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Cloning Death
by Richard A. McCullough

William J. Witherspoon III was a fabulously rich, hateful, obsessive old man who was determined above all else to never die. He would cheat death, like he cheated everyone. But what he did not understand, what he failed to realize is that death can't be cloned.

Witherspoon's anger was only made the worse because of the rain. He despised the low brooding clouds, the way it streaked the windows of his limousine, making it hard to see out. It had been raining for days.

There were few people on the streets. Those that were, marched resolutely under umbrellas or darted hatless across the intersections, jumping puddles, scurrying like so many rats. That's how he thought of people. Like rats, or ants. Tiny, little, mindless soldiers who busied themselves in his numerous factories and office buildings. Mindless, frightened, scurrying little pests. He hated people, considered them necessary evils. Would have preferred to live alone, on some island, with nothing but birds for company. But he needed people. Needed them badly, although he hated himself for the need. People made money for him. Lots of money, and he needed money, craved it like a junkie. He could never get enough. He only felt alive those few short moments after he had relieved some victim of a large sum of money. Hostile takeovers were like a needle full of heroin that went straight to his brain. Suddenly there was life and color in his world, suddenly his pulse buzzed, and his heart beat and he knew why he was alive. The exhilaration was stupefying, he felt invincible, bigger than God, like he could reach out with one hand and yank Saturn out of its orbit, and swallow it in one fell gulp. But also like a junkie, the times between were dark, bottomless pits of despair and self-loathing. And as he grew older it took increasingly larger doses of money and excesses of power to get him off, to imbue his drab, gray, oatmeal of existence with life. And he was very old.

He had five million by the time he was thirty. And crossed the billion mark before his fortieth birthday. After that he quit counting money, and instead concentrated on acquiring power. But he could not be satiated, could not be filled. There was this void inside him, a chasm without bottom. A hunger so profound that it had consumed his entire life trying to be filled. But it would not be filled. Of late he had awoken, sweating in the middle of the night from a recurring nightmare.

In the dream, he was trying to fill the void, shoveling great gobs of dollar bills into the chasm. But the more he shoveled the bigger the chasm grew. So he worked harder. Slaves striped to the waist and sweating profusely brought him huge bundles of money carried on their bowed backs in a never ending procession. He scooped up the paper money as it gushed out of the ruptured bundles and flung it into the void. But as fast as he could move, could stoop and grasp and fling, it was not quick enough. Why don't they just throw the bundles in there for me? he thought. Realizing in the same instant that this was something his slaves could not do for him. The mindless, blind beasts that hauled his bundles, could not see the void that he was trying to fill, could not understand the necessity to hurry, to scoop and throw faster. All they could do was plod along in the ceaseless line until it was their turn to drop their burden at his feet. Filling the void was something that only he could do. But he could never accomplish it.

He always woke startled to the first gray light of dawn just as the void opened under him. Vertigo clawing at his belly like the unseen rats of a sewer trying to pull him down. On those days, when he had dreamed the nightmare, he threw his body out of bed, relishing the sharp pains of his frail bones contacting the floor. It was only these stabbing jolts of reality that rescued him from the certain spinning vertigo of the other world. Some days even this was not enough. With his eyes wide open he could still see the yawning void opening under him. Eating the carpet of his bedroom into a hole of black nothing. He gritted his teeth and sank his finger nails into the soft white flesh of his thighs until blood oozed out.

On such days he dressed hurriedly and went about his work with a particular vengeance. God pity the hapless executive, company president, or Senator that failed him on such days. He was known to fire whole boards of directors. Some said that he had had men killed. But these were only whispers, half spoken and sorely regretted comments. For it was known that he had eyes and ears everywhere. Nothing escaped his attention. He knew everything.

Witherspoon had not dreamed last night, although the rain reminded him of the dream, it closed the world in around him and the sky was like that chasm in his soul. It's cold, wet fingers seemed to reach everywhere. He pulled the black cashmere overcoat closer around his neck and hunched back even further into the butter-soft, leather seat of his limo. His pale little head looking like the bald face of a vulture. He stared out the windows of the speeding limo, his beady eyes raking everything that he saw with disgust.

Witherspoon's gloved hand crept forward and opened the intercom line to the limo driver. "Faster!"

He could see the cap of the driver tilt upward and the questioning eyes in the rear view mirror.

"Faster, you idiot. Can't you hear?" Maybe, it was time to get an new driver.

Horns blared as the limo careened through the red light of an intersection. That's better, Witherspoon thought. But the void still threatened to open under him, he could feel it's devouring edge racing to catch up with him from behind.

Not an hour before; a room full of the finest medical doctors that money could buy stood before him, with hangdog expressions, fiddling clipboards, fingering stethoscopes, and looking for all the world like helpless babies.

H. McCluskey, his personal physician for seventy-six years, and the closest thing that William J. Witherspoon III ever had to a friend, stood in the front of all the ranged white smock coats, but could not bring himself to meet his gaze.

"Cut through the crap McCluskey. What are you trying to say? - that I'm going to die?" The idea was preposterous.

McCluskey hid his downcast eyes behind bushy white eyebrows, the others bored their own holes into the sick, green linoleum floor of the examination room with eyes that would not look at him.

"I built this hospital. I gave everyone of you your jobs. You will operate, you will clone something, you will - cut, prod, poke or saw off whatever it takes. Do you understand me? I will not die!"

McCluskey was suddenly in front of him attempting to place a comforting hand on his frail shoulder.

"William .. . you're a hundred and fifty-eight years old. . ."

"I don't care. . ."

"There is nothing left that modern science can do. . ."

"Don't patronize me," shrugging off the hand that would attempt to console.

"I'm worth billions! You will find a way",. . . his eyes took on the glint of predatory cannibal that few men had seen and lived to tell about. "I will never give up my money. . . my POWER! Do you understand me!"

"I will destroy you, all of you, every stinking, blood sucking one of you! . . if it's the last thing I ever do."

"William. . ."

"Get away from me."

Dr. McCluskey recoiled as though he were struck. For the first time in their long relationship he saw the eyes of the corporate cannibal. It was like looking into the fanged mouth of a hooded snake as it struck your face. You knew you only had that flickering, fraction of a second to live, and you knew that there was nothing, nothing in this world that you could do to save yourself.

"Get out. All of you!"

McCluskey backed away from the frail looking skeleton of a man, knowing in his heart that he was dead. William J. Witherspoon III had only days to live and McCluskey would be buried with him. Just like the ancient Pharisees that took all their servants with them. Sealing them in their burial chambers like so many pots of honey and spices.

"Get out. . . do you hear!"

That was less than an hour ago. Now Witherspoon was being driven across town to a secret lab.

He had known that this day would come, but had not expected it to come so soon. Never-the-less, he was prepared. William J. Witherspoon III was not going to die.

 

Hours earlier, in another part of town, a bundle of rain soaked rags scurried from one dripping doorway to the next along the face of burned out tenements. The streets here were abandoned, save for the trash that lay decomposing against the edges of buildings where the wind had left it. Sooty dirt from the long hot summer now ran in gray black rivulets across the sidewalks and poured into gutters choked with refuse. Eyes darted from the rag woman left and right as she skittered down the face of the buildings. The walls were covered with spray can messages, some bold and colorful, others stark and cryptic, proclaiming hatreds or brags; all in tongues foreign to the rag woman. She would never understand their exact meaning. But they were road signs to her, both landmarks and warnings. She used them to navigate her way. She knew where she was going. And she was hurrying. Not because of the rain. Her multiple layers of rags and plastic trash bags kept her quite dry and warm even in the coldest rain, but because she was fearful. These streets were never safe. Even if one looked as though they had nothing worth stealing which she surely did. But because they were patrolled by gangs of surly youths that took their sport at rolling drunks or rag pickers. Anyone alone on the streets was fair game. Mini only ventured out at night. The shadows afforded better protection. There were places to hide, dark allies, boarded up doors that could be opened, cracks to slip through. And the gangs didn't come out in the late hours of the night or the early hours of the morning. They were too high on drugs in the early morning, and too cold and afraid in the late hours of night. This was her time.

She would make her way across town early in the morning, long before sunup and station herself by one of the tunnels. It was her spot. There she would stand all morning panhandling change from the slowly passing cars that jammed the traffic lanes pouring into the city. When the rush hour passed there was a little hole in the brush that she would curl herself into with enough cardboard and plastic bags to keep warm and dry in the winter. No one bothered her there. She became invisible. In the evening she crept out and took her other station, a block away where the same cars edged along waiting to get back out of the city.

She did not know how long she had live like this. She had lost all sense of calendar time. She was surviving, that is all she knew and the only thought she ever had of it. Surviving, is what her life had reduced to.

And then one day there had been a change. That was the night she found the boy. It was raining, like today. A gritty cold rain falling on the gritty cold streets. In the darkness she was making her way silently along the front of a boarded up tenement, her ears twitching like a cat, when she thought she heard something. She ducked into a shadowed doorway and stumbled over something. It was firm but soft, and when she struck it with her foot it moved. Mini had come across many bodies over her years. Some with the life blood still oozing out of them. Some simply frozen stiff with death. She did not like these bodies. Would not touch them and would scurry away as fast as she could. Putting them out of her mind, pretending that they were just part of the landscape like the loud graffiti that smeared the walls, or the burned out cars, who's skeletons seemed to watch her with vacant eyes as she scuttled through the night in her quest for food or money.

In this darkened doorway she smelled death, recognized the soft, fleshy resistance as her foot stumbled against it. But before she could recoil and run away she heard that sound again and realized that it came from the bundle at her feet. It was a mew, almost like a kitten. And in the pitch blackness she bent and fumbled to find what it was. A car passed as she bent down and in the flash of lights she saw the thing that she always feared to see.

A woman's face, eyes frozen open, blankly staring out at her from a bundle of rags. The lips were blue and a trickle of ruby red blood ran from one corner of the mouth, down and under the chin. The line of dried blood stopped half-way down the exposed throat. The skin looked like bleached white paper, the blood like the ink from a fountain pen. The message only half conceived, interrupted, unfinished. The woman's face was young. The eyes startled, as if seeing some frightful thing from a great distance. That frightful thing Mini understood was death. This woman had seen it come for her, of that Mini was sure. She had laid in this doorway and seen it come for her like some stalker and been helpless to run away. Perhaps she had cried out, but Mini thought not, the face was not contorted. The eyes were calm if frightened, the lips were relaxed. Life had just left her and the death stalker had just stood there with his hands outstretched to take it from her, as one would lift a heavy burden from the hands of someone that could not carry it anymore. The sound came from the bundle that the dead woman still held in her stiff arms.

The flash of headlights lasted only a second, and was gone. Mini grabbed the bundle and dashed away as fast as she could. She would never understand why she had taken the bundle all those years ago. It had changed her life in many complicated ways. Often she had regretted it. But she had been clever and resourceful, and the child that she found wrapped in rags had grown into a little boy.

And now she was scurrying through the bitter early morning rain to be at her station by the tunnel. And for the first time in a long time, without the boy with her. Instead of the boy she brought only a feeble plan like a light in the corner of her mind.

She kept looking at it as she hurried along, hoping that it would get brighter, become more well-defined. But it would not become clearer. All she could make of it, the only words that came to her were, 'Tonight - I must kill the boy'. She could not think of any other way.

'Boy' was the only name that he had ever known. That is what Mini always called him. Only the tone of her voice warned him of her displeasure. Mostly though she just fed him, and kept him hidden in the old building. He learned to crawl and to walk there, amongst the broken plaster and shattered windows. When he was very little she had tied a string around his leg to keep him from wandering off while she went out into the streets to get money or food. But soon Mini realized that she could use the boy. His little face and dirty outstretched paw brought many more quarters and even folding money from the bored drivers who passed her spot. As he grew older she taught him the tricks of the street. How to shill, how to cry, and even how to pick pockets.

Mini had stood him in front of a tattered overcoat hanging from the ceiling and made him practice lifting wallets. The coat was covered with bells, pie tins and odd bits of metal. If the old coat even rustled he received a beating. He was forced to practice this for hours. She smiled at him when he could do it right and screamed and beat him when he failed. When she thought he was good enough she sent him out into the lunch time crowds; in the subway stations, crowded street corners, by the park, anywhere that people thronged.

The first time he was so proud he marched right up to her and held out the shinny, expensive, leather wallet, expecting to see her smile. Instead she cuffed him upside the head so hard that he went flying. Then she jerked him up off the sidewalk by his arm with such force he could barely use it for days and beat him about the head all the way back to the building.

"You stupid, stupid boy!" was all she could think to say for some time as they walked. "Don't you ever walk up to me and hand me something that you just stole. Do you want to go to jail?" And then she cuffed him again.

Over the years he had grown. Now he came up to almost her chin. And she could not catch him to beat anymore. Even when he was sleeping she could no longer sneak up on him. It seemed he had learned to sleep with his eyes open. For when she came back, often surly or drunk and decided to beat him, just for good measure, he would leap off his bed before she could get to him and run and hide where she could not find him. This ability only angered her further.

And then he had taken to slipping away. Sometimes staying gone for days. The last time she waited by the broken door for him to sneak back. And when he came creeping in she sprang on him and hit him over the head with a board and knocked him out.

When he woke up his head hurt badly, and his throat was dry. But when he lifted himself off the floor and tried to stumble over to the sink he found that his leg was tied again, this time by a chain. He tried for hours to get himself free, vowing that he would leave this time and never return. But the chain was too strong for his small hands and he could find nothing to pick the old padlock with. Even his pockets were empty. The old woman had done that, he was sure for he always carried many necessary things in his pockets. The fact that the money he had taken from the wallets was gone he expected that, for she always made him give her the money. But he was surprised at first and then very angry that she had taken the rest. His small knife with the broken blade, the small piece of pretty glass, a short length of fine stiff wire, a few coins, a scrap of cloth with a picture of a horse on it, and a thin old pocket book; everything was gone.

Finally he just sat down and leaned against the post where his chain was tied. He would wait for her to come back. He gazed longingly over at his corner, beyond where his bed lay, at the neat stacks of his odd books ranged along the wall.

Hours passed and he nodded off. At one point he was startled awake by the thought that maybe she would not return. But when he looked around he was reassured. Too many of her things were still scattered about the room. She would come back. She always had. Unless she were caught in the street by some gang and killed. One look at the dim light that streamed through the boarded up window told him that it was the wrong hour to be out in the streets. She had taught him many things about surviving in the streets and that was one of the most important ones. Certain hours belonged to certain people. "We are the invisible night people. Keep to your own time if you want to live", she said.

 

Dr. Benjamin Jefferson, sat hunched over a high table. He was soldering a component onto a circuit board. His lab coat lay forgotten behind him on the floor where it had fallen hours before. He had meant to drape it over the back of the chair but had missed and was so engrossed in his thoughts that he didn't notice that it fell to the floor when his fingers released it.

Over the large sliding door to the old warehouse where he worked was a huge clock. On his workbench was an old-fashioned alarm clock, on his wrist a cheap Chinese wrist watch. In his vest pocket a wind up pocket watch. All of them humming, ticking or silently going about their business of measuring out the minutes. Dr. Jefferson was obsessed with the concept of time. Yet he never knew what time it was. He had written his thesis on time and yet could never catch a train. It was the concept not the actuality that he thought about. Time was a dimension, that he was fairly sure of. How it interrelated with space? that was the question. Were they two independently moving streams or were they in separate dimensions. He favored the idea of dimensions. Time in one, space in another. But, what was a dimension? Did it exist in the mind, or in reality? And what then was reality? What we perceived? - or did our very action of perceiving so alter the observation that, what we saw was not what we thought we saw, but some alteration of it?

These were heady questions. Dr. Benjamin Jefferson liked puzzling over them in his haphazard way like some people liked working crossword puzzles. With no hope of solving the whole puzzle, not even any real purpose, but rather as a mental exercise. His real field was electronics, and this did not warrant any puzzling. He had chosen the sub field of magnetics and then gone on to graduate school studying force fields, a 'highly unlikely prospect' as his late professor had often reminded him. But in studying force fields he made some rather interesting discoveries, if of little interest to the rest of the academic field. And these findings had brought his work to the attention of William J. Witherspoon III.

It was Witherspoon's generous funding and polite but persuasive insistence that caused the professor to sequester himself here in this dingy warehouse out of the limelight of academia and to push his experimentation out to it's limits.

It was his late girlfriend (that twitter-head from Berkley) that had gotten him interested in the human soul. Some book (who's title he now couldn't remember) that she kept pressing him to read. "Man was not an animal" she was fond of spouting "but rather a spiritual being." And the book's author claimed to be able to prove it. She kept thrusting the book on him but he couldn't be bothered. All the 'Humanity' studies made his head hurt. Babble, babble - man is this. . .man is that. . . statements without a shred of evidence. Pronouncements without proof. Any fool with a typewriter could write a thesis and if he used enough psycho-babble, someone would believe him.

One day he went to relieve himself and there was nothing to read. Being a little constipated his bored eyes wandered to the floor and there next to the toilet paper was this 'book'. He started thumbing through it and became fascinated. Most interesting of all, near the back was the schematic of a device that purported to measure the existence of the human soul.

Ben's legs were stiff, and his feet half asleep when he finally hauled himself off the toilet and down to his work table. A little of this and a little of that and he had built one of the things.

It worked - almost as expected. Ben did have to improvise a little here and there; improvements on what were clearly under powered circuits. The twitter-head (Maggie was her name but she had taken to calling herself Drucilla by then) claimed that it gave her a bit of a shock and her hair did stand out on end - a little. But how reliable could a girl be who ran off to Big Sur with the Athletic Director to "find herself"?

It was some years later when Ben was working on his field generator theories that he stumbled on the forgotten contraption and a fortuitous sequence of events followed that landed him ultimately in this lab. At twenty-eight he would have been the envy of half the professors that he had studied under.

Here he was, in complete charge of his own lab, fully underwritten, from a seemingly unlimited bank account. All he need do was ask and a few days later some gray truck would lumber up to the doors loaded with some machine, gadget, or gizmo he had taken a fancy to. All these toys and no one (well hardly anyone) looking over his shoulder. And he didn't even have to publish - in fact, was forbidden to. That was the one catch. He could have all the money that he needed, as long as he got results. But he could never share his research with anyone. So paranoid was Witherspoon on the subject of security that he was even denied any assistants. Ben solved this problem by having components of his apparatus constructed off sight by subcontractors and then trucked to his lab.

Everyone was happy until - today.

 

It was 10:45 in the morning on that cold and rainy day. Ben was startled by the determined pounding on the huge doors. No deliveries were scheduled for today but then he could never be sure so he went to the door and checked the monitors. Samuel Stanton stood glowering into the security camera, an umbrella in one hand and briefcase in the other.

Stanton had been to the lab maybe four times in the last year and each time was a trial for Dr. Jefferson. Questions, questions, all the man did was ask questions and poke his hawk-like nose into everything. The worst of it was that the answers were already in the reports that Dr. Jefferson dispatched every Sunday by special courier to Mr. Witherspoon.

Dr. Jefferson had many faults but he was religious about his lab notes. He kept a running journal in long hand always open on his desk or wherever he was working, and on Saturdays he spent the entire day going back over those notes and typing up a summary. All the tests were in there, successes as well as failures, the equipment used, and plans for the coming week.

Stanton didn't seem to know what was in those reports and Dr. Jefferson was under the distinct impression that Witherspoon wanted it that way.

Stanton didn't seem to trust anyone, and now he was staring right back at Dr. Jefferson in his insistent tone silently demanding that he be let in. And judging from the rapidity of his ringing he was in a hurry. Hadn't Stanton been here just a week ago? What would bring him back so soon? "Accountants", Dr. Jefferson thought, "the curse of genius." He pushed the buzzer to let him in. But this time Stanton was not alone. No sooner had the door opened than a chauffeur sprang out of a limo and opened the back door holding an umbrella for none other than William J. Witherspoon III, himself.

Dr. Jefferson fumbled to straighten his tie but he wasn't wearing one.

 

Mr. Witherspoon stood in the center of the lab almost completely hidden in his coal black cashmere topcoat, both gloved hands clutching the knobby top of a walking cane. His parchment colored face turning slightly as his dark eyes racked over the room, top to bottom, side to side like a vulture sizing up breakfast.

Stanton circled the room like he was looking for something. The hawk and the vulture; one wheeling in the sky searching for something to kill and the other perched atop a low tree simply waiting; - waiting for something to die.

Dr. Jefferson stood rooted to the floor, for the moment the two men were ignoring him. They had both brushed by as though he were no more remarkable than a public pay phone.

But by the time Witherspoon had finished his inspection and turned his eyes to Dr. Jefferson, Ben's hand was shaking so hard that cold coffee was jiggling out of his half-empty cup.

Stanton was still circling and began to deliver a litany of information. "Magnetic field generator - fifty-seven thousand; mainframe computer - four hundred thousand; twin multi-phase capacitors - ninety thousand . . ."

"Shut up, Samuel."

Stanton closed his mouth like a trap door slamming shut on the tail of a cat.

"And quit fidgeting." Never taking his eyes off Dr. Jefferson. "You know I can't stand - FIDGETING!"

Dr. Jefferson realized his hands were shaking and tried to shove them in his pockets, but there was no room for the cup. The last dregs of coffee dribbled down his trousers as he tried to disentangle his fingers from the handle, finally managing to drop it on the floor. It bounced crazily on the thick rubber matting like a drunken Ping-Pong ball and finally came to rest at Mr. Witherspoon's feet.

Witherspoon's eyes never seemed to move but he took in everything.

"Samuel, the good Doctor seems to have dropped his coffee cup. Would you be so kind as to retrieve it for him. And while you are at it. . . have the driver take you for a ride through the park." All the while he spoke his mouth never seemed to move, but his voice cut through the room like scissors slicing course fabric.

Stanton could hardly contain himself. He strode over and bent down woodenly, retrieved the offending cup and thrust it out at Dr. Jefferson. Stanton's jaws were working at such a rate behind his clamped lips Dr. Jefferson expected the man would have no teeth left by the time he got to the car.

"The case, Samuel. Just leave it there," and he pointed with his eyes at a space on the floor just to his right.

Stanton's eyes widened but he was careful to keep his head turned so that Witherspoon would not notice. But the tendons in his neck looked as if they would snap any moment and rip his own head off. He set the case gingerly on the floor and walked to the door as though he had just had a rectal exam.

The door sighed closed behind him and the two men were left alone.

The minutes ticked, whirred and buzzed in the silence of the shadowed lab. Dr. Jefferson was too shocked to know what to do. His mind was scratching around like a rat caught in a trap about ready to chew it's own leg off when Witherspoon's voice cut through the fog and put his feet firmly back on the thick rubber mats.

"Now, lets just relax for a moment and talk. We don't have much time. Samuel will be back in ten minutes. Less, if the driver knows what's good for him."

Dr. Jefferson stared back with what he knew was a blank look but was helpless to do anything about it.

"I have been watching your progress very carefully over the years and while I am quite pleased with the. . . effort. . ."

Dr. Jefferson thought he was going to pee in his pants from fright.

"As you know, I am a firm believer in - RESULTS."

Dr. Jefferson's knee started trembling involuntarily. He could see it all slipping away, his lab, his work, even the tabby cat that came begging food. It was all blurring in front of him. But, surly the tabby didn't count as an assistant, no. . . he could never collaborate. . .

"I feel we are ready Dr. Jefferson. As ready as we are likely, ever to get."

There was a long pause while time whirled in another dimension.

"It's time, don't you think to put all this. . ." For the first time Witherspoon moved. He swept his hand for one brief moment at the surrounding equipment and then settled it like a claw back on the head of the stick. "This . . . equipment to the test."

Dr. Jefferson's mouth was dry. He worked his tongue back and fourth several times trying to work up enough spittle so he could speak. But his mouth was so dry that his lips were gummed together.

"That's what we've been working for. . . isn't it. . .all this time. . . all this MONEY." His lips made a little crooked smile but his eyes were as black and lifeless as two dead beetles pined to the stark white reality of a dissection board.

"You see Dr. Jefferson. . . my time's run out."

He left that hanging in the air like the slow drip from a faucet.

"And, I'm afraid that means. . . so has yours."

The meaning of Witherspoon's words were beginning to come together in the back of Dr. Jefferson's rattled mind, like a connect-the-dots picture of his worst nightmare.

"This case is for you," that same hint of a smile. "Go on. Open it."

Dr. Jefferson's legs didn't want to work but some force seemed to pull him across the thick mat and the next thing he knew he was down on his knees staring at a briefcase full of money. More money that he could ever imagine.

"Ten million dollars, Dr. Jefferson. I thought it was a nice round figure. Has a certain ring to it. . .doesn't it."

Dr. Jefferson's hand must have strayed out of it's own accord.

"Go ahead. You can touch it." The old man was now beside him where he knelt on the floor mesmerized although Dr. Jefferson had not seen him move.

"It's all yours. . . provided. . . of course. . . that the transfer is a success." The clocks ticked long moments in the breathing shadowed darkness of the lab. "And of course there is one other thing. . ." It was a purr like a silent chain-saw chewing through the raw meat of Dr. Jefferson's mind. "After the transfer. . . the SUCCESSFUL transfer. . . you will walk out of this lab with nothing in your hands and disappear." Witherspoon's beetle, black eyes stared deadly down on him. "You will walk away and never be seen or heard from again. Is that clear?"

They could hear the tires of the limo screech to a halt outside the door and the quick steps of Stanton approaching hurriedly.

"But if you fail. . ." Suddenly Witherspoon slammed the case shut with the tip of his walking stick. "Well. . . that isn't an option. Now, is it."

Stanton was pushing the buzzer, insistently.

Dr. Jefferson looked up into Witherspoon's eyes. There was no expression there. No light glinting, no emotion, neither joy nor sorrow, hate, or love. He remembered, this is how a dead man's eyes look.

"We'll keep this as our little secret. . . shall we. Now you better let Samuel in, before he has a coronary." That same lifeless smile.

Dr. Jefferson staggered to his feet. He managed to get to the buzzer. Witherspoon appeared beside him in front of the door.

"Shall we say. . . noon tomorrow."

Stanton jerked open the door and Witherspoon walked by him towards the car.

"The case, Samuel," he said, without turning his head.

Stanton snatched it up off the floor and hurried to the car, glaring like a hawk that has seen his prey but cannot eat it.

That was yesterday morning. Dr. Jefferson had not slept since then and now it was morning again, and raining again and the smell of solder rosin stung his nose, and his coffee cup was cold and forgotten on the edge of the work table.

Time ticked, whirred, clicked and rolled by like a river of. . . what. . .? Was it a dimension or merely a convenience of observation. He knew he should be concentrating but he couldn't keep his mind off it. It was the only way he could keep from thinking of the money. Ten million dollars. Or, what might. . .undoubtedly would. . . happen to him, if he failed. 'But we won't think about that. . .will we?' The words came back to him like a dream, like a dark nightmare.

The transfer would work. It had to.

As the limo sped away Samuel Stanton sat facing William J. Witherspoon III. On the rare occasion when he was allowed to ride with his boss; Stanton was forced to sit with his back to the road ahead, facing Mr. Witherspoon.

Witherspoon seemed to take great pleasure from his twin discomforts; being pinned to the seat by his black eyes and having his back to the oncoming traffic. Stanton, rode in constant fear that some sudden accident would snap his head back and through the glass partition like a mango. It was all he could do, not to think of his head being first smashed and then shredded on the breaking glass.

Stanton hated Witherspoon. But in some perverse way he could not think of being away from him. It was the power. The thought of being fired, turned out in the streets, cut off from the source of such total domination made him nauseous. In that respect he was no better than some drug addict. Hopelessly hooked on the high and yet in constant fear that at any moment he might overdose and die, retching his guts out on the pavement but even more afraid that he wouldn't be able to get that next fix. Witherspoon affected everyone that way. He exuded power. At once you knew that he was capable of anything, and would do whatever he wanted and there would be nothing that anyone could do to stop him.

Stanton experienced it many times; the stink of fear when Witherspoon walked into a room. Even the mention of his name caused otherwise strong and powerful men to sweat. And Stanton drew off that power, lived on it's residue, never happy being the lap dog, the hatchet man but so thoroughly addicted to the feeling that he could not walk away.

And Witherspoon detested Stanton so thoroughly that he kept him constantly under his wing.

"Samuel," only the faintest flicker of a smile. "Today you must find a suitable subject for Dr. Jefferson."

Stanton thought to speak, to protest that it was too short a notice, that he had been working on it for weeks and something would turn up soon, but the almost imperceptible tilt of the chin stopped him, made his tongue turn to lead in his mouth.

"You have known about this for a long time. We have no more time for delays."

The limo filled with silence as it rushed along a turnpike.

"You will secure a suitable subject. The Doctor feels that younger would be better, they are less strong-willed. A boy, of course; in good health."

The short sentences stabbed at him like a bony finger punctuating each specification on his chest.

"No family attachments. Ten to twelve years old. No scars. No identifying marks. No loose ends."

The limo was suddenly parked at a curb. Stanton did not know how long they had been sitting there.

"Noon. . . tomorrow. . . at the lab."

Stanton knew that he was dismissed. He clambered to get out the door but a thin bony hand clutched at his forearm. Even through the glove and his jacket he could feel the cold grip. He was startled and looked back.

The black eyes were just inches from his own. The skin of the face so cracked and white that he was sure his breath could shatter it. But inside that mask was a fierce power, it came out through the eyes and staked him like a pin through his head.

"Samuel. . . do not fail me in this task."

And then he was standing on the sidewalk with his hands empty, trembling, as the limo sped away.

 

Mini was standing in her regular spot hawking the cars. It was late morning. Traffic thinned out so that she was thinking of crawling up to her hiding spot, eating a bit of food and taking a nap. A black sedan pulled to an abrupt stop and two men jumped out and grabbed her. "Pigs", she thought. "Why can't you leave a body alone?"

They shoved her in the back seat and drove off.

She started to protest in a loud voice when she was cut off.

"Shut up! old woman."

The well dressed man beside her was not a cop. Although his hawk nose and close-set eyes did not give her any comfort.

"Listen carefully, today might just be your lucky day." A wad of money appeared in his hand and he began counting off large bills.

That's when Mini agreed to sell the boy. Apparently she had given all the right answers. The man's features softened as she answered each question correctly, but his eyes were still cold as little dark stones in the snow.

Five thousand dollars. It was a fortune. More money than she could think of what to do with. And he was no longer of any use to her anyway. All day she had been thinking of killing him. What else could she do? He was too big to be afraid of her and he knew where she lived at night. He knew where she hid her money. He was a boy fast on his way to being one of those young thugs that roamed the streets in gangs. There was no love lost between them. Mini was certain that the boy would turn on her at his first opportunity. She was afraid of him. She could not keep him chained forever. This was the best way. Whatever the man wanted with the boy was of no concern of hers. She would be freed of him. Her life would go back to the way it was before he came. And that would be a relief.

But Mini was no fool. She lied to the man about where she lived. She had them drop her off blocks from her building. For all she knew they were still waiting on the curb of that old brownstone where they let her out. Mini darted inside and up the stairs calling over her shoulder that she would be right back.

Up the stairs and onto the roof, across one and down the fire escape of another building, through an alley, over the cratered remains of a vacant lot and into the side window of her building. No one had seen her, of that she was certain.

The only problem now was; how was she to deliver the boy to the man in the car, without him escaping? And without letting the man know where she lived. The prospect of all that money made her palms itch. But she must be very, very careful. She did not trust him. His eyes were too dark and he only smiled with his teeth.

 

It was the next morning before Stanton finally managed to deliver the boy to the lab. In that time Stanton had the boy bathed, fed, dressed in new clothes, and given a clean bill of health.

Dr. Jefferson let them in. He was startled by the chains that bound the boys legs and hands but he was to preoccupied with his work to give it much thought.

In theory it was a simple problem. How to transfer the soul (or presence) of a person from one body to another. Dr. Jefferson thought of it like changing the drivers of a car. The car was the body. The driver was the soul, for lack of a better word. He had fumbled with the problem for years, reading mystics and psychiatric texts, all to no avail until one day he hit upon it. You see, the first problem was to identify exactly the properties of the "driver". All the books he read were confused on that issue. The mystics were convinced that a soul existed but could not agree as to what it was, what it did, it's properties. Psychiatry solved this dilemma by denying that the soul existed which Dr. Jefferson thought most amusing; especially if one realized that 'psyche' was the root word for Psychiatry and 'psyche' was ancient Greek for soul or spirit. So, Psychiatry should be the science of the soul. Instead it was the science of Pavlov's slavering dogs. He considered this bit of silliness typical of the humanities. That the word for soul would come to mean the "science" of proving that the soul didn't exist. Psychiatry would have us believe that man was just a hunk of meat (the body) motivated by another hunk of meat (the brain). And if you read the books by the "brain boys" they would have one believe that all that was going on there was some sort of complex electronic circuitry. But where was the driver? That's what Dr. Jefferson kept asking himself. A cow has a brain. A dog has a brain. And on a very crude level one could even consider that a cabbage or a palm tree had some kind of brain.

But cows and dogs did not write sonnets. They did not go to war, fall in love, build bridges, or start their own businesses. Only people were capable of these feats of creation, or destruction. Whoever heard of a cow committing suicide?

That little machine that he built all those years ago had put him on the path to identifying the properties of the human soul. Millions of dollars, and countless man hours later he had figured out how to contain it. He could remove it, disconnect it so to speak from the body and brain and hold it suspended for what seemed a prolonged period of time - exactly how long was still unknown. His experiments with humans were rather limited. Cats, dogs, monkeys all produced various results. The one human that he had worked on remained stable detached and confined until the power failed. The body seemed to be in a sort of coma. Dr. Jefferson had little medical training but the vital signs were there, stable if weak, for twenty-five days. Then some truck hit a pole off 76th Street and the power went out.

Dr. Jefferson was sitting at his work bench when it happened, otherwise he might not have noticed. He rushed over to the body, the life support systems had shut off, there were a few weak beats from the heart and then it stopped. But the magnetic force fields took ten full minutes to completely collapse and all that time Dr. Jefferson watched in amazement as the center of the field continued to shimmer and pulse, in fact it grew brighter - more distinct. There was no life force in the body. It was all now confined in his collapsing magnetic field. As the field collapsed the life force blinked once and then was gone.

It was hours later before the power came back on. The reserve power supplies had kept some of the instrumentation working for as much a 30 minutes. It took him weeks to analyze all the data. But the conclusion was plain and simple for all to see.

Some force had been extracted from the body of the old derelict that he had strapped on the table. That force had been confined in a magnetic field for twenty-five days. When the power failed the remainder of that life force was drawn out of the body as it ceased all life signs. The amount of the force contained in the magnetic fields went up even as the fields were collapsing. Ten minutes later the life force escaped the magnetic field and disappeared.

Dr. Jefferson was not concerned with where the "life force" (as he had taken to calling it) went. He was not concerned with the ethics questions relating to removing a life force from a body - alive or dead. Ethics was not his field. He was simply a scientist following a line of experimentation. His only motivation was to see if the soul could be separated from the body. To see if it was, in fact, a separate entity.

 

The boy sat chained in a chair in the far corner of the sparsely lit lab. He didn't know why they had brought him here. Did not even know who they were. Stanton had not seen fit to introduce himself or his goons.

The boy (having a very strange and limited understanding of the world) thought that, in some way, this was normal. Mini had been gruff with him and recently had taken to keeping him chained up. This was the same situation only different people.

Stanton kept glancing at his watch. His two goons idled in one corner of the lab talking to each other. Stanton threw them a withering glance when their laughter broke the ticking silence.

Everybody turned when the door buzzer sounded. It was Stanton who rushed to the door and opened it. Dr. Jefferson was at the other side of the lab calibrating something.

Mr. Witherspoon walked slowly into the lab and stopped with his gaze resting on the boy. Stanton rushed up beside him and began making a report on the boy.

Witherspoon cut him short with a slight wave of his still gloved hand.

"I already know all about the boy, Samuel. Please leave us."

Samuel didn't like this, he didn't like this at all. But there was nothing that he could do. The goons looked questioningly at him from across the lab. A slight twitch of his head was all they needed to send them scurrying out the door. Samuel followed them out into the rain hearing the door-latch snick closed behind him.

Samuel never liked this place, never understood what it was all about. He had only asked once, but that had been enough. Witherspoon's hooded, beetle-eyed stare froze him in his chair.

"We will never discuss the warehouse. . . Some day. . . when you need to know, then I will tell you." Witherspoon had then changed the subject.

He was still required to make periodic inspections, and keep financial records. It was the only aspect of Witherspoon's vast holdings that never went through the normal accounting procedures.

There were no records of Dr. Jefferson anywhere. Samuel had spent a considerable amount of his time and personal money trying to find out what this was all about. But came up utterly blank. No birth records, no Social Security number, no school transcripts, absolutely nothing. It was as though the lab and everything in it, including Dr. Jefferson only existed in Witherspoon's imagination. But Samuel knew better than that. He had seen it with his own eyes. It existed. But he never obtained one single clue as to it's purpose, until today.

The goons looked at Samuel out of the corners of their eyes until he told them to go wait in their car. He wanted to be alone, to think. Even though there was nothing for him to think about.

Not knowing, made him feel helpless and vulnerable at the same time. He hated feeling helpless. And he was damned if he would let anyone see him powerless.

Rain water poured off the corrugated roof of the warehouse and fell in hissing streams just a few feet from where he stood. He huddled in the alcove of the door and watched as faint gusts of rain marched up and down past the waiting cars.

It seemed like hours but was only 15 minutes before the door clicked and Dr. Jefferson opened it to let him back in.

"Mr. Witherspoon would like to see you."

"Samuel my boy, I think it's time that you knew a little of what's to go on here today."

"That case. . . it's in the trunk of the limo - bring it here, and be quick about it. We haven't much time."

Stanton hurried out the door and came back dripping wet.

When he entered this time he saw Witherspoon lying on a table with the boy fastened down to another identical table not three feet apart.

"Hold onto the case Samuel, until this thing is over. Do you think you can manage that?"

Samuel's cheeks were burning. Of course he could do that. Any fool, could keep hold of a briefcase.

Witherspoon was speaking with his face turned up to the ceiling, but his words were carried effortlessly throughout the room.

"Yes sir. I can certainly manage that, but. . ."

"Patience, I will explain everything. The good doctor is going to perform an experiment. A very simple procedure, isn't that right doctor? . ."

Dr. Jefferson wasn't paying any attention. His eyes were on the instruments, flicking hurriedly from one measuring device to another while his hands caressed the controls. In the dark shadowed recesses of the lab huge generators were spinning up to speed, capacitors were charging, and magnetic fields were arcing and pulsing slowly to life.

"Come over here a little closer Samuel. If. . ." he smiled a sickly smile, "When. . . the experiment is successful you will give the case to Dr. Jefferson and then you will escort him out of this lab and have him taken anywhere he wishes to go. Is that understood?"

"Well,. . .I. . .don't understand."

Witherspoon continued speaking very slowly and patiently as though he were addressing a very small child.

"Of course you don't. . . I haven't gotten to the good part yet. Shut up and listen!" And for a moment there was the flicker of the predator across his face.

My body is dying Samuel, and there is nothing that the medical doctors can do about it. No more cloning, transplants, operations, injections. . . I spent yesterday morning, over at Cedars. Those piss-ant quacks. . . but we're going to show them. They think they're rid of me. . . Ha! I'm going to have a whole new body."

"What. . . What are you saying?"

"That which medical science cannot do, electronic witchcraft will accomplish." Witherspoon's voice sounded almost giddy.

"Think of it Samuel. I am never going to die. This young boy's body will only be the first. And when I wear that out, I'll simply get another. It's a simple procedure. . .right Doctor?"

Dr. Jefferson was still not listening, but Stanton's mind was turning over. He glanced quickly from Witherspoon to the boy and back again. And he began to understand the meaning of what Witherspoon was saying. The old man isn't going to die. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. He didn't want to believe. This can't be!

Stanton's palms were sweating on the handle of the case, and the hairs on his arms and head were starting to stand away from his body and wave about.

"Get back now," Dr. Jefferson said, waving at him. "The magnetic fields are starting to come up and align. You have to get back."

Samuel's guts turned over, he thought he was going to puke. He staggered backwards and stumbled against a huge metal cabinet filled with mysterious circuitry.

"Imagine it Samuel, the modern equivalent of the Fountain of Youth. When one body wears out, we just grab another one." Witherspoon began cackling, in a high dry whisper.

"No more operations, drugs, or injections. And I can decide who gets to go on living. . . and who I let die."

Arc's of raw electric current began snacking sickly about in the air above Witherspoon's and the boy's heads. As the confined lightning bolts increased they seared the air, filling it with the wreak of ozone. Above that smell Samuel's nostrils filled with the stink of his own fear. He slumped to the floor not ten feet from the foot of Witherspoon's table.

"You will witness this technological marvel, Samuel. And you will live to wield it's power for me. You think we had power before?!" Witherspoon was laughing uncontrollably. "WE WILL RULE THE WORLD!"

His mouth like a cavern in a fleshless face, skin like white parchment, brittle, lined, frail skin stretched over sharp bones. Every detail of his cackling skull outlined as though a rain soaked tarp had been stretched over lawn chairs.

Samuel pinched his eyes closed and tried to hide behind the case. But he still saw William J. Witherspoon III. He saw his mouth opening and his skeleton face sliding towards him, the laughing mouth growing larger and larger. In that moment he realized that he would never be free. Witherspoon would go on, and on, - forever. In the end Witherspoon would simply swallow him, soul and all. He was trapped for the rest of time and there would never be an escape.

Samuel peed himself as he huddled there shaking and crying.

Dr. Jefferson was oblivious. All his attention was on the execution of his experiment. He tripped the last three servo switches and then stood transfixed as the magnetic fields buzzed and crackled their way up to full power. Too distracted to even wipe away the rivulet of sweat that trickled down his temple. Three more minutes and then the extraction will begin.

The boy lay struggling on the table. He did not know what this was all about. He heard Witherspoon cackling and knew he was crazy. Although he did not understand what he was saying he understood just enough to know that he was in very grave danger.

These crazy people were going to take his life away, somehow take his body and give it to that sick old man. It had not been an easy life, nothing in it was very good. But it's the only life that I have, and I will not give it to them.

No sooner had he thought these thoughts than he felt a strange lightness come over himself. The chains still bound his arms and legs and though he continued to will his hands to strain against the bonds he felt his control slipping. It was as though he was being distanced from his body. As though he was being pulled out, away from himself. There was a great pressure on his chest, the air was unbearably hot and acrid tasting, like metal, and the burning stench of rubber tires. He could not breathe. His lungs labored hard against the mask on his face, but there was suddenly nothing to breathe.

An aurora of colors played around his head, rippling brilliant, iridescent colors before his eyes. He blinked but the colors were still there, winking, shimmering, swirling. Eyelids open or closed made no difference he still saw the very air being rent in two in front of his face.

Then he was back, suddenly moved, he did not understand how, suddenly placed back some three feet from the top of the table where his body lay. He looked at his ridged, pain wracked body, wanted to reach out for it, but could not feel it, could not touch it. He opened his lips to scream but no sound came out.

This almost broke his mind. He was here but his body lay over there. He could feel and see but he had no arms or eyes. They were confined over there on that table of torture.

An all consuming humming like the drone of millions of bees invaded his mind. It grew louder and louder, and it hurt. Pain everywhere. Not just inside but outside, through and through, everywhere was pain. Then he couldn't see anymore. Blackness settled over his mind like a fog. Thick, black, suffocating fog. It consumed all his remaining senses, snuffing out the taste of the burning metal, the weightless feeling of floating, the sight of his own body, and lastly, dulled even the searing pain.

His consciousness was reduced to a mere nub, a tiny point collapsing on itself, growing smaller and smaller. Gravity was gone, up and down were irrelevant, there was only the tiny point of collapse which was a focal point for what remained of his mind. Who he was, what he was, how he had gotten here, all of that peeling away like brittle leaves blasted from a winter tree. His memories like pictures spewing out of a photo album swirled in a kaleidoscope of color and sounds, lapping over one another, mixing incoherently, as they were being sucked down into the sinkhole, the infinitesimal point of light that grew smaller and smaller as the images were consumed, until there was nothing left of him.

Time stopped, and with it all sense of motion. There in the darkness of his mind there was nothing, save for the pin prick of light, and he felt an uncontrollable urge to move towards it.

Like a vacuum it pulled him. All around what remained of his consciousness was a void of numbing magnitude. So total, so complete, so cold. And in there, in one small corner was the only thing that gave dimension and light - this pinprick of existence - and so he moved towards it. Floating without effort, or even the sense of motion - it just drew nearer, and nearer, but so slowly that only with some indefinable sense, some knowingness could he recognize closure.

It could have been an hour or a day or an eternity that he flowed in this way, towards the only point that existed in his entire universe. He could sense nothing. Not even the sensation of breathing, or the beating of his heart, not the weight of his own body, or the pressure of air on his skin. And it was utterly quiet, beyond sound. It was as though sound hadn't even been invented yet.

After all the pain, and pressure, and stink of metal and his own fear sweat, this void was almost peaceful. So tranquil, silent, and timeless. It was as though he had always been and would always be here. He felt no need or urgency. No voices. Even his own mind was silent.

And then something began to grow within this void that was both him and outside of him. It was without shape or weight, without size or form, without color or feel. Something without even definition. Some other point without description that his consciousness focused on. It was so slight at first that it was like a twinkle. A mere glitter and then gone. Nothing more than a sense of something, like a whisper on the other side of the universe.

He could almost focus on it, almost give it a shape, almost form it into a thought, but it eluded the tip of his mind, like a name, not quite familiar, just beyond remembering. I, am I. And then it was gone, as completely as if it had never been.

The prick of light was growing larger now, fast becoming definable as a wall-less tunnel, effused with soft light. It's opening forming a hazy orb that swelled slowly to fill the otherwise void of his consciousness. Growing like the headlight of an oncoming Cyclopes. As it grew and grew he began to discern a hiss, the oncoming rush of a million whispering voices, and then he was inside, rushing faster and faster, and the sounds were growing, now like a huge arena filled with voices off in the distance exuding with one voice, a chant. Ahhhhh - AHHHHH - ahhhhh. It rose up and down slightly with a rhythm of it's own, like breathing.

The pale light was all around him now, except for the fading pin prick of black void receding behind him. And the light was growing brighter - ahead. It seemed more concentrated there, ahead, pulling him, drawing him, coaxing him forward, it was enticing, warm, comforting, beckoning him forward. Behind was only the blackness, the void of nothing, ahead was warmth and comfort. Forward he went, gliding still, floating with only the slightest growing sense of weight, direction, and purpose.

And then there were images. Another rush of memories swirling by him in a great rush. The same brittle dry leaves of memory, faded but still animated, exuding sounds, and flashes of motion trapped on their slick faces. A shower of moving pictures, swirling by, brushing his cheeks, and dazzling his eyes. But this was someone else's photo album of memories.

Now there were whole snatches of sound - a door slamming, an angry voice, a dog barking, the ticking of a clock. They swirled by and were gone before he could understand any of them, blown out of his mind's eye before he could discern a meaning, a context.

And then he felt another presence, not unlike his own - disembodied, afraid.

The fear rushed at him like a lion and he knew he would be consumed, devoured, - swallowed whole. With it came another rush of pictures, which did not blow by but crowded about him and pressed in upon him. They were full of pain, anger and fear. The sounds with them were voices talking, crying, yelling, and demanding attention. He felt their weight, their sheer mass, crushing him from all sides, making him smaller, smothering, burying what little of him remained, until he knew that he was all but gone.

Then he understood what it was like to die. Consumed by fear and longing, buried under an impossible avalanche of pain and suffering, but worst of all, the greatest of all, was the guilt.

The guilt was overwhelming. And traveling with it, permeating it like a acrid fog was the self loathing. And he heard a voice - thoughts filled his mind but they were not his own, but he understood them, not in words but in the marrow of his emotions.

Down in the center of himself, in the kernel of his being he experienced the mind of another. He could never have conceived of such sorrow. It was like the blackness of the void washing over him again, but this was not his fear. This was not his longing, not his despair. This was the wailing of another human soul. And he understood what it was like to be truly alone, in the dark, in pain and utterly without hope.

 

Samuel Stanton did not know how long the lab had been quiet. The whine of electric generators was gone but in their place was a silence so deafening it was like cotton had been stuffed in his ears. He came awake with a start, sure that he was dreaming, but was immediately assured that it was no dream. The stink of urine mixed with spent electricity engulfed his nostrils and he wanted to retch. He tried feebly for moments before managing to pull himself semi-erect against the metal cabinet where he had passed out.

The lights were out, only the light from the fading afternoon filtered through the skylights illuminated the gloom of the lab.

It had stopped raining, or at least he thought, for he could not hear the rattle of it on the corrugated roof. But he was not sure, his head felt stuffed with cotton dicking like some teddy bear.

In the gloom he stood frozen, staring at the table where William J. Witherspoon III lay. The boy lay farther away, in greater darkness. Neither figure moved. Not the slightest. They're both dead.

He edged forward with his hand outstretched as though groping in the dark, terrified but needing to touch it anyway. He could see the figures, laid out there, well enough, but still he crept forward as though he were blind, shivering. Needing to touch the death. All this mixed up with the certainty that his fate was sealed as surely as the confines of a coffin. Witherspoon's words came back to him. I will never die. I will go on forever.

It was then, that the case, still clutched automatically in his other hand, clanged into Witherspoon's metal table. The sharp ring of metal on metal so startled him that he almost fell down, grabbed hold of the edge of the table and turning, stated to run.

He slammed right into Dr. Jefferson.

"What are you doing!"

"They're dead."

"We have to wait. . ."

"Wait Hell!" And then seizing on a scrap in the corner of his mind. "The Experiment is a failure. Witherspoon is dead and I'm getting out of here. You've killed them both!"

"No, no you don't understand, we just . . ."

Stanton lunged at him swinging the metal case like a bludgeon.

Dr. Jefferson, exhausted and clueless, saw it coming but too late. The momentum of it knocked him painfully back against his work table.

Stanton was on him like a madman. The case, now forgotten, bounced across the rubber matting.

"You killed him, you killed him!" Half in glee and half in terror. Stanton clawed at his throat and swung wildly at his face. "I'm trapped. You have to let me go. Let me go!"

Dr. Jefferson was taller and thirty pounds heavier but he was no match for this crazed attack. Only his primal sense of self preservation saved him from being clawed and beaten into an unconscious mass.

Dr. Jefferson's hand fastened on the handle of a coffee cup and reflexes sent it smashing into Stanton's crazed face.

Suddenly it was over as quickly as it started except now instead of the droning silence that had gone on for - how long was it? Two hours? three hours? days? he didn't know. It seemed forever, but then it always did after on of these things. Something to do with time. Folding, coming back around on itself like a cat chasing it own tail - was that it?

The sound of Stanton's whimpering brought his attention back. God, I hope I didn't kill the bastard. Still he was trying to kill me. Maybe it'd been better if I did kill him. He thought about the cats and dogs that he experimented on and how he disposed of their bodies. Just lift the lid on the dumpster and drop them in. The clang of the metal lid like a one word eulogy. "Gong", it said. And they were gone. Even that wine-no, except that he was so heavy compared to the limp bodies of the cats that the dumpster rattled a longer eulogy. "Gong, gong, gong", it said. But he too was swallowed with finality and forgotten in the midnight silence of the street.

But Dr. Jefferson had larger problems right now than what to do with Stanton. Neither of his subjects had awakened, in. . . was it hours? Why wouldn't these damn contraptions give him the correct time? He looked from his wrist watch to the huge white clock face that hung over the door.

They both said 5:18. But which 5:18? The skylights were dim but not entirely black. Was it overcast afternoon or fading street lights? He riffled around on his bench to find his workbook. What time did we start this experiment?

Then he heard a sound that belonged to a "B" rated horror movie, the sound of rattling chains, and a muffled human voice.

Dr. Jefferson stopped short his search, and listened to the silence. He thought he heard something, but there was only silence. Stanton must have heard it too because he stopped his whimpering and was listening with every fiber in his tortured mind.

Yes, Stanton. . . I will have to do something with Stanton. No room around here for failed experimental material.

Then they both heard it again. A muffled grumbling, and a weak but insistent rattling of chains.

Oh, the experiment. Someone must be awake. Dr. Jefferson was starting to get his bearings back.

He walked hesitantly over to the table that held the boy. The respirator was still firmly in place over his mouth, the limbs jerking feebly at the chains that held the wrists and ankles to the table.

Witherspoon's old frail body still lay silently like death itself. The chest and face seemed to sink in a little further as Dr. Jefferson glanced over at it.

Stanton was at the foot of the table. He would not come any closer.

Dr. Jefferson drew up by the head of the table and studied the face behind the oxygen mask. The eyelids were closed but fluttering as if trying to wake. The chest rose and fell haltingly as though trying to get enough breath. He checked the gauge on the tank, it was almost empty. It must be later than he thought.

Dr. Jefferson fished a small penlight from his smock pocket and forcing the eye lid back with one hand shone the light on the eye with the other. The iris contracted sluggishly but it contracted. Good. Pulse, weak but growing as he felt first the wrist and then the vein at the side of the neck. He was beginning to smile slightly to himself inwardly with satisfaction when both eyes sprang open and fixed him with a penetrating stare. Above the faint hiss of oxygen he distinctly heard the lips under the mask, "Get me out of here." and the chains rattled.

It was not a request. It was not a greeting. It was an order. Softly croaked, in a voice unused to its current container and hoarse, dry from breathing bottled air.

"The keys. . ." Dr. Jefferson flapped helplessly at his smock pockets.

The eyes on the table swiveled at him and burned holes in his forehead like twin laser beams. "Samuel . . . hiss, hiss."

Dr. Jefferson swung on Stanton like a man possessed.

"Hurry up - unlock the chains."

Stanton shambled up alongside the table, creeping, like he wanted more than anything to be somewhere else. His shattered nose dripping snotty blood, and his legs moving with an intention other than his own. Then the eyes on the table swiveled over and bathed his face with their eerie light.

Dr. Jefferson removed the oxygen mask, and shut off the valve. The voice that went with the eyes now cut through the darkness in the most peculiar accent. It was like gravel rattling down a drain pipe. "Samuel," it said. "My ever faithfully Samuel." It mocked him, and commanded at the same time. Then it rattled a huge breath of plain air into lungs as though luxuriating in the feel of breathing itself, like a diver down under water for too long might savor that second deep breath of air. Knowing now with certainty that he was not only alive but that he would remain so. Then there was a laugh. Cracking and choking as the phlegm worked its way free.

Stanton managed to unlock one hand before he lost control of his fingers and hands. And then he sank blubbering down to the floor on his knees and began weeping to himself. He would never be free, he now knew that with utter certainty - as long as he lived. His mind caught at the corner of a thought, If I kill myself he will still get me and put me in another body. . . there is no way I can ever escape. . . now I am truly dead. . .I am lost. And his mind began to unravel like the edge of a cheap green sweater slowly and steadily coming undone in his hands. He sat there on the floor and watched in disbelief as he pulled the thread of his own mind with his own hands and watched as his sanity unraveled into a pile on the floor in front of his eyes.

"I won't put it back. I can't put it back. . . And all the king's horses and all the king's men . . ."

Dr. Jefferson was simple business now. The experiment was a success. Right before him in the body of the boy, well. . . it had once been the boy, was now William J. Witherspoon III. That was clear. That was abundantly clear. No one could deny that. His greatest achievement!

His chest swelled, and his pulse raced a little faster as he unfastened the rest of the chains.

Witherspoon attempted to sit up, shakily, almost fell off the table. Dr. Jefferson caught him.

"Just take it easy. . .new body. You have to get the hang of it.

Witherspoon glared at him. "I do, don't I." A long pause while blood hammered at his temples. "I do. . . have a new body." And he sat there a long moment turning his new hands over in front of his new eyes, smiling.

Dr. Jefferson helped him stand, holding him so that he wouldn't fall over.

"It's all mine. . . I can live forever." His voice was rising, up into the high octaves of Stanton's insanity, while his eyes flashed like nickel slugs in the faint light.

As Dr. Jefferson helped Witherspoon over towards a cot in the corner his voice took on more strength, and his mind seemed to settle down.

"The instructions Dr., you didn't forget my instructions?"

"No, of course not. . .What instructions? . .Oh, yes. . the remote terminal. It's here in the drawer where you told me to keep it."

"Now Dr." Witherspoon was growing stronger with each step. "I want it now Dr.," and he pulled away from Dr. Jefferson.

"But you should rest."

"Rest HELL! I just got a new life, there are things to do, so many things." That same deadly smile but the boy's lips didn't know quite how to make it, so it came out as a leer.

It was scarcely fifteen minutes before Witherspoon made his connection with the remote terminal, tapped out a number of secret codes and set in motion the elaborate measures that would forever weld his new body to the old wealth and power that belonged to William J. Witherspoon III. It was all very simple really, although Dr. Jefferson would never know how it was done. Nor did he really care. He was too flushed with the success of his life's work.

William J. Witherspoon III would just die. The old body, that shell that once held his soul that is, would just pass away. A heart attack, death from old age, the coroners report would state. It was all typed up and ready to be placed in the files. The boy having no next of kin was the easiest part of all. A new identity, complete with birth certificate, ID card, passport, Social Security card, even credit cards all lay waiting in a folder in the center of his desk at home, his new home. The old apartment would never do for a young powerful financial magnet like his new self. The key, security code, and address were in the waiting limo.

All the assets of his financial empire, down to every last penny, were held in a dozen trust funds. Witherspoon, in person, owned absolutely nothing. But what he controlled, that was another matter. What he controlled was the largest collection of assets ever assembled. And with it, he wielded more power over the financial world than most countries. It was complicated, even incomprehensible if viewed from the bottom up. But looking at it from the top down it was utter simplicity itself. He was the trustee of a nonprofit (ha) foundation. The foundation owned several stock portfolios each of which easily held the controlling interest in two or three dozen holding companies. The holding companies had their own stock portfolios each of them containing the controlling shares of outstanding stocks in yet hundreds of other companies.

With a few phone calls he could manipulate huge blocks of stock. Buy and sell orders that emanated from his office sent shock waves through whole industries. Stock prices on selected companies would drop or rise ten points in an afternoon, only to swing back the next day. He simply sold when they were high and bought when they were low.

Only it was his buying and selling that caused the highs and lows. When he sold it caused the price to drop, when the price sunk enough - he bought, and of course that caused the price to go back up. It was child's play. He called it "milking the cows". That's how he thought of the millions of small investors that sunk their life savings in the stock market - cows. The more sophisticated portfolio managers called it "pumping the market". And the financial news casters called it "profit taking". That made him laugh. Every time he heard that phrase he wanted to shout in their faces, Profits aren't taken you idiots, they are made - created. By people like me! But why bother. The news casters were all in on it. Everyone doing their part to maintain the charade. Ha!

The simple truth of it was neatly typed up in folders directly under the one that contained his new identity. Just in case. In case what? In case his memory came out of this transfer business a little scrambled. William J. Witherspoon III didn't believe in taking chances. He was not a gambler. If forced to sit at the table he made sure that he had marked cards, loaded dice, and a rigged wheel. Let the stupid cows count on luck. He would even help convince them that it existed.

His one connection via the wireless remote terminal simply served to set the wheels in motion. William J. Witherspoon III was dead and in his will, he named a new director to the Witherspoon Trust and Beneficial Fund. He wondered how long it would take for his top lieutenants to begin to wonder just who it was they were now taking orders from. When the time was right he might even let some of them know.

Daylight was now beginning to filter through the skylights high above the Frankenstein equipment of the lab.

A new driver had been delivered to the limo and the same car had changed the bodyguards. Only these three faces would see his new body walk out of the lab - but they wouldn't know it was a lab - get into the car and be whisked away. The two body guards would follow in a separate car to the new apartment.

By tomorrow evening the four bodyguards and two drivers would be transferred to other cities scattered all over the country.

The new, young Witherspoon opened the door and looked out on a cool new morning. The rain had stopped during the night. The clouds were now high little fluffs of slowly moving white against a dark blue sky. He stood in the doorway, breathing deeply the fresh washed air.

Dr. Jefferson came up behind him as he was about to leave.

"What. . .should I do with. . .you know. . .the others?"

"The same thing that you normally do with used experimental material," he smiled, and began walking away.

"But. . . what about Stanton?"

Witherspoon spun around somewhat unsteadily. "He's broken too. . . Isn't he?" that crooked leer again. "It's all used up, isn't it?" The new young Witherspoon turned and continued to the car.

In just that one second Dr. Jefferson understood something that he had never thought to consider. He saw the eyes of the body guards looking flatly at him, as he stood in the doorway. And he suddenly understood - that he was all used up too.

Behind him were millions of dollars in equipment, a dead body, and Stanton, still blubbering to himself on the floor. They were all used up. They had fulfilled their purpose, outgrown their use, they were expendable.

A dumpster opened in his mind and he watched in terror as first one and then the other were thrown in. Witherspoon's old body first, it landed on top of the cat, lightly like the dried out husk of a gourd. Then Stanton, dumped in the corner amongst the trash still staring at the invisible thread of his own mind as it unraveled through his fingers. Then the anonymous body guards beckoned to him, their aviator sunglasses flashing blankly back a moonless dark sky.

They would throw him in, close the lid and a huge lumbering truck would carry him off and bury him in the anonymity of the city dump. He would simply disappear. No one would ever miss him. He was dead. Only his eyes were still open and he would have to watch the whole thing happen again.

The limo sped away with the goons following in the car. They both looked at him again blankly as they passed. He was just a dead cat and they, or someone just like them, would scoop him up and drop him in the nearest dumpster, without even looking back.

The equipment was nothing. A fire would wipe the block clean. Nothing would remain. Bulldozers would scrape the remains into waiting trucks that would trundle the bones of his life's work to the same landfill.

William J. Witherspoon III didn't need him anymore. He had the notes. All the documentation. He didn't need him anymore and, in fact, would want nothing better than for him to disappear.

Dr. Jefferson slammed the door to the lab and stood leaning with his forehead on the cold metal skin of it, trembling. It was only his grip on the door knob that kept him from collapsing. His knees shook so hard that it was all he could do to keep from falling down.

He had to get our of here, run for his life, but where? with what? He didn't even own a car. Suddenly he remembered the case with the money, and a glimmer of hope began to form in the corner of his panic stricken mind, as he tore through the lab looking for that shiny, metal case.

The new, young Witherspoon settled comfortably back into the plush seats of the speeding limo, enjoying himself immensely. The new apartment was on the far side of the city, forty-five minutes away, thirty if the driver pushed it. But for the first time in many years he didn't feel like growling at the driver to step on it. For the first time in years he felt like he had time.

He leaned over and fumbling under the seat fished out a shiny metal case. He wondered absently how long it would take Dr. Jefferson to think of the case, the other case, the one left in the lab, filled with - cut up strips of paper. He laughed hysterically and then propping his feet up on it, settled back to enjoy the ride.

Witherspoon was so contented with himself that he just sat watching out the window. Looking reflectively at the specter of the approaching cityscape. The tallest buildings there, still of in the morning haze, he owned, in one way or another. Admiring the way they poked up into the sky, gray monuments to power, he couldn't help but smile at himself. He had done it. He had cheated the ravages of time, and cheated Dr. Jefferson, and even managed to rid himself of good old Samuel Stanton in the bargain. As for those smug doctors over at Cedars? They would be congratulating themselves, solemnly nodding their heads over this evening's paper, if it took that long for them to learn of his - no, the old body's death. But, he would have the last laugh. He must plan something special for each of them, plenty of time for that later. Yes, he had lots of time. He had all the time in the God Damn world!

He grew tired of just watching out the windows, traffic seemed to be slowing, the limo's rapid progress came down to a crawl. Oh, what the hell!

The driver seemed to be growing impatient too, furtively glancing into his mirror. Ha! Use to working for Witherspoon are you?

He slipped his finger over the intercom button. "Traffic a little heavy, is it?"

Immediately the man began sweating and gesturing helplessly at the parking lot ahead of him and throwing quick glances in the mirror.

"Relax," he heard himself saying. "We don't have any need to hurry - anymore."

But he was restless, glancing around the limo he began fiddling with every switch, and cabinet latch that he could see. Some of this stuff he hadn't touched in years. But this body was so young and full of energy it just wanted to move. He was having great fun when up popped the little bar. He almost shoved it back down, when he realized - Yes I can. I can have a drink - by God. And I think I will. When was the last time? He couldn't even remember, Doctor's orders.

Well the Doctors could go hang themselves - now. He owned a fresh young body, and there was no reason why he shouldn't start enjoying it. And now was as good a time as any.

Two fingers of scotch, neat, in a crystal glass. His hand jerked involuntarily as he took the first sip. Part of the fire water went down his chin, the rest cauterized his throat. Oh God, it burned like the devil. And when he quit gagging and coughing, with watering eyes he barked a laugh and gulped the last finger down.

The liquor hit his empty stomach like a bomb. The concussion waves hit his brain seconds later, followed by a warm glow that radiated out from his stomach, hit the end of all his appendages and bounced back like a Tsunami. One moment nothing but the clear glassy swells of the deep ocean and the next a towering wall of warm fuzzy, engulfing everything in it's path.

His head felt blurry, somewhere in the back of his mind a whole opened like a pinprick of darkness, in a room full of giggling girls.

"Jesus H. That was great." He licked his lips and poured another healthy dose.

This one he knocked back with one gulp, licked his lips and exuded a sigh of relief. A long, deep, whoosh of relaxation buzzed from the bottom of his soul. He had never felt so alive and unwound in the last hundred and fifty eight years.

Suddenly the limo was too stuffy and close, the collar too tight around his neck. The great open mouth of a tunnel crept slowly towards them as the limo inched forward with the traffic. He needed some air. Desperately needed to breathe. Panicky fingers fumbled with the controls on the arm rest and windows came down. First one, then the other, until he hit upon the one right by his side and while still jamming the button down, he stuck his head out the window and gulped at the stinking air.

It smelled, like metal, and burning rubber, and the hum of motors swelled in his reeling head, but God it was good. He was alive, and young and he would never die - never!

Just then his stomach rolled over and jackhammered it's meager contents up his throat. The liquor and bile spewed out in odd pumping motions. The fumes slammed the wrong way up his nose and into the back of his head. Two pumps and a dry heave and it was done. His head lay dangling out the window like a broken doll.

The pin prick of darkness in the back of his mind, jumped a notch, and pieces of memories roiled there like Halloween apples in a dunking tub. Pictures of faces swimming to the surface then rolling over, down and out of sight only to be replaced with another. Memories he didn't recognize, the face of a woman with blue lips and open eyes staring deadly into the sweep of passing headlights. I should know her name. Swirl and bob, another woman, in rags with stringy gray hair hanging in matted strands about her angry face, yelling at him. Who is she? I know her. But why can't I remember? And then he realized that he felt so bad he didn't care.

The slow moving pavement under his gaze was making him dizzy. He pulled his head back in to wipe the snot and bile of his face when there, right in front of his eyes, was the same gray-haired woman.

But this was real. This wasn't any picture in his mind. This was in full motion not three feet in front of his face. And she recognized him, looked right in his eyes and gaped her toothless mouth open to speak his name.

"Boy?"

Boy, Boy, Boy, Boy. . . the sound of it echoed down through his mind and struck that small core of black space there, like a rock striking the mirror surface of a bottomless lake. It shattered. Throwing up whole pieces of broken glass. The sharp edges winking in the moonlight of his own memories, twisting, flickering images. The rock bore a hole straight down into the black, pulling the shattered images with it, imploding in and down. The two universes turned inside out.

The traffic suddenly surged forward sucking him and the limo into the tunnel and the last thing he saw looking back was the old woman, arm reaching out to him, back-lit in the mouth of the tunnel, her toothless mouth open, calling his name. And the last thing he heard was the wail of a siren going the other way like the wavering whine of a generator coming up to speed and then fading away again. Then a fog enveloped his senses, and everything went black. Everything except one small pin prick of light way in the back corner of his mind. And he moved towards it as smoothly and inexorably as the trout rises to the surface of the stream, sensing some hidden danger there but rising never-the-less, for it is in his nature to feed. And the twitching vibration of life calls to his nature, so he rushes headlong to collide with a world that he doesn't understand, cannot comprehend, and doesn't care. All that he knows, all that he understands is that there above him is something that he needs.

There, for a moment one world is rent into another, where water and air join but forever must remain apart. The fish rises half in one world half in another, and at his moment of fulfillment he cannot breathe. He tastes death and knows the other side.

 

Witherspoon opened his mouth to breath, but his lungs wouldn't work. Gagging and kicking with his mouth open, willing air into his pink lungs, nothing happened.

His eyes rolled open, but would not focus, all was intense, jabbing, stark white light so that he squinted them shut again and waived his fists about, over his head, with his face turning blue.

His world spun upside down and blood pounded at his head. He felt like his brain would explode. A tremendous pressure gripped his chest, held it like a vice refusing to let the lungs work, refusing to let them fill. He suddenly understood what it was like to be a fish out of water.

Suddenly liquid gushed from his lungs and mouth. Sticky spittle dripped down his face and he hacked, gagging and coughing and at last his lungs filled and he let out a scream.

He continued whimpering and screaming as the world came back right side up, but not as loudly. The air in his lungs stung, but it felt so good to be alive. The pounding in his head eased and his kicking and waving of his arms subsided.

There were voices hovering over him. But the sounds were muted, as though coming through a dead solid mass of water. His own voice was muted to him and though he knew he was screaming the sound was not too loud, it sounded good. It assured him that his lungs were working, that he could breathe, that his voice worked, that his mind was functioning, and his ears operated. If he could just be rid of this numbing pain in his head and the ache he felt all through his body. Then, he would happily venture opening his eyes again. He was alive but, had no idea what had happened to him. The light was so intense, shining through the thin membrane of his eyelids, that he still winced and tried to turn away, but something was wrong. Something was terribly wrong.

Someone was shoving something as big as a baseball bat in one ear. It made his ear drum crack and pop like adjusting for altitude. And then the other ear was being reamed out in the same businesslike manner. Then suddenly the murmur of voices took on definition, he could make out what people were saying, and that noise in the background was actually the wail of a siren, constant but muted like it was right there on the other side of a wall.

An ambulance, of course. Something happened and he was being rushed to a hospital. But his thinking was sticky, slow, like playing connect-the-dots at the bottom of a tub of molasses. Sedation. I must be. . . sedated. But his body was kicking and squirming around at ninety miles an hour.

Then while he was trying to think, trying to pry his gummy eyelids open for another shot at looking into that bright light someone grabbed his head like a cabbage and swabbed both eyelids with something that felt like a burlap bag soaked in alcohol.

The pain stabbed into his head as that liquid seeped into his pink little eyes. But they opened, and . . . Who are these people?

A sweaty faced woman was crying and blubbering down at him.

"There, there. . . don't cry my little sweetheart. Mamma's right here."

William J. Witherspoon III opened his mouth to scream - right into her stupid face. Who the hell are you? But the only thing that came out was, "Waaaa - Whaaaa - Aaaaaa."

And the last thread of his memories swirled around that black hole growing in the back of his mind, turned inside out like a tunnel going into nowhere. Swirled around and went down like so much dishwater disappearing down a drain. And the drain swallowed and consumed what remained of the light that was William J. Witherspoon III.

The last blink of a thought that he had before his mind went as blank and pink as a newborn baby was; But this is the wrong body. This isn't my body. No. NO. NO!!

 

The boy came to with a start, to his own body, and the remains of a quick, sick hangover, sitting in the back of a limo with the driver looking quizzically at him through the open door and offering his hand.

"May I help you out sir?"

He thought he'd better leave. But it seemed that they weren't quite finished yet. The driver walked him unsteadily to shiny elevators, used a key to get to the top floor, and helped him through the doors to a - well, it looked like a dozen people must live here. The driver left the boy standing in the entryway with a shiny metal case beside him and let himself out quietly.

It was some time before he realized that no one was coming for him.

The battery of servants helped him through the first several days, coaching him gently and with great respect. And then he opened the case - found the envelopes and folders on the top of the desk - his desk, and he began to understand what had happened.

 

EPILOG

The experience changed the boy in some way. He was no longer Witherspoon but then neither was he just a boy. He understood how the pain inside a person could make them do things - unspeakable things.

He did not hate the old woman, Mini, for what she had done, or even Witherspoon.

He only felt sorry for them. And wished that there was some way that he could take their guilt away, that they could forgive themselves.

- END -

Copyright 1998-2001 -- Richard A. McCullough All rights reserved
 
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