bill prime and the zero ring men – chapter five

SERIES OVERVIEW and PREVIOUS CHAPTERS

-5-

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.

Zero.

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 ONE: Lucy’s Perfect Pitch

CHAPTER TWO:  The Audio Tape

CHAPTER THREE:  Up The Stairs

CHAPTER FOUR:  The Tall Man and the Four Elements

CHAPTER FIVE:  The Zero Ring Men

CHAPTER SIX:  Unbound

CHAPTER SEVEN:  You Don’t Breathe Because The Air is On Fire

CHAPTER EIGHT:  Buried Alive and The Demon Comes

CHAPTER NINE:  The Dream

bill prime and the zero ring men – chapter four

SERIES OVERVIEW and PREVIOUS CHAPTERS

-4-

The Tall Man and the Four Elements

On the porch stood the tall man from the diner.  He bore those pointed features, not entirely unhandsome, but somehow off – a thin moustache made the border between his aquiline nose and nonexistent upper lip.  He looked like a man who couldn’t grow a beard – stubble-turned-prickers cradled his weak chin and jaw up to his ears, but didn’t make it north beyond a few spotty areas on his cheeks.  His eyes were like an ox’s, sunken and illiterate.  When he smiled, there were too many teeth.  They seemed smaller than a man’s should be.

The man held his hand in front of his face, knuckled out toward Bill who, on the taller side himself, stood almost eye-to-eye with the stranger.  There was a ring on the appropriate finger, faux gold shaped into an oval, a raised “O” or zero on its face.

After this sort of showing-of-the-badge, as Bill thought it, the hand dropped and the man asked, “You over that incident yet with the babysitter car crash?”

“What?” Bill’s three end fingers curled around the sandalwood grip of his gun.

“Prime – that’s not your real name.  That is, it is, legally, but it was changed.  From what?  Primofski?  Primavera?”

“Who are you?”

The tall man with the ring blinked his oxen eyes, the lashes long, like the ridged dorsal fins of swordfish.  “I’m the man from the diner,” he said.

Bill didn’t like the man’s voice.  There was a dissonant note in it, something petulant.  Given this man’s company on an airplane, Bill thought, it would be bomb’s-away-parachute by the time the peanuts came around.

“I realize that,” said Bill.  He was still nervous, but asserting the patience he had to show many clients, to skeptics (like himself), and even to those more “activist” types, who came along (once in a while they surely did – like pro-lifers outside a clinic, or war protesters, rock-solid in their convictions, vehement and brass-tacks about it).  He thought about the letter the man had given to Bill at the diner.

Bill asked, “Are you a Carteret?”

The tall man, whose numinous toothy grin had faded when Bill had said I realize that, now smiled again, flashing the full Flatbush cemetery.  “No,” said the tall man.  “Far from it.”

“You know who a Carteret is, then.”

Again the smile wilted away.  “Yes, I know who a Carteret is.”

“No offense.  It’s not a very big group.  About the size of the Oneida group, maybe, when it first started, before they started manufacturing silverware,” Bill said.  He stopped himself from saying more, realizing that his enduring fatigue had somehow untangled the ligature in his brain and loosened his tongue.

“No offense taken,” said the tall man, and his eyes narrowed, Bill thought, as if trying to read what was going on in Bill’s mind.  The man’s eyes cut over to the gun Bill still held in the air.  “But I wouldn’t mind if you put that down.”

Bill looked at the firearm and kept it where it was.  He looked back at the tall man, saying, “You need to tell me who you work for.”

The tall man nodded.  At last Bill lowered the gun and slipped it back into the holster near his left armpit.  The tall man watched this process and said, “I like that rig.”

Bill raised his eyebrows, awaiting the answer to his question.

“I work for myself,” said the tall man.  “We all do.  That way… That way’s easier.  Less paperwork.  More for the tax man, maybe, but fuck him in his ass.”

Bill blinked, and must’ve looked as if he’d been taken aback, because the tall man standing on the porch suddenly ripped a guffawing laughter, that high voice raking through it like fingernails, and slapped his knee.  “I’m sorry,” he said, now rubbing at an eye, “I don’t mean to be so crude.”  He seemed to sober up instantly.  He looked over Bill’s shoulder.  “It’s a little nippy out here.  Let me in?”

It’s not really my house, Bill thought to say, but, then, the place was sort of his charge, his responsibility, at least until the contract was satisfied and the gig over.  Apparently, it wasn’t yet.

Bill stepped back from the door allowing the tall man from the diner passage inside.  With a couple of lunging strides, the man entered, and took his black winter hat off of his head, revealing thinning hair that, to Bill, somehow matched the protracted weasel features of his face, the sepulchral quality of his long body.

Bill flipped on the living room light.  The two men stood looking into the cobwebby, stone fireplace, the curved mantle, and then around at the rest of the room.  The tall man regarded the carpet, saying, “Might as well get that ripped up.”  At last, they were both looking at the water stains on the ceiling.  The man kept his gaze directed up there while Bill’s eyes dropped to the – what looked like – fake gold ring.

“It’s up there, eh?”

“What?”

The tall man kept his eyes ceiling-ward.  “The rotan.  The round thing hanging in the air.  Like a silver bowling ball.”

“Yeah.  Yes, it’s up there.”

“You try to move it?”  The tall man looked back down and across the room at Bill, a smile playing with one side of his thin lips.  “’Course you did.”

Bill wondered how much the man knew that was on the cassette.  How much connection there was between him and the woman who’d done the recording.  Obviously there was, but it was a connection somewhere along the spectrum from tenuous to total.

“No, she don’t budge,” the tall man concluded, and drew his hands up from where they hung, long and bony, along his sides, to his hips.

He continued to take in the room while addressing Bill and, it seemed, speaking to the air itself, or an invisible public.  “Well, you found the bird and took the bird out this morning.  You and the woman.  What’s her name – Luann?”

“Lucy.”

“Lucy.  Right.  Fat lady.  I mean, she’s bigger.  Not too attractive.  So, you and Lucy removed the bird.  That’s one.  Now, the rotan is upstairs – in that back bedroom, is it?”

Bill shrugged.  He wanted to go home, all of the sudden.  He never much liked being home – there wasn’t much to like in his drab little apartment, and stayed at the office as much as possible – but he was starting to crave it.  “I thought you knew all this.  You and the woman on the tape.”

The tall man was scowling, but his brow uncluttered and he said pleasantly enough, “She’s just the receptionist.  You know what I mean?  The secretary?  So, well, no – I don’t get all of the information as her.  Not always.”  He grinned, and the grin made Bill feel that queasy rotation in his stomach again.  “No emails.”

“Your own personal secretary?  I thought you worked for yourself.”

“I do.  Think of her as a service.  She provides me and… several others in my field, with a service.  So, the bird, that’s one.  The rotan, that’s two.  Those we don’t have to worry about right now.”

Bill felt something bitter rise up.  “It’s the third thing, right?  The numero three we have to worry about, yeah?  A trifocal.  It always comes in threes.  You know what?  If you’re not a Carteret, whatever you are, buzz off, okay?  I don’t need this.  I gotta pick up my kid tomorrow and-”  Bill stopped himself.  His tongue was wagging again, the ball getting away from him.  He pulled his blazer tighter around him and started out.

“It’s not the third thing, no,” said the tall man.  “The third thing isn’t exactly pleasant.  She can be mouthy, but, that’s not nearly the worst of it.”

Despite himself, Bill stopped just inside the entrance.  It wasn’t so much the enticement of knowing, it was the quality in the tall man’s voice.  That reedy smugness had changed, and gotten all-business.  The drafty house seemed to whisper hollow.  Bill turned.  The man was holding up four long fingers, his thumb tucked against his palm.

“There are four elements, Bill, is what you would probably call them.”  Bill watched the tall man’s thumb come out and waggle in the air.  “You, you make a witness, a sort of fifth, but-” and he re-tucked the thumb against the lines in his palm, “there are four.”  The tall man’s beady eyes glinted in the overhead chandelier, four points in each.  Bill watched as his fingers curled into a fist, and then the fingers unfurl, one by one.  “There is what you call the leftover,” he said, and his forefinger came up, “that’s one.  The rotan, the sphere, that’s two.  The hetch, that’s three.”

“The hetch?”  Bill blinked.  He realized he was on the fence.  He was somewhere in the borderland between chalking this up to the typical nonsense that the Carterets and some of their ilk were know to put on people in his “field” (fortune tellers, psychics, even phrenologists and gifted types who worked cold cases and missing persons with the cops), to bearing the sensation that his blood was heating rapidly, his feet unable to respond to the demands upon them for exit.  In short, he was halfway in between finding this man to be full of the usual prankster bullshit and believing him completely.  The nervous ambivalence was not a new feeling for Bill – he usually spent each day in some measure of this state, an idealist-pessimist, a skeptic-believer, from what people told him (mainly Lucy).

The tall man said, “Yes, the hetch.  Or, you might say, ‘the witch.’  I think that’s the translation.”

“From what, Sanskrit?”

“Might be,” said the tall man, and his lips resealed in a crooked line.  His fourth finger came up.  He opened his mouth.

At the same moment, the feeling of suspension holding him at the threshold broke, and Bill turned, hurrying out of the house.

**

On the porch, Bill stopped, and breathed.  He could hear the driveway dirt and granulated snow spacking against the side of his car outside as the wind picked up, the trees still clattering together in the back, hollow chocking sounds like bamboo.  The house creaked in the moaning wind, the zephyrs of drafts like rawboned ghosts, serpenting through the house at waist-level.

Bill then tromped down the two steps off the porch, careful to avoid the ragged hole there, and onto the short walk to the driveway.

The wind knifed through him.  The weather had warmed in the past week, that February thaw, but was cooling again tonight, and dropping fast.  The wind and the smell of sterling silver in the air, foretelling a snowstorm.  He reached the Subaru, grasped the handle and turned to look back at the house.

The tall man was a silhouette again, standing in the living room.  He appeared to be in the exact same place Bill had left him, as if he hadn’t moved an inch, his hand still up, four fingers extended.  Perhaps his mouth was still open to describe whatever the fourth thing was, whatever Bill didn’t want to hear.

Bill squinched his eyes shut.  He saw the car accident in slow motion, he saw both the young babysitter driving and the small child in the back lurching forward, caught by their belts, saved by them, yes, if it weren’t for what else.

Bill reached into his inner pocket and pulled out the Dictaphone.  He pressed Play, and listened.

“-ouse,” was all that he heard.

Bill hit Rewind, for just a second, listening to the squeaky scramble of the woman’s voice until the silent space of the white noise.  He pressed Play again.  He listened to the noise, the rustling as the record was reactivated, and then her voice.

“Go back inside the house,” she said.

**

Click here for some Interesting Reading About Spheres

Stay tuned! –Next week– Chapter Five: The Zero Ring Men  (9.28.11)

CHAPTER ONE: Lucy’s Perfect Pitch

CHAPTER TWO:  The Audio Tape

CHAPTER THREE:  Up The Stairs

CHAPTER FOUR:  The Tall Man and the Four Elements

CHAPTER FIVE:  The Zero Ring Men

CHAPTER SIX:  Unbound

CHAPTER SEVEN:  You Don’t Breathe Because The Air is On Fire

CHAPTER EIGHT:  Buried Alive and The Demon Comes

CHAPTER NINE:  The Dream

octavio paz, mexican poet

“The ancients had visions; we have television.
But the civilization of the spectacle is cruel, because the spectators have no memory.
Because of that, they also lack remorse and true conscience.
They quickly forget and scarcely blink at the scenes of death and destruction.
They await the great yawn, anonymous and universal,
Which is the apocalypse and the final judgement of the society of spectacle.
We are condemned to this new vision of hell –
Those who appear on the screen, and those of us who watch.
Is there an escape? I don’t know.
One must seek it.”

Octavio Paz

contagion, a film review (cough cough)

Sometimes you go to see a film because of the actor.  Sometimes because of the director.  Sometimes, it’s because of the poster (thanks to the marketing people behind Top Gun).  And sometimes, the title itself gets you in the seat.

Contagion is a big word.  An important word.  Contagion just sounds sinister.  It’s a word with manifold interpretation, evoking the “viral” phenomena of pop culture (check out Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point for a real flagship study of the birth of our contagious culture), and, of course, it’s a word that conjures images of disease, thoughts of sickness, and the threat of catching something a lot worse than a chicken soup cold.

Just say it: “Contagion.”  It chills the blood.  It almost makes you cough.

That’s what Gwenyth Paltrow is doing at the beginning of the movie – she’s coughing.  She’s sick, sick with something bad, and she’s the sort of “ground zero” of the whole epidemic.

From here the movie unspools in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner, weaving together the character threads a la Babel, or Traffic.  Only unlike those two films, there is something very understated about Contagion.  Moments where you think it might take a leap to the next level, where chaos reigns and your senses are truly blown don’t really occur.  Instead, the story remains within it’s own biohazard suit.  While you may be rapt with attention for the first half hour or so, once the style fully presents itself, and once you sense the parameters, the limitations of the film, your mind may began to wander.

Films have limits.  They don’t have to, though.  You can make a film on your own dime which goes as far as you want to take it – as fantastical, as gruesome, as dirty, majestic, or obscure as you can muster.  You can make a movie about a man sleeping.  You can make a movie about some crazy lady who lives in your radiator.  And if anybody watches what you’ve made, either they’re under duress (read: learning film “theory” at school) or, you’ve gotten incredibly lucky.

Films have limits because films cost money.  Most people don’t have the money to make a big film, so they ask other people.  Those other people say, “Okay, but I want my money back.  And I’d like to make some money too.”  This is called a “return.”  The filmmakers, then, are beholden to the investors.  The more the film is shown, the more money the investors make.  Storytelling, then, becomes a sort of risk-assessment.  At least, that aspect can’t really be separated from any media looking to lend itself to commerce.  And that’s fine.

The problem is, the medium itself – this incredible concert of sight and sound, this ability to express ideas in a highly suggestible way, to put people into a darkened room and overwhelm them with a giant picture and booming audition that basically hypnotizes them, well, that’s just freaking incredible.  It’s powerful.  It can be seen as photography and music and painting and writing and sculpting and architecture and hair-dressing all rolled into one.  Everything.  Even if it’s a film made by a few guys and gals running around with back-packs and cargo pants, a movie is an incredible enterprise.

As such, when I watch a film like, say, Avatar, and all the stops are pulled – I mean, all the stops (the best CGI, the grandest world, the scope of the saga) – I get pulled in.  We all do, or most of us do.

But then I want something else to happen.  I want to be surprised.  When the blue cat people are there in that stupefying, iridescent forest, I want to just live there.  I want the story to take a turn.  But, no.  What happens is what always happens.  After the main character we’ve come to know and root for has overcome numerous obstacles and successfully wooed the one he pines for and they consummate with physical affection, that’s the apex of the arc.  That’s when the bulldozers come cracking through the trees.  When the bad guy bursts through the door.  When “the tables turn” and now we start descending towards act III.

This is where I want something new.  This is where I want to pick up a whole new road, and start to follow it.  This is where I want to be surprised.

See, I don’t want there to be a cure for the disease.  I don’t want the tables to be turned.  I’d rather live there in that world, to see something more about it, to go over here and check this thing out, this thing just off in the distance.  I don’t want to go down this same old road I’ve been down, accepting it just because this version has different actors and story details.  I’ve been there before.

Give me fuel, give me fire, give me that which I desire, as the Metallica blokes say.  Caress the divine details, as Nabokov puts it.  Take me into the story and then do a freaking number on me.

Contagion, alas, doesn’t do it.  Maybe this was why I was a bit surprised by seeing Stephen Soderberg’s name at the end of it.  From the director of Solaris, and even Ocean’s Eleven, Contagion rolls out like the standard yarn does, supplying you just enough reasons to like your characters, giving you the modicum of grit and realism pertinent to a story like this, but it never reaches any higher.  It never moves into what transcends the medium

Soderberg is retiring, says the grapevine, anyway.  And my desires for great films are mostly unrealistic.  They’re out there, and they do come along.  Contagion just wasn’t one of them.  If you’re looking to check-out of life for a hundred minutes, and be sufficiently entertained, buy the ticket.  If you’re hoping for a sprawling disaster movie that surprises and shakes you, wait for DVD or skip it.  While I admit I was using my shirt sleeve to touch any doorknobs for a few hours afterwards, I don’t think this particular movie will be very contagious at the box office.

**

Some great films which transcend and surprise:
Children of Men
There Will Be Blood
Southland Tales
Million Dollar Baby
No Country For Old Men
Donnie Darko
Se7en
Black Swan
Moon
The Hurt Locker

bill prime and the zero ring men – chapter three

SERIES OVERVIEW

-3-

Up The Stairs

A half an hour later Bill was in his office looking at a bag of ground coffee.  It was Beaumont, a brand that sold ridiculously cheap at the Aldi grocery store that had moved into town.  He sat in his chair in his office with his hands laced behind his head, looking at the little Mr. Coffee station.  A deeper section of his mind replayed the scene in the Stender house kitchen from earlier that day, during the gig, before the camera crew had arrived to document.

He saw Lucy getting her knee up onto the stove so she could peer into the hood above it.  With that one chubby knee there on the griddle  and her other leg dangling she’d looked like a very large baby conspiring for the high shelf where the cookies were kept.  A baby who then said “Yup,” like a plumber: There’s your problem right there, ma’am.

Bill looked at the manila envelope on the desk in front of him.  The note inside read:  “Go home and sleep.  Big day tomorrow.  Tongs and a canvas sack!  Good one.”  Had somebody been at the Stender house, then, watching?  It wasn’t impossible – in fact, it had happened more than once.  Someone leaked something and either teenage kids or the press or an angry old neighbor got wind of Bill’s presence and came by to have a look, or try and police the situation.

Someone had possibly been there today, looking in through one of those dusty kitchen windows.  Someone who had seen the extraction, someone who had seen the purple rinds beneath Bill’s eyes to know he was tired, or the way he brought the back of a loosely curled fist to his mouth and had yawned every five minutes or so.

Could it have been the camera crew?  He went over the group of them in his mind – there was a still photographer, and a videographer.  There was a young woman who recorded sound…Becky, was her name.  Did that make sense then?  Becky?  The girl who did sound?  Was she the author of the letter, had she sent him the audio tape?  It seemed to fit.

Becky could have arrived a little early, hidden away and witnessed the extraction. Maybe Becky had seen how tired Bill was, seen the extraction, and written the note, dropped the tape in the envelope and had the tall man from the diner deliver it.

But why?

Well, Bill figured, if there was going to be any answer for it, listening to the tape would be a start in that direction.

He was rocking on the two back legs of the chair at his high school teacher’s desk.  He’d left the lights off in his room, the blinds drawn to the outside midday.  He looked at the coffee maker again, still deliberating whether to make a fresh pot and listen to the tape right away, or to cool his heels and for at least an hour take Lucy’s advice – hell, take the letter-writer’s advice, el doctoro mysterioso – and sleep.

**

 

In the end, free will was fantasy, and Bill conked out.  He slept fitfully, exhausted as he was, his head lolling and jerking on his chest.

It was probably toward the end of the nap that he dreamed.  In the dream the hood in the old country house kitchen was stained with stiletto jags of rust, the unit cockeyed and out of proportion, forming some kind of cubist’s trapezoid.  Dream-Lucy worked the extraction not with tongs and a canvas sack, but with a giant vacuum machine, with clear tubes drawing through pinkish, fatty fluid, making sucking sounds and chuffing smoke.

Parts of the machine hissed and pistoned up and down, dials spun like those on a child’s toy or a carnival ride.  Dream-Lucy held the tip of the hose up underneath the hood, where she was fishing around, making scraping noises as she reached with the extension.  Bill watched the dream and heard the thunk as the extraction finally took place.  He saw the Leftover, as Lucy called them, yanked free from where it hid underneath the hood, the suction of the big vacuuming machine getting a hold of it at last.

Bill watched as it snaked its way through the tube.  It appeared as a charred baby, snarling at him, ivory-white eyes glowing around the blackened skin, sliding through the clear plastic intestines of the machine.  Its small hands pressed against the inside of the tubing as it went, little more than a blur of a thing, and then whump into Lucy’s machine.  And at the whump, Bill had awakened, and thought of his son.

Troy.  I’m coming, my boy.  I’m coming.

Bill sat straightened in his chair, now unable to drift back to sleep, plagued with the dream’s residue.  He decided it was time for that coffee, got up, and shuffled across the small room.

For the real extraction that morning, the Leftover – a physical manifestation of bad psychic juju, you could call it – was a kind of bird.  When it wasn’t a bird, the Leftovers were often a sort of bug.  They varied in shape and size, the bugs, and when they didn’t resemble a cockroach, they were beetles, round and hard like shining black pebbles.  Once there had been a large slug.  What didn’t vary, however, was that the Leftover was there.  Whether a house was considered cursed because of a crime committed, or an untimely death, the bad event took shape.  It left something behind, like a resin, like the gunk that coagulated in a drain.  This fact, this extracting of the Leftover was something Bill and Lucy didn’t share with their little media pals.  So how could Becky the sound girl have even known about it?  And even if she had arrived early, hid herself and spied, how could she know what she was seeing?

For one thing, aside from some microscopic markings Bill was sure only an entomologist would believe, the bugs looked like ordinary household or backyard crawlers.  The big cockroaches looked like something you’d find in a tropical jungle, sure, but he was sure their north country equivalents wriggled out from under plenty a refrigerator.  And the birds looked like birds, albeit of a species Bill was sure there was no Latin name for, the kind you wouldn’t find in an encyclopedia.  So Becky wouldn’t necessarily have attributed seeing a bird to having anything to do with the paranormal.

As he spooned the Beaumont coffee into a filter, Bill thought back.  There had been only two times he and Lucy had not been able to find the Leftover, and only one of those times they’d gotten lucky and nothing had come of it.  The other time had resulted in something unsavory – the Leftover in this case had been a slug.  Some time after the gig was over, the man who still lived in the site house had awakened in the night experiencing sinus build-up.  The next morning he’d told family that he felt like he had an ear infection and was having trouble hearing.  Since he showed no other symptoms, however, to indicate infection, he decided that the problem was wax build-up, and scheduled an appointment with the family doctor to have his ears irrigated.  This had been a year and a half ago, and Lucy knew the receptionist at the doctor’s office, Mandy.  Mandy had told Lucy about it over one of their vegan dinners a couple of nights later.  Her face wrinkled into disgust and disbelief, Lucy said, as Mandy explained how the doctor had pulled a large slug out of the old man’s ear.

It had died in there.

With the bugs, the extraction was simple.  The creature was placed in the potato sack, Bill brought it into the woods (or a ditch, or an alleyway), and stomped it to death.  This was the one bit of the job Lucy was squeamish about.  But when it came to the birds – forget it.  For the birds, Lucy got out her cage and brought them home.  Each of the two others there’d been, though, died within a couple days.  Lucy said it was because they had no purpose left to serve, whatever that meant.  For now, this bird Leftover was still in the sack, stashed in the back of Bill’s Subaru Loyale, probably dead already.

The coffee percolated.

Bill realized he was procrastinating.

“Fine,” he said to the empty office with the water-stained ceiling.  “Screw it.”

He went to his desk.  He opened up the enveloped and pulled out the small tape cassette.  From his drawer, he produced his Dictaphone, a device vastly underused.  He placed cassette in the Dictaphone and pressed Play.

White noise hissed for a moment, and then there was the sound of rustling, like clothing.

Someone cleared their throat.  Then a voice.

“Go back to the house.  Press stop, and play again at the house.”

It was a woman’s voice.  Bill stopped the tape, rewound, and listened again.  “Go back to the house.  Press stop, and play again at the house.”  Maybe in her late thirties, early forties.  A non-smoker.  The voice was clear but sultry, evoking the sinuous smell of a perfume, maybe Obsession.  Definitely not Becky the sound girl with her cargo pants and pigtails.

Bill let the tape roll, even more curious now.

“Go up the stairs.  Press stop.  Press play again at the top of the stairs.”

Bill stood next to his desk, looking down at the small machine in his hand.  He pressed Stop.  Behind him, the coffee finished brewing and steam rose from the pot.

Bill left the office without getting a cup.

**

At dusk, he arrived and sat with the Subaru idling, looking across the front lawn at the ramshackle, unkempt country house.  He had rewound the tape once more, stopping it where instructed.

He walked inside, and pressed Play.

“Go up the stairs.  Press stop.  Press play again at the top of the-”

He clicked it off.  His left hand on the rickety banister, his right holding the Dictaphone, his gun lightly bouncing against his white-shirted chest in the Docker’s clutch holster, he climbed up, passing the gaps where the spindles were missing.

“-stairs.”  There was a brief period of more white noise.  Then: “Go towards the back of the house, the room on the right, one of the bedrooms.  Press stop.”  Bill did as the voice on the tape instructed.

The smell of mildew was especially strong upstairs.  A narrow hallway fed into three rooms, straight back from the stairs.  As he walked towards the bedrooms at the end, he passed the bathroom on his left and glanced in.

The room was completely spoiled.  Green algae-like corrosion grappled to every fixture.  Brown gunk in the bathtub reminded Bill of his afternoon dream.  He turned away from the room and at the same time felt a pulling, a sickness in lower abdomen, the base of his guts.  A stirring there like a fish slipping through a gap in his large intestine, and a dark familiar lure, the lure to drink, to drink hard, to find someone, anyone, and screw until senseless, liquor conjugating with liquor.

He moved on from the bathroom and continued down the hall.

Bill turned into the room on the right.  The bedroom was dark.  He flipped the switch on the wall.  Amber light flitted to life in an overhead fixture, a shallow dome.  The fixture was filthy, littered with the mice-turd bodies of dead flies.  Two windows at the back of the room overlooked the yard behind the house.  In the center of the room floated a bluish-silver sphere.

“Approach the sphere.”

Bill cautiously walked towards it.  It was the size of a basketball and looked like a ball bearing.  He stopped within two feet of it, breathing faster than normal, gripping and ungripping the Dictaphone in a sweating hand.

“Try to move it.  Press Stop.”

Bill pressed the Stop button on the Dictaphone.  He wiped his mouth with his left hand unconsciously.  He looked at the sphere, he looked out the window, he looked back at the sphere.  He took two steps toward it, closing the gap, his chest only inches from it.  He slipped the Dictaphone into his blazer inside pocket and brought his hands up along side of the sphere.  He flexed his fingers.  He closed his hands in, and finally touched it.

It was cool against his skin, the way part of him had expected it to be; it was cool in the upstairs rooms.  Drafty.  The sensation of something subaqueous in his belly returned for a brief moment, like a startled salmon flashing sunlight.

Bill got a firm grip on either side of the sphere, but the nerves in his hands were already telling his brain what to expect.  He put some muscle into it, and tried to move the hovering ball.  It wouldn’t go an inch.  It was rooted where it hung in the air as if affixed in place by steel gurters.

He wiped his mouth again, smearing away beads of perspiration on his upper lip, this time with the back of his right hand.  He grasped the sphere again and tried to wrest it out of its space.  Nothing.  Not an inch.  Not only was it firmly “in place,” he thought, it was as if it were a part of the fabric of reality itself, more immobile than a stump in the earth.  A kind of reality completely unalterable and absolute, like a thought, rather than a thing.  He felt suddenly removed from himself, as though he were elsewhere, eyes shut, sweat, anonymous, an oily film imbuing everything, a greasy texture in the air, an innocent car ride, tools in the back, the brakes are pumped, the tools fly…

Bill blinked, let his hands drop, and stepped away from the intractable bluish-grey orb.  He realized the reflection in it, of himself, elongated and slimmed, the room, walleyed around it, and the overhead light.  The bent reflection reminded him of the creamer container in the diner.  He thought he saw something or someone standing behind him.

Bill spun around.  He stood watching, his chest rapidly rising and falling.  He listened.  There was only silence, and the sound of birch trees clacking together in the backwoods.

Bill reached into his blazer and pulled the Dictaphone out and pressed Play.

“It can’t be moved, as you can see.  Not by you.  Wait for the tall man outside.  He’ll be there momentarily.  You’ll recognize him, and you can verify him – he’ll be wearing the ring.  Press Stop.”

There was the ruffling sound of papers, or clothes whickering, and then the click of the record button shut off.  This was followed by the white noise of blank tape.  Then the rustling again, brief, and the beginning of a sentence: “Go back inside the h-” and Bill pressed Stop then, staring at the sphere, watching his reflection mimic his action.

He heard steps downstairs, on the front porch.  His heart pounded.  He stood, frozen, waiting to hear the latch, waiting for the hinges.  The front door remain closed, but something had changed.  Slowly, like a man contained within syrupy viscera, Bill turned and walked out of the room.

He descended the stairs.  As his line of sight passed beneath the upstairs floor and he could see the front entrance to the country house, he saw the silhouette standing there.

Bill reached the first floor.

He walked slowly to the two-paned door and drew his pistol.  The gun pointed up at shoulder level, Bill watched the silhouette.  The he opened the door.

**

Stay tuned! –Next week– Chapter Four: The Tall Man and the Four Elements  (9.21.11)

CHAPTER ONE: Lucy’s Perfect Pitch

CHAPTER TWO:  The Audio Tape

CHAPTER THREE:  Up The Stairs

CHAPTER FOUR:  The Tall Man and the Four Elements

CHAPTER FIVE:  The Zero Ring Men

CHAPTER SIX:  Unbound

CHAPTER SEVEN:  You Don’t Breathe Because The Air is On Fire

CHAPTER EIGHT:  Buried Alive and The Demon Comes

CHAPTER NINE:  The Dream