Deborah Conner
Selected Stories from Scroll in Space: 2003-2013
paperback available at Amazon

Kline was walking the plank again. As he fell, something whispered: salt water... trolling tentacles... the swarming gold, shimmering. But these weren't fish he saw as the whisper lost its voice. Instead, he was staring up into the branches of a tree, light filtering down in dappled licks, a breeze blowing through them.

There was an odd sound, almost a gasp. Turning to look, he saw his beloved Cadillac. Sitting on its side some fortunate distance from him, it burst into flame.

Pure reflex took him, and he was on his feet, spewing eff-ings, hell-tides—all he could do besides watch from behind his splayed fingers. Helpless in her death throes, his Caddie clenched a fat oak, exuberant torrents of gold and red hissing through her windows.

He amazed himself by laughing, laughing so hard it sat him down in the grass. There was his car, hell's blazing chariot of untold agony, and here he stood unscathed! Much would be made of this with the pious hypocrites he worked with, those whining seatbelts-lovers and their precious regulations.

He rubbed his neck. It was coming back now. Flashes of the bacchanalian lunch, the long ride home...

There was a rustle behind him. A child, her eyes like morning's first light. "Drink," she said, holding up a brimming goblet.

Kline leaned over her, wondering that she'd come out of nowhere and finding her so pretty that he almost forgot his car. "Why, darlin, what you doing out of school? Playin' hooky?"

"Drink," she repeated, holding out her cup. Her gown shimmered where the sun hit it, her gaze too sharp for a child's.

His eyes narrowed. Straightening his sport coat, he glanced around. His car had settled down to smoking fiercely, and he noticed something in the grass beside it. As he approached it, he saw it was a man dressed in the same bile green he always wore. The face was dusky and bloated, the legs and arms bent strangely.

A wave of nausea ploughed through him as he discerned the blank, staring eyes, and a phrase began repeating in his head: beyond all hope. A million thoughts came racing—liability, who it was, why the sorry devil was even in his car.

One thought jolted him. Was he drunk? Of course, he didn't get drunk as such, but that didn't mean there hadn't been some interaction between his cold pill and that Long Island Tea he'd had for dessert. Or maybe one of his so-called friends had dosed him, one of those funny pills they were too scared to slip a girl.

Well, the sons of bitches!

Again came the whisper of the child's gown. "Drink. Drink now."

Wrenching the goblet from her small hands, he looked into it. Water, it held. Nothing but water.

He snorted. "What is this?" With a snap of his wrist he broadcasted the contents across the grass. "Here's your goddam cup, sweetie. Now go on home." Shoving it back at her, he turned away.

A voice, theatrical and refined, came from behind him: "Mr. Kline. Please reconsider."

He twisted around. The child was gone, and standing over the corpse was a man dressed in a frock coat, dark poet's locks fringing his high forehead.

"Who the hell are you?"

The stranger bowed his head, a triangle of moustache shadowing lips grave and tremulous. "Poe is my name. Edgar Poe. In truth, Mr. Allan never saw fit to adopt me." Kneeling down, he closed the cadaver's eyes. "Mr. Kline, I understand how very difficult this is to absorb, but I implore you. You must drink. It's only a matter of time."

Poe rose, the cup in his hand glinting as it swung slowly over the grass, retrieving the scattered water in a rainbow of prismatic droplets.

"Sweet jeezes. How the hell did you do that?"

"Please. Accept the cup. Even now there gathers the faint phosphoric radiance of decay. The charnel ethers."

Kline barked a laugh. Staring at him--his strangeness--he shook his head. "It's some trick. Some sort of trick."

Poe's eyes flashed. "Hapless friend, I commiserate. It is far, far easier to fathom the slow putrefaction of disease, the body uninhabitable, the realization coming mercifully in inches. But this—" He motioned to the body. "This is all too sudden."

"Crazy goddamn—"

"Wait! I shall show you." Setting the cup in the grass, he bent over the body, pulling up one of its sleeves. He took a quill pen from his pocket, and looking up to see that Kline watched, drove the sharp tip deep into the body's forearm. Kline screamed as it seemed to sear into his own flesh. "There!" Poe smiled up at him. "There, you see! You are still time-bound. See thusly." Once again he stabbed the corpse; once again Kline howled. "And again—"

"Stop!" Kline reached out to stay Poe's hand. "You crazy bastard!"

Poe's face shone up at him. "The correspondence is yet unbroken, the silver cord not yet forever loosed! Oh, Mr. Kline! It will grow worse. The eyes will spill grey and yellow, the blood will ooze black and foul—the conquering worm will—"

"You shut the hell up." Kline pushed him away and hunkered down in his place, horrified—yet fascinated. Cautiously, he ran his finger along the cool corpse cheek... and felt the sensation lightly on his own. He repeated the movement, hard enough to know it wasn't imagined. "No!" He fell back in the grass. "No, it can't be!"

"The cup." Poe held the goblet out. "Drink and be done."

But Kline only scrabbled up, heading blindly for the road. He'd gone only a few yards when he felt a jab searing into his thigh. He screamed as it repeated.

The abrupt emergence of a man in his path stopped him cold. "Mr. Kline," the man said, taking a pipe from his mouth. "My good Mr. Kline. A word." He smiled a twitchy smile, his eyes crinkling as he leaned forward on his walking stick. Tall and thin, he was dressed in an Inverness cape and deerstalker cap.

Clasping his other thigh, Kline let out a yelp. "Stop it! Goddamn poof faggot FIEND!"

"That's enough, Edgar," the man called back to Poe. "He gets the point." He smoothed his lips as if to repress a delicate smile. "Now, Mr. Kline, a word, yes?"

Kline replied by picking up his pace, limping past him—only to find the tall man back in his path.

"Allow me to introduce myself. Sherlock Holmes, unofficial consulting detective." He clicked his heels. "There is a logic to this, Mr. Kline. Shall we not discuss it? Hm?"

"Logic, hell." Kline pushed on—and found him back in his trajectory no matter which way he turned.

And Sherlock just kept talking. "Logic, sir. Do not Mr. Poe and I hold some certain sway with you? As I recall, we were the deep-seated fixations of your youth—all those glorious late nights under the bedclothes with book and flashlight. Such things tend to sustain, hold court, if you will, in the psyche."

"No shit, Sherlock. And I'm making Mr. Congeniality stab me with his goddamn quill. I'll tell you what's logical. None of this is happening. It's a drink and a cold pill."

"Now, now. Was not Mr. Poe's information demonstrated most empirically? As for his behavior, I vouch that he is a gentle soul, though the victim of infelicitous biographers. Indeed, I owe Mr. Poe my very existence. Was I not modeled on his illustrious C. Auguste Dupin?"

"Whatever." Kline scowled, limping and wanting to sit down. "Just like I'm making you up."

"You have indeed dredged us up, true enough. But once we loom into consciousness, we take on a life of our own. The fact is Mr. Poe and I have become abiding residents in the land of instinctual phantasm."

"Goody for you. Psychobabble shit."

Holmes pursed his thin lips and put his cane across Kline's chest like a railroad guard. "Stop. Heed a moment—for your own good, man."

Staring him down, Kline pushed the cane away and crossed his arms. "You got exactly thirty seconds. Asshole."

Sherlock smiled. "Very well. Let's scrutinize your senses. They are your means of defining the real, are they not? And what do they tell you?"

"Like I said: one bad trip."

"Again you are unfortunate in your thinking. You are not drugged, Mr. Kline. You are dead. Dead as a doornail."

"Well that's pretty funny since I don't believe in the afterlife."

Watching him, Holmes took a puff on his pipe, exhaling a swirling ring of smoke. "Don't you?"

"Hell-no! Science retired the Supreme Being to the Happy Hunting Ground some time ago." He swaggered, planting his feet. Whatever the trip was, it made him high. Acid, most likely. He'd read about it. The kind the Feds put on your steering wheel when they were setting you up. "You're a man of Science, Sherlock. Surely you don't believe in fairy tales, having been one yourself."

"Remnants, gleanings of the Viennese positivism." Sherlock shook his head, lips smiling tight across large teeth. "You overestimate Science, Mr. Kline. It's a method for making models based on the logical augmentation of sensorial input. Science surmises, extrapolates, but always from that same base. Its scope is limited because our senses are limited. Not very much with which to approach the Great Mysteries, is it? That which contrived Time along with Space and Light. In truth, we know very little—any true scientist will tell you that. Oh, we know how to work a few spells, but not where anything ultimately comes from. Science isn't reality, Mr. Kline. It's a tool, not a belief system."

"Why don't you just conjure up Einstein and let him explain all that to me."

Holmes raised an eyebrow. "I'm not the one conjuring today, Mr. Kline."

Poe called to them. "Make haste! By perdition, the body's breaking down—the lungs putrefactive. O magnificent black blood!"

Holmes rushed to Poe's side, summoning Kline to follow. And Kline followed slowly, feeling sapped. "Oh, what now?"

"I shall tell you. Something is indeed afoot. Time and Space are in flux here on the cusp of Eternity," Holmes explained as he investigated the corpse. "Events tend to leap ahead in a most unpredictable manner." He pointed his walking stick at Kline. "It seems your time, sir, is almost up."

"I'm so damned dead, who CARES?"

Poe looked up with impassioned eyes. "You will. You will care, my friend! You will rue the day you were born, curse your very existence, when the flesh falls from bone and you are still trapped inside!"

"Edgar," Holmes said softly with a finger to his lips. "No histrionics. Besides, he doesn't listen." He nodded toward Kline who appeared to be heading for the inviting shade of a tree.

Poe cried out, running after him. "No, you mustn't sleep! You must choose!"

"Oh, get lost, will you." Kline plopped down. "You give me the creeps. Besides, you don't exist."

Poe fell to his knees, hands raised toward the sky. "O! For a voice to speak! Any horror but this! Holmes, Holmes, we must do something—"

"Shush. Edgar... let us think with our heads, not our ardor, hm? But you are quite correct. He declines with rapidity." Holmes was inspecting the body's wallet as he spoke, studying the receipts and plastic cards. "There's just no reasoning with this one. He's the law-and-order type. He takes the metaphor in place of the meaning. I rather doubt that he's ever thought deeply about anything. But he does have prejudices. Oh yes... opinions of a very strong nature. Of those, he is quite sure."

Poe wiped his eye with the back of his hand. "There—there must be something that will move him to resolution. A memory? A symbol? Something he fixates upon—as he did us."

Holmes was concentrating, a look of sheer determination in his narrowing eyes. He tapped the side of his nose. "Bingo!" With a wink at Poe, he briskly walked to where Kline reposed. "My!" Holmes smiled, filling his lungs with fresh air. "But wouldn't that long branch next to you make an excellent shepherd's staff. Why, it looks just like... an Egyptian snake."

"Hate snakes." Kline yawn.

"And just imagine if it could turn into a cobra... and begin to fight with the other snaky looking staffs in the vicinity." With this, Holmes lunged and parried about with his walking stick. "And those stones—" Holmes pointed. "Those tablets of stone there almost look like they have symbols carved on them. Perhaps... Hebrew?"

"Shut up, Sherlock. Go find Jack the Ripper."

"And this shrubbery, here, in the sunlight." He held out his arms toward it. "Why, it looks so very like... a burning bush!"

With these last words, the sky grew dark. The winds blew, and thunder rumbled in the distance. And there came into the clearing a man dressed in gold-trimmed mahogany robes, a great staff in his right hand, two super reference-work sized stone tablets in his mighty clutches. From his head flowed long white hair, bouffant and full around his face. His nose was aquiline, his eyes staring, his beard blowing long and silvery.

"Who IS this, Holmes?" whispered Poe as they watched Kline prostrate himself before the dazzling fellow. "Moses?"

Sherlock's face crinkled, a satyr's grin. "Not exactly. An actor playing at Moses. A Mr. Charlton Heston. In the deep recesses of his mind Kline thinks of him as God!"

"Have mercy!" Kline groveled before the figure. "I believe! Praise God, I believe!"

"But Holmes," Poe whispered again, the wind blowing back his hair. "Why does Kline accept him as real when we were regarded as apparitions?"

"Elementary. It's his appropriateness, given the situation. And besides, Mr. Heston looks so very magnificent."

Poe agreed, a momentary smile passing over his face.

Holmes took the cup and went forward, nodding appreciatively to Heston who spread his splendid arms to the sky. It rumbled with omnipotent thunder. "WHO BETTER TO LEAD YOU TO THE PROMISED LAND?" crowed Heston, his voice echoing across the firmament.

"My good Mr. Kline." Holmes leaned down to tap Kline's shoulder. "Come, Mr. Kline. Be a good chap. Take the cup."

Kline looked up with wild eyes. "I see the light!" he said with the greatest conviction.

"Of course you do. Now, cheers. Bottoms up."

Poe flung down next to Kline, eye to eye. "Drink of the water that quenches all thirst—Over the mountains of the moon, down the valley of the shadow—Ride, boldly ride!"

Looking to Heston, who again threw his arms to the bombastic heavens, Kline grasped the cup. Putting it to his lips, he hesitated. "What will happen?"

"Sweet forgetting," Poe said with great affection. "Time will release you back to the bosom of Eternity, from which you came."

"Will—it hurt?"

Poe shook his head. "Pain is part of Creativity. It only exists within Time."

When Kline still hesitated, Holmes sighed, taking a small piece of laminated paper from his pocket. "Mr. Kline, I took the liberty of keeping hold of your driver's license. I see it lists you as an organ donor."

Poe was nodding. "In these circumstances, there is always an autopsy."
With a great gasp, Kline took the cup to his lips—drinking it in, and finding ecstasy in doing it. When he drained it dry, it fell from his hand—

A small girl dressed in an iridescent grown came to pick it up. She was greeted by a gentle breeze, a country meadow, and silence. As she walked into the sunlight—past the immolated car, the body in the sweet spring grass—she sparkled and flashed, became stardust, and disappeared.