a short story by Bill Adler
The disembodied voice is louder in my left ear than in the right. A man’s voice. Young, a smooth baritone that echoes. In the pitch dark I can't see or know anything other than the man’s voice and that we are in a room with solid walls of some kind.
“I could tell you were awake. Your breathing rate increased right after you took in a swallow of air. I’m a paramedic, so I noticed.”
My head hurts, especially the back of it. I try to raise my arm, but my wrists are bound.
“Handcuffs,” says the voice, hearing the sound. “We’re cuffed to chairs bolted to the floors. Our legs, too, shackled. There’s nowhere to go, nothing we can do.” He pauses. There is a yanking sound, like a rope being jerked in the game, tug-of-war. “Every now and then I try, even though there’s no hope.”
“I’m in pain all over and I’m cold. My head feels like it’s been split in two.”
“Yeah. I know. What’s the last thing you remember before you woke up in this nightmare?”
“I was pushing my stroller between two buildings on Third to get out of the sun. My husband said he’d dash into Starbucks for a couple of iced coffees while I waited in the shade.”
My mind snaps to attention. Involuntarily, I try to bring my palm to my face but it won’t move. “Oh my God. Emily! Where is Emily?” Although I already know it won’t amount to anything, I struggle in my chair with all my might, tugging against the cuffs. “Where's my baby? Is she here? Emily! Emily!” A six-month-old isn't going to respond, but the motherly instinct rules me, and I call out, “Emily! Where are you?” I shiver from the cold and shudder with fear. My cheeks are covered with tears I cannot wipe off. I hear dripping, but it is not the sound of my tears falling to the floor.
“Hey, hey. She’s not here. I’m sure your daughter's okay.”
I swallow a few shallow breaths, taking in some of my tears with them, which makes me cough. When I stop coughing, he continues, “He doesn’t want your daughter.”
“How can you know that? It’s pitch black here. She could be here.”
He doesn't answer my question. “What’s on your wrist?”
“What are you wearing? What kind of watch?”
My mind races. How does he know I am wearing a watch? Is his plan to rob me? I don’t know this guy. What am I doing here? But without any other ideas of what to do, I answer, “A Grand Seiko. My husband gave it to me.”
“I have a Panerai.”
“Doesn’t matter. What matters is that yours is a high-end mechanical watch. It’s mechanical, right?”
“You mean like I have to wind it? Yeah. No. I mean, sometimes. It’s automatic, but if I don’t wear the watch for a few days, I have to wind it.”
“Okay. Thought so. My name’s Jerry. Jerry Langford. Sorry I can’t shake your hand. What’s your name?”
I consider terminating this conversation with a stranger, but conversation is the only thing that’s real.
“Nancy Gibbons.” Without warning, my eyes become rivers. I cry for five nonstop minutes. When I finally get control of myself I ask, “Where are we?”
“I don’t know.”
“You must know something.” I cock my head to the side. “What’s that dripping sound? It’s been going on since we got here. Is there a leak? Is that rain?”
“It’s my blood.”
“My blood. Our captor opened a vein in my leg and my blood is dripping into a pail below.”
“Oh my God.” Amid the pitch black, handcuffs, smell of rot and mold, and the voice of a man I cannot see, I hadn't noticed that my feet are bare and pressing against something cold and round. That's what is going on: We're prisoners in a medieval torture chamber. The shaking that started in my legs spreads to my entire body. I feel as if somebody’s punched me hard in the stomach, and then punched me again. My stomach spasms. I throw up.
“We’re not alone here. I estimate there are at least five other people.”
I swivel my neck, but in the darkness I’m as good as blind. “Where are they? Who are they?”
“They’re like us. Bound to chairs. All with cut veins. All dead, Nancy, except for us.”
“No!” My mouth tastes like dried up soil.
“I’m sorry. But it’s true.”
“My legs aren’t cut. I’m not bleeding.” I hope that by saying these words they will stay true forever.
“I’m sorry. You will be. He does one at a time.”
My stomach muscles constrict again. I buckle over and dry heave, having nothing left to throw up. After many minutes I can talk. “I don’t understand, Jerry. What are we doing here? Who kidnapped us?”
“Grand Seiko. Panerai. Rolex. Lange. Patek.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The only common denominator I can figure out is that we're all wearing expensive watches.”
“How do you know that? What does that mean?”
Jerry sighs. “I weigh two hundred and eighty-six pounds. I’m dying, I’m just taking longer than” — his handcuff clangs against the metal chair as he probably tries to point — “they did to die."
My hand and leg cuffs rattle as I shake. The metal bites into my flesh, but I am unable to stop shaking. My teeth clatter against each other; my front tooth chips. I swallow the shard, which scrapes against my esophagus on its way down into the acid pit that was once my stomach.
“I see snakes. Floating snakes. Do you see them?”
“Are you sure?”
“But you still haven’t explained how you know about the watches and what that means.” My words slip out in between breathy pauses. I need to pace myself to keep from crying again.
“I talked with one guy before he died. He was here before me. He said he’d miss his wife, daughter and Patek when he was gone. He made a joke about the classic advertisement for Patek, which says you don’t ever own a Patek Philippe, you merely take care of it for the next generation, lamenting that it was never meant to be handed down to his daughter anyway, as it’s a man’s watch. Gallows humor. He took his fate well, though it’s likely his heart was already slowing and depriving his brain of oxygen, making him an emotionless creature at the end. It's better that way, isn't it, not to feel sad, or feel anything at all?”
Is it painful? I don’t dare ask Jerry. I fear death, but I fear pain even more. My husband and I used to talk about the most painful ways to die: eaten by a shark, hanging, drowning, electrocution, being shot in the head. But we never talked about bleeding to death. At the mention of the Patek man's daughter and wife never seeing him again, I break into tears. I don't even try to hold it in, because like a dam after a hundred years of rain falling in a single day, I burst.
When I stop crying so many minutes later, Jerry says, “I saw the lumes — the glow of the hands — on one of the other watches, a Rolex Deepsea. It’s distinctive. Before the guy with the Patek died, he mentioned that his previous dungeon mate had worn a Lange. We all have that in common. Expensive watches. As for the why, I don’t—”
As frightening as it is being bound in a prison in the pitch dark with snakes, real or otherwise, darting in and out of my view, I don't realize how comforting it is to hear another person’s voice until Jerry stops talking. He is silent.
“Jerry. Jerry!” I whisper. There is no response. It’s as if he’s been stolen by goblins. Now the darkness and silence consume me, sending my teeth again into an unstoppable war against each other. By the time Jerry finally starts talking again, I have chipped another tooth and battered my lips into bloody flesh.
“I don’t know why.” Jerry gasps. “Sorry. Did I lose consciousness?”
“You stopped talking.”
“I think my time is coming. Even a big guy like me eventually runs out of juice.”
“Jerry! You’ll be okay. I know you will.”
“You don’t know. I won’t. I know what’s coming, Jen, and it’s coming soon.”
“Nancy. My name is Nancy.”
“Yeah, Nancy. My wife is Jen.”
A sliver of light appears at the side of the room, like the kind cast by yellowing incandescent bulbs in their last hours. As chilly as this dungeon is, the air that flows in from the open door is even colder. It sends waves of goosebumps up my legs. A silhouette stands against the lit backdrop. He holds a large, silver cross in his hand. That’s all I see before the door shuts and we plunge into darkness again. I count seven paces before the footsteps stop. I don't know how close that man — if it is a man — is from me.
A tinny voice shouts, “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’ Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.”
Seven steps and the door opens and shuts. The momentary light stings my eyes.
“What was that about?”
“Hmm?” Jerry’s breathing sounds like a blender about to break. “The soul. Yes. Reve—”
Jerry coughs, gasps, and goes silent. This time, I fear, for the last time. I am now alone in a room of corpses, soon to become one of them. Darkness takes on substance, creeping deep into my body through my pores.
The door opens again. For a couple of seconds, I see a man — skinny but tall, unshaven with gray hair and a frozen grin, dragging the unconscious body of a man toward me. A gold watch on the victim’s wrist reflects the light from the outside. And then it goes dark.
There is the unmistakable sound of handcuffs clicking shut. Whoever this is, young or old, he will wake up in a dank, pitch black room like I did, bound and in terror. I hope I am still alive when he regains consciousness so he won’t be totally alone.
After the handcuffing I feel the warmth of a body hovering over me. Him. Our captor. I had been so focused on the new prisoner that I had forgotten what had happened to everyone who came before me. He turns on a flashlight and bends down.
As soon as I feel the sharp edge of a blade against my legs, I know it’s my time. I will bleed to death. How long does it take for an average-weight, thirty-six-year-old woman to die from bleeding? I’d googled many things over the years, but never that.
My feet are in a decorated urn, not a pail as I had thought. Inside the urn are crude, hand-drawn images of winged creatures. The pictures look like they were penned with a Sharpie.
How many has he killed before me? The four that Jerry mentioned? More? Jerry died in ignorance, but knowing why I am being murdered is the only thing I have left. “Why?" I shout into the dark. "Why are you doing this? Don’t, please. Please let me go. I don’t know who you are. You don’t need me. I have a husband and daughter,” I say between sobs. “Please. They need me.”
“You’re bleeding well,” the tinny voice replies. “About an hour is what you have left, more or less, until I have what I need. You noticed the cut doesn't hurt. I used a surgical scalpel, slicing into the vein. I applied a local anesthetic first, too. It’s mostly painless. I’m not cruel.” He retrieves a tattered piece of paper from his back pocket and reads it.
“This is what the Lord says:
‘Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
and you will find rest for your souls.’”
His breath smells like molding cheese.
He presses the button on his flashlight, plunging the room back into darkness. The snakes rematerialize, but this time instead of floating from side to side, the serpents are darting toward me, tongues flicking, fangs growing sharper with each undulation, heads moving so close I can feel their hot breath on my cheeks.
“Why?” I cry.
“I’m capturing your soul. As your life blood drips into the Anima Mea urn, your soul is released. Most people think the soul is a single entity, but it’s made of microscopic parts, billions and billions, that swim in our blood. The soul is granular. When all your blood has been drained, I will filter out your soul using a technique that I, and only I, know. I’ve studied the ancient scripts. I know how to extract the soul from a person.”
There’s no comfort in learning that I’m being murdered by a lunatic.
“The soul is silver. Did you know that? It’s not gold, like some images portray it. Silver is better for my purposes because it blends in. The soul is what I will deliver.”
The snakes fade as my head fills with cotton. My blood, my life, is leaving me faster than he says. I will be dead soon.
“I’m a watchmaker. I’m going to be the greatest watchmaker the world has ever seen. You’ve heard that quartz watches — incredible creations because they give humans the ability to wear a timekeeping device of incomparable accuracy wherever they go — have no soul.
“Quartz watches are barren. No soul. No soul. They are unhappy, miserable creatures.
“The first watches had beautiful souls. The clock built by John Harrison in 1730 had a soul. The mechanical Grand Seiko on your wrist has an especially powerful soul, as it’s a high-beat movement.
“When I extract souls, I take them from people who are wearing mechanical watches. There’s a synergy between your soul and the soul in your Grand Seiko, as there is in all great watches. But I don’t expect you to know that, because that’s one of my discoveries, too.”
My chair rotates on its axis, gyrating faster with each watch tick. I am spinning closer to death. Is he rambling or is my brain no longer able to process anything clearly?
“Your human soul mixes with your mechanical watch’s soul before leaving your body. It’s powerful.
“I’m transplanting souls into quartz watches. I am giving quartz watches souls, which until I came along were spiritless amalgams of electronics.. I’m God, the giver of souls.”
“Where am I?” I hear a new voice, an older man.
“You’re awake,” I say, my voice as feeble as a newborn kitten’s first mewl. My head has fallen, my chin against my chest. With my remaining energy, I raise my eyes and peer in the black toward where I think the watchmaker stands. I want to use my last breath to say, “Tell him. Tell your new victim why he’s here, because he deserves to know from the start.” But maybe it’s better he doesn’t know.