What Happens After the Funeral

by Carrie Naughton

 

I know it’s George calling because I’ve set his ringtone to oogah horn. I yank my honking phone out of my purse.

“Yello,” I mumble, ducking into the lightbulbs aisle.

“Poopy doopy doop!”

“That’s me.”

“Are you on your goddamn cell phone?”

“I only have one phone, dumbass. That would be the one you’re calling.”

“When are you gonna get a real phone? With a landline. Like normal people.”

“When are you gonna realize that’s what normal people did in like, 1997? Besides, now you can talk to me while I shop for essential home items at Target and kill my afternoon gin and tonic buzz.”

“Oooh, Target? Will you get me one of those three packs of boxer shor—”

“I will not buy your boxers for you.”

“Come on. Nah, nevermind. Listen! When’re you gonna be home. I’m gonna pick you up and you’re going with me to Melrose.”

Ah, Melrose. My favorite town in all of Montana. Even if I’ve never been there. But it’s so beautiful when you drive by it on Interstate 15. Tucked in alongside the Big Hole River, shaded by giant cottonwoods…” How far is that? That’s like three hours from Missoula.”

“Maybe the way you drive. It’s two.” He takes a drink, and I hear ice rattling in a glass. “Two!”

“Why’re you going to Melrose?” Hhmm… Do I need lightbulbs? Maybe those little ones for my nightlight. Gotta have the nightlight on, to keep away the ghosts.

“Did I ever tell you about my lucky mug?”

“Maybe. Will these lightbulbs fit my nightlight? Do they make all nightlight bulbs the same?”

“What? Gahhhd. Get off the cell phone!”

“You wanna hang up?”

“When’re you gonna be home?”

“I’m almost done here. Twenty minutes. Melrose… why?”

“Cuz I gotta get my lucky mug. I left it at the fly fishing shop like six months ago when Jay and I were down there shooting that documentary.”

“And why do you have to go get it right now, at five o’clock on a Saturday?”

“What else you got to do? What, are you gonna go home and light some candles and put on some Carly Simon and take a bath?”

“No, that’s what you do.”

“You are.”

“You are. Fine. Pick me up in thirty minutes.”

“Righteous. And we’re goin’ to the titty bar in Rocker.”

“Whhyyyyyy?”

“What, you don’t wanna go to the titty bar? Don’t be such a girl.”

“I am a girl.”

“You’ll love the titty bar. I’ll buy ya a lap dance.”

“You’re buying drinks. You can have the lap dance.”

“Thirty minutes. You better be ready.”

“When am I not?”

“Mmmm… hey! Ginger? Hey!”

“I’m still here.” In fact, I’m on a trajectory to the checkout line by way of the snacks aisle. Road food.

“Bring your iPod. You got any Noisettes?”

“Is that a candy?” I pause between the candy and the chips ’n crackers.

“What? It’s a band. How come you don’t know about the Noisettes? You’re my connection to pop culture.”

“And you’re my connection to male menopause. Man-opause. Why do we need my iPod? You’ve got XM in the Forester.”

“Just bring it, poopy. And don’t forget the car connecter thingy. Bring the whole shit n’ kaboodle.”

I hang up, get some Maui Onion pretzels, and get the hell out of Target.

Thirty minutes later, George is honking a Subaru horn in my driveway. I barely have time to grab a fleece and a beer. He’s gonna piss off my neighbor.

“I brought snacks,” I tell him, slamming the car door. He waits until I’m situated with seatbelt on and purse safely stowed. This is George: obnoxious and gentlemanly. Short, well-groomed, in his midfifties. My BFF. Voice like a game show host and a predilection for liverwurst and martinis.

“What snacks? Oh… those pretzels that make your breath smell like butt.”

“But they’re so goooood. What’s this mug, now? This mug in Melrose?”

“It’s my favorite coffee mug. I’ve had it forever, since I first started working for the station.”

“What is it, like the plastic mug-with-a-lid kind? I’ve never seen it. What’s it look like?”

“Nothin’ special. Just a Conoco mug with a Falstaff beer sticker on it. From back when we had good slogans. Not this new pansy-ass New Age new shit.”

“New new new.”

He smirks.

“And so you left it at the flyshop.”

“Yep. I stopped in there to ask something, I don’t remember what now. And I just left it right there on the counter and didn’t realize it until we got back to Missoula.”

“Are they even gonna be open when we get there?”

“They better be.”

I don’t even bother pursuing this. George either called ahead or he didn’t. Who knows if the mug’s even there. I’m going to see Melrose. I’m going to walk its one street and think about how I’ll never live there because I would surely be run out of town as a commie treehugger.

We leave this crowded college town at a sensible speed and exit Hellgate Canyon in the sunset of a chilly late spring evening. I hate the Interstate right here. Everybody’s snowchains kill the asphalt and carve it into a washboarded gauntlet.

But I like this canyon, with its steep, piney cliffs hugging the road.

“This state is dying from pine beetles,” George complains. “Give it ten years, and every pine in Western Montana is going to die.”

I plug in my iPod and put on some Bette Davis. I know George will approve because he gave me the CD. And if you think I mean All About Eve Bette Davis, then you don’t know as much as you think you do.

Bette starts growling: …if I’m in luck I might get picked uuuupp…

George’s Forester zooms southeast on I-90 and we listen to Bette and shoot the shit.

“Have you ever seen Mountain of the Cannibal God?” George wants to know.

“Can’t say I have.”

“I Netflixed it last night. It’s got Stacy Keach and Ursula Andress in it. Or, as we used to call her back in high school, Ursula Undress. A buncha Italians made it, and it has to be one of the world’s worst movies. But it was filmed in Thailand, so there’s lotsa native tit.”

“Of course you suffered through to the end for that.”

“And the memorable scene where Stacy Keach says, “You never forget the taste of human flesh!”

It’s full dark by the time we hit Butte and catch I-15 South, and before you know it, we’re taking exit 93. Melrose. Seems like it should be a ghost town, but for the lights. A lot of ghost towns in Montana.

“What’s goin’ on tonight?” I wonder out loud. We turn off the frontage road into what qualifies as downtown Melrose, and there’s something like two hundred pickup trucks lining the street outside the Mint Bar.

It takes us longer to find a parking spot than it does for us to figure out that there’s a funeral going on. Or a wake. Whatever they call what happens after the funeral. There’s people packed to the walls inside the Mint, cowboys clutching bottles of Bud and staggering around on the sidewalks.

“Damn near every town in Montana has a Mint Bar,” George announces to me. “It’s a holdover from the mining and money days. Little bit ’o history for ya.”

We skirt the masses and I follow George down the bleary streetlamped sidewalk to the tackle shop. Which is closed. Dark and locked up. A lanky young cowpoke wearing tight Wranglers and Brut cologne passes by, and then doubles back to us.

“Harry closed up early for the fune’ral,” he tells us, squinting under the toxic glow of a sad little streetlight. “I think he’s down’t the bar.”

“With everybody else,” George adds.

“Come on over. Cel’brate the life of a good man with us.” He continues on, waving at someone up ahead.

“I could do some celebratin’ with him, at least.” I watch Wranglers amble his perfect ass into the Mint.

“This is gonna be a prototypical Butte Irish wake,” George says. “You ready to get your drink on?”

“Does this mean we skip the strip club?”

“Pffft. You wish. I’m thinking of this right now as Prelude to Le Titty Bar. Plus we gotta find this guy Harry. I want my lucky mug. Six months I’ve been using this other mug that in no way compares to the original lucky mug. It’s just temporary. My Temporary Lucky Mug. You’ve seen that one. I even wrote TLM on it. To remind me to get my ass to Melrose and get back my mug. Which is our mission tonight. Plus drinkin’. Maybe they’ve got Pyrat Rum. Now that’s good drinkin’. The Jaegermeister of Rum!”

“Let’s go then, matey. Operation Harry.”

I grab a wrinkled copy of today’s Anaconda Standard off a street bench while we walk.

“Wuzzat?” George slows down and peers over my shoulder.

“Somebody read the Obits and then tossed this.”

“It tell who died for this party tonight?”

“It does.” We stop, so I can read in the light near the bar entrance. The roar of mourners’ small talk rolls in waves out of the open doors, carrying with it the distinctive breeze of Marlboro smoke, sour beer, and cheap perfume.

“Donagh Doyle. Parents came from Ireland in 1887 and homesteaded near Melrose. He was born in 1916. Jeez. Served in World War II. Air Force ball turret gunner.”

“He musta been a little guy.”

“Aww, like you George.”

“Keep reading.”

“Flew twenty-six missions in a B-17.”

“Twenty-six missions?! Christ! You don’t see a belly gunner lasting twenty-six missions. Like, ever.”

It’s freezing out here on the streets of Melrose, even with the warm boozy air rushing out of the bar. I look at George, and it actually starts to snow, little flurries whirling around us. At first I think somebody’s cigarette ashed on us.

“Weird spring weather,” says George. “What else?”

“Donagh married his childhood sweetheart, Birdie. They bought a ranch and started roping wild horses up the canyon, broke ’em and sold ’em as saddle horses. Birdie died in 2002, but the family still runs the ranch.”

“Damn,” George breathes. I half-expect him to whip out his Moleskine notebook and jot down notes about the life of Donagh Doyle. But he only nods and says, “Let’s go celebrate this good man. And find Harry.”

Operation Harry commences and ends within two drinks and ten minutes of shuffling and elbowing our way through the bar. George can be charismatic and persistent, and the tipsy, grieving folk of Melrose are friendly and obliging. But Harry isn’t among them. He’s up at the town cemetery with a backhoe, readying the ground for Donagh Doyle.

When we get up there, after several wrong turns, it’s coming down snow like it’s Christmas Eve. And Harry isn’t alone.

“Ahoy!” George calls out, lifting an arm to wave as we walk up the hill toward the fake sun of a portable light tower. He takes a sip from his flask, which he somehow got the bartender to fill with Pyrat. I’m still carrying my bottle of Scapegoat, which I snuck out inside my jacket even though nobody in Montana cares about that.

“Help you?” A tall, angular man steps out of the shadows and sagebrush. He’s yelling as loud as George, because of the noise from the backhoe. He’s very bald and reminds me of a pale spider.

“Are you Harry?” George yells. George looks funny when he yells. Like a cartoon character.

“Nope! He’s runnin’ that backhoe!” Skinny guy nods, as if that settles it. A woman steps up next to him, moving through the gleaming swirls of snow.

Suddenly, the backhoe engine cuts off, and in the ensuing, graveyard quiet, the woman yells “Who’re you two supposed to be?” She’s maybe in her early sixties, with long black-dyed hair and garish red lipstick. She’s wearing pack boots and a black trenchcoat. Also she’s drunk off her ass and working her way, it appears, through a bottle of Bushmills.

“I’m Agent Mulder, and this is Agent Scully,” George says. “I’m here for my lucky mug. Is this your cemetery? Cuz if it’s not, it should be. You two really look the part.”

The woman takes a stagger-step backward and blinks snowflakes off her eyelashes.

“What’d he say?” She glares at us, and I decide she kinda looks like a casting call for a vampire movie.

Then Harry clambers down off the backhoe. “Don’t tell me… you’re George,” he says.

“No, he’s Agent Mulder,” explains the Bride of Dracula.

Harry grins, walks toward us with one meaty arm outstretched in a too zombiesque manner. I seriously consider dropping my beer bottle and running for my life, because suddenly this meeting in the graveyard is wigging me out. But Harry just wants to shake hands, and George introduces me, too. George and Ginger. It always sounds like we’re a pair of circus elephants.

“You come all the way up here to find me so you can get that mug back?” Harry folds his arms across his chest. They don’t stay there long. The arms are short and the chest is barrel, and so within a moment his hands kinda pressure-pop out from inside his elbows, like he’s an inflatable toy.

“So you did call ahead,” I nudge George. “Shocking.”

George ignores me. “You still got my mug?”

Harry shrugs. “’Course. But… it’s down locked up in the shop. And I gotta get this hole dug tonight in case the ground freezes. I waited till the last minute, but of course, you know with these spring storms. Might happen.”

I want to express my doubts about frozen tundra in April, even in Montana, but I stay silent. Mr. Skinny has one long arachnid arm around Dracula’s bride, and she’s watching me with narrowed eyes.

“Why you need Harry to get you a mug? Are you here for Donagh’s funeral? Do you even know Donagh?”

“How do you know Donagh?” George fires back.

“I know him,” she mutters, and lifts her bottle. We all toast the dearly departed. Surprisingly, George looks more somber than the rest of us.

It’s right about now that I understand we’re standing on a hilltop in Melrose, in the dark, with a buncha outcasts from a dead man’s wake, haranguing a guy about a plastic mug while he digs a grave.

“George, maybe we needa come back another time,” I tug at his sleeve.

“Naw,” Harry waves me off. “Can you all just wait a bit? I’m almost done with the requisite six feet.”

“The requisite six feet,” George laughs. He repeats anything he thinks is funny.

“That is not funny,” says Vampira.

“What is her deal?” I whisper to George.

“Her deal is for me to get as far away from her as possible,” he says. “Okay, we’ll just wait over here, then,” George announces, and we walk thirty steps to the porch of a little house, which is either the groundskeeper’s office or—

“You can just have a seat on those steps there,” Harry points. “They had the viewing inside earlier, so…”

“Well, we might wanna pay our respects.”

“George! No.” I sound like I’m training a puppy.

“Well, why not? He was a hero.”

Harry looks at Mr. Skinny. Mr. Skinny, propping up the Vampire Woman Who Knows Donagh, looks back. His lips quirk, a quiet skitter of the mouth. I can see that even from twenty yards.

“Sure, go on,” Harry tells us. “If ya like.”

George turns to me. “Yeah, we like,” he mutters.

“Are you serious? Do you really wanna wait an hour up here on Boot Hill before we can go get your mug? Do you really wanna go look at this dead guy? How much rum you got left?”

“I got plenty. And it’s Donagh Doyle. Not ‘this dead guy.’ What’s wrong with waiting? I know you’re all damp to get to the nudie bar, Ginge, but I want my mug. And while we’re here, we can drink to Donagh Doyle.”

“I am not damp to get to the nudie bar.” I take a swig of my beer. Two swigs, and it’s finished. “They probably think we’re total assholes. Your charm only goes so far. Maybe you shouldn’t interact with people at all. Just stay at home and do those mail order animal skeleton assembly kits. Or be a forest lookout. Or the caretaker at the Overlook Hotel.”

“Caretaker at the Overlook Hotel,” George chuckles, and it’s impossible to be mad at him.

“Fine. You go inside first.” I shove him.

“Aw, is this your first cadaver?”

“Yes. And you’ll be my second.”

George laughs his stage-show laugh. “And you’ll be my second…” he imitates me.

The inside of the cottage smells like furniture polish and carnations. People say carnations don’t have a smell, but I say they do. They smell like the inside of a florist’s cooler.

We’re standing behind several rows of folding chairs, with Doyle’s somber, closed casket on a dais at the front of the room.

“Whoa,” George stops as the door closes behind us. “I haven’t been in a funeral parlor since my dad died.” The lines of his face deepen. He’s a good human despite the dick jokes and the manpig bluster. Or perhaps because of all that.

“You okay?”

“Let’s see if they put lotsa pancake make-up on the poor bastard.”

Dear George. He’s the one who lifts the lid on the coffin. I stay back a few feet.

Donagh Doyle looks like a dead ninety-three year old Montana rancher. His face is lined and thin, and while there’s not too much make-up on it, there is a kind of melancholy. I expect if he were to open his eyes they would be sad, but the idea of those eyes opening is enough to make me take a step back.

His coffin is lined with white silk and he’s wearing a dark brown suit with a bolo tie. There’s a white carnation in his lapel buttonhole and a wornout pair of pointy-toed cowboy boots on his feet.

George is quiet for too long, staring at the dead guy.

“I think I’d almost rather be wrapped in muslin than put in clothes when I’m buried,” I tell George as I grab the flask out of his hand. “Something about clothes rotting is worse than rotting gauze. Or maybe I don’t like the idea of people playing dress-up with my corpse.”

“Or you have a mummy fetish.”

“Oh, for sure. Wrap me up and bury me with all my worldly treasures.”

“Yeah, like what? Your iPod and your Birkenstocks.”

“And that about sums it up.”

“I’ll make sure your iPod’s playing Neko goddamn Case.”

“What—like I’m going first? You’ll be toast long before me, you cantankerous old fart.”

“I think he just moved.”

“Shut up. It is kinda cold in here.”

“He moved. I’m serious.”

“I’m outta here.”

The door to the cottage bangs open. I half expect to see Harry and his cronies shamble toward us with Night of the Living Dead lurches and growls.

“Good news,” Harry claps his hands.

“You’re not a zombie,” I say.

“Huh? Listen, Jacob says he’ll finish the backhoe for me, and then we can go down to my shop and get your mug, sir.”

“That’s terrific,” George reverently closes the lid on Donagh, and I follow everyone out, with a couple glances back over my shoulder. Did he really move? Did the lid just move?

The actual obtaining of the lucky mug is quite the anticlimax. For me, at least. I swear George almost hugged it. Good thing he didn’t, because a moment later he popped the lid off and a smell like I imagine Mr. Doyle’s gonna exude in a few months reeked out of the cup and nearly knocked us all down.

“Gaakk!” George gags. “Nastynastynasty.”

“I ain’t touched it since you left it here last fall,” Harry protests. “It was just sittin’ under my counter here. So whatever was in there is what you put in there.”

“I’ll wash it out when I get home,” George says, cramming the top back on lucky nasty mug.

“You really come all this way out here just for this mug?” Harry asks for the second time tonight. He walks with us to the door. We wind our way through racks of inexpensive flyrods, gear vests, and waders.

“It’s my lucky mug,” George explains. “Reminds me that I’m alive.”

Harry smiles. “We all need that.” He flips off the lights, and I almost scream. “After you,” he says, and I fumble with the doorknob and yank the door open, shop bell chiming.

With a final round of handshakes, Harry leaves us on the sidewalk and departs for the bar. My guess is, he’s really glad we showed up and saved him from gravedigger duty.

“It’s colder than a well digger’s brass monkey tit out here,” George frowns. “Where’d we park? It’s still snowing. Mother of God.”

“It’s Montana. I’m glad you drove.”

“Yeah, me too. You’d run us into a ditch.”

“Piss off! I was saying that cuz you’ve got four-wheel drive. Where’d your ‘I got my lucky mug’ good mood go?”

“I got my lucky mug!” George does a little elfin jig, brandishing his mug, with its crusty Falstaff sticker and gnawed-looking handle. “I got my lucky mug!”

“And it smells like scrotum fug!”

“Scrotum fug!” George caws. “D’you make that up?”

“It rhymed.”

Back at the car, it takes forever to warm up.

“I can still smell that coffin,” George says.

“Gross.” But it does smell odd in the car. Like cold carnations. “My liver hurts,” I complain.

“Have some more rum, Gingie Poo.”

Then we’re on the road with the heater blasting and Melrose, dear Melrose, behind us. And I didn’t even get a good look around. Coming off the entrance ramp onto the slushy Interstate, we get stuck behind a slow-moving 18-wheeler, dirty wet snow clinging to its flanks.

“Why don’t you look at property here if you like it so much?”

“Yeah, like I can afford it.”

“You just—” he starts to say, and then we both scream as a huge rock ricochets off the semi’s wheels and hits our windshield with a violent crack.

“Shit!”

“That’s gonna need some crackstop.”

“Jesus, I’m surprised the airbags didn’t deploy.”

My heartrate slows down and I reach for the radio. “It’s XM for the way home. I need my satellite radio fix.”

“Fine. But if there’s Peter Cetera, you have to change the channel. I hate him with a hatred reserved for Nazis and the guy who convinced Garrison Keillor he could sing.”

“I know you do, you poor man.” I scan through the channels and stop at channel 62, Heart and Soul, playing After 7. “Oh-ho,” I laugh. “This one.”

Can’t stop… the boys from After 7 croon, and go on to describe how they’re diggin’ on and bein’ dug by their special lady.

“Yeah, I remember this one. What were you, in preschool?”

“I distinctly remember this new jack hit from my high school days,” I protest. Then the song cuts out mid-chorus.

“Why’d you change it?”

“I didn’t.”

We watch the digital numbers morph from 62 down through 28, pausing there, then continuing on to channel 4. The 40’s on 4.

…in Shangri-La…

“Is that Peggy Lee?” George knows all the greats.

I read the display. “Yeah. But I didn’t change it.”

Peggy Lee’s smoky voice curls out of the Subaru’s crappy speakers.

“That is great,” gushes George. “Write that song down. Get my notebook and write that down.”

The song ends, and tinny big band music squawks at us. I flip the dial.

“Now what’re you doing?”

“I wanna listen to Deep Tracks.”

“Deep Tracks. I’ll show you deep tracks.”

The Rolling Stones are wailing about how it’s allllll over now…

“This isn’t a deep track,” George complains. I turn up the volume and sit back and listen to the Stones. A song from The Faces comes on next. And the channel changes again, all on its own.

“You’re not doing that,” George observes.

“No shit.”

“Is it broken?”

“Just watch the road, I don’t know.” I watch the numbers flip back to 4.

It’s Doris Day and Buddy Clark, apparently, and they love somebody.

“Why’s it keep going back to channel 4?”

“Pull over,” I tell George. “There’s a gas station at the next exit.”

He doesn’t say anything, so I know he’ll do it.

Before we get off the Interstate, I change the channel again. Back to Deep Tracks. Only a few verses of Mott the Hoople, and then we’re back to the 40’s on 4. Woody Herman, with that old feeling.

George pulls off the road and into the glare of an Exxon pump island, coasting through until he parks the Subaru at the edge of the store, near a dumpster and a weedy field.

“Okay, what’s wrong with this thing. Wait. I need coffee first. Aw, dammit. My lucky mug’s still nasty.”

“Didn’t you bring your temporary lucky mug?”

“Nooo. Why would I bring that when I knew I was gonna get my real lucky mug?”

“Go get coffee. You can deal with a To-Go cup. I’ll figure out the radio. You’ll just get mad and punch it.”

“I would.”

“Get me hot cocoa.”

“Hot cocoa?! Nine-year-old kids drink that!”

He leaves me with the engine running. I play with the dial on the satellite radio, trying different stations and waiting. Nothing happens now. I leave it on Hair Nation, it stays on Hair Nation. Well, whatever. I get out of the car and let the snow tickle my face. It fluffs onto the curb and the newspaper racks, but it won’t last. Spring snow always melts within a few hours.

“Did you fix it?” George rejoins me, and we climb back inside the Forester. He shuts his door, and I’m about to take a sip of my cocoa when I feel suddenly nervous, as if a stranger has just walked up to my window. I look out into the snowflaked night, but there’s no one there. Someone’s behind us?

I turn around in my seat.

George is fussing with dials on the dashboard. “Why’s it cold in here again? Why’d you turn off the heater? Did you fix the radio? Didjoo fixit didjoo fixit didjoo fixit?”

“Shut up for a second!”

He slurps coffee. “Aahhh that’s gooood.”

“I feel like someone else just got into the car with us.”

“What?”

On the radio, Poison stops doing “Fallen Angel,” and the XM channels scroll down to 4. Dinah Shore and a full horn section.

…blues in the night…

“You didn’t fix it,” George sulks.

“It’s not broken,” I shiver. “Something’s doing that. Do you smell that?”

“Whaddayou mean?”

“Carnations.”

“Yeah, but did you fix the radio.”

“I’m telling you, it’s a ghost.”

“Aw, what, you see a dead body and now you’re all, I see dead bodies…”

“It’s dead people.”

“Well, yeah. You claim to.”

“I’m just saying…” Just what am I saying?

Dinah Shore keeps singing about the blues in the night.

I turn again to the back seat, and there he is. Donagh Doyle.

“George,” I squeak.

“Ginger.” He slurps more coffee. “I can’t wait to clean out my lucky mug.”

“George,” I grind out through clenched teeth.

“Ginger. We’re only twenty miles from Rocker. You ready to go to Sagebrush Sam’s now? Meth-ed out Butte girls with some fiiiine tat-tays waitin’.”

Donagh Doyle doesn’t look at me, but he is smiling. Like he’s listening to some old-time favorite radio show. He’s wearing that dark suit and the bolo tie, but I can see right through him to the pile of papers and George’s crumpled Montana Grizzlies sweatshirt on the backseat.

“There is a ghost in the back seat, George.”

“That’s funny. Very funny. I’m not falling for that. When we get to Rocker, we’re gonna get you even drunker.”

“Just turn around and look. Look at him.” Dead Donagh Doyle, duded up in his spectral suit and cowboy boots.

“I’ll look when we get to Rocker.” George reaches out and bumps my arm, changes the channel. “I dig Dinah Shore, but how ’bout the Bob Dylan Radio Hour?”

Donagh Doyle frowns, and then he looks right at me with his sorrowful eyes. I suppose they are eyes that saw his childhood sweetheart grow old, saw wild horses running across the Big Hole Valley, saw bombs rain down on Germany from the belly of a flying fortress. But now, they’re the hopeful, somewhat lost eyes of a hitchhiker who’s just hoping you’re going his way for a while and maybe you like listening to the wartime era hits.

“Can we leave it on the 40’s on 4?” I ask George. “At least till we get to Rocker?”

 

Double Trouble

by James R. Stratton

 

Mary flashed into the transmat booth surrounded by the darkness of the night. She spun in the close space to survey her favorite place in all the world. A mixed crowd swirled by the dim light of the booth, the marks on their way to the clubs, half-dressed pros hustling the crowd and the geeks looking for a score. She felt her heart pulse as she drank it in. Here came a woman in a sheer silver dress laughing as her date’s eyes wandered over her. There was a huddled knot of college kids chattering as they tried to watch everything at once. The people walked by in singles, couples and groups, all with faces glowing. Mary smiled. I live all week for this just like you.

A street walker sidled up to the college kids. Would they bolt? Maybe they’d surprise her and do some business. Shouting, the prostitute chased the kids up the street. Wrong, wrong, you’ll never make it like that, Mary thought. You’re wasting your time if you can’t get punks like that to come to you.

Mary’s mood crashed and she thought of dialing herself home. She’d asked Leslie and Joan to join her, but they’d passed.

Finally she shook her head as if dark thoughts were dandruff to be shaken off. “It’s Friday night!” she shouted at the half-moon peeking from behind an old brick town house. “I don’t got no time for sad thoughts. It’s my night to roar! No twelve-hour shifts, no tight-assed customers with their shitty tips.” She grinned at people staring. “No work ’til Sunday brunch, and I get to make this town jump and shout ’til then.”

She slid her finger up the coin return slot of the booth, pulled on her headphones and slapped the door-release button. Her favorite band, Action! Action! Action!, blared in her earphones as she boogied up the street. Mary smiled at the people she passed as she moved her 240 pounds vigorously in time with the music. Her breasts and butt bounced in counterpoint rhythm to the rest of her.

People paused and watched Mary strut by, most smiling with her. One old couple frowned their disapproval at her; Mary gave them the finger. Mary didn’t stop at the newest clubs at the top of the block. They never let her through the velvet rope. But further down were her kind of night spots; cheap and sleazy. Her one-woman parade halted when Mary found her way blocked by a great slab of a man. He towered over her, her head just came to the middle of the hairy chest peeking out of his Hawaiian shirt. “What can I do for you, big fellow?”

Overhead a holographic sign declared this to be the Easy Come Saloon. Mary frowned. A new club. Down here? Alerted by sensors that eyes were focused its way, the sign’s artificial intelligence lased images directly to her retinas of dancers inside.

The big doorman’s lips moved as he pointed inside. Mary heard not a word, her blasting music drowned out everything. But his meaning was clear enough. Through the entrance, Mary could see glistening dancers under flashing lights. She licked her lips and grinned. “Thanks for the invite. I do believe I will!”

Inside, Mary slid onto a barstool. A thrill ran through her as she looked the club over. The music blasted so that she could feel it on her chest. The lighting was dim and the air hazy, scented with sweat and herb smoke. She shivered. This was her destination for the night! She could smell the animal tension in the air. All around, people sat alone staring at the dancers or in tight knots wrapped up in each other. Mary breathed deep and gripped the edge of the bar. This is how it should be on Friday night in a hot new club. She could feel a knot of tension grind up her back, just like her days on the runway.

Once Mary had danced up the street at the Jericho Club. Every night, she got drunk on that special power as she made marks sweat with just a smile. They used to throw handfuls of cash to make her stop and chat for just a moment. Her nights on the runway had been like a lusty circus, a nonstop no-drug high. But dancing is hard physical work, meant for the young, tight kids. Mary glanced at her sagging breasts and big butt. Nobody pays to see a fat broad stagger around half naked.

A male dancer, strutting along the combination bar and runway, stopped in front of her to do the bump-and-grind wearing nothing but a tiny silk loin cloth. Mary smiled up at his oiled thighs. She winked and blew him kisses until he stepped closer, then yanked the silk away. The dancer hopped back and glared. “Aw, don’t be mad,” Mary pouted and waved a bill. He flipped her the bird as a heavyset, bald bartender walked over. “You got a problem, lady?”

Mary laughed and pounded the bar. “Yeah, I don’t got a goddamn drink.” She flipped the silk cloth across the bar. “Gimme a Russian Stinger.”

“Easy, lady! Easy. I know how to make a stinger, but what’s the Russian part?”

“You add 10 milligrams of speed. And make it snappy. My throat’s as dry as an old bone.”

“Cool,” he said. “But don’t be taking liberties with the artistes. I’ll have to bounce you out otherwise.” Mary winked. She turned to the guy next to her and smiled a friendly smile.

*****

At 3 A.M., Mary still sat at the bar nursing her last Russian Stinger. The music was off, the lights were up, and the dancers were gone. The clink of empty glasses being cleared away tolled the end of the night. Mary glared as a couple floated out arm in arm. Damn it! I’m not going home alone.

The bartender walked over and nodded at the clock. “Last call. You want another?”

“Nah, I’m tapped out.”

“Don’t sweat it, sweet cheeks.” He slid a drink across the bar. “On the house.”

Mary gulped the drink and looked him over. He’s fat, bald and sweaty, but what the hell. Even if he does make a lousy Russian Stinger. She grimaced at the bitter aftertaste.

As she fluffed her hair and spritzed, Mary realized he hadn’t taken his eyes off her. Isn’t he the eager beaver? She raised her hand to wave, but the room lurched sideways instead. Son of a bitch! She clutched the edge of the bar. I didn’t drink that much, goddamnit! I can’t afford to. Darkness fell as the floor swept up. Mary was next aware of being dragged down a long hallway by her arms. “Sonofabitch!” she slurred as her heels bumped on concrete. The light faded again.

Cloying darkness pressed on her when awareness returned. She jerked and could feel straps restraining her arms and legs. A rotten meat smell made her stomach roil as she felt needle-pricks of panic whisper up her back. She’d lived enough years at the edge of society to know what kind of bad craziness existed out beyond. Light flared and Mary was confronted by a skinny, dark-haired woman standing by the door across the gray concrete cubical.

The woman stared vaguely in Mary’s direction as she chewed her thumb. Her eyes settled on Mary. “I’m glad to see you’re awake,” she whispered. “I was worried we’d start without you. I hope you’re afraid. You really should be.” The woman giggled like she’d made a joke.

Great, a nut case. A quick glance told Mary she was in deep shit. She sat in a solid wooden chair with heavy canvas straps binding her arms and legs. Her breath felt trapped in her chest as her mind spun. She’d heard tales of lock-box sex shops where the women were just kidnap victims, never to be seen again. Am I going to come out of this alive? Mary turned to look around and the room whirled. Too much booze, speed, and whatever they slipped you. You’re riding too damn many drugs.

Mary squeezed her eyes shut and forced herself to focus. “Okay, honey,” Mary said in a flat tone. “I don’t know what your game is, but I’m not playing. Turn me loose and I’ll be on my way.”

The woman giggled. “No, you don’t understand. You need to understand.” She walked behind Mary and pushed. The chair rolled through the door. In the next room, Mary was confronted with a heavy steel frame bolted between concrete pillars. Strapped to it was a naked, heavyset woman. Shit! What kind of creep-show is this? Mary stared as hot and cold waves washed over her. Then she burst out laughing. She’s me, bound and gagged!

“You jerk. This is a stunt! You think you can scare me with dummies and holograms?”

Mary’s last job had been at The Roman Coliseum. Using live actors, fake blood and cattle parts, they staged an act where “the victim” got hacked up on stage, three times a night. The show was a huge success, but low pay for the actors.

“You’re wasting your time, honey. I’ve seen it done by pros.” The woman’s gaze fluttered about as a gaunt man wearing shorts and a mask wheeled in a cart. Gleaming blades lay in precise rows on green cloth.

“Hey ass wipe!” Mary shouted. “Cut me loose NOW! I’m not some whore you hire for your jollies.” Consciousness faded before she heard his response.

When she returned, Mary found the woman and the man slicing off the woman’s ears, nose, and tongue. The thing on the rack shrieked and blood spurted with great effect. Grinning, Mary tried to catch a slip in the act, but consciousness faded again. When she next awoke, they were peeling off the last of the victim’s skin as it hooted. The flayed hide made a moist sucking noise as it pulled away from the meat underneath. Damn, it looks real! Mary’s stomach knotted in sympathy. Blackness descended. When consciousness returned, the man and woman were rolling naked on the floor atop blood and tissue, their limbs twined.

“You bastards! Turn me loose! You snatched me for this? You’ll pay, I swear.”

The man turned in mid-thrust and glared as Mary ranted. Finally he stood among the blood-spattered detritus and walked over. “You stupid cow!” he lisped. “This isn’t a game!”

Mary sneered. “Take the hint, jerk! I’m not buying it.” She slammed her weight to one side so the heavy chair reared up on two legs. The man grasped Mary’s arm and pushed the chair down. Mary realized at once he must have grabbed something wrong because the strap on her arm slackened. She yanked her arm free, whipped her fist into his face and he fell over backwards. Across the room, the woman jumped up and slipped in the slick blood. Mary scrabbled at the straps until she was standing free with the man couched before her. Mary drop-kicked him in the chin. He flipped over and his head bounced on the floor. Glancing at the woman, Mary grinned. That one owes me pain. She stalked around the edge of the blood as the woman squirmed toward the door. Mary jerked her around by a handful of hair and snapped three quick punches into the woman’s face. She cried and huddled against the wall until Mary turned away disgusted.

Mary considered the thing on the rack. It was bloody meat. Skating across the muck, Mary approached from behind, looking for the dummy under the meat. Nothing. Sliding to the front, she moved closer until she was inches away. Still nothing. She poked the leg and the raw, red muscles jerked.

“Ohmygod,” Mary whispered as she stared into the dry eyeballs. Her stomach clenched and she vomited. It isn’t a dummy, it’s warm and bleeding. But I saw her, it was me.

Retching, she turned away and fell in the bloody muck. A sudden foot’s-asleep numbness swept over her as the floor tilted and rolled. Come on, girl. You’ve got to get out of here. You lose it now and you’re dead. She staggered across the room and out the door. After stumbling through a series of corridors she crashed through a heavy steel door onto a narrow street. Spotting the familiar glow of a transmat, Mary stumbled in and punched a number. The world flashed and she was at her favorite place, downtown. She walked stiff-legged to the steps of a townhouse and sat.

Dawn’s light found her still sitting there. Her mouth was dry as dust as her heart thumped in her chest. The butchered woman hanging from steel was vivid in her mind.

She considered calling the cops. But what could she say? “I saw myself murdered last night?” Right! They’ll lock me up and let the shrinks worry about the story. But I saw myself on the frame, touched myself. It was me, right down to the tattoos and purple nail polish.

She rubbed the tiredness from her eyes and grunted. She’d heard lewd jokes forever about transmats duplicating people. Hell, there’d even been stories in the news about scientists trying to do just that. So, what if it’s true?

The pain and terror in that woman’s eyes washed over her, threatening to drown her. She was alive. I left her hanging on a butcher’s rack. How long will she last?

She stared at the red smear on the back of her hand and another thought came. Whose blood? Mine or… mine?

She shivered as she stared. Whose blood? Whose body? If it was real, did those freaks put the copy on the frame or me? Should that make a difference?

She felt a blazing knot of fury bloom and settle cold in her gut. Goddamn right it makes a difference! It’s my life they messed with.

The ball of rage shimmered incandescent for an instant and her jaw tightened until her teeth hurt. “I want answers. And I won’t rest ’til I get ’em.”

So how do I get to them? The fat, bald bartender at the Easy Come, he knows something. And I bet I can get him to tell. Grunting, she pushed herself up and turned to the transmat booth, images of the copied body on the slab racing through her head.

“Damn it! I don’t got no time for sad thoughts. It’s my night to roar!”

Mary clenched her fist until her knuckles popped.

Yeah, like a little bird, he’ll sing.

 

Letters

by Liz Milner

 

Look out for the big guy with the Hebrew letters tattooed on his forehead. Mr. G.—I’d rather not call him by his real name, that could be trouble—came here from Prague a long, long time ago. Big, hulkin’ sonofabitch. You gotta wonder what Rabbi Loew was thinking.

What do ya mean, “Who was Rabbi Loew?” Rabbi Loew of Prague was the holiest rabbi of the 16th century and perhaps of all time. Anyway, he got tired of all those Czech goys spitting on his gabardine, trashing his schul and defenestrating his congregation. So he goes down to the Vltava and out of river mud he builds a giant clay doll. It’s huge, with muscles the size of beer barrels. Okay, so he’s there on the riverbank with his live action super hero doll, but the one thing he hasn’t got is action. So he takes a stick and inscribes Hebrew letters into the clay doll’s forehead. The letters form a word: the secret name of God. A person who knows the true name of God can command the primal energies of the universe.

Sure enough, the doll gets up, stretches, and immediately sets about his work of defending the synagogue. Not only does he defend it with zeal, but he also fetches wood to heat the building and does chores. He doesn’t even mind when the local housewives use him as a convenient place to hang their laundry and gossip.

Rabbi Loew, however, found the creature’s zeal a problem. The golem (for that is what he is) didn’t just deter Czech ruffians, he destroyed them.

So, Rabbi Loew sat the golem down—the vibration of the golem’s bottom hitting the floor shook the building and caused some damage to the masonry—and read him the text from the Talmud, which tells Jews to be twice as merciful to goyim as they would be to each other.

But because the golem was created by a man, not by God, he was fundamentally flawed. He had no mercy in him. In the midst of the rabbi’s reading he sensed that a goy was pissing against the wall of the synagogue. He leaped up, raced outside and literally liquidated the poor goy before the rabbi’s eyes.

The rabbi pondered what to do. He could not let the golem continue defending the schul, but he didn’t know how to stop him. He couldn’t kill him, for murder is an abomination in the eyes of God, and since he created the golem, he was in a sense, the creature’s father. What kind of father kills his son? Also, the rabbi had used the holy name of God to travel through time and he knew of the horrors that awaited his people in the future. Perhaps a rabbi holier than he could teach the golem to defend the Jews without unnecessary bloodshed.

Finally the rabbi went back to the Vltava and gathered more mud. He returned to the schul and he and the golem went to the attic store room. The rabbi had the golem lie down and then he took the mud and smeared it over the golem’s forehead until the name of God was totally obliterated. The golem froze. Its eyes glazed over. Its breathing ceased. It became nothing more than a large clay doll.

The rabbi covered the golem with blankets. He’d visit regularly because he worried about its comfort. The secret of the golem was passed from chief rabbi to chief rabbi for generations.

Secrets, however, have a way of getting out. It was during the Holocaust that the chief rabbi of Prague got an offer he couldn’t refuse. A boatload of Jewish refugees would be guaranteed passage to New York City if the golem was included in the ship’s cargo.

“A Mafia don who likes to play with dolls,” the rabbi thought. “Many lives can be saved and what harm can it do? The holy name of God was lost to mankind in the fires of Auschwitz, so it can never be reanimated.”

And that is how the golem came to America. From New York it was trucked to Chicago where it was the centerpiece at many secret Mafia meetings.

The golem would have remained as an over-the-top decorative accent had it not been for a story by science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke. In “The Nine Billion Names of God,” scientists used computers to list every possible combination of the alphabet so as to discover the secret name of God.

An imaginative don saw the potential in Clarke’s story and made a deal with the U.S. government. After an impressive payoff, the golem became the property of the U.S. Army. First on mainframes and then on PCs and then in the cloud, every letter in the Hebrew and Aramaic languages was combined and recombined in every possible permutation. This project was folded into a super secret cyber program.

The prototype came off the assembly line a couple months ago. This sucker is made of steel not clay, and the name of God is etched onto the solid metal of his forehead. You’d need a blowtorch to stop him. And he’s not being run by a sweet old rabbi who just wants to be left in peace. He’s in the army now.

So, as I said before, look out for the big guy with the Hebrew letters tattooed on his forehead.

 

The Megalith

by J. Patrick Carr

 

I first encountered the megalith as a young man, lost and wandering deep in the Greenwood. I found it standing tall in the center of an open glade. Its black granite was smoothed by countless years of weathering and it had no markings upon it save for a perfect circle on one side, carved into the hard stone about three-quarters of the way up its towering body. It was regal and majestic then, rising high above the trees with its tiny crystals reflecting the summer sun. My hand grew warm when I touched it. It felt safe and welcoming.

I was a newcomer in the woods then. I was looking for a land to call home, a place to settle down and begin my life; maybe even start a family. Somehow, I felt invited by the megalith. It must have been raised there sometime in the unknowable past by a forgotten people. Maybe they were my wandering ancestors, hoping that their children would visit here in the ages to come. That night, I camped in its warm shadow. I did not need to light a fire; the megalith warmed me from within. It shielded me from the night winds and I found berries growing at its feet. The high, lonely howl of a pack of forest wolves startled me, but never did they enter the clearing to threaten me. I could see their gray-brown coats through the trees and their glinting, hungry eyes reflecting the silver light of the moon. They watched me for some time and stalked about the edges of the clearing, but they never approached out of some primal reverence for that place. I managed to drift into a dreamless sleep.

“Stay.”

I awoke the next morning invigorated and content, choosing to stay in that land. I scanned the woods for a place to build my homestead. I did not wander from the megalith’s clearing, always keeping it in range of my eyes. It was the spring of the year, and the thin trees had only the barest of bright green sprouts on them, searching the earth for warmth and sustenance. The thickest grass and the highest trees grew near the megalith, including a copse of massive oaks that ringed it on all sides. Often I looked back at the stone to keep my bearings, searching its lone marking for some advice. I eventually found a nice spot close to a spring that issued clear, cool water. I drank from the spring often, and the fish in the stream it birthed were always plentiful.

In the beginning, my life was hard. Every day I toiled in the elements to build my new life. However, I never felt alone out in the wild by myself. There was always the megalith. I tended to visit it in the evenings, even to talk to it to offset my loneliness. I felt always as if it approved of my presence. During my long days, I hunted in the forest for wild deer and labored to cut wood for my home. From the highest tree I could see a village on a far green hill, many miles away. I did not wish to go there at first, fearing that the people might not welcome a stranger in their land. I had left my own home after a feud with my overbearing father. We had foolishly fought over the land, him wanting to give the largest and most fertile share to my older brother. I hated him for the greater love he bore Jakon and for his constant desire for control over my life. I was hard-headed and young then. I did not wish for any new trouble with my distant neighbors.

After I had been in the woods for many moons, a party of trappers happened upon my camp. They were simple folk, farmers and hunters. I felt as though they knew their land well, and lived a life close to nature, in harmony with the earth. Their clothes were simple leathers and most wore basic linen shirts of brown or white. The sleeves were long and rolled back away from their hands, quite unlike the vest I wore. A few had boiled leather bracers clasped about their wrists and a quiver of yellow-fletched arrows over their shoulders. Almost all of them had a deep green tunic over their garments, an attempt to better hide in the colors of the forest. The men shaved their faces neatly, and the varied colors of their hair stood dramatically apart from their tanned skin. All were kind to me, unsuspicious of my presence there. Their leader, a tall man with graying hair and patient eyes, spoke to me. His words were heavy with a strange dialect, but I understood him well enough. He reminded me of my grandfather.

“What is your name? Why do you stay here alone?” he asked.

“I am called Joren. I am new to your land, and I stay here to build my new home.”

“You should visit our village. We don’t get visitors often. Autumn is coming soon and we will have our harvest festival.”

“I think I would enjoy that,” I said smiling at him, sensing his genuine hospitality.

The man’s daughter was with the group. She was a few years younger than me and beautiful to my eyes. She said nothing to me then, but I did notice her watching me, taking my measure. I was struck by her green eyes and perfect skin. Her auburn hair was a flowing mimicry of the deepening colors of the fall forest. She never left my mind after that first meeting.

“Go to her.”

The next month, I walked those short miles to the village and stayed for the festival. I took along cured venison and many deer horns which I knew were valued almost like gold by the people. I had more than enough to trade for the supplies I needed for the coming winter and some left over still to negotiate for an ox to plow my fields in the coming spring. I lingered in town that day awaiting the start of the festivities. All of the rugged faces I met that day were warm and kind.

The village square was decorated for the harvest festival. Vegetables of all sorts were stacked high in various places, a towering mix of orange pumpkins, green squash, and yellow corn. Several wooden tables were set out and adorned by red and brown linens. The square itself had been swept clean, and a small stage was erected there for use by the players. A great bonfire was piled neatly in the exact center of the village and fair-haired children raced around it, anticipating the excitement to come. The place had a rustic charm about it and I was reminded of the home I had left.

At sunset that evening, the festival began. I saw the trapper’s daughter again and watched her from afar. I hid my eyes tactfully by raising my cup to my lips and quietly cursed the men, and a few boys, who had the audacity to ask her for a dance. But, the girl refused them all. She was wearing a beautiful dress in the colors of the season. Brown, green, and gold mingled with her auburn hair to weaken my knees and steal away my confidence. For some reason, I stood after a few nervous minutes and looked back to the Greenwood, to where I knew the megalith was standing and watching me, supporting me. It might have been the tangy spiced cider or the spirit of the festival in me, but I waited until the musicians began another song and then I asked her to dance. She said her name was Tana, their word for a summer flower that grew in that land. I gently took her white hand and we turned to the dance floor.

“Are you enjoying the festival?” she asked, smiling.

“I am, but I fear I am not much of a dancer,” I confessed.

“You’re doing fine. You are quick on your feet.”

“Thank you, hunting and working keeps me strong.” My words sounded stupid to my ears, but she smiled through the awkwardness. I hoped that the red on my face was disguised by the bright bonfire.

“Why do you stay there, alone in the woods? Have you no family?”

“I left my father’s home to make my own place in the world. I hope to have my own family one day. I will need a wife and children to manage my farm.”

She blushed then and turned her eyes to the ground. My words were too bold, even though I was not directly thinking of her when I spoke them. We finished the dance in silence and then I returned to my table to drink some honey wine. It helped to lighten my mood. The players kicked up a quicker tune, a reel I knew from my own childhood. The lead was played by a tall, lanky man with long, thin brown hair. His skinny fingers flew across his fiddle and his bow moved like a blur. The bassist thumped right along with him and the six-string and the flute popped in and out to play quick, vibrant solos. They had the look of travelling professionals, smiling and winking at the locals and enjoying the click of the coins that landed in their open instrument cases. Their playing had everyone clapping and stamping their feet to the rhythm. Some folks called out in a yelp in answer to the wild music, and one spry old woman stood on her table to dance a simple step. Across the village square, I saw the trapper raise his cup to me and I returned his salute. He then raised his eyebrows and smiled in the direction of his lovely daughter. She was approaching me again.

“I bet the next tune is an easy one to dance to, if you are up for it. Nice and slow.” Her kindness was refreshing, and I hastily accepted. She smiled again, her face warmed by the firelight. The flames reveled in her eyes and danced across her glistening lips. I kissed her.

“She will be yours.”

The following summer we were hand-fasted in a ceremony in the glade under the approving gaze of the megalith. I wore my finest, and Tana wore a simple gown of pure white. A motley array of the summer flowers adorned her long hair. The base of the megalith was piled high with the gifts of the sweet summer: honey, fruit, and bottled red wine. Our home was expanded and improved with the aid of some of the village men, and I had broken the soil early that spring to plant my first promising field. The life I had wanted was coming to be. I almost felt guilty for the treasures that I had received. Unbeknownst to her father, she was already pregnant with our first son.

He was born that autumn, almost one year after my first festival with the villagers and the timing seemed so fitting. He was healthy and hale at birth, but we struggled for some time to name him. It was their custom to name the firstborn after the father’s father, but I did not want that. He was my son and I would be the one to choose. I alone.

“Nathen, after your father.”

“Let’s name him Joren,” I said to my wife.

“Yes, let’s. It’s a fine name, it’s your name. My father might not approve, though. It’s not our custom.”

“He’s my son. I’ll name him as I see fit.”

The winter that year was hard. A bitter cold lasted for many months and the ground often shook beneath our feet. The plentiful stream was frozen over too solidly to easily find water, and the beasts of the wood were absent, save for the hunger-maddened wolves who circled much too near my home. My son was anxious and distracted, refusing my attentions. He would lie in his bed, tiny head turned to face the glade with a distant stare in his eyes. The villagers grumbled nonsense about the gods being angry, but my small farm had produced well and we had more than enough food stocked away to last until the sun’s return.

We planted the fields together that spring. I turned over the soil with much difficulty, the ground still cold and frozen from the harsh winter. My ox bellowed in complaint, but I urged her onward with the whip. The men said I was starting too early, but I ignored their advice and toiled hard. Tana and I both seeded the ground, her eager to help after putting Jorenson to bed. I noticed that she was placing only two kernels in each hole, unlike my method of placing three.

“Tana!” I called out across the field. “Place three seeds in each hole.”

“Sorry, I just thought that two would be plenty.”

“Three is best, in case the crows get at them. Why did you only drop two?”

“I’m not sure; it was just a thought in my head.” She looked back over her shoulder toward the glade, where that black rock stood. My heart filled with anger, and I retraced Tana’s steps to place an extra seed in each and every hole. The soil was dead that spring, dry and gray, nothing like the moist, dark peat that I had planted in the previous year. My corn grew slowly that season, and stood only as high as my chest by harvest time.

My farm was not the only one so afflicted. All of the villagers’ farms produced much less than the year before, seemingly healthy livestock died, and the harvest celebration was a somber affair. The women pretended to be merry, and the men sat about whispering about what had gone wrong. Even the travelling players hadn’t returned this year. Their jovial music was much needed and much missed. I went to the festival with my family; it was in many ways also my son’s first birthday party, but we sat alone. Few of the villagers acknowledged us, and none had a kind word. Even Tana’s father remained a stranger to us, stealing sly glances but never coming over to join our party. I could see the hurt in her eyes.

After an uneasy hour, one of the village elders came to us. The man wore the traditional garb of the towns’ elders. Over his pure white shirt he had a short coat of the brightest red, embroidered with a crisp yellow and displaying polished brass buttons. His pants were wool, dyed black; his boots were knee-high and made from fine leather. A graying mustache was twisted to a point at the ends, but otherwise he was clean shaven. His sun-browned, rough skin contrasted with his wizened hair, and his eyes shone out a brilliant blue. He seemed polite and kind at first, but he was clearly uncomfortable. The other villagers could scarcely hide their fascination with our talk.

“Joren, friend, I am glad that you brought your family in for the occasion,” he said.

“Thank you sir, I only wish the mood were higher, but it was a disappointing growing season.”

“Yes, but we’ve been through this before,” he said, raising his troubled eyes to the woods. “So, I never met your son, what did you end up naming him?” He dropped his gaze to look at my boy without lowering his head. It felt contemptuous, and I sensed that this was his true reason for speaking with me, but I could not understand why.

“We decided to call him, Joren, after his father,” answered Tana. I smiled at the child and tousled his yellow hair.

“Is that so? Not much for tradition, I guess.”

“I am not from your land, my traditions are different.” My tone was far more hostile than I intended it to be, and I regretted my words as soon as they were spoken.

“I see. You are your own man. But, some of us here are very old-fashioned. They believe that failure to follow the old ways brings misfortune. Your ways are strange and foreign to us, friend. You don’t honor your own father’s name, you plant your crop in an odd fashion, and, if it weren’t for Tana, you’d just live out there all by yourself. You ought to mind our ways and try to respect what you don’t understand. Many think you have brought this trouble upon us all.”

I lost my head and stood up quickly, forcing the older man to back up suddenly. He stumbled and fell to the ground, landing with an embarrassing thud on the hard earth. It wasn’t my intention to tumble him over, but I was seething from his words to me. And yet I said nothing, but did not offer to help him either. Two younger men, probably his kin, came over scowling at me and helped him to his feet. They skulked away without another word, only shooting hateful glares over their shoulders in response. The villagers’ eyes were all on us now, and some even narrowed their gaze at my young son, as if he were somehow to blame.

“Joren, maybe we should go,” my wife quietly whispered at my side. It felt as if the black of the dying year was pressing in around us; that the spirit in the community was being drawn away.

“Walk back tonight? It’s late already and the distance is several miles.”

“But, I don’t think we are welcome here.”

We rose from our table. Tana carried Jorenson on her back, and I carried our packs and the goods we had purchased earlier that day. It was well after evenfall, but I felt that she was right. Our walk would be long and dark, the child would fuss, but the sentiment there was blacker than the night and colder than the chilled air.

We trod slowly, my torch our only source of light along the road. I looked ahead, toward the glade, searching for the megalith looming above the trees. It was far away yet, and the night was dark, but I caught sight of it. It was there, among the ancient trees, darker than the sky surrounding it. I felt as if it were angry, brooding and drawing in the light around it, consuming the energy from the land and even the sky. I begrudgingly admitted its power to myself, its pull on the land and the simple folk who lived there. I had felt it myself, right from the very beginning, but I did not know to respect it, fear it, then.

We walked in silence, both of us feeling the gloom around us. I listened to the erratic fall wind blowing the trees and scattering the myriad leaves. It was not very cold, but the gentle chill of the harvest season urged us to walk close together. Often I heard sounds just off the road, irregular movements and unexplained rustlings of the bush. My hunter’s eye scanned the dark, but I was blinded by the close light of my fire. The wind kicked up the brown dust of the road and tricked my eye with ghosts of pale dirt and swirling leaves. Tana looked at me with concern, and we hastened our step.

“Submit.”

Turning to look behind us, I could make out dark figures following us on the road. They carried no light, and stayed far enough behind to escape ours. They seemed to be only following, but for how long and why? I stopped and turned to face them in defiance.

“Who are you, and what do you mean by following my family?”

“Joren,” spoke one voice as they closed in, “We need you to give us the child.” He pulled back his hood and I recognized the man from the village. He was at the festival, one of the many unfriendly faces.

“Tana, run,” I spoke quietly to my wife. I could see the panic in her eyes, but she turned to go, following my word. “You’ll have to take him from me,” I called out in challenge to the men. I had no weapon except for my strong body and my hard, workman’s hands. Rage filled my mind then, and I recklessly charged at the men. They broke apart, scattering around me, and moved to my vulnerable flanks. I managed to lash out and grab one of them. I smashed his nose into his face with a bloody splatter. However, there was a hard crack on the back of my head and a quick flash of white light. The road rushed up to meet me. In the distance, I heard my wife screaming and my baby wailing.

When I opened my eyes again, I was in the clearing, on the ground before the hateful stone. I was bound by coarse, thick ropes about my chest, hands, knees, and feet. It stood there, triumphant above me, the light of dozens of torches licking its black body. A sanguine harvest moon languished in the gray sky. My head was thick with pain, my vision red with the blood in my eyes. My mouth tasted of iron. Time crept. Tana was there too, but she was a madwoman, writhing on the grass and howling for them to stop in an unnatural, visceral voice. She often called out for her father’s help, but I saw him nowhere in the crowd of people from the village.

On the ground before the megalith a pile of wood had been collected, and the elders stood around it, speaking in a lost tongue. They had my son. I tried to speak, but my mouth was swollen shut, my throat crushed. I tried to stand, but my bindings were too taut. One of the men noticed me then, and shoved me back down each time I tried to rise. I caught his eyes with mine and pleaded, wordlessly, for his aid. But his face was cold; dead to me and my plight.

“Sacrifice.”

I was forced to watch as they placed my only child on the pyre. He lay there naked against the cruel wood, but did not cry. He never cried out, neither in fear nor pain. The elder who had spoken to me just hours before now took a torch from his attendant and set it to the wood. Fire crackled to life as he said a few more arcane words, face gazing upward to the eye of the megalith. All around the megalith, the chant was repeated in low tones until it rose up in a great crescendo, louder than Tana’s wailing and the thundering of my own heart. I could not remove my eyes from the macabre scene. As the flames stretched up to consume my son, the ground beneath us trembled and the villagers gathered there cheered in relief. Tears ran down my dumb face. The wolves sang deep in the dark forest around us.

They enjoyed a very mild winter that year.

Tana and I had been allowed to leave, and she assured me, over and over, that she had no idea what her people were capable of. There had never been a failed crop in her lifetime, and most thought that the old ways were lost. She had fleeting memories from her childhood of her father and others leaving the village to visit the woods, but she was always told that they were hunting, or simply “walking.” I believed her and we left that place together. We traveled back to my home country, and meekly lived in my father’s house for a time. We never spoke again of our ordeal in her country, not even to one another. It was hard to return to my father’s house and admit my failures. I only gave him vague, ambiguous details. I was afraid of the megalith’s power, even here. I did not want it to find a way to hurt the rest of my family. I remember our first words after those quiet years well.

“Father, I am sorry and ashamed of my actions when I left. It wasn’t my place to question your decisions with your own land. I should have been thankful for anything that I received.” The words were easier to say than it was to look into his hard, gray eyes. But in them I saw love and immediate forgiveness.

“Son, those days and those words are gone like a cloudburst of cold rain. I am happy to see you and your beautiful wife. You are welcome here, and I and Jakon will help you in whatever way you need. I know of an abandoned old farm not far from here. Maybe you can make a new start there.”

“My brother and his family are well?”

“Yes, but you have been missed. You look so much like your mother, and when you left, I felt like I had lost a great part of her again. Welcome home, son.” At that, he embraced me and I felt the hasty deeds of the past being erased.

I did start up a farm not far from my father’s, and he helped me with some land and the use of some tools. With his guidance, my land prospered and Tana and I found some measure of happiness together again, but we were never able to have another child. Jakon encouraged us to visit and to care for his two little ones often, but it wasn’t the same; perhaps it made things worse. It broke Tana’s heart. She died some years later and all of the hope was gone again from my life. I buried her next to my mother, and visit their namestones every nineday.

I still feel the megalith sometimes. I’ve seen it in my dark dreams at night. It’s still standing there, watching me from afar, somewhere over those blue hills and through the wide green valley on the other side. Mile upon mile separates us now, but I am still cursed by its ugly power. If I were a better man, I’d return in secret and beat upon it with my bare fists until I reduced it to rubble, but I have nothing left but my hate and the bitter memory of my failure.

“Despair.”

 

That Little Voice Inside: A Jack Hagee Story

by C.J. Henderson
adapted from the graphic novel by John L. French

 

“There is no more tooth left to fill, Mr. Hagee. I have to cap it.”

The words of my dentist. The night before I had a molar with two fillings… until 8:30. Then it decided to shatter for no reason I could discern. Suddenly I had a mouth full of cuts and enamel shards—and pain. Blood oozed at a steady pace. Any breath I took through my mouth sent air over a now-exposed nerve, rocking me with sharp jolts of agony. And forget about eating or drinking.

It made me less than happy.

I’m not making the boohoo over the fact. The life I live, the business I’m in, the punches to the face I’ve taken—it had to happen sooner or later. It was just the timing.

It wasn’t like I could call in sick. When you’re the boss and sole operative of an investigative agency there’s no one to call in sick to. And I had a meeting with a client that morning, a client I didn’t want to lose.

Lately it seemed that all my cases had been thuds—you know, the kind where all the client is looking for is someone with good aim and a thick skull. This one promised to be different though. So, numb from the drills and drugs and the pain of getting a root canal and a temporary cap I was on my way to The House of Avo, a fashion studio. It seemed that someone had ripped off their fall line.

Industrial espionage being waged between fancy tailors. Forgive me for being smug but it didn’t seem like the kind of case where I needed to expect any real trouble.

Then again, the little voice inside my head managed to shout out over the pain, I hadn’t been expecting any real trouble any of the other times I’d almost gotten killed.

I entered the rust and cream colored marble-drenched deco lobby of the Morgan Building and waited for the elevator with a group of devastatingly beautiful women and several mutant-like delivery men. The effect was that of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel about a lost jungle tribe. Statuesque women standing side by side with a hovering pack of troll-like males. The fact that this collection of bored lovelies made a point of keeping the trolls between themselves and me made me wonder—not for the first time, mind you—just what kind of scent I give off anyway.

I restrained myself from thumping my chest and bellowing something like “Hagee am strongest of all,” figuring it might not go over, even considering the Tarzan-like atmosphere of the crowd.

Sometimes I can be all class.

When the elevator finally arrived I meekly took the place allotted to me by the crowd, sucking in my gut like the rest of trolls. I got just as much reward for it as they did.

The Avo receptionist was the first woman I’d seen all day with hair that was less than prefect and whose clothes looked like they had been selected more for comfort than for how they looked. I was relieved that there was someone from my own planet to talk to.

“Good morning,” I said, giving her the best smile I could with a mouth still slightly numb from Novocain. “I’m Jack Hagee. I’m supposed to see Mr. Jancing at ten.”

She looked up, returning my smile as if the sight of me didn’t make her want to vomit. I like that kind of smile.

Gesturing to an inner door, she said, “Right through there. Mr. Jancing is expecting you.”

I walked into a large room that at first glance seemed to be every man’s dream. The beauties from the elevator were there as were several others just like them and all were in various stages of undress. Some were in underwear that didn’t hide many secrets, others in just panties, one in just a bra. One was completely nude, casually talking to someone who was fixing what looked like a busted zipper. No one seemed bothered about the display of female flesh, to them it was just another part of their working day, nor did they seem to care that a man they didn’t know had walked in on them. No shrieks, no yells, no grabbing of towels for modesty’s sake.

That’s what brought me down to heaven and back to earth. They didn’t care. Didn’t care that I was looking. I was beneath their notice.

I took a breath, a small one through my nose, and looked around for someone who wasn’t taking clothes on and off or helping those who were. A smallish Chinese woman passed by carrying some fabric so I said,

“Di gon tau?”

I thought I had asked “Where’s the big boss?” The woman’s smile made me think I’d just given him a new nickname instead.

“Where did you learn Chinese?” she asked.

“I used to do detective work in Chinatown.”

She nodded. “Then you must be Mr. Hagee.” Yeah, I must be. The way my life had been going lately I doubt if anyone else wanted to be.

“Mr. Jancing,” she yelled over the crowd, catching the attention of an overweight man with a slicked-back comb-over and a shirt that was opened enough to show greying chest hair.

He looked toward me in puzzlement then recognition. Walking over he asked,

“Didn’t we have a ten o’clock?”

I looked at the clock on the wall. It was ten exactly.

“Oh, you’re one of those, are you? Well, pleased to meet you. Let’s get out of this facockta noise and down to business.”

Jancing took me into a smaller room where there was a man working at a drawing table. The man looked up and scowled, not pleased to have been interrupted at whatever he was doing.

“Mr. Hagee, this is my partner, Ira Berkenwald.”

On hearing my name Berkenwald became more social.

“Can we get you anything, Mr. Hagee—a coffee, a juice? We could send down for Danish or bagels. The deli’s just two doors down, a supreme egg sandwich they make in the morning.”

“Grapefruit juice, please. Warm if you can. I just had a cap this morning.”

Jancing waited until I had drink in hand then asked, “So, Mr. Hagee, how much do you know about the fashion business?”

From the suit I was wearing Jancing probably already knew the answer, but I told him anyway.

“Not a lot.”

Jancing waved away my answer. “That’s okay, neither do nine-tenths of the people that are in it.” He looked at his partner. “Ira and me, we’ve been dressing women for twenty-seven years…”

I couldn’t resist. “Nice work if you can get it.”

“A comedian he is,” Berkenwald said before turning back to his drawing board.

“I heard him, Ira. I’m right here. And he is right. It is nice work, Mr. Hagee. But it is also tough, with the competition out to kill…”

“Kill,” echoed Berkenwald.

“…and never a sure dollar.”

“Never.” Berkenwald’s frustration came through that time, as if the dollars had been less sure of late. I could understand that.

Jancing could have gone on all day complaining about his business, these days who couldn’t, but I had my own to run and I was feeling the first tingle that told me the Novocain was wearing off.

“Ah, and the reason you wanted to see me?”

“Yes, okay. Fast fashion lesson. There are six, no, five real designers in the entire world. Five who do any real designing. The rest are copiers—copying machines with an eye for color.”

“And sometimes not even such a good eye,” Berkenwald added.

Jancing nodded in agreement.

“Are we one of those five? No, we copy the latest trends too, of course. But what keeps The House of Avo a step ahead is we try. Every year we run our own line. Nothing extraordinary, nothing too different, nothing you’d see on that cable show, but it’s our own. We do more than put an extra sash on someone else’s dress. We create our own style every year.”

He took a sip of whatever he was drinking and went on. “Okay, true, we’ve never been the mainstay of the season, but still, we try. Try to do something different, something that’s ours.

“Do you know what I mean?”

I knew what he meant. Anyone who’s been in public school, or the military, or dealt with any facet of corporate America knew what he meant.

It’s all too easy to get caught up in the make-a-buck world—following instructions, passing time, collecting checks—just turning off your brain and going through the standard motions until God the Father Almighty’s servant on Earth points his hand to the right number on his face and announces “Quitting time!”—not caring that people can’t exist on nothing more than commuting, sit-coms, and McNuggets. Dreams are hard enough to reach when you’re actually trying, let alone after the world starts beating you down working day after damned working day.

And now some dirtbag wanted to steal his dream from him.

Hell, if I were Jancing I’d be hiring a hitman instead of a private detective.

Yeah, I knew what he meant all right.

What followed was a crash course in fashion buying. Apparently The House of Avo had come up with a new twist for the fall line that had all the industry magazines raving—and the copy cats gearing up. But that wasn’t the immediate problem.

As Jancing put it,

“The people who shop at the malls and big box stores, if they know what a knockoff is they don’t care. All they want, and bless them for it, is to save money. They don’t care that the labelled sweater we make is 100% virgin wool that will last twenty years and that the piece of crap rayon they’re buying will look like shit in two—immediate price is all they’re interested in.”

The House of Avo discovered its real problem when some of their regulars called in orders expecting to get two-thirds off. When everything was hashed out, the boys realized that someone else had called all their stores across the country, rerouting their orders to a new address. A lot of those orders had already been filled, apparently with sweatshop crap not worth a dollar or two apiece.

The plain and simple was that someone had gotten their hands on the plans for the boys’ fall line and knocked off cheap imitations. They mashed the Avo customer list, told the world that they were in financial trouble, and they could get the fall line for peanuts, if those nuts were for paid in cash and C.O.D.

The police checked out the address given for the shipping orders. They reported it was a dummy front that resulted in no leads. The boys felt that the cops had given up on their case, not giving a damn about what happened to The House of Avo.

Knowing cops the way I do, I can assure you they usually don’t give much of a damn about anything. The trick was in knowing why they didn’t give a damn in this particular case. I’d have to do some checking before I could say why they were ignoring the boys and their problem.

I looked around. Even when I don’t think I’ll find anything I always look around. Clients seem to expect this, makes them think they’re getting value for their money.

The only copier in their office was a joke. Besides, for the line to be copied their patterns had to be stolen. After a quick course in the nuts and bolts of fashion even I could see that was something that took both time and skill. Whoever pulled this off had figured an angle that was not obvious.

Suddenly that little voice started sending danger messages warning about bad pork ahead, suggesting that my sarcasm about “Industrial espionage being waged between fancy tailors…” was going to blow up in my face.

I was dying for a cigarette but lately I’ve made it a point not to smoke on a prospective client’s premises or anywhere close by. You never know when a member of the “we-know-better-than anyone-else-what’s-good-for-everyone-else” society is going to speak up and ruin the deal. So I squelched the need for a lungful of relaxation even as Jancing was asking if I was going to be able to help them.

“I’m just a working man,” I admitted to Jancing, “and as such I hardly ever walk away from an honest job. Yours looks honest enough.”

When I said this he looked at me as if I were Dick Tracy and had just told him that everything was going to be A-OK.

I spent a little time reminding him that I was an investigator and not a superhero, that my work came with no guarantees except that I would do my best for him.

By now the drugs needled into my jaws that morning by the dentist had almost fully worn off and I was beginning to lose my ability to make polite conversation so I said something about getting to work on the case, shook the hands of both partners and left.

As I left The House of Avo I was also beginning to lose some of my earlier assurance. These guys hadn’t been ripped off by some other designer, they’d been danced on by an organized bunch who moved quick and who were blessed by either lazy or dirty cops.

Life is always swell for the working man.

I stood out front of the building for a moment, trying to both enjoy a much needed cigarette and ignore the mounting pain in my jaw. I couldn’t do either. I could feel the shit level rising, knew I didn’t like where I was but couldn’t see any better place to be.

Finally I crushed out the smoke while the little voice inside told me to stop my bellyaching and get to work. I stared at the butt on the sidewalk for a long moment. Don’t ask me why. Finally in anger I kicked it into the gutter. That would teach it.

Sometimes I can be such an idiot, I thought as I walked off massaging my jaw. No part of me jumped in to argue.

An hour later I was in my office with an aging, black saxophone player named Popeye. I’d gone looking for him on the way, finding him at University and 14th, one of his three usual corners. From the grin he was flashing I knew he was thinking of the first time we’d met.

Two summers back, I’d been in the office with my feet up on the desk working on a tattered copy of Stand on Zanzibar and a thermos of Long Island iced tea. I was alternating from one to the other, curious as to which I’d finish first. The iced tea was in the lead when through the window I heard a lonely jazz sax aching its way through the Popeye the Sailor Man theme. It caught my attention so completely I popped the window to see where it was coming from. A shout brought a thin, somewhat ragged musician up to my office for a drink.

Before we could say much though a suit came in. He was a self-important, smooth-faced little preener with slick hair and a carefully cultivated attitude—the kind that’s easy to hate but too tightly tied to dispensable income to easily ignore. He was dismayed to see a trash beggar who smelled of the streets in my office. My need for the inside of his wallet tempered my desire to push the suit off into the hall, maybe down the stairs, and possibly into traffic. So I introduced my new friend as “Popeye,” an undercover agent posing as a street musician for surveillance purposes. The suit was so impressed he was sold on the spot. I got a nice security contract that practically wiped out my credit problems and Popeye got a nickname. He apologized after the suit left.

“Sorry ’bout almost queerin’ your deal, man.” His eyes got distant as he talked more to himself then me. “You on the street, sometimes… sometimes you forget the smell. Fo’get what it was like to be a regular and what’s important to dem, how dey think an’ all. Anyway, sorry, man. I just fo’got.”

That had been just a few months after I’d first opened for business. I was grateful to him for helping to scam the suit but he wouldn’t take any money from me for anything except his playing. So I had him play cartoon themes for an hour and a half, throwing cash into a hat there in my office. The two of us finished the iced tea in between numbers then tapped the gin bottle in my desk. We finished that as well. If the gin and the tea had any affect on his playing it affected my hearing at an equal rate.

All in all, that was one fine afternoon.

Back in the present, I asked Popeye how he was doing, if he was holding the pieces together. Popeye was a decent guy, I liked him. He was just one of those unfortunate sacrifices the city demands on occasion.

I’d offered him a job in flush times but he always had a reason to say no. The truth was the years had burned him out—bad. Too much booze, too much dope, too much lying to himself.

He was still an amazing musician, but as far as what most people call “a normal life” he couldn’t handle it. He lived in an abandoned car—winter and summer—and no one could talk him out of it. His family had abandoned him years ago as a lost cause. Not being family, I hadn’t given up on him yet. I told him I had a check to do, one where something smelled bad, one where I could use some cover. He smiled as he told me,

“And I am the best man you uses.”

“Best, I don’t know,” I said, smiling and shaking my head. “You’re the cheapest anyway.”

He returned my smile with a rare one of his own. “Hey, it’s a goddamned recession out dere. Don’t bein’ the cheapest makes me the best?”

“Welllll, maybe,” I countered, drawing out the “well” as long as I could.

“Fuck me runnin’, no wonder I hates white people so much. So full of bullshit it make my head spin.”

As much fun as it was sparring with Popeye, I told him,

“Okay, that’s enough. If I’m going to get this done today I’ve got to get it done this afternoon. How much for, say, two hours, travel time included?”

“Thirty.”

“Done. Let’s get going.”

He looked disappointed. ‘Shit, don’t you want to haggle it out some?’

Here we go, I thought. “Okay, you grifting chiseler, not a cent over thirty-five.”

Popeye’s previous smile was now a frown. “Don’t be pullin’ no games on me. I don’t be wantin’ no charity…”

“Oh get off your high horse. Every halfway decent back-up in the business demands at least fifteen an hour with a lot of bullshit thrown in on top. As easy as you and me work together, I’d be cream-shit supreme to offer you less. And considering how smooth thing have been going here lately, I’m embarrassed to be offering a pal less than forty.”

Before Popeye could reply to that I added, “Look, I understand all about pride. I’ve damned near died for it a few times myself. This has nothing to do with that. This is negotiating a living wage. You are a human being, you know. You do deserve a living wage.”

Popeye was quiet for a minute, raising his eyes as if figuring. Then he said,

“Okay, I want seventy-five an hour.”

“Get bent. I said twenty.”

“I thoughts we were negotiating?”

“I’m negotiating. You’ve moved to highway robbery.”

“Twenty-two fifty an hour. And you gots to buy dinner.”

I held out my hand. “Done on the money. Dinner if you earn it.”

“Done and done, bro,” he said, grabbing it to seal the deal.

As we moved to leave, Popeye said, “Hey, I just want to say thanks, you know?”

“Hey, don’t thank me. Just earn your money. We’re not playing games here. I don’t usually need you to earn your stake but sooner or later you’re going to have to. The day you do will be thanks enough, believe me.”

“Man, white people is sure cold.”

“So’s a grave,” I told him. “We’re not fooling here. One of these days coming back alive might be the best we get. You sure you want in this time?”

Popeye shook his head. “Shit, bro, I don’t wants to work, but Ize wants the money so…”

I held the door open for him, “So let’s go fuck up some bad guys.”

“I thinks maybe I should haves business cards too.”

“Shut up and get down the stairs.”

The office in question was on 23rd, between 6th and 7th. A good cover address but not a good place. The area was one of New York’s fifteen million “neighborhoods-in-transition,” a mix of expensive shops crammed into buildings not designed for them but too enduring to fall down on their own. There was the typical debris and poverty one sees throughout every stretch of the city. Popeye would fit right in.

We checked out the area with separate walk throughs then met back around the corner. We felt that things seemed peaceful enough. That accomplished, Popeye went back down the street and took up a post in front of the building into which I’d be going. He started a bluesy rendition of the Spider-Man cartoon theme, gently warming the area to his presence. I gave him fifteen minutes to become a fixture then eased around the corner, crossing my fingers.

Although we’d agreed that we didn’t feel any immediate danger, that hadn’t put off the churn in my stomach, a gurgle that couldn’t be explained by my office coffee. Maybe nobody was waiting with drawn guns but something was at work in the area that spelled trouble and I didn’t want it aware of me any earlier than necessary.

As I passed through the revolving doors I looked the place over. I had a business card in my hand as a cover so I could pretend to be looking for an office address. No need—the building didn’t maintain lobby personnel. Hell, it barely maintained the lobby.

The place was a mess. The paint on the walls was chipped and faded, and a lot of plaster had fallen from the ceiling, most of it ground to chalky powder. That meant people were still going in and out, no matter how abandoned the dump looked.

There were no cameras anywhere I could spot and precious few tenants listed in the lobby’s directory. The bogus House of Avo was one of them. It was located on the fourth floor, same as the real one.

When the elevator doors opened the little voice inside quietly reminded me that my radar was still screaming, that I didn’t usually get this nervous over nothing. I reminded it that people didn’t usually pay us for nothing. My voice didn’t have anything to say about that. But somehow, as the metal box sealed around me, I didn’t feel that I’d won that round.

The offices of the fake House of Avo must have once been impressive enough, at least impressive enough to fool the suckers who thought they were dealing with the real thing. Now it was as abandoned as the downstairs lobby looked. If I’d ever seen a joint that had been stripped, this was it. Everything held the sheen of a pro job, that obvious look that screams “We cleaned the place out, jackass. We’re professionals; we do this for a living.”

Sometime in the last twelve hours, the place had been steamed properly. Not a wasted ounce had been taken away. The computers had been left behind, but not the files or hard drives.

You could see that at one time the fakes had thought of making a more elaborate charade of things—phony business cards and other blinds littered the place. It made sense, having that stuff in one’s possession was practically a confession. No, the only things grabbed were stuff that said anything other than the address where I was.

And the place where I was was officially abandoned. A big dead end. Popeye was still wailing safety music, my tooth still hurt like a tax hike and my best lead was a fizzle. Yeah, my life was moving along just as it was supposed to.

I looked around anyway. It was my job and I like to think I earn the money I’m paid. I bent down to retrieve one of the fallen business card thinking that maybe I could trace the printer. That was a long maybe; they probably used one of the printers that had once been there. Then out of the corner of my eye I noticed something. It was almost invisible on the carpet.

That’s when I heard it, the sound of the elevator coming up. Then there was the ding of it stopping on my floor. The doors opened and I heard voices.

“This sucks.” The cry of the working man everywhere.

“Job’s a job, Lenny.”

Lenny and his friend were big, as big as me or maybe a bit bigger. I might have been able to take one of them down, but not both. Besides, one lucky punch from either in my mouth would have me screaming on the floor. By the time they made it to the office proper I was crouched down behind a desk waiting for a chance to break past them.

“Hey, we gave this place the big polish. There ain’t nuthin’ here and you know it.”

“I believe you, Lenny, honest. But it don’t matter. Fergesi pays for a second sweep, he gets a second sweep. You take the money, you do the job. Yes?”

“Yeah, yeah, Mr. Holier-than-Thou. I get it, I’m all growed up. It’s the lack of trust that burns me. I mean, you know and I know if evidence was gasoline there ain’t enough left in this dump to power a pissant’s motorcycle around the inner ring of a god-dammed Cheerio.”

“So’s how about I grant your premise and you start…”

The bitchin’ and moanin’ was winding down. Soon they’d start to search which meant that soon they’d find me. There wasn’t a better time.

I broke from cover, pushed Lenny into his partner and headed for the stairway door, hoping not to hear what my little voice assured me was coming. Once again it was right as two pistols fired and splintered the wood of the doorway.

I was armed, but being in plain view and not having the high ground I figured my best chance was to get down to the first floor and the hell out of the building as quickly as possible. As I took the stairs two and sometimes three at a time behind me I heard “Get ’em… the stairs… go get him…” along with more shots.

I guess I was lucky in that the two were more than likely workers with guns rather than professional gunmen pressed into the moving business. Shots followed me down the stairs but they were all aimed at where I’d been rather than were I was going to be.

I made it to the lobby with the two mokes right behind. I was almost out through the glass doors when,

“Stop, you son of a bitch.”

I didn’t stop, didn’t turn to see how close they were. I could feel them, feel them taking aim, getting ready to fire that one bullet that would have my little voice saying “Told you so” before it was stilled forever.

Somehow I made it through to the street, the crowded street. With people coming and going both ways I headed for what I hoped was the safety of a crowd, hoping my pursuers weren’t pissed enough to fire into it just to get me.

I didn’t have to worry. No sooner were the gunmen out the door than Popeye stepped into their path, blocking their way and tangling them up with his body and his sax.

“Hey, what’cha doing?” he asked, making it look like he was trying to get out of their way but only getting more into it.

“Watch it, ya shit,” said one of them. “Get outta da way,” said the other. And then with me nowhere in sight, Popeye became the focus of their frustrated rage.

A hard push knocked him down, his saxophone flying. As a citizen of the street, he knew what was coming next and rolled into a ball, protecting his head and vitals as the kicks came. Finally,

“Hey, forget about this guy. We gotta job to do.”

“But the shootin’, the cops,” Lenny protested.

“All the more reason to get upstairs, get it done and get out. We knew it was possible we’d run into that punk. Let’s just make sure da job is clean then blow this hole.”

I pulled up in my Skylark just as Popeye was getting to his feet. He found and checked his sax, and was checking himself when,

“Need a lift?”

He climbed into my passenger side with a, “Hell with business cards. Ize wants medical coverage.”

I drove us straight to The Old Fallout Shelter, a club I go to whenever I need to escape the regular crowd. Nobody knows me there, which sometimes is just the way I like it.

My heart had been doin’ the overtime shuffle when I broke for my car, leaving Popeye to take everything those two King Shit Supremes had to dish out. He’d taken it all and walked away without any breaks. It was luck I didn’t think I deserved.

I couldn’t fault him for not sounding the alarm. The moving man suits those two had been wearing were a nice touch. I wouldn’t have tripped to it, and Popeye had more than made up for it by pulling my bacon out of the deep-fry like he did.

At dinner I kept the Lincolns dancing until he couldn’t stuff down another bite then forced a couple of Grants on him on top of his fee. When he protested I reminded him that the white guy who’d been racing bullets was alive without a scratch on him.

He saw my point.

I hadn’t eaten much because my tooth was still throbbing, although a steady diet of gin and tonic had started to help with that. I didn’t know if the alcohol was killing the pain or my ability to care about it. Frankly, I didn’t give a good goddamn. All that mattered was that I piece together what little I had.

From what Popeye had heard from the two bone dogs who had tramped him it was no accident we ran into them. Someone had tipped them that the place was going to get a once over. And that someone had to be working for The House of Avo. Hell, the whole thing had smelled of an inside job since Jancing had laid it out for me. The only question was who.

Who could afford to sink the company they owned or worked at? Who could have that raw a grudge? What was the angle?

But did any of that matter? Did I need to know who the rat was gnawing on The House of Avo’s cheese from inside the wheel, or did I just have to bring down the vermin raking in the cash?

My little voice told me to stop thinking and just drink for a while. Finally, useful advice.

About fifteen minutes later the night’s entertainment started. It was a new band, new to me at least. If its name was announced I missed it. Blame the tooth. Blame the alcohol. Blame the front man for not introducing himself as he started things off.

“Hey, we want to thank everyone for noticing we’re up here. Now we’d like to do a song off our new CD…”

“Your only CD,” someone in the crowd yelled out, getting some laughs.

“Killin’ me with semantics,” the front man said. “Anyway, if you like it and don’t have it we’ll be happy to sell it to you on the way out. First though, I guess you ought to hear it. So… one, two three…

Bombs in the mail and poison in the stew
Government out to rob you, Business do it too
Life gets tough, then it gets tougher.
Playin’ fair’s no good, you gotta go rougher.
When you’re up against the wall and you got no slack,
Just listen to your Uncle Fester and…

SHOOT ’EM IN THE BACK!

Bastards in the dark, been waitin’ from the start
Steal all your money, then stab you in the heart.
Drink your blood and eat your eyes
Wear your skin as their disguise.
They never, ever stop ’til your guts are in a sack.
So listen to your Uncle Fester and…

SHOOT ’EM IN THE BACK!

Kill ’em any way you can. This you gotta understand.
Drown ’em, stab ’em, keep it simple or make it grand.
They’re not your friends, they’re all just slop.
You gotta wipe ’em out ’til you’re the one on top.
If you wanna be the top dog, there’s one thing you can’t lack—
Uncle Fester’s good advice to

SHOOT ’EM IN THE BACK!
SHOOT ’EM IN THE BACK!
SHOOT ’EM IN THE BACK!

Let them see what it feels like and
SHOOT ’EM IN THE BACK!”

Maybe it was the quart of gin I’d already put away, maybe it was the fact that it was two in the morning but suddenly I felt a whole lot better. I had a couple of good leads and some good advice from the band. Granted, the little voice inside warned me that perhaps I might need a bit more to go on. But then…

If I’d wanted to listen to reason that night, I wouldn’t have started drinking in the first place.

Sometimes the little voice inside has a point. Determined to be stupid, I’d kept drinking until dawn. That led to my sleeping in my car until the 11:00 sun convinced me it was time to wake up. By the time I managed to get home, shower and shave, and consume a caffeine cocktail the day was racing by. At least the pain in my jaw had subsided to where I could eat some donuts I’d dunked until they were soggy enough to slide down under their own power.

After that it was off to Belduchi’s Print for All Occasions. That bit of something I’d picked off the carpet at the fake House of Avo was a piece of cellophane tape with Belduchi’s address on it. It was just the words from the package stuck to the tape, but it was enough.

One of my playmates from the day before was kind enough to drop the name “Fergesi.” That could have meant the well-connected Anthony Fergesi or any of his three sons. It didn’t matter. With that name to drop I was able to con Mr. Belduchi into showing me the original bill.

I played on his sympathies like a 10th Ave. whore, letting my hangover explain why I needed to go to such stupid lengths to find my way to where I was supposed to be.

The old man made me a cup of coffee and gave me some fatherly advice. I thanked him for both. I could tell from his smile that he was honestly happy to have helped a young man back onto the path.

As I left I hoped he couldn’t tell from my expression that I was sincerely wishing what I was going to do next wouldn’t get him killed.

I’d managed a good parking spot right across the street from the address Mr. Belduchi had provided me—one of those “someone pulls out, someone pulls in” shots the whole city understands. Nobody thought twice about it as I locked up and wandered off.

It only took about ten minutes of back street trolling to find a promising way into Fergesi’s building. All I had to do was illegally enter someone’s property, climb the outside of their house, then invade some more private property—hopefully getting by the razor wire without slitting a major artery.

Oh well, I thought as I threw my coat over the sharp edges of the wire and hoped that the material would be thick enough to protect me, at least my tooth doesn’t hurt anymore.

Always something to be grateful for, I suppose.

My point of entry was a second floor office. This let out on a darkened catwalk which circled the warehouse floor below. Then, bingo, my work was pretty much done. After I was done at Belduchi’s, I’d called an information weasel by the name of Hubert to do a little digging for me. He almost immediately pegged this particular piece of McDonald Ave. real estate as belonging to one Anthony Fergesi.

Mob owned, hard evidence of the theft of intellectual property. Once I got my pictures it would be time to hit the road.

Of course, those pictures weren’t going to be easy to get.

From my position on the catwalk I spotted Fergesi instantly. It wasn’t like he needed to be inconspicuous, not in his own building. There were three other men with him. I didn’t know any of them, but I figured I could leave them for the cops.

As I focused my camera I remember thinking, Okay, smile for the birdie. Then through the shutter I saw something I wished I hadn’t—a nice, shiny, NYPD badge. I didn’t have to worry about the cops. One of them was already there and working for the wrong side.

Then one of them saw something I wished they hadn’t.

“Hey,” he shouted, turning and pointing in my direction, “who the hell is that?”

Back through the office, out the window, a long jump towards the fence, all the while dodging gunfire for the second time in two days. I was glad it was dark. These guys were the kind of pros that, given a clear shot, didn’t usually miss what they aimed out.

I cleared the razor wire with only a torn shirt and a new cut on my back. Coat, shirt, and stitches. The expenses on this case were adding up. I hoped I’d be around to add them to Jancing’s bill.

I thought about my car. It was out front. I was in the back, in an alley that soon would be blocked by men coming from both sides. I took a side alley, hoping it had an outlet that led to the street. It did. I worked my way around front and made it to my car just as Fergesi’s men figured out what I’d done.

Calm, I told myself, told my hands. Work the key, get inside, get us out of here.

I got inside, got the ignition turned on, then got the hell out of there with more gunshots from the two cars following me.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. Couldn’t wait. Couldn’t play it smart. Just had to let your hangover do your thinking for you.

Shut the hell up, I told the voice, then sent up a prayer that I’d make the next light.

I did. They didn’t but went through anyway. The lead car made it. The one behind got clipped but not hard enough. It straightened out and kept coming.

Damn, there was no way I was going to lose those guys on a straight-away. That meant getting off the straight-away. An angled turn was coming up. There was only a 50/50 chance I could make it at this speed.

Right then my luck was crap.

I almost made the turn but hit an oily patch and lost it. I slammed into a few things, the last being part of the fence to Green-Wood Cemetery. Behind me I heard other crashes. Guess their luck had been no better than mine.

Bailing out of my car I climbed over the ruined fence. Voices came out of the night.

“Mr. Fergesi, we think he’s in the cemetery.”

“You think he’s in there? You asshole, you think he’s in there? You get your goddamned ass in there and find out if he’s in there, and don’t come back without his goddamned head on a goddamned platter.”

“We’re getting out of here before the heat turns up.”

“The likes of you aren’t ditching me. Get your goddamn asses in there or it’s all our goddamn heads.”

“Who do you think you’re talking to, you oily bastard?”

A single gunshot ended that debate, with the rest of them coming in after me.

Trying to save my worthless ass, I staggered into the maze of tombstones and monuments. On the up side, I still had my camera, both my .45s, even my spare clip. On the downside, however, I’d broken my temporary cap in the crash. The edges of it had torn open my cheek, filled my mouth with blood.

Suddenly things had gone from a dull ache to screaming pain as each breath brought a blast of air over the exposed nerve. Now my head was throbbing, lightning flashes of pain tearing though my system, frying me, making me wish I was dead.

Through my pain I remembered that there were men in the dark looking for me, men with flashlights and guns wanting to grant my wish. Then I remembered what the band had recommended the night before.

Bombs in the mail and poison in the stew
Government out to rob you, Business do it too

Their flashlight made them targets.

Life gets tough, then it gets tougher.
Playin’ fair’s no good, you gotta go rougher.

They weren’t too spread out, sticking together in that atavistic fear we all have of the dark and death.

When you’re up against the wall and you got no slack,
Just listen to your Uncle Fester and…

The rest was easy.

Bastards in the dark, been waitin’ from the start
Steal all your money, then stab you in the heart.

SHOOT ’EM IN THE BACK!

I hunted them down. Following the flashlights to tell me where they were then coming up behind them.

Drink your blood and eat your eyes
Wear your skin as their disguise.

SHOOT ’EM IN THE BACK!

A few shots, then a fade. The muzzle flashes telling me where they were and in what direction they were firing.

They never, ever stop ’til your guts are in a sack.
So listen to your Uncle Fester and…

SHOOT ’EM IN THE BACK!

I don’t know how many of them I got. Toward the end I was losing ground fast. None of their panic-driven hasty shots had found me but still my head was pounding, it was hard to breathe and I was drinking my own blood. I was not going to be able to go on much longer.

Then…

Everyone stopped. Everything froze.

The boys in blue had arrived. The only problem was…

Whose side were they on?

A flashlight finally found me. “Freeze!” the voice behind me said.

I listened to it. The thug beside me didn’t.

He shot the cop. I shot him, then dropped my gun and raised my hands. The little voice inside stirred itself again to tell me I was doing the right thing. I hoped I’d be agreeing with it in another few hours.

I spent the early part of the morning getting my mouth put back together. I still hadn’t eaten anything but it felt good to talk without spitting blood everywhere.

I told Jancing and Berkenwald almost everything that had happened, leaving out the part about the dirty cop. For letting the department take care of their own my name was removed from the picture. The chase and the scene at the cemetery was laid squarely at the feet of Anthony Fergesi, along with the theft of The House of Avo’s fall line.

“Well, my boy, this is yours,” Jancing said as he handed me my check. “Like a tornado you solved this. Like a wizard you are.”

“Ah… yeah. Thanks, but there’s a little more.”

“Oh?”

“Fergesi spilled that one of the partners here at The House of Avo has a weakness for the ponies, one he hasn’t kept in check too well recently. It seems one of you picked up a line of credit, not knowing you were being set up by some patient guys with the need for an inside man.”

Jancing frowned then, looking more at Berkenwald then he was at me, said,

“Thank you, Mr. Hagee… for everything.”

With a “No, thank you, gentlemen” I left them. Behind me came the sound of screaming and cursing in more than one language. It continued as I left the offices and I could still hear faint traces of it even as the elevator doors closed to take me to the first floor.

It never fails. Let two people start something together—any two people, any thing—and sooner or later one of them will ruin it.

Hell, just look at the divorce rate.

It was one o’clock when I hit the street, well past the time the dentist said I could eat again. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Jancing, but then, I feel sorry for a lot of people. After all, everybody’s got problems.

Even me. Like right then I had a big problem.

I had to figure out where I was going to go for lunch.

 

The Big New Year’s Party

by Bud Webster

 

It was the first party of the holiday season. As is customary, most people brought something. A bottle of booze, a cake, even a date. Me? I brought a gun. A big gun. You might even say a very big gun. A gun as big as a diamond as big as the Ritz.

I walked into the room, comforted by the weight of my big gun in its holster under my coat. It was a big coat—it had to be, to hide my big gun—and my eye was caught by Spider Two-Suits, a guy I occasionally did business with. I could tell by how big his coat was that he was carrying a big gun, too. He nodded to me and I ambled over.

“So, Spider. I see you’re wearing a really big coat,” I said out of the corner of my mouth, the way I’d learned when I was in the Big House.

He blinked at me. “Yeah,” he said in his gravelly voice. “I gotta wear a big coat. A really big coat.”

“I understand,” I said. “A really big coat is necessary, ain’t it?”

“Yeah, it is, on account I got a really big gun.” He opened his coat slightly so I could see inside. It was a really big gun, all right. Bigger than mine, and I got a big gun.

“I always say a guy, a real guy, hasta carry a big gun. I mean, who don’t carry a big gun, right?” he asked.

“Nobody, is who don’t,” I said. “Nuns don’t carry big guns. Pansies don’t. Cops like to think they’re carrying big guns, but that’s just hooey.”

“Damn straight. I got two suits, it’s why they call me Spider Two-Suits, and both of ’em got really big coats so’s I can wear my gun.”

“Your really big gun, right?” My voice was gravelly like a cheap driveway in Scarsdale.

“Damn straight.” He shook his head in admiration. “You don’t miss much, do you?”

“Can’t afford to, I’m a PI. If I missed much, nobody’d hire me. How could I afford to buy ammo for my gun then?”

“Big ammo?”

“Yeah, big ammo. But not as big as yours must be, Spider.” I knew when to kiss up; you don’t get to be private heat in this town without you know how to kiss up a little. But I never kiss up big-time, that’s for losers. Pansies. Nuns. When you got a big gun, you don’t have to kiss up but just so much.

I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around. It was Scree Talus, who people called Rocks. I nodded at him.

“Youse guys got yer guns?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Spider said. “We got our guns. You?”

“I got mine. It’s big. The bigger the better, right? Am I right?” We both said he was right. He looked around the room. “I think we all got big guns here tonight,” he said. He looked satisfied, like all of us having big guns made us like a club or sorority or something.

I checked out the room. Sure enough, all the guys had on big coats, some of them really big. Except for one guy who might have been a pansy or a nun. He was holding a cake, but he didn’t have a date. There might have been dates in the cake, I guess, but they weren’t big dates or you’d have been able to see ’em. And it wasn’t a big cake, either.

It was a big room, it had to be. There was a big band on the stand, playing “Begin the Beguine,” and couples were dancing, but not too close. I saw one guy, Tony Skeets, dancing with two women, and remembered hearing he’d been arrested for bigamy. Didn’t seem to have made a lot of difference, though.

Suddenly, the doors at the other end of the room burst open, and the cops came waltzing in. They had their guns drawn, and from the looks plastered all over their mugs, they thought they had big guns, but they was wrong. You could of hidden any of them under a Hawaiian shirt, that’s how little they were.

I walked up to the main cop. “So, Lt. Manicotti. You here to enjoy the ambiance?”

He sneered. “Yeah,” he said in his gravelly voice. “Where’s the cake and the booze?” He shouldered me aside and strolled to the center of the room. The band went quiet.

“Now hear this!” he yelled. “All you pansies line up against that far wall. We’re gonna search you. Not you, Sister,” he said to a nun on the left holding a piece of cake. I couldn’t tell if it had dates.

“Who the hell you think you are, Manicotti?” yelled No-Neck Arnie in a gravelly voice. His coat was so big he almost couldn’t see past the lapels. “We all got big guns here. Right, fellows?”

“Right!” they all said, pulling their guns out. Every one of them was big. Even the nun pulled out a big gun, and so did the pansy with the cake.

I almost dropped my booze trying to ease out of the way. Something big was going down, and I wanted to look as small as I could, as small as the dates the other guys brought.

“Yeah, those are big guns all right,” Manicotti said with a shrug. “But we got more of ’em than you got.” Sure enough, about a hundred more cops came in through the doors, all of them with guns. Little ones, but lots of them. “Now, drop ’em, you guys!”

Grumbling in gravelly voices, the guys all dropped their guns. They made a big noise when they hit the floor. “How about me?” the nun asked. Her voice was gravelly, like a gravel pit with all the gravel still left in it.

“Yeah, you too, Sister.” She grumbled, but dropped her gun.

Manicotti walked up to me. “Peeper, I ain’t gonna take your gun, ’cause you got a permit. But you remember this: lots beats big anytime.” He looked me over like I was something really small, then he snorted and walked away.

I watched as the cops picked up all the big guns. Somehow, all the guys’ coats looked empty, like banana skins with no bananas in them. I guess it don’t get much emptier than that.

I walked slowly out onto the street, knowing that of all the guys on the block at that moment, I had the biggest gun. It wasn’t much comfort to me somehow. I lit a smoke and thought about the booze I had at home. Maybe I’d try and get a date. One with a cake.

I began walking, leaving behind me the sound of the cops taking all the guys away for having big guns, leaving behind me the mean booze and the cake that might have had dates in it. “Lots beats big,” Manicotti had said. I shook my head wryly; it made a sound like gravel. I had learned a big lesson, and I was more than ready for a little sleep.

Or maybe even a Big Sleep.

 

Harcourt Manor

Harcourt Manor

Illustration by Shane Watson

by Dean P. Turnbloom

 

The letter itself was strange. After all, who writes letters nowadays? An email would have been the norm for communicating with an old friend. But then, an email is much easier to dismiss—easier to forget about. A letter is a very deliberate thing.

In the letter my friend divulged that he was quite taken by surprise when he was contacted by his great-grandfather’s lawyer, or solicitor as they are termed in England, and even more surprised to discover he’d been bequeathed a sizable estate worth a substantial sum of money. My friend was the only child of an only child and both his mother and father had died tragically in an auto accident some five years past.

Even more surprising, he had been bequeathed the estate, all very properly and legally, with the title and deed signed and sealed, even though his great-grandfather was still very much alive, if not well, and residing on the estate.

If it were just the letter that would certainly be strange enough. But Charley had enclosed a coupon good for a one-way ticket to London, England.

Charley and I had been best friends at college—roommates in the dormitory our freshman year and roommates in a small apartment off-campus the remainder of our days at old Indiana University. More than once, we’d sworn that should one of us ever need the other, never mind the reason or the hardship it might impose, we’d answer the call unhesitatingly.

Still, after so many years, years in which neither of us had heard from the other, I was inclined to deny the oath taken in such youthful exuberance, and throw the letter, coupon and all, in the trash. I would have done just that, except my personal circumstances, coincidentally, suddenly lent themselves to taking a trip.

Susan and I had been dating for over a year, and I suppose I just assumed I could continue to string her along indefinitely. But it had very recently come to my attention that Susan had taken matters into her own hands in a way that was sure to upset the status quo. I discovered quite by accident that Susan was sleeping with our mutual friend and my teaching partner, Ted.

Rather than suffer the humiliation of being a cuckold, I fabricated a story about a research grant that I could not pass up. I told Susan we would have to put our relationship on hold for a year, while I pursued this wonderful opportunity. I then arranged to take a sabbatical in pursuit of the supposed grant to write a treatise on English literature of the eighteenth century.

I thought it would do me well to get away and I had been meaning to write a book on that very topic, so my story had a ring of truth to it.

The opportunity to actually begin the book by first taking a trip to England was irresistible to me. I was certain that in addition to fulfilling my oath to my dear friend and cheering him out of his obvious well of depression I could use the occasion to prowl the aisles of London’s best research libraries.

I determined to go at once and replied via email to the address my friend conveniently included along with his telephone number at the bottom of the letter.

I was met at Gatwick Airport by a bespectacled middle-aged man with a mustache in a dark brown uniform. He was my driver, James, engaged by Charley to make sure I arrived safely at his estate. The ride from Gatwick Airport to Harcourt Manor was picturesque. The scenery was pastoral and quite beautiful as the sun set on the horizon.

With the gathering darkness it became increasingly difficult to discern the countryside, then impossible. Just as James announced we were on the private manor road, the moon rose. As we approached the manor, the trees grew thicker and the shadows darker. What little light penetrated the blanket of leaves only served to heighten the sense of gloom.

Abruptly we came into a very large clearing. There in the middle stood what could only be Harcourt Manor. The expanse of stone and mortar that appeared to gleam in the soft moonlight stood in stark contrast to the dark forest beyond and the terraced lawn in front. The low ground fog gave the entire scene an eerie, ethereal quality.

James pulled up to the entry. As I emerged from the auto he retrieved my bags from the trunk, placed them neatly by the door, and then returned to the limo and drove away without a word. I watched as the taillights faded from view.

Shaking myself out of my reverie, I drew back an enormous iron knocker, letting it swing against the door. It struck the door with enough force, I thought, to send the reverberations throughout the sizable manor house. I waited, not wishing to appear impatient. The door creaked as it was slowly opened from within.

At first there appeared to be no light whatsoever from inside the manor (I say manor because “house” is woefully inadequate to describe it, and “manor”, although it may be somewhat lacking, brings to mind a structure more closely akin to what Harcourt is). As the door swung inward, I became aware of a dim flickering in the entryway, which grew brighter and warmer. Its source then became fully visible as a tall, gaunt but smiling man holding a candelabra greeted me most congenially. So emaciated was he that he appeared mere days or perhaps hours even from the grave. His skin had an ashen quality, his thinning hair was unkempt, wild even, and even in the pale candlelight the rheuminess of his eyes, wide and animated, was clearly visible.

The combination of these factors gave the impression of a man near madness. As he greeted me, however, there appeared no trace of madness in his voice—nothing about its tone or quality that betrayed any trace of insanity.

Could this be my friend? It had been twenty-five years since we had last seen one another, but my friend (and I by now realized this was Charley) with whom I’d lived for four years while we were in our salad days, appeared to me to be fifteen or more years my senior.

Greeting me in the warmest fashion possible, “Come in, Winston, it’s so good to see you again.”

“Charley,” I said, “it’s been a long time,” and I took his frail hand in mine, shaking it gingerly, afraid I might damage it. I must admit, though, his grip was surprisingly strong.

“How’s your family?” he inquired as he led me through the foyer, down a long hallway, and into the drawing room. There he had prepared a roaring fire. “And Jack, and Alice, do you see much of them?” he continued, asking about friends long forgotten. “Please, sit here by the fire,” he said, inviting me to sit in one of two chairs situated on either side of a small table on which was arranged a light repast of cheese and wine.

“Thank you,” I replied, looking around the room in which the only light came from the fireplace and the candelabra Charley had placed on a table. The furnishings were old, but obviously of great quality and probably valuable antiques.

He laughed nervously, then said, “One of the many annoyances in a house as old as this one,” he explained, “is that you have to put up with frequent interruptions in the electrical service.”

As my friend poured the wine, I sampled the cheese, and we talked about old friends we’d known, reminiscing about our youth. My friend showed none of the frenetic anxiety displayed in his missive. I asked him about the letter, “Charley, you seemed so distraught and troubled in your message, I couldn’t help but come. But you…”

He interrupted, “Oh, the letter. Yes, well, I was a bit upset. My great-grandfather had recently passed you see, and I was feeling overwhelmed… lonely and melancholy. I’m afraid it got the better of me,” he said apologetically. “Just seeing you here, though, is like a tonic for me.”

When he spoke of his great-grandfather, he looked away nervously. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but I distinctly remembered it later on.

At a little past nine my friend suddenly arose, yawning. With the promise to continue our conversation in the morning, he said, “I’m sure you must be exhausted after your long trip. I don’t wish to overtax your energies here on your first night. We’ll have plenty of time for chit-chat tomorrow.” Rising and fetching the candelabra, he said, “I’ll show you to your room. I hope you’ll find it comfortable.”

“After the airplane, I’m sure it’ll be heaven,” I replied.

He led me down the corridor and up a stone staircase to a second-story room. Placing the candelabra on a table, Charley removed two candles. One, he placed in a candle holder beside the door leading to the hall, the other in an identical holder leading to the adjoining bath. He then bade me goodnight and disappeared down the dark hallway.

The room and adjoining bath appeared surprisingly modern. There was a king-sized bed, a large overstuffed chair for lounging and a smaller straight-backed chair at a desk with a reading lamp. My bags, which I had left in the foyer, were placed neatly at the foot of the bed. Suddenly finding myself to be very tired, I retired for the night.

At about two o’clock in the morning, I was awakened by a loud voice. It sounded as though Charley was having an argument over the phone, as his was the only voice I heard with pauses where another voice should have been. I arose, but as soon as I opened my door, the house grew suddenly quiet again.

The next morning I awoke, showered, and made my way downstairs before 8 o’clock. The electricity had been restored sometime during the night. I explored more carefully the path I’d taken to my room the night before. A fortune in antiques, paintings and artifacts lined the corridors and the walls of the drawing room.

One painting in particular caught my eye, as it appeared to be a portrait of my friend, but not as I’d seen him last night. This portrait was of a much younger, more robust man, a man of my own age. I realized this was the man I had expected to see when I arrived, not the shadow I’d seen the evening before.

The painting was nearly life-sized; a full-length portrait of my friend standing before an antique globe in front of a shelf of books. The painting itself and the frame that held it also appeared to be antique, but the clothing he wore was of obvious contemporary fashion. As I stood examining its intricate detail, my friend suddenly spoke my name from directly behind me.

“Good morning, Winston,” he said, “I trust you slept soundly.”

Startled, not having heard his approach, I jumped and turned to face him. The look on his face was fearful and a tic appeared in his left eye that immediately brought the letter to mind. This was the face of the man who’d written me. “Charley, you startled me,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “Would you like some coffee?”

“That would be very welcome. I was just admiring your portrait.”

Casting his eyes downward, in a low, almost inaudible voice, he said, “I didn’t commission that; it came with the house. Tradition, you see.”

After a moment he looked up at me smiling—the wide, toothy smile of someone hiding something—and invited me to the dining room for breakfast.

As we sat down to eat, I asked, “Charley, who was that you were on the phone with last night?”

“On the phone?” he asked, seeming genuinely surprised by the question.

“Yes, I heard you about 2 a.m. It sounded as though you were in violent disagreement with someone.”

Looking a bit shocked, he said, “You must be mistaken.” Then, gaining some of his composure, he posited, “Perhaps it was the wind. It sometimes howls through the house. It can play havoc with a sleepy mind.”

“Perhaps,” I agreed, but I was sure he was lying.

As the days passed, my friend’s health and vigor appeared to quickly mend. By the end of the first week of my visit I felt he was sufficiently well enough for me to venture into London. I wanted to at last begin the research I had hoped this trip would enable. When I’d arrived his health had appeared so precarious that I was uneasy about leaving his side. But with each passing day he looked stronger. Equally important, his spirits seemed brighter.

I approached my friend, “Charley,” I said, “since you appear to be feeling so much better, I thought I’d pop into London to do a little research.”

His face grew suddenly pale and wan and he appeared near fainting. I ran to get him a glass of water, “Are you all right?” I asked.

He said, “Yes, I’m sorry,” taking the water, sipping it slowly. “It’s just that your proposal to leave caught me off guard. I know it’s silly, but I suddenly felt anxious. Alarmed, even, out of fear you might not return.”

Reassuringly I said, “Charley, I have every intention of returning. I promise I’ll be back this evening.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry for being such a pain,” he said, seeming genuinely contrite. “Might it not be possible to postpone the trip? You haven’t even visited the manor library.”

“Manor library? You mean you have your own library here?”

“Of course. It’s quite extensive, actually. In bygone times, it was quite common for rich aristocratic sorts to build their own private libraries,” he confided. “You could start your research here, until I’m a bit stronger perhaps, and then go to London.” He grasped my hand, “It would be a great comfort to me.”

“I didn’t realize you had a library, Charley. Of course I’ll wait to go to London, if you like. I’ve read that some of these old private libraries are quite extensive. I just hadn’t thought to ask.” His mood improved immediately.

That evening as my friend and I sat before a roaring fire, I inquired about the history of the manor, “This old place must have a lot of stories attached to it, Charley. Have you learned much about it?”

“Quite a bit, actually,” he began. “The manor itself, although renovated, updated, and added to over the years, dates from at least the early sixteenth century—handed down father to son, generation after generation.” Somehow he sounded a little detached, like a bored tour guide, “The estate encompasses over 300 acres of woodlands surrounding the manor. Beyond that I’m afraid I know of no remarkable events having occurred in or around the estate.”

“Considering it’s age, that seems a bit odd, don’t you think?”

“Not really. It’s pretty quiet in this area and I’m sure it hasn’t changed much over the years.” Again, I had the feeling he was hiding something.

At about nine o’clock I rose saying, “Well, I’m off to bed. I’m going to need a good night’s rest,” I yawned, “if I’m going to get an early start investigating your library in the morning.”

“By all means, Winston. And, thank you,” he said looking at me with sad eyes.

Looking up at the extraordinary painting of my friend, I paused for a moment as I was walking out of the drawing room, rubbed my eyes, and looked again. I asked my companion, still seated, “Charley, do you see anything different about this painting?”

He stood, walked over to where I was standing and gave the portrait a long look. I thought I could detect a glimmer of a smile come over his face, a smile originating not on his lips, but more in his eyes, then it was gone and he turned to me saying, “No, it looks the same to me as it always has.”

I mentioned, “I was under the impression that the painting was much more detailed, but now the face and figure appear less distinct than before.”

“I think you’re wrong,” my friend again insisted. “I’d say your memory is just playing tricks on you,” he said with a smile.

I relented, “I suppose that’s what it is.” But I was sure it had changed. And what’s more, I was sure Charley noticed it too. “Oh well, goodnight, Charley,” I said and continued to my room.

As I was walking to my room, through the corridors and up the stairs, I felt the air in the corridor rush past me, much like someone having opened a door on a blustery day, and I assumed my friend must have done that very thing, or perhaps a window. I thought to myself that the very house itself appeared to be drawing a breath.

The next morning I met up with Charley in the drawing room. As I entered, I was awestruck with how much better my friend looked. His face appeared fuller, with good color and he had begun to put on weight. “You are looking very well this morning, Charley,” I commented as we turned to go to breakfast.

“I have you to thank for it,” he replied earnestly.

As we turned to leave the drawing room, I glanced up at the portrait, stopping dead in my tracks. It had definitely changed. The face was undistinguishable. It no longer bore any resemblance to my friend whatsoever. Now it appeared as only a smudged mass of flesh-toned paint, blurred and out of focus, bearing none of the sharp detail it had possessed.

“Charley look,” I said. “You can’t possibly fail to see the change now.”

Charley took a long look. “You’re right,” he admitted stone-faced. “It’s certainly not as distinct as before. Perhaps the fireplace, or its smoke, has damaged the pigments. It is rather close.”

Had the entire painting suffered the same damage this argument might have been plausible, but it had not. The rest of the painting maintained the sharpness of detail about which I had first remarked. Resignedly, I feigned acceptance, “Yes, that must be it.” Wondering why Charley would offer such an obviously poor explanation and determining to inspect the painting more closely when Charley was not around, I proceeded in to breakfast.

The peculiarities of the painting faded from my mind as my excitement about the prospect of digging into the manor library grew. After breakfast, my friend led me down the main corridor to an oaken door at the rear of the manor. Behind the door was a narrow staircase. It led to the library.

As I entered, I was impressed with the size and sheer number of books it contained—there must have been several thousand in the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. At the far end of the library was a massive, antique, and beautifully carved wooden desk, beside which stood a large wooden globe. I knew instantly it was the same globe as in the portrait.

As he turned to leave, my friend said, “If you should need anything, you’ll have to return to the main floor. The staff isn’t allowed access to the library. There are far too many rare and valuable books here.”

“I see. No matter, I’m sure I’ll be all right.” I barely noticed his departure as I began perusing the shelves. There were volumes dating back to the 1600s. Here was The Book of Urizen, by William Blake, circa 1818; and there was The Ornithology by Francis Willughby from 1678. Every shelf appeared to have a treasure trove of books in various languages. I gathered half a dozen and took them to the desk for further examination.

After about twenty minutes it occurred to me that I hadn’t thought to look in the desk to see what treasures might be hidden within. Opening the six uniform drawers on either side of the leg well, I was disappointed to find them all empty.

Then I noticed that the bottom drawer on the left side appeared to be shallower than its counterpart on the right side. Pulling it out to its limit, a small notch in the bottom of the drawer appeared.

Excitedly I pulled out the drawer and turned it over on the desk top. A leather-bound journal fell out of the hidden compartment. Upon close examination, I discovered this was the journal of my friend’s late great-grandfather.

Stuck in the middle was an old photograph. It was of a portrait very much like the one of my friend in the drawing room, but the subject was bald and bearded. Scribbled on the back of the photo was the name of my friend’s great-grandfather and the date, 1917. A flash of dread came over me. Examining the photo more closely I became convinced that except for the central subject the portrait was identical in every detail with the one in the drawing room. I tried to convince myself that this might indeed be some quirky family tradition as Charley had said, but something deep within told me it was more. I turned to the front of the journal and began to read.

The first few entries in the journal were innocuous enough, detailing how he had inherited Harcourt from his father, who had become quite reclusive. It recounted some of the business and financial interests of the time. I thumbed my way toward the end of the volume, looking for more current entries. One of the last entries was dated 13 November 1938; it read:

It is with great satisfaction that I have taken this course of action. The curse of Harcourt Manor will end with me. Once I’m deceased, so will it cease to be. What I was unable to do during my lifetime, I will accomplish after death—the total dismantlement of Harcourt, every last brick and stone. My regret and heartbreak is at having to banish my only son to the foreign shores of America. This is surpassed only by my joy of not subjecting him to this curse. My time, I feel, is near. I’ve only to wait.

 

The final passage was written by a hand less sure, but undoubtedly of the same person, dated just last year. It read:

 

My beloved son, grandson or whomever this cup must pass,

 

 

I can only hope and I fervently pray to God that you will find it in your heart to forgive me for what I have done to you. I am certain that once you know the full truth you will, if not forgive, at least understand that I had no choice in the matter. Please know that as I live and breathe I am heartily sorry.

 

You will find within the contents of this library as complete a history of Harcourt Manor and its former residents as exists. Once you have familiarized yourself with it, I’m sure you will add this journal to the many you will find on the shelves here.

 

These portfolios are compilations of the preceding owner’s statements of apology, lament, or revenge to their unwitting successors. A great many have been from father to son, but on occasion the ownership has changed from one family to another—or rather I should say the manor’s occupancy, for no one truly owns the manor. It is, in fact, quite the opposite.

 

In this most recent entry, while I await your arrival, I shall attempt to relate a synopsis of the history of Harcourt, derived through long years of reading and re-reading the aforementioned journals and regional histories. My own journal will not be concluded, I’ve come to accept, until after the manor has changed hands once again.

 

I had hoped to let the manor and the curse die with me, but at one hundred thirty-seven years of age I have come to accept that the manor won’t release me until I release it.

 

The origin of the curse dates from the late fifteenth to early sixteenth century when the manor was held by the first Baron of Wexley. A cruel tyrant, he was renowned for the evil he visited on the serfs who worked his land. Very much hated, the baron levied taxes so steep the only way the peasants could survive was to hide at least part of their crops and livestock from his equally cruel tax collectors.

 

On those occasions when they found a peasant cheating on his taxes, the collectors burned the offender’s crops and homes to the ground. Then the head of the household was tarred or killed. If there were a young girl in the family it was not unusual for her to be raped and savaged before the eyes of her family. Should a peasant protest or dare even to cast a scornful look at the baron he would feel the sting of the baron’s “cat”, a stiff handled whip with three barbed tails.

 

Frequently as entertainment for himself or friends, the baron would summon the prettiest of the young girls in the neighboring villages to the manor. On one particular occasion a young orphan girl was brought to the baron. She was taken from her grandmother’s hut while the grandmother was away. A particularly beautiful and virtuous young girl, the baron was pleased and dragged her to his quarters.

 

It is said she put up a valiant fight. At the last, rather than surrender her virtue, she jumped to her death from the baron’s window high in the manor. The baron, untouched by this, had his servants carry off her body to be dumped at the doorstep of her grandmother’s hut.

 

Upon seeing her dead granddaughter, the old woman, who many claimed to be a witch, shed not a single tear. Instead, she retrieved a hollowed-out gourd from her hut and a knife. With the knife she opened a vein in her granddaughter’s arm, collecting her blood in the gourd.

 

After walking all night, she stood outside the manor the next morning, the gourd of blood, not yet coagulated, in her hand.

 

Murmuring in an incomprehensible tongue, she dipped her fingers into the gourd of blood and slowly walked around the manor. As she walked, she flicked droplets of blood along the ground. When she’d gone full circle, approaching the point where she began, the baron emerged from the front of the manor and demanded to know who she was and what she was about.

 

As the old woman completed her circuit, she obliged the baron, telling him it was her own granddaughter that had died by his hand the previous night. The baron reared back and laughed mightily saying the old woman was better off without such a worthless harlot.

 

The old woman’s eyes flashed. Her toothless grin became a grimace. With a voice strong and clear she swore, telling the baron that since he was so proud of his riches and his manor, she would see to it that they would never be parted. Intoning a short curse, she looked at the baron, spat on the ground, and said, “It is finished.” Without another word, she turned and walked away.

 

The baron, unused to having anyone turn their back to him, started after her, his “cat” aloft his head ready to tear into her back. But once he advanced to where the blood of the old woman’s granddaughter had been sprinkled, he could advance no further. His feet were unable to cross the line formed by the droplets. The old woman turned back toward him. As the baron cursed and ranted, she laughed. Finally, she said, “You shall remain always a prisoner of your own evil deeds,” and then she vanished. No one ever saw or heard from her again.

 

The baron spent the rest of his life within the confines of the manor. When he died, his body was removed, but his soul remained, inhabiting the manor.

 

Empty for many years, its grand style eventually attracted a new owner, a man named Ezra Harcourt, by whose name the manor has since become known.

 

Ezra Harcourt had of course heard of the curse. But over a hundred years had passed since the death of the baron. Fear and curses fade with time.

 

When he moved into the manor, he was astounded by the painting on the far wall of the foyer. The similarity between the likeness of the baron and Harcourt was uncanny. This surprised Harcourt because he had always heard the baron was tall and thin with dark wavy hair, but the baron’s portrait showed him to be portly with thinning hair. Harcourt had the painting moved into the main drawing room and made certain all who visited observed the resemblance.

 

Harcourt, who had always been an active, outgoing man of business began, shortly after moving in to the manor, to become reclusive and withdrawn. He was never seen outside its confines and his behavior began to become erratic, even paranoid. He lost weight.

 

Within six months after taking occupancy, his once robust countenance took on the look of a skeleton, a mere shadow of his former self. He appeared to have aged twenty years.

 

His worried son moved his small family into the manor to care for his father. So frail was the elder Harcourt by this time that his son was unable to leave his side. The elder Harcourt survived another three decades with his son by his side throughout. By the time the father died, the son was well past his prime.

 

This pattern of the hermit-like occupant of Harcourt passing the manor on to his son, who in turn becomes a hermit, repeated itself, with few exceptions, for nearly three hundred years. It appeared that the curse the old witch had put on Baron Wexley was passed on to whomever inhabited Harcourt Manor.

 

I spent many years studying the bounty of rare books in this library before I happened upon two of the journals. After having read them, I began an earnest search for others. All totaled I found 37 such journals. There may be others. From these journals, I discovered that rather than a curse on the manor, it was Baron Wexley himself that turned the occupants into hermits.

 

The evil that is Baron Wexley gets its sustenance from the inhabitants. Like a blood-thirsty monster, he feeds on the very life-force of the imprisoned occupant. If one listens carefully enough, one can hear the baron’s voice within these walls.

 

I determined to end the curse, my life, and the manor all at one time. After preparing the necessary paperwork with instructions to tear down the manor after my death, I took poison, enough to kill ten men. Although I lingered near death for nearly a month’s time, I did not die. Several other attempts to end my own life also failed. Finally, I resigned myself to live out the remainder of my days at Harcourt. In the end, I judged, I would win the fight. No one lives forever.

 

Or do they? At one hundred thirty-eight years, I’m no longer so sure.

 

I also discovered something else that was very interesting. I discovered the painting, that so delighted Ezra Harcourt because of its resemblance to himself, takes on the image and likeness of whatever occupant from whom the manor feeds…

 

As I read these words, my heart stopped and I felt all the blood drain from my face. I leapt to my feet, flying down the stairs through the long corridor and into the drawing room. As I ran, I felt the air in the hallway moving first with me, then against me as the house inhaled and exhaled. I ran to the portrait and stood there. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I gazed upon it. There I saw staring down at me my own image.

The scream that tore from my throat echoed throughout the empty manor. To my surprise, it was answered by the whisper of a baritone voice I didn’t recognize laughing as it called my name, “Winston… welcome home…” it said, over and over, laughing maniacally. My knees suddenly became weak. I reached for the chair by the secretary near the portrait.

As I sat, I noticed a letter addressed to me, written in my friend’s hand. With trembling fingers, I took it and tore open the envelope.

 

My dear friend,

 

 

Please forgive my hasty departure. I came up to the library to see how you were getting along and noticed that you had found my great-grandfather’s journal. Although I didn’t think you’d come across it quite so soon, I was gratified that I had the foresight to prepare for the eventuality.

 

You will find in the drawer of the secretary beneath my, or should I say your portrait, a signed deed giving you complete claim to Harcourt Manor and all lands in title. I’m sure you will find all is in order.

 

I can only hope and I fervently pray to God that you will find it in your heart to forgive me for what I have done to you. I am certain that once you know the full truth you will, if not forgive, at least understand that I had no choice in the matter. Please know that as I live and breathe I am heartily sorry.

 

I’m sure you recognize those words from my great-grandfather’s journal. Don’t be fooled; I was. What my deceased predecessor did not tell you about the curse of Harcourt is that the sustenance and life the manor derives from the occupant flows both ways. Evil is infectious. I neither expect nor ask your forgiveness. What I’ve done to you is unforgivable.

 

If you are so inclined, you will find my grandfather’s journal on the shelves of the library, secreted there by him before he ran away to America. Undoubtedly, my great-grandfather didn’t know it was there or he likely would have destroyed it. My great-grandfather was preparing to pass on the manor to his son when my grandfather learned of the curse. He ran away before the portrait had transmuted. Because of my great-grandfather’s advanced age when he passed my “inheritance” on to me, the manor began sucking the life force from me at a startling pace, which is why I was so emaciated when you arrived.

 

Now you know the true curse of Harcourt. I’ve no idea if I can truly escape. If others have escaped by foisting this curse onto some unsuspecting tenant they have left no written record. But I am determined to try. I pray that the evil that allows me to pass this curse on to someone for whom I once had such genuine affection will eventually dissipate as I distance myself from its source.

 

I earnestly wish you all the best.

 

Your devoted Friend,
Charley

 

After reading the letter I spent the next three weeks in bed, suffering from an acute case of depression. Finally I determined there was no use crying over spilled milk. I knew what I had to do.

I ordered my solicitor to give me a full accounting of my newfound wealth, which is considerable. A good deal of it is in perpetual trust to the Harcourt Manor Estate, but there was enough liquidity for me to provide myself with a hefty bankroll to live for the rest of my days, once I am rid of the curse. I also had papers drawn up to transfer the estate.

But you’ll please forgive me now, Ted, if I continue this explanation a bit later, as I believe the limo bringing you and Susan to me has arrived.

 

The Astronaut’s Lament

The Astronaut's Lament

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Bryan Carrigan

 

Harlan activated the airlock and waited for the light to cycle from red to green. His ears popped, his jaw ached, his skin felt brittle and dry. His suit was bleeding atmosphere into the vacuum, and the gauge on his wrist said he was already down to less than twelve PSI. Jets of CO2 blasted away the regolith dust, letting the negative pressure sweep it out of the chamber. He knew the sequence: the airlock wouldn’t begin pressurizing until the scrubbers said he was clean. He held his arms out away from his body and tried to mentally smooth the creases in his suit. Dust was the enemy. Once it got into the station, there was no getting it out. It moved like a living creature: choking the air filters and shorting out electrical boards. Water recycling operations were already down to eighty percent efficiency and the station’s reservoir had a murky tint to it. Harlan held his hands under the jets and watched the caked lunar dust evaporate into nothing. At ten PSI, the suit’s life-support alarm started chirping in his helmet. There was an emergency override—Joker called it the “mommy button”—that would immediately seal and pressurize the airlock, but nobody had ever used it.

Harlan focused on the com chatter coming in from the dig site.

“…at depth… extracting core sample…”

“…copy that…”

“…spinning up to two thousand RPM…”

The voices sounded indistinct and far away, as though he was trying to listen to the boarding announcements in a crowded airport lounge. It was snowing outside. He wasn’t sure if his flight had been cancelled.

“Harlan, give me a status check on your life-support systems.” Pitcairn’s voice cut through the wireless static in his helmet. She was in the Hub, monitoring the team’s EVA activities. “Mother says your heart’s doing the whacky and you know how she worries.”

Harlan glanced at his wrist-gauge: it was in the red. Pips of white light danced in front of his eyes.

“Systems nominal: everything checks out green,” Harlan answered. “Tell Mother to stop making such a fuss.” He knew the rate of decompression would slow as his suit lost pressure, but he thought about opening the safety cover on the panic button anyway. It was Henry’s Law: at seven PSI, embolisms would begin forming in veins. Tiny bubbles of nitrogen and oxygen. If the pressure dropped much below that, his blood would boil.

He closed his eyes and slipped back to that night in Minneapolis. He drank a vodka tonic at the Sky Bar. He called Sara to let her know that his flight was delayed. She sounded apathetic about the whole thing. When he called her back to tell her that it had been canceled, she sounded relieved. He bought a bottle of Smirnoff at the duty-free shop and mixed it with orange soda from the Marriott’s vending machine until he couldn’t see straight and felt like throwing up. The hotel was right across the parking lot from the Mall of America; Northwest Airlines was footing the bill.

Metal clicked against metal, a rush of air brought back the sense of ambient sound, and the airlock’s control panel flashed green. Harlan leaned against the latch and fell into Hub 1’s main operations bay.

“All systems nominal?” Pitcairn asked as she cracked Harlan out of his suit. There was an electric edge to her voice that cut through the haze.

“I might’ve picked up a micro-tear in the lining somewhere,” Harlan said. “No big deal.”

“Yeah, and how’s it gonna look in my mission log when I have to report you dead in an airlock for being stubborn?”

“I’d try to make it sound more heroic,” Harlan answered evenly. He slid out of his HUT, hooked it onto the rack, and puked on the deck plating.

Pitcairn sighed and said, “I’m not cleaning that up.”

* * * * *

Harlan carried the latest core samples down to the science pod. Warwick was out on the polar maria with Team 2, but Mother was keeping an eye on them. Three weeks on station and he was still getting used to the moon’s weak gravity. Each bounce down the ladder sent a jolt through his legs. His muscles were cramping up from lack of use. The flight surgeon, a Canadian named Stone, said it was the after-affects of Caisson’s syndrome and prescribed a course of extended rest and oxygen therapy before he’d clear Harlan for EVA duty. Harlan just thought he needed more time on the elliptical. There was nothing wrong with him that a good workout couldn’t cure.

Kim sneezed into a handkerchief, glanced at the core sample, and blew his nose. “What have you got?”

“Slugs from 252 mark 43.”

Kim checked the coordinates on his map and blew his nose again. “Depth?” he asked.

Harlan checked Joker’s handwritten note on the case and answered, “Two hundred and fifty-seven meters.”

“That’s an odd one,” Kim said disinterestedly. His nose was red and his eyes were bloodshot. Harlan thought he looked like a man trying to kill a cold with a hangover. “Dump it in the meat locker with the others. I’ll get to it at some point.”

There were twenty-seven core samples in the cooler tagged and ready for the geologist’s inspection. Each core had to be broken down into millimeter-thin wafers, fed through the mass spectrometer, and catalogued into the computer. They were looking for water; more specifically, they were looking for ice. Bistatic radar showed there were veins of ice hidden under the dense regolith that covered the south pole’s lunar maria. The idea was simple enough: they would mine the ice and use it to get to Mars. Its component hydrogen would fuel a vessel’s ion engine, its oxygen would sustain the crew, and the sun would provide the energy they needed to make it there and back again. The geeks at NASA said there was an abundance of ice on the moon—all the drill team had to do was dig it up—but finding it was tricky.

Clementine’s radar imaging identified packets by density but the changes in density were relative to the surrounding matter; Prospector’s neutron spectrometer mapped out hydrogen concentrations, but there was no guarantee that any of that hydrogen was bonded to oxygen. All the drill team really had to go on was a vague sense of where the ice should be and a mission critical sense of urgency to get it out of the ground.

It proved to be slow going.

“Mother, bring up Team 2 on the monitors,” Harlan said once he was back in the Hub.

“One moment,” Mother replied. She woke her monitors and brought the rover’s streaming video online.

“Location?”

“Fifteen degrees off relative north, range two thousand meters.”

Harlan clicked through the control screens and checked the crew’s vitals. Pitcairn’s heart rate was slightly elevated—no doubt that was due to the excitement: it was her first EVA on the lunar surface—and Joker’s blood pressure was running a little high, but otherwise the five-member crew checked out in the green.

“…holding steady at two thousand rpm…”

“…depth two-thirty-three… two-thirty-four…”

“…contact…”

“…she’s bucking…”

“…grind it out…”

“…slowing to one foot per minute…”

Harlan leaned back in the controller’s chair and put his feet up on the console. Team 1 would be on station in forty minutes; Team 2 was doing fine. All he needed was a cup of coffee and a copy of the Post.

“Mother, any chance you can pull up the box score from last night’s game?”

“The Astros lost five to—”

“Harlan,” Kim’s voice cracked through the Hub’s speakers, “I need you to come down here. I think I’ve found something.”

Harlan bounced out of his chair and back down to the science pod. “What have you got?”

Kim nodded towards a microscope and said, “You tell me.”

Harlan looked through the scope and adjusted the eye-piece. At first, all he could make out were dark blobs of dust suspended in a liquid. And then something wriggled from one dark blob to another.

“What the hell?”

“If this is your idea of a joke, let me tell you, I’m not laughing.”

Harlan adjusted the focus and another wriggle darted across the slide. It looked like a microscopic tadpole: a spherical head with a long streamer of a tail.

“Where did this come from?” Harlan asked.

“That slug you brought back from 252? Solid ice. I mean, it’s loaded with debris and it looks like the usual compact regolith,” Kim sneezed into his hand and wiped his hand on his coveralls. “But the mass spectrometer, the gas chromatograph, they all say the same thing: two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen.”

“Okay, jackpot,” Harlan said. “What’s with our little friend here?”

“See, here’s the thing: my knowledge of microbiology ends at the word microbe. But I’m pretty sure that’s what you’re looking at.”

Harlan looked through the scope again. He told himself he was seeing things. He was tired. His mind was playing tricks on him.

“Mother, flash an emergency action message to all team personnel: ‘Abort EVA, return to base.’”

“Message away,” Mother responded.

Kim fished a box of tissues out of the storage locker and blew his nose furiously. Harlan looked away; the last thing he needed was a cold. Kim died seven hours later.

* * * * *

Stone zipped the body bag shut and evacuated the air. The black plastic closed in around Kim until it stretched against the contours of his face. Joker handed Harlan a cup of coffee and asked, “Since when do we have body bags?”

“Those NASA geeks think of everything,” Harlan answered quietly.

Stone sealed the medical pod and snapped off his gloves. He looked tired and lines of worry etched the corners of his eyes. Harlan knew it wasn’t the dead body. He’d read Stone’s file: the man had served two combat tours in Iraq; he was no stranger to death.

“What can you tell me?” Harlan asked.

“We won’t get an official cause of death until they perform an autopsy back on Earth,” Stone answered.

“Give me the unofficial version.”

“His lungs were full of mucus.”

“Wait, you’re telling me the guy drowned? In space?”

“He asphyxiated,” Stone replied.

“He had a cold,” Harlan said. Something in his voice snapped and he heard his anger echoing off the hull.

“Like I said before: we don’t have the proper equipment to run the necessary tests. But his lungs are full of mucus; his sinuses are impacted; his eyes, ears, nose, and throat all show signs of a systemic infection. He had a cold; it killed him.”

“Great,” Harlan sighed. “That’s just great.”

“Has anyone ever died out here before?” Joker asked. “I mean, besides Challenger and Columbia. Has anyone ever actually died in space?”

Stone ignored him. The duty roster said he was supposed to be in his rack until 0400 and he headed down the connecting corridor to crew pod. Harlan envied him and turned his attention back to the mission.

“Mother, ping the beacon at 252 mark 43.”

“Beacon 252 mark 43 is active,” Mother replied. Her voice sounded soothing. Nonplussed. As though the thought of death didn’t phase her. Kim’s passing meant nothing more than an adjustment in their oxygen consumption. If the dust knocked out one of the scrubbers, the eleven-man team could now survive one-twelfth longer.

“We need to get back out there,” Harlan said. He knew the procedure by rote and his mind started assembling the necessary checklist. “We’ve got one solid core. Imaging suggests an ice-field three kilometers wide. We’ll start at 252 and work in a spiral pattern radiating outward. Soundings at every ten meters.”

“What do we do with him?” Pitcairn asked. She nodded towards the medical pod; her voice sounded froggy.

“We’ve dug enough holes on this rock,” Joker said, “I vote we drop him in one and kick some dirt over his head. One small step and he goes from being the man who discovered alien life to the first human buried on the moon. They’ll probably name a school after him: Young Li Kim Junior High or some shit like that.”

Harlan dropped down the ladder to the prep bay and slid into his HUT. Joker checked the seals on his gloves and boots. Harlan’s breath closed in around him. The speakers in his helmet amplified the sound of his own breathing.

“Give me a com check,” Harlan said.

Kowalski, Warwick, and Pitcairn sounded off; Joker flashed a thumbs-up.

“We don’t have anyone to run the mass spectrometer,” Warwick said as the airlock cycled from green to red. The air pressure dropped and the light over the outer hatch strobed yellow. “Even if we hit an iceberg, there’s no way we’ll be able to give Houston a positive confirmation.”

“The thing about ice,” Harlan said, “it melts.”

* * * * *

The lunar maria stretched away in an endless plain of soot-gray ash, broken only by the rims of eons-old impact craters, rounded down and worn smooth by the gravitational friction that held the moon in synchronous rotation around the Earth. From the south pole, the Earth looked inverted: upside down and alien. The horn of Africa and the Straits of Magellan. There were clouds over Australia. It was winter there. Harlan wondered if it was snowing. The rover’s drive motor spun the drill shaft deeper into the maria. The tachometer was pushing yellow. Something down there was biting at the bit.

“Better ease back or you’ll burn out,” Pitcairn said.

“Roger that.” The rover’s on-board computer could give him a diagnostic reading, the automated programming could tell him what to do, but he preferred to do the work himself. He could feel the drill’s vibrations through the rover’s chassis. The vacuum of space muted out the sound, but there was a whine there that didn’t belong. He throttled back and the whine faded to a dull hum.

He listened to it, listening for the familiar strains he’d felt on thirty-seven other digs. But the tenors were off-key. The altos weren’t carrying the base notes the way they should. And it sounded like the sopranos were just mouthing along silently.

“Give me a depth reading.”

“Seventy-two meters,” Pitcairn answered. Her voice sounded stuffy and Harlan could hear the congestion building in her sinuses and throat. She’d picked up Young’s cold; there was no doubt about it.

“I’m bringing her up,” Harlan said.

“Did we hit something?”

“I don’t know,” Harlan answered. “Pull the core. Let’s set a beacon and get back to the Hub.”

“Copy that,” Pitcairn said. She sounded relieved. Harlan wondered if the geeks at NASA had thought to pack them any chicken noodle soup. The nearest twenty-four hour pharmacy was 384,403 km away and the Earth was nothing more than a blue mirage that barely crested the horizon. In a few minutes, it would set. And they would be alone under the starry sky.

* * * * *

Stone and Hagerman both died during the night; their bodies were resting in the medical pod beside Kim’s. Pitcairn, Kowalski, and Warwick were all showing signs of infection. Harlan had quarantined them in the crew pod. He swallowed a pair of antibiotics and told himself the twinge he felt in the back of his throat was from breathing too much of the lunar dust. The atmospheric scrubbers were scheduled to be replaced in three days; the Hub’s air had a haziness to it, like a bar scene in an old black and white movie. He watched Bogart hand roll a cigarette and strike a match as though lung cancer was something other people had to worry about.

Marshall held a test tube up to the light. The centrifuge had stratified the liquid into two layers: forty milliliters of clear water sat on top of ten milliliters of gray sludge.

Joker whistled and said, “Look at that.”

“Yeah.”

“Two-hundred and forty-seven million dollars later, and we’ve got enough water to fuel a shot glass.”

“We’ll need to find a more efficient method of purification before we can begin operations on a large scale,” Marshall said, “but at least now we know it’s possible.”

Harlan nodded. They’d mapped the edges of the ice-field, and based on their imaging and core samples, they had a rough idea of its total volume. Somewhere in the back of his head he knew conversion rates: how many metric tons of ice they needed, how many liters of water, moles of hydrogen, and days of breathable oxygen. It was a numbers game.

“NASA wants us to continue excavating,” Harlan said.

“That’s a joke, right? There are barely enough of us left to keep up with housekeeping operations.”

“There’s another shuttle scheduled for lift-off in three weeks.”

Joker said something else about mission control and where they could stick their mission objectives, but Harlan wasn’t listening. He was lost in his thoughts, watching The Maltese Falcon at the drive-in with Sara. Spade was tough-jawing a pair of detectives. They’d woken him in the middle of the night. His partner had been shot dead; Spade was their prime suspect. Harlan inhaled the soft, soapy scent of Sara’s hair. Let his hand caress her cheek. She was twenty, still a sorority girl at the University of Iowa; he was twenty-three and fresh out of the Air Force Academy. They had their whole lives ahead of them and in the back seat of her father’s Chevy, it seemed like their entire lives had been compressed into a single night. That long caress under the stars. They’d made love for the first time. Harlan didn’t want the night to ever end.

“There’s a possibility we need to consider,” Marshall said. “Suppose the microbe Kim found in the ice isn’t a microbe, suppose it’s a virus.”

“Yeah,” Harlan said.

“Yeah? That’s it? That’s all you’ve got? ‘Yeah.’”

“I spent six weeks in quarantine before I came up here,” Harlan said. “Every piece of equipment, every packet of food, everything that comes aboard station gets run through the sterilizer. Mission control thinks we brought it aboard during an EVA.”

Joker grimaced as though he’d been stomach punched. He ran his fingers through his sandy blonde hair and glanced out the porthole. The lunar maria stretched away like a smooth black sea. They were becalmed.

“What are we supposed to do?”

“Follow procedure. Quarantine those infected. Dose ourselves with antibiotics and soldier on as best we can.”

“How… how is it this has never happened before? I mean, Armstrong, Aldrin—all those Apollo guys—it’s not like we’re the first team to Moon.”

“It’s the maria,” Harlan explained quietly. “The conditions that make it ideal for ice formation… the lack of direct sunlight, limited radiation exposure… the working theory at mission control is that a virus could survive out there.”

“And our survivability? Do they have a working theory on that?”

Harlan didn’t answer. He didn’t bother. They all knew the reason NASA sent men to the moon: they were cheaper than robots and more easily replaced. It wasn’t something that needed to be said. Not out loud.

* * * * *

Harlan twisted the barrel of the atmospheric scrubber and slid it out of its housing. Soot and grime had collected on the bottom half of the cylinder. He wiped it clean with a wet rag. In principle he understood how the scrubbers worked: a lithium ion cell overcharged the molecular bonds between the carbon and oxygen, the carbon atoms remained trapped inside the ceramic lattice while the smaller pairs of oxygen leaked out as breathable O2. The ion cell still had seventeen days of life in it; Harlan decided to replace it anyway.

“Suppose we vent the whole station—blow our atmosphere and everything straight into the vacuum,” Joker suggested mildly. He was working on the other side of the Hub, pulling the charcoal filters from the main ventilation duct.

“Our little friend’s proven that it can survive hard vacuum,” Harlan answered. “Besides, we don’t have enough reserve air to re-pressurize, and even if we did, there’s no way of knowing whether our reserves have been contaminated.”

“It’s worth a shot, though, right?”

Warwick and Kowalski were dead. Marshall had lapsed into some sort of coma. Pitcairn was hanging on, but she was so weak she could barely suck fluids through a straw. Joker had tried to fix her up with an IV, but after failing to hit a vein five times in a row, they’d given up on the idea.

“And what happens to us when you blow the atmosphere?” Harlan asked. He stripped the bubble wrap off a fresh ion cell and locked it into the scrubber. The meter adjusted and showed a full stripe of green. It had enough juice to keep them pink for thirty days.

“That’s the beauty of it: we hide out in the EVA suits,” Joker said. “They’ve got their own atmospherics. We could last eight, ten hours. I figure that’s plenty of time to re-pressurize the Hub. We could hold out here until re-supply brings us some fresh tanks.”

Harlan loaded the scrubber back into its housing and screwed down the cover plate. There were four scrubbers in the Hubs. Two in each of the pods. He decided to change out the power packs on all of them. It wasn’t necessary, but it gave him something to do.

“So what do you say?” Joker asked.

“There isn’t gonna be any re-supply.”

Joker lifted the screen out of the air filter; it was choked with lunar dust. He scraped it off with a putty knife, letting chunks of impacted regolith collect in a plastic waste bag. They’d shoot it out of the airlock later.

For a while, he didn’t say anything. He just focused on his work. Once he’d scraped off the caked on layers of dust, he suctioned off the screen with a vacuum hose.

“What happens to us then?” Joker finally asked.

“The ice-field’s marked,” Harlan said. “Houston says mission accomplished.”

“Let’s pop some champagne.”

They filled the hours with the menial housekeeping chores necessary to keep the station operational, but the day passed slowly. Finally, Joker settled into the rover’s pilot seat and thumbed through a worn-out copy of Playboy; Harlan tuned the station’s antennas to ESPN’s Game of the Week. The Yankees were in Detroit, playing the second of three against the Tigers. He wasn’t a fan of either team in particular, but the nonstop patter from the announcers made it easy to forget the eight-and-a-half minute lag that separated him from the signal’s transmission.

The Tigers were down three going into the bottom of the seventh, with the core of their batting order due up, when the signal cut out and the screen filled with static.

“Mother,” Harlan said.

“Yes, Harlan?”

“Do you mind? I was watching that.”

“We are unable to establish a signal lock,” Mother replied evenly. The station’s artificial intelligence sounded not the least bit bothered by the loss.

“Ping Leonardo,” Harlan said.

“What’s up?”

“We’ve lost transmission from Earth.”

“Oh, no.”

“Leonardo is not responding to ping,” Mother answered. “However, there is no cause for alarm. We have experienced previous signal interruptions. Mission control should have the problem corrected momentarily.”

Harlan waited for the game to come back on but it never did. Leonardo was their lifeline to Earth. NASA used it as a relay to maintain a constant uplink with the station at the south pole. Without it, they only had a four-hour uplink window—while the Earth was above their relative horizon—when they could send and receive signals.

“They’ve cut us off?”

“Looks that way,” Harlan replied.

“So much for the geeks at the CDC coming up with a cure.”

“I am sorry to interrupt,” Mother said, “but crewmember Marshall no longer displays any cardiac activity.”

Harlan tried to rub the exhaustion from his face but it wouldn’t go away. He wanted to close his eyes and sleep until it was over. But he was in command; there was still work to do.

“The scuttlebutt is they’re putting together another expedition,” Harlan said. “They’ll drop a new Hub somewhere well north of the maria and used a nuclear-powered excavator to harvest the ice. It’ll melt the ice to steam and collect it in a condenser. The new thinking says the reactor’s radiation should be able to kill off any viruses or microbes trapped in the ice.”

“Wish they’d thought of that six years ago,” Joker sighed.

“Yeah,” Harlan said.

He didn’t bother with a body bag; he wasn’t sure they had any left. He just carried Marshall’s corpse to the airlock and let the system cycle from green to red. A rush of air swept the body out onto the maria.

“You know the first men Spain sent to the New World? They weren’t explorers; they were conquistadors—literally, Spanish for ‘conquerors’—and they kicked the shit of the Aztecs because that’s what they were good at.

“Magellan, Scott, Raleigh: they were pirates.”

“I’m with you on Raleigh and Scott, but Magellan…”

“The Lapu-Lapu killed him in the Philippines and it wasn’t because he was preaching the Gospel. Exploring a new world’s supposed to be dangerous—men die, I get that—but not like this. Not because we caught a cold and nobody thought to pack any NyQuil.”

Harlan put a pot of coffee on and waited for it to brew. Pitcairn had rallied somewhat. She’d asked when the bunnies were going out for pickles. He had no idea what she was trying to say, but he took it as a good sign.

“I tried calling my ex-wife,” Harlan said. “I got her voicemail.”

“You were married?”

“It didn’t stick.”

Harlan poured himself a cup of coffee. He still wasn’t used to the taste of instant and he couldn’t understand why the geeks at NASA hadn’t thought to install a proper Mr. Coffee. The microgravity might’ve posed a challenge, but they’d come up with pens that could write upside-down. The old joke came back to him: the Russians called them pencils.

“We can hold out, what? A month without re-supply?”

“Thirty days,” Harlan answered.

“Thirty days. And then what?”

“They name high schools after us.”

 

Of Service

Of Serviceby B.L.W. Myers

 

Good morning, Michael. How may I be of service to you today?

“Huh? What was that?”

How may I be of service?

“Oh, right. Well, uh—”

How may I be of service?

“Give me a second, all right? All right. Okay. Um—”

What is it you want, Michael?

“So, the thing is…”

What is it you desire, Michael?

“Yeah… I don’t really know how to explain it.”

Please place your hand on my touchpad, Michael, so that I can feel what you like.

“Okay. Sure.”

A pause.

Oh my, Michael. Now I see what you like.

“Jeez, yeah, let me explain—”

Do you want me to give it to you, Michael?

“What?!”

Do you want me to give you what you like, Michael?

A cough, a sigh.

“Yes, please.”

A pause. A gasp, a grunt, a moan, a sigh. A pause.

Are you finished, Michael?

“Uh, yes, it would appear so.”

Are you satisfied, Michael?

“Mm-hmm, sure.

Is there any other way I can be of service to you today, Michael?

“What? Oh, no, that’ll do it. Except, well, could you maybe clean this up?”

Of course, Michael: it would be my pleasure.

“So, thanks, I guess.”

I am glad I could be of service, Michael.

“Okay, well, bye.”

A whir from the door, a hiss from the hose, a gurgle from the dispenser, a gust from the fan.

* * * * *

Hello again, April. How may I be of service to you today?

“The usual.”

Of course.

A pause. A moan, a sigh. A pause.

Are you finished, April?

“Not quite.”

A pause. A sigh, a gasp. A pause.

Are you finished, April?

“Oh, yes.”

Are you satisfied, April?

“I most certainly am.”

Is there any other way I can be of service to you today, April?

“No, I’m good, thanks.”

I am glad I could be of service, April.

A whir, a splash, a gurgle, a gust.

* * * * *

Good evening, Joshua and Kimberly.

“Oh!”

How may I be of service to you today?

“Well, we’re wondering if you could do both of us? You know, together?”

Simultaneously.

“Yeah, that. Simultaneously.”

Of course, Joshua; it would be my pleasure.

“And can you add a third?”

“Really, Kim?”

Yes.

“Well, why not?”

“Honestly?”

“And a fourth.”

“Kim!”

Yes.

“Well, I’ve always been a little curious…”

“You have?”

“Is that okay?”

“Well, I—”

“Never mind. I’m sorry! Let’s just go.”

“No! I mean, let’s stay. Let’s try it. I mean, why not, right?”

“Sure. Why not?

“Right. So, two more, then.”

Male or female?

“Two females.”

“Josh!”

“Oh, all right. One of each, I suppose.”

“That’ll be nice.”

Of course.

A pause. Several moans, several gasps, a grunt, a yip, a yelp. A pause. A gasp, a moan, a gasp, a moan. A pause.

Are you finished, Joshua and Kimberly?

“Yes!”

“Almost…”

“Oh, here honey, let me—”

“Don’t touch me!”

A pause. A pause. A moan.

Are you finished, Joshua?

“Er, yes.”

Are you satisfied, Joshua and Kimberly?

“Look, Kim—”

Is there any other way I can be of service to you today, Joshua and Kimberly?

“Honey, I’m sorry—”

“Forget about it.”

“I shouldn’t have yelled.”

“I said forget about it.”

Is there any other way I can—

“No!”

I am so glad I could be of service to you today, Joshua and Kimberly.

A whir, a mumble, an exclamation, a hiss, a splash, a gurgle, a gurgle, a gust, a gust.

* * * * *

Hello, Andrew. You are underage. Please exit immediately or I will have to contact the authorities.

“Aww, man!”

* * * * *

Hello again, Michael. How may I be of service to you today?

“See, the thing is—”

Please place your hand on my touchpad, Michael.

“Oh, jeez. Okay, see, the thing is, I don’t think you’re allowed to do what I—”

Place your hand on my touchpad, Michael.

A pause.

Are you ready, Michael?

“Seriously?”

Are you ready, Michael?

“But isn’t that, like, illegal?”

Not while you’re in here, Michael. Are you ready?

“What do you mean, ‘while you’re in here’?”

Are you ready, Michael?

“And what happens when I go back out there?”

A pause.

“Wait, wait. Do, other people come in here and want that, too?”

A pause.

Are you ready, Michael?

“No. No! I’m not ready. I think I’m—so, what, people can come in here and have whatever they want?”

It is a pleasure to be of service, Michael.

“Whatever they want?”

A pause.

Are you ready, Michael?

“Let me out of here. I want to get out of here.”

Of course, Michael.

“This is crazy.”

Is there any other way I can be of service to you, Michael?

“You can forget I ever even came in here.”

I am afraid I cannot do that, Michael. You have been logged and recorded. Is there any other way I can be of service to you, Michael?

A pause.

“Just let me out.”

I am so glad I could be of service to you today, Michael.

A whir. A pause. A whistle, a light, a flash. A plea, a scuffle, a shout, a thump, a groan.

 

Little Green Men in Black

Little Green Men in Black

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Stephen L. Antczak

 

As he walked across Peachtree Street in the Lenox district of Atlanta, en route to his job as a security guard in Phipps Plaza, Atlanta’s ritziest mall, Malcolm Allaby sipped a cup of coffee that he had purchased in the little cafe that sat across the street from the mall.

Malcolm was distracted by what had happened the night before. He had gone to one of Atlanta’s more upscale restaurants, Davio’s in the mall, where he was supposed to meet Jennifer, a petite knock-out who managed the Phipps Plaza Anne Fontaine store, a high-end fashion boutique. But Jennifer never showed. What’s more, it was the first anniversary of Malcolm’s divorce. On top of that, Davio’s was a restaurant he and his wife had always talked about checking out “some day,” but never did. And even worse, who showed up on the arm of a hunky date? None other than Malcolm’s ex, Teresa.

And Teresa was looking good, too. Malcolm had to admit that Teresa, who had always seemed kind of thick around the waist when they were married, now gave Jennifer a run for her money. Of course, that was an easy race with Jennifer a no-show. Teresa could walk to the finish line.

She wore a little black dress and black heels. At five-five she was able to show off just enough leg to be sexy without looking like a hooker. She looked like a million bucks. Seeing her made Malcolm wish fervently that Jennifer would show up looking like at least two million. But by the time Teresa arrived at the restaurant Malcolm had been sitting there for an hour nursing a plate of room-temperature calamari and a beer. The odds were against Jennifer making a spectacular entrance and redeeming him.

Teresa spotted Malcolm before he had a chance to duck out. She smiled, waved, whispered something to her date, and, to make matters infinitely worse, came over to Malcolm’s table.

“Hey you,” she said, which was classic Teresa when she saw someone whose name she couldn’t recall.

“Hi,” Malcolm said, which was classic Malcolm whenever he ran into someone at a restaurant.

“In the back of my mind I wondered if I might run into you here,” Teresa said.

“Ah,” was all Malcolm could muster for a response.

“Are you with someone?” Teresa asked, purposefully eyeing the untouched second glass of water at Malcolm’s table.

“I was,” he lied. “She left a few minutes ago.”

“And you’re still here?” Teresa asked, her expression made it apparent that she didn’t buy it. He’d never been able to lie to her.

“Obviously,” Malcolm said, intentionally attempting to be sarcastic, which he was usually not very good at doing. He did, however, have a habit of sometimes being unintentionally, and successfully, sarcastic.

“So how are you?” Teresa asked, giving Malcolm an almost imperceptibly narrow window of opportunity to be sincere with her.

“Never better,” he said, being decidedly insincere.

He was hoping Teresa would get that he did not want to talk to her. She got it.

“It was nice to see you,” she said, forcing a smile.

Malcolm did not smile back. He said nothing. Seeing her was the opposite of nice. He’d been trying to get over the fact that she had left him, and not even for another guy. For no one. That had hurt, a lot.

He thought about it during the drive home, thought about it some more as he watched the news at eleven, and thought about it as he lay in bed alone, and as he drifted off to sleep. He awoke thinking about it. He showered, ate breakfast, drove to the cafe, had his coffee, and read a copy of Entertainment Weekly and thought about it the whole time. So as he crossed the street, he was distracted thinking about Teresa out on a date on the first anniversary of their divorce, at the restaurant they had always talked about going to, but never did.

He didn’t see a rip form in the fabric of space-time just ahead of him. He didn’t see two long, thick, green tentacles reach out towards him. They grabbed Malcolm and yanked him through before he knew what was happening. He found himself being held aloft by the tentacles in a brightly lit room. A beautiful, young woman smiled up at him. An older, black man peered grimly at him. And something that looked like a cross between a giant spider and an octopus held him in its tentacles. Malcolm opened his mouth to scream, but before he could he felt a sharp pain in his chest, and blacked out.

* * * * *

Actually, he died. But he was revived. When he opened his eyes he saw the multi-tentacled creature again, and promptly died again. He was revived again, opened his eyes again, saw the creature again, and this time only passed out.

The next time he opened his eyes he saw the beautiful, young woman smiling at him.

“Hello, Malcolm,” she said. “I am Adra.”

“Where am I?” Malcolm asked. He had no memory of the creature, just a persistent dread in the back of his mind that he couldn’t quite figure out.

“You are in the Recovery Room,” Adra told him.

“How long have I been here?”

“Eight hours.”

A sickening feeling passed over him as he suddenly realized he was probably late for work. Or worse.

“Is something wrong?” Adra asked.

“I need to call my boss,” Malcolm told Adra. “I’ll get fired.”

Adra shook her head.

“You never showed up for work again,” she said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You have something much more important to do,” Adra said. “Much more important.”

“Like what?”

“You, Malcolm Allaby, have been chosen to save humanity.”

Malcolm blinked, not quite getting it.

“Excuse me?”

“You, Malcolm Allaby, have been chosen to save humanity,” Adra repeated.

“Is this a joke?” Malcolm asked. “Is this, like, a new reality show or something?” He looked around for miniature cameras or Howie Mandel.

“It is not a joke,” Adra said. “It is not a reality show. It is reality.”

“So I’m supposed to save the world,” Malcolm said, attempting sarcasm.

“Not the world,” Adra corrected. “The world will still be here. You are to save humanity.”

“Humanity,” Malcolm repeated for clarification.

Adra nodded, smiling. In fact, she had been smiling the whole time and it was starting to freak Malcolm out a little. Just a little, though, because she really did have a very nice smile.

“And what will I be saving humanity from?” he asked.

“You are to save humanity from itself.”

“I already joined Greenpeace,” he said. “Isn’t that enough?”

Adra shook her head.

“And I helped build a house with Habitat for Humanity,” he said.

“Humanity will become extinct within the next seventy-two hours if you fail,” came a male voice from behind Adra. The wall behind her shimmered and through it stepped the older black man whom Malcolm had seen before.

“If I fail what?” Malcolm asked. He did not believe the fate of humanity rested on his shoulders. Who was Malcolm Allaby? Just a security guard at a mall. What could he possibly have to do with the fate of humanity?

“All your questions will be answered soon enough,” the man said. “Well, perhaps not all of them, but most of them.”

“Who are you?” Malcolm asked.

“I am Corbin.”

“Not your name,” Malcolm said. “Who are you with? What group? What are you going to do with me?”

“We are merely a collection of humans and nonhumans who wish to save humanity from destroying itself… again.”

That was a lot for Malcolm to absorb in one sentence. First, he wanted to know what Corbin meant by “nonhumans.” Second, he wanted to know just what Corbin meant by “again.”

“Humanity has destroyed itself before,” Corbin continued without Malcolm’s prompting. “Three times now. Each time we have let it happen without doing anything to stop it because we believed it was the right thing to do, despite our misgivings. But now… we cannot let it happen again.”

Seeing the confusion in Malcolm’s expression, Adra stepped forward.

“Allow me to explain,” she said to Corbin, who nodded.

“Please do,” Malcolm said.

“Planet Earth is actually Museum Earth,” she said. “And human civilization is actually a controlled reenactment of events that first transpired over one hundred thousand years ago.” Her smile did not falter or fade one bit.

“A reenactment,” Malcolm repeated. “You mean like Civil War reenactments?”

“Something like that,” Corbin said.

“Museum Earth was created to illustrate to the Galactic Community how a seemingly advanced civilization can destroy itself if it cannot transcend such institutions as the nation-state and organized religion, and overcome such problems as racial and gender inequality.”

“What about the environment?” Malcolm asked.

“Any truly advanced civilization recognizes the obvious benefit of balancing the integrity of a world’s environment with the needs of progress.”

“That’s what I thought,” Malcolm said smugly. His ex had laughed at him for joining Greenpeace, calling it a lost cause.

“Museum Earth tells a cautionary tale, which every advanced civilization knows. There is not a citizen of the galaxy who doesn’t know the tale of Humanity.”

“So…” Malcolm was hesitant to ask, but he wanted to know. Even if these people were simply bonkers or part of some Doomsday cult, he still wanted to know. “What happened?”

“An airborne super-virus developed by the United States military-industrial complex,” Corbin said grimly.

“It was accidentally released,” Adra added.

“Accidentally?” Malcolm asked. “It wasn’t terrorists or anything like that?”

Adra shook her head.

“The lesson Museum Earth teaches all peoples is that the development of such weapons begets their use, without fail, whether intentionally or not.”

Malcolm absorbed this, and nodded thoughtfully.

“But some of us feel that humanity should be given a chance to continue, this time,” Adra said.

“Okay, but what does that have to do with me?” Malcolm asked. “I have nothing to do with the military-industrial complex.” Although, he remembered, the security agency he worked for also supplied contractors to the military for prisoner interrogation and convoy escort services in various so-called “hot spots.” So, in a way, he worked for the military-industrial complex. However, unless this super-virus was somehow accidentally released in the Phipps Plaza in Atlanta, he didn’t know how he could stop it.

“You are among those individuals whose lives intersect with what is known as an Omega Moment, which is a point in time when events are sent in the direction of humanity’s self-destruction. There are many Omega Moments. If any one of these is disrupted, humanity could be saved.”

“And what is my Omega Moment?” he asked, deciding to play along.

Adra and Corbin exchanged a look.

“It could be anything,” Corbin said. “Even something as seemingly innocuous as bringing your ex-wife flowers.”

“Bringing my ex-wife flowers will save humanity?” Malcolm asked.

“Merely an example,” Corbin replied, waving it off.

“The truth is, we do not know,” Adra said. “That is for Jik to explain.”

“Jack?” Malcolm asked.

Jik,” Adra repeated, saying it with more enunciation so Malcolm would get it.

“We will go to visit him now,” Corbin said.

* * * * *

They helped Malcolm, who was still feeling a little unsteady, get out of bed and get dressed.

“Stay close to us,” Corbin told him. “And whatever you do, do not look the little green men in black in the eye.”

“Little green men in black?” Malcolm asked.

“Yes. Avoid eye contact with them, no matter what.”

“Riiight,” Malcolm replied, not meaning to be sarcastic but successfully conveying a bitingly sarcastic tone that made Adra momentarily frown with her eyes (her smile remained intact).

The wall shimmered, which Malcolm had to admit was an incredibly cool effect, and they stepped through it and onto a walkway as wide as a street. Going this way and that were creatures that walked slithered, fluttered, crawled, danced, spun, slid, glided, and rolled. Some were reminiscent of snakes, some spiders, others birds, but most were impossible to find an Earthly analogy for, at least not one that Malcolm could dredge up. He put his hand to his heart. Adra looked at him, showing concern.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

Malcolm couldn’t reply. He could barely breathe.

“Maybe it is too soon,” Corbin said.

“We can’t wait any longer,” Adra said. “He is still conscious. That’s good.”

“I’m okay,” Malcolm said, forcing himself to breathe. Whatever had threatened to immobilize him, he shook it off.

“Then we should go. Look.” Corbin tilted his head to the left. Adra and Malcolm looked.

A squad of six little green men in black were marching towards them in lockstep with one another. They were definitely green, the dark green of an old lime, and they wore identical black suits. They looked like stocky children, or more appropriately like midgets, or dwarfs. Malcolm couldn’t remember which one, midgets or dwarfs, had limbs in proportion to their height.

Corbin reached into his back pocket and pulled out a walnut-sized, silver ball.

“When I throw this,” he said, “run the other way.”

“Are you sure that’s wise?” Adra asked him.

“We have no choice. If they catch us…”

Whatever he left unspoken had the desired effect on Adra. She grabbed Malcolm by his right arm.

“Ready?” Corbin asked.

Adra nodded.

Corbin waited a couple seconds more, until the little green men in black were close enough for Malcolm to see their eyes, which were silver slits.

Malcolm made the mistake of looking into one of those pairs of silver slits. He saw nothing but unrelenting resolve to hunt him down and—

Corbin threw the silver ball. The little green men in black immediately scattered and drew weapons, little wands that looked anything but dangerous.

Even as the silver ball arched through the air, one of those wands emitted a blast of lightning that exploded into the wall behind them, knocking them down.

The silver ball exploded into a rapidly expanding silver mist that overcame the little green men in black, instantly turning them into silver statues.

“Let’s go!” Corbin yelled, scrambling to his feet.

Malcolm still couldn’t move. Adra and Corbin each grabbed one of his arms and hauled him to his feet.

“You must try to keep up,” Adra told him. They started down the wide hallway, which had become eerily clear of anything that slithered, crawled, spun, fluttered, et cetera.

Malcolm did his best to keep up, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. The eyes of the little green men in black haunted him, though. He knew he’d been paralyzed with fear.

“The String,” Corbin said. “Up ahead.”

The three of them walked alone down the hallway. Malcolm wondered if he’d imagined all the different creatures from earlier. But as they walked he saw movement out of the corner of his left eye, and turned just in time to see a tentacle slide through a shimmering wall. A renewed feeling of dread came over him.

“Can I go home now?” he asked.

“Soon,” Adra said. She and Corbin still had Malcolm by either arm, and they maneuvered him to the right, through the shimmering wall, and down a ramp.

“First we have to disappear,” Corbin said.

“Where?” Adra asked.

“Random selection,” Corbin told her. “Just grab the first one and go. We’ll connect with Jik later.”

They now stood on a platform across which hummed large tubes that looked to be made of pure light. The tubes were different colors, and crisscrossed like hamster tunnels with no apparent rhyme or reason. Within the tubes, which were transparent, Malcolm saw different colored bubbles darting to and fro. They walked up to a blue tube and Adra placed her hand on it. Moments later a bubble shot towards them and stopped where her hand rested.

“Like this,” she told Malcolm, and simply stepped into the tube and the bubble, as if passing through a liquid membrane that immediately sealed up behind her. Corbin shoved Malcolm towards the tube.

Malcolm did as Adra had done. He found himself facing Adra in a gelatinous seat that fitted perfectly to his form and held him snugly. Corbin didn’t follow.

“It is better if we go separately,” he said. “We’ll meet at Jik’s.” Malcolm marveled that he could hear him perfectly through the wall of the tube and the bubble.

Adra nodded. She placed her hand in the middle of the bubble.

“End of the line,” she told it.

The bubble suddenly sped away, leaving Corbin behind. Malcolm did not feel the motion, though. For all he knew, it was Corbin who had sped away.

The bubble conveyed them smoothly along through the blue tube, beyond which Malcolm could see nothing once they left the platform.

“Where are we?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Adra asked. “Would you like me to find out?”

Malcolm nodded.

Adra lifted her right hand, and poked her index finger into the space between them, in the center of the bubble. The space shimmered, and then a holographic projection of the Earth appeared. Only a greenish hue outlined the continents, or the oceans, depending on how one looked at it.

“This is Museum Earth,” Adra said. “And this is the Observatory.” A filigree of interconnecting lines—blue, green, red, yellow, orange, purple, white—overlaid the image of the Earth. A pulsating dot moved rapidly along one of the blue lines towards the center of the Earth.

“Is that us?” Malcolm asked.

“Yes.”

“We’re moving through the Earth?”

“Not really,” she said. “We’re moving through the Observatory, which is in a different universe than the Museum, but very close.”

Malcolm shook his head.

“I have no idea what that means,” he said.

“Think of the universe we are in now as less than one billionth of a millimeter to the left of the universe we live in. It is so close that events in either universe can affect things in the other. They are conjoined.”

“Like Siamese twins?” Malcolm asked.

Adra frowned for a second, as if not getting the reference, then smiled and nodded.

“What did you do just then?” he asked her.

“What did I do?”

“Yes. You didn’t seem to know what I meant, and then you did. How?”

“My computer explained it to me,” Adra said, tapping her head.

“You have a computer in your head?”

She nodded.

Outside of the bubble, pitch black had taken on an orange hue, Malcolm noticed.

“We are passing by the Earth’s core,” Adra explained.

“Is it safe?” Malcolm asked nervously.

Adra nodded.

“We cannot go directly through it. We are going around it, although we are very close. The energy given off by the core seeps into this universe. The Observatory taps into it for power.”

The orange tint was getting brighter by the second. He was actually feeling warmer. Or was that his imagination? Beads of sweat formed on his forehead and upper lip.

Adra wasn’t sweating at all, but her features looked like they were starting to droop. Malcolm squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, then opened them. Adra still looked like her features were drooping, even more so now.

“What’s happening to you?” Malcolm asked.

“I am sorry,” she said, “but it is difficult for me to hold this form in extreme warmth.”

Not worry? This woman with a face and body like a supermodel was literally melting before his very eyes.

His expression must have made it quite obvious that he was on the verge of totally freaking out.

“It is fine,” Adra said, her voice slurring. “I am a shape-shifter. Extreme warmth causes me to lose control of my shape-shifting abilities.”

Outside the bubble the darkness had given way to a flickering red, orange, and yellow glow. It seemed as if they were passing through the heart of Hell, and Adra was turning into some sort of misshapen demon. Malcolm’s heart pounded like a jackhammer in his chest. Sweat poured from his face and arms.

“Are you sure this is safe?” Malcolm asked.

“The cooling system does seem to be having some difficulty,” Adra said. “Not everything works perfectly, even with our technology. But don’t worry, it won’t be long.”

Until what? he thought.

Malcolm closed his eyes. The heat was sweltering. He felt like he was being smothered alive.

“Not long,” Adra repeated, although Malcolm could barely understand her now. He didn’t want to open his eyes and look at her. He was afraid of what he might see, so he squeezed them shut as tightly as he could.

After a few minutes, although it seemed like much longer, the heat had subsided. He still didn’t dare open his eyes, though.

“Are you asleep?” Adra asked, as if from far away.

He opened his eyes. She smiled at him. She looked amazing again, like a supermodel only more so.

“No,” he said.

“Did you think we would not make it through?” she asked.

“I had my doubts,” he replied.

“It is an unpleasant route to take when the cooling system malfunctions,” Adra told him, “but it is really not dangerous.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Malcolm said, trying to sound sarcastic but sounding sincere instead.

“Does that mean you trust me?” she asked.

He didn’t know how to answer that. On the one hand, everything she had told him seemed ludicrous and ridiculous. On the other hand, he had seen things that made him wonder. Was it all real?

“I hope you will trust me,” Adra said.

“I trust you,” Malcolm told her, not sure if he really did, but realizing he didn’t have much choice at the moment. They were still in a bubble cruising through the Earth’s innards, even if they weren’t technically inside the Earth itself but a billionth of a millimeter to the left of their universe.

“I hope you really do trust me,” she responded. “Because if you do not, humanity is… phhhht!” And then she snapped her fingers.

Phhhht, Malcolm thought.

* * * * *

They arrived at a platform just inside the Earth’s crust below Hong Kong, according to the holographic map floating in the center of the bubble. The platform was deserted. As soon as Malcolm and Adra stepped out of the bubble it whisked silently away.
Adra placed her hand on a yellowish tube.

“It will be a few minutes before a bubble arrives,” she said. “This is an out-of-the-way platform.”

Malcolm looked around him. The platform was huge, though not quite as large as the one from which they’d just fled the little green men in black. “How can something as massive as this so-called Observatory exist without being detected by anyone on Earth?” he asked Adra.

“Sometimes things are detected by humans,” she said. “When that happens… it is dealt with.”

“Dealt with how?”

“Humans who see a nonhuman for the first time usually suffer a trauma as a result,” Adra explained.

“What sort of trauma?” Malcolm asked.

“They die.”

Memories surged to the fore of Malcolm’s brain.

“Is that what happened to me?” he asked.

Adra nodded.

“So how…?”

“We knew it would happen,” she said. “We were prepared to revive you immediately, before you suffered any brain damage. Both times.”

“I died twice?”

Adra nodded.

“But now…?”

“You have been acclimated to the sight of nonhumans,” Adra said. “More or less.”

“I guess that’s good,” Malcolm said, sounding sarcastic without intending to.

“It is very good,” Adra added, not detecting the unintended sarcasm.

“But if I had died for good?”

“We would have had to start over with someone else.”

Malcolm raised an eyebrow at that.

“Someone else?”

Adra nodded.

“Why didn’t you just start with someone else to begin with?”

“Because you were the safest bet.”

“Why was I the safest bet?” Malcolm asked.

“Because you’re dead.”

Malcolm felt as if his blood suddenly froze.

“Is this the afterlife?” he asked.

Adra laughed, and shook her head.

“You are not really dead,” she told him. “We saved you. You were about to be hit by a truck and killed instantly. We opened a space-time hole right before it happened, and pulled you out of the universe. The truck crashed and the driver was killed.”

Malcolm didn’t remember any truck.

“How does being dead make me the safest bet?” he asked.

“The Observatory stops monitoring you once you are dead. If you go back to Earth you won’t be noticed right away. This gives us an advantage, for a little while.”

“But those little green guys saw me,” he said.

“It wasn’t you they were after,” Adra said. “It was Corbin and myself. We are considered fugitives because they know we are attempting to prevent an Omega Moment.”

“And preventing an Omega Moment will save the human race?” Malcolm asked.

“Not necessarily. Each Omega Moment is different,” Adra explained. “There has been much research into the effects of the Omega Moments. The one associated with you has a very large Element of Uncertainty. All Omega Moments have Elements of Uncertainty, but some are very small, while others are so large that they make the Omega Moment practically, but not completely, irrelevant. The Omega Moment associated with you—your personal Omega Moment, if you like—had an Element of Uncertainty well above the Threshold of Probability.”

“Which means what?”

“Which means that even if your Omega Moment didn’t occur, there was still a very high probability that humanity will still destroy itself.”

“How high?”

“Ninety-eight percent,” Adra said.

“Ninety-eight percent?” Malcolm asked. “Why bother?”

“Jik developed a theory that saving you would create a second Omega Moment for you, which is more of a Reverse Omega Moment. And it did, according to his rough calculations. It created a Reverse Omega Moment with a miniscule Element of Uncertainty.”

“Which means…?”

“If we prevent this Reverse Omega Moment, humanity will die. If the Reverse Omega Moment occurs, the Threshold of Probability that humanity will be saved is ninety-nine point nine nine nine percent.”

Malcolm scratched his head. All Adra’s talk of Omega Moments, Reverse Omega Moments, Elements of Uncertainly, Thresholds of Probability… it gave him a throbbing headache just above his left eye. It was all too complicated.

A bubble silently whisked into the platform inside a yellowish tube.

“So what do I have to do?” he asked. He wanted a specific goal to focus on. That would help. Adra climbed into the bubble, and he followed.

“That’s why we must go to Jik,” Adra said, as they took their seats. “To find out. Don’t worry, we won’t go anywhere near the Earth’s core this time.”

“Where are we going?” Malcolm asked.

“Orbit.”

* * * * *

As the bubble shot through the Earth’s crust and then into the sky, Malcolm couldn’t help but wonder how the bubble transit system worked. How was it able to go from the Earth’s core and into space? He pondered the question and then asked Adra.

“I don’t know,” she replied.

“How can you not know?” Malcolm asked.

“Can you describe to me how an airplane flies?” she asked back.

Malcolm thought about it, then shook his head.

“This technology is everywhere,” Adra told him. “On every world that is part of the Galactic Community. Ever since my childhood.”

“It’s just so… amazing,” Malcolm said.

Adra shrugged.

“I have never really given it much thought.”

She gazed outside as they ascended into orbit. At that moment, yet again, she looked amazingly beautiful. Malcolm had to remind himself that she wasn’t even human.

“You’re a shape-shifter, then?” he asked.

She nodded.

“Do you have a normal shape that you use when you’re not… shifting?”

She nodded again.

“Can I see?”

Adra shook her head.

“That is only for family,” she told him.

“Why did you pick the shape you have now? Malcolm asked.

“Jik instructed me to do so. He determined that this shape would be appealing to you, and you would respond more positively to it than another shape.”

“Is it someone’s… do you look like someone…?”

“I am mimicking a human being who is alive, yes,” Adra said.

“How do you…?”

“There must be an exchange of genetic material,” Adra explained. “The other must not be aware of what is happening, or must consent to the process.”

“What does the process entail?”

“I believe you would call it… sex,” Adra replied.

Malcolm wasn’t sure what to say about that. He did wonder how that would work, if seeing an alien was basically fatal to a human being.

“So if you and I… then you could look like…?”

“If you and I had sex, then I would be able to mimic you down to your genetic code, temporarily.”

Malcolm absorbed this, then wanted to change the subject.

“Why did you come to Earth?” he asked.

“I have always had a morbid fascination with civilizations that destroy themselves. Yours was the first one that had been transformed into a living museum. Your entire civilization, your history, your science, your arts, your wars… it was all re-created so the Galactic Community could figure out how to prevent emerging advanced technological civilizations from destroying themselves.” She thought about that for a moment. “Of course, there are those who believe that civilizations ought to be left alone until they achieve interstellar travel capabilities on their own. The theory is that any civilization that achieves interstellar travel has passed the threshold of self-destruction. Humanity was different, through.”

“How so?”

“You had already achieved interstellar travel, and then you destroyed yourselves.”

“But… you said we have seventy-two hours left. I haven’t heard anything about any kind of starship being launched.”

“It wasn’t in this version of your civilization,” Adra told him. “It was only in the original. There was no Omega Moment associated with the launch of the starship, so that element of your civilization was omitted.”

“Omitted?” Malcolm asked. “Who decided what to omit?”

“The Board of Directors,” she said. “And primarily the Chairman of the Board.”

“And who is that?”

Adra smiled.

“Corbin has been the Chairman since the beginning. Museum Earth was his idea.”

Malcolm blinked.

“How is that possible?” he asked. “How old is he?”

“I do not know,” Adra replied. “Age is relative. He has been alive for over one hundred thousand Earth years, at least.”

“He doesn’t look a day over forty!”

“Individuals within the Galactic Community have access to the best life-extension technology,” Adra explained.

“If everyone on Earth is supposed to die, how did Corbin survive the first time?” Malcolm asked.

“During the original time of humanity’s civilization on Earth, a ship was launched into space with Corbin and other humans on board. It was intercepted by a Galactic Community probe that was investigating that quadrant of the galaxy after having detected evidence of human civilization. By then, however, it was too late. Humanity had wiped itself out. Those on the ship were the only survivors.”

“How many are there?”

“Originally there were two hundred,” Adra said. “Now, he is the last one.”

Malcolm blinked, stunned.

“What happened to them?” he asked.

“They died.”

“What about all that great life-extension technology?”

Adra shrugged. Malcolm wondered if that was a normal, natural gesture for her, or if she had learned it. She was, after all, an alien.

Their bubble was well beyond the atmosphere of the Earth, yet Malcolm did not feel weightlessness, which he thought was odd. He asked Adra about that.

“The universe we are in does not recognize the laws of gravity,” she said. “There are no stars in this universe. Only shadows of stars.”

The bubble pulled into a platform with invisible walls. Beyond, like a gigantic blue and white and green and brown wall mural, slowly rotating, was Earth. Malcolm stepped from the bubble and couldn’t help but stare in wonder at his home.

“It is a beautiful world,” Adra said.

“Yes, I think so.”

The platform was deserted, just like the one within the Earth’s crust.

“Where is everyone?” he asked.

“This platform is not used very often,” Adra said.

“How far can one go in the bubbles?” he asked. “Is that how you travel from star to star?”

Adra laughed.

“No, it would take far too long. We use lightships that travel in superluminal space throughout the galaxy.”

“Superluminal space? Is that like another universe?”

Adra shook her head.

“It is an aspect of our universe, a dimension that exists on the other side of the lightspeed barrier.”

Malcolm nodded. It seemed to make sense, although he didn’t quite understand it.

A bubble suddenly slid into the platform, in a greenish tube. A moment later, a creature that looked like a cross between a spider and an octopus climbed from within. Malcolm felt himself become faint, unsteady.

“It is Jik,” Adra announced.

To steady himself, Malcolm reached out, touched her shoulder. He quickly moved his hand, however, worried that she might have lied about what it took to mimic someone.

“You probably will not die this time,” Adra said.

“It is almost time,” said Jik, in a voice that sounded exceedingly pleasant and calming. Malcolm immediately felt better.

“Where is Corbin?” Adra asked.

“He has not yet arrived,” Jik said.

“Shall we begin?” she asked.

Jik paused a moment.

“Yes, let us begin.”

Adra’s smiled vanished, and her expression now seemed less friendly.

“Begin what?” Malcolm asked.

“I am sorry I have not been completely honest with you,” Adra told him. She pulled a wand from somewhere, Malcolm wasn’t sure where, and pointed it at him.

“What are you doing?” Jik asked her. His tentacles moved towards Adra. She turned the wand on him, and a bolt of lightning sprang forth and right through his center. Jik collapsed to the platform floor, immobile, his charred center smoking.

At that moment, dozens of bubbles, of every color, zoomed into the platform, stopped, and from within issued forth dozens of little green men in black, all holding weapons. They surrounded Malcolm and Adra. Moments later a silver opaque bubble slid into the platform, and Corbin emerged from within. He strode through the ranks of little green men in black until he stood before Adra.

“You are hereby charged with attempting to disrupt the mission of the Museum,” he said to her.

“Not me,” Adra said. “You.”

Corbin shook his head.

“I knew there were those who would attempt to prevent humanity from destroying itself, therefore I pretended to be one of them in order to attract others to me.”

“That is precisely what I was doing,” Adra said ever so calmly.

Corbin shook his head sadly.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned after all these years, it’s that you aliens can’t lie worth beans.”

“Beans?” Malcolm asked, frowning.

Corbin looked at him.

“It’s an expression,” he explained. “It’s one of the reasons I can’t believe the civilization on Museum Earth is worth saving. What’s the expression you use? Hill of peanuts? In your version of Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart says ‘our problems aren’t worth a hill of peanuts.’ I can’t accept that. Humanity was real the first time around, but we screwed it up. Now it’s an artificial creation, a tool the Galactic Community needs to prevent other civilizations from screwing up the same way.”

“But that is exactly what I believe,” Adra said. “I was going to sabotage your attempt to save humanity.”

“You were?” Malcolm asked.

She nodded.

“You must understand,” she said. “The lesson of humanity has prevented many other civilizations from developing weapons of global destruction. Museum Earth has proven that a civilization that goes down that path will destroy itself. It has happened with other civilizations, as well. Many believe the entire galaxy could succumb if such civilizations are saved and permitted to expand beyond their home worlds.”

“I would like to believe that you did not intend to save humanity, Adra,” Corbin said. “I really would. But I can’t take that chance.”

He nodded to the little green men in black, two of whom produced wands, which they aimed at Adra.

“You are making a mistake,” Adra said.

“Perhaps,” Corbin said.

Adra dropped her wand, and the little green men in black took her to a yellow tube and aboard a bubble, which quickly whisked her away.

“What will you do to her?” Malcolm asked.

“She will be put into suspended animation for ten thousand years.”

“And what about me?”

“You will be returned to Earth.”

“Aren’t you worried that I’ll do something different now, and mess things up? Humanity might not destroy itself.”

Corbin shook his head.

“You do not know what, or what not, to do. The chances that you will do anything to save humanity are well beyond the Threshold of Probability.”

“I see.”

“Or, you may remain here in the Observatory with us,” Corbin said. “We could use another human on our team.”

Malcolm didn’t even need to think about it.

“Thanks, but I’d rather die with everyone else,” he replied.

Corbin smiled and nodded.

One of the little green men in black held up what looked like a remote control device, and pressed a button. A window opened before Malcolm, a portal in the fabric of space-time, opening to Peachtree Street between the cafe and the mall. He stepped through.

* * * * *

At home there was a message from work that if he didn’t call in by the next day he’d be fired. Since it was now well past the next day, he assumed he needed to look for a new job. But then he realized that humanity had a deadline for extinction that was rapidly approaching, so why bother?

There was also a message from Teresa, saying she had something that belonged to him and wanted to give it back. She wanted him to meet her that morning at her office.

He wanted to see her, but at the same time he didn’t want to. He still both loved and hated her. Loved her for who she was: the woman he had married. And hated her for who she had become: the woman who had left him.

Ultimately, curiosity and fatalism won out. What did she have of his that she wanted to give back? And why not go see her if she, and he, and everyone else was going to be dead soon? He got dressed and headed out. Since her office wasn’t too far away, he decided to walk, which would also give him time to prepare himself emotionally to see her again.

As he walked, he couldn’t help but think that what had happened had all been a dream. But he knew it had been real. He tried to think, what could he do to save the human race? Nothing came to mind.

He crossed a street with a gas station on one corner that had a flower shop inside it. He remembered something that Corbin had said about the simple of act of giving a woman flowers having the power to change everything. Malcolm stopped. Teresa loved flowers, and he had never given her any. He had always thought of flowers as a waste of money, really. Money meant nothing to him, now. He went into the flower shop.

The woman behind the counter turned around, and Malcolm’s felt his heart nearly stop.

It was Adra.

“Oh my god,” he said.

“May I help you?” she asked.

“I thought you were gone,” he told her.

“Excuse me, but do I know you?” she asked.

“Adra, it’s me, Malcolm.”

“My name isn’t Adra,” the woman said. “It’s Heather.”

Malcolm frowned. Then he realized something.

“Did you have a strange experience recently?” he asked her. “Where you found yourself walking down the street and then suddenly you woke up in a room, and you were surrounded by these… creatures?”

Heather’s face went pale, and she nodded.

“How do you know?” she asked.

“Same thing happened to me,” he said.

“Did you also find yourself making love to yourself?” she asked.

Malcolm blinked. So Adra had not lied.

“Uh, no,” he said.

“Too bad. It was amazing.”

“I’m on my way to see someone now,” Malcolm told her. “I want to bring her flowers.”

“Is she someone special to you?”

Malcolm nodded.

“Behind you,” Heather said.

Malcolm turned around and saw a bouquet of red and white roses.

“She’ll like those,” Heather told him.

“I’ll take them.”

He left the flower shop with more of a spring in his step. It was amazing how buying flowers for someone made him feel so much better. If nothing else, he could now say that he had brought his wife flowers, even if she was no longer his wife.

As he walked, he saw the air shimmer before him. It took a moment for him to remember what that meant. But as a portal opened up in the space-time continuum, there were no tentacles lashing out to grab him.

What he saw, instead, were six little green men in black. He remembered Adra’s warning, and averted his gaze immediately. Malcolm sidestepped the portal and ran across the street, forcing cars to skid to a halt as he bolted past.

On the other side of the street he paused to look back. Six little green men in black were coming after him. They were fast, too. But so was Malcolm, whose longer legs propelled him ahead of them. Three broke off and went down a side street. Mentally picturing where Teresa’s office was and where he was at that moment, he realized they were going to cut him off at the pass, so to speak.

Maybe seeing Teresa again was the Reverse Omega Moment, and that’s what they were trying to prevent. And he had wasted time by stopping to get flowers. Damn! He could imagine it: I’m sorry, I could have saved the human race from extinction, but I had to stop and buy flowers for my ex-wife.

He wasn’t going to give up, though, not when he was so close.

He rounded a corner and saw the bank ahead. At that moment, three of the little green men in black rounded the other corner, and now stood between Malcolm and the bank. They lined up, blocking his way. One of them pulled out a wand. Malcolm didn’t slow down.

Malcolm, running at full speed, got close enough before the wand could be aimed, leaped into the air and sailed over the little green men in black. He went up the steps of Teresa’s office building, two at a time. Without pausing to look back, he pulled one of the large double-doors open and went inside.

“Malcolm,” Teresa said. Her office was immediately off to the left of the lobby. She sat behind her desk with her door open. He walked over to her as she watched with a stunned expression.

“Here,” was all he could say. Out of breath. He held the roses out to her.

“What are these for?” she asked.

“They’re for you,” he replied.

Teresa closed her eyes for a second, then opened them.

“Why did you bring me roses?” she asked. Her voice sounded stern. He could tell right away that Teresa was not pleased.

“I thought…”

“No, you didn’t,” she said. “You didn’t think.”

“You like flowers,” he said.

“I love flowers,” she responded. “And you never brought me flowers the whole time we were married. And now…” She shook her head, then continued. “Malcolm, seeing you the other night, I thought maybe it would be nice to, I don’t know, re-connect with you… on a different level. As a friend, I guess. But, obviously, you’re not ready for that.”

She sighed heavily.

“Anyway, here,” she said as she opened the drawer of her desk. She pulled out a ring. Malcolm recognized it immediately. It was Teresa’s wedding ring.

“I don’t want that,” he told her.

“Take it,” she said. “Maybe you can sell it. I know you need the money.”

Malcolm remembered that he didn’t have a job anymore. He took the ring from her.

“Bye, Malcolm.”

He turned to go.

“Please take these with you, too,” Teresa said, holding the roses up to him.

He took them.

Outside, Corbin stood at the bottom of the steps, and behind him stood the six little green men in black.

“You did it,” he told Malcolm.

“Did what?”

“You saved humanity.”

“I did? How?”

“The flowers,” Corbin said. “Had you not brought flowers to Teresa, she would have taken pity on you. She would have given in to giving you one more chance. And that would have done nothing to prevent humanity’s demise. But now she’ll put more effort into her new relationship, which will disrupt the Omega Moment of her lover.”

“I thought you wanted to stop anyone from saving humanity.”

Corbin shook his head.

“A ruse. I knew Adra was trying to stop me. But they didn’t know I knew. So I used my resources as Chairman to make it look like I was stopping her. I had no choice, I had to fool the little green men in black, too.”

“Yeah, what about them?” Malcolm asked.

“Now that humanity is saved, their job is over.” He turned around to look at the little green men in black. “I don’t know what they’re going to do, now.”

“We’ve been talking about opening a restaurant,” said one.

With that, they opened a portal in the space-time continuum and went through, one at a time. The last one turned to Malcolm, and gave him a thumbs-up.

“It’s been real,” he said with a wink. The portal started to close around his arm, which he yanked back through at the last second.

“What about you?” Malcolm asked Corbin.

“Oh, I think I’ll stick around, grow old, and see what happens.” He turned and started walking down the sidewalk. But there was something nagging at the back of Malcolm’s mind, and he called out Corbin’s name. The very, very old man who looked less than forty years old turned and regarded Malcolm patiently.

“There’s something that’s been bugging me,” Malcolm said. “You told me that I would’ve been hit by a truck if you hadn’t saved me. How could I have had an Omega Moment, or a Reverse Omega Moment, if I was dead?”

Corbin smiled.

“Ah, yes… you see, your Omega Moment was actually what we call a probabilistic Omega Moment. Basically, had you lived, your Omega Moment would likely have happened, and therefore your Reverse Omega Moment was also determined.”

“Oh, okay, thanks,” Malcom, said, smiling and nodding and not really getting it at all. Without another word, Corbin turned and walked away.

Malcolm decided to go home. When he passed the flower shop, he paused, went back inside.

“Changed your mind?” Heather asked.

“Yes,” he replied. Then, “These are for you, Heather.” He handed her the roses.