Seeds of the Dark
by Anthony Lukas
“Counter Guy” appears
in issue 555.
part 1 of 2
“So,” Jennifer had explained, “It’s a work-study project for my graduate business course. I get two credits working for a small business for the semester, learning about how things are done, about the problems a small business faces nowadays, and writing a report for my professor.”
“What’s it cost me?” Mr. Lombardi asked.
“Just your time. I’m paid with college credits, so to speak.”
Mr. Lombardi agreed. Jennifer went to Linda at the Foundation and reported she was in.
“Excellent, Ms. O’Connell,” Linda said. “Very imaginative entry. Tim should be able to come up with the necessary official-looking documentation. When do you start?”
* * *
And here she was, some weeks later, surrounded by cookies, muffins, cupcakes and such. No cakes or pies, as the owner, Jonathan Lombardi, had said, “Where the hell would I be able to make those in this space?”
It was a cramped little shop: tiny back room, a few small tables in the compact lobby. The display case was filled to the brim, its top covered with glass jars with even more goodies. “Can’t touch anything in here without moving something else,” he said, and he was pretty much right.
Today it was raining. “Not good for business,” Mr. Lombardi sighed. Over the last couple weeks he had showed her where everything was, how to use the register, and the price list.
“Do you like espresso?” Jonathan asked.
“Haven’t really tried it,” Jennifer replied. “I usually drink regular coffee.”
“Slop!” Jonathan said. He showed her how to use the little espresso machine. Grind the beans, steam the milk thus and brew the coffee so. “It’s easy. The secret is good ingredients: good beans and quality chocolate. Help yourself.”
Jennifer practiced a bit, getting a delightful little buzz from the caffeine. Now a mocha or two was part of her daily routine.
Jonathan had described all the pastries to her over the past few weeks as well, making her sample quite a few until she had begun to fear for her waistline. “Oh, please,” he had said. “You’re too skinny as is. You’ve got to know the stuff so you can describe it to the customers and tell them how good it is.”
Today they had only a few customers throughout the morning. “Mostly regulars, bless ’em,” Lombardi said. “Don’t know how I would stay open without them during these times. That’s one upside of being in this little place for seventeen years, I suppose.”
After a while he said, “I’m going in back to try and pay some bills. You’re in command.” He smiled and went into the back to his tiny desk.
The ladies at the window table left, leaving Jennifer alone in the front. She cleared the table, putting the dishes in the tiny sink behind the counter and giving them a quick wash. She got out her cell phone and smiled. Tim had handed it to her last week.
“Now, I’ve added a few programs to aid in detection,” he said. “We used to have all these different devices for detecting the different electromagnetic ectoplasm fields.” He grinned. “I always feel I’m in a fifties sci-fi movie when I say that. Anyway it got a little cumbersome trying to sort out what device to use when and where. But, now—”
“There’s an app for that?” Jennifer finished.
* * *
She thumbed through several apps, selecting one and turning it on. Patterns waved across the screen. Something is here, she thought. Somewhere. She moved the phone about. “Hmm.” It was somewhere up there, near the ceiling, high up on one of the walls.
She didn’t want to do anything more while Jonathan was here. She pocketed her phone and started tidying up a bit. She went over to the back room door and glanced in. Lombardi was hunched over his desk, holding his head in one hand, staring at the business checkbook. He sighed deeply, closed the checkbook and a folder of what looked like bills, stood and came out into the empty store, looking at the rain outside.
He sighed again, then smiled at Jennifer. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but on a day like this, I’m glad I’m not paying you. Listen, I’m a bit tired and I’m going to head home. You okay closing up the place?”
“Sure,” Jennifer answered and thought Perfect. He left and with only an hour or so until the scheduled closing she busied herself with sweeping and stocking. After locking the shop door, she counted the money, shut down the register and lowered the front shades on the window and door. She glanced around, making sure she had done everything. “Now,” she whispered.
She glanced up at the ceiling, up into the corners, then took a small statue from her pocket and put it on the top of the display case. Carved from a dark blue stone, the statue was of a man dressed in early 19th-century American-era clothes, seated in a large chair. He wore a sad countenance, slouched in the chair, his chin resting on his hand which rested on an arm of the chair.
Jennifer slipped a monocle out of her pocket and onto her eye. She slid a penlight from her other pocket and shone it through the stone.
Everything seemed to remain the same, but when she looked up again and peered through her monocle-covered eye, now she could see dark splotches in the corners of the ceiling. She went into the lobby and stood with her back to the front window. The splotches appeared here and there where wall met ceiling. Some were faint; others, more pronounced.
Jennifer pulled out her phone and took several pictures. After checking the photos that she had taken, she nodded to herself, put the monocle, statue and penlight into her pocket, turned off the lights and left, locking the door behind her.
* * *
Next morning at the Foundation offices, Jennifer made herself a cappuccino at the office espresso maker then walked down the hall to Linda’s office.
Linda was seated behind her vast desk, reading the newspaper. “You seemed to have developed a taste for espresso, my dear,” she said, looking up from her paper as Jennifer sat down. “A side benefit of your assignment?”
Jennifer nodded. “I didn’t use to like it, but Mr. Lombardi taught me how to make it. He says the right ingredients are the most important thing.”
“So true in so many things. Now, what have you to report?”
“You were right. The initial meter readings indicated an infestation, and the Edgar confirmed. It’s the Dark.”
Linda nodded and leaned back in her chair. “The Dark,” she said, “one of the saddest infestations both in its causes and its effects. It is caused by great sorrow or anguish. In turn, it causes depression and despair to some who are exposed to it, even if they don’t know why. Any idea how long it’s been there?”
Jennifer shrugged. “There were a number of splotches, but none very large, one or two pretty dark, the rest just... grey. I have pictures.”
“Very good. Send them with your report and then we shall discuss. The Dark...” she mused. “Perhaps we should consult with Seamus. He’s had a bit of experience with the Dark and related infestations. That sound okay to you?” At Jennifer’s nod: “Good, I’ll send him by your office.”
* * *
Jennifer went to her office and, while waiting for her computer, wondered not for the first time at her being here. She had been finishing college and wondering what to do with her life when Linda approached her through one of the career counselors.
Jennifer had not known what had caused Linda to contact her and still did not. Initially she had been too surprised, and then fascinated by the Foundation’s work, to ask. Now, after a year or so of training and study, here she was with her own little office and her second solo case.
She had once broached the subject of recruitment to Linda, but Linda only smiled her enigmatic smile. “I wouldn’t worry about that, Ms. O’Connell. Now’s the time to focus on learning as much as you can.”
Jennifer still didn’t know how it had all happened, yet somehow, it seemed natural that she be here.
She shook her head as her computer beeped. She was about to begin her report when there was a gentle knock at her door. Seamus was standing there, smiling softly. “Heard I might be of some assistance.”
That was fast, thought Jennifer. “Come on in.”
Seamus did, in that lighter than air way of walking he had. He drifted to a chair opposite Jennifer, sat and said, “And?”
Jennifer recounted her observations from the bakery. Seamus sat silently, nodding occasionally, smiling that Buddha smile of his, although this Buddha was short, slight, bald only on the top and wore black-rimmed glasses.
“Yes,” he said when she had concluded, “sounds like a prima facie case to me. Undoubtedly warrants further inquiry. Linda said you have pictures.”
Jennifer handed him her phone.
“Timothy and his toys. He has his latest applications on this one? Excellent. Let’s see.” He studied the screen for a bit, flipping between different views and apps, pointing out things to Jennifer and asking a few questions about the owner. “How many years has he been there?”
Finally, he sat back. “From the looks of things, this has been happening for some time. He’s been there for about fifteen years, you said? Yes, you can see the different layers of the infestation. I’d say it started about a dozen years ago or so, after the optimism of starting a new business started to wear off. Then over the years, the infestation would recede or expand depending upon how well your Mr. Lombardi was doing.”
“Why his shop? I mean, lots of small businesses have problems, and they’re not infected.”
Seamus smiled. “More infections then you may realize. But you are correct: relatively few are infected. His is an old building; probably many tenants over its lifetime. Spores were perhaps planted some time ago and remained dormant until your Mr. Lombardi moved in. Always remember the human component, Jennifer: as best we understand, many of these infestations are somehow related to the people affected. Somehow, the presence of Jonathan Lombardi caused the spores to germinate and grow.”
Jennifer pondered that. Something was nagging at the back of her mind, but it wouldn’t come forward. Something, something... Seamus sat quietly, waiting. Finally she asked, “What should we do? Would a Cleaner be effective?”
Seamus shrugged. “Most probably, certainly for the present overt infection. With your permission, I would like to drop by the bakery for a little observation.”
He did not need her permission, but he was sweet to ask.
“And perhaps a treat. Does he make Danish?”
“Best in town.”
Seamus smiled. “Well then, it’s a date.” And he floated out.
* * *
Jennifer went down the hall and pushed open the swinging doors marked “Procurement.” Miss Puddin was there, as always, perched on her stool behind the dark wooden counter, rows of shelves stretching behind her. She was staring down into her purse, a cloth bag about the size of a four-door sedan. She reached in and rummaged around for a bit before coming up with a sandwich wrapped in wax paper. She sniffed at it, said an inquisitive “Hmm,” then shrugged and placed it on the counter, dropping her bag to the floor. She was beginning to unwrap the sandwich when she noticed Jennifer standing there. “Hello there, Jen. How are you?”
“Just fine, Miss Puddin.”
“Good, good. Would you like a bit of sandwich? I believe it’s egg salad.”
“That’s kind of you, but I’ve eaten already. I’ve come to return the Edgar and get a Cleaner, if I could.”
“Of course, dearie, of course. Let’s see...” She tapped on a keyboard with one hand and took a bite of the sandwich she held in her other. “Mmmm, paprika.”
She studied the screen. “Got several in stock. Be right back.” She slid from her stool and walked back into the stacks, leaving her sandwich on the counter.
Jennifer looked at it dubiously. It could be egg salad.
Then Miss Puddin was back carrying a cloth bag about eight inches tall. She set it on the counter, loosened the drawstring at the top and pulled the bag down to reveal a white stone figurine of a well-muscled bald man with an earring in one ear.
“Handsome fella, ain’t he?” said Puddin. “Sign here.”
Jennifer did, pulled up the bag and headed out with a “Thanks, Miss Puddin,” to which Puddin waved her sandwich in goodbye.
Jennifer left the Cleaner in her office and headed down to Archives, thinking to scratch the mental itch she had had since talking to Seamus. She moved through another pair of oaken doors into a long, hushed room, with vaulted ceilings and stacks of books and rows of tables with screens.
Behind a high, wooden desk sat Miles, often called Lord of the Stacks, though never to his face. He sat in his dark suit, starched white shirt and precisely tied tie, studying a large book opened before him. He looked up as Jennifer came in and smiled. “Hello, Miss Jennifer, how nice to see you.”
“Hi, ah... Miles. ” Jennifer hesitated because she was never sure if it was “Mr. Miles” or just “Miles.”
“Here to do a bit of research?”
“Yes, I was hoping to get the history of a certain building where I have a case.” She explained about the little bakery.
Miles shook his head. “Yes, the Dark. Your instincts are quite right that the roots of the Dark were planted by something in the past. You can get current information from the screens.” He nodded toward the tables with their ranks of computer screens.
“However, the buildings in that neighborhood are quite old and the street names and addresses may well have changed over the years. It’s best to proceed by learning the building’s parcel number.” He slid down the counter to a keyboard and began typing.
“Ah, yes, here we are: the ownership history for about 80 years or so. To go back further we shall have to consult the parcel history books for that area. And for heaven’s sake, I just happen to have that book in front of me. Isn’t that a coincidence?” Miles smiled at Jennifer.
Jennifer didn’t know what it was, but she was sure it wasn’t a coincidence. She looked on as Miles leafed through the big ledger. “Let’s see, parcel number... Quite a few owners, and here yes, the street did get a new name. Oh, good grief, they named a street after that fool?” He gave Jennifer a knowing look and a world-weary smile. “Politics is politics.” He took a scanner, passed it over the page in the ledger and typed a few keys on his board. “There we go. You can pick up the copy at the first printer over there. Good luck.”
Jennifer picked up the copy then sat at one of the big tables that ran down the middle of the Archives. She liked working in the Archives, with its vaulted wood ceilings, ornate wood paneling and deep carpet that hushed all sounds.
And Miles also hushed all sounds. The Lord of the Stacks brooked no nonsense in his domain. Some interns had once been singing in the back of the stacks for some reason, and Miles had stepped up to them: “Gentlemen, no one else seems to know the lyrics to your little ditty, perhaps you should take your recital outside.” And they did.
Jennifer spent hours cross-checking the bakery building in old newspaper editions, looking for something that could have been the seed for the Dark. Nothing seemed to have happened at the address. She researched all the present and past owners of the building and of the businesses that had been there over the years. Nothing. It had grown quite late, and there was a lot to do tomorrow. She packed up her things and headed out, nodding to the ever-present Miles as she went out.
* * *
When it was time to close the shop the next day, Jennifer locked the door, pulled the shades and got her bag from the back room. She pulled out the Cleaner, setting him on the counter, and got a pair of dark glasses from the bag. He seemed to shine even in the darkened room.
Jennifer slipped the glasses on, turned to the back of the bag and started chanting the legend written in gold letters. After a moment, the little man did begin to shine; a glow grew from him and seemed to enter the air of the little bakery.
Jennifer continued the chant and when she said, “And everything that’s in it,” the statue became a gleaming white, and a bright light flooded the room. One minute later it winked out and the Cleaner stood dull and silent, its smile now looking a little satisfied.
Jennifer put the statue and glasses back in the bag. She picked up her phone, thumbed to Tim’s app and nodded. The screen remained clear as she moved about the store. She was about to stop scanning when a tiny ripple appeared. She moved around the room again and saw faint ripples where the ceiling met the top of the wall. She frowned.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Anthony Lukas