The Fourth Side

by Robert A. Lawler

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3-4, 5-6


I

“Ah, effendi, if it please you to allow me, perhaps I can show you something suitable for a man of your taste and strength of will.”

John Henderson shook his head as if startled. Effendi, he thought. Nobody talks that way anymore. That’s something out of a 1930’s Foreign Legion movie. Henderson had worked in Iraq for eight years now and he’d never heard anybody use that word before. It was only after thinking about effendi for several seconds that he wondered, And why is he talking about my strength of will?

However, “strength of will” was a very good way to describe John. He had come to Iraq in 2005, at the age of 24, during the time when the insurgency against the U.S. invasion was peaking. Armed with only a Masters Degree in Civil Engineering and his strength of will, he went to the northern, Kurdish, region of Iraq, where it was a little quieter. And he built. Roads, homes, bridges, he built them all, along with his own construction company and the confidence of the semi-independent Kurdish government. Eight years of building.

At the age of thirty-two, he had money, influence, reputation. He had put body and soul into his work, allowing himself only one week’s vacation per year, and little personal life.

Now, that was all over. Two days ago, the leader of the Kurdish party had confided in him that, although his help was greatly appreciated, with the American army gone, and the Shi’ites controlling the government, Iraq was no place for an American to run a business.

Now he was heading home, back to a country he’d not seen in five years, back to a family that had become weekly telephone calls and Christmas cards. Now he had just one last day in Baghdad along with a ticket in his pocket for tomorrow morning’s flight to Paris. In three days, he’d be home in Philadelphia.

Today though, he wanted to do some shopping in the many shops and bazaars that occupied the business center of town. In the past eight years he had had little time for sightseeing or shopping; now he found himself lost in a maze of avenues and alleys he hadn’t even known existed.

He entered shops selling everything from Japanese TVs, bootleg DVDs to American cigarettes. He was looking for a coin shop, hoping to find a few rare coins as a gift for his father. After a couple hours searching he found one, and it was while he was looking over several coins from the Ottoman Empire of Suleiman the Great that the shopkeeper first noticed him.

The shopkeeper was a small, bent man, who seemed doubly so next to Henderson’s tall, slender frame. As the shopkeeper approached, Henderson saw he was dark, even for an Arab, but did not have the typical facial features. His face reminded the John more of a German or a Scandinavian.

“Ah, effendi, if it please you to allow me, perhaps I can show you something suitable for a man of your taste and strength of will.” The shopkeeper stepped into a back room, leaving Henderson wondering. He returned shortly, carrying a small wooden case.

While the Arab was opening the case, John noticed a strong odour coming from the man. It was not unusual for Iraqis to smell more like a goat than a goat, but this man fairly reeked of death and decay. To the American, who had been present at several serious accidents on the job, the smell was no mystery. The man smelt unmistakably of blood.

Henderson whistled as he saw the coin the shopkeeper had in the box. The man’s no liar, he thought. It was a gold coin from ancient Persia minted during the reign of Cambyses II. He had seen similar coins in the national museum.

“How much?” he asked excitedly as he reached for some money.

“No, no, effendi. You have not seen the greatest wonder.” The Arab took the coin, laid it in his palm and stared at the coin with such intensity that his eyes seemed afire. Without warning, the shopkeeper tossed the coin into the air so that it flipped over several times. When the coin landed on his palm it had a new face, a symbol showed the like of which Henderson had never seen, but which contained a winged and bearded figure with a serpent coiling at its feet, a border encircling the image.

Blinking in disbelief, John saw no way the switch could have been made. The shopkeeper offered the coin for inspection. Looking at the new face for several seconds, Henderson then turned the coin over. When he turned back to the new face, it was gone; the mark of Cambyses had returned. Since this time the change had occurred in his own hand, Henderson was more inclined to believe there was no trick. Bewildered, he asked the shopkeeper how it was done.

“You can do it, effendi, you can do it,” the shopkeeper said excitedly. “It takes a man of great will, such as I know you to be. You take the coin and, while looking at it, tell it to change over and over again in your mind, then...” He made a motion as if to flip the coin.

Not thinking to ask why the shopkeeper considered him to be a man of great will, Henderson stared at the coin and bent that will. Intrigued by what they thought was a show, a small crowd had gathered. They were mostly Arabs, but there were also several Chinese businessmen and a young French couple John recognized from his hotel. Finally, he tossed the coin and, exactly as before, the new face appeared.

Some of the people in the crowd, believing it to be a magic trick, began to applaud, and one of the Chinese even patted Henderson on the back. The American’s attention, however, was taken by an old Arab, who looked to be at least a hundred. This man leaned forward and gazed at the strange symbol. Then his expression changed to one of pure fright. Quickly he made a curious gesture to both the coin and the shopkeeper and dashed out of the store before anyone could stop him.

The American turned back to the shopkeeper. “How does... How can this happen?” he asked.

“I know not, effendi,” was his answer. “A man sold it to me as I now wish to sell it to you. He told me only what I have told you and that he found the coin in an ancient city in eastern Iran called Shahr-e Sukteh.”

One of the Chinese interrupted to try to buy the coin.

“No, no, only the effendi! Only this man!” said the shopkeeper.

“How much?” asked Henderson.

“A hundred dollars American” was the reply.

Again, John was shocked. He had gained a good knowledge of coins from his father, and the coin alone was worth much more than that, even without its unusual attribute. He quickly paid the hundred and also purchased two coins from the Ottoman Empire.

Upon leaving the shop, Henderson hurried back to his hotel. He was beginning to worry that the coin might not perform away from the shopkeeper. His doubts so besieged him that he ignored the hotel elevator. His room was on the second floor; he raced up the stairs. Fumbling with the lock, he opened the door and entered the room.

He held his breath while he made the coin perform its trick. His fears were groundless, the coin performed as before; the unknown symbol still appeared.

During dinner, Henderson wondered why the shopkeeper had sold him such a valuable, indeed, priceless coin. He began to ponder the strange remarks the man had made about his willpower. He resolved to return to the shop and get some answers from the shopkeeper as soon as he finished dinner.

Returning to the shop proved to be no easy task, however, for he had only a vague idea of its whereabouts. It took him the better part of an hour before he came upon it, only to find it closed. John glanced at his watch. It was late, but most of the other shops were still open.

Perplexed, he walked back to his hotel. Upon entering his room, just to sure, he took out the coin and made it perform its trick. Again the third side appeared, again that strange symbol stared him in the face.

His dreams that night were wild and chaotic. He seemed to be floating in space far from any solar system, because none of the stars showed as more than a point. He did not even seem to have a physical body, for he never caught a glimpse of himself. He thought of himself as nothing more than a point of consciousness floating through the Universe. As the dream progressed, he became aware of music in the background. The instrument seemed to be a flute, and the melody followed no rhythm pattern he could discern.

At this stage, the dream was quite pleasant, even though the music at times contained a few notes out of keeping with the rest. Some were so discordant that they jarred even John’s unsophisticated sense of music. The dream continued in this manner for what seemed a long time before Henderson became aware of changes.

Several of the stars had begun to grow, to show shapes rather than points, though not the spherical shape of stars. After a time he recognized them as gas clouds, the unused matter of the universe that floated between the stars. Most gas clouds were dark and could be seen only if stars inside them caused the gas to heat and glow. Even in his sleep, he recalled the Orion Nebula, a glowing cloud of gas where new stars were being born. Perhaps these clouds were nebula like that.

About this time. an uneasy feeling began to come over Henderson, an absurd but persistent feeling. All about there was no sign of life, but somehow he was sure he was being watched.

The dream progressed, gaining momentum. The music flowed on, still without rhyme or reason and now it seemed voices had joined in, chanting along although very soft and indistinct. The appearance of the voices only strengthened the feeling of being watched. The singers were nowhere to be seen, but Henderson was certain they were near, watching him intently.

The thought struck him that the gas clouds were watching him, and he knew he was right. The clouds had been growing and growing and had begun to block out the real stars. He began to feel an irrational hatred toward the things. Though they had taken no action, he felt they had only evil intent.

Deciding that this had gone far enough and, as he always did before dreams became nightmares, he made an effort of will and woke himself.

Sitting up for several minutes, he collected his thoughts. He was little worried by the dream. It was unusual, yes, but then so were most dreams. Before long he was back asleep. The dream did not return.


Proceed to part II...

Copyright © 2015 by Robert A. Lawler

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