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?”

 

More Hallways!

by Michael A. Ventrella

 

Darvin stared at the floor. It was better than trying to meet the eye of the king. His right knee shook against the plush carpet, and he was certain he would tip over if he did so much as breathe. What if not looking at the king was an insult? What if His Majesty decided he had had just enough of this ridiculous architect and was waving to his executioner who was on his way at that very moment to turn Darvin into two distinct parts?

“Oh, stand up already,” King Franklin said.

Darvin rose, heart beating steadily, arms clutching his latest drawings.

The king stood before a massive oak table bathed in sunlight from the high windows in the royal meeting room. The table was barely visible under a pile of papers held in place by weights shaped like little knights in battle. Darvin recognized some of his designs partially hidden under notes covered with scratchy, primitive sketches that made his hair stand on end. Doesn’t this person know how to use a straight edge?

“I’ve made some improvements on your drawings,” his liege said. “Here, come see.”

Darvin shuffled closer to stare at His Majesty’s work.

“I wanted the best and safest storehouse for my treasure vault, but your design missed key features we need.” King Franklin stroked his gray beard and nodded proudly at his own work. “For instance, you didn’t have enough hallways.”

“Hallways, Your Highness?”

“Yes, hallways. I want lots of hallways! Hallways that go on for great distances and then end for no reason. That’s what we need.”

“But Your Majesty…”

“And then you have windows,” he said, throwing his arms up to emphasize the ridiculousness of the situation. “We don’t need windows! This entire thing must be completely underground, like a dungeon.”

“But the cost…”

The king ignored him and jabbed his finger into one of his drawings. “Over here is where we’ll have a room for the treasure guards. Another room will be over there. And we’ll put orcs in one room and trolls in the other, all armed and armored.”

Darvin swallowed. “But Your Majesty, won’t they just fight each other like they always do? And how will you feed them? Plus, you haven’t put in any privies…”

“Of course, we’ll save the best armor and weapons and place them in chests located randomly around the halls,” King Franklin continued, ignoring Darvin’s protests. “And the final touch will be this great room at the end of the last hall. That’s where we’ll place the treasure. It’ll have massive metal doors with unpickable locks and thick walls to prevent unwanted entry.”

“Oh.” Darvin let out a sigh of relief. “Well, that’s a good—”

“And off to the side here, on the wall, we’ll place the riddle.”

“Riddle.”

“Yes, of course. The riddle. So that when you figure out the riddle, the door will open, allowing you to get the treasure.”

Darvin reached behind him blindly, found the arm of a chair, and sat, risking angering the king. “Your Majesty, I have to ask. Hallways that go nowhere, underground design, monsters that wait, treasure randomly scattered in chests, and a riddle to get the treasure? Surely you can’t be serious.”

King Franklin looked down his nose at the timid architect. “I am deadly serious!” he bellowed. “What do you think this is—a game?”

 

A Perfect Moment

by C.J. Henderson

 

Duties are not performed for duty’s sake, but because their neglect would make the man uncomfortable.
A man performs but one duty—the duty of contenting his spirit, the duty of making himself agreeable to himself.
–Mark Twain

Vrenten of Sperica had not reached the rank of enjele because he was a member of the royal family. If anything, his birthright had worked against him mightily after his decision to join his world’s military. Not that such mattered to him. He had succeeded despite his title. As he told his fellows, he had never been overly interested in politics. Who would rule, would rule, he knew. And in all honesty, he could care less whose behind filled the jade throne.

“I’m certain you’re curious as to why you were called in.”

Enjele Vrenten broke his proper, forward gaze just long enough to indicate that his superior was correct. The twelve planets of their solar system were maintaining a reasonable peace with their neighbors in the galaxy, no upheavals mentioned on the news, no national disasters, his personal record clean—he could not even begin to cobble together the beginnings of a guess at what could have caused him to be roused at such a time in the morning—let alone to be summoned on the run to the ge’het’s private office. He sensed a raw level of tension in everyone around him, however, including the ge’het, which intrigued him greatly.

“Just what in seven suns is going on around here?” he asked. Hoping he was betraying none of his interest on his face, he added, “And could it possibly, just once, be something even a touch exciting?”

Ge’het Krec stared at the officer before him, then looked down at his desk. The commander allowed himself one deep breath, then, sufficiently steeled, looked up once more, saying;

“You’re being offered a mission, Vrenten. One so important, and most likely dangerous, that the word ‘offer’ was not a mistake. Normally such an undertaking would have entailed an extensive training period. The officer first chosen was prepared for seven months.”

The enjele’s heartbeat sped up, despite the iron grip he was exerting over his emotions.

“But, five hours ago, he was murdered.”

When Vrenten remained rigidly at attention, the ge’het sighed, then said to him;

“Release, Enjele. Your control is proper and admirable, but now is not the time. What you’re being asked to consider, you deserve the right to ask questions—”

“As you deserve the right to hear what questions I might ask, eh, sir?”

Krec smiled. Such honest impertinence was just one further assurance they had chosen wisely. Pulling a pair of smokers from the box on his desk, he tossed one to Vrenten, then allowed the officer to light up as he did so himself. Across the desk, the enjele inhaled deeply, his mind racing. Whatever was going on, it was at least twice as big as he had suspected. Clearing his mind, he asked;

“Murdered by who, sir? Do we know?”

“We suspect… but we can’t prove. It doesn’t matter. It’s the Atthans.”

Vrenten grinned internally over the fact that he managed to keep his eyes from going wide. Nodding gravely, he settled into the chair his superior indicated, letting the ge’het fill him in on what he needed to know.

“We’re going to be at war soon. Matter of weeks, the whole system will be on fire. No stopping it. Attha’s been spoiling for a turmoil. Making alliances, pushing borders…”

Krec stopped himself as if realizing there was no need to explain the obvious. Bowing his head for a moment, he raised it again, took a long drag on his smoker, then said;

“Thirty-eight thousand years, that’s how long we’ve been recording our history. We’ve been around a long time. Seen a lot, learned a lot. And yes, even we, the great and wonderful Sperican… even we’ve made some mistakes. Your mission, Vrenten, if you accept, is going to be to correct the most serious one of those mistakes our people ever made.”

The enjele exhaled, releasing a large cloud of smoke into the room. This time, he allowed himself to smile. Allowed his self-pleasure to be observed.

What, the back of his mind whispered in triumph, could it possibly matter now?

*****

Two hours later, Vrenten stood on a launch platform in a heavy-assault tactical suit, his head fairly reeling from all he had learned. Every ten cycles, time and space shattered, the walls of the universe collapsing for a time—inter-dimensional chaos known throughout the galaxies that shared information as the ShatterTime. A secret history of expeditions and wars, unknown to anyone but the ruling class. And the last time around, they put their foot into it.

Big time.

Last time, they had lost the Light. The divine power that had created their world, their culture, their entire way of being. An unlimited source of energy which the government’s chief wizards had nurtured and experimented with for millennia. Gone, allowed to slip through this idiotic breech which befell the universe—all the universes possible—every ten thousand cycles. In frustration, the college of sorcerers had been able to follow its movements, but had been unable to do anything to recapture it.

The Light, Vrenten had been informed, had fallen into a pattern, revealing itself upon a planet named Earth every twenty-five hundred years. It was there—now. And it had to be recovered—it had to be brought back.

Now.

Which would not be accomplished easily, the enjele was assured, for the natives had knowledge of the Light, and would not release it easily.

“It must be returned to the council,” Krec had pressed upon him, the commander’s voice laced with desperation. “Attha spent a planetary ransom in an attempt to make certain this mission fails. You must thwart their desires, Vrenten. The Light must be returned, for if it is not, our world dies!”

Of course, the enjele had accepted. How could he not? After all, this was a mission worthy of a warrior. This was a deed worth doing. As he waited for the breech to open, his excitement was something he could feel in his fingertips, hear in the air around him, taste it there as well. He had a device he was assured would lead him to the Light. He had been given any weapon he had asked for. He had but a handful of days to find the lost power, liberate it from wherever it was being held, and return it to the council.

Madness, he thought, unable to stop grinning. The greatest madness a man could ask for.

And then, suddenly the air turned a thin yellow, hazing over before him, filling with the scent of fresh halinbred buds. It was the sign—the breech was opening. Stepping forward without hesitation, the enjele moved into the shimmering disruption and in an instant… was elsewhere.

His new reality slammed against him with the force of a falling mountain. His armor caught the blow and dispersed it with typical efficiency, shattering the landscape around him as it did so. With a thought he commanded his visor to locate whatever force had hit him. His suit responded, turning him in a rapid arc until he saw—

“What in the seven suns is that?”

Staggering tall, improbably wide, the wildly constructed lifeform waddling across the cityscape before the enjele left him too startled to immediately respond. The thing was too oddly put together. There was no central trunk, no core hub of construction, no nucleus from which its appendages might sensibly fall. It was insanity given flesh, and the sight of it transfixed him—crippling his ability to react.

“Look out!”

Vrenten had only paused for the briefest of moments, stunned as he was by the maddeningly impossible thing before him. But, in the scant seconds his brain had needed to scan the horror, it had taken note of him. The first blow he had received from the creature had been but the merest edge of one meant for another. Now, as the enjele stared forward, blinking hard, struggling to focus his mind, he realized the thing was about to direct its next attack at him. Was doing so even as he fumbled to respond.

“Down!”

The earthling that had shouted at him a second earlier had now thrown himself against the enjele, knocking him to the ground an instant before another of the monstrosity’s beams had left its body. The force tore the atmosphere open, filling the air with fractured atoms, frying their edges, clogging their lungs with the stink of ozone. Behind the pair, several buildings shook violently, then collapsed inward upon themselves, filling the area with a monstrous cloud of rapidly-swelling dust and debris.

“Quick,” shouted the earthling, his speech translated by Vrenten’s suit, “we’ve got to move—now!”

The enjele shook his head within his helmet, trying to clear it. The indicator link within his helmet showed him that the Light was indeed within his immediate vicinity. Everything had worked as Krec’s experts had hoped. He had been delivered directly to his objective.

Gather intelligence, he told himself. You’re already in the right spot, and you have days to complete your mission. Best guess, that whatever-it-is possesses the Light. Make certain. Only way to find out—interact. Get what information you can from the local.

Standing, Vrenten assumed the same hunched-over stance as the earthling and then followed it as it ran into the billowing dust. The pair ran a very short distance, then the earthling grabbed at the enjele’s arm, pulling him around the corner of what Vrenten assumed was a building of some sort.

“Thank you,” the enjele heard his suit translate. “I believe you may have saved my life.”

“Night’s not over,” answered the native. “Might need you to do the same for me, you know.”

Vrenten used the moment to study the life form. The earthling was not so terribly dissimilar from himself. Squatter, far more hairy, an extra finger on each hand—but still, bipedal, two eyes, set forward, still actually possessed teeth, but close enough to normal to find some sort of common ground. The fellow did not seem to be carrying any weapons. He was fully clothed, but not armored.

Not naked or wearing face paint, thought the enjele, they build cities. At least there’s some level of civilization.

As Vrenten was taking his tally, the native asked;

“You military?”

“Yes,” he answered honestly, not seeing any harm, needing to establish some sort of basis for communication.

“What’re your orders?”

“Making it up as I go along,” the enjele replied.

“Yeah,” agreed the earthling, “tonight, aren’t we all?”

“What is that which you combat?”

“No idea,” answered the local. “Crap has been popping out of thin air all day. One damned thing after another. My tech people tell me we’re in for a bad bout for up to a week.”

They understand the breech, thought Vrenten. Nodding, he began to run a fast inventory of his weapons, making certain that not only had everything transferred through the breech along with him, but that none of it had suffered damage either during the transition or the attack. As he did, the native said;

“This thing here, though, we’re thinking it’s the worst that’s going to come through. Doesn’t have a name we can put to it. Just a whole lot of nasty that’s gotta be stopped.”

Vrenten frowned slightly. His information was that the Light existed on this world. The creature before them, however, appeared to have arrived as he had—through the breech. Then he thought, Krec had told him the lost power interacted with the planet on a cycle, much like the one causing the breech.

Thing slides through the breech, he thought, possesses the Light… possible—

“Time to move.”

The enjele heard the local’s words, but as the earthling ran quickly toward the shadows created by the growing debris cloud, Vrenten answered—

“Yes, time to move, indeed,” and hit his vertical thrusters, throwing himself a rapid fifty feet into the air. A flaming gelatin shot through with vibrant strands of a green lightning splattered against the ground where the two had been, thrown at the spot by the towering horror. Ready for battle, the enjele snapped one of his firearms into his left wrist cradle and spat;

“I can deal heat, too, ugly.”

With a thought, his zelcator reached out in every direction, pulling all the thermotic energy within a hundred yard radius to itself, and then converted it to a tight beam and sent it pulsing back toward his foe. The purple/pink stream of incalescent scintillation tore across the area between them at the speed of thought, splattering against the monstrosity, burning through the first two layers of its semi-metallic scales.

As the creature roared, spitting its anger into the sky, Vrenten smiled, thinking;

Oh, if you liked that…

Snapping a much bulkier unit onto his other wrist, the enjele thought the proper release sequence and then braced himself as his converter ranged through the available atmosphere, scooping all available metallic atoms and converting them into inch-thick, yard-long segments of a type of razor wire which it flung with terrible force into the monstrosity’s flesh.

As the creature howled, its raging bringing the sound of breaking glass through the ever-billowing debris cloud now covering a several-mile radius, Vrenten chuckled. He had followed a science-driven, esoteric attack with one of standard metal. It never failed to catch such enemies off guard. He knew the thing had been bracing its defenses for a like attack and thus had suffered far more damage when his fester spears had struck home.

Maintaining what he assumed was a safe distance, allowing his suit to fall into a standard bob-and-weave pattern, the enjele switched the fester attachment back to its place on his utilization rack, and was pulling down another weapon—one he had always wanted to see used against something capable of withstanding its power—when suddenly, his mind froze as it heard a black and choking thought—

*worthy*

A great, mocking bellow splattered across the landscape, and then the towering horror threw forth a second volley of flame and lightning—one several hundred times the diameter of the first. Although Vrenten’s zelcator had been left armed, it could not begin to pull the heat energy from the air being created at that moment. The temperature of the enjele’s armor rose dramatically, even as the maelstrom of electricity sluiced through every circuit it could find.

His suit stunned, Vrenten fell helplessly toward the ground, even as his monstrous foe slid forward a massive cephalopodic length to ensnare him. But, before the enjele could fall into the outstretched appendage, his native ally leapt into the air, making an incredible, unassisted jump which not only brought him in contact with Vrenten, but allowed him to shove the soldier out of the horror’s grasp. As the two of them hit the ground some distance away and began to roll, the enjele shouted;

“Behind me!”

As he had thought, the monstrosity followed up its attack by hurling another overwhelming blast of flame and current their way. Vrenten knew not all of his offensive equipment would be back on line yet, but he was certain he could count on his armor’s defensive net to protect them. As the enjele’s suit actually rebuilt its power from the energy being thrown against it, he shouted;

“I’ll be topped off in a moment, but if you have anything you could throw at that thing, this might be a good time.”

“Well,” answered the earthling, giving Vrenten a short smile, “I guess I can’t let you have all the fun.”

The enjele could not help but admire the native. He wore nothing but standard civilian issue, carried no weapons of any size—oh, his indicator had marked the fellow as carrying several small metallic items on his person, but they were trifles—and yet he was ready to move forward against the monstrous shape before them. Watching the gauge on his forearm, knowing it would still take several seconds for his regen-unit to finish charging his circuits, Vrenten thought;

You will be avenged, good sir.

And then was struck speechless.

Sucking down a deep breath, the native braced himself, then extended his arms, pointing his hands at their foe. The fellow took a moment to shout;

“I gave you a chance to move on, but you wanted to dance. Well then, let’s shake it, baby!”

As the creature threw itself forward, it was suddenly stunned as if hit by a battery of pulse cannons. No discharge left the native’s hands, at least, none the enjele’s eyes could track. His armor, however, was better equipped. Running through his visor’s various range modes, he found one which revealed the truth. Through some unexplainable power, the fellow had converted matter from all around them into energy and hurled it at their enemy. His systems instantly calculated the mass, letting him know that some ninety-six tons of rubble, buildings and street had been reduced to their basic atomic matter and then directed through the native and against the creature. In amazement, he whispered;

“Gralg, stuff a dilly.”

Vrenten’s armor revitalized as the monstrosity fell over backwards. As it slammed against the ground, the enjele shouted;

“Did you kill it?”

“Possible,” answered his companion, not turning to look at him. Indeed, Vrenten noted immediately that the fellow did not even break his defensive stance. As the native turned his head from side to side, his eyes straining against the still swirling billow all about them, the enjele began to do the same, asking;

“What are we looking for?”

“The other two.”

Vrenten froze, not from fear, but self-reproach. Sending a mental command to his armor, he had the location of at least one of the creatures instantly. Even as he began to inform his companion, his radar located the second.

“That way,” he said, pointing toward the west. “One half as close as the other.”

“Headed this way?”

The enjele looked to his scanner for a movement reading, when suddenly the atmosphere was shattered by a terrible, drilling scream, a pounding clang of uncomprehending fear and sadness which signaled the final breath of the thing he and the native had just dispatched. Double checking his scanner, he said;

“They are now. You ready for two of them?”

“I could use a breather. How about yourself?” When Vrenten agreed, the native extended his hand, touched the enjele on the shoulder, then said;

“Brace yourself.”

Vrenten was about to ask what his companion meant when suddenly he found himself shifted through space to a point in the city quite a good distance from the site of their combat. Outside of the dust cloud for the first time since arriving on the target planet, he looked about at the primitive poured stone buildings, wondering if his newfound friend and his race had been walking upright for even fifty thousand cycles. Then, remembering what had just happened, he looked at the native with even more respect than he had after his last show of power and said;

“You teleported us—with but a thought!” Trying to get his mind around his own words, Vrenten asked;

“Forgive the question, but what are you? Some local god come down off the mountain, or something equally entertaining?”

The fellow bowed his head a bit, a gesture the enjele accepted as a universal one for indicating embarrassment. Understanding, knowing on so many levels what his words had done, Vrenten immediately extended his hand, saying;

“Forgive the armor. Enjele Cormac Vrenten. Pleased to meet you.”

“Likewise,” said the native. Taking the fingers of the enjele’s glove in a grasp rather than his wrist as Vrenten had expected, the fellow gave them a slight shake, then released his grip, adding;

“Theodore London. I’m assuming ‘enjele’ is some rank I just don’t recognize. I’m a private detective myself. Although, obviously, I can throw around a bit more power than most guys.”

“I noticed.”

“Yeah,” answered London, his face not changing. “I noticed you noticed. And that you didn’t freak out while doing so. Can I assume you’ve seen a bit of the strange in your time?”

“A bit… here and there.”

And, in that moment, Vrenten made a decision. His armor had confirmed moments after his arrival that the local atmosphere could support his life functions adequately. Reaching upward, he thumbed the tab which would recess his helmet. As the metal and frosted glass collapsed into its partitioned chamber, the enjele smiled as he noted the change in London’s expression as the fellow took note of his alien features.

“Yes,” he said, the sides of his own mouth relaxing as well, “I’m not from around here.”

“I didn’t think so,” answered the native. “You had that ‘elsewheres’ feel to you. But then, so much stuff the last few hours has, it’s hard to tell friend from foe. Well, that being the case, welcome to New York City.”

“Much appreciation.”

“No problem. But, if it’s not being too nosey, might I ask what’re you here for? Not that I’m looking to turn down help, but why’d you join in?”

Checking his scanner, seeing that the second two creatures had just reached the site of their fallen third, Vrenten answered;

“My world lost something valuable the last time this disruption came through the universe. I have been dispatched to retrieve it.”

“And you’re thinking this trio has what you’re after?” When the enjele answered in the affirmative, London told him;

“Well, you’re welcome to whatever they might have once we’re done with them.” Vrenten started to answer, but as the warning alarm he had set on his scanner beeped, he said instead;

“Our targets are on the move again.” Once more he was about to say one thing, only to receive a further notice from his armor which caused him to replace a pleasantry with something far more urgent.

“London,” he snapped, “bad news. My instruments reveal that our foes are far more powerful than their fallen comrade.”

“I was afraid of that,” answered the detective, not seeming terribly surprised. “I never met these boys personally, but I know the type. Symbionts, sort of.”

“They are sharing power. With the death of the one…”

“The other two are now each fifty percent stronger. Maybe only thirty-five or forty, but… still feel like joining in?”

Vrenten stared at his companion, marveling over the fellow. Amazed not only at his power level, but at his easy acceptance of facing such monsters, he found himself asking;

“If I might pose a question—”

“Shoot.”

“You know why I am doing this, what I have to gain. What is your motivation in this—if such is not… nosey?”

“Hey,” answered London, smiling again, “as I told a buddy of mine a long time ago, any guy who jumps into a monster fight and asks questions later is all right by me.”

The sound of buildings being knocked over stole the pair’s attention for a moment. The enjele let his companion know that their foes were moving directly toward them once more. Nodding, London said;

“Anyway, the job of stopping crap like this kind of fell into my lap a while back when I unexpectedly came into a little extra power. Do I want it? No… not really. But, there’s no one else who can handle it, so…”

The native shrugged his shoulders, the sight of the gesture making Vrenten chuckle. He had met hundreds of beings from other worlds within his own universe. Yet never, he realized, had he ever understood one from another race so completely, trusted one so utterly, as this one.

Has there ever been an Atthan that shrugged its shoulders, he thought, or did so for so utterly the right reason?

“Let us go,” responded the enjele, hitting the tab to close his helmet once more, “we have more monsters to kill.”

And then, before London could respond, the brutish things were upon them. The first of them slid through the dusty haze, its body reformed into a defensive mass of far-reaching appendages. All the grasping lengths were armored, all were covered with harshly staring eyes and screaming mouths. At the sight, the native indicated that Vrenten should become airborne. The enjele did so, just avoiding a massive attack as the horror flooded the area with an over-whelming barrage of fire and lightning, the power of it consuming the ground where they had stood downward to a level of some sixty feet.

Not worried about his companion, certain the clever London could not only avoid so obvious an attack, but that he had most likely meant to draw the thing’s fire, Vrenten did what he knew was expected—he slammed the creature with everything he could. Hoping that the monstrosities shared experience as well as power, he unleashed his razor wire lengths first.

“Yes!”

Expecting the shape-shifting beast to simply create passages through its body to allow the bladed edges to pass through itself harmlessly, he immediately followed the blast from his one arm with a second from his other. Unleashing a new weapon, he sent out his full complement of directional explosives. The bombs followed the razor wires along their trajectories, but then at a signal from the enjele they switched course, all streaking to the closest heat source—in this case the monstrosity’s body.

Vrenten cued his armor instantly, moving himself some thousand feet backward seconds before the explosions began. Sixty detonations rang out, shattering much of the horror from the inside. Again the air was fried by the unexpected burst of pain which radiated from the second beast. Scarlet agony blasted from the monster in all directions—but not enough to indicate its demise. Although damaged extensively, the beast had no true form. It could remake itself into any form it desired.

If, of course, it was given sufficient time.

“Nice set up, Vrenten,” London’s voice rang in the enjele’s earpiece somehow, “let me see if I can do it justice.”

Vrenten’s armor placed the native for him instantly, hanging in the sky well above their foe. Watching him at the proper frequency, the enjele saw the entire action as it was happening. Again, using whatever power it was he possessed, London disassembled the buildings the creatures had destroyed, and even the body of their fallen companion, and turned it into a pure beam of colorless force which he drove through the beast. Spearing it to the ground, he pushed with all the force he could muster, tearing the remainder of it into shreds too small to allow reassembly.

And then, the native fell from the sky, done in—overwhelmed. Throwing all the power he had into his rear jets, Vrenten rocketed forward, swooping in at just the right angle to hopefully intercept the falling man without injuring him. Upon reaching London, the enjele then hit his upward thrusters, changing his trajectory radically just as the third creature blanketed the area with a holocaust of blazing energy.

“Thanks…” the native managed weakly.

“You called it earlier, didn’t you,” answered Vrenten, angling to move both of them out of range before the last of the monsters figured out what he had done. “I had to do something to even the score between us.”

“Well, here’s hoping someone pins a medal on you… if that’s what they do…when you get back, back—”

The enjele ordered London to save his strength. He could feel his companion’s weakness. Knew that he had not done a perfect job of catching the native as he fell. Something had snapped in London’s side. Landing them down far enough away from the last of the monsters to give them a moment, Vrenten said;

“You are injured.”

“Yeah… not the first time.”

The fellow started to say more, then suddenly coughed, vomiting out a thick, sticky fluid, the purpose of which the enjele was certain he knew. The native had been more than just slightly damaged. From the way the color of his skin was changing, it was obvious he had been hurt severely. Setting London as carefully as he could on the ground, his back supported by some manner of large plant, Vrenten took stock of his situation.

The last creature was approaching. It would be upon their position soon—with not only its own power, but that of its fallen brothers as well. And this one he would have to face alone. His companion, brave as he was, looked as if he would certainly die if he went into battle once more.

Still, his mind whispered to him, this isn’t our concern. We are here for the Light. Nothing more. This fellow’s just trying to save his world. If we get the power out of that thing, his world is saved. What does it matter if he dies, if he gets what he wants out of it?

The enjele did still possess the device that was supposed to make his task simpler. Krec had called it a “drainer.” Said all that had to be done was to slap it against whatever it was that had captured the energy of the Light, and that would be that. His world’s divine power would be reclaimed. He would be a hero, to all—everyone. Forever.

If London can just attract the thing’s attention long enough for me to fly in from behind—

And then, suddenly, a different notion struck him. His locator was supposed to bring him directly to wherever the Light was. To whatever or whomever had claimed it. The locator had brought him into the vicinity of the first of the creatures. That was true.

But it had brought him to within feet of London.

His eyes flashing wide, Vrenten was as horrified as he was certain he was correct. The creatures were not what had taken possession of the Light—

Anyway, the job of stopping crap like this kind of fell into my lap a while back when I unexpectedly came into a little extra power.

The enjele remembered the native’s words—

Do I want it? No… not really. But, there’s no one else who can handle it, so…

“It’s not them…”

“Hey,” asked London weakly, staring up at the enjele, “something wrong, pal?”

Vrenten’s mind swam for an answer. All he had to do to complete his mission was to merely touch the broken man at his feet with the drainer. The Light would be his. His world would be spared.

And his will die!

The final condemnation from the back of his mind stung the soldier, forcing him to look away. As he did, the warning alarm in his armor alerted him to the position of the last creature. Whatever he was going to do, he was going to have to do it soon.

Reaching his hand down to London, the enjele asked;

“Like the last time, do you think you can attract the thing’s attention?”

“I can give it the old college try.”

“Then do so,” answered Vrenten, helping his companion to his feet as carefully as he could.

“I believe I have an idea.”

And then the enjele rocketed off, hoping his decision would only doom one world and not two.

*****

“So, if I understand you, enjele,” snarled Ge’het Krec, “you used the drainer on this monster, not this London, and drained its energy instead? You came home without the Light? You disobeyed orders? Is that what you’re telling me?”

When Vrenten responded that the ge’het was correct, the officer stormed across his office and threw himself into the chair behind his desk, demanding;

“And can you tell me why you did this? And while you’re at it, why you bothered to come back afterward?”

“Sir, it wasn’t right. The fellow saved me—more than once. His world needs him. Needs him to have the Light. More than we do.”

“And what makes you say that?”

“Sir, we’ve survived without this Light for ten thousand cycles. If we can’t beat the Attha without it, the Attha, for the sake of pity, then we don’t deserve to survive.”

When Krec said nothing in response, merely continued to sit and stare at him, Vrenten realized he had not responded to all he was asked. Clearing his throat, he added;

“I returned, sir, in the hopes the energy drained from the creature might be enough to serve. And…”

“Yes—”

“It wasn’t right to leave you with your neck the only one in sight when they came looking for a place to bury their knives. Ah… sir.”

No longer able to contain his joy, Krec stood, reaching out to grasp Vrenten’s wrist, shouting;

“You magnificent bastard, I told them you were the man for the job.”

It took a while for the ge’het to explain the entirety of what had actually been going on to Vrenten, but eventually the enjele came to realize what had truly happened.

“So, I’m not in trouble?”

“None.”

“There never was anything called the Light?”

“Not at all.”

“This was just a test…”

“Let’s not make too little of it,” said Krec, indicating that the enjele should take a seat. “Ever since our people have become aware of this event, we’ve put it to good use. Only the Supreme knows, and then only when he’s told by those who carry the secret. One in the military—that’s me right now—one of the faith, one in the populace. Between us, when the time comes, we look over the available candidates, and one is chosen to be tested.”

“Tested for what… ah, sir?”

“To be the Supreme, to rule. To strengthen the blood. To sweep out the old. Look, my boy, you know your history. Ten thousand back, the Gorben dynasty, ousted overnight. Suddenly a new line of succession.”

“But…”

“New ideas, new ideals, comfort and waste thrown out. Respect for all revived. Something we’ve been losing the past few thousand years. Something—”

Krec continued to talk, and Vrenten did hear most of it, but he could not concentrate on the individual words. He had, in a perfect moment, turned his back on all that had been expected from him, and instead had done what he had felt was truly right.

And by doing so, the back of his mind whispered, I have gained…

His thoughts trailed off as he realized he could not actually tabulate all that he had acquired.

Everything, the same voice whispered from the back of his mind, comforting—chuckling. Everything that shall be for the Sperican people from now on, will be of your design.

At least, he thought to himself, enjoying the sounds of Krec telling him what a splendid fellow he was, for the next ten thousand cycles, anyway.

*****

London slid into the booth seat being offered to him by a tall, thin man with thick black hair, save for the white streak which zig-zagged through it back from his temple across his head. The detective held his side as he moved to make certain he did not bump it against anything. As he parked himself carefully with a sigh, the man on the other side of the booth commented;

“You really should have that looked at.”

“I’ll be fine, Doc,” answered London. Signalling for a waitress, he added, “But, thanks for the heads up on that guy.”

“You have your job,” said Anton Zarnak with a tired smile, “I have mine.”

When the waitress arrived, London ordered a black coffee with amaretto. His friend merely pointed at his glass and nodded, indicating that he simply wanted another of the same. As the woman headed back to the bar, the detective said;

“You think things will quiet down out there soon, Anton?”

“Got a long way to go, old friend,” answered the other. Fishing in his pocket, he pulled out a pair of twenties, placing them on the table just as the waitress returned. As she moved the drinks on her tray to spots before her customers, London’s friend turned to her, tapping the bills as he said;

“I got this. Give my friend another on me. The rest is yours.”

The woman gave the fellow the brightest smile she owned. He nodded, then turned back to London.

“You going to make it home all right?”

“I’m not totally helpless.” The detective took a sip of his coffee, then added, “Although, I doubt I’ll be much more help on this one. You going to be able to handle things?”

Zarnak set down his empty glass—which London could have sworn he never picked up, let alone drained—and slid himself out of their booth. Slipping his hat on, he said;

“If I can’t…”

London nodded, toasted his friend with his cup, then watched as he made his way to the door. As the detective made to pick his cup up again, he winced, realizing he had moved too fast. Of course, he thought, he could simply use the same energies he had utilized earlier in the evening to heal himself. But that, he knew, was a cheat. Fate had handed him the power it had to use in the service of others, not himself.

As a part of his mind criticized his thinking, reminding him that ribs took a painfully long time to mend on their own, he reached for his mug but waited to raise it as he noticed the waitress returning. As she stopped at the table, he asked;

“Yes?”

“I hate to be like this, but my shift is ending, and I was just wondering… were you going to have anything else?”

“No,” London answered softly, sympathetically. “I’m not much of a drinker. Go ahead, take it. I’m sure you earned it.”

Grateful, feeling somewhat playful, the waitress pocketed the twenties, asking the detective;

“What makes you so sure?”

“We all earn what we get… sooner or later.”

London drained his mug then and began the slow process of removing himself from the booth. When the waitress asked if he needed help, he told her to wait, just in case he did. Making it to his feet without too much trouble, he thanked her, then headed for the door. As he did, she called out;

“Hey, your buddy, he was nice. What’s he do for a living?”

“Well, he used to be a doctor. Now,” the detective thought for a moment, then with a smile, he finished, “Now, he’s more of a salesman.” The woman considered the detective’s answer for a moment, then asked;

“Yeah… what’s he sell?”

London stopped, then turned and said in a voice only the waitress could hear;

“Hope for the future.”

“Crap,” she said, unconsciously patting the twenties in her apron, “he’s got a worse job than mine.”

London nodded, resuming his march to the door, wondering if his friend Anton might not have a worse job than everyone.

 

Games Best Played Alone

by Wendy C. Williford

 

Faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, yet you can’t even sink the three ball in the center pocket.

Countless nights you’ve been coming here and it’s always the same. The faces are different but in essence they never really change—just a floating mass of bodies that have crowded in, all seeking some strange comfort they’ve been unable to find in their family and work lives. It doesn’t make a great bit of sense, yet, it gives comfort that for a few hours a night you can identify with them, pretend to share a semblance of their problems, fears, hopes, and aspirations. It gives you a chance to be like them before you’re dreadfully reminded that there is nothing in you akin to them, not the same mind, not the same bodies, not even the same DNA. You were raised around them, went through puberty and adolescence with them, entered into manhood along with them, but it doesn’t change the fact that you weren’t born with them, didn’t breathe the first breath of oxygen with them, didn’t suckle your mother’s breast along with them. You are not any of them and it torments you inside.

The glowing neon of the Miller Lite sign looms above the rusty chair in which you’ve taken a seat. Staring at the pool table, you contemplate the next shot. Tonight, you’re stripes and solids, not because you couldn’t find anyone to play with, but because you prefer it that way. It’s just among the many games you play alone, having realized at a young age that you can best anyone at anything without even breaking a sweat in your little finger. These people don’t even offer a challenge anymore. The rednecks take one look at you and assume you haven’t got the sense that their god gave to a mule. The college frat boys think you’re nothing but a middle-aged man, unable to socialize with others, although in truth you’re only a little more than ten years their senior. At least by Earth’s years. And the young girls think you’re something to be pitied as they lean over the tables around the pool-hall, giving you a glimpse down their unbuttoned shirts, the dim lights above silhouetting the curve of their breasts. As they catch the hypnotic trance they’ve placed on you, they pop back up, giggling, gently stroking their clenched fist up and down the cue stick, thinking they’re giving you a fantasy to take back to your singles apartment before they turn around and place a deep kiss on the guy they’ve come with. If only they knew you could look through their clothing anytime you wanted, able to see the color of their thong underwear, birthmarks on their upper thighs, or if they have pierced nipples. But that’s your secret. Even though it would make for one hell of a pickup line, you keep it to yourself. In the end, none of them can fill the void She left.

Taking out a cigarette, you dig through your pocket for a lighter. It’s not as if they’re going to kill you. That very fact makes the thrill a little less enjoyable, but it makes you blend in, so you suck in all the nicotine you can handle, letting it settle deep in your lungs before blowing up to the ceiling, watch the smoke waft through the air of the pool hall and mix with the smoke of the others. The country band on the stage is playing a slow dance; the lead singer in his tight Wranglers and black Stetson thinks he’s country’s answer to Jim Morrison as he eyes a table of young women in the crowd, their bodies swaying to his trite lyrics. It’s a nuisance that you can read their thoughts, but that’s not due to any particular power, you’re just more in tune with human nature. Eyes are the giveaway, next the small pulsing in their necks or wrists. You could be a human lie detector from across the room and that thought makes you laugh.

Human. If they only knew.

You concentrate on the pool table once again. If you strike the cue ball with moderate force at a seventy-three degree angle from the left, it will knock against the purple solid four, send it into the left wall, one inch from the center pocket, ricochet toward the blue solid two, hit its left side, force the purple striped twelve to travel to the red solid three, which will go directly into the right center pocket, meanwhile, the twelve striped will continue on its path, strike the eight ball, send it toward the front right corner pocket, stop five inches away, where you want it to stay until the end of the game. You take a deep sigh. This game is becoming so predictable.

As you crush out your cigarette, Valerie approaches. You hear the sway of her hips before she even enters your eyesight.

“Hon, you want another Budweiser?” her raspy voice rises over the music. She likes you because you tip well. She picks up the five empty longnecks, along with their peeled labels, and places them on her corkboard tray. You nod as you finally glance her way. Your eyes settle on her bar logo t-shirt. She has a pearl-studded bellybutton ring. It’s infected but she’s not aware of it yet. You reach for your wallet, pull out a $20 and hand it to her.

“I gotta say, sweetheart, you are too good to me. You keep this up and I might just have to take you home with me one night.” She smiles and tosses her curly blonde hair over her shoulder. Unconsciously, she picks a piece of lint away from the cuff of your white long-sleeve shirt, oblivious to what the shirt is hiding.

“It’s all good in theory,” your deep voice caresses her ears, “but we both know you’d worry that I might not leave in the morning.”

She laughs, knowing it’s only a joke but truth lies within it. She places the $20 in her tab book and mindlessly scratches her stomach. “It’s a chance I’ll have to take, isn’t it?”

Valerie turns and heads back to the bar. She puts more effort in the sway of her hips this time. You like to watch women play their games with you, teasing you with the way they lick their lips or hold their posture just right to give you the fullest advantage point of their chests. Valerie is no different than the others but it doesn’t bother you. You let her think she’s in control of you, that she’ll keep you at a distance as long as it suits her, but little does she know that with one hot breath in her direction, you’ll have her wet before she knows what hit her. It’s all you’ll give her, though. It’s all you’ll give any of them. And it’s all Her fault. You shake your head, try to make the thought go away and get up.

You chalk your hands, then chalk the end of the cue stick. The blue dust settles over the hairs on the back of your hand. Blowing the dust away, you lean over the table and push your glasses back up the bridge of your nose. As you slide the cue stick against the back of your knuckles, you take the shot. The balls scatter around the green felt, none of them going in the direction you had intended. “Fuck!” you mutter to yourself. The angle must have been wrong. The thought that you might be losing your touch doesn’t even enter your mind.

Valerie returns with the beer. She keeps a $5 for herself, the rest she brings back as quarters. After she sets them on the table, she empties the ashtray into a bowl of half-eaten, stale tortilla chips she removed from a different table.

“The kitchen’s closing in twenty. Do you want anything to eat tonight?”

You shake your head, thinking about the next shot. Maybe a sixty-four degree angle will work this time. Valerie waits for attention, but when you fail to give it, she shakes her head—the pity shake—and walks away, lightly scratching her stomach with her pinkie.

It wasn’t always this way. The top of your class, a promising career as a reporter, and a decent salary were just the highlights of your accomplishments, at least the accomplishments that made you similar to them. It was the normality you always craved, it was the only thing that you yearned for and desired. Until you met Her. It wasn’t in a seedy bar or out on the streets. It was in the copy room. She smiled bashfully, hoping you hadn’t heard her kicking the machine from the hallway, asked if you were the repairman, unaware you were a new hire. Her jet black hair fell against her shoulders, a lock brushing against her collarbone. Two buttons were undone on her white blouse, revealing nothing but her slender neck and that collarbone. It was the first time you realized how that particular part of a woman was the sexiest thing you’d ever seen. You could have easily seen what was hidden beneath her blouse, under the black skirt that hung just below the knees, even the shape of her toes in the black pumps. But you didn’t. You wanted to keep it a mystery. There was a purity about her you didn’t want to violate. She took your breath away and you wanted to earn the chance of having her do it again and again. And again.

She played hard to get with the same expertise as the others. For months you watched her, taking every moment you could to memorize her face, the curve of her hips, the way she held a file against her chest with her other hand cocked on her waist as she intently listened to Murray, the editor-in-chief, raise his voice to her about deadlines, gutter widths, the expense of color photos and circulation decline, all the while, smiling, nodding when he accentuated a point and knowing full well she wasn’t taking a single word he said seriously. In the middle of the tirade, she glanced at you from the corner of her eye, gave a quick smile, letting you in on her amusement, and gave a final nod with a “Yes, sir! I’m on it.” She walked away, her womanly scent overpowering you as she passed your desk, her finger trailing against the lacquered simulation oak, her body heat leaving behind an imprint on the wood that only you could see. You loved her. It scared you to death.

But that’s the past. What did you have, a few good dates? A few nice dinners, a few good movies all ending the same, heavily kissing in the hallway outside her apartment door. The heat of her body is still emblazoned in your mind, along with the throaty moans she gave you as you pressed your body against hers, her hands entwined around your neck, then pulled away as you freed her shirttail and slid your hand up her back. With swollen lips, she gave the same excuse each time. It was always an early deadline and you bought it despite the fact you knew the truth. She just wouldn’t let you get close, no matter how many times you tried to prove to her that you weren’t like the ones before. In the end, you finally concluded, it wasn’t that she didn’t trust you, she didn’t trust herself. And it was the irony that hit you like a ton of bricks when you finally realized. It wasn’t the fact that she didn’t like you, she was just holding out, waiting for the man who secretly held her heart.

Him.

The other You.

You don’t regret saving her life. Any decent man would have done the same. It was the second time you did so which sealed your fate and left her utterly devoted to you. You mean him. You are two different people, you remind yourself. One, the man of steel, the idol of half the world, a dark fantasy of millions of women, any of whom you can take your pick; the other, a fumbling reporter who trips over your own shoelaces, gets sweaty palms and stutters when you ask a woman out. But you never wanted any of those women, just her. It was always her.

It’s your own damn fault, however. You’ve stopped speeding cars, out of control trains, but you couldn’t stop her. What was it that held you back, stopped you from taking off your glasses when that dark cloud loomed over you as she showed you the transfer letter? Why couldn’t you look her in the eyes, reveal to her it was you who had held her in your arms as you both floated down to the sidewalk after she nearly fell from that balcony. What blinded her to the fact that it was your shoulders she caressed when you pulled her out of the burning car, your lock of hair on the back of your head that she twirled around her finger, your neck her breath shuddered against when you told her she was safe. Why did you fool yourself into thinking she’d figure it out? Why couldn’t you have found the nerve to tell her? Even as she hailed the taxi for the airport, she turned to look at you one last time, your breath caught in your throat, you finally managed to say, “I am…” But the impatient honk of the driver pulled you out of the lock of her stare and you left her with “sad to see you go.”

That was eight months ago, and you wonder how your non-human heart can still ache so much. Perhaps it’s the reason you come to these honky-tonks night after night, searching for the answer, surrounding yourself with kindred spirits who are feeling the same pain, listening to the twangy whine of the singers who deliver ballads to the women who left them broken shells of their former selves. You understand why the suicide rate among country music fans is so high.

A moth circles the faux stained glass lightshade hanging above the pool table. The sound of its little body knocking against the plastic brings you back to the present. You look at your watch, decide it’s not too late for a few more quiet games. The thirst for more beer overcomes you and you go back to the table, finish the bottle, and reach for another cigarette. The orange flame dances inside your cupped hand, and as the haze from the first drag fades away, you notice a man has walked up to the table and is making himself busy pushing the cue ball back and forth along the felt. His eyes can’t hide his disappointment. He takes a moment to inspect the cue ball, paying careful attention to the little blue flecks covering the small sphere.

“I thought I’d find you here,” he says. He puts the cue ball back down and looks up, awaiting your acknowledgement.

You smirk at him. It’s just like him to try to get involved, his never-ending quest to be the savior to the saviors. “Mr. Wayne,” you say, almost snidely, the beer has renewed your strength. “What brings you out slum hopping?”

“Don’t call me Mr. Wayne, I’m…”

“I know,” you interrupt. It’s not a matter of reading his mind this time. “You’re just Bruce. I get it.”

Bruce lets out a deep sigh. He rolls his tongue against his lips, finding the right words to say to you. There are few people in the world who understand you and he is one of them.

“It’s been a while since we’ve talked. Are you holding up okay?” He takes off his leather gloves and shoves them in the pocket of his long black coat. You try to ignore him, move to his side of the pool table and place the cue ball back exactly as it was before he got there. He should know how much it annoys you when things are moved around. With the cue stick, you bend down, close one eye and work out a new strategy.

“I’d like you to come by my office next week,” he says. His head slowly revolves around, looking at the walls of the pool hall, spending a few moments looking at the girls at the other tables, then the cigarettes and beer bottles at your table.

“Don’t tell me you need my help with some big business venture,” you scoff. His mere presence in the last five minutes has managed to annoy you. You know why he’s here. He knows the wreck you’ve been since she left and he feels it’s his duty to talk you off whatever ledge he thinks you’re walking.

“Of course,” he says with a nod, attempting to placate you. “It’s business.”

Straightening up, you eye the pool table again, wonder if he plans on being here a while. Valerie comes by, sets another beer on the table. “Can I get your friend anything, hon?”

He shakes his head, as if it’s beneath him to drink with you. He’s so self-righteous, so predictable. Out of all of the lousy places in this city, he crashes one of the few safe havens you have left.

“He won’t be staying long.” You pull another bill out your wallet, not even bothering to notice the denomination. Whatever it is, Valerie will keep what she thinks is fair and bring you back the rest. You wait for her to leave before turning back to Bruce and give him a look that tells him he’s worn out his welcome. He’s slow to get the hint, especially when you gather some quarters and bend down to insert them in the slot. The current game is a bust. You push in the lever, sending the balls back through the long tunnel to the final chamber, racking and rolling against each other, the noise drowning out the sound of his disappointed sigh.

Bruce reaches into his pocket and pulls out his gloves, takes his time placing them on each hand. “I’ll see you next week?’

“I said I would,” you say. You take the balls out of the cabinet and haphazardly toss them on the table.

“Monday, if possible.”

He notices the shake of your head as you place the balls in the triangle. This part is important. Red Solid Three, Green Striped Fourteen and Yellow Striped Nine, Blue Solid Two…

“Are you listening to me, Jerry?”

The heat spreads to your face and you try to remain calm. How dare he? He knows full and well what you’re capable of and he breaks the so called bonds of friendship by doling out an insult such as this? The nails dig into your palms. You know you’re a better man than this. What would people think if you start a fight in the middle of a bar? What would she think if she heard about it?

“What did you call me?” You inhale deeply, wondering if you might have just misunderstood him through the din that permeates the room.

Bruce clears his throat. “I said, Clark, are you listening to me?”

You laugh. It’s strange what tricks the mind can play, especially mixed with a little stress.

“Yeah,” you reply, giving him a friendly smile. No harm, no foul. “Sure, Monday. First thing.”

He’s finally pleased. Friendships are about give and take, aren’t they? If it’s that important to Bruce that you make a visit to his office, then why not? You’re both in the same game, after all—your own secret club, both fighting for truth and justice for all. You take a moment to clear your head. How can you stay mad at him for long? He’s only looking out for you, has been for years.

Bruce clears his throat and moves out of the way as you go around the pool table. You’re lost again in the game. The first shot is a make or break deal. Nothing else matters except for this very first shot.

“We need to take a look at your meds. Just tweak them a bit.”

You nod, wonder why of all things he has to bring up those stupid sugar pills he’s been giving you for the past eight months. He told you they’d help relax you, help you sleep, help take your mind off of her leaving. You relented, just to make him happy. You knew the game he was playing. It was all psychological. The pills didn’t do anything for you at all, just made you think they were working. In the end, you cured yourself—without pills and with very little interference from him. Yet, you can see it in his eyes, he still wants to help you.

“Sure,” you reply, playing along. “They give me gas, anyway.”

Bruce actually laughs. He ties his scarf around his neck. “Do me a favor?”

You nod, sure, anything.

“You have to lay off of the beer. If your insurance discovers it, they might deny your coverage.”

You look back to the table in the corner. One empty, one waiting. “I’ve only had the two.”

Bruce nods. You wonder if that’s disbelief you see on his face.

“At any rate.” He turns and leaves.

You watch as he walks out the door and give it a few minutes just in case he decides to come back in. You finish the beer Valerie left. You’re feeling calm, content, and lucid. You check your watch. Almost midnight. You’ve been out too long. Rather than hanging around for last call, you decide to leave. If you stay any longer, Valerie will offer to call a cab and you won’t have enough left to pay the fare. There’s also a chance she might take you up on your flirtatious suggestion from earlier. She’s a nice girl, but simply not your type.

The new game you set up remains unplayed. Perhaps it’s for the best. You grab your coat, slip it on and start buttoning up. A familiar itch plagues you. You reach up and rub your neck, feeling the hem of the blue lycra suit you wear underneath. There hasn’t been any use for it for days, months even. But still, you never leave home without it, just in case.

You leave the bar, bidding Valerie goodnight as you walk out the door. It’s only a few blocks to your apartment and the weather outside is not as bitter as it usually is this time of year. The walk is invigorating and beats a cold shower.

The night is quiet and peaceful. Only the drone of the streetlights hums in your ears. As you pass the side alley of the second block, another sound begins to resonate in your ears. You want to ignore it, but it grows louder with each step along the pavement. It’s all too familiar, too filled with desperation. Why are you the only one who hears it? Why are you the only one who cares enough to respond?

Looking down the dark alley, you are given evidence as to why you sometimes hate the people you share this planet with. Two young men are beating up on another younger man. He’s on the ground, his arms in the air, protecting himself against their blows. His face is bloody, his nose is already broken, two teeth missing, crying for them to stop. The bigger of the assailants is yelling. He’s high, possibly on crack; you can smell it all the way from where you stand. The smaller of the assailants has ceased his assault and is now rummaging through the young man’s coat, looking for money, perhaps looking for another fix.

You know what you should do, what your responsibility is. The overwhelming need to step in, fight the injustice and protect the week burns through your core. It’s a burden none feel as keenly as you. With one effortless movement, you can shed your disguise, prove to yourself once again you’re needed, you’re depended upon, and reclaim the feeling that faded when she left. There has to be something in this world that will make you feel alive again.

It’s instinctive to go down there, but you don’t. Tonight, selfishness takes over—a trait you’ve managed to avoid all of your life. Turning away, blocking out the sounds of the world, you resign yourself to a simple resolve: you can’t save them all.

You wonder if you can even save yourself.

 

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.