A bad thing had happened. No, a “Bad Thing” had happened. A man in Fremont, Nebraska cheated an honest old lady, and no one seemed able to make him retract his deed to set things right. It went on helplessly for the old lady for more than forty years. Then, one day, she told a friend. Now I will tell you a story. Or a true anecdote. For those who wish this to be “a story I never wrote,” have at it; for those who choose to believe that I am recounting a Real Life Anecdote, I’m down with that, equally: your choice.
Once upon a time, not so long ago…
A man in an 8th floor apartment in New York City lay in his bed, asleep. The telephone beside him rang. It was a standard 20th Century instrument, not a hand-held device. It was very late at night, almost morning, but the sun had not yet risen over the decoupage skyline of Manhattan. The telephone rang again.
He reached across from under the sheet and picked up the phone. A deep male voice at the other end said, very slowly and distinctly, “Are you awake?”
“Are you awake enough to hear me?”
“Are your bedroom windows open…or shut?”
“Look at the curtains!”
“Sit up and look at the curtains. Are they moving?”
The man’s three-room apartment was on an airshaft in mid-Manhattan. It was in the Fall, and cold. The windows in his bedroom were tightly closed to shutter out the noises from the lower apartments and the street below. The curtains were drawn. He slumped up slightly, and looked at the curtain nearest him. It was swaying slightly. There was no breeze.
He said nothing into the phone. Silence came across the wire to him. Dark silence.
A man, more a shadow, stepped out from behind the swaying curtain and moved toward the man in the bed. There was just enough light in the room for the man holding the phone in his hand to see that the man in black was holding a large raw potato, with a double-edged razor blade protruding from its end. He was wearing gloves, and at the end of the gloves, at the wrists, just slightly outstanding, the man in the bed could see the slippery shine of thin plastic food-service gloves. The man in black came to the bed, stood over the half-risen sleeper, and reached for the phone. Keeping the slicing-edge of the razor blade well close to the neck of the man imbedded against the pillow, he took the receiver with his free hand.
From across the line: “Just say yes or no.”
“Is he sitting up?”
“Can he see you…and whatever you have at his throat?”
“Give him back the phone. Do nothing till I tell you otherwise.”
“Okay.” He handed the receiver back to the man quivering beneath the razor blade. The eyes of the man below were wide and wet.
Across the line: “Do you believe he’s serious?”
“All I want from you is yes or no.”
“Give him the phone.” Pause. Again: “Give him the phone!”
The frightened man handed back the instrument.
“I’ve told him to say yes or no. If he says anything else, any filler, any kind of uh-huh-wha…can you cut him?”
“Not seriously, the first time. Let him see his own blood. Make it where he can suck it and taste it.” The man in black said nothing, but handed the receiver back, laying it tight to the other man’s ear. “Now,” came the motionless voice out of nowhere, “are you convinced he’s serious and can do you harm? Yes or no?”
“Listen, whoever the hell you are…”
The potato swept down across the back of the man’s hand, from little finger to thumb. Blood began to ooze in a neat, slim line, but long, almost five inches. He dropped the phone on the bed, blood made an outline on the top sheet. He whined. It may have been the sound of a stray dog sideswiped by a taxi in the street far below, faint but plangent. The man with the razor-in-a-potato reached toward the pale white throbbing throat and nodded at the dropped phone. All else was silence.
Sucking on his knuckles, he lifted the instrument with a trembling, slightly-bleeding hand; and he listened. Intently.
“Now. Listen carefully. If you say anything but yes or no, if you alibi or try to drift in anything but a direct, straight answer, I have told him to get a thick towel, jam it into your mouth so no one will hear you scream as he slices you up slowly. And your brother Billy. And your mother. Do you understand?”
He began to say, “…uh…” The potato moved slightly. “Yes,” he said quickly, in a husky voice, “yes. Yes, I understand.”
The level, determined voice off in the distance said, “Very nice. Now we can get down to it.”
The man in the bed, with morning light now glinting through the curtains and shining off the razor blade poised quivering near his throat said, “Yes.”
“You hold a painting by a nearly-forgotten pulp magazine artist named Robert Gibson Jones…” The voice paused, but the man beneath the razor-blade knew it was merely a lub-dub, a caesura, a space in which, if he said the no or I don’t know what you’re talking about or it’s at my cousin’s house in Queens or I sold it years ago or I don’t know who bought it or any other lie, his body would be opened like a lobster and he would lie in his own entrails, holding his still-beating heart in his fingertipless hands. Throat cut ear to ear. Immediately.
He said nothing, and in a moment the voice at the other end continued, “You have been offered three purchase prices by four bidders. Each of them is eminently fair. You will take the middle bid, take the painting in perfect condition, and sell it this morning. Is that clear?”
The man holding the phone, whose blood was now pulsing onto the bedspread, said nothing. The voice from Out There commanded, “Give the phone to…” He held the instrument out to the dark figure poised above him. The potato-blade man took the phone and listened for a few seconds. Then he leaned close enough to the other so the man snugged in his pillow could see only the slightly less-black line where the knit watch-cap covering the potato-man’s head gave evidence he had eyes. No color discernible. “Is that clear?” Then he said into the phone, “Says he understands,” and he listened for a few more moments. There was moisture at the temples of one of the men in the bedroom. The connection was severed; the razor blade sliced through the cord of the telephone receiver; the man in the bed was swiping at the back of his left hand, sucking up the slim tracery of blood. The figure all in black said, “Now close your eyes and don’t open them till I tell you to.”
When the bleeding man finally opened his eyes, a minute or two after total silence, even though he thought he’d heard a bump of the apartment door to the hall closing…he was alone.
An haute couture newsletter editor on le Rue Montaigne dans le huite arrondissement, greatly hacked-off at her third Editorial Secretary, demanded an appearance, en masse, of all her “verticals,” the 21st Century Big Business electronic word for “serfs,” minions,” “toadies,” “go-fors,” “vassals,” “water-carriers,” “servants.” Slanguage today. She fired five of them. The wind blew insanely near the northern summit of Mt. Erebus in Antarctica.
Within the hour, one of two thin-leather driving gloves, black in color, had been weighted with stones from the East River and sealed with a piece of stray wire from a gutter, and had been tossed far out into the Hudson. Another glove, same color, filled with marbles from a gimcrack store on Madison Avenue, sealed with duct tape, went into the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. Items were dropped in dumpsters in New Jersey; a pair of common, everyday, available-everywhere disposable gloves used by food-handlers were shredded, along with five heads of cabbage, in an In-Sink-Erater in a private home in Rehoboth, Massachusetts. One of a pair of undistinguished off-brand sneakers was thrown from a car on the New Jersey Turnpike into the mucky deep sedge forty feet from the roadway. The other piece of footwear was buried two feet under a garbage dump in Saranac Lake, A day and a half later. But quickly.
But only three hours and twenty-one minutes after the closing of a door in mid-Manhattan, a man in an 8th floor apartment called a woman in McLean, Virginia, who said, “It’s a little early to be calling so unexpectedly after what you said last time we talked, don’t you think?” The conversation went on for almost forty minutes, with many question marks hindering its progress to an inevitable conclusion. Finally, the woman said, “It’s a deal. But you know you can never hang it or display it, is that okay with you?” The man said he understood, and they agreed at what time to meet on the third stairwell of the Flatiron Building to exchange butcher-paper-wrapped parcels.
In a second-floor flat in London, a man removed one of three hardbacked books from a stylish slipcase. He took the book to a large Morris chair and sat down beneath the gooseneck reading lamp. He glanced to the wall where the overflow of light illuminated a large and detailed painting of a long-extinct prehistoric lepidopteran. He smiled, addressed his attention back to the book, turned a few pages, and began reading. In a shipping office in Kowloon, a young woman badly-trained for her simple tasks placed a sheet of paper from a contract in the wrong manila folder, and for days, across three continents, “verticals” raged at one another.
Sixty-five minutes after the exchange of parcels at the Flatiron Building in New York, a 70 lb. triangular concrete cornice block did not somehow unpredictably come loose from a construction pile being hoist on pulleys above Wabash Avenue in Chicago, but a white man whose collar fit too snugly did not, also, go to his office at the international corporate office where he was a highly-paid Assessment Officer: instead, he made a dental appointment, and later in the day he removed his daughter from the private pre-school she had been attending. Nothing whatever happened in the Gibson Desert in west central Australia; nothing out of the ordinary.
In London, a man sat reading under a painting of a butterfly. For every action…
However inconsequential it may seem…
There is an equal and opposite reaction in the River of Time that flows endlessly through the universe. However unseen and utterly disconnected it may seem.
Every day, in Rio de Janeiro, late in the afternoon, there occurs a torrential downpour. It only lasts a few minutes, but the wet, like bullets, spangs off the tin roofs of the favellas beneath the statue of Christ the Redeemer. Onthis day, at the moment nothing was happening in the Gibson Desert, the rain did not fall, the Avenida Atlantica was dry and reflective. Pernambuco had hail.
Later that day, a trumpet-player in a fusion-rock band in Cleveland, Ohio heard from a distant cousin in Oberlin, who had borrowed fifty dollars for a down-payment on a Honda Civic ten years earlier and had never bothered to repay him. She said she was sending a check immediately. He was pleased and told the story to his friend, the lead guitarist in the group. Four hours later, during a break in that night’s gig, sitting in just a clue y’know, a woman unknown to either of them drifted up between them, smiled and inquired, “How are ya,” and in the course of a few minutes’ conversation both the guitarist and the trumpet player recounted the unexpected windfall of the stale fifty dollar repayment. They never saw her again. Never.
Even later that day, a hanging ornament from a 4th Century BCE Dagoba stupa originally from Sri Lanka, missing from a museum in Amsterdam since 1964, was mailed to a general post office box in Geneva, Switzerland stamped
STOLEN PROPERTY ADVISE INTERPOL
Stamped in red. Hand-stamped. At the Elephant Bar of the Bangkok Marriott, a Thai businessman was approached by the bartender, extending a red telephone. “Are you Mr. Mandapa?” The gentleman looked up from his Gin Sling, nodded, and took the receiver. “Hello yes; this is Michael Mandapa…” and he listened for a few seconds, smiling at first. “I don’t think that’s possible,” he said, softly, no longer smiling. Listened, then: “Not so soon. I’ll need at least a week, ten days, I have to…” He went silent, listened, his face drew taut, he ran the back of his free hand across his lips, then said, “If it’s raining there, and it’s monsoon, you will do what you have to do. I’ll try my best.”
He listened, sighed deeply, then put the phone back in its cradle on the bartop. The bartender noticed, came, and picked up the red telephone. “Everything o-kay?” he said, reading the strictures of Mr. Mandapa’s face. “Fine, yes, fine,” Mr. Mandapa replied, and left the Elephant Bar without tipping the man who had unknowingly saved his life.
Somewhere, much earlier, a man stepped on, and crushed beneath his boot, a dragonfly, a Meganeura.
The next morning, at eight AM, four cars pulled up in front of a badly-tended old house in Fremont, Nebraska. Weeds and saw-grass were prevalent. The day was heavily overcast, even for a month that usually shone brightly. From the first car, a Fremont police cruiser, stepped a man wearing a Borsalino, and from beside and behind him, three uniformed officers of the local Police Force. The second car bore two Nebraska State Troopers; and in the third car were a man and a woman in dark black suits, each carrying an attaché case. The fourth car’s doors opened quickly, wings spread, and four large men of several colors emerged, went around and opened the trunk, and took out large spades and shovels. The group advanced on the house, the Sheriff of Fremont, Nebraska leading the phalanx.
He knocked on the sagging screen door three times.
No one came to the closed inner door. He knocked again, three times. An elderly white woman, stooped and halting and gray, and dusted with the weariness of difficult years, opened the inner door a crack and peered at the assemblage beyond the screen door. Her tone was mid between startled and concerned: “Yes?”
“We’re here with a search warrant and some legal folks, that lady and gentleman there…” He nodded over his shoulder at the pair of black suits, “…they’ve been okay’d by the Court to go through your propitty, lookin’ for some books your son took to sell on ebay or whatever, for a lady back East in New York. Is Billy here?”
“Billy don’t live here no more.” She started to close the door. The Sheriff pushed his palm against the screen door, making an oval depression. “I asked you if Billy was here, Ma’am.”
“May we come in, please?”
“You g’wan, get offa my property!”
At the same moment Miz Brahm was ordering the Sheriff of Fremont, Nebraska off her porch, in Mbuji-Mayi, near the Southern border between The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia, a representative of Doctors Without Borders found his way to a small vegetable garden outside three hut-residences beyond a wan potato field. He carried two linen-wrapped packages, and when a nut-brown old man appeared at the entrance to the largest hut, he extended the small parcels, made the usual obeisance, and backed away quietly. Miz Brahm was still arguing with the Nebraska State Troopers and the men with shovels, and the duo in black suits, but mostly with the Sheriff of Fremont, Nebraska, nowhere near Zambia, There was, however, thunder in the near-distance and darkening clouds. The air whipped frenziedly. A drop of rain spattered on a windshield.
The argument would not end. Inevitably, the officers of the law grew impatient with diversionary answers, and yanked the screen door away from its rusted latch. It fell on the porch, Mis Brahm tried to push the front door closed on the men, but they staved her back, and rushed in. Shouts, screaming ensued.
A hairy, unshaven man with three pot-bellies charged out of a back hall, a tire iron double-fisted behind his head; he was yowling. One of the State Troopers clotheslined him, sending him spawling onto his back in the passageway. Miz Brahm kept up a strident shrieking in the background; one of the attorneys—when attention was elsewhere—chopped her across the throat, and she settled lumpily against a baseboard.
“That ain’t Billy,” Miz Brahm managed to gargle, phlegm and spittle serving as consonants. “Thas his broth-er!”
One of the Troopers yelled, “Let’s get ’em both!” He pulled his sidearm and snarled at the downed tri-belly, “Where’s yer brother?”
“You ain’t gonna take neither of ’em!” screamed the old lady: a foundry noon-whistle shriek; she was pulling a rusty hatchet out from behind a chifferobe. The Trooper kneecapped her. The hatchet hit the linoleum.
Four hours later two of the men with shovels, who had been stacking and restacking magazines, digging out rat nests and spading up rotted floorboards, found Billy hiding in the back corner of the last storage quonset behind the property. He tried to break through the wall, and one of the laborers slammed the spade across the back of his head. The search went on for the rest of that day, into the next, before the attorneys were satisfied. The weed-overgrown property was a labyrinth filled with tumbling-down shelves and closets, bookcases, cardboard boxes piled so high that the ones on the bottom had been crushed in: vintage pulp fiction magazines, comic books in Mylar sleeves, corded sheaves of newspapers, and the forty-seven pieces Billy had cozened out of the old woman Back East.
The next day, the entire family was in custody, and at the same time, but eight hours later by the clock, Greenwich Mean Time, the man in London who had been reading “The Red-Headed League” closed the book, looked long at the wonderful painting of an ancient butterfly above the mantel, smiled and said, “Ah, so that’s how it all comes together. ‘Omne ignotum pre magnifico.’ Clever.”
This story is dedicated to the memory of my friend, Ray Bradbury.
“He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes” by Harlan Ellison®; Copyright © by The Kilimanjaro Corporation 2014. All rights reserved.