Archive for: June, 2013

The Bradley Estate By P. Keith Boran

Jun 30 2013 Published by under The WiFiles

I
“I swear it was him,” Theodore said, “I’m sure of it.” Jonathan took his seat. “You mean to say Humphrey Bogart broke into your home,” he replied, “just to smoke a cigar?” A physical reaction to his frustration, his exasperation with it all, Theodore huffed. “Well, I don’t know,” he continued, “he may have cased the place too for all I know.” Jonathan nodded politely, his disbelief evident in the language of his body. “So,” Jonathan asked, “Did he ask for a light?” Theodore’s face went wide, went white. “As a matter of fact,” he replied, “he did.”

II
Having toured the Bradley estate, Theodore Huxley was most impressed. “I’ll take the whole lot,” he told the builder, estatic to be its first owner, the master of its accommodations and grounds. For everyone coveted the new estate, but few could afford the maintenance, or the lifestyle. But having found such success in shipping, Theodore possessed the wealth and flair to see this place flourish, allowing its reputation to infiltrate the culture at large.
After the papers were signed, cigars were lit, a celebration shared by all the parties involved. “Thank you,” Huxley would say, shaking hands of power, of influence, of irreproachable repute, “but it’s quite drafty, I can attest.” And everyone would laugh, a gesture courteous and right, for a man self-made and bright. But secretly, he was loathed by all.

III
The bulb flashed and popped, taking Theodore by surprise. “So,” Jonathan began, making a quick note on some paper, “why would Bogart haunt this home?” Holding a glass of brandy, Theodore set back. “Well,” he replied, “I’m not rightly sure.” Setting the brandy down, he crossed his legs. “But it doesn’t matter,” he said, “I’m such a fan.” Jonathan nodded. “I see,” he replied, making detailed notes. “So, you know,” Theodore continued, “he’s welcome anytime, even if he is dead.”

IV
On January 14, 1957, Bogart died and awoke under the haze of fluorescent lights. The room was gray and dull, the door metal, and the lights buzzed like a bumble-bee. He sat up. Still donning his hospital gown, he tore his bracelet off. Across from his gurney sat a table and chairs, metal, solid, and cold. He sat for a moment, trying to decide if he was in Heaven or Hell.
His mind was nearly made when the door opened. “Why hello, son,” a man said, his mouth hidden beneath a lavish beard. Bogart stood up. “Is this Hell,” he asked. The man laughed. “No son,” he said, lifting both arms in gesture, “it’s a little of both.” Bogart walked to the table, where the man placed a box. “I believe you might find these to your liking,” he replied, “we had someone take the liberty for our celebrity.”
Reaching into the bag, Humphrey found a suit made by his favorite tailor. The man sat down. “I’m Jackson,” he said, reaching out his hand, “Thomas Jackson.” Shaking Jackson’s hand, Bogart began to change into the suit. “So,” Bogart began, “you going to tell me where I’m at?” Jackson smiled. “Why, it’s only your next life, son” he replied, “that’s all.”

V
Deep in the company’s books, Theodore Huxley stood over his desk. Tapping his finger against his mouth, he wondered if he could make up such a substantial loss. “I’m ruined,” he whispered to himself, “finished.” And as all hope vanished, and the pistol in the top drawer slowly became his best option, his phone rang. “Hello,” he said softly, “Huxley shipping.” A voice hesitated. “Hello, Huxley,” it said, “we have a job for you.”

VI
“How would you characterize the ghost,” Jonathan asked, “as frightening, normal, benevolent, evil?” Theodore leaned forward. “Well,” he said, “I’d have to say indifferent.” Jonathan looked surprised. “How so,” he asked. “He was as real as you or I,” Theodore replied, “you couldn’t see through him; he wasn’t made of mist or smoke or anything like that.” Jonathan wrote quickly. “You must understand,” Theodore continued, “he wasn’t like the ones you read about; he was different.” Jonathan looked up. “And all he wanted was a light,” he asked, a reassuring gesture emanating from his hand. “Yes,” Theodore replied, “and left.”

VII
“My next life,” Bogart replied, “but I’m dead, right?” Jackson gestured for him to sit. “Of course not, son,” he replied, “you’re being recruited.” Another man brought coffee. “Recruited,” Bogart asked, “for what?” Jackson poured his guest some. “To protect our way of life,” he replied, “America’s way of life.” Confused, Bogart sipped the coffee, waiting for the caffeine to help.
“Ever known someone who did something terrible,” Jackson continued, “but the law wouldn’t touch them?” “Sure,” Bogart replied. “We don’t have that problem here,” he continued, “we touch the untouchable.” “How,” Bogart asked. “We don’t exist, son,” he said, “the whole world believes we’re dead.” Jackson paused to pour himself some coffee. “So, we do what’s needed, and then, like ghosts, we disappear.”

VIII
“What job,” Theodore asked. “One that will save your business, and your home,” the voice replied. “I’m listening,” Theodore continued. “We’ll be in touch,” the voice replied.
They individuals arrived the following morning. Trimmed and fit, they looked most professional in their matching suits. “You’ve been expecting us,” they said, “it’s about a job.” A suitcase was presented; its insides lined with cash. “We just need a few items delivered to Moscow,” they told him, “and we don’t like questions.” After a moment of reflection, one spent looking at a photo of his beloved home, Theodore reluctantly consented. But after several deliveries, he soon learned how to ignore the guilt, becoming something of a successful smuggler.

IX
“And if I say no,” Bogart asked, “do I go back.” Lighting a cigarette, Jackson offered him one. “No, not exactly,” he replied, “you’re dead now, your family knows it, the world knows it.” Bogart lit his cigarette. “If you suddenly reappear alive and well,” Jackson continued, “it’d raise questions, son, questions in search of answers.” Taking a drag, Bogart looked down. “I see,” he said softly.
“Think of it as a chance for a different life,” Jackson said, reaching into his jacket pocket. “Different how,” Bogart asked. Jackson slid him a pill. “Take it,” he said, “and you’ll see.”
Bogart picked up it up. “And what’ll this do,” he asked sarcastically, “make me immortal?” Jackson smiled. “You tell me,” he replied, “I died in 1863.”

X
“Well, Mr. Huxley,” Jonathan said, “you had quite an experience, I’d say.” “Why yes, yes I have,” he replied. Fetching more brandy, he asked, “and when shall I expect this in the paper?” Jonathan stood up. “Soon, very soon,” Jonathan replied, “but I have one last question.” Theodore poured another glass. “Well go on, man,” he said, “shoot.”
Reaching into his jacket, Jonathan produced a gun and fired three rounds. One wounded Theodore, and two killed both guards, but Theodore escaped. Opening the camera’s case, Jonathan grabbed his walkie-talkie. “We go to plan B,” he said softly, “effective immediately.” And with that, Thomas Jonathan Jackson packed his things to leave.

XI
“You died in 1863,” Bogart asked, clearly unconvinced. “Afraid so,” Jackson replied, “was shot by my own man too.” Bogart leaned back. “And like you,” Jackson continued, “I was recruited.” Taking the cigarette between his fingers, Bogart exhaled. “They needed a leader,” Jackson said, “and after Bull Run, they’d found one.” Bogart laughed. “So you’re Stonewall Jackson, huh,” he asked sarcastically, “and you expect me to believe that this is real, that this is really happening?” Jackson shrugged. “Believe what you want,” he replied. Standing up, Bogart began pacing. “It’s all in my head,” he whispered, “has to be.” Placing his hand on Bogart’s shoulder, Jackson looked him in the eye. “I can assure you, son,” he said firmly, “that this is most real.” Looking down, he paused a moment to find the right words: “and right now, I could really use your help.”

XII
Now outside, Theodore ran to his car. Passing several more security members, he pointed and yelled, “he’s trying to kill me!” And as he got in the car and drove away, they ran to handle the troublesome bearded reporter.
As the sentinels ran back inside, Jackson was waiting behind the door, killing them both instantly with two shots. Clutching his walkie-talkie, he whispered, “it’s all quiet here, son; he’s all yours.”
He was hidden in the foilage surrounding the estate, waiting for Jackson’s sign. Tucking away his walkie-talkie, he made his way to the treeline. And when he heard the car’s engine, he knew Huxley was close. Gripping a tommy gun, Bogart stepped out, firing a real gun for the first time in a long time. It sounded like rocks piercing the car’s metal, its glass and tires too. The car shifted quickly before slowing to a crawl; it limped along the road, before crashing into a tree. Dropping the tommy gun, Bogart procured a pistol from his holster. Opening the driver’s side door, he fired two shots. Huxley’s head exploded, and Bogart ran back into the woods.

XIII
“You’ve left quite a legacy, son,” Jackson said, “a good actor, a decent husband, and a damn fine drinker.” He leaned over Bogart. “And like you,” Jackson continued, “I knew none of it ever really mattered.” Meeting Jackson’s eyes, Bogart looked up. “But it’s time, son,” Jackson said, “to choose a life that will.”

Bio: P. Keith Boran teaches writing at the University of Mississippi, where he’s happy to be married to his best friend. His work has appeared in Eclectic Flash, Speech Bubble Magazine, and Schlock Magazine.

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The Body in Question by Charles Bush

Jun 16 2013 Published by under The WiFiles

It was easy, finding the body; it only took me three days. It all happened at the dockyards. There was this old organ grinder there that saw everything, so he filled me in on what happened. According to him, a couple of toughs stabbed the guy, robbed him, and left him for dead. He staggered around a bit in the alley and then collapsed over in the garbage heap. That was four days ago. Since then, he hadn’t been up to much, mostly just decomposing.

I gave the organ grinder a nice big bottle of rum for his help. He smacked his lips and moved off in search of some customers. I took a look at the corpse. Four days in a garbage heap hadn’t added to its charm. There didn’t seem to be anything special about it. I couldn’t possibly come up with a reason why anyone would want it. But I had a little rule: I never insisted on asking clients for a reason why.

When people ask me why I got into the business of finding things, I tell them that it was to meet women. That’s just a joke, of course. The truth is that I’m just really good at it. I guess I’ve always gotten a certain thrill out of acquiring and collecting odd stuff. After a while I just knew where to get pretty much anything around here.

So now, when you desperately need something on this rotten island, you come to me. Usually it’s semi-ordinary things that people are looking for: an old book, for example, or a glass eye. Nothing you can buy from the local merchants, but nothing all that extraordinary. Occasionally I would deal with some illegal stuff, drugs mostly, but there were a lot of thugs out there to remind me that that kind of thing was their business and not mine, so I usually just stuck to the legitimate stuff. Arranging trades and deals like this is a decent living and keeps me busy. And, every now and then I’d get myself into something interesting.

#

She’d showed up at my place four days ago. She was a real beauty. She came in with a sad, rather rehearsed story about her poor husband Harry, and how he’d arrived on the island a couple days ago after some trip but hadn’t turned up yet. She was afraid to go to the police, understandably, and would I be able to find her husband for her? All in all, she was lying through her teeth, but that didn’t matter. Like I said before, I never insist on clients giving me a reason. It’s not my business and I have no interest what they do with the stuff I get for them.

So I accepted her diamond ring as down payment, and I took the photograph of her husband, or whoever he was, and I took down her phone number and address so I could report on my progress, and I took the next day off to celebrate, and then two days later I was matching the face in the photograph to the ugly mug that stared at me from under a pile of coffee grinds and broken syringes. It was Harry, alright. There was no mistaking those eyes.

It seemed that all was well. I’d done my part, located the guy for her and all. She was probably expecting me to bring him back alive, but there was nothing I could do about that. My deal with her didn’t involve delivery of the body, only location. So, I wrote down where I was and how I got there, and I went home, visions of giant paychecks floating in my head.

#

It’s here where the story gets a little more interesting. I’d tried calling her a couple of times to let her know what I found, but nobody was home. The next day I tried again. That night she still hadn’t called back so I went down to her place to give her the report. I wanted my money, believe me.
She lived in a rather sleazy part of the city, “Tastytown,” as it is called affectionately by its regular visitors. The hookers were out in force that night. Across the street from my destination, I met a sweet old lady covered in snake tattoos who offered to spend the night with me. She was mostly retired now, she said, but every now and then she liked to go back on the streets for old time’s sake. I gave her a cigarette, and moved on. Finally I found the place I was looking for. The door was unlocked, so I let myself in.

For a second I thought that she was sleeping. Sleeping on her living room floor, with her neck broken. It was a gruesome scene, and one that I didn’t want any part of. I knew enough to get out of there fast, because this kind of thing was better left for the police. I took a quick look around the place, noting the vials and blades and assortments of needles.

She was a junkie, no doubt about it. Probably some deal went bad. Nothing that I should get involved with, that’s for sure. I cleaned off the door and anything else I may have touched and I left quickly. I started walking away, blowing a kiss to the tattooed lady, who hadn’t moved from her spot across the street. Business is tough these days, I guess.

I headed home, that broken body fresh on my mind. In all my years here, I’ve never had a client die on me, but at least I’d gotten a down payment. The body I figured I could leave to rot in the garbage. All in all, I was up one grand, down one bottle of rum. I figured I was coming out ahead. Ahead, that is, until I got back to my place.

He was waiting for me there, the bastard. I unlocked my door, stepped inside and there he was: a giant brick in a little suit. He kind of smiled and motioned for me to sit in a chair. He didn’t seem to be the kind of person that you refuse, so I did exactly what he said. He spoke first.

“Okay pal. Where is it? This can go easy or hard…” He cracked his knuckles, and I noticed that he was missing a pinky on his right hand. Amputation was all the rage here these days, part of the continuing trend in self-mutilation. It was ridiculous to me, but some people took it very seriously. I wondered if it hurt him when he punched people.
“Okay,” I said. “What exactly are you looking for? I deal in a lot of stuff.”

“The body, chief. We’re after the body. Someone very important wants to know where it is.” He gave me a punch in the chest, with his left hand, to show me he wasn’t kidding. It hurt like a real son of a bitch. After a minute of wheezing I was able to speak again.

“The body, huh? About five foot nine, baby blue eyes? Yeah, I’ve seen him. He hangs out near the wharf. His favorite haunt is this rotting pile of garbage. Ask any bum down there, you can’t miss him.” The body didn’t mean anything to me now anyways, and I could see this was what the guy wanted to hear. He smiled for the third time.

“You see? It’s so much easier when you cooperate.” He finally let me stand up. I grunted and went to fix myself a drink of vodka. I was about halfway through pouring when he turned to face me.

“What now?” I said. “I’m not getting you a drink, too.”

“Sorry, pal. You got mixed up in some bad business. I hate to do this, but…”’ He gave me an indifferent shrug, and I saw a flash of metal from his pocket. A knife, or a pistol, most likely.

I looked at him. He was deadly serious. I was still holding the bottle of vodka, so I whipped it at his face, lightning quick. It hit him square in the jaw and he yelped in pain. It felt good to know that you can hurt a monster like that. What happened after that I don’t know, because I was out of the door and in seconds I slipped away into the night.

#

At this point I really didn’t have much to go on. There was a dead woman who had wanted the body. There was someone else out there who still did. This new player most likely had the woman killed and sent the goon to get me. I don’t know why they were after me, but it was pretty safe to assume they’d try again. Someone really wanted that body, enough to kill for it. So I went back to the scene where it all began, back at the dockyards.

Harry hadn’t gone anywhere while I was away. He looked a little worse now, but was still recognizable. The organ grinder was there again, playing a waltz for a group of tourists. With the money I had on me I bribed him into helping me load the corpse into a burlap bag we found. Then we marched through the night, just two guys and a bulging sack. It must have been at least fifteen minutes. He was a real heavy bastard to be carrying around in a sack, too. Finally we came upon the place: a seedy little club with a burnt-out neon sign: “Blues ‘til dawn.”

Blind Lou was one of the original Delta bluesmen. I don’t know how he came to be living here, but he always told me that he spent his life following the blues, and one day they led him here. He was a raging opium addict, but that was his business, not mine. I’d hooked him up with some of that stuff in the past, and we’d kind of become friends since then. He told some great stories.

Whenever the blues didn’t pay the bills he ran a little séance racket, talking to spirits and that kind of thing. I figured I ought to bring the body over to his place because he knew more about death and suffering than anyone else I’d met on this island, and I was fast becoming acquainted with both.

He’d always been a decent human being, a rare thing in this city. He told me that he’d help me out, and that it would be no problem for him to summon up the corpse’s spirit. I spent the day at his place, just resting up and watching him do his show. I sat in the back.

About midnight, Lou left the stage, and told me it was time for the real show. We went backstage to the ‘meat locker.’ This was what he called the room where he conducted his séances. Lou was all dressed up for the occasion, in blue suit and fedora. Before we began, he explained to me a little bit about the process of spirit summoning. Ancient phrases, as old as life itself, had to be spoken in the right sequence and rhythm. If spoken correctly, in the presence of the body, the chant would allow the spirit to be summoned up for a short period of time. That’s what he told me, anyway. You could never be sure with this guy.

Then the séance began, and let me tell you, Lou was a real showman about it. He’d speak out some line, and then he’d give a little blow on this rusty harmonica of his. You always get a good show with Lou. After a few minutes passed, Lou sat up with a smile, wiped off his harmonica, and I had my first heart to heart talk with a ghost.

Talking to a spirit is hard to describe if you haven’t done it. There was no actual physical aspect to him in the room, only me and Lou and Harry’s corpse. But there was an indescribable presence there. I found it easiest to address questions to the corpse and pretend that the disembodied voice was coming from it. Harry spoke first.

“So you’re Marcel? Lou’s told me about you. I understand you have a couple questions for me.”

“Yeah. First off let me say I’m sorry that you were killed. By a bunch of punks, no less. It doesn’t seem fair.”

“Don’t worry about them. They’ll get theirs in the end, I’ll see to that. Now what kind of things do you need to know? We don’t have all that much time.” This was fascinating stuff and I wished I could ask more about it, but it was business first.

“Alright then. I guess the big question is, why are you so damn popular?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Okay. Let me explain. Some lady hired me to find you. By the time I did you were already a stiff. The lady who hired me has been killed. Someone tried to kill me last night, just to get your body. Are you starting to understand?”

“Hmm. Yeah, I understand. I guess it concerns what I did for a living. I’m a mule, you see.”

“A mule?”

“Yeah. I cross borders and get through customs for powerful people. You know, I swallow stuff.” I’d heard of this kind of thing, something for people down on their luck. It was easy work, if you could stand the nauseating conditions. Real low down on the criminal pyramid, though.

“I understand. You’re a drug runner.”

“That’s right. Not just drugs though, all kinds of things. Basically anything you’d want to sneak through customs that can fit in my stomach.”

“So you were on the job when you came in. Who hired
you?”

“Well, actually a couple of people. The first was this girl. Real sweet, hardened junkie, though. There’s a couple bags of heroin in there for her.”

“Ok. All that stuff is still in there? In your body, I mean.”

“Yeah. I got jumped by those guys before I could get my stuff out.” I looked at the corpse, noticing for the first time a little bulge in that stomach. No wonder he was so heavy.

“OK. I think she’s the one that hired me to find you. She’s pretty much out of the picture, now. So its drugs they’re after.”

“Slow down. I was also doing a little side work for this other guy. He was a little more ambitious. Do you know much about talismans, power symbols and all that?” “Nope.”

“Well if you did, there’s a set of talismans in my gut that would make you drool. This stuff is worth more than gold to the right people.”

“And you have to sneak that stuff through customs?”

“Man, you don’t know the kind of power in that stuff. They’d recognize it and seize it instantly. This is the real deal we’re talking about.”

“Interesting. What exactly do they do?”

“I’m not all that sure. Something to do with ritual magic. Hexes, curses, all that stuff. They protect you from the dark forces, you know?”

“Hmm… One final question. Can you describe the guy that hired you?” This made him laugh, and let me tell you, a disembodied laugh is a real spooky thing to have to listen to.

“Yeah, I can describe him. I’ll bet you’ll even know where he lives. Have you heard of Mr. Avery?” I nodded my head. Angelo Avery was the local numbers king. He was as crooked as they come, a total scumbag. Apparently he was trying to move on up in life and get into the dark arts racket. “Is there anything else you need to know?”

“I think I got it all. You’ve been a real help, Harry. I wish I could repay you somehow.”

“Don’t worry about it. Where I am now, a friendly face and conversation is about the best thing you can get. Hey, maybe I’ll be seeing you in a bit.” That was a little too ominous for my liking.

“Sure thing. Take it easy, pal.” In an instant the presence was gone, and it was just me and Lou in the room. I bummed a cigarette off of Lou, and while we smoked I considered my situation.

Ritual magic was not something I wanted to get mixed up into. For one thing, it was pretty dangerous. I had a buddy who was once into that stuff, a long time ago. One day he stumbled onto some dark secret, and somehow it engulfed his mind. Now he lives in a rubber room, and can’t even recognize his own name.

Moreover, that stuff is evil. I know a lot about the power of greed, and magic like that is ten times as corrupting. It’s definitely something to stay away from. I didn’t like the idea of Mr. Avery dabbling with it. For one thing, if he still wanted me dead, I was probably a goner. I might be able to run from his goons, but there was no escaping a properly cast death curse. So, I could just deliver the body to him or his thugs, but I didn’t like the thought. I’d probably end up dead.

That meant dealing with Avery personally. You really can’t kill a magician, not with ordinary methods, anyway. There are all kinds of weird forces about them and repercussions involved. The only other option, then, was to make some kind of deal with him.

We were sitting around the corpse, still in the back room of Lou’s club. I finished my cigarette and spoke.

“I’m sorry to have to make this mess and all, Lou. But something has to be done about this guy. He’s out gunning for me, and I’m worried he may be onto you too, now. He knows how to find people.”

“That’s alright, kid. That cat doesn’t scare me. I’ve been around a lot longer than he has.”

“Well, he sure as hell scares me. And the way I see it, there’s only one way I’m gonna be able to get him off my back.”

“What’s that?”

“I give him what he wants,” I said, pointing towards the corpse. “You got a knife handy?” Lou gave a weary sigh and went to the kitchen.

It was a disgusting process, so I’ll spare you the details here. Sufficed to say, Harry wasn’t lying. There were four bags in all. Three of them were filled with heroin. They were worth a fortune, but I was more interested in what was in the other bag.

All in all, the talismans turned out to be pretty disappointing. There were two of them, as ordinary as could be. In fact, they looked just like a couple of medals that a retired French Legionnaire had traded to me a few years ago. Hard to believe this was the kind of stuff worth killing over. But, still, there was something sinister about them. I didn’t like them at all.

Lou said that he could take care of the body. I told him I’d try to score him some opium for old time’s sake. As I was leaving the club, he called out to me.

“So you know what you’re going to do then? Are you sure you don’t want to hang around a little longer? It’s dangerous out there.”

“Yeah. I have to take care of this wannabe magician before he takes care of me.”

“How are you gonna do that?”

“I’m not sure yet. First and foremost though, I’m going to find a real big friend who owes me a favor.”

#

“Steamroller” Willy was an ex-boxer. He used to be a real contender, years ago. But Willy liked to drink too much. Alcohol ended up costing him his career and his titles, and it looked like it would cost him his life, as well. Desperate and poor, he came to me, and I was able to find him a healthy liver. Some addict traded it to me in return for a little dose of junk. Where he got the liver from, I don’t want to know. But it worked like a charm for Willy.

Willy was retired now and spent a lot of his time gardening, but that didn’t mean that he’d forgotten how to throw a punch. I’ve met guys that tangled with him since he quit the business, laughing at the disgraced champion, that kind of thing. They’d end up going home with their faces rearranged. He was still tough, and he had a heart of gold. Right now I couldn’t think of a better person to have on my side.

Sure enough, he was watering the flowers when I arrived at his place.

“Marcel!” he said affectionately. “The man who can find anything! How you doing?” He gave me a big bear hug. He wasn’t getting any younger, but I could see that his old form was still there.

“Hey Willy. What’s happening, old man?”

“Not much, buddy.” He slapped his chest. “Still kicking, as you can see.” He looked me over. “You look a little different. Thinner, maybe. Is something wrong?”

“Yeah, I guess you could say that. Tell me something. You think you still got a little of the old steamroller left in you? There’s this big fight coming up, and I could use you.”

“Sure enough. Where’s this fight going to be held?”

“I’m not really sure, yet.”

“Okay. Who’s the other guy?”

“Actually, it’s a whole lot of guys. Pretty much anyone that gets in our way.” I saw a flash in Willy’s eyes. He loved this stuff. It was pretty reassuring for me, too, to know that I had a set of fists on my side.

#

All things considered, it was perfect weather for a showdown. The sun was just setting as Willy and I made our way through the half-darkness and twisting streets. We went first to my place. I had a few things to take care of there. To be honest, I wasn’t sure that I’d ever see the place again. Thankfully, it was free of thugs, and nobody showed up while we were there. We had a few drinks, for the nerves. Then I locked up, and we made our way back to the streets.

There was some kind of festival going on, but we tried to avoid it. I could make out some flamenco music, as well as drunken cheering. We kept walking. We finally arrived at the place, a building I’d walked by many times but never set foot inside. There was a big marquis on the outside that said “Avery Carpets Incorporated.” Mr. Avery’s official business was a carpet importer. Willy flexed his fingers a few times. We joked a little bit, and then we stepped up to the door and gave it a knock. As fate would have it, I knew the guy who opened it. There were a couple of scars on his face where he had accidentally connected with a vodka bottle. He recognized me, too, giving a kind of surprised look before Willy knocked him flat on the ground. Out of spite I kicked in a few of his teeth.

Getting up to see Mr. Avery was actually a lot easier than I thought it would be. I let Willy do all the work. Avery threw a lot of goons our way, but Willy made short work of them. I watched with morbid fascination as he ducked and weaved his way through them all, breaking bones and ripping through bodies like paper. Anyone who said that the champ had lost his form should have seen him that night. It was a greater comeback than any promoter could arrange.

We worked our way deeper and deeper into the building, until finally we came to Avery’s office. His name was on the door, so we kicked it open and burst in.

Mr. Avery was sitting at his desk when we came in, a short, swarthy man in a panama hat. He was a little surprised to see us. He was real quick, though. There was a cane leaning against the desk, and he snatched this up and had it pointed our way only seconds after we entered the room. He snarled at us.

“Don’t you two come any closer,” he said. “I can kill you with this thing.” I don’t know what kind of power he had charged up in that cane, but he was completely serious. We stopped. I noticed he was shaking a little, which was good.

“I believe you. Look, I’m here on business.” Willy stood next to me menacingly.

“Business, eh… What do you have for me?” His cane never wavered.

“I’ve got the body.” I could see his eyes lit up as I said this.

“So, you’re the scrounger. You don’t have long left to live, you know. Why exactly are you so interested in that body?”

“Harry was a pal of mine. He was doing me a favor, bringing me and my girl some dope. That’s all I want. You can have the other stuff.”

“So you’ve already opened him up. You found my medallions?” He was real interested here.

“Yup. Let me tell you, that’s a lot of trouble to go through for a couple medallions.”

“Let me worry about that.”

“Sure thing. That’s why I’m here. I want you to call everything off. Forget about me. In return, you get what you want.”

“My talismans?”

“Yep. We’re holding on to the heroin. But you can have all those pretty trinkets.” I nodded to Willy, who had been pretty silent the whole time. He had a little paper bag in his pocket, which he pulled out. Avery’s eyes just glittered.

“Well, well, well…” He scooped the bag out of Willy’s hands. “Well then. You’ve got a deal. I want you two to get the hell out of here. I don’t ever want to see you again. In return, you’ve got your life back.” He held out his hand.

I do this kind of thing all the time, making deals and trades. I know how to read a person, and I could see in his eyes that he was lying. He had no intention of letting us live with the knowledge we had. That’s the way it is with these sorcerers. They’re so afraid of losing their power that it overtakes them, makes them paranoid. At any rate, I knew that Avery still had it in for me. He wasn’t going to try anything with Willy right there, but sooner or later he’d catch up to me. I guess that makes it easier for me to justify what I did to him. At any rate, I shook his hand and we got the hell out of there. He was right about one thing, though. He’d never be seeing us again, or anyone for that matter.

Like I said before, ritual magic is really dangerous. You have to be really careful not to screw anything up when you’re performing it, or the dark forces will consume you. Hopefully, that’s what would happen to Avery as soon as he tried to use those medallions. The two magic talismans, fresh from Harry’s stomach, were hanging on the wall at my place. Avery, in his haste, had received two very ordinary French medals from us. They were perfectly good medals, to be sure, but definitely not the kind of thing that you want to have protecting you when you’re messing with the dark arts.

I’m not sure what Avery was planning on doing with those things, but as far as we know, he never got through. He simply disappeared one day, leaving the Avery Empire in shambles. Let me tell you, he won’t be missed.

Things are back to normal now, pretty much. Willy says that he’s hung up his gloves for good; I think he’s finally earned his peace. We still meet every now and then to play a little gin. Harry’s doing all right on the other side, or wherever it is that spirits live. Lou and I figured we ought to let him know how everything turned out, and we call him up sometimes to chat. We never did figure out what happened to Mr. Avery, though. In fact, one night after a few drinks, we tried to summon up Avery’s spirit, just for a laugh. We got him all right, but all he did was howl at us from beyond the grave. It was really chilling, and we decided to let him rest from then on.

As for me, I took a little break from the scrounging business. The collection is still going strong. My two prize talismans are still hanging on the wall. Ever since Avery disappeared, I’ve been afraid to touch them. But things are always interesting around here. You never know. I’ve been planning on pulling them down, maybe taking a look at them. Someday, I’ll figure out their secret. Someday, I guarantee.

Bio: Charles Bush is a college fundraiser. His favorite authors include Kurt Vonnegut, Roger Zelazny, and J.K. Rowling. His fiction has appeared in Anotherealm, Flashes in the Dark, and Flashshot. He lives with his wife and son in upstate New York.

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Sixty-Five Going on Zero by Tara Campbell

Jun 10 2013 Published by under The WiFiles

Harry St. Clair was through with life. Well, clinically that may not have been true, but that was how he felt. He felt especially lousy on this particular day, and he wasn’t even completely awake yet. Eyes closed, he lay in bed and contemplated his first day of retirement.

He imagined an unhurried breakfast with the Missus, a leisurely day doing – oh, he’d find something to do, maybe fix up the house or collect stamps – and after a quiet evening of Parcheesi and crackers with clam dip, he’d watch whoever was doing the late night talk show and go to bed.

Forget old age, he was going to die of pointlessness.

Not that the tire factory was Shangri-La, but he’d worked hard to make his way up from the shop floor into management. Now what did he have to show for it? His wife Iris would be the real breadwinner now.

I’ll just be her arm-candy at the holiday party, he said to himself. She’ll probably have me cooking dinner for her boss. Harry imagined her teasing him, trying to force one of her aprons over his head. He smiled and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. His moment of self pity had gone on long enough; he’d figure this retirement thing out.

He opened his eyes.

He closed his eyes.

He wasn’t smiling anymore. His heart was hammering and his skin was tingling. His brain swirled in confusion as his tail twitched uncontrollably. His – “TAIL?”

Once more Harry opened his eyes, and once more he wished he hadn’t.

“What the hell…?“

He found himself in a dimly lit room, sitting in an enclosure surrounded by bars. He scrambled to his feet and gripped the bars with his one, two, three, four hands.

“Holy sh—“

A door opened, and two figures entered the room. They were mostly obscured by the light pouring in from behind them, but Harry could see one of them make a motion with its arm. The lights in the room brightened.

With the lights up, Harry could see that his enclosure sat against one wall of a peach-colored, oval-shaped room. He quickly realized that the creatures stood between him and the only exit.

Both creatures had small flat heads with huge, yellow eyes that closed inward from the outside edge when they blinked. They had no noses to speak of and little black holes where their mouths would be. The taller of the two had brown skin, and the smaller one had blue skin. And like him, they had four arms and long, hairy tails.

The blue creature inched closer, holding its upper body motionless, arms outward, palms down, like someone trying to calm a spooked dog. The effect of its bright yellow eyes against blue skin was unnerving enough; then it opened its mouth hole wider, revealing several rows of unfriendly looking teeth. Harry gasped and the creature immediately closed its mouth hole.

The tall, brown creature came and stood beside the blue one, and what Harry guessed were their ears unfolded like wings on either side of their heads, angling in his direction. The tall one leaned forward and its mouth stretched open, convulsing to produce a series of whining sounds which, to Harry’s surprise, he understood perfectly.

“Hello. Don’t be afraid, we’re not going to hurt you.”

The short one looked to the tall one briefly, then back to Harry. “Can you understand us, Tzane?” it asked.

“Yes,” Harry finally managed to croak. He didn’t know what “Tzane” meant, but he noted that his breathing had returned to normal and his heart had stopped pounding. He had no idea why he was feeling so calm. He should have been coming up with a way to get the hell away from these creatures, and yet he had this inexplicable feeling that he could actually trust them. Then he felt it: there was some kind of presence in his mind like a hand on skin.

His face flushed and he pushed the feelings of comfort aside. “Who… who are you?” he demanded, “What are you doing to me?”

“I’m so sorry to have invaded your privacy, Tzane,” said the smaller one. “It’s merely a form of communication we use at times, especially with small children and animals.”

“Children? Animals?” he blustered. He looked down at himself, and from what he could tell, he seemed to be a smaller version of the blue being standing in front of him.

“Honestly,” grumbled the brown creature into the blue one’s ear, “we could have done this the easy way, the normal way, but you had to go through with this ‘natural childbirth’…”

“Childbirth?!”

“Tzane, please stay calm,” said the blue one, “we’ll explain everything.”

“Who the hell is Tzane?!” roared Harry. “Why do you keep calling me that?” Yelling always made him feel more in charge.

The creatures looked at each other, then back at him.

“Okay,” Harry announced, “this dream is over as of now!” He turned away from them and sat down, closing his eyes and shaking his head to wake himself up.

“Tzane, darling, this isn’t a dream.” The blue creature brought a holographic mirror to the side of his crib. “Look. Look at yourself, little one. You can see that you are most certainly conscious and you are our daughter.”
Shoulders slumping, he turned and looked into the mirror. He blinked slowly to confirm that his eyelids opened from the outside in, just like theirs. He opened and closed his own small round mouth and touched his tiny, sharp teeth. He unfurled his wing-like ears and folded them back in. This is going to be one hell of a dream to tell Iris.

The mother leaned toward the father and whispered, “Do you think we should call her ‘Mr. St. Clair’ to start? Would that put her at ease, or only retard her development?”

“You can’t be serious!” the male spat back. “I’m calling the hospital right now…”

“Please, darling, wait. I just need to finish sounding her out.” She’d been going through the checklist her physician had given her when she’d chosen to deliver at home. She’d already accomplished the physical health checks while the baby was asleep, but according to the instructions, the mental health checks had to be performed while the child was awake. The tricky part was that the readings had to happen without the child noticing, because an awareness of the inspection could change its thought patterns.

“All right, Triana, but please hurry.” He looked over to find his newborn daughter glaring at him with suspicion. “I know you’re curious about this part of the child’s development, but any unnecessary delay could cause her severe emotional trauma.”

“Oh, Drnad, you’re exaggerating,” she whispered, glancing anxiously toward the crib. “Stay calm and try to keep your voice down. You’re the one who’s upsetting her.”

“And what about the others?” Drnad demanded, ignoring her. He pointed toward the opposite end of the room. “What happens to them when they’re born, will you put all the others through this too?”

Harry’s eyes followed Drnad’s gesture to a group of round objects on one end of the oval room. They were about the size and color of small watermelons, and they rested on cushions in a clear-walled enclosure. Of course, he doubted they were watermelons. In fact, it looked like one of them was split open and empty, like something had hatched. Was that something him?

Oh, this is one fucked up dream, thought Harry. I’m done being an alien baby. WAKEUP WAKEUP WAKEUP!

Drnad folded his arms and glowered at Triana.

“Oh dear,” she sighed, “I think ‘Mr. St. Clair’ needs an explanation to settle her down.” She wasn’t getting anywhere with the scans while the baby was agitated, and figured explaining the situation to her might help calm her down.

Harry stiffened with a fresh wave of fear as Triana’s lower pair of arms gripped the side of his crib. She leaned over to pick him up but resisted the impulse to caress his mind with reassurance, knowing he wasn’t fond of the mental intrusion.

Harry relaxed as soon as he was in her arms. Her skin was warm and soft, almost liquid. He felt a queer but pleasant sensation everywhere they touched, like he was floating in the perfect bath, buoyed by a supple yet impenetrable surface tension. Then he shuddered, noticing the gills on either side of her torso.

“Don’t worry, darling,” she cooed. “Yours will come in soon enough. Are you hungry?”
Drnad huffed impatiently. He could tell when Triana was stalling.

“All right,” she said. “Tzane, you are our daughter. You were born just last night.”

Harry tried to look over her shoulder in the direction of the eggs. “You mean to say I hatched out of one of those things, like a bird? Like a – snake?”

These new words drew Drnad out of his peevish silence. “Whatever this ‘bird’ and ‘snake’ are, they had nothing to do with it.”

“Please, Drnad, be patient,” said Triana soothingly. Then to Harry: “I don’t know anything about ‘hatched.’ Your father and I made these birth capsules by – a certain kind of cooperation.” Harry caught a glimpse of her teeth in what he could sense was a smile.

Some things never change, said Harry to himself.

Triana cocked her head.

Apparently they can hear me, he thought.

“Yes,” she replied. “But we’ll continue to verbalize for now so you can learn.”

Of course, anything goes in a dream, Harry reminded himself uneasily.

Drnad stepped forward. “She’s resisting, Triana. Either we call your doctor now, or I’m taking her straight to the hospital.”

“Oh, but she’s fine,” pleaded Triana, “such a wonderful, healthy baby girl!”

Harry winced.

“She won’t be for long if we don’t make a decision,” warned Drnad sternly. But he also understood that Triana needed more time for her readings.

“You see,” Drnad began, “incubation is a time of development, development of arms, legs, two good, strong hearts… There is, naturally, development of the mind as well as of the body. We have discovered that, in order to promote the maturation of the brain, the unborn child will create an existence of its own. It will create the necessary land, creatures, cultures, whatever history necessary, all of it seeming real to the child. Do you understand?”

“No, but go on,” Harry grunted, trying not to think about what a windbag Drnad was being. You have to be careful when “Dad” can hear inside your head.

Drnad leaned back and folded both sets of arms behind his back. “The fabrication of any existence, no matter how unsophisticated it may be, is an extremely complex process. We’re just starting to find out how it’s done. The child immerses itself in its own creation and lives out an arbitrarily selected ‘life span.’ However long it seems to last to the child, the incubation period normally ranges between fifteen and twenty Spands in reality.”

“Mr. St. Clair, darling, what your father says is true,” Triana interjected. “You must understand, the life you think you’ve just lived wasn’t real. It was part of your growth. It was all a figment of your developing mind.”

“When you died, or thought you died,” concluded Drnad, “it wasn’t the end of your life span. It was the beginning. It was the beginning of your real life span here with us.”

“Wait, who’s dead here?” Harry argued. “I’m only sixty-five, I’m not dead yet.”

“Yes,” mused Drnad, “we were a little worried you wouldn’t feel ready to go yet.”

“But we checked you out and everything is just fine,” Triana assured him. “You’ll be a little weak, naturally, as a premature baby. Otherwise you’re perfectly healthy.”

Healthy? Harry swished his tail and looked down at his four arms and blue skin. This is healthy?

“Interestingly enough,” Drnad continued, “from what our doctors have been able to figure out, most of our young seem to experience a similar mental construct prior to being born. They tend to imagine themselves as bipedal mammals living above ground, unable to breathe under water. Of course, that makes sense, given that your gills don’t come in until after birth.” He smiled at Harry and continued. “Developing children also tend to imagine themselves with only two arms, but that doesn’t stop their societies from making and using tools. Like us, they have many different colors of skin, but unlike us, their colors do not denote gender – of which they only have two.”

Drnad stopped, not wanting to remind Tzane that they were rooting around her mind at that very moment.

“Perhaps you’re wondering why you’re already here at home,” he went on, quickly changing the subject. “The hospital is merely a matter of convenience, freeing expectant parents from the effort of looking after their birth capsules. But, as you see, my mate also had the option of keeping her birth capsules at home instead of depositing them and waiting to collect the children when they were ready.”

Drnad decided not to go into the details of this part of the story. Normally, once hospital staff determined that a newborn child was physically and mentally healthy, it would be given a neutralization formula to wipe out any memories that had built up in its brain during development. The child’s new identity would be able to develop unimpeded by prenatal debris. He had always assumed this process happened relatively quickly in the hospital, and was uncomfortable with how long it seemed to be taking at home.

By this time, however, Triana had scanned enough of her child’s mind to realize that “Harry,” her child’s mental development construct, was actually a “he.” This wouldn’t matter after the neutralization formula had been administered, but she hadn’t thought about how to address him/her at the moment. She would have to read up on this part more closely before the others were born.

Scanning his mind, she’d seen glimpses of his wife, his home and his work – and had found the concept of transportation using “tires” amusing. She had seen his planet in its solar system, knew about the oceans and landmasses, and the countries that carved these lands up. She had discovered some things about the different cultures; for example, that for most of them the acquisition of “money” seemed to be a central element of survival and happiness. And she could tell that Harry had never felt like he’d had enough of it.

But she’d also come upon a disturbing trend in her child’s emotional development, and she wondered if perhaps they really did need to go to the hospital.

“Tzane – Mr. St. Clair – darling, get some more rest,” said Triana. “Your father and I will be back in a moment.”

Even before they left the room, Drnad was needling Triana’s mind for information. The door slid shut behind them and she turned to him in a state of agitation.

“Drnad, I think there may be a problem. According to the checklist, everything seems to be fine except…”

“What is it?”

She paced the room, holding the list with one set of hands and wringing the other two together. “Well, it’s a small thing, really…”

He sighed impatiently.

“I don’t know,” she continued, “I’m just a little concerned. She’s – he’s never broken any laws of his local jurisdiction.”

“And this causes you concern?” asked Drnad with bewilderment.

“No, what I mean is, Tzane has never had any major emotional shocks in her development phase. Her ‘Harry’ was born and matured in the same town, never changed occupations, never changed mates, never had to learn how to live and communicate with beings from different cultures…”

“So are you saying Tzane isn’t fully developed?” asked Drnad.

She stopped pacing. “Well, I don’t know. Harry did experience the death of a parent.”

“Is that important in the development stage?” asked Drnad.

“Yes, from what I’m reading here, that is actually an important occurrence in the pre-natal mind.”

“So, where does that leave us? I mean, is she all right or not?”

“I don’t know,” she said, holding the list out to him.

He took it and scanned through it. “Here,” he said, pointing to a passage toward the end of the document. “It says that she may need to be incubated if she doesn’t exhibit all signs of maturity. They may need to send her back into the pre-birth phase to make some adjustments to her environment. Let’s not take any chances, Triana.” He opened the door and strode back into the nursery, heading for Tzane’s crib.

“What are you doing?” Triana asked, following him.

“I’m taking her to the hospital. You read the guidelines.” He lifted Tzane out of her crib.

“Wait, Drnad, let’s at least call the doctor first.”

“Triana, she’s not fully developed,” said Drnad, carrying Tzane into the next room. “Do you want her to go through life impaired?”

“Hey, who are you calling impaired?” Harry protested. “Put me down!”

“Drnad, don’t forget she can hear you,” Triana warned as she followed them.

“That doesn’t matter, she won’t remember any of this after she’s been neutralized.”

“Neutralized?!” Harry barked, squirming in Drnad’s arms.

“No, it’s not what you think,” he laughed (at least, that was how Harry interpreted the gurgling noise he made). “You’ll be fine. We just have to take you to the hospital for some fine-tuning.”

“Fine-tuning? She’s not a machine. But,” admitted Triana, “I suppose we should go get her checked out.” So much for her foray into natural childbirth…

Drnad nodded. He’d known she’d come around in the end. He hoped this would convince her to let him bring the rest of their eggs to the hospital.

“Not to worry, little one, they won’t hurt you,” said Drnad briskly, picking up the key to his transport unit and heading toward the front door. “You’re just going to go back to sleep for a bit. You even get to go back to your own little world, won’t that be fun? They’re just going to make a couple of minor adjustments while you’re there…”

“Where are we going? What do you mean ‘adjustments’?” sputtered Harry, holding his arms hopefully out to Triana.

“Don’t worry,” Drnad answered, deftly twisting Tzane out of her mother’s reach, “they just need to change one or two things. Then you’ll be in perfect shape to come back again.” Drnad opened the front door and stepped outside.

In his triumphal march out of the house, Drnad had forgotten to shield the baby’s eyes against the outdoor light. Tzane was overwhelmed by the bright, lime green sunlight as soon as he carried her outside. She fainted in his arms.

Harry woke to the sound of his own ragged gasp for air. His body jerked and his eyes sprang open. His heart was racing and silver spots danced around the edges of his vision. It took a moment for him to realize that he was back in his own room at home. He lay still in bed and tried to catch his breath.

A few minutes later the door opened and Iris walked in. “You’re awake,” she said quietly.

“Uh, yeah,” said Harry, rubbing his ears to try to stop them from ringing. He was still having a hard time getting enough air.

“I took the day off, Harry.” She stood just inside the doorway, twisting her wedding ring around her finger.

“Oh?” Harry struggled to clear his head. Had he stopped breathing in his sleep?

She stopped twisting the ring and cocked her head. “You okay?”

“Yeah, yeah,” he lied, “just waking up.” It felt more like he was like coming up from the bottom of the ocean.

“Well, why don’t you get dressed and come on down. There are some things we need to talk about.” She stepped back out of the room and closed the door.

Harry took a deep breath and sat up in bed. It wasn’t like Iris to take a day off just to talk. Something was up, something big, and it didn’t sound good.

As he got up and moved around, Drnad and Triana began to fade from his mind. By the time he was dressed, he had just about convinced himself it had all been a dream.

There was nothing to do but open the door and find out.

Author’s Bio:
Tara Campbell is a university admissions professional by day and a writer, painter and cellist by night. With a BA in English and an MA in German Language and Literature, she has a demonstrated aversion to money and power.

Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Tara has also lived in Oregon, Ohio, New York, Germany and Austria. She currently lives and works in Washington, D.C., and is a member of the Washington Writers’ Group and the D.C. Writers’ Group.

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Dreamweaver by David Bridge

Jun 02 2013 Published by under The WiFiles

Graham sat in bed reading while his wife, Lauren, slept beside him.

She thrashed, kicking Graham in his shins. Her face contorted and relaxed. Then, all at once, she sat up straight, opened her eyes and let loose a blood-curdling scream.

Graham flinched, knocking the back of his head into the bedpost and dropping his book. With one hand, he rubbed his sore skull, reaching for his book with the other. “What happened?”

“I just had a horrible dream. I dreamt a hundred gibbering goblins were ripping me apart, pulling my intestines out through my bellybutton.”

He put his arm around her. “Don’t worry, it’s all over now.”

“I don’t want to go back to sleep.”

“Come on, it’ll be fine. Your dreams can’t hurt you.”

“How do you know? You’re not inside my head.”

“Do you want me to call Dr Sheldon?”

“No, no more doctors.”

“What then? We can’t go on like this.”

She pulled away. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, it’s okay on weekends, but I need my eight hours during the week otherwise I’m a zombie at work, and I’ve only got a small window to get them in.”

She turned to face the wall. “My apologies.”

“Look, I’m sorry. It’s—”

“Maybe you should sleep in the guest room.”

“Don’t be like that.”

“Or I could go sleep there.”

“He leant against the headboard. “How about we try something new?”

“Like what?”

“I’ll tell you something to imagine and you drift off to sleep.”

“What are you? A hypnotist?”

Perhaps it would be better to sleep in the guestroom. “Do you want me to help you, or not?”

Lying on her back, she shrugged.

“Okay.”

Her lips and eyelids relaxed.

“I want you to imagine a river. A long river, stretching to the horizon. The water’s deep and dark-blue. It flows gently past. You dip your fingers in and it’s cold.”

She shuddered.

“Law?”

Her face remained completely still.

“Are you asleep?”

“Keep going,” she murmured.

His pulse increased and he smiled. “Now, I want you to step back from the water and lie down in the grass. A breeze blows through your hair. Feel yourself drift away. It carries you off to a placid void. Nothingness.”

She twitched and took deep breaths.

Pleased with his amateur sleep therapy session, Graham pulled the duvet up to his chin and turned out the light.

The next morning, breakfast tray in hand and mugs of coffee steaming, Graham re-entered the bedroom.

Lauren stirred. When she opened her eyes, it was like someone had come in during the night and polished them up. “I had the greatest night’s sleep of my life. Whatever spell you spun worked wonders.” She accepted a cup of coffee. “I can’t remember the last time I woke up when it was already light. There’s none of the drowsiness like when you wake in the dark.”

They finished their breakfast in silence.

Downstairs, they discussed his gift, deciding the next step was to try it on someone else, to see whether or not last night had been a fluke.

Graham peered over Lauren’s shoulder as she flicked through her address book.

After a lifetime of sleep disorders, she had an array of acquaintances: support groups, sleep problem social networks and insomnia workshops.

Lauren ran her bony index finger along the list, picked out a dozen or so names and made the calls. Of those she contacted, four still had problems and were willing to give Graham a try. Lauren chose the second name on the revised list, Felicity Norris.

 

That night, Graham stood alongside Lauren on the doorstep of Felicity’s house.

Felicity answered the door in dressing gown and slippers. She had a large round face and bushy grey hair that hung down over her patchy cheeks. Her beaming smile lit up the enormous bags under her eyes.

Felicity hugged his wife. “Lauren! So wonderful to see you, it’s been such a long time. And you must be Graham: the dreamweaver.”

Graham scratched his arm. “I suppose.”

Felicity waved them in. “Don’t just stand out there in the cold. Come inside.”

An Aga stove dominated much of the kitchen. Blouses and shirts hung from a clothes line which swooped over their heads. Several cats lay about, stretching and washing.

Graham’s nose tingled and he sneezed.

Felicity raised an eyebrow. “Oh dear, you’re not allergic to cats, are you?”

He managed a nod before another sneeze erupted.

“Hang on a second,” Felicity shooed each cat out and then said, “Please, take a seat.”

Graham and Lauren squeezed up together on a bench.

Felicity asked, “Would you like some tea? The water’s just boiled.”

Steadying himself on the table, Graham snorted back the mucus. “Yes, please. “

With her back to them, Felicity busied herself placing teabags in mugs. “So, Lauren, what does he do to you?”

A film settled over Lauren’s eyes. “I don’t know. It’s like a kind of hypnotherapy. He just tells me about a place, gets me to imagine being there, makes me think about the smells and relax. It worked last night.”

“I see,” Felicity said. “Still in beta-testing?”

“Something like that,” Lauren said.

Felicity poured out the cups and brought them to the table.

Graham was glad to have something warm to drink. It soothed his ticklish throat and relaxed his taut sinuses.

Eyeing them over the rim of her mug, Felicity said, “I have to tell you, I’ve tried just about everything on offer. As I remember things, Lauren was one of the worst sufferers in our group.”

“That’s right,” Lauren said. “Night terrors.”

Felicity continued, “So I imagine anything that works for her will work for me twice as well.”

Graham sniffled. “I hope so.”

“You’re so lucky your husband’s stayed with you, Lauren.”

A cat wandered in and brushed itself against Felicity’s legs.

Seeming to forget his allergies, Felicity picked it up and cuddled it. She continued, rubbing the cat’s stomach, “Walter left us three years ago now, didn’t he, Snookums?”

The cat purred loudly.

Graham felt another sneeze coming on.

Felicity scratched the cat behind its ears. “He’d had enough. I don’t blame him, in a way. It’s hard enough to find someone who understands and wants to share their life with you, let alone have them put up with your problems.”

Lauren clutched Graham’s hand and met his eyes. “Yeah, I’ve always been lucky, I suppose.”

After they’d finished the tea, Felicity led them up to the bedroom.

A strange vision flashed across Graham’s mind, like he was about to take part in a bizarre intergenerational orgy, or something. He erased it quickly, wanting to concentrate on whatever it was he did and get out.

Felicity propped herself up in bed with a couple of pillows. “I have to tell you that I’ve tried just about everything.”

“He’s the real thing, I’m sure,” Lauren said.

“We’ll see,” Felicity said and then snuggled down. “I usually sleep with my cats, but I don’t want them to bother Graham while he works his magic.” She turned to Graham. “When you go out, could you leave the door open? Else, they’ll scratch at the wood until I wake up, undoing all your good work.” She withdrew a set of keys from her bedside table drawer. “Lock up when you go out. Just push them through the letterbox.”

Lauren kissed Graham on the cheek. “I’ll leave you two to it. Hope it goes well, Flick.” She shut the door, leaving them alone.

Not quite knowing how to act in a strange, elderly woman’s bedroom, Graham hovered at the entrance.

“Okay then, magic man,” Felicity said. “I’m ready when you are.”

“Lie back. Make yourself comfortable.”

She did as he said, the same grin lining her face.

“I want you to imagine a forest.”

“Night or day?”

He grimaced. “Please relax. Just think about what I’m saying.”

She made a motion as if zipping her mouth shut and lay back.

“So, there’s a big forest, dark green. It stretches as far as the eye can se—”

Once more, she opened her eyes.

He gritted his teeth.

She held up her finger. “I’ll tell you what I’ve forgotten. I haven’t fed the cats. They’ll be up and about if I don’t give them something.”

“It’s okay, I’ll do it.”

“Oh, thank you. You’re so kind.”

“Close your eyes. Good. Under your feet is luscious grass, thick and warm between your toes. You can smell it on a gust of wind.”

She sighed. Her chest rose and fell evenly. “Don’t stop.”

He cleared his throat. “You walk closer to the forest and its dark, comforting. The moist wood and pine needles on the trees are familiar and welcoming. Closer and closer. You reach the rim and step—”

She let out an enormous snore.

Still marvelling at his apparent gift, he headed out the door. A cat passed through his legs. He pinched his nose to stop himself sneezing.

Lauren sat at the table in the kitchen with a fresh cup of tea in her hands. “How did it go?”

A tingling feeling clambered inside his chest. “She’s asleep.”

Lauren got up, downed the tea and set the mug in the sink. “Let’s go. I think we’re done here.”

He walked into an adjoining room. “One second, I have to feed the cats.”

She chuckled.

Graham located a tin, examined it in the half-light coming from the kitchen then peeled off the top and tapped a meaty mess into the food bowls.

 

Over the next few weeks, the phone rang itself off the hook. Felicity seemed to have spread the news to anyone who’d listen.

Graham accepted all requests. Some people wanted to pay him, but he declined. It didn’t feel honest. Pretty soon, every evening after work, he ventured out to some stranger’s house and put them to sleep.

One morning, on his way to the office, Lauren collared him at the door. “Gray? They’re taking advantage of you. You’ve got to charge them.”

Graham scratched his head.

“Why not say, from now on, you’ll only take payment?”

“Kind of like a prostitute?”

“You’re not having sex with them. At least I hope not.”

He winked. “Whose idea was this in the first place?”

She rolled her eyes. “All I’m saying is, if you played your cards right, you could quit your day job.”

“I don’t know. I’d feel bad taking their money.”

“Don’t. Take it from a former sufferer, these people spend their entire lives paying money to frauds to fix their problems. They’ll spend it anyway. Why not have them pay that money to you, someone who actually does what they claim? What can it hurt?”

He swallowed. “But I don’t ‘fix’ their problem. All I do is put them under for a night.”

“Is that what you’re worrying about? Please, do you know how much I’d pay for your services, just for one night of peace and quiet? You don’t realise how lucky I am to get it for free every night.”

“Maybe I should charge you.”

She slapped him playfully.

That morning, at the office, Graham placed an advertisement in a local paper. When he got home from work at night, he had over a hundred new voice messages. All new clients.

 

Months drifted by and he was able to quit his job. In many ways it was the perfect life. He would do whatever he wanted all day: adding to his model train set, going for daytrips with his wife and then, at night, he’d head out after dinner and get back just before ten—a mug of hot chocolate and a book ready for him.

Lauren took on the role of manager and agent. He did whatever she said, merely knocking the addresses into his GPS and then driving out.

One evening, returning from putting a local vicar to sleep, Lauren showed him a monthly bank statement. “Look how well we’re doing.”

Through bleary eyes, Graham read the form. “Jesus. I’m earning more than I did full-time.”

“You’re earning twice what you did. At this rate we’ll pay off the mortgage this decade. To think you wasted so many years of your life scratching about for pennies.”

He sank into an armchair and picked up his book.

“Are you okay? You look a little glum.”

“I’m all right.”

“Do you want more hot chocolate?”

“No, thanks. The sugar gets me wired. Makes it difficult to sleep.”

She sat on the sofa opposite. “Now, Gray, I’ve been on the phone with some people today. Publicists. They’d like you to write a book.”

He blinked. “I don’t know how to write a book.”

“Easy, relax. You don’t have to write it. Someone comes to interview you and then they go away and write the book on your behalf.”

“How much?”

“Five figure advance plus royalties.”

“Okay, I’ll do it.”

She cuddled up to him. “I knew you’d see sense. There’s something else too.”

“What?”

“It’s a conference. They want you to go along and give a talk.”

His book flopped onto the carpet. “Are you crazy?”

“Gray, at least think about it.”

“What’re they paying?”

“A thousand a day.”

He exhaled. “And when does it stop?”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t want to do this anymore. It’s sending me around the bend.”

She narrowed her eyes. “What’re you talking about? It’s easy.”

“What I’m doing doesn’t seem honest. I don’t like taking their money.”

“We’ve been through this. I thought you’d reasoned it out.”

“Don’t you think visiting people’s rooms is a strange way to make a living? Selling a book about a subject I have no idea about? Giving talks to God-knows-who?”

“I think you do whatever you can with what you’re given.”

“Still, I’d like to stop, just a week, maybe. It’s been months now without rest.”

Her brow creased. “Oh come on, Gray. It’s not like you’re working twelve hours a day, is it? You just have a simple two, three hours max, one-on-one, and you’re free to enjoy the rest of your day.”

The irony of the best sleep therapist of his age was that he’d stopped sleeping. He turned to face her, trying his best to accentuate his bloodshot eyes and the dark bags. “That’s easy for you to say.”

She threw up her hands. “All right, I’ll make the calls. They’re not going to be happy. Imagine how you’d feel, if you’d been expecting to sleep and someone said you couldn’t. Sounds kind of like torture, don’t you think?”

 

After a few nights of long and deep sleep, Graham was fully-refreshed. Now he only used his gift on Lauren. Both his conscience and health were restored.

One evening, the phone rang. Graham answered. “Hello?”

“Graham Wainsbridge?”

“Yes?”

“This is Felicity Norris, do you remember?”

His stomach sank. “Of course.”

“I know you’re running a big operation now, but I was wondering if you might be able to come over and work your magic, just one more time.”

“Sorry, Mrs Norris, my wife runs the book—”

“Yes, I realise that, but I was just calling on the off-chance that you might be able to help me out.”

“Well, yes. The problem is we have lots of bookings.”

Her voice firmed and any trace of the friendliness vanished. “I haven’t slept in days, do you have any idea what that’s like?”

He did.

“I’ll pay double the rate. No, triple!”

He ran a hand through his hair. “Tonight?”

She brightened. “That’d be perfect.”

He hung up and sighed.

Lauren walked into the room. “Who was that?”

“Felicity Norris.”

Lauren grinned and embraced him. “Oh good, so you’re back on the wagon?”

“I guess.”

 

With the money from Felicity’s session in his jean pocket, he shoved open his door and wiped his feet on the mat. He felt dirty. Why wouldn’t Lauren listen to his feelings?

He hooked up his coat and trudged upstairs.

Lauren lay in bed, huddled up in blankets, asleep. He waited, counting out the seconds, and then minutes, in his head.

Sure enough, after about twenty minutes, she tossed and turned. She grunted louder and louder until she broke free with a glass-shattering yowl.

He sat on the bed and held the hair back from her face.

Her forehead wrinkled. “Gray? Please, help me. I can’t live without you.”

“Don’t worry, Law, just shut your eyes and I’ll send you way.”

She smiled and sank back. Her dark hair spread across the pillow.

“I want you to think about a great lake, its water icy-blue. Alongside there’s a sailing boat made of fine wood. Step inside. It bobs gently under your weight, sending ripples across impossibly still waters. You push out into the lake.”

She breathed profound breaths.

He could stop now, if he wanted. She was asleep. But, if he walked away, was there any guarantee she wouldn’t come after him and the money? He needed that to start his new life. “In the middle of the lake you notice a ripple underneath the boat. Soon it transforms into a patch of choppy water.”

Her smile transformed into a frown.

His heart beat faster. “The wind picks up and blows the boat about, almost capsizing.”

Eyelids twitching, she sucked and spat air.

“Water under the boat breaks into a whirlpool and sucks it down. It spirals around and around until . . .”

Her hands clamped the covers.

“It plunges under.”

She convulsed over and over. A trickle of blood dribbled down from the corner of her mouth and she was still.

Graham reached out and felt her pulse. Nothing. He draped the covers over her face then walked downstairs and out the front door.

 

 

Bio: David lives and works in Bogota, Colombia, where he spends his spare time writing and reading speculative fiction.

 

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