Well, in case you've wanted to try my fiction on for size, here is a short story, which I like very much. However, it was turned down by the editor at my regular publisher (Untreed Reads) and his reasons for doing so are quite valid. It still doesn't change how much I enjoy the idea of this story, and I think it makes a great story to post on my blog for everyone's enjoyment--completely free of charge.
Feel free to leave me some comments, suggestions for improvement, encouraging words, death threats, earnest pleas to stop writing for good, or recipes for Pots de Creme.
So, without any further delay, here is Sackcloth Angel.
by Jesse S. Greever
The quarter that would kill Jim Karthright jostled carefree in his front pants-pocket. Jim strode down Fourteenth Street, retracing the same steps he had taken from 8:02 to 8:13 AM every morning for the last seventeen months, three weeks and two days.
And six minutes.
And thirteen seconds.
But who was counting?
After nearly twenty-two years overseas in faithful service to the National Security Agency, certain habits lingered in his demeanor. The average person might peg him as a paranoid, perhaps even a schizoid weirdy, but meticulous attention to minutiae had kept him alive during some pretty dicey moments in the past. He didn't see much use to messing with the formula just because he was retired.
He glanced furtively to his right towards the mirrorized glass of the Kerch Building, which afforded him a reflected view of the large picture display window of the Macy's across the street. Spring dresses adorned eerie headless, yet shapely, mannequins. It seemed that floral prints were the “in” thing this year.
Navy blue or black suits, crisp, starched white shirts and lackluster red or blue solid ties were the “in” thing for Jim every year. He slowed his pace ever so slightly, and focused on the surface of the display window waiting for just the right angle to present itself. He counted his steps carefully.
He willed his heartbeat to slow, as he forced himself into a calm state of mind. He focused his eyes just beyond the plane of the large display window, deep inside the fleeting reflection of the space approximately twenty-five feet behind him. His pace decreased imperceptibly, prolonging the brief glimpse of his six-o'clock position.
To his relief, he recognized no one from the last three times he had checked various reflection points. Short of having eyes in the back of his head, the next best thing was stealing a peek using a technique he had picked up in Leningrad in the late 1970s. It worked just as well in late 1980s America as it did in Soviet Russia just a decade prior.
Another forty-six steps and he would be at the threshold of the new Starbucks on the corner of Fourteenth Street and Rylen Avenue. At precisely 8:13 AM, he would assume his position at the back of the ordering line and mentally rehearse his drink order. In Europe, this type of establishment was quite common, but in America, the public was just kicking the tires of the corner coffee-shop where those who considered themselves trend-setters gathered and talked about the issues of the day. In Germany they called it a kaffeeklatsch. Here they probably just called it “bickering about politics and other random crap”.
This type of thing might actually catch on here in the U. S.
Jim applied a few careful foot-pounds of energy to the well-lubricated front door of the Starbucks, and the door swung effortlessly open. The commingling aromas of ground coffee and steamed milk and forced an unguarded smirk to slide across his lips.
Caffeine was a drug, no doubt about it. He had been hooked since the age of thirteen. Sitting at the kitchen table in rural Missouri, his father had held his finger to his pursed lips while motioning behind him with an awkward whip of the neck, the universal symbol for “I'm-about-to-do-something-that-your-mother-won't-approve-of-so-keep-this-just-between-you-and-me”. His Dad slid the coffee mug across the table. Young Jim gripped it by the handle, inhaled the intoxicating steam rising up from the surface, steadied himself and took a long slow sip.
The rest, as they say, is history.
* * *
The quarter that would kill Jim Karthright narrowly escaped being spent at the counter of the Starbucks. Jim had fumbled in his pocket to find the final penny to complete the exact change for his $2.87 grande latte. Under normal circumstances, he generally only carried enough change to pay for his morning coffee, but today, for some reason, an extra quarter had wound up in his front pants-pocket. He studied it curiously, the same way a numismatist might scrutinize a 1913 Liberty Head Nickel. He placed it on the counter, ready to give up the search and just shove $3.00 over to the cashier when he recalled that he had grabbed the other penny and slid it into his other pocket.
Such bewlidering inconsistency drove him crazy.
Just over a year out of the field and I'm already getting lazy.
The quarter destined to kill Jim Karthright slid comfortably back into his pocket.
* * *
Jim took measured sips of his perfectly prepared caffe latte while the lethal quarter rested comfortably in his pocket. His eyes darted restlessly from side to side, scanning the landscape of humanity that crowded into this corner storefront.
Definitely going to have to invest in Starbucks. Wonder if they've had an IPO.
He examined each person that walked through the door for a moment, noting height, weight, build, approximate age, skin color, hair color, and eye color (if he was able to make it out) with far more precision than the average John Q. Public, but far less than his previous vocation had required. Every time the front door popped open and someone left the coffee-shop, he made a mental note to cross them off his psychic census.
Outside the large front window, he spied a ratty panhandler begging for loose change. To Jim’s shock and amazement, the social pariah whipped open the door and strolled into the room with the ease of a regular customer, fouling the jovial atmosphere with a presence that could not be ignored. The clientèle gave wide birth to the new arrival, as he tried his best to mingle with the general population.
Caucasian male. Five feet, seven inches tall. One hundred fifty pounds. Moderately muscular build. Perhaps mid-fifties to early-sixties. Could be younger if hard living has aged him prematurely. Salt-and-pepper, shoulder length, extremely greasy hair. His eyes are—what are they? Violet? Impossible. Probably just deep blue. Maybe indigo.
Fascinated, Jim watched while the bum approached numerous patrons, each one uncomfortable by the spoilage of the homogeneous upwardly-mobile populace of the coffee shop. He strained to hear what the man was saying. He seemed rigid in his determination about something, based on his facial expressions and the tension that rippled across his forehead when he made his request. He remarked to himself in disbelief that on more than one occasion, he shook his head in refusal of dollar bills. He had an inexplicable, singular interest in something else.
Jim stared down at his coffee attempting to avoid eye-contact, but still strained to hear the man's obviously cockamamie story.
Probably dying of cancer. Maybe a Viet Nam vet. Or maybe a Viet Nam vet dying of cancer.
Jim closed his eyes and concentrated on isolating the man's voice over the tumult of milk steaming, coffee grinding and pseudo-intellectual self-aggrandizing. Once he locked in on the raspy voice of the unwelcome stranger, he entered a state of near trance-like meditation.
“I'm sorry sir, but I was wondering if I could bother you for a quarter.”
Well, he's nothing if not polite. But why just a quarter?
He opened his eyes as a yuppie-wannabe across the room reached into his Dockers and pulled out a quarter. He placed it into the derelict's grime-caked hand, which was met with a one-toothed smile (and that poor tooth was hanging on for dear life) and a wheezy cackle. Propriety dissolved like saccharin in a hot latte as the Super-Prep recoiled with a surprising lack of subtlety, as if a skunk had just sprayed directly into his nostrils.
Jim smiled with the same smugness a struggling single mother might embrace watching a rich CEO after a fender-bender with a telephone pole.
That'll teach you.
Jim watched the oldish man stagger over to a lone pay-phone on the wall opposite him, a tiny throng of coffee-sipping, self-centered, thirty-somethings scattered to give him wide berth. Treating the quarter like a gold Krugerrand, the old man cradled it in his cupped hands and approached the phone. With a touch of palsy unnoticed by anyone else, he grasped the quarter between his right thumb and forefinger, and guided it towards the slot.
Rapt, Jim leaned back in his seat and folded his arms across his chest. He listened with every fiber of focused attention in his being. The man picked up the receiver, fingers articulating with astonishing dexterity, wedged it between his ear and shoulder and slipped the quarter in the slot with a fluidity that betrayed the rest of his “poor-man-down-on-his-luck” demeanor.
His fingers hovered over the keypad on the dull silver phone console. His dialing-finger hesitated for a split-second before punching numbers that at once seemed both random and purposeful. Jim squinted to catch as many numbers as he could.
214 area code. Local. Somewhere in the Dallas metro area.
The man stiffened almost imperceptibly, and then began talking. Jim leaned forward, hoping his attention would remain unnoticed.
“Sam and Julie's plane just landed in Haifa, but they are being detained by local law enforcement for an undisclosed reason and are unable to contact you.”
He cradled the receiver and whirled around, scanning the room with eyes that seemed decades younger than the face that framed them.
The man resumed his quarter-scavenging hoedown around the room, approaching any new customer who walked through the door.
After another success, he repeated the process. Jim couldn't help but stare, only slightly conscious that at any moment the bum could turn around and lock eyes with him and the jig would be up. He was unsure that the man would have cared, but one could never be too sure about the privacy preferences of the homeless.
He connected to his next hapless victim. “I'm sorry to tell you that your husband, Morris, has been involved in a bit of a fender-bender. He's hurt his neck and is on his way to St. Bartholomew's downtown. He's asked you to meet him there.” Again, he hung up abruptly.
Guy probably hasn't eaten in days, but he's begging for change to make crank phone calls. Jim grunted his disapproval as he waited for the stranger to find his next hapless quarter-donor.
The stranger shifted his approach, asking for multiple quarters from each new unsuspecting, coffee-deprived caffeine junkie who rushed in the door. He hit on his third request, receiving three quarters from a well-meaning woman in a flashy, royal-blue pant-suit.
With mounting fascination, Jim followed the man with his eyes back over to the pay phone, and watched, spellbound, as he dropped three quarters into the slot, and proceeded to dial again.
913 area code. Kansas, I think. That explains the extra quarters—long distance charges.
As before, the strange caller cocked his head to the side, wedged the receiver against his ear, and slumped while waiting for the unwitting victim to answer the phone on the other end of the line.
Another apparent success.
“Mrs. Henderson? This is to inform you that you have been randomly selected by KCMO radio as a $100 winner in our 'Hundred-a-Day' contest. You need to come to the station today by 5 PM to claim your prize.”
Once again, he hung up abruptly without allowing the recipient of his mischief a chance to respond. Jim cocked an eyebrow and found a sly smile curling the corners of his mouth. Bemused, he dug around in his pocket to find the errant quarter that somehow had found its way into his pants pocket. Not sure whether to motion to the vagabond or to wait to be approached and officially pan-handled, the tightness that coiled in his abdomen, a result of the momentary lapse in decisiveness, dissipated as the strange man turned towards him and strode with purpose in Jim's direction.
He gripped the quarter on opposite edges between his thumb and index finger. He held it up in front of his face, awaiting the approach of its new owner.
Jim tried his best to purvey a sense of graciousness, an expression not in his normal repertoire. He cleared his throat, and the man locked eyes with him. Jim's awkward smile came off like an impossible mix of the few seconds after a particularly bad toe-stub and the split-second prior to a particularly humongous sneeze. “I certainly hope you don't have to dial another long-distance number, because I only have one quarter left.”
The bum cocked his head to the side and studied Jim for a few seconds before reaching out and snatching the quarter with a confidence unusual for the beggar type. “Don't worry, this one's local.” He stood in front of Jim, fist clenched around the quarter. “If you would be so kind, do you have the time?”
Man, this guy is abnormally polite. Jim was befuddled at the apparent contradiction directly in front of him; shabby, somewhat malnourished, but educated and more polite than ninety percent of the customers in the coffee shop. He found himself captivated again by the puzzle that was the exact hue of the man's eyes. At the present angle, they appeared midnight blue; seconds earlier, deep indigo. No matter what color, vibrant and effervescent.
He tore his eyes away from the stranger's face and glanced at his digital watch, complete with calculator. He returned his gaze to its previous target and answered, “It's just a few seconds before 8:29.”
The quarter that would kill Jim Karthright started its march toward the ultimate fulfillment of its destiny.
Jim leaned back in his seat and watched as the same process as before was repeated. He was so preoccupied with eavesdropping on the next prank call that he forgot to spy on the number dialed.
Once again, he dropped the quarter into the slot, dialed seven digits of a local phone number, and tapped his foot while apparently waiting for the call to connect. He turned slowly on his heel and made eye-contact with Jim, his expression a swirl of resignation and something else.
Was it pity?
“I need you to go out on your balcony and look on the street below, Mavis.”
Without knowing why, Jim shuddered, as icy fingers gripped the nape of his neck. The strange facial expression from the derelict left him with a haunted and hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach. A maelstrom of inexplicable unease churned from his brain to the tips of his toes, and he was struck with an immediate need to leave.
The quarter that would kill Jim Karthright dropped into the reservoir of coins inside the pay phone as the man hung the receiver in the cradle. Its work completed, it rested quietly with its minted brethren, waiting for the next opportunity to serve some grand design.
* * *
Jim pushed through the crowd in the Starbucks, furiously shoving through the exit. Emerging from the coffee shop, he gasped for breath, lungs tightening, chest constricting.
What WAS that? The vagabond's expression was forever burned into his memory. For all intents and purposes, it was the kind of look that a compassionate person would have given the bum, not the other way around. The incongruity of it all tugged his brain in a million different directions, while he attempted to reconcile all the information cascading through his psyche.
He stumbled on the pavement, nearly falling face-first onto the sidewalk. Righting himself, he looked up just in time to see the silver, late-model Cadillac buck like an unbroken stallion as it hopped the curb, thrusting itself up on to the sidewalk. Frozen by a fusion of terror, confusion and acceptance at the inevitability of his own annihilation, Jim found himself enjoying the last few moments of life as he knew it in extreme slow-motion.
He made out the horrified look of the Cadillac driver, an old woman with a beehive hairdo that nearly reached the ceiling of the plush interior cab of the car.
He observed the scattering of fellow pedestrians, milliseconds crawling by like minutes, seconds like hours. He vaguely heard screams and shouts of “get out of the way”, but the curious, echoing voices seemed millions of miles away.
He craned his neck and peered back toward the Starbucks just in time to see the vagabond making his egress, head bowed and feet shuffling. Something wasn't right, though. Jim was unable to discern what exactly was violating his sensibilities, but for some reason, something about the derelict did not belong in the tableau that played out in front of his eyes.
Wait, how is he moving faster than—
The gigantic luxury vehicle overcame him and smashed against his abdomen, doubling him over, forcing his face against the hood. The front bumper obliterated the massive front window of the Starbucks, glass shards large and small slicing and ripping Jim's flesh. He felt the first few, but as his body was torn to fleshy ribbons resembling ground beef, agony gave way to numbness and shock faded into peace.
As the universe resumed its normal pace, screams and shouts assaulted his ears. His lifeblood hemorrhaged onto the floor of the once bustling coffee shop. Spine shattered, he was unable to move his head, but in the last few seconds of consciousness, his facial nerves registered the heat emanating from the hood of the car against his cheek. He watched as the prank-calling pan-handler approached him, knelt down to meet his glassy gaze and placed a grime-laden hand on his forehead.
He spoke softly. “It won't be long now.” His voice had transformed from gravelly to preternaturally smooth, his words woven together with beauty and grace. “Just close your eyes.”
* * *
Iris Pembroke pulled onto Fourteenth street, scalp still ablaze after being under the hair-dryer for almost thirteen minutes longer than recommended. She knew it had been a terrible idea to keep her weekly hair appointment when she found out that Melanie was out sick, but in the last 24 hours, her hair had become unmanageable. Desperation won out over common sense, and she kept her appointment with the new stylist.
Ignoring the instructions of Morgan, a wretched excuse for a substitute stylist, she reached up and scratched furiously at her overcooked scalp. At least for the moment, the itching had subsided under the intense scratching, leaving only the searing pain of scalp on fire.
She glanced at the digital clock on the dashboard, then looked up at the road in front of her, just in time to see a young man in those strange tight exercise pants and a form-fitting shiny white shirt on a bicycle swerve into the her lane. Grasping the steering wheel with a white-knuckle-grip-of-death, she yanked to the right, avoiding the cyclist by inches.
She screeched as the car jolted, pitching itself onto the sidewalk, dividing the throng of pedestrians like Moses parting the Red Sea. The unlucky soul who had not been paying attention slammed onto her hood as she exploded through the front window of the new coffee shop on the corner.
* * *
Just one more mile to go.
Courtney Jackson pushed against the pain as he pedaled the bicycle down the busy street. He didn't particularly relish the heavy traffic this morning, as motorists generally didn't afford him the courtesy of giving him space on the roadway, but he shrugged it off. Any cyclist who chose to ride through urban areas was well aware of the risks.
His mid-week thirty-five mile ride had taken him from the northern suburbs right into the heart of downtown. Most of the way, traffic had been light for the morning commute, but as the skyline came into view, the usual gridlock had taken shape. Courtney had enjoyed the flexibility of being able to weave in and out of the stopped traffic, and on only a few occasions, had he needed to stop with the rest of the traffic.
Making a split-second decision and seeing an opportunity to avoid the automotive log-jam ahead, he turned on to Rylen Avenue from Fifteenth Street. He inhaled, filling his lungs to capacity as the roadway opened up before him, nearly all lanes clear.
Not much further.
The weekly ritual always brought him to Jackie's apartment, where he would immediately shower and then they would enjoy a leisurely breakfast before they were both off to work. They had been dating for nearly three years, and the time had come for the inevitable “popping-of-the-question”. His left hand fidgeted as he grasped fanny-pack which held the three-quarter-carat diamond engagement ring and the midnight-blue velvet box. Satisfied that it was still in place, he resumed his normal grip on the handle-bars.
He glanced around behind him, checking the traffic in the right lane. Only a large Cadillac was behind him, and it was a good distance away, so he made the appropriate hand-signal and drifted over to the right lane.
A large terracotta flower pot smashed to the ground a few feet in front of him, its floral contents scattering in the roadway. Courtney jerked the handle-bars hard to the left to avoid puncturing his front tire on the shards of the flower pot. His center of gravity shifted, and he touched his foot down on the roadway to avoid an embarrassing and likely excruciatingly painful face-plant in the middle of Rylen Avenue.
The Cadillac bore down on him, but seconds before impact, the driver swerved the car into the right lane, and ground the remnants of the flower pot into dust under its tires. Courtney applied firm pressure to the handle-brakes and stopped in the middle of the street, but not before checking to make sure no other imminent danger was afoot.
Screams wafted into the air as the behemoth luxury car bucked up onto the sidewalk.
* * *
Mavis Torgerson ambled through the living room of her small one-bedroom apartment towards the ringing rotary-dial phone on the kitchen counter. The clanging phone had startled her as it interrupted her morning routine of eyebrow landscaping. Almost no one ever called her, and certainly not before 9 AM.
She reached for the receiver, lifted it from its cradle and brought it to her ear.
“I need you to go out on your balcony and look on the street below, Mavis.”
“What? Who is this?” The line was dead.
Scrambling to place the voice on the other end, her mind ran through dozens of possibilities. The person on the other end clearly knew who she was. Could it have been Harry? He wasn't supposed to be home from his tour of duty until next month, but perhaps he had gotten to come home early, and wanting to surprise her, had disguised his voice. Intense curiosity and anticipation gripped her as she slid the glass door open. She stubbed her toe on the threshold, and pitched forward, catching herself on the railing. Her hand thrust into one of her planters, and she gazed in horror as she watched it teeter over the edge, falling four stories to the street below.
She regained her composure, toe still throbbing. She peered over the edge of the railing and watched the flower pot crash right in front of a bicyclist, missing him by mere inches. Her heart pounded as she watched the cyclist steer away from the mess she had created in the street, and her breath hitched when she noticed the large vehicle approaching him.
She tried to look away, but found herself frozen, terrified by the scene playing out before her eyes. She half-yelped when she saw the car swerve away from the man on the bicycle; she squealed in abject terror when she realized the car was barreling into a crowd of pedestrians on the sidewalk.
A cacophony of screams of dread and despair mixed with the grinding of glass and steel as the car careened into one of the storefronts below. Mavis's own desperate cries mingled with them as she collapsed onto the concrete floor of the balcony.
* * *
Jim Karthright drifted in relative peace, as the horrific scene faded away. Separate from his body, a mangled mess of shredded viscera laid out on the floor of the once bustling coffeehouse, he found himself at peace, detached from the chaos.
Darkness enveloped him.
The designs of the inevitable laid themselves out before him as the final words his mortal ears would ever hear followed him as he made his way towards the light.
It won't be long now. Close your eyes.
Jesse S. Greever is the CEO of eLectio Publishing, a digital publisher for Christian authors. If you are a Christian author and have a manuscript that you think is worthy of publication, check out the submission guidelines and follow the directions for manuscript submissions.
Greever is also a co-author of the book, Learning to Give in a Getting World, and numerous fiction titles from Untreed Reads publishing.
Greever is also a co-author of the book, Learning to Give in a Getting World, and numerous fiction titles from Untreed Reads publishing.
You can become a fan of eLectio Publishing on FaceBook: http://www.facebook.com/eLectioPublishing
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Learning to Give in a Getting World, by Marc Farnell and Jesse Greever, is available as both a paperback and eBook at the following locations:
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Amazon.com (paperback, $9.99; eBook, $2.99)
Pastors and church administrators can contact me directly at email@example.com to find out about discounts available for churches that wish to use this for teaching and small group curriculum.
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