“How much do you know?”
The man in the long dark maroon coat swept toward Mick. The visit was expected, but not at that hour. Mick thought the man would show up the next day. That was, in fact, why he was in the lab at that late hour in the first place. He wanted to get some things done so he would have time for the new project that his boss had dropped on him that day. Said new project being the man in the dark maroon coat.
That man was the head of the company. His name was a mystery, known only by the initials that gave the company its name, the K. D. Conglomerate. Mick was given his picture and told to fulfill the man’s every request.
Mick had been at his lab bench, catching up with updating some records and writing up a report, the kind of thing he hadn’t had time for during regular hours that week. Most people seemed to wind down toward the end of the year. But that was the lab’s busy time. He didn’t mind so much that night. It was raining steadily, providing a soothing soundtrack to his work. Terry and Steph had decided to have a “girl’s night,” since he wouldn’t be home till close to midnight. He had already planned to take his coffee break with the hilarious new security guard-slash-aspiring stand-up, who had a collection of impressive celebrity impersonations (not to mention employee impersonations, including one of Mick). He had settled in for the night, until that knock at the door.
The man hadn’t introduced himself. He’d simply walked in and asked the question.
“How much do you know?”
Mick didn’t answer the question. He stuck out his hand and introduced himself.
The man ignored Mick’s hand as he swept off the dark maroon hat he’d been wearing and peered at Mick. His blue eyes seemed to ripple, making his gaze both mesmerizing and unsettling.
Well, Mick didn’t need to know any names to do what he’d been asked to do. He answered the man’s question.
“You found a treasure map, leading to some cave in the desert, where you found a stone that looked like an egg with a crack in it. You cracked the stone open, and inside was a gemstone pendant, and you want me to…open the gemstone, because you believe there’s something inside of that.”
“Yes,” the man said. One black-gloved hand slipped inside his coat and pulled out a kerchief that appeared to be wrapped around something. He offered it to Mick, who put on his own pair of gloves—blue nitrile—and took the kerchief. He placed it on a tray on his bench and unfolded the kerchief, until he uncovered a dark red gemstone in the shape of an elongated octagon.
“What do you think is inside of the gem?” Mick asked.
The man leaned over the gemstone. “The only thing that could kill me. At last, at last. The thing I’ve been seeking for hundreds of years.”
The gemstone appeared to pulse, or rather, something inside the gemstone began to pulse, as the man leaned closer. He peered at it through narrowed eyes.
Mick supposed that some clichés were true. It seemed he had one of those rich eccentrics on his hands. Mick would, of course, do as he’d been asked and anything else the maroon-coated man might request, so long as it wasn’t immoral, unethical, or unsafe. There was definitely something unusual about the gemstone. He’d never seen anything like it before. But that didn’t mean it was unique or even unusual. There did appear to be something inside the gem and if he took the utmost care, he would be able to figure out how to get it out without damaging it. He hoped the gemstone wasn’t priceless. If it was and this ended up on the news, he hoped his name would be left out of the fiasco.
As Mick examined the gem, the maroon-coated man who owned all the instruments Mick was using, not to the mention the building, explained the gem’s story further.
“I’ve never tried getting to it before. I was too frightened of it, you see. And anyway, I was not the one who locked the heart away. So I’ve tried other means. I’ve tried…magic,” he said, whispering the last word, “…but it didn’t work. So I thought I would try some modern science. You don’t mind if I observe, do you?”
“Not at all, sir.” If observing and keeping up his peculiar story was all he did, he’d be no bother. It might be fun. Mick didn’t usually get to use all the new imaging gizmos the lab had recently acquired, but he’d been trained in them. And even if he messed something up, surely he wouldn’t get in trouble considering who he was assigned to help. But he would start low-tech, with a simple magnifying lens.
“I gave it to my greatest love,” the man said. “Then I lost them both.”
“’Give me your heart,’ she said. ‘It is all I ask for.’” The man took a deep breath and released a great sigh.
Mick peered at the gem, at the rhythmic spasms within.
“I offered her everything else,” the man continued, standing up and pacing to the end of the bench. “Anything else. Jewels, fine dresses and cloaks, castles, palaces, gardens. I offered her a lovely vale of her own, filled with her favorite flower, buttercups. I offered her servants, performers. The world’s finest food and drink. Rare and wondrous creatures. But she refused them all. So I gave them anyway, hoping she would see that she didn’t need such a paltry thing as my dry and dusty heart. She showed me tenderness such as I had never known, even from my own mother. She gave me her heart, though she did not know it. I could conjure her heart right into my hand if I wanted to. I could conjure almost anything, but I had never before managed that trick. Not with all the wives who came before her. None of them were willing to love me. They were only willing to wed me. Until her. So I did it. I gave her my heart. In a jewel. A gem she wore at her throat. That same gem you hold in your hand now. Then one day, she was taken and my heart with her. I never did learn if she had betrayed me, or if some enemy had moved against me. Or perhaps she had been true to me until some enemy turned her against me.”
Mick was half-listening, pondering how he should get inside the gem. Should I cut? Or dissolve it?
“Should I believe you are all treacherous?” the man asked. “Or should I believe that some of you are true?”
Mick smiled. “Who, people? You seem to be trusting me.”
“Indeed. Are you married?”
“Would she ever turn against you, do you think?”
“Well, it would take extraordinary circumstances.” Mick decided on cutting. It was the safest option. And he’d get to use the big laser. “Like if I suddenly became a horrible and depraved person. We actually talked about this, before we got married. We wanted to be responsible. So we talked about stuff like money and kids.”
“And whether or not one of you could ever harm the other?”
“Yes, actually. I told her I could never do anything to hurt her. She wouldn’t say the same and I started to get angry, hurt, and, I have to say, a little scared. That’s when she asked me what choice I’d make if I had to choose between hurting her or hurting our child.” Mick turned to look at the man. “And even though it was an imaginary future child, I hesitated. I just hadn’t thought of such things before. But that was the point of talking about it.”
“And so, what choice did you make? Would you make?”
“We both decided that there were some bridges we would just have to cross when we got to them.”
“Not a satisfying conclusion.”
Mick smiled again and motioned the man to follow as he moved to the optics lab. “What makes you doubt the one person who was true to you? Why do you think she might have turned against you?”
The man swept along behind him. “In those days, I had a reputation, an unsavory one. And it was not without merit. But it was not all true either. If one stopped to earn the approval of everyone he met, he would do nothing with his life, accomplish nothing.”
“But perhaps some of my means were…distasteful. Do you find it strange that I should take such an extreme measure as to remove my heart from my body and lock it away?”
“I’ve wanted to do that a time or two in my life. I think I’ve actually succeeded in doing so a time or two in my life. I think many people probably do it.”
The man chuckled. “Oh come now, I’m not speaking metaphorically and you know it.”
“Well, you can forgive me for not believing you, can’t you? I’ve never heard of anyone being able to walk around without a heart in their body.”
“There have been many who have removed and hidden their hearts. And a few who lost track as I had. You must have heard of at least a few such stories.”
Mick sat down at the work station for the laser. He unwrapped the gemstone and placed it carefully in the sample clamps. The man held his hands behind his back and watched, continuing with his tale.
“There was a witch, who much like me fell in love and gave away her heart. In her case, the treachery of her lover was never in doubt. He took her heart and destroyed her with it. They claimed she was a villain and deserved destruction. But she was with child when she died and her lover knew it. Did the child deserve destruction? And was her lover not a villain for doing as he did? My mother told me that tale many times. Too many perhaps. I wonder if I would have given my heart away if I hadn’t done so in part to defy her warnings.
“In any case I see no recognition in your face of the poor witch’s tale,” the man said. “Perhaps you’ve heard of the pirate known as Prince Marooner. He locked away not his own heart, but his daugther’s, so she would not give it away to some unworthy fellow. There were many who sought to win her heart. She was said to be quite beautiful. Took after her mother and not her craggly father. All failed to meet the challenges that her father set. Until one came along who said he loved the pirate princess. He killed her father and claimed her heart. He did not think she would mourn her father’s death, for how could she have known love for the father who locked away her heart when she was but a babe. He restored her heart to her, thinking she would be grateful, hoping she would return his love. But he was wrong. While she only amassed law-bringers against him when she was heartless, as soon as he restored her heart to her, she became filled with the rage that her heart felt, rage against her father’s killer. The man who sought to be her lover became her mortal enemy. He escaped her wrath that day but she chased him across five seas. Only one thing saved him from death. She removed her heart, unable to bear the ache of losing her father. And when she did, her rage cooled. As it turns out, he received a fate worse than the death he thought he would suffer at her hands. He ended up in a dungeon, forgotten, rotting away, on dry land, far from the seas he loved and longed for.”
Mick turned on the imaging software and clicked through the start-up sequence. It had been a while.
“But I see that you have never heard of the pirate prince,” the man said. “Then perhaps you do not know of the sad soul in my third tale. The magician.”
“Sorry, sir. I’m listening. I just need to get this started.” The stories did sound somewhat familiar, but Mick didn’t need any distractions.
The man didn’t miss a beat. “His heart was not removed to avoid love, for he felt none anyway. He was born with a hollow heart. Nothing, no feeling, came out of it. And nothing could fill it. Not power or possessions. Not pleasures. Not even love. So he hungered always and was never sated. Whatever he did, he always wanted more. If he slept, he would lay in sleep for days unless woken. When he ate, he would eat and eat unless he was stopped. Any time he felt pleased or excited, his hollow heart hungered for more. One day, when he was still a boy, his father asked him to slaughter a chicken for their dinner. The boy slaughtered the chicken and was thrilled by the power he had over the creature’s life. So he slaughtered another. And another. Before his father came out and stopped him, he had slaughtered all the chickens and had started on the pigs. When the boy began fancying a girl in his village, his father feared what his son might do to the girl. His mother and father knew they could wait no longer. Others had seen what the boy had done. The horror he had wrought. The boy was looked upon as a curse, a monster. None knew why he was as he was until his mother took him to see a wise man who lived deep underground in a cavern.
“The wise man was said to be the son of a fallen star, and to possess wisdom beyond what was known to those who possessed only the wisdom of the earth alone. It was he who saw that the boy’s heart was hollow, though he was puzzled by how it came to be so. The boy’s mother thought it might be a curse. But the wise man did not think any curse could be powerful enough to turn a heart so hollow. He could not fill the hollow, or remove it. It was not in the boy’s heart but of the boy’s heart. But he could remove the entire heart, hollow and all. So he did, and he locked it away in a raw precious stone that was as red as the heart. He told the boy’s mother that the boy could live without a heart, though his nature might prove to be stranger than most folk. His mother asked why they should not destroy the heart, if the boy could live without it. She was frightened and repulsed by it, though she would not have said so. But the wise man told her not to attempt it, for he might yet find some cure. And while he had never removed a heart before and could not be sure, he did not think a heart could die if the body it belonged to still lived.
“The wise man never did find a way to fill the hollow heart. So the boy grew up and learned every type of magic he could learn to try and fix his own heart. In the meantime, his mother kept it safe for him. When she passed, he took possession of it. He feared it. So he locked it far away. He soon learned something he had never known about before. Something his mother had not told him. An advantage, and a disadvantage, that the heart brought him. He could not die. There were those who tried to kill him, enemies who attempted many ways—stabbing, poisoning, dropping him from a cliff. He felt the pain, suffered the agony of the injuries, until he lost his senses. But he would always be restored by dawn of the day following his ‘death.’
“Soon it was known throughout the land that he could not be killed, and it became a challenge for warriors to try and kill the immortal magician. Many tried what they thought were clever tricks, burning him until only ashes were left. The ashes were restored by dawn. Weighing down his body and drowning him. He was restored by dawn, and used his magic to escape. Dismembering him and burying the separate parts of his body in different places. Well, this actually worked until someone, an ally, servant, or follower, put him back together, and he was restored by dawn. A dawn many decades into the future. It was before that dismemberment that he met the only person who showed him true kindness. Sincere tenderness.
“’Give me your heart,’ she had said. This sweet and gentle lady.”
The man fell silent. Mick felt conflicted. He would have been moved by the story if it weren’t for the fact that the man telling it obviously thought he was talking about himself.
Mick cleared his throat and told the man that he was ready to begin, and it would be best if they both remain silent while he focused.
“Of course,” the man said in a coarse whisper.
In the silence, Mick grew suddenly nervous about using the laser. The BIG laser they called it. It wasn’t just a joke. The letters stood for something. All he could remember was that the “I” stood for “Index.”
What am I doing? Mick asked himself. This was out of his wheelhouse. He should have practiced first on something harmless. If he was alone, he would have done that. He would have caught himself, removed the real high-stakes sample, and put a piece of stone or something in there to do a practice pass.
“Is something wrong?”
Mick jerked. “I should—“
“Go ahead. You won’t harm it. Trust me. And even if you do,” the man said, chuckling, “it will be restored by dawn.”
Mick gulped. He’d started sweating. He never did like having an audience when he was doing a procedure. He wondered what he’d been thinking. He should have asked the man to wait in the main lab, or at least to observe from outside the chamber. He must have been distracted by those fairy stories the man was telling.
He wondered if he should have had the man sign some kind of disclaimer in case something went wrong. If it did, Mick hoped the worse that would happen is he’d get fired.
He aligned the laser. The imaging scans weren’t good enough to define the exact margins of the object within the gem, but he could cut little by little until, he hoped, the object would just break loose.
He pointed the aligning laser to the gem and checked the calculations once more, took a breath, and turned on the laser a split microsecond before he realized he had missed a calculation. Mick’s eyes widened. The beam was going to blow right through the gem, through the object.
A burst of light penetrated all the eye protection and shielding. It flooded his field of vision. Mick threw up his arm and he fumbled for the laser controls, shutting it down. He heard a crack, and the sound of breaking glass. He was soaked in sweat now. He moved his arm away and blinked until his eyes adjusted.
The bright light had seemed to dampen his other senses too, or perhaps he’d been too distressed to hear it before. Just as his eyes saw what was held in the clamps before him, he heard the chuckling of the maroon-coated man.
“You did it,” the man said.
Mick stared ahead with wide eyes. Lying atop the clamps that only a moment ago had held the gemstone was a human heart. It beat with slow and steady rhythm. Below the heart lay shards of the gemstone.
Is it real? It looks real. What the hell? What is going on? Mick took a deep breath to calm himself. And another. Trust your senses. Figure it out later. Trust your senses. Observe.
He would take everything at face value. Like an actor in a play, suspend all disbelief. He had to. He couldn’t be an objective outside observer. Because he was inside whatever was happening.
“So, my first request is fulfilled. Well done. Now the second.”
Still blinking away the afterimages of the light burst, Mick turned to look at the man.
“For my second request,” the man said, “I will need you to restore my heart to my body, and then take me to your home so that your daughter may kill me. Kill me completely so that there is no restoration at dawn.”
Mick stood agape.
“You must have guessed by now that I did not choose you for your scientific or technical skill.”
Mick felt a sick twisting in his gut, trying to put the whole thing together from clues in the man’s stories. A reason for the man choosing him. “Is this the part where you…tell me you’re my father?”
The man chuckled again. That sinister little chuckle. “I have had many wives. But I have fathered no children upon any of them.”
Mick frowned. “How can you be sure?”
“It is one of the effects of being truly heartless.”
Something had seemed familiar about the man, or no, about his stories. Mick hadn’t heard them himself, or told them. But…Theresa. His wife told stories like that. Fractured fairy tale type stuff that he thought might scare or scar their daughter. But Stephanie loved the stories. And Terry insisted on telling them.
Red hat, red cloak. One of them started like that. Red hat, red cloak. Red heart, red smoke. Beware the magician. At dawn, he wakes. Beware, beware, for your heart he’ll take.
Mick jumped up from his stool.
“I’ve seen all I need to of this life,” the man said, his gaze fixed on his still-beating heart. “I want to move on to the next one and see what is there.” He fixed his gaze on Mick now. His rippling blue-eyed gaze. “I searched and searched for someone whom I could trust to do the deed. Someone who would restore my heart to my body, then strike me down. I tracked the descendants of the lady I once loved, but her line died a long time ago. So I tracked another.”
He crossed his arms and stepped toward Mick. “My mother was right. It was a curse. A curse that was given power by one of the most powerful forces I know of, hatred.”
Mick said nothing.
“My mother earned someone’s hatred. I will not bore you with the details. I’m not sure of them myself. Jilted lover. Jealous rival. A random encounter. A curse was directed toward my mother, meant for her heart, I imagine. But it struck mine instead. You see, she was carrying me at the time.”
Mick at last found his voice. “Are you sure you’re not just making excuses for all the…wrong you’ve done, in the name of having no heart?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps I am. It doesn’t matter now how wretched I am. Or how profane. I propose to remove myself from your world. It will be all the brighter for my leaving. It will smell all the sweeter. Look all the fairer and feel all the better for my absence.” He stepped toward Mick with each sentence. “You know it’s true. You feel the heavy burden of my presence even now. As if your own heart were weighted with chains, your soul tainted with some unspeakable foulness.”
Mick wanted the man gone. But to kill him? “What if there is nothing beyond this life?”
“Oh, but there is. This gift you must accept from me. The knowledge that there is most definitely something beyond this life…for some of us anyway.”
“Not you. Your daughter.”
“She is your wife’s child. And your wife is the child of a long line that is descended from the one who cursed my mother—who cursed me. The first cast the curse. The last must cast the blessing.” He leaned forward, gazing at Mick. “It’s how these things go.”
“You’re the bogeyman in the stories she tells my daughter.”
Mick wished he could remember more of those stories. Was there any clue about how to ward the man off? Mick glanced about and he spotted the beating heart laying on the clamps. He had momentarily forgotten about. He leaped past the man and grabbed the heart.
He turned and held up the heart as if it were a cross and the man were a vampire.
“Leave us alone!” Mick said.
The man crossed his hands before himself. “What do you suppose you will do with that?”
Mick didn’t know. Would he be able to command the man with his heart? No, the man wouldn’t have been so cavalier about letting Mick have access to it. Still, he had to try.
“I command you, on your heart, to leave us alone.”
The man grinned. “And if that were to work, what will you do? Will you keep my heart for the rest of your life? Will you give it to your daughter and tell her this tale, and will she pass it on to her children? And on and on, so that I would never return to ask this simple favor?”
“You can’t ask my daughter to kill someone, even you. I don’t actually know what kinds of…crimes you’ve committed in your life, your hundreds of years if you have lived that long, and why not, I’m holding your heart. I think. It would corrupt her.”
The man grinned again. “Her soul. Yes. Her heart too, likely. Her mind. Yes. Taking a life would do that.”
Mick lowered the heart. “Maybe we will pass it on through our family. If it’ll keep you away.”
“What if I offer a compromise?”
“You do it.”
“But you said, the last had to—cast.” Mick took a shallow breath and sighed.
The maroon-coated man shrugged. “It’s worth a try.”
Red hat. Red cloak.
Those words repeated over and over again in Mick’s head.
Red hat. Red cloak.
He opened his eyes and found himself in his own bed. A troubling sensation, a sinking in the pit of his stomach, was quickly fading, as such vivid feelings did when one woke from a dream…or nightmare.
He sat up. He was alone. His wife must already be up. Questions tumbled through his mind.
Did it work? If it worked, I killed a guy. Or did I take the heart instead? Is it somewhere in the house? Where’s Stephanie? Is she okay? Has she…done anything? How did I end up back here? What time did I leave the lab?
He rushed downstairs to check on his wife and daughter. He asked Terry what time he’d gotten home, but she couldn’t remember. She’d been half asleep. She hadn’t looked at the time. He would tell her what happened. But not until he answered some questions for himself first.
Stephanie seemed okay. She was eating a bowl of peanut-butter flavored cereal and doing a puzzle.
Was it a dream? It had to be. A vivid dream. I’m sleep-deprived. All these long hours.
If it was nothing but a nightmare, then the only harm would be to Mick. But if it wasn’t, he had to know. He had to gather as much evidence as he could. Mick got ready and drove to the lab. As he swept past security, he made a mental note to request a review of the security footage from the night before. There were a few people in the lab already. He did a quick check of his lab bench. His computer was logged off, not locked as he’d left it when he went to the optics lab with the gem. His bench was clear of any tools or documents.
The maroon-coated man said his daughter was descended from the one who had cursed him. Maybe he had never wanted to die after all. Maybe he had only wanted vengeance. What better vengeance could there be than in leaving his enemies not knowing? Not knowing if he was dead or alive. Not knowing if they had killed him and corrupted their own souls, or spared him, and burdened their descendants with a terrible enemy. Not knowing if he was even real.
Mick went to the optics lab. No one else was in there. It didn’t look as if anyone had used it that morning. The machine was off. The sample clamps were tucked away. Surfaces were clean and clear. Mick’s breathing started to calm, but he wasn’t done yet. Something weird had happened. He had to confirm. He couldn’t remember what work he’d done. He couldn’t remember tidying up and leaving. He checked the BIG laser. Every edge, nook, and cranny.
He found something.
He found a pair of forceps and lifted up the sliver of glass. It was so small, it appeared colorless at first. But when he held it up to the light, he could see it was red.
Copyright © 2016. Nila L. Patel