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