Bergdorf and Associates, by Thomas C. Mavroudis. Episode 4

Previous: Episode 3

Double fists knock on my door. My room is dark, not even the glow of twilight outside. I get up, open the door a crack and see two different halves of the same face. The twins ask if I’m interested in eating yet.

“Interested?”

“Last night you said you were not interested in dinner, and this morning you said you were not interested in breakfast.” I can’t tell who is who between only half of each girl.

“Oh. No,” I say, “still not interested.” I try to wink, but my eyes are mostly closed.

“Mother is worried about you.” I can’t tell if they are moving their mouths.

“She said she’s worried about me? She told you that?”

“No,” they reply and depart, leaving me to my black abode.

I wake to sunlight in my face, the black-orange glow of it penetrating my weighted eyelids. I feel hungover, lips, mouth, throat like parchment, the world behind my eyelids spinning. I roll on my side, away from the light. I’m cold, so I blindly reach for covers, but there are none, because I’m not home. I’m on the earthen floor of the Jurassic Cabin chapel, and the light beams unimpeded from the empty altar.

“Oh, shit,” I plainly admit.

The trap door is closed. No doubt the chain is secured, tied in a knot by Dupree. I check anyway, with no surprise.

I imagine this is what people refer to as a pickle. I’ve never been in a pickle before, or been a pickle—I’m not sure how you say it. That’s not exactly true. The more I think about the mountains and the cabin; I’ve been in worse situations. It doesn’t make me feel better. I sit on a bench and take inventory.

This is what I have in my pockets: phone, wallet, silver pocket watch. Checking the time, I determine I’ve been out for about thirty minutes. A phone signal cannot penetrate the rock. On the other hand, the hot wetness of blood seeps from my sinuses. In the shadowy light, I find nothing useful in the chapel. Even the skulls are no help. I wipe away the first trickles of blood on the frayed cuff of my sleeve, gently sniff blood into my throat, swallow the bitter metal.

My hands are sticky with drying blood. I wipe my palms off on my socks.

There is no sound but the ticking of the watch and I consider there must be more to it.

I didn’t have a chance to study it, to investigate “timepieces” in my books. I know nothing about it; I don’t even remember seeing it before. It is in perfect sync with my phone, although I never wound nor set it. I put it to my ear, let the second hand pop pop pop into my brain. Closing my eyes, I see Rayne driving my car back into the city, the blue amber on the passenger seat. I see her pass Richard Attenborough’s assistant on the highway, going the other direction, looking in his rearview with the paranoia of a drug addict. The vision isn’t particularly helpful.

There has got to be more to the watch.

Toying with it, the winder is immovable, there is no way to stop it or change it. I study the face so intently, I ignore the blood collecting at a nostril, getting fat, rolling down, catching on my lip. When the drop falls, splashes on the watch face, the second hand holds static for a beat, then another, then another, then continues. I am a novice, a junior; by now I should know that blood powers everything. “Yes!” My exclamation absorbs into the rock walls.

Now the waiting. I’m no fighter, but I know that on any other day I can take the frail paleontologist. However, I’m at a great disadvantage trapped in the sanctuary of this mystery cult, the paleontologist, I expect, one of the cultists. If I wasn’t so dehydrated, I’d probably have to piss with worry.

As I wait, I test the limits of the watch: three seconds is it, no matter how much blood I cover it with. I wipe it clean on my jeans. It takes seven minutes to reset, so when I use it, it has to count. I think of the vision, try to recall a landmark at Rayne and the paleontologist’s convergence—I see the highway curve, there is an RV lot on one side and a pond on the other. He will be here any moment.

Playing possum is one plan. Do I lie in front of the altar or at the bottom of the stairs? Even though the stimulant has faded, I can’t be calm enough for that. I’ll attack, like an animal springing from a trap. I hope I can do that. I roll my head, stretch, prepare for the match of a lifetime.

I wait. And I wait.

It is possible that the paleontologist is not coming here. The adrenaline evaporates from my pores, leaving an ill scent to my skin. I wearily slump on a red sandstone bench and look to the watch for one more discovery. The watch ticks. I dab my nose.

There could be the thump of footsteps overhead, or it’s blood throbbing in my ears, and I’m hit with a fresh dose of adrenaline. I can’t determine the best vantage point from the stairs. I have no idea what’s going on above, but I perceive a sense of force followed by labored scraping. They must have piled furniture over the door. Unfortunately, that means he’s expecting someone, or worse—something.

Weak or apprehensive, the paleontologist cracks the door and I move, shoving it open so the force clips his jaw and he staggers back. I don’t quite spring from below as I intended and the door hits my Achilles tendon as it comes down, and I collapse to the side.

Bergdorf never promised things would not get physical. However, in three years, they never have. I pull myself up the bedframe and I square off against the paleontologist in mimicry of what I’ve seen in movies. The paleontologist is not as confident. He runs into the exhibition area and I follow. He’s reaching for a hand pick on one of the school desks and I pull out my watch. Without my accord, a drop of blood falls onto the crystal. The paleontologist freezes in mid-lunge, and when time resumes, he crashes into the table, grappling the pick, the table sliding into one of the display cases scattering teeth, claws and indiscriminate bones on the floor. I snort so hard it feels like my face is collapsing. I spit the blood and mucus in fury.

Righting himself, he runs at me, takes a swing at my head with the pick, but it’s far too short and overpowered. Utilizing his momentum, I channel every bit of strength into my left arm, bringing it down across his back. He hits the floor and I hear the sound of a spike piercing green fruit. He’s motionless. Then I see the stems of blood run from under his head; tooth or nail embedded in his eye. I look around for witnesses, but there’s only the eyeless skull of a duck-billed something. Technically, I still haven’t killed anyone.

I exit Jurassic Cabin trying not to touch anything, trying not to leave my blood anywhere. The good news, I think, is that I’m still alive. Maybe that isn’t such good news. Rayne—more likely Dupree—did not kill me. Maybe they couldn’t. I think on it, cutting down the hill away from the trail proper, and far wide of the parking lot, which is no longer empty. I come out on a road, walk it a mile to a historic restaurant renowned for its game dishes and taxidermy collection. I try to keep my face clear of blood. I roll up the cuffs of my dirty sleeves.

“Hiya!” the bartender says. I order a double Manhattan, up, and go to the restroom.

Besides all the scabs on my hands, I don’t look like someone who’s been in a fight. For all anyone may guess, I’ve been arm wrestling a roll of fiberglass insulation all day.

Sitting on a stool dead center, I set the watch before me on the bar. I wish I could have known these things about my father’s watch. Covertly, I wipe my nose with a cocktail napkin, fold it, put it in my pocket.

“Fancy,” the bartender notes, placing the drink behind the watch.

“It sure is,” I say. It happens that my nose quits bleeding, the watch no longer physically touching me. I tip back the whole drink, cherries and all, in one swallow. I raise the empty glass to a buffalo head above the bar.

As the cocktail runs its course to my brain, I look from one mounted animal to another, question which of them knows about my task, about the nature of the amber, about the elusive young woman with the aberrant name. The jackalope, I’m sure, is the only one that knows all.

The single person I can call is Cruz. I have his number, though I’ve never used it before. I’m not sure if we are exactly friends.

Cruz picks me up half an hour and two additional double Manhattans later. He greets me with a scowl, saying, “You stupid hooker.” He’s irritated. I haven’t told him anything yet, but I predict the drive to town will be a scratched record of Cruz saying, “Nobody listens to me.”

“I’m going to get in the back.” I try to pull the front seat forward.

“No you don’t, asshole. Sit down right here.” Cruz drives a two-seater.

“Yep,” I say and plop down.

“Close the door, man, come on!” I close the door and we speed off.

I’m tired and pretty tipsy. Every time I nod off, he rolls the window down or blasts the stereo or proclaims again, “Nobody listens to me.”

Blood trickles into the sides of my mouth and I lap it away until Cruz says, “Boy, where’s that medicine I gave you?”

“Gone,” I say, throwing my hand out the window. “But look.” I wrap the watch chain around the rearview and it pendulates.

“Oh my god, Abe, what are you doing?” Cruz, shielding his eyes, unwraps the watch, drops it in my lap.

“I don’t know,” I say.

“You get sick in here, you make a mess, you’re going to be in trouble.”

“I’m already in trouble,” I say.

“Amen,” he says, pulling a colorful laminated saint card from his visor and kissing it.

Cresting the foothills, the skyline of the city taunts me with all the places Rayne and the blue bane might be, if they are even there at all. Would the silver watch tell me? Wherever she is, I can’t do anything about it while I’m so deep in the sauce.

Cruz drops me off at the corner of my block, saying nothing. I slur to him, “I listen to you,” but it sounds like I say, “I’m messing with you.”

“Yeah, real funny,” he says, pulling a U-turn around me, leaving.

I almost walk passed the house when I hear, “Hey!” Penny is sitting on the porch. The twins are on a quilt on the lawn, drawing with colored pencils.

“Oh. Hi, everybody.” The girls look up from their work.

“What are you doing?” Penny asks.

I smack my lips, clap my hands. “Well, someone stole my car.”

“Man,” the twins mutter.

Penny slams her book down. It’s a big one; maybe a Bible. “Come on, Abe. Really?”

I shrug my shoulders forward, say, “It’s my car.”

“I’m not accusing you, Abe. What’s the matter with you? I’m just saying, why does this…why does this always happen to you? What kind of a B do you think I am? My gall, you are so weird.”

I ask the girls what they’re working on. “A book,” they announce.

“You don’t want to see,” Holly says. “Not until we’re done.”

“Yes you do,” Ivy says and tries to show me her page. Before Holly snatches it from her hand, I see a blue blob.

“Looking good,” I declare. “Good job.”

As I walk into the house, Penny mouths to me that I don’t’ need to be such an a-hole.

I miss Penny. I miss Penny the same way I miss my dad. Before…before everything, Penny was a lot more like me. I was a lot more like me, too. Trying to pinpoint the event that changed everything, that cataclysmic moment, is futile, because on a string of bad things, there is no isolating one from the other. Our mother’s death was terrible, my father’s affliction devastating. So many harrowing incidents, following each other like orders at a 24-hour diner. Yet, I think it was my suicide attempt that cleaved Penny and me apart.

Unexpectedly, Bergdorf is responsible for saving me. ­Saving is not quite right, but I can’t put my finger on exactly what Bergdorf has done for me. Turning from the basement steps to my quarters I hear, “Hey, Abe,” from the furnace room.

I should care that I may have defaulted on a contract. “Give me a sec,” I say, stepping into the bathroom. Bergdorf doesn’t answer.

I shut the door, lock it. I drink some water from my cupped hands and splash some on my face to see if it helps with anything. I can’t tell if it does; I’m only going through the motions.

Bergdorf doesn’t greet me, instead he says, “She got you. Pulled one over on you like that old snake.”

I make a heavy, drunken sigh. “I thought she was being straight with me. About some things.”

“She was straight with you. Not about the partnership.” I guess I should have known better, but how could I? Even when you’ve been conditioned to distrust everyone, what is our fault in continuing to be fooled by the prospect that this time it will be different? Rayne’s aggressiveness and lack of inhibition was frightening, but thrilling, and I have become so used to being only frightened. To be tempted with an interest in life, to be given a spark of color in a grey existence—I think it may have cost me more than I can pay. “That was a big lead you lost. One of the biggest for us. And I had no reservation you could close this deal. This is not good, Abe.”

“Damn.” Since I was a kid, I’ve tried to reduce my bad decisions to zero. A child shouldn’t have to do that, but you only need one really horrifying encounter in your life to teach you how to judge future situations, to teach you how to make correct choices in order to prevent other mistakes. Somehow, I’m still making the wrong choice.

Expecting the worst, even though I cannot fathom what that is, I reluctantly ask, “What now?”

He snorts. A bubble of yellow phlegm rises from the slit of a nostril. “We’ll get back to you.”

Next Episode: February 4

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