Photo by Thomas Wolf via Wikimedia Commons
Black grease coated Corncob’s hands, forehead, and now his neck as he rubbed at a spot just below his hairline. He looked at the broken Chevy as man would a rabid dog. The car’s grille lay scattered across the trail like broken teeth, fluorescent green liquid puddled underneath the radiator. Michael sat on a stump and arched an eyebrow at his friend.
“Weren’t you a car mechanic for twenty years?” Michael said. “Can’t you fix it?”
Corncob scooped up a glob of mud and chucked it at the smaller man, who had already sensed his intention and leaned left as soon as the mud left Corncob’s fingertips.
“Maybe if I had a full shop with tools instead of being stuck out here with nothing but rocks, sticks, and a skinny moron, I could do more,” Corncob said.
“Would it help if the skinny moron gained weight?” Michael leaned to his right as another mud clod sailed past his ear. “Well now that we’ve got that out of the way, I suppose we’ll have to go on foot.”
“We should call a wrecker. I can fix this.”
“It’s a rental. We’ll leave it and let ‘em know where to pick it up.”
“You going to tell them about the deer?” Corncob asked.
“I won’t if you won’t,” Michael said.
“You were driving.”
“Me? Drive? I should hope not. The judge took away my license long ago, my friend. That’s why I reserved this car under your name.”
Corncob’s jaw worked. “Mine? But you had to show the girl behind the desk an ID.”
“I did. Yours.”
“You don’t look a thing like me.”
Michael shrugged. “The camera loves some people, but alas, not me. Fortunately, I am much better looking in person.”
Corncob reached down for more mud, then reconsidered and picked up a stick. Michael yelped and took off down the gravel road, keeping just out of Corncob’s reach.
Four hours later, Corncob stomped his boots against a brick pillar. A sign at eye-level proclaimed they had reached the Buckthorn Elder Retreat. There was a quote from Thoreau, but Corncob couldn’t be bothered to read it, as Michael had thrust a red pill under his nose.
“Got any water to take it with?” Corncob asked.
Michael shrugged and held up a metal flask. “It’s mostly water.”
“No thanks.” He dry swallowed, and aimed a clod of mud from his boot in Michael’s direction. Michael watched it sail past as he took his pill with a swig from the flask.
“Seems like overkill to me anyway,” Corncob said as he waited for the pill to take effect. “It’s like asking someone to turn off a flashlight because it might upset a blind man.”
“The way I understand it, it’s more like asking someone to please stop spraying salt water around the burn unit. Don’t worry about it. We’ll be in and out soon enough then you can go back to communing with your toasters. In fact –” Michael was brought up short as a mud ball spattered against his face.
“Mmm. Medicine must be working already if you can’t read minds anymore,” Corncob said. “Shall we go see Erasmus now?”
Michael wiped the muck from his face and gave a little bow. He smiled as Corncob pushed past, making Corncob suddenly nervous about falling asleep when night came.
The man behind the hickory-and-granite desk was dressed in white scrubs, gold chain, and nametag that said TOMMY. His chair groaned as he passed Corncob and Michael clipboards.
“Read it if you want, it just says that you guys promise to behave yourselves and not disturb the guests, okay?” He leveled a stare at them. “Don’t disturb the guests.”
“Got it,” Corncob said.
“You are family, right? You’re family?” Tommy said.
“We’re his nephews,” Michael said. When Tommy’s gaze swept from Corncob to Michael and back, Michael put on a smile and added, “We’ve different mothers.”
“Right.” Tommy said as if he didn’t believe it. “Just don’t disturb the guests. It’s about three o’clock now, visiting hours end at four. You know where you’re going?”
“Room 411?” said Corncob.
“Down that hall, then left, right, left, up the stairs and right. Got it?”
Corncob frowned. “Down the hall, left, right, what?”
“We’ll manage,” Michael said, grabbing him by the arm.
As they left, hidden speakers filled the hallways with Tommy’s voice, announcing that the day’s baccarat and pai-gow tournaments would be starting in half an hour in the Champion’s Hall, followed by a lecture on the influence of Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s essays on thinkers through the ages up to today’s bloggers. Then there would be a seminar on how to set up one’s own blog. Classical guitar music took over where Tommy ended, though not loud enough to mask the squeaks of Concob’s wet boots on the polished floor.
“I feel like we’re on a cruise ship,” Michael said.
“Without the seasickness.”
“If we finish up with Erasmus early, I wonder if they’d let us sit on that Montaigne lecture.”
“Why does that name sound familiar?” Corncob asked, finding that if he stepped just so, the squeak was somewhat muffled.
“Jordan Montaigne, the bank robber. He’s the one that modified a tommy gun to spit fireballs and tried to become the next John Dillinger.”
“No relation, I suppose,” Corncob said. He tried to make his gait look natural, while eliciting the smallest squeak possible.
“Surprisingly, a direct descendant. Parts of the family settled in New Orleans and got involved in voodoo, though Jordan was the end of that little experiment.”
“What happened to him?” Corncob stepped gingerly with his right foot.
“Got caught while trying to steal morphine from a dispensary. The cops surrounded him and he tried fighting his way out, except a ricochet broke a bottle of ether just as Jordan fired a burst from his tommy gun.”
Corncob nodded. “Boom.” He thought he was getting the hang of the new walk; the last two steps had been squeak-free.
“Just like the Hindenburg,” Michael said. “Now if you’ll stop prancing around, let’s get a move on.”
They got lost. Somewhere along the way, between dodging fountains and ornate statuary at every intersection and making way for dazed residents that walked, tottered, ambled or wheeled their way through the hallways, Corncob and Michael found themselves in a plain room with white cabinets and plastic fold-down tables. A commercial coffeepot sizzled away in the corner next to a refrigerator with a sign reminding staff that items left longer than five days would be thrown away.
“I didn’t see a stairway,” Corncob said.
“Maybe if you quit rubbernecking at the décor, you might have noticed one.”
“Do you know how hard it is to match up an inlay pattern from the floor onto wall paneling? That ivy looks like it flows from one side of the hall to the other and the panels are seamless. I’d ask the building how it was done but, you know.” The part of his head that talked to machines felt as if covered by a heavy blanket. But for the drug’s effect, the building would tell him all its secrets, including the exact location of Erasmus’ room.
“Yeah, if I could read minds I could scan the staff and figure out how this place is laid out, too. I suppose I’ll just have to do it the old fashioned way,” Michael said.
“I’ll ask for directions.” Michael scowled.
“I must mark my calendar,” Corncob said. “Well hurry it up, he’ll be awake soon.”
Another voice made Corncob jump. “Who will wake up soon?”
They turned to find a woman in white scrubs alongside what appeared to be a pony masquerading as a Great Dane. A tongue lolled from its mouth, long enough to lick a grown man’s arm from elbow to fingertips.
“We’re here to see our uncle,” Michael said. “Erasmus.”
“Oh,” she said, “do you need directions?”
“We got some at the front desk,” Corncob said, “but… God, that’s a big dog.”
The woman absently rubbed the dog’s head. “Wilhelm is rather imposing, I suppose, but the residents just adore him. He’s the best support animal I’ve ever worked with.”
“You mean he’s supposed to calm these geezers down? I’d be afraid he’d rather eat me than ask for a belly rub.” Corncob said. The woman’s face darkened.
“Cornelius! Forgive him, Miss – Thora,” Michael said, reading her name badge. “Corncob here is spooked rather easily. My goodness, Miss, those shoes are just amazing.”
Thora relaxed a little and turned her leg to show off a clog-style shoe covered in an iridescent alligator skin pattern.
“I like them,” she said. “You say you’re Erasmus’ nephews? He certainly does seem to have more than a few that like to visit. No wife, kids, brothers, or sisters, but plenty of nephews.” She gave them a bland smile.
Michael smiled and shrugged. “We’re not an especially close family, but we do believe in keeping our obligations. If you could just point us in the right direction?”
“Follow me,” she said,” I was heading that way already. Wilhelm, trail.”
As Michael and Corncob fell in behind her, the dog took up a position behind them. Corncob noticed his shoes had stopped squeaking, leaving only the solid thunks of Thora’s clogs ahead and exhaled whuffs of breath from a giant muzzle and the clicking of nails behind.
“Here you are, gentlemen,” Thora said. “Wilhelm and I will be making our rounds on the floor, so come and find me if you need anything.”
“Thank you,” Michael said. “We will be sure to do that, miss.” She waved with fingernails painted to match her shoes, and walked away, Wilhelm giving Corncob a final sniff before following. A placard outside the door read IRSAY, ERASMUS.
“Let’s get in and get out,” Corncob said.
“You mean you don’t want to stay and pet the nice doggy?”
“That’s not a dog, it’s a pony that eats meat.”
“This should only take a minute,” Michael said.
Someone hissed from the room across the hall. A wizened face poked out from the darkened room next to the placard labeled DUBNER, ARCHIMEDES. The man scanned the hallway then beckoned them closer. Corncob looked at Michael, who shrugged, and stepped closer.
“You know why those guys have seatbelts in their wheelchairs?” the man asked.
Corncob shook his head. “To keep them from falling out?”
“Nah. It’s to keep them from chasing the women. They don’t like it when you do that here.” As Corncob tried to figure out how to respond, the man said, “You’re from the brotherhood, right?”
Corncob blinked, not knowing what to say. How did this old fart know about the Brotherhood? Was he some kind of spy?
“The what?” was all Corncob managed to say.
Michael laid a hand on Corncob’s forearm, and cocked his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The man held a finger to his lips. “Brotherhood, Feds, CIA, IRA, NRA. You have the look. Don’t worry, I won’t tell. We all have our secrets, yes? But lemme tell you something: they’re all crooks in here. The nurses, they steal medications and sell them on the black market. The orderlies go through our pockets and wallets for every last penny. That nurse Thora and her trained attack dog steal jewelry and sell it in Amsterdam on the weekends.”
Michael smiled, and winked at Corncob. “Isn’t there anyone to report this to? What about that Tommy fella?”
The man spat on the floor. “Tommy’s the worst, everywhere always with his beady little eyes. Gets kickbacks from the rest of the staff. He’s mafia, you know. That Godfather movie is based on his great uncle. They rob us blind in here. Meanwhile, the rates for our little rooms go up, up, up!” He stabbed a finger at the ceiling. He glared at Corncob.
“Sounds tough,” Corncob finally said.
“Don’t worry about old Archie,” the man said. “I made it on my own for twenty years in the East before they locked me up in here. These guys are amateurs compared to the Hong Kong Triads. I’ve got my own ways of making the rent. You boys just make sure you don’t leave anything valuable around when you leave, and keep up the payments. Erasmus is the best neighbor a guy could ask for, and I’d hate for him to leave.”
“Will do,” Corncob said.
Archie laid a finger to his nose and closed his door.
“Funny guy,” Corncob said.
“See what you have to look forward to in your dotage?” Michael said.
The floor of Erasmus’ room was made of alternating light and dark woods that curved from the edges in, coming to an oak leaf motif in the center. Soft light fell from frosted glass sconces on each wall and reflected from polished mahogany furniture. But whatever aesthetic the builders had been going for had been ruined by the beige plastic-framed hospital bed and a stainless steel pole festooned with IV bags, surgical tubing, and bleating plastic boxes with glowing green readouts. In the bed lay a man with closed, sunken eyes and a hooked nose, his chest taking shallow breaths but otherwise motionless.
“Shouldn’t he be awake?” Corncob asked.
Michael glanced at a wall clock and frowned. “Maybe Jupiter hasn’t reached the fifth house yet. When it does, Magister Erasmus will come out of his fugue.”
“He’s been under for three months. Maybe he’ll sleep through it.”
Michael shook his head. “It doesn’t work like that.” He reached for Erasmus’ hand, but stopped, seemingly thinking better of it.
“I don’t think he’ll bite,” Corncob said.
“I know our magic’s dampened, but what if he senses me through skin contact? I’d hate to hurt the guy.”
“Oh. Maybe you’re right.”
Erasmus had been a magister for the Brotherhood. Not only a heavyweight battle-mage in his own right, he had been entrusted with dangerous knowledge to give insight to prophesies and omens. The Brotherhood sent Erasmus places where the barriers between the mortal and eldritch worlds were thin. He guarded against the tentacled-beings that might breach the skein and wreak havoc on humanity, put down vampire factories, quashed zombie uprisings, cut off the heads of pharoh-litches. Then on his last mission, Erasmus had been subjected to a naked mystical energy burst that left his body intact but flayed his senses. Afterwards, for Erasmus to be in the presence of even the smallest display of magic induced agony along his every nerve. Euthanasia would have been kindest, but Erasmus held centuries of knowledge that could not be replaced. The elders decided to put him in a fugue state; asleep, but aware of the universe. He observed signs and portents as if he were living in an apartment under the cosmos, puzzling things out from footsteps, music, arguments, and shoes dropping to the floor. At certain times, Erasmus’ fugue faded, and he reported his findings.
To be chosen as the Brotherhood’s representative to Erasmus was supposedly an honor. Michael grumbled that it was also a sign of how expendable a member was, given how they had to become virtually defenseless and enter a magic-free zone. Michael would rather have stripped himself naked, coat himself in duck fat, and go pull whiskers in a tiger cage. In the man’s presence, Corncob couldn’t blame his friend. Erasmus still radiated power like heat from an oven: still dangerous even if turned off.
Michael pulled out his phone and tapped at the screen. After consulting a real-time star map, he shook his head. “He should be awake by now. Jupiter’s alignment won’t hold for long.”
Corncob looked at the IV pole and the machines connected to the tubes and grunted.
“What?” Michael said.
“Does Erasmus take pain medication?”
“Not that I know of. The fugue state is its own pain block.”
Corncob tapped at a plunger locked inside a plastic box. “I think this is a morphine drip.” The machine beeped, green numbers on its display incrementing as the plunger depressed a fraction.
“Oh crap,” Michael said.
“Hey! Get away from there!” said a voice.
They turned to find Tommy standing in the doorway, glaring at them.
“I thought I told you not to disturb the guests,” he said. “Now we have a problem.”