You wait around for the big contracts and then three come along at once. Literally. Three seriously big ones.
So here's a little entertainment while I set up three entirely different courses of work. It's one for the next book.
Death's day off
Seventy-four years I’ve lived in this town and in all those years, nothing has happened.
Oh, I don’t mean to imply the place is frozen in time, like some static museum exhibit. It’s not like that although on some hot summer days you might think it. People come and go, they marry, have children, die, paint their houses, mow their lawns, go to work. Everyone goes to Church on Sunday. The sun comes up and the sun goes down. That’s about as much excitement as I ever saw before today and I liked it that way.
We’re off the beaten track, so to speak. Forested mountain at the back of the village, Lake Petri at the front. No main roads within twenty miles and the one narrow road that comes here goes nowhere else. Once in a while a car shows up and we all stop to gawp at it. Nobody has a car here. Never felt the need for one. Horses go where cars can’t and there’s no petrol or oil around here anyway. It’s interesting to see the cars, to watch the styles change as the years pass.
Their occupants never change. Loud mouthed and indignant as if it’s our fault the road stops here. Like we’re in the way or something. They ask for directions and we laugh at them. There’s only one road in and out, so there’s only one direction they can go. After that, few know and none care to say. They want to think us yokels, we’ll act like yokels for them.
Ah, but I’m rambling. The prerogative of age, and the consequence of a life spent telling tales. I’ll try to stick to the point.
This morning, just like on many previous mornings, I sat on my porch and watched ripples on the lake. The sun rises over the mountain so it doesn’t strike the water near town before mid-morning. On a calm day with just a hint of a breeze, it’s something to see. Light banishes shadow, pushes it back over the town and into the mountain, and I can sit here and watch it happen. The fish rise when the flies get active and they can jump pretty high when they see a juicy one. Everything was peaceful and as close to silent as the world can get. That was when the man popped out of the air.
He landed in a heap, stood, dusted himself off, stared around and started in my direction before my mind came to terms with the fact of his existence. Thoughts moved faster through my head than they had in a long while. Was he real? Was I hallucinating? Had I fallen asleep and started dreaming? Was he Death, finally catching up with me in this little backwater I hoped he had forgotten about?
Whoever he was, he was having a bad hair day. A faded brown streaked with grey, it rampaged in lunatic strands on top of his skull and stuck out in tufts on either side. Whenever he looked around I had the impression the back of his head was in the process of exploding. The face attached to this wild growth was pale and round, centred on a snub nose on which sat little round glasses. These darkened as he approached. I had heard of such things but never seen it before.
His mouth worked as though speaking, a narrow opening above a chin so loaded with flesh it gave the impression of a man looking over a stack of pancakes.
Below the chins was a body so round it must surely look the same from every direction. Tapered trunks for legs and arms completed the man, and the whole was clad in what looked like a long white coat. He strode straight up to me, showing no concern at disturbing my morning, and flat out said “Who are you?”
“Huh?” I took a deep breath and waited until I was sure I could be civil. “Who am I? I live here. Who are you to ask who am I?”
He blinked. His mouth opened and closed a few times. “Oh. Right. Sorry, I don’t spend a lot of time around people. I’m Professor Wyndham Blackthorn. Now, who are you?”
“That’s better.” I considered rising from my seat to shake his hand, but the manner of his arrival made me cautious about touching him. If he vanished while I was in contact, I might go too. “I’m Zachary Tilson, that’s who I am.” I jerked my thumb over my shoulder. “That’s my house.” I jabbed my forefinger at his feet. “And that’s my land you’re standing on.”
Blackthorn looked at the ground. He lifted one foot, then the other, as if he was inspecting the ground beneath them, although I doubted he could see either foot.
“Ah,” he said. “Land, yes. Where is this land, I wonder? It’s something I should have asked you first, I suppose. Where am I?”
“On my land.” I leaned forward in my chair. “And making a sizeable dent in it too, I think.”
“No, I mean what place? What town, what grid reference. Oh, wait, I forgot.” He took a little black box from his pocket and pressed a few buttons. His face crumpled into what might have been a frown. “Oh, dear, no. There’s nothing here. According to this I’m way off any road and standing on the edge of Lake Petri.”
“Sounds right to me. What’s that gadget anyway?”
“GPS.” Blackthorn held the thing up. It was a little box with a screen on it, showing a map that was too small to be of any use to anyone. All it had was the lake and shore. He sighed, shook it a few times and finally put it back in his pocket. “So, is that lake Petri there or not?”
“That’s the lake, sure enough. It’s been there since before I was born. As has this town, Gemella. You, on the other hand, are new and surprising. We don’t like new and surprising here.” I thought of asking about that GPS thing but decided against it. Blackthorn said he was a professor. Professors like to know about things ordinary folk neither know nor care about. It makes them feel important, and who was I to spoil it for him? Yet my interest, long dormant, was waking. “How did you get here?”
“Ah, that’s an interesting story,” he said. I had no doubt of it, so I made no objection when he took the seat next to mine. Instead, I took out my pipe and sat back to listen.
Blackthorn stared across the lake. It seemed he regarded his statement as an end in itself, rather than the opening to the story I expected to hear. I coughed and raised one eyebrow. He shook himself and gave me a quizzical look.
“Well?” I tapped tobacco into my pipe. “You said it was an interesting story. Interest me or go away. Your choice.”
“Oh. Yes.” Blackthorn shifted in his seat. “Well, I can’t stay long. I have to keep moving, you see?”
It was my turn to raise an eyebrow. As it was, I raised both. “What? You’re on the run? I doubt you could run anywhere. Anyway, you don’t look much like a hardened criminal to me.”
“No, no, it’s nothing like that.” Laughter made Blackthorn ripple like jelly in the hands of Shaky Jim, the town drunk. “I have to keep going because, well, I made a deal with someone powerful. Someone you can’t break a deal with.”
“What, you mean you’re involved with the Mafia or something?” The idea made me uneasy. This quiet little town could do without James Cagney types visiting us. The films Bill Thorpe showed in his little front-room cinema made clear what to expect from organised crime.
“No, certainly not. I’m an academic. I would never get involved in anything illegal.”
“You’re making no sense.” I struck a match and fired up my pipe. “First you say you’re on the run, now you say you haven’t broken any laws. This story of yours isn’t really very well thought out, now is it?” A few puffs brought a glow to my pipe’s bowl. The tobacco was well alight. “Start at the beginning, skip the dull parts and finish when you dropped out of the air onto my land.”
“Right.” Blackthorn took a few deep breaths, closed his eyes for a moment, then nodded. “It started when I first claimed to have invented a teleport. That’s it. That’s when it started.”
“A what? You mean a ‘beam-me-up-Scotty machine’? Is that how you got here?” I held up my hand. “Sorry, I’m getting ahead of the story. Please, continue.”
“Well, yes, I suppose you could call it that. The thing is, I hadn’t actually invented one at the time. You know how it goes. A few drinks, other scientists bragging about their successes, the conversation gets out of hand…”
I chuckled. The town’s one bar hosted conversations like that all the time. Not wishing to distract Blackthorn from his tale, I kept silent.
“Well, the trouble with scientists is that they never let you forget claims you’ve made. I really was working on a teleport but it had never worked. Not at all. I had to demonstrate it, having made the claim, but it was a failure. I was about to look like a complete idiot.” Blackthorn ran his tongue across his lips. “So I accepted a little help from someone I shouldn’t.”
“Oh?” A chill ran through me. Dark, heavy clouds covered the sun. I hoped Blackthorn’s story was short because something told me I should not invite this man inside my house. I should send him on his way immediately but I wanted to hear his story first.
Blackthorn stared out over the lake. “I had been visited several times over the past months by a man who said he could make my machine work. There was a price, he said, but he never made clear what that price was to be. Naturally, I refused his help every time. It’s not the same, you know, having someone else help you with an invention. It wouldn’t have been entirely mine. I was close, I could feel it, but the answer seemed just out of reach.” He sighed and made a futile attempt to smooth his hair. “Then I made the boast. I had to deliver. When he came that last time I agreed to let him help. I wasn’t paying anything until I’d seen it work, though. He might have been some crooked sleight-of-hand conman for all I knew.”
“He wasn’t.” I realised I had stopped breathing and forced myself to start again. “You made a pact with the Devil himself, and now you’re brought him here.” If I had been a younger man I would have surged from my seat and flattened this devil-worshipping blob of a man myself. As it was, my arthritic joints gradually lifted me from my seat. I intended to go inside and call the minister. He would know what to do.
“No.” Blackthorn stared at me with sad eyes. “It wasn’t the Devil.”
The sky had become dark. A stiff breeze blew in across the lake, bringing chill air straight into my face. “Who, then?” I could think of no other explanation for Blackthorn’s success.
“I made a deal with Death.” Blackthorn rose from his seat with an ease that belied his bulk. His white coat had become a dark grey, and now sported a hood. “My machine worked, I was the talk of the scientific establishment for a long time. Of course, you won’t have heard about it here. The military took over the project as soon as they heard about it. It’s been hushed.” His bulk stretched. He grew taller and a little slimmer. In his hand, a shadow formed. A long staff with a curved blade.
I fell back onto the porch, my heart pounding.
“Death wanted some time off.” Blackthorn’s eyes showed desperation. “I hate to do this, but really I have no choice. I’m told it doesn’t hurt, if that’s any consolation.”
The tip of the blade touched my chest.