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Authors: Bentley Little

Dispatch (34 page)

BOOK: Dispatch
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And I didn't feel comfortable walking anywhere in this made-up city.

My throat hurt from screaming, my breath was coming in short sharp gasps, my heart was like a jackhammer inside my rib cage, but I steeled myself and forced my feet to walk back across the asphalt of the road, up the concrete incline of my driveway and through the front door. There were no bodies in the living room, but there was a telephone, and I quickly sorted through the cards stacked next to the phone that served as my address book.

I called Henry.

Why I don't know. I should have dialed 911. But I was not even sure there
was
a 911. Or a police station. Or a hospital. For all I knew, everything about me was an illusion.

Besides, if anyone would know what to do, I figured, Henry would. He answered on the second ring. I told him what I'd found in my condo, told him about Virginia and Ernest Hemingway. I couldn't tell if he was surprised by my call or not, couldn't tell if he'd already known what had happened and was expecting me to call or if my news came to him out of the blue. I didn't care.

I hung up, grabbed my keys and went outside.

Moments later, an ambulance came. At least I assumed it was an ambulance. It was a vehicle that could have been a hearse, could have been a big station wagon, could have been anything. The four men who manned it wore the same nondescript clothes, half suit and half uniform, as my guards, the ones who had escorted me down that intial corridor to the empty office where I was imprisoned, and they walked with the same militaristic step. All four nodded but did not speak to me as they rolled gurneys into my condo to collect the bodies.

I wondered where the bodies were going, but I was too stunned to ask. The witch ... Kyoko ... these suicides ... It was one thing after another.

But were they really suicides?

Who the fuck was I kidding? I
knew
they weren't.

I guess I expected Henry to show up since I'd called him, but he didn't. No one did. Only the four men from the ambulance, and they were wheeling out unidentifiable lumps on the twin gurneys minutes after they'd gone in. I looked but could not tell who was who under the plastic wrap. I saw no body parts, no blood.

They rolled the gurneys into the vehicle, got in themselves, thanked me and were gone.

I was supposed to clean up the mess myself?

Somehow even the fear had fled. Maybe I was in shock. Numb, I walked into my condo to assess the damage, particularly in the kitchen, and—

It was no longer my condo.

I stood in the open doorway looking around, confused. Instinctively, I backed up, stepped off the porch and looked up at the building's facade. It was two stories instead of one and in a completely different style. But...

But there was something familiar about this place.

I stepped onto the porch, went inside. I knew this house. I'd never been here before, but I recognized the stone fireplace, the hardwood floors, the built-in bookcases. Without going into the other rooms, I knew what they looked like, knew what kind of furniture they had and where that furniture had been placed.

How was that possible?

I looked at a framed family photograph above the mantle—Vicki, Eric and myself—and I suddenly understood.

This was our dream house. This was the home Vicki and I had talked about, planned for, saved for, hoped for. This was where we'd wanted to spend our golden years together.

I sat down on the sofa with the fabric Vicki would have picked out, and burst into tears. None of it was ever going to happen; none of it would ever come to pass. There was no one to see me, but I covered my face in my hands anyway, sobbing uncontrollably, and I was still sobbing an hour, two hours, three hours later, my throat scratchy, my eyes stinging, my stomach and lungs in pain. I didn't know my body had such a reserve of tears, and I thought the crying might never end, thought it might go on forever, stopping only when my heart gave out and killed me.

But it did stop sometime in the early morning, and though I was tired and could barely see through my blurry eyes and swollen lids, I did not fall asleep. I remained awake until dawn, when I went into my new kitchen, made myself a cup of coffee and had a pair of store-bought blueberry muffins for breakfast. I took a shower, changed my clothes and, on automatic pilot, drove to work.

Where Stan was waiting for me in the parking lot in front of the building.

"You look like shit," he said. "What the hell happened?"

I shook my head and tried to move away from him, tried to blow him off, my mind comforted by the idea that I would soon be in my office, ensconced behind my crowded desk amid my music memorabilia. I could rest there. I could nap there.

He grabbed my arm.

"Hey!" I said.

But he pulled me toward his car. "Come on," he said. "We're not going in today. I have something to show you." His voice was filled with an excitement I had never heard before, a fervor that made him sound reinvigorated, at once younger and more optimistic.

His passion was infectious, and against my will, I found myself catching some of his eagerness. "What is it?" I asked.

He lowered his voice. "I found something. Get in the car quick. We'll talk on the way."

And talk we did.

Actually, he did all the talking. I had just as much to tell him—if not more—but I was too worn and tired and beaten to even start, and by the time he got into it, I realized that his story and mine were interconnected, were both parts of the same whole.

Stan had gone to town. Adversity didn't beat him down. It energized him, and he'd been playing Hardy Boys since our meeting with the witch, making a concerted effort to discover the truths behind the lies we lived, to finally find and meet the Ultimate. Last night, he'd remained in his office, waiting, after everyone had left. He'd tried this tactic before, but he'd been found and kicked out by a team of two men whose job it was to search the building for stragglers. This time, however, he moved around, ducking and weaving down that crooked on-again, off-again path that Henry had taken me down and that led between our various writing environments. If he thought he heard a noise or imagined he heard a person coming, he ducked behind someone's desk or couch and waited it out. Finally, at midnight according to his watch, Stan had exited the door at the foot of the path and found himself in the usual spot in the corridor, in front of Henry's door.

And he'd seen a mailman.

It was one of those generic bureaucrats, "faceless fucks," he called them, and the man was walking briskly down the corridor away from him, a full canvas sack slung over his shoulder like Santa. He'd just emptied the mailbox at the opposite end of the hall and was clearly taking it to a company mailroom, where it would be sorted for delivery.

Stan knew that if he tried to follow the mailman, he would be spotted instantly, so he ducked back inside the doorway, waited until he heard the bell for the elevator ding and the elevator doors open and shut, then watched the numbers on the panel above.

The elevator was going up.

It was what he'd been hoping. The man was either collecting mail from the floors above or joining members of his team that were doing the same. Stan watched the number eight light up. And stay lit.

He waited there, alert for any sound, ready at any second to sprint back to his own office and hide, but the number did not change.

Three minutes.

Five minutes.

Seven minutes.

Ten.

Did it really take that long to collect the letters from the eighth floor ... or was that the location of the mail room?

He took a chance and pressed the call button.

The elevator descended.

Stan remembered that I'd told him the only other floor I could go to was the fifth, but he pressed button number eight anyway.

And the doors closed.

He wished he'd been more prepared, wished he at least had a makeshift weapon of some sort, but of course that wouldn't do any good here.

The doors slid open, and he was looking into a massive open room that resembled nothing so much as a nineteenth-century industrial-age factory. Everything was black and dusty, smelling of burning coal and oil; even the hot, humid air seemed pregnant with soot. Exposed pipes, metal support beams and clanking chains hung from the filthy ceiling, attached at various points to a web of interconnected machines that were running full steam.

In the center of all this chaos, two rows of conveyor belts moved endlessly toward the far end of the factory, each piled high with envelopes. This was where the mailman had dumped his load, and indeed a bin nearby was full of empty canvas sacks. There was no sign of the faceless fuck Stan had followed here, or indeed any other bureaucrat, but the conveyor belts were lined on opposite sides with pale skeletal figures who seemed to be sorting rapidly through the envelopes as they passed; they threw some into large open chutes and put postage stamps on the ones that remained.

Just as in my dream.

Stan saw all this in a matter of seconds, and he ducked back into the right front corner of the elevator, furiously pushing the button for the fourth floor, certain that at any moment he would be seen. The elevator did not respond, though, and after several moments of this, he realized he would have to find another way off this floor, another way out, or risk being caught.

He dashed out of the elevator, ducking behind a pillar, realizing too late that he was in full view of a dozen or so drones at the end of the conveyor belt line.

It didn't matter. They saw him, but they didn't care. They might as well have been machines themselves; so single-minded was their focus.

Stan relaxed a little, experimentally stepped out from behind the pillar, moving slowly into full view of all of the skeletal figures. No one rushed out to grab him or stop him, and he strode carefully around the edge of the factory, ready at any moment to run for his life. He found a door marked exit, and he opened it, walking through.

Stan paused in his narration. By this time, the car had reached its destination. We were on a street at the edge of Brea that appeared to be only half formed. There was no fog here, but there might as well have been, for we could see nothing clearly. The buildings were but silhouettes, featureless shapes of houses and stores and offices. The road was solid beneath the car but had no color, no texture. The sky was formless, gray.

Stan parked on the side of what should have been the street.

Where were we? Was this even part of the real world? I thought of Virginia, Ernest and the others, what they'd told me, what they'd said. I remembered when I applied for my job how I'd stepped through the door to apartment number 3—

Shangri-La

—and then awakened in an office in the building. I'd been living all this time in some sort of alternate universe.

Or I was going crazy.

Stan stepped out of the car. I followed. Like the city surrounding us, the air was thin, barely there.

He pointed toward what looked like the outline of a convenience store. "It's in there."

"What?"

"The mail factory ... everything else."

"I thought you said it was inside the company."

"It is. At least, that's how I got in. But geography's not really geography here. When I came out, this is where I found myself. It's a back door. And I went in and out a few times to make sure I could get in and out anytime I wanted, make sure it worked every time. It's real, it's legit."

An alternate world.

"So what's your plan?"

"I want to show you something. It's going to blow your fucking mind."

I was starting to get scared. He seemed a little too secretive, and I didn't like that. I wanted him to tell me where we were going and what I was going to see before we went there, before I saw it. The thought occurred to me that this wasn't really Stan, that I was being led to my slaughter by a simulacrum.

But this
was
Stan. I knew it, deep down I knew it, and if he wanted to show me instead of tell me, he must have had a good reason.

I followed him over the unformed ground to that indistinct building. In the center of that gray space was a fully detailed door, a real door, and Stan reached for the vertical-bar handle and pulled it open.

We walked inside.

We were in a marble passsageway that could have come straight from the set of some old sword and sandal epic. At the far end was a shadowed vestibule, and Stan strode purposefully toward it, his shoes clicking on the polished floor. We passed into the vestibule, and Stan stopped in front of a large stone door. He pulled it open very slightly until there was a crack through which we could peek, and he motioned me over with a silent swing of his arm.

"Look," he whispered when I was next to him.

I looked. It was a roomful of men and women that, at first glance, looked like an old-fashioned secretarial pool, the kind I'd recently seen on TV in the movie
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
. Only I could see right away that there was something wrong with these people. They sat in front of computer screens, typing ceaselessly, automatically shifting fonts on their individual printers to disguise their identities. But their faces looked strange, slow, almost retarded. I frowned, not certain what to make of them.

Stan filled me in. "Their tongues have been cut out," he said in a voice of hushed horror. "They can't talk. They can only communicate by writing."

In a sick way, it made perfect sense. These were the ideal Letter Writers.

I suddenly realized something else. All of these people were familiar. At least most of them were. Some had been dead for years, others were only recently deceased, and a few of them I was sure were still alive.

They were world leaders.

I recognized George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Mao Tse-tung, Winston Churchill. Presidents, kings, prime ministers, czars, emperors. Their faces were distorted because their tongues had been cut out, but I could tell who they were, and knowing now what I was looking at, I recognized dozens more: Napoleon Bonaparte, Madame Mao, Dwight Eisenhower, Vladimir Lenin, Adolf Hitler, Thomas Jefferson ... Not every president was there, not every dictator or foreign ruler, either. But, like Ronald Reagan, political men, men of power, were often inveterate diarists and letter writers. Some of them, obviously, had been
real
Letter Writers, and those were the ones who were kept here, who now powered the machine that, as Henry said, made the world go round. They created the deep black undercurrent atop which we frivolous Letter Writers floated our fluff. Stan had been right. We
were
just distractions, and I realized how brilliant the Ultimate had been in his structuring of this world and his recruitment throughout history.

BOOK: Dispatch
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