Best Laid Plans
Carrol set the cage next to a ripe dumpster in the alley alongside the bar then squatted to consider his captive. The rat pressed into the furthest corner, its back arched and eyes darting.
“It’s ok,” he said, but the skittery thing jumped at his voice. With a frown, he dug out his phone and typed in “Translator English to Rat” but only got translations for the word “rat.” Guessing it must be a Norway rat, he changed the search.
“Snart blir du en helt,” he read in clumsy Norwegian. Soon you will be a hero. With a sigh, he covered the cage with a piece of stained cardboard scavenged from the dumpster then wandered up the alley to the entrance of the Buckin’ Bronco Saloon.
He needed Leonard Wilson’s help but was only able to lure him out by offering to buy drinks. Wilson would be late, despite promising to meet at 10:00 p.m. sharp. So, he’d go in first looking for a place to sit, and the raucous Friday night crowd would grind him up like sausage. For reassurance, he pressed a hand against the warm bundle in his shirt pocket. Everything would be fine now that he had the talisman. After all his diligence and dead ends, a miracle was finally within grasp.
At the glass door, he paused at his reflection. His dark hair spewed to one side in a cork-screwing mess. He smacked at it, trying to beat it into submission, until he noticed a group approaching from inside. With a grimace, he ducked away and leaned against the grimy brick wall trying to play it cool.
The door opened and two young couples spilled out, laughing. The odors of beer and stale popcorn flowed in their wake along with wild, twanging music. When the door closed, muffling the sound, they stopped and stared.
One woman bit her lip. Her mousey-blonde hair looked dirty and she reminded him of someone but he couldn’t think who. He nodded and the other girl snorted.
A guy sauntered up extending his hand. “Hey, how ya doin’?”
Reflexively, Carrol grinned and reached to shake but the guy yanked his hand away, slapped his head and pranced around like a monkey. Both men guffawed. As they ambled off, snorting gal leaned into her boyfriend and said, “Do you know who that is? He’s the guy who ….” She lowered her voice so Carrol missed the rest. He could guess how it ended. Monkey man put his arm around mousey girl, but she looked back, flashing a sad, thin smile.
Carrol pressed his still outstretched hand against the talisman in his pocket again. Nothing new. People were always treating him like a crackpot. He could take it. Everything he did, he did for them. Maybe tonight they would finally see.
Bracing himself, he entered and started shoving through the crowd, scanning for open seats. Two women vacated their bar stools just as he passed on his second circuit through the room. He dove, earning a glare from them both. With an apologetic grin, he shuffled out of his beat-up leather jacket and spread it over one stool. Climbing onto the other, he caught the bartender’s attention and ordered a double bourbon to strengthen his resolve.
While he waited for Wilson, he pulled out his phone again and started flipping through the webpages he had open. Seven Modern Miracles … Holy Magic Cloth … Channeling Your Inner Djinn … Spiritually Empowered Magic Ring … Amulets of the Ancient Magians. Most of the pages that sounded good ended up being for video games. He hated having to wade through those to get to the real entries. On the other hand, if people pretended miracles were real in games, the leap to believing in real-life miracles might come easier. So, maybe all the pretend stuff helped his crusade.
He reached the page he wanted and jabbed the image so it filled the screen. A sketchy ink drawing on rough papyrus showed a figure on a distant ridge with outstretched arms. Above, a small object floated, crowned in swirling rays. In the foreground, the earth split, swallowing screaming soldiers with swords and shields. A caption superimposed over the image read, “Effectuation of Primal Prayer Talisman.”
Feeling the warmth in his shirt pocket, he smiled. When he performed the miracle, there would be no death. Only rejoicing. Sipping from his glass, he rolled the rich smoky bourbon around his mouth until a hand slapped his back and he coughed, nearly spewing across the bar.
“Carrol buddy!” Leonard Wilson yelled in his ear, climbing onto the adjacent stool. “Long time no beer!”
Carrol glanced at his jacket, now pressed between Wilson’s ass and the stool, and grimaced. “Hey. Thanks for coming.”
“No problemo!” Wilson flagged down the bartender and ordered a beer. His thinning, ruffled hair made him look like he’d just woken up. Maybe he had. Carrol liked him, in part, because he was so unassuming. Shorter than average, he had a slight paunch and always wore a tired jean jacket with frayed elbows. It suited him. He turned, flashing Carrol a smile. Deep crow’s feet tempered the hard lines on his face.
Wilson didn’t understand the crusade, but Carrol needed someone for the ritual. He seriously didn’t expect the talisman to be dangerous. Still, if things got out of hand, Wilson’s uncomplicated instincts and grounding could save the day. Carrol studied him a moment, but a smear on his lens cast a haze, like a pale cloudy aura. Removing his glasses to wipe them with a bar napkin, he asked, “So how you been, man?”
They’d met about a year earlier. Laid off from the foundry, Wilson took a summer job at the elementary school where Carrol was lead custodian. Together, they scraped gum from under desks and chairs, and stripped and waxed floors. When orders built up at the foundry again Wilson returned to his old job.
While he downed his beer, he told Carrol what’d he’d been up to since the last time they’d gone drinking, which wasn’t much. As always, he joked around without sharing anything too personal. Listening, Carrol wondered if maybe they got along because they were both misfits and loners. Wilson would object to the suggestion, since he’d had a serious girlfriend once.
By the time Wilson’s third pint arrived, he seemed to run out of things to say and turned to stare at his glass. He rubbed his thumb down the side, clearing condensation in a long streak. Tilting his head, he turned the glass to study his work then rubbed another streak. And another. Sensing his opening, Carrol queued up his speech.
“Leonard—” he began, but Wilson interrupted him.
“So, Carrol, I want to ask you something ‘cause you’re the only one I know who … won’t laugh.”
“Ah, ok. What?” Carrol didn’t mind the diversion. He always liked when people asked his opinion, though it practically never happened.
“You ever feel like you’re … missin’ something? Like maybe it’s there, just outta sight? Something really important you’re supposed to do. And it’s comin’ fast, like a train down a tunnel so you better figure it out quick before it’s too late. Only maybe it passed already, on a different track, and maybe it’s already gone?” Cradling his hands, Wilson pressed his lips against his thumbs.
“Um, yeah. I—I think I know what you mean,” Carrol replied after a moment. “It’s that feeling, right, man? Like Destiny is standing next to you, breathing down your neck, waiting to see if you’re smart enough to figure it out. Only you don’t know what you’re supposed to do?”
“Yeah,” Wilson said, nodding. “That’s the one. I’m tellin’ you, time’s short, Carrol, ain’t it?” Now he turned his glass on the bar, first clockwise then back, as if picking a combination lock. “I prob’ly should head out. I’m startin’ to feel it and I gotta do brain surgery in an hour.”
“No, no!” Carrol nervously spun his own glass and his face puckered. “Listen. Leonard. Along those lines, I kind of have something big going on right now—”
“Oh, crap! Please! Don’t tell me. You wanna recruit me to fight for truth and justice and girly ways.” His words were starting to slur.
Carrol scowled. “What do you mean, ‘girly ways’?”
“Which girly? Wavin’ at me?”
“No, never mind.” Carrol turned and watched the bartender serving customers several stools away. A waiter stood nearby, thumping his fist rhythmically on the bar while he waited. When he looked back, Wilson was draining his beer.
“Listen man, it’s not for truth and justice,” Carrol said carefully. “It’s a crusade to unite and advance humanity.”
“Same difference,” Wilson huffed with indifference.
“Not really, bud.” Frowning, Carrol decided against another try at educating him about the crusade. Wilson didn’t need to buy into it; he just needed to agree to hike to the bridge. Reaching for his final sip of bourbon, he steered the conversation back on track.
“Anyway. Leonard, I have kind of an adventure tonight and I was hopin’ maybe you’d, you know, help out.”
“Pffff!” Wilson puffed. “I’m not breakin’ into no church with you. And I’m not getting’ naked under the full moon or whatever else you do.” He fidgeted on his stool, rubbing his ass against Carrol’s jacket. “Pf. Ok, so what is it?”
Carrol smiled and reached into his shirt pocket, withdrawing the talisman. It was about the size of a deck of cards, wrapped in an old stained scrap of cloth. Holding it under the edge of the bar, he revealed it to Wilson.
Wilson leaned back a little and slouched for a better view. “Hey, that’s cool.”
“Yeah, it is. Understatement of the year, bud.” Carrol took it back and held it over his own lap, admiring it. The talisman was a large jade pendant, covered with intricate carvings and symbols filled with silver. Each rune and detail stood out on its own, yet the entire design flowed organically with an almost hypnotic effect. It showed signs of extreme age, with scrapes and scratches worn smooth from centuries of handling. Through its warmth, Carrol believed he could sense its power. Rewrapping it, he tucked it back into his pocket.
“So, what is it?” Wilson asked.
“Ancient primal prayer talisman. About 2,500 years old.”
“Pfff!” Wilson puffed again. “Didn’t you say the same thing about that stick you bought online that one time?”
“No! Whatever. That was a stick. This is the real deal.”
Wilson reached for his glass, which he tapped slowly with his finger. “Looks better than the stick, like it might be worth real money.”
“Yeah, I guess, man, to a collector or a museum or some-thing. Somebody who knew what it was. But it’s not for sale. It’s not going to get locked up in a case somewhere. Know what I mean, bud?”
Wilson squinted. “No. Why not? An’ where’d you get it anyway.” Leaning over, he whispered, “You steal it?”
“No way! Bought it on the internet. It just came today. You can buy the world on the web, if you know what to look for. Leonard, man, half the people are selling stuff they inherited or picked up at some estate sale with no idea what it is! Shoot, this thing was listed as ‘Large heavy green glass costume jewelry. OLD.’ Can you believe it?”
Wilson shook his head. “That’s just crazy.”
Carrol patted his shirt pocket. “Green glass costume jewelry my ass.”
Wilson turned his attention to the bottles of liquor lined up at the back of the bar. “You’re still buyin’, right?”
Carrol frowned. “How ‘bout this? I’ll buy you a six pack if you listen up. And … come with me to do something really important.”
Wilson half closed his eyes and looked sidelong at Carrol. “An’ here we go. Gimme details or I walk.”
“I’m getting to that.”
“Am I gonna regret it t’morrow morning?”
Carrol studied him. He seemed increasingly less likely to remember anything in the morning. Plus, if things went the way he hoped, the benefits to humanity could be immeasurable. Who’d regret that?
“Heck no. Absolutely not.”
“Ok, so, twelve pack and you got a deal.”
“Cool!” Carrol spat in his hand and reached out.
Wilson fumbled under his seat and grabbed hold of the sleeve of Carrol’s jacket. Extending it, he asked, “You want somethin’ to wipe that on?”
Scowling, Carrol dried his palm on his jeans and mumbled, “No, man. I’m good.”
“Ok, so,” Wilson said, dropping the sleeve and scrunching his brows, “you bought a green thingy on the computer and it’s worth lots of money, but you’re not sellin’ it.”
“Right! It’s a primal prayer talisman.” Carrol glanced around for eavesdroppers. Leaning closer, he held a hand over his shirt pocket. “They’re super rare, man. Most people who study this stuff would say they don’t exist. But I’ve read about ‘em in obscure texts and alternate translations on websites and stuff. This is the real thing. Believe me.”
Wilson nodded and asked, “Not like the stick?”
“Hell no, man. I think this dates back to ancient Persia, like 500 B.C. Made by a Median Magus in some secret sect. There was crazy shit goin’ on then. Coups, imposters, conquerin’ armies, you name it. And these Magi were supposed to help protect the throne. You follow me?”
“No, bud. Magi! Not magicians. Magians. You know, religious scholars. Some of ‘em did rituals and sacrifices and raised spirits and bad ass stuff like that.” He paused as the bartender approached.
“How’re you guys holding up?” she asked.
“Great, great,” Carrol gushed. “How ‘bout you?”
Wilson jumped in, “You know, we should have a shot of somethin’ from a green bottle to mark the occasion.”
“Ok…like what?” she asked.
“You pick! Bartender’s choice. Carrol wants one too!”
Carrol wanted to object but resigned himself to going with Wilson’s flow. He waited until she left before continuing.
“So, like, there were invading armies and all these different sects of Magi were picking sides. Some got their power and protection from gods and spirits and demons through really complicated rituals. But that took a lot of time. Well, this one sect wanted an edge so they got into heresies and illicit rituals to figure out how to access that power quick, whenever they were in danger!”
The bartender returned, saying, “Hope you like ‘em!”
“What is it?” Carrol asked.
“Bartender’s choice,” she replied, turning away.
Carrol sniffed his glass then clinked against Wilson’s. His first sip burned but the fire slid down his throat without smoky overtones. He could get to like it. “Where was I?” he asked, noticing Wilson enjoying his drink too.
“Um. Crazy shit.”
“Right! They wanted instant power so they’d be ready whenever crazy shit went down. So, they performed a super major, expensive ritual with bad-ass sacrifices and, when the power flared up, they caught it. And channeled it into somethin’ to carry around for later. Like instant god, just light the fuse. Get it?”
Wilson’s eyes narrowed and Carrol realized he actually understood. “You mean that green thingy,” he said.
“Bingo. I figure they made enough talismans so they each had one. Some of ‘em never got used. A couple hundred years later, Alexander the Great invaded Persia and killed lots of Magians and destroyed their sanctuaries and stuff. I guess any followers of the sect that made these were gone by then or got killed off. Maybe the few talismans that didn’t get used or destroyed got stashed away, but nobody really knew what they were anymore. Eventually they got lost, right?”
Carrol paused to press his hand over the talisman in his pocket. “This is one of ‘em, though. The real deal. Man, I’ll tell you what, this little doohickey’s like a hotline straight to the power of God.”
“Which god?” Wilson asked with surprising insight considering how much he’d drunk and how fast he’d drunk it.
Peering over the thick frames of his glasses, Carrol felt his eyelid twitch. “Don’t matter, bud.”
Wilson turned away and started picking at something stuck to the bar in front of him. Eventually, his brow furrowed and he grabbed his drink, gulping the last of it.
Carrol gave him a few moments to absorb what he’d learned. Then, leaning in close, he added, “Either way, tonight you and me are gonna use it.”