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Authors: James P. Blaylock

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BOOK: The Knights of the Cornerstone
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There was a lengthy silence. “I wanted to avoid that,” Hosmer told him.

“Ah!” Calvin said. “I see. Okay. Sure. Why?”

“It’s that damned address of Lymon’s. You never know how many hands the package will pass through or what kind of curiosity it’ll stir up by the time he picks it up.”

“All right. I guess I can take it out there myself if—”

“Good. We thought that would be best.”

“Like I was saying, I’m not sure how soon … Did you say
‘we’
?”

“Lymon and me. He said you’re taking a little trip out to New Cyprus. He and Nettie are looking forward to it like nobody’s business.”

“It’s in the … planning stages,” Calvin said. This was inscrutable. He picked up Uncle Lymon’s letter and looked at the three-day-old postmark.

“The sooner the better,” Hosmer told him. “I won’t sleep much till it’s out there safe.”

“That suits me,” Calvin said. “It’s none of my business, really, but what’s inside? The box feels empty.”

“Well, it’s an heirloom, a
family
heirloom. It’s a veil, I guess you could call it. A gossamer scarf. Belonged to your aunt Iris. Maybe you haven’t heard of her. She’s been dead these many years.”

“That would explain it,” Calvin said. “Like her wedding veil or something?”

“No. The veil she wore when she was calling up spirits. Her stance veil.”

Suffering Judas
, Calvin thought. He had never heard of any Aunt Iris, let alone that there’d been a spiritualist in the family, and now he was under orders to haul her magic veil out to the desert in a cardboard box. “When did she pass away?” he asked.

“Nineteen ten. The family got the idea that her ghost was in the veil. It sounds crazy, but things
happened
with it. It kept rising up and sort of floating in the air. They’d open Iris’s old steamer trunk and it would drift right out, and no way in hell it wanted to go back in. The thing has a mind of its own, apparently. They’d have to snag it with a butterfly net. I can’t tell you much about it, because it was before my time. Thing is, it wouldn’t give them any rest till they boxed it up and tied down the lid of that trunk.”

Calvin found that he couldn’t speak without laughing, which would insult the old man. Unless of course Hosmer was joking, which he had to be, although it didn’t sound that way.

“You’re skeptical,” Hosmer said. “That’s good. It’ll keep you from trusting the wrong people. This kind of thing with the veil is a matter of
belief
, if you follow me—like having surefire numbers for the lottery. Once it comes into your mind to play the numbers, you’ve
got
to play them. They might as well be a fact. You understand belief, don’t you, son?”

“Sure,” Calvin said. “Like not walking under a ladder, even if you don’t believe—”

“I’m not superstitious,” Hosmer told him flatly. “I don’t hold with that kind of thing—ladders, black cats. It’s a lot of rubbish. I’m talking about matters of the spirit here.”

“Of course,” Calvin said. “I was just making a—”

“Well, cut it the hell out. When can you leave?”

“What?” Calvin said. “I don’t know.”

“Don’t put it off another minute. We’re all going to be a little bit nervous until Iris is interred in the crypt out there in New Cyprus, God bless her. You feel that way, too, I suppose. You’re family.”

“Sure I am,” Calvin said, throwing caution into the shrubbery. Clearly he was outgunned here. “I’m happy to help. I was just wondering when to take off when the package showed up. The timing couldn’t have been better. I can leave this afternoon.”

“Then it wouldn’t have made too much sense for you to mail it on out to Lymon, would it? If you can leave this afternoon, it’ll get it there about ten times as fast in the trunk of your car. What would be the point of mailing it?”

“It made no sense at all. I wasn’t thinking. I should be out there before dark if I beat the traffic into San Bernardino.”


That’s
the spirit. Your dad always told me you were a good man, and Lymon says so, too. You take care of Aunt Iris. Don’t let her out of your sight, and for God’s sake,
don’t open the box
. If she gets loose in the car and the window’s down …”

“That won’t happen. Leave it to me.”

“That’s what I’m doing. That’s why I sent her to you. Like they used to say out here in Iowa, ‘If it was easy they’d have got someone else to do it.’”

“There’s truth in that,” Calvin said.

“Damn right there is. Otherwise I wouldn’t have said it. Let me know she arrived safe.”

“Will do.”

“One last thing,” Hosmer said, lowering his voice as if leery of being overheard. “You carry a portable horn?”

“I’m not sure—”

“A
blower?”

“I don’t know,” Calvin said. “A
blower
… ? Like a leaf blower?”

“A telephone, damn it. A
cellular
phone. A
portable.”

“Sure. You want the number?”

“That’s right. And keep it charged up. But once you’re out there in the desert,
think twice about using it
. Assume someone’s listening. If it’s necessary,
I’ll call you”

Calvin reeled off his phone number and the strange conversation was done. He couldn’t remember the last time he had exchanged pleasantries with Cousin Hosmer—probably at an Iowa picnic back in the late Middle Ages. And now this. He hefted the box. A ghost didn’t weigh much. Maybe they actually had
negative
weight, like helium, which is why they float.

“Duty calls,” he said out loud. His voice sounded strange in the otherwise silent house. Certainly duty had called in
a bizarre way, but who was he to ask needless questions? Like the man in the poem, his was but to do or die. “ ‘Out of the mouths of babes,’ “ he said, “ ‘rode the six hundred.’ “ And then he laughed, picturing the cartoon, which would be utterly meaningless to anyone who hadn’t read the poem, and maybe even if they
had
read it.

He put in the call to his uncle Lymon. “I’m on my way,” he said. “I’ve got Aunt Iris.”

“We’ll have dinner waiting,” his uncle told him. “I cooked it yesterday. And can you do me a favor? There’s a little market fifty miles this side of Ludlow out on 1-40, the Gas’n’Go. They’ve got grape Nehi soda in bottles. Pick me up a couple of six-packs, will you? I don’t get out that way much, and I can’t find it in Bullhead City. I’ll pay you back.”

“My treat,” Calvin said.

“Then make it a case,” his uncle said, and both of them laughed.

FRED WOOLSWORTH

T
he barren peaks of the Dead Mountains loomed ahead, off toward the horizon on the north side of the highway, sharp against the desert sky and bunched together along the Colorado River where California, Arizona, and Nevada merged, and where lay the magical, invisible line that marked the time zone. Calvin looked into the rearview mirror, unpleasantly startled, as he most often was, at the sight of his own face. Elaine had told him once that he looked like a young Jimmy Stewart, and he reminded himself of that from time to time. He was the right build anyway, and he could see the resemblance, but there was some essential quality he lacked—the endearing manner of speaking, maybe, or the twinkle in the eye.

He looked past himself, deeper into the mirror, at the gray hills of the Bullion Range, diminished and hazy but still visible behind him. As far as he could tell, there wasn’t a lick of difference between the two dry ranges—one in
front and one behind—except that one was associated with gold and the other with death. Probably the names were the quirk of a geological survey team that had come out from the west and lost its sense of humor along the way, which wouldn’t be any more difficult than losing a penny if you were out here in the desert for more than a few days.

He tossed his road map onto the passenger seat and considered the strange fact that a person forfeited an hour merely by crossing into Arizona—a purely imaginary hour, of course, but an hour that could only be regained by turning around and heading back west. Except if one never returned west, then one was an hour closer to the grave, if only in some mystical sense. There was something unsettling in it, although he was unsettled by any number of things these days—a consequence, probably, of some variety of looming midlife crisis, although he was a little young for that sort of thing, which was … unsettling.

A vehicle appeared on the highway ahead of him now, shimmering in the heat haze until it solidified into an old green pickup truck with a bad muffler. It roared past, the sun glaring so brightly on the windshield that it might have been Elijah rattling away in a glowing whirlwind, bound for the Promised Land. Some fifty miles past Ludlow he spotted the grape soda connection, and he turned off the highway into a solitary two-pump gas station, lunch counter, antiques store, and market rolled into one. The sign on the big window read “Gas’n’Go Antiques and Cafe.” The place sat adjacent to a dry lake that wasn’t dry. Over the last few weeks, late summer storms had strayed in from Arizona and left a few inches of water in the lake bed, which cheerfully reflected the blue sky, tinged with gold from the declining sun.

A gust of wind ruffled the surface of the lake, breaking up the reflection, and Calvin climbed out of the Dodge
and into the searing heat, nearly staggered by it after the air-conditioned trip out from Eagle Rock. A hand-painted sign on the gas pump read “Pay First!” in order to ward off bolters, so he went inside, hauling two twenties out of his wallet. He shut the door behind him to keep out the heat, and a little bell jingled, although no one came out. There were the sounds of a swamp cooler working on the roof and a distant radio playing country-western music, but the place was apparently empty of customers.

He smiled approvingly and glanced around, taking in the junk food on the shelves, the groceries, the sign over the lunch counter that advertised chili fries and cheeseburgers. Maybe on his way back out he would stop in for a bite to eat, generate some serious heartburn for the long drive home. He could grab a roll of antacids to keep his aura on the necessary sublunar wavelength. Cases of beverages lay piled on the floor beyond a picnic table with benches, including, conveniently, an unopened case of grape Nehi soda.

The antiques sat against the wall by the deli case—baloney and bologna side by side. There were roadkill license plates, bric-a-brac, oil lamps, a rack of books, and some dusty souvenirs including a small plastic toilet with multiple removable coaster-seats that read “I crapped out in Las Vegas.” He was sorely tempted to buy the toilet seat coasters as a gift for his aunt, but instead he stepped across to look at the books, which were mostly Westerns and old cookbooks, but also a few likely looking strays. He felt the familiar surge of interest and greed, the off chance that there would be something valuable, or at least strange enough to be appealing.

The paper was dried out in most of the books and was decomposing and fly specked—the eventual fate of everything in the desert—and at first glance there wasn’t much
in the racks to interest him. Then he spotted a sort of oversize pamphlet, bound like a book, but with its heavy paper cover stapled on near the spine. It was titled
The Death of John Nazarite, Betrayal in the California Desert
and was published by something called the Fourteen Carats Press in Henderson, Nevada, in 1956. The logo of the press was a flat-bottomed, panning-for-gold pan with the legend “Fourteen Carats” on it. The price was thirty-two dollars, which had to be cheap. The heavy paper cover was chipped along the edges from heat and sunlight, but for a paper-bound book with fifty years on it, it wasn’t in bad shape, especially considering where it lived. There was a frontispiece in it, a woodblock illustration of a woman standing before the mouth of a cave in a fortress-like cliff, holding a platter bearing a bearded, severed head. The wide-open eyes in the head gazed out longingly over what might have been the Dead Sea, and in the distance stood a range of rocky, desert peaks. The illustration was titled “Bring Me the Head of John Nazarite.”

It appeared to be the Salome and John the Baptist story with some geographic curiosities—the Jordan River having become the Mojave, and the Dead Sea exchanged for the Salton Sea. One illustration pictured several men in white tunics with red crosses on the front. One of them held an ornate wooden chest the size of a bread box. The caption read “The Red Cross Knights Receive the Head.” Clearly the book was cultistic, a piece of California crypto-history. Calvin was possessed by the certainty that the Fates badly wanted him to divest himself of thirty-two dollars. He looked at the list of Fourteen Carats Press publications in the back of the pamphlet—books on secret societies, desert mummies, saucer cults, the Lost Dutchman’s mine—nearly
two pages of seductive titles, plenty enough to give his life purpose again.

He would add this happily to his growing pile of paper and ink that virtually no one else on earth had the slightest interest in. One nice thing about being a bachelor, he thought as he turned toward the front counter, was that you could do as you pleased, although it wasn’t always clear to him why he was pleased to do as he did, especially when he had no one to please but himself. During the time that he had been with Elaine, he hadn’t nearly as often done as he pleased, but he had often been surprised to find that he was pleased anyway.

He put the thought out of his mind and grabbed the toilet seat coasters on the way to the register. He couldn’t show up at his aunt’s doorstep without a token of his esteem, after all. He recalled that she had a set of salt and pepper shakers that had been owned by a shirttail relative of Elvis Presley, and there was an evident Elvis Presley connection here, too—the King dying on the throne and all—although it was unlikely that he could point it out to his aunt.

A woman who might have been sixty-five came out of the back to wait on him. She was wide and suntanned and had a naturally scowly look that reminded him pleasantly of Tugboat Annie. She had large arms, as if she wrestled bears and was good at it. “Gas?” she asked him, her voice sounding like gravel on sandpaper.

BOOK: The Knights of the Cornerstone
9.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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