SS 1st assignment - desk job
Posted - 08/21/2009 : 07:32:25
| The Night of the Left Hand Path
Artie opened his eyes. He was in complete darkness. Where was he? The train? Someone’s home? A hospital? He had no idea. Nor was he sure that what had happened over the past week had really happened. It felt more like a dream. A horrible dream. His head was pounding, his aching limbs refused to move, and his upper back felt like it was on fire. Wherever this was felt safe, so the questions could wait until morning. He closed his eyes again.
A moment later he heard someone enter the room. His muscles tightened up and he opened his eyes once more. Whoever it was had a light step; maybe it was a woman. He heard a window open and the squeak of a shade being raised. Now his face felt warm.
The steps came closer and he felt a hand on his brow. A second person entered the room. Heavier steps. A man.
“He’s awake.” A girlish voice.
“That’s good, that’s fine.” A man’s voice. He sounded elderly.
“Good morning, son.”
* * *
A week earlier, he and Jim rode through Kansas on a mission to a remote prairie town. Shekinah was thought to be a utopian community similar to those in New England, but recent reports from travelers had caught the attention of Washington. Groups of people passing through on their way to California, traveling salesmen, a theatrical company – of all who entered Shekinah, many fewer left it. The rest had simply disappeared without a trace. Those who made it through attested that Shekinah was anything but utopian.
“Is it possible that this was just a practical joke?” Artie asked. “We’ve been riding for the last two days, and the only living thing we’ve seen is grass. ”
“It’s not living things I’m interested in. I haven’t seen any water all day, and we’re starting to run low.” Jim replied.
“Whaddya say we turn around and get a wagon?” Artie asked. The maps the previous travelers had drawn did not match one another, and Artie didn’t want to take the chance of dying of thirst in the middle of nowhere.
“ I think I see some trees up ahead. Where there are trees, there oughta be water.”
After about a mile, something told Artie to dismount. He obeyed and began leading his horse by the reins.
“Whaja do that for?” Jim asked. Their progress, if he could even call it that, was agonizingly slow. Walking would just make it slower.
“I don’t want to be thrown.”
Artie walked alongside and looked up at Jim with confusion in his face. “I dunno – something told me. Why would I do that?”
“You’re asking me?” Jim replied with a raised eyebrow.
Artie noticed that the ground under his feet was vibrating. Slowly at first, but with increasing intensity. From the east a black cloud moving toward them. As it neared, they saw that the cloud was no cloud at all, but hundreds – if not thousands – of black horses, all galloping at top speed. Jim’s horse reared up in terror. Fortunately, because of where he stood, Artie was able to catch Jim before he hit the ground. Artie’s own horse had taken off in the same direction as Jim’s.
There was nowhere to hide. The trees were in view, yet at the rate the horses were moving, it would all but impossible to reach the them in time to avoid being crushed under thousands of hooves. As it was their only chance, both began to run.
While running as fast as he could – so fast it felt as if his heart would explode, Jim looked over his shoulder to see that the horses were fading – literally. Hoofbeats were still audible, the ground was still shaking, but what had been black was fading into pale gray. For a brief moment, Jim wondered if he’d lost his mind.
He slowed a bit to process the scene. When Artie realized that Jim had fallen behind, he looked back to urge him on. He too saw that the horses had faded in color and were still fading, as was the noise. By the time the horses were within a hundred yards the noise ceased, and slowly the horses faded away completely.
Both men dropped to the ground, gasping for breath.
“If I’ve gone insane, would you be a pal and let me know?” Artie asked, his chest still heaving.
“Funny, I was about to ask you the same thing. Now what?“
“Let’s ride toward the trees.” Artie got up and whistled for his horse. Both horses cantered back from wherever they had hidden.
Once mounted they turned to face the trees which, when the horses disappeared, were a half mile distant. Now the trees appeared to be less than twenty yards away. And they weren’t any kind of tree ever seen on the prairie before.
“Weren’t they–?” Artie stammered.
“Yeah, they were,” Jim said. His confident tone successfully disguised his apprehension.
As they neared, they saw that what appeared to be a thicket of trees was really only three very strange-looking trees planted close together.
“What’s wrong with them? Some kinda tree disease?” Jim asked. They were about a fifty feet high, with trunks that were at least twenty feet in diameter.
“They’re baobabs. What they’re doing in Kansas I have no idea. They grow only in Africa and Australia ,” Artie answered.
Upon reaching the trees, they saw that there was a shallow creek which seemed to have just bubbled up out of the ground. Jim dipped his hand in and tasted the water. It was fresh and cold.
“Water the horses and let’s load up our canteens.”
“Water! I couldn’t be happier!” Artie splashed some on his face. “Ah, nothing like it. So glad the good Lord didn’t want us dying out here.”
Jim filled his canteen. Once it was full, he accidentally dropped the cap into the water. Reaching for it he slipped into the creek and sunk like a stone. What had appeared to be only eighteen inches deep was actually far, far deeper.
Artie heard the splash, but thought nothing of it until he turned to see Jim surface, coughing and sputtering. His shock turned to horror when he saw that closing in on Jim was an huge alligator.
He rushed to the bank. “Jim, gimme your hand!”
Jim, treading water, offered his hand, then sank. He broke the surface once more and was able to grab hold of Artie’s hand. He was pulled from the water mere seconds before the alligator would have torn his leg to shreds. As soon as Jim was out of the water, the alligator submerged.
Jim fell onto the grass, soaked and still coughing. Artie sat beside him, and tried to think. He could be dreaming or hallucinating, or they could have been drugged, or... .. His mind couldn’t accept that any of this was really “real.” There were no gators in Kansas. And no baobab trees.
Something told him to jump into the water – that same something that told him to dismount. Artie rose in obedience to the silent direction.
“Where are you going?” Jim asked between coughs.
“For a swim.”
“I’d like to work on my backstroke,” Artie said as he began to remove his clothing.
Jim sat up. “Are you out of your mind?”
“Artie, don’t do it!”
“Jim, I – I have to. Don’t try to stop me.”
Jim attempted to scramble up, in order to pull Artie away from the water, but for some reason his wet clothes bunched around his arms and legs and, by the time he got free, Artie was already in.
The alligator returned, but Artie felt no fear. It was as if the something that told him to jump in was in control.
“Artie, get out of the water! Now!” The alligator was steadily heading for Artie, and Jim was becoming frantic. “Artie, are you out of your mind?? Get out NOW!!”
Artie held up a hand, “Jim, relax, relax.”
Aghast, Jim went for his gun, but it wouldn’t come out of its holster. He had to get it out before the alligator reached Artie, because by then it would be too dangerous. If there were a struggle in the water, there was risk of accidentally shooting Artie.
Artie was treading water, calmly watching the alligator approach him. It was a very strange feeling; he was not the least bit afraid. The gator might as well have been a kitten.
Jim became overwhelmed with horror and frustration. Artie, unconcerned that an alligator bearing down on him. Not willing to abandon him, yet even less willing to watch him get torn to pieces, Jim became sick, retching behind one of the trees.
Artie looked back to see that Jim was no longer watching, and he felt even calmer. The gator was now within an arm’s length. Artie reached out to touch its nose. It was cold and clammy, as he expected, but it didn’t feel quite solid. When he took his hand away, the gator turned and started off in the other direction. Soon, it began to fade just as the horses had done.
Coming out from behind the tree, Jim was met by a dripping Artie, walking to where he’d piled his clothes.
“Nothing like a good swim, Jim.” Artie grinned as he tossed Jim’s lost canteen cap to him.
Jim didn’t answer. He was livid. At Artie, for not considering the risk. At his fear. Yes, mainly at being so afraid. The fearless Jim West so afraid it made him sick. Sullenly he picked up the cap, and put the canteen in the saddle bag. Artie began whistling, which made him even angrier.
As he buttoned his shirt, Artie noted that Jim’s expression was exactly the one he’d display just before a blowing up at someone. This time he was that someone, which was a shame – he was in a great mood since his swim. He stopped whistling, hoping to avert the explosion.
Unfortunately, Jim was just gearing up.
“You disgust me, you know that?”
Artie couldn’t help but laugh. They’d nearly been stamped to death by horses and torn apart by an alligator. Both of which disappeared. And now they were standing under trees that didn’t even belong in the western hemisphere – what else to do but laugh?
“What the hell’s so funny?”
“Damn you, I’m really pissed at you–“
“Jim, please – your language. This is Kansas, not the Bowery.” Plenty of times if he took this tack, it managed to diffuse the situation.
“I oughta knock your brains out.”
“Sure. Whatever makes you happy.”
“You’re a real jackass, you know that?” Jim’s anger increased since Artie wasn’t putting up any resistance.
“Do you even appreciate situation we’re in?” Jim asked as he mounted his horse.
“More than you do, apparently. Somebody’s playing a game with us – just a game. Personally, I’m always interested in learning a new game.”
“You’re a jackass,” Jim muttered again.
Artie hid his smile as he mounted his horse. They rode about a mile on the flat plain before he looked back to see that the baobabs were gone.
* * *
The first building they saw was a typical prairie dwelling. One story, with only one or two rooms. The only difference was that it appeared to be made of yellow granite. The July sun was at its most intense, and its rays shone like gold on the walls of the house.
“If that is what it looks like, it must’ve been dragged a mighty long way.” Artie said.
“Considering our recent luck, I’d prefer not to express an opinion. I’d just as soon get to the – what did the reports say – there’s a rooming house here?”
“A caravansary I think they called it.”
“Why the fancy name?”
Artie shrugged. He saw some wisdom in Jim’s refusal to express an opinion.
They rode on and began to notice a number of crows flying about. Artie smiled – he was a big fan of crows, having once had a few as pets. “Must be something growing out here other than grass, soon we’ll be seeing trees and farms I guess.”
“Keep an open mind,” Jim said.
“Huh? We won’t be seeing trees and farms?”
“Something just said to me ‘keep an open mind.’ Artie, when you said something about not being thrown, you said something told you... right?
“Is it – well, is it possible we’ve been drugged somehow?”
“I don’t see how – everything we’ve eaten we packed ourselves.”
“And you haven’t let that poison you’ve been playing with into the kitchen, right?”
Artie sighed deeply. “No. Just once – five years ago -- I accidently set the curtain on fire. You forgive, but you sure don’t forget, do you?”
“Answer the question.” Jim said. He knew what the answer would be, but now that he was feeling better, he’d pay Artie back for going for that unnecessary swim.
“No. No chemicals or compounds – poison or otherwise – in the kitchen. Anyway, if somehow we had been drugged, it’s unlikely we’d experience the same phenomena in the same way.”
“I guess that makes sense.”
Soon the landscape began to resemble a community – more buildings, all built from what looked like yellow or red granite. There was nothing that could be considered a main street, nor did there appear to be any businesses. There were animals -- horses standing patiently outside a few buildings, dogs loping along the wooden sidewalks, the tags on their collars jingling. Cats could be seen watching from second-story windows. There were no people.
“A settlement without settlers it looks like,” Artie observed.
“No, they’re here somewhere, I can feel it. There’s a lot of them, and –“
“I – “ Jim stopped. He couldn’t quite explain it, but it felt like a message was trying to plant itself into his mind that would answer the question.
“I what? Huh?”
“They know we’re here,” Jim said finally.
“Watching us?” Artie looked up at the windows. No one was looking out that he could see.
“There are other ways to see.”
“What?” Artie thought Jim was starting to sound like a certain actor who used to stay at his father’s boarding house from time to time. The man would rise in the middle of a meal to issue some oddball proclamation, on the nature of everything from the movements of the stars to the perfect temperature for tea.
“Artie, it happened again – I heard it! “
Artie looked at him and shrugged. This phenomenon, well, it certainly couldn’t compare with the horses, the alligator, and the boababs. “Is this something we have to worry about?”
“I guess not, but... no, I guess not.” came the reply.
“Let’s see if any of these invisible townspeople can direct us to the caravansary. I’m going to start knocking on doors.” Artie said as he dismounted.
“I’d like to keep riding.” Jim wouldn’t admit it, but he had a strong feeling something very bad was waiting behind one of those doors, waiting for him.
“See if you can find it yourself. If you can, come back and look for me. Or if I get directions first, I’ll look for you. Either way, I don’t think it’ll take us much time.”
“Artie, be careful.”
“I was born careful,” Artie said jauntily as he led the horse to the nearest hitching post.
“See you soon,” said Jim as he rode off.
The nearest building was three stories tall, narrow and built of a material resembling red granite. This was another mystery – granite wasn’t mined in this part of the country, and the cost to ship enough to erect all these buildings would have been enormous. A clever builder could have put a similar finish on another type of stone, but stone construction was almost unheard of out here.
Artie, my boy, so far you’ve seen baobab trees, an alligator, a herd of at least five hundred disappearing horses, and now granite buildings in the middle of nowhere. Wonder what’s next.
The door was black and bore symbols painted in red. As he came closer he heard a humming sound - very sonorous and sounding as if it was coming from more than one source.
He knocked, but there was no answer. He tried the knob and the door flew open to show a group of women in black robes, kneeling in a circle on the floor, humming together. The room had only the carpet on which they knelt. One of the women stopped to look up at him, then elbowed the woman next to her. The second woman rose and approached Artie.
“You are a seeker?”
“Of sorts. I’m seeking to get to the caravansary. Can you direct me?”
“You are not a true seeker?” The woman looked at him suspiciously. Her hair was wrapped in a black scarf, also worn by the other women. It was impossible to determine her age. She might have been twenty or she might have been sixty.
“Of course I’m a true seeker, but you see I’ve just blown into town, and it’s my understanding that I can find accommodations at the caravansary.
“You are a lost traveler, then.”
“No, not at all. I came here on purpose. An associate and I have read glowing reports of Shekinah, and we are interested in learning more about it. We are definitely true seekers.”
“Follow the sun. You will find the caravansary.”
“How will I know it, is there a sign outside?”
“You will know it.”
“Thank you.” Artie turned to leave, stopping briefly to put his hat back on before opening the door. He was surprised to see the woman right behind him, her expression extremely hostile. .
Riding in the direction she indicated, he noted that all the doors of the buildings were black. Some bore similar symbols, others had different ones. Most buildings were one story. A few had a metal cover outside of the front door, covering steps to a basement, he figured. Not one appeared to be a business.
Because of the disorganized layout, he had to change direction frequently - not the easiest way to catch up with Jim. Some paths very narrow, with walls or fences on either side, others very wide, which cut through what appeared to be herb gardens. He counted twenty buildings, spread over what he guessed was a square mile or so.
He turned left onto a path where the tallest building he had yet seen stood. This one was black granite and stood at least four or five stories – hard to tell because there were only windows on what he assumed were the two top floors. It cast a very long shadow.
Riding into shadowed area, Artie’s mood underwent an instant change. For no good reason, he felt very apprehensive. Recognizing Jim’s horse tied to a post outside a one-story building, he dismounted and hitched his own horse to the post.
“Jim? Hey, Jim?” There was no answer. Was he in the building? Something in the pit of his stomach told him not to enter it. He called again, this time as loud as he could. “Jim! Jim!!”
He soon left the shadowed area. Just outside was a fenced garden, and on the far side of it, someone on the ground, leaning against the fence. As he came closer, he saw that it was Jim.
“Jim, what are you doing there, napping?”
Coming closer, he saw that Jim was trembling and drenched with sweat. He struggled to get up, and shook as he walked, holding onto the fence rail.
“Artie, Artie– we... we’ve gotta get outta here. As soon as we can, get out. Artie... Artie! Don’t fail me, we’ve gotta get outta here.”
In all his years working with Jim, he’d been surprised a number of times, and shocked once or twice, but there was no word for what he was now experiencing.
“Jim, what’s wrong?” Artie asked, grasping Jim’s shoulders in an attempt to steady him.
“Artie, they’re killing people here. They’re killing people and – Artie, we have to leave!”
“Jim, did somebody try to – ?”
“NO! Damn you, listen to me – we’ve got to get out! Make up something to tell Washington, anything, it doesn’t matter. C’mon Artie, please. Let’s go.”
“Jim, if they’re killing people, then we’ve got to stay and put a stop to it,” Artie said patiently.
“Artie, we’ve gotta get out!!” Jim was near tears.
It was a hard thing to witness. Artie began to pace, trying to come up with an opening that would be effective but not condescending.
“Artie, I won’t go without you, but if I have to give you a belt that’ll knock you into the middle of next week, and throw you over the back of your horse, I will.” Now the old Jim was back.
Artie held up his hands to hold him off. “I’ll leave with you if it’s justified, but otherwise–“
“‘If it’s justified??’ Artie, I’m telling you!!...”
“Let me finish!” Artie roared. “So they’re killing people. Who? Why? How?”
Jim rushed at him, but Artie put his foot out causing Jim to trip and fall. Then Artie rested his foot on Jim’s chest.
“Either you calm down and talk, or you’re the one who’s gonna get knocked into next week. Take a deep breath – hell, take five deep breaths, I don’t care. Close your eyes – whatever it takes. But I insist you calm down and talk.”
“They’ll hear me,” Jim whispered.
Artie rubbed his eyes and shook his head. This was not the Jim West he knew, not at all. “Look Jim, no one is around. No one is going to hear you but me.”
“Artie, you don’t know–“
“Correct. So why don’t you tell me?”
“Get your dirty boot off my chest.”
“Gladly. Alright Jim, spill.”
Jim crawled to the spot where he had been sitting. Artie dropped down next to him.
“Evil spirits. They’re sacrificing people,” Jim whispered. “Offering people to these spirits.”
Artie sighed, closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.. Maybe the events of the past day made something in Jim’s brain snap. Or maybe he’d been working too hard, and was undergoing a breakdown.
“Jim, I don’t believe in evil spirits.”
“No! No, they’re real! It was them who conjured up the black horses and the alligator – they were trying to scare us off.”
“The spirits conjured up the horses?”
“NO! Why aren’t you listening? The people who are doing the sacrifices did it – the have powers! They wanted to scare us off.”
“So they could continue to sacrifice people to evil spirits, is that it?”
“And what is the point of that? Sacrificing people?”
Jim looked at him uncomprehendingly, as if he couldn’t believe Artie had asked such a stupid question. “It’s what the spirits want – they want their souls. They...” Jim’s voice dropped beyond whispering to almost inaudible. “They want my soul.”
“Oh, for the love of... Jim, listen to yourself. Nobody wants your soul.” Artie’s shock became disgust. “You said they wanted to scare us off, and now they want your soul? Which is it?”
“I know! I saw!”
“Alright, don’t answer the question. Just tell me: what did you see? And where did you see it?” Artie asked wearily.
Jim pointed to the low building outside which his horse was tethered.
“You went inside?” Artie got up and looked at the building again. There was something unsettling about it.
“Yes!... no. I saw it here,” Jim said as he tapped his head.
“So you imagined it?” By this point, it was Artie’s opinion that Jim should be taken off the case. Something was very wrong with him; perhaps they should return to Abilene, and put Jim on a train to Washington to be evaluated. Then Artie could pick up where he left off in Shekinah, either alone or with another agent.
“I did not imagine it. Remember we felt someone speaking to us? It was like that, but visual.”
“You don’t believe me,” Jim said angrily.
“It’s not that I don’t believe you, it’s that I think–“
“You think I’ve lost my mind.”
“You have been working pretty hard and it’s about three years since your last vacation, so–“
“Damn you! Damn you!” Jim looked like he was about to barrel into him again.
“Jim, relax. Can we just get to the caravansary? Then we’ll talk – discuss our next move, OK?”
“Artie! No! If we go there – if we stay overnight, we’ll end up like those other people. If we leave now – right now – we’ll have a chance.”
“Jim, I’m staying and so are you, at least for tonight. I’ll not have you wandering around alone in the wilderness.”
“NO!” Jim got up and rushed at Artie, who clocked him.
“Sorry, friend, I had no choice,” Artie said, as dragged Jim’s unconscious body to where the horses were tied.
* * *
The building was exactly the same design as the typical caravansary of the Near East – a low building surrounding a large courtyard. Even the architecture looked like something one might have seen in Turkey. There was no one around.
Artie led the horses to the water trough, then scooped up a handful of water, which he flung in Jim’s face to rouse him. Jim didn’t move a muscle, so Artie tried again. No response. Artie tried once more and, again, Jim did not respond. Maybe it would be better to get him into the room. He could rouse him there and, if Jim was still hysterical and uncontrollable, Artie could lock him in for the night. Just to be sure nothing was wrong, he grabbed Jim’s dangling wrist. His pulse was normal, and he appeared to be breathing normally. So far, so good. Artie left him draped over the horse’s back, and went looking for the office.
The building had thirteen rooms or at least thirteen doors, three on three sides of the square courtyard, four on the fourth. Like the other doors he’d seen in Shekinah, these were black, without symbols. There was nothing to indicate where to check in. Artie knocked on a few doors until he found one that was unlocked.
“Hello?” Artie paused and waited for an answer. There was none, so he came in. The room was fairly dark, especially since the walls were black, but there was some light coming from a window at the rear. The furniture was limited to a small table, on which stood an oil lamp and a single key. The floor was covered with a large Oriental rug. Four blankets were folded in a corner. There was a strong smell of incense. He walked to the window, and saw that the back of the building faced a lot of nothing. Just miles and miles of miles and miles.
If no one’s around to throw us out, we might as well move in for the night. He went out to get Jim. Hopefully, he’d come around soon. Artie wanted to explore a little further, but if Jim was still out cold, he’d stay with him until he awoke. Then that key would come in handy.
Jim was just as Artie had left him. Artie pulled him down off the horse, and dragged him into the room. He lit the oil lamp so he could see better, then pried open one of Jim’s eyes. Nothing abnormal. With nothing to do but wait, Artie sat on the floor, resting his back against the wall.
He began to wonder about the founder or founders of Shekinah. The town could have existed for years without anyone knowing. It had only come to attention recently because of experiences reported by travelers, and from a short essay that had appeared in Leslie’s Weekly around the same time. Written by a Mr. Joash Curlin, the essay was last in a series about utopian communities. The word Shekinah was a Hebrew word which translated as “God’s glory,” so initially it was thought to be a community founded on religious principles. Mr. Curlin had painted a glowing picture, but one almost entirely without detail as to the community’s philosophy or population, focusing mainly on the natural environment. “An Island of Inquiry in a Sea of Grass,” the piece was entitled. Headquarters had tried to get ahold of Curlin in order to find out if he had any information worth knowing, but he could not be found. The editor at Leslie’s said that Curlin had given them a post office box as his address. However, after payment for the article was remitted, it was found that the post office box had been rented to someone else. There was no forwarding address.
Before leaving Washington, Artie had read the article without much interest. The prose was quite florid, and the piece offered almost no hard information. One phrase he remembered as being really over the top: “The rhythms of Shekinah build to a crescendo at nightfall, with the vibrations of a million crickets, and the beating of a hundred pioneer hearts welcoming the dark of night, darker on our great American prairies than anywhere else in the world.” What community anywhere welcomes the dark of night? Maybe in the desert, when the temperatures drop, but anywhere else? Very strange.
Artie dozed for a little while and when he awoke, it was shortly after dusk. Jim was still out. It had already been a few hours – much too long for the punch Artie had given him. He checked his vital signs again and they still appeared to be normal. Maybe this was for the best – maybe a deep sleep was what he needed.
Artie very much wanted to take another walk around, if only to experience the “crescendo” Curlin had described. And that something was back – the something that had told him to jump into the creek. It was telling him now to go out for awhile. And to pay close attention.
SS 1st assignment - desk job
Posted - 08/21/2009 : 07:40:18
| Chapter 2
By now, Artie was getting hungry. He and Jim had assumed there’d be some place to get food since the article in Leslie’s had claimed that the population was around a hundred. A hundred people in the middle of nowhere, with no farms about, and no way for trains to carry food in – what did they eat? He’d seen a number of small gardens, but what they had would not feed a hundred people, and most of them seemed to be growing only herbs, anyway. Those he women he saw didn’t seem to be starving, though. Maybe he’d run into somebody he could ask about it.
The evening was cool and pleasant. If the dark of night was such a big deal to the residents of Shekinah, why was he the only one out walking? After an hour of wandering, Artie found himself near the tallest building – the one that had thrown the long shadow. He noticed light emanating from the windows at the top. The answers to some of his questions were up there, he knew, but he also knew that up there was something ... well, there was no other word for it. Evil.
Artie began looking for a door, but there did not appear to be one. He was just about to walk away when he heard what sounded like a pocket door opening. He turned to see that there was an opening in the wall, and a dark figure beckoning him to come in.
It was a man. Also of indeterminate age, as the woman who spoke to him had been.
“Come hither, seeker. We wait for you.”
“Ah, yes, I’ve been waiting to meet you as well. Artemus Gordon’s the name. And your’s?” Artie tried to sound jolly, but it didn’t seem to him as though it came out that way.
“I am a brother seeker. My name is not important. Come.”
Artie followed him into the darkness. There was a lantern at the foot of a spiral staircase. The man carried it up the steps, with Artie following.
“So where are you from? How long have you lived here?” Artie asked.
“Silence. After sundown, only the Magus may speak, unless he extends permission.”
“Oh, the Magus, huh? Who’s that?”
“I caution you, do not speak again.”
The staircase was slow going and Artie wondered how much longer it would take to get wherever it was they were headed. Fortunately, he smelled food. The closer they came to it, the better it smelled. And the hungrier he felt.
Finally, they reached a very large chamber. On its blood-red walls were mounted four gilded Egyptian revival-style torches. On the floor knelt about a hundred people – maybe Shekinah’s entire population. At the front of the room a man in a red robe sat cross-legged on a huge cushion – everyone else was in black. As Artie came closer, he almost laughed. The man’s robe and pointy beard – he looked like Mephistopheles from some backwater production of Faust.
The man who’d led Artie up brought him to the front of the room and stood beside him. The Magus rose to look him over.
“We have another seeker... No, two more seekers. Sir, where is your brother seeker?”
Artie was about to answer, but the man beside him touched his arm and shook his head.
“Your brother seeker sleeps at the caravansary. Or is he dead?”
He paused to take in Artie’s concerned expression, then smiled and addressed the entire group.
“Sleep and death are brothers, are they not? Hypnos and Thanatos. A sleeping man differs little from a dead man. For our absent brother, which is it? This man struck his brother and his brother has not awakened. Will he awake, do you think? Or is he no longer sleeping, but dead?”
There was a very strange feeling in this room and, obviously, Artie had under-estimated the Magus. It felt as if the man had reached into his mind.
“The truth is that both of these men are asleep, in the most profound way, as were you all. As are nearly all of humanity yet is. Even the kings of the earth sleep. They may rule but are ever in fear of the usurper and the revolutionary. They raise armies, ally themselves with other kingdoms, all in order to keep their place. Would that they had true power! The very nature of matter has in it the secret of power. No king need oppress his people to keep his position; if he is wise, he may manipulate nature, and his subjects will oppress themselves.”
After this declaration, the Magus approached Artie. “If you are willing, seeker, to submit all to me, you will realize this power.”
Artie didn’t answer. Not only because he’d been warned not to speak, but also because he felt this man was truly reading his mind. He had begun to fill his mind with memories, snatches of songs, anything and everything so that the Magus would be unable to discern his true intent.
“Our brother is hungry,” the Magus said finally, nodding at the man standing next to Artie. The man touched Artie’s arm, then pointed to the door. Artie followed him into the dark corridor.
As they left the room and mounted another flight of stairs, Artie noticed his mood lightening. He hadn’t realized how much more anxious he’d been only a few moments before. Finally they arrived on the top floor of the building, which opened to a narrow corridor with windows on one side. Taking a quick look down, he saw nothing. The only light was coming from the full moon.
At the end of the corridor was an enormous door, which appeared to have been made of gold. The guide clapped his hands and the door opened to a perfectly square room, in the center of which was a huge dining table. Even the fanciest state dinner Artie had ever attended didn’t have a layout like this. Platters of lobster and pheasant, bowls of truffles and caviar, fruit and vegetable dishes of every description, cakes, wines. The smell alone would have fed him.
The man turned to Artie, and said, “Eat.”
As hungry as he was, the display didn’t seem really real. Everything looked and smelled the way it was supposed to, but... Looking back at the man he asked, “Are you joining me?”
The man’s expression remained impassive and he shook his head.
“Oh, right, nobody’s allowed to talk but the Magus.”
The man glared at him stonily.
“More for me then.” Out of his presence, the Magus held no more fascination for Artie. Just a con man who’d managed to attract a bunch of rubes to this place. He took a plate and filled it with vegetables. Something about the fish and meats didn’t appeal to him, although he couldn’t figure out why. He took a wine glass from the sideboard, and studied the bottles. All were red wines, and included what he was sure were some of the most valuable vintages available – there was even an 1831 bottle of Chateau d’Yquem he guessed had to be worth a thousand dollars or better. The wine key was right beside it and Artie was very tempted. But to open a thousand dollar bottle of wine without express permission of the host?
“Like to join me in a glass of wine, buddy?”
The man’s head barely shook.
“Is it alright if I imbibe?” The man nodded slightly. Artie opened the wine quickly, filled his glass and took a sip. Yes, this was the real thing. In the middle of nowhere, west of the Mississippi. Where was the money to set all this up? The wine, the granite? And how was the Magus able to attract all these people to Shekinah?
“So, bub, what made you want to settle here?”
The man said nothing.
“Any businesses here? Saloons? Barbershops? Funny, I saw a lot of what I thought might be businesses, but there wasn’t any signage. You know, it pays to advertise.”
“We have no commerce. We do not lack the necessities.”
This fella’s got all the personality of a brick wall, but at least he answered the question.
The man then left, leaving the door open.
Artie finished the plate of vegetables and had a second glass of wine. He was no longer hungry, but decided to take some with him, since he figured Jim must be starving, and there was no guarantee that they’d be able to find anything to eat the next day. He grabbed a couple of napkins, wrapped them around pieces of bread and cake, and stuffed them into his pockets.
Just as he was finishing this third glass of wine, the man returned, carrying an ordinary agate lunch pail. He indicated the food on the table, then offered the pail to Artie.
“Thanks, pal.” Artie filled the pail with meats and a few vegetables, but kept the other food in his pockets. Once it was full, Artie followed the man out of the room, and they started again on the staircase. They reached the bottom in a fraction of the time it took them to climb to the top. The man opened the door. Artie stopped turned to say goodnight, but the man was already gone.
Artie wasn’t sure of the time. Already Orion was high in the sky, which would suggest he’d spent three hours or so in there. That didn’t make much sense, it didn’t seem to be more than an hour. He noticed that the sky looked particularly beautiful, and he paused awhile to look at it. For the first time that day, he felt a sense of peace. He could have looked at that sky all night long, but then he remembered Jim, and began to walk as quickly as he could back to the caravansary. When the Magus had mentioned him, Artie felt a brief stab of fear. He didn’t want to admit the possibility, but he had heard of instances where a mere punch had killed a man.
The room was completely dark when Artie entered. He felt around for the oil lamp and lit it, and placed the lunch pail on the table. Holding the lamp up he saw that Jim had moved to a corner of the room. His eyes were open and somewhat glazed. He was again sweating heavily.
“Artie, Artie – I thought they’d killed you.” He didn’t move from the corner. His body language suggested a trapped animal.
Artie looked at him for a few moments before approaching him. By now he was fairly certain that Jim had suffered a breakdown, so his idea about taking him back to Abilene and putting him on a train to Washington seemed to be the best course of action. If he could find a telegraph office, he could contact headquarters about sending somebody to Abilene who could escort Jim back to Washington. That way, Artie could immediately return to Shekinah.
“Look, Jim, nobody’s gonna kill me. Or you. We’ll both live for at least another fifty years. Heck, the government’ll owe us so much pension money we’ll probably bankrupt them. Here – “ Artie reached into his pocket and handed Jim a roll.
Jim ate greedily, and as Artie watched he hoped that maybe a full stomach would help Jim pull himself together.
“Hey, I got even more than that,” he said as he went to the table to get the pail. “There was some spread there, you should’ve seen it.”
Just before handing the pail to Jim, Artie opened the lid. Something didn’t look quite right. He put the pail under the lamp, and was horrified to see the contents. Snakes. He ran from the room and emptied the pail in the courtyard, sickened as he watched them slither away. He threw the pail and its lid after them.
Returning to the room and Jim’s questioning glance, Artie fudged an explanation. “I forgot that you don’t like eel.”
“Eel?! What possessed you to bring back eel? I thought you said there was a big spread. Where was this big spread?”
Artie was puzzled. Once more the real Jim seemed to have taken over.
“Artie, where was it?”
Artie wasn’t sure how to answer. Food turning to snakes... If he answered truthfully, more questions might ensue and it would be only so long before he ran out of comforting lies.
“It was – oh, I was just kidding about that. Somebody offered me... the catch of the day, and I... figured it’d be trout or something.”
* * *
The Magus has ceased discussing the generalities with which he began every evening’s meeting, and began to speak of specifics. This evening the subject was to be the men who had ridden into town earlier in the day.
“Two men have entered Shekinah as seekers. Or rather, that is what they would have us believe. I have called them here myself. They are the finest examples I could find of two wildly divergent types of temperament. Both are not only known to one another; they work closely together as employees of the United States government. A rare find indeed.”
This declaration was met with a high-pitched collective hum, the only sound the Magus allowed at these meetings which did not require his express permission.
“To exert power over others requires a variety of approaches. What may serve in the oppression of one person or persons may not be efficacious with other persons. And so we have these men as examples. The one here this evening is, in the vernacular, ‘easy-going.’ Not easily frightened or frustrated. Ever positive, possessing what fools call ‘a sunny disposition.’”
That last remark was delivered with disgust and greeted with another hum.
“Persons having this temperament bend and so are difficult to break. They do not take reversals seriously. They do their best in every instance but are not unduly invested in outcome, as they are extremely adaptable. I must reiterate, this type is difficult, though not impossible, to oppress.”
“The other type is embodied by the man you have not yet met. His type is easily oppressed, which is why we will undertake his case first. He is a man of control, certain of his abilities, the ‘rightness’ of his goals and methods, sure of his place in the world. He does not bend, which is why he is so easy to break. I have already broken him as a test, then allowed him to return to his original state. I shall break him again in order to demonstrate for you how it is achieved. If you learn this lesson well, we shall move on to his companion, to demonstrate how his type is broken. Once the lessons are learned, we shall offer them up to the spirit.”
That declaration was met with a deafening chorus of hums.
* * *
Back in the room, Jim and Artie were finishing up the cake. Artie was pleased to see that Jim seemed to be recovering himself, although he was still planning to take him back to Abilene.
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Like what?” Artie asked, innocently.
“Like you want to ask me a question. So ask already,” Jim said between bites.
Artie did want to know what had happened to make Jim so terrified. But he couldn’t think of a way to ask without possibly setting him off again.
“Jim, I think we ought to leave tomorrow. Early. I’m thinking that maybe you should go back to Washington and... make a preliminary report about the horses and the buildings, and then–“
“Are you serious?” Jim asked unbelievingly. “First of all, they’re going to wonder what the hell I’m talking about, and secondly, they’re going to wonder why I’m back without any useful information. Why would you even suggest that?”
Artie rose and stood in front of the window. He had to answer, but he didn’t want to see Jim’s expression when he did.
“Jim, earlier today, you were frantic to leave.”
“What? What makes you think that?”
“Jim what? I don’t get you,” Jim said as he got up and grabbed one of the blankets. “Sure, I wasn’t too happy when you dove into that – that creek or whatever it was, but I’m here for the duration. And with an eye to what we’ve got to do tomorrow, I’d like to get some sleep.”
“Uh huh.” He’d have to ask now. “Jim, what happened between the time we split up and my finding you near that fence?”
Jim seemed sincerely confused. “When was that? You mean what happened before you came back just now? I guess I was asleep a good, long time. I really don’t remember – I sure don’t remember any fence. I don’t even remember coming here. But this is the caravansary, right?”
“Sorry, I don’t remember. I’m not sure why I don’t remember, but.... is it all that important?”
“No, I guess not,” Artie said finally, as he went to the corner to get a blanket.
Jim seemed like he’d pulled himself together at last, so Artie abandoned his original plan: to watch him all night, so he didn’t leave the room or fly into another panic. Grateful for this turn of events, Artie undressed, stretched out on the floor, fell asleep – and began to dream – almost immediately. At first the dream was very pleasant - he was walking arm-in-arm with Anna in Hyde Park. She did not appear in his dreams often, or at least not often enough for him, but when she did, he’d be smiling the whole day afterward. In this dream, as they approached the Serpentine, she turned to him and asked, “Do you know why it’s called ‘the Serpentine?’” As soon as the words left her mouth, huge black snakes crawled from the water onto the bank. The largest snake, which smelled like death itself, slithered toward them then coiled itself around Anna’s legs, and began to pull her away.. She screamed, but Artie could do nothing; he was rooted to the spot and when he tried to call for help, he couldn’t make a sound. Other snakes went through the park dragging off others, and all Artie could do was watch in horror as they were drowned in the Serpentine. Once they were all gone, Artie stood alone in the park. He called for help one last time and this time his voice was audible, but there was no one to hear.
* * *
When he awoke in the morning, Jim was gone, his blanket neatly folded and back in the corner. Artie was a little surprised, but unworried. After dressing, he took the last roll and went outside. There was a bench near the doorway, so he sat and ate, while trying to guess Jim’s whereabouts. He had nearly finished when he saw Jim approaching, all smiles, carrying a wicker basket.
“Artie, toss that day-old bread away. I got some real food here: cold roast beef, fresh bread – still hot. A coupla apples and – get this – some oranges. Plus a canteen of hot coffee and two cups.”
“How’d you manage that?” This should be interesting.
“I was up at before dawn – you were hollering so much in your sleep, you kept waking me -- so I took a walk. Anyway –“ He dropped the basket at Artie’s feet. “Eat up.”
“Where did you get it?”
Jim sat next to him and poured himself some coffee. After taking a sip, he said, “Some woman called me into her house, or whatever it was. Didn’t really look like a house, more like a... just didn’t look like a house. Anyway, she welcomed me into town and put all this in the basket.”
“You didn’t think that odd?”
“No – I thought she was just being friendly. It’s possible that not everyone here is a bad egg. Speaking of odd, that must’ve been some nightmare you had last night.”
“Wanna tell me about it?” More than once, Artie had a dream that accurately foretold a future event.
Artie shook his head no.
“Understood.” Artie looked kind of haggard. Maybe it was something really awful.
“Jim, tell me: have you had any other interactions with the locals? Think.”
“Why do I need to think? I just told you...”
Artie didn’t reply, but had an expectant look in his face.
“What?? You have something to say, spit it out already.” Artie was all long silences and strange behavior on this trip, Jim thought. Not very like him.
“I don’t know how you’re going to receive this,” Artie started carefully. “Yesterday, after we split up, I met a couple of the locals and ‘friendly’ is not an adjective I’d use to describe them.”
“Uh huh. So why do you care how I receive that? How come you’re not eating?” Jim was already halfway through his sandwich.
“That’s not the part I was referring to. After making my first acquaintance, I found you slumped against a fence, shaking and sweating. And pleading with me to leave.”
“Oh, not this again. Why would I want you to leave?” Jim asked with irritation as he attempted to hand him a sandwich, which Artie waved away.
“Both of us to leave. Before sundown.”
“When was this?”
Artie looked away and didn’t answer.
“When? C’mon, say something. I admitted last night that I didn’t remember a lot, didn’t I?”
Just after he said this, a man dressed in some kind of Ottoman-style robe, bright red, entered the courtyard, followed by twelve others similarly dressed, but in black, all of whom were humming. This was what Artie had looked away to see.
“Mr. West, the reason your companion is not speaking is because he may be forced to admit that he attempted to kill you.” The Magus looked back at his followers and nodded. They then formed a single line behind him, about six feet away, but directly in front of Jim.
Jim’s first look at the Magus gave him the same impression Artie had when he met him – that the guy was a con man with a more elaborate than usual modus operandi.
“Is that so?” Jim asked jokingly. “Did you try to kill me Artie?”
Before Artie could answer, the Magus continued. “Mr. Gordon has become jealous of you – insanely jealous. He hides it well, certainly. But the truth is his best days are behind him. He has become bitter. If he were to kill you, perhaps then he might be considered the U. S. Secret Service’s number one agent, rather than remaining ever in your shadow.”
Jim guffawed. Artie didn’t have a jealous bone in his body and, in any case, his reputation was at least as impressive, if not more so, than Jim’s own. “Who told you our names?”
The Magus smiled. “What kind of civic leader would I be if I did not make it my business to know the names and intentions of those who visit my town?”
“And your name, sir?”
“You may call me Lord. In the third person, I am called ‘The Magus.’”
That wasn’t much of an answer. “Who are your friends, and why are they humming?” he asked, indicating the line in front of him, all with heads bowed. It was impossible to tell if these were men or women. He noticed that when he spoke the hums sounded much deeper.
The Magus chuckled. “Friends? Friendship implies equity of status, Mr. West. I am a master – beyond a master, really, yet the English language is so very limited – and they are mere apprentices. The humming – at some future point I may explain it to you. I am hoping that you and Mr. Gordon will one day perhaps become apprentices yourselves. “
“Uh huh. Well, that’s what we’re hoping, too. Right, Artie?”
Artie still hadn’t said anything, which was beginning to concern Jim. He couldn’t have been afraid, so why so close-mouthed?
“You know, Mr. West, I’m wondering that, too.”
“Huh?” Had Jim missed something?
“You’re wondering why your companion is silent. As am I.”
Artie was tempted to speak, but most of his energy was devoted to once more stuffing his head with random thoughts.
“I kept quiet because the adherent I met–“
“Apprentice, Mr. Gordon.”
“Alright, apprentice then, whom I met last evening claimed that everybody has to be silent in your presence. I’m not one to breach protocol.”
The Magus smiled again, an oily grin with too many teeth showing. “You strain a gnat and swallow a camel, sir. You afford me, a total stranger, due respect. Yet your bosom friend, you’ve attempted to kill.”
Artie was sorely tempted to drop the mask and say what he really thought about this charade, but he was counting on Jim’s good sense. He was certain that it would impossible to persuade Jim that he was anything but a loyal friend and compatriot.
“Mr. West, if I were you, I would keep my distance from him. He failed, but I believe he may be the stubborn type. As the old saw puts it, he may try, try again.”
Jim’s reaction was that this was purely ridiculous. The man was playing word games.
“I assure you, Mr. West, I am not playing word games.”
Jim’s eyes widened.
“The mind – your mind, anyone’s mind – to me is as an open book, and at any hour I please I can read its contents, no matter where you are. There is the tiniest seed of belief now sprouting in your mind. Your associate is, among other things, a man of science. No doubt he is acquainted with the properties of all sorts of chemicals and compounds, natural and man-made. Most recently, he has busied himself studying poison. You have assumed his interest has resulted from the death of his lover, who was poisoned, poor dear.”
Jim glanced at Artie, to see how he was taking this. Jim had assumed that was why Artie had begun studying poison. He never asked about it because he felt it was a touchy subject. Artie was no longer the wreck he had become in the weeks after Anna’s death, but Jim could tell that he still missed her terribly.
Artie attempted to contain his shock at this pronouncement. How could this con artist have possibly have known about Anna?
“Mr. West, how loyal you must be. Or perhaps you’re just a fool. Why else would your associate be cooking up poison, except to use it on you? Does the United States Secret Service use poison in its work? Of course not, when brute force is so much easier to administer and control. And he has not defended himself – has not offered even a whit of an explanation. Is he ashamed? Or is he hoping his silence will speak for him?”
Artie looked askance at Jim. Where they just going to sit there and let themselves be brow-beaten? Or did Jim have some sort of plan? Jim’s expression was one he’d never seen before.
Almost against his will, Jim had begun turning over in his mind the Magus’s accusations. It would be impossible now to find out what poison had been used on Anna, and Jim suspected that even if it could be ascertained, understanding how it worked would be too painful for Artie. But maybe the experience had made him interested in poison in general? The problem was that researching poisons would at some point entail trying them out to see if the research was sound.
“May I add a final detail, Mr. West? The particular substance your colleague is researching is an organism called ergot. Mr. Gordon, would you please explain to us the properties of ergot?”
Artie smiled involuntarily before speaking.
“Ergot’s a plant disease which shows up most commonly on rye. It’s known to cause convulsions and hallucinations. For example, it’s been been suggested as the background cause for the hysteria that resulted in the Salem witch trials. ”
“Hallucinations, did you say?” The Magus tugged as his beard with a slight smile.
“How very interesting. Mr. West, don’t you find that interesting?”
“Not particularly,” Jim said coldly.
“I’m surprised. Very surprised. Perhaps it will take you some time to see the truth. Now I must take my leave of you. A fine day it is – I hope you’ll take in some of the attractions of our town.”
“Which are?” Artie asked.
“Seek and you will find, Mr. Gordon.” With that the Magus grinned again, turned around and walked out, trailed by the others, who had ceased humming.
“So he’s the boss here?” Jim said. “Wonder who he is really.”
“Why the humming, do you think?”
“Dunno.” Artie got up and went back into the room. The bright sun was making his eyes water.
Jim knew the only way to learn what was going on would be to engage the Magus, and as many of his followers – no, apprentices – as could be persuaded to talk. This wasn’t going to be easy.
And then there was the problem with Artie. The horses, the alligator – they must have been hallucinations. If he thought in terms of Occam’s razor, then Artie’s ergot experiments must have been the source. And there was a noticeable change in his behavior. He had become far too reticent – that too would seem to indicate guilt. Maybe not for somebody else, but Artie was not known to keep his mouth shut unless he had good reason. And probably now, a self-serving reason, Jim thought angrily. He felt himself getting more furious almost by the second. Maybe the Magus is right, and Artie does want to kill me.
He went back into the room to see Artie lying on his back, with one of the blankets rolled up to serve as a pillow. He was reading, and did not acknowledge Jim’s entry.
“Artie, put the book away – I want to talk.”
“About what?” Artie did not look up.
“You don’t know? I find that hard to believe.”
“Sorry, why don’t you give me a clue?”
Jim sat down next to him. “Why are you refusing to look at me?”
“Refusing? Why do I need to look at you – did you grow a second head?” After almost eighteen hours of dealing with Jim’s inexplicable behavior, Artie was quickly losing patience.
“The ergot – I want to know everything.”
Artie put the book aside and stretched. “It’s just like I said, it’s –“
“Yeah, I got that. What I want to know is why you tested it on me.”
Artie laughed, then stopped abruptly upon reading Jim’s expression. He was dead serious.
“First of all, I haven’t tried to grow it. I’m still researching its properties and any historical account I can find on the results of ergot poisoning. Secondly, if I can grow it – that’s an ‘if” – it may not be possible to do it in the lab – I would test it only on myself. Not on anyone else, and certainly not on you. Understand?”
“I wish I could believe you, but fortunately, I’m not that dense. Why are you interested in that stuff all of a sudden? Something to do with your dead girlfriend?”
Artie stared at him, speechless.
“The Magus was right; the government has no use for poison. So it has to be a personal reason. The theory that makes the most sense is that it has something to do with her. Maybe you’re mad at the world – poor you – losing the love of your life. How long were you with her – three whole weeks? She must’ve been amazing in bed, that’s for sure.”
Artie took a deep breath. “Watch it.”
“Watch it?? It’s not like she was some sweet young thing – she’d obviously been around the block a few times, pal.”
“You mention her one more time, I’ll tear you limb from limb.”
Jim laughed. “That’s a good one. You’re at least twenty years too old, and even if you weren’t...“ Jim laughed again. “You’re pathetic. An actor, for god’s sake – that’s no a job for a real man. If the war hadn’t come, you’d still be mincing across the stage somewhere.”
“You know what – you’re right.” Artie said genially. “C’mere, I want to show you something.”
He held his hand out, slightly cupped. Jim came closer and leaned over to look. Instantly, Artie kicked him in the stomach as hard as he could. Jim dropped to his knees, unable to breathe. Artie pulled him by his collar to the corner of the room, and pushed him against the wall.
“From now on, watch your mouth,.” Artie growled before he stalked out.
Once he left the caravansary, the picture of the line of apprentices came to Artie’s mind. They must have had something to do with Jim’s behavior of just a few moments before. He and Jim had argued plenty of times over the years, but Jim was never one to start an argument without good reason, and never would he sink to cruel personal insults. Never.
The more Artie thought about it, the clearer it became that, once again, the real Jim was not speaking. It was some sick, confused version of him, and I didn’t see that. Or I chose not to. The more he reflected on this, the worse he felt.
When’s it gonna be my turn? Pushing the thought out of his mind, he left the room and went out in search of local attractions.
SS 1st assignment - desk job
Posted - 08/21/2009 : 07:46:15
| Chapter 3
Jim got up an hour later with a splitting headache, but that was nothing compared to how his gut felt. He left the room, and took a walk around the caravansary. With every step he felt the result of Artie’s kick. Why not just take the day off? Just relax. Maybe find a woman – what could it hurt? It’s not as if they’re murdering people in the streets. Artie could do the heavy lifting for once.
Jim watered his horse, then rode until he saw the first building. There were three women outside, sitting on the ground. All in black. As he came closer he saw that it wasn’t only their attire that was identical. Where these triplets?
“Good morning, ladies.”
Three faces turned to look up at him. All very attractive, although he could not guess their age.
“Good morning, sir,” they said in unison.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir.” Again, in unison.
“You girls know where a man can get a drink, and maybe a little female companionship?”
All three rose and said, at the same time, “Follow me.”
The room was empty, except for the rug on the floor. Beyond was another room, flooded with what looked like fog. As Jim neared, the fog dispersed, revealing a bar room. Not the sort to be expected in a small prairie town - this one was similar what one would see in a private club. There was no attendant, so Jim went behind the bar and poured himself some bourbon.
“Ladies? Hey, ladies, wouldn’t you like to join me?” He turned to see that he was alone.
He gulped the bourbon and poured himself another glass. As he put the glass down, he noted a pad and pencil at the far end of the bar. He took them to one of the tables, intending to write out some plans for the following day, when he would return to work. No sooner had he picked up the pencil that a dainty, snow white hand took it away and threw it on the floor.
The hand belonged to the most exotic-looking creature he had ever seen. Dark eyes in a shade somewhere between gold and copper, a mass of auburn hair worn loose and hanging to her waist. She smiled at him, but said nothing before she leaned down to kiss him on the lips.
* * *
Artie had walked for hours without seeing anyone. Where did all those people from last night go? And what about the Magus – how does he spend his days? Artie was reluctant to believe that the man was truly a mind reader. In the atmosphere in which he’d first met him, it seemed somehow likely, but in the light of day, Artie’s reason kicked in. Any student of body language, if experienced enough, could falsely claim to be able to read minds. But no reading of my body language could provide information about Anna!
Outside of a small building, he saw an apprentice sitting in the shade, his eyes closed. As Artie came near, the man’s eyes opened, and he asked “Would you like to join us?”
“Us? Oh, sure, but I’d like to ask a few questions first, if it’s alright with you.”
“It is not,” the man replied, with an expression on his face Artie couldn’t quite interpret.
Artie tried again. “How then can I be expected to join you as an apprentice unless I know what I’m getting into? I was hoping someone would lay it out for me, what’s expected of me and –“
“We are called here. Every one of us. You would not be here if you had not been called.”
“Absolutely, yes – I definitely feel I was called here, but to what purpose? I am a seeker, but I don’t know what I can expect to find here, you see.”
“May I ask you a question?”
“Why do I see you always alone? Did you not come with another?”
“I did, but he’s a little under the weather. Bad hay fever – very bad – he’s not used to so much grass.” Next time he saw Jim, he would apologize and then try to impress upon him that they should spend some time in public together, since his being alone was causing comment.
“Where are you from?” The man spoke in a monotone like everyone else he’d heard so far, except for the Magus.
“I’m from all over. I’ve studied recently with a man in France – I’m certain he was the Comte de Saint-Germain, fascinating fellow, but of course he had to use a pseudonym – the philistines in the French government would gladly see him dead otherwise. So you see, I’m a veteran seeker.”
The man stared at Artie for a moment, then closed his eyes once more.
“You invited me to join you, sir. Join you in what exactly?” Best to get back to square one.
The man replied, his eyes still closed. “Sir, even though you are a liar, you display a very high level of vibration.”
“I do, do I?” Artie had no idea what that meant, or if it was a good thing. “So — the invitation?”
“Has been rescinded. Good day, sir.”
* * *
The woman got out of bed and attempted to tiptoe out of the room.
Jim staggered toward her and grabbed her arm. “I’m not done with you yet, sister.” He attempted to drag her back to the bed, but stumbled, and she escaped his grasp. He reeled into the hallway shouting curses at her. She stopped and turned to face him, then melted into a fog.
He hadn’t noticed at first but in the struggle the bottle broke. It was nearly empty anyway, so he intended to go downstairs to the bar room and get more. He was so unsteady that he fell halfway down, tore his trousers and cut his leg.
“Damn it! DAMN it!!” Still swearing he walked in the direction of the bar room, only to see that it was gone. Just an empty room, identical to the one that faced the street. The three women were gone, his bedmate was gone, the liquor had gone to wherever the bar had gone, he was drunk and alone with torn pants. He went out the open doorway to see Artie walking up the street.
At first, Artie did not recognize him. All Jim had on were trousers, one leg of which was ripped.. His face was flushed, his hair was sticking out in all directions.
“Yeah? Oh, it’s you.”
Artie noticed Jim reeked of alcohol. “You’ve been drinking? Why??”
“Let’s just say there’s a pain in my gut that needs something to quiet it down.”
“Listen, Jim, you–“ Artie didn’t get a chance to finish the sentence. Jim knocked him down and began punching. Since Jim was dead drunk and very uncoordinated, Artie was able to throw him off with little effort and get up on his feet. Jim stayed on the ground, muttering to himself while mopping blood off his leg with a handkerchief.
“Jim, c’mon let’s go back to the room. And... I’m really sorry I kicked you. I... I’m really sorry.”
“Huh? I just need another drink.”
“That’s the last thing you need.”
“Well, I keep getting assaulted by a certain associate, I think I oughta be able to medicate myself any way I want. I remember now – you punched me out yesterday.”
“Jim, let’s get out of here, alright? We’ll ride out tomorrow.”
“I’m not going anywhere. I think I could use a couple more days off, considering I’m not getting any work done, just getting beaten up.”
Artie stared at him. The sooner they got out the better, both of them. This was an ugly, senseless place, but it probably posed no threat, except to Jim’s sanity.
“Oh, Mr. Gordon, you could not be more wrong. What has happened to your associate is just an exercise for my apprentices.”
It was as if the Magus had dropped from the sky.
“An exercise?” Artie looked down at Jim, still trying to stop the blood flow from his knee. “What kind of game are you playing?”
“Oh, no, sir. Not a game. A lesson. Mr. West has been broken. Left now to his own devices, he would remain in Shekinah, drinking, whoring, seething about your treatment of him, ultimately becoming an hopeless alcoholic. He has lost every shred of control, you see?”
“Is that so?” Artie asked icily.
“Yes. So sorry you missed the rest of the meeting last evening, but we discussed how to... Ah, perhaps you and I should meet in private.”
Artie looked down at Jim again, and when he looked up it appeared the entire population of Shekinah was lined up across the street, silently watching.
“Friends, this is the man of whom I spoke last night,” the Magus said, pointing to Jim. “Broken. His Achilles heel, control. This man, who was ever in control – of his mind, his plans, his very self, has lost control. It was achieved with the assistance of some of you, to slow down the vibrations surrounding him. We will offer him two moons hence.”
“Offer him? Offer him what?” Artie asked, with a nervousness he was barely able to hide.
The Magus laughed. “Mr. West is what will be offered. Spirits eat, just as corporeal being like ourselves do, Mr. Gordon. The difference is they consume what the ordinary man calls ‘souls.’”
Artie began to feel sick. It was like living in a fever dream. The Magus, these crazy apprentices in their black robes, the granite buildings, the snakes...
“I thought this was a utopian community. The article I read said nothing about – “ Artie no longer wanted to pretend that he, too, was a seeker. But now was not the time to reveal himself.
“Mr. Gordon, you are such an intelligent man, yet you know so little worth knowing. What we call spirits are just discrete forms of energy, vibrating on various levels. All matter, seen or unseen, material or spiritual is, at the most basic level, vibrating. At the lowest levels of vibration are disease and discord of every description. If one can reduce the vibratory levels among a population, one may almost effortlessly exert power over that population.
For example, Mr. Gordon – your associate. Had he been born to violent, indolent, or mentally deficient parents, surrounded by the violence common when life is considered cheap – in other words, raised among slow rates of vibration, it is likely he would turn out almost exactly as you see him now. Drunken, dissolute, and entirely lacking in self-control. Imagine being able to take someone like Mr. West – previously known for his almost iron will – and turn him into what he now is, and accomplishing that in mere hours. Well, it’s quite an achievement, don’t you think?”
“Oh, sure. So where do the soul eaters come in?” Artie asked sarcastically.
The Magus laughed once more, and turned to his followers. “Note well Mr. Gordon’s attitude.” Turning back to Artie, he continued. “Vibration feeds on vibration. We put vibration – spirit – to work, but it will not work for nothing, sir. We who are on the left hand path learn how to foster and control the lower vibratory levels. Call it darkness, call it evil, call it what you will – it is power, potentially unlimited.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“As I said, vibration feeds on vibration. On the lower vibratory levels, we must take care that they don’t get so low that there is no discernable vibration. Were we to allow that to happen, it would be akin to being ruler over a valley of dry bones – pointless. The entity known to mankind as the Angel of Death or the Dark Angel is in truth the universal source of the lower energies. It offers energy and receives energy in return. What is termed ‘soul’ is actually where individual human vibrations are centered. In our offerings, soul energy passes to the Angel and, as a residual effect, the body in which the soul lived dies. You came here to investigate disappearances, and wrongly assumed that people were being murdered. We have killed no one, only offered their souls as payment for services rendered.”
“And what gave you the right to offer somebody else’s soul?”
“Might makes right, Mr. Gordon. It is among the most fundamental of natural laws.”
It’s time to call in the troops. He again looked at Jim, still engrossed with his bleeding knee.
The Magus approached came nearer. “Why so interested in Mr. West? It’s not as if you can do anything for him – or are you just curious?”
“It’s called basic human concern – ever heard of it?”
With that, the Magus howled with laughter. He turned back to face his apprentices and nodded, giving them permission to laugh as well.
“Mr. Gordon’s aura is in a very high level of vibration – wherein we find all the foolish self-defeating values of humankind: peace, love, kindness and so on and so forth. Sheer foolishness. Such persons, such vibratory levels are the enemy of those of us on the lefthand path. Yet we fear not. Many of the prophets and wise men who promoted such foolishness were overtaken by the forces of darkness. Why even the greatest fool of them all was publicly executed.”
“If you mean who I think you mean, millions over the centuries believed he rose from the dead.”
“Millions also believed that the earth was flat and the sun revolved around it, sir.” The Magus yawned. “So tedious to debate such people. You there–“ He pointed to two of the female apprentices. “get Mr. West another bottle of – Mr. West, what were you drinking?”
Jim looked up, for the first time. “Bourbon.”
“Get Mr. West another bottle of bourbon, or two or three or however many it will take to get him to the point of complete helplessness. Then alert me, and we’ll take him to the waiting room.”
Artie fell beside Jim, and shook him by the shoulders. “Jim! C’mon – come out of it. JIM!!!”
The men dragged Artie far enough away so the women could lead Jim back into the building. Artie was doing his best to resist, but the men had an iron grip on him.
“Take Mr. Gordon back to his room at the caravansary and stand guard. I will give you instructions later,” the Magus said, as he walked away. The remaining apprentices followed.
* * *
Artie paced the room like a caged animal. There was no way out, and no way – yet – to learn what was happening with Jim. Maybe Jim had been right, maybe they just should have left.
“Hey, fellas, aren’t you getting hungry? Looks like you’ve missed dinner,” Artie called out to the men who were guarding him. One outside the door, the other standing back by the window. It was now dark, and neither one had moved.
“Not hungry, eh? Well, I sure am. Whaddya say one of you go get me some bread and maybe some water? Although I wouldn’t turn my nose up at something better, if you can find it.”
The men remained silent; Artie continued to pace and talk. If these men were going to stand there all night, he was going to do what he could to needle them – then maybe they’d get annoyed and attempt to engage him – try to shut him up or something. Then he could try to fight his way through and start looking for Jim.
Finally, Artie gave up. After hours of pacing, he was ready to turn in, yet still curious to see when or if his guards would leave. Then he felt that something again – that presence or whatever it was that had spoken through him. It was telling him to forget about the guards and go to sleep.
He dreamt that he was in a place without light, with activity all around him. There was something he had to do, but he couldn’t find his way to where he was going. It was so very frustrating. He slept about four hours before he awoke. The room was still dark. He went to the window and saw that, judging from the placement of the stars, it was about 3:00 am. The guard was still there.
“Hey... hey! Don’t you fellas ever sleep?”
There was no answer. Not that he expected one, but when he spoke to them before, there was some slight indication that they heard him. Although in the dark it was hard to make out the guard’s expression, it seemed to Artie that it hadn’t registered this time. He tried again.
“You’re gonna be too tired for your humming lesson tomorrow, you know, unless you get some rest.” Artie came as close to the window as he could. The window was open slightly, just enough for his arm to pass through. He tapped the guard on the shoulder. The man didn’t even flinch.
He briefly considered leaving through the window, but thought better of it. If the guard came back to life and became belligerent, Artie certainly wouldn’t be able to fight him off hanging halfway out of the window.
The guard at the door could not be seen, but Artie knew he was still there. He opened the door very slowly, until there was enough room to stick his head out. The guard was still on his feet.
“Hey buddy, got a match?”
Like the other guard, this one might as well have been made of stone.
“No? I guess I’ll have to go into town then. You don’t mind, do you? Of course not. Cheerio.”
Artie closed the door behind him, and for just a moment studied the guard’s expression. His eyes were wide open and, although it was dark, it should have been easy to see Artie, as he was less than two feet away. Artie waved his hand in front of the guard’s face. There was no response. He took the chance of taking the man’s pulse. It was very, very slow – too slow for somebody standing firmly on his feet.
Whistling to himself, Artie exited the courtyard. As loathsome as he found the Magus to be, he had to admit that his method was fascinating. Under other circumstances, he would have very much liked to discuss theories of vibration with him.
“Would you really like to, Mr. Gordon?”
Artie was about to turn the corner before the Magus appeared in front of him. This time he was wearing ordinary clothing. The only difference was a pendant in the shape of a pentagram.
“I’ll be happy to forgive you for that unseemly outburst this afternoon.”
Artie said nothing, just stared.
“You are, as I observed this morning, a man of science, and possessed, I believe, of an insatiable curiosity. Wouldn’t you like to sit down with me and discuss my, as you termed it, ‘method?’”
Artie felt his abdominal muscles tense – how did he know? “Your red uniform is in the wash?” Artie asked, in a failed attempt to hide his apprehension.
The Magus chuckled. “Oh, no – I’ve a number of red uniforms. They’re only to impress my little band of followers who, I’ve no doubt, are all sleeping soundly. Except for you, my friend.”
“How about Mr. West, is he sleeping soundly?”
Sighing, the Magus looked up at the stars. “Mr. Gordon, you and I both are men of science – you of the earthly and I of the metaphysical. And in science we must sometimes sacrifice our little guinea pigs for the greater good.”
“West is not a guinea pig.”
The Magus laughed. “I see that I’ve been wasting my time with you. It’s unfortunate really, you have a great deal of intellect, but I believe it would be nearly impossible to wean you from those beliefs upon which you were raised. But I think... I think I shall try.”
“One question,” Artie said. “Would it be unseemly to ask, considering I’m not your equal?”
The Magus laughed again and put his arm around Artie’s shoulder. It was ice cold.
“Come along and I’ll explain to you a few things. But go on, ask your question.”
“How do you do it? The mind-reading?”
“Mr. Gordon, you do get to the point, don’t you? Ah, well... I should have expected it. My story is a simple one: I was once a common criminal and spent many years in prison, often in solitary confinement. To maintain my sanity, I took it upon myself to study my surroundings, unpleasant as they were. I studied the walls, and the materials of which the walls were made, I studied the composition of the materials, and further down the chain. I also began to listen – to hear the unheard. The conclusions I drew were proven when I left this country and studied in the East. You see, Mr. Gordon, our minds are part of a universal mind. Understand the universal mind, and you may enter into the thoughts, the memories, even the likely future, of anyone you choose. Thoughts, too, are in a state of vibration.”
Artie was silent. What was this man’s long-term goal anyway? Power, sure. But what was the point of having all these apprentices?
Both men said nothing more, until they reached the tall building.
“Come up and we’ll visit. I’ve a few bottles of madeira. I’m sure you’ll enjoy some.”
Once more the pocket door opened up. Inside was a lit lantern, which the Magus picked up.
“It would seem to me, Mr. Gordon, that you’re a little too quiet. I had you pegged as the talkative type. I was expecting, at the very least, that you’d rail against me for my plans for Mr. West.”
“I’m not one to waste my breath,” Artie mumbled.
“No? When then, forgive me. But I hope you’ll open up when we reach the top. I prefer not to enjoy my wine alone and, unfortunately, my apprentices are not suitable company.”
At the top floor, the Magus led him down a long corridor with windows on one side – the same one he’d walked two nights before. They passed the gold door, and entered a room which had a plain wooden door. The decor was similar to that one would see in any club – overstuffed leather chairs, a large fireplace, game tables, book shelves. Compared with the other room, this one was almost humble. There were two chairs in front of the fireplace. The Magus indicated that Artie sit in one, then the Magus went for the wine.
“Mr. Gordon – Castella Tomas or Hortalez y Lopes?”
“Castella Tomas, then – although it’s the better of the two, I’ve got a little too much of it on hand. I’d like to make a little more room for some d’Yquem.”
The Magus sat and handed Artie his wine glass, and indicated a tray of cheese and fruit. Artie reached over and took an apple.
“A toast to, ah – Mr. Gordon, why don’t you give the toast?”
“Sure. A toast to undoing whatever you did to my partner.”
“Clever,” the Magus smiled. “Those toasts for a hundred years of health and wealth – what could be more undignified? If you and I are wealthy, that means someone else must be poor, correct?”
“I imagine so. Which reminds me, if I may ask – may I?”
“Where did all this come from? The granite, the apprentices?”
The Magus smiled. “Some of my secrets must remain secrets.” He sipped his drink while looking steadily at Artie. “I have a few things to say to you. Would you be willing to listen?”
“Why not? I owe you something for your hospitality,” Artie said. The wine was among the best he’d ever had and, although he was trying to keep his guard up, he was beginning to relax. Maybe if he did relax it would be easier to pin this guy down.
“When you dreamed you saw your lover come back from the dead, she called you ‘Artie.’ Yet in life, she always called you Artemus.”
Artie heart started to pound. His mind returned to that day he found Anna’s house and saw her, back from the dead, or so he desperately wanted to believe. It couldn’t have been just a dream –she’d given him the mizpah token. Yes, she had called him “Artie.” That one and only time.
“It is understandable that you attached some importance to this dream. When one’s heart is truly broken, one is likely to grasp at straws.”
Artie did not respond. She had appeared to him, she was still living, in that other country to which he would someday move. They would be together again. He needed to believe this.
The Magus went on. “And that token you found in your hand. She was in a hurry to get on the train to that place where you met, and as she was rummaging through her jewelry casket, trying to select what she’d take with her, it fell out. When you were in her bedroom, your eye fell on it, and then somehow it found its way into your hand. But it had nothing to do with you. An old lover had given his half back to her. And you? For her, you were just another one of her conquests.”
This was too much. “Why don’t you stop playing games? I’m only here because I want to know what your plans are for this community. Whatever you have to say about her –“
The Magus sighed and looked into the fire. “Mr. Gordon, she is dead for all time. You’d hoped to see her in the next life, but...” he paused to laugh. “There is no such thing. Which is why all your honesty and scruples and... what did you call it? Human concern? They’re all worth exactly nothing. There is this life and this life only, and we on the left hand path know that to give in to such folly as hope in an afterlife is to waste our lives here and now.”
“Thank you. I think I’ll be going now.” Artie went to the door, which turned out to be locked. So he would have no choice but to hear what the Magus had to say, but would do his best to ignore him. Artie thought hard. He’d do everything he could to find Jim, and then he and Jim would return to Abilene and order some troops to come out here to seize this guy and his followers and close down the settlement. Then they would...
“And to think the very night she was abducted, you were in the building where she was, attempting to find her abductor. She was less than one minute’s walk away – perhaps you could have saved her! Imagine the poor thing lying there, feverish and struggling to breathe, wondering when you were coming, hoping that those footsteps she heard on the floor above her belonged to you. And imagine her disappointment when those footsteps faded away.” The Magus turned to Artie and grinned.
Artie gasped inwardly as his mind was flooded with a picture of the scene, more vivid than he could have possibly imaged. He closed his eyes, and the scene was more vivid still. He was gone from Shekinah and back in that dark basement room in San Francisco. He couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. All he could do was watch his darling, his heart’s desire, delirious with fever and calling his name in a strangled whisper. No worse torture had ever been visited upon him.
Somehow he was jolted back into the Magus’s presence, and something – that something that seemed to have guided him from the beginning – told him simply, “You’re an actor. Act.”
Artie realized that this vision, horrific as it was, had been intended to evoke a response of some sort. The Magus had found his weak spot, obviously, but what was he hoping to elicit? Artie wondered. There were only two choices: rage or tears. Artie decided to offer neither. He took a deep breath, then tried to pretend that he was playing a scene, and so attempted an off-hand reply to what the Magus had said.
“Yes, that was unfortunate.”
The Magus was perplexed. Surely Gordon should have either rushed at him in fury, or broken down into sobs. He closed his eyes and attempted to reach into Artie’s mind but seemingly, the doors were now locked and the windows barred.
“Tired, buddy?” Artie asked, before taking a bite out of the apple.
The Magus’s eyes snapped open. He then folded his arms and looked at him dispassionately, as if he were looking at a caged animal in a zoo. “Interesting,” he murmured. “I was expecting something very different.”
“Hmm? The wine? Is it too sweet for you, or too dry? I’m enjoying it, myself,” Artie said, as he refilled his glass. “Sorry for my prior rudeness. I am sometimes overcome with fits of agitation.”
“Mr. Gordon, you are... I can’t quite say. A puzzlement, but something more than that.”
“‘I am vast and contain multitudes,’ as the poet says.” Then Artie forced himself to smile. He noted that somehow the atmosphere in the room had changed. For the first time in the Magus’s presence, it did not feel like the Magus knew what he was thinking.
The Magus continued to stare. What would it take to break this Gordon? He had never met anyone like him. Arriving at the right answer would require long and careful thought.
“Mr. Gordon, I have enjoyed our little meeting, but I really must return to a project I’m working on. Would you excuse me? You may return to the caravansary or anywhere you like. Take the bottle with you. Or take two, as I mentioned I’m a little overstocked.”
“I would like to go to where Mr. West is.”
The Magus shook his head. “That’s not possible at the moment. But I assure you that you may have the run of Shekinah. Soon enough you will see Mr. West.”
Artie rose, and threw the apple core onto the tray. The Magus pointed to the door.
“It’s now unlocked. Go to the left, and the first door you see will lead to the staircase and once you’re at the bottom, a door will open and you may leave the building. By the way, Mr. Gordon, if I were you, I would not waste my time searching this building. He is not here.”
“I see. Thank you.” Artie grabbed the wine bottle and took another from the sideboard.
After he heard Gordon descend the staircase, the Magus began to pace. He’d been so certain that he would succeed with him. Yet not only did Gordon not respond appropriately, he managed to close access to his mind. Gordon was not schooled enough in the left hand path to have been able to that on purpose, so how was he able to do it? Well, that was a question that did not yet need an answer. Finding the means to break him was most important. The Magus turned over in his mind what he already knew about Gordon. By sunrise, he’d hit upon a plan. It was risky – it might not turn out the way he hoped, but it was worth a try.
* * *
Artie spent the time from leaving the Magus until about mid-day wandering. He’d already tried the building he saw Jim dragged to, but it was empty. All the other buildings were locked. During the walk, as much as he had tried to keep his attention on looking for Jim, he kept turning over the Magus’s assertion that when he saw Anna that day in her house, after her death, it was nothing more than a dream. Why had she called him “Artie?” She’d never done that before – not once. It was always “Artemus.” There was no satisfactory answer, yet Artie was holding onto the memory for dear life. He couldn’t bear to think he’d never see her again. But doubts were starting to creep into his mind.
He pressed on. Jim had to be in one of those buildings. Maybe a short nap at the caravansary would allow him to clear his head before recommencing the search. As soon as it was in view, Artie spotted a crowd in the courtyard. They were cheering, a noise that seemed so very out of place here. He pushed through the crowd to see Jim tethered to a stake, a chain around his neck. Some were throwing lit matches at him, others were pummeling his legs with sticks. The horrible scene reminded Artie of a similarly horrible experience he’d had as a child – coming upon a bear bating pit at a local fair. His father led him away as quickly as he could, yet Artie cried for days at the cruelty of it.
Jim, clad only in trousers and covered with blood, was trying without success to defend himself – the harder the tried, the tighter the chain around his neck. Artie fought to reach his side and push away some of Jim’s tormentors. But it was hopeless; they were hemmed on all sides. Jim was dead drunk. Worse, he did not recognize Artie and tried to push him away, spitting and hollering nonsense in a slurred voice.
After a half hour of this, the Magus strode into the courtyard.
“Enough,” he said, and immediately the apprentices stopped, fell to their knees and began to hum. He removed the chain from Jim’s neck, and Jim dropped to the ground. Artie threw off his jacket, removed his shirt and tore it into rags, intending to use them as bandages.
The Magus laughed heartily and turned to his apprentices. “Watch and learn.”
“You there, Mr. Gordon!”
Artie looked up from what he was doing, staring angrily. If he only had his gun, he could bring this madness to a swift end.
“Mr. Gordon, no good deed goes unpunished,” the Magus said, as he swung the chain.
Artie continued to stare. What kind of comment was that?
“I will repeat – listen well – you’re about to learn that no good deed goes unpunished. Good deeds – a waste of time and effort.”
Artie felt it was time to cut his losses. “Look, I don’t know what you’re doing out here – and I no longer care to find out. West and I are leaving as soon as I can get him bandaged and sobered up.”
“Oh, no, you can’t possibly disappoint my disciples,” the Magus said ominously, still carrying the chain. “For our lessons this week, breaking Mr. West was our first exercise. A fairly easy one – almost too easy, but instructive nevertheless. Now it’s time for an more advanced – possibly very advanced – exercise. This will concern you, Mr. Gordon.”
“Uh huh.” Artie was unafraid. He felt fairly certain that the Magus did not intend to wreak any physical damage on him – maybe attack him some other way.
Unfortunately, he was wrong.
The Magus waved forward two of the largest men. He directed one to put Artie’s jacket back on him and then to tie his wrists together using heavy rope that the Magus provided. The other man was to tie his feet together with rope and reinforce the job with the chain. Artie struggled mightily, but was unable to escape their grasp.
The Magus then waved the crowd back in order to allow a wagon drawn by two black horses to enter the courtyard. He directed the wagon stop close to Artie, then indicated to the two men to join the chain at Artie’s ankles to a chain hanging from the back of the wagon.
“Mr. Gordon, you mentioned that you wanted to leave, and leave you will. But I hope you will return, at least to watch Mr. West being sacrificed – it’s quite a thing to witness. Yes, I have an idea that you might someday return. That is, if you survive. My horses are very fleet of foot, and are well-known for their stamina. They’re also a bit sensitive – loud noises frighten them.”
The horses moved slowly to the courtyard entrance, dragging Artie behind. The Magus grinned and raised a hand.
“Apprentices! Let’s raise up a cheer for Mr. Gordon!”
Immediately the air was filled with noise, causing the horses to gallop away as fast as they could. Artie was completely unable to extricate himself. Four miles outside of town, he finally passed out from loss of blood.
SS 1st assignment - desk job
Posted - 08/21/2009 : 08:04:19
| Chapter 4
“Where am I?”
“ My clinic, I guess you’d call it. We don’t have any proper hospitals out here, so I raised some money and built an addition onto my home. My name is Dr. Harris Lumberg.”
“What am I doing here?”
“You were found out in the wilderness by a party of scientists collecting plant samples – mostly Germans, a few Englishmen among them. One said you appeared to have been dropped from a very great height. Now, that’s hard to imagine here in Kansas,” Lumberg chuckled. “They brought you here two days ago. You owe them a great deal, son – you may very well have bled to death.
Now, your head wound is very bad, which is probably why you were out for two days straight here, and for God only knows how long before you arrived. Fortunately there is no skull fracture that I could discern. The bruises and abrasions, especially on your back, are quite dreadful but they’ll heal ultimately. The rest of you is very banged up – I almost ran out of thread for the sutures. As I said, you’ve also lost a great deal of blood but, as near as I can tell, there is no internal bleeding. If you’re very uncomfortable, I can offer you some laudanum.“
“What time is it?”
“Why – do you need to be somewhere?” the doctor chuckled again. “If so, I can send word that you won’t be coming. Not for a few weeks at the very least.”
“No, it’s just... when a doctor bids you good morning, it’s usually after the sun’s up.”
“The sun is up, it’s nearly noon!”
“Oh?” Artie blinked a few times. He could feel heat on his face, but there was no light in the room.
Lumberg regarded him calmly, then picked up a chair and brought it next to the bed. “Son, what’s your name?”
“Mr. Gordon, look at me.”
Artie turned his head toward where the voice was coming from.
“Victorine, please draw the shade. Stay there. I’ll ask you to raise it again in a moment.”
The doctor studied Artie’s pupils. When the shade was drawn they did not dilate.
“Victorine, raise the shade again.”
Once more sunlight came flooding into the room, but Artie’s pupils did not contract.
Artie’s pulse began to race. This couldn’t possibly be... No, no – there must be another explanation. It couldn’t be –
“Victorine, could you leave us? Why don’t you pay a visit to Mrs. Morgan? If she’s willing and able, take her for a walk. Thank you, Victorine.”
Artie heard her light step once more, and the door close behind her.
The doctor placed his hand gently on Artie’s forehead. He chose his words carefully. “Mr. Gordon, tell me: what do you see?”
“Nothing. It’s –” Artie gave up. As much as he wanted to believe anything but what he already knew, he would be better off facing the facts. “I’m blind.”
“It would appear so, yes. Not an entirely uncommon result of serious head injury, I’m afraid.”
Artie bit his lip. In all his years of dangerous government work, there was only one thing he feared: the prospect of permanent physical disability. A stray bullet severing his spine, rendering his legs useless, or a clobbering so thorough that his brain would turn to mush, or... He was reminded of a line he’d read somewhere, in Shakespeare or maybe the Bible: That which I feared has come upon me.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Gordon.”
Artie didn’t reply.
“We’ll have a meal for you at four p.m. sharp. Until then, just rest.”
So this was it. The Secret Service would have no further use for him. He couldn’t return to the stage. There would be no more scientific experiments.
“I’ll take you up on that laudanum.”
“Of course, Mr. Gordon. I’ll send my assistant up with it.”
Within a few minutes, the door opened again. Heavy steps, but they moved faster than Dr. Lumberg’s.
“Mr. Gordon, I’m the doctor’s assistant, David Iselin. I have your laudanum.”
He heard the bottle open and the laudanum spill into a tumbler. Then Iselin reached under his shoulders in order to hold him upright so he could drink it. The pressure of Iselin’s hand on his back made every nerve ending there scream.
Iselin noticed the grimace on Artie’s face, but ignored the question. “I’m sorry sir, if you could just tip your head back and open up, this’ll take effect before you know it.”
Once Artie emptied the glass and was back on the pillow, Iselin sat on the chair next to the bed.
“Mr. Gordon, can you tell me – do you remember what happened to you? You were found far from any settlements or commonly used trails, and the pattern of your injuries is somewhat inconsistent. There are a number of bruises, which would suggest a beating, but a beating would be unlikely to cause some of the cuts and abrasions you have, particularly on your upper back.”
“I remember... horses, something with horses. I remember hearing hoofbeats.”
Iselin sighed with frustration. Perhaps this man was hiding something, but what?
“Mr. Gordon, your wrists and ankles are very badly bruised. Were you shackled?”
“I... I think so. Not shackles – rope, I think. I’m sorry, I’m having a hard time remembering.”
“To change the subject, we found some paperwork in your clothes – you’re a government employee?”
“Secret Service, yes.” As this conversation wore on, Artie was grateful that the laudanum was beginning to work. And then panic. “In my breast pocket, there is a token – can you please get it for me?”
“I... I don’t know. Your clothes were in tatters, they’ve probably been destroyed already.”
“Oh no, no...” Artie moaned. Was the mizpah coin Anna had given him lost? He carried it with him everywhere. It would devastate him to lose it.
“Mr. Gordon, Victorine would have gone through the pockets pretty thoroughly – I don’t remember her saying anything–“ Iselin stopped when he saw the desperate expression on Artie’s face. “I’ll ask her if she found something like that. A token you say? What kind?”
“Half a mizpah coin – do you know what that is?” The pain in his head felt as if it had doubled and tripled in just those few moments.
“I think I saw one once. Well, let me check with her.”
“Please. It’s very, very important.” Artie heard Iselin leave, and walk down a staircase. He closed his eyes, hoping oblivion would soon be upon him.
* * *
Iselin found her in her room, darning a stocking.
“Aren’t you going to see Mrs. Morgan?”
“Of course not. To drag her up and down the street and listen to all her complaints? Let that dried-up old husband of hers do it.”
Iselin swallowed. Victorine was a difficult girl. Unfortunately, the doctor had it in his head that Iselin would be an appropriate match for her. “It’d calm her down,” he said. “She’d change if she had a steady influence.” Lumberg meant well, but Iselin wasn’t attracted to her, and probably wouldn’t have even if she’d been a lamb. She had sharp features to match her sharp temper.
“That fella those Germans brought in – Mr. Gordon – he’s looking for a token of some kind that was supposed to be in his breast pocket. Did you find anything like that?”
Iselin could tell she was lying – whenever she answered without making eye contact, she was covering up. “Alright, I’ll tell him.”
Pretending he was about to leave, Iselin snatched the jewel case off her vanity table, and began to root through it. The mizpah coin was at the bottom.
“Stop – how dare you! That’s mine!”
“No, it isn’t, Victorine – it belongs to that Mr. Gordon.”
“I found it – give it to me!”
“Here – here’s an old cent coin – he’s blind, he won’t know the difference. She held out the cent in one hand, her other hand extended for Iselin to return the mizpah token.
“Victorine, it’s just a token, not jewelry. Why do you even want it?”
“It’s pretty. I like pretty things,” she said defiantly. “I work hard here – I deserve it.”
“Stop this – you know he could tell the difference,” he said as he held up the token. “The one side is jagged, he could feel it.”
Victorine responded with an ugly smile. “I’ll bet I could make him give it to me.”
“I’m through talking to you,” Iselin said he opened the door to leave.
“Old maid,” she hissed at his back..
* * *
Artie was lying on his side with his eyes half closed.
“Mr. Gordon?” Hopefully, he hadn’t heard the ruckus.
Iselin’s voice penetrated the fog. Artie turned to where the voice was coming from.
“I have your token.”
Artie stretched out his hand to feel the token drop into his palm. He grasped it as tightly. “I’m very grateful.”
“Mr. Gordon, I would encourage you to hide it. Victorine took a shine to it, and... you see, she’s ...ah... maybe a little immature. She’s shaping up to be a fine nurse, but with her background...” Iselin stopped; it wouldn’t do to talk about her like that. All a patient really needed to know was that she was a good nurse. “Well, as I said, just keep an eye on it.”
Oh, no – what a poor choice of words.
Artie felt Iselin’s humiliation and managed a weak smile. “It won’t leave my sight.”
“Alright then.” Iselin left.
Artie turned onto his side again and drifted off.
* * *
A few hours later, suspended between sleep and wakefulness, he was dimly aware of the smell of food.
Victorine placed a tray on the table next to the bed, and was trying to determine if Mr. Gordon was awake or not – his eyes weren’t quite open, but they didn’t seem to be closed in sleep either. She found it a bit disturbing. Once, back in Chicago, she’d come upon a dead woman in an alley, and her eyes looked very much like this. She was torn between leaving the tray and letting him fend for himself or doing what Lumberg had expected of her. If she left it and ran off, she’d probably get into trouble, so she tapped Artie on the shoulder.
“Sir? Mr. Gordon? Are you awake?”
He stirred, but did not answer.
She repeated herself, this time a little louder.
“Yes, I’m here.” he answered. “Is that – is it four o’clock?”
“Yes, sir. Cook put together a tray for you. Now, we have spinach and cornbread, and some sliced tomatoes. Are you hungry?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Oh, but Dr. Lumberg was real insistent – even if you don’t want anything, he wants you to eat the spinach. Says you’ve lost a lot of blood. Spinach, he says, will build it back up.
Artie made a face. He hated spinach.
“I don’t like it either, Mr. Gordon, but Dr. Lumberg says – “
“That it’ll build up what’s left of my blood. Right. Suppose you throw it out and tell him that I ate it. I’ll just have the cornbread.”
“I wouldn’t never lie to Dr. Lumberg – he’d see right through it. Couldn’t you just try? I could cut it up into little pieces and put it on the fork with some tomato. It won’t be as bad.”
“You’re going to hand-feed me?” How humiliating.
“I could cut it up and give you the plate and – um, tell you where it is on the plate. But you’re in bed – you’ll probably spill some.”
“Oh. Can’t I get out of bed?”
“The doctor didn’t say, but I guess you ain’t supposed to. You’re stitched up within an inch of your life. That’s another thing. Later he... he wants me to change the dressing on your back.”
Artie could tell she was squeamish. I must be an awful sight.
“Here, let me prop you up,” Victorine said as she attempted to slip two pillows under Artie’s back. She was most interested in having this meal take as little time as possible, so that she could flee. This man looked worse than anybody who’d ever been brought to the clinic before, at least as long as she’d been working there. She could barely look at him, let alone feed him. And even though the doctor had great faith that she would one day make a great nurse, she really wasn’t all that interested. She could be living the high life like her sister was doing – her last letter said she’d snagged a rich man who was paying for her to live in a fancy hotel. He even bought her clothes and jewelry. And here Victorine was, changing dressings and taking invalids for walks.
“I’m really not all that hungry,” Artie said. At least I’ll wait until I can feed myself.
“Oh, but you must eat. You ain’t had nothing in two days – more maybe. We don’t know how long you were out there.”
An idea occurred to him. “Why don’t you put the food on the fork and then hand me the fork?”
That will take too long, she thought angrily. But if this was what it would take to get him to eat...
Artie ate the cornbread and tomato, and managed to choke down the spinach. Victorine was silent the entire time. It was one thing to chatter away with a farmhand with a broken arm, but somebody who was in a messy condition – ugh. And still Lumberg had high hopes for her – he’d even taken to recommending her for nurse training in one of the big city hospitals.
The doctor was kind to her, certainly. He’d rescued her from what he termed “white slavery,” seemingly unaware that all the women in her family going back at least three generations had gone down the primrose path. But at the time he’d taken her from Chicago, she was in a bad way. Her mother had died and Mrs. Clohessy claimed her as her own.” It was a miserable existence. Mrs. Clohessy was in the habit of beating her girls – sometimes nearly to death – for the slightest infraction. It was just such a beating that brought her to Lumberg’s attention. He was involved in some sort of do-gooder organization, and claimed he had rehabilitated a number of girls, all of whom had become honest contributors to society, including her immediate predecessor, who was working in a big hospital in St. Louis. Lumberg was so very proud of that girl, Celeste, and made a point of reading her letters to everyone at breakfast: Victorine, David, the cook, the maids, the stable boy, any and all visitors.
That was fine for Celeste, but what Victorine craved was excitement. She saved almost every penny so that she could one day re-establish herself in Chicago, confident that she and some friends who were still there could have their own place and run it themselves. Something classy that would attract rich men, not the slaughterhouse workers and longshoremen Mrs. Clohessy catered to.
Once he finished, she got up to leave. She was glad she hadn’t eaten – taking care of his dressing would surely make her gag. “Mr. Gordon, I’ll be back in an hour or so to change the dressing.”
“Thank you, miss.”
She left without acknowledging his thanks.
* * *
Artie spent the next few days in bed. It rained almost ceaselessly, so no warm rays came through the window. If it weren’t for the daily routine, he’d have had no idea whether it was daytime or nighttime. The monotony was broken by Dr. Lumberg’s frequent visits. Currently, the doctor’s workload was light, although it would begin to pick up in about a month. Harvest season always brought with it a number of injuries, either from mishandled machinery or liquor-soaked celebrations once the bulk of the crops were in.
“And this place – you said the name was ‘Shekinah?’”
“Yes. Have you ever heard of it?”
“No, can’t say that I have. There are always new settlements springing up. Some come and go – the mines empty out, or the wells run dry, or the crops get diseased. Then again, a new settlement might end up being the next big city. Even our little town of Knowlton – why, ten years ago, it was barely a village, but if it keeps growing, we’ll soon be one of the largest in the county.”
“This one was supposed to be a utopian community. Do you remember anyone passing through who might have mentioned something like that? I remember it being about fifteen miles west of Abilene.” Artie was hoping there could be some more independent information other than what he had. Even the most minor detail might help.
“No, you’re the only one. And you’re certain your friend is still there?”
“I hope so. Or if not, that he escaped.” Artie was reluctant to mention the third possibility. “I need to got back to find out.” His had already determined that his swan song would be to see this mission through to the end.
“But Mr. Gordon, if he did escape, wouldn’t he be looking for you? Shouldn’t you contact Washington and find out?”
“I’d prefer to wait.” If Jim was looking for him, Artie couldn’t present himself in his current condition. He just couldn’t.
“Let’s move onto another topic, then. Mr. Gordon, we’re going to get you out of bed today. Now, your stitches might pull a bit, but that’s for the best.
Dr. Lumberg assisted him out of bed. Artie’s head began to pound again. The doctor then took Artie’s left hand. “Here, you hold onto my upper arm, and when I start walking, you walk.”
Artie walked stiffly and began to feel slightly nauseous. Obviously, the head wound was not healing as fast as the other injuries.
“Doctor, how soon will I be ready to leave?”
“How soon? Hard to say. Most of the stitches can come out in a another week or ten days. Then I’d like to get you walking regularly, and teach you how to use a cane. If this rain ever stops, I can have my nurse Victorine take you out walking.”
“But when can I leave?” Artie persisted.
“What are your plans for leaving? Is there someone – a family member or associate who can accompany you back to Washington?”
“No, no – Shekinah first. If you can just find somebody who can take me there, I’ll make sure that all costs will be reimbursed.“
“I’m not worried about that,” Lumberg smiled. “But if it is a dangerous place, I’m not sure who I’d suggest. Maybe one of the war veterans living around here – tough as old leather, some of them. Or David – I can spare him until probably the middle of September. He might be the best choice. He’s careful, and he’s a fine marksman. Furthermore, I think he’s about your size, so at the very least – even if he doesn’t accompany you, we can outfit you from his closet.”
“That won’t be necessary.” During his hours spend alone in his room, Artie came up with an idea to return to Shekinah dressed in rags, and to present himself as some sort of sage, an opposite to the Magus himself. Over and over he recalled the experience of his private meeting with the Magus. It was at the point that he began acting, pretending that what the Magus was saying didn’t bother him – it was right at that point he felt the Magus could no longer read his thoughts. This alone made him believe that he could possibly succeed in finding Jim, or at least learning what happened to him.
“No? Well, let’s get you altogether better first.” Lumberg regretted allowing the man to indulge in this fantasy about returning to Shekinah. Best to have Washington handle it.
“It appears the rain is down to a drizzle. Let’s go outside,” he said. He led Artie to the banister and placed his hand upon it. At the first floor landing, he had Artie grasp his arm again. Once on the porch, the doctor said, “Mr. Gordon, you have your choice of chaise lounge or rocking chair.”
“Rocker. I’ve been flat on my back for long enough.”
Lumberg led him to the rush-seated rocker. Artie sat, then grimaced. The stitches in his legs were pulling.
“I’m alright – the stitches...”
“Oh, yes. Sorry about that. As I said, they’ll be out soon.”
“And then I can leave?”
“Patience, Mr. Gordon. If you insist on bolting, you may end up in worse shape than when you arrived.” With that, the doctor placed his hand on Artie’s shoulder, and was about to take his leave of him.
“Doctor, could you get me some rags?
“Rags? What do you need rags for?” Lumberg was somewhat alarmed. Rags could be tied together and used to hang oneself.
“Not cleaning rags. I’m thinking ragged clothing.”
Artie heard the relief in Lumberg’s voice, and smiled. “I’m thinking about returning in the guise of a sort of wandering wise man.”
“You–?” Lumberg’s concern reasserted itself. “Why?”
“Well, if I return as Artemus Gordon...” This would require a whole heap of explanation that Artie was not in the mood to offer. “Just believe me, Doctor, I know what I’m doing.”
To Lumberg, that last comment seemed quite sad. Clearly, the man was not yet grounded in reality. He’d be better off realizing his limitations, and making what plans he could for his future.
Victorine came out onto the porch. She’d heard most of the conversation until she was called away a few moments before. She knew where she could get Mr. Gordon some old clothes.
“Doctor, aren’t you going to the Merendas? Mr. Merenda sent his boy – he says you were due a half hour ago. And now, he says, the baby is also sick.”
“What would I do without you, Victorine?. Have Red get my carriage, then you, go into my cabinet, and retrieve the two largest bottles on the middle shelf, and put them in my bag.” Lumberg went to the door. “Mr. Gordon, duty calls. Would you like to stay out a little longer, or go back to your room?”
“This is fine for now, thank you.” It was pleasant to sit in the fresh air.
Victorine was still in the doorway. This Gordon fella – well, he still looked pretty bad, but there was something unusually interesting about him. Unlike a lot of patients, he never complained. He was as considerate as could be. Even when she had to change his dressing, he tried to keep up a steady stream of conversation intended to distract her from the job. When she was through, she’d pretend to leave, but would stay awhile and just watch him. Once he thought she was gone, his cheerfulness would abandon him. He’d lie there with a weary expression on his face, and she could tell he was in pain, but not the physical kind.
“Victorine, I’m nearly ready to leave – where are those bottles I asked you to get?” Lumberg called out.
“Oh, just a minute, just a minute!” She flew back into the house.
Artie was alone once more with his thoughts.
* * *
Two weeks later the remainder of the stitches were removed. After snipping out the last stitch from Artie’s jaw, the doctor admired his work. “Now that is a miracle, Mr. Gordon. I’ll wager within a month or two, you won’t have even the ghost of a scar there. And now you can finally shave! Why don’t I have Victorine take you down to the barbershop?”
“Thanks for the offer, but I want to keep the beard. It’ll be part of the costume, so to speak.”
“Yes, remember I told you my idea about returning. If I go back as myself it would make things unnecessarily difficult. I’m very certain about that. “
“Mr. Gordon, once more, I want to encourage you to return to Washington. I’m sure if you explain the situation, they’ll be able to handle it in an appropriate manner.”
“Doctor, in the time it would take for me to get back to Washington, and then for Washington to frame its response... Well, by the time the first solder set foot in Shekinah, my partner might be long-dead.” It was maddening to be in this situation, having to beg for this man’s cooperation.
“But the danger to yourself --!”
Danger to myself – what does it matter anymore?
Once again, Victorine had been standing outside listening. She tip-toed down the hallway, and then skipped into the room as if she’d just come in from outside.
“Oh, sorry – I thought you were alone, Doctor. Mr. Gordon, how are you?”
“Plenty better – I’m finally unstitched.”
“I’m glad. Aren’t I supposed to take you for a walk today?”
“Yes, Victorine. Let’s get him up and out of here. Mr. Gordon, you can borrow a full rig from David. He’s quite the dandy, and his closet is full to bulging. Victorine, why don’t you take Mr. Gordon the drug store? Mr. Gordon, our pharmacist Emil Grundig has a sideline as a brewer – he makes a very fine lager. But make certain if you end up there that Victorine doesn’t drink anything stronger than sarsparilla.”
Victorine shot the doctor a look.
“Victorine, do you want me to tell Mr. Gordon about the time you came home perfectly green from – I can’t begin to guess how much beer you had but I’d think you’d never want to try it again.”
She was always drinking in Chicago. It somehow made everything easier. She’d only gotten sick that one time because it was beer. Had it been gin or whiskey, or just about anything else, she would have been fine.
“Victorine?” the doctor said pointedly.
“Sarsparilla it is,” she sighed.
Now that’s settled. Mr. Gordon, let’s see what we can borrow from David.”
Soon Artie was dressed in a houndstooth check suit with a dove gray waistcoat.
“What do you think, miss? Does this look alright?” It certainly seemed to fit well, but it might have been a clown costume, for all he knew.
“Uh huh. Very nice. Shall we go?”
“Just a minute, Mr. Gordon,” Doctor Lumberg said. “I have here a pair of smoked spectacles for you to wear.
“Oh...ah... thank you.”
* * *
Jim was finishing off the last bottle of bourbon from the case. Disgusting. It had been a long time the last case had been appeared, and a whole day since he’d eaten. The women had stopped visiting as well. He’d beaten that one gal pretty badly – but he was drunk, after all. That wasn’t reason enough to keep them from coming. Artie never came at all, damn him. Probably back in Washington recounting his heroism. That Magus may have been a complete fake, but he sure understood Artie. That one thing Jim regretted – not seeing it before the Magus pointed it out for him. Artie was about as loyal as a rattlesnake. If Jim had only seen through him maybe he wouldn’t be stuck in this room by himself.
It wasn’t a bad room; he’d spent time in far worse. There was fancy furniture, flocked wall paper – even a harmonium in the corner. What it lacked was doors or windows. He didn’t even understand how he got there – he just woke up there one day feeling like a herd of buffalo had stampeded over him. Off to the side was a smaller room with a big four-poster bed, suitable for entertaining the women who would appear from time to time. But he was getting bored, and if the women weren’t going to be visiting to make it bearable, he wanted out.
“Set me loose now!” he hollered. Nobody was going to hear, he was pretty sure of that, but it felt good just to expend the energy. “Lemme out! Lemme out RIGHT NOW!!” Something snapped, and he began throwing things, small chairs and tables first, then he tried turning over the harmonium. It wouldn’t budge. In his frustration, he picked up the broken chairs and tables and threw them into the wall. If he weren’t trapped in this room, he’d have gladly set it all on fire.
Maybe if he slept for a little while, there’d be fresh bourbon when he awoke. He turned to the smaller room, and was shocked to see the Magus standing just outside of it.
“What do you want?” Jim asked sullenly.
“Nothing. Nothing at all,” the Magus replied. “You ought to be asking something of me.”
“How about something to eat, huh? And another case of bourbon would be fine, too.”
“I’m so sorry, Mr. West. Food, yes, I can provide that. But from now on, you’ll be drinking water.”
“Yeah? How come?”
“Because, we’re going to be sending you off soon, and it’s preferable that you be in good physical condition. At the very least, sober.”
“Sending me where?” Jim asked suspiciously.
“I’d rather not say yet. But you will be leaving Shekinah.”
“Great – not a minute too soon.”
The Magus smiled in reply.
* * *
Artie walked alongside Victorine, holding onto her right arm with his left hand, and attempting to use the cane in his right. This was far more difficult than he anticipated. All that thinking that he did lying in bed, talking himself into believing this wouldn’t be so hard. Stupid. Sure, plenty of times he’d worked in utter darkness, either at night in unlit buildings or underground. None of that compared to being out in broad daylight, having to be led by the hand.
“Now we’re coming up on the druggist. His daughter – she thought she was the biggest toad in the puddle, on account of he could afford to send her to some fancy girls school in Virginia. She’d come in as often as she could – ‘Oh, doctor, my freckles hurt! Oh, doctor, my gizzard is acting up!’ Wasn’t nothing wrong with her – she was just hoping she could snag David. Finally, she gave up and married the minister’s son, and they moved to Wichita. Good riddance.”
Artie found her appraisals of all the people she didn’t care for rather comical, but wondered what they thought about her. “Isn’t there anybody in this town you like?”
“Hardly. Dr. Lumberg’s a peach, and David’s alright if you don’t mind the pale, saintly type. Between you and me, the rest of them can go hang. There’s two steps – careful.”
The drug store was cool inside, its scent a mixture of chemicals and beer. Mr. Grundig, the druggist, heard the bell ring, and peeked out from the store room. His mild expression became a frown. Lumberg’s latest project – why did he even bother? Just because he managed to clean these girls up on the outside didn’t mean their insides weren’t still filthy.
“What do you want?” Ordinarily, he’d have been more cordial, but these girls had to understand they weren’t going be treated like respectable people.
“My patient and I would like to sit awhile. Beer for him, sarsparilla for me.”
“Your patient? Getting a little big for your britches, aren’t you?”
She led Artie to the small table next to the soda fountain and helped him get seated before replying. “That’s one beer, one sarsaparilla, and one keep your ignorant opinion to yourself.”
Artie tried not to laugh, but was unable to hide his smile.
A moment later Grundig came and banged the glasses on the table angrily. “This is it, I’m not selling you seconds. As soon as you’re done, get out.”
“Oh, dear, oh dear, oh dear! How dreadfully awful for you, sir.” Artie lisped. “The Kansas House of Representatives is working on publishing a state register of businesses, with descriptions of what people can expect for the merchants of our great state. Sadly, I may have to report that your service, while efficient, cannot be considered friendly.”
They’re in the habit of hiring the blind?”
“No, no -- of course not, my good man. Those of us who are working on this most ambitious project are expected to travel about incognito. Were I not in disguise as blind, you might suspect me to be a state employee and treat me accordingly. To reiterate, I am so very sorry, but I must report on your level of unfriendliness. But perhaps next year when the register is updated -- ”
Grundig walked away, then stopped. “Alright, alright – you want more, that’s fine. Just holler.” With that, he went back to the storeroom.
“Mr. Gordon, what a card you are!” Victorine giggled.
“What sort of patient would I be if I allowed my nurse to be treated so disrespectfully?”
“Here–“ She took his hand and placed it around the beer glass. “Let me know how it is.”
Artie took a sip. “Not bad. How’s your sarsparilla?”
“Nice, I guess. Mr. Gordon, I overheard something you said to Dr. Lumberg – you want rags?”
“Yes.” He didn’t want to elaborate, since he didn’t know how much she knew – or didn’t know – about him.
“There’s a lady on the edge of town, she’s a little mad, I think. Her family had money, but she lives like a pauper. She spends her time sewing for some of the poorer people – takes their ragged clothes as trade. I don’t know what she does with it, but I know she don’t discard it.”
“Men, women, children – I think she’s even taken horse blankets.”
“Could we visit her today? Is it close enough to walk?”
“Oh, no, it’s at least a mile, Mr. Gordon. I don’t mind the walk, but I don’t think that you–“
“I’ll be fine – I once walked five miles with a leg full of shrapnel.”
“Are you sure? She’s way out of town and, if you get tired, there’s no place to rest.”
“Miss, five miles, with a leg full of shrapnel. Today, no shrapnel and the companionship of a kindly nurse – this’ll be a walk in the park for me.”
“Oh, if you’re certain, then... I got a standing invitation, so whenever you’re ready,” she said. This would be the first time she’d ever visited Miss Harker along with a patient, and she was curious about what Miss Harker might say to him. Although she seemed to be a little touched, she was – what did Dr. Lumberg say? Oh, that she was intuitive, whatever that meant.
When they finished, Victorine left a few coins on the table, and rising, called out to Mr. Grundig, “I’m leaving – you can fumigate now!”
Artie waited until they got outside, then burst into laughter.
“You’re not afraid to open your mouth, are you?” Artie said, still laughing.
“Why should I be? These people sure ain’t anything special – I think they need somebody to point that out once in a while.”
Artie laughed again, and shook his head. This girl was some character.
Having gone through the catalogue of all the people she didn’t care for, Victorine spent the rest of the walk to Miss Harker’s house describing their surroundings.
“We’re nearly there. Mr. Gordon, give me the cane – Miss Harker has chickens running about absolutely everywhere, and if you accidentally poke one, she’ll come running out, hollering and calling you all kinds of names.
As they neared, Victorine spied Miss Harker behind the house where she was repairing a fence. It was hard to miss her, since she was nearly six feet tall and very heavy.
“Miss Harker! Miss Harker, it’s me, Dr. Lumberg’s nurse. Can we come into the yard?”
“Who’s ‘we?’” Miss Harker asked, without looking up.
“I got a patient with me, a gentleman. He needs some --” She didn’t want to say “rags,” and “poor people’s clothes” would sound ridiculous.
“Some what? Speak up, girl.” Miss Harker had turned her attention from the fence to Victorine.
“Um, some used clothes.”
“So why isn’t your gentleman asking himself?”
Artie cleared his throat and opened his mouth, but nothing came out. For the first time in his life, his inventiveness failed him. What excuse could he give?
“Come on in, fella. I think I have something that might fit you.”
Victorine opened the gate, which caused the chickens to scatter all over the yard. Miss Harker came forward and moved them out of Artie’s way by flapping her apron after them. “Come on, come on, shoo! Shoo! Can’t you see somebody’s trying to get by you?? Shoo!”
Finally they made their way through the yard and climbed the steps to the porch. Miss Harker indicated a doormat. “Wipe your shoes on that, I need to keep everything nice inside for Abner.”
After their shoes were cleaned to Miss Harker’s satisfaction, they entered her parlor. All the furniture was covered with white sheets, as if the house was about to be closed for the season. Victorine looked around to see where the best place to seat Artie would be. In the corner there was an overstuffed reading chair she thought he might find comfortable.
“Oh, no – that’s Abner’s seat. Put him here,” Miss Harker said, as she patted the back of a sofa.
Victorine led Artie to the sofa and sat down next to him. Miss Harker settled into a worn-out Morris chair, which groaned under her girth.
“Now, then, let’s visit some. Victorine, what’s your patient’s name?”
“Can he talk?”
“Of course he can,” Victorine said, slightly embarrassed.
“Mr. Gordon? You’re a patient of Dr. Lumberg’s?”
“For now. I’ll be leaving soon.”
“Leaving to go where?”
“A little town called Shekinah.”
“Shekinah? No, no – you don’t want to go there. You’re newly blind, yes?”
“Yes, ma’am.” When were they going to get talking about the clothes?, Artie wondered. “Do you know anything about Shekinah?”
“I have some idea about it – no place for a blind man to be by himself. You’re not planning to beg there, you’re too much the fine gentleman for that. I think – you’ve a very compelling reason to go there, am I right?”
“Yes.” There was something a little intimidating about this woman – she’d have made a formidable school marm.
“I’m guessing by your manner that you’ve been there before. I’m also guessing that a fine gentleman like yourself could readily afford new clothing, but you want to go back to Shekinah and not be recognized, am I right?
“Right again, ma’am. May I ask – how did you know about Shekinah?”
“How did I know? How did I know?” Miss Harker said faintly, her eyes studying the elaborate tin ceiling, as if the answer was written there. “Perhaps I heard somebody mention it, or perhaps I read something, or – well, sometimes I don’t know how I know. I just know. Abner’ll tell you – I’ve got a sixth sense about a lot of things. Mr. Gordon, when were you there? ”
“Middle of July.” Artie realized that he didn’t know how many days it was between the time the horses pulled him out of Shekinah and now. “Miss, what’s today’s date?“
“August 22nd,” Miss Harker replied.
“August 22nd,” Artie murmured. So Jim had been on his own for over a month.
“And how long have you been blind?”
Artie was too deep in thought to hear the question. Again he murmured, “August 22nd.”
Victorine took over. “He was brought in on July 19th, but he was unconscious for two whole days. He awoke on the 22nd of July, and that’s when he found out he was blind.”
“I asked him, not you, Victorine,” Miss Harker said evenly. “Mr. Gordon?”
Abandoning the question, Miss Harker then asked, “How are you managing?”
Not well. He pretended not to hear.
“Oh, I’ll be alright.” He tried to sound jaunty. “Do you – could we maybe see if you have any used clothing I might be able to wear?”
“You must be doing alright – you get right down to business. As far as the clothing, I have all kinds of things in all kinds of sizes. What are you looking for especially?”
“This might sound odd, but I want the most ragged, unusual things you have in my size or larger.”
“Not looking to cut a fine figure, eh? Well, let’s see what I got.” Miss Harker rose clumsily from her chair and took Artie by the arm.
“It’s all back in Mother Rebecca’s cottage, back there by the barn.”
“Who’s Mother Rebecca?” Victorine asked. She was starting to feel left out.
“Mother Rebecca, oh, she lived back there when I was a tot – not a relation, at least I don’t think so. Some say she was there when my folks bought the property, and they just built around her. She shuffled off this mortal coil round about when I was five. But she doesn’t mind my storing things in her house – they keep her company, after all.”
Victorine shot a “this lady’s crazy” look at Artie, without realizing he wouldn’t look back
* * *
The cottage had a strong musty smell. The clothing was piled in bins, rather haphazardly, Victorine thought.
“Miss Harker, what do you do with all this stuff?” she asked.
“Stuff?? It’s not ‘stuff,’ it’s wealth. I can make it over and sell it, I can give it away to someone who’s had a fire or some other misfortune, folks can use it to plug up the holes in a drafty cabin. There’s any number of uses. Stuff, hmmm,” she grumbled as she dug through the bin of mens clothing. “Here we are – two shirts, one with a few rust stains, and another – why this one isn’t too bad, or it wouldn’t be if I patched the holes. Have any idea of what you want to wear, fella?”
“I want to look like as if I live on the road,” Artie began. “And as if I’m a bit mad.”
“Oh, there’s some unusual stuff – I mean items -- here. Let’s see,” she said. Digging further, she pulled out three pairs of trousers, a pair of boots, a threadbare opera cape, and most of an old Zouave uniform.
“This might be just about all I’ve got in your size or a little bigger. Now let’s get you stripped so you can try it on.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You don’t think we’re going to let you to try them on over what you’re wearing, do you?”
“If you – um, lay out the clothes for me, I think I’d rather... uh, dress in private.”
“And how do you expect to look a bit mad unless we dress you?”
Artie shook his head with frustration, then removed his jacket, waistcoat and shirt.
“I’ll wait,” she said defiantly, as she sat on a huge pile of clothing and began picking straw out of her hair.
Victorine saw the necessity of getting him undressed, and considering she was the one who helped undress him when he was first brought in, she thought she could get a little further with him than Miss Harker had.
“Mr. Gordon, surely you understand why she asked. And anyway, you got no reason to be bashful. I’m a nurse, after all.”
“Is Miss Harker a nurse?”
“No, I’m not, but neither am I entirely unfamiliar with what a man looks like without trousers.”
That assertion had the opposite effect to what was intended. Artie blushed crimson. “Maybe if, uh… just Miss Victorine, uh…
“Nope, sorry. My home, my clothing, my rules.”
Time is of the essence and I’m wasting it. He unbuttoned his fly, took the suspenders from his shoulders, and instantly his trousers dropped, landing around his ankles.
“You ought to have taken your shoes off first, you know,” Victorine tittered.
Artie ran a hand across his forehead. “Alright, smarty—is there a chair nearby?”
“I’ll get one.” Miss Harker struggled up and went to the ladder at the back of the room. A wooden chair hung from the rafters.
“Here you go,” she said as she set the chair in front of him.
Once the shoes were off his feet, Miss Harker announced that it was time to get to work.
“The Zouave trousers I think – they’re such a nice shade of red. The knee is out – that doesn’t matter, does it?” Miss Harker continued without waiting for an answer. “Oh, look! This is wonderful – a old Devonshire farmer’s smock Can’t remember how it got here – here, try it on.”
Victorine helped him on with it. It was far too large. The farmer to whom it belonged must’ve weighed at least two hundred pounds more than Artie.
Then came on the Zouave trousers, making his appearance even more ridiculous. Both ladies laughed.
“I suppose you’re laughing because you just cannot believe how handsome I look.”
“Now, opera cape?” Miss Harker said, as she held it up. “Yes, you’ll definitely make the right impression with this, I reckon. Not overly warm, either. From poor Mr. Oswald – he was a rich fella from New York, a bon vivant they said, until the war wiped him out. The story is he loaded all his finery up in a big wagon and, traveling from one big town to another, gradually selling it off. Finally he ended up here, and expired two weeks later. I got what he left behind, including the wagon, and two exhausted horses, none of which I really have any use for anymore. The horses are just fine now, Abner and me built ‘em up good. I just need to find the right buyer.”
The wheels in Artie’s brain began to spin. A wagon and horses – just what he needed.
“I also have the fez that goes with the uniform. Or would you prefer something with a brim?”
“Do you have both?”
“I certainly do – oh, there’s a whole lot of gentlemen’s hats here. Stovepipes, kepis, a slouch hat or two, just about anything to keep the sun off your face, although I think you could use a little sun – you’re a bit too peaked.”
“Miss Harker, he lost a lot of blood, of course he’s pale.”
“Lost blood? Mr. Gordon, are you well enough to travel?”
“I think so.” He was already starting to tire. He had to admit he wasn’t anywhere near a hundred percent, but whatever he was would have to do.
Miss Harker noted his expression. “Victorine, why don’t you go on home? I’ll bring Mr. Gordon back myself. We’ll try to put together a traveling wardrobe for him, and you won’t have to sit here and twiddle your thumbs while we do.”
“Mr. Gordon, is that alright with you?” Victorine had enjoyed his company, but this little trip was starting to take longer than it should have, and the doctor would expect her back soon.
“Yes... that’s fine,” he replied a little uncertainly. He wasn’t entirely comfortable in Miss Harker’s presence, although he felt he had no reason to fear her. She was just... there was something about her that he couldn’t quite grasp. Perhaps if he could have seen her...
Before she took her leave of him, Victorine wanted to give him a hug. He’d taken off the smoked spectacles before he put on the smock, and he looked so pitiful standing there, his brown eyes staring into nothingness. Resisting her affectionate impulse, she touched his shoulder lightly, and said, “Be back by supper – it’s David’s birthday and there’ll be cake and ice cream.”
“And a nice plate of spinach for me?”
Victorine laughed. “Maybe we can let you do without for once. But don’t be late.”
“I won’t be.”
“Miss Harker, make sure you have him back by six.”
“Oh, he’ll be delivered long before then, most likely.”
“Wonderful – thank you, Miss Harker.”
Miss Harker followed Victorine out of the cottage, and watched her until she went through the front gate. Back in the cottage, she found Artie examining the cape.
“Is that Miss Harker?” he asked upon hearing her enter.
“This cape is really something.” As many of these as he had in his costume trunk back on the train, none of them were anything like this.
“Why do you say that? It’s just a cape.”
“Yes, but it feels … I mean, it’s very…” He was unable to articulate what that something was exactly. Although the cape had seen better days, it was made of an exceptionally fine silk. It seemed to have all the normal features, but there was something more than that.
“Well, it’s – it’s very, very nice,” he said helplessly.
“Here.” She placed another garment in his hands. “What about this?”
“Miss Harker?” What was she after, he wondered.
“Indulge me. Remember: my clothes, my rules. What can you tell me about it? And before you look it over, clear your mind completely.”
Artie ran his hands over it. Thank God my hands weren’t damaged. It seemed that since he lost his eyesight, he experienced the world mostly through his hands.
“It’s a woolen coat.” He felt around for the buttons. They were cold – metal, and with some sort of raised design. Might’ve been part of a uniform.
“How did this end up with your cast-offs? Whose coat is this?” Artie didn’t know how he knew – it didn’t occur to him even to guess. But this coat belonged to someone; it was not up for grabs. As soon as the words left his mouth, Artie became embarrassed.
“Mr. Gordon, it belongs to a neighbor – he wants me to take in the seams. I think you’re blushing because your so-called rational mind said that you must have been wrong.”
Artie was both puzzled and intrigued.
“Always listen to your gut, Mr. Gordon – it will never lie to you. And I want you to remember this – remember it always: even though your eyes are blind, there are other ways to see.”
Other ways to see – where had Artie heard that before?
“So, the Zouave trousers and fez, this nice farmer’s tunic, and both of these other shirts. And the slouch hat. Oh, and I have here one very sturdy pair of boots. I want you to try those on.”
She handed them to him, and he complied, while she bundled the clothes together.
He heard her leave – maybe she was getting the wagon ready. Soon the boots were laced up – they fit very well. He groped around for his cane. Once he found it he got up and walked around the room. There was a lot of clothing to trip over, but he successfully dodged it. He made it to one of the walls. Impulsively, he ran his hand over the cold plaster. It was bumpy, uneven. Something told him it had been a rush job. Or someone? He heard it, but it didn’t seem to come through his ears. Or maybe it had, and he was losing his sense of hearing as well.
“Hello? Who’s there?”
There was no answer.
He turned around, and tried to find his way back to the chair. Of course it must have been a rush job – if it hadn’t been, it would have been smooth. Soon his mind seemed to gear up for a debate. Maybe it wasn’t a rush job – maybe the plasterer was inexperienced, or maybe it hadn’t been mixed properly, or maybe… The inaudible voice spoke again. “It was a rush job.”
Vexed, Artie called out again. “Who’s there? Miss Harker? Miss Harker??”
A moment or two later, he heard her heavy steps.
“Mr. Gordon, were you calling me? I’m just about finished out here, give me another minute.”
“Did you say anything about the plaster?”
“The plaster… I thought I heard you – somebody -- say…”
“Plaster? Why would I have anything to say about plaster?” she asked, with slight annoyance. Men were always interested in discussing the fine points of construction. Apparently, being blind made no difference.
“Oh. I’m mistaken,” Artie said, embarrassed once more.
“You want to talk about that to Abner, not me.”
Miss Harker exited. But someone else was here; he was sure of it. Abner? Or maybe Victorine hadn’t really left. “Who’s there? I know someone else is here. Miss Victorine, is that you? Or, uh – Mister… Abner?”
He listened for an answer, but none came.
Miss Harker returned, and took his arm. “This is a very fine wagon Mr. Gordon, and these are very fine horses. I don’t know why, but I haven’t had any luck, any luck at all, selling them.”
“I would like to buy them – or at least rent them. Would that be possible?”
“Would it! As long as I can get enough to re-pay what it’s cost me to feed them.”
She help him up onto his seat. Immediately, he began to sneeze.
“Do horses bother you?”
Artie sneezed over and over, until at last he was able to answer. “No, not at all.” He then recommenced sneezing.
“Oh, I know – a little too much dust on the clothes, here, Mr. Gordon.” Miss Harker put a handkerchief into his hand. “Once I bailed them up, I rolled them around in the yard – there’s part of the yard that’s just plain dried-up dirt, at least until next time it rains. You said you wanted to look as if you were a traveler, I figured some dust and a little dirt on the clothes might help you make that impression.”
“That’s good.” Or it would be, if he could wear it without sneezing all the way to Shekinah.
* * *
In what he called his temple, the Magus was kneeling on the marble floor, his eyes closed. Incense smoldered in the brazier and the smoke filled the room. He had been on his knees for hours, and still he could not reach Gordon. The plan had been to injure him badly, very badly – ideally cripple him, but not kill him. The Magus was certain that no matter how bad off, Gordon would have done everything within his power to come back for West. Badly injured and condemned to witness his partner’s sacrifice, a partner who now despised him – surely this would break Gordon. It had to. But where was he? Had the horses carried him out of range? Unlikely – they had come back the same day.
He finally rose, pacing angrily. Although he claimed he could reach anyone, anywhere, there were some objects, due to their spiritual and intellectual development, that he found difficult to reach beyond a certain geographic distance. He was no longer Joash Curlin, petty criminal, but he still wasn’t the all-powerful Magus he claimed to be. That was frustration enough. But the amazing stroke of luck in luring West and Gordon was starting to turn into an enormous disappointment. His followers eagerly awaited the return and the ruin of Gordon. They were clamoring for it. If only Gordon would come back before the next full moon...
* * *
The wagon pulled up in front of the Lumberg home. As Miss Harker helped Artie down from his seat, he promised her that she’d be reimbursed for her time, trouble, and the use of her wagon and horses. This she waved away.
“Mr. Gordon, I believe you to be eminently trustworthy. You needn’t impress upon me the fact that you intend to make good on your promise.”
Dr. Lumberg met them on the porch, with Victorine following behind.
“Miss Harker, what a pleasant surprise! When Victorine came back without Mr. Gordon, I was certain she’d misplaced him.”
“A conscientious girl like Victorine? – never. That Mr. Iselin, with his head in the clouds, him I can see losing somebody. Watch it now, Mr. Gordon – we’ve got six steps up to the porch.”
“Enjoy your outing, Mr. Gordon?” Lumberg asked.
“Yes, indeed.” By now he was very tired. Hopefully there’d be time to lie down before dinner.
“Miss Harker, thanks for delivering our patient. Would you like to come in? It’s been a mighty busy day, but we’re having a little tea break on the back porch.”
“No, sir! Not to be impolite, mind you, but it was doctors killed my Abner, and I swore I’d never, ever give one the time of day again. Anyway, thank you for allowing me to deliver Mr. Gordon – it was my pleasure,” she said over her shoulder as she went back to the wagon.
Abner is dead?? Did I hear that right?
“How about you, Mr. Gordon, would you like to join us, or would you rather rest until supper?”
Definitely, the latter. He didn’t want to seem too eager; he had to give the impression that he was fit to leave. “Hmm, yes, I think I might like to lie down for awhile – I had an awful time getting to sleep last night. It must’ve been two in the morning before I dropped off.”
That was a lie, Victorine knew. She’d looked in on him just before she retired at eleven, and he was out like a light.
* * *
The birthday dinner was delightful. David was truly surprised by the cake, a large chocolate affair with buttercream icing. Artie favored the peach ice cream, and there was the added benefit that the meal lacked spinach. After dessert, Lumberg broke out cigars, but Artie begged off. He hadn’t had such a heavy meal in a long time, and was itching to take a walk.
“Do you think you could find your way to the kitchen, Mr. Gordon?” Lumberg asked. “There’s nothing to trip over between here and there, and the sound of Victorine arguing with the cook ought to give you a good idea of direction.”
“Certainly.” Artie jumped up and fumbled for his cane. Finally, a little independence.
He stopped at the kitchen door to hear the gist of the conversation.
“… and when he finally retires, and David takes over, you know you’ll be out the door.”
“How could he take over? – he didn’t even finish medical school. He told me he’s saving every dime to go back and finish.” That was Victorine’s voice.
“Saving every dime?? Where do those clothes come from, elves? Out here, it don’t matter if he graduated or not. This ain’t Chicago. If he can set broken bones, deliver babies, and write prescriptions, that’s enough for the folks here. And you know him, he’s like an old church deacon, he wouldn’t have you around – you’re a corrupting influence.”
“Corrupting influence! The nerve of you! Why, I—“
Artie rapped on the door, then pushed it open. He hoped his presence would stave off the incipient cat fight
“Miss Victorine, would you mind taking an old man out for a constitutional?”
Victorine stood, and smoothed her hair, while looking daggers at the cook. “Why, I’d be happy to. After all I’m a nurse, which takes training and sympathy, as well as knowledge of good hygiene. I’m so very glad I ain’t a cook – why, that’s a job even an ape can learn to do.”
That was answered with muttered curses and banging of pots.
She took Artie’s hand and placed it on her upper arm. “Let’s hurry out, Mr. Gordon. I’d hate for you to become ill from the disgusting conditions in here.”
As they left, the curses were no longer muttered, but shrieked.
They passed through the dining room, where Lumberg and David were laughing heartily.
“What’s so funny?” Victorine sniffed.
“Nothing,” David answered. “It’s just that we find amusement in how very peaceful our surroundings are, and how well we get along with one another.”
“I see,” she replied coldly.
Artie stifled a chuckle.
As Victorine helped him down the porch steps, she wondered what Mr. Gordon’s opinion of her might be. He didn’t know her background – Lumberg was adamant that her past was past, and that no one should know. But with Knowlton being a small town, everyone knew. But if someone didn’t know, would she be accepted like anyone else? Or would she still be thought of as being beneath contempt?
“Mr. Gordon, here’s the last step – careful. Now, we can go back in the direction of the business district – what there is of it – or there’s a meadow a short distance from here. I’ve never seen so many pretty wildflowers in one place.” Should she have said that? He won’t be able to see them. “They smell so nice,” she added hurriedly.
“Let’s go there, then.”
“Oh, lovely – can you wait just a moment? I want to bring a basket.”
During the walk, Victorine forced herself to speak of pleasant things. After spending their earlier walk venting her spleen, she realized he might come to dislike her. She didn’t mind that the locals, mostly farmers, tradesmen and housewives, didn’t care for her. But it would mean a lot if a real gentleman found her likeable.
“Do you like flowers, Mr Gordon?”
“I do. Pretty much anything that grows out of the ground I like for some reason or another..”
“Except for spinach.”
“The only exception, Miss,” he smiled.
“Mr. Gordon, you don’t have to call me Miss or Miss Victorine anymore. Just call me Victorine – everybody else does, at least to my face.”
He smiled again. “Well, then, if I call you Victorine, then you must call me Artemus.”
“Oh, no, sir – I couldn’t. You’re a gentleman.”
Artie was surprised by her reply. “Whichever you prefer then.”
Soon she led him off the dirt road into the meadow. “It’ll be dark soon, so I want to gather up as much as I can before then. Fresh flowers make the place a little more cheery.”
“I wish I could help you,” Artie said, a little sadly.
“Oh, but you can – if you’re willing to wander on your own a little, maybe you can let me know where some nice-smelling flowers are. Sometimes I get so caught up in how pretty they are, I forgot about which smell best. The grass ain’t – isn’t --so very thick here. You won’t fall. Just watch out for the trees – there’s a few cedars, but you should be able to smell them..., um...”
“Before I walk into them.”
The strongest scent was verbena, there was also the aroma of daisies. It was a lovely evening, warm, but not too warm, with a slight breeze. It was wonderful to be able to walk freely.
Victorine was busily picking verbena and Queen Anne’s lace, occasionally looking up to see where Artie was. She was happy to see that he seemed to be enjoying himself.
After pulling up a recalcitrant purple hyssop, she noticed Artie approaching a group of trees. “Mr. Gordon, careful – you’re headed toward the trees.”
"Thank you!" he shouted.
The closer he got to the trees, the verbena scent diminished. For a few steps, the only scent was grass, until he was close enough to a tree to poke at it with his cane. Then, the scent of honeys*ckle. Anna’s scent. He reached out and his hand became entangled in a honeys*ckle vine as the familiar heartache overcame him. Only now it was worse. Anna was gone, his eyesight was gone, and with it went his ability to support himself. He’d also – since his talk with the Magus – begun to lose hope that he’d ever see her again. The more he thought about it, the more likely it had been merely an exceptionally vivid dream. At the time, he’d been slowly dying of a broken heart and, yes, grasping at straws. Perhaps, unconsciously, his sense of self-preservation brought on the dream. And then, a thought that hadn’t yet occurred to him, but one that finally made him cry: he might never again even see the photographs he had of her.
Engaged in filling her basket, Victorine didn’t notice, but as it was getting dark, she looked up to see where he was. She was surprised to see him leaning against a tree trunk, weeping into a handkerchief. This unexpected sight brought tears to her own eyes. She would have gladly thrown her arms around him and shared his sorrow over his condition, but there was, she felt, something more to it that she could not ascertain. It was very sad, but what stirred her compassion even more was how Mr. Gordon always managed to be pleasant, even jolly at times, as if nothing much was wrong. Maybe that was how true gentleman handled themselves.
It really was high time to leave and she was unsure how to approach him. The last thing she wanted to do was embarrass him. Maybe she could just wait until he collected himself.
It wasn’t long before he was cried out. He knew Victorine was at a distance from him; probably she hadn’t noticed, especially since he was wearing the smoked spectacles. Taking up his cane again, he walked in the back in the direction from where he’d come. Victorine picked up the basket and ran to meet him.
“Are you alright, Mr. Gordon?” She had to ask.
“Fine, I – I think I may have a touch of hay fever.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Did you find all the flowers you wanted? I don’t think I was much help.”
“I did. And you were helpful – I hate to be out here alone, and nobody seems to want to spend any time with me. And those who do, well, they have just one thing in mind.”
From the way she said it, Artie had a good idea of what that one thing was.
SS 1st assignment - desk job
Posted - 08/21/2009 : 08:27:43
| Chapter 5
The following afternoon, Lumberg was in his office re-reading the telegram from Washington, a reply to a letter he’d sent the week before. Yes, someone would be at the main railway station in Washington when Mr. Gordon’s train came in. The telegram also expressed thanks that the doctor was willing to send his assistant along to accompany Mr. Gordon, and instructed him on how to file for reimbursement of his medical fees and the travel costs.
The plan was to put him on a train with David on the 25th. How this would be achieved was a problem. He didn’t want to lie to Mr. Gordon, who was still under the impression that the doctor would help him to go to Shekinah, but he sincerely felt that sending him to Washington would be in his patient’s best interests. He could reason with Mr. Gordon, certainly, but if reason went nowhere, what was there to do? He could drug him, but that wouldn’t be ethical. Maybe David would have an idea. Or even Victorine – she was often quite clever.
“Doctor, David wants you. There’s a wagon outside, and a man – I think he may have had an attack of some sort. He’s unconscious, and his wife is near hysterical.”
Lumberg rose quickly. “Thank you, Victorine.”
As soon as he was out the door, Victorine started tidying up his desk. Such a fine doctor, but such a poor organizer – notes hiding under magazines, magazines under newspapers, and records everywhere but where they were supposed to be. One top of the newspapers was a telegram, and although she never read his mail, she noticed Mr. Gordon’s name on it.
She was most surprised by what she read. Had Mr. Gordon changed his mind? He hadn’t said anything to her. Not that one normally would, of course, she was just a nurse, but…
After she was through straightening up, she came out onto the back porch, where Mr. Gordon was resting on a chaise lounge. He’d had a dreadful headache since early morning, but the doctor wasn’t too concerned since an examination didn’t show anything in particular.
“Mr. Gordon, are you feeling any better? Would you like me to bring you some lunch?”
“Victorine, something’s wrong. Something’s very wrong,” he said, his voice heavy with worry.
“Mr. Gordon, are you alright? The doctor’s busy with another patient at the moment, but--”
“No, Victorine, it’s not that, it’s...” He sighed, and began again. “I have a feeling the doctor intends to ship me out to Washington in a few days.” He looked very upset.
Victorine sat down next to him and noted that his hand hung limply over the armrest. She reached out to hold it. He did not resist.
“Mr. Gordon, didn’t you discuss this with him?”
“No, never! I’ve said from the beginning that I must go back to Shekinah. It was my understanding that he would find somebody to take me there.”
“Mr. Gordon, don’t tell nobody, but I just read a telegram from Washington that was on the doctor’s desk. It said that someone will be awaiting your arrival on... I think it said the 30th. David is supposed to go with you.”
“The 30th? So that means they want to put me on the train either tomorrow or the next day.”
“This Shekinah, where is it?”
“Fifteen, twenty miles due west of Abilene.”
“Why, Mr. Gordon, we could be there by the 26th, the 27th at the latest.”
“I could take you! I’m awful good at the reins of a wagon, and I’m good with maps and directions. And... and I’m good with a gun. Anyway, there ain’t – isn’t – anything much going on here right about now. End of September is when it gets busy – people around here don’t seem to get too sick or injured this time of year. Most days I’ve just been visiting home patients, and most of that has just been listening to them complain. The doctor can do without me for a few days.”
“You’re sweet, Victorine, but I really need a man for this. Shekinah’s a dangerous place.”
She dropped his hand and rose, a little miffed. “Suit yourself. But I think you’ll find it’s either me or the train to Washington.”
Artie laid back. This damn headache refuses to go away.
Stop worrying, and it will.
That was said by a very calm voice, and, like the voice he heard at Miss Harker’s, the one that spoke about the plaster, this one seemed to be speaking into his head, not his ear exactly. The voice at Miss Harker’s seemed to him to be a man’s voice. This was a woman’s. The voice sounded a lot like... no, that was ridiculous.
Call her back. Let her take you.
No! It’s impossible. We’ll either get lost. or, well, anything can happen. His headache got worse. If it continued, he’d soon be crying out for laudanum.
If you do not, you will regret it for the rest of your life. Call her.
The voice was so very calm. And yet that last pronouncement felt like it had not only been spoken to his head, but also to his heart, his gut.
A little reluctantly, Artie surrendered. Whatever you say.
“Victorine, could you come here a moment?”
As soon as the words left his mouth, to his utter astonishment, his headache disappeared.
“Victorine, could I talk to you?”
Victorine poked her head through the door. “Yes? What do you need?”
Thankfully, she didn’t sound angry.
“What I need, Victorine, is for you to take me to Shekinah. If you’re still willing, that is.”
She immediately became very enthusiastic. “Of course! Oh, this will be exciting!” Rushing to the seat beside him, she took his hand again. “We’ll have to sneak out, naturally, and I’ll have to make certain Miss Harker has the wagon and horses ready. We’ll need to bring some food and water and blankets for us, and feed for the horses. And your clothing – where is that?”
“I don’t know,” Artie replied. “Maybe when she brought me home yesterday, she left it in the wagon.”
“I’ll run out her way as soon as I get a break today, and make certain. Oh! Do you think I ought to have a costume, too?”
“I don’t think you’ll need one – I just need you to drop me off at a certain spot. As soon as you do, I’d want you to come right back here as soon as you can.”
“Drop you off?? Mr. Gordon, is there someone there who can bring you back here, or to Washington?”
“Victorine, we need you in here, please.” That was the doctor, calling from his examination room.
She jumped up. “Mr. Gordon, if we need to talk more about this – I guess we do – best not to do it around here. You don’t want to be heard. Maybe I can find some time today to take you walking. Oh! When I go to see Miss Harker, I’ll take you. Will that be alright?”
“Sure,” he smiled.
“Oh, golly, thank you, Mr. Gordon!” Impulsively, she planted a kiss on his cheek before hurrying to the examination room.
Now that the headache was gone, he got up, then sat again. There was nothing for him to do but wait for Victorine to become available. If he didn’t have this trip to look forward to, he’d have been beside himself with boredom. He couldn’t read, he couldn’t go anywhere by himself. He couldn’t imagine living like this. If he made it through Shekinah... well, he’d owe it to himself to find an oculist who might be able to help him. But if nothing could be done, a little too much laudanum mixed with a little too much alcohol would take care of his problem nicely.
* * *
Jim finished the plate of food that had been set out on the floor some time before he awoke. It had been days since he’d had a drink – as least a drink of something other than water -- and every day since he’d felt awful. Sick and agitated. Why had they stopped sending it? It’s not like anybody else there drank – from what he’d seen, the population didn’t take pleasure in much.
He got up and tripped over the leg of a chair he’d smashed during one of his fits. It rolled under the bed. Jim went to retrieve it – it would be useful as a club – then heard it clink against something that sounded like glass. Crawling under the bed, Jim felt that something. It was a bottle. Full. As he reached for it, he felt it resting against another bottle. Two full bottles, a days worth, although he by now he felt he could polish them off, one after the other, right now. He’d have to be careful, though. If this was the last of it, he’d soon be sick again.
What a disgusting situation. Once they let him out, he was going to saddle up his horse and leave. The hell with the whole lot of them. The hell with Artie, too, wherever he was. He’d go back to headquarters and demand another partner. And a raise, too, demand a raise. He’d been holed up in a room for days, deprived of women and alcohol. He deserved extra pay for that. He’d also encourage them to fire Artie, and then they could pay him what Artie had been getting. Jim was the one who did all the work, he deserved to be paid twice as much as what he’d been making. What good was a partner, anyway? Or maybe they weren’t all as useless as Artie.
When am I gonna get out?
* * *
It had occurred to Artie that the house had a wrap-around porch, so he got up and took his cane. He’d circled the house a few times before walking smack into David.
“I’m so sorry. Who is that?”
“It’s David, Mr. Gordon – my fault entirely. I’m rather famous around here for not paying attention to where I’m going.”
“Speaking of going, I think I’m ready to leave now. Don’t you agree?”
“Yes, definitely. But... uh, well, perhaps you should take it up with Dr. Lumberg. After all, he makes the decisions around here. Will you excuse me, Mr. Gordon? I have an appointment.”
“Of course.” Now there was no doubt. David’s nervousness told him what he wanted to know.
Once that he was sure, Artie began to panic once more. How soon could they get the supplies they needed? What if, after hearing his explanation of what to expect, Victorine decided not to go? What if they did get lost? What if something happened to Victorine along the way? Would any help he’d be able to provide be enough? Maybe he was wrong to let her go. Steadily, the headache came back and with far greater force than originally. He tried to find his way back to the chaise lounge, and the pain in his head was so overwhelming, he could barely walk. Finally, he could walk no more, and dropped onto the porch, rocking and holding his head.
You don’t have to be in this pain, you know.
The voice was back, yet all Artie could focus on was the excruciating sensation in his skull.
Worry is futile.
With that, Artie placed his hands over his ears, and continued to rock. Was it possible that there had been a skull fracture? He’d heard of debilitating headaches, but didn’t think a mere headache could be this painful.
Never worry, Artemus. You are surrounded by love.
That got his attention. It wasn’t even a half hour before that the last headache went away because he’d submitted, and here he was again, engaging in worry and reaping the results. He was never a worrier before, never. Why the strange mention of love? Well, what difference did it make ? He got the message. It was more than likely that this voice was not outside of him, but was some sort of manifestation of his own brain. Because he’d never been a worrier.
As he rose, he felt Victorine’s hand behind his back, helping him up.
"Mr. Gordon, a moment ago you looked like you in a lot of pain. Is there something I can do?"
"No. Thank you, though. Whatever it was passed."
"Mr. Gordon, you haven’t changed your mind, have you?" she whispered.
"No, Victorine. Do we have time to talk? Or can we go to Miss Harker’s?"
"Let me ask Dr. Lumberg. We’ve been a little busy today, but I think he’ll give me a some time to myself. Do you want to wait out here, or go in?"
"Out here is fine." Funny, if he didn’t know where he was, he’d never have guessed Kansas. Every previous visit included a violent attack of hay fever. Maybe he was growing out of it.
A few minutes later, Victorine was back. She took his arm.
“We’ll have to rush, he’s only given me an hour and a half. That pest Mrs. Shelley is in at three, and the doctor always makes me take down all her symptoms before he sees her.”
“Why is she a pest?”
“Because there’s nothing wrong with her! She’s an older version of Amy Grundig, only this one’s after Dr. Lumberg. Everybody says she hectored her husband to death a few years back, and now she’s looking for her next victim. She’s richer than Croesus, too, so there’s plenty other men around here who’d give her a tumble. Dr. Lumberg is a lost cause. David told me that his first wife died of cholera back in the early ‘Fifties, and the second one died in childbirth during the war – the baby died, too. So he don’t want to get married again, and he makes me take down the symptoms so he has less time to deal with her.”
“I hope I’m not a pest.”
“Oh, good gracious, no! You’re a peach! Even if you wasn’t a peach, you’re not a pest. The only ones are pests is the ones that come and take up the doctor’s time for no good reason. You’d be surprised at how many there are. A lot of ‘em are lonely, I guess, but that’s what saloons is for.”
Artie was tempted to laugh, but he could tell she was serious and didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
“C’mon, let’s go. Can you – could you walk fast?”
“I could try. Are there any obstructions ahead of me?“
“Anything I might trip over.”
“No, not just yet. Up ahead there’s some old trees and the roots is pushing up, but I’ll tell you before we get there, and anything else that you might stumble over.”
“Let’s go then.” Artie began taking long strides and moving as fast as he comfortably could considering that Victorine was considerably shorter than he.
“Boy, Mr. Gordon, nobody’d ever guess you’ve been a convalescent for the last few weeks.”
It felt so good to really stretch his legs. “I’m training for a walking race,” he laughed.
They were moving too quickly to carry on a conversation. By the time they reached Miss Harker’s, Victorine was nearly out of breath.
Miss Harker was in a rocker on the porch. As they neared, she jumped up and ran to meet them..
“Laws, child, you look as if you’ve been keel-hauled.”
“Mr. Gordon is a faster walker than me.”
“Obviously,” Miss Harker said dryly. “Never seen a blind man move quickly, but I guess there’s a first time for everything.”
“Oh, Miss Harker, we had to hurry! They want to send Mr. Gordon on a train to Washington.”
“So, you’re ready to leave for – where was it? Shack something?”
“Well, let’s get the horses ready,” Miss Harker said, as she walked down the porch steps.
“No, Miss Harker, not this minute. I have to be back at three.”
“Yes,” Artie said impulsively. “Can we do that, Victorine?”
“I... yes!” How exciting! “Do you have a costume for me? Mr. Gordon, what should I wear?”
“Victorine, I only ask that you drop me off nearby.” He was pretty sure that he could remember exactly how to get into town, and was certain that once he got there, it would excite notice.
“Victorine, go back to the cottage. There’s a bin painted yellow – ladies clothing in there,” Miss Harker said. “Mr. Gordon, why don’t you sit on the porch with me?”
She led him to the porch slide, and saw down next to him. Before speaking, she waited until she was certain that Victorine was in the cottage.
“Mr. Gordon, I am a little concerned about your plans. Where you’re going – something tells me it’s very dangerous. I don’t quite know how to say this, but I have a strong feeling... Mr. Gordon, I fear you’re going to your death.”
If you only knew how attractive death seems, Miss Harker. “Miss Harker, I have to go. I have no choice.
“Alright, then” she sighed. “Maybe it’s your time. I just pray Victorine doesn’t get too wrapped up. She’s tough, nothing seems to faze her, but her insides are like shards of broken pottery.”
“I’ll do everything in my power to see that Victorine is back home as soon as possible. She’s only taking me to the outskirts of town, and then she’ll be on her way home. And I will have her draft a letter from me to Washington, instructing them to pay her for her assistance.”
“Mr. Gordon, she won’t leave you until you’ve finished whatever it is you’re going there for. I know her. And I’ve seen how she looks at you.”
“How she looks at me?”
"I’d say she’s rather smitten."
"Oh, no – that’s ridiculous. I’m just another patient passing through."
Miss Harker sighed again. "In any case, Mr. Gordon, you should be prepared to have her go with you the whole way and back. She won’t leave you, that I can assure you, and I know you won’t want to waste whatever time it may take in persuading her to do so."
This was an unexpected wrinkle. If she was really going into Shekinah with him, it would have to be under a false identity. As his daughter? No -- that would require too much of a back story. His servant? That might do it.
Just then Victorine came bounding onto the porch, carrying a white broadcloth waist, with abundant age discoloration, a heavy striped linen skirt, also stained and patched, and a dazzling green silk piano scarf embroidered with a peacock.
"This is all I could find that fits. Mr. Gordon, do you think I could pretend to be – um, something like a paid companion or a servant?”
"Victorine, I asked that you just drop me off. I really don’t need you to come all the way."
"Mr. Gordon, you’re going to cheat me out of this exciting trip?"
"No, Victorine. I’m cheating you out of the possibility of losing your life."
"Better that then this dull nursing job."
"Victorine!" Miss Harker burst angrily.
"Well, it’s true. It is dull! That doesn’t mean I don’t thank Dr. Lumberg for what he’s done, but he oughta know by now, I’m not nurse material. At least not in this awful little village."
Artie saw Miss Harker’s point about not wasting time trying to talk Victorine out of her plans.
"Victorine, I think we’ll succeed if you’ll pay close attention to everything I tell you."
Victorine shot Miss Harker a rebellious smirk. Miss Harker got up and shook her head. "I’ll put your clothes in the wagon, and some blankets. I guess you’ll need a lantern too – I’ll give you one of mine. . There’s feed for the horses there, too, already. And I’ll be filling a couple large bottles with water from the pump. It’s up to you to get the food. The grocer knows to expect you. I told him someone else is taking Mr. Gordon, so don’t let on, or else he’ll give you nothing."
"As long as I put money on the counter, that grocer won’t care who it’s going to feed."
Miss Harker sighed again. Mr. Gordon didn’t know what he was in for.
"Mr. Gordon, we might as well go. We can stop at the grocer’s on the way and have their boy take the food over to Miss Harker’s."
"How far is that?"
"Not far. We don’t have to walk as fast." She could tell Mr. Gordon no longer had it in him. "And what you ought to do, Mr. Gordon, when we get home is to retire to your room. I’ll make certain we get up and out before the sun comes up.“
"Can we talk now? Are there any people about who might hear?"
"Never, Mr. Gordon. Everyone keeps at least fifty paces away from me. I’m the town pestilence."
"Oh, Victorine, that can’t be true," Artie said soothingly.
Victorine ignored this. Mr. Gordon didn’t know anyone in Knowlton other than Dr. Lumberg, David, Miss Harker, and herself. He had no idea that the way Grundig treated her was the same way everyone else did.
"Victorine, you need to understand that once we get into the wagon we’re not Mr. Gordon and Miss Victorine anymore. My name is going to be Lucius Fakiri, you can pick one for yourself."
"Lucius Fakiri? Golly, how did you come up with that?"
"I don’t know – it just sort of struck me. And for yourself, any ideas?"
Victorine was doubtful. Then, a name came to her – one of her friends at Mrs. Clohessy’s. Bella Drozd. She died from a fall – at least that’s what Mrs. Clohessy said. None of the other girls believed it. Poor Bella. So sweet, and so eager to get out and live a different kind of life. Yes, in her memory, Victorine would take on her name.
"I shall be Bella Drozd, is that alright with you?"
"Fine. Now, Victorine, listen carefully: you have to really believe at all times that you are this person. Make up a background for her. Say, she was a pirate’s daughter from Zanzibar, or whatever you like. Is that something you think you can do?"
“Mr. Gordon, before I came here, I was always pretending I was someone else from somewhere else. All the time.”
That declaration sounded a little bitter.
“This is it, Mr. Gordon. Why don’t you take a seat?” Victorine led him to the bench outside the general store, then sat and removed her shoe.
“Aren’t you going in?”
“Mr. Gordon, I have to get my money – he don’t extend credit, at least not to me.” Whispering, she continued, “I keep my paper money in my shoe, under the lining.”
“Back in Chicago, many’s the time someone tried to rob me, but they never got nothing,” she boasted.
“You’re from Chicago?”
“Uh huh. I’m going in now, be out before you know it.”
Artie was so engrossed in his thoughts he barely noticed when someone approached him.
“Mister, you oughtn’ta spend too much time with that gal,” said the reedy voice.
“No? Why not?”
“You’re staying at Dr. Lumberg’s, right?”
“Well, damn that Lumberg, an’ you can tell ‘em I said so. This is a decent town for decent people. That gal, she ain’t decent. Maybe a blind man couldn’t figure that out, but we think you oughta know. And you can tell Lumberg something else: we’re not gonna put up with it much longer. The next one he decides to salvage, she’s gonna get run outta town on a rail, ya hear?”
“Duly noted,” Artie said evenly.
“You’re not from around here, are ya, fella?”
“Then where are ya from?” The voice sounded somewhat hostile.
“What does it matter?”
“’What does it matter?’ Oh, you’re funny, you are – get up.”
“Aw, Abe, the fella’s blind – don’t be such a bully. Let’s go.” The voice came from a distance, maybe across the street.
“Uh uh – I don’t like how he answered me. C’mon, fella get up!” The man picked up Artie’s cane, broke it over his knee, and threw it aside where it landed on Artie’s right foot. “Now that’s what I’m gonna do with your neck – GET UP!”
Without thinking Artie got up. The man was close enough that Artie could feel the man’s hot breath on his chest, which gave him a good idea of his height. After a split-second of calculation, he kneed the man in the crotch with as much force as he could. The man dropped to his feet, but was close enough that Artie was able to kick him onto his back. He then picked up a piece of the cane, fell onto the man’s chest, and pressed the cane against his throat.
“What was it you were going to do to my neck, Abe?”
“I – I didn’t mean nothin’ by it, I was just havin’ a little fun with you.”
“Good. Now I’m going to have a little fun.” Artie pressed harder.
The man struggled and screamed. A few of the townspeople rushed over to see what was going on, and soon Artie felt a pair of hands pulling him up.
There was a cacophony of voices. “That runt, pickin’ on somebody who can’t even see...” “Aw, he’s alright.” “Ha! Brought down by a blind man!” “Maybe he ain’t blind.” “Nah, he’s blind. I seen him out yesterday or the day before.” “C’mon Abie, on your feet.”
The pair of hands were still on his shoulders and pushed him roughly back onto the bench. The crowd sounded like they were beginning to move away. Abe hollered curses in Artie’s direction, until he was shushed for doing so in the presence of ladies.
Victorine had witnessed all this, terrified, from the cool shadows of the store. Finally, the crowd scattered, and she came out to see Mr. Gordon seated, his head down, his hands wrapped around what remained of his cane.
“Oh, Mr. Gordon, I’m so sorry I left you alone. Were you hurt?”
“Not at all... not at all.”
She put her arm around him to help him up, and felt his heart pounding.
“You really surprised me, Mr. Gordon. I wouldn’t think you would be able to do what you did – I mean, being blind and all, “ she whispered.
“Neither would I. It was just a matter of impulse, and I was carried along with it, I guess.
“He deserved it. He’s always looking to beat somebody up, anybody he thinks he has the advantage over. Angry little midget is what he is – his brothers are all real tall, but he’s only about my height. Short men are always a little angry, I think.”
Dr. Loveless, Exhibit A.
“Well, Mr. Gordon, this time tomorrow, we’ll be miles away. I cannot wait.”
“Victorine, this is not going to be fun and games. We’re going to a very dangerous place. I wish you’d just drop me off like I requested.”
“Who’s going to help you get from place to place there? Who’s going to take care of you if you get sick? You can’t fool me, you know. I see how tired you get. When somebody tires easily they can sick easily.
“Let’s just see how it goes, then.” There’s not much out there in the wilderness to interest a young lady. Maybe if she gets bored enough, she’ll relent.
Finally Victorine and Artie came in through the waiting room door to find Mrs. Shelley knitting. From the sound of the needles clacking together, it was apparent that she was angry.
“Victorine, I’ve been waiting nearly an hour for you. Where have you been?”
“Mrs. Shelley, your appointment wasn’t until three o’clock and it’s only – “ She paused to look at the wall clock. “It’s only twenty-five minutes to three. Why did you come so early?”
“Why did I come so early?? Why weren’t you here? Isn’t this where you’re employed?”
“I’m asking the questions, missy.”
“Mrs. Shelley, I’ll be with your shortly. I have to take my patient to his room.”
“Shortly! If I don’t see you back here in five minutes, Dr. Lumberg will hear of it.”
“Yes, Mrs. Shelley,” Victorine replied glumly.
As they mounted the back stairs, Victorine muttered “Some job this is.” Then it struck her that she didn’t know what Mr. Gordon did for a living. She understood that the goal of the trip was to look for a co-worker, but what he and the co-worker did were a mystery to her. “Mr. Gordon, which kind of work do you do?” When you were brought in David went through your clothes looking for identification and found something about the government, he said.”
“I’m – I was – an agent of the U. S. Secret Service.”
“What sort of job is that? What do they have you do?”
“Lots of things, but it can be summed up as going after anyone who poses a threat to the stability of the government.”
“So that’s why it’s secret, right?” Victorine was unable to hide her excitement.
“And you’ve met some dangerous people?”
“Plenty of them.”
“Ooh, can you tell me about some of them?”
“Sure - maybe later.”
“Why not now? I’d love to hear about a job that has nothing to do with grumpy women.”
“I can’t tell you now because there’s a grumpy woman waiting for you downstairs. Is this my room, number 3?” Artie had been running his hand along the walls, and when he came to a door, he felt around for a something that would indicate the room number.”
“No, you’re in room 1. Right here.” She opened the door. All the furniture - the bed, the chair, the table and the chest of drawers had all been moved to one wall - in order to make it easier for him to make his way around. On the opposite wall were hooks for clothing.
“Now, you really must rest up. I’ll bring up your supper when it’s ready.”
Artie didn’t feel all that tired, but undressed and stretched out on the bed anyway. It was easier to make plans when he was relaxed. But before he knew it he was asleep, dreaming he was in a wagon traveling through a small town. The wagon pulled to a stop outside of which looked like a junk shop. In the doorway stood a veiled woman dressed a white robe, beckoning him to come in. The shop was poorly lit, and everything in it was dusty. Indeed it was almost impossible to discern what the store was selling, so thick was the dust. The only pristine item was an old book with a beautiful leather binding, entitled Magick and Method. The woman handed the book to him, saying, “You need this.” When he reached for his billfold, she waved it away. “You only pay if you do not read the book.”
I only pay if I don’t read the book? “If I don’t read it, what is the price?” he asked.
“Your partner’s life.”
Artie backed out of the shop and got back into the wagon. After placing the book on his lap he opened it, but the pages were blank. Every one. How am I supposed to read a book with blank pages?
He called out to the woman, “I can’t read this.”
There was no answer. Then he turned, and saw the woman sitting next to him in the wagon. “Then someone will read it to you. It must be read.”
“Can you read it to me?”
He could see through the veil that she was smiling.
“You won’t read it?” If I don’t read it – or have it read to me – Jim loses his life, but I can’t read it and she won’t. “Why won’t you read it?”
“You must pursue. Wisdom will call you, it will not pursue you.”
Huh? “Who are you?”
“I am Wisdom.”
Artie awoke. He hadn’t yet gotten used to waking up in darkness, so when he did he’d first assume it was the middle of the night, even if he’d been dozing for a only few minutes. The house was very quiet, so perhaps he’d slept a very long time. Or maybe it was late afternoon and the staff was having tea in the garden. How could he tell? Nothing was easy anymore.
He dressed, then remembered his cane was broken. Maybe if he walked very slowly, he’d be alright. He wasn’t sure where the staff’s rooms were, but if he walked these hallways, he might have a better idea of whether they were in or not. He was reluctant to go downstairs. There seemed to be a lot of furniture down there and maybe even some valuables. He shuddered at the thought of accidently tripping and breaking something.
He walked gingerly into the hallway and turned to the left, his left hand feeling around the walls. The first door he came to felt narrow – maybe a supply closet. There was no number in the spot where the other doors had numbers. Yes, definitely a closet. He continued on.
“Mr. Gordon – one more step and you’d have plunged down the stairs, probably getting your neck broken. Oh, thank God I was here to stop you!”
“Victorine, what time is it?”
She took him by the arm and led him back to his room. “It’s a little before eleven. I’m sorry you missed your supper. Why don’t you sit tight and I’ll heat it up and bring it here for you.”
“Thank you.” Until now, he hadn’t realized how hungry he was.
“Or do you want to eat downstairs?”
“Whatever’s easiest for you.”
Victorine smiled. “You’re really are one of a kind, Mr. Gordon. If everybody was as nice, I’d almost like this job. Let’s go down to the kitchen – ooh, then we can take it out to the garden. This rich lady, Mrs. Osgood, gave the doctor some fancy garden lanterns. This’ll be fun.”
* * *
She put the plate in front of Artie, and handed him the utensils and a napkin.
“Don’t take a bite yet – I have a little surprise.”
The plate smelled of fish, trout maybe, potatoes and, of course, spinach. The cook, bless her heart, had tried to cook it a number of different ways, but it always came out tasting like spinach.
Victorine came back with two wine glasses and a bottle.
“Mr. Gordon, we have some wine. Dr. Lumberg loves it – he orders it once a year from New York and they send crates and crates. This kind is malbec.”
“Are we allowed to drink his wine?”
“Of course. He’s of the opinion that wine is good for you.”
She filled his glass and handed it to him. “Would you like to make a toast, Mr. Gordon?”
“To a very nice nurse,” he smiled.
“Thank you,” she said with pleasure. Sitting in a pretty garden sharing a glass of wine with a real gentleman. She’d never have believed such a thing would ever happen. “I thought perhaps you might toast our upcoming adventure.”
“Victorine, I wish you would – “
Don’t say it.
That voice again, speaking into his head. Alright, so he wouldn’t ask her again to reconsider staying alongside him in Shekinah.
“You wish I would what, Mr. Gordon?”
“Oh, nothing. Don’t you think Dr. Lumberg will be very upset when he finds you missing?”
“No, I don’t think so,” she said airily. “Right after supper, I sat down and wrote a long letter saying I’m taking you, and that I will be back once you’ve found your friend. He owes me vacation, anyhow. I’ve worked every single day that he has hours since I got here. I’m glad to work, but David gets vacation. I should, too.”
“Victorine, as I told you before, this isn’t going to be fun.”
Mr. Gordon, if you only knew – there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for you. “You said earlier you’d tell me about some of the dangerous people you’ve met.”
He began talking about Loveless – he was sure she’d find him the most interesting. Anyone would.
Victorine was fascinated. His stories were so far beyond her own experiences they might well have been fairy tales. “Tell me about the one you’re going back to Shekinah for.”
“He’s my partner – was my partner. James West. We’ve worked together for a few years now. When I was taken out of Shekinah, he was left behind.”
“What does he look like?”
“Brown hair, blue-green eyes, wiry build. Younger than me. Women find him to be very good-looking,” he smiled. “By the way, what do you look like?”
“Nothing special. Dishwater blonde hair, pointy chin, pointy nose, high cheekbones, gray eyes.”
“Nothing special? Why, that’s the very definition of beauty!”
Victorine giggled happily.
As soon as Artie was through eating, she did a few last minute things, then led him out of the front door. The walk to Mrs. Harker’s seemed to take only a fraction of the time it had before.
On Mrs. Harker’s front door a note was posted, which read:
“Victorine, the wagon and horses are ready, and all the supplies are there. Food was delivered yesterday afternoon. There is also a cane for Mr. Gordon. I did hear what happened yesterday. Your clothing is put out in the cottage.
Abner and I extend very best wishes for a safe return. Our prayers are with you.
Victorine read the note aloud to Artie, after which they walked back to the cottage. His clothing was draped over a chair, her’s hung from a rack. She was about to look around for a private place to change her clothing, then stopped and laughed.
“Something funny?” Artie asked.
“Hmm?” She’d laughed because she’d realized that there was no need to dress in private – she could have been standing right in front of him in her altogether and he wouldn’t have known the difference. However, it would have been cruel, she thought, to tell him why she laughed.
“I thought I heard you laugh.”
“Laugh? No – I think maybe hinges on the door need to be oiled.”
“Oh. Uh – do you know anything about Abner?”
“Sure do. He’s long dead, supposedly of a gunshot wound. The story is he was Miss Harker’s beau, and they were going to get married, but her family didn’t think he was good enough, so they hired somebody to kill him. I don’t know if that’s the truth, but that’s what I heard. I think Miss Harker lost her mind over it. She got most of it back, but not all I don’t think.”
So he is dead.
Once both were costumed, Victorine led Artie out to the wagon and reached out to help him up.
“Victorine, when we find Mr. West, you must not tell him it’s me. That’s very, very important.” While Jim and he had taken care of one another’s wounds and injuries dozens of times, his condition wasn’t something that could be fixed with a tourniquet and a stiff drink, and Artie was horrified at the thought of being an object of pity.
“We’re out just in time – the sun’s should be coming up in another couple hours! If everything goes the way it should, we’ll be in Abilene this time tomorrow.”
Artie said nothing. Abilene tomorrow, Shekinah the next day, and then? If Jim was still there, under what conditions? Drunk? Ill? Had he perhaps lost his mind, and become an apprentice? Or was the Magus serious about sacrificing him?
He was certain that what the Magus termed “sacrifice” was nothing more or less than murder. Dozens had sought Jim’s life over the years, most notably Loveless, but none had been successful. So far though, the Magus had succeeded with Jim. And may have killed him already. That line about “the two moons hence” – did he mean two new moons, or two full moons?
Victorine made a few attempts at conversation, but Artie was too busy thinking about what he might need to do, and how to go about it. After awhile, she gave up.
Several hours later they pulled into a small town. Victorine jumped down, and led the horses to a water trough, then put their feedbags on them.
“Mr. Gordon, would you like some lunch now?”
“Huh? Oh, lunch – sure.
Victorine climbed into the back of the wagon, then shrieked curses.
“Victorine, what’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong? This –“ She waved a piece of paper in the air before reading aloud what was written on it. “‘Roses are red, violets are blue, the meat is rancid, but perfect for you.’ I unwrapped the meat – I could have wretched. There’s just a few cans of vegetables, and a loaf of stale bread.” She began to cry as she threw the meat out of the wagon onto the street. A dog came up and sniffed at it, then walked away.
“I told them what I wanted, and I paid them for it, and this is what they give me! I paid them!”
“Don’t cry, Victorine. Is there anywhere around here to get food?”
“I don’t know,” she choked through her sobs. “Anyway, I only brought with me five dollars. I thought that would be more than enough. If I have to go out and buy more food that might be another dollar or more, and then if there’s an emergency, maybe I won’t have enough.”
“I wasn’t hungry anyway,” Artie lied. “Why don’t you look around and just get something for yourself?”
Victorine sobbed even louder, which excited the notice of a woman walking by.
“Oh, it can’t be that bad, dear. Why are you crying?”
The woman was beautifully dressed. Just the sort of person who’d amuse herself by reminding Victorine that she was dirt.
“Miss, is there anything I can do?” The lady noticed that the crying girl was accompanied by a blind man. What a sad picture this was. She came nearer and reached out for Victorine’s hand.
“Dear, if you’ll just stop crying and tell me what’s wrong, perhaps I can help.”
Victorine shook her head and continued to weep. The woman walked to where Artie sat.
“Sir? I know it’s none of my business, but if you two need help, I’d be more than happy to assist.”
The warmth in her voice was unmistakeable.
“Thank you, ma’am. The food that was bought for our trip is not what was expected. Turns out it’s rancid.”
“Good heavens, is that all? Why, that’s not worth crying over. My home is just a short distance away. If you’re willing, I would count it a kindness if you’d join me for lunch, and allow me to give you some food for your trip.”
Victorine looked suspiciously at the woman. When was she going to start making fun of her?
The woman was confused by the girl’s expression. “I’m so sorry to have intruded, but if you do need help–“
“We’d be very grateful, ma’am.” Artie burst in. He could tell something about this woman bothered Victorine. “Victorine, do we have room on the seat for this nice lady?”
“Uh... yes. Ma’am, do you wanna ride with us?”
“I could give you directions, but if this is easier–“
“It is easier,” Artie said quickly. He extended his arm, she took it and pulled herself next to him on the seat.
* * *
The house was mighty fancy, and had a carriage house larger than most entire homes in Chicago. There were two grooms, and another fella supervising. This Miss Thora Copley must be even richer than the richest person in Knowlton, so she was probably gonna give Victorine an even harder time than those people did.
“Dinah, we’ve two guests for lunch today – a Mr. Gordon, and a Miss – I’m sorry dear, what is your last name?”
“It don’t matter, Miss Copley. I’m just Victorine.”
“Oh, and a Miss Victorine. Dinah, when you’re through, could you pack up a hamper with some food? Our guests are traveling and are in need of whatever you can provide.”
Smiling at her guests, Thora lead them out to the porch were lunch would be served. A moment later Dinah called her into the kitchen. “I’ll be back in just a moment,” she said.
“Miss Thora, you bring two gypsies into your father’s house? He’d be awful disappointed in you. Probably we’ll have a heck of a time getting rid of them, and even if we do, you know they’re gonna try to steal something.”
“Dinah, I don’t believe they’re gypsies, and even if they were, they’re human beings, and they’re hungry. I’ll thank you not to make judgments.” Before leaving the kitchen she took a pitcher of lemonade and three tumblers on a tray.
* * *
“Here we are – Mr. Gordon, would you like some lemonade?”
“I would, ma’am, thank you.”
“No thank you,” she replied sullenly. Any minute this lady would insult her, she was certain.
“Our lunch out to be out any minute now – it’s just vegetable soup and cheese sandwiches. I’m in the process of closing the house pursuant to selling it, and so we don’t have a lot on hand.”
“This is a nice house,” Victorine objected. “How come you’re selling?” If I had something like this I’d never let it go.
“This is my father’s house, I have my own home in Baltimore – I’m an instructor at the Abbott School. My father has... died, and there’s nothing in this town for me any longer.”
“Oh.” At least you had a father. Victorine was told that one of the steady customers was her father, but which one differed according to her mother’s mood. Sometimes it was the big red-headed teamster, other times it was the swarthy man who worked as a bookie, or that older swell who’d come in dead drunk, and looking to find a woman he could beat up.
“I’m so sorry, Miss Copley.” From the way she spoke, it seemed to Artie that she wasn’t certain her father was dead.
“So where is it you two are going?”
“I’m going to a little town called Shekinah, I have business there. Victorine has agreed to take me there.”
“No, you can’t go there! My father — I’m sorry, Mr. Gordon, but you must listen to me. The populace follows this character – I forget what he calls himself, but the truth is he’s just a cold-blooded killer. My father traveled there with some colleagues – he was a social scientist and was working on a book on some of the more unique settlements in the country. His colleagues – the three of them barely made it through and my father... Two of the men have experienced mental breakdowns, sadly. The third claims to have seen... “ Suddenly, Thora was overcome. “I’m sorry – I ....” She attempted to pull herself together, then continued. “Mr. Gordon, what is this business you have there?”
“I was an employee of the U. S. Secret Service. My partner may still be there, which is why I’m going back, but I’m going back in the guise of someone else, hence these clothes. ”
“Back! You mean you’ve been there already??”
“Yes. I wouldn’t go back unless I had to. But rest assured, Miss Copley, as soon as Washington gets my – our – report, the town will be shut down and the leader will be brought up on charges.“
“Mr. Gordon, is Shekinah where you lost your eyesight?” she asked gently.
“Not exactly, but it was the end result of my visit.”
Before Thora had a chance to ask further questions, Dinah came out with the lunch tray and conversation ceased, except for mild pleasantries about the food.
At the end of the meal, the wind was rising and the air began to feel moist.
“Oh, dear, we may be due for a storm. Would you two like to repair to the parlor? Sometimes these storms last for hours and hours. If it doesn’t stop, would you like to stay the night?”
“Could we?” Victorine asked. This was the fanciest place she’d ever seen, and so far the lady hadn’t said anything mean.
“I don’t think we should – we really need to get where we’re going as soon as possible,” Artie objected.
“Mr. Gordon, I wish–“ Thora stopped, since Dinah was once again calling her back to the kitchen.
Victorine wandered the parlor. There was a pile of dusty books on the piano, and she found herself drawn to them. The dust was so thick on most that it was impossible to read the titles. Oddly, there was one with no dust on it – a thick book with a fancy black leather binding entitled Magick and Method. She took it to the divan and opened it.
“Victorine, what are you doing?” Artie had heard her move something.
“I got a book – ooh, this is a strange one. Pictures of devils and monsters in it. It’s called Magick and Method. That lady don’t seem like the type of person who’d have something like this. Mr. Gordon?” He had a very strange expression on his face.
Thora re-entered the room. “Oh, I see you have one of Father’s books. I’m not sure what to do with them all. I’m thinking maybe a university library might like them, but which university I’ve no idea. Let’s see which one you have.” Victorine showed her the cover.
“That one’s a real rarity. Something disturbing about it though – I’d gladly burn it.”
“Could we have it?” Artie asked.
“Certainly – but why does it interest you?”
“Because, Miss Copley, I had a dream last night and a book by that title was in the dream.”
Both Victorine and Thora stared at him.
“That very title, Mr. Gordon?”
“My goodness, that’s fascinating. The book as I understand it is about devil worship and magical spells, that sort of thing. I don’t believe in any of that, but according to what I’ve been told, the head man in Shekinah does, so maybe there’s something in the book that you could use in dealing with him.”
“I think so, ma’am. The dream was oddly specific.”
Dinah entered the room, wiping her hands on her apron. “Miss Thora, I filled up the hamper – leftover biscuits from this morning, and a few things from the garden, and some of those potatoes Mr. Earl brought over the other day. I put it in their wagon already.”
“I wish there was something I could say to talk you out of this, but I know there isn’t. I do admire you though, for having the courage to go back,” Thora said resignedly.
“Thank you for all your help, Miss Copley”
“Thora,” she said has she took Artie’s hand. “When you leave Shekinah, could you possibly write me? I’ll just scribble down my address and give it to Miss Victorine.”
“Yes, I’ll be happy to do that… if I can.”
Thora walked them to the carriage house. Victorine carried the book. Once the wagon was brought out by one of the grooms, the three of them stood by it uncomfortably.
“It seems that the storm has been adverted. Funny how that happens sometimes. Well, I wish you both a speedy return to – oh my, I didn’t even ask where you’re from!”
“I live down in Knowlton, Miss Copley,” Victorine said.
“And you, Mr. Gordon?”
“For several years I’ve been rolling around the country in a train, but I guess after this I’ll be going to Annapolis – I bought a house there last year.”
“How wonderful! That’s not far from Baltimore -- perhaps we can visit some time.”
“I’d like that,” Artie replied, a little uncertainly. She’s a lovely person, but even if I do survive Shekinah, she’ll have forgotten all about me by then.
“I suppose I’m holding you up. Well –“ Thora embraced Victorine, and then Artie. The last time a woman embraced him, that woman was Anna. But this felt good – he quickly realized how much he missed physical contact, and he hugged back.
“I’ll keep you both in my prayers,” Thora said as the wagon pulled away.
“What a nice lady,” Victorine said wonderingly.
“Yes, indeed,” Artie replied. “What does she look like?”
“Reddish brown hair, hazel eyes, very fair, real nice teeth – real nice. I would say she’s pretty – a lot of freckles, but pretty.”
“Victorine, do you think you could read the book to me?”
“Read you the book? Right now?”
“Can you put the reins down? This road seems to be very even – it is, isn’t it?”
“It is, yes.” Victorine bought the wagon to a stop, and went in the back to retrieve the book.
Just before dusk, Victorine had gotten to a chapter that described how one intended to be sacrificed to the Dark Angel may save himself.
“Victorine, can you read that passage just one more time?”
“Again? Mr. Gordon this’ll be at least the tenth time – are you trying to memorize it?”
“Just one more time, Mr. Gordon – it’s getting almost too dark to read. ‘At dusk lay ye down a tablecloth. Around the tablecloth is a rope held by stakes. Kneel in the center, face the East and meditate. On no account must though sleep for not even one blink of the eyelids, lest in that fleeting moment the Enemy come and slay thee. Though shalt continue mediating without a break until the morn when thy life shall be spared.’”
“Thank you. Where are we now?”
“I wouldn’t know. The last town we passed was a long time ago. I’m guessing we’re a little ways from Abilene. Do you want to keep going or do you want to stop for the night?”
She’s probably pretty tired by now. If Abilene isn’t far, that means we can be in Shekinah by tomorrow afternoon. “Victorine, is this a good place to stop?”
“Good as any, I guess. We’re in the middle of a pine forest, so at least the ground should be comfortable – not so grassy and buggy. Maybe I can put a meal together for us.”
“Let’s stop then.”
Victorine removed the blankets from the wagon and spread them on the ground, then lit the two lanterns. Then came the hamper. She stared into it, trying to think of a way to make a meal of its contents. Then she remembered that the canned foods were still in the wagon. There were a few tins of meat – maybe she could make some kind of stew with the potatoes.
She opened the can and emptied the contents into the saucepan that Miss Harker had left for them, then added cut-up potatoes and celery that had come from Miss Copley. After stirring it awhile, she cried out “Damn!”
“Mr. Gordon, I don’t know how to build a fire.”
“Oh, it’s easy. You just... We don’t have anything to burn, do we?”
“Not that I can see. No dead wood around here.”
“Let’s eat it cold then. Who wants a hot meal in August?”
“If you’re sure....” For some reason, she thought he’d be mad at her.
The biscuits were slightly stale, but were far more palatable than the cold stew.
Victorine watched him silently. He had barely eaten before he dumped the plate over.
“You’re not hungry?”
“No, I guess not. I mean, I thank you for preparing it, it’s just that –“
“The canned meat is awful, and I don’t know how to build a fire, and –“
Artie smiled. At least she’d tried, he had to give her that. “You did your best – at least we won’t starve.”
“You smiled! All this time, you’ve seemed very tense and morose.”
“I’ll make the effort to be better company – you deserve it.”
“You know, I could help you.” Her voice sounded much warmer with this declaration than it usually did.
“I don’t think so – anyway, you’ve done more than enough already. As soon as you see the first granite building, I want you to kick me off the wagon, and for you to race back to the hospital as soon as you can.”
Victorine laughed. “I don’t think you understand.” She moved closer to him and put her hand on his knee.
I sure do. “Victorine, how old are you?”
She laughed again. “Older than you are.”
“I very much doubt that.”
“Maybe not in years, but in terms of life experience,.” she quickly replied.
“Really?” he chuckled These young girls were so silly – their juvenile little dramas always seemed to them to be so staggeringly important to them.
“Look at it this way, Mr. Gordon. When you were a boy of nine, you spent your time in school learning about Christopher Columbus and multiplication tables, and afterwards playing in the fields with your friends and your faithful dog – am I right?”
“Close enough. I had two pet crows, I didn’t get a dog ‘til later.”
“I only went to school long enough to learn how to read and add and subtract. When I was nine I began to work in our – well, I can’t think up a nice name for it. My mother auctioned off my virginity and got $250 for it. Now if I was blind like you, she could have gotten at least ten times that. I don’t know why, but men fight over the blind girls.”
Artie’s expression turned to repulsion.
“I see I’ve shocked you. So I suppose that proves I’m older than you.” She moved her hand up his thigh.
“How old are you really?”
“Seventeen the end of next month.”
Artie removed her hand from his leg.
“Oh, brother, you don’t know what you’re passing up, Mr. Gordon.”
“I think I do,” he said gravely.
“You think I’m ridden with disease, I bet.”
“No, Victorine. It’s that you’ve probably been taken advantage by men your whole life, and I don’t intend to add my name to the list.”
“You just don’t know what you’re missing,” she replied, now offended.
“I’m sorry, Victorine. Maybe when you’re older, you’ll understand.”
“Ugh – you’re just like David.”
Both were silent for some minutes, then Victorine spoke again.
“That token you were so worried about losing – what was that all about?”
“Just a momento,” he said quietly.
“Something to do with a romance, I bet. Let me guess: your first love, carried off at age fourteen by consumption. Her dying wish was that you get her little trinket.”
He shook his head.
“Um... a daughter of high society – she dallied with you, but dropped you to marry the man her parents chose for her.“
“You were left at the altar? It must be something like that, something very dramatic.”
“She was murdered – poisoned.”
Victorine gasped. “Goodness gracious, Mr. Gordon – I’m awful sorry. Did they find out who did it?”
“And did he get the death penalty?”
“Um... when was this?” She really wanted to ask what the motive was, if any, but she didn’t have the nerve.
“It’ll be a year in a little over in ten days. September 5.”
“Oh, how tragic. The lady you love gets killed and less than a year later you go blind.”
Artie smiled sadly. He guessed that, in Victorine’s mind, this was the plot of a tear-jerker in a women’s magazine. The happy ending would be that his sight would return and his lady love would come back to him, having not been poisoned at all – she would have disappeared to take an emergency trip to the Continent to claim an enormous inheritance from an uncle she barely knew. It would have been her identical twin who’d been poisoned, a wicked, selfish woman who deserved it.
“You know, you’re awful handsome when you smile. Gosh, I never thought I’d say that! You looked perfectly horrid when they first brought you in – I can’t remember seeing anyone who looked worse. But I bet if you were shaven and had your hair slicked back nice, and wore a nice suit, you’d really be something.”
“Nice to know I haven’t completely lost my good looks.”
* * *
They were one the road again shortly before dawn. A few hours later they came through Abilene, where they picked up a few supplies, and had a proper meal at a boarding house. Once back on the road, Artie again became tense, hiding it rather badly.
“Once we come back, I want to ask Doctor Lumberg if –“
“Victorine, I’m trying to think – can you be quiet?” At first, he found her constant babbling rather charming, but it had begun to get on his nerves.
“I can be all kinds of things,” she said sharply, in an attempt to hide her hurt feelings. “I guess now, I’m just a bother.”
Artie sighed inwardly. It was never a good idea to try to shut up a woman.
The trip was silent for the next few hours.
Victorine finally spoke. “This is boring.”
“I can promise that pretty soon you won’t be bored in the least.”
“Huh – seems like the wagon is shaking a little. Wonder what’s wrong.”
Get out of the wagon.
Again that voice. “Victorine, let’s get out and walk some.”
Victorine brought the horses to a stop, and jumped down from the seat. Mr. Gordon can help himself down.
Realizing that he wasn’t going to get assistance, Artie carefully stepped down and felt his way to the other side of the wagon. As he walked, he felt a faint vibration under his feet. Oh no, not the disappearing horses again.
“Victorine – Victorine?” He thought he’d reached where she was but he was wrong. He moved forward and bumped into her. She was shaking.
“Oh, Mr. Gordon – I wish you could see! There’s horses coming this way – hundreds and hundreds. What are we going to do??”
“We’re not going to do anything. Just relax.”
“Relax? We’ll be killed!” At that moment, the two horses pulling the wagon ran off, the wagon bouncing from side to side behind them. Victorine began to cry.
Artie put his arms around her. “Victorine, this happened the first time I came to Shekinah. The same vision of horses, the same noise, the same everything. And then they faded away.”
“I don’t believe you – we’re gonna die out here!” she said as she pounded on his chest. “You brought me out here to die!” She pushed him away and ran off.
Ten minutes later the sounds and vibrations began to dissipate. Artie knew she had run from him, but not how far. When the horses finally disappear, she'll come back for me.
Victorine was still shaking in terror. The horses were gone, but what was next? Maybe she'd died and gone to hell like some people said she would. Maybe Mr. Gordon wasn't all that he seemed - maybe he had lured her here. How did he know the horses were going to go away?
"Victorine, where are you? The horses are gone now, aren't they?"
The wagon come rolling back, and the horses stopped alongside him. He reached up to pat the closest horse.
"You alright buddy?" He could feel that the horse appreciated the attention - it was starting to relax. "Why don't you tell me where your boss is? Is she close by?"
The horse snorted.
"In English, please." Artie continued to pet the horse. It made him feel calmer as well.
"Victorine?" She has to come back -- if she doesn't she'll die out here. And sooner or later, so will I.
* * *
The Magus stopped in the midst of his meditations. Someone was coming to town - someone he hadn't called. Strange. Many had stumbled on the place on their way to somewhere else, but none had come intentionally unless called. There was no threat in this vibration. It must be some fool who read the magazine article.
He was not looking forward to this distraction. Within hours the Spirit would come for West, and still Gordon had not returned. Worse yet, the Magus was still unable to reach him. He had spent entire days on his knees attempting to ascertain his vibrations, but got nothing. He must be dead.
He rose, and walked to where West was held. It was a cloudy day, and there was the scent of moisture in the air. Almost certainly a storm was coming, and at this time of year they were particularly violent, which played havoc with his ability to reach the universal mind. The storms carried their own vibrations which caused others to go haywire.
What a disappointment this has been. Two perfect examples, and the rarer of the two disappears. I should have found way to harm him that would bring about what I wanted without killing him.
West was lying on the bed, his eyes open, his face very pale. A tray of uneaten food was on the floor.
"You don't look well, Mr. West."
Once again, it seems as if the Magus had walked through the wall.
"Would you care to elaborate? Have you a pain?"
"I need a drink." As badly as he wanted one, he felt he had to keep the two extra bottles in reserve. He had to.
"Oh, tsk tsk, Mr. West. I told you before that no more alcohol would be forthcoming. But I do have good news for you."
"The only news I'm interested in is that you've decided to give me a bottle of bourbon or two."
"Still so single-minded, Mr. West - alas, it's no longer serving you well, is it? My news is the following: Mr. Gordon is dead."
"He is?" Even though Jim had by now completely turned his back on him, he didn’t enjoy hearing he was dead. "How do you know?"
"I cannot say. But he is, I'm quite sure."
"Uh huh." Probably undertook a mission by himself, and ended up getting shot. If he didn’t have me for a partner all these years, it would have happened a lot sooner. His mind went to the many missions they’d worked on. Many were the times Artie bailed him out. Well, people change. Artie changed.
Jim found his mind going into places he didn’t want to go. His last memory of Artie – trying to mop blood off his arms and chest. If Artie really wanted him dead, would he have done that?
And now he’s dead.
* * *
“Victorine, Victorine – where are you?”
Watching him stumble toward her, Victorine was uncertain as to what she should do. It would be the easiest thing in the world just to walk quietly back to the wagon and take off for Knowlton. But that would mean abandoning a helpless blind man in the wilderness. She couldn’t do that.
Wiping her tears with her sleeve, she answered. “I’m here.”
“Victorine, I’m sorry about what happened – I know this isn’t easy for you. As I said before, all you have to do is drop me off. When you see a small stone house, I’ll get out of the wagon, and you can go home.”
The sight of him melted her heart. He’d always been kind, and they were under unusual stress. He’d done nothing that she wouldn’t have done under the same circumstances. And he did need her.
“Mr. Gordon, why would I be wearing this get-up if I didn’t intend to go the whole way with you?”
She walked toward him and took his outstretched hand. He embraced her tightly, and whispered “Thank you.”
* * *
By late afternoon they had come upon the first house. .
“Mr. Gordon, that sign aways back -- “Shekinah 3 miles” – do you remember it?”
“Why does it have a star? Does Shekinah mean ‘star?’”
“No, Bella. I’m not completely sure what that has to do with it.” His voice had taken on a funny accent.
“Lucius, where are you from?” Victorine giggled.
“Oh, many places - born in Hungary, then to the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush, Greece... many, many places. And you, my servant girl, from where do you hail?”
“I don’t know - I was kidnapped by gypsies when I was an infant. I met you in that alley in Chicago, remember? And then the gypsies sold me to you.”
“Ah, yes – quite a good investment that,” Artie said in what had become a heavy accent.
Artie recognized that they were entering the town from the smell of incense. The whole town, he remembered, smelled of incense. “We’re there, aren’t we?”
“I think so – there are buildings,” Victorine answered.
“Bella, are there people on the street?”
“No, master. No one,” she smiled.
“Capital! Let’s attract some, shall we? Stop the wagon, and get me my cane.”
Artie got out of the wagon, and began to pace the street calling out “All ye who would have wisdom, come ye out! Come ye out and learn the wisdom of the ages! For I am Lucius Fakiri and I know all things!
* * *
After having spent over a month in Shekinah, most of it stuck in this room, this was the first time Jim had heard a loud voice. He couldn’t quite make out what it was saying, though it sounded a little like Artie’s baritone.
Well, I’ll never hear that voice again. Since the Magus reported Artie’s death, Jim could think of nothing else. He felt strangely that maybe – just maybe – he had misjudged him. Artie had bailed him out a number of times – more times than he could count, really. I never thanked him properly and now it’s too late. As he went over his memories of the past several years, the more and more his insides began to ache.
Once I get out, I’ll ask headquarters where he’s buried. The least I can do is lay some flowers on the grave.
SS 1st assignment - desk job
Posted - 08/21/2009 : 08:45:37
| Chapter 6
The Magus heard the loud voice, but was unable to discern the identity of its owner. First I can’t find Gordon, and now I have no idea who is howling out in the street. Was he losing his powers? Or had he angered the Spirit? No, most likely it was something in the natural environment that was interfering with his ability to concentrate.
He donned his red robes and went out to the street. All the apprentices were already out, regarding the visitor with great interest.
“Lucius Fakiri is my name, famed Blind Seer of Budapest, now traveling the United States of America. I know all, may tell all to those of you whose hearts are pure and whose minds are open to receive.”
As the Magus strode purposefully down the middle of the street the apprentices dropped to their knees. The object of interest was a bearded man wearing the smoked spectacles that indicated blindness. Behind him was a wagon drawn by two horses with a young woman at the reins.
“Who are you and why are you here?” the Magus asked angrily. He’d always been extremely careful to hide his emotions, but this time was unable to do so. This worried him.
“I exist to open the eyes of the blind! I am physically blind as you see, but I have learned how to see with the mind. I travel all over the world to teach those who are willing to have their inner eyes – the eyes of the soul -- opened.” Judging by the sound of the humming, Artie was pretty sure the entire population of the town was in the street. “I see with my inner eye that all who live here are here with me. No – no, there is one who. A young man, his name...” Artie rubbed his forehead and pretended he was thinking deeply. “West! Yes, that is his name. John West. Is it John West? Hmmm.” Again he rubbed his forehead. “James! James West!
The Magus was now standing directly in front of him. “Who are you? What are you doing here?” he repeated.
Suddenly Artie knew, although he didn’t know how he knew, that the Magus was Joash Curlin.
“Mr. Curlin? Your servant, sir. Lucius Fakiri, late of Budapest, recently come to the United States of America to share the wisdom of the ages with you and your neighbors.”
The Magus was shocked that this man knew his name.
“Mr. Curlin, where is John – James West?”
“James West? How do you know there’s a James West here?”
“Perhaps you didn’t hear me. I know all things. Including that there is a young man by the name of James West here. And that he is not out with the rest of us. Is he not interested in wisdom?”
The Magus tried to reach into Artie’s mind without success.
“Mr. Curlin – your answer please.”
The apprentices were following this exchange closely. The Magus was an ordinary man by the name of Curlin? Of course West was still here, he was about to be sacrificed.
“My name is not Curlin. Yes, there is a James West here. May I take you to him?”
“And the young lady?”
“My servant, yes, she may come, too. I may need her assistance.”
“Come with me then.”
Victorine drove the horses to the nearest hitching post, then ran to Artie and gave him her arm.
The Magus walked them to one of the nearby buildings, and opened the grate outside. Under was a narrow flight of steps, which meant they had to walk single-file. At the bottom was a small passageway, the end of which opened to the holding room.
Jim was still on the bed. “Now what is it?”
Artie was overjoyed to hear Jim’s voice.
“Mr. West, you have visitors.”
“Great,” Jim mumbled.
“Who are these people?”
“A Mr. Fakiri and – your name, dear?”
“You may call me Miss Drozd,” Victorine said. Mr. Gordon had been right about Mr. West – he was good-looking, or would be once he was cleaned up.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance. Now why don’t you get the hell out of here, and let me rest.” This Fakiri looked the tiniest bit like Artie. He was curious to see what he looked like without the smoked spectacles
“Mr. West will be leaving us soon.”
“Not soon enough, buddy. Not soon enough.” Jim struggled to his feet and went looking for a bottle.
"Mr. West, where did you get more alcohol?”
“Huh? I dunno.”
“Mr. West has become a dipsomaniac I’m afraid, Mr. Fakiri. I’m sure he holds little interest for you in this condition.”
“You’re quite wrong – I’m interested in all things and all people. Mr. West, how have you been spending your time here?”
“Huh? I dunno. Y’know, my partner’s dead.” That thought popped into his head upon hearing Fakiri’s voice. It did sound like Artie, speaking in one of the many accents he used. He took a deep swig of bourbon. “Yep, dead.”
“We’re Secret Service agents –Artemus Gordon was my partner.”
“How do you know he’s dead?”
At first, Jim didn’t answer. “The Magus told me. He would know.”
“The Magus? Who is this Magus?” Artie asked.
Jim took another deep swig, then pointed. “That’s him. Told me Artie’s dead.”
“Mr. Curlin told you that?. I’m not sure that’s the case, Mr. West.” Artie lowered his head and rubbed his temples. “No, it seems to me that Artemus Gordon is living, but has left the Service.”
“He is? He has?” asked Jim with surprise
“Mr. Fakiri, what do you know of Artemus Gordon?” the Magus asked suspiciously.
“What do I know of Artemus Gordon? As much as I know of you or of anyone, Mr. Curlin.”
“Curlin?” Jim asked. That name sounds familiar.
Mr. Fakiri, as I said, that is not my name. Let us go then,” the Magus said, attempting to hurry Artie and Victorine out of the room. “I hope you’ll stay at our caravansary – I would be happy to direct you there now.”
“Not yet, Mr. Curlin. I’d like to stay and speak with Mr. West. Or – could we take him with us? I would like to speak to you as well.”
“Why does this man interest you so?”
“Everyone interests me, sir. However, it seems that Mr. West is more interesting than many others I have met thus far in the United States of America.”
He’s blind and the girl is no threat – I might as well let them have West for a little while. “Yes, take him with you. Mr. West, Mr. Fakiri would like to spend some time with you. On your feet, let’s go.”
Jim, carrying both bottles, shuffled behind Artie and Victorine.
“And when may I meet with you, Mr. Curlin?”
“When you’ve had your fill of Mr. West, there will be an apprentice to take him back here. At that time, I will speak with you.”
“Thank you, Mr. Curlin.”
“Fakiri – I warn you, do not refer to me by that name again.”
“Alright, Mr. Curlin. And thank you for allowing me to spend some time with Mr. West.”
The Magus successfully contained his rage, and led them out. Jim got up on the wagon beside Victorine after which the Magus pointed out the caravansary in the distance.
“The seventh room from the left will be ready for you.”
As soon as the Magus was out of earshot, Jim asked “Fakiri – how did you know that his real name is Curlin?”
“I know all things, Mr. West. I know, for example, that you have been here over a month.”
“Has it been that long??”
“Today is August 25. You came in mid-July, did you not?”
A month? I’ve never been held longer than a couple of days. The Magus says I’m leaving soon – I guess I just have to be patient.
“How have you spent your time here, Mr. West?” If I keep throwing questions at him, maybe he’ll tell me something I can use.
“Not doing much. When Artie disappeared, the Magus holed me up in that room. Before Artie took off ...” Jim remembered the women and getting drunk. Nothing else. “It’s been pretty dull. Not much to say. I’m here, Artie’s dead.
“I say he’s not.”
“If he’s alive, then where is he?” Jim wanted this subject over and done with.
Victorine was having a hard time keeping silent. Mr. Gordon was not only alive, he was sitting only a few feet away from his friend. Maybe if she told Mr. West... Mr. Gordon couldn’t be mad, if it made his friend happy.
Somehow Artie realized what she was thinking. He reached for her hand and said, “Don’t.”
Jim turned his attention toward Victorine. Just a skinny kid, late teens, maybe twenty. Maybe this Fakiri had picked her up off the street somewhere. As young as she was, she had a hard look. Maybe from a rough life. Girls who’ve had a rough life often make good bedmates.
Victorine caught his gaze and moved closer to Artie. Jim had a disconcertingly hungry look in his eyes.
* * *
Outside of the seventh room stood an apprentice. As Victorine brought the wagon to a stop, he hurried toward them and took Artie’s hand.
“Welcome, Mr. Fakiri. The Magus has sent word among us that you are a personage of honor. It will be my pleasure to serve you.”
He was sent to watch me. “Thank you, son, but I have my servant here with me, and I am well-cared for. “
“The Magus insisted I look after you, sir. I must obey.”
“The Magus is the law in Shekinah? Correct me if I am wrong, but I perceive that you are ‘free, white and 21' as the saying goes. You need answer to no man.”
“I have no choice. The Magus –“
“Is a mere man, son. Why are you in thrall to someone who is your equal?”
Shocked, the apprentice replied, “No one is the Magus’s equal.”
“You’re wrong,” Artie persisted. “He is a mere man, no better than you or I.”
Why would the Magus indulge such a person, the apprentice wondered. A day is coming when all the world will bow before him.
Jim, Artie and Victorine went into the room, followed by the apprentice. The room was the same one where Jim and Artie had originally stayed. Artie’s book was still on the floor. By the window a table had been added, on which were trays of food, and a carafe of red wine.
Victorine poured a glass for Artie, but before she could hand it to him, Jim grabbed it.
With a quick movement he took it out of her hand and drank it before Victorine even had a chance to protest.
The apprentice took the carafe. “I must forbid Mr. West alcohol.”
Artie hadn’t realized that the apprentice had come in with them.
“And I must ask you to leave. Tell the Magus I prefer not to have one of his followers spying on me. “
“Out!” Artie roared.
Victorine took the carafe just as the apprentice backed out of the entryway and fled the courtyard.
“Master, something to eat? There’s cold chicken, potatoes, and corn, and a cucumber salad,” Victorine offered.
“Yes – throw it all on a plate and hand me a fork,” Artie said. “Is there a tablecloth?”
“A tablecloth? Oh!” She remembered the significance of a tablecloth. “Yes, there is a tablecloth, master.”
Before he sat down to eat, Artie absently removed the smoked spectacles, and immediately regretted it. If Jim recognized him... He covered his eyes with his right hand while feeling around for them.
“Next to your left foot,” Jim called out. He had taken his plate to a dark corner of the room. It’s nice to be back in the caravansary, but I don’t get these two.
There was no conversation during the meal. At last Jim asked, “What are you doing here, Fakiri?”
“I came for you,” Artie replied with directness.
“For me? What do you mean?”
“I mean, Mr. West, that the Magus has it in mind to kill you.
“No, he said I’m leaving soon. I figure I just gotta wait.”
Jim passive? What has the Magus done to him?? “Mr. West, do you trust me?”
“Huh? I just met you - why are you asking me that?”
“Why indeed. Well, then – let me prove myself. I never met you before, correct?”
“Sure,” Jim answered lazily. This sounds like it’s gonna be a card trick.
“You are an agent of the United States of America Secret Service, you have tangled many times with one Dr. Miguelito Loveless, and also with a Count Manzeppi. You are a West Point graduate, you’re currently under the command of a Colonel Richmond. You have traveled the country in a train provided for you by the United States of America. Do you need me to continue?”
“You could have read all that in the papers.”
“I’m blind, Mr. West.”
“Alright, so how do you plan to rescue me from the Magus?” As if I needed rescuing. Soon enough the Magus is gonna let me leave.
“I prefer to wait until the Magus makes his move.”
“Uh huh.” .
“And until such time as he makes his move you need to stay here with us.”
“In this little room?? You’re crazy.”
As much as Jim had changed, his stubbornness remained. How to go about keeping him in the room?
“Mr. West, will you come sit by me?”
Jim sat on the floor next to him. Victorine watched with interest. The room was small – why didn’t he just have Jim get in the wagon with them, and leave?
“Mr. West, completely empty your mind of thought. Bella, is there anything in here that is shiny?”
“There’s a silver tray here – it’s pretty shiny.”
“Hand it over to Mr. West please.”
She passed it over to him while avoiding his glance. That look he gave her with still with her.
“What’s this for?” he asked.
“Mr. West, empty your mind and fix all your attention on the tray, please.”
Jim did as requested. After a few moments, he felt as if he were somewhere else.
“Mr. West, think back to when you first came to Shekinah. See yourself riding into town with Mr. Gordon. Then when Mr. Gordon decides to knock on doors, and you ride away. And soon you see something that troubles you deeply.”
Artie reached out and touched Jim’s shoulder, which had begun to quiver.
Victorine saw his expression registered sheer terror.
“Mr. West, now do you understand what we’re trying to save you from?” Artie asked.
The tray dropped onto the floor.
“He’s going to sacrifice me, and that damned Artie let it happen! I pleaded with him to leave! I pleaded!”
“It won’t happen,” Artie said, trying to sound calm. “I was sent for you.”
“The universal intelligence communicated to me your plight.”
“But all the other poor saps, where were you when they were being sacrificed?” Jim asked angrily.
“Mr. West, I was sent here to save you. So make yourself at home. I’m going to go speak with the Magus in private.” Artie rose and signaled to Victorine to help him. “We should be back within a few hours, Mr. West. Perhaps even sooner.”
“I’m going to be by myself??”
“Fora short time only, Mr. West. You have my word you’ll be safe.”
“Your word! You’re blind! What are you going to do – fight off anybody who comes to get me sacrificed?”
“No one will carry you off without the Magus’s direction, and he hasn’t given it yet.” I hope. Please relax. Take a nap, if you like. Bella?”
As soon as they were beyond Jim’s hearing, Victorine asked, “Why don’t you tell him?”
“Tell him what?”
“Now is not the right time – not at all. You hear how he talks about Gordon, I don’t think Gordon instantly turning up would be a good thing right now. And if the Magus intends to sacrifice West, more than likely Gordon would be next.”
“Well, when will you tell him?” she pressed.
I won’t. Unless some day when I’ll be able to see again. “When the time is right, Bella. When the time is right.”
“Where do you want me to take you exactly? How do you know where to meet the Magus?” Victorine asked.
“He’s going to meet us,” Artie said confidently.
“You’re so right, Mr. Fakiri.”
The Magus stood stroking his beard. The girl is weak. “Miss – Miss Drozd was it? You’re much too lovely to be dragging a blind man around, dear. Have you ever been to Paris?”
“Oh, my dear, if you were to descend on Paris, the excitement would be something akin to the Second Coming, I believe. Would you like to go to Paris?”
“Um, golly, I sure would.”
Artie realized what the Magus was doing. “Bella, you know that when we return to the Continent, we’ll go through Paris.”
“Do you want to be pulling a blind man through the streets of Paris, when you could be sipping champagne with barons and princes? Answer me, dear.”
“Um. I guess not,” she answered shyly.
The Magus took her hand. “Why don’t you come to my room and we can discuss this.”
“I can’t – I am Mr. …” She almost said ‘Mr. Gordon’s.’ “Mr. Fakiri’s servant. He needs me.”
“Yes, that’s true,” Artie interjected. “Curlin, when are you and I going to sit down and talk?”
The Magus continued to focus his attention on Victorine. “I’m sailing for Paris in a few weeks. I’d like you to join me. Of course, we’ll have to stop in New York first to get you outfitted. You’ll need some ball gowns in addition to traveling clothes.”
Artie felt himself losing his grip on her. “Bella, I don’t believe Mr. Curlin has any intention of taking you to Paris. His honeyed words are a trap.”
“Your jealousy is unbecoming, Mr. Fakiri. Come along, dear.”
Victorine was torn. But this man was promising what she really longed for: excitement. She pushed Artie’s hand off her arm and walked off with the Magus. Immediately, the storm broke, and Artie heard them running as he stood alone in the rain.
Jim had watched this exchange from the doorway, while finishing the carafe of wine. They were beyond the entry to the courtyard, so couldn’t hear the conversation. He wondered why the girl had walked off with the Magus. Fakiri looked pretty sad just standing there getting wet.
Artie turned to where Jim’s voice was coming from.
“Can you follow my voice?”
“Walk straight ahead. Now a little to your left – there are wheel ruts.”
Jim watched until Artie came close-enough to the doorway for him to take his arm.
“I saw that he took the girl. What happened?”
“He lured her away with promises of Paris,” Artie replied in a tired voice
* * *
“And how did you meet Mr. Fakiri, dear?”
“He bought me.”
“He bought you? You and I both know that’s not true.”
The Magus was able to tell she was lying, but was unable to enter her mind, which distressed him.
“It is true! I was owned by gypsies and he bought me from them. I’m not lying.”
The girl is too defiant to make a good apprentice. She’ll only be useful as a sacrifice.
“Mr. Curlin, what day will we be leaving for New York?”
Something inside him snapped. “My name is not Curlin. You will refer to me as Lord, in the third person I am called the Magus!” Then he slapped her.
“How dare you!” Her hand went to her cheek.
“How dare I? I am the Magus. I am the power in this world and will soon reveal this fact openly before all mankind. You should count yourself fortunate to have drawn my attention.”
In a moment he relaxed, smiling and speaking to her in a tender voice. “You’re too young to understand these things. Although I occupy this seat of power over the world. I am lonely. I’m hoping you will take pity on me.”
Victorine was confused. “But are we still going to Paris?”
“I said I’d take you, and I will take you. But only if you tell me this one thing: why Mr. Fakiri came to Shekinah.”
“I don’t know why.” Telling him the truth would, she knew, jeopardize both Mr. Gordon and Mr. West.
“Yes, you do.”
“No, I don’t. I just take him where he wants to go. He don’t tell me why he wants to go someplace. My job is only to take him there.”
“You do know. Tell me.”
The Magus raised a fist. “Must I beat it out of you?”
“I don’t know! I don’t know!” Victorine said over and over as the Magus beat her. Finally, he tired himself out. Stepping over the still body on the floor, he went to his meditation room to see if he could reach into Fakiri’s mind.
* * *
“Mr. West, there’s a book over in the wagon entitled Magick and Method - could you get it for me?”
“Get it? I’m not leaving this room.”
“Can you at least direct me?”
“Awright – five steps straight out the door, um.... fifteen to the right. You should be able to smell the horses by then. What do you even want a book for?”
“It’s not for me, it’s for you.”
“Huh? There’s a couple bottles of bourbon on the seat, can you get those too?”
Artie followed Jim’s directions and finally found the book. When he got back to the room, Jim took the book and bottles from him.
“Why do you want me to read this?”
“It will save your life. The Magus does intend to sacrifice you, that’s true, but there is a way to avoid it. When it has been announced that the Angel of Death is to take your soul you will kneel in the center of a tablecloth – we’ll need rope to surround it, held by stakes. When you kneel, you face East while meditating – you must stay awake all night. If you continue until dawn, you will live.” But what happens next?
“Are you serious?”
“Yes – it’s in the book. Read it for yourself.”
“And where are we going to get rope? And stakes?”
“How many knives are on the table?”
“So, Mr. West, we now have the stakes. Rope, hmm.” Artie removed his cape. As he folded it, he felt a stray thread and tugged at it. Soon that section of the cape had unraveled and a few yards of silk thread was in his hand. “Will this do, you think?”
“It might. It just might,” Jim replied, his voice trailing off. This experience reminded him of the many times he and Artie had to figure out a way to escape their captors. Artie was always the better at coming up with novel solutions. What’s happened to me?? I’ve been drunk for the better part of a month. I haven’t done any work at all, and haven’t even bothered to find out where Artie is.
“Fakiri, when you said that Artie’s alive, how did you know?”
“I know all things, as I’ve said before.”
“But where is he? Is he alright?”
“Yes. He has left the working for the government of the United States of America and has gone back to the stage. He’s on a very, very long tour of Europe. It’s unlikely that you’ll see him again.”
“On tour?? Why did he leave me here? He’s never done that.”
How do I answer this one? “He was ejected from Shekinah, and could not get back in. In his disgust, he quit the his position and became an actor again.”
“Ejected? If Artie wants in somewhere, he gets in, no matter what.” Maybe this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and Artie really is dead. Or maybe Artie really did want me dead and left me here, figuring the Magus would do the job.
“I have told you want I know, Mr. West, and I do know all things.”
There was no more conversation. With nothing to do but wait and listen to the rain pummel the roof, Artie decided to sleep awhile. He rose, keeping his hand on the wall until he reached the corner where the blankets were. He picked one up, and attempted to spread it on the floor, but tripped and fell. Just before he hit the ground, his smoked spectacles flew off.
Jim went over to help him. Artie kept his eyes shut tight and tried to keep his head down, but it was no use. Jim recognized him.
“What about Artie, Mr. West?”
“Artie, it’s you. I know it is.”
“No, you don’t, Mr. West. I’m Lucius –“
“Artie, what happened to you??”
Artie gave up. “I think it’s pretty obvious what happened to me, Jim.”
“How?” Jim was overcome with a flurry of competing emotions.
“I guess you don’t remember, but the day you were tied to that pole, they hitched me behind two horses and let the horses drag me a few miles away – at least it felt like a few miles. I woke up in a doctor’s home in a little town called Knowlton and... and I couldn’t see.”
Jim had no idea what to say.
“I guess they know in headquarters; the doctor set it up so I’d arrive in Washington on the 30th. The girl took it upon herself to bring me here.”
“Who is she?”
“The doctor’s nurse..”
“Artie, I’m sorry I ever doubted you.” I don’t remember much but I remember I said some awful things – unforgivable things.
“Jim... I...” Artie took a deep breath, and started again. “I’m through, so let’s get this mission over with, alright? What you need to do is pretend you’re someone else – really believe it. That way, the Magus can’t get into your head.”
“I’m not as good as that as you are.”
“Well, try. Or just be a much different version of yourself – that might work.”
“Let me see what I can do.”
Artie arranged the blanket, took his boots off and stretched out. “I’m gonna take a nap. He oughta be turning up in awhile for me.”
“Alright – what’s your first name again?”
Jim sat and went over the last few weeks in his mind. The more he remembered, the more ashamed he became.
“Hey Lucius, let Artie know that I’ve been a complete ass, and completely unworthy of his loyalty and friendship.”
Artie pretended to be asleep already.
* * *
Victorine felt around her face. Thank God, she still had all her teeth and none of them were loose. Her nose hurt something awful, and her one eye was swollen shut, but the other one, also swollen, was open. The moved painfully through the dark corridors until she found the stairwell. She thought about how naive she’d been and began to cry silently. Poor Mr. Gordon – she’d abandoned him so cruelly and he’d never been anything but nice to her.
It would be dark soon so she moved as fast as she could through the empty streets to the caravansary.
Jim saw that someone was coming and began to behave in an insane manner, tearing at his clothes and alternately mumbling and screaming. As Victorine neared, he recognized her clothes and stopped.
“What on earth happened to you?” The girl’s face was covered with bruises, her nose was broken, and she had two of the worst black eyes he’d ever seen. At that moment he began to hate himself. Most of the women who’d left his room left looking similar.
“Mr. Curlin.” she said simply. Entering the room she saw Artie on the floor and momentarily panicked. “Is he alright?”
“Do you think he’ll forgive me? He was counting on me and I let him down.”
“That makes two of us.”
Victorine gave him a puzzled look.
“Miss, I’ve figured out who he really is – my partner.”
“Ohhh. He didn’t want you to know him,” she whispered conspiratorially. “I don’t understand why.”
“I think I know why.” He’s a proud man, and when something goes wrong in his private life, he keeps it a secret. I’m sure the plan was to make sure all along that I didn’t know he was Fakiri, and when the mission was over, he’d drop off the face of the earth.
“He always seemed sort of, um... accepting. And real pleasant all the time”
“Well, that’s Artie. That’s... ” His brain began brain coughing up things he didn’t know where there. The Magus talking about vibrations, and how he’d been brought down by slowing the vibrations around him. Artie was somebody with a high rate of vibration. That’s why I’ve started to feel better once he showed up – I almost feel like myself again.
“Miss, can you tell me about when he was found?”
“Call me Bella,” she whispered. “It ain’t my real name, but it’s what I’m using here.” She then told him everything she remembered from the day he was brought in, unconscious and covered with blood, until they arrived in Shekinah.
“You were very courageous to come here, Bella.”
“Not courageous at all. I love... um, I like Mr. Fakiri, and he needed help to get here. He thought Dr. Lumberg was gonna help him, but he went behind Mr. Fakiri’s back and was gonna put him on a train to Washington.”
“Miss Drozd, would you kindly awaken Mr. Fakiri? I would like to speak with him.” The door opened and the Magus appeared.
Jim looked up and began to throw himself into the walls shrieking. As the Magus came closer, Jim threw himself onto him. The Magus quickly side-stepped him.
“Mr. West, you are an exceptionally bad actor. Now please stop.”
Jim kept going.
“Miss Drozd, please do what I ask, or I will be forced to repeat some of the high points of our prior meeting.”
Victorine shot him a look of pure hatred. “Certainly, Mr. Curlin.”
She kneeled beside Artie and touched his shoulder. “Mr. Fakiri, Mr. Curlin is here to see you.”
Artie opened his eyes, and got halfway up, leaning on his elbow.
“You’re ready for our meeting? Let me get my boots on and I’ll be ready to go.” Artie pulled his boots on and rose. “Bella?”
“No, Mr. Fakiri, we’ll go alone.”
“That’s not possible – I must have my servant with me. I sometimes suffer seizures, and she is experienced in caring for me.”
“As you’ll have it. Miss, you may join us.”
Victorine went to Artie’s side.
“You mentioned, Mr. Curlin, that someone would come to take Mr. West back to his room – is that person coming?” Artie asked.
“Hmm? No, leave him there for now.”
* * *
All three entered the Magus’s sitting room, the same room where he and Artie had met previously. “Have Mr. Fakiri take one of the chairs by the fireplace, Miss Drozd. Some madeira, Mr. Fakiri?”
“No, sir. You have put something impure into the bottle; I will not drink it.” How did I know that?
The Magus was deeply surprised. It was a potion he brought back from India, which worked as a truth serum. It was odorless, so how could Fakiri know?
“Some water then?”
“I am not thirsty. Please let’s converse. You are the founder of this community, are you not?”
“I am, Mr. Fakiri. It was my life’s dream to found a town based on the world of the spirit.”
“‘Spirit’ you say? Interesting. It seems to me that if one is going to found a place where life is centered on the world of the spirit, one might ultimately send forth people to found similar communities.”
“Yes, that is my goal.”
Bingo! “Have you done so yet, or are you still making plans?”
“May I ask you something, Mr. Fakiri? Where do you stand on the world of the spirit?”
“I’m fascinated by it, of course. Why else would I have come? After having studied spirit and the universal mind all over the world, I was astounded that even in the backwaters of the United States of America, there is interest in unseen things. I am most interested in the role played by vibration.”
Victorine, who was sitting on a stool next to Artie’s chair, reached out to take his hand, while staring hard at the Magus
“How much do you know about the role of vibration, Mr. Fakiri?”
“A very great deal, sir. I have studied for years – it is of the few things a blind man may study on his own, you understand. I’ve studied the slums of the great cities of Europe – some are at appallingly low rates of vibration. Other areas, startlingly high rates. I understand that among individual people Mr. Abraham Lincoln had a rate far beyond even the most spiritually developed seekers.”
“Have you given any thought to purposely raising or lowering vibration rates among populations?”
“I have, certainly. What have you to say about it?” C’mon, Curlin, put your neck in the noose.
“Do you consider yourself a moral person, Fakiri?”
“Moral, sir? What are morals? Arbitrary rules, nothing more. I live by my own morals as, I believe, every man should. Whatever will make me healthy, wealthy and wise is moral, even if my health, wealth, or wisdom should come at a price that someone else must pay.”
“You’re a very wise, Fakiri. What I have to say about manipulating vibration is this: Most men are fools. Yet many fools are prosperous, even rich. Do they deserve to be? No, they do not. And so I propose to send my followers, once they’re fully trained, around the world to – through the use of vibration suppression, cast these fools into the poverty and sickness which their foolishness warrants. Fools on the bottom of society, enlightened persons like myself – and you, Mr. Fakiri, on top.
He succeeded with Jim, so doing it to most people would be like shooting fish in a barrel. “But if you oppress large populations, don’t you reach a point by which they’ll end up dying off? Either from violence or disease?”
“Ah! Here is where spirit comes in, Fakiri. The Angel of Death feeds off of energy – soul energy, and the most effective means of providing it with soul energy is through the sacrifice of a human subject. It then uses this energy to maintain low vibratory levels, keeping them at the right temperature to sustain life, so to speak.”
“Interesting. Where do you find such subjects? And how do you determine whether they are suitable or not?”
“Many subjects have stumbled unwittingly into Shekinah. Someone like yourself, with an unusually high level of vibration – odd, actually, for someone who shares my beliefs to display such a high level... You would make a fine candidate.”
“I am not offering myself as a sacrifice.”
“Nor would I accept you if you were. You and I have a lot in common. Would you be interested in working with me?”
“I might. I’d like to be around for one of your sacrifices.”
“You’re in luck, Fakiri. West is to be sacrificed sometime after midnight tonight. “
“Capital! And how do you spend your time before?”
“In meditation, whereby I contact the Angel and make him the promise of a soul.”
“And the person intended for sacrifice – what does he or she do?”
“Anything he or she wants, as long as they’re sober and in good physical condition. Naturally we don’t tell them of our plans. But once the Angel arrives, it’s over. I may have let slide in front of Mr. West my intentions, but I was actually speaking to his associate at the time and, as I recall West was quite inebriated, so I’m sure he remembers nothing.”
“Is the Angel just a spiritual manifestation or is there a physical component? Can he be heard and seen?”
“Oh, you’ll hear the Angel coming, Fakiri. It’s a shame you won’t see it, but Miss Drozd should,” he said with an ugly grin. Most witnesses are so shaken they become hopelessly insane.
“In that case, may I spend the evening with Mr. West at the caravansary? Such an interesting example of a peculiar American type.”
“Certainly you may. Excuse me – I must be at my meditation. You know the way out, don’t you, Miss Drozd?”
“I do, Mr. Curlin.”
Artie and Victorine moved as fast as they could to the caravansary.
“Jim, tonight’s the night.”
“It is? And you’re sure what the book says will work?”
“As certain as I can be.”
That’s not very comforting. “Well, let’s get this thing set up. C’mere Bella, give me a hand with this thread.”
A half hour later, the stakes and makeshift rope were in place.
“Do you want to take a little nap?”Artie asked. “Starting at midnight, you’ll have to keep your eyes open until dawn.”
“I don’t think so.” The girl might fall asleep beforehand, and I don’t think Artie will be able to tell time, so if I sleep too long...
“Are you absolutely sure?”
Artie removed his smoked spectacles. “These aren’t all that comfortable.”
Suddenly, Jim had a lump in his throat. “What happens when this is over?”
“When what’s over?”
“The mission. Curlin’s in prison, the apprentices have been rounded up, our report is filed.”
“Well, I guess you go back to work with Jeremy or somebody, and I file for my pension. A good thing I had bought that house in Annapolis. Funny, I always wanted to retire there, I just didn’t know I’d be retiring less than a year after I bought it,” Artie said, forcing a smile.
“It won’t be the same without you.”
“I would sincerely hope not. Jeremy’s a whole lot sharper than I am in a lot of ways.” His voice sounded hollow.
* * *
The apprentices were very excited. A sacrifice was a great and solemn event, but every sacrifice brought them closer to the day when each would be sent out to control the vibrations in a far-off community. None had yet witnessed a sacrifice at close range, and even the Magus himself stayed at a distance. After dawn he would come to the site to confirm that the Angel had seized the promised soul. A successful form of keeping discipline was to force errant apprentices to witness up close the sacrifices. All had gone mad and were now dead, either by their own hand or from wandering far out into the wilderness, where they died of hunger and thirst.
By eleven p.m. all apprentices were expected to be kneeling in rows outside of the tall building. From eleven until midnight, the Magus would lead a chanting ritual, affirming their resolve to follow the lefthand path.
“We are gods, we have no other!” he shouted.
“We have no other,” replied over a hundred voices.
“We are power, there is no other!”
“There is no other!” they cried.
“Life and death is in our hands only!”
“In our hands only!”
“The world will submit to us!”
“To us only!”
“We thank thee, Spirit, and offer the soul of James West as a gift.”
“We thank thee.”
The Magus then raised his arms and all the apprentices began to hum. They were expected to hum until dawn, when the sacrifice would be complete.
* * *
A voice in Artie’s head told him to have Victorine start drinking and heavily. He fought the thought – why have the girl drink? And to the point of drunkenness? She was just a kid. The thought became stronger and stronger until it seemed to fill his body. She must drink until she was out. The reason would be clear later.
“Jim, what’s in those bottles?”
“Bourbon. Do you want a drink?”
“Not me. Bella, do you like bourbon?”
“I only had it once. Um, are you offering?” The voice had spoken to her too. She must drink as much as she could. The voice would tell her when to stop. She poured herself a glass of bourbon and took the book onto her lap, reading it by the light of the oil lamp.
“Yes, take as much as you like.” So it’ll be my job to keep Jim awake. “Jim, you’re gonna have to keep your eyes open all night, no matter how tired you get.”
“I know, I know – believe me, I understand it’s either keep my eyes open, or die. You’re not gonna have to... “ keep watch on me. “We’re closing in on midnight I think – that racket out there must have something to do with it. I oughta get into position.”
“And meditate – on what, I don’t know. I don’t know if the book says that anywhere,” Artie said.
When Jim first heard the instructions, the meditation requirement seemed like nonsense to him. But since he’d learned that his and Artie’s partnership was nearing its end, there was plenty to meditate over.
Artie was getting increasingly nervous and fidgety. He would get up and walk around the room, keeping one hand on the wall. Then sit down and get up again. Every few minutes he’d ask, “Jim, are your eyes still open?” The answer was always “Yes, Artie.”
Occasionally, he’d strike up a conversation with Victorine, but as she became more, and more intoxicated, she became less and less communicative. By what he assumed was around 2:30 a.m. Victorine was out.
“What time do you think it is, Jim?”
Artie continued walking around the room. The noise from the apprentices seemed to be getting louder. By now, his stomach was churning. Every minute felt like an hour.
Once the apprentices were at their loudest, their sound slowly became softer, but there was another sound to be heard. It sounded like screaming, coming from some huge animal. And it was getting closer.
Jim stopped meditating. “Artie, sit down, relax. Please.” Artie’s nervousness was beginning to make Jim nervous.
The screaming became so loud Jim feared for his eardrums. Something was banging on the room – one the door, on the walls, on the window. Soon it seemed as if the room would have to crumble around them, but the noise and the banging continued unabated.
The screams became even louder. I don’t know if I can stand much more. Jim leant over with his face on the tablecloth and his hands over his head. He was certain that if he just got up and stepped over the threads the noise would stop.
Artie was beyond his arm’s reach, sitting in the corner with his eyes closed. He’d removed his shirt and attempted to cover his ears with the fabric. Victorine was still out.
“Artie, you gotta – I need help here, or I’m gonna... I can’t take it anymore!”
Finally, he reached into his pocket and threw a dollar coin at him and hit his forehead.
“Jim? Was that you?”
“Yes – come here. You gotta hold me down, I’m going out of my mind!” he hollered as loud as he could.
Artie crawled to where he thought Jim was, careful not to disturb the thread. The screams became even louder.
“Forget it – there’s not enough room on the tablecloth for both of us. I – I give up!”
“ I can’t! I–!“
“Jim, please – just count to twenty-five, slowly, and then you can get up, alright. Just do that.”
Jim did what he was told. At twenty-five, Artie said, “Now, Jim – just count to twenty-five again.”
“I can’t! I’m going out of my mind!”
“Jim, just twenty-five.”
They did this over and over. The noise was still deafening, but as the counting game wore on, Jim was able to relax.
At the fiftieth count of twenty-five, the noise stopped completely.
Victorine awoke. “Oh, golly, is it morning yet?” She rose unsteadily. “I figured I’d be sick from all I drank. Oh, gosh – you both look awful!”
Both Jim and Artie were covered with sweat, and looked very frazzled. Jim especially looked bad.
She tiptoed to the window. “Oh, look – the sun’s about the come up!”
“Jim, we made it!”
“Did we? What does the Magus have to say about that, I wonder? Stay here, I wanna take a walk outside.”
“Victorine, are you alright?” Artie asked.
“Sure, I guess I am. Had a funny dream – very noisy. My head still hurts a little, but maybe that’s the bourbon. Ooh, there’s a pretty sunrise – come out and watch it with me.” Oops.
She took Artie’s arm, and they sat together on the bench outside the door.
“Huh, that’s funny.”
“What is, Bella?”
“Um, that tall building ain’t there no more – there’s tall silo there instead.”
“Uh huh – wanna take a walk over?”
* * *
Jim was dazed as he walked through the streets. The granite buildings were gone, in their place were humble wooden structures. A tall silo stood where the tall black granite building had been. Ahead was a gathering of apprentices.
As he came closer, he saw that they surrounded what looked like the Magus in his red robes lying on blood-caked dust.
The crowd parted to let Jim through. The Magus was dead, and appeared to have been torn to pieces by a wild animal. He looked at the face of the apprentices, who looked away and slowly walked off.
Jim turned and was met by Victorine and Artie.
“Victorine – your face!” Jim said with surpriset.
“What about my face?”
“It’s... you don’t have black eyes anymore, and it looks like your nose straightened out.”
Victorine ran her hand over her face and smiled.
“Artie – he’s dead. Clawed to death it looks like.”
“Oh, gosh – that’s what the book said!” Victorine burst.
“Huh?” Jim and Artie said in unison.
“The book – I was flipping through it last night and I read about human sacrifice, and it said that if the promised person is not available, then the one who promised him, the Spirit will take – something like that.”
“Uh huh, wanna go back? I’ll read it to you.”
* * *
“‘Once the magician evoked a spirit from the underworld and promised a certain thing, that particular thing must be given the spirit ere it depart. The Angel of Death has been promised a life, and a life he must have! Having failed to secure the life that had been promised, the Dark Angel took the life of the Great Master who had failed in his promise,’” Victorine read. “I’m glad he got what he deserved.”
Four hours later, they were ready to leave Shekinah. Both Jim’s and Artie’s horses were found hitched behind one of the buildings. Jim rode his, Artie’s was hitched to the wagon. The decision had been made not to round up the apprentices. Extensive records were found in the silo, which named all those previously sacrificed, and which suggested that all the deaths were attributable directly to the Magus, and that the apprentices were guilty only of being easily influenced. There were also detailed descriptions of the insanity manifested among those who were forced to watch the sacrifices.
So that’s why Victorine had to be drunk to the point of unconsciousness.
SS 1st assignment - desk job
Posted - 08/21/2009 : 09:04:01
| Chapter 7
Late in the evening they reached Abilene, and found lodging in a small guesthouse.
“I’m going to cable headquarters to send the Wanderer, so it’s going to be three days of fun and excitement here in Abilene,” Jim deadpanned.
“Jim, Victorine and I have to return the wagon and the horses. I can take a train from Knowlton to Washington, and meet up with you later.
“How about Victorine and I do it, that way you can ride back on the Wanderer.” I’d rather not have him travel alone in a regular railcar and, after all, the Wanderer is his home.
“No, I really have to apologize in person to Dr. Lumberg for misappropriating a member of his staff. I want to make certain Victorine shoulders none of the blame.”
“Alright. Make sure you cable me when you think you’ll be getting back to Washington.”
Artie and Victorine were on the road by mid-afternoon.
“How do you think Dr. Lumberg will be when we get back?”
“I don’t know – I’ve never done anything before that he didn’t tell me to do, but if he’s mad...” then maybe I can come with you.
“Whatever it takes to make him be nice to you, that I’ll do. I’ll tell him I forced you at gunpoint, or I hypnotized you, or–“
“You think he’ll believe any of that?” she laughed.
“He might – stranger things have happened,” Artie smiled.
Long after dark, Victorine pulled the wagon into the town where they’d met Miss Copley.
“If I can find the house again, do you want me to knock?”
“Yes. I think we ought to thank her again.”
The town, although it appeared to be a little more prosperous than most, had no street lamps.
“I hate this wandering around in the dark,” Victorine grumbled.
“Ooh, I think that’s it – she has her lights on.”
Victorine stopped the wagon outside the carriage house, and ran to the door. She was met by Dinah.
“Sorry, hon – Miss Copley left for Baltimore this morning. You still have that blind gentleman with you? You’re welcome to stay the night.”
“Could we??” The ride had become very buggy – the mosquitos were driving Victorine to distraction.
“Hey, Mr. Gordon, we can sleep here!”
“Did Miss Copley said so?”
“No, she’s gone already. C’mon.”
The house smelled of something sweet. “Come on in the kitchen – I got rid of a lot of leftover staples by making a cake and a few batches of cookies.”
Victorine giggled. In her short time at school, she recalled the other children mentioning a snack of milk and cookies when they got home. There were never snacks at Victorine’s home.
“Miss Thora was real upset when you left. She even cried a little. ‘That poor girl, that poor man,’ she said. I said, ‘Miss Thora, if they knew enough to be decked out in those clothes, they must know what they’re doing,’ but she wouldn’t have it. I know if you write her, she’ll be real happy to hear from you.”
Artie fully indulged his love for sweets, then went up for bed.
“Miss, take him to Mr. Copley’s room – it’s the large one. You can take any of the others. If you need anything, my room is in the attic.”
The bed was very luxurious, at least it felt that way to Artie, having spend the last month either in a narrow hospital bed or on a floor.
He dreamed he was in a café with Anna, exquisite in her purple dress. He had on his smoked spectacles, even though he could see her.
They discussed the future. Could they prevail upon Colonel Richmond to allow them to work together?
“We could be the only married couple in the service!” Artie said joyfully.
Although he had once made a vague allusion to marriage, they were together for too short a time to get that far. Anna blushed, and lowered her eyes. A tear dropped onto the table. “If only we could have,” she whispered. She took his hand and held it to her cheek, then disappeared.
“Don’t go! Don’t go!” he cried over and over.
“Mr. Gordon, Mr. Gordon – are you alright?”
He woke to find Victorine shaking him.
“I – I’m alright. A dream...”
“Golly, you sounded awful – like you were losing your best friend.”
My best friend I still have; I’m grateful for that.
“It’s almost morning, we should get going, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” he said weakly. She looked so beautiful.
Dinah packed food for them and took it out to the wagon.
“Now you make sure you write to Miss Thora first chance you get, alright?”
The wagon pulled into Knowlton early in the afternoon.
“I guess we oughta drop this off first, and then go walk to Dr. Lumberg’s.”
Miss Harker was in the field behind her home, hanging up washing. Victorine leapt from the seat and ran out to her.
“Abner said you’d be back today, but I thought I was hearing him wrong. You’re alright? And Mr. Gordon?”
“He’s alright, too.”
“Well, go get him – I’ve got your clothes hanging in the cottage. I laundered yours – his I could only steam, but it all looks real nice.”
Victorine changed first, then helped Artie get dressed.
“Come on out to the porch when you’re done,” Miss Harker called.
Victorine delivered Artie, then ran back to try on a pair of boots that captured her fancy.
“Mr. Gordon, I must say I’m a mite surprised you made it back alive. Were you able to find your friend?”
“Yes – thankfully unhurt and unharmed. We left him in Abilene.”
“All’s well that ends well, then. What are your next plans, Mr. Gordon?”
“I haven’t had much time to think about it.” And what I have thought about, you wouldn’t approve of.
“Mr. Gordon, who’s the lady with you?”
“Lady? It’s Victorine – you know her.” Victorine did say Miss Harker isn’t quite all there.
“Not her – the very attractive lady with the green eyes.”
“She’s with me?? How do you know?”
“Abner told me about her. She adores you.”
Artie’s heart began beating so hard he could almost hear it.
“I loved her dearly but I lost her a year ago.”
“You didn’t lose her,” Miss Harker said warmly. “You’re on opposite sides of life, that’s true. But according to Abner, she’s never left your side.”
“Miss Harker, how do you–“
“Mr. Gordon, all you have to do is listen. Open your ears, open your mind, get rid of your foolish ideas about life and death. Sometimes I can even see Abner; it’s faint, but I know it’s him.”
Victorine ran up the porch steps carrying a pair of gray kidskin boots.
“Miss Harker, these fit real good – can I buy them from you?”
“Fine – one dollar.”
Victorine removed her shoe, hopping on one foot while trying to take the bill out from under the lining.
“Here you are. Mr. Gordon, I think we oughta go now.”
“Thank you, Miss Harker. I’ll have headquarters wire you whatever you want to charge for the use of your horses and wagon.”
“Ten dollars sounds about right.”
“Make it twelve – they have more money than they know what to do with.”
“Twelve then. And thank you.”
Victorine took Artie’s arm and led him down the steps. He stopped at the bottom. “And Miss Harker, please thank Abner for me.”
* * *
As the cook was setting out things for tea in the garden, she looked up to see Victorine and Mr. Gordon.
“Oh, boy, are you in for it, Victorine,” the cook smirked. “You’ll be back turning tricks in Chicago so fast your head’ll spin.”
“What ashcan did Dr. Lumberg dig you out of? He should have left you there,” Victorine hissed.
“Victorine! What a sight for sore eyes – I’d almost despaired of your coming back.”
“Dr. Lumberg, I’m so sorry I left, but Mr. Gordon had to go back and get his friend.”
“Doctor, I forced her to go, it wasn’t her choice. She is blameless in this.”
“And were you successful?”
“Yes, we were.”
Lumberg put his arm around Artie and steered him toward the door to the examination room. “Victorine, help her with the tea things, I’d like to take a look at Mr. Gordon.”
“Mr. Gordon, strip to the waist, I need to listen to your heart and lungs. Nothing to be concerned about, but before I let you go officially, I like to check these things.”
After a few minutes, he was through. “Your insides sound fine. How have you been – any fatigue?”
“No, I think everything’s alright.” Everything but...
“Remove the spectacles, I’d like to take another look. Move your head back, open your eyes wide.”
Artie did as he was told.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Gordon, I don’t see any difference. Of course, I’m not a specialist and don’t have the equipment that a specialist would have.”
“It’s hopeless, isn’t it?
“I don’t believe in that word, Mr. Gordon. There’s always hope.”
“How soon can you put me on a train to Washington?”
“There’ll be one leaving tomorrow at seven in the morning.”
“I’d like to be on it.”
“I’ll make sure you are. Come and have some tea with us.”
Lumberg seated Artie next to Victorine, who poured his tea for him.
“Mr. Gordon, when you go back to your house, is there somebody who can take care of you?” Victorine asked.
“No – why would I need somebody to take care of me?”
“Oh, you know – cooking, cleaning, keeping your clothes nice. You don’t have anyone?”
“Not yet I don’t.”
“Doctor, could I go? I mean, just until he could find somebody?”
Lumberg smiled indulgently. “Do you know how to cook, Victorine?”
“Sure, you just throw things in the pot and turn the heat on – that’s all whatshername does.”
“I think there’s a little more to it than that, Victorine.”
“I could get a book – they have books that tell you how to do it. And you know I can clean and iron – you know that.”
“If you promise me you’d be back by the third week in September, and you promise to find a cookbook, I’ll let you go. It’s no good if you can clean and iron for him, if he’s going to starve. Would that be alright with you, Mr. Gordon?”
“Certainly. But she’ll also have to help me find somebody permanent.”
I don’t want to do that. I want to be the permanent one.
* * *
Dr. Lumberg took them in his carriage to the train station, and while there cabled Washington that Artemus Gordon’s train would be pulling into Washington early on September 2nd.
Victorine had been on a train only once before – the one from Chicago to Knowlton, and she’d been sick the entire time.
Now that the strain of the mission was over, Victorine’s ceaseless chatter was a welcome distraction. A number of the other travelers found amusement in listening to the little chatterbox try to entertain the quiet blind man next to her.
“And then, guess what happened, Mr. Gordon – the police came! And I said, ‘you ain’t gonna arrest me, no you’re not, ‘cause I don’t have nothing to do with it,’ and then.. Hey, you – what are you looking at??”
A leering middle-aged man looked her up and down and said, “A chippie, looks like to me. Aren’t you from Chicago, sis?”
Oh, here we go... “Hey, pal, you may or may not be aware of this but there is a disguised Pinkerton agent on this car. And he’s just itching to lay somebody out. Now, he might be disguised as a blind man... ahem, or he might not, but unless you want to be pummeled so bad your own mother wouldn’t recognize you, you just turn around and enjoy the scenery.”
Victorine took his hand and squeezed it.
Three days later, Jim met them at the station.
“Victorine, I didn’t know you were coming.”
“Mr. Gordon needs somebody to clean and cook, don’t he?”
“Artie, Colonel Richmond wants to meet with us. I expect this is going to be a long meeting – what should with do with Victorine?”
“Is there some place I can go shopping?”
“There’s a big shopping area on the other side of the station. Everything a young lady could want.”
“Ooh, point me in that direction. When can I meet up with you?”
“How about you come back here at 2:00 and I’ll find a handsome young man from headquarters to come get you.”
“2:00? That’ll only give me five hours to shop!”
“See the sign for the arcade – that’s where you want to go.”
“Bye, Mr. West. Bye, Mr. Gordon.” Before skipping off, she kissed his cheek.
“Looks like you got yourself a faithful retainer, Artie.”
“Looks that way, doesn’t it?”
* * *
Richmond paced his office. He’d been devastated to read Lumberg’s letter. One of his best men, disabled in the line of duty. It wasn’t going to be easy to say goodbye to him.
Artie was dreading the meeting. It had been hard enough when Jim found out, and now he’d have to present himself to Richmond, and whoever else would be in the office that day. It would have been ideal just to have somebody write to headquarters, “Artemus Gordon is through. Send the pension checks to 435 Pinckney Street, Annapolis.”
Richmond’s office was fifteen minutes away. Artie was mortified to have to hold onto Jim’s arm during the walk. As soon as he and Jim entered the building, they bumped into Bosley and Frank, who were on their way out together.
“Jim, Artie – nice to see you both.”
“Good to see you, too,” Jim said.
“Good to see you,” Artie echoed uncomfortably.
“Where are you off to?” Jim asked.
“Grant wants to talk to us about something going on in the British Embassy – nothing big,” Frank answered.
“Probably just busy work,” said Bosley.
Jim could tell they didn’t know what to say to Artie.
“Uh, how about you two?” Frank ventured.
“We’re gonna see Richmond and plan my big send-off,” Artie replied bitterly. “You know, I’m moving into another career – gonna raise llamas in Maine.”
“That’s great Artie, I wish you a lotta luck.” Frank said.
“Yeah, me, too. C’mon Frank, the President’s expecting us. See you around, fellas.”
Once they were out of earshot, Jim asked “Llamas?”
“What, you think angora goats would be better?”
Richmond found it painful to watch Jim and Artie walk the hallway, Artie with his eyes hidden behind smoked spectacles, tapping the floor in front of him with a cane.
“Good to see you, gentlemen, make yourselves at home,” he said, indicating two chairs in front of his desk. "I have to pick up a file in another office; I’ll be right back."
“Why are we here, Jim – is this my exit interview?”
“I don’t really know.”
“Yes, you do – tell me.”
“It is your exit interview.”
“You said this was gonna take a long time – that shouldn’t take long. Then what – a girl jumps out of a cake for me?”
“I don’t know, Artie, but that would be a nice touch.”
Richmond returned and took his place behind his desk.
“Gordon, I speak for the entire agency when I say that we’re very, very sorry to lose you.”
“Thank you,” he replied in a barely audible voice.
“I have a few questions here – well, more than a few, that the President wanted asked about Shekinah and Joash Curlin.”
After three hours the questions had been answered to Richmond’s satisfaction, and the exit interview conducted.
“Now you’ll want to go to the personnel office and fill out your separation forms. They should be ready for you there.”
Even more mortifying than having to be lead by the hand, was having Jim fill out the forms for him. Twenty minutes later, at 1:30 on August 2, 1873, Artemus Gordon was no longer a federal employee.
“How about lunch, Artie? I have a standing invitation at the French Embassy.”
“If you want to. How’d you wrangle that?.”
“Made friends with a pretty little mademoiselle who works there.”
“I should have guessed.”
After a lunch of coquilles St. Jacques, beef Bourguignone, and profiteroles au chocolat, accompanied with two bottles of wine, and the attention of Jim’s lady friend Odile, Artie was worn out.
“We should go meet Victorine, I think.”
“And then?” Jim asked. “Why don’t you spend the night on the Wanderer for old time’s sake.”
“And do what? Play chess? Shoot pool? A few hands of poker?”
“I’m sorry, Artie. I know this is tough for you.”
“Let’s go meet Victorine,” he replied wearily.
After they met Victorine, tickets were purchased for the next train to Annapolis.
As the three stood on the platform, Jim felt his heart beginning to break. His life would never be the same. The rigors of the job, with its constant travel, meant he’d get to see Artie not more than once or twice a year, if that. Any letters he’d write, Artie would need someone to read to him, and someone would have to draft Artie’s letters for him.
Soon the train pulled up.
“I’m gonna miss you, Artie.”
“I’ll miss you, too. We had a good run, didn’t we?”
As the train pulled away, Jim reached into his pocket for a handkerchief.
* * *
A day after he and Victorine moved into 435 Pinckney, he asked her to visit doctors in the neighborhood and ask if any knew of a good oculist.
She came home with the address of one in Baltimore, Dr. Benedict, whom nearly all the doctors she had visited recommended. The following day they took the train to see him.
Artie spent less than fifteen minutes in Benedict’s consulting room. Although the doctor puzzled about certain things, he reluctantly assured Artie that nothing could be done.
When the doctor led him out into the waiting room, Victorine was alarmed at his countenance. He looked twenty years older than he had when he entered the examining room.
“But maybe there’s another doctor who would help you, Mr. Gordon,” she pleaded on the train ride home. “He might not know everything. I heard him say he was puzzled. Maybe I can go around again tomorrow and ask if they know somebody else you can go to.”
Artie was silent the entire trip.
The following day was September 5, the one-year anniversary of Anna’s death. Artie was in a black mood all day. Artie had tried to hear Anna’s voice, ever since Miss Harker said she was nearby, but he never heard anything. That was probably just a neat trick of hers – something she had in common with the Magus.
“Victorine, I have a prescription for laudanum I persuaded Benedict to give me. It’s in a pocket of the trousers I wore yesterday. Take it out and go get the prescription filled.”
“Mr. Gordon, does something hurt?”
“You bet it does, now get going. With the change left over I want you to buy a bottle of liquor – gin or whisky. Don’t dawdle, I want you back here as fast as your legs can carry you.”
Victorine came back with a bottle of gin, but not the laudanum.
“Where’s the laudanum?”
“Um, the drug store was closed.”
“Why didn’t you go to another one?”
“I... I don’t know where another one is.”
“Get the hell out and don’t come back until you’ve got me a bottle of laudanum.”
“But Mr. Gordon –“
“Go! And don’t you dare come back without a bottle of laudanum.”
Victorine walked for blocks and blocks and finally did find another drug store, but was too afraid to go in. She didn’t know how she knew, but she was pretty certain Mr. Gordon was going to use the laudanum for a bad reason. She stayed out until it got dark, then slowly found her way back to the house.
Mr. Gordon was passed out on the floor, the half empty gin bottle next to him.
Quietly she went upstairs to his room, and looked in the writing desk for some paper and a pencil. With it, she wrote a short letter to Miss Copley:
“Dear Miss Copley,
My name is Victorine Elsome. I hope you remember me, and
Mr. Artemus Gordon.
We did excape from Shekinah with Mr. Gordon’s Friend, Mr.
I am with Mr. Gordon in Annapolis. He is not doing Well. I
am very afraid he will Kill Himself, since the Oculist said
there is no Hope that he will see again.
I am hoping you will Visit. He needs more Couragement than
I can give him.
p.s. 435 Pinckney Street, Annapolis
After sealing the envelope, she slipped out and dropped into the mailbox on the corner.
The following morning, Artie had a horrible hangover and was in a worse mood than the day before.
“Victorine? Victorine, where are you?”
“Right here.” She had taken to sleeping on the divan, since there was only one bedroom, and the basement, while neat and orderly, reminded her too much of Mrs. Clohessy.
“Where’s the laudanum?”
“I didn’t get it.”
“You didn’t get it?? Are you deliberately defying me?”
“No! Why are you being so mean?”
“Get dressed and get out. Do not come back until you’ve got me some laudanum. I promise you I won’t let you in without it.”
“Why are you being so mean?” she repeated. “I think I know what you want it for.”
“You don’t know anything – get the hell out.”
Again, Victorine stayed out all day. If I don’t bring it, I might end up living on the street. I could use the ticket home, but then I wouldn’t have done what I was supposed to do: clean, cook, help him find somebody permanent.
Against her better judgment, she finally went into a drug store and came out with a bottle of laudanum.
She stayed out until late in the evening, when she hoped that he would again be out. She didn’t know him well enough to know whether or not he was a drinker, but being drunk to the point of unconsciousness had to be better than being dead from an overdose of laudanum.
She opened the door as slowly as she could so that he wouldn’t hear her come in. But he was sitting right by the door.
“Victorine? Do you have the laudanum?”
“Yes, Mr. Gordon.”
“Give it to me.”
He opened the bottle and smelled it; yes, it was laudanum.
“Victorine, sit down. Now, listen very carefully to what I tell you: there’s a key in the writing desk that fits a safety deposit box at the bank two blocks down – you would have passed it on your way to the drug store. In the box is my will, and some stock certificates, and other paperwork. Mr. Morris Fearne is the executor of my estate. His office address is on the paperwork. Now, what you’ll do is – are you crying?”
“Yes! Why are you doing this? It’s not right. I know what the doctor said, but... but I’m willing to take care of you and read to you and anything else you want. Anything! It’s just not right,” she sobbed.
Artie continued as if he hadn’t heard a word she said. “You take everything to Mr. Fearne, and he’ll take care of it. Then you can go back to Knowlton – I have some money stashed in one of the kitchen cabinets, help yourself to it.”
“No! No, I won’t do any of it,” she choked through her tears. “I’ll throw the key away first chance I get, and you can rot here until the neighbors figure out the smell.”
“That’s your choice,” Artie said coldly before he took the laudanum and gin up to his bedroom.
Victorine, still weeping, went out and sat on the stoop.
Artemus, don’t throw this life away.
I’m not listening because you’re not there. You’re only my brain talking back to me. Anna’s dead and soon I’m going to join her.
Artemus, I’m here.
The room, which previously smelled only of stale summer air, suddenly took on the fragrance of honeys*ckle.
“Anna, why shouldn’t I join you?”
Because it’s not yet your time. You have many, many years ahead of you.
“Blind? No, thank you.”
Artemus, there is a reason you were struck blind. If you hadn’t been you wouldn’t have had Victorine take you back and, in doing so, find the book that told you what to do to save Jim. You wouldn’t have been able to be as effective a help to Jim the night he was to be sacrificed. You wouldn’t have met Miss Copley.
There was a smile in her voice with that announcement.
“What do I care about Miss Copley; it’s you I love.”
Artemus, I’m in your past, and in your far distant future. I very much want to see you happy in your present. Miss Copley would be a great addition to your life right now.
“Why don’t you talk to me like this all the time? I ache to hear you.”
I don’t because if I did you would make listening to me the whole of your life. Just know that I’m always with you.
“How come you called me Artie that time?”
She laughed, which sounded like music to him.
I hear how Jim talks to you. He always calls you Artie and so it seems to have crept into my vocabulary.
“You won’t be jealous of Miss Copley?”
She laughed again.
Heavens, no. How could I be jealous if someone makes the one I adore happy?
“Will I always be blind?”
I can’t say. Darling, why don’t you go to sleep? And please, when you awake, apologize to Victorine. She cares for you a great deal.
Sweet dreams, Artemus.
* * *
Victorine had fallen asleep on the stoop. At sun-up she awoke, and walked apprehensively up to Mr. Gordon’s room.
His eyes were closed, but he was still breathing, and it did not appear that he had taken any of the laudanum or drank any of the gin.
She thought it best to take the bottles out of the room, but feared his wrath if she did so.
She tip-toed out of the room and went into the kitchen where the cookbook was. Hopefully, it would tell her how not to burn eggs.
* * *
Thora got on the 7:30 a.m. train for Annapolis. She’d probably be at Mr. Gordon’s home around 9:00 or 10:00 at the latest. It may have been a little to early for visiting hours, but Victorine’s plea struck her as urgent.
At 9:30 the hansom cab dropped her off at the corner.
Artie was his room dressing – just a simple pair of linen trousers and a cotton shirt. Victorine had forgotten all about breakfast in her fascination with the cookbook.
Artie heard the knock on the door before Victorine did.
“Huh? Yes, Mr. Gordon?” She left the kitchen and stood at the bottom of the steps. “What is it?”
“Someone’s at the door.”
“Oh, I didn’t hear.”
She opened the door to see Miss Copley beautifully dressed in pale blue lawn.
“Miss Copley, thank you, thank you for coming. Oh, gosh, I wasn’t sure you would. Please, have a seat.”
“Thank you, dear. It’s wonderful to see you again,” she smiled. “Is Mr. Gordon at home?” .
“Yes, upstairs. I’ll call him. Oh, and thank you again for coming,” Victorine gushed.
“Mr. Gordon? It’s Miss Copley – do you remember her?” She then turned to Miss Copley “He might be mean, so be careful what you say.”
“Miss Copley! Here I come.” Artie hadn’t bothered to put shoes over his socks, and because he moved too quickly, he fell down the steps face first.
Victorine ran screaming to the staircase, followed by Miss Copley, as Artie landed on his head.
“Mr. Gordon! Mr. Gordon are you alright?”
“Strangely, yes.” He opened his eyes to see Victorine and Miss Copley bending over him. “Which one of you lovelies is Victorine and which is Miss Copley?” He reached out to touch Victorine’s cheek. “You’re Victorine – I remember the description. Please forgive me for being so awful to you the last few days.”
“You can see us??”
“Either that or I’m still asleep and dreaming.”
* * *
The following day Artie went back to the oculist, accompanied by Victorine and Thora.
“I don’t see much difference from the first time you were here, Mr. Gordon. Although, you remember I said I was a bit puzzled. Possibly there was some idiopathic pressure on your optic nerve or... I’m sorry, I just can’t say. Every patient is different.”
“Is there any chance I’ll lose my sight again?”
“It’s difficult to say. I would advise you not to allow yourself to be dragged behind wagons again, but that’s just about all I can tell you.”
* * *
Artie was extremely animated on the train ride back to Annapolis. “Girls, what shall it be? Should we take a train down to Washington, for dinner at the French Embassy? I have an in there, you know. Or, hmm – Thora, when do classes start again at your school?”
“I’ve got a wonderful idea – let’s go up to Cape May for a few days! Victorine, have you ever seen the ocean?”
“Whaddya say, ladies? Let’s get out of this sweaty burg.”
“Mr. Gordon, are you sure?” Thora asked with concern.
“I’m healthy, wealthy, and rarin’ to go, my dear. My first vacation in four years, and the first ever with such beautiful travel companions.”
They left the following day. Once there, Artie spent all day either swimming or trying to teach Victorine to swim. Thora spent the days under an umbrella, lest she acquire more freckles. Evenings were spent dancing in the beer garden.
The vacation came to an end on the 15th. Thora hugged and kissed Artie before leaving the train. Artie and Victorine were back in Annapolis early in the evening.
“So now what, Mr. Gordon?”
“Now what? I’m going back to work, and you, missy, are going back to Kansas.”
“I hate Kansas.”
“It’s not Cape May, I’ll give you that, but Dr. Lumberg is depending on your coming back. You can always visit here – I might not be around, but the house is your’s. I’ll give you a key. And if some day, you’d like to work for the federal government, I’ll be happy to give you a recommendation,” Artie said warmly.
“I couldn’t work with you, could I?”
“Maybe if you had secretarial skills, you could get a job in headquarters.”
“I’d like that better than nursing – I’m good with records and everything. Dr. Lumberg is real nice, but I think he's starting to figure out that I’m not nurse material,” Victorine answered glumly.
“Tell you what – if your serious, really serious, I’ll pay for you to go to a ladies business school. Then you can get a job at headquarters and maybe someday boss me around. But first you have to take care of your obligations with Dr. Lumberg.”
“Oh, golly, Mr. Gordon, I just love you!”
The following day, they went to the station in Washington, to get the train that would take her back to Kansas.
“I think I owe you my life, Victorine, and the life of Mr. West.”
“Oh, Mr. Gordon, I owe you so much more – if you had any idea of what my plans were before I met you, you’d be shocked. It meant so much to me for a real gentleman to take interest. Gosh, I’ll miss you so much!”
“You can always write me, care of the Secret Service, and you can bet I’ll reply post haste. And I want you to think about that business school. Make sure Dr. Lumberg knows of my offer.”
“Oh, no – now the train’s coming!”
Artie held her in his arms until it came to a stop.
“Goodbye, Mr. Gordon - I love you!”
“I love you, too, Victorine. Goodbye!”
* * *
From the train station, Artie walked to headquarters. In the lobby he was met by Jeremy.
“Artie, is that you??”
“Of course it is. Do you know anyone else this good-looking?”
“I heard that.... uh, you had left, due to... uh...”
“It’s great to see you, Jer’. Can’t talk -- I need to run upstairs and ask for my job back.”
Richmond’s door was closed, but he heard Richmond speaking.
“West, you and Jeremy will be partners for now. The President and I will have to discuss whether to make it permanent or not.”
Artie felt that this was his cue to come in.
“Good morning, sir. My name is Artemus Gordon and I need a job. I'm a hard worker, I know Morse code, and my penmanship is exquisite. A previous co-worker would be willing to give me a good reference – whaddya know, there he is! How’s it going, Jim?”
Richmond’s and Jim’s mouths dropped open in unison.
The Colonel recovered himself before Jim did.
“Gordon, can you tell me?...” Richmond, almost at a complete loss for words, started again. “I don’t even know what it is I want you to tell me. But... you’re alright?”
Jim was still staring with his mouth open.
“Jim, every time I come back from the dead, more or less, you get that dazed look. It’s very unbecoming. So, let’s get down to business. What’s the next impossibly dangerous mission for West and Gordon?”