bill prime and the zero ring men – chapter two

SERIES OVERVIEW                                                                                  READ CHAPTER ONE

-2-

The Audio Tape

Bill could hear the thing flapping around in the kitchen stove hood, like a bat trapped in an iron barrell.  He could remember just way he’d grabbed it with the tongs, and how it had sort of squished when he did.

He shivered, and tried to rid himself of the memory.

“I don’t see how the past exists,” Lucy was saying.  “You look back at footprints you left in the snow, you see charges on your phone bill, but what is that?  You’re experiencing those things in the present.  No, there is no physical past.  It’s only here.”  She tapped at the red handkerchief on her head.  “Time is only in the mind.  I don’t believe in any other time.”  She smiled, and Bill drove the Subaru through the curves, leaving behind the house in Ridgeview, trying to out-drive the memory of the winged creature, still felt in his fingertips, still echoing in his head.  “But,” she said, “the mind is everything that is.”

They decided to eat at the local diner, where Bill could see the hair roots of the bleach-blonde waitress who came with their coffees.  She snapped gum with her bright white teeth and held a pad of pea-green paper.  She took their order, looking at Bill occasionally in a way he didn’t like, as if she read the terrible things in his mind.  Then she blinked and looked at her pad, snapping her gum.  Eggs Benedict for Bill; hummus, strawberries, and dry wheat toast for Lucy.

After the waitress departed, Bill said, “But those footprints, they’re there.  They are physical.  Isn’t that proof that there was a past?”

“What?” asked Lucy, her forehead dimpling in a scowl.  “Oh, that.”  She smiled, stirring powdered creamer into her coffee, “You just said there was a past.”

It was Bill’s turn to scowl at her.  She looked back at him with her mottled brown eyes, one of her pencil thin eyebrows raised and asked, “Even the past has a past?”

In Lucy’s smile, her two missing eye-teeth left black squares.  The sun came in through the plate glass windows, lighting the side of her face, spangling the formica table.  Bill squinted, and drank his coffee.  He rummaged around inside his jacket for his sunglasses, and put them on.  He hadn’t had a hangover for a year and two months, but bright lights and diners brought back some awful memories.

“You’re not making any sense,” he said to Lucy.

“Who’re you supposed to be, Tom Cruise?”

“The light bothers me in here.  It’s never dipped under like that, the tuner.  Not in twenty jobs.”

“You’re right,” she said, “it hasn’t.”  Lucy didn’t sound alarmed.  If anything, her tone suggested that the aberration was more curious to her than troubling.

Bill said, “Those other times, when the needle was on or over, they weren’t in the past?”

“You’re not going to let that go, are you?”

Bill rearranged the cutlery in front of him on the table, though everything was already in its place.  He placed the butter knife sideways, the fork upside down.  “Weren’t these positioned correctly just a second ago?”

“Go suck a fart.”

“Now they’re at different angles, upside down.  But you know, like I do, when we sat down – five minutes ago – they were arranged differently.”

Lucy sighed.  She held her coffee with her two small, puffy hands and looked out the window at the street.  Main Street was dead.  Only one man, in his sixties, struggled with his dog on the opposite sidewalk from the diner.  The dog was sniffing around the bottom of a stop sign, having found something profoundly interesting.  The man held the leash taut and jerked on it, urging the dog to move on.  They both looked cold.

“Time is like a string, you think, stretched out like that leash,” said Lucy.  “Now take that string, and bend it around so that the tips meet.  A circle.  That’s time.  The mind doesn’t like to perceive it that way.  Things are much more orderly when they are perceived linerally.”

“You mean ‘linearly.’”

She shot a look at him and set down her coffee.  “I have to use the ladies room,” she said, and slid her ample frame out of the booth.

With Lucy gone, Bill watched the man on the street.  He had to grab the dog by the collar and pull him away from the stop sign at last.

The bells to the front door jingled and Bill looked away from the window.  Another man, tall and angular, walked into the diner.  He was wearing a suit.  Bill wasn’t a tailor, but he thought he knew a good suit when he saw one, and this wasn’t it.  It was a knock-off.  Something like Pierre Cardin, maybe, or Oleg Cassini.

The tall man took a seat at the counter.  There was a service window into the kitchen behind the counter, next to the coffee station.  Through the window Bill watched as a thick hand attached to a thick forearm, crosshatched in wiry black hair, plucked a ticket from the hanging spindle.  He could hear pots and pans clanking back there.  He thought he heard a sneeze.

Bill cut his eyes back to the tall man in the bad suit.  The waitress, the same one with the bleach-blonde hair and snapping pink gum, poured him a coffee.  She didn’t seem to notice how he was dressed.

“My uncle always drank orange soda,” Lucy said, coming back to the table.

She sat down and straightened her placemat after her non sequitur.  She looked out the window.  They both did.  The man with the dog was gone.  When Bill returned his attention to Lucy, still fiddling with the placemat, he noticed a burn mark on her fingers, right in between the index and the middle.  “You burn yourself today?”

The fake blonde came over with the breakfasts, interrupting.  “Thank you,” Bill said to the waitress.  Wordlessly she turned and, snapping her gum, walked away.

Lucy didn’t look at him, but scraped her knife through her hummus and pasted a glop of it on the toast.  Her eyes cast down, she said, “I don’t know what that is.”

Bill’s brow knitted into a fresh scowl.  “You burned yourself on a cigarette?  That’s what it looks like.”

She shrugged for the second time.  Bill knew Lucy to smoke – never in a house or during an active gig, but afterwards she sucked down some cheap brand of slim 100s like they were running out of supply.  There was something she wasn’t telling him.

“You’re getting stigmata now?”

Now Lucy did look up, that one thin eyebrow cocked at him again.  “It’s not called stigmata,” she said.  “That’s something else entirely.  I don’t know anything about that.  This is called bilocation.”

“Oh,” Bill said.  He cut into his ham.  It was dry and tough.  “In two years I’ve never heard of that; you’ve never said a thing.”

“That’s because today was the first time.”

He chewed the tough meat.  He could feel it working itself in between his molars.  Lucy was into her own food, looking down.

That was when Bill heard a squeaking noise.  He looked up at the counter stool, the red-cushioned top still spinning where the tall man in the department store suit had been sitting.  He was walking across the otherwise empty diner toward them.

The tall man reached into his coat and Bill’s hand went to the gun in the Docker’s clutch beneath his armpit.  At the same time, Bill started choking on a piece of the ham.  The man pulled out a manila envelope out of the rain coat.  Bill coughed violently and the ham came up, a splat of it on the table next to his plate.  The man set the manila envelope down on top of it.

**

The tall man left as abruptly as he’d arrived at their table.  His stool at the counter was finishing its final revolution as he spun on his heel and started his long steps towards the exit.  Bill held the grip of his gun inside his jacket.

“Hey,” Bill said.  He started to get up, and Lucy held out her hand, the unpolished nails steady at the tips, the veins swallowed up by the generous flesh.  “Bill,” she said.

The man left, the bells tinkling over the door.  He looked back once the glass door had closed behind him, a glance over his shoulder.  His sharp nose was pronounced, his eyes like olive pits.

Bill gradually let go of his gun and sat back down, watching the tall man walk briskly away from the diner, crossing the street.

Bill looked across the table at Lucy.  He noticed, not for the first time, that aside for a small patch of burst capillaries beneath her right eye that looked like petechaie, her face was porcelain smooth and lily white.  She smiled at him, and then her eyes fell to the manila envelope on the table in between them.  Bill looked at it.

There was no need to chase the man; Bill figured that inside the envelope was a letter.  It would read, in scrawled handwriting, “Stay away from the house in Ridgeview” or, “Stay away from the Stender house.”  You saw that kind of thing in movies, but it happened in real life.  Not because someone was trying to warn of danger – there was usually no benevolence in a warning letter.  Nor did it typically have something to do with what a person wanted to stay concealed or hidden in the closet, contrary to what might be an ornament in a pop culture thread.  People had dirt on them, sure, especially in small, rural upstate towns, but usually not the kind of dirt wrapped up in these gigs.

There were the few cold cases around the area, some that came to Bill, even anonymously, some he sniffed out, some that either way kept him in Ginger Ale and Kit-kat bars, but almost always a warning letter had to do with someone not wanting their privacy disturbed; they had other, unrelated shit going on.  Sometimes the author of the letter was a floor shy of a whole building, but it boiled down to basic human rights – people didn’t want their little backwoods paradise trampled down by camera crews led by fat, bald, psychic women draped in shawls.  They didn’t want the attention – that was why they lived in the backwoods in the first place.  Bill could understand.

There was one other thing, though, he thought.  The envelope might contain a different kind of warning, if it was a warning at all.  He imagined the bold, pencil-scripted letters:  THE NEEDLE HAS GONE UNDER.  STAY AWAY.  Indeed, the needle had gone under.  That, though, was something for him and Lucy to deal with.  And really, it was something no one else knew about anyway.  The Tuner was their way, and they’d shared their method with no one, so it was silly to think.

Bill picked up the envelope and lifted the ejected piece of ham from the table, pinching it between his fingers and setting down on the edge of his plate.  He was done eating, his appetite gone.  The envelope was not entirely smooth, but had a lump in it, making him think of hidden cancer.

“You thinking it’s a warning letter, or a new gig?”  Lucy finished off her breakfast with no detour in her own appetite, smacking her lips together and sucking the maple syrup off the tips of her fingers.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“Well, let’s see.”

Bill opened the manila envelope, which was fastened with a string, though unsealed with the flap glue.  He slid out a white sheet of paper, folded neatly like a business letter with two creases.  He pried open the mouth of the envelope with his thumb and middle finger and peered in.  He glanced at Lucy, who watched with feigned disinterest and slurped her coffee.  Then Bill turned the envelope upside down.  A small cassette, a Dictaphone tape, slid out and clattered onto the booth tabletop.

Bill and Lucy looked at the tape.  Then Bill glanced at Lucy.  He asked, “EVP?”  Lucy shrugged and took another slurp.

Bill unfolded the letter.  He read it aloud.

Go home and sleep.  Big day tomorrow.  Tongs and a canvas sack!  Good one.”  He looked at Lucy.  There was a smiley face drawn after “good one.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it,” said Bill.  He’d been right about the pencil.  The note was handwritten in graphite.

“They didn’t sign their name?”  Lucy smiled around the lip of her white ceramic cup and drank.

“No phone number, no address, no genetic encoding, either,” said Bill.  He refolded the envelope.  “Go home and sleep,” he repeated, unaware he’d been going to do so.

“‘No genetic encoding,’” said Lucy.  “That’s about as funny as you’ve been in a year.”

“Yeah.”  Bill turned the tape over in his hands, and pinched it between two fingers, like he had the bit of ham, and spun it.

Tongs and a canvas sack,” she said.  “Sounds like they’re onto our methods.  We use tongs and a canvas sack for the Leftover, and, job done, we sleep.  Pretty good.”

Bill had his own Dictaphone tape recorder in the medical bag, in the car.  Lucy wrested it away from his grip before he saw it coming.  “Hey,” he balked.

She closed her hand around it, her usually dimpled knuckles coming to surface.  “Let me,” she said.

Bill didn’t know whether she was playing around or not.  He cocked his head at her.  “Lucy.  Let me have it.”

“I’ve got to drop off my cat in South Colton before our ten a.m.,” she said.  “Then I’ll be back with the cage.  Palsy won’t leave the birdie alone if I bring it home.”  Again she slid her large body out from the booth in increments, shoving her buttocks sideways along the bench seat until she’d shimmied free.  She stood, and crumbs tumbled off of her bosom like a miniature rockslide.

“Lucy,” he repeated, and held out his hand for the tape.

“Let me take a listen first,” she said.

“You’re going to take the Leftover home again?  It’s going to do the same thing as the other two,” Bill said.  “Pllbbbttt.”  He made a thumbs-down.

“Maybe.  Anyway, if the tape’s EVP on a new gig, I’ll let you know right away.  If it’s a threat, a warning, you don’t need to hear it right now, Bill.”

“What?  What are you talking about?”

“Bill,” she said, “honey, I don’t think you realize.  Go into the bathroom.  No, don’t.  Just take my word for it.  You look like stepped-in horseshit, babydoll.  You’re about as tired as I’ve ever seen you.  I saw it right away in your smile today.  You see the way that waitress looked at you?  Go home and sleep, okay?  For me.  Like it says in the letter, come to think of it.”

Lucy took brief inventory of herself, tucking and straightening her garments and taking a finger to her monofilament eyebrows.  She didn’t carry a purse, and still had the tape in her hand.

Bill still held out his own hand.  He looked into her eyes.

She sighed, and dropped the tape into his open palm, saying, “Fine.  I’ll call you tomorrow.  Now go and get rest.  Don’t listen to it until you’ve slept.”

And Lucy walked out of the diner.

Bill held the small tape between his thumb and forefinger and lifted it up to look at it some more, then slipped it into the inner pocket of his blazer.

He picked up the steel creamer holder next, and tried to see his reflection.  His image was compressed and elongated, like a funhouse mirror might reflect.

Bill flinched and jerked his head back from it, sure he’d seen something, sure he’d seen one of the rooms they’d been in today at the Stender house in Ridgeview, seen the reflection of something in it, a hulking shape just over his shoulder.

He set the creamer down and motioned for the waitress to come over with the check, snapping her gum.  He kept his face turned away from her as she did, trying not to think of how tired he was, trying not to think of how today had rattled him.  This was supposed to be just a job.  Phantoms he could deal with, whether he believed in them or not.  Non-judgment had been a good way to keep going, like blinders on a horse.  What had mattered most was that there were no weeping mothers at this job, no car wrecks along the back roads, or their occupants – maybe like babysitters, like children – ejected over the potholed asphalt like gobs of cranberry sauce.

That was what was supposed to have mattered.  No one was alive in this line of work.

Because the past, regardless of what Lucy said, was the past.

**

Stay tuned! –Next week– Chapter Three: Up The Stairs  (9.14.11)

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

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