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Consequences

        "I'm human too," said Nina. "I have needs."
         "You're a woman," said Jervil, as if in refutation.
         The air conditioner hummed busily, oblivious to their disintegrating relationship. It was cashmere coat cold. The tropical heat of Thailand was just beyond the concrete block walls, yet Thailand was unimaginable. This was like San Diego all over again. There was even, by some weird coincidence, the same movie rerun on TV: a radiant Julie Andrews singing in "The Sound of Music".
         "I am human," said Nina, wiping a trace of blood from her nose. "And you shouldn't have hit me."
         "I've killed people for less than that."
         "Listen to yourself! I've killed people - blah blah, ta-da! How old are you? Nine? You're carrying on like a little kid. It's over! Haven't you got that through your head? No more bang-bang. No more shooty-shooty. No more cowboy movie. The Agency doesn't need a washed-out alcoholic who can't even get it up any more."
         "I am not an alcoholic," he said.
         "You're a drunk. You're a rotten stinking boozing drunk!"
         Untrue, so she had it coming, so he hit her. Smack. She screamed. He hit her again.
         "You bastard!"
         "Perfect control," he said, coldly.
         True. Perfect control. He could have lost it then and there. Could have beaten her to a bloody pulp. But he didn't. He had control. See? But she didn't. Because of her emotional wiring. Her womanhood.
         Next thing, she was declaring her intention to head right on back to LA. Walk right on out, never come back. Blah blah blah.
         "You can't even speak the language," sneered Jervil.
         But she grabbed up her passport, her travellers cheques and her purse and walked out anyway. Didn't even bother to pack her suitcases.
         "Check poste restante," she said. "I might just leave a postcard."
         The sign outside the bar advertised its basic function: HANGOVERS INSTALLED AND SERVICED. They weren't kidding. It was dark by the time Jervil got back to the hotel. When he woke in the morning, she was still gone. Making good on her promise. Probably halfway home by now. He stood there, swaying, staring at the emptiness, staring at the aftermath of midnight.
         "I only did it once."
         Just once, he had never hit her before, not hard, he would never again, but it was done. So easy. An irrevocable error.
         Unexpectedly, the floor started to rise up toward him. But his reaction time was still good. Or so he thought. But, as he twisted sideways, trying to evade the carpet, it slammed him in the side of the head.
         He woke in the morning, almost frozen to death by the air conditioning. The phone was ringing.
         "Yeah?"
         "It's me."
         "Petey?"
         "No, me."
         "Who?"
         "Are you drunk?"
         "I'm hungover, this is a lousy line, I thought it was Petey, okay? Is that you, Splinter?"
         "Yeah. What happened."
         "He wasn't there, that's what happened."
         "He was there! We had a spotter, you were seen. You were seen, Jervil. You walked right by him! Do you understand what I'm saying?"
         "Yeah."
         "I'm not sure that you do. Just remember Cottage. You do remember Cottage, don't you?"
         "I saw the photos."
         "Okay then. There's a temple. He's going to be there at 2 pm. Not before, not after. You will be there to meet him and you will do what you have to. Have you got that?"
         "Yeah. Which temple?"
         "There's an envelope for you at the front desk. There's a map. Don't be late, Jervil. Don't be late."
         Outside, a blistering sun, and the usual raucous cacophony of traffic. Before coming to Thailand, he had expected - naively - torpid jungles and drowsy streets as silent as waiting vultures. Instead, a world of shuddering air conditioners, incessant traffic, blaring loudspeakers, electronic circuits cranked up to the intolerable maximum. If it could make noise (lots of it) then the Thais loved it.
         That morning, he felt like death warmed over. Sour. It was all going wrong. Since when? Since he saw the photos. The photos of Cottage. Cottage had been a friend.
         The temple. Opposite it, a cafe where you could buy exotic Thai beverages such as Fanta or Coca-Cola.
         "A Coke," said Jervil.
         Two o'clock. And there he was. Harry the Gimp, still with that dumb walking stick, the old heirloom with the pelican head carved from ivory. (And how did he manage that? Isn't it illegal to take ivory across borders these days?) Dressed in what looked like a Brooks Brothers suit, and probably was. (And just how was that humanly possible, given the heat?)
         Okay. Target acquired. So do it.
         But there was a problem. A guided tour. A noisy bunch of tourists, their raucous German bringing back memories of Berlin, and the wire, and the Wall. That long-ago world back before the fall of East Germany. Nostalgia. At least then we knew who to hate. But now?
         Now, Harry was smiling, beckoning to him. Had seen him. But wasn't running. Obviously wanted to talk. Maybe he thought he could cut a deal, even at this late stage. Didn't he understand that it was far too late for that? Actions have consequences - didn't he understand that?
         "Cottage," said Harry, when Jervil walked up to him. "Is it true about Cottage?"
         "Yeah, it's true."
         Saying it stone cold. Yeah: true. And Harry caught the subtext: this is how life is. And Harry understood.
         "I'm only worried about my wife," said Harry. "You understand?"
         "Is that why you bought the life insurance policy?"
         "Yeah. But I don't want her to think ... I don't want her to be left with any ... any unfinished business."
         "You don't want her to go round asking questions, you mean."
         "Yeah. I just want it to ... to finish, okay?"
         "Okay."
         "So what would you suggest?"
         "Go stand in front of a bus."
         "But seriously."
         "I just gave it my best shot," said Jervil.
         And Harry looked at him for a long moment and saw that, yes, Jervil was serious.
         "Okay," said Harry.
         And walked off, leaving Jervil feeling sourer that ever.
         It was in that mood that Jervil did it. The heat, the glittering gaudiness of the funfair temple - it was all too much. So he did it. He snapped the finger off the idol, expressing his own pain by hurting something else.
         As soon as he had done it, he knew it had been a big mistake. The German tourists had already vanished, as had Harry, so Jervil was there on his own. Exposed. And obviously guilty. And everyone was looking at him. The silence was oppressive. Oh well, then. Come on. Let's get it over with.
         Thailand. One of the highest murder rates in the world. A smiling people - a smile for every emotion, including homicide. So do it. Hack me to death, why don't you?
         Jervil truly did expect to die. And, right then and there, he did not care. Then an old man in saffron robes hobbled forward, stopped in front of him, said something to him, then walked away, taking his shadow with him. Jervil watched as the hobbling ancient trekked through the sunlight to a Westerner, a professorial type with hornrimmed glasses and a beard. They spoke together. Then the professor came over.
         "Uh," said Jervil. "Big mistake, I know. They take American Express?"
         "He wants you to know something," said the professor.
         "And your name is ....?"
         "You've been cursed," said the professor. "That's what he wants you to know."
         "Cursed, huh?"
         "Yes," said the professor. "Oh, and one more thing. He wants you to know that by the time you find her it will be too late."
         And already he was turning, walking away.
         "Hey!" said Jervil. "Hey, wait up!" And ran after him, grabbed him. "Too late? What's that supposed to mean? Too late for what?"
         The professor shook him off. Jervil grabbed again, clutched the air, and fell heavily. Grazed his knee. Okay. Cursed. And maybe the graze was all it would take. Blood poisoning. Amputation. A sweating, agonized death. Gasping for mercy.
         "Get out of here," said the professor.
         And Jervil, conscious of his crime, of his guilt, fled the temple compound as quickly as he could. On the way back to the hotel, his taxi slowed to negotiate its way past the scene of an accident. There was a bus, and the police were there, and an ambulance was just arriving.
         "That's not what we wanted," said Splinter.
         "He's dead," said Jervil, talking to the phone. "Isn't that enough?"
         "We wanted another example."
         "Like Cottage?"
         "Why else would we give you the needle?"
         "Well, he's dead," said Jervil. "So it's over. Isn't it?"
         "Is it? Oh, by the way - I heard Nina left you."
         "Nina? What're you talking about her for? Splinter. Splinter - is that some kind of threat? Is it? Splinter!"
         But the line was dead.
         Jervil flushed the needle down the toilet and walked out of the hotel room, just as Nina had. They had probably tracked Nina through her credit cards. Or that international cash card she had. Knew she had used an ATM in the capital, or checked into a Hyatt someplace. Knew she was on her own, and vulnerable. Knew that Jervil maybe wanted to die, but that Nina didn't.
         "By the time you find her it will be too late."
         And how exactly was he going to find her? What did she say? Poste restante. But, by the time he got there, she'd probably be back in LA. No way to save her then.
         Jervil had cash. He bought a ticket on a local bus going north by night, and slept on the bus anonymously, showing no passport, featuring on no hotel register.
         En route, a night market. Rain. Naked neon tubes rising in vertical spears to light steaming stews, strong curries, broths of the cryptic.
         "Where's the john? The bathroom? The, uh ...."
         "The toilet?"
         "Yeah."
         On the way back to the bus, Jervil stopped at one of the stalls. Stood there under the canvas which held off the warm and steady rain, and bought some chicken. Fried chicken, cooked right in front of your eyes, that can't be too dangerous, can it? Looks okay. Tastes okay. Yeah. Lighten up, Jervil.
         And that's when he realised. He was standing right on an electric cable. The cable, and overgrown extension cord of some kind, was feeding power to the night market stalls. And it was snaking through inch-deep water, and he was standing right on top of it, and, in a moment of nightmarish prophecy, he imagined the electric arc of his shrieking agony thrashing across the road.
         Hey. It's really getting to you, isn't it, Jervil? This curse business. Come on! Get real! I mean, you think the old guy really did some voodoo juju on you? Hell, man! Eat your chicken, then get on the bus.
         After twelve hours on the bus, Jervil entered Bangkok, an experience which could reasonably be compared to crawling up the exhaust pipe of a large noisy diesel truck.
         "Lost my passport," he said, explaining.
         The baht was in trouble, and the tourist trade was down. And this was the low-rent end of the market. The woman shrugged - the gesture part of her meagre lexicon of essential English - and gave him a key. When he explored his hotel room, a big fat cockroach jumped from the rim of the toilet bowl, dived into the waiting water, and swam out of sight, vanishing around the U-bend. Returning to your roots, Jervil? Looks like it, doesn't it?
         He needed some stuff - deodorant, toothbrush, dental floss - so found his way to the nearest department store. The atrium was crowded with little stalls, and at every stall was a guy with a bullhorn, filling the air with a manic competing babble which almost crushed him out of existence. Human flesh jammed against his flesh, more and more people packing into the atrium, and -
         And then he knew. In a rush of panic, he knew it. This is it. This is where it happens. The curse fulfilled, the big round-eye foreigner crushed out of existence, pulped. They would be all over him, like insects, eating him, sucking his juices.
         Then, magically, he was at the escalators. Three floors up, a Western-style supermarket, scarcely inhabited. And, by the time he descended, the crush in the atrium had eased. Imagining things, see? All in your mind.
         There is no curse. The sky is not going to fall on you. Nobody is going to jump out of the bushes and cut your balls off. (Quite apart from anything else, there aren't any bushes in Bangkok).
         So thinking, he walked across the green metal overpass which spanned the nonstop busyness of the four-lane highway which stood between him and the way home. And came upon it. The thing. It was human, totally human, that face as human as his, but the hands were just stumps jutting out from the shoulders, and the begging bowl beside it declared its fate, which was to sit and watch. And wait. And beg. And wait. And watch. And beg. And sit. And watch. And, eventually, to die - but not before thirty or forty years of this had passed.
         And the thing was, when Jervil saw it, he knew. When Jervil saw the thing, he felt its slow-motion agony.
         To see, to truly see, that is a curse. To see the waiting death grinning from the face of the laughing child. To see the young woman, healthy, pregnant, walking toward her shrivelled apricot death. To wake in the night and feel your own cells ticking toward their death. To remember the places you have been and the things you have done and know it all as nada, nothing, a transient trick of that fabric of delusions we call reality.
         "Uh huh," said Jervil. "But that's why we invented alcohol, am I right?"
         Maybe so, but there was no time to drink. He had to stay sober if he was going to keep on top of this thing. Assume she's gone back to LA. Call Petey. Petey - can you help me out on this one, big brother? Petey could get her to the cabin, up at Lake Tahoe. The Agency would never find her there. Then Jervil could fly to Mexico, wetback across the border, collect the stuff that Blue Hinks was holding for him, then take it from there.
         But all this assumed that Splinter didn't pick her up at the airport. And the fact was - why can't you face up to this, Jervil? - that Splinter probably would. Best thing would be for her to have flown to Vancouver. If she was smart - smart enough to have sniffed the danger - then that's what she would have done. She'd be hiding out with Auntie Chan.
         "Passport."
         You need your passport to collect your mail? Well, yeah. Seems you do.
         "Here," said Jervil.
         And walked out of the big and echoing central post office holding a single postcard in his hand. On the single postcard, a single word. Kathmandu.
         "The airport," he said.
         A first-class ticket, bought at the last moment. He needed his credit card for that. But it was a short hop from Bangkok to Kathmandu, and Splinter would be scrambling to have a man at the airport to intercept him. Even assuming that the Agency maintained talent at the ready in Kathmandu, which these days it probably didn't.
         Having exposed himself to buy the first-class ticket, Jervil used all his plastic, and got on the plane with a big wad of cash in his money-belt. Just this one shot, Splinter. You get me now, or you don't get me at all.
         Kathmandu, bright and early in the morning. Nobody waiting. At this post office, no nonsense about passports: everyone's mail was just sitting in one big room, and you just walked in and sorted through it until you hit on something you fancied. But nothing from Nina.
         Bitch.
         This is probably her idea of a joke. You're in Kathmandu, she's on her way to Acapulco or wherever.
         But, on consideration, he didn't think so. Nina had done the Nepal-India thing, years ago. Sometimes talked about it. She was probably right here, somewhere. Somewhere in Kathmandu. But it's a small city, maybe a million people, tops. And Splinter will come looking. And things are tighter here than in Bangkok.
         "Uh, excuse me ... yeah ... you guys got a moment? Okay, it's like this. My name's Jervil, I'm a journalist, here's my press card, okay? Thing is, I'm here, some stuff about Tibet. Research. Tibetan refugees, you know about the, the problems? Okay. And - problem is, the government doesn't like it. Wants me gone."
         It took three tries, but Jervil got what he wanted. The blonde girl paid for her room for a month in advance, then gave Jervil the key, then got on a bus and headed off in the general direction of Mount Everest to begin a three-week trek in the mountains. The rambling old hotel had external stairways and four different exits. Jervil could come and go as he pleased, unobserved, and there was no way for Splinter to find him.
         But the memories did.
         The memories, and the visions of the living present. He could not stop seeing: that was the hell of it. He saw the present, and, just as bad, he saw the past. What he had said when the child died. The thing with the dog. Her mother.
         On the third day, finally, a postcard.
         "Tourist Bungalows. Varanasi."
         Outside the post office, a child, lying in the dust. Shrivelled legs like fragile sticks. A prayer wheel in the child's hand. All day, the child lay there, whirling the prayer wheel, chanting in a beggar's monotone. Praying for sustenance. Begging. Living to be a mouth to eat and beg and suck and breathe, to survive another day to lie in the dust to suck and beg, the wheel whirling round today, tomorrow, this year, last year, and Jervil was on the wheel, caught on the wheel of existence, and he could not stand it, it was too much.
         "Snap out of it, Jervil."
         The old marine training saw him through. Even after all these years, it was still there when he needed it. Disicpline. Military disicipline. That combat knife edge.
         Varanasi was a city down in India, and the Tourist Bungalows was a well-known government-run hotel. There was a border, but the border was a joke. No dogs, no land mines, no East German border guards with orders to shoot to kill. Jervil spent two days scouting it out then walked across at night.
         "Here's the deal. You lose your passport, okay? I mean, it's no problem. You can get a new one in Delhi. Money like this, that's six months in Goa."
         "Why would you need a new passport?"
         "Well, the thing is, I'm a journalist. I'm digging into some stuff about the BJP, the Bharatiya Janata Party, it hasn't exactly made me popular. Now, I wouldn't want to say anything bad about the BJP, but the thing is, and here's where it gets complicated, there's this woman I know, she's got boyfriend problems with this guy who's real big in the BJP, and he's not too happy with me. On a really personal basis he's not happy."
         Anyone can do deals with crooks, but Jervil was smart enough to buy essentially good and honest people. It was his special skill: the special quality of insight which had made him such an asset to the Agency.
         With his new passport, he made it to Varanasi. Arriving at the city toward the end of the day, coming in from the north. On the western horizon, a weird apparition: a bloated sphere of an oddly orangish red which was floating in silence on the dusty horizon. A hallucination? Nobody else seemed to be paying it any attention. Jervil studied it for a full half minute before he realised that this was the setting sun, defamiliarised by the layered dusts of the flatlands of the north of India.
         Pinned to the noticeboard at the Tourist Bungalows, a note in Nina's handwriting. No names, no destination. Only this one cryptic clue:
         "Under the spreading bodhi tree, I you. You me."
         A covert literary reference there. Something Nina had quoted to him once. Something she had read to him, back in those days when it had been like puppy love all over again. When he had let her read that stuff, and had pretended interest. But now he couldn't quite place the reference. Though he knew - somehow - that it had something to do with a paperweight falling. A world shattering.
         She left no names. She was being very careful, relying on his ability to know her handwriting at sight. She must know something. She must have guessed that Splinter was hunting her. And what did the professor say? "By the time you find her it will be too late." By the time you find her, the curse will have taken effect.
         But that's superstition, Jervil. The whole thing. Just mumbo jumbo. Mind games. Like pointing the bone, that aborigine thing. It can kill you, but only if you let it. And maybe the old guy in the temple didn't say anything at all, have you thought about that? Maybe he just said: tell the ugly American to go back the hell where he came from. Maybe the professor was just having fun with you. Maybe there was no curse.
         Even so, Jervil found himself possessed of a desperate urgency, and it required all his professional control to make himself walk away quietly into the night to seek another hotel.
         "Me? I'm a professor of linguistics. I'm here studying the ongoing evolution of Indian English. How about you. Tell me about yourself. What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?"
         Her breasts were full, and her body glowed by candlelight. But he had no appetite. Something was wrong. He saw the crone in the young woman. In the young flesh, he saw the old flesh, hunched over by osteoporosis. He saw death.
         "I'm sorry," he said.
         Then the electric light spluttered into life as the city recovered from the blackout - in a moment of out-and-out hallucination he actually heard the light splutter, making him think of the death-frenzy of months dosed with insecticide - and the moment was over.
         "Have a good life and all that," he said.
         But she had already closed the door on him.
         The next day, a bookshop.
         "The bodhi tree."
         It was the tree beneath which the Buddha had been sitting when he obtained enlightenment. It was still there, growing beside the holiest of the stupas in Bodhgaya, just a few miles south of the little town of Gaya. Conveniently, Gaya was a stop on the railway line which connected Varanasi with Calcutta.
         At Gaya, the policemen walked round in groups of three or four. They wore military-style khaki uniforms and carried clunky old rifles which looked like props from some movie about World War Two.
         "What's with the artillery?" said Jervil.
         "Gaya has one of the highest murder rates in India," said the South African accountant. "One of the highest murder rates in the world."
         "Uh huh," said Jervil.
         And it was with him again, that sense of dread, of impending doom. And he poured himself a glass of cool water, meaning to drink. But the accountant checked him with a gesture.
         "What?" said Jervil.
         Silently, the accountant lifted the lid from the water jug. Revealed on the surface: dozens of tiny little black waterlogged flies, trapped in the hell of their drowning.
         They are dead or dying. And you.
         "I'll make it to Bodhgaya," vowed Jervil fervently.
         The accountant looked at him as if he was crazy. But, nevertheless, agreed to share one of the little three-wheeled taxis that plied between Gaya and Bodhgaya.
         At Bodhgaya, the stupa. You had to pay to enter the holy precincts.
         "Do you have a camera?"
         "Yes," said Jervil.
         So he had to pay extra.
         And it was only when he was inside the holy precincts that he remembered that he had no camera at all. He had lost his camera, or had walked out on it, or had sold it, or had given it away, or it had been stolen - he couldn't remember which. He had nothing left but the rags which concealed his nakedness. He had long since quit the palace of his possessions. He had walked out on his bank accounts. He had left even his name behind him. He had been reduced to the elemental appetite, the thing which does not wish to die, but will.
         "It's me."
         "You."
         And it was, but he was too late.
         She was still young, she was still beautiful, and he saw at a glance that she had forgiven him. But he saw, too, that her skin was moving on a skeleton. She was a bag of bones animated by an engine of flesh. She was dead flesh walking - not dead yet, but she would be. She was caught on the same wheel as Jervil himself, and she too, in time, would be taken down into that drowning darkness. She too, in time, would suffer everything which was in store for him.
         Six months later, Splinter found him.
         "Come on, Jervil. It's time to come home."
         "No," he said.
         "You can't stay here."
         "There's no practical problem" said Jervil. "They were fussed about the paperwork, at first, but we sorted all that out. Religious studies. They gave me a visa."
         "Jervil. You're with the Agency. You don't imagine we can just let you walk out on us, do you? From what Nina has said, I think you've misunderstood our position. Are you hearing this?"
         "You're saying it's cool."
         "Yeah, it's cool, Jervil. So far. But. If you keep on with this ... this kind of hippie renaissance stuff, you'll have to face the consequences. Actions do have consequences, you know."
         "Oh, yes," Jervil assured him. "I know all about consequences."
         That's where Jervil's story ends.
         In the temple today, I saw the fish pond, not for the first time and not for the second time either. The fish were in motion. Swimming. You've seen fish swim - right? I've seen fish swim. But the thing is, suddenly there was no movement. The fish were in motion, yes, but they were utterly at ease. The entire pool was a bubble of stillness. Ceasing without ceasing to exist.
         And there my story ends, too.

The End

This story, "Consequences", was first published in Talebones issue 12 Summer 1998 (ed. Patrick and Honna Swenson) (Kent, United States, ISSN 1084-7197) (pp 4-11; 4,591 words) (fantasy).

This page is part of Hugh Cook's website zenvirus.com

Copyright © 1999, 2002 Hugh Cook. All rights reserved.


CONSEQUENCES - horror story horror story fantasyhorror horrorstory read horror story online read Asian setting Thailand India Buddha Buddhism curse cursed man - complete story by Hugh Cook - horror, fantasy




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