Friday, August 24, 2007

The Claypole Mission

Some stories are specific to their time - this one actually had a "Best Before" date: January 1st 2000.

For the punch line at the end of the story to work it really needed to be read
before then. I wrote it in 1999 and planned for it to be published in the December Issue of a major Science Fiction magazine.

But I missed the deadline.

So, better late than never, for your amusement I present...

The Claypole Mission

Harry Claypole died on the fifth of May 1969 at 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon. Poor Harry. After thirty years of service with the Zinger Wringer Washing Machine Company (If your shorts are in a wringer, make sure it’s a Zinger!) Harry was destitute. As the Personnel Manager explained: “…one of the conditions of the pension is that you have to be alive to collect it.” So Harry was without a job (it wouldn’t do to have a dead man around the place) without a pension and with little money to speak of.

It wasn’t long before his landlady threw him out. "I’m not having any dead-beat dead people in my house!” She yelled as she tossed his suitcase on the sidewalk. Poor Harry.

So Harry spent his days in the park feeding peanuts to the squirrels. He would have thought about his future but, being dead, he didn’t have one. And that’s the state he was in when the squirrel spoke to him.

“Say, you’re dead aren’t you?” The squirrel asked from the top wrung of the park bench that Harry was sitting on.

“Yes,” Harry replied. “Completely dead.”

“That’s what I thought,” said the squirrel. “You know, we really appreciate the peanuts and everything but don’t you think you could be doing a little more with your death than just sitting here? I mean, you’re gonna be dead a long time, this’ll get boring.”

“I know,” said Harry “…but what else can I do?”

“Well,” said the squirrel as he sidled up a little closer to Harry, “…it just so happens that I’m authorized to make you an interesting offer. I won’t go into the details now but, if you’re interested, we can make arrangements to get you to Alaska where some very important work is waiting for you.”

Sylvia Claypole was hot on the trail of a very suspicious-looking ten year old. Sylvia noticed her in the Cosmetics section, followed her through Hardware, and was now stalking the girl in Junior Miss. Just as soon as Sylvia was certain that the ten year old was shoplifting she’d grab her.

Watching as the ten year old made her way towards the exit to the parking garage, Sylvia had to make a decision. She hadn’t actually seen her put anything in her shopping bag but if Sylvia let her leave without getting a look inside she’d never know for sure. The ten year old must have sensed Sylvia’s attention because she was moving faster now and would be through the exit in a few moments.

Sylvia decided. She ran towards the exit. The ten year old heard her and she was running now, too. The ten year old made it through the door first but Sylvia was right behind. As the door swung closed, Sylvia grabbed at the shopping bag. Resistance then, as the door slammed shut, the bag tore spilling its contents: two lipsticks, a box of screws and a Barbie hair-band clattered to the floor. Sylvia scooped up the stolen merchandise and flung open the exit door.

No one. Not a soul. Sylvia’s quarry was nowhere in sight.

Sylvia sighed, looked down at the property in her hands, shrugged, and headed back inside the store. Or would have if the door wasn’t locked. Locked tight in fact, without so much as a handle on this side. Sylvia stood and stared at the door as if she could will it open then, resigned, walked to the ramp and made her way back down to ground level where she could re-enter the store.

And that’s where her boss, Stanley, found her.

“A word Miss Claypole,” Stanley said as he held the Security door open for her. Sylvia knew what was coming. Inside Stanley’s sparse office Sylvia dropped the recovered stolen merchandise on the couch then settled in for another lecture.

“Miss Claypole,” Stanley began, “…in the six years you have worked as a Floor-walker…”

“Loss Prevention Operative” Sylvia corrected.

“Yes, quite” Stanley allowed. “Ahem. In the six years you have worked as a Loss Prevention Operative you have failed to successfully prosecute a single shoplifter.”

“That’s true but I have prevented loss” Sylvia countered and gestured towards the lipsticks, screws and hair-band. “Which is what the job is all about.”

Stanley took in the sight. “It’s what the job is called” he said, “…but not exclusively what it is intended to produce. Your fellow Floor-walk…er…Loss Prevention Operatives produce an average of three point five arrests per operative per week. And while it’s true that you do turn in stolen property, the ten to twenty dollars that averages per week hardly justifies the salary you receive.”

Sylvia made no comment. This wasn’t the usual lecture; they were actually keeping statistics now. That couldn’t be good.

“Management has decided,” continued Stanley “…to allow you two weeks. Two weeks to produce one prosecutable arrest or face termination.” With that he handed her a documentation, a copy of which would undoubtedly be in her file. “I hope you take this warning seriously Miss Claypole, it will be your last.”

Harry had become philosophical and guessed that was what dying did to you. He found himself now in the cargo hold of some sort of military transport on its way to Alaska after being virtually kidnapped by the squirrels, yet he wasn’t worried. Of course…mused Harry …once you’re dead what is there to worry about?

Harry knew that he was going to Alaska to meet with something. He guessed from his surroundings that the something had to do with the military and, since it had talking squirrels as agents, must be involved somehow in espionage. Beyond that he had no idea what they wanted or why they had abducted him.

When the transport landed, Harry was taken by truck to a large underground facility which, once you got used to the total lack of windows, seemed exactly like any large office building. There were desks and filing cabinets, fluorescent lights and coffee machines, men in ties and women in skirts scurrying about just as they would in an insurance company or accountancy firm. Harry was taken to a small waiting room and told, humorlessly, to wait.

As soon as Harry sat on a large comfortable couch, a voice from somewhere overhead said: “Please sit in the arm-chair.” Harry looked around and saw a stiff, uncomfortable chair against the opposite wall. He shrugged, got up and sat in the chair. Unexpectedly, the lights dimmed and the wall behind Harry spun completely around taking the chair and Harry with it.

Harry found himself in a cavernous room lit only by two spot-lights: one, illuminating the area around his chair; the other, lighting up a large desk on the other side of the room. Seated at the desk was a bald-headed man in glasses and military uniform.

“Hello Mr. Claypole,” the bald-headed man said. “Welcome to TSA.”

When Sylvia reached her apartment door she could hear the telephone ringing inside.

“Wait!” She cried as she searched through her purse.

“I’m coming!” She shouted while shoving her key in the lock.

“One second!” She yelled as she stumbled over her ottoman.

“Damn!” She muttered when she picked up the phone only to be greeted by a dial tone.

Sylvia hung up the phone and righted the overturned ottoman. She took her purse from under her arm and placed it on the couch and was just reaching around her apartment door to retrieve her keys when she heard a knock. Pushing the door open, Sylvia saw what had to be the largest human being she had ever encountered.

Dressed in a jacket and tie, the man was at least 6 foot six and must have weighed over three hundred pounds. His close-cropped brown hair framed a clean-shaven face that nonetheless reminded Sylvia of …what? A Koala bear? A raccoon? No. A…rabbit! hat’s it…this guy was a giant Easter Bunny. He said something but Sylvia didn’t respond. Not that she didn’t hear but her brain couldn’t put together what her ears and her eyes were telling her. No way could something that big make a sound that high. “I’m sorry, pardon me?” Sylvia stammered.

“I said ‘Are you Sylvia Claypole?’” That sound again – high pitched and whispery – was it some kind of a put-on?

“Yes. Mm-mm. Yes, I’m Sylvia” she managed.

He smiled then and, true to form, his two front teeth protruded ever so slightly. All that was missing were long floppy ears.

“Ahh Miss Claypole. I'm so happy to have tracked you down” he said. “I’ve been calling all day but without much success I’m afraid. My name is Teddy Lapin and I’m with the State Deceased Persons Department. I need to speak with you about your late brother, Harry Claypole.”

“Redundancy Mr. Claypole, that’s the key to a successful Space Program” said Lt. Col. Thomas Jefferson Harper – for that was the bald-headed man’s name. “Redundancy. When President Eisenhower set-up the National Aeronautics and Space Administration he had the foresight to realize what a crucial role redundancy would play in any exploration of space.” Col. Harper was now standing in front of his desk. Harry noticed that wherever Col. Harper moved his spot-light followed.

“After all,” Col. Harper continued, “…you don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket. So when you’re going to send up a rocket you don’t build one, you build two. That way you have a back-up in case something goes wrong. The same with computers – you don’t program one computer but two with identical programming so that if the first one malfunctions the second on, the redundant one, can take over and bring the mission to a successful conclusion.” Col. Harper was now halfway between his desk and Harry’s chair, his spot-light still followed and lit him from above.

“Well, just as with small things like computers and rockets, the same principle applies to big things – like NASA itself.” Col. Harper gestures for Harry to join him. When Harry stood and walked he noticed that his spot-light followed him, too. “Accordingly,” Col. Harper continued “…President Eisenhower put his Vice-President, Richard Nixon, in charge of TSA –The Space Agency – a redundant agency designed as a back-up to NASA.”

Harry was now beside Col. Harper, their respective spot-lights making a double pool of light on the black floor. They walked at a right angle away from Harry’s chair towards blackness.

“Harry’s dead?” asked Sylvia, taken aback.

“I’m afraid so” responded Teddy Lapin in his high, whispery voice. “He died at the beginning of May according to personnel records at the Zinger Wringer Washing Machine Company (If your shorts are in a wringer, make sure it’s a Zinger!). Excuse me, may I come in?”

“Oh I’m sorry. Of course, please won’t you…” Sylvia blinked and Teddy Lapin was in the room and seated on her couch. She blinked again and shook her head. How had he…? But by now he had a file open and was reading from it.

“May 5th 1969 at…4:00 P.M.” he read. “Harold T. Claypole passed away of apparent natural causes.” Teddy Lapin looked up from his file as Sylvia walked towards a chair opposite the couch. “Did no one notify you of your brother’s death?”

“Half brother, actually” Sylvia corrected. “Harry was the child of my father’s first marriage. And no, no one notified me. But Harry and I hadn’t seen each other in over twenty years. We weren’t exactly close.”

Teddy Lapin made a note of that in his file. “Be that as it may Miss Claypole, you are in fact Harry Claypole’s only living relative. Which is why I’ve come to talk to you today.” Sylvia noticed that Teddy Lapin’s mouth tended to twitch from side to side when he spoke. “Do you happen to know where he is?”

As Harry walked beside Col. Harper towards a black wall he gradually detected what appeared to be a black elevator door. As they drew nearer, the door slid open revealing a much better lit hallway. The hallway was long with closed doors spaced roughly fifteen paces apart. None of the doors were labeled and each looked like all the others. Harry accompanied Col. Harper through the hallway and noticed that, despite the improved lighting, the two spot-lights continued to follow them.

“As you are no doubt aware Mr. Claypole, in a few weeks NASA will be launching Apollo 11. This will be the culmination of President Kennedy’s directive to NASA that they send a man to the moon and safely return him before the end of the decade. What you don’t know is that on the same day as NASA received its directive Vice President Johnson directed TSA to send a man to Venus and safely return him before the end of the century. You are going to be that man, Mr. Claypole.”

“Me?” gasped Harry. “I don’t know the first thing about space travel. You must have astronauts I mean, trained people who are much more qualified for something like this.”

“Oh, you are qualified, Mr. Claypole. Eminently qualified. The next person you’re going to meet is Dr. Karl Glenelg. He is our top scientist and will explain the details to you.” Col. Harper opened the next door on his left, which looked exactly the same as every other door they had passed.

You must have to count or something thought Harry otherwise I don’t know how you’d find you way around here.

“Let me get this straight” Sylvia said. “You say Harry is dead but he’s missing?”

“That’s correct, Miss Claypole. Everyone down at the Department of Deceased Persons is quite concerned. I mean, we can’t have dead people out gallivanting around now can we?” Teddy Lapin gave Sylvia another one of his buck-toothed smiles.

“But what do you do in a situation like this?” Sylvia asked.

“Well, needless to say, this situation is somewhat rare. We considered filing a Missing Persons Report with the police but they pointed out that, being dead, Mr. Claypole isn’t actually a ‘person’ anymore. We’ve staked out the cemeteries where his other deceased relatives are located but so far, no luck. So all that left us was you.”


“Yes. As Mr. Claypole’s only living relative we felt that there is a possibility that he might try to contact you. Have you had any unusual mail or telephone calls since the fifth of May?”

Sylvia thought for a moment. “No. But the phone was ringing just before you got here. I didn’t get to it in time and whoever it was hung up.”

“Oh, that was me,” said Teddy Lapin. “As I said, I’ve been trying to reach you all day.” He handed her a business card and stood up – the couch creaked in gratitude. “Perhaps you would be good enough to call me if your brother does contact you? I realize it’s a long shot…”

“Of course,” replied Sylvia as she walked him to the door. As she opened the door she looked at the card in her hand and saw that it said only “Teddy Lapin” – no address, no phone number. Sylvia lifted her head and said: “Oh, there’s no…” but he was gone. She stepped into the hallway and looked both directions but he was nowhere in sight.

Harry was confused. Not because the office he was in was so small. (Though it was small; he’d bumped the desk with the door when he came in.) Not because the walls of the office were covered in handwriting. (Though they were; floor to ceiling – some sort of formula with symbols Harry didn’t understand.) But because Dr. Karl Glenelg looked exactly like Lt. Col. Thomas Jefferson Harper, whom Harry had left in the hallway just seconds before.

“Well, this must be the illustrious Harry Claypole!” Greeted Dr. Glenelg when he looked up from the corner where he had been writing furiously. “We’ve all been looking forward to you joining our little team.”

“Yes. Hi,” said Harry. “Col. Harper said you could provide me with some details? I don’t quite see how I’m the right man for your mission.”

“Not the right man!” Dr. Glenelg exclaimed “…why my dear Mr. Claypole, you are the only man for the job. Because you’re dead. You are dead, aren’t you?”

“Yes.” Harry replied. “Completely dead.”

“And therefore completely right for the job! Let me explain,” Dr. Glenelg pointed to a scribble of a globe on the wall to his left “…the planet Venus is the second closest planet to the sun. By the time you arrive there it will be roughly 159,000,000 miles from Earth. But we can’t just fly you that distance and have you rendezvous with it, we have to slingshot your spaceship around the moon and the Earth several times to give it sufficient momentum to reach Venus. Are you with me so far?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Good. Now, using the conventional spaceship design that the boys at NASA are using for their Apollo missions… Well, I don’t think those ships could even make the trip, but if they could it would take them sixteen years.”

“Sixteen years?” Gasped Harry.

“Yes.” Dr Glenelg nodded. “Sixteen years.”

“Wow.”Said Harry.

“Yes. Wow.” Said Dr. Glenelg.

“But your spaceship design is faster, right?” Harry asked.

“Oh yes. Much faster indeed. With our design that same trip will take a paltry fifteen.” Dr. Glenelg bragged.


“Yes. Fifteen.”


“Yes.” Said Dr. Glenelg. “A paltry fifteen years” he paused. “Each way, of course.”

Harry shrugged. “Of course.”

“That’s crucial…”


“Because twice fifteen is thirty.” Dr. Glenelg smiled triumphantly.

“So?” Asked Harry.

Dr. Glenelg looked confused. It never occurred to him that Harry didn’t follow his reasoning. “Well, it’s the uh – it’s because…the directive, you see? From Vice President Johnson? The directive to send a man to Venus and safely return him before the end of the century. Thirty-two years would put us past the end of the century. Thirty years brings us in under the wire.”

“I see.” Said Harry. “And you accomplish this remarkable feat…this one sixteenth reduction in travel time by…?”

“…by eliminating all life support systems from the design.”


“Air, food, internal heating and cooling…all these things take up precious space and add unwanted mass to the spaceship. By eliminating them we achieve a much more efficient and a faster design.”

“Yes.” Harry agreed “But one that no living thing can survive.”

“Exactly,” agreed Dr. Glenelg. “Now, are there any questions?”

“Yes." said Harry. “Are you mad?”

In the cold pre-dawn darkness Agent Nutley shifted uncomfortably; the park bench where he sat already dampening with dew. Why do they insist on meeting at these ungodly hours? he asked himself. But in truth, he knew that the cover of darkness was as much for his sake as it was for the Other Side.

In the two years since he’d become a double agent (‘gone mole’ as they put it in spy parlance) Agent Nutley had always given his clandestine reports to the Other Side under similar circumstances. Better than anyone, he knew the security that darkness could provide.

“Good morning, Comrade” came a voice out of the stillness.

Nutley spun and locked eyes with an old nemesis. “Vladimir!” he gasped. “They sent you? Your boss must be more interested in this mission than I thought.”

“Think what you wish,” replied the foreign spy as he plopped onto the bench beside Nutley “…a loyal agent does as he is told, he does not speculate about his superiors’ motives.”

Nutley chose to ignore the slight. Experience had taught him not to tangle with Vladimir unnecessarily. “Yes, of course” he allowed. “You look well. How long has it been since we’ve seen each other? It was Vienna wasn’t it?”

“Yes, Vienna.” Vladimir smiled. “Shortly after you began to work for us.”

For us not with us…thought Nutley …something has changed. He shifted again but this time not from the cold and damp. “TSA has found their man,” he said. “A Harry Claypole from here in the city. He’ll be in Alaska now.”

“We are already aware of Mr. Claypole.” Said Vladimir. “Your information has become as useless and out of date as you are.”

Too late Nutley realized he’d been set-up. As the thin piano wire of the garrote cinched around his neck and its cold steel sliced through his coat cutting a thin red line in the soft flesh of his throat he had time only to feel resignation and an overwhelming sadness. Nutley’s lifeless body slipped to the ground as Vladimir hopped off the bench and disappeared into the darkness.

“Are you mad?” Asked Harry a second time in as many minutes. But now he asked it of Col. Harper after re-joining him in the hallway. “That guy in there says you’re going to shoot me off in a rocket with no heat and no food for thirty years!”

“Mr. Claypole,” Col. Harper responded in a voice like Valium “…how much have you eaten today?”

Harry thought. “Well, nothing…I haven’t eaten in quite a while now that you mention it.”

Col. Harper nodded. “And what do you think of the temperature in here? Is it comfortable? Too hot? Too cool?”

“Well, no. I find it quite…” Harry paused. “I don’t find it anything. Funny, the words don’t really seem to have any meaning to me.”

Col. Harper smiled and put an arm around Harry’s shoulder as he led him further down the hallway. “That’s right, Harry.” He said. “No hunger, no thirst. Not hot, not cold. Really, it makes you wonder why so many people are afraid of death. I mean, it’s not like you’re in pain or something.”

“But what about the time?” Asked Harry. “Thirty years is a long time to be cooped up in a little box… Oh, I see.”

“Exactly, Harry. Thirty years is nothing compared to what most people in your position have to face. And when you come back you’ll be a hero. True, you won’t be able to tell anyone about it. But you’ll be a hero. You know, you don’t really have any choice about it anyway.”

“I don’t?”

“No. Your next appointment is with Billy Williams. He’s legal counsel with the DRD – that’s the department that oversees our little agency. Billy’s going to explain all that to you. Now, don’t let Billy’s accent throw you – he’s a defector from Canada.”

“From Canada…?” Harry asked, surprised.

“Well, that’s my little joke. Actually Billy enjoys dual citizenship. You see, his mother was French Canadian.”

“And his father?” Harry asked.

“Wasn’t.” Col. Harper replied as he opened another identical door.

Inside, Harry found an office identical to the one he had just left but without the handwritten walls. There was an identical desk behind which sat an identical man.

“Bonjour M. Claypole. Hello. I am Mr. Williams from the Department of Redundancy Department. I trust you are well, how are you?”

“I’m fine.” Harry answered. “So tell me, how is it that a Canadian ends up with an American Government job?”

“Oh well, that’s simply easy. You see, Canada leads the world in redundancy. It is the most redundant nation in the world. The Canadian Government has had to deal with the French reality and the English reality for so long that we think redundantly automatically and without even thinking about it.”

“I see. And you’re legal counsel?”

“I am an attorney, a lawyer, qualified in both Canada and the United States both. Col. Harper has asked me to explain your legal position and your rights.”

“Yes,” Harry agreed. “That’s what he told me.”

“Bon. Good.” Mr. Williams spread both his hands open on the desk. “It’s important and it matters that you know that I have researched this well by doing a great deal of research and the conclusion is inescapable and can’t be avoided that you have no legal rights – your legal rights are nonexistent.”

“I see…”

“It’s because you’re dead and no longer living. The framers of the Bill of Rights and those who wrote it didn’t anticipate this situation and didn’t see it coming. Interestingly under common law, your estate has certain rights but you personally…that is to say your person, has none and doesn’t have any.”

“And if I went to a different attorney would I get a different opinion?”

“Bien sur, of course. Any lawyer or attorney that you hire or employ would give you as many opinions as you are willing to pay for.”

“I see…”

Thirteen of the fourteen days Sylvia had been given to produce an arrest had passed without success. So she was understandably excited to be on the teenager’s trail. Sylvia spotted the boy as he sorted through some 45s and his nervousness piqued her interest. Sure enough, as Sylvia watched from behind a Mitch Miller LP she saw the boy slip two or three 45s down the front of his bell-bottoms. Now all she had to do was follow and grab him once he got outside the store.

The key was to follow without being spotted by her prey so Sylvia was taking extra care to stay out of sight. She stooped down behind the racks of tie-dyed shirts inside the main entrance and watched as the teenager made his way towards the doors. Moving quickly, Sylvia kept next to the wall with the displays hiding her. Around one more corner then out the door and the prey would be hers. Running now, stooped over, Sylvia took the final corner and – blam – ran into a wall.

A big, soft wall. Wearing a necktie.

Sylvia sat, undignified, and looked up from the floor as her eyes regained their focus and watched the wall evolve into Teddy Lapin.

“Oh Miss Claypole,” Teddy Lapin squeaked “I’m so sorry. I just didn’t see you.”

Sylvia shook herself and looked towards the doors just in time to see the back of her prey as he made good his escape. “Get me up. Get me up!” She yelled.

“No, no” Teddy Lapin cautioned as he squatted and held her down. “You’ve had a bit of a start. It’s better if you sit for a minute until you regain yourself.”

Resigned, Sylvia slumped back onto the floor.

“I’m sorry to have bumped into you like that,” Teddy Lapin squeaked, “but I was looking for you. There has been an important development in your brother’s case and I need you to come with me.”

Sylvia offered her arm and as the big man helped her up she said: “Go with you where?”

“Alaska.” Teddy Lapin squeaked.

For technical reasons that Harry didn’t understand, TSA wanted to launch on July 16th at the same time as NASA would be launching Apollo 11. A ’scrub’ in Florida would mean a ‘scrub’ in Alaska; a ‘go’ in Florida would be a ‘go’ in Alaska unless local problems prevented TSA’s launch. Because of the NASA imposed launch target, Harry was immediately put into training.

Training consisted of sitting in a chair and being subjected to random blasts from a fog horn. Each time Harry heard the fog horn he was expected to reach out and push a button marked: ‘Return Launch Activation’.

As Col. Harper explained it: “You’re not just a passenger on this trip Harry, you’re an integral part of the mission. Without you there to push the button the spaceship would remain on Venus indefinitely and the mission would fail.”

Since no one knew what effect fifteen years of idleness would have on Harry, the training was designed to condition his autonomic system to respond. Four days after landing on Venus the fog horn would sound and continue blasting until Harry pushed the ‘Return Launch Activation’ button which would re-launch the ship back to Earth.

“Of course,” Col. Harper explained “…we would like you to get out and look around during your four day stay. Maybe pick up a rock or two to bring back with you. But even if you do nothing but sit there, once you push the button you’re on your way home.”

To further reinforce Harry’s autonomic reflexes, the button itself had been designed as a replica of one that Harry had to push during his thirty years on the line at the Zinger Wringer Washing Machine Company (If your shorts are in a wringer, make sure it’s a Zinger!)

{Stand up if you’re getting sick of this Zinger! gag.}

“Temperature at the airport is a balmy 78 degrees, skies are clear. It’s three o’clock and time for the news…” droned the car radio as Sylvia and Teddy Lapin taxied to the airport.

“I still don’t understand,” Sylvia shouted over the newscaster’s voice after the cab driver responded to her request for quiet by turning up the volume. “Are you saying that Harry has been kidnapped?”

“Not kidnapped, no.” Answered Teddy Lapin who, with his high voice, was having an even harder time being heard. “The technical term is ‘snatched’. Live people are kidnapped, bodies are snatched.”

“All conditions are ‘go’ and the weather is ‘A.O.K.’ in Florida as crews prepare for the launch of Apollo 11,” said the radio announcer. “The countdown is proceeding on schedule and the world is watching as America prepares to send man to the moon.”

“I still don’t get any of this,” Sylvia shouted. “If Harry is dead, why would anyone take him to Alaska?”

“There’s a number of people – agencies – that would be very interested in getting their hands on Harry,” Teddy Lapin yelled. “You see, the chances of somebody still functioning after death are very small. Not impossible, just very, very improbable. But when you consider all the people that die – that have ever died since human life first appeared on this planet – then that small probability rises to a virtual certainty. Well, these agencies have done the calculations and they've been waiting. Waiting and watching. For Harry.”

“And it is one of these – agencies – that has taken Harry to Alaska?” Sylvia asked.

“Yes,” answered Teddy Lapin “…and you’re going with me to help convince Harry to come home. We have no way of knowing what’s been done to him. He may have been brainwashed.”

“In local news,” said the radio announcer “…Humane Society Officials are seeking the public’s help in solving a bizarre incident in an East End park. Officials have no idea why a partially decapitated squirrel was left under a bench in the park sometime last night or early this morning. Anyone with information is encouraged to contact the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.”

Although the training schedule kept Harry pretty busy, he still found time to think. He thought about his life, about thirty years working for the Zinger Wringer Washing Machine Company (If your shorts are in a wringer…)

{Okay, okay. You can all sit down.}

Harry reached some conclusions: first, in the sixty-five years that he had lived he had accomplished nothing – no family, no career, no marker that said ‘Harry Claypole passed this way’. And he concluded that he’d been given the opportunity in death that he’d never had in life – the opportunity to accomplish something. Never mind that no one outside a few government bureaucrats would know of Harry’s accomplishment. He’d know. That would be enough.

As Harry pondered he gradually became aware of a sound. A distant ‘Ping-Ping-Ping’ worked its way into his consciousness. He had just begun to speculate about its origin when the door to his room burst open and Dr. Glenelg rushed in.

“Harry – thank God I’ve found you – we have to get you to the launch site and prepare for blast off right now.”

“What’s going on?” Harry asked.

“The rabbits are attacking,” said Dr. Glenelg.

“We have operatives doing a frontal assault as a distraction, ” advised Teddy Lapin “…so we can slip into the launch site.”

Sylvia stared blankly, comprehension out of reach. “Operatives? Launch site? She stammered “…what are you talking about?”

Teddy Lapin steered their rented Volkswagen around another in what seemed like an endless series of turns down a huge spiraling vehicle ramp. “I know it’s confusing,” he managed. “You’re just gonna have to trust me. If I’ve figured it right, they’ll be rushing Harry to the launch site for an immediate blast off. They won’t want to risk having him captured before beginning his mission.”

Maybe I should have thought this through better thought Sylvia as she gripped her arm-rest for balance, Harry’s already dead, I don’t want to join him.

“This way, Harry. Hurry up!” Dr. Glenelg coaxed as he led Harry down another indistinguishable hallway.

Ping! – Something whizzed past Harry’s ear.

Dr. Glenelg grabbed Harry’s arm and pulled him into an elevator. Harry turned and, just for an instant, glimpsed a group of small furry creatures turning the corner into the hallway. Sure enough, they looked like rabbits. One of them rose up on his hind legs and pointed something in their direction.

Ping! – The elevator door closed just in time to deflect whatever projectile it was that the rabbit had fired.

“Whew – that was close,” panted Dr. Glenelg. “We should be okay now, we’ll lock the elevator at the bottom. The rabbits have only penetrated to the fifth level of the complex. You should be safely on your way before they get much deeper.”

“I thought we couldn’t launch until the 16th,’ said Harry.

“That was just to throw off the Other Side,” said Dr. Glenelg. “We figured they’d be so busy monitoring the launch in Florida we could sneak you up without them knowing. But now that the rabbits have attacked we know that the Other Side has already learned about our plans.”

“And who are the rabbits?” Harry asked.

“Agents for the Other Side.”

Despite whatever reservations Sylvia may have had, she had to admit that Teddy Lapin seemed to know what he was doing. He had deftly opened a service door and, after a confusing maze of tunnels, brought them safely to the floor of a huge indoor missile silo. A giant rocket dominated the space – belching steam. Sylvia was just beginning to think that this crazy plan was going to work.

“Hold it right there you two – freeze!” A voice emerged from the shadow of the rocket. Teddy Lapin froze like a small woodland creature caught in the headlights; Sylvia turned to see the source of the command. She saw a uniformed man with a bald head. He wore glasses and pointed a large, black gun menacingly in Sylvia and Teddy Lapin’s direction.

“Sylvia Claypole, I presume,” said the bald-headed man. “I’m Lt. Col. Thomas Jefferson Harper. We’ve sort of been expecting you.”

Sylvia figured she should be surprised that Col. Harper knew her name but she had been surprised so much in the last twenty-four hours that her capacity for it seemed pretty much exhausted. She simply accepted that he did know. And if he said they were expecting her well, that was fine with Sylvia.

“And just who is it you have with you?” Asked Col. Harper as he walked up to their position.

Okay, so he doesn’t know everything. “Oh,” Sylvia answered “…this is Teddy Lapin of the State Deceased Persons Department.”

Col. Harper smiled. He was now beside Sylvia with Teddy Lapin – still frozen in place – facing away from him. “I’m sure he is, Miss Claypole. The only question is: from what state?”

With that, Col. Harper reached up and grabbed a fistful of hair from the back of Teddy Lapin’s head then, with one jerk, pulled his head off.

It took Harry’s brain several seconds to process what he had just seen. Dressed now in his flight suit and still being hurried along by Dr. Glenelg, Harry arrived on the floor of the missile silo in time to see Col. Harper, pointing a gun at a man and a woman, reach over and pull the man’s head right off his shoulders. The woman screamed. Harry noted with amazement that the decapitated man did not fall over. Nor bleed, for that matter. After a brief pause a long fuzzy ear popped out of the man’s neck cavity. This was followed by a second long fuzzy ear. Finally, a small rabbit head perched incongruously on the huge shoulders of the decapitated man.

“Vladimir! I should have guessed,” said Col. Harper to the rabbit. “I must congratulate you on your disguise. Most convincing.”

“It will please our scientists to hear that you said so,” responded Vladimir in Teddy Lapin’s high whispery voice.

“Okay, just what is going on here?” Sylvia finally asked.

For the first time, Harry turned his attention to the woman. Something about her was familiar…

“Sylvia!” Harry cried, “…what on earth are you doing here?”

Sylvia jumped at the sound of her name; her capacity for surprise apparently still unplumbed. “Harry, so it’s true. You are here.”

Harry and Dr. Glenelg joined the other three. Col. Harper kept his gun trained on the man with the rabbit’s head.

“No time for explanations now, Miss Claypole” Col. Harper said. “We have to get your brother launched before Vladimir’s comrades reach this far down into the complex. There are thousands of them swarming over the upper floors as we speak.”

“But I came here to convince Harry to come home with me,” Sylvia said. “Harry, you can’t seriously be willing to let them blast you to who-knows-where.”

“Venus,” Col. Harper and Dr. Glenelg said in unison.

“Venus,” Harry echoed. “Listen Sylvia, you don’t understand …this is my chance, my one opportunity to do something, to make a contribution, to accomplish something.”

“What do you hope to accomplish, Harry? To be the first dead man in space? You are dead, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” Harry replied. “Completely dead.”

“Then I don’t understand why you’d want to do this. Other dead people don’t go blasting off to who-knows-where.”

“Venus!” shouted Col. Harper and Dr. Glenelg. In harmony this time -- just for variety.

“Sylvia,” Harry said taking her by the arm and leading her away from the others. “…I don’t have time to explain all this to you. Just trust me, it’s for the best. I’ll be gone a long time but I want you to do me a favor. Keep New Year’s Eve 1999 open. We’ll get together then, if you’re still alive, and I’ll fill you in on the whole adventure. We’ll celebrate the coming of the new century and the greatest adventure in history. I’ll even bring you a rock from another world.”

“Oh Harry, are you sure this is what you want?”

“Yes I am, “ said Harry. “Col. Harper? Start the countdown. I’m going to Venus.”

Sylvia paused and looked at the man in the tuxedo, trying in vain to see if she had gotten through to him. “And that” she said, “ why you have to give me a reservation for New Year’s Eve.”

Copyright (c) 1999 by Bill Clarke. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Drive Like Eighty

Just for fun!
Lyrics are below the clip.

Drive Like Eighty

Oh, I can drive like eighty
I drive really really slow
Signaling a left turn
Everywhere I go
Yes, I can drive like eighty
The pedal nowhere near the floor
Oh, I can drive like eighty
Or maybe eighty-four.

Yes, I can drive like eighty
Wearing a jaunty hat
Staring dead at the road ahead
Man, I can drive like that
With my seat pulled tight up to the wheel
Just as close as I can be
Oh, I can drive like eighty
Or maybe eighty-three

With the windshield wipers slapping time
Like they did for Bobby McGee
The fact that I'm in bright sunshine
Doesn't even bother me
'Cause it's Rush Hour in the left lane
And I'm doin’ twenty-two
And the fact is I've forgotten
Where it is I'm headed to.

Oh, I can drive like eighty
Think of the gas I save
Everyone’s so glad to see me
As they pass, they wave.
And the road has really so much room
When you’re straddlin’ the center line
Oh, I can drive like eighty
Even though I’m eighty-nine.

Yes, I can drive like eighty
Even though I’m eighty-nine.

Copyright (c) 2007 by Bill Clarke. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


Something a little more recent: this short story is from 1999 - but be darned if I can remember where or even if it was published.


I never claimed to be the best candidate for the job; I want you to understand that. But that’s often how the White Shirts do things. Someone who shows an interest, or has some background in the general area, or maybe is just being a pain in the ass – that person often gets the posting without even an attempt to find a better, more qualified person, from among the four thousand plus police officers on the Force.

That’s how I got the job. I wrote a report suggesting that the Force would benefit by having a “Profiler”. I drew a little bit on the Psychology I remembered from college and a whole lot from a chance meeting with a “qualified” profiler from the FBI. My report disappeared into the ivory tower that is the abode of the senior officers – the White Shirts. One of whom spoke some magic words or waved a wand and I was seconded for five years to the Major Crime Unit with the title of “Profiler” and a mandate to make the position into something useful. Sometimes that’s how they do it.

Do you see what I’m driving at? That I didn’t want to be here? Didn’t ask to be? I listen to the sound of the respirator and think about hearing it stop. I think about winking out of existence. I think about everything coming to an end.


Dr. Emil Tobias was a nice guy. You might think the Director of the Creemore Institute would be like the warden from some old fashioned prison movie – it is after all an institution for the criminally insane, but Toby was a genuinely nice guy. I’d talked to him a number of times and met with him two or three when I was thrashing around trying to define my job. Toby gave me some good advice and welcome guidance. When he called a few months later and told me about Vigor Johnson I immediately cleared some time and made the two-hour drive up to Creemore.

Vigor Johnson had been convicted of thirty-five counts of sexual assault against teenage girls, although the actual number of his victims was probably much higher. Fifty-seven years old, Johnson would befriend the girls over the telephone or on the Internet by posing as a teenage boy. Once he gained their trust he suggested a meeting and told the girls his father would pick them up at some agreed upon location. The pretend involvement of his father was a touch of genius – it gave the girls an added feeling of security and didn’t raise their suspicions when a middle-aged man showed up at the rendezvous. Once a girl got in the car her fate was sealed and the almost sterile term “sexual assault” doesn’t begin to describe what he did to them. The archaic word “rape” applies here. He raped them. Viciously. Sadistically.

“A bona fide psychopath,” Toby said over the phone. “He’s here for a psycho-sexual evaluation as part of an eight-ten application. I thought you might like the opportunity to go one-on-one with a real psychopath.”

The officer in charge had applied to have Johnson declared a Dangerous Offender – an eight-ten application – and after only a few sessions Toby recognized what kind of monster they were dealing with. A real psychopath is exceedingly rare. Despite the paranoia of our times that convinces parents that one lurks around every corner, most of the sickos out there are just that – sick. A psychopath is on a whole different level. In the few cases where a real psychopath is at work more often than not he is long dead before authorities figure out what he was.

Johnson agreed to be interviewed. Creemore didn’t have videotape facilities but Johnson had no objection to the presence of my Sony cassette machine so that I could have a verbatim record of our conversation. Toby had him placed in a small interview room, introduced us, and left.

He wasn’t a big man – average height and weight. Clean-shaven and almost completely bald, which gave him a strangely youthful appearance. The only distinctive thing about him were his eyes. Clear, steel blue, intelligent eyes that seemed to take in every detail. There was nothing in his outward appearance that gave away what he was. And that made sense – he couldn’t be a monster if he looked like a monster.

Johnson spoke easily, candidly, providing details about his system of victim selection and never once denying what he had done. Born while his father was in a Prisoner of War Camp, he told of being raised by a man who abused his son by the same methods of physical and psychological torture used on him by his Japanese captors. He spoke dispassionately of his father’s subsequent death during a drunken barroom brawl when Johnson was fifteen.

After perhaps an hour of background I turned the conversation to more esoteric topics – I wanted an insight into how he thought, what made him tick. “Let’s talk a bit about your relationships,” I said after sliding a new cassette into the Sony.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Your adult relationships” I said. “You’ve told me about your parents, your family. As an adult, how do you feel about other people?”

He laughed. “There are no other people,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Exactly that,” he said. “It wasn’t until I grew up that I began to realize that I’m the only person on the planet. Maybe the only one in the universe.”

Now this was interesting - a primal delusion. “In what sense do you mean that?” I asked. “Do you mean that other people don’t seem real to you or...”

“Oh no, you all seem real,” he said ““ does everything else: the cars, the buildings, the trees. Everything looks and feels like it has its own reality, but it doesn’t. It’s all just a detailed illusion that I create in my mind.”

The prevailing wisdom about psychopaths is that they think they are the only ones who feel anything; everyone else is kind of like a robot. Johnson had taken this delusion to the nth degree. I didn’t want to challenge his belief system but I wanted more detail as to how it worked.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said “...the old saw about nut cases who believe that a room ceases to exist when they leave it. It’s okay. It’s what I expect you to think.”

“Well, it’s not every day that I’m told that I’m just the figment of someone’s imagination,” I said.

“I don’t imagine that it is,” he said and smiled. Did he mean that as humour? Or proof?

“Do you know anything about programming?” he asked.

“Programming? You mean like on a computer?”

“More involved,” he said. “Programming the mind. Since being locked up I’ve been experimenting with it. It occurred to me that rather than being subjected to the whims of my subconscious it might be more fun to take conscious control of my surroundings. You know, shuffle things around a bit."

“And is it working?” I asked.

He smiled. “That’s enough for today,” he said.


I played the tape back in Toby’s office.

“Fascinating,” Toby said. “Johnson disclosed his central delusion to us of course. Disclosed it quite readily. But not a word on this notion of altering reality. And I know that I tried to explore the conscious versus unconscious aspects of his delusion. I wonder why he chose to tell you about it.”

“Just responding to my sparkling personality I suppose,” I said.

“Maybe,” Toby chided. “Or maybe he believes that you are here as the result of his controlling reality; that he brought you here. I don’t suppose you could spend another day with us, could you?”

I could have said no. Should have, in fact. But Toby had been so kind to me. Not only by involving me in the Johnson case but when I was first seconded. Toby took me seriously when my total lack of qualifications would have made it easy for him to be dismissive. I agreed to stay the night and see if Johnson would speak to me again.


I used the afternoon to make phone calls and move things around in my schedule. After a tasteless institutional meal at the staff commissary, Toby spent two hours coaching me on the questions he wanted me to ask Johnson. Toby emphasized that I shouldn't push too hard or too fast on the 'control' issue - not at first. He was worried that I might scare Johnson off the topic if Johnson perceived that I doubted its plausibility. I decided to start the interview out of left field.

"Do you like music?" I asked the next morning.

"Yes," he answered.

"What's your favourite kind?" I asked.

"I like a Gershwin tune. How about you?" he answered.

"I don't think I know Gershwin," I said.

"You do, you just don't know you do," Johnson replied. "George and Ira Gershwin were brothers. George wrote music; Ira wrote lyrics. They were equally talented but George is the better known because he wrote some splendid instrumental pieces on his own. But I particularly like Ira’s lyrics. Listen." And he started to sing in a surprisingly good voice: "Won't you tell him please to put on some speed, follow my lead, oh how I need, someone to watch over me-ee-ee. You know that?"

"Yes," I admitted. I did know it.

"Don't you want the answer to your question?" he asked.

He'd caught me by surprise. "What question?"

"The one you asked yesterday. I was telling you about my experiments in programming and you asked if they were working."

Apparently Toby's concerns had been unfounded. I made a mental note to step cautiously. "I remember," I said. "Are they working?"
He smiled. "Famously," he said "...or should I say, infamously? I'm not sure which is the more appropriate. Would you like to see an example?"

Careful... I thought ...mustn't push too hard. But I was curious to know where he would take this.

"Oh come now," he said at my hesitation. "Just a small example to show you that I'm not --crazy-- it'll be the last of my little experiments before moving on to bigger things."

"Okay," I said.

"Splendid," he smiled. "Tell me, do you have plans for lunch? Will you be dining out or will you be joining us for the sartorial splendour of a Creemore meal?"

"Toby, that is...Dr. Tobias mentioned something about going to a place in town." I stammered; completely baffled about the direction this was taking.

"Ah, so the Good Doctor is planning a working lunch away from this dreary institution. Well, I hate to deprive you of whatever epicurean delights our head Head-shrinker has in mind, but if you eat any lunch at all today it'll be from the Creemore cafeteria."

"And that's to be the experiment?" I asked.

"Yes," replied Johnson. "I'm going to shuffle things around to make it impossible for you and Dr. Tobias to get away for your lunch date. Oh, don't worry. It won't be anything catastrophic, just a mild inconvenience."

There didn't seem to be anything more to say on the subject so I tried to steer the conversation to the questions that Toby had prepared but Johnson became uncharacteristically reticent. "We'll talk again this afternoon," he said as an orderly led him out of the interview room. I picked up my Sony cassette machine and headed for Toby's office.


"I just don't understand it," Toby said, pushing food around his styrofoam plate. "I know it has to be a coincidence but God, what a coincidence!"

I didn't share Toby's bafflement. I admit I had been confused when first his Celica and then my Chevy refused to start. And my confusion grew as Toby checked every vehicle he could in the Creemore parking lot only to find that they all suffered from the same ailment - dead batteries. After about half an hour, Toby gave up and instructed an orderly to hook up a battery charger to get all the vehicles re-charged so the staff could go home at the end of their shifts. We returned to Toby's office, stopping to pick up some food at the commissary on the way.

"Toby," I said " may have the finest education the Sorbonne can provide but you aren't devious enough to think like a criminal."

Toby looked askance.

"Vigor Johnson has an accomplice," I continued. "Someone - an orderly or a nurse - someone from inside the institution with access to the parking lot. Johnson convinced this accomplice to sneak out and do something to the cars to drain their batteries. It's the only possible explanation."

"You're right!" Toby brightened. "But why would he go to all that trouble?"

I shrugged. "I don't know. The bigger question is: what's the best way to handle this when I go back in to talk to him?"

Toby looked at me. "You'd be willing to talk with him again?"

"Willing?" I said. "I think I have to. Don't you?"


"How was your lunch?" Johnson snickered as an orderly let him into the interview room.

"Very impressive," I said. "Not the lunch of course, my being here to eat it." This was in keeping with the strategy Toby had devised: honest cynicism. Johnson was far too intelligent to be taken in by any pretense so I was to acknowledge what had occurred and express bewilderment that it had - nothing more. To let him know we'd figured out how he pulled it off would only make him confrontational. Or worse, cause him to shut me out all together. Toby theorized that Johnson's massive ego would eventually require him to disclose how he'd managed it.

I hit the ‘record’ button on the Sony. “I admit that what you predicted did occur. And I also admit that I am at a loss to explain it,” I said. “Beyond that I guess I’ll have to reserve judgement. Do you want to say any more about it?”

“You were the kind of kid who asked the party magician how he did his tricks, weren’t you?” he said.

“Was it a trick?” I asked.

“Okay...illusion. Since your whole reality is an illusion I guess this qualifies,” he said. “But not an illusion in the sense that you’re thinking. No smoke, or mirrors, or hidden wires.”

“So how do your experiments work?” I asked.

“In the details,” he said. “Basically I conceive of a different set of circumstances that would exist should a thing occur and when I’ve thought it through in sufficient detail it happens. That’s why I’ve kept my experiments on the small side – fewer details to think through. But I’ve gotten better at it.”

“So why are you still here?” I asked.


“I mean here, in Creemore. In custody. Why not think of a set of circumstances that would result in your freedom, work out the details, and walk out a free man?”

“I have bigger fish to fry,” he said.

“Oh? What?” I asked.

“Revenge,” he said.

“Against who?” I asked. “The judge who put you here? The cops who arrested you? The girls you raped? Who?”

“Everyone,” he said. “You, Dr. Tobias, the fat orderly who brings me my supper. From the President of the United States down to the lowliest urchin on the streets of Calcutta. Have you stopped to think what it would mean if I am what I say I am?”

“You mean, if you really are the only person on the planet?”

“Yes. I know you don’t believe it; you think my experiment with the car batteries was some sort of a trick. But imagine for a moment that I’m right. Think of what that would mean.”

“It would mean you were pretty important.”

“That’s an understatement. It would mean that for your very existence I was vitally important. Everyone on the planet had better wish me well – pray that I stay in good health. Because if something happens, all of you are going with me. That will be my revenge.”

“Pretty big gamble isn’t it?” I said. “Suicide? That’s what we’re talking about, right? Die and take the rest of us with you. But if you’re wrong all that you’ve managed to do is take your own life.”

“Hence the experiments,” said Johnson. “One more to go – a big one. It’s taken me quite awhile to figure out the details but when this one works I’ll know I’m right and not taking a gamble at all.”

“What’s the experiment?” I asked.

“My father had his flaws,” he said “...but give the devil his due, that man knew how to drive home a point. You see, you pay strict attention to what’s being said if someone is beating you while saying it. My father would get drunk and beat me. And the whole time he’d rant and rave about the Japanese and what they did to him in the war – they starved him, they tortured him. They were nothing but a bunch of sub-human maggots who should be wiped off the face of the earth.”

“I imagine that a lot of POWs felt that way,” I said. “But it was the Japanese military, not the Japanese people.”

“My father never made the distinction,” he said. “Neither do I. My final experiment is to give Dad his wish and wipe Japan off the map.”


“I think you’d better put Vigor Johnson on Suicide Watch,” I said to Toby. “He’s approaching some sort of critical mass.”

Toby nodded. “I’ll arrange that,” he said. “Tell me what you found out.”

I gave him a quick run-down on Johnson’s plan for revenge by suicide and his plan to prove he was right by avenging his father’s mistreatment at the hands of the Japanese.

“Fascinating,” Toby said. “I think you’re right – he is approaching critical. The extent and detail of his delusion is incredible. And brilliant – the circular logic. I mean, creating a fictional country so that he can convince himself that he destroyed it. Fantastic.”

“Don’t kid around, Toby” I said. “We have no idea what the reaction to his failure might be.”

“What are you talking about?” Toby asked.

“When he finds out that Japan is still there,” I said.

“Oh,” said Toby. “Is it a real place? I’m sorry, I never heard of it.”

“You never... what do you mean? It’s the second largest producer of automobiles in the world. You drive a Toyota, for God’s sake!”

A frown crept across Toby’s face. “I’m a Chrysler-man,” he said.
“I’ve always driven a Chrysler.”

“Toby, I was in your car this afternoon – it’s a black Toyota Celica. Not a Chrysler. ‘Never heard of Japan’ – for God’s sake, practically every electronic device in the world comes from Japan. My cassette recorder...”

And with that I picked up my Sony. But something was terribly, terribly wrong. Because on its face where raised chrome letters used to be was now a blue plastic faceplate that said: Philips.

“I don’t want you going in to talk to Johnson any more," Toby said. “I think I know what’s happening. He’s planted some sort of post-hypnotic suggestion. Don’t worry, it won’t be permanent. You’ll laugh about it tomorrow when you wake up.”


The next morning I wasn’t laughing.

I tried to figure it out during the drive home from Creemore. At first I thought the post-hypnotic thing might have some validity but that Toby had received the suggestion. I remembered a TV program where a hypnotist planted the idea in a guy’s head that there was no number three. And I watched the guy’s mounting frustration as he kept reaching eleven when counting his fingers. If that hypnotist could make someone forget something as basic as a primary number then I figured Johnson could make Toby forget there was a country called Japan.

But that didn’t explain the total lack of Japanese cars on my drive home – not a Honda or Toyota in sight.

I tried to consider the possibility that Toby was right, that Japan was a figment of Johnson’s imagination planted in my brain. I’d never been to Japan but the more I thought about it the more I realized that I knew an awful lot about the country. The names of cities, some of its history, Kabuki theatre, Sumo wrestling, the novels of Mishima, Yoko Ono. If I had been with Johnson a month he wouldn’t have time to plant all the details that were in my head. And I couldn’t have dreamt them up myself – I just don’t have that good an imagination.

I didn’t go to work that morning – didn’t even call in. Instead I went to the library. I checked every atlas on the shelf – no Japan. Nothing but water where Japan used to be, but never was. A check of the file catalogue produced the same result – no entries. While scanning through the encyclopedia I happened upon a reference to the Second World War ending in 1945 and was taken aback. I would have thought, not having to fight on two fronts, the allies would have ended the war sooner. A little more research and I pieced together that because there was no attack on Pearl Harbour the United States was delayed from entering the war. That delay made the fight in Europe harder and used up more resources.

This must have been the kind of ‘detail’ that Johnson had referred to. And he was right; there would be a lot of them. I signed out some history books and went home to study the impact the non-existence of Japan had had on my world. In spite of myself, I was fascinated. Excising Japan should have left a giant gash in history but Johnson had neatly stitched around the wound so that no one who didn’t know it was there would see the scar. I was the only one who knew where it had been.

The telephone jarred me out of my reading frenzy at about two o’clock. It was Toby.

“I’m afraid our Suicide Watch leaves something to be desired,” Toby said. “An orderly just found Vigor Johnson in his room. He used his pants to hang himself.”

“He’s dead?” I gasped. Then why weren’t we?

“Not yet,” Toby answered. “We rushed him over to the medical wing. They’ve got him on a respirator.”

“I’m on my way,” I said.

“Why? He can’t talk,” Toby replied. “Hell, he probably won’t last until you get here. His neck’s broken.”


I went anyway. Changes were happening all around me as I pushed the Chevy as hard as I could in a race to... what? Johnson’s bedside? Would everything really pop out of existence at the moment of his death? If so, what did I think I could do about it?

The rate of change accelerated as I drew closer to Creemore and Johnson drew closer to death. I saw things literally disappear. I caught up with a station wagon loaded with a family and their camping gear. As I pulled out to pass it just winked out of existence. One moment it was there – solid and real. The next moment there was nothing – open road.

I turned on the radio. On the few stations still broadcasting the announcers sounded like everything was normal. I heard an advertisement for some worldwide television broadcast “...from Florida to California.” Florida to California? Worldwide? I tried to think of all the permutations and alternate histories that had to wink into existence and then out again for each successive change and my mind reeled.

The radio stations dwindled and dwindled until there was nothing on AM and only one station right in the middle of the FM band. It was playing a piece I didn’t recognize. As I listened I remembered hearing it during the Opening Ceremonies of the Los Angeles Olympics. And I remembered its name – Rhapsody in Blue – I don’t know if it was written especially for the occasion. I shut the radio off but checked it again half an hour later. The one station was still there, playing the same music.

Roads began to disappear. Exits from the highway that where there yesterday simply weren’t there anymore. Soon houses, farms, and towns disappeared as well. All that was left was one giant field of grain. One field of grain broken only by a single highway that ran straight and flat. Straight to Creemore. To Johnson.

Toby met me at the gate, dressed in an orderly’s uniform. He had been educated in Europe but now Europe was gone and with it Toby’s Ph.D. I couldn’t imagine the alternate history that resulted in him ending up at Creemore as an orderly but it must have included me because I was expected. Toby led me to a room on the fourth floor of the medical wing. After he unlocked and opened the door he looked at me, smiled, and then just disappeared. Like the cars and the off-ramps, the farms and houses. One moment he was standing there smiling at me and the next moment he was gone. Just like Japan.

Vigor Johnson was inside the room. There was rubber tubing running from the respirator to a hole in his neck as he lay on his back on the hospital bed. There was no one else in the room. Outside, darkness fell. And then there was no one else anywhere.


Outside this room, I don’t know what is left. It doesn’t seem like anything could penetrate the black emptiness that lies beyond the door and the few windows. This room was on the fourth floor. I don’t know if it hovers now thirty feet above the ground, or stands on the ground, or if there is any ground for it to stand on. I suspect not.

I suspect that the entire universe has been reduced to this one room, floating in the empty vastness of eternity. Somewhere inside Vigor Johnson’s mind is the smallest sliver of awareness: just big enough to maintain his immediate surroundings. And me.

I don’t know how long I’ve been here, tending him. My watch says three-thirty but long ago I lost track of the days and there’s no sun to tell me if it’s AM or PM. I used to have a chronograph to keep track of these things but it was a Seiko.

There are only three things left alive: Vigor Johnson, me, and my meager hope. I’m only a grunt cop who graduated in the bottom third of his class with nothing but a lousy Bachelor of Arts. The sheer tonnage of what I don’t know about any given subject would be enough to sink a battleship. If there were any battleships left. But I do know this: the only hope lies on that hospital bed. Inside the mind of a psychopath, a convicted rapist, a madman ...and the most important person in the universe.

The only hope is to keep him alive, help him recover. And then to convince him to put it back. Put it all back. The way it was. If he dies that meager hope dies, too.

The plumbing works. The electricity works. Food continues to show up in the food cupboard. I don’t know where it comes from. No... I guess I do. It’s there because Vigor Johnson expects it to be. Just as he expects me to be here. Someone. To watch over him.

Copyright (c) 1999 by Bill Clarke. All rights reserved.