Parts 6 - 11 of an unfinished novella concerning a man's search for perfection...
William awoke, undressed, lying in his bed with sunlight pouring through the curtains of his room. His head pounding, he sat up and looked at his alarm clock. A small white envelope was taped to it. His name was typed on the outside. He removed it, noting the late morning time ticking away loudly beneath, and tore it open. Inside was a letter written in a beautiful, curling hand on paper so white it burned his eyes.
I have taken the liberty of phoning your office and telling them you would be late this morning, a family emergency that sent you out of town unable to catch a train back until this morning. Your mother was ill, I believe. They will be expecting you at noon. Just to let you know, I have told them that you will be making the trip for several nights and that they should not anticipate seeing you very often. Mr. Henderson was very understanding; I’ll give him that. I told them that I was your sister, Mary Anne.
I had a wonderful evening with you, William. One of the best I have had in a long time. You were an excellent dancer. You shouldn’t lie about things like that. I’m sorry that I was unable to fulfill the promise I made to you when you first arrived. But I am sure that I will see you again this evening…maybe then I will be able to be alone with you. It will be worth the wait, I promise. I think we should need a few hours at least.
It is very important that you bring someone with you tonight. The Members will be expecting it. And, trust me, they are not a group to be disappointed. Seth Thomas would be the most likely candidate, I believe. Though you would know best. Roger Franklin, possibly? Or even Arthur Washington. You choose.
PS – I was the one who took you home. I like your place, its very unassuming. I promise, I only peeked at your underwear. I would have expected that you wore boxers.
A card was enclosed with a different number this time.
His shower was hot. His hair felt thicker as he shampooed it. His belly felt smaller as he lathered it. His face was definitely thinner as he shaved it. Most of his clothes were a little loose and the belt had to be cinched a few holes tighter than normal. Surely he was imagining these changes, but the man in the mirror seemed different from the day before.
His whole mood was better. He no longer was afraid of going to work. Normally, he dreaded the subway ride to the office. He was actually excited. It was an adventure traveling the underground train with so many people. The people huddled around the seats and hanging hand holds were impressed by him and seemed to move out of the way so that he could have the best seat. Women, young and old, smiled and noticed him. He ended up having a bench to himself on the 116 to 52nd. No one would take the seat next to him, even if he offered. They were not frightened, it seemed that they didn’t wish to cause him an inconvenience.
The rather attractive lady in the black hat spoke to him and laughed at his corny jokes as the train clanked along its rail. She told him that he was funny and interesting. As she gave him her telephone number, she practically begged him to call her some night. When he kissed her hand as she disembarked at her stop, she blushed a bright red.
He arrived at Radford and Barney well after noon and was immediately escorted by Linda, the receptionist, into the office of Mr. Henderson. She was flustered by him, but not by anything that he did.
“Dacyczyn. Thank you for seeing me.” Henderson said, offering William a chair and a cigar, “I am very sorry to hear about your mother. I trust she is improving.”
William took everything that he was offered. “She’s doing all right, thank you. I’ll see her again tonight.”
Henderson sat on the edge of his desk and lit William’s cigar. Puffing on his own, he said, “You’ve been here a long time, haven’t you?”
“Over fourteen years, Mr. Henderson.”
With a smile, “Call me Richard, please.”
“All right, Richard.” William had never been asked into Henderson’s office.
Henderson stood. “After your sister called, lovely woman by the way, I took it upon myself to review your history with us and was surprised at what I found. You have been operating just below my notice and I apologize for that.”
Dacyczyn shook his head.
“No. No.” Henderson continued, “Don’t be so modest. You’ve done an exemplary job, William…can I call you William?”
He nodded. “Of course, Richard.” He breathed in cool, Cuban smoke and smiled.
Henderson began pacing the floor behind him.
“You’ve never called in sick. You’ve never taken a vacation. You’ve never missed a day. Your clients consistently do business with us. Usually refusing to work with anyone but you. That is a very good sign. They trust you. They believe you. That is the kind of loyalty and satisfaction that we strive for here at Radford and Barney. If only some of the other agents could swing that kind of achievement.” He stopped and placed his hands on William’s shoulders, “You’re the kind of man that I treasure, Dacyczyn. I would like to reward your patience and ethic.”
Henderson wandered back to his desk and sat down on the corner again, facing him…extremely serious. William took a drag and savored the feel of smoke in his mouth and lungs. He was smiling.
“William, I’d like to make you head of your department: Head of Sales. Which basically means that you don’t have to work as hard and can have the key to the executive washroom.” He laughed and waited for William to speak.
William waited and knocked off the ash of his cigar in the ashtray. He leaned back and regarded his superior. He was suddenly struck with sadness as he sat there in the leather chair.
“All right, I’ll take the promotion on one condition.”
“Full benefits and a fifty percent raise.”
“Wait a minute. Fifty percent?”
William made like he was getting up.
“Hold on…” Henderson said, “I was ready to offer you a seventy-five percent raise.” He was grinning like a Cheshire cat except the teeth in his smile were stained and yellow.
“Well, if that’s the case, I’d rather not have to pay for benefits.”
Henderson considered…but not really. He was just putting on a show.
Henderson rose and slapped William on the back. “Excellent, we’ve got a deal. Welcome to the big time, Mr. William Dacyczyn.”
He opened a drawer and handed William a key ring with two new shiny keys.
“Here’s the key to your new office…Linda will show you where it is…and, of course, the key to the executive washroom. I’m sure you know where that is.”
“Of course.” William tried not to smile too noticeably.
“Just finish out today and get used to everything and then take a few days to sort out whatever needs to be sorted out with your family. I’d like to see you next Monday morning. Say eleven o’clockish.” Henderson slapped his back as he led him out.
William was still smoking his cigar when he unlocked the door to his new office. Linda had pointed to the door and hurriedly withdrawn. It was huge and impressive with a big desk and an amazing view of downtown. He was hastily introduced to his secretary, Flora Walker – a tight-lipped, mousy excuse of a woman, who actually curtsied at the introduction. He had seen her before and she had been unimpressed. She now seemed honored at the prospect of working for him. She even had a dozen yellow daffodils waiting on the desk.
His desk was empty and he received no calls. Flora came in twice to give him a cup of coffee and ask if he needed anything. “No.” was always the answer. At about 4:30 in the afternoon, William asked for Mr. Roger Franklin to be shone in. Roger wasn’t at his desk, he was told. Mr. Seth Thomas? Also gone, out on a business trip to a client’s office in Rockport.
“Arthur Washington, then…surely he’s here.” William was getting annoyed.
“Yes, sir. Right away, sir.” came her hasty reply.
Arthur was a noticeably obese man with a penchant for strong drink. When William offered him a neat whiskey, his apprehension dissipated as quickly as the contents of his glass. Arthur sat in one of the leather chairs staring widely about him. His face glistened with the effort of the long walk from his desk to William’s new office. Beads of perspiration trickled down his face from his thinning scalp and pooled in the folds under his chin. He smiled.
“You’re the talk of the floor, Willie.” his mouth a thick, pink rubber band that stretched taut and snapped back as he spoke, “D’you mind if I have another?”
William shook his head and watched him pour another drink. Not a double…more like a quadruple. Half of the liquor was gone from the decanter.
“I’ve asked you here for a very important reason, Arthur.”
Washington’s eyes were glazed in the flesh of his face, little spots of glossy black. There were dark stains in the armpits of his too small, white shirt.
“Have you ever heard of the Midnight Society?” William continued as he slid the simple, white card across the polished surface of his desk.
Arthur turned his bottom lip up in a frown and shrugged, “No.”
William arrived home at a quarter to nine that evening. He had taken a cab this time. It was a nice change from the train and cost him most of the cash in his wallet. There would be more coming so he didn’t mind.
It had taken dinner and more drinks to convince Arthur Washington. William had found that his little speech hadn’t been as persuasive as Malcolm Townsend’s. He would need more practice. Most likely by the third time he would have it down pat. He had won over Arthur with one argument: women. Washington’s heavily padded skull had nearly burst when William had spoken about the lovelies congregated there. He had asked so many questions.
The tuxedo from the previous night was hanging in his closet, cleaned and pressed. It was a different size this time, a 38 long, and it fit him flawlessly. He caught himself in the mirror that hung on the back of his bureau door and was shocked at the man who looked back at him; a thinner, taller, handsome man with a surprising shock of gray hair running down the center of his scalp. Had that always been there? A face much more angular than he remembered, the paunch of inactivity receding, legs longer and more defined. His hair seemed trained to lay down, slicked back with only a tiny dollop of cream. Altogether, it was a substantial transformation. His smile did not fade as he picked up the telephone and dialed the operator.
“Elm 87542, please.” He nearly sighed into the handset as he was connected.
“Hello?” She answered.
“William Dacyczyn here.”
“Yes, sir. Mr. Washington has already called. We will be meeting tonight at 16th and South Boston.”
He said thank you and replaced the receiver.
At eleven o’clock, he had the taxi drop him off at 15th and South Boston, content to walk the additional block. The night was brilliant with a cool breeze ghosting the moon and bright stars that dotted the muted sky. It hadn’t rained but the streets appeared wet. The block was empty and his shoes made a loud noise that wasn’t entirely unpleasant. William was aware of the city about him: the distant sounds of traffic and people, the occasional barking of a dog, the skittering of newsprint through the alleyways.
When the door opened, the man smiled and spoke. He voice was kindly and overly polite.
“Mr. Dacyczyn. Welcome back and good evening. You are expected.”
He took his hat and coat and motioned to a door on the opposite wall. His tone was altogether different from the night previous. His grin was reserved, little or no teeth visible.
The door revealed an opulence to take one’s breath away. Thousands of gay paper lanterns hung from the ceiling, each with several candles, filling the hall with a splendid warmth and glow that flickered and caressed the beautiful crowd that gathered beneath them. Three grand fountains cascaded into a pool of water that ran down the center of the arched hall, a myriad of tea candles floating on its undulating surface. The band, rolling into a wonderful Sinatra tune about the French Foreign Legion, was circled by rich foliage of green with yellow and white flowers. The tables round about them were lavishly clad with centerpieces of jungle flowers that hung to the marbled floor; orchids, and other delicate, fragrant tropical plants from who knows where.
Near to him was a lovely lady, wearing some sort of frilly French cocktail dress, passing out packs of cigarettes. William selected Pall Malls, fished one out of the cellophane, and lit it. He felt handsome. He felt debonair. He felt like some one else. He was an actor from a movie, playing the part of a sophisticate. It was wonderful and it was real. He was no longer wading on the edge afraid to submerge. He was a part of it all and soaking in it, over his head and drowning, but yet somehow able to breathe.
William turned and saw her. Resplendent in red and wearing her black hair up to reveal the milky skin of her long neck, Moira was smiling at him. Her eyes traced his body – much like his were doing, as well – and she placed a chilled martini in his hand. She removed the cigarette from his mouth and took a long, luxurious drag before replacing it between his lips.
“You aren’t the same man I met last night.” She said, letting the smoke drift from her painted lips. He blinked when his eyes had dried out.
“You, my dear, are definitely the same woman I saw last night.” Dacyczyn whispered as he pulled her close and nuzzled her ear. Her smell was invigorating. His actions no longer surprised him…they were expected and he enjoyed himself. Her response returned warmth to him that chilled as much as excited. His hand found the small of her back and traced circles there.
“You are lovely this evening, Ms. Emanuelson,” he said.
She giggled, almost a low growl, and slid her cheek against his. Her skin rasped against his stubble. “As are you, Mr. Dacyczyn.”
The dress she wore was open in the back, and William was surprised to find that his touch had raised goose bumps on the smooth, pale skin. “Has Mr. Washington arrived?”
“Not yet.” Her hand found his and pulled him toward the dance floor, out into the tangled mass that swayed there, softly, like grass in moonlight. William dropped his cigarette into his glass, heard a quick hiss as it extinguished.
“I really can’t dance.”
“Don’t you dare lie to me.”
Wrapping his arms about her, he let the soft flow of the music melt them together. The band was playing “Some One to Watch Over Me” and he couldn’t help himself.
Washington arrived at a quarter to midnight looking, honestly, not much better in his tuxedo. A blonde was on his arm, not as pretty as Moira by a long shot, but still very attractive. She was all teeth and forehead. Arthur was all smiles and sweat. Dacyczyn spoke to him once, quickly, with Moira on his arm. He knew how he must look to him; an unachievable dream that, nonetheless, was about to come true. Moira didn’t catch his eyes and merely nodded her head to him when the girl, Loraine, introduced him.
“Willie, this is fantastic!” he said, out of breath and daubing his face with an already soaked handkerchief, “…I don’t know what to say…” his heated palm found William’s and engulfed it in a wild shake, “…except thank you. Thank you so much.”
Moira mouthed words that Dacyczyn could not hear and would not repeat them when he asked. Loraine whisked Washington away to the dance floor. William found that he couldn’t watch. It made him sad to see such a large man apparently unaware of his lack of ability. But, Arthur was having the time of his life if his heart could last through the strain.
“Let’s eat something.” Moira said, scanning the tables, “I’m ravenous.”
Soon, escargot and buttered lobster and a bottle of a sweet Parisian chardonnay were set before them. Moira tore a loaf of crusty bread in half and asked William to choose his portion. The crystal settings on the table were edged in gold. He was sure the utensils were silver…they almost had to be, he grinned.
Pouring wine into her glass, he asked, “Everything all right?”
Mouth still full of bread, she emptied her glass, swallowed and motioned for more, “Fine.”
William filled her glass and chuckled, “You’ll have to do a better job of convincing me.”
“I just hate this part of it, that’s all,” she sighed.
Her left hand toyed with her hair, twirling it around slender fingers. “Nothing.” She shook her head as if to clear it and breathed a deep lungful of air. “Nothing.” Her smile returned and she leaned into him. The kiss left him stinging. Her tongue had touched his.
“Have you ever had snail before?” she said, settling herself in her chair.
“No. But I killed tons of ‘em with salt when I was a kid. They were all over the garden.”
“Those are slugs, you idiot.”
“And these aren’t?”
“Do slugs have shells?”
“So…snails do. They’re different.” She was laughing.. She placed a few of the lumps from the serving dish onto his plate with a silver serving spoon, “If you’ve never had them before…they take a bit of getting use to.”
His hand caught her wrist. “I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
She was right. Snails did take a bit to get used to, and, after one, William found that he wasn’t willing to expend the energy that “a bit” would require. He contented himself with the lobster – which was superb. After dinner and dessert (a wonderful bread pudding soaked in brandy), they shared a drink and a smoke. William enjoyed it immensely.
Sometime after 1:30, William caught sight of Malcolm Townsend across the room, white tuxedo shining, and pointed to his watch. Townsend nodded and tilted his head toward the side door where several of the members were already exiting, Lionel Eldredge among them.
Washington was at the bar, Bromide in hand, staring at the white, pasty bubbles traveling up the side of the glass. Loraine was with him, rubbing his balding scalp.
Loraine’s voice was high and trebly and her mouth was full of chewing gum, “Arthur, sweetie.” She tapped his head as William approached.
He turned and blinked slowly, trying to focus and failing. “Willie?”
Dacyczyn frowned. “All right, let’s go, Mister.”
Washington slipped from the stool and nearly fell to the floor while struggling to stand. William placed a hand under his arm to steady him. “Finish that,” he said, pointing to the seltzer.
He did so in one great, heaving gulp.
“I’m trying to wake up, Willie.” Arthur mumbled, punctuating his sentence with a belch.
“Come on, then.” William said, giving the girl a warning glance.
She turned red and her voice went up a further octave, “Hey, I told him to stop!”
“Try harder next time.”
It was a different room, but the feeling was the same: light, table, chairs and faces. Arthur took his place at the end of the table, with Dacyczyn at his right side. Townsend, Eldredge, Kirk and all of the others were there, the light casting shadows on their faces. Arthur was swaying in his seat, but no one seemed to mind.
No one offered him a cigarette.
William could not tell who said it. They all stood in one fluid motion – the sound of their suits like a flock of birds taking sudden flight – only Arthur, bemused and blinking with his head swaying and rolling in tiny circles, remained seated. Dacyczyn helped him stand, all the while Arthur offering slurred apologies.
No one was smoking, William noticed. No one was smiling. They were staring at Washington with a look he found hard to categorize. Most of the faces were now hidden in shadow, the light of the lamp hitting their chests. But William could see eyes glinting. Some, he would have sworn, were moist with tears. He found that his breath was shallow and that his palms were damp. His eyes were darting from face to face, searching for something – for meaning, he guessed. He knew that he did not want to be here. A lump filled his throat that he could not swallow.
Arthur Washington was smiling as he swayed. Drunk, happy and unaware. William waited and placed a hand on Arthur’s shoulder.
Anderson Kirk’s voice was low and sibilant when he spoke. He started at the sudden sound of it.
“William Dacyczyn, who is this you bring before us?”
He could only breathe for a moment. “I bring Arthur Washington.”
“For what purpose.” This time Malcolm Townsend.
“First of the three Initiates required of me.” He was shocked that the words could come so easily. His stomach churned and if fear had not held him straight he would have doubled over.
Lionel Eldredge now. “New Initiates were not required. Supplicants were called for.” The tone of his voice tore into him.
Kirk addressed Washington, “Arthur Washington.”
Bleary eyed, Arthur fought to focus in the direction of the voice, “Yes, sir?”
“Have you enjoyed yourself this evening?”
Another voice from the ring of faces, “Would you consider this to be the greatest night of your life?”
“Oh…yes, sir.” Arthur smiled.
And still another, “Would you be willing to consider this the last night of your pitiful life?”
“Of course, sir.” His smile broadened to an idiotic grin.
William’s knees were shaking; he could feel sweat dripping down the back of his legs. Something felt horribly wrong. “What is this? Wait…he’s not himself…you can’t mean…”
“Quiet, Dacyczyn.” Townsend again.
Eldredge motioned to the center of the table. “Arthur, please lie there.”
Arthur Washington placed his foot on the seat of William’s chair and began to scramble onto the polished table. Dacyczyn could feel his face pale and his lower lip begin to tremble. Terror shone from his eyes. His voice was a screech as he reached for Washington’s belt.
Arms restrained him. Two unnamed dark figures had leapt to his side from somewhere out of the dark corners. He struggled against them, sweat and spittle running down his fevered face. Iron grips held him.
“Arthur! God, no! Arthur!”
His shouts echoed from the high ceiling and rebounded back to him, but Arthur Washington continued to move, crawling on his hands and knees to the center of the table. His fat, mottled face strained to a crimson red. Still he smiled like a toddler, only wishing to please and ecstatic that he could.
William kicked. He pushed against them with his leather-soled feet digging scratches on the wood floor. He screamed insanely, shouting the names of the faces he knew. None turned or paid him any attention for now Arthur Washington was lying face up on the table before them.
One by one, they placed their right hands on his body. Head, shoulder, waist, thigh, knee, shin and around to the other side, covering him with manicured fingers and white palms. Arthur enjoyed the warmth of their touch and sighed.
Dacyczyn shrieked, “Why are you doing this?! Arthur!”
“Silence.” Not a shout, merely a whisper. It was Washington who spoke. His smile deepened.
Terror smothered William’s throat.
They were hungry, he saw, for the first time. The look that he had seen in their eyes was feral, animal hunger. He stopped fighting them, for they were staring at him. Boring into his skull with unseen fire. He stared back unable to break their gazes. The eyes, dear God, their eyes. They all caught the reflected light from the lamp and glowed a pale yellow, like wolves caught in the flicker of firelight. They did not blink. William opened his mouth to shout again, but had no voice.
“Place his hand on the supplicant.”
Fear rolled across his chest and wrapped its cold fingers about his thundering heart. He felt them place his right hand on the center of Washington’s cool scalp. He tried desperately to pull away, but their grip could not be broken. Sweat poured down his forehead and blinded him. He could not wipe it away.
A sound like breath issued from Arthur’s mouth – a long, exhaling groan. At least, that was how it all began. William shook his head to clear his eyes. Arthur’s vocal chords gave the breath a voice – low at first, a guttural growl but growing louder by the second. His body began to shake and quiver. His mouth was open wide and the growl had become a screech. The force of the spasms shook the great table.
William blinked and his eyes emptied.
Before him, Washington began to wither. A sallow gray replaced the pink tone of his skin. His face lengthened and his eyes sank deep into their sockets. His ponderous belly deflated like a toy balloon and his screech became a high-pitched shriek. His leather shoes fell flat to the table unable to stay supported by the thin, emaciated feet to which they were tied. Meaty shoulders and arms became bone and tendon, desiccated and skeletal.
William shut his eyes and groaned. The body on the table ceased its movements and lay still. The leathery texture under his fingers made his skin crawl, but still they held him there.
A voice, Eldredge he thought, broke the stillness, “And now the Gift…”
A tingle of warmth rode up his arm. A sensation of thousands of tiny, stiletto needles moving over him from head to toe. William felt warped and stretched. He felt bones crack and pop. His slouched posture improved as his back straightened. Muscles contracted and expanded, swelling under the warmth of change. Fat gurgled and seemed to melt away from his frame. His head rocked back with the force of the transformation. A bright, almost florescent glow filled his vision. He could feel the tiny hairs on his ears stand. He heard every sound about him with crystal clarity: the air conditioner thundered loudly through the vents, the movement of starched collars against skin, the settling of unseen dust on the floor, the minute stirring of leather shoes on polished wood, metal and paper change rustling in pockets.
An itch and tickle built within his belly. His mind raced, his body lunged.
And then it was over.
He was led to his chair and released. An acrid odor filled the room and, after what seemed like hours, he raised his head.
A clap of thunder filled the emptiness but did not end. The Members of the Midnight Society stood, smiles on every face, and applauded him. A sick impulse took hold of him to stand and bow, but the sight of the shrunken stick figure lying on the desk won out. His hands found his temples and his head fell forward again. Bile rose in the back of his throat and he fought back the reflex to vomit.
He could still see the smile on the withered corpse’s face. Gray skin pulled back from yellowed, chalk teeth.
Someone placed a plastic tarp over the body and removed it from the room, a slice of white light bursting in as they opened a door on the other wall and disappeared. The applause continued, beating and crashing against him. William collapsed back into the chair.
An outline of dust filled the center of the table.
They were laughing and talking about him. He felt hands on his shoulders, patting, congratulating. The members began to leave.
Only one voice rang out loudly above them all. It was Malcolm Townsend’s: “Two more, Dacyczyn. Only two more…and you’ll never have to go through that again.” His laughter broke him.
Hot tears welled up and stung his eyes, William Dacyczyn wept. His body shook with the force of his sadness. It was only when Moira came to him and held him close that he was able to quiet himself.
As he opened his eyes and felt the burn of bright sunlight, he became aware that he lay in someone else’s bed. At least, he was sure that it was not his own. A sickening roll of nausea gurgled in his stomach. A great swath of white gossamer hung above him making a canopy from the four blonde, wooden posters of the bed. The pillows were encased in satin and embroidered with flowers.
Moira lay next to him, breathing softly, hair spread on the clean white sheets, her arms holding a pillow close to her, cradling it like a child. Her back was a milky field of pale, bare white skin that spread a delicious heat into the covers. Her smell comforted him and he slid his arms about her. She made a wonderful sleepy noise and settled against him.
What a dangerous and lovely prison this would make, he thought, with bars of satin and warm flesh.
The windows were open and the curtains danced in the light cool breeze. He could hear the sounds of the city below him. The room was the color of pale sunlight and warm yellows. The air smelled of rain and cement, a clean smell of a city freshly laundered, crisply edged brick and electricity humming through wire.
She stirred and turned her head to look at him. She was lovelier than ever, unkempt, unadorned, face sweet and slightly swollen from sleep, beautiful. Her green eyes blinked sluggishly and she smiled.
“Hello,” she said, rubbing her eyes and stretching, “Are you okay?” Her voice was low, a drowsy rumble.
“I’m all right. I feel better this morning.”
She didn’t laugh but made a noise that was close. “That’s good,” she considered, “You kind of frightened me last night.”
William rolled onto his back and Mora moved to her side, laying an arm across his chest. Her fingers were twisting the coarse, black hair on his chest. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
He touched her face. “Did you know what they were going to do?”
Her fingers stopped moving. “Yes.”
William’s eyes became hot and he felt moisture filling the corners of his vision. His lungs trembled. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I couldn’t or I would have been just as dead as Arthur Washington.”
The tone of her voice brought redness to his eyes. Her body was not as welcome as it had been, the warmth turning suddenly cold. A sharp pang of fear and regret speared his heart. He closed his eyes and immediately wished that he hadn’t. Washington’s sallow, shrunken face floated before him; his shriveled eyes running like broken egg yolks down his leathery skin. William rubbed the heal of his hand across his forehead and eyes, painfully wiping his tears away. The sound of their applause thundered like a growl over him, dangerous and predatory.
The sheets felt hot on his legs and he swept them away. He pulled away from her and sat up, cracking the joints of his toes on the carpeted floor.
“William?” her voice was sweet again, and her fingers were moving on the skin of his back, “How do you feel?”
“Like a murderer.” His voice shook.
“No. How do you feel?”
“I just told you.”
She frowned, he was sure of it. “I killed a man last night,” he continued, “I lied and led him to his death. How do you think I feel?” Her callousness burned him.
“Feel the touch of my fingers.”
He heaved an angry sigh and closed his eyes, playing pantomime just to make her stop. At first, he found that he was afraid. A fear tumbled his insides and grasped at his stomach. Her fingers were sliding over the smooth skin of his back, tracing up and then down around the rounded knuckles of his spinal cord. Goose bumps writhed across him, tiny hairs jolted upright. His breathing lessened and his head shook slightly on his neck.
The light, white fabric of the curtains rode the breeze from the window. He could hear the material rubbing against itself. Moira shifted in the sheets, a rasping and rough sound. Her hair slid from her shoulder to fall between angular bones. Each hair moved with a static tinkle like a myriad of tiny high-pitched wind-chimes struck by a careless hand. Her skin stretched taut with each breath.
“Moira?” he whispered.
“Can you feel me?”
His mind seemed to circle them, an ever-widening field of pinpoint awareness. Her body was a mass of swaying heat, punctuated with flashes of green incandescence. Pores opened and breathed. Long strands of hair scratched from her scalp as they slid minutely from their budded sprouts. Her heart thudded loudly, bright and glowing. He could see it and feel its timed contractions. Her mind was open to him; a cacophony of thought and emotion, flitting from fear and desire to loneliness and profound melancholy. It hurt him to feel so much of her. She spoke, lips not moving: What is he seeing? It was merely a breath exhaled. Her fear was powerful and raw. Her sadness drowned him and he was pulled deeper.
A flickering kaleidoscope of memory played before him. A silent film unwound like a stream of bright light filled with feeling and picture. Moira was tiny, just a baby, crying as her pacifier fell from her mouth. She danced with an older man who frightened her. In the back seat of a car – its windows fogged, a single tear rolled down her face as she screamed at him to stop. The man’s face had no features. A solitary white rose crushed underfoot. Blue eyes stared at nothing, pupils contracting and flecked with gold. A doll’s head bobbed up and down in a slick of dirty, gray bathwater. A tombstone emblazoned with the name Josef Emanuelson – her father? Wind billowing against a taut sail caught against a silver sky. A coin stuck the grainy bottom of a lighted pool.
He withdrew into himself. His own body was quiet but alive, a throbbing gray cloud.
A man’s voice spoke behind them. “Front desk?”
William whirled and saw only Moira staring back at him. When she spoke, everything receded. She was sitting up, white fabric covering her naked body.
“What is it?”
“I heard a voice just now.”
She placed her hand on the bright skin of his cheek. “Try to hear it again.”
Her hand played across his chest as he closed his eyes once more. He sent this new awareness out like an unseen hand and felt the textured paint of the wall behind her, rough and pitted as the brush had been drawn over the plaster. He passed through and heard the voice again.
“…coffee and a bran muffin,” the man spoke into a telephone, “Could I get the paper as well?”
He could hear the muffled voice from the handset reply, “Yes, of course, sir. We will have it up to you immediately.”
“Thank you.” The receiver clanked loudly back into place.
He knew the man’s name though he had never met him – Richard Wesley – and he knew his business – banking. William could see his face and feel his personality: shrewd, untrusting and unfaithful. He wanted to tell his wife, but guilt over rode all desire. This knowledge was a voice that spoke inaudibly into his mind.
He pulled back and felt their room surround him.
“It was a man. A man in the room next to us. Ordering room service.”
He wanted to smile, but his mouth only quivered at the corners. He took a shivering breath.
“My God,” he whispered.
“I can feel things…” he floundered, “…I can learn things about people. But it’s not guesswork or intuition…it goes way past that.”
“Do you know things about me?” she asked, fearful but steady.
He grasped her hand. “A little. I’m sorry.”
“I was sixteen.” Her voice was matter of fact, but her eyes suddenly misted.
“I’m sorry, Moira,” he said, lying back onto a pillow, “I didn’t mean anything.”
“It’s okay, really. It was a long time ago. It’s what everybody sees.” William could feel her anger spread out and fill the room, hidden and filtered behind years of survival. Her body became a wall fitted with a blank stare.
“Richard Wesley is in the room next to us. He’s a banker on a business trip and he has been cheating on his wife for over three years.” William said. “He definitely has some sort of moral ambiguity about him. He wants to tell his wife – her name is Laura – but he knows it will hurt her. But, it’s odd; her pain isn’t enough to make him stop. He actually loves her in a strange fashion. I see it.”
Moira smiled and the wall collapsed. “That is the Gift in operation, William. But only the beginning. Only the smallest part. There’s so much more to come.”
William stood and moved to the open window. The breeze cooled his heated skin. Far below, the city was awakening, moving under a fresh sun.
“Two more men have to die?” his throat felt dry.
“How can I do that? What right do I have?”
“It goes past rights. It’s survival of the fittest.”
“I’m not a killer, Moira. I’m not.”
She moved to stand behind him, wrapping her arms about his torso. She was soft and warm. Her voice was a whisper, “You can see now. You can choose based on so many more facts,” her lips were tickling his ear, “Find men who deserve death. Give them the night of their lives and grow stronger from them.”
He turned to face her. He was shaking his head. She was staring up at him with green eyes, arms looped around his neck and toying with the black curls of his hair.
“The physical changes are of little or no importance. This new ability is where the true power lies. I’ve never seen such a change with only one. You have to see how far it can go…" She spoke quietly, her red lips touching his. Her smile told him that she liked doing that.
He tried to speak, but she cut him off with a kiss that left him spent and breathless. “And, above all, you can stay with me.”
She pulled him back to the bed and all thought, fear and doubt was lost in a massive tangle of skin and bliss.
William awoke with a start. Booming like a church bell, the telephone under the frilly lace table lamp on the night stand was ringing. His hand shot out and grabbed the receiver. His ear was sweaty and hot. It seemed to grasp at the earpiece with a sickly suction.
“Hello?!” Dacyczyn’s voice rang with impatience. His eyes fell upon the dial of his watch. He sighed as the minute hand slipped over to 1:34.
“I’m gonna hang up…”
“Don’t you dare.” A man’s voice hissed.
William transferred the receiver to his left hand and wiped his ear with the sheet. It was just as bad as the first and silk doesn’t absorb much. He couldn’t help but chuckle.
“Who is this?”
“Why the hell are you laughing, Dacyczyn?”
“Who is this?” he repeated.
“Be at Doc’s on 5th in an hour. I’ll be waiting.”
A click and a pulse. He held his breath in thought for a few seconds and rang the Operator.
“Operator. How may I direct your call.” She had the characteristic nasal twang he had come to expect. In his mind, he could even see the horn-rimmed glasses and frumpy, beige button-up dress. She was in the middle of a room filled with like dressed automatons, connecting wires and scowling under bleaching fluorescent tubes.
“Operator, yes…I just received a call on this line, can you tell me where it originated.”
She impatiently blew air into his ear. “That would be very difficult, sir. I would have to make several inquiry calls and search the reverse directories.”
“I’m sorry for the hassle, but please do so and call me back here.” Without waiting for her answer, William dropped the receiver back into place.
Moira’s side of the bed was cold, but her smell filled the sheets still. She must have gathered her things and gone while he had dreamt away in silken pleasure. As he warmed the water in the shower, he noticed the red imprint of her lips on his stubbly cheek. His grin changed it to a star.
A new suit along with a new coat, hat and shoes waited for him in the closet. His shower had been overly hot and his skin felt pleasantly pink, tender and tight. The razor had scraped away more than the shadow of beard on his face. The anguish of the previous night seemed to dissipate as he went about the every day movements of combing, brushing, washing, drying. His face settled into a wry smile that almost felt real.
Slipping into the starched and pressed shirt and buttoning it down his chest, William caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. It was one of those prissy full length things upon which women so depend. (i)My God, the change was incredible. His legs were sculptured and strong. His chest and abdomen were hewn from flesh toned stone; no more stretch marks marred his belly, no more baby fat breasts. His buttocks were lean and dented with muscle behind his upper thighs. His arms swelled with definition. The face was lean and angular; had his eyes always been blue?
He postured. He posed. He made little guns with his fingers at his reflection. You are a handsome devil. He was Cary Grant or Robert Mitchum. He was a handsome Humphrey Bogart or Gary Cooper.
He was practicing his Bogey (“Here’s looking at you, kid.”) when the telephone rang.
“This is the Operator.” Her bland voice intoned.
“I have the information you requested. The call was placed from Cedar 95874, sir. Would you like me to connect you? There will be a five cent charge.”
“Yeah, go ahead.”
“Just a moment, sir.”
There were a series of short clicks, a couple of staccato pulses and a voice.
“Mr. Dacyczyn, do not ever try to contact us in this manner again.”
A cold splash of ice water hit the bottom of his stomach. The cords of his neck knotted and he found that he couldn’t breathe. Perspiration slicked his forehead.
“You risk too much.” The voice finished.
The line went dead.
Doc’s was a bar and grill located just east of St. Laurent Methodist Church on 5th. It was a small place, filled with smoke and deep wooden booths. The man at the bar poured him a draft beer and told him to take a seat; the sandwich he had ordered would take a few minutes. William slid into a padded leather booth and lit a cigarette. He liked the way the smoke caught in the dim, hanging light above him and hovered there for a moment until the slow moving current pulled it higher into the raftered ceiling.
He was tired and the beer soothed him. He downed it, finished his smoke and ordered another. After a second cigarette, the bartender - a big Scandinavian by the name Yellow Daggett, smiled as he placed it before him next to his Rueben.
“It didn’t take all that long, after all. Enjoy, mister.”
“Thanks, I will.” William liked him almost immediately.
As he tore into his sandwich, he surveyed the loose crowd. Mostly suits littered the bar with a few pretty girls congregating in the rear next to a garishly lit Wurlitzer. It was sending out the loose groove of “Okay for Baby” by Benny Carter and his orchestra. The lighting was low and the sunlight from the plate glass up front streamed brightly in, slanting and catching the dense smoke from a myriad cigarettes. This was a bar filled with regulars: business men who lingered after long lunch hours afraid to go back to work or home to shrewish wives or equally sad apartments, girls who thought that they could get an early start and, finally, would take a man home who would stay with them after the night was done, drunks who convinced themselves that this was their last bender and their last drink.
No one paid him any attention save the bartender. William glanced at his watch and noted the time: 2:32. The man was late…whomever he was.
To be continued...