A Plague of Scoundrels - Excerpts

"A Plague of Scoundrels"





Hippo was headlining at the Club again. After the last show he arm-twisted me into barhopping with him. My weakness of character resulted in blurred vision, a thunderous headache, and an unsteady gait. When I got home I noticed Bockman’s box, filled with items I had purchased the day before, still parked outside his door. I puzzled over the box’s erratic delivery schedule, then fell asleep on the living room sofa.

A sour stomach and a spinning room awakened me from a troubled dream of performing to an audience of stone-faced Amish elders. They had neither honored the two-drink minimum nor uttered a single laugh. I lurched from the sofa to the sink, dropped a tablet into a glass of water and watched the fizz. After chugging my drink, I returned to my refuge on the couch cushions. Thank God for darkness. The very thought of light was unsettling. Sleep finally returned.

An alert from my subconscious woke me wide-eyed and fully functioning. A bluish light flickered from underneath Bockman’s bedroom door. Chains rattled and bolts slid. The door opened, and an eerie glow washed over the sofa. I pushed myself upright.

Bockman’s bent figure stood in the open doorway, his beard long and disheveled. The once-proud cock feather dangled from his cap. His clothes were faded. A long rip in his over-jacket had been sloppily mended. Bockman could have passed for Coleridge’s ancient mariner.

He reached out trembling hands, grasped the box and tugged it inside the room. Fluorescing particles trailed from around his body like smeared paint fading into thinness. Before I could yell at him, the door slammed and the locks reset.

I bounded from my seat and tried to force my way through the closed door. Yikes. I jerked my hand back. The handle was too hot to touch. What the hell was going on? Was any of this real?

Cold water on my head seemed like a reasonable recovery tactic for a delusional drunk. I centered my scalp under the faucet and turned the handle wide open. Water cascaded through my hair and down to my neck. I cupped my hands under the flowing stream and splashed my face. Then I pushed my head back and shook it like a wet spaniel.

Had I imagined the glowing image of Bockman retrieving his box? I looked at Bockman’s door to reassure myself that the box was still there. It wasn’t. I stuck my head back under the cold water.

* * *

Two days later Hippo pulled me aside during the first What’s Up? intermission. He seemed more serious than his usual buoyant self. Did he have a negative critique of my performance?

“Elliot, I need a favor,” he said. “Benny bailed on me. He was supposed to open for me on a cruise-ship gig. Can you pinch hit for him?” He reached over, ran his ham-sized hand over my head and messed my hair. “Good money, endless food, oodles of spare time. Also lovely and lonely ladies to entice a handsome bachelor like you. Fourteen days, free cabin, clean sheets.”

My mind was still befuddled from Bockman’s strange appearance. My preoccupation had affected my act. Even though I couldn’t see the audience in the darkened room, I could sense I wasn’t connecting with them. Laughs had been hard to come by. Maybe a little working vacation would help me sort things out.

I gave feeble consideration to Bockman’s lists and his battered box. But if the guy wanted to be a hermit and play erotic fantasy computer games behind closed doors, it was not my problem. Besides, Hippo had said all the right words in the right sequence: ladies, free room, and maid service.

“You’re on, Fat Boy,” I said. “As long as I don’t have to room with you.”

* * *

My tanned body manifested outer evidence of my inner health. A couple of shipboard romances had added some spice and boosted my male ego. The cruise had lived up to its brochure’s promises, a rare feat. I slammed shut my Chinatown apartment door with my foot and bowled my luggage across the floor in the general direction of my bedroom. Then I saw it.

The wooden sides were a wreck, scarred, cracked, and split. The top had been covered with cowhide tacked into place with bronze studs. The sideboards had turned the color of black walnut. Bockman’s box awaited me.

The lid was jammed. A couple of well-placed kicks knocked it open. A scrap of parchment rested in one corner. Ink splotches and smears littered the paper. A shaky hand had scribbled a terse message.

E: Urgent. Lady Greyhurst is playing Lord Weston for a fool at my expense. Send an instruction book on dueling with swords. Make haste. B.

The note could have been two weeks old. I pictured Bockman in a royal twist because I hadn’t jumped on his request. I needed to get right on it.

I googled “How to duel” and found an out-of-print book titled Defending Your Honor with Sword and Dagger. Paid extra to have it overnighted to me. I tucked a brief note of apology between the pages and tossed the book in the box.

Days passed but Bockman never retrieved the book and box. Then one morning I woke to find the box had disappeared. All these strange happenings made me question why I bothered to stay involved with Bockman. The reason must have been my fascination with odd people and quirky situations, a dependable source for my comic routines. But I hadn’t yet found a way to incorporate Bockman’s antics into my act.

Then Linda, a luscious lady from the cruise ship, called. We chatted, joked about our first meeting and recounted our fun times together. She invited me to play house with her. How could I say no to a romp along with free rent? I threw some clothes into a suitcase and headed out the door to give her my acceptance, person-to-person.

Two days later, a nagging voice in my head reminded me that I needed to tidy up some loose ends and collect my belongings. I returned to my old apartment. Uh-oh. Bockman’s box was propped against his bedroom door.

The lid half gone, the leather covering peeled and ripped. One iron strap was missing. Several wooden sideboards were split, blackened, and scorched. What had caused all the damage? The to-and-fro trips had always been rough on the box, but now the container looked like it had been hit by a Kansas tornado.

Bockman had always tried to repair his mail bin. Had somebody else dispatched the box on its latest journey? Not my problem. I didn’t belong to the Save-The-Box League. I needed to end my rental arrangement and get away from Bockman’s preposterous scenario. Besides, lovely Linda from the cruise awaited my attention.

I backdated a two-weeks termination notice to my absent landlord, deeming it a proper way to end our agreement. I put the note and door key in an envelope. I dangled the envelope over the open box and looked inside.

Pages from the sword-fighting book lay scattered on the bottom of Bockman’s box. I found a crumpled ball of parchment scrunched in one dusty corner and retrieved it. Maybe Bockman had sent me a belated thank-you note for sending him the gold. Didn’t matter. Long-term commitments weren’t my style. I was through with the phony Robin Hood.

Except, I couldn’t ignore this note. I smoothed out the vellum scrap. The writing looked like it had been done with the end of a charcoal stick.

Chained in dungeon.
Break down door.
Believe what you see.

© Copyright 2008 by Jon Cory

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