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There was trouble in the King's Basement. It sniffed through the shadowy rows of shelves and racks of journals and dog-eared periodicals; it scratched at the metal filing cabinets and wooden storage cases; it gnashed between the yellowing sheets of documents and papers, correspondence and court orders. Trouble was on the prowl and it bristled like static-charged soil in that instant just before the lightning strikes.
• • •
Now, the King's Basement was really the basement of the Family Court Building but it was commonly referred to as the King's Basement because it was told that a chauffeur-driven limousine had skidded to a stop in the summer of late1930-something, and out popped none other than King George of England himself (who was en route to the Capital on a highly secret whirlwind tour to drum up support for the approaching war). His Hurried Highness scurried up the stairs and ducked into the Family Court Building, ran downstairs to the building's only toilet and established his Royal Territorial Rights "down there in the basement where they keep all them files," said Lucas Barton, the town's oldest living senior with a memory. "Peed the same color's the rest of us accordin' to Gail Bright, the cleanin' lady who washed the toilet that night and said His Highness was the only man who used the john there in probably a month. An' he was none too good a shot."
And now, over half a century later, the quietude of this solemn place was peed away again by a gasp, a breathless silence, several quick heartbeats, and a cluck of astonishment.
Elsie Delaney stared semi-wide-eyed at the openfile in her shaking hands as two lazy ceiling fans nudged particles of air floating around in the dust. In all her years in the Family Court Building, she'd never seen anything quite like this, never. From somewhere outside the barred window at the end of the aisle, a car horn honked twice, then twice more. Elsie's cheeks were flushed and brilliant crimson against the background of a high and wide shock of white hair.
"Oh my goodness." Her voice was almost a whisper, a whisper that threatened to scream in disbelief and turn His Majesty's Quietude on its Devine Butt. "Oh my."
She laid the file on top of a bounded set of legal journals, rust red and dust-caked since God knows when, and she rummaged through the papers in the file. Her fingers and palms moistened with tension as her shoulders stiffened under her chocolate brown cardigan. "This is strange. This is very strange, indeed."
And when she finished checking every paper in the file, she rechecked, and then checked them again, held each up to an electric light over her head and rubbed them between thumb and forefinger to make sure nothing was stuck together.
"Oh my goodness. That poor man." Elsie picked the file up off the learned volumes and closed it. "How am I going to tell him?" File in hand, she hobbled between the towering stacks to the door.
"I certainly hope he hasn't remarried."
The fake foliage rustled in a fan-generated breeze by his ear. With his eyes closed and his nostrils teased by stray wisps of pine incense, he could almost believe that he was in a wooded area, even if the smell didn't quite match the tree. But then, the tree wasn't really a tree and the wooded area was just an arrangement of piezoelectric boughs and branches and polymer twigs and leaves in a corner of his office.
There was no color in his face, the blood having been flushed from his veins and replaced with something in an off white, a slow-flowing fluid that stuck like mashed rice to the walls of his blood vessels.
His eyelids quivered under mangy brows. His ponderous lower lip twitched over a worry-pinched chin. His flat nose quaked around the nostrils. His long black pony tail, being composed of mostly dead matter, flowed with relative calm from the back of his relatively hair free head.
A string of microchips embedded in the tree emitted a series of creaks and a groans as he shifted his weight on the bough.
Some people put rock climbing configurations on their office walls to practice climbing in their free time. Malcolm Gray (aka Mal) put a sprawling section of synthetic maple tree in his office for those moments when nothing would do the trick but sitting in a tree, and this was one of those moments.
"There's no way you're divorced," she'd said, her voice so sympathetic and grandmotherly. The words so horrifying. "There's no way you're divorced." The soft-spoken woman from the Family Court had left no outs, no room for hope: "I'm really very terribly sorry, Mr. Gray, but there are just no divorce papers. There's only the custody and support papers. Nothing else. You're not divorced. There was never any divorce. You're still legally married."
Four years of thinking he was single, of constructing his life around the basic premise of his wife having assumed the identity of ex-wife and he, the identity of ex-husband. All that now down the proverbial shitter. It clamored in his brain and wrung his stomach into a twisted rag of nausea. "There's no way you're divorced."
No way. He crouched in his tree at the sound of a light knock on his door.
Copyright © 2006 Biff Mitchell