happy belated Halloween
Here is part 1 of a story I wanted to write for Halloween, only one week late.
"Somethin' wicked trails you, boy."
Well, that was a line to get your attention, all right. I gave the old man a perplexed look, and then as the words registered, jerked my head around to look back. Nothing especially wicked presented itself on the San Francisco street. Oh sure, there was the bum peeing against a tree, but he wasn't following me. He was standing about where he had been when I walked past him a minute ago.
There was the elderly couple walking slowly this way, but they could hardly be following me since I had just passed them. They didn't seem so wicked either as they politely diverted their eyes from the man watering the tree. Behind them was a troop of serious-looking women bearing shopping bags. They were talking to each other and apparently not even noticing the water man. A bum sitting in a corner said something to the women as they passed and one of the women reached into her purse to hand him something without meeting his eyes. She didn't seem wicked. The bum shoved it into his pocket with his eyes diverted also; neither of them seemed especially proud of the transaction.
I turned back to the old man, a short black man with mangy white hair and the scrunched up face typical of old folks with no teeth. He looked like he could pull his lower lip over his nose with a bit of effort. The guy was glaring at me with his flat face like I had stepped on his dentures or something. I looked down at my feet but there was no evidence of crushed oral prosthetics.
"Can you pull your lower lip up over your nose?" I asked him.
He just glared at me.
"OK, then. Want to point out the wicked person trailing me?"
"It ain't no person, boy. You got a hoodoo on your back."
"Ooh! Get off!" I mock shrieked, brushing at my shoulder blades. Then I looked back over my shoulder and spoke firmly, "Hey, you! What do you think I am, a demon taxi or something?"
"Don't you mock me, boy, or I won't remedy you." He spoke with the peculiar smacking sound of the toothless.
"You've got a remedy for demon-on-the-back?"
"It ain't acshully on your back!" the old man shouted. "It's a-doggin' you. And if you don't git help it's a gonna find you!"
He seemed serious and I felt a little bad for making fun of the crazy old coot, so I thought I'd play along. "OK, how are you going to remedy me?"
"You need a tat." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder to the shop behind him. A tattoo parlor.
"Of course," I said. "You do a voodoo tattoo for a hoodoo. Woo hoo. And you got a great sales pitch there too."
The old man just glared at me.
"OK, grampa," I said, "I've never had a tattoo. Maybe I could get a small eagle on my arm or something. How much?"
"It's a remedy, not a decoration!" the old man snapped. "You'll get what I give you and you'll pay me what it's worth."
At that, I lost patience, raised my hands and turned around. Walked away.
"It's a-doggin' you, boy!" the old man shouted after me. "It's a closin' and you ain't got so long!"
I felt a small shiver up my back but kept walking. The old man had a good sales pitch all right; he probably sold a lot of tattoos to superstitious people. And probably took them to the cleaners too.
As I walked, I carefully stepped over the occasional dried rivulets stretching across the sidewalk --tiny rivers headed toward the sea by way of the gutter. When I first came to San Francisco, I had wondered why so many people were spilling drinks on the sidewalk, but those trails weren't spilled drinks; not all the bums were conscientious enough to walk over to a tree.
A block from the tattoo parlor I found the shoe store. It was a dumpy little shop selling expensive shoes in the middle of a dumpy neighborhood. I know that some people get a kick out of shopping on these downtown streets with the expensive shops scattered among the cheap dives, the jewelry and camera stores stocked with stolen merchandise, the massage parlors, and the hourly hotels. I didn't.
No, I didn't like shopping in the area, but this shop was the only one in the entire Bay Area that stocked Riverside shoes in size fourteen. Yeah, I wear size fourteen shoes and I'm not much over six feet tall; they used to call me "duck man" in high school. I could special order the shoes, but frankly --although I like Riverside shoes-- I have to admit that they aren't very consistent with sizes and dimensions. A shoe salesman once told me it's because they're made in Argentina. I don't get the connection.
Anyway, because the shoes are inconsistent in size and shape and because my feet need extra support, I have to try on several pairs of the same style to find a good-fitting pair so it just isn't practical to order them from the Internet. That's why I was in downtown San Francisco on a Saturday afternoon instead of hanging out at my usual coffee shop in Burlingame.
Shoe shopping was worse than usual that day; nothing seemed to fit. I tried on about a dozen different pairs of black loafers in three different styles but none of them was really good so I bought the pair that was least uncomfortable. The shoes were leather so they would mold a bit to my feet, but I hated to spend that much money on a pair of shoes that didn't fit really well. I guess the only reason I ended up buying them was because the saleswoman was so nice and I felt guilty for making her pull out all those shoes if I wasn't going to buy any.
As I was paying the saleswoman I made a bit of small talk, "Sorry I had to go through so many shoes. I guess you have some restocking to do."
"No problem," she said. The woman was a middle-aged Asian woman, probably Chinese, but she didn't have an accent. "At least you bought something. Some people come in here and try on twenty pairs of shoes and then leave without buying anything."
"You need to go talk to that old guy that runs the tattoo parlor down the street," I told her. "He can give you tips on how to sell stuff. Tell your customers that a demon is following them and they need your shoes to ward off evil."
She looked at me for a long time. "Did Robert tell you that you have a demon following you?"
"Well, a hoodoo," I said with a grin. "I guess that's a subspecies of demon. He offered to sell me a voodoo tattoo against hoodoo. Woo hoo." OK so sue me; I was in love with the phrase. I would probably repeat it every time I told the story.
"Robert doesn't sell tattoos that way," she told me seriously. "In fact he doesn't often sell Tattoos of Power to anyone. Some of the drug dealers around here have offered him tens of thousands of dollars for a Tattoo and he turns them down."
"Why does he have a tattoo parlor if he doesn't sell tattoos?"
"He sells tattoos," the woman said, "But just normal ones. The Tattoos of Power are special. And they aren't voodoo. Robert hates the voodoo people. If you want a Tattoo of Power, one good way to get it is to convince Robert that some voodoo priest is out to get you."
"Well," I said, "I can't think of any voodoo priests that I've pissed off lately, so why was he picking on me?"
"Robert has the Sight."
"Oh, well that explains it."
She didn't laugh. "Look, mister. I know you don't believe in that stuff. I didn't used to believe in it either until I started running a shop down here."
"I'm sorry," I told her. "I shouldn't mock other people's beliefs to their face. I should wait and mock them to my friends later."
"You should go and ask Robert for a tattoo."
"No, wait..." she interrupted me and then was rude enough to pause for a long time, considering something. Finally she said, "I'll make you a deal. You go and get a tattoo from Robert, whatever kind he wants to give you, and I'll give you these shoes for free."
"I couldn't do that," I told her.
"I'm serious," she said, "I want you to go get that tattoo."
That's how I found myself back at Robert's tattoo parlor, looking at it from across the street. It was drizzling now; the city was taking a shower, trying to wash off the grit and grime and dried rivulets of urine. Unfortunately, most of the rivulets began under the awnings where they were safe from the rain.
I shared an awning with the headwaters of just such a rivulet as I looked across the damp street at the old man's tattoo parlor. I didn't have an umbrella and I didn't want to get out from under the awning to go over there but I had promised the shoe lady. I hadn't let her give me the shoes; I'd paid for them, so that wasn't really a contract, was it? I didn't receive any consideration so I wasn't legally bound to go over there.
Oh well. I sighed with the terrible burden of a man bound by honor to a silly task. I looked both ways down the one-way street before dashing across with my new shoes held over my head as a makeshift umbrella. Some wags make fun of over-cautious people by saying, "He would look both ways before crossing a one-way street." These wags have never tried to cross a one-way street in a city that has poorly-marked one-way streets and lots of confused tourists. In San Francisco, look both ways. Really.
Old Robert was no longer standing in front of the store. I stood under the awning and tried to peer through the glass panes in the door but it was dark behind them. I suspected the panes were painted black on the other side. The glass store front had some kind of shutters on the other side; they were open but I couldn't see very much through them because the glass was too dirty and it was covered with spider webs.
As I stood there considering, I felt a tickling in my hair so I reached back to brush it away. Something moved under my hand and I whisked it away, startled. Now I felt a thread on my fingers and when I looked closely, I saw that a spider was rappelling down from my hand on an invisible thread --a big, black spider. I raised it up to look more closely at my arachnid assailant and there was the little red hourglass on its belly. Yep, it was a black widow.
I wondered if she had bitten me. Brown recluse bites hurt a lot, but do black widow bites? A bite from something that big had to hurt at least a little, so I wasn't too worried, but I still lowered the spider gently to the ground and then squashed her with my toe. If she had bitten me, at least she died first.
Looking up, I saw that webs covered the underside of the awning. Could there be more spiders? Of course there could. Not wanting to stand there any longer, I reached out and turned the rusty doorknob. It turned without resistance as if it were broken, so I tried just pushing and the door gave reluctantly with a pained squeal, then the little rascal tried to shut again as I pushed through. Putting my shoulder into it, I slipped inside and let the door slam closed. It very nearly caught my new shoes.
Inside, the shop was surprisingly clean, a reassuring point. A large dental chair dominated the room and next to it stood a tray with an impressive collection of needles, jars, and various other equipment. Examples of tattoo art covered the walls. In the corner, on a rickety wooden stool sat the old man. He was leaning back on two legs and staring at me as if he remembering my smart-ass attitude. Actually, it was only an hour ago so he probably did remember, but he pointed to the dental chair anyway. I sighed and lowered myself carefully onto the chair. After the door, I half expected it to collapse under me, but it seemed firm.
The old man went over to close the shutters as I watched suspiciously. I thought to myself that this was really a bad idea; I would probably get some kind of infection or debilitating skin disease. I could just imagine explaining to my girlfriend why my skin was falling off in big chunks: "Well there's this creepy toothless old guy who runs this tattoo parlor, see?"
The old man walked around the store lighting some incense cones with a disposable lighter. "Open your shirt," he commanded.
"Where are you going to put it?"
"Over your heart."
I opened my shirt slowly. "How much?"
"Tell you what, boy. You come back in here one week from today and pay me what you think it's worth then."
Now that was a new one. "You trust me?"
"Why not?" said the old man. "You're trustin' me aren't ya?"
I wasn't sure how to answer that.
The old man dragged the stool over to the tray and sat down. He picked up a long, scary needle and dipped it into one of his jars, then he reached over to my chest with it. I flinched back against the chair, but he ignored me and quickly scratched a large circle on my chest. There was no paint but I could already see that he was planning to make something far larger than I was willing to allow. I tried to think of a way to suggest a smaller area without making him angry again.
Some time later I woke up. I've never been able to remember much of what happened from the touch of the needle until I woke up; I don't remember being drowsy. I remember some pain, but not much, I remember the smell of the incense, and I remember the old guy humming and singing as he bent over me. He had a surprisingly good voice. Kind of gruff and bluesy, and of course, sloppy because he has no teeth.
When I woke up, the shop was dark and I was alone. Faint light shone in through cracks in the shutters so I stumbled over to the window in the dark to open them. It was nighttime and I'd sat down in the chair no later than three o'clock in the afternoon. The rain came down harder now and I could see the thousands of tiny splashes in the harsh, monochromatic light of the street lamps. The deserted streets told me that it must be very late --near midnight.
I looked down at my new dermal decoration but could see nothing except a black blotch in the dim light ---a black blotch with two small glowing ruby spots. It spread at least five inches across my chest, a huge tattoo. I groaned and wondered how much it would cost to have the thing removed. The light switch by the outer door didn't work so I stumbled across the dark room to the door on the opposite side of the room and found a switch there. The light blinded me momentarily when I flicked it on.
The tattoo was a black cat, or possibly a leopard; its wide roaring mouth revealed a set of shockingly white and large teeth and its slit pupils seemed to glow like rubies. All in all, it was a beautiful tattoo. There was a large mirror and I went over to admire the cat in the reflection. Seen from a better angle, it was clear that this was not a house cat. I was no expert in big cats, but it didn't really look like a leopard either. Or a jaguar. Or any other big cat. The teeth were very large, but not large enough that this could be a saber-toothed tiger.
Still, it was striking. I stroked the animal's sable flank, amazed that the old man had been able to raise such a pure, glossy color on my skin. I supposed that the colors would fade soon because I'd never seen a tattoo so vibrant. Maybe I would keep it after all. I buttoned my shirt and then knocked on the inside door. No one answered, so I just picked up my new shoes and left.
It quickly became apparent that it was really
late. I'd revised my guess from "nearly midnight" to "well after midnight". I walked down the glistening monochrome streets in the rain, keeping under the awnings where possible, but I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I was going to be soaked by the time I got to the parking garage. Luckily there was no wind and it was not very cold.
Suddenly I knew that I wasn't alone; I was being followed. I don't know how I knew, but I found myself trying unsuccessfully to catch glimpses of my pursuer in reflections of the glass storefronts. I tried to tell myself that it was just my imagination but knew it wasn't. There was someone out there. Someone who wanted to do me ill. The old man had drugged me and left me in that shop to be robbed. He just gave me the tattoo so that I couldn't prove later that he had been in on it. The bastard.
Much as I wanted to, I didn't start walking faster. Don't let them know I'm on to them, not until I can get a good look so that I can identify them later. Where were the cop cars? This late at night, you would usually see regular patrols of cop cars. And there were always other cars. And taxis. Where were the taxis? The next time I crossed a street I got into the shadows on the other side and I turned quickly, hoping to spot someone. Nothing. I stood there for a few minutes, carefully watching. No one could cross without being seen.
Then I saw ... it. Not a person. I didn't see how it could be a person; it was too big. The shape was wrong. It didn't have a shape. It was shadow, flowing like water, no, flowing like mercury --black mercury swelling across the street toward me. Was it several feet high or flat on the ground? I couldn't tell in the confusing light, but I could tell that it was ... tracking. Don't ask me how I knew, but I could sense that this thing, whatever it was, was tasting the street. Following a scent. Following my
I know, I know. It sounds like a paranoid hallucination. I thought that to myself at the time, I thought: "I'm having a paranoid hallucination." But I knew I wasn't. I knew that this thing was after me. And I knew that it was evil. Something wicked trailed me.
The thing stopped suddenly, about half-way across the street. It reared up, tasting the air. It looked
at me. I don't know how I knew. I didn't see any eyes, but I knew that somehow, it had suddenly become aware of me. It knew exactly where I was.
I turned and ran.
UPDATE: edited for voice and style. The original voice was too choppy and I was using too many passive sentences among other things.
Scale 7 Artifact, part 15
Journey (part 5)
The jagged shale was almost too hot to touch in the searing desert sun, but the rock could only be negotiated bare-handed. The rock demanded a delicate touch because it was so fragile, fracturing suddenly in thin layers like a stone croissant. Daniel pulled himself into a crevasse to wedge his body and rest. He swung his rifle around in front so as not to crush it between his back and the rock and then braced himself in a near-sitting position, ignoring the jagged points of stone pressing against his body. His shirt was barely damp despite the sweat pouring from his skin; the thirsty desert wind sucked away the moisture as soon as his sweat glands produced it. But now that he was in the cleft and out of the wind, Daniel was starting to feel sweat trickling down his forehead and into his eyes. He pressed a sleeve against his forehead to dry it.
Daniel was climbing was an outcrop near the top of a jagged cactus-covered hill. He was several hundred feet above the desert floor where the occasional gusts of wind actually felt cool. To the men crawling on the desert floor below, the wind would scorch like a blast furnace.
The sun was just past its peak on this late summer day in the Sonoran desert near the US-Mexican border. The temperatures hovered around 115 degrees in the shade. This was a good time for a sneak attack, when the target unit may be letting down on security due to the heat. On the unshaded desert floor where Daniel's company crawled, the temperature would be closer to 180 degrees. The men could not stand up or they might be seen by the target unit.
The enemy was an encampment of Mexican troops on the other side of the hill, a couple of tanks and around 40 troops, according to satellite data. Daniel's company numbered only 28, but they had the advantages of surprise, better training, and better equipment. The Americans could also call in reliable support in the form of artillery and air strikes, while the Mexicans were pretty much on their own.
The Mexican troops were draftees from the poverty-stricken masses of Mexico City, sent off to a war that they wanted no part of. They were pawns --pieces thrown into the middle of the board to draw an attack and leave the attacking unit vulnerable. That would be Daniel's unit. The could not just send in choppers to take out the tanks because the tanks had anti-aircraft capability. That left the job to the nearest ground unit.
Daniel looked up to see how far he had yet to climb the dangerously flaky rock. Not far. The shale dug painfully into Daniel's back and left knee, but he ignored it as he pulled out his canteen and drank deeply. The water was slightly sour and salty with added electrolytes.
As Daniel gazed down the vertical fifty foot cliff that he had climbed, he reflected on how odd it was that the height did not bother him. If he were standing on a balcony at this height he would be feeling a tightening in his stomach, and it would take a real act of courage to lean on the rail even though the rail would be far safer than the fragile rock he was braced against now. For some reason, when Daniel climbed, there was no fear at all. He had always liked climbing. That was part of the reason that he was a sniper.
Again, Daniel wiped his forehead with a sleeve to dry the trickles of sweat, then he brought the rifle scope to his eye to examine the terrain below him. The company seemed to be making good progress; it looked like the attack would go off as scheduled. This was Daniel's first battle and he wondered if some other sniper might be at this very moment centering him in his sights. He thrust aside the thought; it could do him no good.
Daniel brought the scope forward to where the troops were heading. He should not be able to see any of the enemy yet from this point, but it couldn't hurt to check. He scanned the desert landscape quickly but methodically, verifying that the only soldiers on the field were on his side.
As he examined the battle field he thought about why this company was not the one he had trained with. Normally, a sniper would return from sniper school to the unit he had gone through basic training with, but the soldiers who had gone through basic training with Daniel had requested that he not come back.
Daniel noticed a bit of movement in the upper right of his visual field as he scanned. He'd almost missed it. He quickly brought the scope back to focus on the motion. It was an American soldier crawling through an arroyo. The sides of the dry stream bed would offer some shade, but there would be no wind at all down there, it must be miserable.
Daniel had not really cared that he was not liked by his fellow soldiers; it was a common enough pattern in his life. He supposed that it was partly his own fault, since he never had made any effort to fit in.
Daniel scanned up the arroyo to spot a few more American soldiers.
What bothered him most about the re-assignment was what his basic-training sergeant had told him: people thought he was cold and distant. Daniel didn't understand that. Sure, he was quiet and not very expressive, but people around him almost seemed to be afraid of him, like he was a psychopath or something.
Another bit of motion caught Daniel's eye and he back-tracked again to find it. Where did it go? There it was again. Daniel increased magnification to identify what looked like a Gila monster -- a large poisonous lizard. It would dart a few feet and then do push ups. Daniel had heard that the push ups somehow cooled the lizard down, but he didn't see how.
Daniel's sergeant had recommended him for sniper school because he thought Daniel had no empathy. He thought Daniel could kill without hesitation or remorse, just like a sniper ought. "It's different from real combat," the sergeant had told Daniel, trying to be helpful, "It takes a special kind of soldier to look at a guy close-up in your sights and pop him. Some men hesitate. Some can't do it at all. But I've known men like you, Private. Cold eye. No hesitation. No empathy."
Daniel had been hurt by the sergeant's words. Just because a man doesn't party with the others, just because the chanting and inter-platoon competitions and other team-building exercises annoyed him, just because he doesn't smile a lot or scowl or show emotions, that didn't mean he lacked feelings. Daniel had as much empathy as anyone.
Why was that Gila monster running around in the open in the middle of the afternoon when the temperature was 180 degrees on the desert floor? Daniel searched back along where the lizard had come from, up the shale outcropping. What he saw then was so unexpected that it took Daniel a moment to recognize what he was seeing. It was another sniper. And the other sniper was scoping right back at him.
The face behind the other scope belonged to a young Mexican soldier who could be no more than 17. The boy looked just as frightened as Daniel felt. The young Mexican soldier was already doomed as Daniel noticed this, because Daniel had squeezed the trigger the instant he recognized the threat.
An instant later the other rifle flashed and Daniel ducked down as much as he could. At these ranges it took bullets almost a second to travel, so he was already keying his microphone as he heard a crack on the rock behind him. ``Contact. Contact,'' he announced on the general channel.
Then he straightened up to re-acquire the sniper he had shot at. As he had expected, the boy who was too slow to fire was also too slow to dodge. There was a nasty hole in the middle of his face.
Daniel began scanning urgently for other enemy soldiers. Distant machine guns opened up. Daniel keyed his mike to his designated spotter channel: ``Emergency. Emergency. Two hard strikes needed this position, thirty-second delay on second strike. Two hard strikes. This position. Thirty seconds between strikes. Emergency.''
As he talked he was scanning for the tank that mounted the machine gun. By now there were shots all over the battlefield. He spotted another sniper, so he squeezed the trigger and watched the man die. Then he scanned quickly on, looking for the tanks. Daniel needed to paint them for the anti-armor artillery that was on its way.
Daniel spotted the first tank just as his earphones beeped with a signal telling him that the artillery was on its approach and needed terminal guidance. As he had expected, the machine gun was mounted on the tank, and it was being fired from inside by camera. Daniel painted the tank with his targeting laser. Since he had to keep his aim on the tank for a few seconds, he shot out the camera.
A moment later, the tank's 185mm cannon boomed. The tank commander knew he was spotted when the camera was destroyed, so he was going to get off a shot and then scramble. But he did not know that the artillery was already on its way. The tank was just starting to move when an armor-piercing shell smashed into the dome.
Daniel barely registered the destruction of the tank before he was methodically searching for the other one for the next shell. Daniel didn't find the tank, but he took out two more enemy soldiers as he was passing by.
There was a sharp cracking sound behind Daniel and dozens of tiny rock fragments pierced the back of his neck. Daniel lunged forward, clutching the front of the crevasse and squeezing in as far in as he could.
Another sniper had spotted him. Fortunately, the other sniper was a lousy shot.
Daniel had no hope of finding the other sniper before he was killed, so his only choice was evasion. Another crack testified that the sniper could still see part of his body.
Daniel could not go down without coming further into the open so he began scrambling up the crevasse. The crack deepened quickly and as he hugged the inside, Daniel heard no more near misses. He hoped that he was out of sight.
As Daniel neared the top, he glimpsed motion above him and quickly wedged himself in the crack, pulling his rifle into position. Just as the scope came to his eye, a Mexican soldier looked over the edge. Another 17-year-old pawn. Daniel shot him in the face. The boys brains spattered on Daniel who hardly noticed as he pulled a grenade, jerked out the pin, and clicked the button twice for a 4-second delay.
Daniel hurled it up onto the top of the hill to destroy any more dangerous children that might be up there. He lurched up two more hand-holds, before bracing himself and covering his head. The grenade went off above and before the dust cleared Daniel was at the top of the cliff, aiming his weapon over the corpse of the soldier he had shot.
There were two more bodies on the crest, and one of them was still moving. Daniel saw the face and could tell that this boy was no more than 13 or 14. Daniel shot him in the neck, nearly decapitating the boy with the powerful rifle.
"Danny?"' Daniel looked up, startled to see Sarah looking at him, he had been so lost in his memories that he had no idea what the conversation was about.
"I'm sorry, sweetheart. My mind was wandering." After the battle, one Corporal Daniel Greaves, rookie sniper, was decorated for neutralizing 14 enemy soldiers and one tank, as well as having detected an ambush and saving the company.
"I was just saying that it's hard to believe you were ever a sniper." Sarah repeated. "You're so gentle and tender-hearted, I can't imagine you ever taking a cold deliberate aim and killing another human being."
After the battle, Daniel had heard someone describe him as a stone-hearted killer, and his feelings were hurt. He certainly didn't enjoy killing, and he felt sorry for those Mexican soldiers. How could anyone call him stone-hearted?
"It was war, Sarah. I guess we all did what we had to."
"Didn't you just agonize every time you had to ... you know?" she asked, staring with those big, innocent eyes, determined to be sympathetic. "I just can't see you killing someone in cold blood like that. Not you!"
Daniel paused to search for an honest deception. He didn't want to lie, but he also didn't want Sarah to know the truth about him, the truth that he had come to admit as the war progressed. He looked away when he answered, "I never wanted to be a cold-blooded killer."