the commander was scowling at his map. he tapped it with a pointer .
the map showed what morrison already knew - that they were trapped in sector c, surrounded by three battle squadrons of the rival empire, and with little hope of a breakout.
communication wth headquarters had broken down months ago and they had no way of knowing if any effort was being made to reach them, or if they had been written off.
they suspected the latter, as they had only been a scouting expedition to begin with. and headquarters surely knew what they were facing now.
“quite useless, these maps, quite useless,” the commander observed.
“indeed, sir.” morrison nodded.
“there is nothing else for it,” the commander continued. “we shall have to make a dash for it. and hope there is still something to make a dash for.”
“how long do you think it will take you to gather the men together and brief them?”
“why, no time at all, sir. the only man left is hodgkiss, and he can not have gotten far, after telling me you wished to see me. he is not due to go on patrol until sixteen hundred hours, so i expect he just went back to his bunk.”
“hmm.” the commander scowled briefly. “i did not realize things had gotten quite so far as that. so you are telling me that there are only you and i and hodgkiss left alive here?”
“yes, sir. and the woman.”
“the woman!" the commander exclaimed. "what woman? i did not know there was a woman on the premises.”
“oh, yes, a native woman. we took her in shortly after we got here.”
“well, i hope she was not some sort of spy!”
morrison coughed. “not so far as i can tell.sir.”
“and to what use has she been put?”
“oh, this and that. washing the pots, entertaining the troops. though with the troops pretty much gone, she has had some time on her hands lately.”
“yes, i can imagine. do you suggest we should take her with us when we depart?”
“well, that is up to you, sir.”
the commander considered. “i suppose as long as she has been a faithful servant , and if we can find some use for her. we should take her along. we were always taught at academy that we should show some loyalty to natives who had shown loyalty to us. as a general principle going forward in the path of empire, you know.”
“quite, sir. she is quite sturdy, i am sure we can load her up pretty well with whatever we wish to carry.”
“yes. well, i leave it up to you, morrison. i would like to move out before daybreak, if it can be arranged.”
“yes, sir. i might add, that the woman might be useful in parleying with any tribesmen we encounter on our way.”
“tribesmen! what tribesmen? you amaze me, morrison. i did not know there were any tribesmen about, i thought we were engaging exclusively with the forces of the blue empire!”
“oh no, sir. the hills are quite alive with tribesmen. you can hardly set foot outside the camp without tripping over a tribesman.”
“you do not say so. well, one learns something new all the time, even in the darkest hour.”
“very good, sir. should i start making our preparations?.“
“yes, please do. while you are doing that, i shall make one last attempt to contact headquarters, though it is only for form’s sake, i am afraid.”
morrison turned to go.
“wait!” the commander stopped him.
“this - woman. is she young? at all attractive?”
“ah - that is difficult to say precisely, sir. i think opinion might tend to fall on the negative side.”
“i see. well, carry on.”
the first glimmers of dawn were visible between the hills.
the little party of four moved out, with the commander in the lead, slapping at the air and at his thigh with his riding crop, followed by corporal hodgkiss carrying a radio which morrison and the commander both thought quite useless but were afraid not to bring.
behind hodgkiss came the woman, barely visible under supplies and equipment that might have been carried by four pack animals.
morrison brought up the rear. he had a heavy pack on his back, and carried a small submachine gun.
they had not gone half a mile when, true to morrison’s prediction, they were met by a group of five tribesmen - actually three men and two boys. two of the men were riding animals that looked like a cross between a bear and a camel. the other, older and heavier man, and the two boys walked beside them.
the commander scowled as morrison came forward and began to parley with the two men.
the conversation went on interminably - though politely enough - until the commander could take it no longer.
“what is it they want?” he demanded of morrison.
“well, sir, in one word, they want the woman.”
“they do, do they?” despite morrison’s cautious description, the commander, in the brief glimpse he had of the woman as she was being loaded up, had thought her a rather fine specimen. a fine and sturdy specimen, though of course it had been hard to tell in the dim light and all.
“they are prepared,” morrison went on, “to furnish us with some food, lead us to a water hole where we can fill up, and give us one of the boys as a guide - in return for the woman.”
“that does not sound much of a bargain,” the commander countered. “i think we are well stocked as we are. and can the boy carry all she is carrying? eh?”
“i think, sir,” morrison replied in a low voice, “it would be wise to take their offer.”
“you do, do you? look here - i tell you what - unload the packages from the woman and let us get a look at her.”
morrison looked puzzled but answered, “yes, sir.”
the commander had come to a decision. if the curvature of the woman’s hips was at least equal to that of the dome of st weneceslaus’s cathedral, he would refuse the tribesmen’s offer. otherwise, they were welcome to her.
it was so heavy he kept moving it from one hand to the other and stopping to rest.
robin hood, asked the princess, what do you have in that suitcase and why is it so heavy?
it is filled with gold bullion, said robin hood, and i am taking it to the holy land to ransom good king richard from the saracens
at the rate you are going, replied the princess, king richard and the saracens will all be dead of old age before you get there.
you have a point, robin hood agreed, i was hoping to encounter a genie or a magician who would assist me in some way.
you do not say so, said the princess, in that case i may be able to help you out.
do you mean that you know a magician or genie in these parts who can assist me? asked robin hood. perhaps yu are n possession of a magic lamp yourself?
no, replied the princess, but there is a witch in these very woods who might help you out.
a witch exclaimed robin hood, good king richard does not approve of witches, and would not right be right pleased to receive assistance from such creatures.
o but this is a good witch said the princess, and she has received the blessings of st christopher, patron saint of wayfarers, st john the eremite, and st elegius the patron saint of goldsmiths, among many other worthy denizens of heaven.
the patron saint of goldsmiths, cried robin hood, that it is indeed fortuitous, in that case perhaps an exception could be made to king richard’s wishes.
would you like me to take you to the witch, asked the princess.
after a moment’s hesitation, robin hood replied that he would.
the princess hopped down from the tree and led robin into the depths of the forest.
darkness fell as they walked along a dusty road.
a few stars could be seen above the branches of the dark trees.
are we almost there, asked robin hood?
almost, replied the princess.
suddenly they came to a clearing in which stood a large, busting railway station.
the railway station was brightly lit up but was surrounded by dark narrow streets.
the princess led robin hood down one of the darkest streets.
robin hood could see that the streets were little more than alleys and were filled with gin shops and low haunts where congregated some of the scum of the earth.
a couple of ruffians known as billy the barber and java drinking jake watched with knowing smiles from a doorway as robin hood and the princess passed within a few feet of them.
bob’s your uncle, whispered billy , and winkled at jake with his glass eye.
here we are, said the princess to robin hood. she had stopped in front of a crooked little building, little more than a hut, on a corner in front of a large hole in the ground.
there was no light in the hut but the princess entered it and robin hood followed with his heavy suitcase.
although there was no lamp or candle visible, the interior of the hut was faintly illuminated by a strange unearthly glow.
wait here, said the princess. she disappeared behind a curtain.
there were no chairs in the hut, but robin hood, glad to take a load off his feet, sat down on the suitcase and waited.
after what seemed an eternity, the curtain parted and the witch appeared.
robin hood had expected an old crone, but the witch was as young and beautiful as the princess.
she might have been the princess’s sister, but with longer and darker hair, the color of a raven’s dying croak.
and eyes as dark and old as the depths of the sea.
robin hood explained his plight to the enchantress, and asked if he might be transported immediately to the holy land.
i can not do that on such short notice, the witch replied, but what i can do is lighten your load.
she pointed to the suitcase. go ahead, she told robin, pick it up.
robin did as he was told - the suitcase was as light as a bird’s wing!
robin started to thank the witch but she had disappeared.
he decided to say prayers of thanks to st elegius and the blessed virgin instead, and turned and went back out into the street.
billy the barber and java drinking jake were waiting for him.
what’s in the suitcase, country boy? drawled billy.
a picture of my old mother, robin replied, an arrow from the side of st stephen, and a feather from the wing of the archangel gabriel.
country boy’s got a sense of humor, drawled jake.
let’s take a look, said billy, and snatched the suitcase from robin’s hand.
the bars of gold spilled out, blinding billy and jake.
billy was turned into a toad and jake into a mouse and they scurried away whimpering onto the dark shadows.
suddenly the princess reappeared and helped robin scoop the feather light bars of glowing gold back into the suitcase.
let us make haste, she told billy, you have to catch the express to constantinople.
the express to constantinople, exclaimed robin, i have never been on a train before.
the conductor of the train is st basil of cappopdocia, said the princess, and st augustine is the engineer. they will see you safe to constantinople, where you will find the prophet ezekiel waiting for you. he will escort you to the tent of the king of the saracens, where you will deliver the ransom for good king richard. but hurry, we do not have a moment to lose.
they reached the train station without incident, with robin clutching the weightless suitcase.
the princess delivered robin to st basil, just as the train was pulling out.
the express thundered through the night, through cities bright as jewels, forests as quiet as graveyards, and fields dark as the center of the earth.
nobody, not even st basil or st augustine, spoke to robin after he was in his seat, and he fell asleep, with the suitcase full of gold in his arms on his lap.
dawn was breaking when they reached the imperial city.
but the prophet ezekiel was not waiting for robin, nor was anybody else.
with a strange feeling of foreboding, robin decided to check the interior of the suitcase, and ducked into an alley beside the station to do do.
the suitcase was empty except for a small toad, which robin recognized as the fallen angel moloch, and which quickly hopped away into the throngs which were starting to crowd the streets with their hawkers and beggars cries.
it would be many years before king richard was ransomed from the saracens.
but as king richard was the most forgiving of men, as well as the bravest and most warlike, he never upbraided robin hood for his unfortunate adventure, or for losing half the gold of his kingdom, and they both lived to hoist many a golden foaming tankard back in merry old england, in the green depths of sherwood forest.
total dissatisfaction press has a wide selection of over 60 books available
total dissatisfaction press specializes in old-fashioned poetry books, coffee table books including coffee table poetry books, cut-up poetry and fiction, and books that make great gifts for surly children, sullen adolescents, confused elders, and persons who might like a gift that makes them say
“what the ________ is this?”
all books illustrated unless otherwise noted
“and what is the use of a book,” thought alice, “without pictures or conversations?”
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*darkness, my home town, and other stories, by fred flynn - $3.46
anniversary, and other stories, by nick nelson - $3.61
death in the rain, by nick nelson - $5.25
long con on a dark road, and other stories, by nick nelson - $4.13
ms found in a white notebook, and other stories and poems, by nick nelson - $4.17
31 stories, by nick nelson - $4.85
fun: a tale for a rainy night, by harold p sternhagen - illustrated - $5.25
*fun: a tale for a rainy night, by harold p sternhagen - not illustrated - $3.32
games: a tale for a stormy night, by harold p sternhagen - $5.29
the little cheeseburger girl, and other stories, by horace p sternwall - illustrated - $5.01
*the little cheeseburger girl, and other stories, by horace p sternwall - not illustrated - $3.04
hey! and other found poems, by anonymous - $2.41
song of the open road, and other poems, by jack dale coody - $2.09
across the wounded greyhound stations, by corinne delmonico - $2.29
every child should sing, and other poems, by corinne delmonico - $2.17
*leaves, by mary c fogg - $2.05
billy blood, and other poems, by timothy t jones - $2.49
*this guy came at me with a knife, and other poems, by timothy t jones - $2.81
*the unexplainable man, by timothy t jones - $2.53
i should get out more, by wiggly jones, “the little hippie boy” - $2.17
poems for everyone, by wiggly jones, “the little hippie boy” - $2.13
**beat, and other poems, by chuck leary - $3.05
i was the one, and other poems, by horace p sternwall - $3.01
*lover, and other poems. by horace p sternwall - $2.17
untitled, and other poems, by horace p sternwall - $3.01
amanda, and other poems, from a sternwall family album - $2.49
life is horrible, and other poems, by bofa xesjum - $2.85
* not illustrated
** contains some nsfw material
drifting highway, and other poems, by rhoda penmarq - $3.13
joey isn’t the problem, and other poems, by rhoda penmarq - $3.29
let’s see if we can’t do better this time, by rhoda penmarq - $3.61
maisie and the clowns with pointed shoes, and other stories, by rhoda penmarq - $4.05
the other side of the cadillac, and other poems, by rhoda penmarq - $3.21
that’a an improvement, but a little more energy please, by rhoda penmarq - $3.29
it isn’t only crocodiles that cry, part 1, by chuck leary - $16.00
it isn’t only crocodiles that cry, part 2, by chuck leary - $12.75
it isn’t only crocodiles that cry, part 3, by chuck leary - $10.50
a face in green chalk on the sidewalk, by rhoda penmarq - $10.75
letter from an unknown, by rhoda penmarq - $12.25
letter from an unknown 2: sally’s dream, by rhoda penmarq - $12.25
letter from an unknown 3: the lost city, by rhoda penmarq - $16.00
letter from an unknown 4: the wages of guilt ,by rhoda penmarq - $12.25
letter from an unknown 5: the captives, by rhoda penmarq - $14.75
the waitress and the satanist, by rhoda penmarq - $13.00
l’amour, by gabrielle-jeanette perfidy - illustrated in color - $14.75
l’amour, by gabrielle-jeanette perfidy - illustrated in black and white - $3.37
the disappearance (complete in 1 volume), by jeremy witherigton - $34.50
the disappearance, part 1, by jeremy witherington - $19.50
the disappearance, part 2, by jeremy witherington - $18.00
into the interior, by roy dismas - $11.75
the road to yucatan: heisenberg’s castle, by rhoda penmarq - $11.75
high speed, and desolation express, by bofa xesjum - $14.00
wild to be free, and other illustrated stories, by bofa xesjum - $16.50
betty goes to the museum - $11.25
coffee table books:
from eddie el greco:
these are your neighbors: 1 - one human hive - $19.78
these are your neighbors: 2 - snotty kids and ignorant adults - $20.15
humans among themselves : 1 - the secret laughter - $19.78
walter williams had long prided himself on being the last well-dressed man in the ever-expanding metropolis, and he had inured himself to the taunts of boors and riffraff and hooligans as he made his way down the various boulevards of the city in his homburg and spats, with his rolled umbrella and his perfectly starched collars and his pointed handkerchief in the breast pocket of his jacket.
he had, indeed, welcomed the jeers, and found his destiny in them, as surely as he looked forward to the day when taste and civilization returned ascendant, and he, walter, would be remembered as the lonely hero who kept the banner flying and the light burning in the darkest hours.
but of late, he begun to doubt, and to feel the stirrings of despondency.
not that his reception in the street had grown harsher. if anything, it had become milder, much milder, and instead of hoots and rude remarks, he now experienced only the occasional quizzical or milldly amused glance.
“is this the end,?” walter thought, as he sat on a park bench one late afternoon, “ am i, and my dreams, to simply fade away, without even a chance to take the battle to the enemy? am i the last of all my tribe?”
walter realized he must have spoken the last sentence, at least, aloud, for a voice from the other end of the bench replied,
“i, too, sir, often feel the same way. i, too, am the last of my tribe.”
walter turned his head and saw a completely nondescript individual, whose arrival he had not registered, leaning back against the slats of the bench and regarding walter with the trace of a wistful smile.
“do you now, sir?” walter addressed the nondescript personage politely, for he always extended to others the courtesy he expected himself, “and what might that tribe be?”
“the tribe of wizards,” the man answered.
“really?” was all walter could think to reply.
“i am indeed. and in my time i was the most powerful of all wizards, the veritable master of all time and space. kingdoms and empires whirled through my fingers like grains of sand, universes wobbled on their axes, and galaxies vanished at my touch.” the nondescript man shook his head with a rueful smile. “as for what use i made of my powers, delicacy bids me be silent.”
“i am sure you used your powers wisely and well,” walter murmured, as he considered the best way to make his escape from the wizard.
but before the conversation went any further, it was interrupted by the arrival of a third personage.
a fellow almost the twin of the wizard, but smaller and shabbier. who stood before walter and announced,
“i could not help overhearing you gentlemens’ conversation. i, too, am the last of my tribe.”
“and that tribe is - ?“ walter managed to smile.
“for many years,” the little man said, “i collected the labels of whiskey bottles, and in time i amassed what was undoubtedly the world’s greatest collection of such. but all the other collectors passed away, and i was left alone with none but myself to admire my carefully accumulated treasures. and then, just last week, my attic room was broken into and my life’s work stolen. no doubt by ignorant thugs unaware of its uniqueness, who probably consigned it to the nearest dumpster. so you see, gentlemen, i too am the last of my tribe.”
walter nodded, but the wizard exclaimed, “good grief! do you equate the collection of the labels of whiskey bottles with wizardry, with mastery of all time and space? what impudence!”
“now, now,:” said walter, with a philosophy he did not know he had in him, “who are we to say? when we each choose our path through this life, how do we know with what laughter, or with what indifference, the gods regard us?”
and all three fell silent, as the twilight closed around them.
it all began on the rainy afternoon that emily discovered that glen was a murderer.
emily had always trusted glen completely, and paid no attention to the other women in the office, with their lurid tales of the mischief stay at home husbands could get into.
one afternoon emily was feeling unwell - probably from the terrible chicken croquettes she had had at lunch with a client - and she went home early.
when she got to the apartment she recognized a car parked on the street as belonging to glen’s friend richard, whom she had always found a very polite and pleasant individual.
she had described richard once to her friend at work marcia , and although marcia had never even seen richard, and had met glen only once or twice, she pronounced that glen and richard were “absolutely” lovers.
how ridiculous people were!
nevertheless emily decided to enter the apartment as quietly as possible, so as to “surprise” glen and richard at their no doubt innocent conversation. and put the silly insinuations to rest once and for all.
emily turned the key in the front door lock and slipped noiselessly into the carpeted front room.
she could hear richard’s voice in the kitchen - surprisingly loud and a bit grating. the two men were probably sitting at the kitchen table. drinking beer? talking about football?
but if they were in the kitchen they weren’t making love, were they? so there!
emily crept a little closer toward the kitchen.
“then she really started crying,” richard was saying, “and i told her, baby, there is nobody out here to hear you, nobody at all…”
and glen laughed, as emily had never heard him laugh before, and said “yeah, they get that way, don’t they, especially when they know the end is near…”
emily listened some more, and it got worse. much worse.
somehow emily found herself back outside the apartment. she got down the stairs and out on to the street, and the cold air and light rain slapped her in the face.
waking her up? had it been a dream? a hallucination?
no, it had happened! she had heard what she had heard.
glen was a serial killer! maybe a member of a cabal of serial killers.
emily hailed a cab, and went to see her best friend, jeanette.
jeanette was married to a junior hedge fund manager, and spent her mornings practicing karate and her afternoons baking chocolate chip cookies which she sold on the internet.
jeanette went on calmly ladling freshly baked cookies onto china plates as emily told her tale.
“what do you think?’ emily asked, after describing what she had heard. “do you think - do you think - they were maybe playing some kind of role-playing game?”
“they might have been,” jeanette said, “or running through a screenplay - guys with nothing to do are big for writing screenplays - but i wouldn’t count on it. “
“should i - do you think i should i confront glen?”
“no, don’t do that! that’s the last thing you want to do! what you need, babe, is a lawyer. get a lawyer, and then go to the police. let them sort it out, they are professionals.”
“but this is so awful! how can this be? how can such a thing be?”
“well, you’re not the first woman something like this has happened to.” jeanette finished putting the cookies on plates and checked her oven to make sure it was off. “it is all just part of the general misogynistic malaise of the planet. men, as you may have noticed, are not taking kindly to the revolt of women against them, and this is all just part of that.”
“but - but what can i do?”
“i told you, get a lawyer. you must know some lawyers, from your job.”
“yes, but they just do taxes and stuff. i don’t know any real lawyers, like perry mason.”
“you could find one online.”
“but how long will that take?” emily slumped down in jeanette’s kitchen chair. “no, i think i will just - go to the police and get it over with.”
“i tell you what,” jeanette said. “i will drive you to the station. then i have an appointment, and when i’m through i’ll come back to the station and see how you are doing. maybe i can pick up a lawyer on the way. jeffrey knows a million lawyers, there must be one who can help you. how does that sound?”
“all right,” emily agreed.
jeanette dropped emily off, and emily entered the police station by herself.
inside, the station was quieter than emily had expected. a young woman in uniform was seated at a front desk.
“can i help you, ma’am?”
“yes, i think my husband is a murderer. probably a serial killer.”
“please have a seat. a detective will be with you shortly.”
emily sat down on a bench. there was nobody else on it. the station was dreary enough, but not nearly as sinister or bustling as one in a movie or tv show.
how had it come to this?
emily remembered when she was young , and how her mother and dad had aways seemed to just get along. the closest they ever had to a disagreement was dad grumbling about having roast beef for dinner every single sunday afternoon.
as i recall, there were four of us left, myself, gunther, agatha, and lord george, slumped on the sofas of mr richardson’s not very tastefully appointed drawing room.
the party had been a solemn affair, without much scintillating conversation or scintillating anything, and we had dedicated ourselves to nothing more than the systematic depletion of our host’s liquor supply, punctuated by the occasional gaze into space.
gunther broke the silence.
“we had one of those old fashioned family councils,” he began, “and it was agreed that it was all up, and that it was only a matter of a few weeks at most before the bolsheviks arrived.
that being decided, we were ready to pack up what we could carry and be on our way. there was no time to sell the castle or anything else by the time honored procedures, even assuming the time honored procedures were still available.
but germinie had another idea, an idea to at least realize a bit of money that would come in handy in the first stages of our journeys.
she had read of a proceeding that was, according to her, common among the brits or maybe the yanks, and that was to empty the contents of a house, or in our case the castle, out on to a lawn or thoroughfare and offer them for sale - at ridiculously low prices - to passers by or to such persons in the vicinity who could be made aware of the occasion.
so germinie, in her energetic way, and assisted by her faithful lieutenants clara and sophie, and by the few servants who remained, set to, ‘with a will’, and on the appointed day, about a week after the decision to flee, i beheld, with what emotion i refrain from attempting to describe, many of the familiar objects of my childhood spread out nakedly in the sunshine - for it was quite a nice day - on the great green lawn i had so loved, and that had been tended for so long by so many faithful servants.
germinie and sophie and clara had attached little tags to most of the objects - or to the tables on which they stood - indicating prices, but it was understood that these were subject to bargaining, and that the bargaining on our side would be perfunctory and that we would take what was offered.
the greatest space was occupied by the contents of the old count’s vast library - which no doubt contained many so-called priceless volumes, but which were offered for small change along with many also priceless pictures and knick knacks and tables and mirrors and whatever.
i was assigned the duty of overseeing the sale of the books.
as the morning proceeded a not inconsiderable crowd materialized, of the peasants or middle class or bourgeiosie or however they were called, and with much shouting and jollity they picked their way through the scattered debris of my shattered existence.
germinie was at first delighted by the results, and happily exclaimed her surprise at the amounts of money accumulated - by such small amounts! - in so little time. i had always suspected her of having a merchant’s soul.
but as the day wore on, it was apparent that there was a loaves and fishes quality to the whole proceeding, and that no matter how much was sold, it seemed that hardly a dent had been made in the whole array, especially in the books, at which i proved but a poor hawker of wares.
so germinie and sophie and clara began circulating through the crowd, announcing that the prices were cut in half, and later by two-thirds , and still later as the sun began its descent, to ten percent of the original prices on the tags.
and this achieved some success, but still the peasants shuffled about, and poked and prodded, and scowled, and considered, and wished to haggle. and a great deal remained to be sold, again, especially the count’s beloved books, which excited little interest in the multitude, even when offered for literally a half-penny a volume.
finally, as dusk approached, germinie, faced with the prospects of bringing the books and other goods back into the castle , threw up her hands and shouted, ‘it’s free! it’s all free, good people! just take it - take what you will!’
and at that point the locusts descended, and the lawn was speedily denuded, or virtually so.”
gunther paused, but as none of us made any comment, he continued,
“i have often thought that this episode perfectly encapsulates the whole story of the modern age, the rise and fall of capitalism, of marxism, of the idea of progress, of post-post whatever, and the whole lot of it.”
“maybe,” said lord george, “people just like free stuff.”
aristide, a young man from the provinces, was walking down the boulevard of the great city when he was accosted and surrounded by a gang of hooligans.
“say you love slug,” the young man who was obviously the leader of the gang, addressed aristide.
“slug? who or what is slug?” aristde asked.
“he doesn’t know who slug is,” the hooligan at aristide’s right elbow said with a scornful air.
“then i guess he doesn’t love him,” another hooligan, a young woman, said.
“if you don’t love slug,” a burly young man added. “you have to give us your wallet.”
aristide looked around. although the hooligans had surrounded him, there was enough space between them that he could see people walking past on the sidewalk with complete unconcern.
“come now,” aristide addressed the hooligans with a show of such confidence as he could assume, “what is the point of taking my wallet? i have no cash, not even a tuppence, and you know my credit card will be cancelled in a matter of minutes.”
“not if we kill you,” the young woman who had spoken before said.
“i really don’t think you are going to do that,” aristide replied with an air of authority - or resignation to fate? - that surprised himself. “not here on this busy street.”
“come on, bro,” the leader said. “we all know what’s what here - we are not going to kill you. but you will give us your card, we will get what we can with it, some sodas or beef jerky or whatever, you will get a new card, life will go on, and everybody will be happy.”
“i suppose so,” aristide sighed. and handed his wallet over to the leader. he hoped that the wallet itself, cheap as it was, would be returned to him, but this was not to be.
as the circle of hooligans melted away , one of them - a fellow who looked a bit older than his mates, and entirely too old to be dong what he was doing, turned back to aristide.
“can i put a question to you?” he asked aristide.
“do you think life is real?” and with that the fellow turned back and followed his companions.
aristide proceeded along, with his thoughts but without his wallet, not exactly happy, but alive, and with life going on around him.
curiously, the question the hooligan had asked - whether life was real - was one that had been occupying aristide’s own thoughts for the previous few days, provoked by some odd incidents.
aristide had been keeping a diary. and the diary had mysteriously disappeared! burglary seemed unlikely, as nothing else in his room seemed missing or disturbed.
and he had attempted to call his uncle charles in the northern territories, only to be told that no such person existed. or ever had.
now aristide noticed coming towards him on the street a man who reminded him of uncle charles. a distinguished looking gray haired gentleman with a kindly look in his eye.
“excuse me,sir,” aristide accosted the distinguished looking man.
“may i ask you a question?”
“if you like.”
“do you know who ‘slug’ is?”
the gentleman looked puzzled by the question, and aristide briefly recounted his encounter with the hooligans.
“slug?” the gentleman repeated thoughtfully. “no doubt one of the myriad gods and godlings that are springing up like weeds, or mosquitos, as they always do in the declining days of empires. or - it may simply have been a private joke of the barbarians who accosted you. i wouldn’t worry about it.”
“no?’ aristide asked. “have you had similar experiences yourself, sir?”
“of course,” the man smiled. “but i do as i intend to do right now - go home and read my beloved ovid and catullus, and pour myself a stiff drink. i advise you to do the same, or something similar.”
“do you think that life is real?” aristide blurted out.
“why, as to that, wiser men than i have declined to pronounce definitely.”
aristide thanked the man for his sage advice, and went on his way.
but the day was not yet done with him.
on arriving at his lodgings, he was handed an envelope by the concierge.
it was a letter he had been awaiting with trepidation for weeks.
he opened it and his worst fears were realized. his application for employment at the imperial bureau of culture had been rejected. the letter went on to say that the bureau was being reorganized and that there would be no openings in the foreseeable future.
it had been his last hope.
what is to become of me, aristide wondered. with all my charm and savoir faire and sangfroid, am i to perish miserably here in the faltering heart of the disintegrating empire like so many unfortunates before me?
and , he thought despairingly, i do not know if life is real, but at this moment i surely wish it were not.