Back to funny fantasy. Since I had just gotten into collecting autographs myself, it seemed like a natural thing to give my protagonist my obsession. He was also a sniveling, selfish jerk, but obviously that part was all made up. Ahem. Attempting to liven up his life a little, he clicked on a joke eBay auction only to find it wasn’t a joke.
It wasn’t a novel, either, but it may be someday. Didn’t hit 50k this year, either. I’m slipping. Note the Hiatus references…
The Highest Bidder
by C. A. Bridges
Chapter One – Cons and Pros and Cons
Bought: Kevin Sutton (2); Mark Goddard (1); Erin Gray (2); Playboy Playmate Miss November 2008 Grace Kim (1); George Lowe, voice of Space Ghost (1)
Morton would never have bought the souls in the first place if it hadn’t been for the girl with the Captain Crunch box.
As far as Morton Sezlick was concerned, science fiction conventions existed for one reason and one reason only: commerce. You went, you sold, you bought, you moved on. There was a great deal of money to be made if you knew what you were doing, which he did, which was why every minute stuck in this half-mile autograph line that was not moving was driving him crazy with the lingering scent of lost revenue. Almost as maddening as the way the thousands of people currently crowding his space just went around mindlessly having fun all the time in their elaborate costumes of Jedis and Klingons and Browncoats and whatever the hell those big square brown things were with all the teeth. How could anyone enjoy this if they weren’t paid to do so?
Despite the best efforts of dedicated fans, convention halls simply were not conducive to the creation of magical science-fantasy worlds. From where Morton stood he could see sad-looking paper-mache emulations of planets and rocket ships, a Mark I Viper made of slightly sagging cardboard, lots of poly-vinyl banners strung from the ceiling, and rows and rows of PVC-and-blue-cloth dividers divvying up the dealers’ tables and artist alley booths. It might have helped if the con people could have controlled the environment and only let you you see what they wanted you to see, like a JayCees’ haunted house or something, but none of the decorations rose higher than about 10 feet and above that the bland, institutional yellow of the walls stretched for another 20 more before the ductwork and pipes of the ceiling added the capping, fantasy-killing touch. Guests of the con, actors from popular science fiction shows and movies both past and present – the only reason to show up, as far as Morton was concerned – sat against a wall behind a long row of folding tables that were covered in butcher paper so the fans couldn’t see the stars’ impatient foot-tapping, stashed alcohol, missing underwear, or hidden Blackberrying. Behind each star was a piece of posterboard with their name and credits, in case you weren’t sure why you wanted to meet them or couldxn’t quite remember where’d you’d seen their face before, especially if it had been covered in makeup and latex tentacles at the time. And you needed to be sure; autograph lines of hundreds of people stretched and curved across the floor, doubling back on themselves to create some sort of intricate, organically changing knot that was broken and reformed repeatedly every time someone dressed as General Grievous or an eight-foot Pac-Man needed to come through.
Sezlic was even waiting for a hot actor, really, that was the worst part. Kevin Sutton, played “Captain Vince Parvo” on seven whole episodes of a cancelled sci-fi show last year. But the die hard fans spent weeks writing letters and signing petitions and demanding the show be saved, to absolutely no effect since the real reason the show was canned was because there simply weren’t enough people watching the silly thing, die-hard or not. Networks would rather have 10 million bored viewers than 1 million passionate ones because it turns out that it’s extremely difficult to purchase corporate jets with passion, so what the fans were really annoyed at was the bulk of America which preferred to ignore innovative new shows in droves to go watch the same old T-and-A reality show monstrosities as last year. Since it’s very difficult to wage an effective letter-writing campaign against the American people, they sent spiteful letters to the network instead and muttered darkly about the death of television.
Meanwhile the actors, having spent two months in makeup chairs, could now spend the rest of their lives jumping from convention to convention if they cared to and their fans would cream over them like they were Ghandi and Brad Pitt rolled into one. The girl in front of Sezlick wearing the fake, vaguely militaristic uniform of the show was holding a People magazine (cover story: “Kevin Sutton, the New Harrison Ford?”) like a holy relic. Pathetic.
Thing is, those die-hard fans and their cash was why Morton was in the line in the first place. Morton made a living selling reprinted autographed celebrity pictures on eBay, and without that dependable pool of slightly dim fans he wouldn’t be making his rent payment this week. He stepped forward another half-inch. The sound of laughter from the front of the line made him wince. Dammit, he’s talking to them! Move it, people!
“Isn’t he fantastic?” came the voice behind him, and Morton spun on his heel to release a bit of his frustration in a short, contained burst of concentrated sarcasm designed to wither any social extrovertism the speaker might once have had into a tiny blackened husk. His sarcasm stuck in his throat when he saw her, and burned. She was a bit taller than he was, but most people were. Comfortably built, a mass of curly brown hair framing her delighted elfin face and spilling down her back, and a tight black T-shirt that read “Don’t Tell Me About My Afterlife, I Want To Be Surprised.” But that wasn’t what stopped him. Attractive women weren’t nearly as scarce in geek circles as non-geeks had always assumed, cliched pimply boys in basements aside, and everyone loved celebrities. No, what drew his eye immediately was the large box of Captain Crunch she was holding. It had signatures on it. “I got to see him last year at MegaCon,” she said, oblivious to his confusion. “He told this great story about the network’s censors freaking out over his velour tights and trying to get him to hold a gun or a clipboard over his crotch in every scene. Freakin’ hilarious!”
Morton nodded absently and tried to get a better look at the cereal. Familiar red box, same old captain on the front, but there were tantalizing hints of black squiggles here and there. “Yeah, hilarious. Excuse me, is that–?”
She laughed once, loudly, and held it out. “It is! It’s my autograph box! Check this out, I just got the guy who played Cousin Itt!”
“Felix Silla,” Morton said, absentmindedly. He took the box and looked at it. It was filled with signatures, all from science fiction actors, writers, and directors. Mark Hamill had signed it, and Leonard Nimoy, and Tim Burton and Joss Whedon and what looked like the entire casts of “Dollhouse” and “The X-Files” and most of the writers for every Star Trek series there had ever been. Many of them had had to sign with very small writing. He gaped at it. There were names here he didn’t even have. There were names there of celebs that he knew for a fact never, ever signed autographs. “But, why…?”
“Why the Captain?” she said, taking it back and grinning. “Couple years back I went with a friend to Necronomicon in Tampa so he could meet Terry Pratchett. You know, the writer?”
Pratchett’s bibliography, bio, and current autograph market price (originals, preprints, and book inscriptions) flashed through Morton’s mind in a multicolored second. “I’ve heard of him,” he ventured.
“So me and Jeff are heading to the hotel and he’s got this mule-load of books to get signed and I realized I didn’t have anything and didn’t even really know anything about the guy and I was just going to stand there and look like an idiot. Jeff gave me this killer idea, you know what it was?”
“Ha! No, he made us stop at the first store we came to and told me to buy something, anything, and have Mr. Pratchett sign it. That way I wouldn’t be left hanging, Mr. Pratchett might get a kick out of it, and I’d have a unique collectible. And I do!”
“Did he sign it?”
“Yup,” she said proudly, and pointing to a scrawled “Yummy!” followed by a mass of loops and swirls with a T and P prominent. “He was the first. Since then I just bring it to every con I go to and get it signed by everyone there. It’s great!”
“So you’ll be getting Sutton on it?”
“Again, yeah. I want the whole cast before they get too spread out or die or something. God, I loved that show! Did you watch ‘Hiatus’? Can you believe they cancelled–”
“Yes.” Morton said flatly. “How much do you think this box of cereal would be worth now?”
She clutched the box to her chest. There was still plenty of chest left over. “Sell it? Are you crazy?”
“People do sell autographs, you know. Thriving market.”
“Is that what you do?” She pointed with her chin at the wheeled luggage Morton was trundling over the convention floor carpeting.
“I collect them, yes.” Not quite sure why he suddenly felt the need to justify himself to a total stranger, Morton opened the top of the case to show her the tightly-packed file folders inside. “You bring stuff to sign, I bring stuff to sign.”
“I brought one thing. You brought… what is all that?”
“The usual. A selection of photos of each celebrity here in different stages of their careers and private life, a variety of pens to sign on either light or dark backgrounds for greater legibility, plus preservation and archival materials to keep them pristine. And some letterhead stationary from different charitable organizations each celeb is known to favor to prove that my request for a free autograph is a worthy one.”
She peered into the case with a dazed expression. “And is it?”
“Of course not.”
“Wow. Alpahabetized and everything.”
“Well, duh. How can I find one quickly if the target comes out of the bathroom?”
“I’d go broke if I paid for every autograph here.” He waved his arm to cover the entire room. “You gotta catch some of them while they’re eating, or taking a smoke break, or in the john. I’ve even got a special waterproof tray so I can slide photos under stalls without risk of infection. Don’t worry,” he assured her. “I throw those pens away afterward.”
“…oh. Good. I think.”
“Man, some of those famous people can really curse, even the women. You’d think they’d be more aware of public perception, and the echoing effect of tile. And there’s a big risk with bathroom acquisitions; a few of the pictures I get back that way aren’t suitable for framing, if you know what I mean. Once, Sean Penn balled his up and–”
She wasn’t smiling now and even Morton, who possessed all the social instincts of a dead fiddler crab, had the distinct impression that it was unusual for this woman to ever not be smiling. “Don’t…” she asked carefully, the way you talk to someone on the wrong side of a 12th floor window. “Don’t you ever do anything for the fun of it? Don’t you enjoy being here?”
“Why should I? They don’t enjoy meeting us,” Morton said. “They’re paid handsomely to come here, they’re fed and boozed and partied for free, and they get a cut out of every signature they dash off. For some of these has-beens this is the only steady income they have going, so they treat it like the business transaction that it is. Why shouldn’t I? For the time I’m spending in this one line I could have gotten 10 more autographs around the room.”
“Why didn’t you?”
Morton sighed. “Supply and demand. People don’t pay for autographs of has-beens, even has-beens who have been in hundreds of shows and movies. But they’ll pay for copies of this jerk’s name just because he was on seven episodes of a bright and shiny show that tanked. So, I wait.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, and looked as though she meant it. She stepped forward again; they’d been moving steadily along as they talked and were getting very close now. Interesting. Talking to someone seemed to make the wait go by faster. Morton made a note to look into that for later use. He wouldn’t want to actually chat with anyone, of course, especially since in most cases at cons he’d be trying to speak to a cardboard-and-shag-carpet dragon head or something, but he could dazzle them with his collection. Maybe she… she was talking to the guy behind her now, the fat guy in the “Frak Me to Tears” shirt, and they were laughing. Not at him, as far as he could tell, just laughing over a shared joke. Morton felt oddly rejected, which was doubly annoying since he hadn’t wanted to talk to her in the first place.
He turned back just in time to reach the small table just before the star’s table, where you paid the tired-looking volunteer and picked out photos of the star to have signed in case you hadn’t brought along your own photo or memento or body part to be scribbled on. Morton looked them over disdainfully. Studio pics of Sutton as Captain Parvo in three different boring heroic poses, the head shot he no doubt sent out with his resumes when trying to get a real job so he could avoid working the cons, a single pic from the disastrous made-for-TV movie he’d co-starred in, for the completists, and that was it. Morton paid for two autographs and rifled through his files with swift fingers.
In front of him there was a squeal as the girl in the uniform jumped up and down. “You like it?”
“It looks great,” Sutton exclaimed, smiling broadly. He was sitting behind the table, his name on a card in front of him, looking every inch the action star. “You look just like Lt. ParSec!” His eyes traveled down her costume. “Although I think you fill it better.”
Even standing behind her, Morton could feel her blushing. Yeah, yeah, hit on the jailbait later, pops, he thought. Her name is Darla, she already told you Darla, everybody heard her say Darlas, just sign the damn thing and let’s get going.
“So, ‘Darla,’ was it?”
Morton sighed loudly. Next to Sutton his “handler,” a con volunteer whose only job all weekend was to keep the star watered and to serve as a human shield if the fans got too rowdy, quickly moved photos in front of Sutton’s hands so the star didn’t have to waste valuable signing time turning them right side up. As a fellow professional, Morton appreciated that. Volunteering at cons was a great way to get autographs, usually for free, since you were right next to the stars all day. The drawback, of course, was that you were right next to the stars all day.
Morton liked seeing stars out in the open like this, usually. They were always more washed out, less vital than they appeared on screen, and that cheered him up. Unfortunately Sutton was just as handsome and broad-shouldered in person, which seemed somewhat unfair. Morton concentrated on holding his photos by the very edges, to avoid fingerprints.
Finally, after talking to the girl for what seemed like hours and posing for pictures with his arm around her trembling shoulder the jerk let her go, and she drifted away still smiling at him with a stupid mooncalf expression and probably not actually putting a foot to the ground more than once every three steps. Morton stepped up quickly and laid his pictures down. They had been carefully chosen for maximum fan interest, stills from the show that displayed him in iconic poses but weren’t the official studio shots that everyone else had. “Hi,” Morton said, and waited.
Sutton beamed up at him. “Hey, thanks for coming out! Don’t you worry, we’re getting ‘Hiatus’ moved to a new network any day now, but we couldn’t have done it without fans like–”
“Great, thanks. Sign?”
His photos were already in place and the pen was in hand, but still Sutton paused. “Right. And to whom should I make this out?” he asked, no longer looking as friendly as he had a second ago. Morton knew that look. Maybe he should have worn a costume.
“Oh, just your signature is fine,” he said.
“I see,” Sutton said, and he leaned back in his chair, taking in Morton’s open case of files. “And if I asked you which episode it was where I broke my collarbone saving the life of Sparkoid, the alien space-dog?” Behind him Morton could hear fans nearly giving themselves aneurysms trying desperately not to answer out loud while still discreetly letting their hero know that of course everyone knew that, everyone except for Morton, who never watched television. Cameras were snapping everywhere.
“Well, I’d say that you didn’t break anything, you’re an actor. And I didn’t know there was a competency test just to get autographs. Which I did pay for, by the way.”
“Yes. Yes, you did,” Sutton said coldly, and without breaking eye contact he quickly signed both and pushed them off to one side like a Vegas dealer at the cheap tables. Morton gave him something that might charitably be considered a nod and moved aside to collect the photos. He carefully picked them up and waved them gently in the air to dry the ink before sliding them safely into… Hey?
Morton turned back, angrily, but Sutton was already standing up and leaning over the table to hug the Captain Crunch girl. “Sally!” he was saying loudly. “How the hell are you? You changed your hair!” The rest of the fans thrilled to watch their captain acknowlege one of their own. Another con staffer was taking Morton by the arm to move him out of the way and he decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. If he attacked Sutton now he’d have half the convention coming after him. All that time, wasted…
He jammed the photos in his case and left to go stand behind a gaggle of Slave Girl Leias and drown his sorrows with a $5 Coke and what, if you judged solely by the price, was the greatest hot dog ever steamed by man. With some difficulty he found an unattended section of wall to lean against and he dropped there, dejected. The Coke was mostly ice, and as he watched a grease spot slowly expanded on the paper under the hot dog and kept going. If he waited long enough, it might cover the convention center, he thought wildly. At least then it would look futuristic, in a post-apocalyptic way. Moving a few inches away from it, just in case, he pulled out the photos again. Sutton had signed ’em, all right. The bastard.
Out of nowhere the Captain Crunch girl dropped down next to him, out of breath and giggling and flushed. “God, that was fantastic! He remembered me! He is so totally made of awesome, you know? With highlights of lighter streaks of awesome!”
“Yeah, he’s a peach,” Morton muttered. She held out the box, bouncing a little in place.
“Look, he signed right under where he signed it last time, only he wrote ‘What He Said, Only Better’ and drew an arrow to his old signature. Isn’t that great? He wouldn’t even let me pay for it, something about ‘thank god for real fans’ or something. And we all sang the ‘Hiatus’ theme song, he was directing everyone in line and calling on different groups for the chorus. You should have stayed, it was amazing!”
“It’ll haunt me to my dying day, I assure you.”
“What did he write for you?” She took the photos carefully from his unresisting fingers. “‘To eBay, With Love, Kevin Suttun’,” she read out loud, and squealed with laughter. “Suttun? Oh my God, he spelled his own name wrong! That’s hilarious!”
“I’m glad you like it. Keep ’em, they’re worthless to me now. Twenty-five bucks a pop and now I have waste paper.”
“Oh, come on, you were asking for it. Besides, you can probably get more for them now.”
“How? By selling only to the blind?”
She grabbed his hot dog and took a large chomp from one end. “Mmm! I’m starving! You mind?”
“No, go ahead, I support assisted suicide. So how do I make money from this crap?”
“By selling utterly unique autographs from Kevin Sutton. Who else has anything like this? And it just makes him look that much cooler.”
“And anyone with half a brain would believe I didn’t write it myself because…?”
“Because you can put this next to it,” she said, and she held out her camera as she finished off the hot dog. There, on the little screen, was a very clear picture of a disgruntled Kevin Sutton writing across the photo as an impatient Morton hovered nearby. “It’s high rez, so you can probably even make out what he’s writing. Include a copy of that with the prints and you’re gold. What’s your e-mail address?”
Morton stared at her. “That’s… that’s fantastic,” he said. “That totally saves me, and I can charge double for it! Or, wait,” he said, frowning. “It’s too unique, I couldn’t sell copies.”
“Sure you could. It would be funnier that way.”
“You’re right. People would buy these. You’re… you’re awesome! Awesome, dipped in… something else awesome!” Morton told her, and was astounded to find he really meant it.
“Glad you finally realized that, I was starting to worry,” she said, grinning, and she wrote down his name and contact information before hauling herself to her feet and heading off. “See ya later, costume contest is starting in three hours and I need to go get in line if I want a seat inside.” She stopped and looked at him still sitting on the floor. “Try and have some fun, Morton,” she said. “Do something you won’t make any money off of, and see what you think. Who knows, you might even smile.”
She walked off into the brightly-colored crowd, the princess of the science fiction convention, answering waves from friends and guests alike and clearly having the time of her life.
Morton looked down at his newly valuable photos. “Maybe I will,” he said, and thereby doomed himself for all eternity.
Chapter Two – Please allow him to introduce himself
Darkness filled the space like an endless sodden blanket pulled from a winter’s cruel river, thick and smothering and freezing to the bone. To walk through such a space was to feel all of your childhood terrors burn across your mind like a raging forest fire, to gasp for fetid air, to push through unknown pressures that threatened to flood your lungs and crush your brain and cause your heart to burst. No one living had ever entered without ceaseless pain nor left without scars both visible and unseen.
Also, the wi-fi connection just sucked.
The demon Ronove, Twenty-seventh Spirit, Marquis and Great Earl of Hell, Commander of Nineteen Legions, leaned back on his throne of ancient skulls and whacked the laptop again. “Curse thee to the lowest fires of blistering hell, thou haughty beetle-headed puttock! E’en the worst of the Fallen’s host ha’e not such a torturous device as thou, ye earth-vexing canker-blossom!
“Fucking Compaq piece of shit,” he added.
A lesser demon – and around Ronove almost all demons were lesser demons – cowered his way over the suspiciously sticky stone floor and stopped within mumbling range. “The souls are readied, lord,” it blurted, leathery wings quaking in entirely justified fear. Many of the components of Ronove’s throne were from previous assistants. “We await your every command.”
“Of course thou dost,” Ronove said absent-mindedly. His talons left dark brown smears on the keyboard as he tapped laboriously, one key at a time. “This is a great day, Bloodspittle.”
The lesser demon opened his lower mouth and quickly slapped his claws over it. Ronove looked up, annoyed, which was more or less his base state. “What?”
“I’m…” The demon cleared its throat, with some difficulty. “I’m Lacksputum, lord, an’ it please you. I’m new? Bloodspittle is my brother?”
Ronove turned back to his work. “I have no interest in learning new names. You are now and forever more Bloodspittle. Slaughter your brother, and his family.”
Tears of relief spilled down the face of the new Bloodspittle. For a second there he thought he’d really screwed up. “Thank you, lord. Why is this day great, that I might celebrate it with the proper ceremony?”
Ronove tapped one final key, and smiled. “Because today is the day that the lords of Hell finally win. I, Lord Ronove, have discovered a way around that thrice-damned rules and restrictions from Above that keep us bound to their Puritan whims. And they can’t do a thing about it! Tell me, you worthless speck,” he said. “Have you ever tasted the soul of a good human?”
“N-no, lord. Of course not. Only the evil ones. We are not permi–”
“No, you haven’t. Neither have I. We don’t get to eat those. We don’t even get to eat the measly, sort-of bad souls that we manage to tempt into our grasp. ‘Oh, no,'” he said in a sing-song voice, made all the more startling by coming out of a heavily-muscled nine-foot abomination. “‘You can’t have those, those are still redeemable in My eyes,’ God said. ‘You can only eat the ones that have gone completely bad and crusty.’ We get the leavings and the scraps, Bloodspittle. We’re drug-sniffing dogs, dragged on an endless leash and doomed to forever seek out a substance we can never taste ourselves!”
“They tell the tales themselves, you know, the humans. The devil will steal your soul! He’ll bargain, connive, talk you into signing it away. They sing songs about it! Devil went down to Georgia, my monstrous ass. They don’t include the part about all the paperwork we have to do afterward, or how we have to release all but the very worst souls back into His care. Bah! How are we to truly tempt humans into exercising their much-lauded moral choice if we can’t reap the profits? Where’s the incentive? Just think how hard we’d try, how tempting we could be if we knew that we could keep every soul we clutched. God is very much against the free market, Bloodspittle,” he added.
For the first time Ronove turned his full gaze on the smaller demon, which promptly wet itself. “Come here.”
“I’m sure I don’t need to repeat… good,” Ronove said, enjoying the way his assistant held himself awkwardly to keep his weight off the ankle he’d just broken during his frantic leap across the floor. He reached for a small bottle on a shelf behind his throne, removed the cork, and held it out. “Taste this.”
It was the same sort of old, dust-streaked bottle the usual damned souls came in, and Bloodspittle took it gingerly. Damned souls tasted horrible, like pouring kerosene on your tongue and lighting it, and even then the aftertaste would be better. Offering up any prayers probably wouldn’t have been a good idea at that point — you never knew who might be listening — so he grimaced and drank it down. His eyes and nostrils opened wide. Almost immediately he nearly doubled in size with a horrendous ripping sound, his shoulders and arms swelling with dark new muscle, the ridges on his neck deepening, his claws lengthening, his stench increasing. He screamed, head flung back, and even his voice was deeper with a new bass gravel-chewing rumble that echoed off the distant walls. “That… that soul wasn’t damned!” he asked finally, gasping. “There was Good in there! How did you…?”
Ronove was carefully watching him. “A fake,” he said with satisfaction. “A pale copy of a real soul, and not much of one at that. You just gulped the third-generation copy of a bricklayer who only cheated on his wife once. How did it feel?”
“It felt…” Bloodspittle flexed his fists and watched his biceps ripple. Were his elbow spurs pointier? “It felt like nothing I have ever experienced before, my lord. It was like drinking light itself.”
“Would you give me another century of service? Would you slay hordes for me, eviscerate enemies, challenge the gates of Heaven themselves to taste this again? How about the soul of a teenage girl who merely shoplifted a few times? Or a young politician who told a few white lies in his first campaign? Much better than the shriveled old politician souls we get now, yes?”
With new strength surging through his body, Bloodspittle looked up into his lord’s eyes. “I would, lord.” He took a deep breath. “I would pay anything.”
Ronove smiled. “Good. And you will. And so will the rest of Hell. Go, I have arrangements to make.”
“Yes, lord.” Bloodspittle turned and stalked off, his broken ankle forgotten.
“Oh, and Bloodspittle?” Before his assistant could turn Ronove was on him, driving him down and sinking his claws through Bloodspittle’s back into the stone floor. The demon screamed and thrashed as Ronove leaned down to speak directly into the his pointed ear. “Do not imagine that with enough of those running through your body, you could grow to challenge me. You could devour the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and I will still be able to destroy you utterly, with no effort at all. But I would make an effort, slave. I would make a powerful effort to cause you pain and anguish for thousands and thousands of years. Do you in any way doubt that I would enjoy doing that far more than I enjoy watching you walk around healthy and whole?”
Bloodspittle shook his head violently.
“Good. Go,” Ronove said, and he returned to his throne. Technically — and Hell was nothing without technicalities — he was in the clear selling fake souls. God never said they couldn’t, after all, and it was always easier to get forgiveness than permission. But just to be on the safe side, he was going to start off small and low key. Sell a few under the table, as it were. Especially since this first shipment was going to include something special.
He picked up the laptop again. He was risking a great deal here, far more than his assistant risked by angering him. He was bound to obey the Laws, and any transaction he made would have to be followed to the letter. His distributor was ready and willing, all Ronove needed was a fool-proof way to get his shipment there without appearing too suspicious to the casual Observer.
Fortunately he knew just the place.
Chapter Three – You Get What You PayPal For
Sent today: William Goldman (Ballentine, sent pic); Johnny Depp (rep); Sean Maher (Gersh, sent pic); Tim Conway (e-mail); Dame Judi Dench (e-mail); Marilu Henner (e-mail); Mike Rowe (Barsky address)
Received: Clint Eastwood (B&W 8×10 ISP, probably secretarial); Michael Rosenbaum (color 8×10 ISP); Dolly Parton (color 5×7 ISP $$ from eBay)
Sold: John Wayne (1), Paul Newman (3), Miley Cyrus (6)
Morton’s life was filled with faces. Famous faces. Faces of actors and actresses, faces of politicians, faces of sports stars, all smiling at him from every wall and every door in his apartment. And across every image was scrawled a name, sometimes with a message. Hundreds of famous people had offered him their best wishes. Stars of currently hot TV shows filled his living room, their placement determined by the latest ratings. A-list movie stars circled his front door. If someone were to borrow Morton’s bathroom, which no one ever did, they would find their activities therein observed by astronauts and Nobel winners. In his guest-bedroom-slash-office one large bookshelf was filled with signed scripts and inscribed novels, each one carefully wrapped in Mylar, with the top shelf devoted to a row of action figures still in the packaging, with signatures scrawled across their plastic fronts. Another was loaded with notebooks of all sizes and colors, filled to bursting with acid-free sleeves containing countless 8″x10″s and 5″x7″s. There was a small filing cabinet designed to hold 3″x5″ cards, and an elaborate desk set up in the corner with the most advanced computer, scanner, and printer setup it was possible for a non-military person to buy.
In every moment of Morton’s life he was surrounded by the smiling cream of human achievement, and at night he could hear their whispers, which sounded exactly like money.
Did you know that many people loved celebrities? Did you know that many people loved getting autographed photos of their favorite celebrities? Did you know that some people loved celebrities so much they were even willing to pay for a copy of a celebrity photograph that had never actually shared any sort of contact with the celebrity depicted whatsoever? Morton knew this, because he spent almost every waking moment selling such copies. Lots of them. The way it worked was this: Morton would obtain an authentic photograph, either by buying one or (even better) writing the celebrity and asking for a free one. This he would then scan in at a very high resolution so that when he printed it out again on glossy photo paper it would look very nearly almost like the original. That copy would promptly go up on eBay and get sold to a star-struck fan who desperately wanted to believe that $15 plus shipping would get them something their hero had physically touched with their own personal famous fingers.
And, of course, Morton could print and sell as many copies of that same photo as he liked, which was the best part. Actually, the best part was that since Morton kept all his originals, he really had a very nice collection himself.
He looked over at the stack of money orders freshly arrived from the day’s mail and smiled to himself. No, he thought happily. Selling the copies over and over was the best part.
Once he got home, before he did anythng else, he cleaned the scanner and scanned in the photos from the con. That girl — Sally? — had really come through for him. She’d probably want a cut, which rankled a bit, but he couldn’t deny that she’d rescued him from a bad situation. Maybe there was an opportunity there? Maybe start a kind of anti-autograph brand and ask all celebs to sign “to eBay,” or “Get Away From Me,” or something ironically generic like “Bland Indication of Affection, My Garbled Name” or something with pictures of them signing that way? After a moment’s thought he decided it worked best as a one-off. Pity.
The rest of the evening was pretty routine. Print out a few dozen more photos, scan the autograph forums for new names or addresses. There was an article in Entertainment Weekly that listed the new fall shows already on the chopping block for having ratings lower than the Christopher Hitchens One-Party State Totalitarian Christmas Special. One of them was the CBS police procedural “Nothing to See Here” (“Perhaps the producers should have picked a less accurate name,” the article read, “because one more week of this and we’re ready to move along…”) so he quickly wrote carefully fawning letters to everyone in the cast as address labels burped out of his printer. Actors on marked shows are more open to signing autographs; fan support becomes very crucial at those times, plus there’s the gratitude factor from getting a fan letter just as your network is telling you that you suck. Insecurity is a powerful motivator, and no one is more insecure than an actor who sees his or her new show getting pre-empted by local sports.
Surrounded by photos, rolls of stamps and envelopes Morton licked and folded, joy in his heart.
He set the completed stack aside and checked eBay for new offerings. You were competing with every other autograph hound there but it was still a valuable resource, especially for people like Morton who lived far away from celebrity haunts. Florida simply was not the best place for his chosen occupation and more than once he had considered moving to Los Angeles where stars just wandered around freely like real people, but the costs involved in the move always stymied him. Anyway, it would take him forever to– What the…?
There was a listing there he hadn’t seen before, with only a few minutes left, and it definitely didn’t belong under Autographs.
“Damn’d Souls HUGE LOT!!! Free Shipping,” read the title.
The picture accompanying it was that of an ancient wooden crate, thick wooden planks blackening with age, circled by rusting iron bands, and clearly labeled “Damn’d Souls” along with some odd symbols. The Sumerian version of “This End Up,” Morton assumed. How could you not click on something like that?
It was a joke, obviously. You saw that kind of thing a lot among the engine parts and toys and electronics and jewelry and tchochtke detritus that made up the bulk of online auctions everywhere. Some joker would put up a nebulous item for sale like his sense of innocence, or advertising space on her body, or celebrity breath in a bottle, and word would spread. People would even bid on them just to make the joke funnier by driving up the price. For a person like Morton who practically lived and took his meals on eBay, this was knee-slapping humor indeed. Besides, bidding on a useless joke item was also a way to be part of a community, a skill he had previously lacked before social networks were something you could join by clicking a mouse button.
Besides, this one looked to be excellently done. It was worth bidding for the effort alone.
The item page itself was bland, the default template provided by the website. Morton preferred those, honestly. Sellers who didn’t even try to pretty up their page were usually beginners, amateurs, and Morton liked amateurs. Amateurs made him smile with their blurry item pictures and confused category placements. Amateurs were refreshingly direct. Amateurs still felt vaguely guilty about trying to unload their old stuff to unseen, possibly judgmental strangers, so they often overcompensated by being brutally, deprecatingly honest with their descriptions. Amateurs often had no clue of the actual value of what they were selling, and that was precisely why amateurs were exactly the sort of sellers that Morton greatly desired. Buying something of value was always fun, but buying something of value cheaply was an art, and a skill, and a deeply satisfying achievement. Morton roamed over eBay like a hungry shark, his every sense alert to slow-swimming sales and unwary but optimistic new merchants.
There was a larger picture of the crate, of course, and this description:
They were of each class and clime
From the very birth of Time,
Who perversely went astray,
Leaving Virtue’s narrow way
For an evil path.
Upon earth they had their will;
Mourning now, they quaff their fill
Of the cup of wrath.
HUGE lot Damn’d Souls, vintage, mint, untasted
bound for the howling pit
The seller was “teerallbynight.” Morton had noted that he, she, or it was also a “Power Seller,” which brought on a certain sense of kinship. Teeraal’s been around a while, that little symbol said, just like Morton himself, and had pleased a lot of sellers. By long habit Morton had clicked on “View seller’s other items” to get a sense of Teeraal’s general line but there was nothing else active. Teeraal’s location was simply listed as “Below,” which Morton considered a nice touch.
It wasn’t the sort of thing he’d ever bid on ordinarily; he rarely strayed from the Collectibles > Autographs area to even see such things and somewhere deep inside there was a Morton furious at this careless miscategorization, but he was in a uncharacteristically good mood thanks to the Captain Crunch girl. Spontaneous, huh? Never do anything for fun, huh? Well, what the hell. There had been only one bidder on it so far and the price was a whopping nine-fifty. Why not? If nothing else maybe he’d get the crate — assuming it wasn’t just a Photoshopped mock up, which it probably was — and he’d be out the price of a pizza. Well worth it for the weirdness factor and bragging rights alone. Show her who’s spontaneous.
Still, he might have passed it by but for one crucial thing: there was less than a minute left before the auction was over. Morton’s nostrils flared. There was something about that innocent looking less-than symbol in a countdown that triggered an atavistic impulse in Morton like a wolf spotting a wounded fawn, shutting down his upper brain functions and jamming him into a predatory mode, hungry and cunning. Sniper-mode. It will be mine. It must be mine.
With the ease of long practice he opened the item in another browser window, entered his information and clicking along until he was one touch away from committing to his actual bid, and then he waited. He continued to refresh the first browser window over and over, watching the deadline creep forward in 3-second gulps. Everything in the room faded from his awareness until all he saw was the browser window glowing, filling his vision, becoming his entire world. He began breathing slowly, regularly.
At 8 seconds he zipped to the window where his waiting bid resided, let his breath out, and tapped his mouse with the lazy confidence of a fighter pilot launching an AIM-9 Sidewinder at a billboard. “You are the highest bidder!” he read, and he knew in his heart it was true. He didn’t even refresh to make sure he’d won; it was something you just knew.
Buying things online was convenient, but sniping made it amazingly satisfying. Nothing added a thrill to an ordinary transaction like snatching it away from someone else who was even now, Morton was certain, shaking his or her tiny impotent fists at the sky and cursing Morton’s user name. He smiled at the thought. There were automatic programs out there that could snipe on your behalf, but that seemed cold and impersonal. Much better to swoop in and snatch the prize away with a human hand, as it were, one that relied on skill and timing alone. Besides, he had beaten such programs before.
And now he owned a box of souls.
Wasn’t the weirdest thing he’d ever seen at eBay. Someone once spent untold hours creating detailed sets and poses for a series of photos of a Barbie doll and her breakup with Ken. The photos were funny, the text descriptions of the domestic dispute, eventual breakup, and property battles were hilarious. The winning bid was in the hundreds of dollars for the actual auction items, which were the two dolls and perhaps $20 of accessories. And copies of the pictures.
There was also the oddball item like a pop star’s chewed gum, carefully rescued from the garbage to be placed on sale to the true fan, or the bagel with the Virgin Mary’s face miraculously toasted into it (a plain bagel, of course, the holy Mother seemed to avoid multi-grains). One of Morton’s favorites from a few years back was for “A ham sandwich and an ass-kicking.” There was a picture of the sandwich, and the description detailed just how fair the seller was willing to travel to deliver the promised smack down. Compared to that, what was a little supernatural trafficking?
He looked around. Everyone he saw seemed to agree with him with big, professional smiles.
He logged off the auction site and checked his e-mail. No real surprises, got the notifications from eBay (yes, he won, duh), got a few inquiries about his own items for sale (“Could you have Charlton Heston sign this one to ‘Cheryl, with Love’?”), and one from someone named email@example.com with the subject line “Give them back!”
Great, someone else pissed at him. Morton was always very careful to detail his items as carefully and accurately as possible, within certain loose definitions of “accurate,” but there was always some bidder with buyer’s remorse who waited a few days to realize that you know, he really didn’t want to buy a perfectly nice copy of Madonna’s handwriting after all and who now, despite the gentleman’s agreement implicit in the purchase, wanted his money back.
I am totally not dealing with this idiot right now, he thought, and stood up to stretch, joints popping, to his full height of 5 foot 6. I’m heading off to bed. Good night, firstname.lastname@example.org, you poor bastard, whoever you are.
Cat back inside? Check. Windows locked? Check. Everything in the kitchen turned off? Check. There was one odd moment when he swore he smelled something burning — a terrible thought for someone who lived in a house largely filled with old paper — but it faded before he could track it down so he put it out of his mind where resided most of the rest of the world that wasn’t autographed. Put the mail out? Best to go ahead and get those in the mailbox in case the mailman showed up early the next morning. Morton snatched up the stack of still-warm envelopes, threw open his door, took a step forward, and slammed into something big, heavy, and painful that stopped at just below waist height, causing a certain involuntary jacknifing effect. There were a few entertaining moments there where his own personal stars swam around the sky, and then he opened his eyes to see something a quarter-inch away pressing his nose against the side of his face as envelopes rained down upon his head and back. A strong smell of decay and rot entered his nostrils with firm plans to stay there, and he lifted his head to look at what he’d just tried to merge with.
He was slumped over a large crate made of ancient wood, with rusted iron bands. It was prominently labeled “Damn’d Souls.” And it had an address label with his name on it.
Chapter Four – It’s Crate to Be Alive
Sent: Allan Arbus (e-mail); Drew Carey (e-mail); Larry Gelbart (e-mail); Julie Newmar (e-mail); Penn & Teller (agent, sent pic)
Received: John Goodman (color 5×7 PP)
Sold: Sarah Michelle Gellar (1)
Morton shoved himself off the box and back on his feet with speed and agility enough to make even his old high school coach smile, and usually you had to rip an opposing linebacker’s arm off and eat it to get that rare acclaim. Morton certainly never saw it unless it was tucked away inside the belligerent screaming with which Coach Hafstetter informed him how worthless he was as a student, and athlete, and a human being, and that was just when Morton tried — and failed, spectacularly — to do a sit up. If only the coach had realized that all he had to do was find a way to scare the living shit out of Morton, athleticism would have occurred.
He fought to get his breathing under control as he peered at the crate. It was exactly as promised. The wood looked centuries old and utterly out of place sitting on the fake plastic grass of his doormat. No, that wasn’t quite right. It… it made everything else look out of place. The crate looked too heavy, too real to be on his doorstep. Small tendrils of mist swirled around the bottom, apparently because it just wasn’t fucking creepy enough all by itself.
Morton hesitantly knelt down to inspect the sticker. Definitely addressed to Morton Sezlick. Regular shipping labels, no odd stickers from Transylvania or the Stygian Depths or any place like that. The return address was too smudged to read, it was covered with some kind of thick, red– Morton moved on, quickly, to look over the rest of the new box in his life. There were no other identifying marks. He pushed at one side as hard as he could and was rewarded with the crate shifting slightly to one side and the sound of something inside rocking and moving. His apartment was on the ground floor, with his front door looking out over the overgrown parking lot that you only see in Florida, where it looks as if someone hacked just enough of the swamp away to fit in a couple of Civics and a decrepit Suzuki Samurai. From that angle he caught a glimpse of the crate against the evening sky, with glistening palm trees in the background and thick vines hanging from the oaks, and he realized that actually this crate was right at home there. More at home than he himself was, in fact. Pirates should be digging a pit for this crate right now over by the dumpster. The only thing keeping it from fitting in perfectly was the minor detail of being a few hundred years too late. Probably got stuck in the mail, he thought to himself, and then shook his head violently before he started that dangerous sort of giggling that never stops until someone breaks out the phenobarbital. He had to get rid of this thing.
Never mind where it came from, never mind how in the HELL it got to his door so damn fast. It had to be someone playing a trick on him… and Morton, deep in his heart, believed that there were always people ready to play tricks on him. He knew with unshakable conviction that waiters adulterated his food with gleeful abandon, that cabdrivers celebrated his fearful presence in their cabs by taking the opportunity to go on spontaneous city-wide tours, that women he encountered had already learned of him from a secret world-wide network that had targeted him, for whatever reason, for eternal humiliation. So firm was this belief that total strangers, nice people who would never consider doing such a thing to a stranger, found themselves oddly compelled to abuse him just to make the universe right again. This was clearly “their” work, and Morton wanted to deal with it before “their” dread agenda could be revealed.
He stalked around the crate. No signs of any monkey business. It just sat there, looking aged at him. Big mother, but some quick eyeballing convinced him that it would fit through his door with no problem.
An hour and a half later, after he had hurt his back trying to move it the eight inches to his door and banged his elbow trying to lever it over his threshold and sprained his finger removing the front door hinges to give him the extra 3 frickin’ centimeters of clearance it turned out he needed, and then hurt his back even more working the god! damn! crate into his apartment by yanking it forward one corner, one inch at a time, he nursed a very large mug of coffee-soaked sugar and glared at the thing. As far as he could tell it was glaring back. The phone had rung twice while he was engaged but the only people who ever called him were hoping for his vote, his magazine subscription, or his rent, and he was perfectly happy avoiding discussion of all three.
How had it gotten there so fast, anyway? His eBay info did list him in Daytona Beach and it would be easy enough to Google his address, but Jesus, he hadn’t even paid for it yet. He hadn’t even… a horrible thought occurred to him and he reached back to grab his wallet.
It was there, intact, but with a lingering hint of the same smoke he’d smelt earlier. He opened it to find most of his money, more smoke, and a small amount of sickly yellow ash. It wasn’t a pleasant smoke smell, either, not the type you’d catch outside on a warm summer evening that indicated somewhere upwind people happier than you were grilling something tasty. No, this smoke was the thick, eye-watering, lung-filling kind that brought down firefighters before they could get the children to safety. Apparently hell used direct deposit.
No! This was insane! Morton kicked the crate once, as hard as he could, before stopping and taking a deep, calming breath. He’d lost his fear of the thing somewhere during the hauling process — if it was going to strike him down, it would surely have done so as he was straining against it with all his might and calling it, at the top of his lungs, something even the Internet would balk before printing — but he was trying to remain Mr. Wary. Mr. Wary was calm. Mr. Wary handled such things as magically appearing boxes with aplomb. Morton frowned. Unfortunately, Mr. Wary didn’t happen to own a crowbar. He was going to need help. And this posed a problem, because when you needed help you traditionally called upon your friends, and that was where Morton’s plan fell to the ground. It is exceedingly difficult, even in this communications wonder of an age, to call someone who doesn’t, in any real sense, exist.
Morton had customers, none of whom he had ever physically met. Morton had neighbors, only one of whom he could successfully name two times out of three, none of whom he would want to. Morton had acquaintances from school who would be only too happy to hang up on him, assuming they remembered him at all. Morton had a few hundred faces smiling at him, in every room of his apartment, but none of them would drop what they were doing to help him out even if they knew who he was (some of them, if they knew who he was, might have even come over to punch him in the neck but not to do anything remotely helpful). Morton knew fast food employees who would undoubtedly recognize him but would certainly balk at providing him with anything beyond Chicken Mai Phun or Super-sizing his fries. Maybe he could rent somebody to bring him a crowbar…
Or a hammer! Hammers had those pry things on the other side, he could use that! Morton stumbled into his hallway (which was filled with autographed presidential pictures; he called it his Hall of Presidents and laughed loudly whenever he said it, which tells you a lot about Morton Sezlick) and began tearing through his supply closet. Paper cutter, stacks of photo paper, ink cartridges, bulk boxes of manila envelopes… hammer! He pulled it out just as a loud crash echoed down the hall. Brandishing the hammer, he ran back into his living room.
There was a tall, skinny man in dungarees, a checkered shirt, and a beard that had clearly stolen from a dead Norse god kneeling in front of the crate with wide-eyed amazement. To both sides of him on the floor were the halves of Morton’s still-hingeless front door, where it had apparently fallen over, hit the crate, and split. Ah yes, Morton thought. I also have a nemesis…
“Damn’d Souls’? Is this a movie prop, Sezlick?” his nemesis asked, running his hands over it. “It looks fantastic, very Pirates of the Carribean-y.”
Morton could only name one of his neighbors on sight, and that was only so he could put a label to his hatred. Ian Montgomery Woon was also a collector, which might have made him something of a competitor to Morton except he tended to collect everything. Morton, whose focus was entirely on authentic celebrity autographs, considered that narrow field to be more pure than the mindless acquisition of everything bright and shiny. Also, Woon was an asshole. Normal people, Morton was certain, did not call the police because their neighbors were using too much garlic or turning pages too loudly.
“Woon,” Morton asked, silently squeezing the hammer handle. “Why are you here?”
“Saw the crate outside, thought I’d check it out. I knocked; your door was open,” Woon said, apparently without irony. “What is this thing, anyway?”
“I meant why are you here on this planet? Are you a plague? Did God figure frogs and blood and first-born dead sons weren’t enough, he had to infest us with you?”
“I am the finest example of humanity you will ever see, Sezlick. Women fight to get near me in the hopes that they may become impregnated with the next step in human evolution.”
“Those women are committing suicide, Woon, and only the ones who really hate themselves use that method. Otherwise they stick with less painful deaths, like a gallon of gas and a match.”
The really annoying thing was that Woon did, in fact, get women. Not a lot, by jock standards, and not many that would ever appear in a magazine unless you count “before” pictures in weight loss ads, but people of the female persuasion had, in truth if not believability, entered into Woon’s first floor sanctum sanctorum without any obvious signs of drug use or mental retardation. Morton always knew exactly when this happened, thanks to the thin walls between them, the dependable sound of Journey’s “Evolution” album, and the way Woon would walk the hapless girl past Morton’s door on her way to certain doom and ring his doorbell over and over in a victory cheer. Morton chose those times to take long, healthy walks and built up his cardio by despising Woon in five minute bursts, 10 reps each.
“Seriously, where’s this from? Zombie movie? Something supernatural?”
“It’s a body, Woon. It’s actually a box full of bodies, packed tight in salt for freshness. They’re the last five people who asked me stupid questions. I think I can probably squeeze in one more, you wear a 38 regular, am I right?”
“Nice. I saw the Fed-Ex guy drop it off.”
“And you rushed right over to help me move it in because…?”
“You kidding? I went back inside and watched “Dancing With the Stars” instead. Come on, which movie is this from? I don’t recognize it, and anyone who knows me knows just how remarkable that is considering–”
“–my encyclopedic knowledge of the history of cinema,” Morton finished with him, although he added more scorn and hand gestures. “No, this is something that, like light and hope and the smiles of little children, you know nothing about. Good bye, Woon. Don’t let the shattered remains of my door hit you on the way out.”
Woon ignored him and sat back on his haunches, staring at the box. “Holy shit, this is a Disney thing isn’t it? It’s part of the old Pirates of the Caribbean animatronics set that was partially dismantled to make room for more movie references and you got ahold of it! That’s totally it,” he said, pulling out his cellphone to snap a picture of it. “Knew you couldn’t fool me.”
Morton blinked and shook his head for a moment, then pulled Woon to his feet. “No, no, I’m taste-testing a new goth breakfast cereal for General Mills. They’re hoping to crack the disaffected youth market with a depressing early morning treat. Spokesperson’s a pale Victorian woman with consumption.” He shoved Woon toward his doorway. “Sorry you can’t… oomph… stay longer and help me try some… move, dammit… the oats and graveyard gravel really add fiber…”
Woon neatly sidestepped, sending Morton stumbling past. “Knock it off, Sezlick. You don’t collect props, what’s the deal?”
“Look, I really don’t want you–”
“How much for it?”
Morton stopped cold. “Excuse me?”
The phone rang again but neither man paid attention. Money was in the air.
“How much? Only reason you must’ve bought it is to make a quick buck, so how much do you want for it? I would appreciate it, Sezlick. It would occupy a honored place in my home, whereas you’d just keep your Britney Spears pictures in it. Name a price so I can laugh at you. Eight hundred? Nine? I won’t go over a thousand without a COA.”
Morton fought to keep his expression calm as his mental processes jumped a mental median and did a mental 180. This was perfect. Let someone else, someone he didn’t like, deal with it and he’d make out on the deal to boot! And with any luck Woon might be cursed for all eternity, which was a clear bonus in any transaction. This was better than perfect, it was magical. He immediately put on his “I don’t know” face and stepped over to stroke the crate lovingly. “I don’t know, Woon,” he began. “Something like this, it’s truly a–”
He laid his hand on top of the crate and his world went midnight, moonless black and very, very cold.
Chapter Five – The Shipping Package of Lost Souls
Sent: Dave Barry (Herald); Barry Gibb (Middle Ear); Terry Pratchett (Colin Smythe); Jewel Staite (agent, sent pic)
Received: Nothing today.
Sold: Nothing today. Update descriptions?
Morton’s first thought was a flashback to the scene in “Ghostbusters” when the containment grid was shut down and the spirits escaped to fly around New York City. If Bill Murray had been floating in pitch blackness with hoarfrost forming on his body and silence that weighed a ton was pressing on him and the swooping spirits were multiplied by a million and they were all trying to get into his brain, it would be just like that.
He had no time to get his bearings, no way to process what was happening. There was no sense of his body or what direction he was facing or how far he was off the ground, if there was a ground. A thousand minds assaulted him, each one no more substantial than a whisper but terrifying in their numbers. Like drowning in spiderwebs, or being buffeted by a million sighs. He spun constantly, helpess in the tide of swirling awareness. And every time one of the massless wraiths brushed against him, which was many times a second, he felt… something. A boiling emotion, a shimmering presence, am incandescent hatred. He had the undefinable sense that if he could only grasp one of the sensations he could experience it completely and fully
Passions and longings filled his mind to overflowing, sensations he could not name threatened to squeeze his sanity out through his ears. He screamed soundlessly and cold tendrils filled his mouth and nose and lungs and he felt huge and powerful and drunk and he was dropping, dropping, dropping away…
He opened his eyes. Then he closed them again, quickly, and rubbed them to stop the pain that now was spiking through his head from what was surely the blinding light of a thousand suns, coming from his desk lamp. He was back in his living room, sitting on the floor with both legs straight out in front of himself.
“I want it,” he heard himself say flatly, and then wondered why the hell that was.
There was no answer. “Woon? You still here?” Morton started to reach for the crate to help himself up and yanked his hand away just in time, almost falling over in the process. Then he stopped in mid-crouch to stare at it. Why didn’t it do that the whole time I was using it to scar up my hardwood floor? Very carefully, very slowly, he extended a finger and, face scrunched up, he lightly touched the side of the box and jumped backwards.
Nothing the second time as well, and nothing again when he hesitantly pressed his palm against it. Fine, he thought. I just had a minor stroke. Happens all the time…
Woon was on the floor on the other side of the crate with his hand gripping the corner. Whatever he was staring at was definitely not in the room and possibly not anywhere outside of a Lovecraft novel. His body twitched slightly.
“Woon?” Morton kicked him. “Woon? Get up, I don’t like you enough to call 9-1-1 and I’m too tired to bury you. Get up.”
One more kick knocked Woon’s hand away and he spasmed, twisting over on his side and shaking until he finally opened his eyes and gasped for breath. “Holy shit,” he said, and abruptly went from a fetal position to a fully upright, across the room and backed against the couch with his knees drawn up to his chin position. Coach Hafstetter would have applauded. “What the deep-fried fuck is that?”
“It’s a prop,” Morton reminded him, a little woozily. “From ‘Pirates.’ Remember?”
“If that’s a prop it’s from the dress rehearsal for the freaking Rapture,” Woon said, who was beginning to hyperventilate.
“Doesn’t matter, I changed my mind, you can’t have it. Didn’t I say ‘get out’? I’m almost sure I did–”
“Was that the goddamned Ark of the goddamned Covenant? Is my face melting off?”
“Your ugly is right where you left it, good night, Ian,” Morton assured him, guiding him to the door hole once again. And once again, Woon sidestepped like a ballroom dancing bullfighter.
Woon stuck his fists on his skinny hips, missing the first time. “I’m not kidding, man. What is that thing? Or I’m calling the cops and telling them you assaulted me!”
“You’re in my house, you idiot. In Florida! I can shoot you dead and hang your body outside and the cops will just ask if I have a permit for outdoor decorations.”
Woon stood still, glaring. It was apparent that nothing short of shaped explosives was going to budge him from that spot, and Morton wasn’t licensed for any.
And if he were honest with himself, which he rarely was, Morton would know that his heart really wasn’t into trying to outwit Woon. Mostly he was thinking about what it had felt like, touching the box, and wondering how to make it happen again. Now. Repeatedly. Drug addiction was not a weakness he had ever really understood before, but now he found himself fully prepared to steal all of his neighbor’s kitchen appliances if he could just make the box go again.
Thousands of distant minds, calling to him, sliding their memories across his awareness like the softest of silks…
But was it? How could it be, anyway? Morton’s personal religious beliefs started and stopped with a vague feeling that Someone was out to get him, and his opinion of every afterlife he’d ever heard of was “meh.” If there was a heaven it would either be every bit as boring as the different faiths described — harps? honestly? — or St. Peter the Celestial Bouncer would undoubtedly take one look at Morton, laugh, and send him back to the beginning of the line faster than you can say, “You’re not on the list.” Somehow Morton didn’t think the heavenly gates could be entered by slipping St. Pete a twenty. And hell was even more ridiculous. Torturing damned souls for all eternity? Why was that fun? Sure, Morton had his games with neighborhood pets in his day, like all amoral teens, but even including the wide range of things possible with firecrackers it still got old after a week or so. How could anyone keep it up for millenia? Pride in your work? Did hell have incentive programs?
In the face of what he had experienced and deeply wanted to experience again, Morton’s morbid agnoticism was fading away like a chocolate solar panel. If souls existed, and they could exist beyond the death of the body, and he had every reason to believe he’d just been felt up by a legion of them, then an actual existing afterlife was not only possible but probably since those souls would need somewhere to go. Or did they? That could be just as spurious as seeing cats wander around and assuming there must be a magical cat-land somewhere. Maybe souls just hung around, or went feral.
Either way, abiding by a higher moral code had suddenly taken on a new and urgent importance. He’d have to get one of those. It was one of those things that everyone seemed to have but never actually used, like a George Foreman grill.