Michael J. Martin is an aspiring screenwriter whose nonfiction
has appeared in journals such as National Law Journal, Economic Monitor, and California Daily
Journal of the Law.
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The Gift of the Igam
by Michael J. Martin
A genuine reproduction antique grandfather clock, tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock.
Furniture entrepreneur Nicholas J. Wynt slipped between the clock and a rolltop desk.
"I select my pieces to provide comfort, and, most of all, a measure of serenity in our hectic world. This desk, for example." He indicated the rolltop.
Mary Carruthers smiled. But husband Michael--well, husband Michael glanced at the price tag.
"I'm sure a young software engineer and a young...." Wynt looked at Mary for a cue.
"Lawyer," she prompted.
"Lawyer," he continued, "must have plenty of paperwork to do at night." Mary nodded, but Michael only grumbled.
"I'm not sure we can afford this," he spoke, for the first time since entering the showroom.
"We do have an excellent lay-away and financing plan. If...." Nicholas stopped.
The grandfather clock was tolling the hour, and he raised his eyes in solemn appreciation.
"Listen," he implored.
But quite unexpectedly, the chiming faded to a dull thud. Wynt's face soured with embarassment, then smiled at his customers, then soured again. He bent down behind the clock and, with his ballpoint pen, poked the ugly little creature who was resting against the cylindrical gong. Nicholas could only see its dark outline, slipping away from the chiming mechanism and growling quietly.
"This is only a display model," excused the crafty showroom man. "Of course, if you were to take delivery on one from our warehouse, it would be fully guaranteed."
"I like the desk," Mrs. Carruthers piped up to her husband. "We'll have that spare room we can make into a study."
Michael nodded and tried to slide up the ribbed desktop cover. It wouldn't budge. Mr. Wynt rushed to assist.
"Let me see here. Yes." He patted his vest. "The key." He removed a small key from his pocket and, with a movement ever so discreet, he rapped on the rolling top.
The thing inside oozed into darker shadows, just before Wynt slid up the panel. "This is a genuine antique," he fibbed. "And, it's newly refinished."
As Michael ran his fingertips along the desk's smooth surface, the creature in the bill slot grew ever more agitated, breathing harder, snarling, furious with Michael's five fleshy, intruding morsels, sliding by, just out of reach. Michael leaned down and peered into one of the cubbyholes. He couldn't see Mr. Wynt, who suddenly appeared unnerved.
"Ah. I see your wife has taken an interest in one of our sofas," he said anxiously. But Michael was paying no attention.
"You're right," Michael exclaimed. "It does have a nice finish." His eyes darted from slot to slot, not seeing it. But It could see him, rolling his squishy eyeballs and furrowing his brow. Mr. Wynt could no longer stand the suspense of a possible (ugly) encounter, so he bent down next to Michael.
"Your wife, sir. I think she's found a sofa." Michael and Mr. Wynt stood up together. Mr. Wynt hastily shut the rolltop and escorted husband to wife. She was eyeing a streamlined steamer davenport with big, billowy cushions upholstered in red crushed velvet that recalled the luxury locomotive days of the nineteen twenties.
"Whaddya think, honey? Perfect for the living room or what?" Mary's eyes pleaded for a "Yes. We'll take it." But Michael was frowning.
"It's nice. But how much?"
"This is truly a one-of-a-kind piece. The beauty and elegance of the roaring twenties with the durability a young couple needs for children. It has a Dura-Flex coating."
"We don't have any children," Michael interjected.
"But we will," Mary corrected. "Just as soon as we get better established in our careers."
"Yes. Yes. That is the way it's done these days, isn't it? Fine. Fine." Mr. Wynt swept the room with his eyes. "We can finance everything. You won't get easier terms anywhere."
"No," Michael hesitated. "We'd rather pay for one piece at a time."
"One piece at a time?" said Mr. Wynt, while Mary scowled at her husband.
"You know how I hate to buy anything on credit," Michael pleaded. "With all our student loans already...."
"Will there be a credit check?" Mary asked.
"Oh no! No credit checks for lovely young couples who are just starting out. Company policy."
Mary whispered urgingly to Michael, who stepped back. "I don't care," he said. "We can furnish the place with your mother's stuff for the time being."
"But Michael." A pause before her anger exploded. "Then why? Why did we even waste our time in here?" She grabbed her coat and stormed toward the exit. But Mr. Wynt's voice stopped her.
"Well I'll be!" he exclaimed. Mary and Michael turned. Mr. Wynt bent up from the sofa holding something in his rubber-gloved hand. "Another one!" He slipped off the glove and strode up to Michael, proudly displaying a shiny twenty-dollar gold piece.
"Another one?" Michael motioned to Mary. "Honey--check this out." She moved to her husband's side.
"Inside the couch. I find things like it all the time in this old furniture." Mr. Wynt was quite matter-of-fact. "Buffalo-head nickels, silver dollars, and, in that desk...." He indicated the rolltop. "In that desk, a half-carat diamond ring, circa eighteen fifty."
"Eighteen fifty? It must have been worth a fortune!" Michael was sold.
"It netted me a tidy sum." Wynt bent the truth and curled up his lips at the sight of Michael's grin.
"What sort of down payment would you need for everything--the couch, the clock, and the desk?" Michael inquired.
"And the Remingtons," Mary added, pointing to the paintings.
Wynt looked at each item thoughtfully and mumbled to himself. "And the paintings. Let's see. One, two...." He looked at the expectant couple. "For you, say, five hundred dollars."
"Five hundred dollars? How can you afford to go so low?" Michael was flabbergasted.
"I've also decided to include the coin."
"You're including the coin? Why?" Mary asked.
"As I see it," Wynt continued, "the coin would rightfully be yours if you had walked out of here with that couch." He looked Mary straight in her eyes. "And I know you wanted to buy it," he added.
Mary giggled while Michael wrote out the check. "I don't see how you can do it, but it's terrific. Um...who do I make the check out to?"
"The Nicholas J. Wynt Collection."
"When can we have it delivered?" Mary asked. Mr. Wynt heard something shuffling behind him. He turned around.
"Syrus?" he called. "Syrus!" The tall, big-boned girl with the solid figure set a painting down and followed his voice.
"Syrus," instructed Wynt, "make out a delivery slip for," and he turned to Michael, "Wednesday at three o'clock?"
"Fine," said Michael, filling out his checkbook. "We'll both be at work, but we can leave the door unlocked."
"Today is Monday, Syrus. Wednesday at three o'clock. Three o'clock." Mr. Wynt flashed three fingers at her, pointed to the grandfather clock, and outlined a number three on his palm with his index finger. "Three. Now--snap snap."
She looked at him with big, round, sea-blue pupils that became even larger when she smoothed aside her tousled mane of strawberry blonde hair. "Wednesday at three, Syrus. Now go and do as you were told." But Syrus wouldn't budge. She only looked at Wynt, pleadingly, then at Mary and Michael.
"All right, then! I'll do it myself!" Mr. Wynt started toward another antique desk, but Syrus grabbed his arm. He turned to her, gritting his teeth. She shook her head beseechingly. He placed his rough hand on her shoulder and squeezed. She didn't blink. She didn't wince. She only stood, shaking her head and clutching his arm in her powerful grip. Then he remembered his customers, and his clenched teeth eased into a smile for them. Michael had just torn off the check and was handing it over.
"She doesn't want me to sell our fine furniture at such a low, low price." Nicholas winked at Mary. "She's afraid I'll send us to the poorhouse."
Wynt produced at golden pocketwatch from his vest. He held it up to Syrus. The ticking calmed her, and she gradually eased her grip on his arm. Finally, she reached out for the watch. But Wynt withheld it.
"Gaw," she blurted out.
"That's right. Gaw. Gobbledy-gook. Now--do as you were told. Then finish those paintings and water the snapdragons." His voice was low and cold. Syrus grabbed at the pocketwatch again, but Wynt thrust it back into his vest. She lowered her arm and ran away, across the showroom, into the warehouse, not looking back. While Michael and Mary looked on uneasily, Mr. Wynt quickly forgot the little scene and scribbled out some details.
"Before you go, if I could just get your signatures on this credit agreement." Mr. Wynt handed Michael the pen, and Michael, in uncharacteristic fashion, nervously signed on the bottom line without reading the terms. Mary, meanwhile, kept glancing toward the back, toward the warehouse. "Oh--and please be certain to autograph the repossession clause. It's our only real security."
Michael returned the pen and Wynt stuck out his hand. They shook on it.
"A pleasure to be of service to such a charming couple." He reached out to Mary.
"Such a pretty girl," Mary exclaimed.
Mr. Wynt raised his eyebrows. "Oh! You mean Syrus?"
"Yes. Is she your daughter?"
"Mary, please. It's none of our business," said Michael. But Wynt didn't mind.
"No, but I look after her. She has certain difficulties that often require special attention. And extraordinary patience."
"What a wonderful...."
But Michael interrupted. "That's very commendable." He guided his wife toward the door.
"Wednesday at three," Wynt called after them. "Don't forget." The infrared chime bleeped as they stepped through the beam and out the glass doors. Mr. Wynt folded up the credit agreement and stuffed it into the pocket of his tweed jacket.
"Wednesday at three," he mused to himself. "Just in time for dinner."
An older-model BMW and a Subaru drove into the two-car driveway in front of the split-level brick house on the peaceful, tree-lined street. The early-evening crickets were beginning to chirp, and the last of the neighborhood children had just been called in for dinner.
Mary walked into the house first. "It came!" she exclaimed to herself. Then she called outside to Michael. "The furniture's here!"
Michael walked in behind his wife. They gazed at their newly-decorated living room--the grandfather clock, the steamer sofa, the rolltop desk, some chairs, two end tables, a coffee table, and three paintings. The large Remington hung above the fireplace mantel.
"Nice," observed Michael. Mary pecked his cheek.
"That was a great idea--furnishing with antiques." She strutted toward the kitchen. "You relax. I'm gonna try dinner for a change."
Alone in the living room, Michael clicked on their only modern acquisition--a top-line, multi-component, stereo-CD-DVD player. Mary brought him a gin and tonic, and he eased down for a relaxing drink on the steamer sofa, raising his glass to his lips and thinking of all the money he'd make with the title "Partner" after his name. In time the gin dulled his senses, and he closed his eyes. But he was aroused by the sound of coins, spilling out of his pocket and jingling on the steel inner springs beneath the sofa cushion. My, how low this couch sunk!
"Shit." He stood up.
"What, honey?" Mary asked from the kitchen.
Michael picked up the nickels and dimes from the cushion and felt his back pocket to make sure his wallet was still there. Before he could grab it, a penny slipped between the cushion and the backrest. He reached in after it.
The creature in the cushions watched his bony, probing fingers and began to salivate, a sticky, mucoid secretion that could trap even the most elusive prey. As Michael's hand moved closer, the creature's hypersensitive olfactory organs were overwhelmed by the smell of blood. Closer, closer, closer....
SNAP! Michael's scream was instantly stifled as a scaly, hirsute claw covered with thick mucous shot out from behind the cushion, grabbed his head, and thrust it into the couch.
" I hope you're hungry," Mary exclaimed from the kitchen. Then she dropped a pan on the tile floor and muttered an obscenity of her own. Michael, meanwhile, was completely enwrapped in the creature's gooey, horny tentacles. His muffled cries suddenly ceased, and a pool of blood formed around the periphery of the sofa.
"Michael, dahlink. Almost time for dinner." She walked into the living room, wiping her hands on a dish towel. She looked around.
"Michael? Michael? Peek-a-boo." She couldn't see the sole of his Reebok, disappearing into the voracious couch. She turned down the stereo. "Michael? Where are you?" Her tone was half-teasing, half-concerned. She could feel an ominous chill creep over her. She looked out a window, then started upstairs, not noticing the cylindrical pink tongue that was swilling up her husband's blood.
She called around in every room on the second floor. She hurried back downstairs, out the front door, calling, looking up one side of the dusky street and down the other. No Michael.
Back in the house, she left the front door open and yelled up the fireplace chimney. "Michael? Are you on the roof?" But the only reply her echoing voice received was an avalanche of black soot that darkened her sun-browned cheeks. She pulled her head out of the chimney and coughed, swatting the airborne ashes away from her face. "Michael! Please!" She paused for a moment in front of the fireplace, not noticing the bony, three-pronged talon that had just sprouted from the canvas above the mantel.
Then she noticed some blood around the sofa.
"Michael?" She picked up the telephone receiver and dialed. Two more claws poked through the painting.
"Operator?" Mary cried. "I think I need the police."
"Is this an emergency?"
"I don't know." Several more claws germinated from the Remington.
"One moment." While the telephone rang on the other end, the Operator broke in. "Next time, dial nine one one. It's faster."
"Elm Street Fourth Precinct." The policewoman.
"Yes! Missing persons." She watched as more blood pooled around the couch. "Missing Persons!" She twiddled her fingers and shuffled her feet as the phone rang like a death knell and the hairy, scaly tentacles from the painting moved toward her.
"Missing persons." The sergeant's firm, strong voice.
"Yes! Yes! I want to report a missing...." She stopped dead when she saw the cylindrical pink tongue appear from under the couch, swilling up blood like a straw. She lowered the phone and crept toward the couch.
"Ma'am? Hello?" The sergeant again.
Just as she stood at the couch's edge the pink tongue retracted. She bent down.
"Ma'am? Can you please speak to me? Ma'am?!" She started to raise the phone to her ear. But before she could speak, thing in the couch regurgitated her husband's indigestible remains--bones, bits of shoe rubber, fragments of cloth, teeth. Mary dropped the phone and wailed, an ear-wrenching cry that became even more horrid when the four ghastly limbs from the Remington seized her from behind and pulled her up, into the shredded canvas. As the thing gulped her down, its gullet undulated like a prominent Adam's apple beneath the remains of the painting.
By this time, the police sergeant had hung up, thinking the call nothing more than a childish, macabre little prank.
Syrus was playing with her kittens, a whole box full of five-week-old babies that someone had abandoned. They jumped, scratched, and bit at her white scarf, tumbling over and mewing with that infectious delight which so endears them to the human species.
With the exception, of course, of Nicholas J. Wynt, who burst into the room. "Why haven't you watered the snapdragons?"
She jumped at the terrible sound of his croaky voice and instinctively covered her daintily-freckled face. He lunged at her and raised the back of his hand. Through her fingers she could see the little tattoo on his wrist, those three numbers, all the same.
"I wouldn't waste the effort!" He lowered his quivering hand. "Now leave those goddamned cats alone and water the snapdragons. We're going to have to transplant some of them tomorrow." She stood up quickly, wrapped the scarf around her head like a bandana, and hurried into the dark room.
"And keep the lights down!" Mr. Wynt barked.
She closed the solid door behind her and barely turned up the adjustable light. She picked up the watering can, filled it at the big sink, and opened a wooden drawer.
The tiny red creatures flinched and squawked, snapping their talons at the first rays of light to penetrate their dark domain. Syrus could hardly make them out as she sprinkled water over their parched, squirming little tongues. Mr. Wynt was right, though. She could tell that the larger ones would have to be transplanted soon. They grew so quickly during these warm, humid days, their tentacles, their little heads, and their spreading roots, like mountain ranges in miniature beneath the surface of the drawer bottom, rippling and sidewinding as they absorbed the water.
Syrus enjoyed only one part of this tedious chore. Each of the newborn snapdragons required a special kind of food that kept them from growing too fast--a fine powder that Syrus would sprinkle on them after they were watered. With their little mouths each beastie would gobble up the powder, and a little while later their horns would grow.
Mr. Wynt kept the powder in the private room. Syrus was allowed to enter the room, scoop out a cupful of the food, and step back out immediately. She was not permitted to linger. But lingering in the private room was one of her favorite pastimes, alongside playing with her kittens.
First of all, the private room was even darker than the dark room, so Syrus had to light the candles on the marble altar. The snarling monsters that supported the candelabra
always startled her. But the silver, five-pointed star, so pretty as it hung in the center of the crimson altar drape, drew her attention away from the fearsome artifact.
And then the horned man, who smiled down at her when she lit the third candle--the horned man was the most fascinating of all, sitting like a king in his red-splotched golden throne, grasping a knotted, gnarled wooden scepter that barely touched his black and purple robe. He even had a tail, like her kittens! She had never seen a man with a tail before, or horns either. And there were kitten-faced things with twisted white bodies, and monkey-faced things, and tiger-faced things, and even a thing with a face much like Mr. Wynt, all clinging to the horned man's robe, down at his feet, which looked to Syrus like the feet on the horses in her horse book.
The voices outside warned Syrus to cut short her visit, so she scooped out a cup of the ashen powder, which lay in a silver urn beneath the altar and--oops--on her way out she knocked over the bird man, just like she always did. She picked him up, carefully, and pretended to fly him, like a real bird, back to the top of the altar. He, too, wasn't like any man she had ever seen. He was mostly naked, and she had dressed him in her doll clothes once until Mr. Wynt tore them off. He was also attached to something shaped like the "T" in her alphabet blocks. Something else was stuck through his hands and feet, and she thought that he must be in pain. But most unusual of all--on his pedestal he was upside down! She had tried to set him right side up, but he only toppled over. She even tried standing on her own head, but grew too dizzy and toppled over herself. That's just the way he was--upside down, topsy turvy, like everything else in this strange and interesting room.
After she fed the snapdragons, Syrus returned to her kittens. The day was sunny and muggy, and Mr. Wynt was talking to the dark man.
Syrus never liked the dark man. He was tall, spoke in a funny-sounding voice, and always wore black gloves, no matter how warm it was outside. The dark man himself really wasn't dark at all. In fact, he was quite pale--his face even looked cold, the way Syrus felt whenever he entered the room. And what's more, before the dark man first showed up, Syrus only had to copy the old paintings from the big, colorful picture book, or carve the intricate patterns from the snapshots in Mr. Wynt's photo album. Sometimes, when the little black boy John John was sick, Mr. Wynt made her sweep the floor. But after the dark man appeared, she was shouldered with a whole new set of duties, like watering the snapdragons, getting the fine powder from the private room (which used to be a garage before the dark man came) and transplanting the snapdragons into her hand-made furniture just before it was sold. The dark man did not like her, either. He called her "the Mute," and although she didn't know what "mute" was, she had learned to expect the tip of Mr. Wynt's hard shoe every time the dark man asked about "the Mute."
But Mr. Wynt liked the dark man. He always jumped around for him, bowing and scraping, smiling, and saying "yes" alot. Since the dark man arrived, Mr. Wynt had new clothes, a fine new car, and the furniture store was always well stocked. So she had to like the dark man too. But she didn't.
This afternoon, she overheard Mr. Wynt and the dark man talking about a gift.
"The gift I want you to make is for the child," said the dark man.
"Yes. Yes. How old?" Mr. Wynt scribbled everything down.
"Hmm. He was born June 6th. So that makes him one month old at precisely six p.m. tomorrow."
"Yes. Yes. Very good. Excellent." Mr. Wynt's face was beaded with perspiration. "But what--may I ask--is the gift for?"
"I" the dark man exclaimed proudly, "have been chosen to be one of the Igam. There are only seven of us in the entire world, and we are meeting in Baghdad two weeks from today." The dark man knitted his eyebrows. "I will need the gift in one week."
"One week?" Mr. Wynt's head shot up from the writing tablet. "One week may not be enough time."
"One week," the dark man confirmed. "In one week, you will have my gift ready."
"But I don't think one week...."
The dark man grew stern and serious, browbeating his cringing underling with a malicious stare. "Need I remind you where you would be without me?"
The flustered red in Mr. Wynt's face drained to a fearful white. The dark man turned to leave.
"Make sure my gift is ready in one week. And remember--it must be something appropriate for a young prince who will be raised to power and position. Something quite exquisite."
On his way out, he caressed the red-velvet davenport the repossessors were just now replacing in the showroom, careful not to let his hand drift too close to the edges of the cushions.
"At least you don't have to worry about making furniture anymore," he purred.
Mr. Wynt lowered his eyes.
Syrus couldn't read, so she knew nothing about the string of bizarre mutilations that Mr. Wynt was reading about in his morning newspaper, with his morning coffee and his favorite donuts. Mary and Michael Carruthers were the latest victims. Blood and mangled clothes were all over their living room, explained the policeman who came to visit that afternoon. But where were the corpses? Did Mr. Wynt know anything? Oddly, his furniture had been in every one of the unlucky households. Maybe the mangled painting was slashed for some weird, ritualistic purpose. An interesting notion, acknowledged the policeman. But what about that trail of blood that ran along the mantel, down the wall beside the fireplace, across the hardwood floor, up the stairs, and into the bedroom? "Did you check underneath the bed?" Mr Wynt wanted to say.
"Did you look in the box springs?" he was aching to blurt out. Right up there, nestled in the wood and stuffing. Did anyone check there? Obviously no one did. What kind of murderer would hide under the bed?
These were the times, when the frustrated policemen left, that Mr. Wynt almost wished he had a nagging wife, or a partner he hated, or some enemy he could murder just for him. Here he was gifted with the perfect murder weapon, and all he could use it for was to murder people he didn't even know whose only crime was shopping in his store. What kind of murders were these? Here he was, the envy of the criminal world, consigned to a lifetime of anonymous victims and petty cash ripoffs.
Syrus painted the finishing touches on a Rockwell forgery and carried it out to the showroom. She hung it between the reproduction grandfather clock and the reproduction rolltop desk, all clean now, not a trace of blood on them. As for the couch--John John had thoroughly scrubbed it and applied a fresh double coat of Dura Flex, so that the next set of blood stains would wash out just as easily. Mr. Wynt had sold this couch six times now, collecting deposits of anywhere from five hundred to one thousand dollars at the close of each sale. And since Syrus had built the couch with John John, using materials that cost maybe eighty dollars, Mr. Wynt liked to think he had made quite a killing!
That evening Mr. Wynt left the showroom and did not return until late. While he was away, Syrus transplanted the older snapdragons in the back warehouse, always being careful to wear rubber gloves when she picked them up and scooped their roots out of the wood. That way they couldn't smell or taste her flesh. She didn't dare set off a feeding frenzy by arousing their hunger.
She transplanted the first bunch into an easy chair, the second bunch into the top drawer of a china closet, and the third bunch along the bottom of a large dining room table. Together they flipped the table on its top, polished the bottom with the special furniture wax, and lay each of the palm-sized creatures on the moist surface, like raw cookie dough on a greased metal sheet. The wood crackled and hissed, as the gnarled, contorted little beasts drove their roots deep beneath the wood grain, like earthworms diving into soft brown mud.
They were just about to flip the table back over when John John squealed. A mottled brown house spider had made its way to the edge of the freshly-waxed wood. John John flipped the spider onto the table bottom with an old chewed pencil and watched closely as it fumbled around blindly between the hungry snapdragons, probing the air with one of its fuzzy front legs. John John screeched with glee at the thought of that one false move, that fatal step which would bring the scaly, bone-hard talons swooping down to crush the little eight-legged sojourner.
But Syrus was a big, strong girl and with one powerful movement she flipped the table back over. John John bawled in disappointment as the spider plopped to the floor and scurried away beneath a colorful oriental rug.
"What are you doing?" invaded a voice from the front door of the warehouse. Mr. Wynt stepped out of the shadows with a small box in his hand. John John ran out of the warehouse, leaving Syrus to face her guardian's wrath alone. But Mr. Wynt did not have time tonight. One week had passed; his deadline had arrived; and the sticky heat outside told him that the dark man would soon appear.
Syrus followed Mr. Wynt into his plush office, and watched while he took the ballerina music box out of the package and set it on his desk. She reached up to touch it.
"Don't touch that!"
She looked at her guardian, puzzled.
"That box is a gift. For a baby."
She still didn't understand.
"A baby." He cradled his arms and rocked them, as though he were cuddling an infant. She smiled and nodded. She took a furniture magazine from a shelf and opened it to the baby accessories section. She pointed to the infant in the wooden high chair.
"Yes," agreed Mr. Wynt. "A baby. Just like that." But then they were interrupted by the sound of familiar footsteps.
"You have the gift?" asked the dark man, removing his gloves and checking his watch.
"Oh yes! Oh yes!" Mr. Wynt hopped to attention and picked up the music box. He wound it with the tiny key and presented the twirling ballerina to the dark man. Syrus was mesmerized by the miniature, hand-carved doll, pirhouetting gracefully around the glass case to the lively notes of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake." The dark man took the box, watched it for a moment with his beady, glassy eyes, then glowered at Mr. Wynt over the ballerina, who was slumping now as the music slowly died.
Suddenly, the dark man cast the gilded glass stage across the room, smashing it into the wood-paneled wall. "A gift for an infant, you imbecile!" he thundered. "An infant boy, not some jealous concubine who needs cajoling!" The dark man whirled around and flew to the door, turning only once to the cowering pair.
"I'll be back. Soon." And he was gone.
Mr. Wynt turned on Syrus at once. "You!" he roared. "You and those goddamned kittens!" He shoved Syrus aside and stormed into the other room. Somehow she knew that he intended no good and she hurried after him, whimpering protests that fell on deaf ears.
He slung an old blanket over the top of her kitten box and carried it into the dark room. She grabbed his arm, begging him, pleading with him in her own verbage-less way. But he could only hear the sound of his own rage and disappointment, ringing so loudly, so unbearably in his head. She wrapped her arms around his waist, then slid down in utter despair and hugged his ankles, crying and moaning. John John even came in and watched silently from a shadowy corner.
"If you would do your work instead of playing with these kittens all day!" Mr. Wynt turned up the lights, exposing row after row of the infuriated snapdragons, rooted in tree logs, some nearly as big as rats. They were snapping their talons, waving their heads, and secreting their gummy saliva. So anxious were some of them that they tried to uproot themselves and attack the intruders, like guard dogs confined behind a chainlink fence.
Wynt raised the box of mewing kittens over his head, tilted it, and flung the entire litter into the starving, gaping jaws of the snapdragons. The kittens were gone, swallowed whole, before Syrus could even catch her breath. She slumped down, gasping and sobbing. Wynt pushed her aside, tossed the box into a corner, and shut off the light. She drug herself next door and leaned her head beneath the window. John John moved over to her cautiously, and for a very long time the two of them sat, staring at the tears which glistened in the moonlight on her hands.
Anger was an emotion alien to Syrus. She couldn't feel it and she couldn't express it, so retaliating against Mr. Wynt for his innumerable misdeeds never really occurred to her. She thought only of pleasing him, of somehow assuaging his frustration and rage. She would bring him coffee, and his favorite donuts. But he only gulped them down thanklessly and went on worrying about the gift, the dark man, and then the gift again.
Syrus remembered the gift too. It was for a small person, a small baby. The gift seemed very important to Mr. Wynt. But as yet he had no gift to give. So, for the next few days, before the dark man returned, Syrus worked, tirelessly fashioning a gift for the infant prince. She was very careful to keep it hidden from Mr. Wynt and only John John was allowed to see it, because he couldn't tell anyway.
The night before the dark man returned, Syrus moved her special gift into the dark room, to keep it out of sight. Mr. Wynt spent most of the evening in the private room, saying something that Syrus couldn't understand and chanting a song that sounded like: MAMMON, BEE-EL-ZEE-BUB, LOOSIFER, LEVIATHAN, ADE MEE IN MY KWEST TO WELCUM YOR ANOYNTED WUN. She understood none of it, although she had heard similar words coming from the private room many times before. She only hoped that Mr. Wynt would be pleased with her surprise.
When Mr. Wynt returned to his office in the sweltering afternoon, the dark man was waiting for him. "Do you have it?" he asked, in a foreboding tone.
"Yes! Oh yes I do!" Mr. Wynt excitedly unwrapped the onyx sculpture and placed it on the desk before the dark man. John John was instantly terrified by it. A boy with horns made of solid gold, grimacing, maybe grinning (one couldn't always tell in stone), wearing a cloak, sitting on a throne bejeweled with emeralds and sapphires, surrounded by scary monsters with ivory horns and big silver teeth.
"Are you out of your mind?!" the dark man bellowed. "Do you honestly think that our master wants to present this image to the world?! Where is your brain, you stupid fool?"
Mr. Wynt opened his mouth to explain, but the dark man drew his dagger before the hapless merchant could utter a word.
"Perhaps a sacrifice would be the best gift." Mr. Wynt backed away as the dark man raised the deadly knife.
Then Syrus entered, pushing her gift on its little casters with John John at her side.
The perfect gift.
A fine, hand-made baby crib, with a sheepskin-padded bottom and the most intricate and lovely designs carved into the stained mahogany. The dark man lowered his dagger and Mr. Wynt wiped his perspiring brow. They all waited in anticipation--Syrus for Mr. Wynt's approval and Mr. Wynt for a reprieve.
Then the dark man did something most out of character--he smiled. At Syrus, at John John, even at Mr. Wynt. "This is perfect!" he pronounced. "Absolutely! I will be the pride of the Igam with this gift! His Highness will probably give me the seventh kingdom!"
Mr. Wynt broke out in nervous, relieved laughter. "I'm so glad...so glad you like it! I wasn't sure. I couldn't be positive that it would turn out....I've been designing it from the very first day."
The dark man lowered his hand to the wooden headrest. Sparks and fire burst out of his palm. An intense, white-hot glow shone through his fingers. When he removed his hand, the smoke cleared to reveal a great red dragon, burned into the wood, with seven heads, each crowned with a diadem.
"It is good," said the dark man. "It is good."
The dark man returned only once after his trip to the eastern country. Syrus noticed something different about him almost immediately. He was much paler than usual, and his hair had thinned. From a distance he smelled like the dead mouse she once found in the attic. His cape was all tattered, his gloves full of holes. As he limped past John John on his way into Mr. Wynt's office, the slight breeze he created carried with it a horrible odor, one they could not have recognized was the fetid stench of a thousand rotting souls.
No one could have known. No one, not even the dark man, could have foretold the exact day, the exact hour when the snapdragons were due to spawn, shooting microscopic spores all over every object within fifty yard's reach. Since the dark room was made of concrete and the door made of steel, many of the spores simply landed and died. And because the logs and the wooden drawers were already so densely populated, any new spores would have had to compete with the older, more established creatures for food and nutrients. Survival of the fittest is an incontestable clause in the law of life, even among these unusual denizens. When Syrus went to water them, the last night's furious spawning was only a memory, with no tangible evidence of ever having occurred. And, when she went to retrieve her handcrafted baby crib from the perfect hiding place, the damned things were just too small to see.
The baby crib. With its moist, luscious, nutrient-rich mahogany. Hidden in the dark room. The only possible refuge for the thousands of tiny spores that covered it. And grew, very slowly at first. In the warehouse. On the cargo plane to Baghdad. In the truck that was part of the caravan that traveled to the prince's palace in the faraway eastern land. And in the little prince's bedroom, on those warm humid nights, while he was sound asleep on his sheepskin crib mat, all covered up with his silken blanket, unattended but for two armed sentries stationed just outside his door.
Thousands of microspores (of course, many died, as the law of averages dictates) becoming hundreds of baby snapdragons becoming dozens of ravenous, full-grown beasts, all in the space of a few fateful, historic days.
And a plump, well-fed, fleshy little prince with pink, bite-sized fingers. Who could be absolutely assured that his hand-made crib was of the finest quality, one of the last genuine Nicholas J. Wynt originals. Who could be assured that the Lord moves in mysterious ways, even among the darkest of his creatures.
Syrus and John John did not miss Mr. Wynt much.