“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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
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.
“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.