Short Story Series 3: SciFi Thriller – Part 2

[…continued from Part 1]

Suzanne was  excited by the possibility of a new discovery, but more than nervous she was suspicious.. She had an extra hour to think about it because traffic was just horrid. She stopped along the route at a rest stop to call her friend, Marcus, and explain everything. He shared both her excitement and concern, but felt an absolute obligation to help her identify these objects and learn of their origin and purpose. As he needed a break from his own work, he wanted to take some vacation time and decided to meet her on Orcas Island in the evening.

The drive from Seattle to the ferry terminal in Anacortes lasted over two hours; nevertheless she embraced the moment and enjoyed the ferry ride back home.

Suzanne’s clock chimed 10pm just before Marcus walked in. They embraced for a moment before she rushed to show him the images on her laptop. Marcus did have a college buddy, David, who worked in some capacity for the Department of Defense (DoD) and Marcus wasted no time getting him on the phone. David asked him to email images to him on his personal email address so as, if not to ensure privacy, to minimize exposure of their discovery.

Immediately after David received the emails, he phoned Marcus back.

“Hey, Marcus. David.”

“Hi, David. Did you…”

“Where on earth did you get these,” David asked.

“A friend of mine who is trying to identify them made their discovery, but she hasn’t specified from where.”

“It’s Suzanne, isn’t it? Hello, Suz!” David figured she’d be with Marcus on speakerphone.

“Hello, David,” Suzanne shouted.

“Do you know what they are,” Marcus asked?

“Yes, actually. In fact, it was a top secret project that, by coincidence, I was working on. They are artificial viruses or virions.”

“What is their purpose?”

“Well, I can only tell you what I was told,,,which isn’t much. They were intended essentially to be vehicles for not merely delivering biological agents, but for reproducing and manufacturing the agents themselves with the help of the host’s DNA and supplemental reagents added to the target system, such as the water supply or any other means of intake for the host. My task was to work with geneticists in making the nanoscale replication process possible given the availability of certain raw materials.”

“Shit, David. That is just crazy and a serious danger to society in the wrong hands. I mean it has fantastic medical potential, I suppose. But, clearly it is intended as a militarized bioweapon.”

“I didn’t have the whole picture when I was involved at the research and development phase. In hindsight, it was a horribly dangerous idea. How these came to be accessible to the public so soon, I wouldn’t know.”

“Is there a way you can trace the project and figure out what these samples in particular do, how they are distributed? Suz says there’s DNA inside a protected chamber.”

“It will take some time, a few days at least. I do not have the clearance to access the complete project to determine their exact program and where they were made. I have a few hacker friends that can most assuredly help though.”

“That’s crazy. You have to go outside the DoD to get further inside the DoD!”

“Yeah, compartmentalization is a bitch, but it is what keeps the complex machine whirring in its diabolical plans. Ignorance has been bliss thus far, but it’s time I find my conscience. Can you get me a sample?”

“I’ll overnight it.”

Suzanne was listening to the entire conversation, of course.  She looked alarmed. “Let’s get some sleep,” she said, “and I’ll buy you breakfast in the morning.” She went to the hall closet to grab a pillow and blanket and handed it to Marcus. “Here. The couch is super comfortable! You should be warm enough.” She smiled. Marcus smiled. There was amusement in both of their eyes.

“It’s good to see you again, Suz.”

She looked back at him from the hallway. “Thanks for coming, Marcus. Good night.”

Upon rising, Suzanne and Marcus took a quick ride into the village for a quiet breakfast at the Copper Kettle, the only place in town that served traditional breakfast food all day long. Walking in, she looked at the waiter and asked for a table for two. His name was Douglas.  Suzanne had known him for years. He had worked at the diner as long as she had lived on the island and she had been going there about three times a week.

“Coffee,” asked Douglas?

“What, no “Good Morning’, Douglas? …just a curt ‘coffee’?”

Suzanne was attempting to be playful, but Douglas just stood there looking at her. She was perplexed at his somber mood. Finally, she said, “Yes, please.” With that affirmation, Douglas poured coffee into both cups on the table and then walked away.

“Geeze, I wonder what’s up with Douglas today? He’s usually quite a humorous fellow, more social at least.”

“Off day, I suppose,” Marcus guessed.

“His day is just starting.”

They took the menus from the center of the table, gave them a perusal, and formulated what they desired to eat before talking about the artificial virions – ‘virion’ is the term David used on the phone in describing the potentially infective particles that were created by the DoD program.

It seemed like a long time passed and Douglas never came over to take their order. After pouring some coffee refills at one table and taking payment at another, he just stood next to the register staring rather blankly. Both Suzanne and Marcus thought that was odd.

Suzanne raised her hand and waved, “Douglas,” she called. And he came over.

“May we order breakfast,” she asked?

“What would you like?”

“For me, oatmeal, fruit salad, and orange juice,” Suzanne stated, still surprised about the mood Douglas was in.

“I’ll have two eggs, over easy, has browns, and a side of bacon. Oh, and I’ll have orange juice as well,” Marcus said.

“Thank you, Douglas,” Suzanne added.

Douglas nodded and went into the kitchen to place an order. At this point, Suzanne stood up to look into the kitchen which was normally a frenzy of bubbling conversation. Today, however, everyone was quiet speaking only when necessary. In fact, the whole restaurant was rather somber. Looking around, people were eating, but barely talking. It was becoming a little eerie. Of course, Marcus and Suzanne were already a little on edge and mystified by the virion particles. So, they both agreed to leave after they finished their meals.

“I’d like another glass of water. Are you going to drink yours,” David asked?

“Not at all. I never drink water in the village. It’s processed – desalinated and chlorinated – just doesn’t taste good. You can have it,” she pushed the glass forward. “I only drink well water or imported spring water.”

“If you are finished, I’d like to take you up to Mt. Constitution. The view from there is gorgeous. We must go earlier than later because there are no clouds at the moment. Once they roll in, they spoil the view.  You will see distant islands, mountain ranges, Mt. Baker and more. Although…to be honest the trip up is worthwhile for the fresh air alone. Better yet, let’s make it a short hike and a picnic. I’ll stop by the market on the way out of town and we’ll pick up a few things to take with us.”

He swallowed the last of the water in the glass and then said, “Let’s go!”

They headed over to the market and Suzanne picked up some cheese, nuts, smoked salmon and bottled water. As usual she saw a few friends and familiar faces, although her friends seemed quite distant, not approaching her as usual for a hug and a quick check in. She spotted Katie, a mid-twenties-something young lady who worked at the store stocking shelves.

“Good morning, Suzanne,” said Katie. “Where are you off to on this fine day?”

“Good morning, Katie. I’m taking my friend, Marcus, to Mt. Constitution for a little hike and picnic later.”

“Sounds awesome! I have to work all day or I’d otherwise do the same. But, no one else seems interested in doing anything with me this week. There’s such a somber attitude about town.”

“Tell me about it! The people at the Copper Kettle – Douglas, who’s usually funny, although not as vibrant as you – they were just blah. The cooks were just cooking because it’s what they do. Even the customers were eating because they had to eat…lots of blank stares. It was just too weird.”

“Charlie was like that at the gas station last night. I hope there isn’t another bug going around. I can’t afford to get sick again.”

“I hear you. We better pay and get up to the mountain before clouds decide to rain on our parade.”

“Have a good one!”

“You, too.”

As they began their twenty minute drive up to the mountain summit, Marcus received a call from David’s cell phone.

“David! What news?”

“Marcus, listen. Let me talk fast. The virions are truly sinister. I don’t know specifically who, where, or why…that much which I could probably surmise…but, I have found out their purpose. Someone is planning to distribute the virions by aerosol, more specifically over cities using chemtrails. The ‘DNA package’ is a program to continually manufacture what this document calls ‘the pacification agent’ developed by a private biotech company for the client which is called here, ‘a UN subgroup’. We need a geneticist to determine what the program does specifically – the damn compartmentalization methodology is working against us here – but what is absolutely clear in these documents is that the target is the general population of Earth, beginning with Seattle and New York simultaneously in the first phase, followed by other major US cities, and then eventually the whole world. Phase one is scheduled to start on October 1st – that’s one week, Marcus. I’m emailing scans of these documents to you as I speak.”

“I don’t believe that, David. Are you serious?”

David hastened his speech as rapid typing could be heard in the background. “Marcus, I’ve never been more serious. There’s potentially worse news for you and Suzanne. There was a preliminary testing program in small remote and/or rural areas across the country which is about to come to completion. One of those remote areas…is Orcas Island!”

“Shit,” Marcus uttered.

They do multiply like a natural virus with the help of reagents added to…[static]…Whatever you do, don’t…[static]…[silence].”

“Crap, I lost him,” Marcus said.

“Cellular phones don’t work on the mountain above a certain point. Do you want me to turn around,” Suzanne asked?

“Yes, let’s try.”

They turned around and drove down the mountain until Marcus had at least one steady bar of signal strength on his cell phone. He attempted to call David back, but there was no answer. He was able to reach David’s home answering machine and left him a message.

After repeating everything David said to Suzanne, they both agreed to abandon the trek to Mt. Constitution in favor of regrouping at Suzanne’s house to contact Emily and her geneticist friend, and to make plans to expose this undertaking as swiftly and as cautiously as possible. It was no longer merely a mystery, but a public health threat and, perhaps as David was testifying to them on the phone, a conspiracy of global domination.

On the drive home Suzanne and Marcus discussed the weirdness of the people in town that day. Everyone on the island was a stranger to Marcus, but he still felt like he had walked into the twilight zone. Now that David mentioned something called “the pacification agent,” Marcus was beginning to see a correlation. And Suzanne was now beginning to wonder if the suspect artificial virions designed to affect humans could indeed be the very culprit diminishing the population of sea stars.

To be continued…

© 2018 Michael Armenia

Short Story Series 3: SciFi Thriller – Part 1

It was an overcast day in the Pacific Northwest when Suzanne Delaney went to a local coffee shop for her morning coffee – a 20oz, quad shot, mocha. Tourist season had just ended after Labor Day and Suzanne was glad to be able to return to her daily constitutional without having to stand in a queue as if she were at a state licensing bureau. Having ordered her drink and moved to the pick-up counter, she ran into an acquaintance who accosted her for a hug and conversation while she waited for her mocha. After about ten minutes of updating her inquisitive friend on her research and whether or not she had a current love interest, she couldn’t help noticing that other people who ordered after her were collecting their beverages and hers had not been called.

“Did you not call me drink? A 20oz, quad shot, mocha,” she asked the barista?

“I’m sorry. I completely forgot to make it, “said the friendly and animated Barista. “I can be such a dork sometimes. Coming right up.”

“That is the third time this week they’ve forgotten to make my drink,” Suzanne exclaimed.

“She’s new,” her friend added.

“It’s not just her. Other baristas have forgotten, too. It’s not like they have a lot to remember now that the summer is over. PTSD – post-tourist stress disorder, I suppose.”

After a chuckle and a few more minutes of rapping up gossip, she was on her way.

Suzanne was employed as a research scientist by a non-profit organization that monitors the health of marine life and the ecosystem in the San Juan Island archipelago which lies northwest of the coast of Seattle, Washington. A marine biologist specializing in invertebrates, she had immersed herself in her investigation of the cause of sea star wasting disease. There was a plague of diseased sea stars before her time on the East Coast in 1972, but as recent as the summer of 2013 another major die-off occurred on the East Coast. This time in addition, the ochre sea star species nearly disappeared on the West Coast before a recovery period followed and an increase in their population was observed.

A suspected culprit of sea star wasting disease was termed the ‘sea star associated densovirus’ (SSaDV), a member of the genus Ambidensovirus, which are in the family of parvoviruses that affect vertebrate and invertebrate hosts. The densovirus is a single-strand of DNA protected by a protein shell on the order of 20-30 nanometers. Suzanne had been studying samples of cells from wasted sea stars found on Orcas Island in the past several years to see if there was evidence of a virus present.

Not equipped like the research labs of a university, she was however fortunate to have received enough funds for a six-figure, laser confocal microscope thanks to a recent large donation to the organization from an anonymous donor. Better than an optical microscope like those used at the local high school, yet not nearly as powerful as a scanning electron microscope from a well-endowed institution, it would allow her to look for evidence of smaller particulates than she had been limited to previously.

As she strolled into her office with her 20oz mocha nearly gone, she was whistling a happy tune because it was the first day she would use the new microscope to examine the slides she had been preparing in anticipation of its delivery. She got right to work, first booting her laptop to play her favorite music station of impressionist classical piano, and then turning on all other equipment she needed. That included the small heater she kept under her table “to warm her tootsies” – as she would always say.

For the first hour there were no extraordinary observations. She had made annotations in her journal merely to document the slides she was viewing from various sea stars samples. When she started her first slide from her third sea star sample, she did notice something. There were small specs, nearly round in shape, dots, around the cell walls. They were a lot smaller than what she expected and hadn’t been looking at the earlier samples with such scrutiny. She hadn’t remembered to sharpen her mental acuity and increase expectations to match the high resolution capability of the laser confocal microscope. With that in mind, she pulled out one of the first slides she looked at and closely examined the cell walls. Now she saw things differently. It seemed that all cellular samples had these spheres attached in quantity. But, they were so small, on the order of ten to a hundred nanometers, so their exact shape could not be determined.  They were specks. Their material composition was likely unknown because she didn’t believe that anyone had seen these particulates before and probably never studied them. She had no recollection of their being mentioned in any academic papers. With all she hoped for with this new microscope, she still needed far better resolution. To help her further with this, she turned to her friend Emily who works with a scanning electron microscope at the University of Washington.

Perplexed and excited for an awaiting discovery, Suzanne first emailed Emily some preliminary digital images from her microscope. Then she spoke with Emily on the telephone and scheduled some time for her to use the electron microscope at the university the morning after next. Emily invited Suzanne to stay at her apartment in Seattle the next evening so the two would talk more about Suzanne’s research before heading straight to the lab the following morning.

Suzanne travelled to the Seattle about once each month for business, but preferred the quiet of her island with less than 5000 full-time residents and not a single traffic light. Yet, whenever she did leave the island she embraced the experience of sailing the Salish Sea, for the ferry ride from Orcas Island to the mainland is a breathtaking journey for anyone lucky enough to make it. While there are numerous islands all shapes and sizes in San Juan County, Washington, only the three largest islands have state ferry services that transport vehicles and people to the mainland, and sailing among them in the Salish Sea provides a lot of natural eye candy. Distant mountain ranges like the Olympic peninsula are snowcapped all year. Conifer forests are peppered with the orange-red bark of madrona trees that follow the contours of the islands at lower elevations. When the ferries pass closely enough, you can almost feel the soft textures of the green moss-covered cliffs and boulders.

As Suzanne stood in the open air at the bow of the ferry, the same salt-water air which flowed through her hair also ruffled her windbreaker making a flapping noise in concert with the waves the ferry was making. She felt a few drops of water on her face, but whether it was splatter from the sea or tears from the cloudy skies, she neither knew nor cared. Following four months of nearly perfect sunshine, she was ready for the winter rains. It was the Pacific Northwest after all.

A grouping of three seagulls paralleled alongside the ferry, flapping their wings and seemingly going nowhere from Suzanne’s perspective. As she turned to go inside the ferry’s seating area, someone from the other size of the bow yelled, “killer whales.” Suzanne turned and witnessed the pod of mammals lob-tailing. Although she was hoping to see a breach, it wasn’t to happen on that trip. She smiled anyway.

After arriving at Emily’s house, Suzanne filled her in about what she expected to find out at the lab in the morning.

“So, tell me, Suzanne. What is it that you think you have in these samples of yours,” Emily asked?

“Something on the nanoscale…certainly interesting to marine life…I just don’t know if I’m dealing with an organic pathogen…they are uniform in size so I can’t imagine that they are minerals. How could a grouping of molecules or crystalline structures appear in only one size consistently in samples from different organisms collected at different periods. I’d expect a bell curve of sample sizes, wouldn’t you?”

“How small do you think they are?”

“I’m guessing they are between 10 to 100 nanometers in diameter, but whatever they are – they are all identical in size.”

“We shall see. If these are samples of a virus, we certainly should be able to tell.” Emily concluded.”

The next morning Suzanne followed Emily to the lab at the university. Since she was planning to return to the island afterwards, Suzanne needed to take her own car. Upon arrival, they found that the lab staff had everything set up already and the two could get to work right away.

It was only a minute after the first sample went into the machine when Emily dialed in the resolution which, as she was expecting, would reveal some answers. Both of them were surprised at the first image that appeared on the screen.

“Was this possibly contaminated,” Emily asked?

“No. Here. Let’s try another sample.”

After several samples, they assumed that whatever it is they were looking at was going to be a big discovery. They observed icosahedrons, three-dimensional objects with 20 identical sides, each one being an equilateral triangle. Of course, these geometries occur in nature – crystals, for example, as well as viruses. But, all of the objects in each sample were solitary. None of them formed crystals to make larger objects and none of them appeared in any degenerate form.

“OK. We have something remarkable here,” said Suzanne, but what are they? Can we identify the composition from spectroscopic analysis?”

“Absolutely.”

After a little time in the lab, the ladies were not merely more baffled by the material composition of the objects, but by new mysteries of equal importance.

“What…are…you,” Suzanne rhetorically asked the objects in an inquisitive, but concerned voice.

“These are definitely artificial – constructed,” said Emily.

“Constructed by whom? For what purpose? Do you thing they are viral in nature,” Suzanne asked?

“Look at this. Clearly the outer shell of the object is made of a protein not unlike a virus, but the framework of the object seems to be several layers of a graphene matrix, each no more than 1 nm thick…Oh my GOD! There is a strand of what looks like DNA coiled up in the center of the object. This is crazy. Someone made this. This is absolutely beyond my comprehension. We need a biophysicist to take a look at this. Jake, in the lab upstairs…”

“OK. Hold on, Emily,” Suzanne interrupted. “This could be a big discovery or this could be such advanced technology that perhaps we may find ourselves in a heap of trouble for finding out about it. Of course, the investigator in me will not stop here. But, I can’t involve more people who I don’t know and trust.”

“What do you suggest,” asked Emily?

“I have a good friend…an ex-boyfriend…well, we left it on good terms…we’re good friends…anyway…he works for the US Department of Fish and Wildlife and I know he has friends at the DoD. As I recall, one in particular specializes in nanotechnology, graphene, and what have you. I’ll contact my boy…I mean, my friend – his name is Marcus – and I’ll ask him to make contact with his buddy. Can you put some of these images on a thumb drive for me?”

“Sure, give me a few minutes. Listen, Suzanne, I have a friend who is a geneticist and I’d trust her with my life. Will you let me show her these results and let me have a sample? Maybe she could sequence the DNA for us.”

“Alright,” Suzanne said, “but please do not tell her where the samples came from. Tell her the source prefers to remain anonymous.”

“You’ve got it!”

“I’ll check in with you tonight.”

To be continued…


© 2018 Michael Armenia

A Family Book or Book of Kin (or kinda sorta)

We live as we breathe, moment to moment, and our actions define us. To serve mankind, what we do now is all that matters and history is only important insofar as we have learned from it, from our mistakes in the past, and those of our ancestors. Any thoughts we have which may potentially serve mankind in the future may be instilled in our children. To that aim, we have two paths. The first is that we must lead by example and teach by our manner of living – by our manner of loving – during the formative years of their lives. The second is to leave them a documented history of their family, their culture, and the philosophies their parents have lived by in bringing them into this world. Consider this a documented legacy a reference for our descendants and anyone else if it has been made public.

Vladmir Megré, author of the Ringing Cedars book series, has made an effort to spread the idea of a ‘Book of Kin’ or “The Family Book” presented to him by his Siberian recluse, Anastasia. In the series the ‘book of kin’ in ancients days (referred to as Vedic times) implied a ‘living’ book exemplified by creating a space of love for a family where deeds can reveal as much as words. But, Anastasia (through Megré’s authorship) also inspires the idea of starting physical books now to preserve the future of our children. In my quoting a brief excerpt from Book 6, “The Book of Kin” and omitting a little from the dialog between ellipses , Anastasia says,

“The books read by Man today include many that are devised with a specific aim in mind — namely, the distortion of history and of the meaning of life. Many false dogmas are especially designed to disorient Man in space. This is not easily discernible all at once. But clarity comes directly a son reads a book of his forebears, which his father and mother have continued personally for him…

…the Book of Kin. In it a mother and father will write for their son and daughter about what is the most important thing that needs to be created for happiness in life. The children will continue to record the Book of Kin. There will be no wiser and truer books for families anywhere on the Earth. All the knowledge of their pristine origins will be poured into it.”

“But how, Anastasia, how can knowledge of one’s pristine origins turn up in a book which people are only beginning to write today? Where are they to find such knowledge? You said that the culture of our forebears, their books, were all destroyed.”

“Those that will begin to write already have this knowledge concealed within themselves. It is preserved within each one of us. When people think deeply and begin to write not just for anyone, but for their children, all the knowledge of their pristine origins will be revealed within them and come to light.”

I intend to create my own version of a ‘book of kin’ which as of now will most likely take on a three-volume format. The first volume will be a family history including the heritages of my mother’s and father’s families (their family trees), biographies of my mother and father, and their individual philosophies as presented by their ways of living during my lifetime. The second volume will be my autobiography, as extensive as I can make it with all that I can recall which I think is pertinent for future generations to consider. (I will, for example, not include the brands of toothpaste I used throughout my life.) The third volume will be about my philosophy starting with the nature of the universe from my perspective, and proceeding from that dance of physics and metaphysics, to the subjects of love, morality, religion, politics, education, and all of the complex conjugates that result from this interconnected web we have tried to dissect and classify.

The first volume of my “Book of Kin” will probably not take very long depending on how much other writing I am doing. The other volumes by their very nature will be evolving until my death. However, I do wish to establish a reasonable goal of completing the first edition within five years.

Galactic Centers: A New Perspective

On July 13th 2018, SKA Africa, the new radio telescope array in South Africa released this most detailed and exquisite image of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way to date.

Photo: SKA South Africa

The image width corresponds with a distance of approximately 1000 light-years.

See the SKA media release for how the image is made from the data.

The black hole with a mass of 4 million times our sun is roughly the bright spot located in the middle of the image and appears to be 200 light-years across. Looking at it in detail one cannot help being just awestruck by the smoke-like wisps of energy/matter which seem to be on the order of 1 or 2 light-years in diameter.  Just what these filament-like structures are is still a mystery to the scientists.  I find the spatial sense and dynamics of it all to be most humbling.

While studying these images a hypothesis occurred to me. It isn’t a new thought, but I had never before tried to formulate it insofar as publishing an article about it. So here goes.

I haven’t studied the physics of wormholes and never really doubted that they exist somewhere in the cosmos. Fundamentally, they are bridges between two points in the fabric of space-time. What if all of the galactic centers in the known universe are connected, not by other structure like wormholes which have some form and definition in themselves, but by some other intrinsic quality of space-time. Just as a klein bottle has only one surface (the inside and outside are all one surface), could it be such that the very center of every galaxy is one and the same point – one source of everything? The monad?

…food for thought and the subject of future exposition!

 

Short Story Series 2: Down by the River – Part 7 – Conclusion

[…continued from Part 6]

It was around 3am and only a five-minute walk to the hardware store from the part of the river where we were accosted by the Sheriff and his posse. We entered through the front and were forced to the back office behind the counter. I wasn’t surprised, but then again I wasn’t suspecting the store had a basement, which it did. We were forced down the stairs which were made of the same red sandstone as the church. Once at basement level, we walked right past a tremendously long corridor. If my sense of directions was correct, the corridor went under the road and deep into the property of the church grounds. It suddenly became clear to me why anyone was rarely seen going into and out of the church. We approached a small room in which there was a table and chairs and some barrels of small stones.  I assumed they were the magic stones. The monks manhandled the women onto the chairs and began tying them up as the Sheriff began to talk.

“Sit down,” he said to me sternly. Then he pulled a fourth chair from the table, spun it around and sat on it facing the back of the chair, as if trying to intimidate me. While at first I thought he was going to grill me with questions like he said earlier, it seemed more likely to me now that he was going to get rid of us one way or another once he got what he wanted.

That was confirmed when Barbara burst out with, “Don’t tell him anything about the book, Blake,” and Charlie fired a round from his pistol into her lower leg. I didn’t think he was going to torture and release.

“It’s only a flesh wound,” Barbara said with an excruciating grimace, followed by some moaning.

“Shut up,” said Charlie!

The Sheriff started a monologue.

“Mr. Harding, I’ve been looking for that book since those kids found it and meddled with something that wasn’t meant for them. My great-grandfather wrote that book. Yes, his name was Brackman, but he was my mother’s granfather. He worked for the rector of the church back then in the late 1800s. The church was built for the soul purpose of recreating an ancient cave that could harness and redirect energy based on the design of the building and the makeup of the stone. Someone who knew what they were doing could drive a man mad or kill another, all mysteriously, while giving its chief operator a god-like feeling. Now, Mr. Harding, that is just something to good for any man with wits about him to pass up.”

“And I suppose you need the book because you don’t know how this supernatural machine works,” I said.

“I know how it works, Mr. Harding. Well, except for one thing – how to achieve resonance with the stones. These monks have descended from an order that built the original cave thousands of year ago, as did the rector who killed himself in 1880. The problem is that the original instructions for using the stones were passed down orally, and the rector inherited his title before he received the transmission from his then dead superior. These monks are educated theologians who speak numerous languages and they will be able to translate the book, I think, just fine. For all these years, all they could do was keep the hope alive that they would rediscover their buried secrets. At the same time, they also served to guard the church so no curious crackpot would get the idea of chipping pieces of the stones that comprised the building. There’s a lot of potential power in that sandstone. So, Mr. Harding, do you know where the book is?”

“It’s in my desk drawer at home.” Of course it wasn’t. But, it was the most believable lie I could tell.  And with Corey at his friend’s house that night, there was no real risk.

“Well, I guess we are going to have to go check that out,” said the Sheriff.

By then, the ladies were all tied up and the monks had gone back presumably to the church. Feeling he made his point, Charlie had tucked his pistol in the front of his pants.

“Get as comfortable as you can ladies,” said the Sheriff as he looked at Sarah and Barbara.” Your future depends on my getting that book. We won’t be long.”

While he was saying that, I had pulled out the book and to keep the Sheriff occupied for a few seconds, I said, “No need to go to my house; here it is!” And I tossed it in his direction higher than his head so that he and Charlie would look upward, throwing each off the integrity of his balance. Once the book left my fingers, I hit Charlie in the face as hard as I could with a right hook. I grabbed his gun and in a scuffle it went off into his stomach. The Sheriff had also drawn his gun by then but was not quick enough to dodge the bullets I was discharging in his direction.

After untying the ladies, Sarah helped Barbara upstairs. We called the State Police and FBI as I had planned. The monks, hearing the shots, must have fled, for they were never found in the church or elsewhere. The book and the Paketka Tribune article from 1880 corroborated Billy’s original story, although there was no one around to indict. Charlie and the Sheriff had died from their wounds.

As for the book, it had to be destroyed as it was more dangerous than ever. With the base stone under all of that collapsed rubble, using the magic stones guaranteed tragic results. Of course, someone with resources could recover and possible resurface the base stone. But, no. The FBI stated in their report that the book would be destroyed rendering the church and quarry fragments harmless. So, the story of the magic stones will only survive as small town gossip…or will it?

THE END


© 2018 Michael Armenia

Blueberries & Rosemary and an unrelated spontaneous poem

Blueberries & Rosemary

Quite by accident, I discovered that I like the combination of blueberry and rosemary. When I popped a blueberry in my mouth this morning, my hand must have grazed some rosemary from Ian Lister’s memorial service. It was lying on the table next to me before I realized it was there. When I bit into the blueberry, the first sensation was a delicate rosemary note which lightly danced on my tongue as I masticated.  (I said, ‘masticate’! Geeze…grow up!  Anyway…) The two just blended smashingly. I think Remy would be proud. (Remy, from Ratatouille? The rat who was thinking that saffron would totally make his smoked Tomme de chèvre? Nevermind. Anyway…)

One day when I have a kitchen again, I’m going to try making some savory gluten-free griddle cakes with blueberries and rosemary – no added sweeteners. What seems most delicious would be to serve them up with a little cashew ‘cheese’ spread. If they turn out well, as I expect they will, I shall call them Ian’s bread in honor of him.

In Latin class, we often bring in potluck snacks. Sometimes, just cookies or chocolate. Occasionally there is a mix of things and Ian was no stranger to experimenting. I think he was the first person – if not the first, he did it anyway –  to dip a banana chip in Mexican salsa. Listen you mustn’t be too shy. After all, Remy’s mental mentor…(that sounds funny – ‘mental mentor – mental because he was a figment of Remy’s imagination – anyway) …his mentor Gusteaux once said (and I stand by it): “You must try things that may not work. And you must not let anyone define your limits because of where you come from. Your only limit is your soul. What I say is true. Anyone can cook. But only the fearless can be great.” Only the fearless can be great! That’s because truly fearless people are made of pure love, baby! And food must be always be prepared with gratitude and love. (Alan Watts has a nice little speech about the preparation of food and I wholeheartedly agree with him.)

Speaking of food…here’s a poem:

Saffron colored pre-dusk light
Scattered along a metal and glass skyline
Betrayed the hustle & bustle of a city
Making an abrupt pronouncement
At the edge of gorgeous plain.
A wall of confusion swirls
Between the fresh desert air
And the chemical odors
Of a modern city.
I teeter on the edge,
Born and raised on the artificial,
The cold and pointless,
The lies, and empty stereotypes,
A world more filled with vice than virtue.

Oyster of the sea,
Teach me how you pearl a grain of sand.
Where do you find the strength and perseverance?

Lotus of the pond,
Teach me how to find hope and life in the mud.
Where do you find the faith that one day
You will feed on light?


© 2018 Michael Armenia

Short Story Series 2: Down by the River – Part 6

[…continued from Part 5]

Recovering from my head injury at close to midnight, I recited some facts out loud.

“The Sheriff’s covering up something about the church and the stones. Charlie is somehow involved. Billy was most likely murdered to prevent his evidence, which I now possess, from coming to light. A dangerous book behind it all, the reason for all of this intrigue is, in the hands of probably the only person in town who understands it enough to not end up dead. Yet, the thought of powerful weapons in the hands of someone with so much lust is a danger in itself. I can only imagine he’ll be down at the river at sunset tomorrow. Chances are the others – the Sheriff, Charlie, the priests – will be looking for him, too. I don’t imagine he has a scheme to avoid getting caught unless there is more to using the stones as weapons. Only Joseph knows the procedures for activated the process. The book. Dammit.”

“It stands to reason,” Sarah interjected, “that since the books inception, no one other than Brackman has succeeded in using it, if even he succeeded.”

“How do you figure,” I asked?

“Well, the Rector likely died, from what the news article said, from attempting what the boy, Taggart attempted – trying to dive into the crevice. He likely killed Brackman because his attempt at using the stones failed. He wanted the book and was prepared to kill for it. Tommy probably tried to stop Taggart when Taggart killed him.”

“She’s right,” Barbara said. “That was Billy’s original story that he was silenced for.”

“So, maybe all these years the priests – if they are priests – were trying to find the book with the help of the Sheriff and Charlie,” Sarah added. “And all this time it lay buried by Julia.”

“Let’s not wait until dawn. Let’s go to the church and find a place alongside the river to stake out the boulders,” Sarah said.

“Wait!” I shouted. “What if Joseph said ‘sunset’ to delay us? The base stone is 25 feet under water and will probably not care whether it’s daylight or not. I’m willing to gamble that Joseph was throwing us off his trail before I will accept that the stone is particularly light sensitive.”

“Come to think of it, the kids – whatever ritual they did – they did at dusk. Perhaps darkness is required for the base stone. And, 25 feet under is darker at night than at dawn.”

“Let’s go. Now,” I said.

Barbara drove Sarah and I down to the old quarry at around 1AM. We walked along the river expecting to find Joseph at the boulders or thereabouts, either preparing to dive or already in the process. The river was noisy as usual and it was hard to hear a person splashing around, so, we had aimed to move slowly and deliberately, stopping every few paces to look and listen. We came to the boulders and so nothing. There was no commotion, but I did see a jacket and shoes by shore and I recognized them as belonging to Joseph.

“It’s Joseph,” I said. I’m going in.”

“Blake you, can’t. You’re head injury. You don’t have the strength.”

“Sarah, I’ve the strength for it. It’s only 25 feet and, in case you forgot, I was the 50 meter freestyle champion, senior year in college.”

“Fine, you’ve got one minute and if you don’t resurface before that, I’m diving in.”

“Watch yourself in those currents,” Barbara said. “And watch your back…Joseph is in there.”

I waded into the river to be quiet. It was loud but a person jumping could still be distinguished from the clamor of the white water. There would be no true diving in these rocks, but the fact that I could hold my breath under water for a few minutes meant that I could swim down to the bottom and possible see the so-called base stone. The boulders in the middle of the river were probably three or four meters apart. On the outside of the boulders the river was only 5-10 feet deep depending where along the river you were. As I swam down to about 12 feet between them, I still couldn’t see the bottom with a flashlight. But, it was at that point the crevice began to sharply narrow and I began to see the sides of it in the light. There were actually small holes along the wall of the crevice making it quite easy to navigate downward; they were surprisingly easy to grab. It was a haunting feeling as once I started to descend there was little current in the crevice. The water wasn’t stagnant, but it was like designed a slow-filtration aquarium down there. I thought I was near the bottom when the rocks changed, but what I came across was a huge dam of small boulders on either side of me. For fear of dislodging them or getting stuck, I decided to swim down a little more without touching the crevice and could swear I saw a light source in the bottom. I couldn’t tell if it was a flashlight or some natural luminescence. I really didn’t know what kind of rock I was looking for. It had been about a minute, and I was afraid Sarah would jump in and attempt to find me. Just as I decided to resurface, I felt something swipe my arm. It was Joseph. He was trying to grab me and pull me down. Then I realized he had gotten his feet caught behind a few of the smaller boulders damning up the sides several feet below me. I wanted to save him, but he kept trying to pull me down. I was running out of air. The only thing I could do was to kick in his direction and try swimming away. Without thinking I was also pulling at the dam of small boulders and soon the entirety of the side walls collapsed, burying Joseph and what I believe was the base stone under all of that rubble. As soon as they began to fall on him, he released me and up I went barely squeezing through the collapsing mass of rocks before it all settled. Having also dropped my flashlight in the scuffle, I surfaced in the dark and found my way to the edge of the river gasping for air. The hand that offered to help me out of the river belonged to the Sheriff.

“Hello, Blake,” said the old bastard with a badge. “Don’t try anything or these lovely ladies will drown right here in the river with you.”

The two monks I had seen in the church talking with Charlie had grabbed Sarah and Barbara.

“You son of a…,” I began to yell.

Charlie who was standing to the side with a handgun drawn on the ladies, chambered a bullet.

“Now, hold it right there son. I know you’ve been seeking the book that went missing with those kids 20 years ago. You see, we’ve been looking it for it, too. We’re all going to go over Charlie’s hardware store now and have a talk. You are going to tell me everything you know about the church and the magic stones. If I feel you are holding out, we’ll have a problem to solve. If I believe you, then we’ll talk about how this could go down such that you all may see another sunrise. So, put on your shoes and jacket.”

With his hand, the sheriff was indicating the shoes and jacket which belonged to Joseph. I quickly surmised that they weren’t onto Joseph’s involvement and they didn’t know that I already found the book. Could it be that Joseph left the book in his jacket pocket on the shore before getting into the river? Oh, I hoped as much and my heart began beating faster.

I said, “yes, sir,” then threw the jacket over my shoulders and put those size 11 shoes on my size 12 feet without grimacing. With Charlie guarding me, I walked ahead of the pack. The monks and ladies followed with the Sheriff behind them. I surreptitiously padded the jacket to reveal the book was indeed inside. Why didn’t they check it first? Morons! I felt I had a bargaining chip but I needed to figure out how and when to play it. I also noticed that the Sheriff didn’t have any deputies with him and that gave me a little hope that none of the deputies were corrupted…by him anyway.

To be continued…

Short Story Series 2: Down by the River – Part 5

[…continued from Part 4]

On the way to the Paketka Asylum, I passed a few patrol cars from the Sheriff’s Department, no doubt going back to town from Billy’s house. At the asylum no one was expecting me and I wasn’t sure that I would get to see Julia. The lady at the front desk told me that visiting patients was arranged by appointment only. When I said that Billy Kegan was supposed to have called and was planning to bring me with him, she told me they did not receive his phone call. However, because Julia happened to be sedated in the common area at that time, I was allowed to visit with her in a more or less public place. An orderly escorted me to the common area assuring me that she wouldn’t say much and, when she did, I wouldn’t understand her. But, I had to try. There were only about a dozen patients who provided no safety threats and were permitted to access the common area where there were two orderlies and a nurse regularly stationed. I was told there was about twice that number of patients, all permanent residents.

“That’s her at the window looking at the river. She’s been happy there almost every day for years. Good luck,” said the orderly.

She looked old for her age. Her hair appeared half gray and she was only around 36 or 37, a few years older than I.  Walking over to her, I leaned in from the side so as not to frighten her. She was muttering something under her breath and I couldn’t make it out. I looked out the window as well ; it was a nice view of the river, with a plain on the other side, and multicolored foliage painted on a deciduous forest in the distance. Pastoral, it was good for the patients here I surmised.

“Beautiful view,” I said softly as I gazed forward.

Then she turned her eyes torward me and continued muttering.

“Hi, Julia. I’m a friend of Billy Kegan’s.” I dared not to tell her about his death having just discovered his body this morning and my not knowing anything official for certain. It would only upset her.

To her muttering, I asked, “I’m sorry, did you say something, Julia?

Then she increased her volume ever so slightly. I could begin to make out syllables, but her voice was very hoarse. Whatever she was saying, she was repeating with an occasionally recognizable word.

After several repetitions I made an amazing discovery: I heard words that sounded just like Latin and Hebrew. I spoke neither language, but recognized several words because of my ancient world studies. What I could hear distinctly was “KHOHshehkh {unintelligible sounds} anima, chant {unintelligible sounds}, darkness {unintelligible sounds} EHven, YAKtah stone {unintelligible sounds} MAHyeem, {unintelligible sounds} TENebri {unintelligible sounds} water.”

I suspected EHven, KHOHshehkh, and MAHyeem to be the Hebrew words, for stone, darkness, and water, respectively. YAKtah (properly spelled iacta) is the Latin imperative for throw and TENebri (tenebrae) is Latin for darkness. Putting together just the words I could hear distinctly, I understood:

Darkness mind, chant, darkness stone, throw stone water, darkness water.

Dammit if that didn’t make perfect sense to me. I immediately grabbed my cell phone and discretely recorded everything she was saying.

I asked, “Julia, where is the book? Where can I find the book?”

Her answer really sounded like gibberish, and she only said it once before returning to her repeating pattern in a quiet mutter. If she were speaking words arbitrarily or in a predictable pattern using only English, Latin and Hebrew, Joseph, my linguist colleague in the city could translate it.  It’s no wonder people thought she was incoherent. And as I don’t think there’s been one Jewish family in this town during my whole life, it’s no wonder that her Hebrew went unrecognized. Incoherent my ass!

After thanking Julia – gosh, I then felt even more sorry for her – I went home. I needed to call my colleague and attempt to play the recording over the phone to him. By the time I actually made contact with him, it was later in the evening. With no doubt after a few minutes, Jospeh was able to decipher three distinct phrases: “buried the book, under the willow, nearest the river.” My task was clear: find the willow tree nearest the river between the quarry and the church, and dig. Of course, it was dark by then and so I was determined to set out at daybreak.

I didn’t want to look conspicuous at all, so I walked with a backpack that carried a folding army shovel. I was concerned, too, that I might not be able to identify the correct tree, especially if there were more than one close to the river’s edge. Fortune was smiling on me, though, as there was only one tree about halfway between the old quarry and the church. There didn’t appear to be anyone around to see me, but I couldn’t be sure so I had to dig quickly. At first, I dug through a few inches of dirt all around the tree approximately two feet from the trunk. That much only took a few minutes. There were raised roots on one side of the tree, so that limited my ability to go deeply to the side of the tree facing the river. Lo and behold, that is where I found the book about a foot deep. It was a black leather-bound journal wrapped well in nylon cloth, a bit aged and dirty, but not too fragile. I took a quick peak to see if it contained anything about the magic stones. It must have – it had Latin and Hebrew script as well as some sketches and symbols not familiar to me. I had to show this to Joseph. I rewrapped the book, dropped it in my backpack, and began to fill in some of the dirt around the tree. Afterwards I looked around to see if anyone was watching and thought to myself, “If anyone asks, I was looking for mushrooms!”

Having returned home, I called Joseph and begged him to come and look at the book. He said he would oblige, but he couldn’t get there before the evening. He had work to do and the city was an hour-long drive away in the best traffic. I had to settle for whatever he could offer. I also had to settle my nerves because, by that point, I was shaking. I wanted to talk to someone, someone besides Sarah as I didn’t want to alarm her any more than I needed to, and I also wanted to protect her from knowing too much; it may have put her in more jeopardy than she and Corey were in already because they are my family and my meddling was getting serious. Needing to let someone else in on what I was doing, I had no choice but to talk with Barbara at the diner. So, off I went for brunch.

The booth in the corner nearest the front window of the diner was my new spot. Barbara was serving that morning. “Where’s Carla,” I asked?

“Her day off! I have to give my own daughter a break once in a while,” she smiled.

“Yes, please,” was my answer to the silent question of Barbara raising the coffee pot and her eyelids as her head tilted toward the table and coffee cup.

“Can you sit just for a minute?”

“We are kind of busy – can I stand so the customers don’t think I’m goofing off?”

“Yeah, of course. Listen,” I got a little quieter, “I need to let you know about some developments regarding the kids, the magic stones, and the church.”

“Oh, I heard about Billy, poor thing.”

“It wasn’t suicide, Barbara.”

“I don’t want to hear about it, Blake.”

“OK. For now just know this: Billy’s original story was true, he found evidence to corroborate his story and I now have the book the kids were using regarding the magic stones. I’m going to get to the bottom of it now with the help of a friend.”

“You have evidence?”

“I don’t have Billy’s evidence, no. I have the journal that Julie used when the kids had their tragic experiences.”

I really don’t know what it is you’re getting into – and I don’t want to know any more, Blake.  You best watch your back. And I would not trust the Sheriff or anyone on good terms with him.”

At that moment, Charlie, the owner of the hardware store who lied to my face, walked into the diner.  He briefly scanned the room, took notice of Barbara and me, and kept scanning. Then he took a seat at a two-person table across the room. Both Barbara and I watched him come in. Then, Barbara turned to me and said, “Watch your back!” With that she walked away, grabbed a menu for Charlie and proceeded to his table.

It was an awkward brunch having him there and, so, I was determined to get out at soon as possible. I ordered a slice of pecan pie to go with my coffee, ate it, and ran. On my way out of the diner, I heard “Mornin’, Blake, or is it afternoon by now?” It came from Charlie’s table. I turned my head toward him but kept my forward momentum to the door as I replied, “Good afternoon, Charlie.” I was smiling, but I was thinking that there’s a place in hell for him only he doesn’t know it yet.

Nervous and not knowing what to do with myself, I didn’t want to pace around the house until the evening. Surely that would make Sarah and Corey nervous, too. So, I went to the library to see if I couldn’t rediscover what Billy did from an 1880 newspaper article. I asked Tricia, the librarian, to help with the microfiche. When I asked for the year 1880, she came back from storage with a troubled look on her face.

“It’s odd, Mr. Harding, but the microfiche of the newspaper from that year is missing.”

“Would another library have a copy,” I asked?

“I doubt it. It’s a local paper. You can always try the office of the Paketka Tribune. It’s more likely than anyone else that they have their old editions on microfiche.”

I arose excitedly, “Thank you, Tricia. You’re a doll!”

In small towns, even wild goose chases are quick. Minutes later I found myself talking with the publisher of the Peketka Tribune a few blocks away. I had never met him before. An older gentleman of class, he had very helpful manners.

“Let’s see, Mr. Harding. This cabinet has all the microfiche going all the way back to 1865 when the paper was first started after the Civil War. Now…that’s strange. Maybe more than a coincidence, but…our copy of that year is missing as well.”

“Is there any evidence that your office had a break-in during the last few days,” I asked?

“No sir. But, not to worry Mr. Harding.” He motioned me to follow him. “I understand you are a historian?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I’ve always been an amateur historian and that interest and the integrity of documenting it correctly is why I am in the newspaper business today. I happen to have a personal collection of the Tribune on my computer. The library hasn’t digitally scanned all of its microfiche yet, but for me it was a personal priority. Let’s go into my office.”

“That is amazing! Thank you!”

Minutes later, I had every Paketka Tribune edition from the year 1880 on a thumb drive dangling from my key chain as I drove home.

Once home, I scoured the images for hours. The text of the articles was not searchable as I only had images of  individual pages. So, I had to determine when the rector of the church died and I started reviewing the daily papers from there.  Finally, I found the article Billy was talking about. It revealed that the rector’s body was found in the river trapped between two boulders in the middle of the stream of rapids. It also mentioned a man with the surname Brackman who was found dead at his home days before the rector. The rector was questioned by authorities because the two had been seen arguing in public. Brackman’s journal with his name in it, a book mostly about the magic stones, was found in his basement after several searches of his home. However, shortly afterwards it went missing. As I continued to study the article, the doorbell rang. It was Joseph. I welcomed him in, offered him a drink and got right to business.

“Here’s the book. Having been buried for 20 years, it’s in remarkable shape.”

“OK. I’m seeing but not believing. It’s very much fantasy – a magic tome scribbled in Latin, Hebrew, and some English. There are a lot of sigils and glyphs here I don’t understand. But for the most part it’s an instructional book,” Joseph said straightforwardly.

“What kind of instructions?”

“Well, let’s start here. This first section, mostly in Hebrew, is an origin story about a red sandstone cave; it’s associated in this book with Gehhinom, a purgatory of sorts in Judaism, cleansing fires…not hell…but like hell. This book says ancient people who, having believed that Gehhinom existed in some spiritual plane, established a cave to specifically absorb the the sins of ancient peoples while they were alive. The sandstone comes from this cave…hmm…interesting. Fantastical, but interesting nonetheless.”

“What is?”

“Well, it says this stone has the property to not just absorb the darkness of sinners which is what the cave was supposedly used for, but it can…and I’ll translate loosely here…’absorb all darkness catapulting the soul of a man to the heights of ecstasy.’ ” He paused a moment and then continued, “Woah! It also says here that if not done precisely according to the ‘instructional commandments,’ the darkness already in the stone from millennia of absorption, will be directed back to the person using the stone. “

“That make sense now!”

“It does,” Joseph asked confounded?

“Joseph, kids using this book 20 years ago created a tragic circumstance. They believed these special stones they found would remove their negative thoughts and leave them feeling high, even in a state of godlike potency. That’s what they believed! They tried to follow the instructions in the book even though they were aware that incorrect disposal of the stone would mean a backdraft of darkness many times in magnitude. That much is the rumor that has circulated over the years…in small circles, mind you.”

“You believe this, Blake?”

“I’ve met the two surviving kids, now adults. Their damage was limited, psychological and physiological. You’ve heard the recording of how the girl, Julia, speaks now. Another kid killed his friend and then died himself in a senseless suicidal act. I now have proof here in this article that it happened just as the legend says, despite the townspeople keeping it quiet. The Sheriff back then – still Sheriff today – covered it up.”

“You really think so,” Joseph asked?

“On the night Billy – the boy who survived – called me to tell me about this article of evidence supporting his original story, he supposedly committed suicide. The microfiche at the library and the newspaper disappeared overnight. Look…Joseph, I have a lot of other details I just can’t share because I have to act on this right now. I need to get this story to the State Police and the FBI, I’m not taking any chances.”

“Blake, the fact that you cannot read this…and you somehow know what it says…implies it’s true!  Do you know what this means?”

“What?”

“In the hands of kids, this book was a serious danger. But, to someone who can read it…there is a whole lot of power here besides a feeling of perfectly high ecstasy. The stones can be wielded as weapons against ones enemy.”

“What the hell are you talking about, Joseph?”

“Look at this next section, mostly in Latin. The symbols are starting to make since to me. There are magnetic compass directions, astrological factors. Now, I see. The kids probably misunderstood the symbols which outline precisely when and where the stones needed to be discarded. There’s a drawing here of boulders in the river, on either side of a very deep crevice. It says here that the crevice is 25 deep and at the bottom is another type of stone that the text calls a ‘base stone’ It also says ‘like lodestone, but not lodestone.’ It says it has a ‘field of energy, but not electromagnetic’, that absorbs – no, the word here now on this page is vescitur – it ‘eats’ , or more apt, ‘devours dark energy’ when the red sandstone comes into close enough proximity to it…and there are some esoteric geometry symbols here. Blake, the important thing to take from this is that one should not simply toss the stones in a crevice, but instead ensure that they contact the base stone. Do you see what those kids did wrong?”

“No, Joseph.”

“This is incredible. We must go there tomorrow at sunset. “

“NO, Joseph. Give me the book back!”

I saw his arm move towards me and the next thing I remember was waking up about a half hour later with the worst headache I’ve ever had. Sarah was standing above me with a cold wash cloth. I noticed Barbara was also in the room because, although Sarah wanted to seek help, she was smart enough not to alert the Sheriff about what had happened. Joseph, in his greed and lust for supernatural power, knocked me out and fled with the book about the magic stones. The disturbance had woken Sarah who had gone to bed earlier in the evening. Fortunately Corey was staying overnight at a friend’s house. I needed a few conscious moments to get my wits about me.

To be continued…

© 2018 Michael Armenia

Short Story Series 2: Down by the River – Part 4

[…continued from Part 3]

“While details are still sketchy on the history for the last century, there was an article in 1880 that mentioned mystery around the church and it cited the mysterious death of the rector at that time. There was no mention of what what was to become of the church in the future. But the article cited a journal kept by someone who regularly visited the rector. This man wrote of ‘magic stones’, small chips of sandstone with exotic powers that came from the quarry near the church. The man and the book disappeared just before the rector’s death. Finally! Another source than can prove what I knew. So I will tell you what I do know – mostly about the danger of the stones.

“We were young and gullible – stupid  high school students. Julia was the only girl in our group of friends and the brightest. She’s the one who uncovered some information about the stones and told us of their powers. So, we went looking for them. We followed her to the old quarry which was overgrown with bushes and trees and started walking along the river toward the church looking for fragments of red sandstone.  On the whole walk we came upon three stones and wondered what was so special about them. They didn’t seem out of the ordinary – just plain red sandstone. Julia pulled out an old book which was written in Latin and a whole mess of symbols. She was a top student in every class including Latin from an elementary age, so she translated for us with no trouble. The sandstone in this area was unusual – it didn’t come from the region. The book said it was from a netherworld or infernal some such – I don’t remember the exact description.  It said that under certain conditions the stones would absorbed dark energy. It told how to infuse the stones, or to impart one’s own negative energy promising a god-like feeling as a result. Certain conditions had to be met – chanting vibrations, geological proximity, and proper discard method. The book described a place along the river that was prepared centuries ago, supposedly by the builders of the church. Only they could tell you more about that. But, we followed the directions in the book and three of us tried infusing the stones with our negative energy. Julie, Taggart and I.”

“Who’s Taggart,” I asked?

“Taggart was the one who smashed Tommy’s head with a rock before diving into the river; he was going to look for the target zone deep below the river’s surface where the infused stones were meant to be discarded according to the book. I believe he thought that if he could recover his misplaced stone, he could cleanse himself of the darkness that was tormenting him after he threw it and missed. He never resurfaced and was presumed drowned. They never found his body.”

“What happened to you and Julia,” I inquired?

“We both missed the zone as well. My stone was the size of a pebble, smaller than a dime. I’ve dealt with a migraine every day since. Julie’s was the size of a quarter. Taggart’s was the size of a silver dollar. He always thought of himself the macho man of the group, but he was just a bully. He took the biggest piece for himself. I guess that backfired on him. Tommy didn’t even get to try, but he met a horrible fate anyway.”

“And Julia?”

“She didn’t fare so well. She kind of lost her mind. She was instantly paranoid and mostly incoherent. She was seen by psychiatrists for months and then put in an asylum by her family. They couldn’t even communicate with her. I’ve visited her over the years. Whenever she sees me, she quiets down, and mumbles. I do think she feels in danger most of the time, but I seem to give her comfort. So, to keep her calm she is drugged most of the time. I visit her once a month.”

“So this is all true after all? And the Sheriff’s covering this up?”

“The priests told me not to talk. Then the Sheriff told me, ‘This was an accident. Tommy and Taggart fell. Julie just went crazy from witnessing all of it.’ I was to change my story if I knew what was good for me. He spoke all of this in the presence of Charles O’Brien who, after the Sheriff walked away, threatened to kill me back then if I told anyone the details.”

“Charlie? The hardware store owner,” I asked?

“That’s him.”

“I’ve got to go. I think I hear someone in the building. Come meet me tomorrow morning, 9AM, at the school. I’ll take you to see Julia. If I get her calm enough, maybe we can find out what happened to the book she was holding when this all went down.”

Before I could get in another word, Billy hung up.

My wife, Sarah, overheard the phone call and was a bit concerned. At this point, I thought it wise to share with her what was going on. My interactions with people were starting to make me nervous. I had skepticism about Billy, but a great deal of mistrust about Charlie, especially since he lied directly to my face. I explained everything to her. I started with Barbara’s version, my visit to the Church grounds and what I saw, Billy’s version, and then Charlie’s story and boldface lie.

“Blake, do you really need to pursue this,” Sarah asked?

“Honey, our boy walks by the church on the way to school.”

“We could drive him.”

“Sure at first. But, we can’t live in fear. We need to uproot this darkness. What if there is a cover-up? That stinks up the community and I don’t want to be a part of it. The mystery needs solving. And, if there is a danger, people need to be aware of it. We must do something.”

“All right. Be careful, Blake. I’ll drive Corey to school this week.”

“I’m meeting Billy in the morning at the high school. We’re going to visit the asylum.”

“If you don’t come straight home after, please call me.”

“Will do.”

In the morning my wife drove Corey as planned. I drove out to the high school which was only a few blocks from the elementary. I waited at the entrance for one hour. There was no sign of Billy. I went in to ask Principal Hillsdale, Bob, if he or anyone else had seen Billy. No such luck. But, knowing me fairly well, Bob did offer Billy’s home address and I drove the three miles to the opposite side of town. He lived in a small house set on a more rural road where residences were few and far between. He was reclusive after all. There was a car in his driveway. Not knowing whether or not he was married, I presumed it was his. I climbed the two steps of his front porch and knocked on the screen door first, calling out, “Billy?” as the door boards clattered. There was no sound of movement inside, so I opened the screen door and knocked on the inside door, again repeating, “Billy?” The door opened slightly with my knock. It did not appear to have been forced open. Yet, it was open, unlocked and there were scratches around the keyhole on the doorknob. I then swung the door open and walked in, calling out again only louder, “Billy! It’s Blake. I came over because you didn’t show at the school. Billy?”

I started looking around for a clue as to what might have happened. The place look relatively clean, objects neatly placed in order. But, looking along the narrow hallway into the kitchen, I noticed there was an overturned chair on the floor which seemed out of place with the rest of the house.  So, I proceeded into the kitchen and that’s where I stood frozen in horror to find Billy’s body hanging from a rafter. He wasn’t swinging and his body was cold and pale. In all appearance it looks as though he hung himself last night. Using Billy’s living room telephone, I called the Sheriff’s department immediately.

Upon the arrival of the Sheriff and his deputies,  I received the third degree from the Sheriff himself.

“What were you doing on the premises, Mr. …?”

“Harding. Blake Harding, sir,” I replied. “I had come looking for Billy when he didn’t show up for a scheduled appointment.”

“And what business did you have with Billy Kegan?”

“With all due respect, sir, what business is that of yours?”

“Son, this is a crime scene on which you happened to be located. For all I know, you were the last one to see Billy alive. Is this really how you want to play it – we could talk more at the station?”

If the Sheriff is involved in the cover-up of a previous crime, I couldn’t give too much information to him, although I did feel the need to speak frankly.

“Look,” I said, “I had just made an appointment to meet with Billy to talk about the town’s history. I’m a historian – it’s my profession. Billy was an amateur, but he had more knowledge about the town than I did, having just recently moved back here.”

“Well, Mr. Harding, this is a clear case of suicide, cut and dry, and I don’t think you had anything to do with it. So, you should be on your way. But, Mr. Harding,” he paused and looked me in the eye tipping his hat upward, “some history is just that – history. Best leave it where it lies. You have a good day now!” He pulled his hat down a bit and turned around heading for the kitchen.

And with that I took my leave. As excited as Billy was last night, there is no way he took his own life. He was quite paranoid the other night when I met him – looking outside the classroom windows as if he were being watched. From this moment on, I had to be extremely careful in my every move for my own safety…for my family’s safety.

Unfortunately I could not have a closer look in Billy’s house for the evidence he had possessed to corroborate his story. He had the 19th century news article with reference to the book on magic stones. I was now faced with finding Julia on my own. Would she talk with me? If she did, would I understand her or would she be incoherent?

I went back home immediately to tell Sarah what I knew so far. Already upset with the present mystery, she did not take the news of Billy’s death well. It was not setting easily with me either. When he was younger – he was in fact threatened, by the Sheriff indirectly and by Charlie directly. Foul play was a most plausible assumption. After briefly speaking with Sarah and calming her down a bit, I set out again – this time for the asylum which was only a little farther out of town than Billy’s house. Sarah wanted to go with me, but I wouldn’t have it. I convinced her that she needed to pick up Corey from school and I would probably not be back until late afternoon.

To be continued…

© 2018 Michael Armenia

Short Story Series 2: Down by the River – Part 3

[…continued from Part 2]

Later in the day I phoned the high school. Robert Hillsdale, the current principal, happens to be a colleague of mine from college, both of us having majored in history. Bob told me exactly where to find Mr. Kegan who goes by Billy to the staff at the school. He works Monday thru Friday, 6pm to midnight, so I would have no problem finding him. Bob told me to just enter the school through the back door to the gymnasium.

Around 9 pm, after dinner with my wife and son, I headed over to the high school. It wasn’t difficult to find him. The soft swish of the stringy mop against the floor was regularly interrupted by the clatter of the broom against the water bucket. I found him in the western wing inside the science lab. Apparently there was an accident that day of broken beakers and flasks, with spills that needed serious attention.

“Hello! Billy?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“My name is Blake and I’m a friend of Principal Hillsdale. He told me I could find you here tonight. “

“That you did. What can I do for you,” he asked?

“ I know it may be a sensitive topic for you, but I really would like to know the history of the church by the bridge.”

“Sorry. I don’t know anything.”

“Townsfolk say otherwise, Billy. And the stories I’ve heard now have me a little concerned. I used to walk by that church every day as a kid wondering. Now my son walks by it on the way to elementary school and…”

“You’d do best to keep your son away from that church and the river. It’s a dangerous place. I wouldn’t want to see no other kids get hurt.”

“So, kids did get hurt there, Billy?”

He was silent for a minute.

“Billy, if there really is a danger, don’t you think the best way to avoid it is to understand it?”

He was silent again. I began thinking that if there is some truth to the stories that the priests at that church might have threatened him somehow. Was it a physical threat of pain or death? Was it spiritual – that he might go to hell if he believed in a hell? And then he spoke.

“I wouldn’t want to see your son getting hurt. Just keep him away from the church and the river. That’s all. Now, I gotta work. Sloppy kids couldn’t even transfer liquids in chemistry class today. I’ve gotta clean. Good night, Mr. …”

“Call me, Blake.”

“Watch your son, Blake.” He looked at each of the windows in the room before plunging his mop into his bucket making quite a huge splash. He seemed really bothered, but not by me – by something else, someone else.

Not wanting to press him, I nodded a ‘thank you’ and made a quiet exit.

This was turning into a real mystery. Before I go off on too many tangents, it occurred to me that I should just go to the source. I should just approach the church, look for a priest and inquire there. Of course, it was so simple. Why was I getting sucked into intrigue?

The next morning I again walked with my son to school. I told him I needed the exercise and might stop by the church on the way back to talk with a priest about its history. But, just to be cautious – not to heed Billy’s warning in earnest – I told my son not to visit the grounds of the church without me. I told him that not only is it trespassing, but the river itself was dangerous, with white water rapids around the church bend.

“But, I never saw a ‘no trespassing’ sign, Dad.”

“Come to think of it, I never did either. But, son, that doesn’t matter. If a person does not have business visiting a property, one should not just casually trespass. It’s not right. People in a small town need to respect each other’s space. Kind people will make in invitation if you’re welcome. “

“Won’t you be trespassing, Dad?”

“No. My business has purpose – to inquire about the history of the church, a building in this town, my home town. It’s like selling Girl Scout cookies, selling newspapers, or needing to borrow a telephone. There is clear and virtuous intention. Anyway, I’ll try to find out more by talking with the priests, and if we are invited to come back, I’ll bring you. OK, champ?

“Sounds fine, Dad.”

It was a relatively nice day. The river was flowing as usually and the grounds looked quite beautiful. Out of the corner of my eye I saw someone disappear behind the church. I believe there was a vestry entrance in the back. I decided to walk back there and see if I could look inside. There were no windows at the rear of the church, but looking through the stain glass windows on the side I could see two monks in robes and one person I didn’t recognize in plain street clothes. I went to the vestry door and knocked. I waited for a minute and knocked again. There was no answer. I went back to the side windows and the three men I had seen just a few moments prior were now gone. I began to circle the church once looking around the grounds and then realized something for the first time – there were no outbuildings; there was no garage, no cars. In fact, besides a footpath to the front of the church there was no driveway or vehicle access. That perplexed me to no end. I supposed it had always been that way. Well, I decided to go back to the diner and talk to Barbara again. Besides, I was hungry.

Once again, upon entering I headed straight for a booth. Carla came right over with the coffee pot and before she could ask, I exclaimed, “Yes! Please! Thank you!”

“Menu, Blake?”

“Today, yes, please. Could you send your mom out at her earliest convenience? I need to talk with her.”

“Sure thing.”

Carla walked away and I opened my menu, although I knew what I wanted. I was craving a BLT and pea soup – I’d no reason why. It came to me and sounded necessary. Soon Barbara came out of the kitchen and directly took a seat.

“Hey, Blake. What’s on your mind?”

“Forget about the magic stones and the kids. I won’t bug you more. Tell me what you know about the church and what kind of clergy is affiliated with it. I went there this morning, saw several people inside, but couldn’t get their attention. Two of them in robes were talking with someone in plain clothes. They didn’t answer the door and disappeared right under my nose while I was walking around outside the church.”

“They consider everyone ‘outsiders’, Blake. They talk to people on their own terms.”

“Why aren’t there ‘no trespassing’ signs all over the place?”

“That’s advertisement they don’t need. They did have them once, but it only encouraged visitors and vandals. So, they took them all down.”

“Yeah, well, it’s not very neighborly to exist in a town such as this, so exposed to the community, and refrain from communication with the locals. What about the Sheriff’s Department?”

“She laughed. The Sheriff has been in office for 30 years, Blake. You know he’s always pulled the strings in this town. He gets the mayors and city council elected and, frankly, he’s the only one I’ve seen talk to the clergy. Except…wait a minute! Charlie something or other, the owner of the hardware store across the road from the church – I’ve seen him cross the street and disappear on the church grounds a few times. Maybe he’s had contact. ”

“That’s something. OK, thanks Barbara. You better go. Last time you talked to me, I think you pissed your husband off. “

“He doesn’t want me talking about what happened to those kids – so few people remember anyway. Can I get your order started for you,” she asked.

“Please. BLT and pea soup. Thanks!”

“You got it!”

As she walked away I was already envisioning an encounter with Charlie, the owner of the hardware store. As soon as I finished eating, I was committed to paying him a visit.

An hour later, I found myself walking near the church again it was on the walk home. I stopped to look at the church to see if I could find anyone walking the grounds, but it was peaceful and nobody was around. So, I looked at the hardware store and crossed the street. As I entered, there was a woman at the counter waiting. Seconds later, from an aisle behind the counter, came a man identical to the one I saw talking to the monks. He had dark black, salt & pepper haircut with a beard, and was wearing the same blue plaid, long-sleeved shirt and blue jeans.

“That should be the right fitting this time, Marge. Maybe next time you should leave the plumbing to Howard,” he said.

“If I did that, it would never get done, Charlie. Thanks a bunch!” She left and I was next.

“Hi. You must be Charlie,” I said. “My name is Blake. I used to live in town and just moved back.”

“Yeah, I recognize you. I remember you were in elementary school when I graduated from the high school. I knew your parents; they were friends of my parents.”

“It’s all blank to me, Charlie. So, I was hoping you could help me out a bit. I’m a historian and am trying to find out about the history behind this beautiful sandstone church across the street. Do you know anything about it?”

“Well, I know about as much as anyone else in town. A few hundred years ago, a few monks built it as a cloistered abbey. I think they intended for it to be a monastery or something with several buildings. Something happened with the funding, I believe, or maybe the rector – I forget – and when the church was finished, they stopped building. They had pews put in, but it was never used as far as I know.”

Secretly knowing I had seen him inside, I asked, “Have you ever been inside?”

“No. They don’t care for visitors,” he said. I asked once myself years ago, and a monk outside said they were a very private sect. They kindly asked the Sheriff to see that they weren’t bothered or harassed by visitors. Word traveled throughout the town and people have just left them alone.”

Now I thought I’d try to stir up the hornet’s nest with a potentially controversial inquiry.

“What do you know about the tragic story of those kids about 20 years ago,” I asked?

He laughed a little. “Oh that exaggerated misunderstood drama! There have been some rumors, but it was nothing more than some kids getting drunk…falling on the rocks…one kid hit his head and another drowned. There’s no story there.”

“What about Billy Kegan,” I asked as his smile disappeared and his face began to redden. “Billy warned me to keep my family away from the church and river. Now, why would he do that, Charlie?”

“Listen,” he said as he found some calm and his smile came back, “that river is mighty dangerous. Just listen to the rapids. You can hear them from in here. And it’s never safe to trespass. Listen! Can I help you with any hardware,” he asked more sternly, “because I have some parts to stock?”

“Not today, Charlie. Thanks for your help.”

He had been helpful although I doubt he knew how. His body language definitely exuded a cover-up here. But, more importantly, he lied about talking to the priests and being inside the church.

That evening at home, I received a phone call from Billy Kegan, who as boy told the tale of what happened only to deny it days later.

“Blake, its Billy Kegan, the janitor at the high school,” he said excitedly.

“Hi Billy, what’s up?”

“Listen, I didn’t tell you everything about the tragedy at the river. They told me never to speak of it and I…I never had evidence until today. Now, I will talk to you. I’ve been spending lots of time over the years studying at the library – studying the history of this town, the geology of the area, and origin of the church which was quite a public affair when it was erected centuries ago. I had to go back to journals and letters of the 19th century because everything afterwards was nonexistent or destroyed.”

“Go on. What did you find,” I asked?

To be continued…

© 2018 Michael Armenia