While I was busy trying to learn how to write, I had big ideas on getting a job in the industry. My line of thinking was something like - "How cool would it be to get paid, not only for writing fiction, but by a real employer for doing something I love?"
So I enroled in a professional writing course at the local Academy of Art. I completed six semesters, 18 months. I gained distinctions and credits. I did pretty well. I got bored.
Before I let it go, I had a running battle with one of the lecturers. He was the type I thought fitted quite well into the old cliche of "those who can, do, those who can't, teach". In particular, he continually ragged on me about the content of my essays or my stories. Then came Idolatry. Doing a search on Idolatry as the tag word on this blog will bring up the history, but it became a personal challenge to get this thing published somewhere.
Eventually, it found a home in NVF Issue #5 which was flogged off at some big convention in the USA. Other writers who gained the TOC for that issue have assured me it was all real, but I never received my contributor's copy, and when I paid for a copy, it seems I lost my money, and still didn't get to see this story in print. To be honest, I only wanted the copy to throw at the lecturer along with a few choice words on how little he actually knew.
Without further ado...I present:
Alan looked up and down the dimly lit side street; grey-white tendrils of mist crept from the sewer grates to spread a carpet of undulating vapour across the tarmac. Moving back under the dilapidated hotel canopy, he checked his watch.
Twin headlights appeared down the street and slowly grew in intensity as they approached. A taxi stopped in front of him amid a blue haze of exhaust fumes. The rear door opened. His client stepped onto the pavement in an ankle-length, scarlet coat with matching stilettos, the red jarring against the backdrop of the yellow cab and the grey-white mist. It seemed she’d decided to disregard his advice to dress down for the environment.
As the cab drove away, she joined him under the protection of the canopy as a light rain began to fall.
Alan mentally shrugged off her appearance. He was used to dealing with high class dames he'd never be able to impress. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
Looking steadily into his eyes, she said with unmistakable determination, “My ‘husband’ ceased being able to fully function years ago. We still love each other and desperately want an heir. Gaining the Matriarch of Harappan will allow him to regain his vigour and for us to produce a son. So yes, Mr Johnson, we are very sure.”
“As you wish.” With a hand in the small of her back, he guided her inside the hotel.
The clerk looked up from the counter. In a thick Sicilian accent he greeted them. “Not such a good night to be out and about, hey? What can I do for you?”
“Room 6, please,” Alan said.
“Ah, Mr Johnson. Glad to see you back, sir.” The clerk took a key from its hook and handed it to him. “If you would sign for the key please?”
“I’m glad to see you too, Tony.” Alan scrawled his moniker across the page, his sleeve leaving a thin trail of moisture in its path. Dropping the pen into the fold of the book, he headed for the stairs. He didn’t wait to see if she’d follow; he knew she would.
The room held a small double bed, like those used in a display home, a nightstand with a single lamp and a clock radio. The display flashed in evidence of a recent power outage. A gold bedspread complemented the beige carpet, and heavy brown curtains hung in front of the single window. The lingering aroma of cleaning products almost cloaked the stale smell of cigarette smoke and past moments of passion.
Alan allowed her to enter the room first before he closed the door.
His guest turned at the sound. “Straight to business or have you decided to rob me?”
“Sorry to disappoint you, ma’am, but I’m an honest business man. We’re here to complete a simple transaction and then go our separate ways. Perhaps you’d prefer a drink before we continue?”
“Maybe a glass of champagne once the deal has concluded.”
“As you wish, but for now have a seat. Take off your coat and relax. I’ll go get your new aquisition.”
“Is it far?” she said, unmistakable excitement creeping into her voice.
He smiled. “Not far. When I go, don’t open this door for anyone. I won’t be long.”
He left her standing in the middle of the room and headed downstairs. The clerk smiled as he approached. “Ah, Mr Johnson. How may I be of service to you?”
“I need my property from the hotel safe, please.”
“Of course, sir.”
Alan drummed the tune of the William Tell Overture on the counter with his fingers as he waited. He ceased his solo concert as the clerk returned from the manager’s office, carrying a package of similar size and shape to the Women’s US Open tennis cup wrapped in plain brown paper.
“Here we are, sir,” said the clerk as he passed the package over the counter. “She is heavy.”
As Alan reached to take it, a gunshot exploded through the glass front door. The round took the clerk in the chest. He slumped forward. Alan steadied the package on top of the registry book as it slipped from the clerk’s fingers. The Sicilian’s knees buckled. Without a word he closed his eyes and slid below the countertop.
A cloaked man stepped through the ruined glass door with a pistol levelled at Alan. The large silencer on its muzzle explained the lack of a gunshot. “Thank you, Mr Johnson. I’ll take that.”
Alan raised his hands.
The stranger moved toward the counter. “Nasty cuts you have there,” he said with a flick of the barrel toward Alan’s raised hands.
Alan kept his hands above his head but snapped them into closed fists. “Occupational hazard.”
The shooter picked up the package, nestling its bulk under his arm. “I know someone who’ll pay a pretty penny for this.”
“That already belongs to me,” said Alan’s client from the stairs. Alan hadn’t heard her come down.
The shooter turned toward her voice, levelling his pistol at her. “Ah, Mrs Pendlebury. I should’ve known your husband would be in the market for this. Perhaps I should give him a call, and allow him to make a counter offer. But then, that would upset the Oppenheims, and I wouldn’t want that.”
“How did you know it was here?” Alan asked.
The shooter casually waved the pistol barrel between his two captives. “I knew your grandfather was in possession of it for many years, but kept it securely hidden away in a bank. On his death, I followed it to you.”
“I’m guessing you know of the journal my grandfather kept, then. It contains the Matriarch’s history--her powers--everything. She is useless without knowledge of the rituals.”
The shooter retrained the pistol on him. “No, I didn’t know about that, but it would make sense. I imagine you’re stupid enough to have it here, as well.”
The shooter extended his arm holding the gun when Alan took a step toward the stairs. “No sudden movements. I wouldn’t want there to be any misunderstanding between us.”
Alan nodded toward the stairs. “It’s in my room.”
The shooter motioned with the pistol for Alan to continue. “I think you should accompany us, Mrs Pendlebury. If you’d be so kind as to walk ahead of Mr Johnson, so I can keep you both in sight.”
Alan stepped up to her, and guided her back upstairs. Once inside his room, they stood near the bed.
The shooter closed the door. “Where’s the journal?”
“It’s in the room safe, but I’m not telling you the combination until you let her go,” Alan said.
“That’s very chivalrous of you,” the shooter said, “but you’re in no position to bargain. Now open the safe.”
Alan walked to the wardrobe door and slid it open to reveal the room safe.
Mrs Pendlebury moved closer to the bed. “Do you mind if I sit while you rob me?”
“Not at all, my dear. Be my guest,” the shooter said.
She sat on the edge of the bed and crossed her legs. Her scarlet coat fell open to reveal her stocking-covered leg to mid-thigh.
Alan licked the sweat from his top lip as he keyed in the code and opened the safe door. He glanced over his shoulder. No one seemed to be interested in watching him anymore. His client sat batting her eyelashes at the shooter, who stood transfixed by her exposed portion of thigh. In one smooth motion he grabbed his own silenced pistol from the safe, flicked the safety off, turned, and double tapped the trigger.
Bewilderment crossed the shooter’s face as his legs refused to support him any longer. He fell forward, his pistol dropping harmlessly from his fingers. The package bounced once and came to rest beside the gun.
Mrs Pendlebury stood and moved toward it, but Alan raised his gun and pointed it at her. “If you’ll just wait while I retrieve his weapon. I wouldn’t want there to be any misunderstanding between us.”
She raised her hands. “Of course, Mr Johnson. I meant only to retrieve my property.”
Alan went down on one knee and pocketed the shooter’s gun before he gestured to the package. Still keeping the gun pointed in her direction, he stepped back and allowed her to retrieve the ancient tantric idol.
“I’ll phone the police and sort all this out,” he said gesturing to the body beside them. “Your name won’t be mentioned.”
“That’s very kind, but you said there was a journal which was required to invoke her powers. I’m sure my husband would be happy to pay extra for that.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs Pendlebury. That was just an excuse to get him in here, so I could get my gun. You need to be able to protect yourself when you have a product which is in demand. I appreciate you providing a distraction.”
“I took a chance. I thought you must be up to something to have agreed so easily. Perhaps a discount is in order?”
Alan chuckled softly as he shook his head. “I’m sorry, Mrs Pendlebury. Your distraction made it easier for me, but I would have shot him anyway.”
“Very well then, Mr Johnson,” she said with a curt nod. “I assume our business here is concluded.” She withdrew a thick yellow envelope from inside her coat. Alan gained a brief flash of a black lace camisole beneath, stark against the alabaster skin of her chest. “You’ll find it all here--as agreed.”
Alan took the envelope, conscious of the fleeting touch of their fingers in the exchange. Casually he glanced inside to confirm payment. Folding the flap closed, he strode to the room safe and placed the envelope and the dead man’s pistol in it before he shut the door. A cadence of electronic musical notes confirmed the safe was secure.
“I think it would be best if we skipped the champagne,” Alan said as he turned to face his client.
Mrs Pendlebury nodded. “Under the circumstances I believe that to be prudent.”
He led her downstairs, shielding her from the sight of the dead clerk.
“What happened to the door?” she asked.
“It’s a rough neighbourhood. It will be fixed before morning. You should hurry home. I’m sure Mr Pendlebury will be anxious to try out his new acquisition.”
He watched his client signal a taxi from the cab rank further down the street, and waited for the red tail lights to disappear into the swirling mist and increasing rain, before he returned to his room. After securing the door, Alan unlocked his ensuite. The far wall had a single shelf stretched across its width. On it sat packages wrapped in brown paper, identical to the one he’d just sold Mrs Pendlebury for $30,000.
At the shelf’s centre squatted a dusky wooden carving depicting a woman as she prepared to give birth, her discoloured and engorged vulva boldly displayed. Next to it laid a battered journal.
Alan kneeled before her and bowed low, whispering archaic passages he knew by heart. He had no need to refer to his grandfather’s spidery script. He interrupted his homage to retrieve a jewelled knife from a drawer in the ensuite vanity. He held it up for her inspection. A beam of light came from between her legs and struck the polished blade. He lowered it when the light vanished and sliced deeply across his palm.
He made a fist of his bleeding hand, and raised it above the Matriarch, as he chanted words his grandfather had taught him so long ago.
In the vanity’s large mirror, Alan saw smoke tendrils rise from the shooter. The body began to collapse, as if dissolving into the carpet. In moments, all traces of the corpse disappeared.
Alan opened his hand. The deep cut closed and became a pink scar, which would soon fade to match the criss-cross network he already bore. Bowing once more, he offered thanks to the idol. He stood and replaced the knife before he picked up one of the paper wrapped packages and returned to the bedroom. He closed and locked the ensuite door behind him.
As Alan walked around to the nightstand, he casually dropped the package onto the bedspread. He sat beside it and picked up his address book.
He whistled the William Tell Overture with gusto as he thumbed through the pages until he came to the Pendlebury’s listing. He grabbed the pencil next to the phone and crossed it out. He flipped the pages again until he came to the names listed under O.
Softly tapping the pencil against the tip of his nose, he considered his next move. “I wonder if the Oppenheim’s paid the recently departed, or if it was strictly cash on delivery.” He regarded his reflection in the scarred polish of the nightstand surface. He smiled and nodded. “I’m guessing they’d still be interested in gaining good health and increased virility either way; and a holiday in a new city wouldn’t do me any harm.”
Alan chuckled to himself as he dialled the Oppenheims’ number.
The Mother was with him; Jason Oppenheim answered and was shocked when Alan informed him of the shooters death after attempting to steal the artefact.
Alan switched the phone to his other ear. “However, Mr Oppenheim, before the man died, he informed me you were in the market for the idol.”
“You have been correctly informed, sir,” Oppenheim replied in his heavy southern drawl.
“Good. Then I shall be in your fair city soon to discuss an equitable exchange.”
“Then I’ll be looking forward to making your acquaintance.”
Alan hung up. He packed an overnight bag and made travel arrangements for the following day. As he disconnected from the travel agent his stomach rumbled. “Time to grab a bite to eat,” he said to the empty room.
After locking the bedroom door, Alan almost skipped down the stairs to the lobby.
“Ah, Mr Johnson. Glad to see you back, sir,” Tony said from behind the registry counter.
“I’m glad to see you too, Tony. Everything in order?” Alan asked as he strode past.
“Same as always, Mr Johnson. Same as always.”
Alan paused at the front door and used his sleeve to remove a smudge from the glass, before stepping into the night whistling his favourite Overture.
The Matriarch was still with him, covering his tracks as she'd done for his family for the past four generations, and tomorrow he had another client to meet.
Just one more mark and he could lie low again for another year or two.
He pulled his collar up and stepped out into the rain. Maybe it was time he started thinking about his own succession plans: someone to carry on the family name; the family business.
His palms itched.
Alan smiled and whistled William Tell. It seemed the Mother agreed.