The chime rang as the shop door opened, letting in a blast of frosty January air along with two men, one tall and the other a bit shorter. Jeremiah looked up from his seat behind the front counter. "Close the door, it's cold out there," he said.
"Cold as a witch's tit in a brass brassiere," agreed the taller man, with a grin. Jeremiah scowled and looked down at his laptop again.
"You do have a way with words, Garnet," said the other fellow, pleasantly. He pushed one slim hand beneath the skirts of his loden green overcoat and produced a spotless white handkerchief with which to wipe his fogged eyeglasses. "We're a bit early, I suppose. I'm sorry, Jem."
Jeremiah grunted and saved his work. "No, right on time. God forbid you should ever be anything else, Theo." He shut down the laptop and put it into its case, then stepped into the back corridor to lock it up in the safe. When he came back, shrugging into his own winter coat, Theodore was in the same spot, serenely gazing around at the stock on display: urns and paintings and knives. Garnet was hunkered down in front of a glass case, examining some phallic amulets and snickering.
"Moron," said Jerremiah and whacked the idiot on the head with a rolled-up newspaper. Garnet rose to his full height, looming over Jeremiah.
"You're mean when you're hungry, Blondie," he said, rubbing his head.
"I think we'll all be the better for a good meal," said Theodore, placid as usual, as he held open the door and waved the others outward. Garnet started after Jeremiah and then froze.
"What?" snapped Jeremiah. Garnet was staring into a freestanding glass case at a small ceramic urn, olive green with small animal figures worked around the top rim.
"Damn, that thing's creepy," he said.
"Chinese, isn't it?" said Theodore, peering back through the doorway.
"Yeah, a funerary urn," said Jeremiah. "From the fifth century. A nice piece. Nothing creepy about it. Your soldier boy has an over-active imagination. Let's go, Spooky."
He pushed Garnet through the door and locked it behind them.
The lights of the shop dimmed automatically a few minutes later. The Sandoz Collection was quiet, as it was most evenings, but somehow, this time, it didn't feel empty. The soul in the jar was quiescent but no longer asleep. The man with the red hair, the soldier, had heard him. Eventually he would talk to his friends. Then, perhaps, the Void Child would be able to see the sun again.
The Greek restaurant Sidero was busy without being too noisy, which was one of the reasons Jeremiah and Theodore liked it. They gave the waitress their orders, and Garnet flirted with her until Theodore got tired of it and apparently stepped on his husband foot’s. Garnet sighed as she went off, and Jeremiah smirked at him.
"How is the business with the will going, Jem?" asked Theodore quietly.
Jeremiah stopped smiling. "That man will not give up," he answered. "Sandhu got another letter from his attorney. Knight is pushing a lawsuit."
"Oh, crap," said Garnet. Typical: he was such a bleeding heart. His open sympathy made Jeremiah feel prickly.
"What does Ms. Sandhu think your chances are?" Theodore's cooler reaction was much easier to handle.
“She figures there's no problem with anything from the house. Knight's academic association with Pop won't be easily dismissed. They worked together for almost two decades, co-authored a bunch of papers. The will specified that 'my academic papers and all associated materials should go to my junior colleague.' Given that I didn't follow in Pop's footsteps, Sandhu thinks no judge is going to decide that I should have any of those books and papers."
The waitress was back with the mezze Theodore had ordered: baba ganoush and tzatziki with fresh pita, miniature spanakopitas, and squash fritters. Garnet and Theodore loaded their plates, but Jeremiah didn't feel hungry. Theodore glanced at him and then put a fritter and a piece of pita on his plate. Jeremiah scowled and broke off a tiny piece of the bread. The smell as he popped it into his mouth woke his appetite a bit, as Theodore had no doubt intended. He was a sneaky bastard.
"So why didn't you go into the shrink business, anyway?" asked Garnet.
Jeremiah glared at him. "None of your damn business," he said.
"It doesn't matter at this point, in any case," said Theodore. "Do you think Sandhu and her team are up to the task, Jem? I can ask around for another firm." Theodore was a tax accountant and sometime community activist: he knew a lot of people.
"I trust her, I think," said Jeremiah. "Her sense of honor's offended by Knight's attitude on this."
Garnet finished wiping out the baba ganoush dish with the last pita wedge. "Hey, yeah. Wasn't this Knight guy involved with some dirty laundry? Bad stuff with kids? Your lawyer wouldn't like that, right?"
"Hm," said Theodore. "Nothing was ever proved, was it?"
"No," said Jeremiah. "I believe every word of the accusations, though. He always gave me the creeps, when I was a kid."
"I bet," Garnet muttered, "Hey, here's our dinner, guys."
To Jeremiah's relief, the talk turned to food after that. They made short work of the kebabs and seafood. Jeremiah sipped coffee while his friends chatted over their honey pastries: local politics and sports and the latest silly episodes at the tavern where Garnet tended bar. It was sleeting when they left the restaurant, and Theodore had to put the top up on his Jeep before driving home. Jeremiah waved the other two off as soon as he made it safely to the porch.
The old house was dark and still and empty as he opened the door. It had never been noisy: Conrad had been a quiet worker. But his presence had filled the place, warm and quirky and absolutely alive, the way most people never were. He had picked out everything himself, from the massive desk in his home office to the sheets in the bedrooms and the antiquities that rubbed shoulders with the volumes on the built-in shelves in the living room. The coffee table had fossils arranged beneath its glass top, and good prints of classic paintings faced originals by local artists on the walls in all the rooms except the kitchen and the baths, where colorful tiles from around the world served instead.
Jeremiah hung up his coat and climbed the stairs to go to bed. He had kept his childhood room, leaving Conrad's as it was. Once a week, earnest Consuelo came in and tidied everything up, as she had since before Jeremiah was born. Otherwise, his foster father's bedroom had been untouched for almost ten years, since the morning after Conrad had been killed and fifteen-year-old Jem had cast himself facedown on the patchwork quilt and sobbed unashamedly until he was nearly sick. The next morning, Consuelo had taken the quilt to be cleaned, and Jeremiah had never cried again.
His own room was plain and spartan. He had long since put away his collection of model planes, which had been assembled with—or perhaps despite—Conrad's genially inept assistance. An eighteenth-century Chinese brush painting was the only decoration on the pale gold walls: it had been the first antiquity he had picked out and identified himself, in a dusty junk shop near Wooten College, when he was fourteen. On the dresser was a glass case of animal-shaped Japanese netsuke that had always enchanted him as a child, and which Conrad had made officially his on his eleventh birthday. His bed was narrow and had a white candlewick bedspread, and the plain wooden nightstand next to it had an old-fashioned brass accountant's lamp with a green glass shade.
Jeremiah stripped and washed up in the hall bath, as he had since earliest childhood. It was chilly, so he put on pajamas before he switched off the ceiling light and climbed into bed. He read for a few minutes: Yu's translation of Journey to the West. He'd not read it for several years, but was just as annoyed by Sun Wukong as he had always been. After the monkey was kicked out of heaven, Jeremiah closed the volume and placed it carefully on the nightstand, his reading glasses beside it. He switched off the light and stared into the darkness. The crescent moon was no doubt hidden by the sleety clouds, and in any case, the room had thick, warm brown drapes to keep out the cold.
For a moment, Conrad's face swam against the shadows on the barely-perceived ceiling, and then Jenkin Knight's, with its ironic, sly smile. Had Conrad trusted his brilliant young colleague? Jeremiah's foster father had always seemed a sharp judge of character, for all his quirks and apparent naiveté. If Jeremiah's suspicions about Knight's unethical research projects were true, it would have been impossible for Conrad to have been unaware of what sort of a man his star pupil really was.
Hell, I'll never sleep if I keep this up.
Deliberately, he turned his thoughts. Conrad had started him on Chinese when he was only four. Now, in the quiet dark, he chanted to himself the Chinese translation of the Heart Sutra. He sometimes wondered that he found this soothing, but he did.
There is no truth of suffering …
His thoughts unraveled and his tension drifted and blew away. Jeremiah slept.
Hands pressed against his chest, gentle and yet demanding. The palms were calloused and warm. "I know you're not asleep," said a voice, a young man's voice. "Open your eyes. I've been waiting for you for so long!"
Someone was sitting on Jeremiah's bed. His hair was long and tousled and walnut-brown. His eyes were wrong: they were golden and had slit pupils like a cat’s. He licked his lips, and Jeremiah could see sharp canine teeth, like a leopard's. He was wearing … nothing that Jeremiah could see.
"Who are you?" asked Jeremiah, and the intruder grinned.
"You know me, but you don't remember that you know. You're my Sun." He slid his hands down Jeremiah's chest to his belly. Jeremiah's groin was warm and alive, his cock heavy and stiff. The young man had sharp claws instead of nails on his fingers, but Jeremiah felt no fear. The familiar stranger bent over him, and their lips touched. Jeremiah felt the tip of his tormentor's tongue against his lips. For a moment, he held out, and then he thought, why bother? He let his mouth soften.
He'd never done this. The little incident three years ago with Theodore, both of them bereft and socially backward, had been a simple matter of groping hands. Jeremiah had no idea what Theo’s thoughts at the time had been: they'd never talked about it afterward. For his part, kissing would have made the whole thing too, real, too important.
Now, he knew that he had been right, that night with Theo. This was all too real, and it felt like the most important thing he had ever done. As their tongues touched, warm fingers stroked their way down across sensitive skin and through down that became coarse hair. A hand took Jeremiah in a firm grasp. He lasted for no longer than half a dozen strokes and came with a sorry little whimper.
"That's not all I can do," whispered the lad with the golden eyes.
"What d'you mean?" Jeremiah's voice was a ragged whisper.
The warm lips smiled, showing white, sharp teeth. "I can grant wishes."
"Th-that's ridiculous," said Jeremiah.
The smile vanished. The perverse imp looked young and bereft, as though his heart was breaking. "Don't—" he said.
Jeremiah's eyes opened again. He was alone. The room was still and empty.
His pajama pants were warm and damp over his crotch.
Jeremiah cursed and sat up. Of all the—. He wasn't prone to wet dreams, and his nightmares usually involved Conrad, not demonic imps with golden eyes. He rolled out of bed and stripped off the soiled pajamas bottoms, shivering as he mopped himself clean with the dry parts of the fabric. He didn't have any others, and by the time he located a pair of sweatpants, he was chilled through. It took a long time for him to fall back to sleep.
He was tired and absent-minded the next day at work. Fortunately none of his significant clients came by, and with the help of his part-time clerk, Mayra, he was able to handle the casual browsers more or less on autopilot. They probably thought him rude and inattentive, but he couldn't bring himself to care. The cleaning firm arrived as usual at 6:00, and he was completely unable to concentrate on his orders and accounts while they vacuumed and polished. He'd have to come in early and handle them.
Supper was carryout ramen from the place halfway between the shop and the house. He ate in the kitchen, on the little table where he'd often eaten with Conrad when there were no guests. At least Garnet wasn't there to pick on him about the mayonnaise he liked to add. He found himself nodding off before he'd eaten more than half the bowlful. He debated saving it, but there was no point in even pretending he was going to eat day-old ramen.
As he got up to empty the bowl down into the garbage disposal, his eye was caught by the red message light blinking on the house phone line on the counter by the door to the dining room. Damn. Most people called him on the cell.
"Jeremiah, we have a date for the hearing on Dr. Knight's challenge," said Sharda Sandhu's voice, slightly scratchy and tinny from the old tape. "It's Friday. Sorry for the short notice, but I figured you'd rather get it over with. It's 10 o'clock in the morning at the Central Courthouse, hearing room 2. Let me know if there's any problem with attending. If you show up at 9:00, we can go over the papers: I have room 112 reserved. See you."
The attorney sounded tense and worried, and her Punjabi accent was worse than usual. Damn. Better not have any disturbing dreams between now and then. I don't want to be in any kind of fog for the hearing.
After a restless half hour, he slept soundly that night. It was just as well, for the shop was quite busy for the next few days. The highlight was a meeting with a representative of the Eaton Gallery of Asian Art, who was interested in a nineteenth-century Javanese angklung that Jeremiah had obtained last year at an estate sale. The musical instrument was in great shape, but it was also large and took up a lot of room in the shop's stock room. A deal was struck for what Jeremiah considered a very nice price. The museum sent a truck to pick the piece up on Thursday.
He treated himself to sushi for dinner at a quiet little place with only twenty-two seats. When he got home, he did his best to write up some notes for Sandhu. The futility of it gave him a headache. He was Conrad's heir in spirit and heart, but it was foolish to pretend that he had inherited his stepfather's academic work.
"I see you haven't signed up for the classes I expected," said the long-ago voice of his high school counselor. "Your grades in world history and biology were great, and you did well in everything else that mattered. Now you're registered for accounting, statistics, and honors economics. This looks like a business school track."
"Someone has to keep track of things," he'd muttered.
"But your father—"
Jeremiah winced. All that outburst had brought him was a reminder that if he wanted to continue to live as an emancipated minor, he needed to act responsibly. Still, no one had interfered when he went to the state university for the business program, instead of to Wooten for an academic degree. By his junior year, he'd put enough distance between himself and Conrad's death enough to add an art history minor. No psychology. No anthropology. Nothing that close to Conrad.
He looked down at the notepad, then detached the top sheet and tore it into tiny, tiny pieces. He should really get a shredder, he thought. For now, he dropped the pieces into the wastepaper basket, watching as they fluttered down. He snagged an old art text from one of the bookshelves, turned out the office lights, and climbed the stairs to go to bed.
The art book was heavy and not comfortable on his chest as he leafed through it in bed, but it was soothing and familiar. Pottery and porcelain, domestic works and ceremonial pieces. His eyelids were growing heavy. No wild-haired youths with golden eyes tonight, and certainly no one in his bed. Dynasties, kingdoms: Tang, Liao, Yuan, Ming ….
The sky was a brassy blue, and the sandy ground stretched away, empty, in all directions. He was trudging down a road. "Why a fucking desert?" he said.
"You said, not in your bed."
Damn it, he had not wanted to hear that voice again. "I said no wild-haired kids, either," he pointed out, without turning to see what was following him.
"It's not so wild, tonight. I combed it."
"I don't give a rat's ass! Get out of my head!"
"You want, you know. You want so much. That's why you can hear me."
“The hell," said Jeremiah, so angry that he stopped and turned around. "Yeah, I want! I want my foster father not to be dead! But he's been dead for nearly a decade. Is that a wish you can grant me? I don't think so!”
The young man was there, all right. His hair was mostly tamed by a golden diadem, and Jeremiah was not at all surprised to see that his ears were pointed. He was wearing white trousers, cropped at mid-shin, and a wrapped white shirt without sleeves. His feet were bare and clawed like his hands. He seemed to be thinking about Jeremiah’s demand.
"I could try," he said. "But it might not be him. It's hard to move a living soul through time."
Jeremiah was chilled by that answer. He was also ridiculously disappointed. It was not as though he really believed in wish-granting elves. He turned away and trudged along the road again, ignoring the faint sound of bare feet in the dust behind him. "Where are we going, anyway?" he asked, at last.
"What kind of an answer is that? And why the hell am I bothering? None of this is real." He stopped walking. This was a dream, right? Maybe he could wake himself up.
"I thought you might remember me, if we went west," said the kid. "But we can stop if you want to." Suddenly Jeremiah saw a grove of trees. It hadn't been there a minute ago. A small tent stood there, too, just visible through the branches.
Yeah, a dream. "I bet I can wake myself up, if I try, you ape."
Now the youth looked cross. "Yeah, maybe! And then where would ya be? Alone in an empty house."
"At least it'd be quiet. And I'd be getting some rest. It's an important day tomorrow."
"I could rub your back," the kid wheedled. "You'd sleep a lot better."
"I bet that's not all you'd rub, damn it. You know, if the other person doesn't want it, that's rape.”
The young man's mouth dropped open. "No!" he said, after a moment, sounding appalled. "You wanted …"
Jeremiah was pretty sure it wasn't what he'd wanted. But who knew what he'd been dreaming that night, before this little monster took over? "And now I don't want. All I want is a good night's sleep so I can be fresh in the morning for this hearing."
"Because you want your foster father's writings, right? Is that what you wish?"
Suddenly, dream or not, Jeremiah considered it. But that would mean … what, exactly?
"How would that work?"
The kid considered for a moment. The landscape started fading, as though he wasn't able to hold onto the picture while he was really thinking. "A lot of ways. That other scholar could decide he didn't want the work. The judge could decide the other one didn't have a right to it … ."
"The hell. You'd mess with their minds?"
"Well, yeah. Minds are much easier than time."
Jeremiah felt a little nauseated. "No!"
"Well, then I could just kill the other scholar. A vehicle could hit him. It happens all the time."
"What the hell is wrong with you? That's murder! And think about the driver. He might even have to go to prison for it."
The young man looked confused. Finally, he said "Maybe … your counsellor could find another paper. That said the will was changed."
"Do you know enough about law to make that work?"
"It's magic. It would work."
"This is ridiculous. Why do you even think you have the power to do things like that?"
The golden eyes looked at him sadly. "It's a curse. I did something, I don't remember what. But I'm being punished for it. I can't do anything for myself, but I can grant other people's wishes. Why won't you let me do something for you? "
"This is all just wrong. And stupid. Leave me alone and let me rest. And no, that's not a wish. It's an order." There had to be a way out of this. He needed to stop interacting with this dream. He closed his eyes and started chanting a sutra, filling his head with words that he controlled himself.
The kid sighed. "I've been waiting for you forever," he said.
Jeremiah opened his eyes. He was in bed, in his own room, in the empty dark. The clock said four in the morning.
Waiting for me? I've never seen that creature before in my life. "Damn it," he said, out loud.
He was not surprised that the alarm went off just after he'd finally gone back to sleep.
Of course it was sleeting. No one in his right mind would expect the weather to be reasonable in early February, but Jeremiah wasn't feeling especially sane at the moment, so he cursed the weather in his thoughts as he backed Conrad's old Toyota out of the slick driveway onto the marginally less slippery road. He had to park in the far corner of the courthouse lot: apparently Friday was a popular day for hearings. He tiptoed and slid his way to the door, signed in at the security desk, and found his attorney in the designated room.
It was a small conference room rather than an office. The scuffed table, now occupied by Sandhu's notes and laptop, was surrounded by half a dozen mismatched chairs. The windowless walls were a faded aqua, decorated only with a No Smoking sign, an institutional wall clock, and framed portraits of the state's governor and attorney general. It smelled of dust and cheap, stale coffee.
Sandhu glanced up from her notes and then gave him a piercing look. "You look terrible, Jeremiah." Her deep voice was filled with real concern. He must really look like shit, to call forth that reaction from the unflappable lawyer, though her face was implacable as usual. He sometimes wondered whether changing her expression pulled at the burn scars on her cheeks. "I can get you some coffee, if that would help."
"I've already had two cups," he answered as he closed the door, trying not to sound surly. He pulled out a chair across from her and dropped into it. "What have you got for me?"
"Not much." She reached out and grabbed a manila folder, opened it, and flipped through a couple of pages. "I hesitate to bring this up, but it may be your only chance to contest your foster-father's distribution of bequests. Dean Cousineau was happy to give us deposition to the effect that Professor Sandoz' erratic moods and absentmindedness were increasing during the last year of his life."
Jeremiah didn't remember getting to his feet, although the clatter of the chair as it fell to the cracked linoleum behind him was shockingly loud. His fists were clenched. "That shit-eating bitch!"
She glanced at the door and sighed. "Do sit down, Jeremiah. I thought as much, but otherwise, we have no real road forward. All his other colleagues that we interviewed expressed surprise that you did not choose your father's field of study, especially since he was quite proud of your early interest. We have reason to believe that Knight's people have been interviewing your advisors at State, and I imagine that they all said that you never expressed interest in anthropology or psychology while you were in college."
He sat down again, reluctantly, and stared down at the scratched tabletop. The minutes ticked by. Sandhu waited patiently. "That's right," he said at last. "I didn't want the reminder that he wasn't there. But fuck trying to prove that he was nuts. He was more sane than either of us will ever be and sure as hell more sane than that freaky bastard who's getting his work."
She raised her eyebrows slowly, a small movement of her impassive face. "He may be all that you imply, but there are a dozen witnesses to swear that he and the late professor had an excellent working relationship. Cordial, many said. Dean Cousineau said that your father regarded him as a protégé, if not another son."
Jeremiah swallowed hard, feeling ill. "She would."
"As you say," Sandhu agreed. "Nevertheless, I doubt that the judge will worry overmuch about their relationship, when so many others corroborate that they were close at least in professional terms."
"Then that's that," he said. He crossed his arms, leaned back in his chair, and closed his eyes. "Not sure why we're bothering with this at all."
"Well, you wished it. The judge cleared time in her schedule for it. Knight's attorneys are already on site, no doubt. It would look far worse to walk out now. I will make the statement on your behalf, if you prefer, and the whole matter can be put to bed. You will appear as no more than a loving foster child who has previously had difficulty with giving up the last vestiges of his beloved parent but who has now had wiser thoughts, as one would expect from a successful small business owner. We can be out in under an hour, and you can leave this particular pain behind."
There was another long pause. Jeremiah was so very weary, a weariness that threatened to put him to sleep right there, in this hard wooden chair, in this room filled with empty wishes. "Do it," he said then. "I trust you."
He heard Sandhu gathering her papers and folders together, squaring off the stack, slipping it into her briefcase, powering down the computer. "I wish I could bring you peace," she said, her voice soft now. "But I think that must be your own task."
"Always is," he answered. "For everyone." He sat up and rubbed his eyes. "Time to go yet?"
"We may as well." She led him out into the dimly lit corridor and down to a grander hallway. The judge was waiting for them in a small courtroom. She nodded at them, a statuesque woman in her early forties, at a guess. Hon. Mercedes Bosworthy read the nameplate on her lectern. Sandhu gestured Jeremiah to one of the long tables facing the judge, and he sank down into the leather-covered chair and waited.
Knight and his crew kept them waiting until five minutes after the hour. Jeremiah figured it was on purpose. The judge drily reprimanded the chief attorney, who was a wizened little gnome of a man with a deeply cynical face, and then she rapped for order. Knight sat up straight in his chair with a carefully serious expression on his face, like a comic actor miming the part of a well-behaved client.
Bosworthy read out the particulars of the case: the statements made in the will, the circumstances of Conrad's death, Jeremiah's challenge, the details of the charges made to both parties in order to come to this hearing. She then requested Jeremiah's current statement.
"Your Honor," said Sandhu, rising. She was a tall, athletic woman, but somehow the judge made her look almost slight in her severely cut dark gray suit. "My client has instructed me to speak for him."
Bosworthy looked at him over her spectacles. "Is that so?"
Hell, yeah, Jeremiah thought, but in deference to Sandhu's hard work, he sat up and answered clearly. "Yes, Your Honor."
The judge nodded at Sandhu, who seemed to plant her feet and draw a deep breath. "Your Honor, my client, being of sound mind, has reconsidered the matter and is no more of a mind to pursue the challenge to the bequests made to Professor Jensen Knight in the last will and testament of the late Professor Conrad Homer Sandoz."
There was a stifled noise from the other table. It sounded almost like a surprised titter. Jeremiah kept his eyes rigidly focused on the judge's nameplate.
"Professor Knight, are you quite all right?" asked the judge. Her stern voice belied the concerned words.
Knight coughed. "Yes, Your Honor," he said at last.
"Mr. Sandoz," said the judge, and her voice was gentler now. Jeremiah decided that he would not try to meet her eyes.
"Yes, Your Honor," he said.
"You are determined to drop this matter, as your attorney has indicated."
"Yes, Your Honor." The words seemed to struggle as they came up out of his throat.
"Well then," she said, and began the rapid drone of her decision. Jeremiah did not attempt to follow her words; they seemed to be a meaningless gabble in his ears. At last she finished: "… and the challenge dismissed in its entirety." She struck the block with her gavel. "Court adjourned."
He wanted to break loose, run out of there as fast as he could, but he sat, rooted, until Sandhu said softly, "Jeremiah?"
He looked up. Knight was approaching their table, his face relaxed and smiling, his eyes twinkling like twin cubic zirconias, bright and fake. Sandhu was attempting to come around the table and intercept him, but she had moved too late. Knight extended a hand to Jeremiah. "Corey, it's so good we could come to an agreement about this. I know it's just what dear Conrad wanted."
Jeremiah put his own hands in his trouser pockets. No one but Conrad had ever been allowed to use Jeremiah's birth name, the only thing his mother had left with him when she abandoned him at Riverside Hospital as an infant. Yet Knight never passed up an opportunity to call him by it. "Yeah, that's what he said in the will. All there in black and white. Enjoy. Are we finished here, Ms. Sandhu?"
"Indeed, Mr. Sandoz." The look she gave Knight was opaque and forbidding at the same time. "Perhaps the roads have been properly treated by now. If you'll excuse us, Professor."
She hefted her briefcase and stepped forward. Knight had to stand aside or have her run into him. He stepped back, smirked, and gave her a half bow. "Farewell, counselor. See you, Corey."
Jeremiah followed her out. She walked him to his car. At least the sleet had stopped. "What an odious creature he is. I hope you're heading home or out for lunch, Jeremiah."
"Can't. I have a shop to run." He unlocked the Toyota.
"Jeremiah…." She was frowning, a forbidding expression that made her all dark eyebrows and scars.
"I'd rather keep busy, Sharda. Thanks for everything." She stepped away, still frowning, as he climbed in, closed the door, and drove off.
He arrived home on autopilot, parked and locked the car, and walked to the shop without stopping at the house at all. Mayra looked up from her seat at the counter as he came in, her lips parting to greet him, and then she shut her mouth and dropped her eyes back to her magazine. He wondered what his face looked like. "Any problems?" he asked.
"No, Mr. Sandoz. Those boxes came from Fontana Importers."
"Good. I'll take over out here; you can unpack them and check the inventory."
The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur. Mayra headed off to supper and her evening class. Jeremiah switched off the window lights and stared at the blocked and framed wedding kimono on the left wall, unseeing. Knight would have everything Conrad had been working on, including all the strange little mysteries of the fabled Tenchi Kaigen sutras, which had been entrusted to him by a visiting scholar a year before he died. If anything was holy to Jeremiah, they were, even if only because Conrad had treasured them so.
His phone rang. He pulled it out of his pocket: Theo. "Hey."
"Jeremiah? Where are you?”
"At the shop. Oh. Shit."
"Yes, we're waiting for you."
"I … ."
There was a pause. Then, more gently, Theo said: "What happened? You don't sound good."
"The hearing … I told Sandhu to drop the case."
"Oh dear. Why?"
"She said there wasn't anything that would stick to challenge Knight, given how the will was written. And he'd gotten all sorts of material from people at the college. I didn't want to have his attorneys bringing up some of that stuff."
"I see. Well. I don't think you sound like you should be here at Riqi's. We'll pick up some take-out and come take it and you home."
Jeremiah wanted to argue, on principle, but what was the point? "Whatever you say."
They arrived half an hour later, and both gave him looks that made him want to hit them, except neither one of them said a word, so he didn't have an excuse. There was no conversation on the short drive home, but once they were in the house and Theo was setting out the meal on the kitchen table, he began to make some small talk. The bags from the bar and grill turned out to contain a six-pack of some excellent beer as well as the food, so eventually Jeremiah was able to put in a word or two.
When the food was gone and they were each starting on a second beer, Theodore finally cut the chase. "Jeremiah, you look like you haven't slept in a week."
It was none of his business. Except that it was. They'd been through a lot together. "I have, but I've had a couple of really bad nights, too."
"Have you been ill?"
"No." He considered asking Garnet to make himself scarce, but the goon really had been on his best behavior. And he was Theodore's husband, legally, as of last summer. "Finish the beers. I don't want to talk in here."
Each chugged or sipped, as was his wont. Garnet suppressed a belch as Theodore and Jeremiah finished theirs at a more sedate rate. "Sorry, man."
"Yeah, I know you and gracious living aren't on a first-name basis," Jeremiah said, genially enough. "Come on."
He led them into the office and settled into the desk chair. Theo pulled up one of the side chairs, and Garnet sank into the deep, comfortably worn reading chair without bothering to turn on the lamp.
"So," Theodore prompted. "You haven't slept well—some of the time."
"Yeah, I've been having these creepy dreams."
"About your foster father?"
"No. About some wild-looking young guy. A real little monster: pointed ears, claws, the works."
"Chinese-looking guy?" asked Garnet.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“I bet he was an Asian-looking guy. Like Theo.” Theo raised his eyebrows.
Jeremiah snorted. “Yeah, well, he had golden eyes. Not green like your man here.” He rubbed a hand over his face. God, he needed a decent night’s sleep. “Yeah, I guess you could say he looked Asian. Except for the eye color.”
“What did this person do, in the dream?” asked Theo.
“He—” Jeremiah stopped, but it was too late: a humiliating blush spread over his cheeks.
“Oh, dear,” said Theo. Garnet smirked.
“Fuck you,” Jeremiah snapped, glowering at Garnet. “It wasn’t my damn idea. And then he starting telling me he could grant wishes.”
“Like a genie? Oh, crap, yeah. That creepy jar in your shop, Blondie! You said it was Chinese.”
“Don’t jump to conclusions so fast, moron. You’ll give yourself whiplash. Why the hell should my nightmares have anything to do with that funerary jar?”
“When did you get it?”
“Tuesday, when you freaked out about it. It came that morning, and Mayra just finished setting it up before she left.”
“And when did the little golden-eyed freak start molesting you in your sleep?”
Jeremiah smacked the desktop. Theo gave Garnet a look that promised no good later on, when they were alone together. But Garnet was undeterred. “Well?”
Jeremiah picked up the ugly frog ashtray that Conrad had inherited from an old professor. Conrad had used it as a paperweight. “OK. Yeah, it was that night.”
“Look, Sandoz, I’m just trying to help. You look like crap.”
Theo looked thoughtful. “Jem, even if it’s just some aspect of your unconscious mind bubbling up, it wouldn’t hurt to try to interact with your dream nemesis. You might be able to resolve whatever is bothering you, deep down.”
“Hell, I know what’s bothering me! That pervert is getting all my Pop’s life's work!”
“It’s not like you were going to do anything with it, Sandoz,” said Garnet.
“Garnet Kevin Schuller, drop that, or you will regret it,” said Theo. His eyes were smoldering. Garnet froze for a second and then shrugged.
“Look, why shouldn’t he be a genie? That would be so cool.” He got up and stretched. Theo’s implacable gaze wavered and then roamed over his husband’s lanky body. The two of them were such saps for each other.
“Suit yourself, you jackass,” said Jeremiah, mildly.
“Of course, it sucks to be a genie. Trapped in a bottle, stuck answering wishes.”
“Pity you can’t focus any of that sympathy on the real human being in front of you instead of some figment of my imagination.”
“You should just try talking to him, asking what you should do so he can escape,” Garnet said, leaning over the desk and invading Jeremiah’s personal space.
“Back off, you redneck asshole.”
“Damnit, Sandoz, I’m just trying to pull you outta that black hole you’re wallowing in, and you just wanna go right back into it!” Garnet slammed a fist down onto the desktop. There was a splintering cracking sound.
“You goddamned jerk, what the hell are you doing to my Pop’s stuff?” Jeremiah leaped to his feet. He felt like his head was about to explode.
“Garnet, you’ve broken it!” said Theo, horrified.
“What the hell? That desktop has got to be a good two inches thick!” Garnet squatted down to examine the messy dent. Jeremiah picked up the ashtray again and raised it purposefully.
“Don’t even think about it, Blondie,” said Garnet, without looking up. “Hey, something’s weird here. Th’ wood’s less than half an inch thick and there’s a space underneath.”
Jeremiah lowered the ashtray. “What the hell?”
Theo came over to look. “It looks like it should open up into that left-hand drawer, Jem.”
“I went through all those drawers.”
“May I pull it out?”
“I’ll do it.” Jeremiah drew the drawer out slowly and laid it on the desktop “There’s nothing weird about it.” It was full of office miscellany: boxes of staples, rolls of tape, a couple of file card boxes, some fountain pen refills.
“No, there is,” said Garnet. “It’s nowhere near long enough to reach to the back of the desk. You’ve got like eight or nine inches to spare.”
“Oh,” said Theo. “Shall I … ?”
“Let me,” said Garnet. “My arms and fingers are longer.” Jeremiah shrugged and scooted the desk chair back. Garnet knelt down and reached back into the space left by the drawer.
“Oh, yeah, there’s something weird here, all right. Like a box, and some kinda mechanism. Lemme … .” He was still for a moment, and they could hear the faint whisper of his fingertips over wood and perhaps metal. Then there was a click and the hushed thump of an object striking flesh. “Got ya something, Sandoz,” said Garnet, and slowly pulled back his arm. The splintery pieces sticking up from the hole in the desktop wavered, and a couple of them fell in.
Garnet was holding a shallow wooden tray. In it were a few splinters of wood and a tan clasp envelope, the sort used to mail or store documents. He held it out to Jeremiah. “Looks like your dad left you somethin’ else, man.”
Jeremiah reached for it. He felt light-headed. The envelope seemed to contain at least several pieces of paper. He undid the clasp and opened it.
Inside were several sheets of typescript and three plastic document protectors. The documents within the translucent plastic were thick and crinkled. Jeremiah set the items down carefully on the desk and then slowly undid one of the document protectors. “It’s … a sutra, I think.”
He set it back on the desk and looked through the other materials. “These are Pop’s working notes on these sutras, with his first stabs at translations.”
“That was his last big project, wasn’t it?” asked Theo. “Wasn’t Knight supposed to get all that?”
Jeremiah’s heart seemed to stop. Garnet laughed. “Hah, no! Didn’t the lawyer say that the will just specified by location? Everything in the office at the college is Knight’s, everything in the house is Sandoz’! Knight can go boo hoo. And it’s not like he even knows this is here, right?”
Jeremiah found that he could breathe again. “I think you’re right. I should do an inventory at some point but … I think Sandhu said it could be confidential.”
Theo laughed, a genuine and charming laugh instead of his usual mannered chuckle. “How wonderful! Perhaps you’ll sleep better tonight, Jem.”
“Speaking of that, maybe we should leave you to it, Blondie?” Garnet looking smug and expansive.
For once, Jeremiah felt forgiving. “Yeah, maybe I can get some sleep. Hate to throw you out, Theo, but…”
“Don’t be concerned about us, Jem.” Theo was already stepping out into the hall to get his coat. Garnet followed after him, still grinning. Jeremiah waved them off.
But as the door shut, Garnet stopped it for a moment. “It wouldn’t hurt to ask the genie what you can do for him, ya know.”
“Shut it down, cockroach,” said Jeremiah.
After he heard the Jeep pull out and drive off, Jeremiah went back to the office and wrapped the materials from the secret drawer in a clean towel and then tucked them into his seldom-used briefcase. He got his own coat on and left the house, locking the door behind him. The night was very cold. He climbed into the Toyota and drove to the shop.
All the storefronts were still and dark. He locked the door behind him and looked around. The ornate funerary vessel lurked on its stand in the case. Now, with no one else to distract him, he thought he could feel what had so bothered Garnet. The thing seemed almost another presence in the room.
Jeremiah lowered the blinds on the front windows and then turned on the main light for the store’s front room and the spotlight for the vessel. He undid the briefcase and laid the three sutras out on the counter. The creature that haunted him—if it was a creature, and not some creepy aspect of his own unconscious—was bound by a curse. “I think … the Maten sutra. Power over evil.”
He read over Conrad’s notes, then drew out the sutra itself. The characters were of primitive forms, but as he started to work back and forth with the notes and the translation, he began to get the knack of reading them. He drew a deep breath and began to read aloud.
The lights in the shop seemed to dim and flicker for a moment, but then strengthened and flared with a warm, golden tone. The vessel trembled on its stand, then stilled. As he started the last stanzas, a vapor gathered above the lid, then drifted down through the glass to the floor before the stand. When the final words rang out, the little cloud stretched upward to nearly the height of a man, then solidified. The creature from Jeremiah’s dream stood there, eyes closed.
The eyelids flickered and the golden eyes opened. The angular, wild face smiled with simple happiness. “I knew you’d come for me.”
“Moron. What’s your name, anyway?”
The joy faded from his expression. “He called me Void Child.”
“The one who put me in there.”
“That’s not a lot to go on.”
The Void Child looked wretched. “I can’t remember.”
“Forget all that. I’ve got a plan to get you to stop bothering me. Can you still grant wishes?”
The youth closed his eyes again and seemed to concentrate for a moment. “I think so.”
“If I give you some conditions before I make my wishes, can you work with that?”
“I guess, as long as I understand what you mean.”
Jeremiah drew a deep breath. “OK. We’ll give it a shot. I want all of these three wishes to go off at the same time. Can you do that?”
“Then listen. I want you to be entirely free of this curse of yours after you have granted these wishes.”
The kid’s eyes widened. “I … I think I can do that.”
“Second, I want you to have a pleasant place in this world, in this time.”
“That’s a tough one.”
“Mmm—yeah. I can see it.”
“Good. And last … .”
The world went still, except for their breathing.
“I want—damn it. Yes, I do. I want us both to meet again, before a year has passed.”
“Uh, that might—might not work out the way you want.”
“Wish harder, monkey. Make it a good one.”
“I’m tryin’, I am.” The kid was shaking, and his eyes fixed on Jeremiah’s face as the light started to dim. Jeremiah realized that he was clenching his teeth. He looked at the sutra again. It wasn’t the right power—something about creative force might have been better—but he was fighting to end an old evil. He ran through the ancient words again, silently.
The Void Child’s eyes rolled up and then closed. He went limp, but before he hit the ground, he vanished entirely.
The faint noises of traffic came from outside the shop again, The light was just light once again, fluorescents in the ceiling, a warm spotlight on the funerary jar on its stand. The sense of presence in the showroom was gone. Jeremiah’s skin was cold and wet with sweat, as though he had been shoveling snow.
He cleared his throat. “Goodbye, kid. Have a good trip.”
The sutras had to be packed up again, carefully. He needed to find another place in the house to keep them. Maybe he should take a closer look at Conrad’s room, after all. Knowing his father’s whimsical sense of humor, the secret compartment in the desk might not be the only surprise left.
The air outside was below freezing, but it was clean and sweet. Jeremiah felt empty, and yet it was not an unpleasant feeling. A vessel that had been poured out was empty, but so was a glass that was about to be filled to its brim.
He drove home to the house that had been his refuge for all the years that he could remember, closed the door behind him, and mounted the stairs to go to bed. Through the window on the landing, outside, he could see that the last of the clouds were blowing away. The full moon, revealed, shone down, and the world was bathed in soothing, silvery light.
It was a still, gleaming day in late September. Jeremiah sat in the office of Dan Houseman, Sandhu’s colleague who specialized in business dealings. The sunlight gleamed off the wood of his desk and cast his shadow on the pages of the contract he was reading over. “OK, this looks good. All your changes are incorporated. When’s the closing?”
“Third week of October.”
“I’ll e-mail it to the seller’s attorney. Congratulations.”
”Shouldn’t that wait until after I take possession?”
“Well, then too. It's just that I know it was a tough decision, but I think you made a good choice. That street is doing well, and you won’t be pissing away your money on rent every month. And all the estimates indicate that you’ll be able to sell at a profit in five years or so, if you want.”
“Hope you’re right. Still, it’s going to be good to be able to set things up just as I want them.”
“I get that.” Houseman stood up and offered his hand, then came around the desk to show Jeremiah out.
In the open common area outside the individual offices, a young man was sorting faxes that had come in. Something about him piqued Jeremiah’s memory. “You—.”
The other looked up. He had tousled brown hair, a boyish face, and peculiarly pale hazel eyes. His mouth fell open.
Houseman looked at both of them, one and then the other, puzzled. “Do you know Grady, then? He started with us at the beginning of the month. He’s in law school at State, but he clerks for us part time. He moved to town from Indiana this summer.”
“N-no,” stammered Jeremiah.
The young man put down his faxes and held out his hand. “Grady Sones.”
Jeremiah took the hand, square and slightly callused and with short-cut fingernails, not claws. “Jeremiah Sandoz.”
Grady’s face brightened. “Oh! Ms. Sandhu said you’re at State too, doing a grad degree program in psychology and religious studies.”
“Yeah. It sounds a little loopy, I guess.”
“No, it sounds interesting!”
Houseman was smiling at them. “Sharda told me how you managed to get into the program on a special admission. How’s it going?”
“Great,” said Jeremiah. In fact, he was finding it surprisingly satisfying.
“Well,” said Grady, reluctantly, “I guess I better get back to work.”
“Good man,” said Houseman and went back to his office.
Jeremiah stood there awkwardly. Grady had tanned skin glowing with good health, white teeth, wide shoulders, and an ass that looked trim under his neat khakis. Jeremiah remembered his dreams from the winter, but he felt wistful rather than embarrassed about them now. “Um. Grady.”
“Got dinner plans tonight?”
Grady turned back to him, surprised, and then smiled with simple happiness. “Nope, I’m all yours.”
“Do you eat sushi?”
“I eat anything. I never had sushi, but I always wanted to try it.”
“Can you meet me at my shop? The Sandoz Collection, on Elm, one door north of Main.”
“What time?” Grady bounced up on his toes for a moment, as eager as a pup invited for a walk.
“Does 6:30 work for you?”
“Yup. I’ll be there,” said Grady.
“Good,” said Jeremiah and meant it. It was a goodness that he felt all through his bones and that filled him to the brim.
“See ya, Jeremiah!”
“No one calls me Jeremiah except Sandhu. You can call me Sandoz.” For now, anyway.
“’Til 6:30, then.” Jeremiah walked to the door of the law office, then looked back. Grady was bent over the fax pages again. His entire posture seemed to give off life and joy.
Jeremiah turned and went out into the bright afternoon sunlight. Red maple leaves whirled by on a fresh breeze. His mind was full of the evening’s plans, his classwork, the new shop location, and the paper he was writing on the Maten sutra. For a brief moment, he felt a fierce joy at the thought of what Knight would say when he saw the paper—assuming it was actually published.
As he looked up at the few wind-blown clouds drifting by in the brilliant blue sky, he could see his foster father’s serene and contented face. “Wish you were here to see it all, Pop.”