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Day Two Hundred and Fifty: Ten Stories Up

January 31, 2012 Leave a comment

“Some people look into the future,” the man said, “and they see a vista of wondrous opportunity. Great branching paths laid out before them that will take them to lands unknown and accomplishments the likes of which they never imagined.” He took a drag off his cigarette and the wind whipped the smoke away as soon as it left his mouth.

“Is that so?” Devin asked, He hugged his arms for warmth and wished he’d brought a jacket or a sweater or something. Or that there was something he could do to speed this up. He’d only been listening to this guy for fifteen minutes or so, and they were fifteen minutes too many.

“When I look into the future, do you know what I see?” the man asked.

“I can’t imagine.”

“I see a dark wood, tangled and overgrown. I see darkness and shadows in every corner, covering lurking danger that could strike at any moment. Fallen leaves cover pit traps that, with a single misstep, will leave you impaled on excrement-covered spikes as the people of this dark and unholy place gather round the shrinking circle of daylight and laugh as you die in agony.”

Devin didn’t say anything. He had to admit, that was a tough little speech to follow.

The man took another draw on his cigarette. “There is only one certain future. Only one course of action I can take whose outcome is in any way knowable.” He flicked the still-smoldering butt out into the air and it spiraled lazily down, down, ten floors down to the pavement below, lost in the wash of police cars and gawkers.

The wind whistled.

“So,” Devin said. “That’s it, huh?”

The man didn’t look at him. All of his attention seemed to be on the scene below, one step off the ledge. He looked like some kind of lower management drone, in khakis and a pressed white short, with an ID badge on a red lanyard dangling from his neck. Devin wondered idly if he took the stairs, but figured the guy wouldn’t really looking to lose any weight at this point. He’d been up on the roof for about half an hour now. Someone had seen him, called the police, and that was where Devin had come in.

The movies always made this look easier. He’d do a flying tackle, but the airbag was still on its way, and there was no way in God’s green earth that he was going to jump off the edge of a building, no matter what anyone said.

There was a click in his earpiece. “Guy’s name is Alexander Norris. Got his manager down here. Says he’s been having a rough quarter.”

Devin nodded, then cleared his throat. “Hey, Mister Norris,” he called out.

The got the man’s attention. Alexander turned to look behind him, and his face was strangely calm. The knots that had been wrapping themselves around Devin’s guts drew a little bit tighter, and he licked his lips as he spoke. “Listen, Mister Norris. I get that you’re not doing so good right now. But you know, there’s no reason things can’t get better, right?”

A grin cracked Alexander’s calm expression. “No reason,” he said. “Right.” He turned to look at the gathering crowd below.

Devin was the “suicide guy” mainly because no one else had wanted to be. The state had given towns money for specialty training in this kind of thing, and he was the one who got tapped for the position. So, a week of seminars and role-plays later, Devin was the go-to man whenever there was someone threatening to blow their head off or take a street dive, which didn’t seem to happen often enough to justify the money the state was putting out for it. But he figured it was kind of like a week off, and the food was free, so he came out on top.

At least, that’s what he thought when he wasn’t on a rooftop in the middle of winter, listening to a cube drone try to be philosophical.

“Mister Norris,” Devin said, “Why don’t you tell me what it is that got you here? Maybe we can figure something out together.” He took a couple of steps closer, something that was generally not advised when the subject was about to fling himself to his death.

The crowd below was getting noisier. The police on the scene were telling people to keep away, and some jackass tried to start a chant of “Jump! Jump! Jump!” before the rest of the crowd shouted him down. The wind was still cutting through Devin’s shirt, and he wondered why Norris wasn’t shivering hard enough to fall off.

After a long time, the man said something, but it was too faint to hear. “What?” Devin shouted.

Alexander turned around again. “It was a song,” he said.

That was new. Devin wasn’t quite sure what to say to that either, so he just waited and strained to hear the siren of the approaching fire truck. The trainer had said that once the subject got going, they would usually keep talking, probably because the negotiator was the first person who’d actually offered to listen.

“I borrowed my son’s old iPod to bring to work,” Alexander said, “and there was this one song…” His face flinched, the first genuine emotion he’d shown. “It was all about… making mistakes. About being in the wrong place and not knowing how to get out.” He looked down over the edge again. “I’ve worked here for fifteen years,” he said, “and I’ve never once felt like this was what I was supposed to be doing.” He shuffled his feet and Devin’s heart leapt in his chest. “But what could I do? Pick up and start again?” He barked out a laugh, and then turned back again. Even a few yards away, Devin could see his eyes shining, the tears being pulled along by the wind.

“The song promised that someone would be there. Someone who would stand by me and help me and…” He gestured futilely at himself, at the building, at the world. “Someone who could fix me,” he said. “And all the wrong choices I’ve made.”

The moment of emotion seemed to grip him, and then, as quickly as it came, it passed. His face slipped back into the mask of indifference he’d been wearing the whole time he’d been on the roof. “But there’s no one,” he said. “My wife is off in her own little world, my kids just want to get out of the house and go to school.” He nodded down at the rooftop. “These people? They’re probably looking for someone who can do my job better and cheaper already.”

Devin took another step closer, and Alexander cocked his head in warning. He took a step back. “Don’t you have friends?” Devin asked. “People you can talk to?”

That mask cracked again, but only briefly. “No,” Alexander said. “I was never very good at that.” He took a deep breath and looked up, looking Devin in the eyes for the first time. “That’s the problem, officer,” he said. “People are unreliable. People lie. People say they’ll be there, but…”

“But they won’t,” Devin finished for him. Alexander nodded. “Well,” Devin said, taking a small step forward. “I’m here, Mister Norris,” he said. “That’s a start.”

Alexander shook his head. “No, officer,” he said. “You’re here because it’s your job. Any other day and you wouldn’t give a damn about me.” He slid his foot back, and it was right on the edge. “Not that you’d have any reason to.”

“Wait, Mister Norris,” Devin said. “There’s still a lot you can do. There’s therapy, there’s -”

“No, thank you, officer,” Alexander said. He took a deep breath, and a look of peace came over him. By the time he said, “I’m done now,” and stepped backwards over the ledge, Devin was already lunging for him.

His hands grabbed nothing but air. He watched Alexander Norris slowly fall away through the air and vanish beyond the edge of the rooftop. He was aware that he’d started yelling.

There was a long, long moment of silence. Even the wind seemed to stop.

Then the airy WHOOMPH of Norris hitting the air cushion that had been set up on the ground below.

Devin sat down heavily on the rooftop. His hands were shaking as he took the radio from its belt clip. He took a deep breath, then pressed the button to talk. “You might have told me,” he said, “that there was a cushion set up.” Then he dropped the radio and put his head in his hands.

Day One Hundred and Seventy-seven: Golemime, part 1

November 14, 2011 8 comments

The chief himself came down to my basement office to get me to make an indestructible mime.

“You want me to what?” I asked him.

“You heard me,” he said.

“Yeah, I heard you. I just thought maybe I heard you wrong, is all. You want me to make, what – a mime golem?”

“An indestructible one, that’s right.” He stood there with his hands on his hips and his jaw furiously working over a wad of gum.

Someone had been killing mimes, you see.

The newspapers were having good fun with it, of course, and even the head of the Estervale city council was caught cracking a “silent but deadly” joke when he thought the microphones were off. But mimes or not, they were still citizens, and it was the job of the police to find and stop this killer.

All the evidence thus far had been that the killer liked to work up close. Several mimes had been stabbed, a few poisoned – two had been shot, presumably with a silencer. So what we needed was a decoy, someone that could be a target without being vulnerable. We could set it up to attract the killer’s attention and then nab him in the act.

And so the job of creating the indestructible mime fell to me, the department’s resident thaumaturge. I tried to hold on to my temper by shuffling some papers around, but it was quickly clear that it wasn’t going to work. I dropped a packet of intra-departmental forms into a drawer and slammed it shut.

“So we can flush out some criminal mime-murderer? That’s why you want me to create an abomination in the eye of God?”

“That’s right,” he said, switching the wad of gum from right cheek to left.

“You realize I could lose my license over this.”

He waved my objection away. “You’re doing this under the authority of the mayor. You’ll be fine.”

“But what if -”

“Gripe all you like, Zoltaire,” he said, pulling yet another piece of gum from the package in his pocket. “I’m not about to let the media keep using my department as its butt-boy.” He jammed it into his cheek. “Get to work.”

So. I made a golem out of clay, and I painted it to look like a mime.

Creating life technically falls under the heading of “forbidden” uses of magic and other eldrich energies, and I suppose if you were being really liberal with your definition of “life” then you’d be right. I’d be a monster. The regional bureau would be within their rights to revoke my license to practice thaumaturgy. They might even tar and feather me, for old times’ sake. But look: a golem? I don’t know if I’d exactly call that “life.”

Golems are usually made of clay – not even good clay, in this instance. The good clay is expensive, and I’m just trying to make it by on a police department budget which, as the chief will tell you often and at great length, is never enough. This was stuff I managed to beg, borrow and steal from wherever I could. This was slag clay, elementary art-school clay. Wednesday night at the senior center clay. So if I was really trying to create a living thing, I sure as hell would have splurged on the good stuff. Marble or granite or something.

I will say this for clay, though – it’s easy to work with. All I had to do was make a plaster mold of some mannequin parts and then just go from there. Before I knew it, I had my golem, and it looked human.

Well, human-ish. Close enough, anyway. Not the Uncanny Valley, but I could see it from there.

After that, it was just a matter of making sure he’d fit in. The problem with that was that it was a kind of dull grey-brown color, something you don’t usually see on people who aren’t zombies. Fortunately, however, the problem I was trying to solve also presented me with its solution.

We contacted the local union of mimes and clowns and told them that we needed a costume as part of our investigations. They were so happy to finally be taken seriously that they sent over boxes of old mime gear – half a hundred striped shirts and pairs of stretchy black pants. Lots of floppy hats and dance shoes and just buckets of face paint and makeup. It was enough to make a good man cry.

I asked the folks up at Records to send me pictures of the dead mimes, so I could use their faces as reference. As it turned out, I didn’t really need to. The picture that my brain provided when I thought “Mime” was almost preternaturally accurate: white face, black-rimmed eyes, and black lipstick done up in a frowny-face. I even put in a teardrop coming from its left eye to sell the illusion.

A floppy hat and some white gloves and it was all ready. Looking at it, you wouldn’t know it wasn’t human. Except for the fact that it wasn’t breathing, and probably would’ve cracked into a hundred pieces if you hit it real good with a hammer. It was good to go, except for that one last thing.

Life.

Or, as my lawyers would rather I say, “The thaumaturgically-inspired simulacrum of life.”

Animating a golem hasn’t changed since the first golem was made. In the beginning, God made a little clay doll, said the Word, and there was Adam, ready to get up and start naming things. Every golem since Adam has been made on pretty much the same principle, except that our Words aren’t nearly as powerful as God’s Word. Human Words are annoyingly vague, and you have to choose them very, very carefully or bad things will result.

I had the clay. All I needed now were the Words.

If I could have, I would have just written, “Oy. Wake up and fight crime,” but that wouldn’t have worked. You need Words, not words, and the only way to get those is to make them yourself. So I headed on out to the Barrowmill Academy library and started pulling everything I could find on sigilcraft. There were some really heavy-duty texts there, the ones that all the graduate students at the school use, and a few that were more popular reading, for the serious amateur who wants to make his pretty doodles actually do something.

Then there are the books for the pros. These are the ones that you can’t check out. They’re in a special room all by themselves, dark and quiet and lit by softly glowing crystals, and guarded by three ancient librarians who never sleep. The book I wanted was the Liber Sermonium Potentibus, and it looked just as scary as the title made it sound. A heavy black cover, bound in the skin of something that probably never saw daylight. The pages were brittle and old, the writing a blood-brown that skipped and leaked across the page. I flipped to the index and took out my notebook and pen.

Well, my notebook, anyway. The pen flew through the air and smacked into the withered paw of one of the unsleeping Librarians, who opened her beaklike mouth and said, “NO WRITING!” Her voice crawled up and down my spine.

I took out my badge. Yeah, I’m not a beat cop or anything like that, but I still get a badge, which is more useful than you’d think. It’s a sigil in and of itself, and a pretty powerful one. “I’m with the police,” I said, holding it in front of her watery white eyes. “I need that book for a case I’m working on.” The Librarian studied the badge for a good long while, time I could have been using to figure out how to animate the golem. She whispered under her breath and I had to fight the urge to scratch every square inch of skin. Finally she looked at me and said, “Mark not the book.”

Slowly, carefully, I took the pen from her hand. “No worries,” I said. “Your book is perfectly safe.” And I meant it, too. I heard that someone went over one of their books – from the general catalog, mind you, not one of these down here – with a highlighter pen, and the next time anyone saw him again it was eight months later and he was screaming at subway trains in his underwear.

To make the sigils, I had to know exactly what I wanted the golem to do and why I wanted it to do it. That alone took a couple of hours. Then I needed to know who the golem had to think it was, and that was even harder. There are no ancient sigils for “mime artist,” after all. For good reason.

After hours of work and nearly every page in my notebook, I had them. Seven complicated little sigils that, when put into the golem’s head, would make it what we needed it to be. An indestructible mime-slash-cop.

I went back to my office. By now, it was getting late. I stashed the Words in my safe and crashed out on the sofa in the break room.

The next day I awoke to crappy coffee and stale donuts from the day before. I went up to the cafe on the corner for a real breakfast, and caught the morning headline: another mime had been killed. His delicate scarf had been twisted around his neck until he asphyxiated. I shook my head and took a bite of a cherry danish. Hell of a way to go. But all it meant that it was more important than before to get this thing wrapped up and done.

I brought my coffee back to work with me, got the Words out of the safe, and settled in for another long day.

Since nothing in magic can ever be simple, it’s not enough to just pop the top off and drop the Words in. You have to prepare yourself, mentally and physically, for the process. I brought my white robe to the showers, scrubbed down with an herbal soap that was made with the fat of sacrificial lambs, and anointed myself with oil that had been blessed by a magus I knew from back in college. My colleagues tried not to laugh, but I knew what they were all thinking, the jerks.

Back in my office, I sat on the floor and meditated for a while, trying to keep my mind focused on what I was about to do. Laws or no laws, I was bringing something into the world that wasn’t there before, and that took some concentration and, of course, a little bit of humility. Deep breaths in and out, repeat as necessary.

Finally, it was time. I took the top off the golem’s head and very gingerly placed the Words inside. I felt a kind of electric charge building up in there, and pulled my hand out as quickly as I could. I replaced its cranium and started walking around the golem in a clockwise direction, chanting over and over again the Words that I had put in its head. I soon began to sweat and to lose sight of where I was and what I was doing. The golem was the only thing in the world that I could see right now, the only thing that even came close to being real. I wasn’t sure how long I walked, or even who I was anymore.

Suddenly, without a noise, the golem sat up.

I nearly crapped my robe. I rolled to the ground, the Words still coming out of my mouth, and I had to force myself to stop talking. My legs still wanted to move, and I grabbed them and curled into a ball for a few minutes until I was sure I could stand up and stand still. I was breathing heavily and had to mop my brow dry a few times.

It was downright eerie. It sat there, staring at me with these unblinking glass eyes. With its makeup and costume and that stupid floppy hat, it should have looked funny, but there was nothing funny about the still, unmoving form. I moved to walk around it, and its head followed me, the neck making a slight scraping noise as it turned. I continued around the table, and its head continued to follow, three hundred and sixty degrees. I shuddered when I stopped. “You’re gonna have to not do that,” I muttered. The golem didn’t respond. It just watched me as I went to my phone and called the chief down to my office.

When he came in, the golem’s attention snapped to him. I swear I saw him jump, but he’ll never admit to it. “Good gods,” he said through a mouthful of gum. “Is that it?”

I nodded. “That’s it,” I said. “Our very own golem mime.”

We both stared at it for a while, and the golem tried to watch us both. Then the chief said, “Make it do something. It’s starting to annoy me, just sitting there. Watching us.”

“Okay,” I said. I cleared my throat. “Golem. Stand up.”

Without hesitation, the golem stood. It was taller than I thought it would be, having a good eight inches on both of us. “Golem,” I said. “Invisible box.”

The golem reached up and placed its hands flat out in front of it. It started to feel around the edges of an invisible box, trying to see where the walls ended, where the ceiling came down. It patted the walls and even bounced its shoulder off, which got a chuckle from the chief. As it performed, something weird seemed to happen.

It seemed to gain a bit of life. The frozen clay face began to look more panicky, more frantic as it realized that it was trapped inside a prison it couldn’t see. Now, I know I was probably just projecting onto the thing, like I do when I think my dog looks guilty for having stolen food. But for that moment, it really looked like it was a real, living thing.

I wasn’t sure how to deal with that.

“Golem. Stop.” The golem froze in mid-panic and stood up straight. Any semblance of life or emotion vanished from its face in a flash.

“Hell,” the chief said. He walked around it as I had done, but the golem kept its dull, lifeless eyes on me. “Does it do anything else?” the chief asked.

“As long as it’s within the parameters of the Words, sure,” I said. “Anything relating to being a mime or stopping a killer. After that, you’re outta luck.”

The chief grunted as he returned to my side. “All right,” he said. “Looks good.” He took the pack of gum from his pocket and shook out another stick. “Get it prepped. We’ll plant an article in the paper advertising an up-and-coming new mime, and see if we can catch a murderer.” He patted the golem on the shoulder, stuck the gum in his mouth, and walked out of my office.

I sighed. “Looks like you’re going right into action,” I said. “Golem. Lie down.” It did as I instructed, but didn’t close its eyes. It just watched me. I could have ordered it to close its eyes, but I had a feeling like it would still be watching me anyway. Somehow.

I sat down at my desk to do paperwork – creating life or not, there was always paperwork – and thought about what we’d do with the golem once it was out in the world.

Somehow, I didn’t think it would end well.

TO BE CONTINUED…

*****

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