Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Chapter Two: A Friend Indeed; or, Drinks at the End of the Universe

The book had been in my possession for three days. I had hidden it under the floorboard of my apartment and hoped it would be safe. I dared not read it until I figured out if whoever had killed Yolanda Thrackton was after me. I had known of the book's sinister reputation, but did not thought it would strike so fast. I didn't know if Ms. Thrackton's fate was decided because she read the book or only because she owned it, but I couldn't do anything about my ownership of it. I could, however, resist the temptation to read it.

In the meantime, I decided to discover what I could about Ms. Thrackton's death. I picked up the New Alexandria Benchmark the day after her death and scanned the pages. Buried on page 5 of the Metro section was the story. It gave me very little information that I didn't already know. Yolanda, the story claimed, was discovered at approximately four in the afternoon, and the time of death was put at least an hour before. I shuddered, feeling slightly guilty. I had left the Winchester at 2:40, and it had been almost ninety minutes before someone noticed she was dead. The concierge had noticed that Ms. Thrackton hadn't moved in quite some time, and as she had ordered tea when she first arrived, he thought it strange that she hadn't asked for more. As she was an old woman, he thought she may have fallen asleep, so he approached her carefully, until he realized that she wasn't breathing. That was when he called 911. The story went on to say that there was as yet no suspicion of foul play. Yolanda Thrackton was in her eighties, after all, and the belief was that her heart had just given out. No relatives survived her.

The story saddened me, not only because I was present when she died, but because this woman, who from what I knew was fascinating, had no one to mourn her. From my research of her, I knew she had enough money to get a decent burial, but the fact that it would be a lonely funeral saddened me. I wondered if I should attend. I promised myself that I would keep my eye on the paper to see if there were any announcements. So far, three days after the event, I hadn't seen even an obituary.

I tried to put Yolanda Thrackton out of my mind. I had the Liber Draconis Mundi, and she was beyond pain. I needed to figure out what I was going to do with my treasure. For that, I needed two things: a friend and a beer.

I called my best friend. On the other end of the line, I heard, "Insane Larry's Refrigerator's, Ovens, and Assorted Appliances, Insane Larry speaking. How can I help you buy an appliance today?"

Without identifying myself, I said, "The End of the Universe. Seven o'clock." I hung up and smiled. A friend and a beer.

******

The Bar at the End of the Universe is a New Alexandria tradition. It sits at the center of Jackson Island, on the southeast corner of Demarcation Boulevard and Longitudinal Avenue, and has been there since the city was founded. It wasn't always a bar, of course, but there has always been alcohol there. When Lewis and Clark came through the area, exploring the new purchase, one of their party, Corporal Asa Duncan, decided that the spot, which at that time was the highest spot on the island, would make a nice place to settle. He built a log cabin and a still at the spot, and immediately began selling moonshine to the natives in the area. Lewis and Clark left him behind and pushed on to the Pacific. When they returned a year later, Duncan had disappeared into the Cascades to live with the Indians, but his still remained operational. Another member of the party, Josiah Umbridge, took over the business and promised to remain until settlers arrived. Surprisingly, he was still there 29 years later when Hieronymus Janowicz and the first group of pioneers came down the Napoleon River Gorge from Idaho to settle in the valley. He hadn't sold a drink in eight years, but he was still there. Later, when the United States fought the British over where the border would be, American troops were billeted there. The government was forced to move them when it became known that they were drinking far too much to remain combat ready. The Battle of Duncan's Peak (as the spot had been named), which took place about ten feet from the door of the building, was the last straw. 110 drunk American soldiers were cut down by 6 British soldiers armed with 3 rifles and a makeshift slingshot. It was the last battle the Americans lost in the border war, because they stopped allowing soldiers to spend the night in the house and moved them further south. After the entire island reverted to the U.S., Umbridge's son, Hezekiah, renamed the house The All-American Bar, and it continued to thrive. It was shelled during the War Between the States (not the Civil War, but the war between the state of Washington and the state of Jefferson, when both states claimed the island, just like England and the U.S. had five years before), but once both opposing leaders realized that they loved the bar more than they loved even their mistresses, it became a "safe zone" where Washingtonians and Jeffersonians could meet and share a beer before returning to their lines and trying to kill each other. When the state of Jefferson took over the whole island in 1843, Hezekiah Umbridge renamed it The Jefferson Pub. It remained in the Umbridge family until 1918, when Azariah Umbridge went off to World War I and was killed in action - not combat, but action with another man's wife. Azariah had no heirs, and the bar was bought by Darius Coomber, who renamed it The Bar at the End of the Universe. Coomber's grandson, Cyrus, ran the bar now, and although he was getting older, he remained as sprightly as ever. The Bar at the End of the Universe was dirty, dark, ugly, damp, cold, and falling apart. It was the greatest bar in the world.

At six-thirty I went inside. Cyrus, still pouring drinks even though he was legally blind, heard my footfalls over the din of the room and had my Goat-Fugger beer poured before I could even order it. I was surprised; it had been a year since I had been in the bar. I saved it for special occasions. Cyrus winked his sightless eye at me and told me the first one was on the house. I thanked him and found a booth in the back, where it was dirtiest, darkest, ugliest, dampest, coldest, and most run down. In the booth next to me two men and a woman were engaged in what I hoped was a menage à trois, because if it wasn't someone needed to call the police.

At seven exactly Ghoti arrived. I watched him order his own beer (Cyrus didn't know him as well) and look around. I knew he would find me eventually, and he did. Waving his left hand, he limped over to me. Before I could say hello, he smacked me on the back of the head with his stump.

"What the hell?" I said, a bit woozy. His stump was not wooden, it was metal. The surgeon who had performed the surgery was psychotic, angry, drunk, and Slavic. One of those characteristics gave him a nasty sense of humor while he worked.

"Eight months I don't hear from you, and when I do, it's an order?"

"Is that it? You didn't have to smack me like that. I've been busy."

He sat down and smiled. "How the hell are you, Isosceles? How's the job?"

I didn't like talking about my job, which he knew. Instead of answering, I asked him how his job was. He loved talking about his "work identity" as Insane Larry. He went on for a while about sales, units shipped, purchasing orders, BTUs, sex in the break room with Eleanor, the saleslady with three nipples, how many digits he'd broken in bar fights recently, until he was on his third pint of Abe's Olde-Timey Reb Smackdown Brew, when he finally ran out of steam. He shook his head to clear the cobwebs and said, "You called me. The Bar at the End of the Universe is reserved for special occasions. You haven't commented on the fact that the three people in the booth next to us just brought a salamander and what appears to be cabbage into their little fandango. What's up?"

"Ghoti, my friend, I'm glad you asked. Have you ever heard of the Liber Draconis Mundi?"

I wasn't positive, but it seemed the activity in the next booth paused for a brief instant, before resuming with more vigor. I must have imagined it. Ghoti shook his head. "What is it?"

"That's the question, isn't it? That is most definitely the question. The Liber Draconis Mundi, my friend, is a book. Its title is Latin, and it means 'The Book of the Dragon of the World.' It's a very ancient book."

"Neat title. Why do we care about it?"

"I want to tell you just a little about what I know about the book. I want your opinion. You are always grounded."

I waved to our waitress, Cyrus's buxom granddaughter Zenobia, for refills. When she had brought fresh beer, I leaned in and lowered my voice. I didn't think I had to in the loud atmosphere of the bar, but I knew Ghoti would pay closer attention if he thought someone might be eavesdropping. For all I knew, someone was. They had already managed to poison Ms. Thrackton.

I told him the story of the book's creation. I didn't say "writing," because if what Yolanda Thrackton had told me was true, the book was constantly being re-written. I told him of Rufus, the mad monk of Lindisfarne, who had escaped the Viking attack in A.D. 793 and fled into the wilds of Scotland. He took with him a red-leather-bound book, which at that point was empty, awaiting the monks of the scriptorium to enter whatever text they wished into it. In Scotland he fell in with another band of Vikings and left the British Isles, heading to Norway first and then points south, always keeping hold of the unwritten book. He traveled to Constantinople and there met Sebastian, the court magician of Emperor Nicephorus. Sebastian and Rufus came up with a scheme to bring about the Second Coming by writing down the scenario by which it would occur in Rufus's empty book. The attempt failed, but the story of the Second Coming became legendary, and when Nicephorus was killed in battle, Sebastian made sure his skull was converted into a cup from which whores drank sour wine as part of the first step toward the Apocalypse. The tale of the Second Coming in the book, however, took up only the first six pages, and when Sebastian was exposed as a woman by Emperor Leo V and executed, Rufus fled east and took the book with him.

"In Tashkent, Rufus created the rest of the book," I said. "He was slowly losing his Christian faith and learned much about the snake cults of the Asian steppe. He realized that the world was much more like the Ouroboros than he first supposed. In the West - "

"Wait. The what?"

"Ouroboros. The snake eating its own tail."

"What?"

"I'll explain it later. I'm in the middle of a story. Let it flow, Ghoti, let it flow."

He burped. "Sure."

"In the West, the concept of time had evolved into a linear idea, where everything continued from a starting point and never returned to that starting point. Everything moved forward. Rufus had been taught in that tradition, as the West moved beyond the - as he thought - antiquated notion that time was a circle, always turning in on itself and repeating. He knew that the farmers in the West still clung to these notions, because they lived their lives according to the ebb and flow of the seasons, and each springtime was much like the ones before it. Rufus - although he was quite mad - considered himself educated - before he left Europe, he had studied with Alcuin - and believed that educated men had moved beyond these ideas. Time was a march forward into a glorious future. However, on the Asian steppes he learned that the concept of the Ouroboros was much more than a cyclical idea of the seasons. He learned that certain events themselves repeated. Events that shaped the course of mankind. Events that could be predicted based on when they had happened before."

"He discovered how to predict the future?"

"To a certain degree. It's impossible to completely foretell the future with much accuracy, but the longer he spent in Tashkent, the more he learned about the craft of predicting future events. He put this knowledge into the book."

"That's ..."

"But the book was still only being written. It wasn't being 'created.' That would come after Rufus died, with all his knowledge about future events and how the concept of the Ouroboros could be used still only taking up half of the book's pages. It was still just a book."

Ghoti finished his beer and waved for another one. "So what happened after he died?"

"The book disappeared. No one knows what happened to it. Some say his 14-year-old mistress Melinda took it back to Constantinople with her. Some say his arch-rival, a man named Alfini, pried it from his dead fingers and took it to the jungles of Southeast Asia. Still others say he was buried with it and later, a Magyar warlord dug up his body and took the book to Hungary. Whatever happened, the book re-appeared in Rome in the 920s, during the reign of Marozia, the queen of Rome. She was a wild woman, utterly ruthless and determined to set her children on the papal throne. Although she succeeded, she overreached and was thrown down by her own son, Alberic, the Prince of the Romans. Alberic's son, Pope John the Twelfth, who ascended to the papacy at the age of sixteen, was - "

"Sixteen years old?"

"He was already Prince of the Romans. The pope was just another powerful ruler in those days. We accept that someone might become king at sixteen, so why not a pope? Anyway, John was depraved to a degree we mere mortals can scarcely understand. He had very little education, but his father, who had learned about the book from his mother, had told him about it. He ... changed the book."

Ghoti's forehead was almost touching mine, he was leaning in so close. "How?" he whispered.

I leaned back and took a long sip from my beer. The crowd in the bar was getting rowdy. A fight had broken out on the other side of the room, and Cyrus was brandishing his trademark trident to break it up. For the moment, everyone in the bar was paying attention to that. Ghoti and I were alone in the corner.

"Well, that's the thing, Ghoti." I smiled. "Nobody seems to know what John did to the book. He was, quite literally, insane. He believed he was the reincarnation of Caligula or Nero. He was Prince of the Romans and the Heir of Saint Peter. For a sixteen-year-old, it was quite the dizzying proposition. He might have been able to handle it had he been older, but he wasn't. He brought the German Emperor Otto to Rome and founded the Holy Roman Empire, which entangled him in politics with men who were far beyond his limited intellect. Eventually he was murdered by a man who had been cuckolded by the pope."

"Cuckolded?"

"Pope John was boinking this guy's wife. That's not important, though. Somehow Pope John changed the book. When it came out of Rome in 964, it was no longer being written in, it was writing itself. And it was tied to the legend of the Dragon of the World."

"Which, of course, you're going to tell me about."

"First, though, I want to know what you think."

"It's bullshit. Complete bullshit."

"Why?"

"Come on, Isosceles, shit like this doesn't happen in the world. Sure, weird shit happens, but 'weird shit' means that popes get caught with another guy's wife, not that a book becomes alive. That's just ... stupid."

I tapped the table. I knew Ghoti would put it in perspective for me. He was always more grounded than I was. In this case, though, I knew he was wrong. "Weird shit" like this does happen, we just don't know about it.

Ghoti bent his arms behind his head and leaned back. "So, about this legend?"

"Yeah. The Dragon of the World. That's something that might convince even you."

1 Comments:

Blogger Roxy said...

"The surgeon who had performed the surgery was psychotic, angry, drunk, and Slavic."

HA HA HA! I had to pause to tell you I literally blew coke out my nose as I was reading this line. And that would be the soft drink coke, not the white powder coke.

12:35 PM  

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