Photo by Norbert Tóth on Unsplash
"’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.
I was sitting with Snatchko in Mumbai Masala, wolfing down as much of the buffet as $11.99 would get me, when the couple walked in. Or maybe they weren’t a couple. Co-workers, classmates, former inmates of the same institution. They came in, sat down behind us, and she immediately says, “I just don’t know how much more I can take.” Then the monstrous sigh.
“I’m tellin’ ya,” Snatch tells me. “People are fools to go into nursing homes. We keep them geezers so zoned out they don’t know which end is up. They can’t even plan an escape. The ones that wander off are looking for the living room of a house they lived in in 1968.”
“There’s got to be something you can do, some recourse,” the man responded.
“I’m going back in,” I announced. “Cover me.” When I returned, heaping plate in hand, I saw the two ordering from the menu. This was how the financially solvent lived, ordering off the menu when the buffet would see them into the next day. Or maybe I was a bitter peon. Or maybe it really was a dire strait she was in, and at times like that you don’t worry about an extra seven bucks when you’re miles from shore and the bilge has risen past your ankles. I resumed the assault on my digestive tract with the paneer makhani which, like myself, was a bit salty.
“I filled out the forms, I jumped through all the hoops,” she continued. “They just don’t let you say you’re sorry! Doesn’t everyone make mistakes?”
“So. I tell the nursing supervisor that there’s old folk not getting their meds, other old folk getting too much, and half the staff is wandering around blasted on the narc that gets lost in the shuffle. You know what she says to that? She asks me if I like working there. The implied threat, all that.” Snatch gestured with a skewered pakora. “I got the message.”
Outside, the sky was trying to decide whether or not to vomit. The air out there left condensation on you the moment you walked out the door. I reminded myself to be grateful for this air conditioned oasis with its fantastic cuisine and, oh, there’s the handsome young server now, refilling my water glass. The secret to happiness is realizing you’re already in heaven. The falafel was (were?) delicious, lightly breaded, and taken out of the fryer the moment they were done. I held a bite in my mouth, letting it slowly disintegrate. Through the window I could see the horizon turning the faintest shade of green. Hurricane weather.
“So I’m starting over. Thirty years old next month and I’m beginning all over again. It really feels like it’s too late.” Another sigh, this one though her mouth, using her cheeks as bellows. That’s a great stress-reducing technique, but she could have been blowing into the mainsail of the Santa Maria for all the good it did her.
“If you wind up at Happy Acres, it’s your own damned fault.” Snatch was angry now. No spring chicken, mortality was evidently tugging at his dentures. “You were either nasty to your children or you raised selfish jerks or you didn’t have kids and didn’t plan. Not me, man. I’ve got a .357 magnum. The trick is not waiting until it’s too late to make your decision, to make your move.”
Behind us, the poor woman finally disassembled. Her voice wailed in a whisper.
“It was my last appeal...”
Outside, thunder gave us a round of applause.
The poetry and prose of Robert L. Penick have appeared in well over 100 different literary journals, including The Hudson Review, North American Review, Plainsongs, and Oxford Magazine. His latest chapbook is Exit, Stage Left, by Slipstream Press. The Art of Mercy: New and Selected Poems is forthcoming from Hohm Press, and more of his work can be found at theartofmercy.net
Photo by Umar Farooq on Unsplash
Slow burning roadside mulleins
signal with a dim yellow flame,
poor, compacted soil.
Consider also Queen Anne’s
thigh high lace beside butter
and eggs that wink like old neon.
Chicory caps the mood:
petals a blue men wish to find
in women’s eyes they are fool enough
to skid to stops for.
Sunrise shovels and picks
disturb shoulder earth:
that never take
to the straight and narrow.
Thomas M. McDade is a 77-year-old resident of Fredericksburg, VA, previously CT & RI. He is a graduate of Fairfield University, Fairfield, CT. McDade is twice a U.S. Navy Veteran serving ashore at the Fleet Anti-Air Warfare Training Center, Dam Neck Virginia Beach, VA, and at sea aboard the USS Mullinnix (DD-944) and USS Miller (DE / FF-1091).
Mid-Rats, by Thomas M. McDade
The soup made
standing the mid
watch worth it.
so small as
of a knot
you were trying
to master for
Thomas M. McDade is a 77-year-old resident of Fredericksburg, VA, previously CT & RI. He is a graduate of Fairfield University, Fairfield, CT. McDade is twice a U.S. Navy Veteran serving ashore at the Fleet Anti-Air Warfare Training Center, Dam Neck Virginia Beach, VA, and at sea aboard the USS Mullinnix (DD-944) and USS Miller (DE / FF-1091).
Lecturing grave and monument
flames are pilot lights
rekindling what guilt dictates.
And the fiery auto wrecks
work too, their drivers
urges to switch stations
did them in but not
railing on and on wearing
the sturdy radio waves
like grace or asbestos.
Thomas M. McDade is a 77-year-old resident of Fredericksburg, VA, previously CT & RI. He is a graduate of Fairfield University, Fairfield, CT. McDade is twice a U.S. Navy Veteran serving ashore at the Fleet Anti-Air Warfare Training Center, Dam Neck Virginia Beach, VA, and at sea aboard the USS Mullinnix (DD-944) and USS Miller (DE / FF-1091).
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.
Photo by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash
Isaac saw himself standing on the bimah before the lectern on a Saturday morning. He wore his royal blue tallit with silver embroidery. He looked out over the sanctuary as he prepared himself to deliver his sermon and saw a sea of empty seats. The southeastern sunlight seeped through the cracks of the bedroom blinds and through his closed eyelids. He heard the rhythmic breathing of his wife beside him; he heard the trills of the song sparrows as they twirled by the bird feeder his wife had hung under the backyard sugar maple. He opened his eyes and took several deep breaths. “Modeh Ani,” he whispered the first words of the morning prayer. “I offer thanks before you, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.”
Carefully slipping out from under the blankets, he went about his morning rituals of showering, beard trimming, and eating a breakfast of granola, soy milk, and orange slices. After sitting in silence for fifteen minutes in the breakfast nook, he left for the day, gently closing the front door of his three-bedroom bungalow on Chestnut Street, leaving his wife and two children still asleep inside. He ambled through his neighborhood of small bungalows, admiring the well-kept front gardens, and pulled the collar of his long coat up around his neck in an attempt to keep out the chill fall breeze. At Grand Avenue, he turned right and proceeded past the Oracle Movie Theater. Rabbi Stein glanced up at the water stains and cracked windows on the facade as he walked by at a fast pace. The decaying facade filled him with melancholy. The movie theater had been empty for the past ten years. He hoped that an adventuresome entrepreneur would buy the building and transform it into a new enterprise.
Isaac unlocked the back door of Beth Israel at eight am and stepped into his office. A pile of papers and journals awaited him on his desk. He had dismissed his longtime secretary, Louisa, two months ago. The dues paying members of his congregation had dwindled over the years along with the funds to pay his secretary, the Saturday morning guard and the janitor. He sifted through the papers, turned on the computer, checked his email. After napping at his desk for twenty minutes, he picked up one of the journals and read of Maimonides’ views on the Messiah. “The Messiah will be a very great king,” the rabbi read aloud. “His great righteousness and the wonders that he will bring about will cause all peoples to make peace with him. Though he may tarry, yet do we wait for him each day.” Oy vey, Isaac thought, I’ve been waiting my whole life.
At precisely five pm, Isaac locked the back door of Beth Israel. He walked along Grand Avenue on his way home. When he reached the Oracle Theater, he noticed the posters, three pasted to each side of the main entrance on the plaster wall. He stopped to study the first one he reached. Five women dressed in flowing white dresses that displayed their arms and hid their legs stood on the stage of a theater. They held cobalt blue spherical candle holders in their cupped hands and the flames of the candles lit their faces from below, casting faintly menacing shadows about their eyes and throats. Below the image of the oracles, in Gothic lettering, the poster read, “Grand opening for the New Oracle Theater, Friday evening, October 30th, at eight pm. Bring your questions and the oracles will provide the answers.” And, in fine print at the bottom, “We request that all questions be submitted in writing and anonymously. Your identity will not be revealed.”
Oracles? The rabbi thought as he stroked his graying beard. What would Maimonides think? I could always ask a question. Ask about the Messiah. But what would they know? Who are these oracles?
Isaac walked the rest of the way home, to his bungalow with the two stone piers holding up the porch roof. He proceeded up the stairs. His wife, Sarah, sat on the pine bench reading the Oak Brook Daily. “Did you see the posters?” he asked. “The ones for the New Oracle Theater?”
“They have an ad in the paper. Take a look.” She handed him the newspaper.
“Same as the poster.” He stroked his beard and looked at her. “Whaddya think? Should I ask a question of the oracles?”
“How are they any different than the astrology forecasts in the paper?”
“Maybe they’re in touch with the spirits.”
“Do you believe that? You’re a rabbi, is that part of your training?”
“Think about Moses, the great prophets. God spoke through them.”
“So you think God will speak through these oracles?”
“Not God, but perhaps something, something of the inner spirit, some force that knows more than we do.”
“Rabbi Stein,” she stood up and touched his beard. “Have you been watching Star Wars again?”
Over the next few months, on his walks to and from the synagogue, Isaac observed the carpenters, painters, plasterers, and electricians working on the theater. The water stains were gone and the sculptures of the muses – music, comedy, tragedy, dance – that occupied the niches under the second story cornice line shone with a clarity of detail he had not seen for years. Isaac would pause in front of the theater to marvel at its renewal and to watch the ballet of the workers as they clambered about the scaffolding, fixing and polishing.
As a boy, he had watched Hollywood comedies and adventures on hazy Sunday afternoons. Inside the theater, Moorish horseshoe arches topped the walls and above him, as the lights slowly dimmed, a cerulean sky faded through to light indigo and then to a dark blue-violet pin-pricked with stars. He would sink into the plush red seats while munching on popcorn as the adventures of Robin Hood took him away from algebra and schoolyard bullies.
As he grew older and sought out other entertainments, the theater on Grand descended into a shabby senescence. Water stains marked the umber exterior, the red seats were shredded as if by the sharp claws of feral cats, and the customers wore dark overcoats and fedoras with faded feathers.
His own children haunted the video arcades and, eventually, fixated on the flat panel computer screens hidden away in their bedrooms. No longer did children congregate in movie theaters or playgrounds with bent basketball rims. They communicated with text messaging and played multi-user online games with compatriots from Chile and Taiwan. His children ignored the posters depicting the oracles, and they wondered why their father would want to ask questions of these strange women when he could simply Google it.
After walking past the theater and continuing home, Isaac began to wonder, who were these oracles? Could they surrender their psyches to a higher wisdom? Or were they simply impostors? Hucksters hired by unscrupulous businessmen. And what questions would he ask? Will the Messiah ever show up? Why was his congregation diminishing? Could he get them back?
On the day of the grand opening, the scaffolding disappeared. The muses gazed out from their perches below the cornice. The blue and white tiles inset within the arched entryway above the oversized doors formed crisp geometric patterns of five, seven, and nine-pointed stars. In the glass of the series of smaller arched windows to each side of the main entryway, Isaac could see his reflection.
He had joined the line at six pm. He read a book, The Multi-Cultural Jew, while he waited. The line grew longer as seven pm approached. At half past seven, a tall man wearing a tuxedo opened the front doors of the theater and beckoned the awaiting crowd to enter. Isaac purchased his ticket and stepped into the renovated lobby.
Persian style carpeting covered the floor and three Moroccan chandeliers with delicate wrought iron patterns like a series of interwoven spider webs hung from the ceiling. Ten booths, each with a curtain to allow for privacy, lined one wall. The tall usher explained that the booths were for privacy while the patrons wrote down their questions on pads of paper inside the booths. The crowd started to form lines in front of the booths. Isaac joined a line. He felt the pat of a hand on his shoulder and turned to see Debbie Luster, a member of his congregation he hadn’t seen for the past few months. “Hello, Rabbi Stein,” she said. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“I’m as curious as the next person,” he said smiling. “So you can make it to see the Oracles, but not to the temple?”
“Oh, you know how it is, with the kids and the job and the house. I’d like to be attending services, but I’m just so exhausted.”
“Maybe you’d end up with more energy if you showed up to some of the services.”
“I’m sorry, but I’ve been so busy. I’ll think about it for next time,” she looked over his shoulder to see that the Rabbi was now first in line. “Your turn Rabbi Stein.”
“Nice seeing you, Debbie. We’re having a Hindu guru speak next Friday evening. You might find that interesting.”
“Yes, sounds fascinating. What about tonight, Rabbi?”
“Yes. Who’s conducting the services?”
“Oh! I asked Cantor Goldberg to take over for tonight. I had to experience the Oracles for myself.”
He stepped inside the booth. Placed on a tall, narrow table he saw a box with inlaid geometric patterns formed of mahogany, ebony, and Mother of Pearl. He hesitated; he pondered; he tapped the pencil on the table top. He wrote down his question and slipped the paper through the slit at the top of the box.
Isaac left the protective cover of the booth and purchased some expensive chocolates from the snack bar. He hoped he wouldn’t see anymore congregation members among the crowd. The lights began to flash on and off. Two more ushers appeared and guided the patrons into the main auditorium. Heads turned up to appreciate the restored ceiling of sky and stars as they filed into the rows and took their seats.
After several minutes, the red curtains parted a few feet and a middle-aged man stepped out onto the stage. He wore a dark navy business suit with a white shirt and a powder blue tie. His black and gray hair was combed straight back from his high forehead. His goatee remained mostly black. He walked to the edge of the stage and looked out at the crowd.
“Thank you all for coming to the grand opening of the New Oracle Theater.” He paused. “Tonight, we present to you a resurgence of the art of the oracle. The tradition of the oracle is a part of our collective history. It is often forgotten, neglected, or even repressed. You may have thought of oracles as part of the past, a lost art, something we have moved beyond, but this tradition has never completely died out. Teachers have passed on their knowledge and techniques to their students. They have done this throughout the ages despite the dangers from various authorities. The five women who will answer your questions tonight are part of that long tradition. They are able to move into a state of mind whereby they tap into a deeper knowledge. This knowledge is available to all of us if we would simply listen.” He smiled, took a slight bow as the audience politely applauded, and retreated from the stage.
The house lights dimmed and the recorded tones of Gregorian chants emanated from the speakers placed within the Moorish arches. The red curtains parted completely and the lights were brightened half-way. The chanting ceased. Five women now stood on the stage, each one about three feet from the other. They wore the graceful, full-length white dresses that were depicted in the promotional posters. Their ages varied from late-twenties to about sixty. Isaac didn’t recognize any of them as being from Oak Brook.
Each woman stood beside a narrow, waste high table with slender, curved legs that flared out as they touched the stage floor. Two of the Moorish boxes sat upon each table. A spotlight highlighted the first woman on the audience’s far right; she was the youngest oracle. She stood with her eyes closed for two minutes as the patrons watched in silence. She then opened her eyes, lifted the lid of one of the boxes and withdrew a piece of paper. She read the question aloud. “I’ve been offered a new job with more pay and prestige, but I would need to move my family to another city if I took the job. I’ve lived here for twenty-five years. I’ve been going back and forth about this for the past three weeks and I must make a decision. What should I do?”
She held the paper in her right hand and placed her hand between her breasts. She closed her eyes. Wisps of steam rose from the cracks in the floorboards in front of her. A scent of faded roses wafted through the theater.
The oracle dropped her right arm to her side and released the paper from her hand. It spiraled to the stage floor. Her head rocked back and forth. Her jaw relaxed and her mouth opened wide to reveal her pink tongue. She began to moan and to utter insensible syllables in a voice deeper and more masculine than her original feminine reading of the question. Isaac looked around to see his neighbors and friends in the audience. Was this all some kind of hoax? he asked himself. Should I even be here?
The Oracle stopped all movement and stared into empty space above the crowd’s heads.
“I speak through this woman. I know of your concerns.” The house lights dimmed further and Isaac could only see the oracle illuminated by the spotlight. “We are often tempted in earthly life by earthly rewards. Whether a merchant or a king, humans seek things that gleam. The golden crown, the amethyst gems, the steel sword. And we want our names emboldened by Sir or Lord, Duke or Duchess.”
Several in the audience coughed while others twisted their torsos in their seats. The oracle continued to speak. “We also desire the love of our children, the love of our spouses, the love of our friends. Our choices in life take us to unforeseen places. To live our best lives, we must be guided by a voice beyond reason, a voice that speaks more to our hearts than to our minds. That voice comes in part through the oracle, but it must come primarily from within your own soul.”
The oracle closed her eyes and her mouth. Her head drooped forward. She began a slow crumbling descent toward the stage. Two male ushers rushed out from the side stage. Each one put an arm around her before she reached the floor and guided her offstage. Several members of the audience began to applaud, at first tentatively, and then the rest joined in their applause. A few stood up as the audience applauded with a loud and rhythmic clapping. Isaac stayed seated. Not a bad answer, he thought, but what about his synagogue or church? After twenty-five years, it’s hard to replace that.
The spotlight now swerved to stage left and shone upon the eldest of the oracles. Her gray hair was cut short except for several long strands on the right side of her forehead that reached to her eyebrows. She was tall and slender, and her face remained largely unlined. She opened the Moorish box on the table next to her and selected one of the notes. “I’ve been thinking of offing myself,” she read. A sin, Isaac thought. Well, a sin to do it, not to think it. “My life has become an empty routine, so dreary. I realize that I’m not alone in this predicament, but I see no reason to go on. Then, why am I asking this question? I suppose I hope there is an answer, a way back to enthusiasm. I’ve seen a shrink, that just makes me feel worse.”
The oracle closed her eyes for a minute or two while she focused her mind. She opened her eyes. There was no dramatic transformation as in the case of the first oracle, but she seemed somehow different. A subtle luminescence surrounded her. She returned the note to the box and shuffled the papers around. “Death will come to you soon enough. To seek it before it comes to meet you will cause great pain both to you and others. Perhaps the tedium you speak of is at least partially of your own making.”
“Oracle!” A male voice called out from the darkest portion of the balcony nearest the upstairs exit. The oracle raised her head and looked toward the balcony. “Why should I live? Tell me why!”
“I cannot provide a reason for you.”
“You sound like my shrink,” he yelled back to her. Several audience members laughed a bit before stifling their laughter.
“Don’t laugh at me! Please don’t laugh at me.”
“And your reason for death?”
“To escape this hell. This hell where I’m not wanted, not valued, not loved.”
“You will find another hell if you force death,” she answered. “You will find a hell far worse than anything you may be encountering in this world.”
“How do you know that?”
“I have died many times, sometimes with great peace and other times with great violence. The violence in my mind carried through to the astral realm, and it was not pleasant.”
“There is no astral realm, you fools.”
“You are free to believe that; however, at some point, you will find that you are mistaken.” Isaac glanced behind him at the balcony for a second, but could not see the man’s face. He had counseled a number of depressed congregation members who threatened suicide. None of them had followed through with the threat.
“Seek out what you love,” the oracle continued. “You must do that.”
“I love death,” the man cried out. “I love death!” Isaac looked again toward the balcony and saw a bit of curtain billow out from the exit doorway. He heard the falling of footsteps, at first loud and then quickly receding into silence. Poor man, he thought. He must be alone in the world. If he were part of a synagogue or a church, he’d be much better off.
The middle-aged gentleman who had introduced the oracles reappeared on center stage.
“Live performances,” he said as he looked out at the audience, “can be so interesting.” A few people chuckled, but not Isaac. “We cannot predict disturbances such as the one that just occurred. I apologize to those of you who found the previous interaction disturbing.” He motioned with his right hand to stage right. One usher came out and escorted the white-haired oracle off the stage. Three oracles remained on the stage and gathered behind the emcee. “These three oracles will take turns answering a single question. And, to show our true impartiality, we would like a member of the audience to choose that question. Please raise your right arm if you would like to do so.”
Several arms shot up and one or two came back down. The emcee pointed to a woman seated in the front row. She stood up and Isaac noted that it was Debbie Luster. An usher escorted Debbie up the stage stairs. She stood beside the emcee looking from left to right, and then straight ahead. With her long black hair and modest dress that reached to her ankles, she appeared to be a fourth oracle herself. The emcee picked up the Moorish box on the table nearest him, lifted the lid of the box, and held it in front of Debbie. She closed her eyes for several seconds. She then lifted her left hand and rummaged among the papers in the box before selecting one. She handed the folded piece of paper to the emcee.
“Thank you,” he said to Debbie. He placed the still folded piece of paper down on the surface of the table. The usher showed Debbie back to her front row seat. The emcee turned to the audience. “I will now leave you in the fine hands of our three oracles.” He left the stage.
The three oracles stood behind the table. The one in the center picked up the folded paper and unfolded it. “I am a religious leader,” she read aloud. Isaac leaned forward in his chair, and then quickly sat back. “I’ve tried many different activities at my institution to revitalize its members, but the size of the congregation continues to diminish. I wonder - what can I do? Is my faith too weak? Should I seek out another path? Or, can I transform my current situation?”
The oracle who had read the question placed the paper back down on the table. The three oracles moved to center stage, in front of the table. They joined hands to form a circle and began to move clockwise about a point on the stage. The house lights dimmed and a spotlight focused on them. They began to chant in unison. “Yood heeh vaav heeh, yood heeh vaav heeh.”
Isaac felt his heart beat faster. The oracles were chanting the Tetragrammaton, the four Hebrew letters representing the holy name of God. He watched the oracles in silence for half a minute and then began chanting “Yood heeh vaav heeh.” Soon, five or six more of the audience joined in. “Yood heeh vaav heeh.” More of the crowd added to the chanting until virtually the whole audience chanted with the oracles. “Yood heeh vaav heeh.”
After several minutes, the oracles stopped chanting, and then the audience stopped as well. The oracles ceased their circular motion, released their hands from one another and stood in a line stage center facing the audience. The one standing stage left spoke first. She was about forty years old with short blonde hair. “There are many futures,” she said in what seemed to be her normal voice. “Ask yourself what is it that you truly desire? A renewed congregation? Or a new path?” Isaac sat very still as he listened. “Until you know in your heart what your true goal is, you will not be able to manifest that goal.”
“I see an empty sanctuary.” The second oracle, the one in the middle spoke, a petite woman, about thirty. Her voice was feminine, but sounded as if it came from a woman of large stature. “Years have gone by. The members of your congregation have all drifted away. They have become entranced by the material trappings of their era. They have neither the time nor the inclination for worship.” Isaac saw Debbie Luster glance quickly back at him from her front row seat before she turned her head forward. His throat felt dry and he stroked his beard with his right hand for a few seconds before letting his arm slip back down to his chair’s armrest.
The third oracle walked a few steps so that she stood in front of the other two. She was a strikingly handsome woman, over six feet tall, perhaps forty years old. Her wavy red hair fell over her shoulders to just above her breasts. Her emerald eyes opened wide. “The future has not yet arrived. Your son, all your sons and daughters, and all their mothers and fathers, will be the creators of that future. There is yet room for hope.” Isaac gripped the armrests of his chair.
“Yet that hope will be vacant,” the oracle continued, “unless you renew your commitment to your faith.”
“How do I renew my commitment?” a man called out from the back row. Isaac recognized him. Scott Michaels, the town’s Unitarian minister.
“You must find that answer within yourself.”
“Could you be more specific?” asked Scott Michaels.
“That is your work, to examine your own faith, to return to the sources which inspire you.”
The oracle stepped back two steps while still facing the audience and grasped the hands of her sister oracles. The house lights brightened; the patrons applauded. The two other oracles joined the three already on stage and held hands with the one at each end. The elegant emcee strode in from stage left and took a bow. The red curtains closed and the lights over the audience came fully on.
Isaac left the theater and strode down Grant Avenue toward Temple Beth Israel. He was surprised to find himself so affected by the admittedly ambiguous sayings of the oracles. But he wondered if they weren’t right. He had become a rabbi because his father was a rabbi. He found comfort in the traditions of Judaism, but he questioned the depth of his own faith.
He turned down Canyon Street and walked to the back door of the synagogue. He unlocked the door and proceeded to the main sanctuary. He flipped on the lights and took a seat in the front row, looking up at the bimah. The cantor and any Friday night worshipers had probably left over an hour ago.
Isaac saw his father, Saul, reading from the Torah. His father appeared to be about forty years old; he hunched over the Torah and chanted the words. Isaac heard Saul read Bereshees, in the beginning, the first word in the first weekly Torah reading in the annual cycle of readings. Isaac saw several other men join Saul, all huddled in front of the Torah. The sanctuary overflowed with worshipers, with families and grandparents, with young men and women. Isaac stood up. He closed his eyes and began to chant from memory along with his father. He rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet; he kissed the fringes of his prayer shawl.
Isaac opened his eyes. There was no one in the synagogue other than himself. He walked out of the sanctuary, switching off the lights on his way out. He locked the back door and proceeded up Canyon to Grant. He walked past the New Oracle Theater and stopped in front of the entrance. The oracles had granted him a vision. The synagogue would fill with new families if he devoted himself to Judaism, to the traditions of his own faith.
Isaac did not return to partake of the performances of the oracles. He did note that the entry price went up after a short while, and that the lines grew smaller over time. One Saturday morning, as he walked toward his synagogue, he saw a new poster on the theater facade; the Oak Brook Theater Players would soon begin their season’s performances at the soon to be open Oak Brook Theater. He could take Sarah and the children to one of the performances, he thought. But that would have to wait as the High Holidays had commenced and today was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the Day of Remembrance.
Isaac stopped for a moment. He looked up at the facade of the theater and studied the statues of the muses. He closed his eyes. He recalled the words of the oracle who had advised him to renew his own faith. He had looked within and discovered his connection to the Jewish people. The Jewish people who had survived centuries of oppression. The Jewish people who had made untold gifts to the world. The Jewish people united in their love of God and their love of one another. He saw the synagogue overflowing with Jewish families. He heard the blast of the shofar, the traditional ram’s horn, reminding all to reflect on their past deeds and hopes for the future. He tasted the apple dipped in honey and sensed the sweetness of the coming year. Rabbi Stein opened his eyes and walked briskly toward Temple Beth Israel.
Mitchell Near, after youthful sojourns in several west coast cities, now lives in San Francisco. His work has appeared in Adelaide Literary Magazine, Idle Ink, Bewildering Stories, Fiction on the Web and Still Point Arts Quarterly. Along with his interests in writing and literature, he is a student of art, architecture, music and the psychology of dreams. He loves walking the paths of the great cities and gardens of the world. You can visit his website at mitchellnear.com.
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'.
The Counter, by David Henson
I notice him staring at the maple in the front yard and go out.
He jabs the air with his finger. “Beautiful red leaves this time of year.”
“I don’t know what you’re doing, but I think you should move along.”
“I’m counting, Dennis.”
He knows my name? Maybe a parent of one of my students? I notice I’m standing about where I built a small pitcher’s mound for my son years ago. I’d preferred to put it in the backyard, but gave in because I knew Donny wanted to show off for the girl across the street. Suddenly the counting guy is the farthest thing from my mind, and I hurry inside as if fleeing from memories of my son. Once again, I try to escape them in the garage. Once again, I can’t gin up the courage to start the car.
Back in the kitchen, I look out and see the guy’s gone.
The next morning, I pour two cups of coffee out of habit. I dump my ex-wife’s in the sink, but see the counting fellow is here again and charge out.
“I told you yesterday —”
“Look familiar?” He holds up a chrome clicker counter.
Seeing the counter chokes the words in my throat. I have one just like it. My dad gave it to me when I was a boy. I walked around counting my steps, the peas on my plate, my folks’ words when they talked. Drove my parents crazy. It had the opposite effect on me not so long ago.
When a couple of leaves drift from the maple, the guy clicks twice. “It’s silly trying to count them on the branch. Going to tally as they fall.”
“I have a counter, too. I had a superstition about protecting my son.” Sometimes it’s easier to tell things to a stranger, and a guy who counts leaves is pretty strange.
“How so?” He looks over my shoulder and clicks.
“When I was a kid, my mom made me pray at bedtime. ‘If I should die before I wake…’ Scared the shit out of me. I took my counter to bed and, soon as my bedroom went dark at nine, I clicked three times, convinced that would protect me through the night.”
“Did you — look out!” The wind gusts, and the fellow clicks more times than I can count.
“I outgrew fear of the prayer but continued clicking three times at nine the night before little league ball games, tests…”
“I must say, that’s a little weird.” He thinks I’m weird. He stares at the clicker. “It’s a counter. Maybe you were trying to counter bad things.”
“That’s intellectual for a kid. Anyway, the superstition stuck with me. The clicker even got me through college exams. After I married Ellen and we had our son, Donny, I put it in a drawer and forgot about it. Then Donny enlisted.”
“It must’ve been nerve-wracking when your boy shipped out to a combat zone.”
He probably read about my son in the paper. I explain how I retrieved the counter from behind my socks and, to keep Donny safe, clicked it three times every day at nine p.m. local time where he was stationed.
“That would’ve been early afternoon here. Did your students think you were weird?”
Aha, he is a parent of one of my eighth-graders. “I was subtle about it.”
“Except the time you left the counter in the car and sprinted down the corridor at the last minute.”
“Donny made it home without a scratch…”
“On the outside.”
“He couldn’t keep a job. Got into bar fights. Broke up with his fiancée.”
“It wasn’t long after he split with Jennifer that you found him passed out in his room with a needle on his bed stand and — Hold on.” The guy goes into a clicking frenzy.
“Ellen and I insisted he get help. He went to counseling a few times.”
“You tried to convince him to stick with it.”
“He wouldn’t. I wanted to make him move out. I believed it would force him to take care of himself. Tough love as they say. Ellen was afraid of what might happen if he were on his own.”
“I’d give anything if I’d listened to her. While Ellen was away at a conference, I persuaded Donny to move. I’d found him an apartment and paid three months rent.”
“He died of an overdose within a week of leaving… And Ellen divorced you a couple months later.”
“She — Wait a minute… How do you know all these things? Have you been talking to Ellen? Have you been fucking my wife?” I tell myself to calm down.
“Calm down, Dennis. I’m not seeing Ellen.”
“I think you should respect someone who’s letting you count his leaves.”
“Listen to yourself, Dennis. Doesn’t that sound crazy? This isn’t about leaves. It’s about you blaming yourself. Stop. You did what you thought was best. Out of love for your son.”
“I tell myself that, but —”
“As for what you’ve been contemplating… don’t do it.”
“Who the hell are you?”
He chuckles. “Guess I’m your counter.” He hands me the clicker. “Wind’s calmed. If you think this is about leaves, watch this.” He grabs a branch, and up he goes.
The tree shudders, but no leaves flutter to the ground. The maple goes still. When the fellow doesn’t return, I climb the tree, but he’s nowhere to be seen.
Back in the house, I stare at the counter the guy handed me. It looks like mine down to the scratches around the dial. I go into the bedroom and rummage through my sock drawer. There behind the argyles is my clicker.
I think about going into the garage. Instead, I pour a cup from the morning’s brew. The coffee’s steeped and bitter but drinkable.
David Henson and his wife have lived in Brussels and Hong Kong and now reside in Illinois. His work has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes, Best of the Net and Best Small Fictions and has appeared in various journals including Moonpark Review, Literally Stories, Gone Lawn and Fiction on the Web. His website is http://writings217.wordpress.com. His Twitter is @annalou8.
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