Alain Bontemps | Alan’s Extra Room | The Rorschach Painting | Goodtime Voice-O-Matic | The Siege of Calais | I Owe My Life to Alan Goodtime | The Alton Arsenal | The Death of Alan Goodtime (other stories in the arc)
Goodtime called at 8 AM sharp, but I was already in Alton, Illinois. I started driving the moment I left Tyler with Yang’s corpse. I knew the police would need to hear my side of the story, put me in a room and ask me questions for hours until they were satisfied I shot Yang in self-defense. Leaving the scene wasn’t helping me any, but I hoped Yang’s dismissal from the force and Tyler’s account of the events – not to mention the bruise on his chest from Yang’s bullet – would lend credence to my story.
Yang might have been working alone, but something was pushing him. Something was stringing him along just as I had been pulled by unseen hands in Wyoming. I wished my bullet had been lower. Or higher. A few centimeters in any direction might have let Yang live a little longer. Maybe long enough to tell me something that wasn’t gibberish about evil and demons. Or maybe he had been a puppet of the ethereal gravity long enough that his mind only functioned in addled delusions of good and evil, of the dead walking the earth.
“Ben,” Goodtime’s voice sounded weary over the phone, “have you given thought to coming to Alton?”
“I’m already here.”
“Ah,” he paused, perhaps wondering why my tone, so friendly in California, had turned confrontational. “Come to Sgt. Pepper’s Café in Edwardsville, it’s just a few minutes east. Do you have GPS?”
I pressed END on my cell, disappointed that I couldn’t slam the phone down on Goodtime’s ear. When I got to the restaurant, Goodtime sat drinking coffee with a pretty young woman in a booth surrounded by Beatles memorabilia. I tried to hold on to my anger, but the scene was far too surreal. Goodtime spotted me, smiled, and waved me over.
“This is Dr. Emily Brandt, an archaeology professor at Southern Illinois University.” I didn’t look at Brandt, but I noticed her staring disgustedly at my swollen cheek and white shirt polka dotted with blood. I didn’t bother to change before I got in the car. I looked fine from a distance but, up close, the hell I’d been through was apparent.
Goodtime continued, “We need your help moving an artifact we dug up last night.”
“No,” I said, leaning close to him and keeping my voice quiet, but stern. “You’ll get nothing from me until I get answers from you. I want to know about Wyoming. And I want to know about Yang.”
Goodtime’s eyes widened as I spoke that last sentence. He seemed spooked. “You talked to Yang?”
“Briefly. Just a little before he tried to kill me solely based on the fact that I’m friends with you.”
Goodtime smiled. “I think of us as friends, too. You seem alive, if battered. I’m glad of the former. What changed Yang’s mind?”
I looked at the professor, who was staring at the two of us over the rim of coffee mug. I leaned closer to Goodtime to keep the conversation between the two of us. “A bullet changed his mind. Straight to the heart.”
“From your new firearm?”
“We’ll talk about this later.” Goodtime leaned back. “Yes, Ben, answers seem to be the currency of the day. I’ve already promised Dr. Brandt the same. Let me know what you’d like to eat and then go get yourself cleaned up if you wish. Then we’ll talk.”
I wanted to sit there with blood on my collar and dirt on my face, causing a scene until my curiosity was sated. But I didn’t. I obeyed his command like a petulant son giving in to a parent.
When I returned, wearing only my white undershirt that had miraculously escaped the seepage of blood, our steaming food had been delivered and Goodtime laid an 8×10 color picture out on the table. The scene looked like a movie set; discordant glyphs etched into stone walls, an ancient red-leafed tree growing around some smoothly-hewn monolith.
“We need your help moving this sarcophagus from Dr. Brandt’s digsite to a place where it can be investigated more thoroughly.”
I nodded, unable to tear my gaze from the photo. There was something familiar about that tree. It was unusual, and probably rare to the region as I hadn’t seen any like specimens on my drive down. Then a thought hit me.
“Why do you need me?” I asked Brandt. “Don’t you have, you know, students to help with this kind of thing?”
Brandt traded an uncertain glance with Goodtime, who unfurled one long-fingered hand in a gesture that said, ‘you decide.’
Brandt sipped her coffee, which I suspected was more a delaying tactic to gather her thoughts than because she was parched.
“We’re trying to keep it quiet.”
I laughed and turned to Goodtime. “Now you’ve got me stealing historical artifacts on top of…” I let the word ‘murder’ hang unspoken between us. I could tell from Goodtime’s pained smile that he knew what I was going to say.
“It’s not theft,” Brandt said quickly. “I’m the project lead, so I have authorization. And Mr. Goodtime is the rightful owner. It’s not uncommon that archaeological discoveries get delayed by claims from ancestral owners. Any sort of tribal or familial ties trump the rights of the scientific discoverer.”
I remembered hearing about the controversy over the Kennewick Man in college and knew she was right. I nodded.
“Why the secrecy, then?” I asked.
Brandt gestured to the photo still sitting on the table, one corner floating in a puddle of slowly growing condensation from my orange juice glass. “It’s a big discovery. Any claim over the coffin would be tied up for years if pictures like these got into the scientific community. It would be decades of stagnation.”
“Dr. Brandt and I have come to an agreement that will benefit everyone involved,” Goodtime chimed in. “I need to carry out a sort of last rite with the remains and, upon completion, I’m prepared to donate the sarcophagus, the site, all the relevant documents in my library, and a few related artifacts I’ve acquired over the years to her department.”
“If any of my colleagues knew about this deal, they’d have a fit,” Brandt said. “Even though Goodtime would win the rights anyway, archaeologists from several countries would stand in his way. And the information in Mr. Goodtime’s holdings would never see the light of day. This is a much better way to play the game. We need you because you’re unconnected to the world of archaeology and, pardon me for saying so, but most archaeologists wouldn’t take seriously the word of a man who has had, at most, one class in the area very seriously. And you’re built… well.” Brandt blushed immediately upon deciding the last word and added quickly, “Adequately. For lifting an artifact like this.” She dropped her eyes to her coffee.
“Dumb jock, huh?” I asked, trying to joke with her.
“No! That’s not what I meant. I meant, simply, that you’re not an expert in this field, particularly. I have no idea about other fields.”
I laughed. “I know what you meant.” I shoveled a bite of breakfast into my mouth, and spoke around it. “Fine. I’m in.”
Splendid,” Goodtime said, nodding. “I’ve got a moving van waiting, so I’ll simply pick the both of you up tonight at 10. Ben, would you mind if I rode back to town with you when we’re finished here? I have some business to discuss with you.”
The quick drive to Alton was fairly silent, despite Alan’s wish to speak to me. He directed me to a collection of small, bed and breakfast-style suites at which he had reserved a room for me and we walked a short distance from the parking lot to the riverfront park.
“Tell me about Yang,” Alan said.
“Not much to say. He’s dead. Had a lot to say about you, though.”
“How did he get in contact with you?”
“That’s actually something I haven’t been able to figure out. He happened to be in the same little dive in Cleveland as my partner and I. We were celebrating an easy job. He overheard your name and butted into the conversation.”
“Was he following you?”
I shook my head. “I don’t think so. He asked a lot of questions about Detroit and Maryland, two places I’ve never been. I got the feeling he was genuinely surprised to hear you had been in California.”
“And then he tried to kill you?”
“He played us. Said he was working freelance to find some criminal that might have bought something from you. When I told him I couldn’t really help on that front, he wanted to hire us to help him catch the guy.
“Problem was, there was never any guy. It was a bogus case. The slummy apartment he led us to was his. He tied us up, questioned me about you, and shot my partner.”
Alan looked at me with furrowed brows. “I’m sorry, Ben. Was your partner –“
“He was wearing a vest,” I interrupted.
I leaned over the railing and looked across the rushing water at Missouri. Maybe I should have stayed in Cleveland to clean up the whole mess.
“Now you tell me about Yang,” I said, not looking at Alan. I tried to remember Yang’s accusations, but the whole event was blurred from fear. “He said you were responsible for butchering some guy’s family. That doesn’t seem like you, but it does seem like you to be involved somehow. A shadow in the background.”
Alan sighed and closed his eyes. He beckoned me to follow him to a bench. His age, from his rheumy eyes to his bent posture, was apparent again.
“He’s talking about Jesse Taylor. And I was involved, to a degree. To give you the whole picture, I’ll have to go back quite some time. As you know, I collect antiques. I also collect modern odds and ends, which I’m sure you’ve seen in the shop, and rare antiquities, which I keep more protected. I’ve had my ear to the ground, so to speak, about a particular piece – an Egyptian canopic jar – for years. Stories about the jar were passed down in oral history from some of the earliest Egyptian dynasties until being recorded by the Greeks after Alexander’s conquest. The jar itself, however, was lost to history.
“I came across a translation of an Achaemenid text that included a legend of a jar that had been found in an Egyptian burial chamber and removed by a Babylonian king for display in his audience chamber. From there, the trail became less obfuscated and I learned the artifact was most likely in the possession of the National Museum of Iraq up until the war in 2003. I visited the museum, hoping to find what I sought safely secreted away in a back room. It was not.
“I delved into the illegal world of antiquity dealing in Iraq. It’s a dangerous crowd, but not one that can’t be dealt with in a civilized way. I was able to get enough information to track the jar to a terrorist group based in Afghanistan. The details from there are unimportant, though I will say that I was able to obtain my prize after a significant and tiring amount of planning and plotting.”
I scoffed. “Planning and plotting are things you could do in your sleep.”
“Perhaps that’s true. Still, I’m somewhat hurt that you think so little of me.” Alan recrossed his legs and settled back into his story.
“While I was in Afghanistan, I learned of a pilot who seemed unable to control his life. His professional life was not unsuccessful, perhaps marred by some poor decisions, but his personal life had stagnated. I thought I might be able to offer him a partnership that would give him purpose once he returned stateside.”
Moderate professional success and a dead home life? It hit a little close to home. That was me before Wyoming. That was me now, save for my friendship with Tyler. Goodtime sure had a type. “Jesse Taylor,” I said, guessing at the name of his intended “protégé”.
“No. Jon Randon, a good friend of Taylor’s. Randon was injured in a missile attack. I intervened somewhat in his medical care, aiming to save his life but keep him from returning to service where he might be killed. He recuperated in Maryland while I was still in Afghanistan hunting the canopic jar. That is a very important point. I was not in the country.”
For no good reason, I believed him. Still, I tried to keep my skepticism high. “You move around pretty fast, though. Do you have a private jet to take you back and forth? You could have flown back.”
“I suppose. I have no shop in the near or middle east. And private flights are a definite problem. Either way, I did not visit Randon’s hospital. He and Taylor came across a bone saw that I’ve since procured. Something about it set Taylor off, and he used it to murder his entire family. I helped Randon along, prodded in just the right places at the right moments to keep him going, to position him to stop Taylor. I can see how Yang got the wrong idea.”
“That was when Yang was still a cop?”
“Yes. He was a good cop. He helped Randon, too. The initial reports were that he died in a fire at the hospital. I thought it a pity, but didn’t linger on the news. Then I started getting reports of a scarred man asking questions about me, my shop, and items I’d sold. He started in Maryland and moved on. I purposely led him astray from my important business so he wouldn’t interfere. I never thought he’d catch up to me. I certainly didn’t think he’d catch up to you.”
I nodded. “But he did. And I ended him. Alan, it was easy to kill Yang. I still don’t feel bad about it.”
“He tortured you and tried to kill your best friend; I don’t see why you should experience any remorse at all.”
He had a point. “It’s just… I’ve been trying to remember what happened before we met in Ely. What happened in Wyoming. I think I might have killed two women, but it might have been a dream. If what you’re saying about Taylor is true, if the saw compelled him to kill against his will, could that have happened to me? That knife I found?”
“First of all, Ben, I never said Taylor killed against his will. It compelled him to kill, but he was preoccupied with death. He made Randon sign something he called a death agreement. He was also preoccupied with losing everything he loved. The saw simply twisted those thoughts. He killed his family, yes, but he also found a way to unite them and cheat death. No action he took was at odds with his most cherished beliefs, though the logic was corrupted.”
“Cheat death? That sounds insane. It’s impossible.” I wondered if Alan was starting to go senile as I spoke.
“It is insane, but it’s not impossible. Anyhow, the knife is not what influenced you. The knife was mine; recovered after years of disuse. I sold it to Remy and then it was passed down to you. If anything, the knife is protective. I told you it was a shard from the sword of a legendary Welsh fighter. That’s true but I lied about the identity of the owner. From tracing the texts, I think the shard is from the dagger Carnwennan.”
I could tell from his twinkling eyes and the slightly upturned corners of his mouth that he thought this might mean something to me. I shrugged.
“Carnwennan was one of Arthur’s many weapons, this particular one used to fell the Black Witch. Some of the Arthurian tales suggest it can shroud the owner from opposing forces.”
I laughed. “Well, that’s great! I can be shrouded by a knife from a fairy tale. Is that the version where he’s played by Kevin Costner or the version where he’s an animated fox?”
“I may not know many pop culture references, Ben,” Alan said, allowing his slight smile to break across his bone-white teeth, “but I know that both of those movies are about Robin Hood.”
“Not much difference, right?”
“There is a lot of difference. For one thing, most mainstream historians agree that there was an Arthur and he was a real king of Wales. Most of the knights of Camelot are also real, or are conflations of several knights. Obviously, some of the more outlandish tales of Arthur and his knights are flights of fancy that have been passed down through the ages, but having the knowledge to control certain aspects of nature may have seemed like witchcraft to people of the time. Especially when it was used for less than benevolent purposes.”
“So this Black Witch was real?” I asked.
“Probably. Among information that can be obtained by so-called witches is what modern researchers call remote viewing. Some seem to be better at it than others, though there are natural objects that can enhance such skills. The dagger Carnwennan seems to block that skill. I gave it to Remy because the Maginot woman was well-versed in voodoo. I believe it served you well once it was in your possession. The Maginot women had a vague idea you were coming and couldn’t target you explicitly. You wouldn’t have stood a chance if they knew.”
I thought back to Remy’s journal, recalling Remy’s partner attempting to shoot him under the control of Audrey Maginot. I shook my head, but I didn’t know why; I believed Alan’s ridiculous tale. Logic screamed inside my skull to refute Alan, to tell him he was full of shit. I knew this was all impossible. I had seen some things that were hard to explain. I had heard stories from Yang and Alan that had to be pure fiction. Some form of real insanity.
And, yet, hearing his words alleviated the tightness in my chest. I could breathe more deeply, more fully. I felt oxygen rush to my head and leaned back, welcoming it.
“So I did visit those women,” I said, afraid of what would come next.
“You did.” Alan put his hand on my knee. “And you killed them. But they were trying to convince you to commit suicide. Do you still have the scar?”
I nodded, turning my wrist to show the pale line that ran across my flesh. The knife – Carnwennan – had cut me deeply without even trying. The lightest pressure could have sent me to the hospital.
“That’s what happened to Remy, too. He wasn’t the type to give in to suicide. It was some way the Maginots protected themselves. Luckily, you were strong.
“Your actions were carried out in self-defense,” Alan said forcefully, “just as they were in Yang’s case. Make no mistake, however; those women were not tragic cases like Weisse Yang. They were purposely trying to run you afoul with murderous intent. More than that, I’m not completely certain Audrey Maginot wasn’t responsible for what happened to Jesse Taylor. I was able to recover the bone saw after the fire. It was miraculously undamaged, even the wooden grip. There were enough remnants of markings on the blade to identify the saw as an unadorned military version made by Tuefel, a German manufacturer that sold to the French throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. In this country, French screams either Louisiana – Maginot’s home – or Quebec. Though, I suppose the collector in Vermont might have had access to it, as well. It’s his style.”
“Whoa, man. You lost me,” I said, still having trouble following Alan’s line of explanation. “What is this about Vermont?”
Alan stood, motioned for me to do the same, and ambled slowly towards the Argosy riverboat casino. “Most of the artifacts I have – and they are legion – are special in some way. They hold a significance that, to the right person, can sway them at critical points in their life. Imagine a pencil perfectly balanced on its tip; it can sit in that state, brimming with kinetic energy, for a time. Sooner or later, something will cause it to fall. What way does it go?”
It took me a second before I realized he was actually asking the question. “Depends on what pushed it.”
“On the nose, Ben. It depends on what pushed it. It can be pushed or pulled or hit from the below the table on which it is balanced and it will do so in accordance to the force imparted. Lives are the same. We have,” Alan paused to clear his throat. “You have free will. You can choose to make any life decisions you like. Sometimes, though, you come to a point at which you must make a choice. All of your prior experiences influence you, as do current relationships, moods, and plans for the future. Those are the forces acting on the pencil of your fate. My artifacts, too, are forces. Some are strong, others weak. Some have a directional pull, others simply magnify what is already within the individual.
“I have made use of all types, though I’ve found the artifacts with a definite directional pull leave me feeling remorseful at diverting a life from its natural course. The others, the ones without a direction, those that are more catalytic to existing biases, are less draining. Sometimes I misread the patrons of my shop and give them an artifact that leads to an unfortunate conclusion. There is a box that…,” Goodtime paused, “Well, it’s not important, but the box always ends up causing some sort of tragedy despite my considerable efforts. Other times, I read my patrons correctly, as I did you. The journal led you to expunge a malevolent force from the world and push you out of the stagnation that had been breeding since becoming an adult. It reduced your entropy, reinvigorated a life that can shine bright.” Goodtime looked at me, smiling. In his smile I saw his sincerity and his promise that he would try to forge a path for me. He stumbled over a concealed mole hill and I placed a hand on his shoulder to steady him.
“You asked about Vermont,” he continued. “I’m not the only one with a collection. Maginot had a disorganized jumble of trinkets that functioned similarly, though she complimented those goods with other skills. The collector in Vermont has a collection smaller than my own, but far more vast in terms of power. He collects only the most ancient and strong totems, typically those which directly and predictably alter the fate of his target, leaving little to chance. He’s a frightening person to find yourself pitted against. I’m glad neither of us will ever have to face that. Anyhow, the man from Vermont is the type to use brutal methods like the horror that befell the Taylor family.
“All this to say, Ben, I didn’t murder that man’s family. I didn’t even want Taylor involved. He had a good life and deserved to live it.” Goodtime’s voice cracked and I could see moisture in his eyes. I’d never seen such emotion in his face, granted I’d actually only met the man a handful of times.
I changed the subject to spare him further distress. “Can I ask you about the strange plant growing around the sarcophagus?”
Goodtime sighed. “Ben, it’s late.” He looked around, noticing that it was still midday and smiled. “Perhaps it’s not late at all, but it feels late. If you drove overnight, I imagine you feel the same?”
“Get some sleep. There’s a long night ahead of us. I will answer more questions then.”
* * *
Goodtime picked me up in an old commercial moving van. It had been painted tan, but the former U-Haul decoration was clear in the pattern of peeling paint chips. Dr. Brandt was already in the cab when I climbed in. Her thigh felt warm and comfortable against my own. We both had space to move completely apart but – though we moved a little – our knees stayed in contact. We made brief eye contact, the nervousness in her eyes melting ever so slightly into something more alluring, before Dr. Brandt returned her gaze to the front windscreen. I smiled. The cab of the truck hung heavy with the scent of hot vinyl seats as we headed toward the old Alton Prison grounds.
Brandt led me into the old Civil War bunker, detailing her experience with Goodtime and the dig, while Goodtime backed the van into place and pulled down the ramp. The bunker was cooler than the outside, but not wet like I would have expected. Brandt and I stepped through a ragged hole in the lone natural wall and the scene from the photograph jumped out at me. It was even more vibrant and incongruous in person. The straight, barbaric edges of the runes were completely at odds with the elegant spirals of the Native American symbols. The early Anglo-type artwork made no sense with either. As much as I wanted to marvel over the artwork, I felt my attention pulled to the tree that imprisoned the coffin.
Again I felt the tug of familiarity in the back of my mind. I had seen a tree like this before, a tree with leaves that looked like blood dripping from the head of a needle. I walked towards the veiny roots and scratched one lightly with my fingernail. The outer bark layer didn’t flake away, but instead seemed to bulge inward with my press like the skin of an eggplant. I scratched harder and pulled my hand back quickly as warm sap, every bit as sanguine as the tree’s leaves, coursed over my palm.
“Are you alright?” Brandt called, concerned.
“Yeah. It’s sap. I guess.” I wiped the strange fluid on my jeans and looked at the rapidly congealing wound on the root. The sap had pooled into a dark wine-colored mess in the dirt. It was hard to see the sap as anything but mammalian blood; it moved like blood, dried like blood. I smelled the smeared remnants on my hand. It had the same coppery scent as blood.
Goodtime strode into the small cavern carrying two landscape trimmers. He passed one to me.
“Let’s get started on this, shall we? Dr. Brandt,” Goodtime called over his shoulder, “feel free to take pictures of the walls while we make short work of these roots.”
“Mr. Goodtime,” Brandt spoke softly from a corner near me, “you said these were Norse, Brittonic, and Native American scripts, but surely those three cultures weren’t present here. There may be evidence of Vikings in North America long before European explorers in the 15th century, but the English never came this far west.”
“Actually,” Goodtime grunted, cleaving the trimmers together in a viscous gush of sap, “the sarcophagus itself is Brittonic, as well. It was transported to this location by Brittonic knights who, most likely, lived out the rest of their lives with the Mississippian people, as they knew not where they had travelled, nor how to return to their home.”
“So why the runes?” Brandt asked.
“Ah! Well, it was simply the preferred lingua praecantatio of the deceased.”
“My Latin is rusty for everything but the common terms of archaeology,” Brandt said, sounding somewhat annoyed. From my limited experience, it seemed Goodtime waxed eloquent when he was excited. It was fun when the time was right, but I could tell Brandt would be on edge until we were safely in the van driving away from her digsite.
“The language of magic, Doctor! The language of magic.”
“I know at least a passing amount of Norse mythology to understand the references to Yggdrasil and the Norns, but I didn’t know there were Viking wizards,” I said.
“Not all Nordic tribes were Vikings, and wizard is a bit strong and pop culture-y a term, but every culture has practitioners of the old arts.”
“Shamen,” Brandt said.
Goodtime scoffed at the term. “It’s not as cut and dry as shaman/witch doctor or wizard/warlock. Nothing ever is. The modern political clime should be an indication; who is the greater threat, expansionist Israeli war criminals or Palestinians fighting to keep their culture alive?”
“I suppose,” Brand sighed, scrutinizing the painted mural. “I’m still having a hard time believing the English came all this way to protect the tomb of an elder. Most relics were hidden within the castle crypt.”
“This is neither relic nor ‘most’ things, Doctor. Ben can attest that I don’t waste my time with anything less than unique items.”
Brandt raised an eyebrow at me and I smiled. I wasn’t sure if the look I was trying to convey was agreement or skeptical amusement. I wasn’t sure how she took it, but I was sure I liked the look of her face.
I changed the subject hastily. “At any rate, looks like we’re finished. Let’s get this to the van.”
The coffin was surprisingly light for its size. It was still a considerable burden, and could cause a fairly severe injury if it fell onto one of us while we loaded it, but I expected a vessel hewn from solid stone to be nearly impossible to lift. The wrist I thought had broken during the fight with Yang calmed some during the drive to Illinois and the few hours’ rest at my hotel. It must have been a sprain. Still, it wouldn’t comfortably hold the weight of the coffin itself, so I had to use my whole forearm to do any lifting.
Once up the loading ramp into the van, we set the coffin down and slid it toward the cab, the scrape of stone on metal reverberating hollowly in the compartment like the growl of a hungry beast. As we maneuvered the monolith, I marveled at the figures carved in relief over the entire surface. Many were reproductions of the mural in the small room which, now seeing them up close, I could tell were of a bearded man grasping a hand in lake and a recounting of the travel of the Brittonic guards across the Atlantic, around the peninsula of Florida, and up the Mississippi. The coffin carried between the armored knights had been in clear allusion to medieval depictions of the divine, complete with sun rays emanating from the stone.
The drive away from the old prison grounds was uneventful. Goodtime took us across the Mississippi into a historical part of downtown St. Louis. He slowed as we passed a block of burned-out brick buildings, the once cherry red bricks blackened with greasy soot. Windows hung at odd angles, melted into Salvador Dali-esque forms. In some places, the wooden structure of the roof had caved in and sat like a demonic trellis against one wall.
“That’s where we’re headed,” Goodtime announced, tapping his finger against the side window and indicating the only suite on the block untouched by flames. Outside the pristine white, wooden door hung a sign, a painted and carved shard of an old fence picket, which read All In Good Time.
Goodtime pulled into a side alley and let the van coast to a stop behind his shop. The orange streetlights gave the entire brick-encased alley a warm sheen, like I was walking through a fissure toward an active volcano. Goodtime jumped out of the cab and, with a deep clang that echoed in my chest, pulled open a sliding steel door. I stepped out of the cab on the opposite side and offered my hand to Dr. Brandt. She didn’t need it, we both knew that. But she took it anyway.
By the time Brandt and I had opened the rear of the van, Goodtime had ran into the shop and reappeared with a heavy, industry-quality hand truck. I helped him heave the coffin forward and bring it to rest gently on the dolly, my attention on Brandt’s face as she marveled over the stonework. I could see the academic curiosity in her eyes, the theories and possibilities running through her imagination. I imagined I looked the same when I read through a new text that really grabbed my attention.
Goodtime wheeled the sarcophagus into the shop and took a left turn. In front of us ran a long, cloistered hallway with mid-century wiring and Edison bulbs hanging from the unfinished ceiling. The left turn caught me by surprise; the way the suite of shops was laid out, the deepest part should have been in the direction running from the sliding steel door in the back to the front façade. We should have been walking through burned out husks and tripping over the charred beams of All In Good Time’s neighbors. Instead, we were gliding down something akin to a fancy mineshaft at a slight decline.
The corridor stretched, completely straight, until both sides converged into a dark point. We walked for a good twenty minutes before the passageway opened up in front of us to reveal an oblong cavern lined with cluttered shelves and an olive drab metal desk covered in newspaper clippings and large tomes held open by other, smaller dog-eared volumes. Goodtime slid the hand truck to rest in the center of the room and unbuckled the restraint straps that had protected the coffin from jittering on the long journey.
“Dr. Brandt!” Goodtime said, clearly in high spirits. “On these shelves,” he lifted his arms to encompass the entire space, “you’ll find information. The documents on the desk are those pertaining to the history of the sarcophagus. Take a moment to look at them; once we get started, I feel things will move very quickly.”
Brandt smiled and damn near jumped to the desk, the look in her eyes that of a beggar met with a free buffet. I watched Goodtime flit from shelf to shelf, grabbing trinkets and placing them on an old, rusted surgical tray that he pulled along behind him. His face was alive with fluttering emotion. His smile morphed into frown and deep thought with such speed that I thought it might be a muscle tremor. The tears that welled in his eyes as he held a small, jaguar-headed figurine told me it was no tremor.
I approached him slowly, my voice low so as not to disturb Brandt. “Are you alright?”
Goodtime smiled at me, a sad smile. “Yes, Ben. Just fine. There are so many memories in this space. More even than in my shop,” he gestured above us, confirming that we had been travelling underground.
“Not all good ones, I’m assuming.”
Goodtime shook his head. “No, some actually quite bad. But even those… Even allowing myself to experience heartache and remorse reminds me that I was someone. That I was alive.”
“What does that mean? You keep talking about closing the shop in ways that sound bigger. You know? Like you’re alluding to something beyond retirement. And knowing you, knowing the stories you tell that you can’t possibly know from a typical historian’s standpoint, I know the shop can’t be just a shop.”
“Perceptive as always, Ben. Though, the shop really is just a shop. It’s brick and mortar, it collects my artifacts. I buy and I sell and not all of them are special, like the ones of which I spoke earlier. I allowed myself a few moments of humanity, a few moments to appreciate the beauty of this society and the art it creates.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Are you saying you’re not human?”
Goodtime stared at me for a beat as one corner of his mouth curled into a grin. When the grin had tightened to the point where he couldn’t hold his lips together, he allowed himself to explode with laughter. He clapped me on the shoulder and tried to speak a few times, only to find the words drowned in another swell of amusement. Brandt looked our way, a question in her stitched brow. I answered it with a shrug.
“Ben, you have an amazing imagination! I can see why you’re a good writer.” Goodtime wiped tears from his eyes. “Of course I’m human. I simply meant that I’ve never felt a part of this society. I’ve been in this culture for years, longer than you can imagine, but I’ve never been a part of it. Always an outsider looking in.”
Goodtime’s smile faded as he gestured at the coffin. “That sarcophagus has truly been my raison d’être. I don’t know if I ever knew the spirit it contained. If I did, I forgot long ago. I do know, however, that it’s someone of utmost importance to me. Someone deserving of my love, though I can’t place the type of love. It might be a leader, a lover, a parent, or a child. Perhaps I had a brother and I made it my goal to honor him.
“How can that be, Alan?” I asked. “That coffin is a thousand years old.”
“So it is. But time is strange. Years trudge on, events fade, and then something happens and it seems like no time has passed at all. Like riding a bike, seeing an old friend. Your body ages, but your mind seems to think you can do all the things you used to; jump as far, run as fast, love as intensely. So you can see that time runs differently in the mind than it does for the body.”
“Yeah. I don’t disagree – at all – with that sentiment. The brain is completely nonlinear. But that doesn’t answer how your body, which exists in the linear time, is able to be around for a millennium.”
Goodtime nodded thoughtfully. “I suppose it doesn’t. Do you know much about Merlin?”
“Ah, no. Not much at all. Mostly everything I know about him is from the Sword in the Stone movie.”
“You seem to get a lot of your information from animated movies.”
“Public school at its best, I guess,” I shrugged. “But, hey. How did you know it was animated?”
Goodtime simply smiled and waved the question away with an elegant flick of his long fingers. “Merlin, in the actual legends, was said to live backward in time. More modern interpretations and retellings of the Arthurian myths have popularized that idea, framing Merlin as a man who grew younger with the passing of each year and who, as an elderly man, knew the fate of the world 40 years hence.
“In truth, Merlin – or the figure who became known as Merlin – lived aharmoniously with time; neither forward nor backward. He seemed never to age, always described as a man old enough to have sage wisdom but young enough to hold his ground when necessary. Old enough to have a white beard and grey hair but young enough to make mistakes by acting rashly.”
I thought I saw where Goodtime was going, so I opened my mouth to speak. He stopped me with a raised finger and smirk.
“No, Ben, I’m not saying I’m Merlin. Far from it. I heard the stories when I was young…”
Goodtime paused for a long moment, looking far into the distance with glassy eyes.
“Hm,” he said, his conscious mind finally returning to the cave. “I know that statement is true; I did hear those stories as a boy. I just can’t recall any specifics of the rest of my childhood. Anyhow, Merlin was a true asset. He helped his people overcome Druid invaders and aided his king in restoring order after Mordred’s coup d’état. He never gave in to anger, never let power go to his head.
“I am not Merlin, Ben, but I do follow his lifestyle. His trade; what might be called magic but is simply control and use of time and nature. Manipulation of natural laws. I also know that he tied himself to the Tree of Life the way I have been. His distinct lack of color is a result of the bleaching side effects of Yggdrasil. Perhaps it uses all vibrancy to bring beauty to the Earth, drawing energy from all sources to which it is directly connected. I don’t remember how I used to look, nor how the world used to look to me, but I know it was not a palette of greys. There was color. God, how I miss color.”
Goodtime strode forward, dragging the surgical cart behind him with a tinny clatter. He pulled a small 45 RPM record from a shelf and ran his finger along the smooth edge of the vinyl.
“The Tree of Life,” he continued, “is also the Tree of Death. Everything must be balanced. Living for so long, with time as it is, takes a small toll on the mind and a large toll on the body. Our corporeal forms are always fighting against entropy. When entropy wins, we die. Immortality is not possible, not for living tissue. Life necessitates an end. Balance. The mind is amorphous, able to self-generate energy. It is an entropy-free system. It cannot die because it was never alive, it simply is. Putting oneself at the mercy of Yggdrasil does not stop cellular death, but it does prevent the mind from moving on to the Great Unknown. A mind cannot exist in this world without tangible form, however, so the Tree always found one for me. Usually a client from the shop. Always someone who was close to death. Always someone who had done something of questionable morality. The Tree would remove their color, their life, their vigor, and I would inhabit the shell, like a hermit crab finding a new home. Or like I’ve done with my shop up there, moving into a destroyed and abandoned space.” Again the gesture above us.
“You took over other bodies?”
Goodtime shrugged. “In crass terms, yes.”
I should have been more astounded. Or afraid. Or disbelieving. Instead, I found the admission slightly amusing. “You laugh at me for asking if you’re an alien or Merlin, but you tell me demonic possession is completely normal. You’re a bastard.”
Goodtime laughed. “Well, it’s not demonic possession, its simple energy transfer. It’s a bit more complicated than creating a charge by passing a magnet through a coil, but it’s the same basic principle. Aliens are a different matter altogether.”
Goodtime spread his hands to encompass the objects arrayed on his now full surgical tray. “We have almost everything we need. Would you grab that terra cotta vase from the top shelf over there? Careful; it’s full.”
I grabbed Goodtime’s item, my intrigue at the sheer age of the artifact quickly giving way to disgust at the liquid inside. It looked like unclotted blood. I wanted to ask him about it, curious if it was the canopic jar he had been searching for in Iraq, but he had stepped to Brandt’s side, gesturing and nodding. I suspected he was answering questions similar to the ones I had asked.
When I approached, Goodtime offered me Remy’s knife, the freshly polished grip toward me.
“Let’s see if we can break the seal on the sarcophagus, eh?” he said.
The lid, which had been unmovable during transport, let in a hiss of air as I slipped the blade into the crevice. It seemed like the coffin was inhaling, taking its first breath in one thousand years. I slid the blade around the circumference, though I was sure the effort was useless; the lid had come loose with that one, simple touch of the knife.
Brandt stepped opposite me and nodded. “On three?”
I let her count us down, watching the way her lips formed the numbers, and we hefted the lid away from the rest of the coffin. Brandt gasped, I muttered a mournful curse. Goodtime stared into the coffin silently.
Inside, lying unceremoniously in thin silt that had filtered through miniscule imperfections in the stone, was the small body of a child. The flesh had decayed long ago and was now either missing – eaten away by insectoid and fungal scavengers, or clung tightly to the bones. Still, the age of the skeleton was apparent from its size.
I looked Goodtime in the eye, hoping to get an explanation. In the wet, grey orb I saw no indication of recognition, only sorrow and apprehension. He had told me the body was someone for whom he cared deeply. Without children of my own, I couldn’t begin to imagine the emotions flooding into him. Greif, joy at finding the body, guilt for not protecting the child when it was alive?
Goodtime reached into the coffin and touched – more of a feather-light brush – the shinbone of the body.
He looked to me and Brandt, a pained smile on his face. “Showtime, as they say.”
As Brandt and I watched, our elbows touching lightly, Goodtime grabbed the jaguar-headed figurine from his surgical tray. I noticed his fingers seemed slimmer and more crooked than they had earlier in the day. I remembered my grandfather’s fingers looking like that when he unscrewed the lid from the Tang container when I stayed with him in grade school. The fingers of an old man. Goodtime seemed to struggle as he gripped the feline features and rotated them opposite the body.
“Can I help?” I asked, pointing at the figurine.
Goodtime smiled. “Thank you, Ben, but no. This is something I must do alone. Having you both here is more than enough.”
He took a deep breath, rallying his strength, and wrenched the head from the artifact. He held a lightly tremoring palm under the upturned body and poured a fine, white powder into his hand. He sprinkled this dust over the bones in the coffin as he moved his lips, whispering to himself. Whether it was an incantation or an apology, I couldn’t tell.
Goodtime grabbed the canopic jar, fighting to bring its significant weight to rest on the corner of the coffin. He removed the adobe stopper from the fluted opening and poured the liquid into the stone basin. The cavern was instantly filled with the metallic stench of blood, a slight tinge of fishy rot punctuating the odor. Then, with surprising speed, he snatched up the knife – the same I had used to unseal the lid – and plunged it into his right side between the two lowest ribs.
Brandt cried out as I jumped forward to remove the knife, but Goodtime waved us away. He drew the blade from his flesh with a grimace and hung it over the coffin. Goodtime’s bright red, almost orange, blood condensed on the hardened steel and ran toward the blood groove. A crimson drip formed at the end of the blade, quivering with the shake of Goodtime’s hand. It continued to swell and then, when it had grown so large it seemed to defy the pull of gravity – one of Goodtime’s entropic forces – it fell, a drop in a sea of red.
Goodtime collapsed into an ancient wooden chair, clutching at his ribs and breathing deeply. “Ben, would you put that record on the turntable, please?”
I pulled the small 45 from its cheap paper sheath and guided it onto the metal prong in the center of the record player. As soon as I dropped the needle, static filled the room, emanating from speakers hidden all around the craggy space.
Goodtime smiled faintly and said something I couldn’t quite hear. I wondered if he had chosen a special song to listen to while he bled out. Was this what he had planned all along? An elaborate suicide attempt?
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Nothing, really. I just said, ‘She was right.’” Goodtime tensed and doubled over, his face contorted in agony. When he straightened himself, he was wet with sweat and looked far, far older. “The revolver I sold you, I had sold it before. It was a dark time. Murder – genocide – was taken in stride. I tried to convince the young officer to eradicate a woman and her children as part of his assigned duties. I thought them a threat to my goals, thought they would stand in the way of finding this sarcophagus.
“The officer refused. In her gratitude, the woman swore to repay the gesture. She also sent me a letter pleading with me to stop searching for her. Her life and mine were intertwined, according to her, and I wouldn’t succeed if I continued on my course of eliminating anyone I perceived as competition.
“This recording saved the officer’s life. It’s about to make mine worthwhile.”
Through the static, soft footsteps became audible. They seemed to approach us, cloaking the room in a powerful presence.
“Tal qum,” spoke a female voice. With a whirr of scratching vinyl, the needle jumped backward a few seconds and the woman spoke again. And again.
The cavern reverberated with her booming command. Tal qum; a masculine variation of ‘talitha koum’ that meant ‘rise’.
“Jesus fucking Christ!” Brandt exclaimed, backing away from the coffin in fear.
I turned to see a face emerge from the murky, sanguine depths. Not the grinning death mask of the skull that had been in the coffin, but a human face covered in pale flesh. The face was small and punctuated by delicate features. I couldn’t tell if it was male or female.
While we watched, the record continued to skip, the sound growing louder. “Tal qum. Tal qum. Tal qum.”
Limbs rose to the surface next, carried to the surface by their buoyancy. Looking back, I saw tears streaming down Goodtime’s face, blood streaming down the side of his grey suit.
“It’s me,” he said. “That boy is me.”
“What?” I demanded.
“That’s the face I remember reflecting back at me from the surface of ponds. I remember… we were attacked by Druids. The summer had been particularly hot. The scorching sun persisted into the autumn, killing crops before they could even properly sprout. Then the winter blew in without warning. We had maybe two weeks of harvest temperatures. Vegetables and fruits froze unripened on the vine. Our kingdom was not bad off, though; my mother had predicted the weather pattern eighteen months prior and we were able to eat lightly and save a store.
“Other kingdoms and villages were less well-off. The roaming Druids were dying of starvation while winter animals were still loping through the snow, able to be trapped or speared. They attacked us. Somehow my father and his brothers failed to foresee the attack, failed to fend off the might of the Druids. The Druid’s despair at their aching stomachs and wasting muscle fueled their magic to unseen power. I must have been killed.
“I was entombed and sent to safety. Somehow my parents tied my own fate to the body instead of their own. Maybe they thought the promise of living when I had died too painful. Maybe because they couldn’t bear to leave one another. But, yes, that’s me.”
Goodtime sobbed. “I have a chance to redeem myself. I’ve been trapped in the inescapable gravity of this,” he slapped his hands brutally against his face, “this me, like I’m a black hole. I’ve done such awful things fighting for this moment, Ben. Things I can’t live with. But I’ll die here. Tonight. And still have the chance to set things right.”
He lurched forward in pain again, letting out an agonized cry.
The booming female voice on the turntable increased in intensity, hurting my ears. “TAL QUM! TAL QUM! TAL QUM!”
Goodtime shouted over the voice. “Get the boy out of the sarcophagus. Leave through the other passageway. Go!”
I looked around the room, seeing a second hallway that, I’m certain, hadn’t been there before. Brandt and I each grabbed the boy under an armpit and hauled him out of the coffin. Though he appeared comatose, or dead, he seemed to move his legs feebly, trying to help us. We trotted to the new exit.
“Thank you both.” Goodtime called out behind us.
I turned and waved to him one last time.
I could feel the room and hallway heating up. While Goodtime and I had been searching for artifacts among the shelves, it had been temperate. I hadn’t noticed it then. Now, however, beads of sweat began to form on my forehead and I could feel moisture trickle down my back.
We emerged from the corridor, this one much shorter, in another cavern. Inside, instead of clutter, we found a single red-leafed tree. This tree was much larger than the one that had grown atop the coffin and was surrounded by a pool of water. The hair on the back of my neck raised at the sight of the circular lagoon; something about it felt off.
“Stay away from that,” I said to Brandt, shoving my chin toward the water.
Small seed pods that looked almost exactly like maple keys fell lazily from the tree. Some floated atop the water, others sank immediately. As we rushed around the tree, both of us now drenched in sweat, the tree caught fire. Keys continued to fall from the tall tree, now sailing into the pool like miniature Molotov cocktails. We exited into another corridor as the water itself caught aflame.
The corridor was a short staircase, more an elevated connecting hallway than anything else. We pushed through a white wooden door at the end and emerged onto a sidewalk. Above us, a carved wooden sign read All In Good Time. I looked back through the glass window in the door to gauge the extent of the fire in the tree cavern, but saw only the inside of Goodtime’s shop.
I gently passed my grip on the boy to Brandt, who walked him down the sidewalk away from the fire. She had seen the impossible sight behind us, too. I cupped my hands around my eyes to shield them from the glare of St. Louis streetlights and looked into the shop. It was identical to Goodtime’s shop in Pismo. Identical down to the placement of the antique cash register and the small bowl of pistachios.
The only difference was a faint, orange glow dancing somewhere out of sight behind the cashier’s counter. The light grew brighter as flames licked around the desk and across the walls, tasting the air like snakes emerging from Hell. The fire quickly engulfed the flammable dry paper and wood products in Goodtime’s shop. I backed away when the door started to feel warm.
The boy still hung limply in Brandt’s arms, but had opened his bright blue eyes. Brandt, the boy, and I retreated into the dead street and watched All in Good Time burn. I pulled out my cell phone and called the fire department. Long before they arrived, the shop had burned itself out and sat smoldering, now like the neighboring suites.
* * *
The St. Louis fire crew gave the three of us a ride to a local police station. Emily and the boy, who had remained mute the entire night, were set up in a nearby hotel. I identified myself as Yang’s shooter and was held overnight in jail until a detective from Cleveland arrived to take my statement. I explained I left the scene of the shooting in Cleveland because Yang told me he had kidnapped a child. Of course, this was a lie, but I hoped Tyler had been out of it enough right after getting shot that I had some room to add some information to my story. The kidnapped child, I said, was a runaway that Yang planned to torture unless I gave him the information he wanted. Information I couldn’t give because it was part of some strange, supernatural fantasy world he had built for himself.
At the request of the police, I travelled back to Cleveland for two weeks of inquests. It sounds hellacious, but the detectives on the case seemed to be on my side. They just wanted to get all the information to close the case for good. Yang’s history after leaving the PD worked in my favor. While I was in the Midwest, I met Emily for lunch or dinner a few times. Sometimes we met in the middle, sometimes she drove to Cleveland, and sometimes I drove down to Alton. Two of the three times I found myself in Alton, we took the boy from Goodtime’s shop to dinner with us. The Missouri Child Protection Agency had put him in a group home until they could find a long term home. They were searching for foster parents, but Emily had considered volunteering.
The first time we took him dinner, I stopped at a gas station to get him a bag of pistachios. When I offered him some, he pushed the bag away from me, crinkling his nose and giggling.
“I don’t like those!” he said. “I used to have to eat them to remember, but I don’t want to remember anymore.”
With that cryptic statement, he returned to his usual mute self, sitting happily in the restaurant and smiling as he devoured his chicken fried steak. We later learned that he liked to be called NK, but he couldn’t remember what it stood for. He’s a cute kid and is impressed with almost everything; he marvels at fireflies and iPad apps with equal delight. Even so, every so often I catch a troubled look on his face, that same look Goodtime had toward the end of his shop, and I know a memory from somewhere has flooded back to him.
Emily is amazing. She more than keeps up with my dick and fart jokes, but also had an intelligent conversation with Tyler’s wife about Renaissance masters when she visited me in LA. She’s been encouraging me to teach writing at a local community college to get me out of my current job and away from danger. I’ve decided I’ll only go if Tyler comes with me to teach exercise and yoga classes. His wife is overjoyed with the idea. Emily has been looking at job postings herself, finding a few archaeological positions with two southern California universities and the city of LA. She’s waiting to hear back from them. If she gets the job, I’ve told her I’ll drive out to pick her up and help her finalize the paperwork on adopting NK.
When I think about how different my life is now compared to a year ago, I can’t even see myself as the same person. I see an automaton inhabiting my body, finding a job in private security so he could keep coasting; a glider airplane simply prolonging its contact with the ground, easing but not avoiding the fall. Now, I have a family, real friends, and a life. And I owe that life to Alan Goodtime.
Alain Bontemps | Alan’s Extra Room | The Rorschach Painting | Goodtime Voice-O-Matic | The Siege of Calais | I Owe My Life to Alan Goodtime | The Alton Arsenal | The Death of Alan Goodtime (other stories in the arc)