Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Price Breaks and Heartaches: prologue

The story you are looking for has been relocated and retooled.

If you can't find one of your favorite chapters don't worry, it'll be back!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Little Something For Daddy

A Little Something For Daddy
Al Bruno III

The problem is that the local shopping mall has no bookstores and no place that sells horror movies on DVD so when the Bruno family and I head out there I find myself bored beyond reason or worse. Both my wife and daughter get stuff on these trips but I never do, I mean I'm not greedy but it would be nice to get a little something.

The first thing you notice as you walk into the mall is one of those crane games, you know the kind where you try to free one of the twenty or so stuffed animals crammed into the thing using a metal claw with the grip strength of a geriatric on Quaaludes. My daughter is fascinated by these machines and left to her own devices I think she would sacrifice her entire college fund trying to win a misshapen replica of SpongeBob Squarepants stuffed with shredded magazines and used Chinese diapers.

This time we managed to get away with simply sacrificing one or two dollars but my daughter always voices some disappointment that I can never win one of those things for her. Truth be told I never even try. It's one of her uncles that has a real talent for those things, he can usually empty one in the course of an hour but let's be honest here it's his only marketable skill.

That obstacle bypassed we stopped for a bite to eat, the food court is clean, well lit and surprisingly rat free. Laugh all you want but over a decade ago when I worked at one of Albany's larger malls the food court had a real problem with rodents; and these being New York rats they frequently carried switchblades.

A quick sodium filled meal later we made our first stop a ladieswear store. I am not uncomfortable in such places because I spent a summer working in women's clothing... but I never really learned how to walk in high heels.

Nyuck Nyuck.

Most women's clothing stories have chairs near the changing room for the men to sit in and contemplate their lives of quiet desperation but I didn't get the chance to in one of them because I was busy chasing after my daughter as she rummaged through the spin racks full of beads and baubles near the main register. She likes to try on everything- at once. My choice is not an easy one; do I let my daughter have a good time or get a jump start on this afternoon's tantrum? Eventually I give in to the withering gaze of the clerk manning the register but not before my daughter looks like an explosion at Cyndi Lauper's house.

My wife called me over and asked for an opinion on a blouse.

"Why don't you pick whatever one you like best?" I said.

"Come on," the Missus chided me. "Your opinion matters. Do you prefer the blue or the yellow?"

I paused for a moment considering, "The blue. Yes, the blue works best I think."

The Missus held each blouse up, nodding, "No. I don't think the blue goes with any of my outfits. Yellow is more my color anyway."

"I'm just glad I was able to help." I turned back to see my daughter trying to climb onto one of the shelving units.

One blouse, two pairs of slacks and an apology later we headed for another store but this time it was so the Missus could find a new handbag. It had been over three weeks since she'd changed purses and you could tell that the strain of it was beginning to wear on her sanity. My daughter started fussing that she wanted to go to look at toys so I had her stand near the front of the store as a kind of impromptu time out. As my daughter glared sullenly at the world the Missus remarked to me that she couldn't find any purses that really caught her eye. I suggested that she just use one of the older ones she had piled up in the hall closet.

Once I was out of time out we took my daughter to the toy store so she could 'Ooh' and 'Ah' over the bits of molded plastic. These days Hanna Montana was her drug of choice but she was also starting to get into all those other tweener bands. I couldn't stand the stuff. I mean what happened to kids' music? When I was growing up we had real bands that spoke for an entire generation like The Banana Splits, Jose and the Pussycats and The Brady Kids.

Laugh if you want but do you think the Jonas Brothers could survive being lost in outer space? I think not!

The Missus and I decided to let my daughter get a new doll, after all she hadn't tried to disassemble the apartment's electrical system in almost a week. Yeah she is kinda spoiled but I want to have these moments to remember when she's a teenager and she hates my guts.

The last stop on this little excursion was the beauty salon. The girls wanted to get their hair done and that was fine, except that I knew I would find myself sitting there trying pass the time reading by Cosmo and Modern Bride. The articles were kind of OK but all the perfume ads made me want to sneeze.

The hairdressers were all young and gossipy, the salon was dead so my wife and daughter got immediate service. About halfway through her rinse the Missus suggested, "You know there's no other customer's why don't you get a haircut? You need one."

She was right that I did need a haircut, the sides and back were a ragged mess but as always the top of my head looked like a satellite photograph of the deforested areas of Brazil. Long ago all hopes of a comb-over had been lost so I had taken to shaving my head on a semi-regular basis. There is an old saying that when a balding man shaves his head its like saying "You can't fire me I quit!" So be it.

In the interests of saving money I sheared my head using the clippers we had bought for doing maintenance on our Persian cat's fluffy black fur. This was before we learned that trying to shave down a cat was about as advisable as opening a Fredrick's of Hollywood in Amish country.

"Come on." The Missus said again, "This way I won't be cleaning hair out of the bathroom sink for days."

"Sure." I said, "Why not?"

"Hi I'm Kara." A red haired Chinese girl led me to one of the chairs and asked, "You want me to trim the sides and the back?"

"No." I explained, "Just shave it all off."

"What?" She draped the vinyl cape over me and around my neck.

"Just take a pair of clippers and shear my head down until its like a GI JOE doll."

She looked at me like I was crazy, "You want your hair like an action figure?"

There was a brief moment where I sobbed with the realization of how old I was but then I gathered myself up again and explained, "Just take a pair of clippers and take it all off maybe leave half and inch or so."

"Oh OK."

"You have done this kind of thing before right?" I asked.

"Well your only my third or fourth customer since I got out of beauty school." She explained.

The clippers buzzed to life, I took one last mournful look at the curves of my ears and she got to work.

Thankfully my beautician's hands were steady and the blades of the clippers were clean and sharp.Soon enough my head looked like a farm fresh egg with a light coating of brown mold. "There you go." She ran her fingers along my scalp, "It feels nice."

"Thanks." I said uncertainly, "You do good work."

"Hey Kristy! Kitty!" She called over to one of the other girls, "Come here and feel this!"

My wife and daughter were freshly coiffured and waiting at the register while three college aged hotties took turns rubbing the top of my head telling me how much I looked like that Private Pyle guy from that old movie. However it didn't take long for their amusement to wear off and they all headed off for a collective cigarette break. Kara pulled the cutting cape from around me and announced, "Ok you can get up now."

"No," I said, "No I can't."

A little something indeed.


American Monster
Al Bruno III

When they hoisted me up from the bottom of the well, I almost found myself mourning the silence and the darkness. The wooden cross I had been lashed to had long since rotted away but the weighted chains were still about my limbs. They rattled as my long dormant limbs shuddered and flexed; with each blink of my eyes my vision returned and became more precise.

There were four people in the basement of the abandoned Georgetown manor. The two closest to me were a tall woman and a little man. They wore pale blue hospital gowns, caps and surgical masks that puffed in and out with every word or breath. Rubber gloves covered their hands and thick, brown-stained aprons with pockets that hung heavy with the tools of their trade. They looked me over with clinical fascination and spoke as though I was some kind of long lost heirloom.

Which I suppose I am.

The two men near the door were tall, detached and statue still, they both had handguns hidden beneath their black suits. I recognized them as Agents of the Pharos project immediately but all that meant was that they were just new breeds of a very old kind of dog.

They always think I am helpless.

I let them examine me for a time, poking and prodding but all the while I could feel the trembling in my limbs weakening. An hour into the assessment put them to the test.

Rust and time had left my bonds weakened, with a single motion I pulled my right arm free. Links of rusted steel scattered everywhere, clattering on the floor and bouncing off the walls. The woman shouted, her surgical mask puffing out comically. My hands tore into the soft flesh of the little man's throat. Robbed of his voice he could only beg for mercy with his eyes.

And how he begged!

I tightened my grip feeling the blood well up around my fingertips. With a final pull the cartilage snapped and came away. I let the man’s body fall to the cellar floor, all the while leering at the woman.

The two Pharos Agents drew their weapons and fired. The woman was caught in the crossfire; bullets tore through her flesh to bury themselves in mine.

So many years, so many bullets.

Pulling free of the last of the chains I raised myself up to my full height. One of them bellowed for me to surrender. I made swift work of them, bending their bodies and twisting their limbs. I let one of them twitch for a while as I tried to assess what fresh surprises this new administration might have in store for me.

Then I made my way to the top of the stairs. The door was locked but it tore off the hinges easily enough.

A figure greeted me at the top of the landing; a tall, slump shouldered figure, with thick mismatched arms and undersized legs.

The head atop those massive shoulders was dracocephalic; with small close-set eyes, a nose broken beyond all hope of healing and a cruel line of a mouth. Everywhere there were scars, making the brutish figure seem as tattered and threadbare as the clothes it wore. Miss-set bones jutted at odd angles; thick, rope like veins bulged against yellowed skin.

Bringing both fists down I smashed the full length mirror; the monstrous image fragmented and collapsed in on itself. Broken glass cracked under my bare feet as I moved through interior of the empty house. I could still remember the expensive furniture that had once crowded every room and the elegant oil paintings that hung on every wall. Now was only dust. I felt myself begin to laugh.

Once a great and learned man lived here, a noted historian and a mediocre mystic; he had believed he could make a civilized being of me, that he could make me manageable with his soothing words and opiates. I toyed with him for months, aping the results he wanted, telling him just what he expected to hear. Then one day he came home to find I had escaped my bonds, dismembered his sons, smashed his wife's skull to fragments and raped his daughter.

How she squirmed beneath me as I whispered to her the secrets only I knew. The knowledge drove her mad…

The expression on his face however was mine and mine alone and I still treasured it. I like to think he might have tried to kill me had there not been Agents of the Pharos project there with him that day. No agent of any administration would ever allow me to come to harm; I can never truly be punished, merely imprisoned until I am needed again.

And I will always be needed, that is my power.

Laughter echoing off the bare walls I headed out into the dusk, keeping out of sight as best I could. The air was warm but heavy with the odor of chemicals. Cars moved in an orderly procession down the streets, lampposts flickered to life, and citizens walked to and fro, enjoying the summer weather. I marveled at how much Sussex County could change in less than a decade, at how much one nation could change.

My mouth watered at the thought of what other wonders might be waiting for me but I knew I had to move carefully. By now my captors would be aware I had escaped once more and they would be desperate in their panic.

They have to be subtle, afraid to let anyone know there are still giants in the Earth.

Concealing myself until I had the full cover of night I spent an hour searching until I found a man with proportions near to mine. He was jogging, his respiration steady his expression vacant. I dragged him off the street and killed him bloodlessly.

It felt good to have clean clothes against my skin, especially clothes that stretched so easily to accommodate my frame. I found my way to the railroad tracks and followed them south.

Hours and miles passed with ease but I knew that soon the constellation of Lyra would be in ascendance and I would be helpless. I needed security, and I needed nourishment. Opportunity presented itself in the form of a house just off the main road. I kicked in the front door, surprising the family gathered around the television set.

I am always hungry, even now.

The patriarch of the family challenged me. I struck him and felt his ribs splinter. Blood spilled from his mouth, staining my new clothes. His wife and four children screamed as one. I subdued them easily, crippling them but making sure they stayed alive.

I ate the patriarch, starting with the soft entrails and working my way to the marrow. His wife and children begged and pleaded but their cries only sweetened the meal. It had been too long since I had last eaten but it had been well worth the wait; this new generation of citizens had been raised like veal, protected and sheltered.

Even raw, the meat falls right off the bones.

With that sanguine desire sated I demonstrated my gratitude by teaching the woman the secret of how to foretell the future from spilled entrails.

By her third child she found the trick of it.

Clad in an ill-fitting suit and heavy jacket I left the house behind. I followed the tracks again until I found a train yard. I didn’t see any guards or fences so I climbed into the first abandoned cattle car I could find.

Even with the shadows drawn in close I couldn’t fully relax, a fluttering nameless suspicion nagged at me. I picked idly at the fresh bullet wounds while waiting for the stars to be right. Having tried to ascertain my future, I naturally found my thoughts returning to my past.

My life began under the stars, in 1784 in an open air laboratory designed and built by Thomas Jefferson. He was working from Ben Franklin's notes and those notes in turn were stolen from the royal mystics of France. Franklin had refused to aid in my creation; the memories of his own disastrous experiments still haunted him.

Thomas Jefferson did not work alone that night however. A series of ever more dangerous setbacks led him to commission Jedediah Orne to assist him in his endeavors. Orne was only too happy to visit the young nation and aid in translating and supplementing Jefferson’s incomplete transcription of The Talos Formulae. Jefferson was determined that the new fledgling nation would have an avatar on par with the articulate, wise and beautiful creatures that had advised the royalty of the world since the age of antiquity.

Orne however was determined to put some of his own more radical theories to the test.

No ash and copper wire for him! Or for me.

My original body was that of a long forgotten Egyptian Lord, shriveled and grayish but perfectly preserved. Once he had been a god king but grave robbers had ransacked his tomb and sold his remains as a curio. Jedediah Orne worked tirelessly in Jefferson’s laboratory, using The Talos Formulae more as a guideline than a gospel. Runes were carved beneath the mummy’s tongue, at the bottoms of his feet and most importantly on the underside of his skull. Where mechanical contrivances and ash had been called for, Orne used the flesh of the recently dead in combinations specifically chosen to create sorcerous fission.

The heart of a patriot. The blood of one a native. The brain of a traitor.

I came to life in a haze of alchemical smoke. Terrified and confused I kicked my way free of my glass womb. At first the cool air was an agony to my lungs. My muscles struggled to raise my misshapen head. Jedediah Orne rolled me on my back so his audience could gaze down upon me. My first sight was Vega at its zenith; its bluish white light filling my mind with knowledge and mysteries. Twelve of the nation's founding fathers stared down at me and I instantly knew their histories and potentials; I even knew how they might die.

The President of the United States in Congress Assembled, Richard Henry Lee, asked me a question. I wanted nothing more than to curse him but I was helpless. I had to answer in full.

The low drone of a helicopter startled me from my reminiscing, it sounded close. A spotlight swept over the train car, shafts of light insinuating between the gaps in the walls and the open doorway. I heard shouting voices and the barking of dogs.

I climbed up onto the train car’s roof and spied a dozen police officers and dogs moving in. The spotlight found me and an amplified voice ordered me to surrender. These were ordinary officers of the law and I wondered how much they had been warned to expect by the Agents of Project Pharos.

An animal sound stirring in my throat, I leapt down into the midst of them. The sight of me gave them pause but they kept coming, confident in their training and body armor. One leapt at me and I slapped him in the side of the face with all my strength. The snap of his neck sounded like gunfire.

A second one struck me across the knees with a baton, I caught him easily. My thumbs found his eye sockets, his head split apart like an overripe fruit. The high pitched keening of his voice panicked the dogs and slowed the other police officers’ approach.

The amplified voice from the helicopter cursed me, promising revenge. They released the dogs; the two beasts leapt as one, their teeth sinking into my forearms. Their eyes were small and frenzied with terror. I grabbed one of the dogs by its collar and tore it free not caring that a mouthful of my flesh came away with it.

I hurled the yelping animal at the helicopter. The spotlight shattered, the aircraft twisted in mid-air, fighting to stay aloft. The second dog let go and slunk away.

A high-powered rifle shot pierced my back, knocking the wind from me. I turned to see a woman, a Pharos Agent, methodically taking aim again. Another bullet caught me in the meat of my leg. I stumbled for her but the surviving police surrounded me.

They clubbed me, landing blow after blow. I fell to my knees clawing at my attackers. I knew if I could just get ahold of one of them I could take a hostage, I could bargain and delay.

Then Vega was at its zenith and my mind was on fire. I could only whimper as the rune carved into the underside of my skull reacted to the starlight. My mind is flooded with knowledge, everything I should know, everything I could know.

…allies that can become enemies… pragmatic motives… …enemies that might become allies… the Monarchs drawing ever closer to the world… …clever idealism… economic probabilities… …empty dogmas... …the dark gods still in hiding, waiting and playing at oracles. Does one of them see me now? …technological dreams… …cannibalistic nationalism… …emerging heroes and familiar scapegoats…

…and politics, always politics…

And then I knew how they had found me. I reached to the back of my skull, to the nest of scars and cysts and plucked out the tracking chip.

It took six of them to hold me down as I writhed, my mind boiling with stolen wisdom. The woman approached me, her rifle abandoned for a long bladed knife and in a moment I know her name and I knew what she had suffered what had been done to her. She hamstrung me with practiced efficiency.

The helicopter landed somewhere nearby. I tried to raise myself up with my arms and crawl away only to be brought back down again.

They manacled me with heavy chains, my arms and legs bound behind my back. A steel bar was jammed into my screaming mouth. I wanted to curse them, I wanted to tell them what they truly served and how little it meant.

Then a man with graying hair and a sour expression approached me, he was holding a syringe. Ridiculously over the din of the chaos he tried to speak to me of reassurances, promising me that it would all be all right. He even dared to call me Citizen Aslingan.

That name is a sick joke. A veritable slur. Do you know your Old English?

The hypodermic descended in a slow deliberate arc, burying itself in the corner of my eye, where an ordinary man might have a tear duct.

The drugs took hold and I slipped into fugue full of new memories and old dreams.

“Citizen Aslingan… all hail Citizen Aslingan… the Soul of a new nation…”

Of course you must understand now that I was unlike any other of my kind. The others had been built from known mystical and alchemical principals by nations at the height of their power.

The line began with giant Talos, made from bronze; he stood guard of the kingdom of Minos. The conquering Greeks brought Talos’ remains to wise Daedalus and he used what he discovered to create the nine clockwork muses, whose wisdom led a nation and whose beauty inspired a generation of artists. The Egyptians stole Daedalus’ notes and used them to create stoic Ptah, who would defend their empire for generations until he fled before the coming Romans, losing himself in the shadowy Husk Worlds. The world-conquering Romans had their own copy of what was now called The Talos Formulae and used it to birth Quirinus; so perfect in his features that his was frequently mistaken for a living man.

Quirinus’ fortunes would ebb and flow with those of the empire, some Caesars would take his council, some tried to have him killed, some took him in their beds. Mongol raiders captured him and studied him until they learned the secret of his creation. From that knowledge they created artificial concubines that served the emperors and Mandarins of China. The secret found its way to the wizards of that land and they used it to create the blasphemous Song of Tian-gou.

With the fall of Rome the secret of our creation was lost to the West. While it is true that Muslim scholars had copies of both The Song of Tian-gou and The Talos Formulae, there is no record of either ever being used. The same held true for Hebrew scholars.

It fell to Gerbert of Aurilliac to rediscover the secrets long lost. He created Meridiana from the purest bronze and last remaining sketch of the muse of hymns. Her wisdom guided him until he became Pope, then in an act of contrition he had her melted down in 1003. He died shortly afterwards.

Like a living thing the secret traveled to Britain where Gog and Magog were created to defend the city of London. By the time of the Renaissance each nation had its own avatar. In France there was a near perfect copy of Meridiana called Luxuria who never spoke but always taught. In Portugal winged Esibraeus sat at the side of kings. In Italy Demodocus spoke only in song but his advice was always correct.

By the year of my creation they all still lived but their faculties had begun to dwindle; Gog and Magog had become reclusive, Esibraeus had lost the ability to fly, Demodocus had gone blind. Did the fortunes of a nation dwindle with their avatar or did the avatar falter when a kingdom fell to disrepair?

The powers of this nation are all too aware of that question, which is why they never stopped trying to improve me, melioration upon melioration. Piece by piece the body of the old Pharaoh was stripped away and fine American flesh was put in its place.

This arm belonged to the assassin John Wilkes Booth. These legs came from an unnecessary amputation performed on a valiant soldier. Here and there are bits of slaves and madmen.

They have tried to make me handsome but my little excursions always leave such scars. They have tried to make me obedient with drugs, bribes and chains but they are always too careful. I am actually surprised they dared to put a tracking chip at the base of my neck.

When I awoke I found myself chained to a metal gurney, legs bound together arms outstretched.

How we Americans love our crucifixions!

A nest of machines clustered around me, measuring heart rate and brainwave activity. If you were to look at them you would see that they meet no human criterion. IVs and catheters pass fluids to and from me, bright lights shone in my eyes. My skull still rung with the roar of information the mystical circuit gave me. At that moment I was the most well informed being in the nation, perhaps the world. But even without that wisdom I would have been able to guess that I would not be able to escape this chamber easily. There were no visible windows, and a single air-lock like doorway.

The man that had called me by my old name was there and I could see now that his hair was more blonde than gray but that he carried himself like a man ten years his senior. I knew his name now just as I knew that he lead the Pharos Project as his father had before him.

And he knew that I could tell him how his father truly died. That I could tell him why there was a closed casket. He had only to ask.

He offered me a draught of water. I accepted. He took a damp cloth, held it far over my mouth and squeezed out a few drops. I wanted to ask him if he understood the symbolism of Project Pharos’ name.

He wanted to ask. He needed to ask. But he didn’t dare.

Everyone stopped what they doing at the hiss of the vault door opening. Two Pharos agents in dark suits, practically twins to the ones I had killed earlier in the day, walked into the room; a small, middle-aged man followed them. The agents of Project immediately began fawning over him, full of salutations, apologies and compliments. The President of the United States waves them off.

He wasn’t there to speak to them.

He was there to see me, but I could tell he’d rather be anywhere else. I disgusted him but he knew I would only truthfully answer the questions of the nation’s leader.

Like every other President in the last quarter century, he looked like a substitute pallbearer. His eyes were dull and collusive, his skin soft and pink. When he spoke his voice had an effected rural twang, “You stirred up a lot of trouble for us.”

“Mr. President.” I replied, “I serve at your pleasure."

“My pleasure would be that you stopped acting like a beast and started acting like a man. The trouble you’ve caused this administration… Witnesses have to be quieted down. Explanations created. You think that kind of stuff is easy?”

“I have my appetites. We all do.”

“When I read the reports about you – ”

“What do you want to know?” I cracked a smile, “Why did you have them pull me up out of that well?”

The President bristled, “Who do you think you’re
talking to?”

“I know who I’m taking to.” I said, “And I know what you need. Ask your questions and stop trying to scold me like I am one of your errant children.”

For a moment he just scowled at me, and then he pulled a sheaf of index cards and a pen from his suit pocket and asked his questions. His administration wanted advice on finances and diplomacy; how best to reverse the current recession and how best to navigate the current brewing conflicts simmering around the world. He wanted to know which of his political allies was plotting against him and which of his enemies he could trust. His last question was about his wife’s fidelity.

The questions have changed so little in over two centuries.

When it was over the President thanked me, but from the expression on his face I could tell that he immediately regretted it. He slipped the cards back into his pocket, I glimpsed the notes he had taken; his handwriting was scrawling and child-like.

“Is it back to the well for me now Mr. President?” I asked.

“No.” He shook his head, but his eyes were already on the door, “You’ll stay here. Special Agent Wight has some ideas about what to do with you.”

“Really?” I tried to watch him but the bonds and the drugs kept me from doing more than turning my head.

“Of course.” The President said, “There have been advances in science that even you would be amazed at. I'm sure you can be rehabilitated.”

I started laughing then, my voice mad and booming. The President flinched at the sound as Pharos Agents ushered him out the door. The gurney shook with my hysterics, the chains rattled. Special Agent Wight was ready with another of his syringes and injected an opiate directly into my IV tube.

The weeks became months, I could hear them as they performed fresh miracles upon me. Stem cells and skin grafts, bone marrow transplants and gene therapy; they re-sculpted me as though I were made of clay. They thought that if I ceased to look like a monster I would cease to be a monster.

Then all I had to do was wait for them to become trusting, to become complacent. This latest escape was the easiest of all.

If I am careful it will take them years to find me again, if ever. Perhaps even now I am reading the newspaper over your shoulder and as I decide whether or not to allow you to live I cannot help but chuckle at what has become of your nation now that its Presidents finally have to think for themselves.