The Kestron Lenses
by Jonathan M. Sweet
“The Kestron Lenses” began in issue 111.
The first vision-enhancing spectacles were designed around 1285 in Italy. Friar Guirdano de Rivalto discussed in a sermon twenty years later having met this prestigious man, although he didn’t name him.
In the early 14th century, several prominent Italians began marketing spectacles to the wealthy, the only ones who could afford them. Bocca degli Kestron, a former minor friar of the Franciscans, was one of the better-known craftsmen of the era. In 1293 he set off on a five-year journey to China, including Tibet, Mongolia, the former court of Kublai Khan, and parts of Japan and India. His travels took him to the pit at Dwezi Chwen Di Yu, where he discovered the volcanic glass that, coupled with the shape of the lens (a flat-topped demi-spheroid), soon became his trademark.
He discovered the properties of the glass, however, quite by accident; carelessness caused him to slice the tip of his middle finger off with a glass-cutting tool, and the blood pattered on the lenses on his worktable. Like a water basin being shaken, their surfaces rippled violently and imparted visions to Kestron:
madmen wearing feathers and painted faces and skin trousers overtaking a harbored ship throwing crate after crate into the water
a cavalry charge where men in strange uniforms with three-cornered hats attacked and killed their enemy dressed in red coats with unspeakable weapons that breathed fire and smoke
a group of men with white hair bent solemnly over a writing desk engaged in the signing of some momentous treaty
Kestron was both sickened and amazed at what he saw. Immediately he seized parchment and quill and took notes of everything hastily, until the images faded and the glass cooled.
In 1299 no fewer than thirteen prostitutes disappeared from the baths at Viterbo and from the red-light district of Bologna. They were presumably abducted and murdered. One, a daughter of a prominent Guelph, received particular attention by local constabularies. No body was found.
In 1302 Kestron published a book of prophesies entitled Divinations. It contained prophesies of events spanning 500 years and was one of the most notable, preceding Michel de Nostradame in France by over a century and a half. It foretold plagues, wars, assassinations, and other events in the ornate Sicilian school poetic style.
One of his predictions caught the eye of an advisor to Boniface VII, for it told in vivid detail of how the pope would die at dinner, swollen and green, poisoned by his own treachery. Boniface was a rather paranoid man (with good reason to be, since he was an usurper with many enemies) and ordered Kestron burned at the stake for heresy the following year.
The pope did die of poisoning... though not Boniface. Alexander VI fulfilled the legend two centuries later after contracting Roman fever after an out-of-doors dinner with Cardinal Adrian la Corneto and several other guests. The bloated, smelly, discolored corpse led to a legend that he had erroneously consumed poisoned wine he’d intended for the cardinal... dead by his own treachery.
Kestron’s workshop was searched. In it was little more suspicious than the tools of his glass-grinding trade... though on closer inspection traces of blood were noted ground into the grain of his oak work table, and several ladies’ rings were unearthed in a secret drawer.
One was embossed with the crest of a well-known Florence family — the exact ring worn by Martino del Angioplacci’s daughter, who had vehemently refused to marry the suitor her father had chosen and ran away to sell herself on the streets. This bit of evidence was the most damning. Officials judged that the glasses-maker kidnapped the whores, killed them, and used their blood in some satanic rite that permitted him to see the future.
Every glass Kestron produced was confiscated, denounced in a 1306 papal bull, and sealed away in several vaults located in Italy, France, Germany, England, Spain, and Portugal. Several caches, however, were uncovered during the Blitz in England over 600 years later, and in the bombing of Dresden...
The Monday after spring break Harry stopped by the newspaper office to show Leon his new glasses and got an emphatic thumbs-up.
The following night, Harry decided to study in the television lounge. Faulkner Hall, his dorm, had one of the nicer TV rooms on campus, with a 52-inch screen and several small couches. When he arrived there about one in the morning, he noticed a half-dozen boisterous Negroes playing poker in the corner near the windows. Harry settled in a couch several feet from the card players, opened a copy of Keats, and tried to ignore the noise at his back.
* * *
Four of the men were seated, the other two standing. One was directly behind a beefy black man with bushy Buckweat-like hair, and a tall skinny one leaned against the emergency exit and from time to time cast furtive glances into the quad. Though smoking was discouraged in the lounge, “Buckwheat” and two of his companions were puffing long thin brown cigars that gave off an odor of burning vanilla.
“You still in the game, Leech?” one of the men, a tanktop-clad muscular bald fellow with his arms covered in humped scar tissue carved in rudimentary tattoos, demanded. “How many cards you want?”
“Buckwheat” grunted, “Gimme three.”
The bald man with the tattoos slapped three cards in front of the one he called Leech. “How many you need, Ol’ Timer?”
“Two,” answered a paunchy older man with bulldog jowls and a small mustache. His eyes were droopy and crow-footed, and he wore an orange Fulkes sweatshirt with the college logo in bright purple letters.
The players were becoming rowdier by degrees. Either the winner of a hand would hoot victoriously, or one who drew a bad hand would curse thunderously and slam his fist on the table. Harry considered asking them to tone it down, but was inhibited by his innate Southern white boy’s trepidation of dealing with strange blacks.
Suddenly one of the players exploded, “You dang dirty cheater!” Harry turned his head sharply to see a tall red-haired black guy wearing pants and no shirt bolt upright from the table.
“What the hell’s your problem, Omega Red?” Leech demanded.
“Maggot,” Omega Red snarled. “Them cards are marked, that’s what’s my problem.”
“You jes’ a sore loser, pal,” Leech snapped back, his hands flat on the tabletop as he rose half out of his chair. The pot, a loose assortment of coins and crumpled bills, shifted; some of the currency rained to the carpet. The gopher-faced kid who had been behind Leech moved back a few paces and pressed against the window like he was trying to look like part of the pane.
Ol’ Timer placed a hand on Leech’s shoulder. “Cool down, man. He crazy.”
“I’m crazy too!” Leech declared, drawing himself up to full height. The kid who’d been manning the door scuttled like a crab to the far corner. “C’mon, Red! Do something!”
“You cheating piece of scum.” Omega Red’s right hand moved swiftly, and suddenly a spray of blood filled the air. Some hit Harry in the face. The world went crimson — then just as abruptly white. Images filled his head.
there’s a woman with short blonde hair and a severe dark suit she has a thin face and aquiline nose covered in freckles which she tries to hide with makeup because she thinks they look too childish for a 45-year-old woman but by the end of the day it flakes and pits so it looks like eczema on her face and she’s doing figures in an accounting book but that isn’t the one she turns over to her superiors she gives them the one locked in the bottom drawer on the left which in a moment she’ll reach for the one she is tabulating in shows several hundred dollars in discrepancies which she pockets as she has been doing for nearly ten years fudging expense reports by overestimating projected expenses and cutting corners whenever possible in a moment she’ll count up the real quarterly budget in the other book she privately calls her retirement nest egg
The left side of Leech’s face fell off in a loose flap that looked like a slice of bloody corned beef. Omega Red had a switchblade in his fist and his mouth twisted in a depraved grin. He had cut Leech’s face in a semicircular pattern from the tip of the right eyebrow over the nose to the left side just below the chin. Harry was dimly aware of the approach of two UPD officers before he blacked out.
“Junior? You still in this ol’ world?”
Ol’ Timer was standing over Harry, his saggy features wearing a look of concern, as the world slowly bobbed into focus. He looked around and found himself in the bathroom, seated on the commode. The older black man had removed his glasses and set them on the sink, then wiped his face with several liquid-soap covered paper towels, the greasy, blood-sopped remnants of which lay on the floor.
“I-I’m alive. I guess that’s something. What happened?”
Ol’ Timer explained that after he had given the cops a hasty statement, he’d helped Harry walk to the lavatory and cleaned him up. “Leech ain’t had no AIDS or hep’titis, so you needn’t be worried ’bout that. Lord, Red cut the blue blazes out of him. I knew he was a schizo, but I didn’t think he’d pull a shiv over a quarter-a-point card game.”
Ol’ Timer grinned a sociable grin, and Harry noticed several of his teeth had either turned black or gone AWOL. “Yeah, you okay. Got me scared when you blacked out. Y’ever do that before?”
“Can’t say I blame you, though. Lord. It’ll take a heap of stitches to put Leech back together. If he was marking the cards, you can bet he won’t pull nothing like that again.”
“Nope.” What was that I saw when the blood hit me? It’s like all of a sudden I knew everything about this woman. She’s Hillary Gorsky, the county budget administrator at the mayor’s office. Divorced, no kids. Lives in Laurel. Has a cat named Dumpling. She’s been siphoning off Board of Ed funds and cooking the books for years now, and she has a slush fund she plans to live on when she takes early retirement in seven years.
“Well, you look all right. Don’t ’pear you got a concussion or nothing, but maybe you ought to see student health tomorrow jes’ in case. My name’s Bill Brown.” He took Harry’s limp hand and shook it. “I’m a senior. Gra’jate in six months. They call me ‘Ol’ Timer’ ’cuz I got at least twenty years on these kids.”
“Glad to meet you, Bill. I’m Harry Stafford.”
“Harry, you need help getting up to your room? ’S no problem.”
“I’ll be fine. Thanks, Bill.” Harry stood up and lurched painfully out the bathroom door. Bill watched him head towards the elevator, then walked off in the opposite direction, towards his car in the parking lot.
It wasn’t until after Bill “Ol’ Timer” Brown had arrived home, undressed, put on his pajamas, peeked into his three-year-old son’s room to make sure he was all right, and settled into his bed (quietly, so as not to arouse his wife), that he realized something odd.
The blood had splashed Harry full in the face, and there should have been a thick layer coating the lenses of his glasses. But while his face and shirt had been streaked, there wasn’t a drop on the glass. He remembered they had been clean when he plucked them off the boy’s face.
Harry awoke in his bed with no memory of having gotten there. He must have been so half-asleep he had gotten to this room, undressed and slid under the covers on autopilot.
He then noticed a sheet of paper on the desk covered in his handwriting. It was copy for a news story on Hillary Gorsky. It was in itself nothing special-looking: handwritten in pencil on 8-by-10 lined notebook paper, with a few scratch-outs and carets added here and there, and at one point a line of straggling print crawled up the right edge of the sheet. Try as he might, though, he couldn’t recall writing it.
How could I know this information? he demanded as he skimmed the sheet. I quoted “an anonymous source within City Hall,” and I have names and dates and amounts I’ve never researched. Am I really planning to turn this in?
A scandal like this could be just the break I need to put myself on top, a second voice whispered. This is the kind of thing that wins awards. I’d be a fool to kill it.
The glasses sat on the desk. One lens caught the morning sunlight and seemed to wink puckishly at him. Harry thought of Omega Red’s knife, of Leech’s face falling from its skull, of the stream of blood pattering on his forehead and cheeks and lips.
He was aware that his hands were trembling.
Harry turned in a typewritten copy of the Gorsky story Thursday, thinking it wouldn’t come to much. At best, it would be killed before it went to press, and, at worst, there would need to be a retraction printed in the following edition.
Harry stayed away from the office for almost a week; indeed, he avoided his room a lot during that period, afraid of receiving a phone call from Leon — or, worse, the editor-in-chief, Lucy Glass — telling him to come to the office, with the phone in one hand and termination contracts in the other. Some nights he slept in the TV lounge and only stopped by his room to grab clean clothes (he changed in the bathroom stall after his shower).
When Harry arrived at the Dispatch office Friday, prepared to bite the bullet, he was greeted by a smiling Leon Marks, who thrust a copy of the April 3 issue at him. “Read it, buddy.”
It was his byline staring him in the face — “County treasurer embezzles $97.3 thousand from education’s coffers.” In smaller letters below that it said, “Gorsky’s financial chicanery makes for poorer administration, financially and morally.” Right under that, in tiny italics, “X. Harold Stafford, reporter.”
“You got the exclusive, Slick. You scooped two other major newspapers plus the University of Southern Mississippi and a couple of other penny-ante campus rags in Gulfport and Long Beach. Scooping USM is like picking a hair out’n God’s beard — ’t ain’t done. How’d you do it, kid? This source of yours must have been pretty high-up as well as deep cover.”
Harry stammered something about magicians not revealing their tricks, flushing with embarrassment and grinning. Marks let him go with a pat on the back and said, “I told you. It’s the glasses. Your copy read like a dream.”
“Yes. The glasses. A dream,” Harry repeated dully.
Harry spent the rest of the morning in a daze. His mind wandered sporadically, and during his American Lit class he had a terrible time concentrating on the professor’s lecture about Twain’s use of local color. He would put on his glasses when he had to read a passage or write something, mentally steeling himself for another flash of light or some skull-splitting vision, but there wasn’t any. Whatever power the glasses had the other night had faded, and he wasn’t quite sure how to bring it back.
Or was he? A tiny idea tugged at his brain, something that seemed to come into focus but vanished as soon as he focused his attention on it.
That Gorsky woman was taken into custody last Saturday and questioned. She turned over the other accounting book to the authorities and confessed that she’d been dipping into the company till, sucking off a couple of thousand every three months when she compiled the quarterly reports. Over the last decade she managed to pile up nearly a hundred grand.
She said she started in 1991 to get the money to pay her elderly mother’s 3 Gs-worth of gambling debts, and once those were taken care of, old Hill got addicted to the thrill of graft. “It was too damn easy,” was all she said. What gets me was how cold she was about it, like she didn’t feel she did anything wrong in taking the money.
The glasses are somehow helping me see more than a bunch of words in a textbook. I’m seeing into people’s hearts and souls. It’s what they call precognitive ability, or extra-sense perception, or whatever. To a journalist, a talent like this is the Midas touch. Another couple of big stories like this and I can walk right into the news office of any big rag in Mississippi, ask for a job, and get it on the spot.
Harry realized that power was a drug. He’d been given a free sample last week... but now, if he wanted to see the goods again, he’d have to meet the glasses’ price.
Harry left the Williams Building at two p.m. Five minutes later he was fumbling with his key in his lock. His roommate had moved out several weeks before; he had gotten married a month into the semester and moved into Chickasaw Acres, a block of trailers for grads and married students on the other side of campus. Housing hadn’t gotten around to reassigning another guy to Harry’s room, and he was just fine with that. He liked being alone and using the space on both sides of the room for his books and clothes. Besides, he didn’t want a witness to what he had in mind.
He’d seen blood trigger the images before. Maybe he could make it work again. He decided to experiment a bit.
Taking his razor from the rim of the sink, he winced, then nicked his fingertip. A crimson pearl instantly bubbled from the cut. He applied a splotch to each dark glass.
They remained as dark and smooth as before. No ripple, no flash of light.
Of course, Harry thought. You’ve had a taste of imported. Domestic won’t satisfy you now.
It was clear what was necessary to make the magic come back to him: sacrifice.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2004 by Jonathan M. Sweet