The Zero Ring Men
Troy, thought Bill. He missed his son.
“There will be others coming, Mr. Primofski.”
“It’s not ‘Primofski.’”
“I’m French-Canadian; you’ll get the Icelanders. One, at least. This will drag them down here, for sure.” The tall man laughed that grating laugh which tumbled into a coughing jag.
Bill and the tall man were standing on the porch, smoking. They had met there as Bill had returned from the car and both men had lit up cigarettes.
Bill thought: If there’s more like this guy coming, it’s going to be a circus out here. The tall man cut an imposing figure, but at the same time was decidedly nerdy, Bill thought, almost scummy. A salesman of a sort, Bill thought, no offense to salesmen. And what was the tall man selling today? What sort of affiliation, if not the Carterets, did he belong to? As if reading his thoughts, an invasion Bill had felt more than once that day, the tall man said, “The others are not like me. The Icelander especially.” He turned and looked at Bill, a flutter of smoke drifting up between his livestock eyes. “They’re not like me,” he repeated.
There was a day, Bill felt, that was the first Spring day, regardless of the calendar. It was a day that declared itself to the senses. There was a smell to it, like the humidity of an indoor pool without the chlorine. Snow sublimated into the air from the lawns and roadsides. Along the state and county routes, the snowbanks were abused into long brown slags. Birds chirped from the pine trees. The sun warmed in a different way – not in that distant, alien way of cold winter, but an actual presence that enveloped. It wasn’t time yet to take the plastic off the house windows or cast the fishing line into the water, but it was a day of anticipation.
It was March 1st. The previous evening’s chill had been something of a specter, a vestige of what was turning out to be a clipped winter and early spring, if not just for a few days; North Country people knew the trickery of March weather. Bill and the tall man from the diner had waited all night for the other men to arrive.
The night inside the house had been cold. Not twice but three times the man, whose name was Lepere (he’d given no first name, and Bill didn’t ask for one), had suggested they build a fire, but Bill had explained the hazards of that, given the condition of the house and chimney.
They had waited for the third element to show. The hetch.
Bill smoked on the porch, now alone. “A person doesn’t retain any sense of identity in the afterlife,” he remembered Lepere saying, “Zip, zero, tits-up.” When he had said ‘zero’, Bill had glanced at the ring on Lepere’s finger, that symbol which was either the letter “O”, or the place holder zero. And that’s what zero was, wasn’t it? If Bill remembered his 11th grade algebra correctly, zero was not an integer, not a number. There was a conceit about the rest of the integers, and zero was left out of their gang, relegated to toe the line, to represent the lack of numerical value. It couldn’t be divided or multiplied. It was a non-entity, a place holder.
Lepere had said, “You’re gone, this idea of ‘you’, of ‘me, myself,’ but, then, there’s your energy to consider. Your matter. William Blake said that ‘the notion that the soul is separate from the body is to be expunged.’ ‘Expunged,’ I like that word. Blake knew that the soul wasn’t residing in the body, renting it out, but was infused with it. Developed with it and died with it. But not exactly, not entirely. It’s the third law of thermodynamics – energy can neither be created nor destroyed. And when you see that matter is energy too, and that consciousness is energy – Rinpoche said that – then you have to wonder, where does it go? We see the body deteriorate and matter decompose – we can verify that with the senses. But we don’t think in terms of the energy. What is happening to the energy? What is it being fed into? And, of course, the simplest answer is the right one – it’s being fed back into everything, into the Field. It’s an imperfect system. You don’t have a hundred percent efficiency, but, something like 99.5 percent efficiency. And that rogue .5 percent, someone has to deal with that.”
Bill had listened to Lepere go on like this through the night, this kind of high-strung talking, this manic jag the tall stranger had gotten into. Lepere eventually drifted off, leaving Bill to wonder about the man’s remark that they’re not like me, referring to others in his…what was it? A group of some kind? An organization? Was Bill’s type of work incorporated by some other men in the world, a Remax to local realty? Probably. Likely. Just about everything a person did in this world and thought they were doing exclusively, at least provincially, was not. There was always someone else, someone better and more organized with more money and in greater number.
When the first light of this spring-like morning had filtered through the living room window, Lepere was gone. There had been no sign of him in the hour and-a-half that followed, and Bill stood on the front porch, feeling the spring feelings, trying to shake off the cold dissonance of the night inside the house behind him, waiting for these others in Lepere’s outfit, unable to get anything else out of the ugly, small-toothed fellow, only the reassurance that these others would be here “any time now.” So, they’d waited. Bill had waited. Curiosity, maybe. Responsibility for the site. Not wanting to deal with the cops, especially given the way cops felt about Bill Prime.
Lepere had seem to shut down as the dawn had come on, the energy he’d shown at the front door seemingly leached from him. And now he was back.
“How did you get into this business?” The voice startled Bill, made him jump. “Jesus,” he said, as Lepere walked around from the back of his house. He carried a wood splitting maul in his hands. The sight of it turned Bill’s bowels to stone.
“Where did you get that?”
Lepere stopped walking. He shrugged, and spat to the side. It was a sorry, dry gesture. “From the shed in back. Looks like it was a foaling shed. Later for firewood. Probably used to have wedges, hatchets, bandsaws, but this – this was the only tool left. It’ll come in handy.” Lepere swung it up over his shoulder and continued walking into the front yard. Bill started to go for his gun, but stopped. He didn’t think Lepere meant him any harm. Why now? If he’d been going to do anything he’d have tried it last night, with Bill dozing on and off. It was the maul that alarmed Bill, not any intent of Lepere’s to maybe use it, but the heavy hammer itself, stirring that gutshot memory.
“Handy,” Bill echoed. The man with the oxen eyes was chipper again, was he? Then Bill said: “I went to school for something else.”
Lepere walked through the sunlight and melting snow. Bill shrugged, letting his hand drop to his side, the one that had started for the gun. His eyes were still fixed on the maul over Lepere’s shoulder, but he crowded out the memory associated with it by conjuring others. It was a welcome distraction. “Then I went to the academy. Spent two years on road patrol. Wanted to make C.I. as soon as possible, but it wasn’t a clear cut route and I kept getting people from the civil office bumping in front of me. I broke up dozens of domestics; drunken bar fights, guys smacking their wives around, threatening to hang themselves in the barn. Lots of low grey sky and winter and alcoholic hicks…” Bill trailed off, realizing what was coming next, the way a man realizes, at some point, that his drinking and escapism are going to become the crushing hangover he endures the next morning.
“That’s why you left?” Lepere cocked one of his narrow eyebrows at Bill and switched the maul from one shoulder to the other like a soldier his rifle. Bill’s eyes flicked with the movement, following it. And here was the junction.
“No,” said Bill, stamping his smoke out on the porch. Normally he didn’t leave cigarette butts behind like this, but field-stripped them and carried to filters in his pocket until the gig was over. “First, it was the problem with hierarchy – there was none. Not to make C.I., really. I took a criminal justice program online and in six months was certified as a P.I. I had met Lucy…well, I had met her when I was still an active cop, and she…she was…”
Lepere was smiling. “You still left out the most succulent detail, mon ami: Why. You. Left.”
Bill only looked at Lepere, suddenly hating him, the way one hated an old feuding neighbor with the built up enmity of decades, wanting to take the maul and crush his skull.
“And Luann,” said Lepere, “she was involved, yeah?”
“It’s not Luann,” said Bill, finding his voice again, gritting his teeth, “it’s Lucy.”
Lepere turned in the direction of the road, about a hundred feet away. He started jogging then, bringing the maul down to his side like a man gripping a briefcase. The car coming toward them was visible from a distance through the barren trees aligning the straightaway road.
Lepere stopped halfway to the far edge of the front lawn. Bill squinted in the sun and tried to make out the oncoming vehicle. It appeared new and black, the reflection of trees rolling over it at a good speed. Behind it another, a truck, a rustbucket belching burnt oil.
“Oh good,” Bill heard Lepere say, “they’re here.”
All four doors opened after both vehicles pulled up to the house. They didn’t open in unison (as Bill, for some reason, expected they might), but individually, at random. The men that got out were likewise individual, though there was something about them that didn’t seem to Bill to be random at all. For appearances sake, maybe, strategic; the idea was otherwise unfounded save for the gut: the men appeared to exit the two vehicles in a spuriously random fashion concocted so as to somehow fit in, appear normal.
The driver of the sedan was short; Danny Devito short, Bill decided. The passenger was of average height, perhaps a little on the heavy side, but not fat, wearing sunglasses. He reached into his pants pocket and jingled change. The passenger of the beige pick-up behind them was plain-looking, not wearing any shades.
Each man was in his thirties or forties, Bill guessed. Each man dressed, like Lepere, in a business fashion, with slacks instead of jeans, a suit jacket beneath a black pea coat. Only one wore a duckwash Carhartt work coat. This was the man who got out of the pick-up’s driver side, exiting last, taking a look around as he did like a tourist in a resort town. Or, Bill thought, more specifically – like a man visiting a different country. Maybe this was the Icelander.
It was this man that Bill marked, not because of his work clothes, or that he was wearing a pair of sunglasses – Ray bans, maybe – like the one other man who’d jingled the coins in his pocket, nor because he’d deboarded the caravan last. It was this man Bill thought most accurately enforced Lepere’s ominous statement, They’re not like me, because he didn’t appear to be like the other men, or any man Bill had ever laid eyes on at all. It was an instant feeling, the way the Icelander in the work coat looked around, the way he closed the door and not slammed it, not being ginger with it, but executing every move with the sort of practiced airs of a robot that’s been programmed to do so, or a traveler who had studied up on the cultural mores of a land he was visiting in effort to fit in, to keep suspicion at bay.
“Morning,” said Lepere. At some point he’d rested the maul back on his shoulder. He looked like an odd lumberjack, a man escaped from working the carnival grounds cleaning up after the elephants, a bank teller who’d had enough of handling other people’s money and decided to live the Thoreau life. He didn’t, to Bill, seem as practiced with this new persona as the Icelander did, a man appearing erudite in the foreign ways he’d studied, his only giveaway that his movements were too exactingly casual.
“Morning, Jean,” said the Danny Devito driver.
“How was the trip?” Lepere asked. (Jean Lepere, thought Bill, fitting together the tall man’s full name.)
Danny Devito shrugged. “Same.” He put his hands on his hips, and rolled back on his heels, looking up at the three-story country house, ramshackle condition, peeling paint. His eyes seemed to stop on the front gable end, with the sun-weathered cedar shakes forming the inverted V that started from the awning over the porch and tapered up to the apex, where warped and peeling fascia tenuously hung.
“The rotan?” Devito asked. Jean Lepere nodded. Devito nodded once to himself. Then, as Bill figured was inevitable, the little man’s eyes found him. Lepere was ready to make introductions.
“Mancini, this is William Prime, Private Investigator. He works these kinds of situations around here, usually followed around by a psychic and a camera crew. All pro bono for them, yeah, but Primavera here is paid staff. His own business.”
Bill was pretty sure this was Lepere’s way of making fun of him and getting in with the boys, showing him that he was loyal, that his group was the real deal and outsiders were laughable scum. Bill was no stranger to that type of criticism, but today, for some reason, it mattered to him more than it usually did. And what else mattered to him was Icelander in the Carhartt coat, still standing next to the rattletrap pick-up he’d stepped out of, seeming to look everywhere and nowhere at once – Bill felt the man’s sunglassed eyes boring into him.
“Uh-huh,” said Devito–Mancini. Bill half expected Mancini would introduce the rest of the group of them, and half expected he wouldn’t. The truth fell on the latter, and Mancini only looked at Bill like a man regarding a rodent in the back garden. He then signaled them to start toward the house, saying, “No sign of the hetch?”
There it is, thought Bill, and despite himself, he felt a quiver up his spine, like a plucked string.
“Not yet,” said Lepere, “I think-”
But it was Bill’s time to interrupt. “Gentlemen,” he said, and they each stopped walking abruptly, in an herky, unnerving way.
“Gentlemen, I have to say something.” Bill swallowed, and his throat felt dry. “This house belongs to my client. I was hired by her to investigate the house, as, you can see, it hasn’t been selling. Even the realty company has abandoned the prospect – that’s why there’s no sign in the yard.” As one of the men not wearing sunglasses, Bill could see Mancini’s eyes. Mancini looked amused. Bill went on. “If Ms Stender is unlucky, the house will go up for back taxes, and she’ll suffer a great loss. She doesn’t have much else,” Bill said, suddenly all too aware of his own voice. He pressed further, craving another cigarette, but forgoing it for now. “She hired me – like Mr. Lepere mentioned, I do work for a fee, but in this case, I waived it. Anyway, she hired me, and I brought my associate,” – here Bill cut his eyes over to Lepere – “an empath, and yes, the video crew we allow, only to come in after we’re finished – we reenact our experience for them. It helps…well, it helps with advertising. Though for them it’s posterity and the devotion to their science.”
Bill cleared his throat, which made him cough. He had a sudden recall of spitting out the wad of ham onto the diner table the afternoon before. Sensing he was near the limit of the men’s patience, particularly Mancini’s, whom Bill decided was the “boss” of their little crew, he finished up quickly. “This house is under my guardianship; I’m responsible for it. Mr. Lepere here has been mostly…” – Bill groped – “…forthcoming, explaining to me this thing about elements, about how, for reasons he was not forthcoming about, we’re to expect two other phenomenon to occur, besides that floating ball…the rotan.”
“Do you want us to show our liability insurance?” It was Mancini, only a few feet from the porch steps, his patience clearly at an end.
“I’m saying I can’t let you into this house without knowing what’s going on.”
Mancini shrugged. The gesture made Bill think of Lucy. “Call the cops, if you want. We’re coming in.” And in that same unnatural fashion the four men snapped to life and began moving again.
As they approached and passed him one at a time, Bill saw that each of them wore the zero ring, the surface of it flashing as their arms swung in the low morning sun, their boots clomping over the porch floorboards, each deftly missing the hole in the front steps stairtread, into the house, a pack of drifters uninvited to dinner.
Stay tuned! –Next week– Chapter Six: Unbound (10.05.11)
CHAPTER SEVEN: You Don’t Breathe Because The Air is On Fire
CHAPTER EIGHT: Buried Alive and The Demon Comes
CHAPTER NINE: The Dream