once upon a time there was a little boy whose only conversation consisted of the words "we shall see."
his mother was in service as a parlor maid at one of lord derby's summer residences and she had hoped that he would in time take his place below stairs as a cook's helper (he liked to eat) or a postboy (he didn't care much for horses but was not afraid of them).
one day his lordship arrived at the summer residence in preparation of a visit from the russian foreign secretary and the president of brazil to finalize the minutiae of a secret treaty. the housekeeper was an old favorite of his, and so he agreed to subject himself to the tedious business of having the new servants presented to him.
the little boy's mother, the new parlor maid, was near the end of the line.
"this is sylvia, the new parlor maid," mrs harrisworth the housekeeper announced.
sylvia dropped a neat curtsey to his lordship, who was falling asleep on his feet. he opened his eyes with a start. "quite, quite," he said. he looked down at the little boy who was standing beside his mother.
"and what is your name, little fellow, eh?" lord derby addressed him in his best votegetting manner.
"we shall see."
mrs harrisworth frowned and sylvia blushed furiously. "i am sorry, my lord, but that is the only thing the boy ever says. i have tried to correct him - i have prayed - ," sylvia stammered.
"we shall see, eh!" lord derby laughed heartily. "i like it! by the lord harry, we can use a chap like this in the foreign office."
he looked down at the boy. "look here, young fellow, how would you like to help finalize a secret treaty between her majesty's government and russia and brazil, eh? doesn't that sound jolly?"
"we shall see."
"excellent. we'll convene in the green room after dinner, and after cigars. bring the lad down to the green room after the gentlemen have had their cigars, eh, mrs harrisworth. by the way, what is the lad's name?"
"very good, my lord." the housekeeper replied with a glance at sylvia.
"his name is william, my lord," sylvia answered.
william's first foray into diplomacy that night proved a success, so successful that the treaty between britain, russia and brazll has remained a secret to this day. if the choleric brazilian president or the subtle russian diplomat found the presence of a nine year old boy at the negotiations disconcerting, their wonder soon gave way to frustration at dealing with the lad's implacabllity.
as the years went by william's successes multiplied. although he never became known in any capacity to the general public and was never listed in any official capacity, as "lord william" and later under the sobriquet of "the dustman" he came to haunt and then dominate the corridors of earthly power.
inevitably, he became considered too valuable to deal with terrestial governments and became a negotiator and then chief negotiator with the galactic empires. those empires, which then as now, were divided between those kindly disposed or indifferent toward earth, and those which saw it simply as a source of gladiatorial amusement.
in time it was william, drawing on the lessons of his masters derby, disraeli and bismarck, but in no small part guided by his native genius, who arranged for the "first world war" to be staged for the entertainment of the empire, in lieu of the total destruction which the more bloody-minded craved.
the success of this enterprise was mixed. although he had "saved the day" in one sense the spectacle he had engineered proved so diverting that he could not prevail against the demand for an encore. at this juncture, his career hung in the balance.
whispers were heard in the corridors that the old man had lost his touch and his nerve, and that fresh talent was needed to contend with the capricious masters of the universe. but he prevailed, and has prevailed. he was helped by the herbal assistance provided by his diplomatic adversaries, who had become so bemused by the novelty of a mere earthling dealing with them on something like their own terms, that their amusement ripened into something resembling "affection". they laughingly referred to him as "kax ver plint", roughly translated as "the old human."
for over half a human century lord william has continued at his post, keeping his patronizingly friendly adversaries diverted by an endless series of minor amusements. but the best medicines and medics in the galaxies must finally yield to the mistress of the universe, time herself, and william's days are numbered.
A strange story comes from the Adriatic. It appears that on the night of
the 9th, as the Italia Steamship Company's vessel "Victorine" was passing
a little before midnight the point known as "the Spear of Ivan," on the
coast of the Blue Mountains, the attention of the Captain, then on the
bridge, was called by the look-out man to a tiny floating light close
inshore. - "the Lady of the Shroud" by Bram Stoker
a strange story comes from the antarctic. on the morning of september 13th 17__, a vessel captained by the famous captain blackbeard was searching the waters directly north of the enderby abyssal plain in search of the giant cranch squid, when a longboat was spotted floating on the water. as night had fallen, it was impossible to make out if there were any inhabitants on board.
"we shall wait until morning, " announced the captain, with his habitual caution. "if it is still there, we shall ascertain its exact situation, and the situations of anyone who might happen to be on board."
"but captain," protested little nell, "there may be a map of the location of buried treasure on board the boat, or even a chest of treasure itself."
"indeed," added sinbad the sailor," see how low in the water the stern is. there may well be a treasure chest weighing it down."
"your point is well taken," replied blackbeard.
"we can hardly afford to miss this chance," cried the medicine man. "especially considering how poorly our fortunes have gone since setting out on this unfortunate voyage, nominally in search of the giant cranch squid. after ten long months - no treasure - and no squid."
"very well then," answered the captain. "the matter is settled. nellie, light a torch. lower a boat. an extra tot of rum, my lads, for every jolly jack tar who volunteers to board yon mysterious vessel - treasure or no treasure!"
"i volunteer!" cried sinbad. "i will board the vessel first. who's with me, eh?"
"i!" answered little nell. "i shall carry the torch!"
"and i!" cried the medicine man. "i shall man the left front oar, right behind nellie!"
"and i!" cried the wandering jew.
"and i" cried the jesuit.
"and i!" cried the queen of clubs, shaking her curls.
"and i!" shouted the queen of spades, louder than all the rest. the moonlight glittered on her eye patch.
"oh, i shall go along," drawled the jack of diamonds, twirling his mustache.
"then we have a crew," exclaimed sinbad. "well done, comrades, well and truly done!"
in the twinkling of an eye the boat was lowered into the curiously placid water. with sinbad waving his cutlass and little nell holding the torch aloft, the little craft fairly sped along the surface toward the dark and silent vessel drifting in the mist.
(professor thunderby paused and relit his pipe)
and yet the drifting vessel seemed to remain curiously out of reach.
"harder, comrades! harder!" cried the medicine man. "pull with a will!"
a curious phosphorence played around the elusive craft, taunting the straining rowers.
finally they drew abreast of the silent craft. but they had lost sight of the ship behind them.
(professor thunderby's pipe went out again. the embers in the fireplace, likewise, flickered into darkness...)
sinbad reached out with a grappling hook and seized the gunwale and pulled the drifting vessel close to the longboat. a desperate shout went up from the weary but jubilant oarpullers.
little nell held her torch over the stern of the captured craft, which rode low and heavy in the water.
"look!" she cried. "look ye! here be no treasure!"
on the bottom of the boat, luridly lit by the flame of the torch, lay a body! the body of a young woman!
"is she dead?" cried the medicine man, looking over the shouder of sinbad.
"dead?" he answered. "dead? aye, she looks like she's been dead these hundred years!"
what am i doing here, billy wondered, when the countess told choffo to stop at the crossroads. had he heard too much?
"get out. walk in any direction," the countess told him. "you'll get there." billy had nodded. like a lot of her cryptic utterances, it wasn't that mysterious. the house he was going to would be on a circle or a square toward which all four roads led. he couldn't miss it.
choffo gunned the pierce arrow and the countess disappeared into the night. it was dark.
the road was dark. there was an abandoned looking general store with a gas pump on one of the four corners. it was dark too.
billy was in no hurry to get to the house so he walked over to it. he took off the scarf the count and countess had given him when he was more in their favor.
he wrapped it around his left hand and smashed the glass on the front door and reached in and opened the door.
he didn't expect to find anything worth taking. if he found something, good. if he didn't, he would just smash things up. billy was filled with rage - always, through good times and bad.
he liked to smash things up.
there was more on the shelves than he expected. a lot of clothes and blankets. but no food that he could see. there was a big old fashioned cracker barrel, but it was empty and he tipped it over.
at the back of the store he found several shelves filled with toy soldiers and animals. he took a gold cigarette lighter out of his pocket and flipped it open to look at the toys. he found a little bulldog that he liked. maybe he would bring it to life later. he put it in his pocket and closed the lighter.
but there was still some light, coming from under a door behind him.
the door opened and a little blond girl, wearing a nightgown and rubbing her eyes, stepped out. she didn't seem surprised or scared by billy's presence.
"can i help you?" she asked in a whiskey and cigarette voice. she came out of the shadows and billy saw she was about fifty years old - her hair was white, not blond.
"i was helping myself to some stuff."
he took the dog out of his pocket and showed it to her.
"good choice. you know how to bring it to life?"
"i know how. "
"that's a good dog. when he barks, you'll know something is up. here, take some more stuff," the little woman took some toy soldiers off the shelf and stuffed them in billy's pocket. 'these will stand you in good stead."
"they're just sitting there." she looked around. "how come you tipped the cracker barrel over?"
she nodded. "my name is liona - liona, with an "i".
"i don't care how things are spelled."
"i can't read."
she looked him in the eye. "i wish i couldn't read. you headed up to the house?"
"know how to get there?"
"just keeping walking in any direction."
liona laughed. "i'll show you a faster way. wait here while get my coat."
billy looked around the store. "i was thinking of busting this place up."
"you can do that when you get back. wait here." she went back into the room she had emerged from.
billy looked back at the shelves while she was gone. he took a cat, a monkey and a napoleonic hussar and put them in his other pocket.
liona came back wearing a yellow raincoat and yellow oilskin hat.
"it's not raining."
"this is my favorite coat."
they went out through the front door. liona kicked the broken glass out of her way unconcernedly.
she started walking up the road heading north and billy followed her.
"i would have gone the other way," he told her.
"you got a good sense of direction?"
"that's what not reading will do for you. but this part of the woods will mess up the best of them. you'll see."
they walked in silence for a while. it was very dark, even though there weren't that many trees.
"these people at the house." billy finally asked. "what are they up to?"
'i figured that."
they kept going straight north. there were no curves in the road or any other roads. billy didn't ask how far away they were because he didn't care.
"the countess bring you here?"
"and the count."
"i used to have rage myself."
billy considered this. "but no more, huh?"
"nothing lasts forever. even these people in the house, they won't last forever."
billy didn't answer.
"or everything lasts forever. take your pick."
"that's my pick. everything lasts forever."
they came to a t intersection and liona turned left. they came to the house almost immediately. it wasn't as big or as far back from the road as billy expected. but it was dark. two rooms on the third and top floor were lit, the rest was dark. it was hard to make out the front door.
liona didn't go up to the front porch. instead she led billy around to the stables. the stables were dark and quiet - no horses?- and as they approached a tall thin personage emerged from their shadows. he was dressed in blue coveralls and a raggedy black stetson hat. his black boots looked clean.
billy looked at the clean boots. "no horses in these stables?" he asked the man.
the man looked down at billy for a long time before answering. he had a thin yellow face with big freckles. "no horses, just duesenbergs and rolls royces and such."
"'this boy might be hard to stare down, stack," said liona. "can't you feel his power?'
'no. i can't say that i particularly do."
"are you the stable hand?" billy asked the man.
"he's the lord of the mansion," said liona. "this is mean old stagger lee."
'is that your name," billy asked. "mean old stagger stagger lee?"
"it's the name on all my deeds," the yellow man answered. "my friends call me stack, or stag. you don't even have to be my friend. you can call me anything you like." he smiled, showing big teeth.
"as long as we don't call you late for dinner," liona added.
"that's right. especially if we have roast duck."
"are we having roast duck tonight?" billy asked.
"no, it's the cook's night off. so we have cucumber sandwiches."
"i'll take a cucumber sandwich," liona told him.
stack looked at her but made no move toward the house.
"this must be the young man the countess sent over."
"so what are you doing here?"
"i'm taking him under my wing."
he laughed. "bored down at the crossroads, are you? a store with no customers. a gas pump with no cars."
"exactly," liona answered.
"but it's better than the lake of fire."
"maybe! well, i'll let that be known." he laughed and his laugh echoed against the stable and the house. "i'll surely let that be known." he moved toward the dark house and liona and billy followed him.
the afternoon sun filtered half heartedly through the hotel window.
the phone rang.
joe took it out of his pocket and answered it.
"joe, it's mike."
"hi mike. what have you got for me?"
"joe, i don't know how to say this -"
"just say it."
"i haven't got anything for you. i'm sorry."
"why don't you have anything for me, mike?"
"nobody wants you, joe - it's just that simple."
"i see. or maybe i don't see."
"they want younger guys, joe. i try to talk up your experience, but they won't listen."
"and you can't make them listen?"
"no, i can't. these things go in cycles, you know that. youth is in this year, what can i say?"
"all right. keep trying."
"that's all i can do."
"that's all you can do." joe clicked off. he lay on the hotel bed for a few minutes. then he got up and put his jacket on. it felt like it might rain, so he closed the room's one window. then he left.
his room was on the second floor, the same as the desk. he started to walk past the desk at the same pace he walked everywhere, cool calm and collected, not picking up the pace or slowing it down one millisecond.
the body-building desk clerk - what was his name, adam? aaron? - was on duty. a real tough guy.
"you got that rent?"
"i got till eleven o'clock tomorrow morning, " joe answered evenly.
"i know that. are you going to have it?"
"don't worry about it. i will either have it or i won't. i will either stay or go," joe went on in the same even voice. "what's the problem?"
adam or aaron hesitated. "the problem is i don't want you trying to intimidate terry on the night shift."
"what are you talking about? i never said shit to him."
"he seems to find you intimidating."
joe shook his head. "that's his problem." he turned away and went down the stairs to the lobby.
there were five or six persons in the lobby, watching the television or staring into space. joe walked by them. people! hadn't he killed enough of the sorry cocksuckers in his thirty years on the job? but they just kept on coming.
he pulled open the front door and stepped put into the street and started walking.
outwardly joe was calm as always, but inside he was a seething red volcano of blind boiling rage. so this, he thought, is what it comes to after thirty years on the job! this is the fucking gratitude i get. the gratitude i get for all the scum i removed from the hairy pimply face of the earth. the scum, the losers, the wife-beaters and child molesters and mumbling panhandling burnouts, the parasites and troublemakers and busybodies and tiresome assholes - what would the world be like without me and guys like me?
he wondered, just how many people had he offed? he could never keep track. he took his phone out of his pocket and clicked on the calculator.
lets call it 2.5 people a week - times 52 weeks equals 130 - times 30 years = 3900. that sounded about right. he had taken a week off in 1986 and again in 1999 but how much difference did that make? had he maybe killed an even 4000? who cared?
not the assholes walking past him on the street, that was for damn sure.
nobody cared. nobody fucking cared. about him or about the other guys who put their time in keeping the world safe and clean. where were all the guys he had known - frank and eddie and old mose and jerry the jumper and the rest? dead, probably. one or two of them might have even been dumb enough to get caught.
so it had come to this. back to having to try to scrounge up business on the street. he hoped he had not lost his eye for a likely customer. maybe working with agents and middlemen like mike had made him soft.
joe had started out thirty years ago specializing in fags and satanists and revolutionaries and black panthers and child molesters. but
he had moved with the times and now he worked mostly sexists and racists and homophobes and child molesters.
but right now he would take anything he could get.
he went down to powell street. not right at the cable car stop on market where the tourists swarmed in packs but a little further up where he might spot a likely customer and talk to him without being overheard.
he spotted a guy right away. not the family jewels, but promising enough.
"hey buddy, can i talk to you a minute?"
"i'm not panhandling, i got something you might want to buy."
"i don't think so."
joe ignored this and moved a step closer. "you got the look of a guy who might have marital problems."
the guy laughed. "what are you selling, fucking viagra? news flash - i can buy it online."
"no, no, something much better. serenity. peace of mind. the end - emphasis the end - of all your problems."
"you're selling insurance?" what a knucklehead.
joe pressed on. "do they sell insurance for alimony? you got an old lady wrapping your balls in barbed wire? maybe your old lady is a guy - hey i'm 21st century, i'm on board with it."
the great light dawned in the guy's eyes. he looked around. "uh - yeah, yeah, maybe we can work something out." he hesitated. "this isn't some kind of scam, is it?"
joe ignored this. "a thousand dollars. how cheap is that? you'd pay someone a thousand dollars to mow the lawn and clean the leaves out of your gutters."
the guy started to take his wallet out of his pocket, then stopped. "a thousand sounds about right."
"five hundred now. five hundred when i'm done. that's standard."
"what! no way! what do i look like, i just fell off a roller coaster and landed on my head?'"
"three up front, then seven."
"no." the guy laughed, started to walk away. "hey, you almost had me there."
joe forced himself to breathe evenly. he wanted to strangle the man and beat him into a-1 steak sauce. he didn't want to lose the thousand. he would have it in reserve, get the rent some other way. maybe even - he saw red - maybe even panhandle to get it.
"wait, wait," joe heard himself say. "all right, the whole thing on delivery."
"oh? all right, then."
"i'll need some details."
the guy looked around. "here?"
"there's a burger king down the street. we can talk there."
later, joe felt a little better. as they discussed the details, the guy had been man enough to treat joe to a double chipotle whopper with onion rings and a large coke (he would have preferred pepsi). but he was still pissed.
he still had to get the rent. it was almost dark. could he find another customer? or ----?
he started walking up powell street, sort of lost in thought. when he got to the really steep part, he stopped. he remembered when he first came to san francisco he had thought the cable cars must be free, because nobody could be expected to actually walk up the steep streets.
he was in front of a little alley. the street was empty, and quiet.
he turned. a punk kid came up behind him. white, with big baggy pants and a black oakland raiders cap.
"do i know you?" joe asked.
"you do now." suddenly the kid had a gun in his hand and he shot joe in the guts. the single shot echoed off the steep hill.
"what the fuck!" joe fell on his back. he looked up at the kid. "what the fuck! how could you do this to me? you don't even know me."
"do i need to?"
"there's got to be some mistake."
the kid looked uncertain. "it doesn't matter now."
"what's - what's your name?" joe gasped.
"larry. what's yours?"
"goodbye, joe." larry hated to make more noise, but he shot joe again, between the eyes.
he put the gun in his belt and hurried toward mason street. had he fucked up? was it the right guy?
this wasn't really for him. maybe he had chosen the wrong career path. maybe he should have been a pimp instead. but he wasn't really comfortable around women.