Friday, December 25, 2020

A Salesman's Dilemma (Conclusion)


Previous: a man buys a device that can take pictures through walls.

Jeff had little trouble teasing out details of Janet's private life, since Margret enjoyed taunting him with it. Janet had a thing for fitness, keeping an organized schedule like everything else. Thursdays found her at the fitness center pool. Jeff bought a trial membership so folks got used to seeing him there. They also grew accustomed to the box, which he presented as a fancy coat rack.

The portentous day saw Janet arrive right on time. Jeff watched from his car until she went inside. He had scoped out the dressing rooms and found out from a custodian which locker bore her name. After retrieving the box from his trunk, he hurried inside and stuck it on the wall corresponding to where the locker must be on the other side. No one was about at the moment it began to move a few inches. Whirring sounds heralded the extrusion of its bag, which began to fill with pictures--lots of them. When it was done, Jeff secreted the bag in his coat. He went straight to the car and returned the box to the trunk.

The work day went by in a haze. Margret twice asked him if anything was wrong. It occurred to him that his relationship with Janet, such that it was, would never be the same. Could he keep the guilt off his face?  

At home that evening after dinner, he retreated to his den. His wife knew not to intrude there without a good reason, but still he only stared at the unopened packet. An agonizing half hour later, he'd put a hand on the seal five times without tearing it off. Ultimately he put it in his briefcase. Janet, he reasoned, deserved one more chance not to see him as a bug.

His banter with her the next day was strained, and she sensed it. He hadn't even looked at the pictures yet; how much worse could it get for a guilty conscience? By ten, he had to get away, even if it meant making blind sales calls. But before he got his coat on, the phone rang.

"How did you like the pictures?" Parallax asked.

"I didn't look. I'm gonna bring the box back to you. Keep the money."

"It isn't so simple. As good as the pictures are, I could make a mint selling them on the web."

"You've seen 'em? How?"

"You noticed the orb I wear on a necklace. It links me with the box in a special way; I see what the box sees. Tell you what: I'll refrain from selling them for five thousand."

Jeff went speechless for a moment. "That's a bluff. You don't have squat."

"Then check your fax."

Panicked, Jeff hustled to a corner where the fax sat atop a cabinet of paper supplies. A sheet inched its way out. It was Janet, just beginning to undress. This was a nightmare, and the only thing he could do was buy time.

Back at the phone, he tried to keep his voice steady. "You win, Parallax. I'll have to max out a card."

"Certainly. By the end of this business day." 

Sure, only it wouldn't be money the creep was getting, but a knock on the head and theft of his necklace. Hopefully he hadn't found a way to make hard copies as insurance. 

At half past twelve, Janet went out for lunch, giving him a little wave. I don't need your charity, babe, because I've got something better. Or did he? Jeff decided to come clean before he set out to confront Parallax. Gathering courage, he sauntered over to Margret's desk.

"So--did we find a lab tech?"

"Not this one." Margret leaned back in her seat. "She's a Jehovah Witness and doesn't do blood bank. The client said that isn't fair to co-workers, since they'd do more than their share in a high-stress department."

Hardly hearing, he handed over the packet. "Will you, uh, tell me what's in there?"

Margret ripped the seal and looked inside, looking as though she'd been punched. Page after page, her anger grew hotter. "This is a new low, even for you, you creep! Janet will call the cops on you! Better get a good lawyer, and don't be here when the boss finds out!"

"I haven't looked at them, I tell you. Here, I'll burn them."

Margret clutched the packet close. "Fat chance! These may only be copies, but none of the guys here will ever see them!" 

Miserable, Jeff headed home for the day, telling his wife he was out of sorts. Which was quite true. He tried watching a ball game, doing yard work. Anything to put off the confrontation with Parallax. In the end, he knew he wasn't a TV-style commando. There was only one option left. 

Janet was always last to leave the office. Jeff carried the box up to the tenth floor, exiting to hear the rapid tap of computer keys down the hall. She was quite a fast typist. He leaned against the door frame and made a slight cough.

She rose and faced him with a hurt look, dazzling in a yellow dress. 

"No, I didn't look." Jeff rubbed the back of his neck. "Let me prove it." He gave her the box. "This thing takes pictures through walls. There was this ad in the paper, and, well. . . ."  He pressed on. "Margret can confirm it was unopened. I just could't do it."

"But why, Jeff?"

"Because I'm the office bozo. I don't want this to get around, but. . . ." He looked to either side to be sure they were alone. "Your friendship means more than any cheap thrill. You gotta believe me. . . ."

"I believe you." 

Jeff's brow crinkled in disbelief. "You do? Wow, you're a special lady, Jan. So. . . .some day for lunch--"

"No." Her old flirtatious confidence was back.

"Right." Jeff gave the thumb's up. "See you tomorrow."

At home that night, he waited for the hammer to fall, but Parallax never called. Neither did he answer when Jeff called. Was it a con all along--that the man had no way to post the pictures? At any rate, Jeff got to keep his five grand another day at least.

Next morning at work, he got a call from a police detective, informing him Parallax had been murdered. 

"You're not a suspect," the  cop said, "because whoever did this was one strong psycho. The guy was broken in two dozen pieces." 

It took Jeff awhile to recover. Then he remembered the guy's necklace, how it linked him intimately with the box. He rushed over to Janet's desk. "Janet--what did you do with that box?"

"I was pretty mad, so I took a hammer to it."

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

A Salesman's Dilemma


For the fourth time that day, Jeff left his desk and sidled up to the raven-haired receptionist, Janet. He got the eyeroll in passing from Margret, a middle age type who handled lab science for the temp agency. She liked to remind him he was married and had kids. That didn't dampen his absorption in Janet, and the red dress was one of his favorites. He knew her entire wardrobe by now--not all that extensive for her limited salary.

He rested a leg on the edge of her desk, intoxicated by some powdery scent she wore today. "You know, babe, you could--"

"Be a model. That's the first thing you said this morning, Jeff. Now if you don't mind. . . ."

Jeff raised hands and backed away with his best boyish grin. Just getting her to notice him was a foot in the door, albeit one that only opened so far under chain and padlock. He cast a wry glance at Margret in passing. "What's it gonna take?" 

"Try this." Margret leaned back from her computer. "Admit to yourself she's out of your league, and stop being a jerkheimer." 

"Eh!" Back at his desk by the tenth-floor window, Jeff put up his feet and sipped coffee from a paper cup. The newspaper lay folded at the classifieds. He looked over the agency's ad copy for heavy equipment operators. His employer had high standards, and it wasn't easy finding the right stuff for the job. The want ads were a good place to see what the competition was up to. Sometimes you could get lucky under "special services" by finding a jack of all trades. 

"What's this?" Jeff tucked his pencil behind an ear and read the blurb. 

Want your dream girl or guy? J P Parallax, booksellers. Scrolls, Talismans, Charms, Artifacts.

He jotted down the address. It was early yet, so he could look into this and still get in a sales call before lunch. He rose and rakishly slung his sport coat over a shoulder, but Janet wasn't looking. "Janet, my love, I'll be back at one if anybody calls."

"Noted, Jeff, noted." She made an entry on her super-organized ledger before picking up an incoming call. Jeff's dreams were haunted by that customized purring ring tone, Maybe this Parallax guy had some trick he could insert into the earpiece. . . .nah, he was probably just another con man. Jeff snickered at the memory of "X ray glasses" that used to come in cereal boxes. 

He made the appointed stop at a construction rigging firm. It turned out most of these guys were lifers who weren't interested in moonlighting or being lured away by more money. The manager took his business card with a bored look. Admittedly, Jeff wasn't his usual boisterous self, what with the distraction of the coming call at the occult shop. 

The store lay in the old part of town where parking was at a premium. He found a spot in a weed-sprouted gravel lot behind a hardware store, just about the only place that didn't have apocalyptic warnings for those who dared to park here. A three-block walk brought him to a shop front beneath three floors above. 

An old-fashioned bell announced his entry. The place had that queasy feel of the forbidden arts, though bent in a more scifi direction. Posters of ancient civilizations loomed over rows of glass cases. 

A man who could only be Parallax came downstairs from a circular gallery; he had the second floor as well. His suit had a pretentious modern cut with a Nehru collar. The high forehead sported a widow's peak that grayed at the temples.

"Let me guess," he said. "A woman."

"Am I that obvious?" No wonder Janet kept him at arm's length.

"What shall it be, then? Love potion? Knockout drops?"

"Whoa! I don't wanna go to jail, here, pardner!"

Parallax looked right through him. "I sense you're willing to admire the lady from afar. Something akin to X ray goggles, for example."

"You have those?" Jeff caught himself, remembering the cereal box thing.

"Nothing that wouldn't be painfully obvious to the lady. There is, rather, a more discreet device. Come with me." Parallax threaded the rows of cases full of gimmicky-looking gizmos. He unlocked one and took out what resembled a box of tin foil. "This way for a demonstration." He made for the rear wall, where lesser treasures lay on shelves. "I'm going into the back room. You'll see the box activate, but don't be alarmed." He stuck the box on the wall, where it adhered, and vanished through an arched doorway. 

Seconds later, the box moved a few inches, and exuded a thin white paper bag. Whirring sounds happened, and the bag filled with what seemed to be printouts. 

Parallax came back, his coat draped over an arm, revealing a white shirt with Chinese collar. "Tear the bag off and look inside." 

The bag contained a series of photos showing Parallax removing his coat. The implication caused Jeff a brief arrhythmia. "Unreal! You mean, all I do is put this on a dressing room wall?"

Parallax wore a hint of a grin. "You'll have to be circumspect. If someone sees the box move, they will probably take it down and discover its contents." He waited. "It's quite reasonable at fifty dollars."

"Too reasonable," Jeff said suspiciously. "Where'd you get it?"

"Let's say it's from Old Atlantis. My name, in fact, is Atlantean." He smoothed Jeff's lapel. "I'll take one of you, so you can see it's on the level."

Jeff needed no urging. Once in the dim corridor, he removed coat and tie. When he came out, the box was already filling its bag. He tore it open and gaped at views of himself removing coat and tie. Next thing he knew, he was counting out the bills. "I don't know how you stay in business, amigo."

"I aim to serve," Parallax said a little too smoothly. 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

An Almost Perfect Murder


Bramwell sat against the wall facing the open door of an empty room--a room quite different from the empty one at his father's estate. The first time it had come to life, he'd been too cautious to cross over, not knowing how long the phenomenon would hold. It wouldn't do to be trapped over there. He'd seen the lady who used it as a bedroom, relieved that she couldn't see him. 

As the scion of a shipping magnate, his time was his own, and he often had the mansion to himself. Let his father's crowd call him a boozer and a wastrel if they wanted to; he was the one who had mastered the I Ching. He had inscribed arcane symbols on the door frame, then hidden them from view with a new overlay. The next step involved passing a caged mouse through on a pole, just to assure no ill effects. The time had come to test his theory to the hilt.

He stepped through into cooler air, looking back at ornate wall paper. Briefly panicked, he passed a hand back through to make sure the way back was still there. Footsteps sounded outside. He quickly stepped back through just as an aristocratic lady came in. She had no reason to touch the wall where the portal was, but if she staggered into it, she'd be in for a huge surprise. The lady sat down to her sewing, heedless of being observed. Bramwell briefly entertained lewd possibilities, these being interrupted when the view winked out of existence. He stared at the open door on his side, with its view of the dusty guest room and its sheet-covered furnishings. The event had timed at eighty-nine seconds.

Moments later he was galloping toward the seaside town, where constables patrolled the wharf. Tipsy sailors were known to fall into the river when they weren't fighting. A distant church bell lent an air of peace to streets recently wet from a passing shower. Bramwell breathed in the earthy scent, wondered if folks in that other world had the same type of government, the same values.

He paid an enterprising lad to stable his horse and fetch him a pint, his calling card serving as credit. For the moment, he was content to perch on a stanchion in the shadow of a hulking cargo ship. With lofty sails reefed, its masts soared darkly into a fading sky awhirl with gulls. When the boy returned across the cobbled street, Bramwell shaded eyes from reflections on waterfront windows. He hired the lad for a final task: deliver a message to Jason Aulding.

An hour later, his tankard nursed to the dregs, Bramwell watched Aulding saunter along on a white charger. The two men were similar in many ways, but where Bramwell was dark-haired and favored black, Aulding was sandy-haired and affected light colors. Aulding dismounted and handed the reins to the same industrious lad, giving him an ostentatious tip. He knew how to needle Bramwell. He bundled up against the gathering evening chill and cocked an ear to a clanking buoy out in the channel. Just when the wash of tide grew loud in the uneasy standoff, Aulding was obliged to speak first, curiosity having bested him.

"Hollingwood, I'll hear your spiel in comfort, and pray do not waste my time."

Bramwell followed him to the tavern at the end of the lane, the King's Inn, one of the better establishments. It played host to some ship captains and well-heeled merchants. They slid into a side table and ordered their usual from the waitress: ale for Bramwell, and cognac for the presumptuous Aulding. Tobacco smoke mingled with cooking odors, reminding Bramwell he'd been too absorbed to attend his lunch.

"Which is it to be?" Aulding began, favoring the other with his cultivated stare. "It's either our mutual quest for Marilou, or your bizarre dealings in the occult. What crackpot scheme have you come up with this time?"

The violinist finished a reel, then shifted to a slower tune more conducive to intrigue.

"Marilou?" Bramwell eyed his foe over his just-arrived mug. "I've always believed it's the woman who chooses, they being much more particular then we. You may court her with my blessing."

Aulding's brow went up. "The I Ching thing? I take it you've made some sort of breakthrough to justify the ruinous outlay of funds. The townsfolk can scarce believe your father's indulgence."

Sneer away, Bramwell thought. You're better at fencing and dancing, skills that will hardly serve you in three days. "In a certain room at the estate, I have tapped into a foreign reality." In the end, Bramwell knew, Aulding must demand proof, the better to regale his friends with Bramwell's spectacular failure.

"This is known only to you?" Aulding asked suspiciously.

"It is, though my father must needs be aware of my precipitate and costly quest for knowledge." Bramwell cast about for eavesdroppers. "Commercial and  military uses are endless. My fortune is set, and I look forward to paying off my debts. Why limit myself to a small town and its quaint pool of paramours?" 

Aulding took the bait. "Why be hasty? You clearly have some joint venture in mind. There remains only the proof."

Bramwell made a mock toast. "In three days the phenomenon is due again. I have arranged to have the mansion to myself. Even the maids are dismissed."

"I shall bring along two associates," Aulding stated. "You've arranged quite the opportunity for mischief." He made a mocking toast. "Either way, my trip shall not be wasted."

At the appointed time, Bramwell convinced the "associates" to remain downstairs, where they had no objection to a free hand at the liquor cabinet. On the way upstairs, he touched the pistol tucked into his waistband. He and Aulding passed portraits of forgotten ancestors in gilded frames. They passed through a far door into a corridor filled with dusty, slanted beams of evening light.

Aulding paused at the indicated door. "This changes nothing. If your experiment proves valid, I must have repayment of your debt this night."

So you shall have it, Bramwell thought. "The windfall from the venture will more than cover it." Aulding followed his awed look into the phantom room. Unfortunately, the young woman, now with piled hair, was at her sewing again. This would complicate things. 

"Astounding!" Aulding, convinced she couldn't hear him, made bold to take a closer look. Bramwell shoved him across the threshold. 

The lady rose, a hand at her mouth in surprise at the man who'd just come through a wall. Bramwell waited for Aulding to rise and turn around, then fired a shot. Aulding clutched his chest and dropped to his knees, prompting the lady to scream and flee the room. With a satisfied leer, Bramwell tossed the murder weapon across. The associates would come running, but would find no gun.

Impossibly, Aulding lurched to his feet. Bramwell hadn't considered the need to shoot again: a suicide victim die not shoot himself twice. He had to stop the man from coming back out!

He'd forgotten that Aulding was the stronger of the two, even mortally injured. They grappled in the foreign bedroom. Seconds remained before the portal closed again. With an immense effort, Bramwell landed on top, freed himself, began scrabbling backward toward the wall. 

Intense pain at his ankles caused him to collapse, and Aulding hauled him onto his own chest, intent on having the last word. Bramwell looked back. The portal had closed on his ankles, leaving his feet on the other side. He was rapidly bleeding to death.

Aulding favored him with a final sneer. "The perfect murder, eh, Bramwell? Nay--a thoroughly botched murder-suicide!" 

Footsteps pounded up the stairs, but neither man was alive to witness who it was.