[Image Credit: Edwige Fouvry, “Wolfgang”]
It appeared to be another firm; one of the sort that Arthur worked for.
I stood outside it and grinned.
The ad had said they needed a man, badly.
Well, what was I? A dog?
All the buildings on the row were made of white brick, stained with soot from the shambles across the little canal on the opposite side of the lane. They looked like piles of extracted teeth.
The sort of ugly place he loved and he would hate that I could work here.
I went right inside and presented myself to the clerk who seemed to be expecting me. I tried to tell him how I had seen the advertisement. He was uninterested, but very happy to see me.
He showed me upstairs to a thin landing where a tall desk with a high stool sat jammed against the wall beneath a boarded up window. It was to be mine and, with such a thin strip of floor between the back of my high chair and the low, delicate bannister on the edge of the landing only a few feet away, it was very cozy. There was another flight of stairs leading upwards on the leeward side of my station, but I was told not to worry about them. I could smoke inside so I would not need to go out at all. I asked the clerk his name and he shook my hand. The name of the firm was Tupton, Tupton & Widdershins.
They were new in the country and would be very pleased to have me, please, he whimpered.
The pay would be modest but the work more modest still. I was lucky. I could start right away, or go out and have some lunch, since it was around that time anyway. I wasn’t hungry, so I said I would prefer to start right away and he gestured graciously to my chair, nodded, smiled and went downstairs.
I took my seat and stared down at my desk. It was a very high chair and the desk seemed even further away than I might have suspected. Even from that height though, I could tell that nothing at all was on it except for a little pot of ink, sitting in a shallow recess in the upper right hand corner. There was no pen and no paper to examine or sign, though there was a bevel at the bottom of the desk where a paper might have sat so it would not slide down the slanted face of the work area. I reached down and tried to pull gently on the lip of the desk to see if it would lift up but it would not budge.
I got down and went around to the side of the desk to see if there were any hinges there.
I dipped my head down and could see underneath that the belly of the desk was deep and could have contained a great deal of material if someone had wanted it to.
It had a funny smell about it.
I walked across the creaking landing to the staircase, which climbed steeply to a trap in the ceiling.
I looked at the steps.
There was dirt on them.
I took a small handful and let it sift through my fingers. It was dry and dark and powdery, like gun pack.
I turned around and found myself cheek to cheek with the clerk.
His raw face was stretched in a smile that showed the red trenches where he’d raked himself shaving.
“What’s all this dirt?” I inquired.
The clerk took my arm and led me back to the desk.
“I’m sorry sir, but we’ve only just come in to this space. We haven’t had time to clean thoroughly yet, and I’m afraid it must wait a little longer even now.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
The clerk beamed even brighter. The cuts on his chin and neck struggled to swallow the shreds of paper sprinkled between pink flesh and black dots of blooming stubble. His oiled black hair glinted in the bad light.
“Your first assignment. It has just arrived. Hand delivered by Mr. Widdershins himself.”
I peered over the landing.
“Don’t bother looking,” the clerk said impatiently “he’s already gone off. He could be miles away by now. He is very busy man. But, it is my great honor to present to you the letter he presented me.”
The clerk bent one knee and proffered a large, brown envelope.
There was an address scrawled on it, apparently in great haste.
I put it on my desk.
“What am I supposed to do with it?” I asked the clerk.
“Oh,” he said, seeming confused “oh…”
“Do I open it?”
The clerk jumped as though he had been bitten. He grabbed at my desk to steady himself and jostled the pot of ink loose. It spilled across the front of the envelope.
“Oh no! You musn’t open it, sir. Far from it. You must deliver it to that address and it must not under any circumstance be opened. You must witness it being opened. That is your task. The man at that address is a very important client. Think of the letter inside as a sort of very important mouth, which can only be fed by said vital client. You must serve it to him and he will serve you with something of his own.”
I pointed to the envelope.
The spilled ink had blotted out the words. In their place was a large stain.
It looked like the sign for poison.
On the way home to tell my parents, a black cat passed in front of me waving its tail, but I did not pay it any attention whatsoever.
A few blocks later I looked back to see if the thing had followed me and to my surprise I saw a black dog trotting some distance behind me. I didn’t mind at all, but every now and then I turned back, just because I felt like doing so, and there he was, padding along, always politely removed.
When I drew up to the drive, there were a dozen dead pigeons at the foot of it, which I had to walk across. They looked as if they had been burnt and coughed up in a cloud of smoke, expelled from a factory stack. I peered around me for some clue as to what had happened and saw the dog, sitting and watching me from the far side of the road.
I picked up one of the pigeons with my sleeve and tossed it in the direction of the beast.
“Shoo, dog! Fetch!”
I shouted it again, but the dog did not budge.
The house was silent as I whistled in, loudly taking off my boots in the kitchen and picking up a nub of cheese. I found my parents huddled in the living area. I told them of my new job and my assignment, but they were too distracted to congratulate me. A panther had escaped from the park menagerie and was stalking the city, impartially putting all in its path to the sword.
To the sword. I laughed to myself. I thought of the panther, worrying Arthur.
After a light supper, down I lay on the couch and fell dead asleep at once. I dreamt of nothing and rose early.
I had the address and I had the letter, but felt drawn strongly towards my old apartment. Perhaps I wished to brag a bit in front of Arthur, I couldn’t say.
When I got there nobody was home so I decided to wait up for Arthur and lay down in my old room a while. He hadn’t done much with the place and it did not seem to be occupied by anyone else. The only detail that was different was that there was a little framed picture on top of the dresser where I used to pile my things.
I picked it up and who stared back at me except Lucy.
I pocketed the picture and decided to leave.
I sat down at a café and drank a cup of tea, and then another. Everyone was on pins and needles about the panther but I couldn’t bring myself to care. As I sat, bringing the cup to my lips, a paper blew into my face. I peeled it off and took a look.
There was a picture on the front page of a dead dog, lying in the street. It looked like the animal I had seen in my parents’ neighborhood the night before, sable black and rather large.
I chased off the chill with another quaff, turned my cup upside down and left it on the plate.
I called a cab and told the driver where I was bound. He looked skeptical and told me it was far away.
“Do you know who I work for?” I asked him.
When I got in, I could tell right away that something was off in the compartment.
“What is that horrible stench?” I shouted at the driver.
Perhaps he did not hear me, but I quickly located the source.
On the seat across from me sat a bag of trash.
It smelled like herring, and I thought of Arthur. He had loved the filthy stuff.
If he could only see me now, I smiled.
We rode until dusk and came to the gates of an estate. The driver said he could go no further, so I paid him and walked to the door myself. Behind me I heard him whipping away.
I employed the great knocker and heard the oaken sound echo in a vast space beyond.
The sun was sinking and the wind picked up. Then, slowly, the door creaked open.
The hall was empty except for the dying light and cobwebs until a cloud passed over the setting sun leaving only the latter, which clung to me as I walked through them blindly.
“Hello?” I shouted boldly. “I’m here with the letter!”
I saw the flicker of a candle in the distance and walked with the hope of drawing closer. It seemed high up and very far away. Because of the dark I didn’t dare to walk quickly but even so, though I moved my feet, I didn’t seem to draw any closer to the flickering light.
I thought of Lucy and took out her picture, but it was too dark to make out in front of my nose. Nevermind. I had the memory.
I passed through a tall archway into another chamber, voluminous and dark. The smell of copper rose up strong.
I thought of the fat stuck desk in my office and its own queer smell. The damn deep thing had probably contained a lamp. I would have my way with it when I returned, even if it took a hammer.
I noticed that, along with the candle, two sorts of red shining points appeared in the distance.
The ground shifted oddly beneath my feet and I nearly tripped. The hall echoed with tinkling music. I had stepped into a pile of coins.
I knelt, excited and picked up a handful, but threw them down quickly in disgust.
The coins were sticky and smelled horrible. Like they had been swallowed by some beast and vomited up, or like the metal from which they were forged itself had been harvested from some decaying organ of the Earth’s.
I rubbed my hands on my pants and left the coins behind to rot.
I walked and walked, up stairs at times, into telescoping chambers full of arches and backstroking shadows and the little lights drew back and back.
I heard the supple sound of leathery wings unfolding.
Just then I remembered how, when I used to walk down the street at night sometimes, passing the lights in the homes of others, I liked to creep up and try to look inside to find out what it was that went on in there all the time. The way a cat would dart across a carpet and a bird nod drowsily in its cage. A feeling would come to me I couldn’t describe; not of desire or greed, or envy—but greater even than all those three combined. I felt it now. Had felt it my whole life, I realized. Had I come so far only to sail the same currents again?
No, I reassured myself. It was certain that if I kept following those little red pricks of light like eyes, and if I could get rid of the letter that burned like a brand on my heart, there would be time enough ahead to give the funny feeling a fitting name at last and leave it behind with all the rest. And If I could do that, I thought, well, then it was certain, too that I would never die.
Seth Blake is a writer from New Hampshire. His short fiction and reviews have appeared in The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review of Books, [out of nothing], Nat. Brut., and elsewhere, with new fiction forthcoming in Critically Acclaimed and The Encyclopedia Project. He is the editor-in-chief of Trop where he occasionally writes things about Batman.