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Susan E. Abramski is a Chicago-based writer whose work has appeared in Black Petals, Crossroads, Eyes, The Midnight Gallery, MindMares, Monster Mush, Darkness, Penny Dreadful, Planet Relish, and other publications.


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Healer of the World's Ills

by Susan E. Abramski

 

HEALER OF THE WORLD'S ILLS
Barthelemé
Trice Six Crescent Moon Road
-- call upon me --

     Barthelemé's razor-sharp letter opener skimmed its precise and methodical cut along the tape sealing lid to box. Carefully lifting the lid, he examined the wording on the topmost business card with a practiced eye though the sample affixed to the lid had already proven to his satisfaction that the printer had followed instructions unerringly. They always did. Barthelemé had been dispensing his cards since Gutenberg birthed his Bible, it had seemed, and the printeries he had chosen had never veered from his exacting demands.
     Fortunately.
     Barthelemé overturned and tapped the bottom of the box to release the twenty-five cards into his palm. It had taken a great deal of creative explanation and more of his wealth than the cards were worth to convince the printer to produce such a small order, but as her caressed the black-red antique script like tracings of dried blood, he determined their beauty well worth their cost.
     Modern printers were much more concerned with profit than with pride - so unlike their forebears, Barthelemé thought. Quantity over quality had never been Barthelemé's way of doing business: The body of work at hand must become your reason for living -- until released. Barthelemé had successfully convinced the printer that he was a young minister who could ill-afford a larger order than twenty-five cards. He knew that even as he spoke, the years of coldness were melting from his face to be replaced with the sincerity of youthful eagerness in the printer's eyes. Only his mirror reflected his true age. Only it reminded Barthelemé that he was also deluding himself.
     For Barthelemé created reality for others only so long as he believed in his chimeras himself. It was simply another skill that enabled him to pursue his vocation, like a surgeon knowing just where and how to cut. Years of practice enabled him to make birds swim and fish to dance in the skies for his listeners. Those same years of practice also enabled Barthelemé to enter those Windows of a Man's Soul and to wrest it from him, leaving no more than an uninhabited corpus to assume its productive place in society.
     It was a living.
     Many people wished the world -- their world -- could be a better place. If only someone in their lives would cease to anger or annoy them. And now, for twenty-five of them, someone would. And the price of Happiness was never more than his clients were willing to pay.
     Whatever he might cost them.
     Barthelemé replaced all the cards save one into their box. He took this one and ran his finger along its sharp edges, as if deliberately defying them to cut. Holding it up to the leaded glass window, he admired first the inherited attributes of his profession: Despite the anticipation he felt, his hand was sure and his palm was parchment-dry as he held the card up to the light. Yes, it had been printed upon translucent parchment, just as he'd specified. It was always important to be able to see into a thing. He slowly traced the raised lettering. Like dry ice his fingers burned both fiber and flesh equally with their coldness. This inanimate card was unable to draw back from his touch. Those frigid, elegant fingers had been his first indication that his existence differed greatly from those around him -- as would his purpose.
     Instructed from the pulpit of his mother's church that all are placed here to make the world a better place, Barthelemé cultivated his own unique talents until he became a killer who need never take a life - an assassin bestowed with the means of destroying a soul while leaving its body alive. He recalled with something near fondness how his mother had taken him to her church when he was very young. It was here he had been taught that all are born with unique talents they are morally obliged to use, lest they be withdrawn again like unappreciated gifts by the Creator Of All Things. He had patiently reminded his mother of this when she had discovered his younger brother in a catatonic state caused by an idle wish combined with the stronger desire to practice on something human. He tried to explain to her that his brother could still be a useful person; telling her there was no murder if the body survived, and that bodies could still be productive members of society even without a soul, so long as their hearts still beat.
     But she had gone insane before he could make her understand. She screamed as his cold fingers caressed her cheek in a final farewell as she was led from their home.
     Barthelemé had shared his gift over many years, with the amazing freedom from repercussions that must only indicate he was doing Right. Barthelemé never sought out news of the fates of his prey. For him out-of-sight was truly, utterly, out of mind. But the evidence his talent left in its wake lay in the numerous arrests, convictions, incarcerations of his victims. No one ever really looked into those lawbreakers' eyes. There, they would see -- nothing.
     Nothingness -- that was Barthelemé's unique signature. His fingerprint, intentionally left for the bumbling detectives to find. Catch me ... catch me if you can.
     And when the cold chill at the nape of your neck resembles nothing so much as the caress of a set of long, elegant, icy fingers -- stop me if you will.
     Later that evening, plume in hand, Barthelemé meticulously made a geographical listing of occult bookshops and other similarly progressive establishments within walking distance of his apartment. He detested telephones and needed to make himself easy to contact. His -- clients? -- customers? -- tended to be hesitant and uncertain as to their own motivations. The result of an overactive conscience, he supposed. Conscience -- like some vestigial organs, entirely superfluous and best removed as early as possible. Barthelemé was glad he'd lost his while still young.
     Giving them too much time to think about what they were doing, and why, was bad for business. Any good salesman could tell you that. It was always easier to do business in the disorienting atmosphere of his own apartment. And atmosphere was all-important. They had to be certain that he could accomplish what he claimed, and one step into his lair easily convinced them: Candles and darkness, tapestries and ponderous wood in elaborate configurations flickered in and out of their vision, dazzling their minds and cloaking any goodwill in darkness. A flickering of his candles at that very moment drew his attention.
     It would have been impossible for any natural vision to detect the movement of the shadow outside, behind his thickly draped windows. Still, Barthelemé had the sense that someone had encroached upon his subterranean lair. No uninvited thing could get inside; of that he was certain -- all doors and windows were always kept secured against the chill and damp. Barthelemé's weakness, if he was forced to admit to one, was that even on the hottest summer days he craved warmth.
     Shaking off his misgivings like a dog escaping the rain, he wrapped his robe more securely about himself. It had to be his imagination. The anticipation of beginning his services in a new location always brought a shivery feeling of apprehension and excitement.
     A bloodless bloodlust.
     Centering his marketing strategy on the three closest stores, he blotted the page. In an ideal world, he thought (smiling at the irony in his own words) none of the cards in the small box cradled in his hand would be wasted. That is, if the clients who picked them up out of curiosity or desperation took his claim seriously. He knew that each and every living person could immediately flash onto someone they would like to see removed from the face of the earth. A person whose removal would make the world a better place -- for them. It was always that time between temptation and action that seemed interminable to Barthelemé. He sought to shorten it in every way possible. Bur the one seeming restriction placed upon his Gift was that he was not allowed to sway them in either direction -- only to wait. Still, Barthelemé smiled.
     The wait was never long.

 

     The wait for his first client had been exactly eleven hours and six seconds from the moment he had distributed his cards. Barthelemé's sole concession to amusement was in timing his arrivals to the second.
     Barthelemé flipped open the cover of his slim black leather-bound notebook, verifying the location given him by his first client: The Powers Funeral Home. How very ironic -- and appropriate. He had acquired an appreciation for the theatrical over the years, and had gradually progressed to the point of exhibiting his powers with all the flourish of a professional magician. That, Barthelemé felt, was in essence what he was -- a psychic magician. He tricked the eye into opening itself up to him, even developing his own sleight-of-hand to distract his "audience" from his true purpose. It was the closest he could bring himself to an act of mercy: Focus your gaze upon my hands, he would think, while my Mind and my Will make your soul disappear. Trust me -- you'll never feel a thing.
     -- for the rest of your mortal life...

     With a deep inhalation of the essence of life he drew himself up to his full height and opened the smoked-glass door of the Powers Funeral Home.
     Barthelemé strode in with single-minded determination. A good part of his success stemmed from his Appearance, and from the surprise that initially placed his victims off their guard. However briefly, he had that open portal directly into their souls. Then he had no need for parlor tricks to dazzle. A quick swoop and a stunned soul was grasped and torn from its nest. Fear worked efficiently and well, if he wasn't quick enough for surprise. But surprise provided him with pleasure. And, given the choice, Barthelemé preferred to enjoy his work. With a flash of sparks emanating from cold fingertips and eyes colder still, Barthelemé would inhale the God-given breath of life, making man a living non-soul.
     Or in this case, woman.
     "Excuse me, Miss. Is this the Cassidy wake?"
     A young woman speaking quietly to a group standing to the left of the casket half-turned with a ready smile which froze and died immediately on her lips. When her eyes met Barthelemé's they instantly registered fear. That was unusual! Had she sensed something so soon? Barthelemé had hoped he could draw her aside from the group. Unlike the magician, he disliked the deprivation of intimacy that an audience created, and they now had the full attention of everyone present.
     "It's -- um -- ," his young victim stammered.
     And though it had never moved from his side, Barthelemé's hand felt a barrier to its reach powerful and all-encompassing as the force that prevents opposing magnetic fields from making contact.
     "No, I'm -- sorry. It -- isn't. This is the Cassini wake. You must have -- misunderstood the person who gave you the information." She raised a hand to her forehead as she spoke, as if trying to recall events that a blow to the head might have left muddled. Barthelemé never took his eyes from hers. He knew he was losing something, but if he lost it would only be her soul -- it would never be his control.
     This wasn't supposed to be happening -- not to him. He'd read and prepared for this kind of thing before -- the escape of a soul. But it was something that happened to other assassins; those few Soul-Abductors who had lost their quickness and skill. Who, for reasons of their own, had surrendered and disclosed their existences to the world and left behind writings that he was able to research. But they had never perfected their strength of technique as he had. They had erected barriers of qualms and inner turmoils. _There must never be a barrier between you and the audience you are trying to seduce -- any Magician can tell you that! Those who could not do, teach.
     They had now become the centerpiece of a roomful of gawkers, and Barthelemé was uncomfortable as the center of attention of witnesses. Unnerved, he broke contact. His body immediately released its tension as if he had released a breath he had been holding for too long a time. His conscious mind quickly sought some believable explanation he could give her, while his subconscious sought one for himself. People had never had the ability to defend their own souls! Any escape was always due to the carelessness of the assassin. Or to the presence of a --
     When he drew his gaze away from his intended victim's, Barthelemé noticed for the first time another woman standing almost directly behind her. Her eyes had been staring into his own in a steady, unwavering beam. So intent was Barthelemé upon finishing The Job and returning to his lair, that he had never even noticed. Careless.
     "Oh, I am indeed sorry," he stammered. The flustered demeanor was not feigned. Barthelemé tried to keep his eyes on his young victim's face as he spoke in a last desperate attempt to regain some contact, but he could not keep his eyes from drifting over to the other woman's. A woman who was as intent upon holding his gaze in thrall as he had been his victim's -- and who was proving considerably more proficient.
     There had been passing mention, in his research, of the phenomena of a "Soulguard" -- a psychic bodyguard or a guardian of souls, as it were, placed upon the Earth to provide a balance to the existence of his own kind in defending helpless humanity. Good dependent for its existence upon its counterpart of Evil. Barthelemé in his arrogance had discounted the tales of the Soulguards as mere legend or a feeble excuse, but if one such as he could exist --
     There was no air of triumph; no expression of victory at all in that steely gaze as it continued to bind his. There was only steady, impersonal efficiency, like a stilled candle flame. The analogy would now haunt him with every candle he lit in his sanctuary, he ruefully contemplated as his lips unconsciously formed a slight snarl.
     His sanctuary -- that wavering flame that he'd seen earlier --
     Barthelemé closed his eyes, dropping his weapon and surrendering the duel.
     "I -- I won't intrude, then. I'll speak to -- to my friend." Quickly, Barthelemé turned to leave.
     "Wait." The young girl spoke, after what seemed a span of Ages.
     "Yes?" Confused, Barthelemé turned again to face her. She'd been given her chance -- why wouldn't she make her escape?
     "Why don't you check the obituaries in the newspaper? All the information you need would probably be in there. Maybe they have one here. In the office."
     "Yes. Thank you. I'll ask." The young girl's eagerness to help him despite what he had attempted to do to her unnerved Barthelemé. The rudimentary discomfort of a conscience created a painful nausea in its unaccustomed tabernacle, unabated by the fact that she had been unaware of his intentions. Briefly, he had felt grateful that he was prevented from snatching this particular soul from its container. His gratitude was just as quickly replaced by resentment when he caught the shadow of a smile on the face of the woman standing behind her. He remembered who he was -- what he was; he would never surrender a soul! Once again he suddenly grasped the young girl in the invisible hands of his Power, and held her in thrall with his own steady gaze.
     The immediate turnabout had caught her protector off guard.
     The pupils of the young girl's eyes widened until the irises appeared small as pinpricks. Seeing the portals wide open he rapidly focused his mind and the full intensity of his gaze directly into their very depths.
     Repelled again -- that press of opposing forces. He sought out the edges of the forcefield the Soulguard had raised in an effort to circumvent it, but it widened in every direction following the movement of his eyes. The stronger the pressure he applied, the wider and more resistant the forcefield became until the very air between them compressed with a weight many times stronger than gravity -- trapping the immobilized girl in between.
     Realization came too late to permit the Soulguard's reflexes to react in time to break contact. Delicate lung tissue, unable to expand, began to asphyxiate. Struggling for breath with compressed, immobile lungs, the young girl fought the pressure with surprising strength as she futilely clawed at the air and at her own throat in frenzied desperation to draw breath. Blood began streaming from every aperture of her head. Droplets of blood dyed the girl red as they emerged from every pore like a sponge being squeezed of its moisture. Her suffering was mercifully brief as within moments her heart burst from its effort to pump blood through compressed arteries. The crunch of shattering cartilage and bone was heard as the girl's skull and body were flattened, invisibly pressed as if between thick walls of glass. The woman's soul had left her body in an eye's blink, yet her corpse was an unrecognizable mass of blood and gore before Barthelemé finally closed his eyes; ceasing the force of his will and ending this enraging contest. Her soul had disappeared from the earth -- by a technicality, he had won.
     As the girl sloshed to the ground.

 

     Entering the foyer of his twilight-darkened apartment, Barthelemé saw the merest shadow of a silhouette as he closed the door. Black against a deeper blackness, its shimmer as it moved was like the twinkling of a myriad of stars in the night sky. Barthelemé stood poised for an attack, casually leaning against the doorjamb with his arms folded, legs crossed, reptilian smile affixed. When the shadow did not move, he silkily moved toward a space in the room where a shaft of moonlight escaped the meeting of the draperies, illuminating him in its spotlight.
     "It wouldn't have been the same without you," Barthelemé acknowledged the presence. It was the truth -- he intended no sarcasm in his tone. All his other assassinations had been like winning at Solitaire, he now realized: Hollow pleasures. Victory could not truly be savored without the likelihood of defeat. Like a serial killer who provides clues to his own or his victims' identities, Barthelemé considered how he might subtly inform this Soulguard of future assignments. The excitement of certain success had been supplanted by the more intense pleasure in the possibility of defeat.
     The Soulguard determinedly stayed where she was; a Shadow's shadow. Wouldn't she react? Or couldn't she?
     "I'm exhausted. We're only pointlessly destroying each other, you know."
     "Then simply let me go my merry way; you go yours. Live and let live. Who would be the wiser? I certainly won't tell." A rustle of tailored silk as Barthelemé moved closer to the Soulguard.
     The shimmer of stars shifted almost imperceptibly with what might have been a flinch, "My conscience would be the wiser. Refuse some confused client's money and leave men's souls alone." The woman at last stepped forth from the shadows. "But you can't do that, can you? Your fate was sealed when you looked into that first pair of living eyes and felt its soul drawn into the Black Hole of your depraved mind. That first taste of blood; that first kill: Once your self-absorbed Will scooped that tasty fruit from its husk and devoured it, you became an addict, didn't you? Standing before what you had made into a living machine, you saw that though no one was home the house continued to stand -- and to function. A killer who would never -- could never -- be caught. You can no more take that -- 'skill' -- unused to your grave than I can simply let you do it when you can be stopped."
     "How well you know me," Barthelemé viper-smiled. "And your 'stopping' me did so much good for that young girl today, didn't it?" He sighed in mockery of her regret. "And what do they do, anyway, with those precious existences you preserve?"
     "Whatever they want. That's the point."
     "Free will has been a tremendous boon to the world, hasn't it? What a safe, pleasant place to live it is."
     "And you're going to be the healer of all the world's ills, are you?"
     "I am precisely that. The bodies I leave behind can perform some useful function, until they wear down like a machine. It is the soul inhabiting it that creates the problems. I am an evolution to a higher form of life. A precursor. A doctor to Humanity, not merely the humans who encompass it. A doctor who kills the patient to destroy the illness. I can remove a useless appendage, leaving the rest to take its place as a cog in the wheel of life."
     "And how have these 'cogs' you've created functioned?"
     His victims, he knew, had all ended up in prison for committing various sociopathic crimes rather than becoming the "efficient cogs" he had envisioned. Yet, by removing their souls he had removed all that was troublesome to others about them, hadn't he? He had taken what had displeased his paying clients and extinguished it. Had removed the bad qualities from people. Why wasn't the world becoming a better place? Unable to renounce his gift yet frustrated by its undesirable results, Barthelemé snapped: "I am a supernatural being, who has had generations of practice! You are no more than another human, with a mere human lifespan. Some freak of nature, granted, but mortal nonetheless. You will some day transgress another human and do what is common to all, you know -- you will make an enemy."
     Barthelemé slowly inched toward her as he spoke, until they now stood only electrified inches apart. "An enemy who will believe the world would be a much better place without you, my dear." Ignoring the searing pain in his frigid fingers, he took her warm hand into his own, raised it to his lips and kissed it. He continued through burning lips: "An enemy who happens to pick up a card he might find lying on a counter in some obscure little shop. A card offering to him -- or to her -- the services of 'The Healer Of The World's Ills'."

 

EPILOGUE

     The young woman cautiously tapped upon the carved oaken door. It silently glided open on voiceless hinges revealing a tall, thin, aristocratic presence. "Is this --" she read from a well-fingered card in her hand, "Bartholomew? The ... 'Healer' .... " " 'Barthelemé', my dear," came a voice from out of the shadows. "Show the lady in, Midian. And offer her some refreshments. She wishes to partake of our own unique brand of services, if I may hazard a guess, and is therefor most welcome. I, my dear, am Barthelemé -- the Healer Of The World's Ills -- at your service. I trust you will find this no idle boast. The gentleman who greeted you at the door is my capable apprentice, Midian. He has shown himself to be very adept at detecting the presence of those who would prevent me from performing as a benefactor to humankind. He ... 'sweeps up' after me, let us say." The minimal candlelight kept Barthelemé from being more than a disembodied voice emanating from a deeper shadow in the background as the woman made her way to a high wing-backed chair and gingerly sat down. A rustle of silk and a sharp snap coming instantly from behind her made her jump. "I am sorry if I startled you, my dear. I was merely ... confirming something ... in my appointment book." The woman wondered how anyone would be able to see, let alone read, in this oppressive gloom. Midian set a goblet-shaped form down upon the table in front of her and silently left the house. "Where is your ... apprentice? ... going?" "To ward off the Shadow, my dear," Barthelemé replied as his long, icy fingers insinuated themselves around the young woman's neck. "To ward off the Shadow." Barthelemé's appointed victim stared at the hint of movement just beyond the closed drapes as he knelt before her and allowed the heat of her emerging Soul to warm his frigid hands like a glove.

THE END