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The Stench of Fresh Air
By C.J. Henderson
Elder Signs PressCopyright © 2008 Elder Signs Press, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Young fingers — strong, nimble bone and muscle — twisted through the ancient hair for the ten thousandth time, still numb, still amazed. Still uncomprehending. The man staring at himself in his mirror no longer noticed the burn-scarred frame surrounding the reflecting glass. That much he comprehended. Now his face and form were the only thing he saw, the reversed image in front of him showing only the man he was, leaving him to search for the one he once had been.
He had never been a vain man in the past and, in truth, he had not become one now, either. But, he had found that he could not pass a minor without noticing his recently paled hair. Brown one day, white the next. If the mirror that caught his attention happened to be the one he had had moved from his office into his home he would stop automatically — staring — looking and remembering more than just his hair's former color. Drawn to its now-webbed, lightning-fried silver, it had become a constant reminder of the horror that had come and gone, leaving him strong but frail, young but weary.
Finally, when he tired of the wondering scrutiny, he let his eyes wander. He checked his tie, straightened the already-perfect knot another time, smoothed his crisp lapels. He looked himself up and down, searching for any imperfection that might delay his departure. Finding nothing, however, he turned at last from the mirror, returning to the trek to his apartment's front door.
No fat, at least, he thought.
He smiled at himself sardonically. He had always been more lean than bulky even before the great Conflagration. Now, however, he was gaunt — withered and crippled and stricken with eyes that saw through the ages, instantly assessing every happening around him with the blinding speed of one with the right to judge anything he wanted.
Ignoring the pain of motion, he pressed his weight down on the Blackthorn root walking stick he had been using as a cane, moving himself across the length of his dining room. Grabbing his hat down from its usual peg, he covered his white hair, then turned the knob of his apartment's front door, opening it just as his former assistant's hand was rising to strike it.
"Jeez, boss. You get me every time"
"It's not conscious, Paul," the man apologized. "I don't do it on purpose."
"I know," responded Paul Morcey, a grin on his face. "That's what makes it so interestin'."
The smaller man, balding but sporting longish hair pulled back in a near-foot-long ponytail, stepped inside, shutting the door behind him. Spinning around within the small foyer of London's apartment, he presented his arms with an exuberant "ta da" flourish, showing off his new suit. It was black, simply cut, with the faintest of gray pinstripes — neat, but not overbearing; simple, not grand. His shoes were buffed but not shining, everything in his appearance designed for him to blend in, not stand out — all as his partner had instructed.
"Nice outfit," said the man with the cane appreciatively.
"No one's going to notice me now, right, Mr. London?"
"Just all those love-starved businesswomen hearing their biological clocks ticking, just dying to wrap your ponytail around their wrists."
"Yeah?" responded the balding man with calculated innocence. "Where are they?"
"oh, out there somewhere."
"You sure about that?"
"Absolutely. I read about them in Time and Newsweek"
"Ohhhhhh," answered Morcey with exaggeration. "Then it's gotta be true. Right, boss?"
"Oh, yes," agreed London, smiling. "Absolutely."
He was always cheered by the presence of his one-time assistant. Until recently, Paul Morcey had been a janitor. But that had been a lifetime ago — a short lifetime — one spanning only fifty-six days, but a lifetime nonetheless.
Not even two months, thought Theodore London.
He stood still for a moment, leaning heavily on his cane, his mind flashing over the events that had brought him to that present moment in time. Fifty-six days previous, he had had dark hair that curled when soaked by rain or the sea. He had been blessed with two good legs then, arms that could knock back any man, and a strong reserve of wind within him — enough to last through any run or climb or fight.
Now, more than a million and a half people were dead, all of them gone in one monstrous flash, half of him stolen away by the same horrific gale that had claimed the others. Not allowing himself to get lost in the thoughts constantly circling within the back of his brain, however, London told his assistant;
"What do you think, Paul? Will the first good breeze knock me over?" The ponytailed man laughed, not even half able to take his one-time employer's words seriously.
"Yeah, right, boss. Jeez." He laughed again, tilting his head to one side. "Hell itself didn't shake you once you got yourself planted. Call me an optimist, but somehow, i don't think a little May breeze is goin'ta do the trick."
As Morcey headed down the stairs from London's building to his car waiting double-parked below, London allowed himself a brief smile, answering quietly;
"Maybe you're right, Paul."
Then, he put weight on his leg and began the pain of hobbling his way to the street.
* * *
London pushed with his shoulder to open the door to Leo's, the diner around the corner from the building housing his office. It was just a hot dog and juice shop, but he had eaten breakfast there on an average of perhaps three days out of every seven for the preceding four years. It was a simple place — one that seemed to the detective to be open twenty-four hours a day — always manned by the same three silent men.
Morcey had gone to park the car in their spot at the local lot; London would see him again at their office — once, the detective realized, he managed to limp all the way there, the block and a half that now suddenly seemed like forever. Made his way there for the first time, he thought again, in fifty-six days.
He wondered at what it would be like — to walk through the door, to be just — just — a detective once more. Not the man who saved the entire world — who had rescued every man, woman, and child alive or ever to live in the future — a future that now had a chance to unfold only because Theodore London had been born.
No, he thought, that guy lived for a few days, and now he's gone. I don't think I get to be that guy anymore — I'm not sure I want to be that guy again — not ever again.
Theodore London had saved the world, and all its teeming billions, at a cost he could not help but doubt had come as a bargain. Fate had positioned him to be The One, the only person who would be in the right place at the right time to take advantage of the only split second of opportunity there was going to be when the world could be saved at all. Despite the staggering costs in both lives and the property they held — despite the staggering costs as well to the man forced to make the decision — London had pulled the trigger that killed his best friend, along with a million plus other people, but also the impossible god demon from a decayed and hellish universe that would have destroyed not just the world, but everything in existence.
Teddy London had boldly cut a sickly, rotting tumor from the body of life known as The Earth, good cells sacrificed to save the whole. He had done it without debate, truly expecting to be one of the ones who perished. No one was more surprised at his survival than he was himself. But survive he did, however, and subsequently he was nursed back to a semblance of health by his friends, the only people alive who knew the following two secrets.
The first thing they knew was that their friend had saved the world around them — the galaxy, and from all they could tell, the entire universe — from a never-ending nightmare of torture and torment, one that would have consumed every person on their world, every molecule of life, and then spun on to every other star and planet in the nightly firmament, and all beyond, until everything that could possibly be touched, that held joy or life or even the barest glimmer of hope, was as husked and useless as twice-burnt coal.
The second thing they knew was that he still lived with the pain of a million and a half voices screaming in his head. Screaming in pain as they died inn burning terror, the handful sacrificed so billions might live, but cursing their pain and howling with all the power of a million years of developed nerves, feeling every burn of all flesh that was ever seared.
His friends also knew that it was the mindless bellow of those voices, the hollow, screeching agony of them that went on for days before London finally came out of his coma, that had actually withered him. Not the weight that pinned his leg or, as the hospital report had listed them, the:
Seventeen first-degree burns, 7% body surface damage;
Six two-degree burns, 24% body surface damage;
Twenty-eight third degree bums, 11% body surface damage;
Seven broken bones; et cetera.
None of it. it was the guilt of his heroism that had crushed him into a smaller man, a white-haired oldster who had come to look on the end of his life as only a release — one of which to be dreamed. For, it was beginning to seem to the detective that he would limp and slouch through that crushing guilt until the end of his days because the nature of its weight was to cripple, and he already lacked the power to stand.
He knew those who loved him were worried, but he did not know what he could about it. He had played his part, and as far as he was concerned, he should have been finished by then. Retired. Given the chance to just roam the range before him in the days he had remaining. indeed, after all he had done, all he had experienced, how could anyone expect him to just work a job now? What was he supposed to do ... go back to the mindless pursuit of dollars? For what? So he could buy lottery tickets?
Why, he asked. So he could pay taxes, eat in restaurants, go to movies, hand tribute over to beggars?
Was that the rest of his life? Watching the news so he could see who died that day — what planes fell from the sky, which congressmen were not proven to be cheats or drunks or rapists — that week? Was there nothing more to the future except trying to remember to separate his plastics from his cans from his news papers from his metals? He had stepped up onto a stage where whim became reality, and now he was supposed to ... supposed to ... what? Fit in?
How, he wondered. How could anyone expect anything from him ever again? And yet, they did. Everyone expected the detective to simply go on living now. He had looked into the face of a god, an all-powerful monstrosity of hate and greed, a rapacious garble of energy and self that ...
Annoyed, London silenced the part of his brain that could not stop yammering about what had happened. Life goes on, he told it. You survive, you do what has to be done. You take responsibility for what you can and see it through.
"That's all!" he hissed under his breath.
Staggering to the counter, drained by the effort it took to shut down his memory, he slid onto a stool and smiled weakly at the man who had taken his order — what — perhaps a thousand times over the years? — telling him;
"The usual Joseph."
"The usual 'what,' senor?" the man asked in earnest.
"Two eggs, scrambled, American cheese melted through, served with a lightly buttered, toasted bialy."
He could see that the counterman thought he knew at whom he was looking. Out of mercy, he summoned the energy to allow his old self to flood his eyes for a moment, adding, "Tea with lemon?"
"Senor London?" he asked, not believing what he was seeing. "Is it you? Truly you?"
"It's what's left of me," he answered, letting his eyes close over again.
"Was it ... the nightmare?" asked another of the countermen.
London nodded, memory eating at the energy he was using to hold it at bay.
"I knew it. Everyone — you see," the one said to the other, the third working on London's order. "Everyone knows someone who suffered. Everyone in the city ..."
"What do you expect?" answered his mate. "A million and a half people ..."
All three turned toward London's voice.
"Excuse me ...?" asked the first.
"It was more."
"More 'what,' senor?"
"More lives — screaming. Hundreds of thousands more." The detective pulled down a deep breath, tasting it, sucking the life from it. Then he finished, the death in his voice frightening the three countermen to the point where all they could do was stare at him numbly.
"One million ...," he told them, "... seven hundred and nineteen thousand, five hundred and sixty-two"
"How?" asked the one who had not yet spoken, the one carrying the then finished breakfast platter. "How ... do you ... know?"
"They told me," answered London.
His eyes passed over all of the men, shaking them with their assurance that he was neither mad nor lying. The one with the platter, fighting his nerves, had to use both his hands to keep the meal steady, afraid to spill it, afraid to drop it, afraid to approach his customer. As his fingers slid the hot plate toward London, the detective's eyes scanned the food, one of his favorite meals, in one of his favorite eateries.
His body started to tremble from the sight, his long-empty stomach rebelling, screeching for the food on the plate before him. The warm smells of it seized him, rocking the detective with agonizing rumbles of pain and desire. His hands, shaking with indecision, skittered toward the food like rats. His fingers slammed awkwardly against and through the surface of the eggs, the melting cheese burning him, releasing memory. Trailing hot strings of dripping food, he thrust his hands into his clothing in search of his wallet.
Finding it, he threw money at the countermen, neither knowing how much nor caring. He only knew he had to escape them before they realized just what he was. And then hated him as much as he hated himself.CHAPTER 2
London limped through the front doors of 132 Greeley Arcade, tired and shaken, wishing he were home, safe behind his fast-drawn curtains. it was too soon, too early for him to be back, he thought. Far too early. Shaking, he leaned against the long marble wall, grateful for the support. None of the others waiting with the detective recognized him, not even the front deskman who had watched London enter on a daily basis for years. To all of the others grumbling and fidgeting in the lobby, he was merely another tenant or tenant customer, waiting for the elevator. Easily ignored.
"I should have never tried to do this again," he told himself, feeling as though his mere presence outside his brownstone were enough in itself to certify him insane. "Not now. i should be home. This is just too soon — too soon ..."
A moment away from limping back out to the street in search of a cab — from fleeing — one of the sets of elevator doors before him opened, forcing the detective to go up to his office. He stepped inside with the others all around him, ignoring their push and feel, closing his eyes as the doors slid shut again. He could feel them, the entire way up, smell them, hear their thoughts, feel their desires. The stench of their formidable presence was overwhelming. intoxicating.
Exiting the metal coffin, the detective gasped, his back hitting the wall of the hallway as the doors slid closed behind him. He put the fingers of his left hand to his forehead, shutting his eyes at the same time. Sucking in the joyful emptiness of the hallway, he finally released the breath he was holding, then used his Blackthorn cane to maneuver himself the fifteen steps to the entrance to his office.
Once there, he stood before it for a moment, not going straight in. Gathering his breath, he calmed his nerves, using the moment to scrutinize the letters on the frosted glass embedded in the door of his office. He moved his eyes in a fashion indicating to no one in particular that he was somewhat please to see that his company notice had been repainted as per his orders.
"The London Agency"
He read the words aloud softly, under his breath. Now that he had a set of partners he had shortened the old wording, making it stuffier, more corporate, more businesslike. The agency was the only thing outside his home that he owned and, if it had been up to him, he would have closed the place down, happy at the thought of never having to see it again.
But, he had told himself, his friends had risked as much as he had and, like himself, had nothing else to show for it. For them the detective had kept the firm solvent — kept it intact as a base from which they could all anchor themselves. He felt it was the least he had owed them.
Excerpted from The Stench of Fresh Air by C.J. Henderson. Copyright © 2008 Elder Signs Press, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Elder Signs Press.
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