brisk equality.
During one particularly long and grueling mission in the real wilderness tracking a particularly tricky terrorist warlord they came across the ancient complex of temples hidden in the jungle. Group leader said the temples were over a thousand years old.
Although he knew the history of the country these were mentioned by no historical sources he had ever heard of.
At first Penner and the rest assumed they were Buddhist but the officer told them they were even older. Hindu, undoubtedly. There were clear representations of Lord Shiva and Parvati and Kali and many other deities in the pantheons, more than a few he didn’t even recognize.
Immense temples with great dignity and the highest imaginable level of craftsmanship in their sculptures. Jungle growing all through them and forlorn with a gaunt emptiness. A whole civilization or part of one had once revolved around these edifices.
Awe and reverence for the divine were things the young Penner had never experienced before. He was still only in his twenties and had seen much of life but things of the spirit were not part of that. Faith and religion had always seemed to him as rather vague and ephemeral things.
Grandeur and wonderment had never taken possession of Penner’s imagination before. Exploring the complexly overgrown and frequently impassable byways of the interconnected temples engrossed him like nothing in his life previous. He got himself lost for hours looking at the carvings and sculptures when he should have been attending to his duties.
Focusing on the job had never been a problem for Penner in any circumstances. They were encamped here because a very important target was in the vicinity or soon would be. Assassinating this warlord and as many of his entourage as they could get would cripple the insurgency resistance over the whole sector.
Urgency of the mission was self-evident. Nothing could be left to chance and any kind of slackness that jeopardized their readiness to bag the terrorist warlord when and if he turned up could be tolerated. Penner should be thinking only of that.
But the commanding officer never reprimanded him. All of them were subtly affected by the weight of time and belief that infused these temples in spite of their dereliction. Some of the soldiers joked about the explicitly sexual fertility and cycle-of-life sculptures but the representations were so beautiful it was muted.
Reincarnation was a recurring theme. Only vary vaguely had Penner heard of this concept before. In his childhood he remembered it being denounced by the church pastor and associated with paganism and works of the devil somehow.
Nothing demonic showed up here as far as he could see. Transmigration of the soul from one body and life to the next with the complicated and subtle workings of the karmic principle guiding them were movingly illustrated. Long sequences of related sculptures visually opened up concepts and cosmic vistas to Penner’s inner sight that no book or sermon could have provoked.
Didn’t know the words for those things at the time, of course. In later years he read into Hindu and Buddhist and Tibetan mythology and learnt the vocabulary. Most of it was so rarefied and over-intellectualized though he couldn’t connect it to the simplicity and elegance of the sculptures.
Innately he understood the sculptures had been carved by men who knew those truths as a living thing and lived their lives in that faith. Academic writers and professors were just interpreting and guessing and fictionalizing. Words didn’t capture the truth of it.
Faces and scenes from the mossy and vine-draped sculptures haunted his dreams. Persistently he kept hearing something in many of those dreams unlike any sound he had ever known in the waking world. A remote and distant keening noise lost in a vague threatening fade.
Eerie wail that had a fearsome quality. He felt that if it were to come closer and become more audible it would be the end of him, but that it was also somehow a warning of itself. Drenched in sweat on waking from such a dream he was never able to face going back to sleep after hearing and sensing it near.
Eventually the terrorist warlord did appear, accompanied by a surprisingly small number of trusted bodyguards and lieutenants. Digging out a well hidden cache of supplies Penner’s unit had not come across despite looking, they swiftly pitched their own small encampment. Clearly suspecting nothing and seeing no sign of the commandos the insurgents took no precautions.
Ridiculously easy and the unit had never dreamt an assassination mission could go so smoothly. Later the next day the warlord and his men went on a hunting expedition and didn’t even bother to post a guard. Penner had waited in an alcove of a nearby temple and heard them talking openly.
Hastening back to where the hidden unit waited, well prepared for this arrival. They simply walked into the warlord’s abandoned camp and planted a powerful bomb they hastily assembled from their respective kits. Efficiently jacketed it with a bag of nails the insurgents had in their own supplies.
Shots sounded in the jungle beyond. In time the warlord and his men returned carrying some small deer and game tied to poles and set about skinning and preparing their feast. Cooking and eating and laughing conversation proceeded for a long while, the smell of the meat maddeningly delicious, until the commando officer gave the signal and the bomb was detonated.
Placing was risky. Carefully they had buried it just beneath where a circle of stones had been put in preparation for building a fire. Little risk that the turned soil for concealing the detonator wire would be seen since there was some grass right beside, but you can never be certain.
Thump of the bomb going off was quiet, but the effect much greater than anticipated. Wall of a nearby temple actually collapsed violently with the shock. Entire building groaned in a way that frightened the commandos despite themselves.
Deathly quiet in a literal sense greeted the soldiers when they emerged from cover and cautiously advanced with weapons drawn. All the insurgent men including the terrorist leader had been eating around the fire and they were all dead to a man. Shredded to unrecognizable hunks of meat by the nails.
Penner saw a statue that had fallen from its place in the temple wall and cracked down the middle of its face. Expression of it seemed so forsaken and tragic that he shivered. All of them had been looking forward to plundering the fresh meat but the meal was spoiled and the air was tainted by their action and they moved out quickly.
So Burma/Myanmar ended and there were opportunities in Indonesia and a few other trouble spots but Penner had heard a lot of talk about the expanding world of private security. Oil companies and corporations with international interests needed them protected by men with experience like his. There were opportunities and he was already with the right kind of connected people to take advantage.
Africa for mining. Middle East for oil. South America for commodities. Complex mixtures of international commerce and competing spheres of political and economic influence between the Western and Eastern bloc nations for resources meant plenty of opportunities. Interests that needed protection, often against the nationalist or communist-inspired or funded insurgencies of the host nations themselves.
Private imported corporate security was reliable. Host government police and militaries were not, generally speaking. It was as simple as that.
Penner had never commanded a group during his time in Burma/Myanmar but he had been on so many missions he knew what was involved. Within a short time he was successfully organizing security teams of former soldiers he knew or could verify the reliability of through his many contacts. For nearly twenty years he did this, in the latter part of his career returning to the United States.
Mainly supervising security for the vast oil refineries of Texas and New Mexico, increasingly moving into civilian support security for joint corporate and Defense projects. By now he was a corporate executive himself working in high rise buildings and wearing a suit and driving a GTO. As respectable as any anonymous well-groomed business man living quietly in the suburbs.
Alone, though. That always marked him out. Big luxurious house with a swimming pool and every imaginable convenience was empty except for him when he came back every night.
Penner did not like an empty house and an empty life, but he found it hard to connect with women outside the many brothels in many countries he had known. Instead he filled a library with books on the religions of the world and the strange connections between them. Secretly he took correspondence courses on comparative mythology and legend.
Sometimes he heard the keening noise in dreams if he had a bad night. Particularly when he was especially stressed, wherever in the world he might be. All too often he had had to swallow the distaste he felt over beatings and occasional killings perpetrated by his men to extinguish threats to whatever interest he was protecting at the moment.
Grimness took him over in especially bad places. Countries with oppressive governments and wretched poverty-stricken peoples who saw their resources and the wealth of their lands going into the hands of tyrants and foreigners like him. Insulated from those hungry masses with his men, nevertheless he felt the hate and anguish that reached out from them.
Didn’t expect anything like that to happen in his quieter American career, but it did. Through the Sixties the environmental movement had been gathering strength and militancy. Strip mining sites and dangerous chemical plants and nuclear reactors and atomic bomb factories and the like had become activist targets.
Very unusually he had been asked informally to organize the killing of an influential environmental movement leader to make it look like an accident. The man was about to succeed in shutting down a very sensitive nuclear warhead manufactory and there was military money and protection behind this. But they could not be seen to be involved if it went wrong.
Ultimatum wasn’t expressed outright but he’d be out of his comfortable job if he didn’t do it. His company had the civilian security contract and his reputation was quietly known. Just this one time but it had to be done to save a billion dollar Defense investment.
Job did not go wrong. A handpicked small team of three men expertly broke into the man’s Houston apartment in the dead of night and shot him and his pregnant girlfriend to death with silencers. Assassins left inside a minute dropping a leaflet from a rival environmentalist organization.
FBI investigation planned in advance concluded an obscure internecine hippie feud of some kind and closed the file on it. Penner wasn’t even congratulated or given a bonus apart from a sizeable bag of cash unobtrusively delivered to his house a few weeks later. Retirement was not really an option either, he was assured in a roundabout way a few days after that.
Nothing helped. Drink, tranquilizers and sleeping pills could not take the edge off the self-horror and disgust. Thinking he had been a soldier he now saw himself truly in the mirror as a criminal.
Loyalty in his world was elastic. He had always known it had a price tag and seen that demonstrated many times. But he had never turned on a friend or sold someone out; and the grim reality of it happening to him was torturous.
That they were now willing to do that to him, not even willing to spell it out like men of honor, was unendurable. Mercenary as he had been in Burma, that was fighting armed men, killing soldiers like himself. Security work in all those other countries over the years had been against genuine enemies and threats to an established order with its own politics and national aspirations generating the conflict.
Seniority would not protect him. Friendship would not protect him. Facades of no construction or character would stop a bullet.
Money would. He kept doing what he was good at and protected their investments, their millions of dollars, their billion dollars. Evil cohorts such as he knew he was trapped with would always keep him alive as long as they knew those dollars needed skills such as his to conserve.
Providentially the cash and everything else in his comfortable finances proved to be his way out when his call came from a former colleague he did trust but knew to be dead. At first of course he had thought it some elaborate joke or trap but was gradually convinced. In due course he found through The Nu Community the perfect way out of the seemingly inescapable abyss that had opened before him.
Quieter and more civilized world he felt he had been unfairly robbed of. Doctor Margolis had enthusiastically encouraged him in this endeavor. Once he had rehabilitated and settled into his comfortable bungalow in Hadesbridge County he set about his studies.
A man called Lawrence had been his valet during his first month. Nothing but good advice came from him and Penner found that he fitted in more or less easily, socializing extensively but not overdoing it. Academic work was what he really wanted to get on with and he threw himself into it.
His house no longer felt quite so empty. Progress also came, a little bit, with women. Many of those in the colony were unattached and there were always local girls looking for fun with a solvent man.
Study absorbed him the most, though. All his life he had been haunted by the presence of elusive and majestic truths that he had seen symbolized by those temple friezes and sculptures. Somehow he had lost that tenuous grip and set about finding them like an eccentric professor of the Orient.
Loose talk of this after a few cocktail parties held at the bungalow got him some invitations to groups that sampled the various strange religious sects that seemed to be everywhere in Colony home state. Rather to his surprise he found he generally knew more about such things as theosophy and the mythologies of Hinduism and Buddhism than they apparently did. Few of the supposed acolytes seemed to go very deep into it.
Trances were practiced by one group and to this one he became more attached. Mild opium and mescaline and other ‘highs’ in emulation of Aldous Huxley’s researches were practiced seeking spiritual enlightenment. It had been part of the so-called ‘counter-culture’ for decades but this was more seriously directed towards intelligent self-discovery.
Each of them was encouraged to talk of their experiences. Penner Viscount-Alexander as he had become had one extraordinary mescaline-assisted vision. Reliving the entirety of his surgery and rehabilitation and beginning of Converted life as though in full wakefulness.
Everything was there. He could see his operation, the hypnotic regressions with Doctor Margolis, discussions carried on about him while he slept. Secret workings of The Nu Community that he could never have known unless as a wandering spirit while his body slept.
Sure of the absolute confidentiality of the group he described the experience and how he knew himself to have literally been reincarnated. His second chance was to live the life he had been meant to before a malignant fate and state military machine had corrupted him. He was a living embodiment of something he had seen carved on the walls of a lost temple more than a thousand years before his birth.
Even as he was describing this miracle he knew he had made a terrible mistake.
Demeanor of several of the group participants suddenly and visibly changed to a harsh frigidity that shocked him. Decisive glances passed between some of them.
No one else seemed to notice. They were enjoying and bemused by Penner’s enthusiastic and slightly drug-addled sincerity. But he now had a strong and dismaying presentiment of doom when he got back to his now isolated-seeming bungalow. Sea pounding outside seemed like a threatening noisy cover for whatever what about to happen.
Cars eventually pulled up quietly outside. Penner did not hear the occupants come in to the bungalow, nor see them since he was huddled into the chair in a paralyzing dejection. Before he knew it the room was silently full of well-dressed and unsmiling men.
Effortlessly he was held down, although they didn’t need to do it and Penner was helplessly compliant. His shirt sleeve was rolled up and the kindly Lawrence jabbed his forearm with a sudden stinging syringe. Remembering nothing after that, he woke up groggy and unable to walk in a tiny room back at what he recognized to be The Nu Community’s headquarters.
Long subsequent talks with Mr Steeler saw him giving over as many referral names as he could think of. Grave nature of his offense was explained to him. Effectively his foolish actions meant the voiding of his contract with The Nu Community.
Unless he followed instructions. Of course he followed those instructions but intuitively knew a grimly pragmatic decision had already been made about him. Crawling feeling of mortal inescapable doom the same as when he learned how his colleagues were willing to liquidate him returned to haunt Penner.
Nothing diminished nor ameliorated it, whatever Mr Steeler said in that carefully neutral way of his. Only now did Penner see that the choice had been his once. Turning away from the mercenary life that had corrupted him had actually been his for the choosing after Korea.
Taking the easier road, the road against his true desires and needs, had been his error. Drawing him further away from truth in pursuit of money and opportunity and what ultimately proved to be the illusion of security. Honour had been what the military first taught him when he was drafted but there had been no honor in the men he had ended up among.
Now he had offended the powerful in his immediate world once again and this time there was really no escape. Money could not save him this time either. Waiting in the day-room with, he presumed, other offenders like himself became his whole dismal existence.
One night he met the enigmatic and wise old president who seemed to be in charge of everything. Wasn’t at all surprised to be swiftly and efficiently restrained after the short but benediction-like talk and sedated. Penner didn’t struggle or try to call out as they wheeled him down ominously empty corridors towards the doors marked with the medical cross.
Even the priest chirruping almost to himself alongside the wheeled gurney and genially haranguing Penner as he was rolled on seemed to fit the incongruity of everything else. In fact it all made sense if you accepted the unthinkable. In this place it was called Cadaver Procurement.
Journey from the private sleeping rooms was surprisingly short. Doors thudded shut behind him with a quiet finality. Blinded by the coruscating surgical lights as the gurney came into the operating room he expected everything to go dark now forever.
It did not. Karma had saved one last thing for him. Shockingly and suddenly there exploded around him at terrific abrasive volume the keening wail he had distantly heard in his dreams over the years.
Whining part ultrasonic shriek of a flesh-hungry cranial drill is what it was. Instantaneously Penner understood. Warned repeatedly by the recurrence of the drill’s distant noise in his dreams he had ignored the definite implied danger and continued to follow the wrong path to this place and moment.
Impatiently and coldly Doctor Lanius looked impersonally at Penner, put on a surgical mask and lowered the drill on an articulated assembly towards him. Black spots began to multiply and cloud over Penner’s vision. With a strange tenderness Lanius carefully positioned the drill to descend as he gave his orders.
Cranial drill touched Penner Viscount-Alexander’s scalp with loving cold heat at the same instant as his heart finally gave out in horror and fear and burst audibly in the fading brightness.
Edward St. Boniface is based in London UK and is always seeking an unusual or interesting angle to tell a story. He works to and believes in the principle of Fun Fiction. He had two American-set crime stories published in 2022, one in MYSTERY TRIBUNE and another with the British crime fiction publisher MURDEROUS INK PRESS, in an anthology called 'Say What Now?'. He has also self-published a trilogy of contemporary novels set in the London of the 1980s to 2010s, available on KINDLE. Please search for titles 'Riding House Street' and 'Nine Elms Lane'.
Trickery, by James Moran
“It’s the trickery!” the man in the crowd yelled at the witch with the noose around her neck.
She was to be hung once the cardinal and his entourage finished making their way through the dense crush of spectators and hecklers and reached the platform to say a few words of condemnation.
“It’s the trickery!” repeated the frenzied onlooker.
The witch broke the dignified silence she had until then bore and shouted, “Oh put a pie in it!”
“Go on then. What trickery?” asked the witch. “Have it out.”
“All this! Dark pageantry. Even the cardinal in those red robes is your puppet!” Upon the word “puppet” the man spat. “You plan for us to see you hanging from the end of that rope so that we’ll stop assuming you’re about, up to your trickery!”
“Aye,” proclaimed the witch “Sure as deed and stich I’m all about this place. Though you do have it wrong, toad. When I swing from the end of this rope all of you pathetic souls are coming with me. See the sky above and the Earth below? This is my house. The table you sup at is my table. The victuals you pray over come from me. He’s correct the cardinal is under my spell. I make the rules in my home, and one rule is: if the guests set fire to the home, everyone has got to burn, including the mistress of the house. And here is the cardinal rushing now, his red robes licking about like a flame dancing at the end of a little match.”
The man’s voice broke into a high register. “Trickery!”
“What now, fool? Wish you that I hang or not?”
“This is a mockery of a hanging! She’ll pull tricks to set her tricksy self free. She’ll turn a bat and fly.”
“Wish you that I hang or not?”
“I wish you remain under the watchful eye of the magistrate and the cardinal, and I wish you to behave!”
“Wish you that this rope is lifted from my neck then?”
“Oh but the cardinal arrives with a different belief written over him. I’m condemned by a guest in my own home. For one final trick I shall take you with me to the end of this rope.” She surveyed her audience and fixed her gaze upon the man in the crowd. “Where I go, you go.”
Upon climbing the stairs to the platform the cardinal paused with a hand upon his familiar to catch his breath.
“My love!” called the witch to the man in the crowd. “You’ve tried your best to save me! You tried with cunning and craft to protect me and keep me safe. You love me so. Never was a truer word spoke. And I love you, too. The world now is a witness to our love. Let yours be a final act at the end of life to make this abomination worthy of having been lived through.”
Now standing on his own and taking special interest in the man in the crowd, the cardinal charged two familiars and the magistrate with apprehending him.
“As we are together in life,” called the witch to the man, “so we shall be together in death. Let this be the law upheld on this day!”
James Moran is a professional astrologer who regularly publishes articles, fiction, and poetry. His published works can be found at https://jamesmoran.org/the-creation-playpen
Photo by Miriam Espacio on Unsplash
The car broke to a halt by the side gate of a park, at the West of the city. It was five minutes to midnight. A uniformed policeman opened the front passenger door and a stocky man, in plain clothes, with a solid, bony face got out of the car.
"It’s over there, Inspector," the policeman pointed.
The Inspector made his way through the open gate and over the soft, yielding snow to where a group of uniformed policemen and women, together with another plain-clothed officer, were huddled round the prostrate body of a middle aged man. His coat was stained with blood, and his glassy, impassive eyes, stared dumbly up at the night sky.
"So we have another one on our hands!" said the Inspector, grimly, as he looked down at the corpse.
''Fraid so, Inspector,' said a sergeant, "and he was knifed to death. Just like the others."
"And no sign of our elusive killer," said the Inspector as he pulled up the collar of his coat.
"It’s as if he’s vanished into thin air," said the plain-clothed officer.
"He'll be miles away by now," reflected the Inspector.
"And all he's left behind are his footprints," added the sergeant.
The Inspector looked at a line of footprints that led away from the body.
"And he'll get rid of the shoes that made those tracks in pretty short order. You can bet your life on that." He sighed wearily to himself. "He’s an evil swine. But he’s as cunning as a fox; I’ll say that for him."
It was eight o’clock in the morning, in the bedroom of the Stanier household. As always, at that time, the radio automatically switched on - awakening Jack and Karen Stanier, a couple in their late thirties, in time to catch the morning news. The latest killing featured prominently.
"We are making some headway," the somewhat weary voice of the Inspector replied to an interviewer's question. "I can't go into details of course. We don't want to give any advantages to the killer. But believe me, every effort is being made to bring this evil criminal to book."
"By the time they catch him he'll have killed half the city," said Karen, mockingly.
"They don't seem to be making much progress do they," muttered Jack, as he pulled himself out of bed and headed for the bathroom before his wife got there.
Two weeks passed.
"I'm afraid I won’t be able to make it tonight, dear," Jack informed his wife at the breakfast table.
"Why not?" asked Karen, after chewing some of her cereal.
Tuesday night was bridge night for Jack, Karen, Karen's sister and her husband. Though of late it had become a rather tedious, unwelcome chore as far as Jack was concerned; like the performance of some pointless ritual.
‘I’m wanted at the office.’
‘On Tuesday night!’
‘What are you doing? Cleaning the place?’
‘It’s one of our periodic strategy meetings.’
‘Strategy meetings!’ she almost spat out the words. ‘You’d think you were planning the next world war.’
‘Well, office politics can be quite explosive at times, Karen,’ he said, with a wry smile on his face. ‘And as the head of my section, the boss insists I be there.’
‘Your boss wants to get a life for himself, if you ask me.’
‘And it wouldn’t look too good if the only excuse I had up my sleeve for my absence was a weekly bridge game.’
‘Tell him you’ve got a cold.’
He shook his head. 'I don't like lying to people. I wouldn't sound convincing anyway.'
‘Well you attend your precious strategy meeting, Jack. We don’t want you to get in bad odour with the boss, do we? I’ll just have to try and find a fourth for bridge, at short notice.’
Night had drawn in. Jack drove his car through the busy city streets, and then down the tree-lined suburban lanes, their pavements carpeted with freshly fallen snow. He left behind the last straggling estates of the city and the car wove down winding country roads, with hardly any traffic about, until, in an isolated spot and surrounded by wild moorland, a striking, modernist villa came in view.
He walked up a small flight of stone steps, then rang the bell of the door. The door opened, and Professor Winterman, of the Metropolitan University, stood in the entrance.
‘Jack. It’s good of you to come. I really appreciate it.’
‘Come in. Get out of the cold.’
He entered the Professor’s house.
‘I’ll take your coat.’
The Professor hung it up by the door.
‘If you’ll come this way, Jack.’
They entered a large, comfortable room, hung with modern prints, drawings and paintings. The house was indeed as striking and well-designed on the inside as it was without; and had been built according to the precise design specifications of the Professor himself. But then, whatever the Professor put his mind to he made a first class job of it. No one else lived in the house. Professor Winterman was a confirmed bachelor; though there had been a few, albeit ephemeral, romantic entanglements in the past.
‘So you managed to forgo the bridge game, then?’
‘Yeah. Told the wife some guff about a strategy meeting at the office.’
A strategy meeting that had actually taken place, the previous afternoon, during normal office hours.
‘Excellent.’ He winked slyly at Jack. ‘Though this might turn out to be a bit of a strategy meeting as well, Jack.’
‘How about a drink, now that you’re here?’
‘I wouldn’t say no to a glass of wine.’
The Professor opened up a well-lit and well stocked cocktail cabinet and poured drinks for his guest and himself. Then they sat down in comfortable chairs before a gas fire.
The Professor was a tall, well-built man in his late forties, with a long, slender, incisive face and keen grey eyes. He was a man of considerable intellectual ability, with a decisive air of confidence about him. And unlike some bookish professors and academics he looked as if he could handle himself in a brawl.
'Well, I hope all this cloak and dagger stuff was worth it?’
‘I don’t play games with people, Jack.’
‘Well, why did you want to see me, Professor? At such short notice?’
'It's to do with the killings.'
'What about them?'
'I think I've got a handle on this thing.'
With some suspicion Jack scrutinized the Professor. 'How you'd mean?'
The Professor's smile was inscrutable. 'Jack, I've been studying this entire case, in some detail. Informally of course.' He did have many other things to attend to as Jack well knew. 'It was just a dilettante exercise at first. A break from academic work. But of late I’ve become quite obsessed with it. Indeed, there have been days when it’s been the sole focus of my attention. And now, I firmly believe I'm getting somewhere.'
The murders' were the scandal and horror of the city. Ten clinical killings, all at night, at various quiet localities of the city over the last two years and three months. Moreover many of the victims were from the social top drawer; adding even further to the authorities alarm, in a class conscious society. Yet the murderer, for all the intensive police inquiry, was still a shadowy, unknown figure, hidden in night and obscurity; though casting a pall of terror and apprehension over the entire city.
'But surely, Professor, these are just the random, motiveless slayings of a madman. Isn't that why the police are having such a hard time of it?'
Winterman took a meditative sip of his brandy. 'I suppose you could call him a madman. But it's a madness that doesn't in any way impair the functioning of his intellect. Indeed, it may well be all the more powerful, precisely because of the narrow obsession of his homicidal mania.' He shrugged. 'As for being motiveless; I couldn't agree with that. There are motives behind these killings, however abnormal and irrational they might appear to the sane mind. These things have their reasons, even if they appear utterly inexplicable to the casual onlooker.'
Jack shifted uneasily in his chair. 'That takes some believing.’
'And also, it must do something to pump up his ego to think that he can create such panic and fear across a huge city, and at the same time virtually render the authorities impotent in their desperate efforts to track him down.'
To Jack it was a disagreeable subject to discuss. Though the very fact that the distinguished Professor, who he had recently got to know as a fellow member of the newly convened Commission for Urban Safety, had saw fit to raise the matter, made him sit up and take notice.
There were few subjects, however dark or complex, which the clarity of his extraordinary brain could not illuminate. The Professor had the most prodigious of intellects. His mind was a vast, pitiless instrument, forever grinding, from the crude dross of life, hard, immutable, gems of knowledge. And yet, in spite of this, it was difficult to believe that even he could have stumbled upon some vital information concerning those baffling murders, unbeknown to the investigating authorities.
'But surely, Professor, the police are pouring more manpower and resources into this investigation all the time. It has top priority as far as they’re concerned.’
'Yes, and it's getting them nowhere.' Winterman shook his head dismissively. 'They have the wherewithal; but they haven't an idea. They don’t even have the haziest description of him. Of course,’ a sliver of a smile appeared on his face, 'they make a few confident noises now and again. But those are just public relations exercises, to try to reassure the public and to keep the politicians on board.’
Jack pulled his face into a scowl. 'But these are experienced professionals. They must know something? They must have some idea?'
'We've waited over two years for them to unearth something, Jack, and we're still waiting.'
Of course it was a difficult case, but it seemed incredible to Jack that the police, with all the organizational and technical resources at their disposal, could be so utterly impotent before the murderous hegemony of that odious sneak killer, who had already strewn ten corpses about the city and who could strike again at any time. He looked the Professor in the face. 'What can you know, that they don't?'
Winterman leaned forward, and said, with his voice at a rather lower register than normal: 'As I’ve already mentioned, this whole business has been at the forefront of my mind these last few months. I’ve thought about it, even when attending to other matters. I've weighed up and accounted for every relevant factor of this case. Dates of the killings, time of day, locations, the means of death, and the identity and profession of each victim. I’ve even taken into account the weather conditions.'
'So what?' asked a nearly exasperated Jack.
'Because of this critical examination, I have managed to discern, behind these apparently random, opportunist killings, a secret design, and a hidden plan, which the police have managed to overlook in their investigations. Not only does this enlighten me about the motives of the killings, it also gives me an insight into the mind of the perpetrator. But what is far more crucial and significant, is that after a thorough, detailed and forensic examination and analysis of all the material and data available, one can actually predict, with confidence and I would say irrefutable certainty, where and when he will strike next.’ He sat back and smiled too himself with unrestrained self-satisfaction.
Jack felt his body shiver as if he was in a cold draught rather than a warm room. 'I don't believe it!' he exclaimed, with palpable alarm in his voice. ‘That can’t be true. You’d have to be a clairvoyant, with supernatural powers, to know something like that.’
‘This is about rational analysis, not mystical mumbo-jumbo, Jack. I know how this person’s mind works. I know what makes him tick. I comprehend the demons and obsessions that drive him. And knowledge, as they say, is power.’ The Professor looked on with imperturbable self-possession and confidence. 'In ten days’ time, not a dozen miles from this building, the next victim is due to be murdered. And that's fact, not supposition.'
‘If all this is true, and it takes some swallowing, Professor, then why on earth haven't you told the police about this? Surely, they should be the first people to know.'
'I thought of that at one time. But, unfortunately, there are a number of problems involved. One; would the police actually believe me, a meddlesome dilettante, as they'd no doubt see it, interfering in their business. Two; even if they did accept my thesis, what would happen if this information got into the hands of the press in some way. The police department can leak like a sieve when there’s a high profile case on hand. This is confidential information I have. It‘s not for public consumption. It’s got to be kept under wraps.’
Jack reluctantly nodded his head. Winterman always thought of everything.
'Well surely,' the Professor went on, 'if such a scenario came about, the alerted murderer would immediately change his plans. And knowing that someone knew all about his modus operandi, he might even leave for another city; realizing that things are too hot here. He might embark on another series of murders, in another locality. Or give up on his murderous activities altogether. And then I'd be in the dark as well as the police.’
'Yes, I see what you mean,' said Jack, who couldn't fault any of those claims.
'There is also a third reason for my decision not to involve the police. Though I’m afraid it is rather more self-orientated than the other two. Though I still think that it’s perfectly valid, nevertheless. Why should they get all the credit and the kudos for all the work and effort I’ve put into this business?’
To Jack this third was indeed the least sympathetic and substantial of the three reasons; being an appeal to intellectual vanity rather than the good of the community.
At last Jack asked Winterman a question he had meant to raise since entering his house that evening. 'Professor, why did you insist on inviting me over here, out of the blue, and telling me this extraordinary story? Out of your many distinguished colleagues and acquaintances? Why me?'
The academic looked across at his accomplice and smiled generously. 'Because I know, through personal contact, and by reputation, that you are a man of total discretion, Jack, whose word, and whose trust and loyalty can be relied upon one hundred percent. And there aren't many people you can say that about these days.'
Jack felt duly flattered at that fulsome tribute; though a core of suspicion still remained.
A strange glint lit Winterman's eyes. 'Just imagine, Jack - if two members of the community, without any assistance from the police or anyone else; acting entirely on their own initiative - were to apprehend this monster, before he could wield the knife, and then bring him to justice. Could you even begin to envisage the prestige and the fame that would flow their way? And the sheer gratitude and thanks which every class, and every member of the community would feel towards them?'
Jack was stunned. 'You want me to help you tackle this serial killer!' So that was what the eerie conversation of the night was leading to.
'Yes,' Winterman nodded, eagerly. 'Because I know his next move. Therefore, we have the advantage over him, and can take him completely by surprise.'
'Two of us, with that maniac!’
'The man's a coward, not a superman. He kills only single people, in sneak attacks, at night, usually from the back. With two people, who know precisely what they're doing, and who know his plans, beforehand, he wouldn't stand a chance.' He paused. 'Jack, the burdens of responsibility now fall upon us, whether we like it or not. I've already explained why we can't get the police involved. Therefore, we have to act on this matter. No one else will. We can’t shirk our duty, and walk away. However onerous it might seem, we owe it to society to take responsibility for stopping this man.’
Jack shrugged his shoulders and nodded his head in reluctant agreement to Winterman's drastic proposal. If the stakes were that high, if they could actually bring to an end the city's two year long nightmare - as the Professor himself, with all his awesome powers of intellect, believed - then perhaps it was worth the risk?
'Well...' Jack struggled to compose his thoughts.
'Good, I knew you'd agree, Jack; a solid, public spirited man like yourself.' He patted him on the shoulder. They got down to a discussion of their plans.
‘Just what sort of pattern is involved in these murders?’ asked Jack, at one point.
‘Only I and the murderer know that. It’s of fiendish complexity, Jack. And way above the heads of most people. It involves mathematics, of a pretty high order, and obscure symbolism. There are even some elements of the Kabbalah involved. It took me months of painstaking effort to work it out, after reading all the newspaper cuttings and playing back old news bulletins and documentaries about the murders. I even had to pull out of a number of engagements, in order to give it my full attention. I wish I had the time even to begin to sketch it out to you. Aside from which, I have to be off early in the morning; and I still haven’t finished packing yet.’ He shrugged his shoulders. ‘I’m afraid I’m a last minute man when it comes to things like this. My main purpose now is in stopping this lethal plan from being fulfilled, and to save the lives of those he wishes to kill. I’ll try and explain the substance of it, once that crucial objective is out of the way.’
‘It sounds as if he’s quite a clever sod? As well as being a sick bastard.’
‘Oh, this isn’t your average killer. If there is such a thing?’
‘D’you have any idea who the killer is? His actual identity.’
‘No. It’s the pattern, the unique configuration of these crimes, and the strange psychology of the killer, that concern me. And which gives me the key to this case. As to who the actual individual is, behind these ghastly murders; well, I haven’t an idea. And I deal in certainties, not speculation.’
‘So it could be anybody?’
‘Yes. But we shall soon find out.’
‘There could be a lucrative book deal in this, for you, Professor?’ suggested Jack, with a hint of sly humour.
‘That’s the very least I expect.’ He put an hand on Jack’s elbow. ‘We shall have our hour in the sun, Jack.’
‘I think I shall need counseling.’
'Jack, I'll be out of town for the best part of the next ten days. As I said before, I have to leave first thing in the morning. There's an important seminar on the psychological interpretation of mythology, at East Hampton, that I've agreed to attend. And this is one engagement I can’t pull out of. Top academics and experts are going to be there, from across the world. They want me to give the key address, chair the subsequent debate, and then help to summarize whatever conclusions might have been reached. Though it might be just a useless talking shop with some of the pompous windbags that will be attending. But,’ he shrugged, ‘we shall see.’
Of course, the worthy Professor was always in demand. Many organizations made liberal use of his expert talents and his powerful, penetrating mind, as if he was a national resource, freely on tap. And Winterman was sufficiently energetic - even, hyper-active - to fulfill many social obligations. And yet, though many viewed the Professor in an extremely positive light, there were inevitably, those of a more saturnine and cynical cast – some of whom indeed were fellow academics - who looked on at him, and his many works, with positive jealousy and loathing.
'Meet me ten days from tonight; that's a Thursday - by the statue of Pan, at the center of Centennial Park.’
'Is that where ..?'
Winterman nodded his head grimly. ‘Yes. At eleven thirty in the evening someone will walk by the statue. Someone who takes an evening stroll through the park, at that time, as part of his daily routine; passing the statue along the way. And who the killer has carefully observed before now.’
‘How can you be so certain?’
‘It’s what the plan specifies, as the next, inevitable move. So you and I must get there at precisely eleven o’clock, Jack; ahead of the killer and his victim. There are plenty of bushes and shrubs we can use as cover.’
‘Okay, I’ll be here,’ said Jack, with leaden resignation. ‘Though I must say, eleven thirty seems a bit late for someone to be taking a stroll.’
‘Obviously something of a night owl.’ He leaned forward. ‘But I must insist, Jack, that you don't mention this to a living soul. Indeed it must be as if this meeting between us tonight never took place. As I mentioned earlier, if this information became any kind of common currency, and the killer got to hear a hint of it, he'd just go back into hiding and our plans would be scotched. That’s why only we can, and must, be privy to it. Confidentiality is the key to this whole business. Also, don't ring, or contact me in any way, during the interim. I must rely on your utmost discretion, Jack. Don’t let me down. Lives are on the line in this business. The next time and place we meet is where I've already stated.' He nodded his head sombrely. 'That's the day of reckoning.'
Jack was equally solemn in reply: 'You have my word, Professor. I won’t let you down.'
‘Good man.’ He patted him on the back again. ‘I know I’m asking a lot. And you’ve every right to be anxious and concerned. It’s certainly how I’d feel. But in ten days you’ll see the logic and inevitability of the whole thing. This is no wild goose chase; believe me. And we will be performing a vital public service.’
Twenty minutes later a sobered Jack Stanier made his way homewards, through the bracing winter night. By the time he reached his doorstep he'd concluded that playing a few rubbers of bridge, however tedious it might have been, would have been a much more agreeable, though less stimulating a prospect, than the grim undertaking he had agreed to that night.
For Jack, the ten days dragged interminably. The fear and tension caused by the prospect of coming face to face with that monster proved at times almost unbearable. His wife and work colleagues, sensing that something was amiss, expressed their concerns about the state of his health. He told them that he was under the weather, and would be right in a few days’ time. Yet the knowledge that he would be doing an immense service to society and that the redoubtable Professor Winterman would be there with him - having already assured him that they would be inevitably successful in that chilling confrontation - made him able to face, despite his terrors, that awesome challenge.
At length the evening came.
The park was eerie and quiet, apart from the rustle of the trees in the wind and the cry of a distant bird. It was ten minutes since he had arrived at the scene, by foot, and by an indirect route, as instructed by the Professor; after giving his wife an excuse about meeting some old school chums at a restaurant. Snow was falling from the sky and was inches thick upon the ground. Behind him, in the darkness, stood the statue of Pan on his lofty pedestal, with his horns, scraggy beard, cloven feet and reed pipes. A spirited Victorian interpretation of that timeless creature of myth. A cold wind scythed across the park, blowing thick flakes of snow onto his face. He shivered, but not just from the bracing weather. Before him the park stretched like a vast, impenetrable shadow.
He stood near a gnarled old tree, that he could recall climbing in his youth. The sudden renewal of those happy memories, from a more innocent time, cheered him for a while, and he smiled to himself and nodded his head. But the feeling was brief and fragile. For now, in the winter darkness, in the cold night air, and divested of its leaves, it didn't appear as the friendly presence of old, but seemed gaunt, and strange, and sinister.
He stamped his feet and blew warm breath into his cupped hands. He'd needed an ample stock of Dutch courage to face the prospect before him that night, and he carried a whisky flask in a side pocket; but the effects of the drink were rapidly wearing off, leaving him feeling jaded and sluggish.
All his doubts and misgivings began to burgeon. Was it all some elaborate practical joke on the Professor's part; an outlandish confidence trick, with himself as the unwitting dupe? Should he be there at all, in a deserted park, on such a cold, wintry night? On such a bizarre venture? He thought again of the Professor's smug, superior demeanor, and his haughty, disdainful manner, and wondered if he could entirely be trusted?
His nerves were jolted by the sudden barking of a dog in the far distance. A further ten minutes passed, and he wondered why the Professor was late, when he had insisted that they both get there on time? The idea of being there, on his own, with a ruthless killer on the loose, was almost too unbearable to think about. Then he heard some footsteps in the distance, that alerted all his senses. He picked out a distinctly human form, at first a mere shadow that moved through the desolate park. It steadily came towards him.
'Professor!' said Jack, in as loud a voice as he felt appropriate.
'Jack,' came Winterman's unmistakable voice, in reply.
Despite his earlier misgivings, a wave of relief and euphoria broke, like soft spray, over Jack's hunched, tension-ridden body.
'Am I glad you've arrived,' he whispered into the pool of darkness still separating them; 'with that maniac out there.’
'He isn't out there, Jack. He's right here.'
Before he could even begin to ponder the meaning of those cryptic words, Jack perceived a glint of reflected light on the polished edge of a knife blade. A knife directly pointed towards him, and held, fixedly, in Winterman's right hand.
The Professor reached the point of rendezvous, and Jack could just make out his face in the weak light. He was visibly grinning, as if at the enjoyment of some private joke.
'How else d'you think I knew when he'd strike?'
Blood drained from Jack's face. In the space of a mere second the whole terrible truth dawned upon him, shattering the entire edifice of his confidence, as a surging tide would topple a child's sand-castle. Stunned into disbelief he faced the murderer. 'It was you! All the time!' He shook his head with infinite regret.
Jack - now utterly unsure and uncertain of himself; his breath tremulous and his hands shaking - took some steps backwards. He lost his footing and almost fell over. He shook his arms and screamed in terror. But it was too late to escape or summon help. Winterman thrust the knife blade into his body.
'What did I tell you Jack,' cawed Winterman with malicious humour; ‘he would never dream of attacking two men. That's why he was so grateful you consented to be alone.'
The knife blade entered repeatedly Jack's torso. The body fell untidily to the snow covered ground. He rolled over, let out a low moan and expired.
The killing done, the murderer disappeared from the scene. The next morning the body was discovered. The investigation began anew.
Michael Noonan lives in Halifax (famous for its Piece Hall), West Yorkshire, England, and has a background in food production, retail and office work. Have had stories, entitled, The Stairway to Paradise, and The Hold-up, published in the anthology volumes, ‘Even More Tonto Tales’, and ‘Shades of Sentience’; the latter an Australian publication. He wrote an article on the Kubrick movie 2001 A Space Odyssey that has been published by Bridge Eight Magazine, in Florida; a fairy-tale he penned, entitled, The Guardian of the Wood, has been published in the Fantasy Arts and Studies journal in France, and a story he wrote, called, The Personality Cult, has been published by Terror House Magazine, based in Budapest, Hungary. He's had an article on the Titanic published in a literary anthology called Watermarks, in aid of the Calder Valley Flood Relief Charity, and an article he wrote – using the pseudonym, Albert Hall - about J.G. Ballard has been published on the cultural literary website; www.literaryyard.com. He won second prize in the Pen Nib International Writing Competition 2021 for an essay, Who Guards the Guardians (about the unacknowledged power of the press and the media). He's had a short story, The Labyrinth, printed in the anthology volume, Colp: Underground, in Australia, and his tale, All the Time in the World has been published in Fission #2 Volume 1: Stories from the British Science Fiction Association. His story, Count on Me, has been published in the anthology collection, And the Dead Shall Sleep No More: Volume 11. He has had a volume of his short stories published, entitled, Seven Tall Tales, which is available at Amazon as a book or a kindle. His comic one act play, entitled, Elvis and the Psychiatrist, has been shown at the Sundance ten minute comedy festival at the Sixth Theatre in Racine Wisconsin, and another one act drama, A Restive Audience, has been published in HELLO GODOT! AN ANTHOLOGY OF ONE ACT PLAYS Volume 2 by Som. He also enjoys painting, drawing and photography.
Photo by Yaopey Yong on Unsplash
Eleanor Bradly moved in and out of the heavy downtown traffic with ease. A light mist engulfed her car. The windshield wipers squeaked across the damp surface. Her pounding headache intensified. She had to get home before…
The swirling images meshed together into a glob of nothingness. Her mouth opened but no words came out. Why? Her eyelids were heavy as lead. She tried desperately to fight the urge to succumb to the darkness.
Voices. A male voice. Repeating her name. Over and over. “Eleanor Bradly. Can you hear me? Eleanor Bradly. Open your eyes.” She wanted it to stop. But something inside told her—listen to the voice. “Eleanor Bradly. You need to open your eyes,” came the stranger’s voice once again. Eleanor clenched her jaw. She struggled to unlock her sealed eyelids. Her mind faded in and out. Distorted images. Focus on the voice!
The lights were dim. An older thin man in a long, white lab coat. Eleanor could see the stranger’s face. Peppered gray hair. Wrinkles pulled into a wide smile. Green eyes peered above the thin wired glasses set on a pointed nose. A square clean-shaven chin. He held up his index finger.
“How many fingers can you see, Eleanor Bradly?” asked the male voice. He stood waiting for an answer. Eleanor squinted. She could see clearly—one.
Eleanor swallowed. Her throat was dry. “One,” she croaked. The mysterious male gave a solid nod up and down.
“I’m glad you’re back. You gave us quite a scare for a moment. How are you feeling, Eleanor?” His voice soft. The thought of her body had not entered her mind. She wiggled her fingers and toes. She hesitated.
“Any pain?” he asked. She slowly shook her head side to side. Eleanor glanced around the white room. Why was she in the hospital?
“Do you remember what happened to you?” he asked. She realized this man was a doctor.
“No.” The single word sound strained. The man came closer to the bed. He gently placed two fingers on the inside of her wrist then looked at his gold watch. Seconds later he took a step backwards. He crossed his arms and tilted his head.
“You don’t remember anything…anything at all?” he asked again. Eleanor sorted through the web of images. A car. Her car. Traffic. A headache. A bad headache. And then…nothing.
“Not too much. Driving and trying to get home. A headache…” her voice trailed off into silence. The doctor placed his hands within the pockets of the lab coat. He tilted his head to one side.
“You blacked out, Eleanor. And then hit a car. It could have been worse. You were lucky the vehicle was parked. You sustained a head wound. Slight concussion. Minor scrapes and bruises. I’d say you were lucky, Eleanor. It could have been much, much worse. I’m going to let you rest for a bit. The nurse will be in to check on you.” The doctor turned to leave.
“Wait!” she called out. “What’s your name, doctor?” He glanced back over his shoulder.
“Dr. Ebstein. Now rest.” And the man left the room. Eleanor suddenly felt spent. She closed her eyes and decided this time not to fight the darkness.
The dark coat stranger kept his back to Eleanor. The fedora hat tipped slightly to the right side. She knew him even without seeing his face. Eleanor called out. Her words drifted away in the wind. He did not move nor turn around. What is this place? Her muscles were taunt. Legs strong. Yet, she still could not move. Then slowly, slowly he inched his way around to face her.
A cold shiver jerked Eleanor from the peculiar dream. A nurse was checking her blood pressure. The warm cuff inflating to the brink of pain. She smiled at Eleanor and gave a quick nod of approval.
“Perfect. Dr. Ebstein will be in shortly. I’m sure you’ll be released today, Ms. Bradly.” The attendee turned and left Eleanor alone. The pain in her head was gone. She felt refreshed.
Suddenly, the wood door swung open. Dr. Ebstein walked in and glanced down at Eleanor. For a brief moment, he did not speak. Eleanor stared at the doctor in white. She still could not remember what happened and how she ended up at the hospital. In fact, she had no clue on how long she had been here. Or for that matter, what day it was either.
“Well, well, Eleanor. The color has returned to your face. How are you feeling?” Dr. Ebstein crossed his arms. A gold watch poked out from his long sleeve.
“Actually, I’m alright. Muscles are tight. No headache,” she responded. His head moved slightly.
“I’d say you’re good to go home. I’ll prescribe migraine medicine for your headaches. It’s not a cure, but it can be a deterrent. If you have any other questions, please feel free to give my office a call and they will schedule an appointment. Good luck to you, Eleanor.” Dr. Ebstein tapped her covered foot. Eleanor watched the doctor as he left the room. She glimpsed her clothes neatly folded in a pile on a chair.
Easing herself up, Eleanor sat at the very edge of the bed. Her feet dangled. Without hesitation, she plopped down onto the cold, linoleum floor. Minutes later, Eleanor was dressed and ready to leave. She pulled open the closed hospital door and exited down the long hallway. Outside the sun shined brightly. She squinted at the blinding sun. It was then she remembered she had been in a car accident. Where was her car? At a body shop? At the junk yard? Did it get towed to her house? Eleanor never bothered to ask. Nor did she bother asking the doctor how long she had been in the hospital. Where was her briefcase? Inside the car? With no cell phone or wallet, Eleanor had little choice.
“Excuse me. Is there a phone I could use? I was just released from the hospital and my briefcase is…is, I guess still inside my car. I was in a car accident. And I’m not sure where my car is either,” explained Eleanor. The attending receptionist was stoic. The senior citizen pointed to an off-white courtesy phone on the tiny table near the waiting room chairs.
“Thank you very much,” said Eleanor. She picked up the phone then stopped. Who could she call for a ride? For a moment, she couldn’t remember her brother’s number. As she began to set down the phone, a number popped into her head. Quickly, she placed the call.
“Hello?” answered a deep male voice. Eleanor blinked. “Hello?”
“Gabe?” whispered Eleanor. Silence filled the line between them.
“Eleanor? Is that you?” asked Gabe.
“Can you pick me up?” asked Eleanor. “I’m…I’m at the hospital. I had a car accident. I don’t remember much. I was just released. And I don’t know where my briefcase is or my car, for that matter.”
“A car accident? How could the hospital release you without giving you any kind of information…especially the whereabouts of your car?” Gabe exhaled. “Was it totaled?”
“I…I don’t know. My briefcase was in the car. It had my wallet and cell phone. It’s not at the hospital. I’m just confused, Gabe.” Eleanor ran her fingers through her mussed-up hair.
“I’ll be right there. Which hospital, Eleanor?” he asked. Eleanor looked around the waiting room. People moving back and forth. A huge sign hung over the exit.
“Center Side Cedar,” said Eleanor. “I’ll be right out front. Thanks Gabe.”
“See you soon,” replied her brother.
They both remained silent as he maneuvered in and out of afternoon traffic. Gabe had taken the liberty in contacting the police with regards to where his sister’s car had been towed. Within thirty minutes, Gabe pulled into the only impound lot in Grand Rapids. Eleanor instinctively reached for her purse. But it wasn’t there. She let out a huge sigh.
“It’s okay, I’ve got this,” said Gabe. She gave him a half smile.
“I’ll pay you back. Hopefully, my wallet is still inside my briefcase and everything else,” commented Eleanor. The two of them walked to the small brick building. Inside, behind the shatterproof plexiglass, sat a female police officer. The long ponytail pulled behind her pretty, young face, swished back and forth as she skirted to greet them.
“May I help you?” she asked through the round mic. Eleanor leaned closer and explained her situation. The officer gave a slight nod.
“Give me a moment,” replied the young woman. She disappeared through a door. Gabe was looking out of the window at the locked, electronic metal gate. Eleanor shuffled over to her brother.
“I guess she’s looking for my car,” commented Eleanor. Gabe did not reply. Minutes later, a tapping noise emanated from behind the partition. Eleanor instantly turned around.
“Ms. Bradly? You do realize your vehicle cannot be driven. You’ll have to arrange for a tow truck. Then it can be released. The investigation on the accident is still pending. You may want to inform your insurance company.” The female officer waited for a response.
“I understand. But I need to retrieve some personal items from my vehicle. There is my briefcase…cell phone, things of that nature inside my car. Any chance you can take me to my car and I’ll just get them out?” asked Eleanor.
“I’m sorry. I cannot allow you inside the impound lot.” The young woman turned to leave again.
“Wait!” called Eleanor. “Please, could you go and get my things? I really need them. I don’t even have the keys to my apartment.” Eleanor placed her hands together as if she were in prayer. The officer hesitated.
“Sure. Give me a couple of minutes.” Leaving Eleanor standing there. Gabe finally turned to face his sister.
“I hope your things are still in the car, Eleanor. Just because they’re cops don’t mean they won’t take them. Not all cops are honest.” Gabe turned away. Eleanor nibbled on her thumb nail. Several minutes passed by. She crossed her arms and thought about the accident. Why can’t she remember what happened?
“Gabe, did the doctor tell you what happened…what happened to me?” she asked her brother. Once again, he turned to face his sister. He gave a quick shake of head back and forth.
“Just that you blacked out and hit a parked car. Some bystander called 911 and the ambulance came and the paramedics took you to the Emergency Room at Cedar. Your car was towed to the impound lot. That sums it up little sister. You’re lucky it wasn’t much worse. Now, the million-dollar question is why did you black out?” explained Gabe.
Eleanor shrugged her shoulders. She had no clue. Suddenly, the side door opened into the waiting lobby. The young officer step inside. She was holding Eleanor’s briefcase.
“Here you go, Ms. Bradly. I checked the floor of the vehicle. The briefcase was intact.” Eleanor smiled at the woman.
“Thank you. I will call my insurance company right away. They can decide what to do about my car.” Eleanor touched her brother’s arm. The two of them left the impound lot.
As they drove away, Eleanor quickly checked the inside of the briefcase. She felt the keys at the bottom of the bag. The cell phone screen touched her fingers. Eleanor let out a huge sigh.
“Is it all there?” asked Gabe while he glanced at his sister. Eleanor gave a slight nod.
“It’s all accounted for including my wallet. That’s a relief. Can you take me back to my place, Gabe?” Eleanor placed the briefcase on the floor between her legs.
“Sure. Did you want me to come in for a bit? I can help you get settled…” his voice trailed off.
“I’ll be fine. I think I’m going to lay down and take a nap. For some odd reason, I feel exhausted.” Eleanor looked out the side passenger window.
“Well, you’ve been through a lot, Eleanor…with the accident…and just being released from the hospital. I’d say anyone would be exhausted after all that just happened.” Silence filled the moving car.
“It could have been so much worse, little sister,” said Gabe in a low voice. “You could have been…” Gabe stopped talking. His eyes watered. Eleanor watched her older brother tear up.
“But I didn’t, Gabe. I’m fine. Just a little tired. How about lunch tomorrow? I’ll let you treat me. Seaside Café. One o’clock?” asked Eleanor in a light voice. Her brother forced a half smile. He turned the steering wheel a hard left then started to slow down in front of the two-story apartment building. Gabe stopped the car. Eleanor unbuckled her seat belt then reached down for her briefcase.
“One o’clock—sharp,” he said. Eleanor leaned in to her brother and placed a quick peck on his stubbly cheek.
“See you tomorrow…and thanks again.” Eleanor slipped out the passenger door and gave a quick wave over her shoulder as her brother drove away. She fumbled for her keys to the weather-beaten metal door. With only four apartments, it rendered itself a quiet and peaceful place to live. But before she could stick her key inside the lock, it slowly opened up. Eleanor backed up to let whoever it was out. Instead, a tiny white haired elderly woman peaked out. Her granny glasses in the middle of her thin, pointed nose. Many wrinkles pulled across her aged face.
“Hello, Mrs. Jenson,” said Eleanor. The old woman shuffled further out the opened door. The flowered dress hung loose on her frail frame. Her bare feet riddled with arthritis.
“And who are you?” she asked squinting. Eleanor gave a sad smile. It must be hard never knowing what memories would still be there each day. Mrs. Jensen had been diagnosed with the beginning stages of dementia.
“I’m Eleanor Bradley, Mrs. Jenson. I live in the apartment directly above you—apartment number four.” The old woman tilted her head.
“Eleanor…oh, Eleanor. Why deary, have you seen my cat? She must have got out. I don’t why she insists on running outside all the time?” The old woman took another step outside. She looked all around.
“Mrs. Jenson…you don’t have a cat,” stated Eleanor. The aged lady’s eyebrows crunched.
“I don’t? Oh, that’s right. I have a dog. Now where did she go? I let her out to do her business and that silly mutt ran off,” she huffed. Eleanor gently took hold of the elderly woman’s elbow.
“Mrs. Jenson…you don’t have a dog, either. Let’s get you back inside. You don’t have any shoes on. How about a cup of tea?” asked Eleanor while guiding Mrs. Jenson back inside her cluttered apartment. Once inside, Eleanor helped her to the couch. Seconds later, Mrs. Jenson had fallen asleep. Eleanor draped the worn, torn blanket over the sleeping lady. She quietly left locking door behind her.
Eleanor walked the two flights of steps to her own apartment. Using her key, the door opened into her cozy dwelling. Oriental throw rugs decorated the varnished wooden floors. An oval shaped table with two spindled chairs doubled for her kitchen table and desk. White cupboards, which needed painting, were way beyond their use. But Eleanor considered them antiquated. A single based sink and a black and white tiled countertop shined. The appliances were second hand and well used. The kitchen opened into her living room space which housed one brand new cushioned couch, an end table with a lighthouse lamp, and a poor excuse for a recliner. The 42-inch screen television was mounted on the wall above the fake fireplace. Down the narrow hallway was a half-bath and shower and her 10x10 bedroom. It wasn’t much, but Eleanor called it home.
Eleanor tossed her keys into the shell-shaped half dish on the countertop. She felt tired and drained as if she had exercised all morning. Plopping down onto the comfy couch then rested her heavy head. Her eyes dry and itchy she briefly closed them. Within minutes, Eleanor was fast asleep.
Swirling dreams and images of people she did not recognize. Asking. Pleading for her help. Help with what? She tried to speak, but no words came out of her mouth. The room around her had light blue walls. Bright. Cheery. But full of people. Strange people. Young and old. Asking and pleading…pleading and asking. She shook her head back and forth. Everywhere she turned—strangers. All wanting--her! Suddenly, her breathing slowed and the spinning images slowly disappeared. Eleanor gasped for air then quickly leaned forward. Her eyes popped open. Sweat lined her upper lip and brow. Glancing about her tiny apartment, she realized she was alone.
Eleanor got up and called her brother, Gabriel. He answered by the second ring.
“You, okay?” he asked before Eleanor could get out a word. She smiled
“Yes…yes…I’m fine. I just had a strange dream even though I was barely asleep for…” Eleanor did not finish her sentence. It was then she noticed the clock on the wall. If it was correct, she had been asleep almost three hours. How was it possible?
“Eleanor? Are you still there?” asked Gabe. Eleanor walked quickly to her bedroom. An alarm clock sat on her dresser.
“This can’t be,” she mumbled.
“Eleanor! Please answer me! What’s going on?” pleaded her brother. She gently sat on the edge of her bed.
“I thought…I thought I closed my eyes for a second but…it seems I took a nap for almost three hours,” she explained. Gabe cleared his throat.
“Happens to me, too. You just got out of the hospital, Eleanor. Cut yourself some slack. You're tired from the drugs they probably pumped into you after arriving at the hospital. Don’t beat yourself up.”
“So THAT’s why I had such an unusual dream,” said Eleanor. “Must have been the medication.”
“You want to tell me about your crazy dream?” asked Gabe. Eleanor hesitated.
“Why not? So, I was in this room…bright colors. Just standing in the middle of this room surrounded by people—strangers. They were all talking to me. Asking me, pleading with me, to do something. I don’t know what. I tried to talk, but it was as if I had no voice. Scrambled words coming from all different kinds of people—young and old.” Silence filled the line between them.
“Maybe you had some type of out-of-body experience. I’ve watched a few shows about how head trauma can open a door to the other side,” replied Gabe. Eleanor couldn’t believe her ears.
“Are you saying I’m connected to another realm…as in dead people?” Eleanor exclaimed.
“I guess. I mean we don’t use our total brain capacity. In fact, we use very little. And some people I know, don’t use their brains at all, but that’s a totally different thing in itself. Anyway, I’m just saying you should consider the possibility, if you keep having the strange dreams or tell your doctor. They’ll arrange for another MRI. Or send you to a shrink.” Eleanor sat quietly.
“If it were me, I keep a record of the dreams. You’ve had bad headaches since you were a little girl. Maybe the car accident just reinforced a connection…a connection to the other side,” said Gabe.
“You’ve never talked about this subject with me. I mean, I’ve read books on the afterlife, but never once considered myself a medium of sorts,” said Eleanor.
“The connection could have been there the whole time. But you may have not recognized it. Just keep an open mind, Eleanor. And jot down anything you can remember when you dream. Did you want to stay with me?” he asked.
Eleanor thought for a moment. “No, Gabe. I’m fine here in my apartment. I’ll keep a journal in the nightstand. This way when I get up in the morning, I’ll jot down what I can remember. Why don’t we meet for lunch in a couple of days? It will be my treat.” Eleanor smiled.
“Sounds good to me. Just send me a text with the info. And Eleanor?” he said.
“Call me day or night. I’m here if you need me. Take care, Eleanor.” And with that said he disconnected the call between them.
The night was filled with a mirage of distorted images. People, endless people, reaching and trying to grab Eleanor as she waded through the sea of visions. Deep within her mind, she knew she was fast asleep in bed and that she was caught up in a tangled mess of dreams.
She awoke to the sound of her cell phone playing a familiar tune. Eleanor rubbed her dry eyes and reached for her phone. Blurred letters and numbers appeared on the screen.
“Hello?” she answered in a whispered voice. Static filled the line. “What in the name…” clicking off immediately. She dropped the cell phone back onto her nightstand. Eleanor sat up and glanced about her dark bedroom. Smokey apparitions evaporated as she gasped. Instantly, she threw back the covers and stood up. Alone. Spooky spirits lingering about her cozy apartment. Maybe she did whack her head in the accident. Besides the crazy dreams, now she could see ghostly shapes while she was awake!
Eleanor looked at the tiny alarm clock sitting on her dresser. Six o’clock. She stifled a yawn. It was then she remembered the journal. She reached for the small, lined book and the pen. Quickly, she jotted down what she could remember of the strange dreams and the wispy mirage.
Was Gabe serious about her connection to the next realm? Had it been there the whole time waiting to be opened? How could she deal with something so taboo on a daily basis? Who would believe her if, indeed, it was true?
The insurance company claimed the car irreparable. Eleanor sighed. She sat at her kitchen table and sipped the lukewarm coffee. She was scheduled to work the next day. Now, she’d have to take a bus downtown until she could find another decent, yet cheap, car. Uber was too expensive. She grappled with the idea of calling her brother and asking him for a ride. But then dismissed the thought entirely. Why should he spend his time carting her to and from work each day? It was too much to ask of her sibling bond.
The remainder of the day was spent catching up on emails and lightly cleaning her apartment. A couple of times, Eleanor went down to check on Mrs. Jenson only to be received by a vacant knock on the door. Worrying for the elderly, sweet woman, Eleanor tried once more around nine o’clock that evening. Finally, the squeaky door opened a smidge. Mrs. Jenson peered out.
“May I help you?” asked Mrs. Jenson in a shaky voice. Relieved, Eleanor leaned against the hallway.
“Hello, Mrs. Jenson…it’s me, Eleanor. Eleanor Bradley from the upstairs apartment? I thought I’d come down and see if you needed anything. I tried a couple of times today knocking on your door, but you must have been busy or taking a nap,” explained Eleanor. The old woman smiled.
“Eleanor…you say?” Well, I surely wasn’t taking a nap. You see, deary, you don’t need sleep when you’re dead!” exclaimed the aged senior. Eleanor’s eyebrows crunched together. Not sure how to respond to such an odd statement from her elderly neighbor.
“Just making sure you’re doing alright,” replied Eleanor. “Have a great evening.” Eleanor turned to leave.
“Oh Eleanor?” called out Mrs. Jenson. Eleanor faced her neighbor. “Thank you so much for all your help and concern over the years. You were a blessing, my dear.” And then Mrs. Jenson gently closed the door. Eleanor remained motionless. What was all that about?
Walking slowly up to her apartment, she thought maybe Mrs. Jenson was having a good day—a lucid day. But once inside, she jotted down in the journal her strange encounter with the elderly neighbor.
The following morning, Eleanor got up early in order to catch the 8:20 a.m. bus. As she headed down the steps, the door to Mrs. Jenson’s apartment was open. Two men were carrying out the old, worn sofa.
“What’s going on?” blurted Eleanor. Her heart thudded inside her chest. The younger of the two men slowly set down the ratted piece of furniture.
“Just cleaning out the apartment so a new tenant can move in, ma’am,” he said. Eleanor stepped down two more steps and peered inside Mrs. Jenson’s place.
“Where’s Mrs. Jenson?” she asked the man. Both men shrugged their shoulders.
“Mrs. Jenson? The elderly woman who lives in this apartment?” insisted Eleanor. Her face flushed.
“I heard she died a few days ago. We were hired by the landlord to move out stuff. We don’t know much more. Give him a call.” And with that said both men picked up the sofa and eased it out the front door to the dump truck.
“Few days ago? How’s that possible?” mumbled Eleanor. “They’re crazy! I just talked to her last night.” Eleanor quickly left the building to catch the bus. Many commuters were using the public transportation system leaving her with a back seat. She watched the traffic move slowly beside the bus. Her thoughts flew instantly to her neighbor, Mrs. Jenson. The moving men were probably wrong. Maybe Mrs. Jenson was taken to a care facility. At least there, someone could keep an eye on her. Eleanor noticed Mrs. Jenson’s behaviors were becoming more and more bizarre due to the progression of the dementia. She couldn’t imagine what it must feel like to slowly lose your mind. But then again, how would you know if you were losing your mind?
As the bus quickly emptied, Eleanor realized she was alone beside an old woman who held on to the metal bar attached to the seat in front of her. The elderly senior was humming a familiar tune. It was then Eleanor knew. It was a Yiddish song her grandmother would sing to her when she was a little girl. How can that be?
The old lady turned to face Eleanor. Her smile tugged at the endless wrinkles embedded into her aged face. “Hello, Eleanor. I missed you so,” she said with a slight German accent. Eleanor blinked several times. It can’t be!
“Grandma?” whispered Eleanor. “How…how…you’re dead…you died when I was…” Eleanor’s voice trailed off into silence.
“You’ve grown into a beautiful woman…my little Elle.” A name used only by Eleanor’s late grandmother.
“This isn’t real,” exclaimed Eleanor glued to her seat. The elderly grandmother smiled again.
“Anything is possible, Elle. You have a gift. A special gift. I had it too. Reach out and accept your destiny, Elle. It’s awaiting you. Don’t be afraid.” Suddenly, the bus came to a complete stop jerking Eleanor from her trance. The backdoor of the bus opened. It was Eleanor’s stop. A whisp of smoke dissipated where her grandmother sat.
“Grandma?” Eleanor stood up and twirled around.
“Hey lady! Are you getting off or what?” yelled the impatient bus driver. Eleanor’s heart beat against her chest. Was she losing her mind?
“I’m getting off!” replied Eleanor loudly. Almost tripping down the three steps to the concrete, she hurriedly moved away from the bus. As it slowly crept away, her deceased grandmother waved. Eleanor lifted her hand to the impossible image inside the bus. No one in their right mind would ever believe her.
A horn blew as she stepped off the curb. Eleanor jumped back. She waited anxiously to cross the four lanes of traffic. But it was never ending.
“I’m going to be late for work,” she muttered. Without hesitation, Eleanor moved swiftly toward the corner. The light changed. She dashed across the road staying within the boundaries of the fading crosswalk. Eleanor pushed on the heavy glass door. A few patrons turned to look at her as she entered the diner. Jack Wilson, the owner, was wiping the counter.
“Morning, Eleanor…I saw you get off the bus. Car trouble?” he asked. Eleanor forced a smile as she passed him.
“You could say that,” she replied. Eleanor opened up a side door that had the word OFFICE stenciled in black letters. She plopped down in the rickety wood chair at the worn oak desk. Eleanor turned on the computer. Instantly, it came to life. As she started her data entry work for the day, her thoughts drifted back to the strange incident on the bus. Was she dreaming or was it truly her grandmother in spirit?
Eleanor kept typing. Minutes later she called her brother from the diner’s landline. He answered immediately. Before he could say a word, she delved into what had happened at her apartment building with Mrs. Jenson and her brief encounter with their dead grandmother on the bus. Gabe remained silent.
“Did you hear what I said, Gabe?” Eleanor’s blood pressure increased. A slight pain inched its way behind her left eye. “I think…I think I’m going crazy!”
“I heard. We discussed this before Eleanor. I truly believe the accident only confirmed the realization of your gift. Our grandmother was different. Mom would get so upset when people called grandma a ‘crazy lady’. But I believed her when she would tell us stories. Why else would she tell them? She could see people—dead people. Communicate with them. And you can too!” he exclaimed.
“So…so THAT’s why I have…what you call a gift? Because our grandmother could see things others can’t? Is that what you are trying to tell me? What if I don’t want it?” Eleanor couldn’t accept what seemed to be so obvious.
Her brother sighed. “Accept the inevitable, Elle. Don’t fight it. Embrace it. Who knows…you might find it useful,” he chuckled.
Eleanor closed her eyes. She felt defeated but also elated. Her life was changing—for better or worse? Only she could be the judge of what her future could hold.
Alice Baburek is an avid reader, determined writer and animal lover. She lives with her partner and four canine companions in northeast Ohio. Retired from one of the largest library systems in Ohio, she challenges herself to become an unforgettable emerging voice.
Photo by Alex Dukhanov on Unsplash
“Never ever forget that we are all commie members,” my granny would impress upon me. “And that means we share everything.”
Cosmo Goldsmith is a 'semi-retired' English and Drama teacher with a passion for all forms of creative writing. He has had poems and a short story published in British and American magazines over the last three years.
Trademark, by Jenna Calloway
Photo by Viviane Okubo on Unsplash
The sound – a loud clang and elongated scratch – jarred him awake. Dylan clutched his throbbing head and swallowed down the rising remnants of his scrambled egg/Rainbow Skittle breakfast. His tongue felt thick, chalky. His head…where was he? He rubbed at his scalp, trying to eliminate the haze. He couldn’t believe he agreed to play – again! Even as they’d held the chloroform up to his face, minor doubts began to assert themselves. Mostly, it had been his mother’s voice expounding on the dangers of the internet. The stupidity of the Tide Pod Challenge. “That boy died of liver failure, you know!” Still, it was too hard to resist both the adrenaline rush and the thrill of inclusion by the clique squad. Popular kids didn’t invite just anyone to their well-established circles. Especially a newbie. Dylan squeezed his eyes shut; the sound again – louder, grating. Think, dammit, it’s all part of the game, right?!
The Reverse Hide and Seek Challenge was straightforward (notwithstanding obtaining the right chemicals), the only differences from the original game were that the player was knocked unconscious, hidden by the group, and, upon wakening, had to seek home within the allotted time frame. Simple. Dylan let out a breath. The name of the clanging and scratching sound sat on the tip of his tongue, but his fuzzy brain couldn’t grasp it. More clues. Somewhere warm. He wiped a sheen of sweat from his forehead. Where was he? He looked at his watch. Technically, illumination wasn’t allowed but the light was faint at best. 3:15 pm? No. Impossible. His allotted time ended in 15 minutes. How had he…crap, an overdose! Suck-ass bastards!
Adrenaline surged through his system, plunging his brain into hyper-focus. Well-played, boys! Game freaking on! That sound…his brain swirled, then landed. It was so familiar, he himself made it each time his mother asked him to clear snow off the sidewalk. A shovel, hitting then dragging over concrete! Ok. That narrowed things down. Dylan shifted; his bones cracked in protest. It was cramped, the wall hard against his back. Somewhere dark, confined. The woodshop cupboards? There were always shovels for cleaning up sawdust and wood scraps. No. Wouldn’t be this muggy. So? Dylan lifted his wrist, directing the watch’s light above his head. Outlines formed amongst the dark shadows: loaded shelves and textured brick walls. The school’s pottery studio! The extra-large wood-fired kiln. Ha! It was close to the parking lot where he was supposed to meet them. Idiots! He just had to…Dylan slumped against the brick wall, all oxygen leaving his body. Oh, shit! The kiln. He was inside the actual kiln!
Dylan took in a few deep breaths. Think, it’s just a game. He shone the dim light towards the shelves. Vague shapes lined each unit: vases, mugs, plates, and disfigured faces staring through uneven eyes with fanged, lopsided grins. Ogre bowls. Deep bowls with grotesque appearances holding yarn for crafters who inexplicably enjoyed pulling woolen snot from creatures’ nostrils. The school’s pet project. Apparently, there was a huge global market. Dylan shook his head. The world was full of freaks.
Yet…his heart accelerated…if the shelves were lined to this degree then - Double shit!!
He screamed, shrill and unyielding.
Someone had to hear him; someone was working that shovel! They may be preparing to light the fire. Dylan hyperventilated. No, not preparing. Ms. Jacobs’ lectures cascaded through his mind. 2300 degrees Fahrenheit! Ash and coal. Fire bars to feed… The firebox! It was located just in front of the loading entrance to the chamber. Ok. Thick air, rising temperature, oxygen depletion. Calm the hell down. Dylan exhaled. Slow your breath. Still time.
He moved carefully around the shelves. There was a low space, not much, but enough to belly-crawl through. Besides, Ms. Jacobs and Principal Walters would not be pleased if he damaged any of the creations. Additional funding for the school and all that. He visualized the kiln, moving as quickly around the chamber as his crouched position allowed. Chimney stack…chamber…he touched the loading entrance. It was walled off.
Shut up, he admonished himself, fighting panic. Standard procedure. Don’t lose it. He leaned into the wall and cried out, “I’M HERE!!”
“Did…hear?” A faint voice from outside said.
Dylan bit his lip. Ms. Jacobs! She heard him! He brushed the loading entrance, fingers sliding over the warm bricks, hoping… Yes! Dry stacked! Small gaps allowing for the contraction and expansion of gasses. “Ms. Jacobs! I’m here!” Dylan screamed through the minute openings. His fingers found purchase, skin scraping as he pushed and pulled at the brick. Tiny drops of blood dripped down his wrist, obscuring the watch’s tiny beacon of light. Didn’t matter. She heard him…she…
Dylan listened. Other voices.
“Sorry…Baxley singing…badly. Might…heard.” The shovel sounded again, faster this time.
No! Confess, please!! Dylan shrieked, pounding on the brick, his heart thumping unsteadily until he collapsed.
He pressed his lips against the wall. “You…win,” Dylan croaked, his voice spent, “Here…” He took in a hot breath, lungs struggling for air. “I’m…here.”
“Fired the kiln over the weekend, Jane?” Constable Lake said to his long-time friend, looking around the pottery studio.
Ms. Jacobs nodded, removing the last of the ogre bowls. “We had a lucrative new order. I heard Dylan went missing. Did you find him?”
“No. That’s the fourth kid in two years. I’ll put him on the missing registry, same as the others but…” Constable Lake shrugged, “I doubt he’ll be found. Chase and Baxley mentioned Dylan talked of running away. I just need to ask a few follow-up questions.”
“They’re diligently cleaning up, as per usual. Back soon if you care to wait.”
Constable Lake looked at the immaculately clean kiln and walked to the display table. He picked up an ogre bowl. “Sure. These are beautiful. The boys mentioned they helped prepare everything - said the key to the glaze is…”
“All in the ash. They are my best students.”
This year, Jenna Calloway has had two pieces of short fiction published: French Cuisine by Jenna Calloway for Flash Fiction Magazine, and Pier 21 for 101Words.com
Lucky, by Linda Caradine
Photo by Gregory Murphy on Unsplash
This newest COVID-19 variant was a real game-changer. First the Delta and then the Mu. “My goodness,” thought Helen Whitmore. “When will it ever end?” She sat reading an article in People telling about how the Omega variant was said to be affecting human behavior. Of course the reports were mostly anecdotal at this point but, still, it was worrisome. Murder and suicide rates were up. Same with incidents of road rage and domestic violence. If there was one thing that Helen did well, it was worry. And worry she did.
Helen’s chihuahua Lucky lay curled up in her lap sleeping the sleep of the righteous, the little caramel-colored dog’s flanks rising and falling in time to the ticking of the wall clock marking the way till mealtime. Helen adjusted herself in the easy chair, being careful not to wake Lucky, and lay down her magazine. She looked up at the clock. It was almost eight a.m. Henry would be waking up soon. He would be wanting his breakfast. Her husband was, if nothing else, a creature of habit.
Helen flipped on the tv to catch the latest news report before Henry came down looking for his coffee and eggs. The news was about the virus of course. There was no escaping it. “I don’t know,” thought Helen, “I don’t feel any different. And if it affects Henry, why my goodness, it would only be an improvement.” Helen smirked at her joke. They had been married for forty-seven years and she figured she was entitled to a little laugh at Henry’s expense. After all, she had put up with his ways all these years. And since God hadn’t seen fit to bless the couple with children, all she had was Henry and his ways. And Lucky, of course.
Helen sat lost in her thoughts. She was surprised to look up and see it was already nine-thirty when Henry came tottering down the stairs. She immediately started to rise.
“Don’t get up,” Henry said. “I think I’ll get my own breakfast this morning. You just relax.” His kindness hit a sour note. “Besides, I wouldn’t want you to have to wake up your little princess there. Damn thing growled at me last night.”
“Lucky growled at you? I don’t believe it. She’s as sweet as they come, my little Lucky. You must have imagined it.”
Henry looked at her and then at the sleeping dog. “Don’t you believe it. That animal is spoiled rotten. And, to make matters worse, she’s got a greedy streak. Always wants what I’m having and won’t take no for an answer.”
“Now, Henry. Don’t start in on Lucky this morning.” She made an effort to change the subject. “Why did you sleep so late? I think the COVID’s starting to change you, I do. If you’re not careful, you’ll be out fighting with the neighbors soon over who has the greenest lawn.”
“Oh horse feathers,” barked Henry. He did feel a little more crotchety than usual this morning.
Helen picked up her bible study guide and started reading this week’s lesson. You shall not take the name of your lord thy god in vain. Helen was pretty sure she never did this. But she knew a lot of people did and she knew they were breaking one of God’s commandments. She wondered if Henry ever took the lord’s name in vain when he muttered under his breath and she couldn’t hear him. She doubted it. Henry was a decent sort underneath it all. Now if he would just be a little more patient with Lucky, he would stand squarely in her good graces. She thought patience was one of God’s seven virtues but she wasn’t sure. Helen made a mental note to look those up when she had a bit of free time.
Upon smelling food from the recesses of the kitchen, Lucky stirred on her lap and jumped down to investigate.
“Now, Lucky,” Helen crooned. “Don’t go bothering mean old Henry. I’ll make you an egg when he’s done in there.”
The next morning, Henry stayed in bed until after 10 o’clock. Helen heard him up in the bathroom and decided to go ahead and leave for the store. “If he’s going to sleep in so late,” she thought, “He can just fix his own breakfast again. I have things to do.”
She stepped out into the cool September morning. “What a glorious day,” she thought, getting into the Buick and adjusting the seat. Odd. Henry hadn’t been driving lately. His doctor had warned against it because of his heart condition. She wondered whether the stubborn old man had been ignoring his doctor’s orders when she wasn’t around. Last night she had been at Wednesday night bible study. He could have taken the car and gone somewhere. “But where would he go?” she asked herself, absently humming Nearer My God To Thee.
She went to the grocery store to pick up some ingredients for the beef stew she planned to make that evening and a bunch of bananas for Henry’s nighttime bowl of cereal. Then she swung by the Post Office to mail in her Woman Within order. She was buying a new dress for Sunday service. You couldn’t look too good for the Lord. Or for that gaggle of old biddies who was trying to monopolize all of the handsome new pastor’s time. She would have to make him one of her famous lemon pies. That would make him forget about those foolish women. But wait. There was one other place she had to go. Oh yes. She wanted to stop in at the yarn store over on Beech Street.
Helen glanced at her speedometer and picked up the pace a little. She didn’t want to leave Henry alone with Lucky for too long. Those two really weren’t getting along too well lately. She was afraid Henry would banish Lucky to the backyard while she was away.
Back at the house, Henry was just starting down the stairs for his morning coffee. As he stepped off the first step, there was a frenzied skittling sound on the hardwood to his left making him hesitate. “What the..,?” Henry started to say. Suddenly a tiny brown locomotive rushed in between his feet and kept going toward the other side of the hall. Henry took a misstep trying to avoid the dog and tumbled to the bottom of the staircase, hitting his head on the wall on his way down. He lay sprawled at the base of the stairs with a terrible pain in his ankle. Then his pacemaker alerted. “No,” he said to no one in particular. “Not like this.”
Once home, Helen juggled her grocery bag into her left arm and unlocked the front door. She pushed on it but it didn’t budge. She pushed harder. Still no movement. Then she set the bag down on the porch and gave it mighty shove. Peering into the slim opening, she could see Henry’s slippered foot with blood on his ankle. “Henry. Henry! Oh my god, Henry, what have you done?” She pulled her phone out of her purse and dialed 911, all the while trying to get her husband to answer her. There was only silence inside.
Later, she didn’t remember any of this happening. She knew that she must have found him at the bottom of the stairs and called for help. She knew they must have told her at some point that he was gone but she couldn’t remember any of it. Heart attack. It was as if her worst fear had come true.
Days passed. Then a month. With the help of her pastor and the congregation, she was getting by as if in a fog. “Oh Lucky,” she said to her faithful little pet. “Now I only have you to take care of. Whatever shall I do?” Lucky wagged her tail, enjoying all the attention she was getting in recent weeks. She lay down belly up for a good scratch and Helen absently complied.
The tv was on in the background giving the latest statistics on the Omega variant. There was ongoing looting downtown and some cars in the neighborhood had been set on fire. Her pastor had theorized that only man’s inherent good will had saved them all from the ravages of whatever weird changes were occurring in everybody. “But wait a minute,” Helen mused. “I thought people were flawed sinners underneath it all. We can’t have it both ways.” But she left it at that. The pastor wouldn’t tell her anything that wasn’t so.
One day, confused by the continuing violence and all-around insanity in the streets, Helen was moved to look up God’s seven virtues. Faith. Hope. Charity. Prudence. Temperance. Fortitude. Justice. She believed in those things, believed they were what set humanity apart from, as the pastor put it, the lower animals. It was just that people kept being pulled in the other directions by those dreadful seven sins that represented the other side of the coin. Pride. Greed. Lust. Wrath. Gluttony. Envy. Sloth. It doesn’t make any sense, she thought. Even the pastor doesn’t have the answer. She gave up trying to understand what had gotten into people and went to the refrigerator to make an egg for Lucky.
In the upstairs bedroom, Lucky lay sleeping. Deep inside her rudimentary brain, synapses were firing away, letting her know there was a treat in the offing. She skittered down the steps and into the kitchen. Food. Then, after the snack, she would curl back up in the woman’s warm lap while Helen worked on her knitting. Comfort. Lucky smiled as only a dog could do, her small beady eyes glowing with anticipation.
Helen was feeling guilty. Oh, of course she missed Henry. He had been a big part of her life for almost fifty years. And now there was only Lucky to keep her company. But, strangely, it was enough. Lucky was easier to please and to understand. Lucky gave her love in no immoderate dose. Lucky had only been in her life for the past ten years but had made quite the impression starting with the first time Helen had seen her at the dog shelter, looking frail and impossibly small as a puppy. Helen had fallen in love instantly. She had to save her from life in a cage. At that moment, she named the dog Lucky and vowed that it would be ever so. And now whatever would she do without Lucky, who loved her unconditionally?
Lucky yawned. Stop moving, she wanted to convey to the woman.
Helen’s days continued to pass uneventfully until one winter morning when she noticed Lucky was looking a little scruffy. Her coat was still smooth and sleek as a seal’s but something about her was looking ragged and wild. My goodness, thought Helen. It was her nails. They’d grown long as if the little beast had been gnawing them into sharp talons at the ends of her petite feet. And her teeth. Could they be growing larger? They looked somehow intimidating where once they looked cute as little white Chiclets. She made a mental note to take Lucky into the veterinarian’s for a nail trim and a, she didn’t know what, a physical? For now, she was content to stroke Lucky’s domed head and croon sweet nothings to her.
The news continued to grow worse. All non-essential businesses were shutting down due to the virus. Helen found herself going to the grocery store just because it was something she could do. Mostly she bought treats for Lucky. And as Lucky’s waistline started to expand, the dog’s little legs grew stout and muscular under the burden of her over-indulged torso. Her button eyes took on an anticipatory glint. While Helen was out shopping for her, Lucky paced the floor like a wild animal, her once-dainty chin glowing with spittle.
One Sunday, as Helen attended church via Zoom, pastor McKenzie had mentioned dogs, which made her sit up and pay attention. The pastor said that dogs shared many traits with people but that, unlike their human counterparts, dogs lacked the higher intelligence necessary to truly transcend the baser instincts. That’s what made them animals. The pastor urged his on-line flock to use their God-given intelligence to develop empathy for those less fortunate.
“Oh pish!,” thought Helen. “He’s just building up to ask for more money for those supposed orphans. If they even exist.” She turned off her computer and looked around for Lucky.
“You’re not an animal, are you girl?” She reached out and patted the dog on her fat flank until it made a slapping sound. “You’re a perfectly well-refined lady, aren’t you?”
Helen was feeling guilty about turning off the church service. She puttered about in the kitchen for a while and then decided to make another trip to the store. Lucky might like some sauteed chicken breast for her dinner tonight.
In her absence, Lucky paced the hardwood floors as usual, her pointy nails scratching the waxed finish. She found a piece of abandoned Snausage lying by her bed and chewed it into a tasty pulp. Then she did something she’d never done before. She jumped onto a kitchen chair and then up onto the counter where she nosed open the cabinet. Her superior sense of smell picked up a tempting array of odors from the packaged goods on the shelves. She began to drool greedily. Somewhere in her avaricious little brain, she understood that the woman was her conduit to all things good in life. That it was a symbiotic relationship etched itself across Lucky’s mind although she didn’t have the vocabulary necessary to put it into so many words. Then, without further exercising her new reasoning skills, she jumped down. Time for a nap.
She dreamed of running through a forest chasing deer, the prey’s fear scent awakening in Lucky a surge of adrenaline. The little dog’s legs pedaled as she ran on in her sleep. Then, still dreaming, she reached a clearing where an alpha male wolf sat preening. Lucky assumed a subservient posture and sidled up to the male. She didn’t know what else to do at that point, having been spayed and lacking in reproductive hormones. The next phase of her dream cycle brought her back to Helen’s lap and the heady, slothful satisfaction of a good snooze. She whiled away the time until the woman came home by alternately pacing and sleeping.
With the sound of Helen’s Buick creeping up the driveway, Lucky experienced visions of red, bloody meat being offered. She ran to the door to greet her benefactor.
“Why, Lucky, what a good dog coming to greet me!” Helen beamed at the aroused little carnivore. “Who’s a good dog? Who’s a good dog? You are, that’s who.” She headed for the kitchen with Lucky bouncing at her heels like a tiny ballerina because that was the behavior that suited the woman at these times. Lucky was all too happy to comply.
On one afternoon, the pastor came to call. He’d been worried about Helen not tuning in to Sunday service in a while. Helen greeted him warmly and showed him into the living room where she’d set out an assortment of cheese and crackers and a bowl of fruit. No sooner had he sat down when Lucky came hurtling in from the other room bent on destruction, the erectile hair on her back and her bared fangs giving a feral, dangerous impression. She was just an inch away from making contact with the pastor’s shin when Helen snatched her up into her arms.
“Quiet down now, you silly.” Helen crooned. “There. There.” But Lucky would not be subdued. She squirmed in the woman’s grasp, teeth snapping and spittle flying. Helen had to take her and lock her upstairs in her bedroom where she pawed furiously at the closed door.
“I’m so sorry, pastor.” Helen reentered the living room, embarrassed. “She’s never acted like that before. Never. I just don’t know what’s come over her.”
Pastor McKenzie said it was no big deal, that he was just glad Helen didn’t have a pit bull instead of a chihuahua. But she could tell that behind his mask he was still shaken by Lucky’s bad behavior. As he launched into his spiel about the orphans needing Helen’s continued support, Lucky dug at the door and growled menacingly beyond their purview.
Helen was getting the impression that the pastor didn’t like dogs and that made her unhappy. She sat quietly for what she thought was a reasonable length of time and then took the first opportunity to end the visit.
Still flustered after the pastor’s awkward departure, Helen turned on the tv for an update. The virus was still raging. Existing vaccines were thought to be ineffective against the Omega strain. People were coming unglued. And, now, as if things weren’t bad enough, children were attacking their parents. There’d been a couple of incidents right here in town where kids as young as nine years old had gone at their mom or dad with a butcher knife or a sharp toy. “Heavens,” thought Helen. “I guess I’m lucky not to have children after all. I couldn’t stand to have them turn on me like that after I’d given them nothing but love for all their lives. Sad how they could be so ungrateful?”
Helen turned off the tv and tsk-tsk’ed her way upstairs where Lucky was waiting, her tail wagging back and forth uncertainly. She had dug a hole the size of a paperback novel in the hollow bedroom door. Any more time at it and she’d have been able to scrabble through. Dried saliva flecked her head and chest and she was panting hard from her exertions. As Helen bent to pick her up, a gratified dog-smile spread on Lucky’s lips.
She was a good dog.
Two weeks later, Helen was bathing Lucky in the kitchen sink and the faucet sprung a leak, spraying water across the kitchen. She groped to turn it off before she got the front of her dress all wet in the torrent. Lucky was sullen and indignant, hopping out of the sink and onto the dry counter-space to await Helen’s ministrations. The little dog’s head hung low and her ears were pinned back in annoyance. She seemed distracted as Helen rubbed at her body with a fluffy towel.
“Oh dear,” Helen thought, working her fingers into Lucky’s ears. “Now I’ll have to call a plumber. That’s sure to cost a small fortune.”
She finished up with Lucky and mopped up the water on the kitchen floor. Then she reached for her phone and began to look up residential plumbing services. She found one listing that contained a Jesus fish in its ad and wrote down their number. She figured maybe, since they purported to be Christians, they wouldn’t charge her an arm and a leg. She punched in their number and reached a pleasant male voice who agreed to come over the following morning to fix the leak.
“Good,” thought Helen. “Problem solved. Now I can get back to my knitting.” She settled into the living room sofa with Lucky preening nervously beside her. Lucky’s synapses continued to fire as she fought back the urge to strike out at the woman and her clacking needles. Her nerves had gone on overload and she pinned her ears back menacingly. Helen took no notice and continued to count her stitches.
The next morning when the plumber came, Helen was in her room dressing and yelled “Come on in” when she heard the knock at the door. She went absently back to blowing her hair dry and tried to ignore the whirring of the electric dryer.
Downstairs, Lucky was awakened from her morning nap by the sound of someone coming in the door. She leapt off the sofa with her small eyes bulging in madness and sprang at the man’s body with all her might and fury. In her rage, she was able to jump up and make contact with the man’s thigh, chomping down fiercely through his denim work pants and into the weak flesh beneath. By sheer luck, her bite was able to sever the man’s femoral artery and start a spurt of blood spewing that was reminiscent of the water squirting yesterday from the kitchen faucet.
The attack had come out of nowhere and the plumber didn’t have a chance to defend himself. By the time Helen came downstairs, he was laid out on the living room floor in a pool of blood twitching spasmodically. Lucky lapped desultorily at the blood.
“Oh heavens!,” Helen burst out upon seeing the body. “Lucky, what did you do?” Lucky was covered in blood and trembling in a rageful lust, looking for all the world like the feral animal that she was at that moment.
“Oh Lucky, what did you do?”
Helen’s mind raced with thoughts of the police coming and taking Lucky away. The poor thing would wind up back in the shelter living in a cage again. Or worse. They would deem her a dangerous animal and have her euthanized. She couldn’t let that happen. She knew that Lucky was just confused by the COVID and didn’t deserve to be punished.
Helen went to work mopping up the blood from the floor. She rolled the man in her living room carpet and levered him into the trunk of the Buick with sheer will power and determination. By the time she’d returned from dumping his body in a downtown alleyway, her newly coifed hair was hanging down into her puffy eyes. Her blouse was ripped and she was streaked with blood from her exertions. “Oh my!,” thought Helen. “What have I done?”
She started up the man’s van and left it two blocks away in the Dollar General parking lot. Returning home, she changed her clothes and cleaned up the last of the carnage. Then, her mind racing protectively, she called the number to complain that the plumber had not shown up at the appointed time. Helen had watched a lot of crime shows on tv and knew that no one was going to blame a nice old woman for someone going missing. When the police showed up to question her, she would lock Lucky in her room and answer their questions with care and empathy. They would never suspect her of a thing.
And that was pretty much the way the crime’s aftermath played out. Helen and Lucky had dodged the law and gone back to their daily routines. Helen had a few second thoughts but decided ultimately that she had no choice but to protect her Lucky. And as the virus waned inside of Lucky’s brain, the little brown dog lost her air of frenzied delirium and returned to being Helen’s precious lap pet.
For the second time in her life, the little creature had lived up to her name.
Linda Caradine is a Portland Oregon based writer whose work has appeared in the RavensPerch, Cobalt Review, Free State Review and numerous others. Her first book, a memoir, is scheduled for publication in April 2024, and she is currently working on a novel.
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