The Tourist

These two bookends originally appeared in my October Stories 2006 event. I’ve decided to take them out and brush off the cobwebs because as a friend surmised at that time, there’s more to them than what you see here — much more.

Arrival

The improbably tall man stood in front of the glass wall, his ivory complexion catching the moonlight in the shadows of the lightless office. He was as motionless as marble, staring out into the night, seemingly lost in thought.

With a nearly imperceptible sigh he turned from the window and stepped back into the shadows of the office, pausing to observe the scene: blue-tinged light spilling across a well-appointed office, bookcases and credenza along the walls, massive desk facing the door, a large leather chair overturned in a struggle. Stepping carefully over the ruined areas of the carpet, he moved to the chair and bent from the waist to right it. Untidiness disturbed him, unless it served his purpose, and he had no need of it now. With age comes conservatism, or so he’d heard, and in his case it was certainly true. In his youth he’d been more flexible, his work more improvised and spontaneous, almost — but never quite — free-form. Somewhere he’d become complacent, though; he’d been following the same patterns for his entire adult career, and his improvisational youth was long past.

He crouched behind the desk and picked up the chair’s former occupant, arranging him in the seat as best he could. Surveying his efforts, he frowned. The fat and dark-suited figure slumped in the burgundy leather chair had his eyes closed. He knew, of course, that the man had died of a heart attack before he had even begun his work, but he almost failed to note that the eyes were closed. That was not acceptable, not at all.

He gently slid up the eyelids, his long fingers deftly arranging cooling muscle and skin into an aspect of stark terror. Perhaps the years of soft living had provided the man with a shortcut out of his life, but there was no reason for it to be so obvious to anyone else. The tale, pale man had standards to uphold.

When he was satisfied with the tableau the police would find, he wiped his bone-handled razor carefully on his handkerchief and slipped it into his pants pocket, then deliberately placed the cloth under the chair. As an afterthought he opened the humidor on the desk and removed several cigars. He sniffed them as if a connoisseur — though he had never before held a cigar — and knew instinctively that they were Cuban-made. Nodding to himself he slipped them in the vest pocket of his jacket. It seemed important, somehow.

He looked through the few dry papers on the blotter, but nothing felt significant, so he inspected the desk. A swift and strong pull opened the single locked drawer; he reached in, withdrew some folders, and rolled and pocketed them.

As he prepared to leave the office he allowed himself another moment in front of the window. Far below he could see the expensive cars and expensive people responsible for this neighborhood’s reputation; in the glass he saw his own pale skin and heavy black coat, and thought of his own reputation, earned long ago.

He turned from the window, then caught himself and turned back. Studying his reflection, he concentrated for a moment, then rewrote his somber woolen clothing into a cream-colored linen suit. As he did so, his alabaster skin darkened to olive, and his thin white hair turned thick and black.

He smiled at his handiwork, taking a cigar from his pocket and trimming it expertly. As he locked the door behind him, he thought, So this is Miami. Perhaps I will stay a while.

Departure

Carefully wiping clean the tools of his trade, the improbably tall man in the cream linen suit considered his sojourn in Miami. It had been hard work, much more difficult than he had anticipated. These people proved to be so indifferent to the fates of those around them that it took extraordinary measures to generate any significant amount of fear at all.

He glanced through the kitchen window to the pool, silver and black and indigo, and at the neighbor’s home beyond it. Most people attributed his work to a variety of sources; somehow, this year one detective had seen the signature he had left behind at each workplace. She had been fearless, and for that he credited her. She seemed to grasp something of his nature, what he was — his methods, his purpose — and yet she still continued her pursuit. When he eventually trapped her, and sliced her tendons to prevent her escape, she had spat at him, and then muttered a small curse.

You won’t get what you want from me, she snarled. I will not fear you.

A slight smile flickered as he reflected on her crushed expression as he quietly explained his complete indifference to her fear. His interest was the terror her end would distill in her associates, in those who looked up to her. Her death was simply raw material.

She remained defiant for quite a while, for longer than most in his long, long career. Of course, once his work was complete he had arranged her features into a more appropriate expression of horror.

He drew a thick cigar from a silver case as he walked though the still, suburban house to the front door. He did not stop to review his art as he passed, but he did pause a moment at one bedroom doorway. As he looked inside, the moon-cast shadow of a Disney mobile slowly crossed his no-longer-pale face. Extraordinary measures, indeed, he thought, but hardly the first time.

Even though this season had been less productive than he wished, he enjoyed his visit to Miami. He had become rather fond of the rich cigars, for one, and even though he did not swim, he did enjoy the ocean. Its primal nature suited him — it reminded him of when he was new.

However, now he must return to the cooler climates of the north, far from the sea. After a glance at the mirror beside the front door he changed his linen suit for black wool, an indistinctly old-fashioned cut. His deeply tanned skin paled, and his eyes lightened from brown to grey. But as his hand touched the doorknob he hesitated, and looked in the mirror again. Why not? he thought. I’ve just spent a month in Miami.

As he stooped to enter the waiting limousine, he looked at the reflection of his freshly sun-bleached hair in the tinted glass, and smiled broadly. His driver shuddered.

Opening the Vault of Poetry

Today I was invited to participate in a special Hallowe’en edition of the live Social Chats broadcast hosted by Tonya Scholz with an assist by Maria De Los Angeles. It was an informal bit of fun, giving me a chance to talk a little about my own fascination with the holiday and it’s changing place in American culture. As a special treat — although some may have considered it a trick — Maria had asked me to read something for the show. I decided to dust off this poem I wrote nearly twenty-five years ago and perform it live. You can hear it when you listen to the archive of the broadcast (titled “Halloween 1026”), but if things go well there will be a special recording of it here on Hidden City tomorrow.

The Glade

By day the glade’s a sunny, pleasant place—
a stand of oaks which rings an open space
where flowers grow, and children come to play
as long as lasts the clear, bright light of day.

But dusk does fall, and children run to home,
as deep’ning dark starts stirrings in the loam.
Long years ago this glade was oft the site
of gruesome deeds, and bloody, evil rites.

Twilight does fade the flowers’ springtime hues
to ghastly jaundiced shades and ghostly blues,
while murmurs on the wind from far away
foretell the birth of night—the death of day.

A hush throughout the wood does quickly fall
as Darkness shrieks its silent, spectral call.
Then midnight shadows cloak the ancient bower
as solemn bells announce the spirits’ hour.

As sulph’rous mist, from earth the Spectres rise
they have no face, save glowing crimson eyes
which burn so bright with unrelenting hate
for those who once consigned them to this fate.

The from the trees a pulsing rhythm grows
which snares the twisted spirits in the throes
of wanton dance; a mournful, eerie sight
to see such phantoms writhing in the light

Of distant stars. And then begins to wail
of souls long lost to realms beyond the veil
of Death. This most unholy music makes
the stoutest heart to fail, and souls to break.

The lesser things are tainted here as well,
the puny fauna of the pits of hell:
the things that hop and sting and fly,
things that should not live, yet cannot die.

And other things do live here in this glade
foul creatures which our Maker never made.
Things that also caper in the light
of ghostly stars, and yearn for that which might

Release them from their bondage to this place.
For then they would repay the day-time race
in kind for deeds done long ago by men
who longed for Pow’r, and sought it in this glen.

For hours this madness in the glade goes on
until a light presages birth of dawn
and death of night. And thus, with just a hiss
of steam, the demons turn again to mist.

The horrors of the night soon fade away,
dispersed again by power of the day.
The Darkness calls its troops back from a rout
to calmly wait the night when they will out.

Soon the games of children will be found
where eldritch evil waits close underground.
And pretty blooms look not the least forlorn
where shadows sleep, and wait to be reborn.

[This was written on May 17, 1986, was first published in Ambergris From Leviathan Special Edition #2, Hallowe’en 1989, and first appeared on Hidden City in October, 2006.]

Gifts

I was up late again, sitting at the computer trying to get some writing done until long after midnight. I was having a little trouble with my focus. The ideas just weren’t coming to me, probably because of the day. Even though I’m well into middle age and not at all religious, I was working on Christmas Eve — how Dickensian! I leaned back in my chair and took a sip of my rum, snickering at the image of my bulk crouching on a high wooden stool, scribbling in an enormous ledger while my breath fogged the air. But then I remembered I was playing the roles of both Scrooge and Bob Cratchit. I’d no one to blame but myself.

I had stretched and started to get up when I heard the wood floor creak behind me. How weird, I knew none of the cats were in the room with me, or thought I knew. I started to turn to look.

“Please don’t turn around. It would really be a very bad idea.”

The deep voice was stern and commanding, the voice of someone used to being obeyed. My mind racing, I considered the possibilities. The office door was in front of me. The two windows into the room both had their storm shutters down. How the hell did a burglar get in here?!

Stay calm, I told myself, just do what he says. “Okay, I’m not turning around. You are in charge. What do you want? I don’t own much other than this computer.” I hoped the tremors in my own voice weren’t too obvious.

The floor creaked again, a step closer. Oh no, I thought, he’s going to knock me out. Well, if I’m out at least I won’t have a heart attack, I guess. I closed my eyes and tensed for the blow.

“Relax, I won’t hurt you. I can’t let you see me. There is a protocol, a tradition that must be observed. Just don’t turn around. Please.”

He had an odd but subtle accent, like someone who had moved to the Midwest a long time ago, but with traces of their original language remaining. It was pleasant, really, a rather soothing sound. Against my will I found myself relaxing.

I took a deep breath. “Okay, I promise not to turn around. Just tell me what to do.”

“Do? I don’t need you to do anything, Marc. I just want to talk with you a bit. You don’t mind, do you? It’s been a while since we’ve spoken, and I could use a rest.” There was a rustling of heavy cloth, the sound of one of the many boxes sliding across the floor, and a deep sigh as he sat down.

He knew my name. Great. “Sure, um, we can talk. I like to talk. What do you want to talk about?”

Cellophane crinkled behind me, then a muffled crunch. A familiar, spicy smell filled the air. Peppermint. Now I’m not the brightest guy in the world, but by now I was starting to get a sneaking suspicion about this. “Wait, no, c’mon, seriously? You’ve got to be kidding, you’ve got to be fu—”

“Come now, Marc. Do you think I like that kind of language? I look the other way as much as I can, but it’s more difficult when people use those words right in front of me. It makes me sad, too.”

Yeah, that cinched it. I didn’t need to see the suit.

“I was checking the records the other day, and I noticed that you haven’t sent me a list for years and years and years. Why is that, Marc? You don’t want any presents? Do you really have everything you want?”

“Well, no, but I’m a grown-up now. Well, adult, anyway. If there are things I need I buy them, and if I can’t afford them then I don’t really need them. That’s how it’s supposed to work, right?”

“Oh yes, yes, that’s how many people choose to do things, yes. But that isn’t part of the rules, you know. You are always allowed to ask for gifts.”

“Maybe I can ask, but who will buy them? My dad? I’m fifty years old, for— for crying out loud. Do you expect me to make out a list and address it to the North Pole?”

“You could, you know. Plenty of people do. But the letter isn’t the important part. Believing is. Isn’t there anything you want, something you know you can’t get on your own?”

“I think you have the wrong Peanuts special. The Great Pumpkin is the one about belief.”

“Still a smart-aleck, aren’t you?” he chuckled. (I don’t need to tell you what his laughter sounded like.) “No, this is about dreams and wishes and hope.” He paused, then chuckled again. “What do you want for Christmas, Marc? If you want we can skip the part where you sit on my lap.”

“Thank heavens for that!” I laughed, in spite of myself.

I could feel him looking at me, into me. “Seriously. It’s important. Tell me what you want.”

I thought of some of the material things I would like to have, the trips I would like to take, but ruled them out. I thought about the things I knew my friends needed but couldn’t afford, and the gifts that might make them smile. Then I got to the big stuff: all of the jobless people, the troops fighting overseas, my friends fighting disease.

“I guess world peace, and end to hunger, and a cure for cancer would be asking for too much, huh? Not to mention it would be an unbearable cliché.”

“So? A fat guy in a red suit isn’t a cliché? Marc, when you were a little boy, did you ever ask for a gift and not get it?”

“Don’t you know?” Silence. “Yeah, okay, of course. It happened all the time.”

“And what did you do when all the gifts were opened but there was no chemistry set under the tree?”

“It depended on the gift. If I really wanted it I’d whine to get it for my birthday, or save up my money for it. Most of the time, though, I would forget about it.”

“You were disappointed, though. Of course you were. But since it didn’t cost you anything to ask, what made you stop asking?”

Because the holiday became all about the presents, and the presents were a matter of money. But I didn’t want to say that to him, so I kept quiet.

For a few minutes we listened to the wind picking up outside the window, moving through the palm fronds.

“Why did you stop at my house? I don’t have any cookies, or milk, either. What made you decide to stop here and scare the heck out of me? I don’t get it.”

There came a deep sigh; peppermint filled the air.

“Well, you have conversations with cats, so you are obviously—”

“Crazy?”

“Let’s say receptive. And you squeaked onto the nice list this year, too. Barely.” He paused. “Besides, I thought you could use the company.”

I thought the empty house around me, sighed, and took another drink. “Yeah, okay, you have a point.”

From behind me I heard the sounds of weight shifting, and a faint jingling of bells as he stood up.

“Most people only ask for toys of one kind or another. When someone does put together a less materialistic wishlist others treat it as a joke. But tell me, what’s so terrible about asking for a happier world at Christmas?”

“Because world peace doesn’t fit in your magic pack, obviously, or someone would have gotten it by now.”

There was a jingling again. I suspect he was shaking his head. “Sometimes you don’t get a chemistry set the first time you ask for it. But if you really want it, you’ll find a way to get one. If not this year, then next year, or the year after that. You just have to want it enough to ask for it, to tell people that’s what you want.”

Weight shifted, and the floor creaked again. “If enough people ask for the same thing, it’s a lot more likely that they’ll get it.” He laughed aloud. “Except for those new dolls. There are never enough of them. I can’t figure it out.”

A heavy, gloved hand settled gently on my shoulder. He spoke quietly. “Keep wishing for things that make you happy: big or small, simple or complicated, personal or for everyone. Everyone deserves presents, Marc. And I’ve given you something I know you need right now.”

As the scent of peppermint faded from the room I turned to look, but there was no package, no stocking, nothing at all to indicate that he had even been here. It didn’t hit me until I stood up to refill my glass. “Well, of course. What else?” I said to the empty room. I may not have asked for it, but he gave me something I really need right now.

He gave me hope, enough to share.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays, friends. May you get everything you ask for, and more.

October Stories: Departure

Carefully wiping clean the tools of his trade, the improbably tall man in the cream linen suit considered his sojourn in Miami. It had been hard work, much more difficult than he had anticipated. These people proved to be so indifferent to the fates of those around them that it took extraordinary measures to generate any significant amount of fear at all.

He glanced through the kitchen window to the pool, silver and black and indigo, and at the neighbor’s home beyond it. Most people attributed his work to a variety of sources; this year one detective had seen the signature he had left behind at each workplace. She had been fearless, and for that he credited her. She seemed to grasp something of his nature, what he was, his methods, his purpose, and yet she still continued her pursuit. When eventually trapped, her tendons sliced to prevent her escape, she had spat at him.

You won’t get what you want from me, she snarled. I will not fear you.

A slight smile flickered as he reflected on her crushed expression as he quietly explained his complete indifference to her fear. His interest was the terror her end would distill in her associates, in those who looked up to her. Her death was simply raw material.

She remained defiant for quite a while. Of course, once his work was complete he had arranged her features into a more appropriate expression of horror.

He drew a thick cigar from a silver case as he walked though the still, suburban house to the front door. He did not stop to review his handiwork as he passed, but he did pause a moment at one bedroom doorway. As he looked inside the moon-cast shadow of a Disney mobile slowly crossed his no-longer-pale face. Extraordinary measures, indeed, he thought. But hardly the first time.

Even though this season had been less productive than he wished, he enjoyed his visit to Miami. He had become rather fond of the rich cigars, for one, and even though he did not swim, he did enjoy the ocean. Its primal nature suited him.

However, now he must return to the cooler climates of the north, far from the sea. After a glance at the mirror beside the front door he changed his linen suit for black wool, an indistinctly old-fashioned cut. His deeply tanned skin paled, and his eyes lightened from brown to grey. But as his hand touched the doorknob he hesitated, and looked in the mirror again. Why not? he thought. I’ve just spent a month in Miami.

As he stooped to enter the waiting limousine, he looked at the reflection of his freshly sun-bleached hair in the tinted glass, and smiled. His driver shuddered.

October Stories: Arrival

The improbably tall man stood in front of the glass wall, his ivory complexion catching the moonlight in the shadows of the lightless office. He was as motionless as marble, staring out into the night, seemingly lost in thought.

With a nearly imperceptible sigh he turned from the window and stepped back into the shadows of the office. He paused to observe the scene: blue-tinged light spilling across a well-appointed office, bookcases and credenza along the walls, massive desk facing the door, a large leather chair overturned in a struggle. Stepping carefully over the ruined areas of the carpet, he moved to the chair and bent from the waist to right it. Untidiness disturbed him, unless it served his purpose, and he had no need of it now. With age comes conservatism, or so he’d heard, and in his case it was certainly true. In his youth he’d been more flexible, his work more improvised and spontaneous, almost — but never quite — free-form. Somewhere he’d become complacent, though; he’d been following the same patterns for his entire adult career, and his improvisational youth was long past.

He crouched behind the desk and picked up the chair’s former occupant, arranging him in the seat as best he could. Surveying his efforts, he frowned. The fat and dark-suited figure slumped in the burgundy leather chair had his eyes closed. He knew, of course, that the man had died of a heart attack before he had even begun his work, but he almost failed to note that the eyes were closed. That was not acceptable, not at all.

He gently slid up the eyelids, his long fingers deftly arranging cooling muscle and skin into an aspect of stark terror. Perhaps the years of soft living had provided the man with a shortcut out of his life, but there was no reason for it to be so obvious to anyone else. The tale, pale man had standards to uphold.

When he was satisfied with the tableau the police would find, he wiped his bone-handled razor carefully on his handkerchief and slipped it into his pants pocket, then deliberately placed the cloth under the chair. As an afterthought he opened the humidor on the desk and removed several cigars. He sniffed them as if a connoisseur — though he had never before held a cigar — and knew instinctively that they were Cuban-made. Nodding to himself he slipped them in the vest pocket of his jacket. It seemed important, somehow.

He looked through the few dry papers on the blotter, but nothing felt significant, so he inspected the desk. A swift and strong pull opened the single locked drawer; he reached in, withdrew some folders, and rolled and pocketed them.

As he prepared to leave the office he allowed himself another moment in front of the window. Far below he could see the expensive cars and expensive people responsible for this neighborhood’s reputation; in the glass he saw his own pale skin and heavy black coat, and thought of his own reputation, earned long ago.

He started to turn from the window, then caught himself and turned back. Studying his reflection, he concentrated for a moment, then rewrote his heavy black clothing into a cream-colored linen suit. As he did so, his alabaster skin darkened to olive, and his thin white hair turned thick and black.

He smiled at his handiwork, taking a cigar from his pocket and trimming it expertly. As he locked the door behind him, he thought, this is my first trip to Miami. Perhaps it’s time for a change.