“Good afternoon! May I speak with Bailey Archer, please?”
“This is Bailey.”
“Terry here from The Organ Grinder Magazine. Our company has done some research on you based on your recent browser search history and we believe we can help you in your search for vital organs.”
“How do you know about that? I did those searches in Incognito Mode. They’re supposed to be private!”
“Not true, not true. When you use the incognito mode, you are not less susceptible to targeted advertising. Your information is private on your end, but to advertisers and website administrators, this is not the case. Your IP address is not hidden from them, and your searches or browsing habits are still their data.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“There’s a lesson in each conversation, my mother used to say. Do you have a quick minute to discuss a fantastic offer that’s tailor-made just for you?”
“I can spare you exactly one minute, no more.”
“Great! Bailey, I’m sure you’re a busy person and I want to respect your time, so I’ll be brief. If our research is correct, you’re in the market for some vital organs and looking to procure them in huge amounts, is this correct?”
“Prank caller! Prank caller! I’m hanging up the phone!”
“Bailey, I can assure you that I am not affiliated with any sort of law enforcement agency and this is not an effort to entrap you. Your needs are your own affair, I simply wish to make you aware of our magazine and what it offers its premium subscribers.”
“I will not confirm any of the assumptions you have made about me.”
“I understand. The Organ Grinder Magazine is published with premium content in print and then we have more up-to-date articles on our website to drive engagement. Experience tells us that people who share your alleged interest tend to give the print magazine their undivided attention during breaks and that related news and articles are effectively reaching them by email and on our website.”
“And not that I’m interested, but what type of content does your magazine offer?”
“This is the world’s leading magazine devoted to the unique and eclectic hobby of vital organ collecting. Each issue contains many obituaries from animals and humans all over the world offering thousands of vital organs and assorted body parts for sale or trade. Looking for a liver or a kidney? This is the place. Here is your perfect chance to buy and swap and meet other people who are worse off than you, which coincidentally is an instant confidence booster.”
“You don’t say.”
“With your permission, I’d like to take what I have learned from you during this call, go back to my desk and devise a cost-effective plan for how we could add value to your hobby. I want to make sure that you get the most bang for your buck as possible. Can we schedule a call on either Monday or Tuesday next week so I can present this plan to you?”
“Um, sure,Tuesday at 10 am works for me.
“Fantabulous! Shall I call you on this number and also, please let me know your email address so I can send you my plan and also a meeting invite.”
“Okay. My email is BlackMarketBailey@discreetmail.net.”
“Perfect! I have what I need for now. It’s been great talking to you. I wish you a great rest of the week and I’ll talk to you on Tuesday.”
“Sounds good. Thanks.”
“Oh, one last thing before I forget: The publishers are in no way affiliated with the black market and take no responsibility for subscribers arrested in police sting operations. Thank you, bye for now!”
Ewan Marsh never believed in mystics, psychics or any of that paranormal nonsense, but he stepped into the tiny shop with bright red and blue neon lights in the window announcing
Authentic Tarot and Palm Readings @ Reasonable Prices
because it was Sunday night, nearly every other place was closed, and he was utterly bored out of his skull.
It was a hole in the wall, barely larger than a closet, walls covered in dark curtains. A round table covered with a tablecloth that matched the drapes sat in the center of the space. He was directed by hand gesture to take a seat in a padded wooden chair across the table from Madame Siora, skin of alabaster, lips of blood and eyes of emerald.
“Tired of living in the moment?” Madame Siora asked. “Of making a blind guess at the correct path that will lead you to what you desire? Are you ready to seek the counsel of one who is attuned to the forces that science and logic cannot define or understand?”
“I have to give you credit,” Ewan said. “You actually managed to say that with a straight face.”
Madame Siora smiled. “Doubters make the best believers,” she said. “Please, may I see your palm?”
With his patented cheesy grin in place, Ewan proffered his hand…and seventy-five dollars later, he knew this woman would be his wife.
They broke dawn together and over reheated Chinese takeout and beer, he learned that Madame Siora’s birth name was Kiera Houghton, and when they became serious and knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together, Ewan, being the old fashioned type, wanted to ask Kiera’s parents for her hand in marriage. Kiera told him that was absolutely not necessary, but Ewan insisted, so she arranged a date.
Ewan arrived early at the Houghton Family residence, but Kiera was running late because of a client who was paying serious money for an in-depth reading. Kiera’s mother, Tegan, welcomed Ewan with open arms. He must have caught her in the middle of a meditation session because she was dressed in a long velvet robe, deep crimson with some sort of crest over the right breast, and the house was illuminated only by candlelight.
“If I’ve come at a bad time, I can wait in the car until Kiera arrives,” Ewan said apologetically.
“Don’t be silly,” Tegan said. “It gives us a chance to get to know one another.”
Mrs. Houghton led Ewan to a room that was too large to be a sitting room and too small to be the living room. The walls were lined with tapestries depicting the darker nature of the Old Testament of the Bible, and the room was devoid of furnishings besides the sturdy long table varnished in a dark red lacquer in the center and the surrounding medieval metal candlestands.
Tegan Houghton moved with the grace of a cat and stood almost nose to nose with Ewan. She turned her back on him and asked, “Can you get the zipper, please?”
It took Ewan a moment to understand what she was asking. He located the zipper in the back of the robe, fumbled with the hook and unzipped the robe down to the small of her back.
“Thank you,” Tegan said, as she turned to face Ewan again, still a hair’s breadth away from touching noses. She did a little shimmy and the robe slid off her shoulders and gathered around her ankles, exposing her nude body.
At least Ewan thought she was nude. He wouldn’t allow himself to look down. She was Kiera’s mother, after all.
“W-will Mr. Houghton be joining us?” Ewan stammered.
“Jordan is running errands, picking up a few last-minute items for dinner tonight,” Tegan said with breath that smelled of honey and mint. “He was supposed to be here by now but he always runs late. A bad habit Kiera picked up from him.”
“Um, Mrs. Houghton?”
“Tegan, I, um, don’t really feel comfortable being in the same room with you while you’re naked. If anyone walked in right now, they might get the wrong idea.”
Tegan laughed. “If either Jordan or Kiera walked in right now, they would know exactly what was going on. They know how I am. I love the naked form, Ewan. May I call you Ewan?”
“Sure, no problem.”
“This was the way we were intended to be before that silly original sin was committed. Here I stand before you, naked and exposed, with all my secrets revealed. Do you want to see my secrets, Ewan?”
“No,” Ewan answered, sweat beading on his brow. “You’re entitled to your secrets.”
“How generous,” Tegan said, wiping sweat from Ewan’s temple and tasting it. “If it is too hot for you in here, feel free to strip down to your level of comfort. There is no dress code in this house.”
“But I am not fine, Ewan,” Tegan Houghton said, her voice an octave lower than a moment ago. You stand here before me tonight for the first time and you have not yet become initiated into the mysteries of the ancient House of Houghton.”
“Um, I think there’s been some misunderstanding. I’m not here to be initiated into anything. I’m just here to ask for Kiera’s hand in marriage.”
“And you believe that my husband and I would grant you access to our daughter without first testing your mettle to determine if you are worthy of joining our inner circle?”
“That thought never really crossed my mind, if I’m being totally honest. I figured you’d either say yes or no.”
“Well, now that you have been made aware, you may be wondering what is going to happen, so I will tell you. Before proceeding to the mysteries, it is, of course, necessary for the mind and soul of the initiate to become purged and to be made clean.”
“What exactly do you mean by that?”
“You are going to need to become in tune with us by submitting to a very simple process of control,” Tegan’s eyes seemed to grow somehow, filling up Ewan’s entire field of vision.
“You will need to place yourself under the guidance of the House of Houghton.”
“Please, can I just go back to the car and wait for Kiera? Maybe she can explain all this to me in a way I’ll understand.”
“Do you refuse to be initiated?”
“I mean, I really love your daughter and I want to be with her for the rest of my life…”
“Then you are decided!”
“Well, I’m not so…”
“Be silent! And relax,” Tegan took Ewan by the chin and turned his head in the direction of the nearest candle.
“What’re you doing?”
“Calm your breathing and keep your eyes fixed on this candle flame.”
“Shhh, just relax and keep your eyes fixed. Before receiving entry into the House of Houghton, your mind must be white and blank. You are already feeling sleepy. Do you hear me?”
“Yes,” Ewan heard his own lazy voice coming from outside himself.
“Your mind is becoming quite blank. You feel that, don’t you?”
“Yes, quite blank.” His concerns were evaporating level by level.
“And you will obey my every command.”
“Yes, obey.” It was less stressful to obey than to resist.
“Good. Now, remove your shirt and expose your bare chest.”
“Yes, remove shirt.” It was too hot in this room.
“Now climb upon this altar and lie on your back.”
“Yes, lie back.” Ewan climbed onto the table and did as he was told.
“Now, are you prepared to sacrifice everything to have our daughter?”
“Yes, sacrifice everything.” It was true. He would have given everything to be with Kiera.
“Even your heart for hers?”
“Yes, my heart.” It was the very least he could do.
From its special housing secured beneath the table, Tegan Houghton unsheathed a ceremonial dagger engraved with symbols from a time before language, gripped the handle in both hands and raised it above her head.
“Mom!” Kiera yelled as she burst into the room. “Will you stop fucking around with Ewan, put some goddamned clothes on, and snap him out of the trance, for chrissake!”
“Oh, come on, honey,” Tegan turned to her daughter and smiled. “I wasn’t really going to sacrifice your boyfriend.”
“Fiancé,” Kiera corrected.
“I was just having a little fun, that’s all. Who knew he’d be this susceptible?”
“Fun? You were about to stab him in the heart!”
“Only a little. You know we can bring him back.”
“Yeah, but you’re not the one who has to make love to a reanimated corpse!”
“Who says I haven’t?”
“Ewww! Too much information, Mom! I want this one alive, not all necromanced up like all the others, do you get me? In his original condition!”
“But look at his chest…it’s so stabbable. Just a quick one?”
“Mom, I’m not playing with you!”
“All right, all right, spoilsport, but if I let this one live, you have to promise to make some new friends and invite them over so your father and I can have a little fun. We don’t get out as much as we used to.”
“It’s a deal,” Kiera said. “And I know whom I’ll bring. Remember I mentioned that psychic shop that just opened right across the street from me? Turns out it’s run by some Eastern European outfit that’s using it as a front for a bordello.”
“Works for me,” Tegan Houghton said. “And just so you know, I think this one really loves you. He didn’t look at my body once. Imagine ignoring this pretty piece of flesh?”
Erp! Kiera placed a hand to her mouth. “I think I just threw up in my mouth a little. Now, get this all cleaned up before Dad gets home, and not a word of this to him! I’m not in the mood to hear him questioning Ewan’s manhood for not trying to cop a feel off you.”
“He might have a point.”
“I can reanimate, too, you know, so don’t push me,” Kiera warned. “And you never know, a good resurrection might just help you to mature.”
“Good luck with that,” Tegan said with a smirk, before slipping back into her robe. As she prepared to bring Ewan out of the trance, she leaned and whispered in his ear, “You’d better not let anyone slice into that heart of yours before I get a crack at it.”
“I heard that!”
“Honey, retrace your steps,” Tegan said, rolling her eyes. “I think you lost your sense of humor along the way.”
The pain was slightly sharper than heartburn, lasted less than half a minute, and he felt perfectly fine after it subsided. He was of an age where unexplained body pains suddenly appeared and disappeared as a common occurrence, so he gave the chest twinge no further thought. But there was a saying, “You don’t know what you don’t know” and what he didn’t know was that he just had a heart attack.
It would be another two months until the pain returned, intensified to the point that it dropped him to his knees and led him to be taken to the emergency room. The cardiologist found two plaque build-ups that blocked ninety-nine percent of his left anterior descending artery, which was responsible for a heart attack known as thewidowmaker.
In the intensive care unit, as he was recovering from surgery, mind swimming in a morass of anesthesia, a sound caught his attention. It was a heavy sobbing that seemed to be emanating from somewhere within the room. When he attempted to look in the direction of the whimpering, an unseen force turned his head away. Out the corner of his eye, he could have sworn he saw the night nurse’s shadow jitter and twitch in a jerky fashion.
At first, he thought it was an anesthesia hallucination, but came to believe that something unnatural was at play and his suspicion was confirmed when the nurse left the room…but the shadow remained behind.
The shadow struggled to break free from the confinement of the nurse’s silhouette and once achieved, it slid down the wall like obsidian mercury. It crossed the floor in a spidery fashion, tendrils of ebony arcing up and out, digging into vinyl flooring and pulling itself toward his hospital bed. The darkness that seemed somehow sentient pooled on top of him and he could feel its weight—weight that a shadow should not possess—putting additional pressure on his already weakened chest.
The black mass rose, building upon itself and transmogrifying into the solid form of a woman in tattered scrubs. Beneath its widow’s veil was a sorrowful face that wept tears of misery so black as to absorb the surrounding light. He wanted to turn his head, to stare directly at the creature, as his mother taught him to do when he was that young boy afraid of the monsters that lurked under his bed and in the closet.
“Look them directly in the eye, see them for what they really are, and make them disappear,” she said. But this beast was far more cunning than the night terror monstrosities of his youth, for it would not allow him to view it head-on, only from the corner of his vision.
“No fear, no fear,” the shape said in a voice as raspy as tires on a gravel driveway.
The weeping creature straddled him and splayed its fingers, the tips of which were flat like electrode pads and one by one placed them all over his chest. He could feel those fingers sinking through his hospital gown and grafting themselves to his trembling flesh.
“Feed, feed,” the deep timbre of its voice anchored his body in paralysis and he finally realized the creature’s purpose. Similar to the vampires of myth and legend, whatever this thing was, it gained its sustenance from the heartbeats of the living, as opposed to blood. This was the true Widowmaker.
He tried with all his might to struggle, to break the connection and throw this abomination off him, but he was too weak to prevent it from siphoning the precious beats that gave him life, an act that would continue for as long as his strained heart held out, an act that rendered him helpless and was inducing a deep and dreamless sleep.
His final thoughts, as he slipped into unconsciousness were how many heartbeats had the Widowmaker taken? How many hours, days, years, had been stolen? And would this mourning and hungry beast leave any behind for him to continue his existence?
Cutter woke to total darkness. The last thing he remembered was walking out of the police station and heading for the E train home. Now, something was covering his face that stank of stale sweat.
“Are you finally awake, Mr. Coles?” a man’s voice said in an accent that Cutter couldn’t identify but sounded vaguely European.
The thing covering his face was a sack and it was snatched off his head. It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the light and to regain his senses. Standing directly in front of him were four men wearing balaclavas and dressed in all black, with holstered sidearms. Cutter tried to move but found he couldn’t because his body was strapped to a gurney that had been tilted at an angle so that his feet were higher than his head. He was in some sort of abandoned warehouse, big enough to house a black van with tinted windows parked in the distance.
If he wasn’t scared out of his wits, he would have laughed at how cliché it all was.
“Who are you? Where am I? What do you want from me?” Cutter asked the questions in rapid succession.
One of the balaclava men stepped up, the one with the indistinguishable accent, and said, “I wish to make one thing perfectly clear before we begin, Mr. Coles: I have no grievance against you. I recognize your part in all this. You are an innocent man caught in the web of deception spun by a cunning woman you knew as Michelle Clarke. Were she still alive, I would be having this conversation with her instead.”
“Was it you, you sonuvabitch? Did you kill Mickie? I fucking swear I’ll make you pay!” Cutter meant it to sound more threatening than it did, but fear made his voice crack.
“Spoken like a true friend, but your anger is misguided,” the balaclava man said. “We had nothing to do with Miss Clarke’s demise. In fact, we first arrived to see you being escorted from her apartment in handcuffs by the police after you destroyed her apartment looking for something. What were you looking for, Mr. Coles?”
“I’ll tell you like I told the police, I didn’t trash Mickie’s place, it was like that when I got there! Somebody came in through the window! How do I know it wasn’t you and your goons?”
“We have not been properly acquainted, Mr. Coles. You may call me, Mr. Vex. I will be your interrogator for the evening, and I have but one pet peeve, I hate liars, therefore I do not lie myself. Behind me are my associates, Misters Rampage, Bedlam, and Blitz. They will be offering assistance during our tête-à-tête.”
“This can’t be real,” Cutter mumbled to himself. “I’m not about to be tortured by some faux Bond villains with codenames ripped from a Tarantino script.”
Vex said, “I assure you this is very real. As for the torture, that does not need to take place.”
“Great! So how about you untie me and we can talk about this like civilized men? I’ll tell you everything I know, which’ll be a short conversation because I don’t know a goddamned thing.”
“I will make you a promise, Mr. Coles: if you tell me what you were searching for in that apartment, I will release you unharmed. You have my word on that.”
“But that’s the thing, you see, I don’t know what I was looking for. I was hoping to find a clue or something that would help the police find Mickie’s killer!”
“Why is it that I do not believe you?”
“I don’t know, man, but I swear I’m telling you the God’s honest truth!”
Vex seemed to consider this for a moment before saying, “Perhaps you might reconsider your answer if you saw things from my point of view. Your friend, Mickie, illegally obtained something that did not belong to her, something that was meant to be delivered to me. Fearing that I was coming to collect my goods, she undoubtedly hid it somewhere she considered safe. It was too valuable to be left in her apartment, so she would have entrusted it to a person that she groomed to care for her because that was what she was trained to do. And all signs point to you, Mr. Coles. Now, all you need do is to tell me where I can find my property. I will consider this matter closed, and you can return to your normal life.”
“I don’t know anything about any stolen property.”
“The last time you saw her, she gave you something.”
“She didn’t give me anything. But wait…let’s say she did…now, if I had this thing, why would I need to tear her place apart looking for it? I mean, what sense does that make?
“Perhaps you left it behind by mistake,” Vex shrugged. “Or you somehow realized what she had given you and you became greedy and returned looking for more? Whatever the case, I will have the truth from you. And since you refuse to be cooperative, you leave me with no other choice.”
Mr. Vex signaled to Rampage, Bedlam, and Blitz, who picked up metal buckets of what appeared to be water, as he fitted the sack over Cutter’s head again. Then something else was placed on top of the sack, over the areas covering the nose and mouth, a towel, perhaps?
Cutter felt a slow cascade of water going up his nose, and he held his breath for as long as he could. He was not a swimmer, had never done any breathing exercises in his life, and had no idea how many minutes he could go without air, or how much time had passed since he last took a breath, but eventually, his lungs began aching for air and his body gave him no other option but to exhale. On the inhale that followed, the wet cloth clung to his face and he was breathing in water.
Cutter, at one point or another, most likely after watching films with interrogation scenes in them, had constructed a belief that he could retain his manhood up to a certain level of torture. That delusion was shattered the moment water entered his lungs and his gag reflex kicked in. He was in the grip of a sheer panic like he had never known before.
The water pour stopped, and Mr. Vex said, “That drowning sensation must be a horrible experience. Tell me what your friend gave you and where I can find it, and I will make this stop.”
“She didn’t give me anything!” Cutter sputtered, coughing up water with each syllable.
The pour started again and Cutter’s body flopped and squirmed on the gurney as if he was having a seizure.
While this was happening, Mr. Vex said, “Did you know this process causes lung and brain damage from oxygen deprivation, and even lasting psychological damage? The adverse physical effects can last for months, and psychological effects for years.”
The pour stopped again and this time Cutter was expelling water and snot as he was vomiting. The pain was excruciating.
“Where is my property, Mr. Coles?” Vex asked.
“I don’t fucking know!”
The pour began again, and Vex said, “I was being kind by having the water poured intermittently to prevent permanent injury. However, if you continue to be uncooperative, the water will be poured uninterruptedly which will lead to death by asphyxia.”
Suddenly there was a noise, a loud explosion and the pour stopped abruptly. Vex ripped the sack from Cutter’s head, as Rampage, Bedlam, and Blitz ran out of Cutter’s field of view. There were gunshots and sounds of commotion in the distance.
“You have to tell me where I can find my property now before it is too late,” Vex said.
Cutter couldn’t concentrate on Vex’s words because the bits of the man’s face visible in the holes of the mask, his eyes and mouth, seemed to be melting and sliding down his face and disappearing into the mask.
Before he could question it, there was another explosion and Cutter’s world went white in a blinding flash, before it went pitch black.
Ottilie was not an angel, despite firsthand testimony to the contrary. The eyewitnesses weren’t liars, mind you, they accurately relayed what they saw; they simply hadn’t seen the event in its entirety. Blame it on the limitations of sight from three-dimensional eyes.
As a child, she was fun and full of life, enthusiastic and excited about everything. Blessed with a contagious personality, an infectious laugh, and vivid imagination, she was always in the middle of trying to sort out an illusory problem, usually some trouble she had unwittingly started, running two steps ahead, dragging me and explaining the faux pas while we ran from invisible monsters.
As we grew older, the monsters never stopped chasing her.
Ottilie was never satisfied. Born fortunate and afforded comforts most would have killed for, my sister always yearned for more. Not to have more, but to be other than what she was. Something less limited. In fact, that was a bone of contention between us. She never grasped how I was so contented with my lot and the finiteness of my existence. I tried to explain I had two lives, my own and the one I lived vicariously through the connection we shared; that bond that was more than just mere telepathy, shared consciousness or psychic rapport.
To me, it was far better to be the only ugly entity in a world of beauty rather than the reverse. From my vantage point, whenever I looked out into the world, all I’d ever see would be splendor. And that was what it was like sharing Ottilie’s mind. I tried to present this as eloquently as possible, but somehow her thirteen and a half minute head start in life granted her a gift of expression that I lacked and allowed her to brush my reasoning away with weary disinterest. I never held it against her, though. I knew I had the better view.
Sadly, what made her beautiful to me, made her dangerous to herself. She realized early on what her life could be and her mind would not, could not, allow this world to be enough, so she contemplated and calculated for days on the best way to escape. And those days blossomed into months and those months matured into years. A lifetime of limitation, combined with therapy and drugs—both prescription and street—wore down the tread of her spirit.
To everyone else, she was a woman of secrets and it bothered her that she couldn’t keep those secrets from me. I told her I would never discuss it with anyone and I never did, but she didn’t believe me.
In drugs, she finally found a way to shut me out. Her mind became a shattered prism refracting pieces of wailing mayhem in the blindness. My first and only choice for a sister and best friend became little more than a stranger to me. A clouded reflection trapped beneath a layer of ice too thick for my thoughts to penetrate. For the first time in my life, I truly understood the meaning of the word loneliness and I thought what did I do that could have led to this?
Among the things she dabbled in, philosophy, inventing, and mathematical architecture, Ottilie was not a busker. Yes, she performed in the park, but not for money, merely for her own sanity. I visited her most days when time allowed. I wasn’t quite sure she knew I was there most times. Except for the last time I saw her perform.
On that particular afternoon, the old spark had returned to her eyes. I knew instantly she was off her meds because I felt her consciousness tickle the outer fringes of my mind. Not like it used to be, her thoughts were close yet somewhat far away but I didn’t care. I had been alone in my head for so long I’d gladly accept any crumb or morsel thrown my way, and this was the first time since we were children that I had seen her approach anything near the neighborhood of happiness. She could barely contain her excitement when she told me she finally figured it out.
“Harmonics!” she said, as she danced and twirled around me like a pavement ballerina. “The answer was there all along, hidden in plain sight, staring me in the face, and now I’ve worked out the formula!”
She sat me down on a park bench and sang for me, or rather she sang to me and for herself. Her voice was divine, unmatched; a summer breeze through crystal chimes. People were drawn from their workaday existence. They formed a circle around us, unable to turn away from Ottilie, who sang of theories, both superstring and Bosonic, of manifolds and fractals, octonions and triality, as she strummed vector chords of coordinate geometry on a second-hand acoustic six-string.
What the throng of spectators saw was Ottilie being lifted into the air; her toes brushing the top of the manicured grass as her skin turned a tone so soft and unearthly to the eye that the color defied description, yet radiating like so many suns. The light that enveloped her made all other light seem dark in comparison, for the briefest of moments, before she popped completely out of existence.
What they hadn’t seen was the enormousness her frail frame acquired—probability, enfolded symmetry, phase space—as she ascended dimensions. Her song had given her the freedom she desired all her life and carried her onward and onward until she encountered a barrier that prevented her progress. Thinking quickly, she changed the tone of her song. She no longer sang for herself, she sang for the barrier and what lie beyond. Flattering it with melody, requesting an audience.
That was when a pinhole opened in the outer barrier of everything, allowing the omniverse to kiss my sister. She knew in that instant it was not what she wanted. She tried to flee, but the feverish rush of knowledge feasted on her being without mercy. She suddenly understood everything that was meant to be understood, as well as all the bits that weren’t. This tremendous understanding allowed her to spy the surface of a giant puzzle that contained the ultimate ensemble of every conceivable information pattern, as it was about to be solved.
But she simply couldn’t endure her brief exposure to timelessness. Her bones popped, limbs twisted and organs reformed as she was purged from the omniverse; stripped of her personal dimensionality and the many unnecessary facets of humanity attached to them. Layer by layer. Until all that remained was her core self, a small and insignificant thing that lost all depth, width and finally length, as they imploded within her.
Ottilie was not an angel, but I allowed people to think she was, as I combed the park grass daily, searching for my sister who called out in my mind telling me she wanted to be other than what she was—a zero-dimensional entity.
Cutter didn’t know jack shit about investigating a murder, but he watched enough cop shows to know that the detectives always began their investigation by looking for clues in the victim’s home, so he headed straight for Mickie’s apartment. When he got there he expected to find crime scene tape over the apartment door but quickly realized that Mickie wasn’t killed in her apartment so that wouldn’t have made sense.
In case she went dark, as she used to call it, Mickie gave Cutter a set of keys because she typically returned with no personal possessions, except for the guitar. No matter how bad things got, or where she wound up, she always managed to hold onto her guitar. It was the only thing that kept her tethered to this reality. Cutter took it as a sign of trust but the niggling little voice in the back of his mind rationalized that him having a spare set of keys was easier to deal with than having to go to the nosy building superintendent or a locksmith to get back into her own apartment.
When he opened the door, the place was barely recognizable. The interior looked like it had been hit by a magnitude 9.2 earthquake, it had been ransacked so bad. Cutter stepped gingerly into the apartment, careful to avoid treading on the broken and discarded bits of the life Mickie left behind. Searching for clues when the apartment was in its normal state would have been hard enough, but this? Where would he start?
The window in the living room, the one that led to the fire escape was wide open, which was unusual, so he decided to start there. The planter Mickie kept on the fire escape, the one she grew her marijuana in, had been kicked over. Cutter reached outside and brought the planter in… and this was the precise moment that the building’s super let Detective Max Matthews into the apartment.
The interrogation room was smaller than the ones on tv, and instead of being in the center of the room, everything was pushed up against the wall opposite the door. His chair, the one Cutter was seated in, was in the corner diagonally opposite from the camera mounted in the upper far corner, and Detective Matthew sat across a small folding table from him.
“Why did you break into Michelle Clark’s apartment?” Matthews asked.
“I didn’t break in, I have a key,” Cutter said.
“You were given a key by Miss Clarke?”
“We’re going to need you to hand over that key.”
“But I have stuff in that apartment.”
“You can submit a list of items you claim belongs to you with Miss Clarke’s next of kin,” Matthews said. “Is that what you were doing in the apartment, collecting your stuff? Then why trash the place?”
“I didn’t do that. The place was totaled when I got there. The apartment door was locked but the window to the fire escape was wide open, which was probably how whoever broke into her place got in,” Cutter said.
“When I entered the premises, you were holding a flower pot containing cannabis. Was that why you were there, to grab your stash before the police arrived?”
Laughter unexpectedly burst from Cutter.
“Are you kidding me? Mickie grew her own weed on the fire escape for medicinal purposes. She claimed it helped level her out at times. Do you smoke? Try some, or get one of your experts to test it. It’s schwag ass weed. Barely gets you high and leaves you with a headache. Hardly the stuff to kill someone over,” Cutter said and instantly regretted his syntax.
“Oh, really? What’s some stuff you might kill someone over?”
“Me? I never killed anyone, so I couldn’t tell you. But you asked why I was there and the simple answer is someone killed my best friend and I was hoping I could find something, a clue, to bring to you guys.”
“You mentioned that you and Michelle…”
“Mickie. No one called her Michelle,” Cutter interrupted.
“All right, you and Mickie were friends, but were you ever intimate?” Matthews asked.
“We tried once, in the beginning, but it didn’t feel right. It was like making out with my sister, and she felt the same way, so if you’re trying to work out some sex angle thingie, you’re barking up the wrong tree, detective. We were friends, best friends, and that’s as far as it went. No extra benefits, no secret burning unrequited passions, just friends.”
“Can you tell me when was the last time you saw Mickie alive?”
“That would be the day she was murdered,” Cutter answered.
“What were you two doing leading up to the murder?”
“Let’s get one thing straight: from what I understand, Mickie was killed at night, I saw her earlier that day. I wasn’t with her in the evening leading up to the murder. Nice try, though.”
“I’m not making any sort of accusation,” Matthews said. “I’m just trying to get a clearer picture of the events that occurred that night. So, tell me about the last time you saw Mickie.”
“It was about noon or so,” Cutter said. “We met up in Washington Square Park, that’s where she used to busk. Sometimes she’d draw a decent crowd, but that day people weren’t in a folk song mood, I guess, so she packed it in early, we swung by her favorite ice cream spot, and went back to her apartment.”
“And what did you do there?”
“Chilled for a bit, listened to some music, ate our ice cream, talked, you know, regular stuff. She mentioned she had a gig in a bar later that night and asked me to come to show moral support. Of course, I was going to go, but I did that thing where I pretended to have other plans just so she could have a mini freak out and beg me to come, then I pretended to reluctantly relent. Don’t ask me why, it was one of those stupid teasing routines friends fall into sometimes. She said she had some business to take care of beforehand, so we agreed to meet at the bar, some little performance art hole-in-the-wall joint in the East Village, and I went home. That was the last time I saw Mickie.”
“And what time did you leave her apartment?”
“And what were you doing that night between the hours of nine and midnight?”
“I was sitting in the bar, waiting for her, like I promised.”
“Can anyone corroborate your story?”
“Sure,” Cutter said. “Ask the manager of the joint. Mickie wasn’t answering my calls or texts, so I became a pain in the manager’s ass to see if he heard from her, if she canceled or called to say she’d be running late.”
“Where did she go after you left her that day?” Matthews asked.
“You didn’t ask her?”
Cutter chuckled. “Mickie was the type of person you didn’t ask about her business, you learned that early on if you wanted to remain on friendly terms with her. If she wanted you to know, she’d tell you. If she didn’t tell you, mind your own business. Want to know something funny? Until today, I didn’t know her last name was Clarke, and I’m her best friend, so that should tell you how secretive she was.”
When Detective Matthews first entered the room, he was carrying a folder, which his hands rested on the entire interview.
“Now, I’m going to ask you an important question, and I need you to think about it before answering,” Matthews said. From the folder, he produced several photographs taken at the crime scene, and placed them on the table in front of Cutter, one by one. “Who would want to do this to Mickie?”
The photos showed different views of Mickie lying in an alleyway, covered in blood, with her head caved in. A separate picture displayed a hammer, the claw end covered in blood, hair, and unidentifiable matter.
“Jesus Christ!” Cutter jumped out of the chair and moved as far from the photos as possible. “Why the fuck would you show me something like that? Putting those fucking images in my head? That’s not the way I want to remember Mickie!”
“You don’t know how much it pains me to do this,” Mathews said, and this time his tone was softer, more compassionate, almost on the border of pleading. “I just need you to understand the seriousness of the situation. This is what some maniac did to your best friend. This is why we need to catch them, to stop them from doing it to another innocent person, to make them pay for what they did to the woman you loved.”
And the questioning went on like that for hours. Detective Matthews collected the name of the bar and manager to check out Cutter’s alibi, and in his absence, other detectives gave the interrogation a try, asking the same questions, introducing new theories and motives for Cutter wanting Mickie dead.
He was bone tired and aggravated to all hell, but he answered all the questions put to him, avoided all the tricky interrogation traps and pitfalls, and when his alibi panned out, Detective Matthews had no other choice but to release him.
It was nighttime when Cutter left the police station. He walked in the direction of the E train to head home, but he was so lost in his thoughts, trying to push the crime scene photos out of his head, that he hadn’t noticed the tinted-windowed black van bearing down on him until it came to a screeching halt curbside. The van’s back panel doors flew open and three men dressed in all black, wearing balaclavas, leaped out, grabbed Cutter, and tossed him inside like he weighed nothing. The men climbed in after the bewildered Cutter and slammed the doors shut, as the van sped off into the night.
And thus came the point in Cutter’s life where the number of people he knows—them what breathes—were equally balanced with the people he knew—them what don’t. At the moment, he was ruminating on one such them-what-don’t, an odd and utterly frustrating yet absolutely captivating and charming woman whom he only knew as Mickie.
It was at one of those wretched singles mixers that provided icebreaker questions and fill-in-the-blank statements designed for people who found making small talk with absolute strangers—in order to attract a mate or at the very least make a new friend—a nigh-impossible laborious chore. One of the more popular among these was the incomplete statement, “The first thing people usually notice about me is…”. With Mickie, it was her voice. Spoken, it was smooth enough to polish silver. In song? It was cool and blue and crystalline and bright enough to transport even the dourest of souls to better times, despite whatever kind of mood they were in.
Her hope was to pursue a singing career and every summer she would trudge down to New York City’s infamous Washington Square Park, guitar in tow, and sing to anyone who would listen. Even though she was an atheist, she hoped the god of dumb luck would smile down upon her and help her get discovered. And even though that never happened, it didn’t stop her from trying and giving it her all.
Cutter possessed no pictures of Mickie and only the vaguest of images lingered in his mind of the petite woman, barely bigger than her guitar, who belted out folk tunes that resonated from Greenwich Village all the way up to Carnegie Hall.
But, singing aside, she wasn’t a well woman. She had her first psychotic break when she was eleven. Moody and tearful one moment and positively beaming the next. Then she began disappearing for days at a stretch, only to reappear battered with what appeared to be self-inflicted wounds and no memory of what happened or where she had been.
When Mickie was in her positive state, she was extremely tactile. Always so overly affectionate and the type of person that simply had to touch whomever she was talking to. Cutter couldn’t lie, it used to annoy the hell out of him. He loved her like he loved bacon, but he wasn’t raised by affectionate parents which ultimately shaped him into an elbow room kind of guy. He even brought it up in conversation one day when she was super touchy-feely.
“It’s skinship,” Mickie smiled in reply. “I share it with you; you share it with me, shit, we all share it with everybody we come in contact with. It’s an important part of communication. The kind we forget about because we’re all so wrapped up in words, which is stupid because I can touch you right now and convey more meaning than if I spoke to you for four days straight. My hand on yours binds us in a way that nothing else on this earth can.”
At the time, Cutter debated this for perhaps an hour or so and he walked away unconvinced that she had any special insight regarding the communication of touch.
Now Cutter realized what an idiot he had been for not taking the time to try to understand what she was trying to tell him. And she was right, of course, because now he was sitting on a park bench near her favorite performing spot, wishing he could touch her, be bound to her. There were so many things he wanted to communicate to her, so many things he wanted to ask, primary among them, “Who murdered you?”
I’m not sure how much, if any, of the last transmission was broadcast before my transmitter died, so here’s a brief recap to bring you up to speed:
Less than a day out from Dery’Ylok Prefecture, my son, Jampi, and I stumbled upon the crash site of my ship, the Expediter, and I might have missed it completely if not for the five grave markers bearing the helmets of my crew. The last time I set eyes on the place, it was scorched dirt as far as the eye could see, now it nearly resembled a tropical rainforest.
In my excitement, I foolishly explained to Jampi that this was the place I came from, and the boy took off like a shot to the largest grass-covered section of the ship’s wreckage. I followed, trying to warn him to be careful, but if he heard me, it hadn’t slowed him down one bit.
There was an entrance in the wreckage, large enough for me but I was forced to leave the egami carrying the transmitter and uz cu’nal outside as I searched for my son.
The section of the ship I was in used to be stellar cartography and when I eventually found Jampi, I’d make it a point to come back here and scrounge around for a possible alternative power source for the transmitter.
That was when I heard a sound behind me. Thinking it was my son, I spun and saw…the impossible.
A woman stepped from the shadows of the wreckage, bipedal like me, not like the Europans, and said, “Hello, Eddie. Been a while, hasn’t it?” in perfect English.
Besides the sound of my own voice during these broadcasts, I hadn’t heard my native tongue spoken to me in so long that it shocked me, almost as much as seeing the face of the woman who spoke it.
Grinning like the Cheshire Cat was a person who resembled the Expediter’s atomics engineer, electronics and power technician, Dr. Natasha Marsden. The same but different.
Seeing her in this way, reminded me of a program I saw a long, long time ago, in which blind people described their significant others’ faces to a sculptor based on touch alone. And I was amazed that the final sculpts were remarkably close. Not spot on, but close. And that’s what this person was, a remarkably close facsimile of a woman I was about to become intimate with moments before the meteors punched holes in the ship’s hull, damaging life support and navigational systems, as well as the engines.
“It can’t be,” I said. My jaw must have shattered because it hit the floor pretty hard.
“Oh, but it is,” the Marsden-replica answered. Stepping into a shaft of light, she appeared to be wearing a form-fitting bodysuit that sparkled as it caught the sunlight.
“But I saw you die.”
Before she could respond, Jampi burst into the husk of stellar cartography, too close to Marsden, and she snatched him up.
“Marsden—Nat, if that’s who you really are, look, I swear to you that you were dead when I put you in the ground! I checked and double-checked. I would never have buried you alive under any circumstances. So, whatever grievances you have, take them out on me, just don’t hurt the boy, please,” I pleaded.
“Hurt?” Marsden looked genuinely surprised and slightly offended. She knelt and looked Jampi in the eye. “I wasn’t going to hurt you, moppet, you just gave me a start, that’s all.”
I told Jampi to remain calm, that I would explain everything, but he would have to do exactly what I told him. Jampi said that he would.
“You speak their language?” Marsden’s face was full of astonishment.
“Not fluently, but enough to get by. He’s my son, Nat. His name is Jampi.”
“Thank Christ for that. Saves me from having to lie about him having your eyes,” she said to me, then looked at Jampi. “Hello, Jampi, pleased to meet you! My name is Natasha, but you can call me Nat. I’m a friend of your father’s.”
“Father…friend?” Jampi said.
“He speaks English?”
“Only a few words. He’s learning little by little. He’s a bright kid who’s absolutely fascinated with Earth culture, just like his mother and sisters.”
“A wife and kids? Why Alexander Edwards, I never pictured you as the type to go native,” Marsden said.
“Nat, can you please let go of my son? I still haven’t worked all this out and I’d feel better if he was with me.”
“Oh…certainly,” Marsden said as if she hadn’t realized how tightly she was gripping my little boy. She released him immediately and I called Jampi to me, scooped him up, and held him close to me. Something I hadn’t done since he was very little.
“Eddie, I think you’ve got the wrong end of the stick here. I’m not angry at you or holding any sort of grudge. In fact, putting my body in the ground was the best thing you could have done.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Neither do I,” Marsden admitted. “The working theory is that this place is what it is because of a project we thought had failed. The soil you buried us in is saturated with NASA nanotech and for lack of a better explanation, my dead body was terraformed. Now, how my consciousness and soul are still attached to it? We’re still trying to work that bit out.”
Marsden nodded. “Yes, the rest of the crew. The gang’s all here, Eddie—well, they’re in a nearby village…”
“Is that what it’s called? I’m sure they’ll be as happy as Larry to see you again. We’d given you up for dead,” Marsden said.
I hadn’t noticed at first, but she had been inching closer as she spoke. Now, she was right up on me, and there was something about being so very close to a human face that made me homesick. It wasn’t helped by the fact that she was beautiful. I would have gotten lost in her eyes if not for her body.
From a distance, it looked like she was wearing a bodysuit, but up close I saw that she was naked. From the neck down her skin was a different hue.
Marsden caught me staring and said, “Skin 2.0. Most likely a combination of flesh and spacesuit.”
“May I?” I asked, my hand hovering just above her shoulder.
“Touch me? By all means, fill your boots, just keep it respectful, Eddie,” she said. There was a bit of devilment in her voice as she eyed me suspiciously. “Your little ’un’s keeping an eye on everything you do. It wouldn’t do to have him running back to mummy and grassing on us, would it? I don’t fancy the idea of constantly looking over my shoulder for a jealous wife.”
I was about to say that my wife didn’t get jealous, but I honestly don’t know how she would have reacted in this instance.
Pushing that thought aside, I put Jampi down and ran my hand along Marsden’s shoulder. It felt as smooth as silk, soft but not slippery, with the firmness of meat. I couldn’t stop touching her, and part of me didn’t want to stop.
“Ahem,” Marsden cleared her throat when the contact had gone on too long. “Say, who were you talking to before you entered? You were speaking in English—”
“I was broadcasting a message home. I do it on a regular basis, hoping someone will pick up the signal.”
“You have the transmitter?” Marsden asked, her eyes wide as saucers. “We’ve been searching high and low for that thing. That’s why I’m here, to give this wreck one last going over for it.”
“Well, I don’t think it’s going to be much use to you, it’s nearly out of power,” I said.
“Where is it now?”
“Outside in the egami.”
“In the what now?”
“Long story, I’ll explain it to you on the way to the village,” I said.
When Marsden got her hands on the transmitter, she wouldn’t stop going on about the mind-bogglingly bad-patch up job I did and marveled that it was able to work at all. She jury-rigged a temporary fix that’s allowing me to broadcast this message and says she’ll take a proper look at it once we reach Dery’Ylok Prefecture to rendezvous with the rest of the crew.
Until next broadcast, this is Captain Edwards, signing off.
Agvann – Translation: The will of Nes’Tim; an accident.
Alum’Vedca – The day marking the new solar cycle of Peace and Maturity; a tribute to the era when Europans evolved from their primitive prey state.
Arcek – A spiritual theologian
Biem – A time to show respect for the aged.
Biss’ore – Travelers, nomads
Bokloryn – An unrepayable debt; an act that places the receiver in a lifetime contract of servitude.
Cu’nal – A biological storage unit.
Denpa – An envoy equipped with an audiographic memory that can store and recall spoken messages at will in the same voice, tone and inflection of the original person who spoke it, who travels from village to village to deliver messages from other communities both near and far.
Egami – A docile mineral-based creatures primarily used for family transportation due to the fact they are virtually inexhaustible.
Gates of Juh’holl – Europan afterlife; where souls are released from the flesh to become stardust and rejoin the universe.
Grahas – A gerbil-sized creature, resembling a stone armadillo, that emits heat when stroked.
Homnils – A warm, yet sad, reminiscence about something in the past.
Ipu llqr mwyll xfrr – Abogzon credo meaning “success or death”; satisfaction guaranteed.
Isogoles – Europan monthly day of pay.
Jampi – Captain Edward’s son.
Jbwqnadb – The Europan spelling of lemonade.
Jhisal – Meis’lo’s home village.
Klanea – Translation: unknown to us; stranger.
Mecot’ra – Unterraformed areas of Europa.
Meis’lo – The only surviving witness to the murder of the prophet Nes’Tim.
Micdow yl – The vessels of new life; children.
Nes’Tim – The most revered spiritual prophet on Europa, slain by a heretic tribe who call themselves Sel’Tab.
Pwyll – Europa’s highest mountain.
Qik’climajh – Depending on its usage in a sentence, denotes either the act of telling a story, or the storyteller themselves.
Sel’Tab – A heretic tribe responsible for the death of the prophet Nes’Tim.
Shig’umfu – “Interesting world of another”; a documentary qik’climajh in which neighbors tell the story of a person’s life as learned from casual conversations.
Spo – Food.
Uz Cu’nal – A biological storage unit used primarily for food preservation.
Uz – An unspeakable sexual act; a derogatory term; an insult.
The alien invasion that humans wrote fictional tales, created television series and movies about, and established protocols for, had finally arrived on Earth in the form of a single spaceship and one lone alien.
The alien was a multidimensional being and therefore able to be simultaneously present in all the offices of the two hundred and thirty-two global superpowers, ranking in population from China to Vatican City. Efforts were made, of course, to subdue and in some cases even kill the extraterrestrial, however none of the attempts met with success.
In a demonstration of power, the alien disintegrated all chemical, biological, radiological/nuclear, and explosive weapons of mass destruction, as well as any weapon designed to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive. Once confirmation of the demonstration was verified by the world leaders, the weaponless humans had no other option than to listen to the alien’s demands.
The being from another world had only one:
“Bring this human to me, alive and unharmed,” the alien said in all languages, as it implanted the image in the mind of every human being on the planet of a small African American woman in her forties with a once beautiful face that had been worn down by exhaustion.
The woman turned out to be forty-three-year-old Mary Gladys Stockwell of Highland, New York, and to her credit, she surrendered herself to the proper authorities before any of her neighbors or coworkers could turn her in.
She was transported to the coordinates provided, a wheatfield in Davenport, Washington, to meet face to face with the alien, who arrived via transporter beam.
Mary, never one to mince words or stand upon ceremony, asked the creature, “Why am I here?”
“To decide the fate of your world,” answered the alien.
“I don’t understand.”
The alien seemed to consider his approach carefully, asking, “Do you believe in a higher power?”
Mary answered with pride, “I’m a Protestant and I attend an African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church every Sunday without fail. I’m not sure if you understand what any of that means, but the simple answer is, yes, I do believe in a Higher Power. We call Him God Almighty.”
“The universe is rich with entities and energies that exist outside the grasp of even our vast understanding, but as for your world, we populated it with a host of experimental species to see which, if any, could rise to sapience.”
“So, you’re telling me that you’re God? That you created life on Earth?”
“We planted the seed from which life sprouted. How you label us is your own affair.”
“Wait a minute,” Mary said. “Let’s suppose for a minute that you’re telling the truth…”
“You are no threat to us,” the alien said matter of factly. “We have no reason for dishonesty.”
“Then answer me this, why would the Creator wish to destroy His creation?”
“We will answer your question with a question, why is the life we provided for you not enough? Why do you hate? Why do you war? Why do you abuse, torture, and kill?”
After a long moment of silence, Mary was forced to admit, “I don’t have an answer for that.”
“That is why we are here.”
“To clean house?” Mary asked.
“And you’re putting that decision in my hands?”
Mary blew out a breath of exasperation. Talking to this alien was like pulling teeth. “What is it I’m supposed to do exactly?”
“Choose whether you live or die.”
“If you choose to sacrifice yourself,” the alien explained. “We will spare the human race and erase the concepts of hate and evil from every mind on the planet.”
“And if I choose to live?”
“We will disintegrate every human except you.”
“And I’ll be here alone?”
“Yes. It is the way you prefer to live your life, is it not?”
“Not at the expense of everyone else,” Mary blurted out. “What happens when I die?”
“Then the planet will begin its healing process and we shall see if any of the remaining species can or will evolve into sapience.”
A thought began dawning on Mary, “Is that why I was chosen? Because I’m a loner, a person with no friends or living family members? Or because you somehow know that I’m not an altruistic person?”
“Yes to both.”
“And what if I make no choice at all?”
“We will destroy everything. All species and the planet itself.”
“No pressure, huh?” Mary said. “Look, just because I don’t have anyone in my life, doesn’t mean I want to die.”
“Then choose life.”
“But I don’t want anyone else to die, either. You said it yourself that you could remove hatred and evil from all of our minds, right? Why not just do that? Why play this silly game?”
“We need to see if the human race is worth saving.”
Then it clicked for her. “You’ve read our Bibles, haven’t you? You need proof of our selflessness. Just like in the Old and New Testaments, you require a sacrifice.”
“Yes.” the alien confirmed.
“How long do I have to decide?” Mary asked.
“We will grant you one day. Return to us tomorrow at this time, at this spot,” the alien said before vanishing within a beam of transporter energy.
The car that brought Mary to the wheatfield was parked on the main road as instructed. When the alien departed, the driver picked Mary up and drove her to the Davenport City Hall building.
Mary had been unaware that her entire conversation with the alien had been broadcast into every mind on the planet and when she arrived at city hall, she was mobbed by news reporters, government officials, and the town locals, who bombarded her with question after question. Once inside the building, she even received a phone call from the President of the United States. Everyone wanted to know the same thing:
“What are you going to do?”
“I have to make a choice, I suppose,” was the answer she offered to everyone, which suited not one person.
From then on Mary wasn’t able to get a word in edgewise because the comments came flying at her:
“You don’t have no family so you ain’t got nothing to lose!”
“We all assumed you’d make the right choice and take your own life.”
“What about my wife and two daughters? We’ve always been good people, helping those in need and putting others before ourselves. Don’t we deserve to live?”
“I want to assure you that your sacrifice will not be in vain! Tomorrow, when you make the correct and only choice, that day will become not just a national but a global holiday in your memory! We will never forget!”
Then the tide turned ugly and people began getting angry and accusing her of being selfish.
“How am I selfish?” Mary shouted at the crowd. “I haven’t even made my decision yet! It’s oh so easy for all of you to sit in judgment because you’re not the one who has to make the hard choice! Can’t any of you understand how difficult it is to be in my shoes right now?”
And that was when the jeering and racial epithets began. Again, to Mary’s credit, she remained calm, explaining, “Look, all I need is some time alone with my own thoughts without everybody shouting at me what I need to do. I promise I’ll weigh the whole thing out.”
Mary never saw where the first rock came from. It struck her in the back of her head and she wasn’t even aware that she’d been hit. There was a sharp pain, she grunted, and dropped to her knees in confusion. The second rock struck her in the temple, knocking her down to the floor.
Someone in the crowd screamed, but it wasn’t in horror, it was most definitely rage, and it served as the ember that ignited a frenzy that no one could have rightfully explained later on. Bricks, glass bottles, baseball bats, lead pipes, all rained down on the woman from New York, and those without a weapon, spat, kicked and stomped on her body that automatically curled into a protective fetal position.
When the madness eventually passed, and the townsfolk saw in the clear light of day what they had done, some tried to justify it with a “She gave us no other choice!” others couldn’t keep the contents of their stomachs from gurgling up and spewing out, and the rest ran back to the safety of their homes.
Three farmers collected Mary’s lifeless body and placed it gingerly in the back of a pickup truck. They drove to the rendezvous point and laid her body out on the field, making sure to straighten out her clothes and removed the matted clumps of bloodied hair from her face, and crossed her arms over her chest, before driving off.
The following day, when the alien returned, its expression was not what anyone would have expected. The extraterrestrial appeared to be saddened by the sight of Mary Gladys Stockwell’s corpse. It knelt beside her and softly spoke a few words in a language no one understood, a prayer, perhaps. Then the alien carefully took her body into his arms, rose slowly, and said in all languages to all the planetary sapient minds, “You have failed yourselves.”
The alien along with Mary Gladys Stockwell’s cold body, faded in the brilliant light of the teleportation beam, as humans all across the globe began to wilt like flowers deprived of water, until they decayed to nothing but dust, hopefully to be carried off by the wind in order to fertilize the crops for a better form of life to grow.
It was early morning when the woman wearing a black backpack walked into the bar. The air was stale with old booze because this was a proper pub, a beer and whiskey joint, with nary a wine glass in sight. The space was narrow with an alcove for a pool table and video poker machine, and it was empty except for the bartender and a sad sack nursing a pint at the far end. She took a middle stool at the bar, not too close to the front door, and the bar mirror directly in front of her so she could keep an eye on what was happening behind her.
“I’ll have an Old Fashioned,” she said to the bartender. “Buffalo Trace Bourbon, if you have it.”
“It’s barely eleven, pretty early for a drink, wouldn’t you say?” said the bartender, who was dive bar attractive. On the cusp of his forties, ten pounds away from a dad bod, but he looked like he could handle himself in a fight.
“Depends on the hours you keep.”
“I suppose you’re right. I’m afraid the best I can do you is Jim Beam White Label,” he said apologetically.
The woman shrugged, “It’ll have to do.”
The bartender made the drink and set it on a napkin in front of the woman. She took a sip and nodded. Even though it wasn’t the bourbon of her choice, it wasn’t a half-bad Old Fashioned. She pulled out a one hundred dollar bill and placed it on the bar.
“It’s too early,” the bartender said. “I can’t change that.”
“You won’t have to, I’ll drink my way through it.”
Two sips later, the woman asked the bartender, “So, what’s his deal?” gesturing to the sad sack at the end of the bar.
“Who Herb?” the bartender said in a hushed tone. “Poor guy’s going through a rough patch. They say bad news comes in threes and sure enough he lost his job, found out his wife’s been cheating on him, and the bank foreclosed on his house yesterday.”
“Hmmm,” the woman said, as she got off her barstool, collected her drink and moved down the end of the bar next to Poor Herb. “Can I buy you a drink?”
Herb, abruptly pulled from his sulk, looked at this woman. Even though she tried to hide herself in baggy clothes, she was, without a doubt, the most beautiful human being he had ever laid eyes on in person. Burnt Sienna skin, willowy, and a face cut right from the pages of a men’s magazine. A real stunner, as his dad used to say.
“What’s the angle?” Herb asked.
“Angle? I don’t understand.”
“This is New York, lady. Women, especially beautiful ones like yourself, don’t buy drinks, they have them bought for them, whole bottles, top-shelf. So, when you offer to buy me, an absolute stranger, a drink, I’m smart enough to know that it doesn’t come free.”
The woman pondered this a moment and said, “I’m Marietta. Our bartender friend here…”
“Bill,” the bartender offered.
“…Bill, tells me your name is Herb. Now, we’re not strangers, are we? Normally, I like to drink alone but I don’t know a soul in town and I’m tired of talking to myself because I already know what I’m going to say. You can say no to the drink and the chat, if you’d rather be alone. That’s fine, I get it. I promise I won’t bother you anymore.” Marietta turned to walk back to her seat.
“Wait,” Herb said. “I’m a jaded New Yorker and a bit of an ass at the moment. If the offer still stands, I’d be delighted.”
“Just a chat,” Marietta said before taking the stool next to his. “I don’t want you getting the wrong idea.”
“Drink and a chat,” Herb said, holding up his first three fingers. “Scouts’ honor.”
“Name your poison,” Marietta said. “It obviously isn’t that beer or the glass would be empty by now.”
“It’s about all I can afford, and I was savoring it,” Herb admitted.
“Well, I can afford better than that, so down that puppy and tell Bill what you’re having.”
“A whiskey sour,” herb offered hesitantly, displaying that he clearly wasn’t used to someone else paying for his drinks.
“Done,” Marietta slapped the bar. “And what about you, Bill, what’s your drink of choice?”
“Dyed in the wool tequila man, just like my Mama,” Bill laughed in a short burst.
“Then set yourself up and let me know when that hundred runs out.”
And so they drank and talked, and in bar chat fashion, one person’s story sparked another person’s story and they compared miseries but not in a competitive way. Then the dam burst on Herb’s series of unfortunate events and after he spilled the entirety of his guts, the bar went silent.
“Words,” Herb finally said after several uncomfortable minutes. “I made my living slinging words but the truth of the matter is there isn’t a single word in any language, active, imaginary or dead, that could describe the pain I felt when my wife told me she’s been having an affair, and that she never loved me. Each syllable was a dull blade that sawed back and forth, tearing at my heart.”
“I know you probably can’t see it now, but you’re better off without her,” Marietta said.
“Listen to her, Herb,” Bill said. “One day you’ll be able to look back on all this and see it was for the best.”
“But what if that doesn’t happen?” Herb asked, eyes welling with tears. “What if I’m one of those people who gets stuck in a moment and spiral into misery and despair until I become a crazy homeless person that’s given up on life? What if I’m all out of rebounds, used up my lifetime allowance of fresh starts, and I never get another chance to rebuild my life?”
Marietta laughed and it was hearty enough for both Herb and Bill to eye her suspiciously.
“What’s so funny?” Herb asked.
“You don’t realize how fortunate you are,” Marietta answered. “Are you serious about that? Starting fresh? Because, Herb, my friend, I can do that for you.”
“You can do what for me?”
“I can put you back at square one.”
“By buying your past,” Marietta said like it was obvious. “You sell me your past and you get to start over again.”
“I don’t get the joke.”
“It’s not a joke, Herb,” Marietta said, slipping the backpack off her shoulders. She sat the bag on her lap and unzipped the main compartment, revealing the backpack was stuffed to the brim with bound stacks of hundred dollar bills. “Over two million tax-free dollars in non-sequential bills is yours if you agree to sell me your entire past.”
“Counterfeit bills?” Bill asked.
“Nope, check for yourself,” Marietta peeled a bill off one of the stacks and handed it to the bartender. “I’m sure you’ve got one of those counterfeit money detectors behind the bar somewhere.
Bill took the hundred over to the device right by the register and held it under a UV light. “It’s real,” he confirmed.
Bill started to bring the hundred back, but Marietta waved him off, “Keep that and keep the drinks coming. Things are about to get interesting.”
“Wait wait wait wait,” Herb waved his hands in the air like he was shooing off flies. “I’m a little drunk here and I just want to make sure I’ve got this straight: you’re going to give me two million dollars in exchange for my past?”
“I say, Sure, take my past, and you hand me two million dollars?”
“Right after we seal the deal with a kiss,” Marietta nodded.
“Two million for kissing you?”
“And your past, let’s not forget that.”
“Tongues?” Herb asked, embarrassed at how pathetically childish it came out.
“Herb!” Marietta reeled back in shock. “How dare you?”
“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean anything by it, honest! It’s the alcohol and the entire situation…”
“Calm down,” Marietta smiled. “I’m just messing with you. Of course tongues. I’m going to french you like there’s no tomorrow, or in your case, no yesterday.”
Bill returned with the drinks and asked, “You wearing poisoned lipstick, or something?”
Marietta shot the bartender an are you fucking kidding me right now? look. “One: I’m not wearing lipstick. Two: who am I, Mata Hari?”
“Then hell, if Herb won’t take you up on the offer, I sure as shit will.”
“Hey, stop trying to horn in on my deal!”
“So, do we actually have a deal, Herb, or what?” Marietta asked. “If not, I’ll offer it to Bill. It makes me no difference either way. You just seemed like a guy in need of a break.”
Herb pondered the entire situation for a long moment before saying, “I just want to let you know that I think you’re an absolute nutjob…”
“Guilty as charged.”
“…And I’m not buying a word of any of this…”
“Not necessary to complete the transaction.”
“…And I haven’t worked out the scam yet…”
“No scam. It’s just as it says on the tin.”
“…But, without meaning to objectify you, you are drop-dead gorgeous…”
“No offense taken, and thank you. You ain’t half bad yourself.”
“…And all I can think about is kissing you right now.”
“So, we have a deal?”
Herb nodded, “Yeah, we have a deal.”
“Then I need you to say that you, of your own free will, bequeath to me the entirety of your past in exchange for the money in this backpack.”
Herb made the pledge, and Marietta sat the backpack on the floor, rose from the barstool, and took Herb’s face in her hands. “Pucker up, you wonderful man!”
Marietta pressed her lips to Herb’s and she was the aggressor. Her tongue plunged into his mouth, deeper and deeper…and suddenly the logical part of Herb didn’t want this because her tongue was tangy with the threat of mold, but the animal part couldn’t give a tinker’s damn about the taste. It wanted her, all of her, and it wanted her to have all of him. He squirmed on his barstool, fighting in vain to break the kiss and now he had an erection that rivaled the best hard-on from the height of his virility. Her tongue reached the threshold of no return, and knocked, seeking entry. Logic screamed, No! but the animal inside him opened the gates and let her in.
Suddenly, memories of losing the fight with the bank for the house, pleading with his boss to keep his job, and sobbing like a child while his wife laughed at his misery and moved out of the house with her new, younger man, all rushed past him and vanished into the distance, and there was a strange sense of relief.
But then other memories followed:
Landing the job of his dreams in the writers’ room of his favorite tv science fiction show;
Receiving his first acceptance letter from a publisher for a short story;
The time the bathroom light behind Aunty Valerie revealed the outline of her body through her nightgown and the intimacy of the sight made him nervous because it was the closest he’d ever been to seeing a woman naked and he was amazed and repulsed at the same time;
Finally standing up to the school bully who later became his best friend throughout his school years;
Working alongside his dad as he fixed the family car;
Setting up the red cedar Christmas tree with his mom and sisters for the first time…
So many first times; first kisses; first attempts at intimacy; initial feels of new crushes; the early days of falling in love; when his geeky hobby obsessions were brand spanking new; all the excitement, pain, sorrow and happiness… gone, gone and gone.
Herb could feel Marietta’s kiss begin to wind down, and he found himself standing in the theater of his soul, and the seats were all empty now, no one to occupy his memories because he no longer had memories to occupy.
Marietta broke the kiss but held Herb’s face a moment longer. She looked him squarely in the eyes and said with complete sincerity, “You have no idea what a debt I owe you, and it’s a shame that all I can offer for your sacrifice is money.”
She lifted the backpack off the floor, rested it on her barstool and zipped it closed. Then she slid his arms through the straps and secured the bag to his back. “Best you wear this. You won’t believe the number of times I’ve set it down and almost left it behind.”
The bag was heavier than it looked, heavier than Marietta made it seem. Herb figured she must have been carrying it for a long while and had gotten used to the weight.
Marietta gave Herb a hug and whispered into his ear, “If it turns out a fresh start isn’t what you want after all, do what I did. You’re not a bad-looking guy, you can find someone to take you up on the offer. You won’t believe what some people will do for money. Oh, and I intend to make your wife pay for what she did to you, it’s the very least I can do.”
On her way out, Marietta tapped the bar, pointed at Herb and said, “Nice meeting you, Bill. You know, had the bar been empty, that could have been you.” and with that, she left the bar a million times (two, in fact) lighter than when she entered.
The man who used to be Herb just sat there, lost in his aloneness. He knew what transpired in the bar, Marietta left him that much at least, but that’s all there was. This moment in this bar was square one. He would have to build his life up from scratch. He pulled out his wallet and his driver’s license and all his credit cards were blank. He couldn’t even remember his name or the names of his family and friends, or even if he had family and friends.
He did not like the feeling at all.
Then the bartender came into his sphere of attention. Apparently, this man had been talking to him the entire time but he somehow managed to block the guy out.
“Hey, Herb! Are you all right, man?” Bill said, his face full of concern.
Previously-Herb shook his head, “No.”
“Oh man, don’t be going all catatonic on me like that! You had me freaking out for a moment!”
“Hey,” No-Longer-Herb said. “Would you really have traded your past for this money?”
“Pal, she wouldn’t have had to ask me twice.”
“Would you still trade it for the same deal?”
“What, to kiss you?”
Normally, any guy who tried to kiss Bill would have gotten five knuckles across the gums, not that he was a homophobe or anything like that, it just wasn’t his practice, and he aimed to make that point clear the best way he knew how.
“You want to french me that way she did you?” Bill asked for the sake of clarification.
“I want to give you two million dollars for your past. Do we have a deal?”
“I’m not gay,” Bill announced for the record.
“Neither am I. Two million, in or out?”
Bill’s fist clenched and unclenched as he worked the situation over in his brain. Who in the hell did this guy think he was, making a proposition like that? Was he insinuating something? Was Bill giving off some sort of vibe that wasn’t aware of? If he was, how many other people were picking up on this vibe?
Then the little voice inside his head cleared its throat and reminded him of how life-changing two million dollars would be, and none of his memories were all that precious, as he tended to live in the now anyway. Not to mention that the bar was still empty, so nobody would ever know…