In The Midnight Of His Heart
By AL BRUNO III
May 14, 1993
Of course there was one thing he'd forgotten in all this.
He'd been so excited at the mere possibility of regaining the Metastasis that he'd just agreed off the cuff to meet August-
John paused in mid thought. No not August. Magwier
He'd just agreed off the cuff to meet ‘Jason Magwier’ back at the Diner at midnight. There and then they would exchange the journal for the cure. He'd been unable to think of anything else in the intervening hours since, he hadn't eaten, he hadn't slept. And he'd forgotten the only reason he'd ever come here in the first place.
Angie, she worked the night shift.
“Johnny?” she did a double take at the sight of him waiting in the entranceway.
Seeing her left him feeling as though he'd been smacked in the face. His tongue and his mind failed him and he stared, he hadn’t realized how much he missed her, just the sight of her. It looked as though she had lost some weight as well; the cruel side of his mind reminded him that people in love usually did drop a few pounds.
“Where have you been?” she set the tray of dirty glasses on the counter and approached him, “I thought you were sick or something.”
He wanted to tell her he loved her. He wanted to turn tail and get the hell out of there. He wanted to slap her. He wanted to hold her. He wanted to at least be able to answer her instead of standing there and nodding dumbly.
Tom walked out of the bathroom with a newspaper under his arm, and returned to his station behind the front counter. “Hello John.” he said a bit icily.
He finally managed to speak, “Hello.”
“We were just talking about you last night weren't we?” Angie gave Tom a nudge.
“Yes, yes we were.”
“Tom,” John spoke, hoping there was no tremble in his voice, “I wanted to apologize for this morning, I haven't been myself.”
“It's already forgotten.” Tom said turning his attention back to his newspaper.
“This morning?” Angie said feigning a wounded tone, “You came in after I'd left? Are you avoiding me Johnny? I thought I was your favorite waitress!”
He mustered a smile, “You are, I was just meeting a friend for breakfast.”
She grabbed a menu and asked, “Counter as always?”
“I'm meeting my friend again, I'd like a booth.”
After getting a second menu she led him to a booth, “Same friend as this morning?”
“Yes.” he sat down, his cane resting at his side, the journal lying between him and the wall.
“You have a girlfriend now?” she put her hands on her hips, “Is that why I haven't been seeing you lately?”
“No.” he smiled, “No girlfriend.”
“I find that hard to believe.” she said.
Teresa set a glass of water down in front of John. She offered him a tired smile, “What'll it be?”
“It's ok Teresa.” Angie said to her, “I'll take this booth.”
She scowled, “You've got the counter to worry about.”
“Yeah but me and Johnny are having a reunion.” she gave him a sly smile.
Teresa threw up her arms, “Whatever.”
“Angie,” John lowered his voice, “I don't think she liked that.”
She leaned in and whispered in his ear, “Fuck her.”
He watched her retreat, giggling like a loon. The caress of her hair against his cheek had left him with a pounding heart. There was something different about her, but he wasn't so deluded to believe that the mere sight of him had sent her into a passionate frenzy. If anything she was probably in the throes of the kind of silliness that can only be born of exhaustion. He only had to look into her bloodshot eyes to see how tired she was.
The place he'd taken in the booth had left him with his back to the entrance; another sign of how dazed the mere sight of Angie had left him- he never sat with his back to the door. Well, he wasn't going to get up now. He had other senses to rely on.
Angie came back with a coffee, “Six creams, six sugars, and you thought I forgot.”
“Never for a minute.”
“You ready to order?” she slipped the pen from behind her ear.
He smiled, “I'll wait for my friend.”
“Suit yourself.” Angie glanced to the counter to make sure her other customers were all right.
“So, how are things going for you?”
She turned back, “Never better... car’s acting up though. It’s probably the alternator, it always the alternator.”
“How's your boyfriend?”
“Who told you -”
“You don't have to be a G-man to be able to recognize a girl in love.”
“Well,” the smile crept back to her face, “his name is Eric, he's a paralegal and he's terrific.”
“Is marriage in the future?”
She shrugged, “We're living together now, but who knows?”
“Is he good to you?”
John's expression was solemn, almost stern, “Is he good to you?”
“Good.” he sipped his coffee, “Because if he ever hurts you I'll tear his heart out with my bare hands.”
Angie gaped at him, unsure of what to say.
Finally John broke the tension by smiling, “Well, you tell him that anyway, it'll help keep him in line.”
Laughing she slapped his arm, “You're a nut!”
He nodded to the counter, “Go on, your public awaits.”
“Damn!” she said and returned to her other customers.
John glanced at the clock, it was a quarter after twelve, Magwier was late. That was worth worrying over but not panicking about. He was tempted to take a gander at Victor's journal and try to guess what it was Magwier wanted. However, the superstitious part of him, the part of him that had never truly left the primeval forests, balked at the very notion; anything that belonged to Victor might still retain his taint. So he sat back, sipped his coffee and waited.
“Will you look at this? She's in the friggin' bathroom again!” Teresa spoke in an angry whisper to Tom. John's ears zeroed in on the hushed conversation, was this about Angie?
“Maybe she's not feeling well.” Tom replied.
“This crap has been going on for almost two weeks.”
“What is your problem? Is this all just because she's waiting on that old fart over in your section? You should thank her.”
John's eyebrows raised, Old fart?
“No it's not that. It's just that she's been acting all- oh I dunno- weird's the only way I can describe it.”
“Weird? What do you mean weird?” Tom sighed with resignation and set his newspaper aside, “Larry who washes dishes in the afternoons- that's weird.”
“Ok, ok. Maybe not weird, just different.”
Sipping his coffee John barely heard them, Old fart?
“Is she stealing your tips?”
“Then don't worry about it.”
He looked up from his cup to see Angie standing at his table with the coffee pot, “Top you off?”
“Sure.” John set his cup down and watched her fill it. Her hand was trembling slightly and she slopped coffee onto the table. With his gaze he traced a path from the trembling pot to her slender, unsteady hand, up along the alabaster flesh of her arm until it was enveloped by the pale blue sleeve of her waitress' uniform.
As soon as his cup was full Angie grabbed a fistful of paper napkins and cleaned her mess, “Sorry.”
“Johnny, are you sure you’re all right?” the spill removed she tossed the sopping napkins in a nearby receptacle. Reaching in her apron's pockets she handed him the necessary condiments.
“Why do you ask?” he took the six packets of sugar and six creamers.
“You look worried.”
“I am worried.” he turned in his seat to glance at the entranceway, “I'm worried that my friend isn't going to show.”
“What time was he supposed to be here?”
They both glanced at the clock, “Almost half an hour late.”
“I'm not surprised.” he opened the creamers one by one and poured them in is coffee.
She frowned with concern, “This guy, is he a good friend of yours?”
“An old war buddy.” he added the sugars and stirred, memories of his early morning hot cocoa rambled though his mind.
“Give him five more minutes and if he doesn't show come on over to the counter with me.”
He grinned, “It's a date.”
She headed back for the counter, “Oooo a date!”
Alone again he allowed misery began to pull his smile back into a grimace. Angie and the Metastasis, the Metastasis and Angie. Fate seemed to dangle them both so close and yet out of reach, like carrots before a mule. But at least, he thought, the Metastasis is something you might be able to get back. Her on the other hand-
He looked at her working the counter, frowning but still beautiful. She was everything he had ever wanted, everything he ever yearned for but she had come along far too late. All she was to him now was a knife in the gut, an invitation to the blues.
After tonight, he must never come back again.
Of course, if he regained the Metastasis...
Magwier entered the diner, two men at his heels. Neither of their scents were familiar, but one of them was at least of familiar stock.
He was a Vlodek.
A High-Born Vlodek.
John turned in his seat at the realization and he watched the three of them approach. Of course there was Magwier with his leather jacket and brooding expression, then directly behind him was a pudgy, owlish man in a three-piece suit that looked as though it had cost at least as much as the Troy Diner itself. The High-Born followed in their wake, his classically royal features were framed by long crimson locks of hair. His face and upper lip were bare and John had to wonder if he was even old enough to grow a beard without the Metastasis. His clothes were dark and tattered, his gaze darted furtively around the room as though he expected to find assassins lurking beneath the counters and tables.
“Sorry we're late. We had to pay our final respects to a fallen comrade.” Magwier said as he sat next to John, he pointed to the owlish man, “This is Pexley Adlorous.” and then to the High-Born, “And this is Jared DelaWorg.”
John sat there staring across the booth at the High-Born; Magwier’s Cause certainly made for strange bedfellows.
“Pexley, Jared, this is Sig.” Magwier said concluding his introductions.
The High-Born acknowledged him with a cautious nod of his head, Pexley said, “Hello Sig.”
“John, call me John.”
“John, how very urbane.” Pexley studied him intently.
“Pexley is a very accomplished Alchemist.”
“Really?” John took a sip of coffee before continuing, his hand was shaking almost as bad as Angie's, “I thought the goal of every true Alchemist was to become an immortal hermaphrodite?”
Pexley shook his head, “I'm not that accomplished.”
“Well, well, well,” Angie approached the table, all smiles for John, “and you thought they weren't coming.”
John shrugged. The other three men looked at her with varying degrees of interest as she handed them their menus.
“Alright boys, what can I get you to drink?”
Magwier smiled, “Hot cocoa.”
“Bourbon.” Jared said.
“Bourbon? Aren't you a little young for bourbon?” she asked.
A blush worked its way up the High-Born's cheeks. John spoke, “Angie? It's Ok. Ok?”
She considered it, looked from Tom to John and then raised her hands in mock surrender, “Okay okay but if any cops show I'm telling them I gave the booze to you bucko.”
Angie nodded to Pexley, “What would you like?”
“Hokey-dokey.” she started to walk away and then turned back to John, “How about you? Need a refill on that coffee?”
“Sure.” he smiled and handed her his half-empty cup.
She accepted it with a wink and disappeared in the kitchen.
Pexley watched her go, “Nice.”
Anger clouded John’s features, only Jared seemed to notice it and he blanched visibly. Magwier asked, “Did you bring the journal?”
“Can you help me?” John countered.
“Well, Pexley is going to try.”
John looked back to Pexley, “Did he explain my situation?”
“Of course, but just remember I make no guarantees.” Pexley crossed his arms, “Breaking curses isn't like chemistry, every one is different.”
“Tell me something I don't know.” John grumbled.
The waitress returned with two glasses and two steaming cups balanced on a tray. She set the glass of dark tinted liquid down in front of Jared, “One bourbon.”
Jared sipped at it cautiously.
“One hot cocoa.”
Magwier accepted his cup with a smile and gave the contents a quick stir. He studied the swirling marshmallows with the intensity of a gypsy at her tea leaves.
The Alchemist barely noticed, his attention was on Angie.
“And one coffee, six creams, six sugars. Keep up this pace and you'll be pissing like a racehorse all night.”
“Night's half over.”
“All morning then.” the order book was back in her hand, “Anyone made up their minds yet?”
“Pigs in a blanket.” John said.
Jared shrugged “I guess I'll have the hamburger platter.”
Angie paused in her scribbling, “How do you want that done?”
“Very rare.” Jared replied.
“Up and walking, got it. How about you?”
“I'll have an ice cream sundae...with chocolate ice cream.”
“Okay.” she said, “You want that now or when they get their deserts.”
“Sure.” she glanced at Magwier, “How about you?”
“A meat loaf sandwich, extra mayo.”
“You want fries with that?”
She pointed at his leather jacket, “That's a nice coat.”
“I like the embroidery. That's a tarot card isn't it?”
He turned to give her a better view of the crewelwork, “The Hanged Man.”
“That's pretty good. You do it yourself?”
“My best girl did it.”
Angie backed away from the table, “She did a terrific job.” As she turned to go she stumbled into the trolley piled high with dirty dishes that the other waitress was pushing towards the kitchen.
Teresa had to almost throw herself atop the trolley to prevent an avalanche, “Careful Angie! Jez-zus!”
She snapped at the other woman and gave the trolley a savage shove, “You fuckin' watch it!”
In the silence that followed Angie's outburst a single saucer slid from Teresa's grasp and clattered to the floor.
Angie stormed into the kitchen. With a little assistance from Tom, Teresa managed to keep any other dishes from falling to their doom. “I've had it with her.” the other waitress hissed, “Either she goes or I do.”
Stooping to retrieve the chipped saucer, Tom muttered something unintelligible.
“Fiery isn't she?”
“Pexley...” Magwier frowned
“Just making an observation, that's all.” the Alchemist ran his hand across his mouth, “I bet she's wild in the sack.”
“Let's-” John fought down the impulse to slam Pexley's skull into the table until it cracked, “let's get back to business. What do I have to do?”
Reaching into the pocket of his Armani, Pexley pulled out a four inch needle, “I'll need samples of your essential fluids.”
John blinked with incredulity as the needle and Pexley's untouched glass of water were pressed into his hand. “My what?”
“Your essential fluids.” Pexley shook his head and addressed John with his most patronizing tone, “Your spit, your blood and your semen.”
“Put them all in the glass of water and bring them back to me.”
“Here? Are you insane?”
“Do you need a magazine?”
Before any further barbs could be flung Magwier stood to let John out of the booth, “I think that's quite enough. John, we'll see you in a few minutes.”
The diner wasn't very full but John imagined everyone staring after him, wondering why that old man was bringing his drink into the bathroom with him. They probably thought he was half-mad with senility. He prayed that Angie would stay in the kitchen until he was behind the men's room door.
A sigh of relief escaped from his lungs when he found the bathroom empty. His cane tapping on the worn tiles he made his way to the handicapped stall and shut the door securely behind him. After setting the glass down on the floor, he unbuckled his pants, and slid them down to his knees. He sat down on the cold porcelain seat; leaning his cane on the wall he sat there for a few minutes, questioning the sanity of what he was doing.
How could he trust them? An Alchemist, a High-born and a man who could at best be described as an enigma. What could they gain by helping him? The journal was of course the obvious answer, but why couldn't they have just gone to Phil himself? Or Zara?
Blessed Phelan! With a High-Born and an Alchemist they could have simply stolen it!
John picked the glass up and spit once, twice, three times into it.
After setting the glass back down on before him he fished the pin from his shirt pocket. The longer he sat here the more suspicious he became. He felt as though he was being manipulated, expertly maneuvered. But why?
What possible ulterior motive could be served by making him jerk-off in a public restroom?
It took several pricks from the pin to get his index finger bleeding. He let the blood drip into the water where it blossomed into surreal shapes, spreading itself through the spaces between the ice cubes. Suckling on his wounded digit he sat there gathering his nerve. He imagined them out there giggling and wondering what was taking him so long- imagining that the old man probably couldn't get it up.
Pulling his finger from his mouth he examined it, the bleeding had stopped. Time to get this over with. His hand found his flaccid manhood but it was sluggish and slow to respond. No surprise there, these weren't the ideal conditions. Maybe he did need a magazine.
He tried to block out, the Muzak, the pale florescent lights, and the overbearing stench of strawberry air freshener.
What would Angie think if she found you like this? A glass of blood at your feet and your crank in your hand?
His imagination, however, took an odd turn with the notion. He imagined Angie improbably strolling into the men's room in search of him, opening the stall door and impossibly saying to him, “Oh Johnny, let me help you with that.”
As fantasies went it left a lot to be desired but it got the blood pumping in the right directions so he let it run it's course. He achieved the desired results with a flurry of motion and a stifled grunt.
Using wads of toilet paper to tidy himself and the rim of the glass, John immediately began to feel disgusted. Thinking of her while he pleasured himself, whatever the motivation, seemed like something a hopeless little boy would do. It was as though he was settling for the fantasy of her because he knew she would never be his.
Well, let's be honest, she never will be yours. He thought as he stood and buckled his pants. He retrieved his cane and the water glass, She belongs to some paralegal named Eric.
“I trust everything came out all right?” Pexley was waiting for him as he stepped outside the stall, a smudge of whipped cream on his lapel and smug look on his face. John reeled almost dropping the glass. He should have heard him enter, he should have smelled him.
“You... how did...”
“I'm a very accomplished Alchemist.” he took the glass from John's hand and pulled a vial of powder from the pocket of his Armani, “Now why don't you run along? Your food's getting cold.”
John returned to the table, his pigs in a blanket were waiting for him. Magwier practically ignored his meat loaf sandwich as he skimmed the journal. Jared was methodically eating his hamburger, his eyes betraying a world of troubled thoughts. John cleared his throat and Magwier shifted closer to the window, “Have a seat.”
“You're in my spot.”
“Oh, sorry.” he stood and let John back to his original seat.
They traded dishes while Jared looked on. “Did you find what you needed?” John asked as he liberally doused his meal with syrup.
“It confirms some suspicions I've had.”
“About the constitution of ultimate infinity, the juxtaposition of dimensions and the position of the known cosmos of time and space in the unending chain of linked cosmos atoms which make up the immediate super-cosmos of curves, angles and material and semi material electronic organization.” Magwier popped a French fry in his mouth.
“I had no idea Victor's journals were so deep.”
“They're not really.” Magwier admitted, “It's all in the subtext. And some of the things he says, it makes me wonder...”
John spoke between mouthfuls of food, “Wonder what?”
“It makes me wonder if he was a good guesser or if the Monarchs trusted him with a great deal more information than I ever suspected.”
“Hard to believe the Monarchs would trust anyone with anything.”
“Well, you've got to remember that Victor is a very important thread in the dark tapestry the Monarchs are trying to weave...”
“Was.” John corrected.
“Was an important thread you mean, he's just a vegetable now.”
“Ah, well, yes.” Magwier shifted in his seat, “It's just that reading the journals really took me back to the good old days.”
“They weren't so good.”
“I've had enough of this!” Jared glared at Magwier with an expression of pure loathing, “Did you drag me halfway across the state just to waste my time?”
“You said you'd show me how to fight the Monarchs! Tell me Magwier, what did I learn from torturing one of their lackeys? What can I learn from a failed Alchemist and a maimed commoner?”
John dropped his fork and felt the blood drain from his face. Maimed. As if old fart wasn’t bad enough. The word stung like a slap to the face, but that's what he was a maimed old fart with no family, no ties to his people no...
“Now you listen to me you little whelp,” Magwier said evenly, “this ‘commoner’ sitting before you has done more to battle the Monarchs than your dysfunctional little clan has ever done. And that failed Alchemist is an ally of Professor Flesh.”
“Professor Flesh is alive?” still reeling from the High-Born's insult, John couldn't believe his ears.
Magwier made a dismissive gesture, but there was a catch in his voice, “Of course.”
Jared opened his mouth to speak only to be cut off by Pexley's return, there were beads of sweat on the Alchemist's upper lip, “I thought this was a simple job. Small potatoes you said.”
“It's not?” Magwier closed the journal.
John's heart sank.
“Whoever cursed him had some serious power to back it up.” he pulled a silk handkerchief from an inner pocket and began dabbing at his face.
“The Monarchs.” John growled.
“The-” Pexley looked up at John, his eyebrows raising, “Monarchs?”
The old man nodded. Jared glanced across the table at his would-be mentor, whose expression was becoming more and more impenetrable.
He stuffed the handkerchief back in his pocket, “Who precisely was it that cursed you?”
“Victor Kovach.” John cocked his head, “You didn't know?”
“No.” Pexley scowled at the man that had masterminded this little gathering, “I wasn't told. Why is that?”
“If you had known this was a curse placed by Victor Kovach, you wouldn't have come.” Magwier met his gaze.
“So, instead you tricked me.”
“Tricked is a little harsh.”
“Harsh?” Pexley shook his fist, “If you ever cross my path again I'll show you harsh!”
The Alchemist turned to leave, John called after him, “Wait!”
“What?” halfway out the door he stopped.
“What about me? Will I ever be free?”
“Sure,” Pexley's voice was crisp and merciless, “right after you die.”
Staring into the Formica tabletop, John realized Zara was right, he’d been used. Although from the looks of things he wasn't the only one. Where did Magwier get off thinking he could treat people like this? John grabbed the journal back, “The deal's off.”
“I understand.” Magwier stood, Jared did as well, “And I'm sorry things didn't work out.”
Understand? Of course he understands- he probably read all he needed too while I was in there masturbating like a schoolboy. John thought, Phelan’s bones! How could I be so stupid?
Jared nodded to him, “I'm sorry if I offended you.”
“For what it's worth I meant what I said.” Magwier said, “If not for your sacrifice back then, we wouldn't even be having this conversation. You're a hero in my book.”
“Why are you a hero? Because you-”
“No. I mean why did you come here and get my Goddamn hopes up like this?”
“I didn't get your hopes up, I warned you.”
“But why are you here?” he turned in his seat to face him, “Why did you need the journal? What little scheme are you cooking up?”
“I’m going to save the world.”
“How does the journal help?”
At the register, Jared helped himself to a handful of complementary after dinner mints. Magwier addressed John with a cryptic smile, “Let's just say that there are opportunities that Victor didn't pick up on.”
John nodded his head, “But you did?”
“Why don't you come with me John? I could use you.”
“That's what I'm afraid of.”
“You never know, we might be able to find a cure for your condition.”
He drummed his fingers on the table, “But no promises, right?”
“If there's any way I can help you regain the Metastasis, I will.” Magwier offered his hand, “Come on, who would turn down an all expenses paid trip to Las Vegas?”
“The secret to saving the world is in Las Vegas?”
“If you don't go with me, you'll never know.”
“It'll be an adventure.”
John opened and closed his mouth several time before finally speaking, “No. No. I don't want any more adventures.”
“Are you sure?”
Magwier seemed nonplussed, “Well, ah.” He pulled a pen from his pocket and quickly scribbled a phone number on a napkin, “If you change your mind, drop me a line.”
“I won't change my mind.” he pocketed the napkin and turned back to his meal.
“Take care of yourself.”
He shoveled a mouthful of his pigs in a blanket into his mouth, they had long since gotten cold and the syrup was clammy in his mouth. A final brief conversation reached his ears as they left.
“I thought you said he was coming with us.”
“That's what I thought too Jared, that's what I thought too.”
Alone again, John just kept chewing, it looked as though he'd better get used to the idea of living out the rest of his days as an ordinary man. The curse was too strong, even now, after thirty-five years. There had been a time when the Metastasis had been a source of great comfort to him, when even in the depths of his loneliness he could find solace in it, knowing that it made him part of something greater. And what had he traded it for? A long empty life and his mentor's blood on his hands? An existence trapped between a world that was all but dead and one that had passed him by?
Ten minutes later Angie stopped at his table with the check, “How did your little reunion go?”
“Definitely not what I expected.” he read the little slip of paper and blanched. It was a good thing he'd brought a lot of money with him tonight.
“I thought you said that one of these guys was a war buddy of yours?”
“Are you lying to me?”
“No.” he smiled at her, “It's just that when I say war-buddy I mean that- You see it's-”
She touched him on the shoulder, “I'll give you a few minutes to compose yourself but I want an explanation.”
“Would you settle for a really good tip?”
“Only if it's a really, really good one.” she brushed a lock of crimson hair from her face.
His shoulder tingled where she had touched him and his mouth felt heavy with the things he wanted to tell her; he wanted to tell her all his secrets- from what he was to how he felt. But he couldn't do that- what if she asked for proof? I must never come here again. The vow echoed through his mind and he knew that this time he had to follow through.
Pulling out his wallet, John counted out two-hundred dollars in twenties and set it on the table. He then laid the check over the pile of money and set one of the half-empty glasses down atop it all. Using his cane to steady himself, he stood and took one last look around, Angie was behind the counter, her back to him as she made a milkshake.
His goodbye to her was soft and silent as a prayer.
“Everything OK?” Tom asked as he left.
“Terrific as always.” he said, “The money's on the table.”
“No problem, I trust you.” he said, “Goodnight John.”
“See you around.”
“Yeah, see you around.”