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Authors: James P. Blaylock

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BOOK: The Knights of the Cornerstone
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“Hello, Aunt Nettie!”

She apparently wasn’t asleep, because she glanced up at him now with an interrupted sort of look, as if he were a door-to-door salesman. Then her expression changed to one of veiled recognition. “So you’ve come at last,” she said.

“Yes, indeed,” he told her, trying not to read too much into her demeanor and tone. She was thinner than he remembered, and somehow it made her look taller. Her straight hair, still with streaks of black in it, was cut short, almost bobbed. In the past, though, she’d had a piercing gaze, but now it was dulled, and he wasn’t certain that she actually knew who he was at all. Maybe the “at last” business didn’t refer to him, but meant that she had been expecting the artifact. “I brought the veil,” he said.

She looked downward and put her cupped hand over her eyes, as if to hide her sudden emotion, and then she clutched at his hand and held it, shaking her head. “God bless you,” she said. He hadn’t prepared himself for this—the change in her, even though Uncle Lymon’s letter had warned him. Half of what she had been had disappeared, and he looked out at the river for a moment to try to come to terms with it, which he couldn’t do. “You’ve come to
stay
this time.” Her eyes rolled back into her head disconcertingly, as if she were literally searching her mind. “It’s coming to pass,” she said.

“Sure,” he muttered stupidly. “But it was no problem, really. There was a little mix-up out at Shirley Fowler’s store, but we got it settled. Shirley sends her regards.”

“Shirley?” his aunt asked, recovering herself abruptly and giving him a doubtful look.

“Shirley Fowler, out on the highway—at the Gas’n’Go. She said her husband used to be a Knight. I didn’t catch his name.”

There was no sign that she understood him. “And you?” she asked.

“I’m doing pretty well,” he said. “Better than I deserve. How are you feeling?”

“Are you a
Knight?”

He smiled widely to deflect the baffling question, wondering again if she knew who he was after all, or whether she was speaking metaphorically somehow. “I … No, not really. I haven’t really thought much about it. I’ve been pretty busy.”

“The world is too busy for its own good,” she said softly. “I see a Knight in you.” And then, looking off into the distance, she said, “Shirley Fowler had a store out on 1-40. She’s a local girl, from out in Essex. How’s Leonard?”

“Leonard?”

“Shirley’s husband. Leonard Fowler.”

Dead,
he thought, but he didn’t say it. “He wasn’t there, actually. I didn’t speak to him.”

She nodded. “He hasn’t been out here for a good long time. Probably he’s passed away, like most of the rest of them.”

“I brought you a little something,” he told her cheerfully, and he handed her the paper sack, which she took from him while looking deeply into his eyes. “Go ahead and open it. It’s not Aunt Iris. …” he said, regretting both the comment and the coasters even as he said it. She hauled the plastic toilet out of the bag and took a good look at it, apparently trying to make sense of it. “I mean to say that it’s not the
veil
,” he said. “It’s a … knickknack. From Las Vegas.” There was a time when she would have laughed at it, but now she gave him a puzzled look, lifted off the top toilet seat, and peered at the legend inscribed on it. After a moment she laid the lid back on top of the others, put the whole thing back into the bag, and set it down under the chair. River water immediately began to swirl it away. “I’ll just put it inside the house,” Calvin said, snatching it up again. “I hear the sounds of supper. Can I bring you anything? Can of Budweiser?”

“They say it’s the king of beers,” she said, but she was gazing out over the river again. The fisherman in the row-boat was simply a dusky shadow now. Bats flitted through the air, darting and wheeling, and the muddy smell of the shoreline was heavy on the evening breeze. He could see the lights of the Temple glimmering on the water, and the storm clouds that had been out over the horizon a half hour ago loomed now in the darkening sky, creeping closer by the moment.

“Well, if you’re all right, I’ll just go inside, then,” he said.

She didn’t answer. Clearly she had gone downriver, as his uncle had put it. Either that or she was so mortified by the toilet seat coasters that she simply wasn’t speaking to him any longer. He went in the French doors and through the den, carrying the wet sack. In the kitchen he found his uncle heating a casserole in the microwave.

“Rice, bay shrimp, peas, and crumbled potato chips,” Lymon said when Calvin peered in through the glass in the oven door. “It’s straight out of Betty Crocker. It’s the potato chips that do the trick. When you reheat it, though, you’ve got to scrape off the old chips; otherwise they get limp. You crumble on a fresh layer, heat the whole mess up, and you’ve really got something. Better the second time around.”

“It looks delicious.”

“Your aunt will probably take hers outside tonight. She likes to be out on the river this time of the evening, especially when there’s weather.”

“I can see why. It’s beautiful out there. So how’s she coming along?”

“Come see, come saw,” his uncle said. “Some days are better than others. The cancer’s pretty far advanced. It was
in remission for a while, but when it came back …” He shook his head. “She’s still all right alone, though. She can take care of herself, at least for short periods of time.”

“That’s good,” Calvin said. “That makes a big difference.”

“I point it out because you’re free to come and go. I’m heading over to the Temple in an hour for a little meeting. I’d invite you along, but it’s an official thing, you know, just the Elders.”

“That reminds me of something,” Calvin said. “Bob Postum asked me to tell you that he’d see you at the Temple one of these evenings soon. He specifically wanted me to say ‘sooner rather than later.’ I thought he was being friendly, but now it doesn’t sound that way.”

His uncle shrugged. “It’s a lot of malarkey is what it is—nothing for you to worry about. Did he say ‘the Temple’ or ‘the Temple Bar’?”

“Not the same thing?”

“Well, loosely speaking, but your man Postum isn’t loose with his speech. He’ll lie to your face, but it’ll be carefully phrased, if you see what I mean. The building was meant to be a church, a meetinghouse, and it was referred to as the Temple from the earliest days.”

“Is there a Knights Templar connection there?” Calvin asked.

“It’s the same jargon. And you’ve seen the regalia. Sure there’s a connection. Anyway, the Temple was built on what looks like a sandbar, although of course it’s actually bedrock; otherwise it would have washed away years ago. People still call the island out there the Temple Bar because of the sandbar connection. And when it came to be used for social functions, and they put in the actual bar, then people started calling the
building
the Temple Bar, by which they meant something like a clubhouse. But a
clubhouse isn’t the club, you know, just like a church building isn’t the church.”

“So Postum didn’t mean that he would stop in for a drink?”

“Not if I had to guess, but a man like that enjoys being obscure. Are you all right with your own company tonight?”

“Sure,” Calvin said. “I’ll probably hit the hay early anyway.”

“Healthy, wealthy, and wise, eh? Good for you. You might think about joining up, though, while you’re out here. You’ve got a better pedigree than Bob Postum.”

“I’m pretty much dug in out in Eagle Rock.”

“Why not dig yourself out? With the equity you’ve got in that house of yours, you’d end up with money in the bank moving out here to New Cyprus. We’ve got a kind of rent control thing going. We like to move someone into a house without listing it—keep everything in the family. Most of the time, money doesn’t even change hands. The Knights take care of their own. Did Nettie say anything about it?”

“About what?”

“You becoming a Knight. It’s been on her mind a lot these days. When she’s … adrift … like she is tonight, she gets an idea about things. You don’t want to take what she says lightly, because it might just come to pass.”

The buzzer on the microwave went off, and at that same moment the bottom fell out of the water-soaked bag that Calvin was holding, and the tiny toilet dropped out onto the kitchen table, the seats falling off and clattering away, a couple of them dropping to the floor. One of them landed on the Aunt Iris box. His uncle peered at it. “ ‘I crapped out in Las Vegas,’ “ he read, and then chuckled. “We used to
call it ‘lost wages.’ If they sold one of these toilets to everyone who crapped out, they’d be rich.”

The coaster on the box suddenly shifted sideways, apparently moving under its own power, sliding uncannily along the top of the box as if it were being drawn by a moving magnet hidden inside. It hesitated at the edge, shuddered slightly, and then rose into the air and fell over the side, like one of the Gadarene swine off the edge of the cliff.

His uncle reached across and picked up the box. “It’s that breeze off the river,” he said. “It sets up air currents.” He went out through the kitchen door, taking the veil box with him. The door swung shut behind him, and Calvin picked up the fallen coasters. He dropped one of them onto the tabletop, and it clattered down without the least tendency to float or creep around. Then he went across to the open kitchen window and put his face to the screen. The air outside was dead-still now. It had the ozone smell of a pending storm. If there was an air current of any variety, it was subtle—too subtle to float toilet seats. Moments later the kitchen door swung open again and his uncle reentered, heading straight for the microwave. He spooned casserole onto plates, took one of them outside, and then came back in, opened two grape sodas, and poured them into ice-filled glasses. “Get it while it’s hot,” he said. “There’s nothing worse than cold casserole.”

“Maybe it was Aunt Iris, up to her old tricks,” Calvin said after they had sat down at the table.

“Maybe what was Aunt Iris?”

“That floating coaster.”

“I don’t follow you.”

“Cousin Hosmer tells me that her veil used to float around the house like a ghost.”

“Did he? I guess I never heard about that. That’s probably
the Hosmer sense of humor coming out. Let’s eat. And you give some thought to that offer of a house, too. That wasn’t just idle talk.”

The
offer
of a house
, Calvin thought, puzzling over it. He let it go, however, spotting the book from the Fourteen Carats Press lying on the kitchen counter where he had set it down. He reached across and picked it up, effectively changing the subject.

“Where’d you get hold of that?” Lymon asked him through a mouthful of food.

“From a rack of books out at the Gas’n’Go. It was published back in the fifties by a small press out in Henderson.”

“Fourteen Carats. That outfit’s in Bullhead City now, down behind the Safeway in the back room of the bookstore. They’re a curious crowd, or at least what’s left of them. And I mean curious like in a tendency to pay too much attention to the wrong things.”

“You know much about them, then?”

“They’ve been around about as long as I have, although the son’s got the press now. The old man passed away ten or fifteen years ago, under what they call mysterious circumstances. This story you’ve got here involves your man Postum, too, although you won’t find his name in it.”

“He didn’t mention that at the Gas’n’Go. He had to have seen it lying on the counter.”

“Let’s just say there were crimes committed—the kind where there’s no statute of limitations. It’s not the sort of thing a man talks about to a stranger. It’s too bad that he saw it, though. You called extra attention to yourself with it.”

“It’s just that I like this kind of local-color thing,” Calvin said. “I don’t care who was involved in any crimes.”

“You and I know that.”

“So we’re talking about murder here?” Calvin flipped open the book and looked at the frontispiece again.

“It sometimes goes along with the severing of a man’s head. There wasn’t enough evidence to convict anyone, though, and there were some powerful people involved. And of course back in those days, in the desert, things were a little bit … loose, you might say—frontier justice. You read a book like this and you’d think that the whole thing involved the Knights, but that’s not quite the way it was. These clowns weren’t the Knights of the Cornerstone, except for one or two renegade types, who got drummed out of New Cyprus before this nonsense came to pass. We don’t traffic in severed heads.”

“It looks like the story of Salome and John the Baptist, except set locally. What’s the
real
story, then?”

“It’s too long to tell it all, but there was a casino owner from up in Henderson, named Geoff de Charney, who claimed to be a descendant of the old French family. There’s a long line of Geoffrey de Charneys, dating way back. One of them was burned at the stake with Jacques de Molay when the Templars were betrayed. Anyway, he set himself up as Grand Master of a little crowd of would-be Knights in Henderson—young men, mostly. They had more money than sense, which can be a dangerous thing. He studied the old books and came up with the idea that if he reenacted the legends, he could generate some variety of alchemy and conjure up God knows what—a link to the spirit world that would lend them…
vitality
of some sort. Maybe ‘authenticity’ is a better word. There’s an apocryphal old story that the Templars possessed the head of John the Baptist back in the days of the Crusades and used it as some sort of oracle, and that’s what de Charney was aiming at. They all took on French names and wore the regalia,
but they were no more Templars than the man in the moon, least of all in spirit. More casserole?”

“Sure.” Calvin passed his plate across. “Don’t skimp on those crushed chips.”

“I told you it was good.”

“Is Aunt Nettie doing okay out there?” Calvin asked. “I could take her seconds.”

“She won’t finish the first helping. And she’s right where she wants to be. That view hasn’t changed in all these years, so she can sit out there and reminisce to her heart’s content. She loves a storm, too. We’ll just let her be.”

BOOK: The Knights of the Cornerstone
11.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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