THE SHELL OF KNOWING
By Douglas Wynne
“Hang a left at the Dead End sign,” Tommy said, pointing. Chris turned the Dodge wagon onto Laurel Court and they crawled past homes with vacant driveways. A few crude snowmen populated the neighborhood but that was all. It was the Monday after Thanksgiving and most people were probably back to work, but that didn’t mean there weren’t eyes; there were always eyes on sleepy blocks like this one, and Tommy wasn’t going to relax just because he couldn’t see a rustle in the curtains or a finger in the blinds.
Tommy pointed at a light blue Cape Cod with no garage and no car in the snow-covered driveway. “That one,” he said. “Pull up right in front.”
Chris parked the car and fetched a snow shovel and a spade from the back. Tommy grabbed the spade and set to work carving out the mailbox. When it was clear, he removed a bundle of letters wrapped in colorful supermarket circulars bound by a rubber band. Flipping through the letters, he said, “Lynn. Remember that name. Lynn Murphy, got it?”
“Skip the last name if somebody asks. It’s good to know it, but we’re friends, not a hired crew with a snow blower on a pickup truck. So it’s Lynn, not Mrs. Murphy or what have you.” After searching his partner’s eyes for some sign of comprehension, Tommy trotted up to the porch, his boots punching through the crust of snow, and tucked the mail inside the storm door.
When he returned he picked up the spade and finished clearing the mailbox while Chris worked on the driveway.
“What if she comes home while we’re here?” Chris asked.
“Then you better get in the car before I’m gone with it. You’re killing me. We’ve been over this. No footprints means no one’s been coming to feed some fuckin’ dog, but that’s all the reassurances we’re gonna get unless the answering machine tells me more. Now shut up and shovel. I’ll be right back.”
Tommy went to look for the spare key and found it under a planter on the back steps. He let himself in the front door without looking around at the street.
The place was modest. Not a lot of money in the furnishings, electronics or décor. That was okay, he didn’t walk out of a joint with any of that big shit under his arm in broad daylight, anyway. Still, it was disappointing. If there was no money being thrown around in those areas, there was probably less jewelry as well.
He found the phone and answering machine atop a long, low bookcase stocked with several years of National Geographic magazines. The messages told him nothing useful. In the kitchen there was a calendar depicting a coral reef. He flipped the pages, watching the images fall from his thumb. Large blocks of weeks were marked off with bold lines from a sharpie. Lynn Murphy traveled a lot. When November fell back into place, he ran his finger across the current row and read a word in capital letters spaced to occupy a full week: BELIZE. Tommy smiled. He opened the fridge to see if there was anything to drink. Iced Tea with ginseng. Don’t mind if I do.
Upstairs he found a stash of jewelry in the drawers of a wooden vanity. Most of it was made from odd shells undoubtedly from places with the kind of clear blue water he had only ever seen in movies and on calendars, and none of it worth anything to anyone but Lynn Murphy. But there were a few pieces of silver and gold. He dropped the metals into a black nylon bag.
Back downstairs, he moved through the living room and into an adjacent den where he found a whole new game waiting for him. He had been worried that he was dealing with one of those rare people who always let him down—someone who put all of her disposable into travel. And he was half right about her. She was a traveler, but she was more than a tourist collecting trinkets. Much more.
The den was a sparsely furnished room with just a hint of green in the eggshell paint. Recessed lighting fixtures in the ceiling were aimed at photographs, shadow boxes, and pedestals around the room. He thumbed the switches in the entryway, and the room was flooded with the kind of full-spectrum illumination he usually only encountered in the homes of camera buffs with little private galleries like this one. Only, these pictures were not the kind of thing people usually put up to flaunt their skills. They were large prints, but grainy and dim, depicting indistinct mossy shapes, all gray and dark green.
At first he thought they were photos of old tombs in a graveyard, but then his eye connected them to the objects which stood among them on the pedestals and in the glass display cases—a collection of pottery fragments, conch shells and brine eaten coins. The photos had all been taken underwater; not art in their own right, but documents of the sunken ruins where the other items had been found.
There were also a few framed photos of divers in wetsuits with their arms around each other. Maybe she was a professional. If so, anything worth real money probably went to museums and universities, but there were more than a few gold coins on display. Spanish ducats? He thought of the pirate stories his grandmother had once read him. Pearls too. Big, beautiful pearls, most of them white, some black, not drilled, but displayed loose in iridescent seashells. Tommy dumped them into the bag.
He didn’t know if any of the other artifacts were worth anything, and finding out would be too risky, so he passed them over. The gold coins and pearls made the job worthwhile. He turned to go, but stopped when his eye caught the pink glaze of a conch shell resting on a red felt lined shelf. It reminded him of the one his grandmother had kept in her bathroom when he was a boy. It had lived in the tiled cubby that framed the little frosted glass window over the bathtub. When he’d grown tall enough to reach it, Tommy would always hold it to his ear, listening to the sound of the ocean over the shower spray.
Now he took this conch in his hands with a gentleness he’d bestowed upon nothing else belonging to Lynn Murphy of Laurel Court, and held it to his ear. As he did so, his eyes absently wandered over the photograph mounted above the empty shelf: a series of stone steps leading up to a dais with a stone cube at the center, everything hued in that ultramarine light. And lying in a concave depression in the stone cube was the conch. It was a perfect fit. As if the cube had been hollowed out for the very purpose of holding the shell. A little rectangle of typed cardstock under the photo identified the location: YONAGUNI JIMA.
Tommy listened to the sound of the ocean, the vast hollow breath of amplified air. It relaxed the tension in his shoulders, and he closed his eyes. But just as he was settling into the serenity of the one sound that always calmed him, he was shaken another sound: a man’s voice. He startled, almost dropped the shell, and was disproportionately relieved when he caught it and kept it from hitting the floor. This sudden love for a worthless seashell embarrassed him enough to flush his face, even though a quick scan of the room confirmed that no one was there. So who had spoken? He had distinctly heard the words close in his ear, “Goddamn ice. Break my fuckin’ back.”
Tommy raised the shell to his ear again. Over the roar of the sea, he heard Chris’s voice saying, “Always the grunt work. Always gives me the grunt work ‘cause he thinks he’s so smart. If he’s so smart how come he doesn’t know I’m tappin’ Donna? Fair share my ass.”
Tommy pulled the shell away from his ear and the volume of the rant faded, held it close again and the volume increased until it was like listening to Chris on a cell phone. Was the shell somehow picking up sound reflected by the house and amplifying it? Was that even possible? And was Chris crazy enough to be saying this shit loud enough for it to travel like that?
He went to the nearest window and peeked through the curtain. Beyond a hedge he could see Chris slinging crushed ice and dirt onto a pile, his mouth set in a tight grimace while he worked. Tommy held the shell up to his ear again, certain that the acoustical trick would fail to work anywhere but in the exact location where he’d stumbled upon it. But there it was, clear as day, Chris mouthing off about him. And yet the kid’s lips didn’t move.
It was crazy, but it seemed like the shell was some kind of telepathic receiver. Tommy looked again at the empty shelf and the photo. The underwater shrine where the divers had found the conch, the stone cube with a hollowed out surface to hold it. It looked like an altar in a sunken temple. The surface of his skin tingled as he thought about it, fine blonde hairs rising. But it made no sense. If you owned such a rare and powerful object, you didn’t put it on display on a shelf in your totally unsecured home. The thing should be locked up in a safe when she wasn’t using it.
Using it. Just how could you use such a thing? He stared at the shell. It looked just like any other conch—a spiral of pale horns and a glossy pink orifice that reminded him of the female anatomy. It was small enough to fit in the palm of his hand. He closed his fingers around it. It would be easy to hold it against his ear in public and look like he was taking a call on a cell. Everybody walked around with their hands to their ears these days. He could fit in anywhere like that. And then what? Forget keeping that dirtbag hacker on the payroll. Information theft would be a whole new game if you could hack directly into people’s skulls. His heart hammered hard, his sinews flushed with adrenaline. It changed everything. He would be empowered on every job, protected from every betrayal.
Tommy stomped down the strip of newly exposed asphalt, knocking Chris aside.
“Hey! What the hell?” Chris yelled.
Without looking back, Tommy called, “Throw the shovels in the car. We’re done.”
Tommy put the car in gear and Chris jumped into the passenger seat, swinging the door shut as the car jumped out into the road. They drove a few blocks until the houses thinned out around a crappy little park with a war memorial—evergreen shrubs, a gray painted canon and a block of rock with some names on brass plates.
Tommy pulled the car over and got out, tromped through the snow, and didn’t look back.
“Where you going?” Chris yelled.
Tommy said nothing. He looked at the names on the brass tags with his back to the car until Chris, like a dog, did the predictable thing and followed him. When he heard the crunching boots close behind him, Tommy swung around and threw an uppercut into Chris’s stomach. Chris grunted out a deep sigh, buckled forward and involuntarily presented his face to his assailant. Tommy took the opportunity to drive his elbow up under Chris’s chin. He could hear the jaw crack. Blood sprayed across the virgin snow. Chris staggered back a few steps and spit a tooth shard into his hand, his thick eyebrows bunched up.
“Jeez, Tommy, what the hell? What’d I do?”
Tommy responded with another punch, this one to the side of Chris’s face, sending him sprawling into his own blood. “That’s for banging my ex. If I wanted to spend a little time workin’ on you, I’d probably find four or five other reasons to beat you within an inch of your life. You’re lucky I don’t have time for it. I don’t want to see you again, you hear?”
Chris nodded. Tommy marched back to the car and drove off.
* * *
The potential of the shell for the kind of jobs Tommy usually did seemed obvious at first. For one thing, it got you past the problem of the cameras they built into ATM machines. You could hang back and read the pin number out of a guy’s head without looking over his shoulder. But you still had to follow him to an insolated spot and threaten him to get the card. You still had to use the card to get the cash and there would still be a camera on you when you did. At least you knew you had the right pin, but that didn’t change the game much. Most people told you the right pin as soon as they saw the gun. So the shell wasn’t really any better than the gun in that context. There had to be more creative ways of profiting from it.
For a few weeks he didn’t do any jobs, just listened and learned. To his chagrin, it gradually dawned on him that reading minds wasn’t as useful to a thief as he had imagined. And he could only take it in small doses. Most people were obsessing over their fears and desires, the particulars of which he could not relate to. But as he used the shell more, he discovered that it was delivering more than just audio. The words that came to mind were carrier wave.
Tommy had tried to learn a trade before dropping out to pursue his true calling and he remembered an Intro to Communications Tech class that covered how radio worked. A signal, say a DJ’s voice, was modulated by another signal, one that you couldn’t hear. That other signal was the carrier wave. The telepathic signals he was getting from the shell seemed like sound waves, but underneath the voices, like a rip tide, was an emotional carrier wave.
He first got a taste of it when a young woman caught him staring, eaves dropping on her fantasies about her pilates instructor. She looked at Tommy and thought: rapist. It washed over him like a smell, a poisonous disgust, reeking of intimacy and flight reflex.
Other experiences followed and not all were unpleasant. In fact, the more attuned he became to the carrier wave, the less he felt the need to profit from the shell. Schemes for reading cards in Vegas lost their allure when he admitted to himself that nothing he could buy with the money gained by this magic would be more fascinating than the magic itself. He went to the New England Dragway and tuned into the carrier wave of a driver going balls out on the track. Truly exhilarating; no mental chatter. He even used it to tune into a junkie he found huddled in an alley, and after nearly walking into traffic from the full body bliss that overwhelmed him, he spent a long night pondering whether telepathic smack could be physically addictive. He resolved not to find out. Tommy had seen people ride off on the white horse since he was a boy. His own mother, even. Now he knew why they didn’t look back, and it left him shaken.
He stopped leaving the apartment after that. He craved the comfortable exile of his old hardness. The thing was messing with his head and he was loosing focus. The fridge was empty. Rent was due.
He needed to work. Once he faced the fact, it was obvious that it should be a big job, a job to end work for a while, maybe get him out of Boston to someplace where the weather wasn’t pissed off at you for nine months out of the year. Maybe finally go see that clear blue water firsthand.
Grand schemes were soon discarded in favor of simple designs, and he settled on a big box store, a national chain that sold a little bit of everything. With only a week left until Christmas a place like that would be doing brisk business. He picked one in a blue-collar neighborhood where a lot of people would be spending cash, cased it out for a few days, and learned how often the manager left the count-out room with a rent-a-cop on her heels and a bank pouch under her arm.
The beauty of the plan was its modesty. It wasn’t the kind of gamble that had everything riding on the shell. The shell would just give him the edge he needed to pull it off without a hitch.
* * *
Tommy entered the store shortly after the cashier shift change and walked directly to the mirrored door in the corner with the confident gait of a man who belonged. He turned his back to the camera and punched in the entry code he had lifted from an employee a few days prior. He knew no one was looking at him from the other side of the one-way glass because his casing of the place had revealed only a narrow ascending stairwell behind the door. The electric lock clicked open and he stepped into the stairwell, using the privacy it afforded to slip on his ski mask, carefully placing the little conch shell between the fabric and his left ear. It was uncomfortable, and he knew he would look like a crazy man with the horns stabbing through the black knit on the side of his head, but the discomfort was worth it. And if they thought he was crazy, all the better. Maybe some of his previous jobs would have been easier if he’d made an effort to embellish his appearance with a mad touch or two. He’d never thought of it before.
Voices drifted down the stairs, sparse laughter and the soft tapping of practiced fingers on plastic keys. Taking the last two steps in a single stride, he drew the gun and held it aloft, calling out to the room, “Hands up, everybody, hands up, this is not a joke.” A couple of screams cut the air, followed by a silence broken only by the banter of a sportscaster from a little boom box.
In his left ear the drone of the ocean was broken by a cold current of urgent voices. He tried to ignore the panicky chatter, listening for anything that had a calm deliberate tone, the tone of intention, of action. And there it was, someone focusing on the eyeholes of his mask, trying to determine the direction of his gaze while reaching out with a foot under the long Formica counter that spanned the length of the room.
That guy. Tommy pointed the gun at a fat kid with blonde curls in a ponytail, a black Ozzy t-shirt showing under his ill-fitting blue smock. A girl shrieked as the gun swept the room.
“You, fat boy,” he said, “No panic button. Get your feet where I can see them. Stand up.”
The kid raised his hands, pushed his swivel chair away from the counter and slowly stood.
“On your knees,” Tommy ordered. This was met with a whimpering from the screamer. “And you bitches better shut up. If I hear one more peep, this is gonna end badly.”
Tommy tried to focus. There were only a half dozen employees in here, but it was suddenly a monkey house in his head. They had shut up verbally, his right ear took in the silence, but the primal chatter in his left ear was deafening. It was like wearing headphones that had gone dead on one side while the other was tuned to a boiling chorus of prayers and curses. Again, he scanned the din for a calm voice, and again it stood out starkly.
This is it, a male voice said. This is what you train for. Step wide, palm heel strike to the elbow and he will drop the gun… Am I really gonna do this? He might just take the money and go, but what if this is a massacre and my only chance—
“Hey karate kid,” Tommy said, pointing the muzzle of the gun directly at the forehead of a short stocky guy in his thirties with close cropped salt and pepper hair. “This is not what you train for, hear me? You jump around in your white pajamas to burn some fat so you can get laid and live a little longer, right? Well living longer doesn’t involve lunging at a loaded gun and getting your brains splashed all over the girl behind you, does it? Does it?”
“That’s right, so sit tight, Jackie Chan.”
The guy looked stunned, drained of confidence. Good.
“Claire. You’re the manager. Stand up.”
A middle aged woman in a fleur-de-lis print blouse and black slacks stood, her hands held out to her sides in the universal sign language of people held at gunpoint, the gesture that said, “Be cool.” She even tried a thin smile. It didn’t look right and she dropped it.
Tommy needed her to move around the room and put all of the cash from the register drawers into his black bag. He then needed her to open up the safe and put all of that cash into the same bag. He needed her to do these things with no bullshit and he was going to tell her all of this right after he ensured her cooperation by giving the universal gesture of gun toting motherfuckers the world over. The one that said, “I mean it.” He cocked the hammer.
Claire closed her eyes and Tommy’s mind was blasted like a powderflash with the most vivid mental picture he had ever seen in his life. A vision of a boy, maybe three years old, smiling a toothy smile, his cheeks rosy, a crusty little scab healing on his forehead where he had bumped into something, hair tousled, individual strands shining like gold filaments infused with sunlight. It was a rapturous thing to behold, this bomb of pure love going off in his mind, eclipsing the chorus of terror and anxiety, the prayers and obscenities, the schemes and regrets. The boy’s enormous eyes were deep brown wells of trust more pure than any expression he had ever seen on a human face. They were too much. He wanted to look away from them, to close his own eyes against their wide stare, but he couldn’t. And they filled his mind until the terror was his; the terror of standing beneath a tsunami wave, waiting for it to crash. When it did crash, it washed away everything he could cling to as himself, every want, every need, the very knowledge of his own name was splintered asunder like a balsa wood boat under the crushing force of the woman’s love and sadness.
Then it passed.
He was looking into Claire’s eyes now. Blue, not brown like her son’s. A single tear trembled on her lower lash and fell.
Tommy dropped the gun and clawed at his ear, struggled to rip the conch out through the black wool. The mask slipped off, and he swatted it aside as if it were filled with hornets, the shell clattering across the linoleum tiles. It was too much. It was way too much. How could he threaten these people if he couldn’t get any fucking distance from them? The woman’s sadness. All that she would leave behind if this went wrong. All that her kid would loose. It was everything that he was to no one. He fell to his knees and wept at her feet.
The karate guy was barking orders now, must have grabbed the gun. People were scrambling to get down the stairs and out. None of it mattered. Tommy watched his own tears falling, each one giving luster and shine to the pockmarked, rubber streaked linoleum where Claire’s tear had fallen first.
In a little while, someone pulled his arms back and cuffed him, and Claire’s shiny black shoes finally took a step back.
As Tommy was hauled to his feet, he met her gaze through a halo of fluorescent light from under his own water. She had picked up the conch and held it to her ear, her face inscrutable, placid.
“What do you hear?” he croaked.
She shook her head slightly, still listening. “The ocean,” she said, “Just the ocean.”
Next is a bit of flash fiction (999 words) that I wrote for a contest at Shock Totem. It didn’t win, but tied for second, and later appeared in Danse Macabre. THE JOINING is stylistically different from most of my other stuff, but I’m really fond of it, and I could see myself someday spending more time in the world it introduces.
By Douglas Wynne
Gretchen painted one last curling tail feather on the distelfink, then placed her brush in the water jar. Tendrils of orange bloomed from the bristles and swirled up toward the surface like incense. She could feel Frau Hess looking over her shoulder at the hex sign on her desk.
“The assignment was for a warding hex, Gretchen.”
“This one is a ward, Ma’am.”
“Just because the danko fear the bird, does not make it a ward. Not without a star to bind it.”
“There is a star. See where the leaf stems meet the compass rose?”
The teacher’s bosom heaved with a quick indrawn breath. “Indeed. Fetch a danko, child, and we shall see if it works.”
Gretchen stood up and glanced at the empty seat in the row behind hers. “Where’s Karl, Ma’am?”
“Karl is excused today. His father is the condemned.”
“Today is a joining day?” A ripple of murmured excitement radiated from her desk and washed over the classroom.
“Never you mind. Fetch the danko.”
Behind the schoolhouse sat four stone and mortar huts with iron cage doors oriented to the four cardinal directions. Gretchen arrived at the northward facing hut and took a small leather hood from a hook on its side.
Within the hut, a single danko lay on a bed of straw. At the sound of the lock turning, it stretched and yawned, revealing three rows of needle teeth. Gretchen slipped the hood over its head, plucked it up by the scruff of the neck and draped it over her shoulder, careful to avoid touching the razored bone spires on its back.
In the classroom the other students had stowed their hexes under the desktops. Only Gretchen’s was visible—a white disk mounted on the easel at the front of the room, the paint still glistening wet. She approached it and looked to Frau Hess, who simply nodded.
Gretchen set the danko down on a pedestal in front of the hex, held her breath, and plucked the hood from its head. The creature’s bone spires emitted a rank cloud of purple vapor as it launched itself away from the hex, sprung its claws in mid-air, and landed with them entrenched in the wood of a support beam. From there, it scrambled up toward the ceiling where a hanging curtain cut off the view of the maddening geometry.
Frau Hess addressed the class, “Who can tell us why this decorative hex is also a ward?”
Andreas Claypoole’s hand went up, bringing the teacher’s eyebrows with it.
“Because of the hexagram in the leaf stems?”
“Correct. Can everyone see it?”
Heads nodded with varying degrees of conviction. Frau Hess removed the disk from the hook and handed it to Gretchen. “In your desk, child. And put the danko away. The Hexmeisters will soon arrive.”
* * *
They came in the slanting light of afternoon with Mathias Van Driesen in shackles. He had been convicted of murder for bludgeoning his neighbor with a stone from the wall that divided their farms—his final statement on a dispute over the damming of a creek that watered his cattle. A crowd of adults gathered in the shade of the great elm tree to watch him pass. The weathercock stood motionless on the schoolhouse roof, arrow pointing south.
A pair of burly mill workers escorted the condemned man into the building. He thrashed and kicked at the threshold for a moment until they shouldered him through. Once inside, he cried out, “Stone me, please! I beg you. Stone me!” But his pleas faded as the men marched him up the backstairs to the attic where Gretchen knew they would fasten his shackles to rings in the floor and bolt the door behind him.
The Hexmeisters marched across the scrubby field, four men clad in black, and each carrying a hooded danko perched on a wooden disk. The crowd ebbed into the shade of the tree at their approach.
The danko were known by many names. The Hexmeisters called them the Fang Storm of Shenandoah, or the Plague Zepher of Hades. Ordinary folk called them the Blood Hurricane. The creatures were docile when isolated from their brethren; hexcraft had been devised on the basis of this odd fact. But all who lived in the valley knew how they acted in a pack. How they swarmed out of the hills on the west wind, and reduced fields of livestock to polished bone.
The Hexmeisters now flanked the building. Gretchen watched the two she could see, raising their disks and sliding them into slots in the brick wall. These were windows into vertical chutes that ran between the interior and exterior walls, up to the attic. The other two Hexmeisters would be placing their disks into identical slots on the far side, and waiting for the signal. A fifth man—the judge—stood at the north end of the field. He raised one hand in the air, paused, and then swept it down.
The hoods came off. The creatures leapt from the lacquered disks as if from hot stove plates, upward into the chutes where their claws found purchase on the rough mortar, driving against gravity, scurrying toward the attic chamber, racing toward the joining.
Mathias Van Driesen’s screams were dampened by the brick walls, but their intensity was no secret, their duration horribly protracted, though over in less than a minute. Shortly after the shrieking stopped, rivulets of blood tinged with bile and marrow poured down the chutes and splashed over brick and grass.
Soon Frau Hess would reenter the schoolhouse and pull the rope to reveal the disk in the attic, sending the danko back down the chutes into burlap sacks. But first, she led her students in the old rhyme, and one by one, the adults joined the chant.
Cattle all ashuttered
Children all abed
Weathercock be spinning
Cross your heart with dread
Stand beneath the barnstar
Na’er turn your back
One or two may cross your path
But four doth make a pack