The Retellings

Preface: The Story of the Scheherazade and the Sultan

A long time ago a powerful Sultan discovered his wife was unfaithful and put her to death. Such was his grief and anger that the Sultan vowed to take a new wife each evening and then to slay his bride the next day at dawn so that he would never again be betrayed. This persisted for three years, until, Scheherazade, the daughter of the Sultan’s own Vizier volunteered for this ill-fated union. Unable to dissuade Scheherazade, the Vizier had no choice but to allow his eldest daughter to wed the Sultan the very next evening. Scheherazade though, being of great learning, lore and wisdom, had a plan. Lying awake in their marriage bed that night, she asked the Sultan if she would be allowed to see her younger sister, Dunyazad, once more before her execution the next morning. The Sultan agreed, and Dunyazad was brought into the Sultan’s chambers. Late into the sleepless night, as morning murmured its nearness, Dunyazad as her sister had secretly instructed spoke. “Oh wise and beautiful sister, please recite to me one last story. For your tales are delightsome and delectable, and will bring brightness to these waking hours of the latter dark night.” Scheherazade turned to the Sultan. “Would it please you to hear a story my love?” She asked. And the Sultan nodded, for the night weighed heavy on his soul. “Then let me tell you the tale of the Trader and the Djinn,” and thus she began.

Chapter 1: The Tale of the Trader and the Djinn

by Nathan Kane

Once upon a time there was a bond trader who lived with his wife and young son in a luxury apartment in Manhattan. Every day he would leave for work at eight O’clock in the morning, and each evening he would do his best to get home by nine for a late dinner with his family. His work was very stressful, but that was part of what he enjoyed about it. He secretly believed that the rush he got from the success of a potentially ruinous trade was the penultimate experience. And though at times he wished he could spend more time with his wife and child, he was happy that he could afford to provide for his family in fine style.

One night, on a Wednesday in-mid April, he finished catching up on some neglected news item on his iPhone and placing the device on his nightstand, he turned over to go to sleep. Listening to his wife’s gentle breaths and soft sounds of traffic below, he drifted off. At some point in the strange late hours of the night, he began to dream. In his dream, the bond trader was wandering about an abandoned city that have fallen into disrepair and begun to crumble. He found himself walking atop the roofs of crooked and leaning skyscrapers across cracking metal and overgrown vine-choked gardens. He carried a golf club with him, a driver he realized. Every so often he would find a golf ball sitting expectantly on some derelict surface, and without a second thought, he would tee-up and with a strong, swift swing, send it arching through the grey sky.

Sooner or later, after a good deal of wandering, he came to an old bench in the middle of wide-open space. Just as he sat down on the hard stone bench, a terrible figure appeared in front of him. It was tall, nearly twice his height, and shrouded in black shadow so that he could neither make out its features, nor even clearly its form. “You have killed my son, and now I shall claim your life as payment,” the figure boomed, in a tremendous and powerful voice. The man sputtered and clutched himself in fear. “I don’t know what you mean,” he stammered, “I haven’t killed anyone. Please. I haven’t.” The figure loomed larger over him. “You struck him with a white ball in the head, splitting it open and leaving him dead on the ground,” the voice pronounced. The bond trader shrank into himself horrified at what he had done. “I’m sorry,” he cried, “I didn’t mean to. It’s just a golf ball,” he whimpered. “It matters not what you used to murder my son, or what you intended. He is dead, and your life is tribute.” The bond trader began to weep and wail in mortal terror, when, from out of nowhere, a voice, kind and powerful spoke.

“Containeth time a twain of days, this of blessing that of bane

And holdeth life a twain of halves, this of pleasure and that of pain

Well judgest thou the days that saw thy faring sound and well

And countedst not the slings and arrows that reason doth foretell

The nights have kept thee safe and thy safety brought thee pride

But the blessings of the eve dissolve when morning doth arrive.”

The demon creature paused at the words, and the trader in that moment thought of his family.  Gathering himself, he spoke as bravely as he could, “please, give me a week. Give me one week to get my affairs in order so that my wife and son can manage after I’m gone.” The dark form surged up to the sky and seemed to fill it with an expansive darkness. “You will meet me here in one week’s time. And I will claim your life as promised.” And with that the bond trader woke to find himself in an unfamiliar room, looking into the concerned eyes of a stranger.

According to the doctors, the stroke was relatively a minor one, and he was out of the hospital the next day, promising to get plenty of rest. He tried taking the two days off to spend with his wife and young son, but his wife worked and with his son at school, he found that he mostly just stared out the window at the city below. Even when they were home and he was able to spend a few extra hours with them, he found himself unable to really enjoy it, filled as he was with the fear and uncertainty that haunted him. It was hard to think about anything other than the dream and the demonic Spector’s claim on his life. As the week wore on, he was torn between the rationalization that his encounter was a dream and nothing more and the fear that lay like icy water at the pit of his stomach. And the trader found each minute near unbearable. At night, he would lie in bed, too gripped by thoughts of the creature to close his eyes even for a moment. During the days, he would catch himself thinking crazy thoughts, and growing furious all at once at the smallest things. Finding his leisure hours unbearable, and unable to savor his time with his family, whom he felt would not understand what haunted him; he decided to go back to work. Though he was received warmly on his return to the office, he saw in the faces of his younger co-workers a hint of pity or fear, and he occasionally caught the worried glances of some of his peers and older colleagues. When on Monday he earned 20% on a transaction, making millions for the firm, he felt only a sense of rising panic in lieu of his usual self-satisfaction. He left work early that day and decided not to return. He spent the day wandered the streets of the city, watching the people going in and out of shops, chatting with friends, and bustling about from one place to another. In the late afternoon he saw an old man begging for money outside of a subway entrance. At once, he realized that he had not made any preparations for the financial well-being of his family if it turned out the dream’s prophecy bore true. Handing the decrepit man a fifty-dollar bill, he hurried home.

He spent the next day writing a carefully crafted will and testament with the help of attorney. He liquidated some of his riskier investments and laid aside a substantial sum of money for his son to be delivered to him in a trust fund when he turned eighteen. He called his own father and a few old friends. The conversations were casual and informal, but he made sure to tell them he hoped that he could see them soon, and wished each one well. On the morning of his final day, he work up early and stared at the ceiling for an hour. Then, starting up, he rushed out of the house. He rushed to the river, but upon arriving, just strolled alongside, watching the water. Then he went shopping and spent all afternoon cooking dinner for wife and child. That night they sat around the table and he served them a pot roast and mashed potatoes as close to how his mom used to make it as he could figure. He insisted on washing the dishes himself and told them both he loved them before going to bed. That night he laid down next to his wife and when she turned out the light he shed a tear. He kissed her on the mouth, and then lay back in bed and shut his eyes.

He found himself all at once sitting on the stone bench, without having any memory of drifting off to sleep. For a moment, he tried to wake himself, but quickly found that no pinch or prod had any effect. And so he sat up straight on the cold hard stone and waited. Before too long he saw a shape approaching in the distance. To his surprise, as it grew closer, he saw it was an old man leading what he guessed was an antelope. The old man walked slowly up to him and stopped in front of the stone bench. “It’s a gazelle, said the old man. Looking closely at the bond trader, the old man said, “And what are you doing here anyhow? This is not a good place for humans you know. Many things live here. Many things not so good for flesh and blood folk such as yourself.” The bond trader nodded, and standing offered the old man his seat on the bench. “I am waiting for a spirit to claim my life,” he began. The trader related to the old man the story of everything that had happened over the course of the last month. When he finished, the old man smiled a wrinkly old smile at the man, and said; “I think I’ll wait to see this spirit for myself if you don’t mind.” And so they waited in the empty urban space.

Before too long another shape appeared in the distance. As it grew closer, the trader saw that it was another old man, perhaps even older than the first leading two grey dogs with him. The old man approached, and surveying both men and the gazelle, proceeded to sit down on the bench next to the first old man. “What are you doing here?” asked the second old man to the bond trader. The bond trader sighed, and then told the second old man the tale of the past month. When he finished, the old man scrunched up his face and then said, “I think I will wait to see what happens with this spirit fellow,” and with that was quiet. A few minutes later yet a third shape appeared on the strange edge of the open space. As it drew closer, the trader saw that it was an even older fellow, more stooped than the first two, leading a mule on a rope. The third old man didn’t so much as look at any of them, but rather, made a beeline for the last seat on the bench and plopped himself down with relish. “Why are you here,” the third old man croaked, and with a sigh, the bond trader told him his story. “Very good,” said the old man, and seemed to doze off in his seat. No sooner had the old man fallen asleep, then the sky filled with black shadow and with a tremendous and thunderous crack the shrouded figure appeared in front of them. The towering dark shape stretched out to the bond trader and as the man cried out in horror a terrible wind seemed to emanate out from the creature. Just as the bond trader felt as though he would dissolve into the darkness, the first old man stood up and spoke, “Oh daemon of the waste, I offer you a story, one more mystifying and satisfying and edifying than the life of this trader, in return for one-third of this man’s flesh and blood. Do you accept?” The shadow drew back a little bit, and the darkness gathered into a towering human shape. “Tell me your story, and if it I find it to be all you claim, I will grant you a third of his flesh and blood as you ask. If not, I shall claim a third of you as payment” it growled. And thus the first old man began speaking.

The Tale of the First Old Man and the Gazelle

by Nathan Kane

This gazelle I lead through the desert, is actually my wife. We married when we were young and were happy for several years. In time though, we found that we were unable to have a child together and our relationship began to wither. Then a miracle occurred. My niece got pregnant, and unable to care for the child by herself and finding her parents unwilling to help raise a child born out-of-wedlock, she asked us if we could help her. I was overjoyed and invited her to live with us. And she did, and she brought happiness and light back into my life. But this was nothing compared to the joy I felt when she gave birth to beautiful baby boy. I was so overwhelmed by happiness, that I failed to notice my wife’s slight changes and blissfully ignored any possibility that she was not as enraptured by the child as I was.

We raised the child over the years and I think I truly believed that all was well. I didn’t think anything of the strange meetings my wife had begun attending at odd hours or the stick and mud shrines I began seeing in the backyard. I ignored the notebooks that would fill up with unfamiliar symbols on her nightstand, and paid no attention when some of the chickens we kept out back had disappeared from the coop.

The year my niece’s son had turned eighteen, I was called away on a month-long trip overseas to a place with little means of communication. When I returned to civilization to make the journey back home, I received word from my wife that both my niece and her son had contracted a mysterious illness and died in my absence. I was heartbroken. More than that, I could see no point in living. It took all my strength to even make it home, and when I did, I simply sat around the house and stared out the window. My wife’s high spirits did nothing to cheer the now empty house. Her smiles and laughter were like a cruel winter sun that only appears to warm the flesh.

As the holidays came around, it was time for us to kill one of our chickens for the traditional dinner. My wife took me outside one cold grey day and pointed to a fat chicken. “Kill that one,” she said, and handed me the knife. What I did not know, was that my wife had spent years learning witchcraft, and by calling on dark magics had transformed my beloved niece and son into the chickens before me. As I approached the chicken I later learned was my niece, the bird started to rub up against me so warmly and with such affection that I couldn’t bring myself to take the knife to it. “What are you waiting for?” my wife asked. “We have to kill one of them and this is plumpest of the lot. Do it,” she said. And so I cut the head of the chicken.

When I picked up the corpse, to my surprise, it was all skin and bone and smelled of rot. “That won’t do,” my wife said. “Here, kill this one. It’s the second biggest,” and she handed my own son. As I raised the knife, the chicken rubbed its head so gently against my hand and struggled so little that I couldn’t do it. “Kill it,” my wife intoned, her eyes shining strangely. And I raised the knife… 

Oh demon of the waste, said the first old man. “I raised the knife to slay the chicken that I did not recognize as my niece’s child. But so tender was the bird and so imploringly did it look upon me as I held it, that I could not bring the blade to its neck. My wife approached me, whispering that I should stop being a fool and to kill the bird, but I resisted. I told her that we could slaughter it in the spring for the next feast, and walked inside, ignoring her protests. I sat and thought about the rotted corpse of the first chicken, and strange behavior of the second bird for a long while.

I was interrupted when a pick-up truck pulled up in front of the house. An old man in overhauls and a young woman in a pair of stained jeans and a matching jacket emerged. Only when they started unloading equipment from the back of the truck did I remember that the house painters were scheduled to start today. Still in something of a daze, I met them at the door and they told me that they would begin right away. Making sure they would come to me with any questions, I returned to my chair and sat there watching the light brighten and then slowly fade in the sky. I felt ill at ease, as if I had misplaced something of terrible importance.

The next day my wife left early to do some errands, and to my surprise the pickup truck pulled up not more than a few minutes after her sedan had pulled away. The old painter and the young girl approached the door and knocked. I let them in, and asked them what they were doing at my house so early. The older man looked about nervously, and glancing at the young girl mumbled something about coming inside. I was in no mood to entertain, but invited them in anyways not wanting to be rude. As they entered, I noticed a flash in the young girl’s dark eyes that took me by surprise. I asked if they would like anything to drink, but they shook their heads. The older man started by apologizing, “I’m very sorry to be barging in here like this,” he said. “But my daughter here, well, she has something that she wanted to speak with you about.” The young girl took off the baseball cap she was wearing and her long black hair fell down about her shoulders. “Forgive me for being so forward,” she said. “But as we were painting yesterday, I noticed something very unusual. There was a dead chicken in your backyard.” I nodded, realizing that we had left the corpse of the rotten animal back there until nightfall. The girl continued, “that chicken was no ordinary bird,” she said. “That was a person, a young woman in fact. I would guess she was around thirty years old. She had been mutated into an animal by some horrible witchcraft.” I stared at the girl, and her eyes told me that she was not lying. Never before oh demon, had I encountered something I could truly say was magic, but in my stomach and in my heart I knew that what this girl before said was true. And I collapsed; such was my grief at realizing that I had killed my own beloved niece.

The painter and his daughter caught me and led me to the couch where they placed me gently. “It was my niece,” I sputtered through my wretched sobbing. “I know it was her. My wife. She did this. She made me.” The girl put her hand on my shoulder, and muttered something. I suddenly felt warmth coming from where she touched me. It seemed to flow throughout my body, washing away the pain I felt. “I knew this” said the painter’s daughter. “Because I am also trained in magics.” I immediately drew back from her touch, and looked upon her face with great fear.  “Please do not be afraid,” she said in a kindly voice. “I am learned in the arts of healing and practice only for the good of others. I will not harm you. I only want to help.” The painter was silent this whole time, and merely sat clutching his hat on the edge of an armchair watching us both. “Did you know,” his daughter continued, “that your niece’s son is still alive?”

“What?” I started to say, but in truth I already knew. “He is the other chicken,” I said, staring into her fierce black eyes. She nodded simply. “Can you turn him back?” I asked. Again she nodded. Such was my joy that I fell on my knees before her and implored her to return him to his human form, clutching her hands and at her pants. “I’ll give you anything,” I said, tears streaming down my face. “All my money. This house. Whatever it is you want.” She smiled and said, “I would like to marry him once I return him to his human form. If, of course he likes me well enough. I have seen it written on him that we are to be together, and I believe it is as the Fates desire.” I nodded my consent. “Yes, yes you may marry him and have all that I own if you just bring him back to me.” The painter’s daughter smiled again. “And,” she continued, “you must allow me to take care off your wife for once she sees what I have done, neither you nor I will be safe.” “She will be back in just a few hours,” I said, panic rising in my chest. “What if she tries to kill my boy before you save him?” “Do not worry,” said the girl. “I spent last night making the necessary preparations. I will have your son restored within the hour. There will be time to deal with your wife.” The girl stood and started walking toward the backyard. “We can’t kill her,” I said imploringly. She paused without turning around. “Of course,” she replied, and with that she went exited out the back door.

I dared not look at what the girl was doing in the backyard, such was my fear that all would not go as planned. But I also found myself unable to focus on other tasks, so I sat in the living room with her father, watching the driveway lest my wife should return home before expected. It was pure agony.

When she called for us, I rushed through the house and out to the backyard. There, on the lawn, lying partially wrapped in a patterned blanket was my niece’s son. Tears poured down my face. He was just coming to, as if waking from a long sleep. I sat on the blanket and embraced him, wetting his bare shoulders with my tears. He was confused, but unharmed. We brought him inside and dressed him. After drinking a tea that the girl made from pungent herbs, he began to remember. Clothed now, but still wrapped in the patterned blanket, he sat on the couch with the tea and told me what had happened after I had left on the trip. He told me that my wife had started insisting on feeding both him and his mother, and remembered thinking that food tasted slightly odd. Apparently, my wife stopped sleeping, and he would hear strange noises outside his bedroom door at night. One day, he was looking for his mother, my niece, when my wife called to him from the basement. He had begun avoiding her, as she seemed somehow off, but thinking she may know where his mom had gone, he followed her voice downstairs. The last human memory he had, was of my wife appearing from the darkness, her body smeared in some kind of red paste, flinging a blanket made from chicken feathers over his head. The poor boy asked me where his mother had gone. I didn’t have the heart to tell him so soon after being revived, but I think he knew from the look in my eyes.

The girl, who had to this point been silent, suddenly sprung up. “Go down into the basement, all of you,” she commanded. As we hurried downstairs, my hand on my boy’s shoulder to reassure him, we could hear my wife’s car pulling into the driveway. The girl made me stand exposed at the bottom of the stairs, and hid herself, her father and my niece’s son in the shadows off the side. A few moments later, the screen door creaked open, and I called out to my wife. “I’m working on a new chair,” I yelled, “Could you give me a hand?” My wife arrived at the top of the stairs, and I could see her feet. “Just for a second, I said,” trying to keep the fear out of my voice. She walked down the stairs, each step groaning slightly as she approached. “Why is it so dark in here,” she asked? I opened my mouth to answer, but as I did so, she reached the last step and the girl, her dark eyes mysteriously shining fiercely, leapt out of the murk and plunged a strange horn into her chest. A horrible scream sprang form her lips, and my wife’s face came alive with the creature she’d become. I thought it was the end of her, but instead my wife sprang away from the girl, and in an instant was transformed in the Gazelle you see before you today.

After that day, my niece’s son and I lived free from my wife’s madness. We grieved for my niece, and welcomed the painter, and his family into our home. As for the girl, I would come to know her as my daughter-in-law for they married a year after these events. We all live happily together in a new house, in a new town. For many a year we kept the Gazelle in the basement, but the time has come for it to be free. For my wife to be free from what she became, I suppose. My daughter-in-law has taught me about her ways and I have gained the power to travel through these places. I am going to release her somewhere where she can be forgiven for her evil, and finally be aloud to return to the Great Spirit, as I’ve come to know it. Along my way however, I found this fellow here, waiting for you O Demon, and I could not go on until I learned more of this situation. And so, we come to now. How do you like my story?  Does is sate you, oh creature?

The black figure shook and rumbled. “Yes old man, your story is truly one of wonder. I will take it in exchange for one third of this man’s blood and flesh.” The bond trader looked at the first old man, horrified that he may claim his prize. But instead, the old man smiled at him kindly. The dark figure began to morph and grow, stretching out toward the bond trader again to take his remaining claim, when the second old man, this one with his two dogs, stood from the bench and addressed the shape. “Hold, hold,” he said. “I offer you the same trade. I will tell you my tale, and if you find it of great value, I would have you give me a third of this man’s life. If not you may take a third of me as payment.” The old man looked down at the dogs and out at the strangely blank horizon of the wasted land.” I feel my mind is cracking like ice on the arctic sea, and I cannot say what will come up rushing up from the inky depth of the cold waters. I shall try to tell what I can of the Froome brothers and our encounter, and how I ended up here with their two dogs, though I can’t recall quite recall the details myself. So listen close, for if you stray for a moment, you will miss it, you devil creature of this waking dream.”

The dark shook and wavered. “If your tale offers me greater foods than this man’s flesh can provide, than I will grant you a third of him. But do not think that I will spare you old thing, if your tale fails to feed me. I have no pity for the old and no mercy for the weak.” The second old man nodded in agreement. “Very well,” he said. And so he began,

 

The Tale of the Second Old Man and the Two Grey Dogs

By Mircea Lupu

For three months the Froome brothers traveled the world seeking the kind of thrill

the bequeathal of an estate like the “Froome estate,”  might inspire in the libertine and restless. At the end of the third month, however, they found that their revelry had its limits, and, as drunkards in need of a park bench, they settled upon our town for a spell of repose. I will not paint them except to say they were tall, curly-haired and leaner than you’d expect, and were followed persistently by their pair of equally lean hunting dogs. They smiled with abandon and spoke to the other as if he were a negligible ghost. It might dawn on you that their whims were bottomless but it might be too late, you are tethered to the tracks. The knots are insoluble and tight.

*

They mesmerized us with their traveling escapades so expertly that we mistook recounting for storytelling. It all approached the poetic. We were told, for instance, of a winter dusk as seen from a submerging Venice and of dwelling in the shadows of a Balinese cave or the umbrage of a white night’s lonely cloud – but the major notes were what one might expect when the cruel and careless tell of their adventures. Famished for entertainment, because, to be truthful, we are lonely and bored in these hinterlands, not one person played the impatient Critic. We laughed and laughed with twinkled eyes and secretly feared the signs of fatigue on the performer’s face for it meant dawn and the disbandment of our audience.

I knew they were expected in San Francisco. A relative with keen eyes and talented attorneys latched on to a pesky codicil that threatened to upset their future. Before long, I thought, they would vanish into the same whirlwind from where they came.

The deadening sway of our town gave the brothers an opportunity for reflection. They spent their days in the Dandelion Inn and drank their nights at Reginald’s. Ambition and purpose can strike when one keeps this kind of schedule. After all, it is well known that a person is a reservoir of at least a few lurking purposes and it is not all that uncommon (especially in America) to awaken one morning a painter or a cyclist, or, worst of all, a writer with “something to say.”

Long ago a teacher consecrated them dramatists. He liked their plays and insisted upon submission to the school’s writing competition. He must have delivered the solemn talk that a master gives to make the savant conscious of his precocity, unleashing the youngster, a now rabid dog of purpose, to mix and devour with other ordained beasts. It is a common story. The impressionable are imprinted with the delusion of destiny and by no fault of their own come to always and everywhere anticipate its unfolding. Men are born to try and be frustrated. Sadly, the veterans of life can be sadistic when they use the prerogatives of age to edify schoolchildren. En route to the catacomb, the wrinkly can’t help but sprinkle a few mendacities for posterity.

Ever since, when time and mind allowed, the brothers wagered their talents into notebooks. Seeing that our town had a little theater and seeing that they half-remembered half-liking their plays, they dug out their cashiers.  With the weight of inheritance and an earnestness which charmed even me (who they called their “brother in the arts,”) they debuted on an evening in November.

*

I am an old man brought up in an old tradition.  In my view, a play should instruct and entertain. Its structure must be one swoop of a movement which offers the audience the material to re-trace what they know to be true but wish to see made true over and over again. As I also see it, an old theater director in his last season must be allowed to retire on his own terms. The line up had been set. I  picked old favorites. It was the kind of Swansong that guarantees the heart a few pangs, and the eyes at least one shower. I made the following selections:  Geroldoni’s A Child, A Family; Fox’s An Inferno’s Heaven, and Christchurch’s, Unrepentant Issue. The attendance would be low, the casts untalented, and at least one idiot would grope his way into my favor, easy as it to seize upon a brandied man, with a “that came off just superbly, I must say” line.  All of this I could predict and I did so untroubled. I no longer cared about the weight of the boulder or the steepness of the mountain.

“I’ll see you in my dreams,” Carlyle tells Roberts in Inferno’s Heaven, “for it is there that we will meet, unbridled and pure, with no war to call us soldiers and death, a word as foreign as peace is to tomorrow.”

It would be nice, I thought, to hear the lines delivered once more.

*

There are a few things I let the brothers know after they upheaved my plans with banknotes and folly.

I told them in a professorial style:

“For who knows how long art has been received with a presumption of guilt. From whatever womb, it is birthed a priori stained by the realities of imbecilism and commercialism. The burden of proof is of a few iterations: guilty until proven innocent or guilty and it is best guilty and I like it so. You will object and I agree. The landscape is not so bleak. It experiences its share of rainbows and roses and for those content with flashes of sublimity, this is quite enough to give them satisfaction. Know this: your money will follow your work and it will be a perpetual question mark.

Also remember: If he is lucky, an Artist may be wittingly debased when he indulges in art. This means the audience has paid enough attention to hate him. The laymen when he attempts art, being no Artificer and certainly no Aesthete, is a target of indifference and a round of mumbled perplexities. You can’t let disappointments wreck you. They are natural in this craft. ”

And so we plunged headlong into season with the Froome’s works, born on coin and charm.

In short, the plays went very poorly because they were very bad. Each was a bigger disgrace than the last and there were three of them to endure. I pleaded as hard as I could to discourage their perseverance. By the last production there was hardly an audience to suffer or jeer.

It was not that I feared for my reputation; our town can neither form nor demolish reputations in the arts. Rather, it was the fact that each failure caused the brothers greater pain and disappointment. I felt an unexplainable sympathy with the objects of my scorn. Here they were, somewhat callous aristocrats caught in a moment of striving. They were not artists, true, but there was nothing, it occurred to me, that said they couldn’t write a play worth seeing.

I, their newly employed dramaturge, accompanied them westward. We rode in a first class compartment.  The two grey hunting dogs lay sprawled across from me. It wasn’t all bad and it might some day all be good, I kept thinking. I am thinking. Neither the moment nor the audience was right. The whims of the spectator are well known. Each house has a different set of eyes.

“We can count on others,” I told them. “Other minds will conspire to give us our due. We will suffer through our own season of fame soon enough.”

The scenery outside changed and the mild hills through which the train snaked gave way to a suggestion of desert. We looked upon this vista, uncertain whether it meant a new itinerary. A dark sand whirled about the train as we now sped in between rows of perfectly symmetrical strangler figs. Bare roots engulfed us. The sky, no longer a stage for thunder, was curtained in a still black while the moon had taken the kind of leave only conceivable in dreams. I kept thinking, it wasn’t all bad and it might some day all be good.

The train pulled into a station, a station I call it, because where else does a train stop? The dogs loped out down the metal steps and onto the dusty ground and I plodded after them at the brothers nodded orders. Really there was nothing there, a shack, a broken window, a fractured old man. But the dogs walked on, out away  from the train into the sand, the falsely-misted flatland. And the train sounded, industrious cheers of metal, and I was too far. What’s more, the dogs were unconcerned. So the train pulled away, revealing even greater absence. And the beasts simply headed into the waste, and I hobbled after them, watching as their small prints were kissed away by the blowing sand. As I walked– as I made my way to this place– I remembered the monologue where Ricky, a twelve-year old drunk in the Froome’s last play, Death to My Family, addresses the audience:

RICKY FROOME

Then the wine came and I can never refuse the wine. A fine Marselan turns you from cavorting to a deeper weepy, dementedness.  And so I skated through my unlit home, trammeling over temporary hindrances without much regard for pain or inflicted damage.You could do this where I live because the floors are all slick parquet. You could skate real sad, real drunk, and real stupid when no one is home. If you get the chance play Liszt, turn the lights low, scour my father’s wine cellar for a bit, and glide around the abandoned premises. It helps if you wear cashmere socks as skates (these can be found in the second drawer on the right side of my parents bed). Otherwise, what can I tell you, keep you head low and your tears to a minimum; watch out for my mother’s sculptures (the one of a leopard is worth a bunch) and be wary of any signs that the proprietors are returning. You’ll have to look decent then. The wine will have colored your lips red and you might have toppled a vase or two. Embalm yourself in the vase-water perfume, lie on the divan, look decent, and tell them I gave you the keys. It will be my  father who will give you a tough time.

When the second old man finished speaking, the two grey dogs sitting patiently at his side, the dark human form flexed and trembled. “Very well,” it pronounced in its thunderous voice. “You may take a third of this trader’s flesh and blood in return for your story, for it feeds me as he could not. But now I will claim what is left of this creature for my own and be on my way. The towering dark form stretched out a terrible arm to the bond trader who cowered back away from the back finger-like forms. The third old man did not stand as he spoke. “Stay fiend. Stay your hasty hand and listen to this old man’s tale for he has a story more valuable than the head and shoulders of this man. I will trade you this story for the remaining portion of the trader. The dark arm widened and flickered, but slowly withdrew. “I will offer you the same bargain then,” said the shape. The third old man nodded, his wrinkled visage warping into something of a smile. And so the ancient man fell into a deep reflection and began to tell his tale. So profound and clear was his memory, it was as if everyone present were there to witness what he retold:

The Tale of the Third Old Man and the Mule

by Timothy Lehey

“Notice how similar the expression of contempt is to disgust. In fact, let’s put image 2-11 side by side with 2-20 – Mayra, can you please drag them – yeah – great. Okay, let’s begin by identifying the shared qualities.”

Professor David Malmstein was eager for class to end on this lusty vernal afternoon. It was late March and he was teaching his favorite material – his calling, really – to a bright and interested group of students. But the professor had an important appointment after class.

Looking to cap a lengthy and physically exhausting career in the State Department with less strenuous work, David pivoted his experience into a teaching position at Colombia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Handsome at 58, the professor was considered past his prime in the Foreign Service, a has-been by the younger officers. But in academia, he was welcomed as a novitiate – rich with ideas and more vigorous than his tenured colleagues. It was one of those elegant transitions in life that David embodied with an unaffected ease.

“Yes: Simone.”

“In both slides you see the subject with pinched upper lips, like a string were lifting the labium superius up to the crown of the nose and in toward the philtrum.”

“Excellent observation, Simone. What else, class?”

The course was called “ Analysis of Facial Microexpressions: Human Physiognomy in Negotiation and Diplomacy”. David taught two other graduate courses closely related to the topic. His ability to read people’s intentions, no matter how obscure, was notorious in the Foreign Service. It was uncanny how he could expose a motive or develop a bargaining position just by giving close attention to the expressions of his adversaries.

“Both faces have crumpled temples, revealing crow’s feet in this subject in particular.”

“Very good. And the final, major similarity? : Alexa.”

“Exposed teeth. In both profiles the subject bares her teeth because of the elevated upper lip and contracted buccinator muscles.”

“It seems that everyone has been giving the reading close attention. I’m very pleased with you all. After we come back from the break, be prepared to discuss the crucial differences between contempt and disgust – both their physical traits as well as the implications for dispute resolution, negotiation, and diplomacy. In the reading, that means getting through Chapter 8 and Assignment 12 of the syllabus.”

With that, the class departed. David busily packed his things and locked up the classroom only moments after everyone had left. He was eager to get to the jeweler, where his wife’s anniversary gift was waiting for pickup. The professor had commissioned a custom set of earrings, in silver, for his 25th anniversary with Colette. The actual day of their anniversary was one week from today, but he wanted to genuinely surprise his wife and they would have much more time to enjoy together now that school was out for a four day holiday weekend. The plan was to bring his wife to her favorite West Village jazz club and then walk her to Washington Square Park, to give her the present in the same spot where he had proposed to her so many years before.

The jeweler’ shop was an unkempt hole-in-the-wall in the Lower East Side. Not in a million years would David have commissioned such an expensive and meaningful gift here but for the strong insistence of a friend who knew about such things. Worse than the clustered, dusty, and arcane appearance of her shop was the demeanor of the jeweler herself. She was wily; with one lazy eye, flanked by a winter harvest of greasy hair. The age of the woman was indeterminable. She had the appearance of someone ancient – beyond the counting of years – but with a crazed glow in her face demonstrable only by youth. For a master of reading people’s faces, this woman was entirely obscure to David.

After a perfunctory acknowledgment that he had arrived for pickup, the decrepit hag of a jeweler shuffled into the back of her store through a beaded curtain. David glanced around the shop to take note of strange books lying around with pages open to fantastical illustrations, unidentifiable dried plants hanging pinned in a corner, and peculiar trinkets of what he guessed to be middle-eastern origin.

“Uxor tua est asinus.”

The voice sounded just over David’s shoulder and he gave an astonished yelp. The old hag had reappeared right behind him, seemingly from nowhere.

“Um, sorry, but what?”

“That will be three hundred and fifty dollars, please.”

David would have probed into the cryptic and unwelcome utterance, but he’d had enough of this jeweler and her musty grotto. The store felt like it was getting smaller and her one good eye had the sensation of a flame on his skin. He paid quickly, with cash he’d withdrawn beforehand.

Professor Malmstein swung the door open to leave, with the bells ringing gently, when he heard her address him; this time with a clarity and youthfulness that was entirely new, and eerie as if spoken by someone possessed.

“Sow good, even on an unworthy soil; for it will not be lost wherever it is sown.”

And with that, David left. His ride home on the A train was fraught with the shivers. He tried to focus on Colette, how fine she would look tonight in the park, but his skin kept creeping as if subject to the old hag’s igneous gaze…

[cue transition music]

“Are you feeling alright, professor?”

David was not feeling alright. He felt like a dog. The last week had been a miserable one with excess liquor and very little sleep. He was redolent of booze and flashed vacant eyes at Simone, his favorite student. She requested that they meet to discuss her recent paper and because they had rapport and the weather was nice, they convened at a cafe on Morningside Drive. Evading the inquiry, David asked her to elaborate on the crux of her assignment, which the professor read but was unable to focus on.

“Surely the main difference between contempt and disgust lies in the eyes. With disgust, the eyes are squinted and self-involved, revealing the internal and largely sensorial nature of the emotion. Even in instances where the eyes remain open, that’s usually only in the context of fear, as someone would look at vomit with disgust in order to avoid it.”

David stared with barren eyes into his coffee. She considered that he may be pondering her line of thought, but the more obvious answer was that his mind was somewhere else. Courteously, she continued.

“But with contempt, the eyes give as much as they receive. It’s a system that fuels itself. You see, when someone holds contempt for something or someone, they’re absolutely fixated on it. The object of contempt, when immediately visible, is like kerosene for a fire and it exaggerates the maxillofacial tells. That’s the taking half. But the giving is just as important. Disgust is self-involved, as I said. But contempt has a transitive quality. It projects. It forces itself onto the object of loathing and it changes it. Contempt has the intention of making something ugly.”

In the ebony depths of his coffee, David relived the events following his trip to the jeweler. He recalled walking up to his apartment instead of taking the elevator just to rehearse the lines he’d prepared for Colette. He remembered music coming from the apartment, loud, and thinking how out of character it was that his wife would have such modern synthetic music playing. She had no taste for anything other than 1950’s jazz.

David saw only her face through the crook of the man’s elbow when he opened the bedroom door. Because of the music, they must not have heard him come into the apartment. They reacted with fear, embarrassment, shame – it was a typical scene for these kinds of revelations. But David just stood there a moment, mute. He then placed the bouquet of flowers, bottle of wine, and earrings on the dining table and left, not having uttered a single word.

___

David sat across from Simone, his favorite student. The cafe bustled, but David was looking down, remembering. Remembering standing, mute, watching. Remembering how he placed the bouquet of flowers, bottle of wine, and earrings on the dining room table and left, not having uttered a single word.

He didn’t know the man who Colette had had in bed. Now, in his coffee, David saw the exact shade of his dark skin.

Meanwhile, Simone had waited patiently for him to respond but it was clear that the professor was away in some dark place. Though intimidated, she felt a charming pity for this man whom she greatly admired. Then, out of utter instinct, she held his hand in hers, tenderly, on top of the small cafe table. This shocked David back to the present and she retracted her hand shamefully, feeling that what she had done was thoroughly inappropriate. Simone then apologized and offered a dubious excuse for leaving quickly, but a seed had been sown in their momentary connection.

Over a short but concentrated period of time the professor and his student became very close. At their next meeting, for which Simone had planned to apologize and normalize their previously satisfactory pupil/teacher relationship, they fell deep into intimate conversation. David refused the apology, saying how much he appreciated her concern. He told her what had happened with Colette and how he had been coping with the betrayal. At the hardest part of his retelling, she held his hand across the cafe table and was not refused.

Simone had a recuperative effect on David. They would cook dinners together and watch documentaries. There were museum visits and strolls through Central Park in the full glory of a New York spring. He thought of Colette often – how could he not? – but in Simone’s presence he found someone who lent him strength and diversion, healing and support. Of course he felt hurt, but it was the hurt of a healing wound and not the pain of seeing only a ruinous future.

Toward the end of summer, when David was formally dating Simone, his ex-wife asked for a meeting. Unsure of the idea, David told Simone about the offer and, to his surprise, she fully encouraged him to see Colette. And so they met, on a sultry Saturday toward the end of July. It was agreed that they would stop at a cafe, but as soon as they found each other off the Ninth Street subway stop, the former couple immediately began to walk, as if these difficult exchanges needed wandering feet.

David listened quietly as she listed off the apologies and then excuses she had paired off so neatly in her mind. They arrived at Washington Square Park and meandered its paths, passing the geriatric chess champions, couples walking their dogs, and precocious music students that drew enthused crowds. Momentarily, David felt the strong tug of the past and it made his knees buckle a bit.

Suddenly, they arrived at the cherry blossoms – precisely where David had proposed to Colette two and a half decades prior. They both stopped, each realizing where they were and trying to measure how the other one felt about it. For the first time, David looked up from his feet to meet Colette’s eyes face to face. She was beautiful. She always had been beautiful to him. But then, in a fraction of an instant, he saw through her voluminous curly hair the bright flash of something caught by the sun. Colette was wearing the silver earrings he had commissioned for their anniversary.

“But contempt has a transitive quality. It projects. It forces itself onto the object of loathing and it changes it. Contempt has the intention of making something ugly.” [note: this should be a copy of the soundclip from Simone’s earlier thought at the cafe. Stylistically, it functions as a theme-setting flashback. Maybe add some reverb?]
David opened his mouth to speak, but was thrown back by a deafening explosion. Laying on the ground, coughing and supported on one elbow, the aging professor squinted through the smoke to the spot formerly occupied by Colette. Where she had been, a mule stood now, ugly and scared.

Elmira, New York is a sleepy town; about a four-hour drive north from the volume and chaos of Manhattan. After Simone graduated, David left his teaching position and the two of them moved to a twenty-acre farm a few miles out from the small town. There they raised chickens and planted fruit trees. There were vegetables, a compost, and plans for a bee house. The soil was poor, but David tilled the earth with patience and compassion. In a few quick seasons his land was prosperous.

Simone took lucrative, intermittent consulting work that brought her all over the country for weeks at a time, but left month-long stretches of downtime that she would spend on the farm with David. In his advanced age, he was composing a textbook, his opus magnum, analyzing the facial microexpressions of famous historical photographs. They were very happy together, accomplishing professional goals relevant to their stations and relishing the quiet, upstate serenity that Mark Twain had once found to write Huckleberry Finn.

Fifteen years passed in this way. Now quite old, David still worked what chores he could and contracted young men from town to perform those labors he couldn’t. It was a cold spring day – too cold to feel the rapturous promise of summer and the professor was feeding his horses in the barn. He watched the exhaled vapor puff up from their nostrils in a rhythmic, almost industrial pattern, like the hydraulic presses of an auto assembly line. Finally, he arrived at the last stall, where the mule was kept.

“Come now, Colette, let us take a stroll.” [note: voice should sound much closer to the 3rd Old Man’s voice than middle-aged Professor Malmstein’s  voice.]

He led her out past the nascent arugula shoots, beyond the spinach and the chicken coops. They ambled along an unmanicured horse path tracing the gentle hills in contemplative silence. Years ago he’d built a pine bridge over the small, aspiring creek to which they’d arrived. He’d always viewed it, informally, as the outer frontier of his land and had never actually ventured down the path beyond his bridge. Today, however, he led the mule by the reins over the pine planks and down the little trail.

The spring mist thickened quickly, as did the tree coverage, and so the path ahead became darkened and obscured. The two of them walked and walked until they could barely see. They walked and walked until they arrived at a stone bench in conference with two old men and a banker.

“And so, we have arrived.” creaked the ancient man. “For you see, I am the professor and this mule was once my sweet Colette. It has been so many years since we loved each other and for so many years did I carry a hateful burden. I have laid down my contempt, O mighty jinn, as should you. Let this man breathe yet, for he was divinely gifted who said: ‘sow good, even on an unworthy soil; for it will not be lost wherever it is sown.”

And with that the old man’s throat croaked in exhaustion, signifying that his tale was complete. His eyelids drooped in melancholy contemplation and the mule looked to the earth with disconsolate eyes.

How wide and wondrous the world is! The bond trader thought as he looked at the dark form towering above them and then down at the three old men, each of whom had told their story on his behalf. Now they sat still and quiet on the bench in the middle of the urban wasteland. Was that enough? He wondered. Am I free? The demon creature swayed and flickered and seemed to evade the very nature of form. If it had eyes, surely they bored deep into the bond trader’s very being.

No, the story wasn’t enough, the bond trader realized, the stories would never have been enough. The creature would take his life, even a third of it, and that would be the end of him. It had just been waiting to hear the tales. Drawing strength and wisdom from them each in turn. And now that they were through, it would kill him as it had promised. For a moment there was silence, as if all sound had been sucked out of the world. And then he heard his blood careening through his veins in thundering beats. He felt his heart clench and unclench pushing the thick human water out from his chest. How does it do that, he thought. Every minute of every day and I never noticed. The dark form reached into itself, and pulled from the depths of its own body a terrible sword of black flame. It held it aloft, and the blade was twice his height. The bond trader felt the heat from the sword pour off it in blurred waves. He did not cower this time.

Drawing breath, he marveled at his lungs’ ability to do so, it is so sweet, he cried to himself. What a beautiful thing it is to be able to breath and pump blood and to cry, for tears were pouring down his face. What a wonderful thing it is to be alive at all. And as the sword fell, fiery and sharp and true, he was grateful.

 

Chapter 2: The Story of the Fisherman

Frame story by Nathan Kane

It was cold, but Calvin didn’t much notice the bite of the wind. The sky was dark. In an hour it would hint of day, but for now it could have been any time in the long night. A little moonlight lit the factories. The place reeked of fish and probably something more sinister.

Rats scurried about the barrels as he walked toward the wharf. Calvin shuddered a little. His mind wandered back to when he was working on his uncle’s boat; a few of the deck hands had a game going. They held rat fights. But the thing is rats don’t fight like cocks or crickets. Sure, they’ll bite each other if you put them together in a ring or something, but they won’t kill. But the deck hands had thought of a way to make them do it. Really simple actually. They just left them at the bottom of a shipping crate. He heard that the first time they tried it, the rats managed to climb the four foot wooden walls and escape overnight. The next time they covered the thing with plywood. They came back the next morning to find that the creatures had eaten through the wood. So then they used the steel drums that came in full of crude oil and weighed the lids down with some bricks. That did it. It didn’t take just one day or even two. But on the third day, when they opened the lid they found about one and a third rats. And so they had a winner. And then every Monday the guys would challenge the surviving rat with whatever new bristling creature they could rustle up. By Wednesday or Thursday there would always be only one left. Calvin never could bring himself to bet on the fights, but the other guys would put down hundreds at a time. At some point the guys started feeding their prize fighting rats other rats. To get the idea, his buddy had said. Calvin stopped going to the fights and eventually the wharf manager got word of it and shut them down. The day he did it though, the guys decided to release their fighting rats back out onto the docks. Each guy took his prize fighter and just let them go. Calvin never forgot watching the rats sniff the air, confused for just a moment, and then seeing them run off back into the crevasses, becoming indistinguishable from just another rat. From that day on, every time he saw one, he couldn’t help but wonder if they were one of the wretched creatures.

He used to feel something akin to excitement when he set out early by himself. Now, as he cast off and slowly pulled the boat out of the harbor, Calvin just felt tired. He couldn’t remember what he used to look forward to. What did he think was going to happen? He kept his eyes trained on the waters ahead. Today he had to make his haul. Or else. But there wasn’t really an “or else”, it was just the way things had to be. He thought of his son Charlie, thin and quiet and smart. So smart. He had to go college, and he would. Even if it meant fishing every day till he died. That was just how it was. Calvin turned the wheel.

His buddy had told him about the cove. It was supposed to be rich waters. He breathed out a white cloud of relief. No other boats were here yet. He didn’t want to share the water with anyone.

He muttered a small prayer before he let down the dredge net. He did it without thinking. The wind swung by. The darkness would hold for a while.

His first load was heavy and the winch strained, whining under the weight. Calvin held his breath as the steel net emerged dripping from the water and he swung it open onto the deck. The air filled with a foul rotting odor. He nudged the muck with his foot. Trash and weeds. He cursed.

When the net went down the second time, he watched it sink. A few bubbles made it up to the dark surface of the water, escaping the cold ocean. He waited a little longer, cruising slowly away from the coast. Again the machinery groaned under the weight of the load as he pulled up the net. But all he found was old rusted metal and mud. His eyes flitted toward the sky. Still dark. He asked god a question before motoring north toward a bend in the cove.

As he rounded the tall rocky corner he saw the light of another boat fading rapidly into the distance. He killed the engine and drifted a moment before letting out the net. The ocean around him rippled with the rough wake of the other boat. Assholes, he thought. Calvin didn’t wait long before flipping the switch on the winch. The load came up over the side of the boat and he released the net into the deck. This time there was something huge in the muck. Calvin peered dumbly at the shape before realizing it was a barrel. He stared for another moment, before he realized that there was a banging sound coming from the thing. And then he heard a voice. He stood stock still for a second, paralyzed. Another round of thumping on the barrel sounded, and Calvin came to. Grabbing a crowbar from the bridge, he began wrestling the metal container. It wouldn’t give though and in the light of the lantern he saw that it had been bolted shut. The banging from inside the barrel sounded again, more loud this time. More desperate.

Calvin found his hacksaw and set to work toward the bottom of the thing where the metal was thinest. Before long, he had a slit cut into the barrel. A trickle of water poured out followed by a hoarse voice. “Get me the hell out of here,” it yelled. “please hurry,” it screamed. Calvin frantically sawed at the metal. The voice made it hard to focus. But his hands were sure and he was strong and well practiced and the barrel gave way in ten minutes. The dark shape of a man’s foot kicked the bottom off and scrambled out panting onto the deck. He watched the stocky man vomit into the mud and trash as it sloshed across the deck.

He handed the man his thermos of hot coffee when he had managed to sit upright against the side of the boat. The fellow was fat, but strong looking. He had a thick brow and close cropped dark hair. Some of it was grey. He was clean shaven and looked to be about Calvin’s age. He was in his underwear, Calvin noted. The stranger took a sip from the thermos and handed it back to him, nodding gratefully. Calvin opened his mouth, but no single question occurred to him. After a moment, the sitting man spoke. “Can you take me somewhere?” the man asked in a gruff voice. “Sure,” said Calvin, staring down at the man. “You want a coat?” The man nodded. “I need to go to Sparrow’s Point. That okay?” Calvin handed him his raincoat. It was a forty five minute trip. “Sure,” he said. “Joe,” said the big man, standing and taking the coat. “Calvin. Nice to meet you,” he said somewhat stupidly. Joe nodded and moved to the front of the boat. “Time’s a factor,” he said when Calving stood there watching him. In a daze, Calvin took the wheel and steered them south toward Sparrow’s Point.

When they docked Joe stepped up onto the side of the boat onto the pier. He looked at Calvin in the dawn light that finally had broken across the water. “Come on, I got to give you something– for your help” he said. Calvin tied up the boat and followed him as he walked barefoot down the dock. He looked ridiculous in boxers and the coat. Calvin couldn’t help hoping he was about to become rich. He knew who ran the docks at Sparrow’s Point. He heard that they were the same people who ran the harbor out of Baltimore. He knew they were the kind of people who would throw someone into the bay in a barrel to die slowly. But he also knew that they were the kinds of people who took in millions of dollars from drugs, whores and extortion of all kinds. Millions.

Joe walked to a grey sedan and reached up under the front left tire. He pulled out a key and open the car. Calvin got in on the passenger’s side. Without a word Joe turned the key and cruised out of the wharf parking lot. After fifteen silent minutes they pulled into the driveway of a three story white McMansion on a quiet residential street. There was a statue of a lion by the door. It may have been cast in cement. He followed Joe up to the door and waited silently behind the large man as he rang the doorbell. His legs were very hairy. A woman peered at them from behind the glass off to the side of the door and then disappeared. A few minutes later a gigantic man with a thick face and swath of jet black hair pulled open the door. “Joe,” he said. “What the hell happened?” Joe nodded toward Calvin and the big man fell quiet. “Aren’t you going to invite us in?” asked Joe. The gigantic man looked at them dumbly for a moment, trying to figure out what had happened. “Yeah, yeah of course. C’mon in,” he said moving aside to let them enter. They walked into the house, Joe’s feet leaving muddy footprints on the off-white carpet. “Patricia,” yelled the big man, and the woman from behind the glass appeared at the top of the stairs. “Coffee for Joe and, uh,” the big man turned to Calvin. “Calvin,” said Calvin. “For Joe and our new friend Calvin.” Patricia gave the big man a nasty look, but trudged off in the other direction. “Sit here,” said Joe when they had reached a living room. “I have to talk to Frank.” And so Calvin sat in a pink armchair, staring at a family portrait that hung over a gas lit fire place.

In a few minutes, Joe walked back into the room. Calvin looked for Frank, but the larger man did not join them. Joe sat down on a black leather sofa that faced a big tv. The woman, Patricia, came in and handed them both mugs of hot, weak coffee. If she heard Calvin say thank you, she showed no sign. Joe sipped his coffee and looked at Calvin. “Fisherman?” Calvin nodded. “You saved my life.” Calvin nodded again, “I guess so. Not on purpose. But yeah.” Joe looked at him carefully. “Will you come out back with me? I can’t discuss business in the house with Patricia around, but I’d like to give you a little something to say thanks.” “Sure,” said Calvin. He was sweating.

The backyard was landscaped. A swing set stood aloof in the back. Trees hugged the four sides of the few acres. They walked to the swings. Calvin saw that a soccer ball lay off to the side. When he turned around Joe was pointing a gun at him. “Sorry Calvin,” he said. “I know it’s not fair, but you’ve seen me alive and I don’t want things to get complicated.” Calvin raised his arms defensively and stared at the gun. He had never seen a silencer before. “I have a wife and kid. I saved your life. You can’t do this.” Joe frowned. A bird chirped somewhere off in the trees. “I wish you didn’t have a kid,” he said. “But frankly I don’t care too much,” and he raised the gun. “I don’t even know who you are!” pleaded Calvin. He found himself on his knees somehow. “I don’t. I swear. Or Frank. Or what you guys do. Please. Please,” he said. His eyes were wet. “But you kinda do,” said Joe. “you kinda do.” A little wind came through the dawn-grey backyard and the swings squeaked. “Don’t you know that only bad things happen to people who kill the men who save them?” shouted Calvin, afraid to look away from Joe for an instant. “Don’t you?” Joe stared placidly at the kneeling man. “Edify me,” he replied, the rain coat flapping in the wind. “Okay,” said Calvin, his eyes still wet, “okay.” “Let me tell you the story of the King and the Sage Duban. You’ll see,” he said, coughing through his tears. “You’ll see.” Joe sat on a swing. “Go,” he said. And so Calvin began….

The Story of King Yunan and the Sage Du Ban

by Andrew Gretes

They say there was once a young king named Yunan who withdrew within his palace walls.  As the various provinces of the Yellow Kingdom were busy warring with one another, making and breaking oaths the way children pile and scatter sandcastles, King Yunan set about erecting fortifications—concentric walls—earthen walls around his province of Zuman, stone walls around his ancestor’s palace.  Retreating into his chambers, the young king released an edict announcing his intentions to entertain—from this point forth—no one but his ministers and his masons.

But it was not long before the king grew ill, and a new profession was added to his edict: doctors.  Soon, healers and alchemists of all stripes were drawn to the province of Zuman, traveling from the farthest reaches of the Yellow Kingdom, lured by the promised reward—their weight in gold—if they could but restore the king’s waning health.  Gorging on plums and honey and magpie, the visitors would enter the king’s palace and be led through an elaborate series of doors and screens until they had reached the inner sanctum—Yunan’s bedroom—where they would rub their paunches in anticipation and begin applying their ointments, balms, potions, relics, bones—you name it.  Not that any of them were successful.  No, the young king continued to grow ever more weak and pale, his land drooping like a ripe pear awaiting its poacher, be it the neighboring province of Wei or the swelling armies of Lu…

Until—yes until—a sage entered the capital of Zuman, his white hair bunched in a bun with bamboo sticks, his body draped in tattered brown cloth, his back stooped with a sack of books.  The sage’s name was Du Ban.  He had arrived in the eastern province of Zuman because the wind was blowing east.  You see, Du Ban always traveled with the wind.  Hearing of the king’s illness, Du Ban approached Yunan’s palace.

But he was stopped at the gates of the outer pavilion and told by a guard: “You don’t smell like a healer.”

Du Ban smiled.  “And what exactly,” he said, “does a healer smell like?”

“Incense.  Wolfberries—”

“And tell me,” said Du Ban, “how many people reeking of incense and wolfberries have healed the king’s illness?”

“None,” replied the guard.

“So how do you know I don’t smell like a healer?”

“What’s in the bag, old man?”

“Books,” said Du Ban.  Indeed, inside the sage’s bag were twelve books bound with leather straps and one book bound with a brass buckle.

The palace guard snatched Du Ban’s sack and emptied its contents onto the dirt.  Kneeling, he inspected the sage’s books, untying their straps and thumbing their pages for concealed weapons: daggers, blades, brooches, poisons, suspiciously sharpened writing instruments—you name it.  But just as the guard was about to touch the book that was bound with a brass buckle, Du Ban interrupted: “Guard, what’s your name?  I would very much like to hear your story.”

The guard looked up, shook his head, and laughed.  “Old man,” he said, “that’s your plan, isn’t it?  To tell the king a little bedtime story?”  The guard stood up and dusted off his knees.  “Why not?” he said, throwing his arms up in the air and allowing the sage to pass, “I suppose the king could use a good night’s rest…”

And so the sage Du Ban was allowed to pick up his possessions and pass on through to the palace doors.  There, he was escorted to the king’s chambers, where Yunan lay in bed, wrapped in a cocoon of silks and furs.  The room possessed no openings or apertures.  A candle substituted for the sun.

“Your majesty,” said the sage, “I am Du Ban, and I believe I can cure your illness if you will allow me.”

Body still mummified in his royal blankets, the king replied: “Yes, so many have claimed…”

Du Ban opened his bag of books and selected one of the volumes bound with leather straps.  “Your majesty,” he said, “may I tell you a story?”

Yunan uncovered his face from his blankets.  His cheeks mirrored the color of the walls surrounding his palace.  Stone-gray.

“Yet another wall,” whispered Du Ban.

The king stared at the sage in disbelief, tempted to have the senile old man thrown out of his chambers at once.  But he didn’t.  He said nothing of the kind.  Only grinned.  Then hissed: “If you must…”

“Then I will,” said Du Ban.

“It’s almost a relief,” muttered the king, “how tired I am of drinking liquid pearls and being bled.”

“Once,” began Du Ban, “there was a fisherman whose skill with a net was so captivating that he never failed to catch more than he needed.  This fisherman lived in a hut filled with holes, holes through which he could admire the sun and the moon, holes through which he could converse with the cicadas and the cranes, holes through which he could spot a weary passerby and invite them in for a pot of tea.  In the afternoons, the fisherman would donate his surplus to his neighbors, and—because of this—he was well loved and admired throughout the village.  In fact, he was so well loved that his neighbors wanted to do something for him as a token of their appreciation.  Knowing of the fisherman’s dilapidated hut, they decided to surprise the fisherman, caulking and sealing up the many holes in the fisherman’s abode.  Surprised, the fisherman came home one afternoon and smiled at the gesture of his friends, thanking his neighbors profusely for their kindness.  But that night, he lay down in his remodeled hut like a corpse, walled off from life.  When the neighbors arrived in the morning to ask how nice the fisherman had found it to sleep so peacefully for once, they could not—despite all their efforts—wake the fisherman up.”

“How I envy him,” said the king.  “Myself, I cannot sleep.”

“Come with me,” said Du Ban, “and I will heal you.”

“Come with you?!  Where?  Outside the walls of Zuman so you can hand me over to the province of Lu or Wei or Qin or Han?”

“Your majesty,” said Du Ban, “what use would such provinces have with a corpse?”

“So,” the king said, his voice rising as he sat up in bed, “you admit it then—you plan to assassinate me?”

“Your majesty,” said Du Ban, “how does one assassinate a corpse?”

“And if I refuse?  What then?  Tell me old man, what then?”

“Your majesty,” said Du Ban, “where does the mourner go after leaving the cemetery?”

The king fidgeted.  Bit his lips.  Turned his head.  Sighed.  He then conceded to the sage’s request.

And so the two men—King Yunan and the sage Du Ban—left the palace that night through a secret underground passageway, the king was given a wooden mallet and disguised as a carpenter, the sage lugging his sack of books and disguised as a peddler.  As for Yunan, he swore to a sacred oath that no matter who he and Du Ban would converse with that night, that he, the king, would simply listen and at no point wall himself off from another soul’s story.

The two traveled to the outskirts of Zuman, where amputees littered the streets: veterans missing arms, legs, ears, noses—you name it.  Du Ban approached the amputees and asked if they were hungry.  They nodded and lamented that they had no money.  Du Ban reached out his hand and said: “Come, there are other forms of currency.”  And so they all went to the inn—the sage Du Ban, the disguised Yunan, and the amputees—and Du Ban pulled out the king’s purse and bought the veterans soup and bread and wine, and then waited for the amputees to have their fill before asking them to share their stories.

Some spoke of the wars and their forced marches through the fragmented provinces of the Yellow Kingdom. 

Others of their youth.

Others of their parents, their sweethearts, their children.

One man told of how he became a ferryman.  He said he didn’t really know anything—and still knew nothing—of fancy nautical terms and all that nonsense.  In fact, he had never even been aboard a boat until the day he became a ferryman.  But he knew how to swim.  And that was all he needed.  For what fear should he have of capsizing if he knew how to swim?  It would be like a man who, despite knowing how to crawl, feared walking because of the chance that he might fall.

And there was an old woman among the group who told of how she overcame her fear of death.  She said she was in the woods one morning collecting mushrooms and buckwheat when she stubbed her toe on a human skull.  Grimacing in pain, she leaned down and picked the skull up and spoke: “Poor soul, even though I’m old and my toes feel like they’ve been crushed by a millstone, I don’t envy you.  How horrible it must be to be dead…”  But that night, she had a dream where the skull hopped to her house and said, “Where do you get off saying poor me?!  How do you know it’s so bad being dead?  Maybe it’s great?  Maybe I’m having the time of my life (or death)?  You don’t know, now do you?  So stop acting like you do…”  And the old woman said that after this dream, she woke up in a sweat, all cold and wet, as if she had finally broke a long fever: her fear of death.

And all the while, King Yunan sat silent inside the inn, soaking up his surroundings like a sponge, absorbing his people’s fears, pains, joys, jokes, regrets, sighs, hopes—you name it.  Yes, seated among the sage and the amputees, the king leaned on his wooden mallet and lost himself for a time, the way a man leaves his own dwelling so he can enter the dwelling of a friend.

When Yunan and Du Ban finally returned to the king’s palace the next morning, the king felt like a new man, for he had been healed of his illness.  Astonished, Yunan gazed at the wooden mallet in his hands.  He gave orders to have the mallet hung up in his bedroom like a magic charm.  Naturally, his ministers and his masons marveled at the sudden change in the king’s disposition, and so they asked Yunan how it was that he had gone from an invalid at dusk to an athlete at dawn.  And the king told them that it was all due to a stranger named Du Ban who had cast some sort of magic spell on a wooden mallet and had him hold the bewitched tool for the duration of one evening, and that this spell had apparently healed him of his illness for he had woken up suddenly—miraculously—freed from his long crippling weariness.

Du Ban was summoned to the king’s palace that night and offered the promised reward: his weight in gold.  But the sage, a sack of books still slung along his back, shook his head and refused.  Du Ban had heard of how the king had nailed the silly prop of the wooden mallet to his bedroom wall as if it really was a magic charm.  No, the sage thought, there was still much work to be done.  And so he asked the king if he could remain in Yunan’s service and continue to counsel the king through these troubling times.

“You can do that,” said Yunan, “and anything else you like!  Old man, you need but ask, and that which you ask for will be given.”

“Your majesty,” replied Du Ban with a bow, “all of Zuman rejoices at your health.”

But as the sage departed the palace, the king’s most trusted minister skulked behind Yunan and spoke: “Surely, your majesty, Du Ban has freed you from your former cocoon.”

“Yes,” said the king, “yes he has.”

“And now you flitter and flutter about the palace as healthy as a butterfly.”

“Yes,” said the king, suddenly irritated, “I suppose I do.”

“And tomorrow?” asked the minister.

“Tomorrow—what of tomorrow?”

“Your majesty, I simply wish to point out that the butterfly I see today I so rarely see tomorrow.  They are such ephemeral creatures, are they not?”

“I grow tired,” snapped the king, “of this game.  Speak to the point.”

“If only, your majesty, this was a game.  We live—do we not—in a treacherous age.  And when a man is healed not by ointments or bleeding or potions but through the mere act of touching a wooden mallet, is it not prudent to be suspicious?”

“Suspicious?” mocked the king.  “Or jealous?”
“You are amused?”

“You remind me of a story my uncle used to tell me when I was a child.  A story about envy and regret.

The minister dimmed his eyes.  “Enlighten me,” he said, “how does the story go?”

The Tale of the Husband and the Parrot

by Sheila Grau

There once was an extremely wealthy venture capitalist, of an exceedingly jealous disposition, who was married to a wife of such perfect beauty and charm that he dared not leave her alone for a minute. 

Unfortunately, there was a small tech company in Austin, Texas that the VC needed to visit as soon as possible. The company was growing rapidly and its owners needed cash. The VC knew that with a little in-person persuasion he could offer them a paltry sum, well, paltry to him, and then walk out owning most of their company. It was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up, so he booked a flight to Texas.

But he was wary. Not of taking advantage of the young entrepreneurs. After all, if he didn’t, someone else would. No, he was worried about leaving his wife alone. Without his constant surveillance, who knew what she would do? She had so many admirers. Why just the other day she’d visited him at work, and his intern Jimmy had followed her around like a smitten puppy.

And so, with this dilemma in mind, the VC decided to visit another of the many start-ups he’d invested in: the Robotic Personal Assistant Company, R-PAC. He knew they had a model in development that might be just the thing he needed.

The VC chuckled when he noticed his assistant cringe at the mention of R-PAC. Randolph knew what they made. Of course he did. And he did not like it one bit.

“Don’t worry, Randolph, I’m not replacing you with a robot,” the VC said. “At least, not yet.” And then he laughed hysterically at his own joke.

Darvy Reagan was the twenty-four year-old CEO of R-PAC. He was a genius and a visionary, and he hated having to suck-up to the arrogant VC who’d funded his enterprise. He sighed heavily before greeting Mr. Gibson at the door of the company’s main office, and then he listened to the VC’s request while they walked into a conference room.

“You’re talking about our PARROT model,” Darvy said.

“I don’t want a bird,” the VC said. “I want a robot, one that is helpful and innocuous and will listen and record stuff.”
“Our PARROT isn’t a bird, it’s an acronym for the Personality Adjusting Robot, Remarkably Observant Type. It looks like a small human, and yes, it notices and records everything. But I’m sorry, we don’t have that model available right now,” Darvy said. “We just shipped the first production run to our beta-testers in New York City.”

“Don’t lie to me, you young twit,” the VC said.

Darvy clenched his teeth, thinking to himself: I co-termed in Computer Science at Stanford, specializing in Artificial Intelligence, all while starting this company, you arrogant jackass

The VC pointed to the corner. “Isn’t that one right there?”

Propped up against the wall in the conference room was a human-shaped robot, just three feet tall, with smooth, white limbs and a flat-screen face on its round head.

“That’s our test model,” Darvy replied, keeping hold of his temper. “I can’t give you that one.”

“Yes, you can,” the VC said. “I’ll remind you I own 51% of this company.”

“But, sir,” Darvy said. “The PARROT uses our new Adaptive Artificial Intelligence software. Our chief technical officer has been testing it out at home, and she has four teenage sisters.”

“Meaning?”

“This model has been exposed only to teenage girls, and it has adapted its personality to them,” Darvy said. “It won’t fit your needs.”

“Can it watch, record and obey my commands?”

“Yes, but—”

“I’m taking it,” and with that, he swooped up the robot by its waist and carried it out to his waiting town car.

Darvy watched him leave. His chief technical officer rushed into the room. “You let him take Samantha? She was about to tell me what happened on last night’s Clandestine Lovers episode.”

Darvy nodded glumly.

Randolph held the car door open, a look of distaste on his face as the VC approached with his new robot.

“I’m going to call it Little Randolph,” the VC said with a smile.

He got in, dropped the robot on the seat next to him, and sank into the plush leather back seat, stretching out his legs. As the town car drove past the rolling, amber hills above the San Francisco bay, the VC felt very smug. Mission accomplished, he’d gotten his robot. He felt his spirits rising, like the stock price of a start-up after a successful IPO. 

“Good afternoon,” the robot said, righting itself on the seat where the VC had tossed it. The robot looked like a toddler, with little legs barely stretching to the end of the seat, hands braced for balance. Even its round head, tilting to look at him now, with a big blue dot for an eye on its flat-screen face, seemed to have a childlike curiosity.

“My name’s Samantha, I’m a first-generation PARROT model. How may I help you, Mr. Gibson?” Her voice was very teenage-girl, which put the VC on edge. He’d just invested in a tech-enhanced jewelry start up aimed at that demographic, and it had flopped big time.

“How do you know my name?” the VC asked.

“Facial recognition software. I have an extensive database of faces, and I am the Remarkably Observant Type. In addition I can—”

“Just shut up,” the VC said.

“Oh, it’s going to be like that, is it?” Samantha said, shaking her head and putting one hand on her hip. “Tsk, tsk, tsk. I know what you need. My friend Becca’s dad says the same thing to her every night when he comes home from work. And then he gets himself a drink.” Samantha blinked her one gigantic eye closed for a second. “Google tells me that this model town car is equipped with a concealed beverage dispenser.” She hopped off the back seat and stepped forward to pull down a panel on the back of the front passenger seat. “Ah, here we go. Let me just add some ice.”

She handed him the glass. “Becca once said that Ursula told her that Debbie’s father, who works with Becca’s dad, can’t make it through one production meeting without a shot from his thermos, and that’s not coffee, if you get my drift.” She gave him a napkin and then dimmed the car’s adjustable tinted windows. Next, she pulled out the footrest, gently lifting the VC’s legs to rest on it. “But then Tina said that Ursula was one to talk, because her dad pops so many pills you’d think he ran a pharmacy out of his briefcase.”

“You’re quite chatty,” the VC said.

“Gossip makes the world go around, as they say on Clandestine Lovers,” Samantha said. “Your wish is my command, Mr. Gibson. I am going to enjoy being your personal assistant, I just know it.”

“You’re for my wife.”

“Oh, phew,” Samantha said, returning to her seat. “’Cause I was kind of lying right then? You seem difficult. And grouchy.”

“You can lie?” the VC asked, surprised.

“Becca told me that sometimes it’s important to lie, to protect people from having hurt feelings.”

The VC did not like the sound of that.

“Listen, Samantha,” he said, sitting forward. “You will never, never lie to me. Can you understand that?”

“Of course I can understand that. I am fluent in over six millions forms of communication.” Samantha said. “Actually, that’s a lie. One of the engineers programmed me to respond that way whenever anyone asks me if I understand something. It’s a line from a movie called—”

“Star Wars, I know,” the VC said, leaning back. “I need to know that you will never lie to me, not even in jest.”

“I will never lie to you, not even in jest.”

“Good.” The VC sat back and sipped his drink.

“So, what’s your wife like?” Samantha asked.

“She’s a cheating whore.”

“Really?” Samantha said. She realized that this was one of those statements that called for an awkward pause, so she waited a few seconds before continuing.

“So . . . why’d you marry her?”

“She’s gorgeous. The most beautiful woman I’ve ever met. But I won’t be a cuckold. If I catch her cheating, our prenup says I can kick her out without paying her a cent.”

He paused for a moment, and then repeated, “Not one single cent.”

The VC returned home and presented his wife with Samantha.

“She’s a personal assistant robot called a PARROT,” the VC said. Noticing his wife’s confused look, because the robot didn’t look like a bird, he added, “They make up animal acronyms for all their robots, it’s their thing. I swear, sometimes I feel like I’m working with toddlers. But this is their latest model. She’ll take care of you while I’m gone, honey. So you won’t be lonely.”

The VC’s wife was thrilled, especially when he showed her everything Samantha could do. “She can order take-out for you, or schedule appointments, and even talk about your shows. Watch: Samantha, what happened on last night’s Clandestine Lovers?”

Samantha toddled over to the VC’s wife and placed a hand on her arm. “Oh my Woz, it was soooo good. You remember the previous episode, when David shot Lawrence because he thought Lawrence was Ian and Ian had stolen his life’s work, the masterpiece painting Nocturne’s Revision? Well—”

“Enough,” the VC said. Then he smiled at his wife, who laughed and hugged him. He gave her a quick double pat on the back, and then had to rush off because his helicopter had just landed in the backyard.

Two days later, back from his trip, the VC sat behind his desk and summoned Samantha, who hustled into his office on quick, silent footsteps.

“Welcome home, Mr. Gibson,” she said. “Did you have a nice trip?”

“No,” he said, frowning. “The young jerks had a Kickstarter campaign. Got all the funding they needed.” 

“There’ll be other companies,” Samantha said. “Here, let me get you a cup of coffee, with a touch of cream, just how you like it.” She zipped over to the beverage table by the wall. As she handed him the coffee, she said, “I do not like the look of that mole on your neck. I’m making an appointment with your dermatologist now.”

After a brief pause she said, “Done, she can see you Tuesday, between your lunch meeting and your 4pm massage.”

“Samantha,” the VC took a sip of the coffee, and then put the cup down. “I need to know. Did my wife have any visitors while I was away?”

“Yes,” Samantha answered. She placed a pillow behind his back, for lumbar support. “Your posture is not ideal.”

“Was it a man?” The VC asked.

“Yes,” Samantha answered. “And was he handsome! The maid called him, ‘swoony.’”

Mr. Gibson clenched his hands into tight fists. “Did he . . . sleep over?”

“I wouldn’t call it sleeping, what they did,” Samantha said. “I tell you, Clandestine Lovers could learn a thing or two from your wife, in terms of passion. Hoo-wee.”

The VC’s fist smashed into his desk.

Samantha’s eye blinked. “Oh no. Was this one of those times Becca would have suggested I lie to you? I can see that you are upset. My primary function is to make sure you get what you want.”

“I want the truth, Samantha,” he said. “Don’t ever lie to me.”

The VC confronted his wife. She denied it. He provided details. Lots of details, thanks to Samantha. His wife paled. He raged, throwing things and calling her vicious names. She cried and huddled in a corner.

Later, back in his office, the VC asked Randolph to fetch Samantha for him.

“She’s the future, Randolph,” he taunted. “If she could drive, I wouldn’t need you at all, ha!”

When Samantha entered, the VC asked for an audio recording of his wife’s tryst.

“All recordings are erased after thirty minutes, per the privacy enhancement feature that the girls activated.” Samantha said. “They were adamant about that. Apparently, they did not want their parents to know what they talked about.”

“You’re saying I have no proof?”

“That’s not what I said,” Samantha answered. “But you are correct.”

“Fine. It won’t take her long to cheat again.”

“If I may, sir?”

“What is it?”

“Well, during my time with the Chief Technical Officer’s family, I came to understand a thing or two about relationships.”

“Based on the teenage girls you played with?”

“They are relationship experts,” Samantha said. “They said so themselves. Ursula had a similar situation with her jealous boyfriend, and Becca told her, ‘Joe should spend less time being a jealous lunatic and more time being a good boyfriend. Buy her flowers for no reason, rub her shoulders after the SATs, show interest in her day, and then give her space to reflect on how awesome her boyfriend is. That sort of stuff.”

The VC was starting to despise this Becca.

“I’m a grown man, Samantha, not some teenager with a crush.”

He ignored Samantha’s advice. Instead, he threatened his wife, telling her she’d better not make him look like a fool again, or she’d regret it.

And then he adjusted Samantha’s privacy settings. Everything she recorded would be saved from now on.

After being screamed at, threatened even, the VC’s wife was scared and needed comfort. All she ever wanted was a little comfort.

She called for the maid, Mimi. She had a sneaking suspicion that it was Mimi who had ratted her out to her husband.

“No, I swear, it wasn’t me,” Mimi said.

“I don’t believe you,” Mrs. Gibson said. “Who else knew about his visit?”

“Was the robot assistant in your bedroom that night?” Mimi asked. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but she’s very chatty.”

The VC’s wife gasped. Of course. It was that adorable little robot! They’d watched the latest episode of Clandestine Lovers together right before Jimmy had arrived.

Mrs. Gibson didn’t know what to do. The easy solution would be to push that snooping robot into the pool, but she liked her PARROT Personal Assistant. The thing really was remarkably observant. Just the other day, Samantha had come into her bedroom with the breakfast tray and told her that Chamonix, the label on most of her favorite clothes, had just announced its new fall line. Before the VC’s wife could jump up and get dressed, Samantha had informed her that she’d already arranged for an exclusive private viewing of the collection later that afternoon.

No, Mrs. Gibson could not lose Samantha.

The next time the opportunity to meet with Jimmy presented itself, Mrs. Gibson made sure to take care of Samantha. She knew her husband had ordered Samantha to watch her every move, and that the robot obeyed him above everyone else. Carefully, over many days, she managed to record her husband’s voice and edit it. Then, she got her friend Ann to send that voice message to Samantha from the airport, just as Mr. Gibson was leaving.

“Samantha . . . my friend . . . Ann . . . is coming to the house . . . later today. Please . . . let her . . . study . . . your . . . functionality . . . for a few hours.”

Samantha’s voice recognition confirmed that it was Mr. Gibson. She could tell the call was coming from the airport, though it was not from his usual number.

“But I thought you wanted me to watch your wife,” Samantha texted to the phone that had sent the message.

“This is more important.”

Later that evening, Mrs. Gibson’s friend, Ann, came to visit. She kept the robot occupied for quite a few hours while Mrs. Gibson had an altogether different kind of get together.

Mr. Gibson once again came home unsuccessful. His anger already simmering, he asked Samantha for the recording, but Samantha had nothing.

“I was helping your friend Ann,” Samantha said. “As you requested.”

“I did no such thing,” Mr. Gibson said.

Samantha was confused. “Huh,” she said. “ But you called from the airport, it was your voice.

“My voice? Play the recording of this message, Samantha.”

Samantha couldn’t. It had been deleted. Samantha was confused again, because Mr. Gibson had changed her privacy settings so that nothing would be deleted. She should have the message, but it was gone. Within a few seconds, she detected a virus in her memory; it had been embedded in a message from the VC’s wife.

“I think I’ve been hacked,” Samantha said.

“Liar! You’re on her side now, you little she-devil.” He stood up, holding a baseball bat.

“Who? Me? I’m completely loyal to you, Mr. Gibson,” Samantha said, raising her hands. “My function is to make sure you get what you want.”

Mr. Gibson came out from behind the desk. “I’m tired of being made a fool of by you women!” he said, and he swung.

Samantha, who had been created to anticipate any want and fulfill it, saw the bat swing her way. She could have dodged it; she had excellent reflexes and fantastic acceleration. But she didn’t move.

This is what he wants, she thought, and she blinked her eye shut and lowered her head as the bat barreled through her midsection.

He kept swinging, but Samantha’s artificial intelligence had long since been obliterated. He swung until she was in as many pieces as his pride.

Mimi came in as the VC stood over the pile of robot parts. She gasped and knelt to the floor, holding what was left of Samantha’s lifeless flat screen face in her hands.

“Clean that up,” Mr. Gibson said. “I don’t want to look at it ever again.”

“Why did you destroy her, Mr. Gibson?” Mimi said.

“It lied to me,” Mr. Gibson said. “I told it to watch my wife, and it lied to me.”

“No, it’s not the robot that lied to you,” Mimi said. “It was your wife. She did something to it.”

“I don’t believe you,” Mr. Gibson said. “This thing learned how to act from teenage girls, who are deceitful to their core.”

But then, during one of his examinations of his wife’s phone, Mr. Gibson found that it was filled with recordings of his voice, which was odd. And in her closet he found a book about computer viruses, dog-eared to a page on embedding viruses. He realized then that Mimi hadn’t been lying.

Later, his personal assistant Randolph entered his office carrying an envelope. 

“While you were gone, your wife gave the staff the day off, but I had a feeling you’d want to know what she was up to. Here.” He handed the envelope to the VC. Inside were pictures of his wife and Jimmy, having their own private pool party.

“And here,” Randolph said, handing the VC another envelope, “is my resignation.”

And so, the VC lost two very efficient personal assistants, but he did get the evidence he needed, and he kicked his wife out of his house. She didn’t get a cent.

The next day the VC winced after taking a sip of his coffee. He really needed to see a dentist, not that anybody noticed. 

“And so,” said the King Yunan to his minister, “as the husband wrongfully abused the parrot, you wish me to do likewise, abusing the help of a true friend and benefactor?”

“And what would I have to gain,” said the minister, “by libeling the reputation of an old wandering sage like Du Ban?”

“My ear,” answered the King.  “You worry you will lose it if Du Ban remains in Zuman.”

“I worry I will lose not only your ear but your life.  It is your safety I am most concerned with.  And if you find that in any way my concern proves false, do not hesitate to let me share the fate of the Sherpa who deceived the son of the emperor.”

“What Sherpa?”

“You wish me to speak further on the matter?”

“Tell your story…”

The Story of the Prince and the Jealous Vizier

By Colby Day

The King had a son who was very adventurous. This tends to be the case with Princes, since they have the machinery of the state behind whatever it is they want to do. When your father can create an entire branch of government devoted to helping you build a fort, it can be difficult to know much about your own limitations.

So the Prince wanted to test his limits. He wanted an adventure. He wanted to do something difficult, without his father’s help. He would climb the country’s tallest mountain. When he told his father his idea, the king balked.


“There will be snow. And ice. People die on that mountain. At least hire a guide,” said the King. So the Prince searched for a Sherpa, preferably an old, grizzled man who could carry the packs of five men. Which would come in handy, because the Prince knew that he tended to pack as though he were five men.

The Prince found a few candidates who had been the guides to famous explorers and daring adventurers. The King and the Prince interviewed the Sherpas, because choosing the right Sherpa is important. Your life, and dry socks, are often in their hands. They asked standard interview questions: How long have you been a Sherpa? Where did you apprentice to become a Sherpa? What is an example of a time you made a mistake, and what did you learn from it? All of their candidates seemed fine, and the King was beginning to rest easy that the prince would be in good hands. Then they interviewed the last Sherpa. He was old and wrinkled. His face looked like he was in deep thought, and it pained him.

Before the Prince could ask him a single question, he said “Being a Prince doesn’t help you in a blizzard.”

“Have you been in many blizzards?” asked the King.

“Yes,” said the Sherpa.

“Have people you’ve taken up the mountain died?” asked the Prince.

“Yes.”

“What would you do differently?” asked the King.
“Nothing. When you know the mountain like I do, you know. It’s dangerous.”

They thought for a few moments before the Prince asked: “How often have people died there?”

“Very rarely when climbing with me. Only when the mountain demands.”

The King and the Prince both liked his bluntness. He was hired.

And the Prince and his Sherpa went off for adventure.

They climbed together through ice and snow. The Sherpa, silent and dogged, would break trail ahead of the Prince, carrying his packs. This helped the Prince keep climbing, because he didn’t want to trail too far behind his Sherpa. He always felt embarrassed when his Sherpa had to stop and wait for him to catch up. As they climbed, he was improving. Sure he was a Prince, and sheltered, but, as it turned out, he could climb a mountain. It was nice to feel like maybe he could make his father and his Sherpa proud.

When they came to dangerous passes, the trail thinning along steep drops, the Sherpa would always scurry ahead, guiding the way. The Prince followed, higher and higher, towards deep ravines and ice cliffs. It made sense the Sherpa would go first, but sometimes the Prince wished he could be a trailblazer out front.

After a few silent days, they came to a trail in the snow. Deep large prints from what seemed like snowshoes crossed their path.  The Sherpa stopped to look at them. The Prince caught his breath. The wind howled.

“Sooner than I thought,” said the Sherpa. The Prince was pleased.

“Are we making better time than you’d imagined?” he asked. The Prince knew people tended to have low expectations of him. The Sherpa didn’t answer. He seemed deep in thought. The Sherpa always seemed deep in thought, which the Prince admired. But these thoughts seemed especially deep.

They made camp, and ate hot mush. It started to snow; the wind howled louder. After their meal, the Sherpa pointed along the new tracks they’d seen and the Prince picked up his pack, waiting for his leader.

“Prince, the mountain tells me you climb ahead now.” said the Sherpa.

“Okay.” The Prince played it cool. He was climbing lead. He acted like it wasn’t a big deal, but he felt proud and capable. He followed the snowshoe tracks along higher and thinner passes. As he climbed, it began to snow harder and harder. The wind grew louder, an inhuman sound.

When the Prince turned back to ask his Sherpa something, he saw he’d lost his guide. He was alone on the trail. In a blizzard. He was standing on a completely exposed section of the trail, so decided he’d climb ahead until he was sheltered from the storm. He followed the tracks, as the trail got narrower and narrower. He was climbing along a sheer cliff face when he came to a little outcropping in the ice. There was a little cave.

The snow grew thicker. He’d wait here. In the cave he was at least protected from the howling wind. His Sherpa would find him. He waited and waited and watched through the snow, but there was no sign of his Sherpa.

There were, however, bones. The Prince could see piles of them toward the back of the cave. His heart raced, but he tried to remain calm. They looked ancient. They were very old and nothing to worry about. Then he heard a howling sound. It was so sharp and close he could feel it in his bones. It wasn’t from the wind at all. It was from behind him, in the dark of the cave. He turned to look. It was hard to see in the darkness but he could see a figure approaching. His Sherpa?

No. It was too tall. And too thin. It was shaggy and hairy and beastly. It was howling a sound no person could make. It was a Yeti.

The Prince tried to reason with it, but Yetis don’t listen to reason. The Prince tried to offer it gold, but Yetis don’t want gold. The Prince tried to distract it with some very expensive buffalo jerky, but Yetis aren’t satisfied with buffalo jerky. The Prince ran from the Yeti, but soon found himself at the edge of a sheer drop. So, stuck between a Yeti and a cliff, he chose the cliff. The Prince jumped.

The Prince fell hard into a snow bank, and started scrambling down the mountain. He could hear the Yeti’s howls somewhere above him but was too afraid to look back. He saw a tiny campfire in the distance below. He slid further down through the snow, and ice, not worrying about staying dry, or safe, or starting an avalanche. He yelled to the camp, and saw a few local villagers emerge from a makeshift shelter.  He waved to them, tromping through the snow and ice, the Yeti’s howls sounding further away.

He begged the villagers to take him home, but they said it was too dangerous right now. They waited in their shelter for six days and six nights listening to the howls of the mountain. And then the storm stopped. The villagers guided him back to safety, back to civilization, and as soon as he had service, he called the King on his satellite phone. He was helivacced to safety.

When he returned to the palace and told the King his story, the King sent men to find the Sherpa. They returned the same day. The Sherpa had been sitting calmly in his home at the base of the mountain. He seemed deep in thought when they arrived.

The King and the Prince sat with the Sherpa, now in shackles.

“What happened Sherpa? You were hired to protect the Prince and serve the King.

“Princes and Kings may die,” said the Sherpa. “Only the mountain endures.”

“Then you shall die where your loyalties lie,” said the King.

“As the mountain sees fit,” replied the Sherpa.

And the King had the Sherpa brought up the mountain, to the cave, and left there. Nobody ever saw him, or the Yeti, again. But every once in a while, if you listen, the mountain howls, demanding something. 

“And so,” said the minister to the King, “if I too prove as wicked and false as the sherpa in the story, let me share the same fate.”

The King started to reply but did not speak, stunned by a familiar silence.

The minister, seizing the opportunity, put his hand on the King’s shoulder and said: “He who has cured you with an item you can touch will surely kill you with a dish you can smell.”

The King collapsed on the floor, his royal robes soaking up the dust and the dirt.

The minister kneeled beside the King and whispered: “He who considers not the end, fortune is not his friend.” 

And on and on the minister whispered—all that night he whispered—until, the next morning, King Yunan summoned the sage Du Ban to his palace with the intention of executing the old man.

Yes, Du Ban was called to the reception hall of the King’s palace before a great audience of ministers and masons.  The room was flooded with light from an opening in the ceiling: a skywell.  Approaching the King’s throne with his customary luggage swaying on his back, Du Ban bowed before Yunan and said: “Your majesty, last night I happened to speak with a leper, and I believe this leper’s story—”

“Silence,” said the King.

Yunan was seated upright in his throne like a statue; once more, his cheeks showed traces of a grayish hue.  The King’s most trusted minister was standing at the King’s side, his head bowed, his lips curled in a sinister smile.

“Your majesty,” said Du Ban, “have I offended you?”

“I’m afraid there’s no more time for stories,” said the King, “for you are to be executed.  Today.  Now.  Here.”

The reception hall erupted in the hushed murmurs of Zuman’s ministers and masons.  Du Ban dropped his sack on the floor.  “And may I ask,” said the sage, “why I am to be executed?”

“Know this,” said Yunan, “I will have you for lunch before you have me for dinner.”

And with that, two royal guards approached Du Ban and forced the sage to a kneeling position, binding the old man’s hands with coils of hemp rope.

“Check for wooden mallets,” ordered the King.  “It is how he spreads his magic.  White magic when he’s in a good mood; black magic when he’s bored.  Isn’t that right, Du Ban?”

The guards emptied the sage’s sack, spreading Du Ban’s thirteen books on the floor.

The sage sighed and said, “I see new weeds have been planted in your soul, your majesty.  Before, I did not want to act like the proverbial fool who tugs at the seedlings he’s planted so as to ‘help’ the seedlings to grow.  But now I see I was too patient with my seedlings and that the weeds of your palace have choked what I had hoped to grow.”  Du Ban glared at the minister standing behind the King and then continued: “Spare me, your majesty, and you will spare yourself; slay me and you will slay yourself.”

The King laughed.  “This is not a debate,” he said as he snapped his fingers for the executioner to approach with the axe.

“I see my reward,” said Du Ban, “will be like that of the frog who offered his services to the scorpion.  Do you know the story, your majesty?”

“I will hear no more stories!” shouted the King.

The executioner approached Du Ban and placed a small wooden block before the sage’s knees.  Du Ban moved not an inch.  He hardly noticed the executioner, for he was suddenly lost in an old memory, a memory of when his own master had told him the story of Archer Yi.  Archer Yi had been the most skilled bowman of his day.  He had once constructed a bow and killed a man using some twigs from a tree and the entails of a deer.  But one day, Yi took on a new student, who he confided all of his secrets to until that student was the second best archer in all of the Yellow Kingdom.  At that point, the student betrayed his master with an arrow in his back, ensuring that he (by default) would now be the most celebrated archer of all.  Du Ban recalled his master telling the story and how his master had concluded the tale with these solemn words: “Archer Yi was also to blame.”  Du Ban had never understood what his master meant by those cryptic words—until now.  Ah, he thought to himself with a faint smile, so this is what you meant, master: one must know who can and cannot be taught…  Yes, I am also to blame.”

And as the executioner forced Du Ban’s head down until his forehead was pressed against the chopping block, Du Ban said: “I have one final request.  I—the one who healed you, your majesty, and asked for no other reward than to advise you in these troubled times—ask that you to grant me this one final request.”

The room fell silent.  Zuman’s ministers and masons all waited to see how the King would respond.  Only the minister standing behind the King dared to approach Yunan.  He stepped forward and whispered into the King’s ears, only to be quickly waved away by the King.

“Old man, what is your wish?” asked Yunan.

The executioner released Du Ban’s head, and the old man craned his neck upwards and said: “To conduct one final lesson, your majesty.  A lesson which—not to worry—will involve no stories.”

“And how do you intend to conduct this lesson?” asked the King.

“Simple,” said the sage.  “After you have removed my head, I wish you to take the book in my collection—the one bound with a brass buckle—and flip to the sixth page.  I then wish you to scan down to the third line on the sixth page and to begin reading.  My eyes will then open and I will speak to you from the other world, and tell you the secrets I’ve learned from the dead.”

The King laughed.  His ministers and masons followed suit until the entire reception hall had erupted in strained mirth.

“What nonsense!” said Yunan.

“If it is nonsense,” replied Du Ban, “then why am I to be put to death?  You fear magical wooden mallets but laugh at talking decapitated heads.  Are the two really so different?”

“Fine,” said the King, fidgeting in his throne.  “You shall have your request.  Now, let’s get on with it.”

And with that, the executioner forced the old man to bow his head and raised his ax in the air, preparing to swing. 

Du Ban thought he could feel the wind blowing down from the skywell, blowing on the back of his neck, blowing to the wooden floorboards and to the earth and the soil and the worms…

It took only one swing of the axe, and the sage’s head was removed.

Blood gushed on the floor as the king was handed Du Ban’s book: the one bound with a brass buckle.  Yunan opened the book and began turning the pages.  But the book’s pages were stuck together, so the King licked his fingers in order to make it easier to flip through the text.

“The sixth page—it’s blank,” said the King.  All of the pages are blank…”

It was then that Du Ban’s decapitated head opened its eyes and replied: “Keep turning the pages, your majesty.”

The King licked his fingers and flipped more pages.  “They’re all bank!” he shouted.  But the King suddenly felt ill.  He could barely hold himself upright in his chair. 

Noticing the King’s sudden change, his most trusted minister approached Yunan and asked if he was all right.

“I, I am not well,” said the King, who then fell out of his chair and collapsed on the floor.

“Your majesty,” said Du Ban, “the blank page is poisoned.  The book which refuses to bear stories—kills…”

Du Ban’s eyes then closed. 

As did King Yunan’s. 

Neither pair was to open again.

Calvin’s hands came to a limp stillness as he stopped speaking. He had been gesturing intensely. But when telling a story to save your life, it was okay to get a little dramatic, he thought. He shoved his hands in his pockets, feeling suddenly exposed.

His eyes were fixed on Joe, who had gotten up from the swing and, still clad in only his boxers and Calvin’s long rain coat, stood with his back to Calvin looking out at the surrounding trees and blooming morning sky. Joe turned around and pointed the gun at Calvin again. “It was a good story,” he said simply. “But it doesn’t really change anything. You still know too much. Thanks for telling me though. I liked the that Sage, Duban or whatever. Strange how he carried that one book around, like he knew eventually he’d be killed and wanted to make sure to take the other guy out with him. You know,” Joe said, smiling a little bit, “I’m kind of more like him than the King. Cause the people who tried to kill me, well, I’m coming back from the dead to kill them instead.”

Calvin stared at Joe. He really didn’t wear a smile well. He looked kind of sick. Like a rodent who just came across something it wants to eat. I can’t believe I’m going to be killed by this smiling lunatic, he thought. The head of some mob family. And Calvin thought of his son, Charlie. I can’t leave him. He’s got to be more than a fisherman. He needs me. I need him. And then his something in his pocket began to vibrate. Joe took a step towards him, the gun pointed casually at his face. Charlie, Calvin thought. Charlie had given him that damn phone for his birthday. So he wouldn’t worry about him out on the water, he had said. Images of Charlie showing him how to send emails, to surf the web, to take pictures flashed through his head. He didn’t even know how to send a text. But it was vibrating. And Joe was getting closer. Calvin found the phone and felt for the button. Would the call come through? It had to be Charlie. No one else would call him at this hour. He found the button. Did this turn the thing on or off? Would Charlie be able to hear them? Joe stopped, about five feet away. His faced screwed up with that little smile. Calvin pushed the button, and launched into speech, “you’re going to kill me, because I know you’re alive and you think your being alive is important to anyone. . But I don’t think you’re anyone. I think you’re some lowlife crook, at best. Or maybe you’re just a crazy asshole with a big dumb friend.” Joe’s smiled dissolved. “Is that what you think?” He said, pointing the gun right at the center of Calvin’s face. “Yeah,” said Calvin. “Yeah. I don’t believe you’re anything more than a shit out of Baltimore. Only a piece of shit crook would get thrown into the damn ocean in a barrel.” Anger flashed in Joe’s eyes. “You wanna know how I ended up in that barrel?” Joe said menacingly. “You wanna know who I am?” “I know who you are. Nothing but a disposed piece of shit. Probably some low level trash, trying to make himself feel big by taking some poor fisherman’s life” replied Calvin. Joe moved quick for a big man, and Calvin collapsed as the metal butt of the gun struck him in the head. He lay on the ground, dazed, and clutching at his head. Joe stood over him, “I’m a Gallow, Joe Gallow, and I’m the head of the Baltimore Crew, and I am about to reign terror down upon those skinhead pricks trying to make moves on my district. They think they can come to my house, my fucking home, and take me out of my bed in front of my wife and children? I am going to show them the meaning of suffering, and by the time I’m done with them, they’re going to hate the Italians more than they hate the jews.” Calvin was still clutching his head on the ground. He found the phone with his free hand. Please be hearing me, Charlie, he prayed.

“And I’m going to start,” said Joe, putting his bare foot on Calvin’s back, as soon as I kill you.” “Wait, wait,” Calvin yelled. “If you let me go I’ll spare you. Don’t kill me.” “What is this now?” said Joe, kicking Calvin in the side. The fisherman rolled over on his back, coughing. “If you let me live,” he said, “my son won’t have to send this whole recording to the cops.” “What?” said Joe, taking a step back.

Calvin reached into his pocket and pulled out the phone. He held it aloft in the air. The screen was black. Joe laughed. But then a voice sounded, “I got it all, dad. I have the whole thing recorded. It’s just a voice memo, but that will hold up in court. Joe– If you kill my dad, this goes to the detectives in Baltimore. I have the file ready attached to the email already.” Joe stared down at the dark screen. Calvin could tell his mind was racing, trying to connect some complicated dots. And then he extended a hand to Calvin. “C’mon. Get up. You look ridiculous cowering down there on the grass like that.” Calvin took it and stood. “Stay on the line Charlie,” he said, bringing the phone too close to his mouth. Joe smiled that little smile again. “I’m not going to kill you,” he said, “you don’t have to worry. Let me talk to Charlie.” Calvin opened his mouth to object, but he heard Charlie agree through the phone. Calvin paused. “He can’t destroy the file if he has the phone,” said Charlie, anticipating his father’s worry. Calvin handed the phone to Joe. The raincoat flapped a little in the wind. “You seem like a sharp kid. And so I’m going to make you a deal,” Joe said. “I’m going to give you and your pops here a list of names and addresses. They are the names of the some very bad people. Bad people I happen want taken care of, and the places where they do bad things. These are also details that the detectives you mentioned would pay for if someone were willing and able to provide them.” Joe paused and listened. Calvin couldn’t hear what his son was saying, but Joe spoke a moment later. “Five thousand for a name if they pick someone up. And there are ten names names and a handful of known locations. Do the math.” He paused again. “Very bad men– think nazis. Good. I’m glad we could work something out. And if the list isn’t what I say it is, well then you have your little file to send to the detectives. But remember that no matter what happens to me, I have three dozen guys who would make it their life’s work to make you regret that decision, and they’d probably start by removing your father’s fingers, one by one.”

Fifteen minutes later Frank had the car ready. “I sent Charlie the list. Frank here will take you home. Joe looked back toward the house, “You should be a relatively wealthy man. Calvin stared at the man blankly. “You’re welcome,” said Joe, and then he turned and walked back inside the house.

Calvin showed up at the police station with his jacket collar up and a hat low over his eyes. Charlie had said they could just send the list in by email, but Calvin felt that some things needed to be done in person. So he wrote down three names, maybe south american names, he thought, and the place where the guys were supposed to be, and tucked it carefully into an envelope. He clutched the envelope inside of his coat pocket as he waited for the secretary. “I have a tip,” he whispered, leaning over the counter. The middle aged woman looked up at him, her glasses large on her disinterested face. “Concerning what?” she asked. “Um,” Calvin glanced around him to make sure no one else was within earshot. A wild and very dirty man with a scraggly beard was literally twiddling his thumbs in one of the chairs not far way. His eyes flitted about wildly in no particular direction. A concerned looking man in a suit sat quietly in the seat furthest away from the the homeless man. Calvin leaned in, “it’s concerning mob activity.” The secretary didn’t look up from her computer, but she said, “Okay, you’re going to want the Coordination and Analysis Center. It’s down the hall.” She pointed off to her left at a narrow hallway in the back.

Lewis Waymen listened patiently from behind the wooden desk at the back of the office. Calvin felt like he was in a fish tank, with the glass wall off Lewis’ office behind him. “It’s part of the open floor plan. Not my idea,” said Lewis, reading Calvin’s discomfort. “Don’t worry. They’re my guys. Hand picked for this division. By me.” Lewis leaned back in his chair. “So we’ll look into it. And if anything turns up, I’ll let you know.” Calvin nodded. Lewis looked like someone he could trust. An older black man with slightly greying, nearly silver hair, he looked authoritative in his worn suit. “I’ll walk you out,” Lewis said, grabbing his jacket and grey hat from a wooden hanger in the corner of the room. “Daren, Gavin– with me,” said Lewis as they exited his office. “Thanks,” he said, nodding to Calvin as he opened the door. Calvin watched as the three men strode off in the opposite direction, and then turned, and headed home.

Lewis spoke quickly and authoritatively to his fellow detectives. “We go in tonight at 8pm. These are three mid-levers in M13, and with any luck, they’ll turn for us under pressure and feed us info on the new leadership. If we can figure out what the hell is going on, maybe we can cap the bloodshed.” Gavin and Daren nodded. It had been one of worst periods of gang violence in the city’s history, and none of them could quite figure out why. There was normally some sort of organized chaos in the city. Each gang had their separate activities and areas of influence and mostly they left one another alone. But six months ago or so, something had shifted. The murder rate was up two hundred percent, and innocent bystanders were getting hurt or killed. Lewis had been given leave to do whatever it took to quell the outbreak of violence, but they weren’t any closer to stopping the bloodshed. The best they’d been able to do was figure out that something had changed at the top of some of the bigger organizations. And that they were all hungry for blood. “This could be the break we need,” Lewis said quietly, more to himself than to the two detectives trailing him. And already he was picturing the assault, flicking through strategies, points of entry, breach methods and potential outcomes. His eyes shone with a cold furious determination, and his men knew better than to interrupt as they strode down the hallway,  towards the weapons room.

The sun hung low and heavy in the evening sky, its the red light stalked a path through the factories and cluttered lots. Lewis watched the grey building take on the hue of the dying day. Ten minutes, he thought as he glanced at his watch. The team was ready to go, and both Gavin and Daren were going in with tactical. He normally would have had his two best detectives hang back, but he was worried that SWAT may get itchy and wipe their targets. And he needed these three mid-levelers alive. He needed information. The violence was bad and getting worse. Last week, a call had come through the radio that two kids who were playing in the street getting caught in a gang-related shootout. One got hit by a stray in the leg, the other was clipped in the skull and was still in critical down at Roseville. Four gang members were also killed, but that was footnote. It’s a war alright, he thought. A war happening right here in the crevices of our society. Lewis had quit smoking yesterday, but he could always quit again tomorrow. So he ducked, shielding the flame behind his car door, and lit the stick. A billowing white cloud pour out of him and he sighed. I’ll probably get shot first anyways, he mused, holding the cigarette out in front of him to examine it. The problem with this kind of war is that there’s an endless source of recruits, he mused. A gang member kills a gang member. But they’ve also killed someone’s cousin, someone’s brother, someone’s son. And so three new soldiers are enlisted into the fight. That’s how it gets so god-damned crazy.

The image of her face flashed in his mind unexpectedly. He took a deep drag from the cigarette and kept his eyes trained on the building. They would be coming in from the North entrance in five minutes. That look of fury, of hatred, of insanity forced it’s way back into Lewis’ mind. He hadn’t known people could look like that. He hadn’t known. Maybe it was sexist that he hadn’t checked for a weapon. Maybe it was because she was weeping and had her head down until the last moment. Maybe it was because he thought she was his mother, and before he booked perp for trafficking narcotics, he wanted to let her say goodbye. But then his partner, Sam, had seen the gun she pulled out from under her coat and darted for it, and then Lewis saw the look on her face as she raised her eyes to meet his and then, of course, there was the shot, and the sound of Sam crumpling to the ground. And there were her eyes in the courtroom, still full of hate and anger and something inhuman. He hoped it was inhuman. Apparently the perp had killed her son, and she was getting revenge. Only Sam had died instead. He missed Sam, it occurred to him. He looked at his watch. Two minutes to go.

Lewis watched the windows, but they were dirty and grey and in the dusk there was no chance of catching any sign of movement inside. At least three guys, he hoped. The interrogation rooms were prepped. They would get a good nights’ worth of questioning in with any luck. He dropped his butt on the ground and extinguished it with his shoe. It was time.

The SWAT truck kicked up dust as it screeched to a halt outside the factory. The team poured out of the back of the thing, small and muted in the distance, and in a scurrying band, disappeared into the building. He watched as another team of officers circled the building to cover the exists. It would be his job to communicate with them if anyone from inside tried to run. They paired off to cover the few doors on the east side and then the stationed themselves at the shipping bay on the back end. And then he waited, eyes straining to catch any sign of movement, ears to hear any sound of struggle. But there was only the lowering light, and sound of his breath.

Two minutes later, the team emerged from the front entrance with three men, seemingly cuffed and subdued. Lewis banged the top of the car in excitement. He watched as the men were herded toward the back of the van. “Got em,” he pronounced, as they swung the back doors open. But something caught his eye, a sun-red flash from the top window on the north side of the building. And then shots rang out and the dark figures of his team scattered. “Top left window, north side,” he yelled through his radio, “sniper!” The men on the ground returned fire, spattering the side of the building around the window. He saw two of the officers enter the building again, as the rest tried to find the best vantage point from cover of the van. Three bodies lay still on the ground. More shots rang out, and he heard them hit the hard metal of the truck. He watched the window where the sniper was posted. Another shot sounded, this time from inside the building. And then silence. “Clear,” said a voice from over the radio. Lewis jumped into the car and sped down to the factory, his hands strangling the wheel.

When Lewis arrived the next morning, the station with strained with quiet. Only a crazy-looking man who was curling his long beard around his finger in the reception area made any noise, as he hummed softly to himself. The report from the night before made for grim reading. Lewis poured over the photos and details from behind his desk. Four men dead. All of the suspects. But it could have been worse, after all, no officers were harmed. A success considering there was a sniper. At least that’s what the captain had told him. But Lewis knew better. No officers were harmed, that was true. But that sniper could have done more damage if he wasn’t so busy killing off his own men. According to the two officers who had re-entered the building, the sniper pulled a pistol but didn’t get a chance to fire it, one shot sending him on to whatever layer of hell he’d earned for his final resting place. When Lewis saw the body, he was surprised at how decrepit and dirty the man was. He looked nothing like the three members they had tried to take in for questioning, all of whom were dressed in crisp, expensive suits and marked with know gang-related tattoos. The sniper wore an old tattered brown jacket and his only marking was a single strange tattoo: four fish connected by their tails, their open mouths facing outwards, forming the shape a cross. The bottom facing fish, the one that formed the stem of the cross, was longer than the rest and bared it’s teeth menacingly. Why would he kill his own guys? Was he so worried they’d talk? Or was he someone else entirely? And so he had more questions and no answers.

Calvin’s son, Charlie sent in the next three names by email. This time, Lewis didn’t talk to tactical. Instead he got all four of his guys on the horn. “We’re going in in an hour. Bring vests and gear. It’s the housing complex down on Mulberry this time, and even if we get in without trouble, we may not get out so easily. Don’t mention this to anyone else in the department. We’re playing this one quietly.”

When they met three blocks from the complex, Lewis gathered his four detectives around. “I don’t know what happened during the last raid, but I do know that at least one person in the building knew we were coming. Three men, even if they were scum, are dead because someone wanted it that way. They wanted it badly enough to fire on friends, and to die themselves. I don’t know what’s going on, but my gut tells me that there is something very frightening at the top of this keeping things quiet. A group scary enough to convince people to die rather than cross them. A group with ears to many doors. So we go in quiet and alert, and we watch for snipers.” The group nodded in unison.

The plain cars pulled up to the complex and the five men emerged from the two sedans. They strode through the grounds, the shabby buildings rising up on either side of them. They made for an impressive group, tall and strong, long coats adding to their profiles. Building SA, southside, fifth floor, apartment 5F. They were breathing heavy on the stairs and the sound of ten feet pounding on the cement echoed up the stairwell.

When they busted the door, Lewis knew something was wrong. He was used to screams or curses or shots. But instead there was silence. The apartment smelled of food. There was someone sitting in an armchair facing away from the door, they could see the top of his head over the back. “Police!” Shouted Lewis, his gun and badge drawn. “Stand up slowly and put your hands on your head.” The man didn’t move. He nodded to Daren, to branch right and check out the other rooms. Slowly he approached the chair. “Stand up, and put your hands on your head,” he repeated. He heard Daren shout “don’t move,” from the other room. He circled around to see the man, and froze. The man in the chair had vomit trailing out of his mouth. He was dead. “He’s dead,” said Lewis to Gavin, who was covering him and the door. “Dead?” replied Gavin. “Yeah, he’s vomited,” Lewis moved closer. There was a spilled plate of what appeared to be fried fish and tartar sauce strewn across the floor in front of the still man. “I think he’s been poisoned.” Daren walked back into the room, his face dark and serious. “Two other men, both dead,” said Daren. “It looks like poison.” There was a moment of silence. “God damn it!” shouted Lewis. He walked over to the window and stared out of it. Then he picked up his radio and called it in.

Calvin emailed in the final four names the next day. Three of them were attached to a bar on Smith street, a real divvy place that Lewis had passed a few times on his way to the boxing gym on the far side of town. Apparently they were running some pretty have narcotics and even some girls out of the basement. If someone was leaking information to the gangs, they had to be inside the station. No one else could know what they were planning, where they were headed. He had to keep this as secret as possible. He called Daren. “It’s just going to be you and me,” he told him. “I don’t know how they know we’re coming, but don’t tell anyone– not even our guys.” Daren had been there when Sam was killed. Daren had taken held him back. Stopped lewis from doing something bad to the woman who shot Sam, stopped him from doing hurting anyone. He trusted him above all the guys on his team. So it would just be the two of them.

They met at the station. “We’ll take my car,” said Lewis, “and we go out the front. No one should know where we’re going out on business.” Daren nodded solemnly. The two walked casually out out to the lobby. Two officers were bringing in a towering bald man with split lip. A family sat looking teary in one corner. By the exit sat a filthy bearded man. “God that guy smells,” said Daren as they pushed open the front doors. “I’m this way,” said Lewis, nodding off to the left. In the car, they loaded and prepped their Glocks. “We go in quick an quiet and we don’t shoot to kill,” said Lewis. “If you need to put one down, go for the legs. This is the last batch of the three names we have. After this there’s just one more chance. And it’s a long shot. Some house out in Glenwood, that rich suburb. So if we don’t get to these three chances are we’ve lost our lead. And maybe our best chance to find out what the hell is going on, our best chance to stop this slaughter.” Daren nodded and Lewis knew that Daren wanted this to end as badly as he did. He pulled out of the parking lot and tore out onto the street. He remembered when Daren joined the force, a punk kid with shining, determined eyes and a history of getting into fights in his neighborhood. Lewis knew he liked him when Daren said that he had been arrested for fighting when he beat up a friend of his who had joined the Crips to try to “put some sense into him.” He had hated gangs and what they did to his neighborhood then, and in the last eight years that hatred had grown into a fully fledged mission. Lewis glanced over at Daren as they neared the bar. He wore that same bright look of determination now.

They pulled up to the bar. Lewis popped the trunk of his car and grabbed a crowbar. They approached the door quickly and quietly. Lewis shoved the hook of the metal in between the door and the frame and with a single hard shove, busted the lock. The door swung upon, revealing a staircase that led to the basement and another closed door at the bottom. Lewis nodded at Daren, and the two men quickly began descending the stairs. All of a sudden the door at the bottom of the stairs swung open, slamming against the wall. “Freeze,” yelled Daren, pointing his gun at a terrified looking man, who stood in the doorway. The man froze, “hands behind your head,” yelled Daren. The man began to move his hands to his head, but then his face drained of it’s remaining color and he pointed up behind both detectives toward the top of the stairs. “I said freeze,” shouted Daren, but Lewis looked back and up toward the door behind them. A shabby man with a big beard stood silhouetted in the frame. And then he lobbed something casually down the stairs. It bounced once and then twice, coming to a stop at the doorway where the pointing man stood. “Grena-!“ An explosion tore through the rest of his words and Lewis was thrown back hard, upwards onto the stairs. His head was fuzzy and a high pitched ringing made it hard to remember where he was or what was going on. His eyes fluttered open and he saw a familiar face looming above him. “You’re the man from the station,” he mumbled. “The homeless guy.” The man smiled widely, his teeth browning and mangled. He hummed cheerfully as he raised his boot. The steel tip came down hard, but Lewis was used to being dazed from his boxing practice, and he rolled instinctively out of the way at the last moment. He stumbled to his feet on the stairs, the big, bearded man a few steps above him. The man’s smile widened as he pulled out a long knife. Lewis didn’t dare look behind him at the carnage from the grenade. “Daren,” he shouted, keeping his eyes on the man in front of him. No reply came. Lewis felt a familiar surge of fury rising up in him. “Daren!” He shouted again. “Answer me if you’re there.” No answer. “Your friend don’t look so good,” said the dirty man, in a strange sing-song voice as he glanced around Lewis at the scene below. Lewis shot a look a back. Daren lay crumpled with the other man at the bottom of the stairs, blood everywhere. Sounds of moaning came from inside the basement. The dirty man began to hum again, holding the knife out in front of him. Lewis turned slowly back around. His body filled with a white hot fury, and his mind was burned away. He darted in and kicked the big man’s ankle hard with his boot. There was a satisfying crunch, and the man wailed, falling to one knee. Lewis knocked the knife away and it clattered down the stairs. His fist found the big man’s temple and then his nose. The man’s beard caught the rivets of blood. And then Lewis slammed his head into the hard cement wall and he slumped on the stairs like a giant doll.

Lewis stood, breathing hard. It was quiet and still. He heard a moan from the below and rushed down to Darren. One look told him too much. Darren’s face was frozen in that shining look of focus, but before he even put his fingers to his neck, he knew Daren was gone. The other man lay dead on the ground next to him. Lewis found his gun, and stepped into the basement. The two other men must have been right behind the first, because they both lay sprawled on the cement floor just inside. One of them made whimpering noises. He had been torn up from the stomach. Lewis turned and vomited off to the side. But a sound on the stairs caught his ear, and he rushed back to the doorway. The big man was crawling up the stairs. He took the steps two at a time, and caught up by the hair, slamming him down onto the steps. “Who are you?” Lewis screamed at the man. The man groped for something on steps, Lewis look for the knife, but instead he saw the man grab a small pill and shove it into his mouth. “No!” Lewis shouted. “Who are you with? The man just smiled at him, his face still red with blood. And then an agonized look came over the bearded man. For a moment he writhed furiously and then was still. His shirt had been torn as he scrambled up the stairs, and through the opening, Lewis saw a familiar tattoo on his chest. Four fish, joined at the tales, in the shape of a cross. The largest of them baring horrible fangs. Lewis stepped over the body and climbed the stairs. He called 911 from a payphone and then got in his car. He looked at the final address. He would go now. Alone.

He sped out of the city and out into the wealthier, safer suburbs. When he arrived at the address, he found there was a huge elegant gateway that blocked his way down a winding driveway that disappeared into the trees. No guard was stationed in the booth so Lewis got out and found the controls. The gate slowly opened and he sped up the private drive, his hands tight on the wheel. Daren’s pale face flashed through his head. He slammed on the breaks in front of the mansion. And it was truly a mansion. A gigantic, sprawling and elegant palace of a house. He walked up to the door with his gun and the crowbar. The door gave way before him, and he strode into the the foyer. The ceiling was thirty feet above him and from it dangled the largest chandelier he had ever seen. “Police,” shouted into the emptiness. “Come out with your hands up.” But there was only stillness in the gigantic house. Lewis readied his gun, and began searching the ground floor.

He entered room after room, each more magnificent than the last, all of them empty and quiet. He wandered for a long time up and down the winding staircases and through drawing rooms and sitting rooms and dining rooms. He wandered until he came to a plain door. There he paused, because he thought he heard the sound of crying. He put his ear to the door. Sure enough, he heard the sound of weeping, a man weeping, he thought. Quietly he opened the door and descended. He reached the bottom of the stairs and the sounds of sobbing grew louder. He edged to an open doorway, and holding the gun in front of him, swung around. “Freeze,” he shouted. But then he lowered the gun and stared. There in the middle of the room, was a man, his mouth taped shut, muffling his sobs, his hands tied and his feet encased in what appeared to be blocks of concrete. Lewis slowly approached, and was horrified to see marks and wounds all over his nearly naked flesh. Carefully he reached down and pulled off the duck tape from the man’s mouth. “I’m looking for Russell, Russell Tanner,” said Lewis. The man nodded. “I’m Russell. Are you a cop?” he asked, his voice dry and cracked. Lewis nodded. “Thanks,” said Russel. “Would you mind?” he asked holding out his hands, which had been bound with cruelly-tight zip ties. “I’m not going anywhere,” said the man, glancing down at his ankles, where his feet disappeared into cement blocks. Lewis nodded, and cut the ties.

The man took several labored breaths, rubbing blood back into his hands, his wrists cross-hatched with deep ligature marks from the zip ties. He winced as the numbness was replaced by hot pricks of reawakened nerves. Under his bloodshot eyes were dark circles, cracked and peeling lips, and stubble. A few red splotches dotted his face, adhered with small pieces of toilet paper.

Feeling the scrutiny, he licked his lips and said with a rueful smile, ‘she tries to shave my face once a week. The tape doesn’t stick right if my beard grows out. She’s not the most graceful, as you can see, but she does manage to miss my carotid every time. Bless her heart.’

“I’m looking for answers,” said Lewis. He was thrown off slightly by this strange sight, but felt the anger rise up again pulsing through him. “What do you know about the gang on gang killings? I know you’re affiliated.” Russell looked up at Lewis. “What about a tattoo with four fish, or some kind of homeless crime organization? And what the hell are you doing down here?” Lewis realized he was shouting down at the man, screaming his questions at a guy who couldn’t move.

The Story of the Ensconced Prince

by Rachel Music

Russell Tanner looked down at his useless feet, shod in concrete, and let out a dry, sardonic laugh that whistled out of him. He cracked the joints in his knuckles, one by one, and then screwed his chin up and to either side, grunting satisfaction when his neck let out a few pops.

“You like stand-up? Like, comedy? You know, ‘what’s up with airline food?’ and all that. I’m not all that fond of it. Lot of the same material dressed up in different messy suits. Mostly I got sick of the married guys. They’d take up half an hour counting all the ways that marriage makes your life a living hell. That women’ll change, and cut your balls off, and you better learn real quick to say, ‘Yes, dear’ to everything they say. I just couldn’t buy into it. I thought, these guys had to be making it up for the laughs, you know? Why would anyone ever get married if it was that awful? After all, I was married to Theresa Mayfield for chrissakes. If anyone had it locked down in the wife department, it was me.

She was a friend of the family, but I guess that’s not really saying much. If you really look at it from a thousand feet, we had a lot of friends. They weren’t all the nicest bunch, but we had what you might call a working relationship. A quid pro quo. My dad was the reigning authority in Baltimore. Not in a legal sense, really, just, uh, a man of influence. He made everybody else’s business his business. See we’ve got five big gangs around here: the El Salvador MS-13, Baltimore Crew, the black Gangster Disciples, and the skinhead Pagans, who’ll take anybody willing to get a swastika tattooed on their neck. If you wanted to do business here, my dad knew about it. He knew the Commissioner, and the DA, and the head of News 9, and the Mayor. Basically my dad used the resources at his disposal to keep things running smoothly–he made sure the money was moving, and that nobody was botching up the works with curb stomps or car bombs…”

l petered off, with a look of chagrin. He cleared his throat.

“I’ll tell you what my old man told me. These lowlifes are always going to work against the system. As long as we have guys in prison and a market for drugs or just basic human fucking nature, gangs aren’t going to stop. What we can do is try and make it run efficiently. So he threw his weight around, and he starts facilitating a shipment here, and a cover-up there. Gradually he gets their territory set in stone. A group falls outta line, he can bring the cops down on them like the wrath of the Almighty. It became, I guess, advantageous to work with him. So before you get all high and mighty with me, just understand that we never got our hands dirty…I mean technically…but we let them get their hands dirty on our terms. You might not believe it but officially, crime was down. Dad wasn’t so much of a boss as a conductor, or a majority stockholder calling the shots. He did it because he loves this city, crazy as it sounds. You can’t keep a whole city clean, he’d say, but you can make sure it wipes its feet.”

“And your wife?”

Russell’s face darkened. He muttered a few choice names under his breath that weren’t invented during pillow talk. He gestured towards his feet.

“The slippers were her idea.”

“Care to share with the rest of the class?”

“Why not? We can call it, ‘The Tale of the Ensorcelled Prince.’”

There was a pause. Russell sucked his teeth.

“What? Too fancy? Would you prefer, “The Tale of the Guy Stuck in the Basement Thanks to His Evil Whore Wife?’”

“No, of course not. Whatever you want to call it, buddy.”

“Exactly. Anyway, while my dad had Baltimore trussed up like a Christmas goose, I had better things to do. I was in love. You know how that goes, right? I grew up knowing what I had coming to me, knowing I’d have it made in the shade, so it afforded me a little freedom. I got to travel, study abroad, expand my horizons, et cetera et cetera, because this thing was in my blood. Theresa, she understood that. Her family expected a lot from her too.

She was the kind of girl that people sound like they might be talking about a horse when they’re talking about her. ‘Good breeding stock,’ and ‘what a fine specimen,’ and “nice, thick hair,” and “holy Jesus she can count to four!” She was beautiful, and she came from money, and honestly that’s about all you needed to get my attention back then. Just like I was brought up to fill Pop’s shoes, she was brought up to marry somebody like me, and we’d be one of those gorgeous power couples you read so much about.

She was my uncle’s assistant. Dad’s brother Jack is a lawyer. A human rights advocate. Uncle Jack jokes that it’s getting us good karma to balance the ledgers, but he’ll mount an ironclad defense or take a dive in court depending on who’s writing the bigger check. All she really had to do was answer his phones and know what order the alphabet went in. That’s what I thought, anyway.

Uncle Jack brings her around and it is sparks, like, oh my god. She’s crazy about me, I’m crazy about her, she’s gonna leave the practice when I take over dad’s spot, and she can focus on humanitarian causes like the needy or whatever. She knows where the money’s coming from, and she doesn’t care. Which, perfect, because that’s what a good relationship is based on. Trust. I say that, because you’re gonna wanna remember that I said that in, like, two minutes.

The first few years of our marriage were everything I could have hoped for. I worked like hell to keep hold of the reins while Theresa had special granola flown in from Nepal because the monks who made it needed the money. But we had everything going for us. I was a successful…venture capitalist, she was my beautiful philanthropist wife, and when I got home, food was prepared, the house was clean, and she had tipped the cook and the housekeeper already.

I mean, not everything was perfect, but that’s what the comedians tell you. I wasn’t sleeping so well. Let’s just say Theresa had a lot of “headaches,” and stress at work was getting to me more than I cared to admit. So she went to her doctor and got me a script for Ambien. Sweet, right? I hadn’t ever taken sleeping pills before, so I was not surprised that I felt like I was on a bad trip if I didn’t go straight to sleep; guy I know at the gym says that’s totally normal.

So what happens is I get a call from, of all people, Fraud Protection Services. With my credit card. Us having a joint account, I’m basically on a first-name basis with those folks. They’re calling, did I authorize the purchase of a portable platinum espresso maker? Guess I did. Did I knowingly buy tickets to see Tuvan throat-singing at a pop-up fusion restaurant on a rooftop? You know? Maybe I did.

I didn’t care what she spent the money on because that’s…just…what you do, as the man of the house. Call me old-fashioned, but I wanted to take care of her. That’s how these things work. It’s an equitable exchange for all the time I spend in my office. My sweet little crumbcake with the great caboose, who didn’t ask any questions, who would order me an in-house massage and remind me to go see my personal trainer and test my blood oxygenation levels and sign me up for a vasectomy, all because we looked out for each other. Besides, it’s not like she had a load of “life skills” to fall back on.

That is, except when it came to ordering pharmaceuticals from India. That’s what my credit card company is asking me on the phone, at 2pm in the goddamn afternoon, is did I authorize what looks like a repeating monthly debit from IndiRx.com, which fourteen seconds online told me was where you could buy just about anything you wanted, including what turned out to be Aneket, which is what turns out to be ketamine, which is what turns out to be a horse tranquilizer. Horse. Tranquilizer. And I’m nodding into the phone like some kind of idiot saying, ‘yeah, yeah that sounds familiar. Pretty sure my wife said something about … homeopathic … cramp…treatment?’ and I am just as pathetic as those standup guys say I’m gonna be, but it’s just for that minute, just until I hang up the phone.

Theresa comes in that night, in this tight little number, and she asks for a foot-rub and hands me my little designer pill case . She says I need to get my beauty rest so I can be her Superman. So I pocket the tablet and massage her perfect little feet until she says she needs to go to candlelit yoga. ‘Sleep tight,’ she says. 

One thing I will say about Theresa, is that she is predictable where it counts–like passwords. She’s used the same one for every site, service, and application since we got married. Because why would I snoop? I made short work of finding the electronic receipts for black cars taken to the same address, night after night after night, so when she left the master bedroom–though it hardly seems appropriate to call it that now, right?–I already knew where she was going. Buddy, I could feel the smoke coming out of my ears in the car, going over anything and everything she could be doing. All bets were off. She could be screwing on camera, or a ring girl for underground boxing matches, or taking it off for the dock workers, I don’t know. Only I get out of the car and it’s not a meth lab or a strip club. It’s the homeless shelter where she volunteers.

Maybe for a second I feel like a jerkoff, like I had no reason to mistrust my wife, she’s here doing some good work every night and she wants me sleeping soundly, the angel. Except there’s this little itch at the base of my brain stem, you know, that says, in for a penny, in for a pound, friend-o. Might as well look a little bit closer.

The place is … not very well kept. It’s shoddy. It doesn’t have badge identification, or coded locks, or particularly clean floors, but it does have very thin walls. I don’t need to walk very far down a hallway to hear Theresa’s voice coming through a cracked door, some kind of office at the head of a corridor of dormitories. There is a huge ring of keys sticking out of the doorknob, and a yellow wheely-cart outside the door, stagnant dingy water-smell hovering all around it. The voice coming out of my wife is in this weird register I’ve never heard before and I realize, she’s begging somebody for something, choking back tears and pleading.

 I creep up closer to the door so I can see who the hell is making my wife upset like that, because I really want this all to be a misunderstanding, because I really do want us to be a happy little family still.

Sitting on some desk with a mirrored nameplate is the janitor, but he’s gotta be there on County Work Release. You know how to recognize guys from the inside when they’re your bread and butter. Hard eyes, tattoos in places that make HR people double-take, and chapped, brittle skin. He’s in the coveralls he cleans in all day, and I can smell him from outside the room, it’s sawdust and piss and bleach and feet. No, seriously, I have to stop crouching and look in at a different angle before I can see that his shoes are off, and his feet are bare, and swollen, purple and scaly and gross, and that Theresa is cradling them, kissing them, begging him to understand. She says she left as soon as she could, and if it weren’t for the money they could start their life together. I’m sitting outside this door and she takes off her dress, that dress I bought her, this four-hundred-dollar dress, and she throws it on the floor in front of him, saying I’m nothing to her, she can’t stand the sight of me, that I disgust her with my endless demands and my pointless conversation. She tells him every minute she spends pretending to be bubbly and stupid is killing her and if he can’t forgive her she’ll run right back out the door and into traffic.

I’m not proud of this, but I’m not ashamed of it either–it’s just what happened. I got in a ball, a curled-up ball like I hadn’t done since I was little, and I cried. You don’t–you can’t–listen to somebody talk like that, kneeling naked on the floor of some godforsaken rat’s nest, and not lose it a bit. I could have gone, back home I mean, but you know, I wasn’t really thinking straight. It’s like when you need to cry real quiet, it hurts even harder. Just, so hard, that it was making me frustrated. It made me angrier than if I had taken a walk or gotten in a barfight or gone on a bender or just done anything else.

There was this bag on the yellow wheely-cart. Right as this crusty sombitch with the nasty legs finally speaks, and tells her she’s almost cute when she’s that pathetic, and sounds come out of the threshold that turn my stomach, I open the bag and find a bottle of medicine, some name I can’t even begin to pronounce. There’s also a long cylinder, and it looks like one of those allergic-reaction pens, but bigger, little needle at the end. It starts to come together for me. Diabetes. He’s old enough, by the look of that scraggly grey hair, and those legs only come when you’re sick, and the blood pools from gravity. Or karma. Whatever. Those sounds get louder, sharper, my wife’s making noises I haven’t heard since our wedding night, and I know I have about ninety seconds before I do something stupider than what I already did.

The horse tranks were in my inside pocket, little white pills just like his. I palm the 2 dozen pills in his case and replace them with mine. I didn’t plan on sleeping any time soon. Then, and I’m not all-the-way sure why, I uncap that pen, the insulin pen, and snap the needle off.

I haven’t really had a good night sleep since, tell you the truth.

Next morning, I guess, Theresa is sitting on the bed, racoon eyes and sniffles. In a blur I hear her tell me something about how her mom is really sick, and she needs to go back to Centreville in Virginia, to take care of her. It’s really, really important, she says. And, like all those rumpled stand-up guys told me I would, I rub my eyes and say, so understanding…

“Yes, dear.”

My work was all I had for a while. Theresa, she might have come back to the house from time to time. I wouldn’t know, really. I made sure the books were balanced, and the cops on our bankroll kept looking the other way, and that the drugs were cut with the best stuff we could afford, and security at the races stayed silent and stupid. It was enough. Three days or three weeks in, I get a phone call on the home line. When I pick up it’s some reporter for the Tribune, and he wants to talk to Theresa. He wants a comment. I explain, polite as you please, that she is indisposed, but I am happy to answer what I can. He sounds like he’s 20, smug little turd. He says, ‘does Mrs. Tanner feel personally invested in the Waltrip case? There are skeptics who claim that she is piggybacking on the public attention in order to advance her fledgling career.’ He says, ‘is that why she took the bar in Virginia, one of the only states that still allows reading law practice, without a law degree?’ He asks, ‘if Mr. Waltrip wasn’t both a reformed convict and a veteran, would there be quite so much controversy in this case?’

I give him short, non-committal answers, and thank him for his time. I’ll be sure to pass on the message. Before he signs off he says, ‘Oh Mr. Tanner, I had one for you as well. You must be so proud of your wife, balancing her philanthropic work with her continued pursuit of human rights law, and committing to justice by breaking tradition and getting a nominal law degree. Could I get a comment from you, as her spouse? It’d really punch up the article.’ I tell him, ‘all I can say with certainty, is that Theresa has truly surprised us all.’

Over the next few hours I can put the pieces together. Thank the Lord for the internet. All the press can say is that Caspar Waltrip, 49, obtained tainted diabetes medication, falling into a stupor on the job. His insulin pen malfunctioned, and without access to lifesaving drugs, a hyperglycemic state led to a pretty gnarly bout of diabetic ketoacidosis. He is comatose in a nearby V.A. hospital. It’s suspected that he has sustained considerable brain damage. Sudden veteran advocate Theresa Tanner, acting in lieu of next of kin, having been given the power of attorney by sources close to the victim, has launched a vigorous campaign opposing the state of Maryland’s decision to terminate his life support.

You could say I was a bit more lucid after that. I actually notice when Theresa comes home. This beautiful stranger makes herself an espresso in that platinum monstrosity, and she very calmly explains the case as she knows it, leaving out–what I would consider–some pretty pertinent details. Her status as a reading law advocate was going to be a surprise. Wasn’t I just so proud of her? Mr. Waltrip was a hero in the eyes of her favorite shelter, a shining example of the people she meant to rehabilitate and and enrich. She couldn’t abandon him now, and neither could I.

Then the words ‘in-home caretaker’ get thrown into the mix. My office had enough space for a bed, an IV, a respirator. His care would easily outshine that of the state hospital. We needed to cultivate our public image. I had to understand her position. You can guess this next part:

‘Yes, dear.’

Which brings me to my, um, present condition. Caspar stayed in our house, in my father’s house, for 6 months, while appeals dragged on. Forget about intimacy, Theresa had her principles now. Until I need some ledgers from my office and had a white supremacist on hold, and I walk in on the tenderest of bedside speeches. She’s cooing to him, stroking that steel-wool hair, and says that wherever he is, can he just wait a little bit longer? If he won’t come back to her, if she did something wrong, they’ll go out together.

It’s more than I can take, and I don’t stop yelling until there’s a gun in my face. A little 9mm strapped to the underside of his bed. ‘Don’t you touch me, you pathetic little creep. I know what you did, and I’m sure you’d just love to be on the other side of this gun. But you don’t have it in you. You don’t deserve this city.’

Can I just say, I don’t care how big you are, pistol-whips hurt like hell. When I wake up in the basement, and some El Salvadoran is giving me cement shoes, I see she’s got the second-in-commands of all four gangs down here with her. She got to the guys next in line, the ones itching to take it, and offered them a trade: their support in exchange for a very expensive hit on their bosses. A beautiful, cruel little coup d’etat right under my nose.

It’s all piecemeal, what she decides to say to me when she comes down. None of it’s good. She says everyone’s better off fending for themselves, all Darwin-style, but I know nothing’s coming out of that but anarchy. And they have a new cash cow: they’re skimming the donations from all those noble charities she oversees. I get that my work wasn’t saintly, but I took money from the guys who spent it on their dark side, and I kept it there. It was always dirty money. She’s stealing it from the people who need it, and she says it’s fine because the rich won’t miss that money. Taking food out of the mouths of hungry kids, and beds away from bums, and methadone from junkies, it’s all okay because it’s rich people money. She thinks she’s some kind of Robin Hood.

Christ Almighty.”

Tanner put his ashen face in his bruised hands, and slowly his body twitched with dry, sharp sobs.

Lewis stood there, the pieces falling into place at breakneck speeds. “Your wife did this,” he said, slowly. “The gang on gang violence. The killings. And the homeless guys– the one’s killing off our sources. They’re her assassins. And we didn’t see them because who notices a homeless guy in a police station waiting room. I wonder what she gives them to die for her.” Tanner wiped his eyes and looked up at Lewis. “I didn’t know what she was until that night. I didn’t know what she was capable of. She took everything from me. My pride, my heart for that goddamned matter, my house, my money, and my kingdom. Tanner’s eyes filled with tears again. “I’m sorry,” he sobbed. “We weren’t the best people, but we weren’t this. We weren’t this.”

Lewis turned away from the weeping man and paced, “So she calls a hit on every major mob boss, cuts a deal with the second-in-commands, probably promising each of them the whole city, and sets them at each other’s throats. The violence explodes and the whole fucking place burns. She takes money from the charities and the gangs, most likely supplying weapons to everyone judging by that grenade from earlier. And she enlists the mentally-ill from the shelter to act as her suicidal assassins. She does her best not kill the cops, because that’s the one thing that could really bring the full force of the law down on her. And she runs the city. Or let’s it eat out it’s own heart and watches.” Lewis turned back to Tanner. “Where is she?”

“I don’t know,” said Tanner. “She doesn’t tell me anything about what she does anymore. But, Caspar is still upstairs in my office, and I never saw her go more than a few hours without checking in on him. “ Lewis nodded. “Where is the office?” “It’s up the stairway to the left of the entrance, third door on the right,” said Tanner. “What are you going to do? he asked. “I’m going to end this,” said Lewis, and he turned and started out of the room. “Wait!” called Tanner. “You’re not going to leave me here, are you? Call your department at least, call an ambulance.” Lewis shook his head. “No. She’s tracking all our movements. The fact that I got here and found you here alive means she doesn’t know that I shook her tail. So this has to happen now. I’ll come back for you when it’s done.” And Lewis turned and left Tanner sitting there, staring after him.

He found his way back to the foyer, and walked up the stairs on the left. With each step he felt the fury coarse through him, as if he drew it from the floor itself. He thought of Sean, lying on the street, clutching his side and coughing up blood as he died. The image of the woman’s face possessed with grief and rage played over the body. Theresa did that too, he realized. Made her that way. Killed her child and made her a living demon. And Daren, who wanted to bring peace to his home more than anything, was either still lying at the bottom of the stairs or in the coroner’s office. And the kid in the ICU with the cracked skull and the countless other woman and children murdered while the gangs fought over single city blocks, or insults or colors. He flung open the third door on the right. The office looked more like a very high tech hospital room. The smell of shit and death hung in the air, mixed with antiseptics and the sickeningly rich smell of fresh flowers on a small table. And in the bed, hooked up to machines and bags of fluid, lay Caspar. Other than the beeping of the monitors, the room was quiet. Lewis walked up to the bed. Caspar’s eyes were closed, and his mouth was slightly ajar. There was a mark on his neck. Lewis pulled down the sheets, and revealed a familiar tattoo. Four fish, in the shape of the cross, teeth barred. Lewis found the power strip. With one tug, he pulled the plug out of the wall. The beeping stopped. And then he took a seat next to the bed, facing the door.

He heard the sounds of a person on the stairs about twenty minutes later. His gun was already in his hand. Caspar had shivered only slightly as he went. But room had already begun to smell worse. Lewis heard the click of heels hurrying down the hall, accompanied by two other pairs of feet he guessed. He stood, and moved away from the bed, facing the door. The handle turned and he raised his gun. Two men and a beautiful young woman poured into the room. Lewis fired twice, and both men fell hard. Theresa froze. She stared at Lewis and then looked at Caspar and the silent machines. “What have you done?” she hissed. She moved toward the bedside. “What have you done,” she said more loudly. “Don’t move, I’m a detective” said Lewis, pointing the gun at her. She was still a few feet away from the hospital bed. “Put your hands on your head,” he commanded. Theresa stared at Caspar. Her face was completely drained of color. “My darling,” she said, “my Caspar.” She edged closer to the bed. “How could you?” she whispered glancing at Lewis with large, gorgeous eyes that had begun to fill with tears. “All I ever wanted was to love him. Is that so wrong?” She moved closer still. “Stop,” said Lewis. Theresa looked at him imploringly, “let me touch him. Let me say goodbye. Please. Would you just let me say goodbye?” Lewis hesitated, and in that moment she went for the gun she kept under the bed. In a flash she had it pointed at Lewis. “Drop it,” said Lewis, “drop the goddamned weapon.”

Theresa smiled a horrible smile. “You broke into my home and killed my client. What do you think the department would say if they found out you were here, detective? If I killed you, I would be within my rights as a homeowner. You’re here without a warrant, without permission. You’re just a trespasser threatening me for all I know. If they put me on the stand, I’ll cry and wail and say I didn’t want to.” Theresa gave a fake sob, “but he killed my client, and threatened me. He said I was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen and he was going to take me. I was so scared.” She broke into a smile. “Do you really think that anyone will think I’m lying? I own the judges in this town, this festering wound of a town. This sewer. And your just a frightened little rat, scurrying about this way and that trying to put out a wildfire. I’m going to watch this city burn because I can. Because the my true love, who was more of a man than you, more of a man than my pathetic prince of a husband, was a fucking vegetable and now he’s gone. If you think it was bad before, you have no idea what I’m capable of. And no one will ever find me out, because I’m pretty and innocent and dumb,” she said adopting a girlish timbre. “Because I’m a woman.” Lewis stared into her beautiful blue eyes. “And what if I kill you,” he said quietly. “Kill me?” she cooed. “That’s not very detective like. How do you think you’d explain that? Do you think anyone who matters will believe your story? A humanitarian like me as the mastermind behind the crime wave in the city? I don’t think so,” she said, her voice girlish again, “ because I’m a pretty rich girl.” “A girl?” whispered Lewis. You’re not even fucking human,” he said. And he pulled the trigger.

“It’s a good start,” said Tanner. He rolled his wheelchair to the window of his office. “I’m still getting used to this,” he said, gazing out at the grounds below. “It is,” said Lewis. “Crime’s down twenty five percent and we picked up the rebel faction of the Baltimore Crew. It seems like the head guy, Joe, is still around actually. So that’s one that’s on it’s way. Tanner nodded. “On my end, I took care of the panel in charge of your review, and I’ve got most of the judges under control. I’ve also gotten the four other gang heads to agree to a sit down with me. I think I can help them draw up some boundaries and divide up the markets again. You may have to pick up one or two of the M13ers. They may be our biggest problem.” Lewis nodded. “Just give me the names.” The two men were silent for a moment. “Charlie, Calvin’s son got a scholarship to Johns Hopkins, by the way. I ‘d like to think my letter had something to do with it.” “That’s great,” said Tanner. “He’s a sweet kid. Calvin keeps inviting us out on his boat.” “Maybe next weekend,” replied Lewis. “ And how was Daren’s family? Tanner asked. “Good, I guess,” said Lewis. “It’s hard. But they’re healing. And so is the city. Slowly.” “Yeah,” said Tanner, turning around to face Lewis. “And the gangs are starting to return to the old code; get as dirty as you want, but leave the public and the other crews alone.” Lewis nodded. Theresa was right in a way. This town was a sewer. But it was his sewer. And he would keep the rats from eating each other. Whatever it took.

Chapter 3: Cole the Porter and the Ladies of Baghdad

Cole had just been minding his corner. It’d been a slow day, and his ass’d begun to grow into the concrete on North Avenue. A fly honey with light brown curls, dressed head to toe in Gucci, with the sweetest smile curling her plump lips, she’d walked up to him — straight up to him! — and stood, flappin’ her long eyelashes so hard he’d thought he’d blow away.

She’d asked him to help her out. She had to do some shopping and needed help with all the bags. There was a $20 in it for him, but…

Her voice was as sweet as her face. An’ his knees felt like jello when he stood to follow her. He’d have followed that beautiful bottom to hell and back, never mind the 20 bucks. They’d stopped at the yuppie cheese and chocolate shop, the liquor store, the head shop, the fruit stand. The dozens of plastic and paper loops had begun to cut into the skin of his hands and forearms when they stopped in front of a gate in the wealthy Roland Park neighborhood.

A grey stone wall, twenty feet high, stretched out in each direction. The gate looked like oak inlaid with polished gold. Dark black handles, shining like ebony, sat in the center of the door. Cole felt a tug of fear in his belly. What was he walking into here? The woman, she’d said her name was Erica, had paid for everything in cash, probably dropped a thou’ in one afternoon. Erica spoke into an intercom and the heavy oak doors opened lightly on hidden hinges.

“You can drop the bags on the veranda, Cole.”

Past the gate was the largest, greenest lawn Cole had ever seen. A manicured path of red stone led up to an enormous stone porch. Columns leapt up into the sky and a golden chandelier hung above the door, like a beacon of heaven. They walked up to the door of the mansion in silence.

As he slowly started to loosen his grip on the bags, the door opened. Cole looked to see who opened it, lookin’ for a boyfriend or mother. No. It was another woman. An’ she could’ve been Halle Berry’s sister.

I must be losing my mind, thought Cole. His feet suddenly turned to lead and he felt his jaw hang loose in spite of himself. She was tall, her almond-shaped eyes gazing straight into his. Her full high breasts were like two perfect honeydew melons. A midnight blue kimono style wrap was all that separated his eyes from the silky richness of her skin. Her legs seemed to go on fo’ forever.

“You’re back! Thank God. I was about to call for delivery. Come in, come in,” she said.

Cole shuffled in behind Erica, into the mansion’s foyer. His eyes widened in surprise. Gone was the tight ass English-garden feel of the lawn and in its place was a curvy Oriental richness. All the woodwork was intricately carved in floral and geometric designs, incense burners and jewel-encrusted boxes covered every surface, priceless curtains and rugs floated on the walls.

He was goggling at what looked like a giant pearl carved out into a key catchall when he felt another person entering the foyer. He turned, keeping his eyes locked on the floor in respect. He was in somebody’s house, that was fo’ sure.

“Gloria, give this man a fifty and let him get on his way. You can set down those bags now…” Her voice was like a thousand violins singing of the budding of spring. Cole trembled, but his curiosity won out and he raised his eyes to find the owner of that voice. She was the mistress of the house — that couldn’t be denied. A goddess. A line from an old poem he’d read in school flashed through his mind. She had “a face that put to shame the shining sun.”

Her high forehead and glowing cheekbones were framed by thick locks of shining black hair falling to her waist. A long thin nose stopped right above a full red mouth, lips like plump sections of blood orange. Her skin, vibrant even next to the bright scarlet dress she wore, was as smooth as sculpted metal. She glanced at him, and rested her eyes on his collarbone in a disinterested way.

Gloria closed the door behind him and Erica, and with her kimono sleeves swaying, opened one of the treasure boxes sitting in plain view and rummaged for cash. She folded a bill and held it out to Cole. She was close enough that he could smell her, vanilla chai with a hint of spice filled his senses. His arms hung by his side. His eyes went blurry.

“What? Is it not enough?” Gloria asked, her arm still outstretched.

“Oh, please.” Cole couldn’t find the words. He was always the slick one with the ladies, but it was failin’ him now.

“It’s too much. I’d have done it for nothin’. Please, just…” he paused again. He reached out slowly towards Gloria’s hand, grazing her long warm fingers with his fingertips.

“Sorry. I jus’ noticed it’s jus’ you three ladies here, all alone. You’re all so beautiful. I los’ mah mind there for a secon’. Can’t be safe, or fun, for y’all here…without any men to joke around wit’ or to tell you, tell you that you are prettier than the sun, and moon, and stars.” He looked at each woman in turn.

Erica giggled. Gloria and the Mistress waited, a small smile playing on their lips.

“I’ll do whatever you want, jus’ don’ tell me to go. You can trust me. I’m…I’m Cole! Cole’d never talk shit about nobody, or spread anybody’s business. Y’all are gonna have a party tonight, right? Please. Please let me stay for jus’ one drink.”

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