The Man Who Sold Time
by Arthur Davis
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Fred Kinney sat on Henry’s porch, a cold glass of Helen’s lemonade in hand, reliving the details of his original encounter with Devlin Mercy that frozen winter day and again, as their new Pastor. Their church had been without leadership just since the spring when John O’Connor, the town’s beloved spiritual guide, suddenly became ill and passed.
Helen couldn’t recall a time when she had seen her husband so disturbed. “What are we going to do?” she asked.
“We have to warn everyone,” Fred answered, as though he had been thinking of nothing else.
Henry got up and stretched his tired legs. “He came here for me.”
There was a very long pause before Helen could comprehend the possibility. “Oh, Lord,” she said, crossing herself.
Fred asked, “Do you know what you’re saying?”
“I’m saying that this man has no use for a man who does what I do for a living.”
“You think he would have waited nearly a hundred years from when your grandfather opened the store to get around to closing you down?”
“Maybe. Can’t rightly know. Can’t say as he hasn’t already tried.”
“What about the sign?” Fred asked.”
“I think you’re right, honey.”
“But there’s no denying who sold me that paint!”
“What else did he say?”
“Nothing. Fred recognized him. He came over to us in the parking lot and said we could leave the paint anywhere we wanted.”
“So, he has the paint?”
“And, apparently, your friend’s boy, Kevin,” Fred said.
Helen clutched her hands over her heart in despair.
The experience of seeing this man again, and what Mercy’s evil and his own clinging avarice might have brought to Longly Falls dug into Fred’s craw. He couldn’t shake the expression of horror on the young boy’s face, or the wave of guilt that was overtaking him.
“So, no one asked what needed to be asked?”
“If you mean, did we ask Devlin if he knew the paint was poison? No, we didn’t.” Fred finished his lemonade and flung the rest of the ice in his glass in a wide spray over the lawn.
“Or if he would tell us who else had bought that paint, or who had bought his seed?” Henry asked. “No.”
Helen sipped at her drink trying to imagine what he looked like. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a battered truck approaching. It was moving slowly, as if it had long ago outlived its usefulness. “We’ll learn more about him this Sunday.”
“Why Sunday?” Fred inquired.
“I’ll be interested to hear his sermon,” Helen said with her customary determination. She had lost sight of the truck behind a rolling hillock.
Henry gathered his gear and went down to the pond and began casting. Helen watched both men from the porch. Henry baited his hook, let the rod drop level to the shore, and then flipped it over his shoulder and back over the water.
“You came all this way to deprive these people of my gift and what I do to make their lives a little easier. After all this time you finally got around to me. Well,—” Henry went on reflectively, as the line tightened, “I’m not going anywhere. It’s your power against my faith. Not so much in God, but in myself and in the might of my right.”
Fred didn’t respond to Henry’s determined narrative, and was taken by the ease with which the man maneuvered the line. There was a calm certainty about Henry Serling.
“Then you have nothing to worry about,” came the voice from behind them.
“Devlin Mercy,” Fred Kinney said turning, as Henry continued to work the line.
“You shouldn’t be so surprised.”
“What do you want here?” Fred demanded.
“I was just passing by and saw you two about. I thought I’d drop by in a less formal setting. You know how the church can make some people uncomfortable with the truth.”
“You’re not welcomed here, sir,” Henry said, finally reeling the fish out of the lake.
“That’s not very neighborly of you, Henry Serling. After all, I welcomed you to my house.”
Henry was having difficulty measuring this man against the one they had met outside the church—the one Fred was clearly frightened of. This Devlin Mercy was the same, yet there were subtle differences. It was around the mouth and eyes. They were harder, more confirmed, less pleasing, he thought. “I take it you’ve come here for me,” Henry finally asked.
“You, among others.”
“If you’ve come for me, then why involve the rest of Longly Falls?”
“You’re a most admirable prize, sir, but this town is also a worthy jewel.”
Fred moved closer to Devlin. “I don’t like being sold shoddy goods.”
Softening a bit, Devlin replied, “Well, you know it’s hard to tell how the paint will affect things. If you had used it to, say, paint a doghouse, for instance, I would imagine the animal would become quite ill and possibly die. If you painted a bridge, the beams supporting such a structure would soon develop fractures and eventually collapse. But you really can’t be sure, just like a lot of things in life.”
Henry measured the simple forthrightness of the words and the candor of the man. “Why now?”
“Indeed, why not now?” Devlin said, eyeing the fish flopping about in Henry’s pail.
“I imaging he was busy elsewhere,” Fred countered.
“You give me too much credit, Mr. Kinney. I don’t have any grand plan.”
“You’re not a very convincing liar,” Fred said.
Mercy shook his head. “Now, you’re being too hard on me.”
“Not hard enough, I imagine,” Fred said, his anger now obvious.
Mercy seemed amused at the veiled threat. “Please, I hope you are not thinking of doing anything rash. This would hardly be the time or place.”
“Then name the time and place,” Fred demanded.
Henry moved between them and turned to Fred. “Don’t do this. Your pride is not worth dying for.”
“But I believe your friend thinks otherwise, Mr. Serling. He’s a freeborn with a grievance.”
“Fred. Don’t. You know better.”
“Do you know better, Fred?” Mercy asked, mockingly. “I don’t believe he does, Mr. Serling. I absolutely don’t believe he does. By the way, is that lovely lady on your porch your wife, Helen?”
“Don’t worry, Mercy. She already knows who you are.”
“Than I’ve accomplished what I came for, and wish you both a good day,” Mercy said, nodded politely in the direction of the screened-in porch and moved away towards his truck.
Helen waited for him to pass out of sight before she opened the porch door and joined them. “That was him?”
“Bastard,” Fred cursed.
“Fred, you can’t go through with this.”
“With what?” Helen asked.
“I’m just going to pay off a debt.”
“Fred’s going to have it out with him.
” Helen was immediately distressed. “Oh no, you mustn’t.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“And what if you’re not?”
Fred Kinney knew what happened during the transaction, the way you know when you don’t want to know. He knew it when Devlin Mercy handed him the can of paint. When he finally asked nothing for it in return.
“A gift from one gentleman to another then,” Mercy had said that painfully cold day.
If only he hadn’t lied to Henry about the paint not being noxious. He was so eager to paint the sign and then the store, and the new business his handiwork might bring. If only Henry had confronted him there and then and cast him as a liar. Even that would have been better than the truth that hammered at his heart.
“We have to warn people about who he is.”
“Fred’s right,” Henry said, knowing this was still not the answer.
“We must have faith,” Helen said.
The three returned to the cool of the porch. It was the first time there was an opportunity to speak freely about themselves. Fred learned about how The Store That Sold Time began, and Henry and Helen learned how Fred had lost his wife.
“If I don’t do this, who will?” Fred offered.
“Honey, what if something happens to Fred?” she asked.
“Well then,” Henry replied thoughtfully, “he wouldn’t get the privilege of painting my store.”
* * *
There was a small flickering light in the rectory as Fred drove into the parking lot, a few paces from where they had set the contents of the wheelbarrow.
It was just after dusk, a time when insects and small creatures ventured out to scavenge for food while others safeguarded their nests against predators. Fred made his way around to the rectory. He didn’t bother to knock, lifted the ratchet, pushed open the door, and walked into the vestibule.
“Devlin Mercy?” He repeated what sounded more like a taunt. He had never been in here before or recently in any church. He believed in God, just not that he would be of help if asked for guidance, and certainly not for his forgiveness. “Mercy?” he demanded.
“Mr. Kinney, what an unexpected delight and, if you please, it’s Pastor Mercy.”
Fred spun around and was confronted with the man who, again, by some degree was slightly different in appearance than the one who had confronted them earlier. “You’ve got some nerve wearing that.”
Mercy stroked the satin folds of his cassock. “I think I look rather dashing in it, don’t you?”
“You’re a fraud.”
Mercy came closer. “Oh, but I can assure you, I’m not. I wear this as an equal to any spiritual leader whose purpose is to inform and guide his flock.”
“You’re no man of the cloth.”
“Still, I came here for converts and I shall have them before I leave.”
Fred was taken by the man’s dulcet voice, though his eyes were noticeably unsettling. They were neither blue nor brown, but a black that was not evident in the daylight. Fred could feel that great gulp of courage he had taken after he left Henry drain away. “I want you out of Longly Falls.”
“And so I shall be.”
“Another threat, sir?”
“Take it any way you want, Mercy.”
Devlin brought his six-foot frame to Fred’s six-foot frame and, for a moment, they stood eye-to-eye. “I don’t have the time to be distracted from my purpose by withered old men.”
“Not so withered as you might think.”
“Withered enough,” Devlin answered and reached up and rested his hand on Fred’s right shoulder.
Fred had taken shrapnel in his back from German artillery at Verdun and survived the surgery when there was nothing to keep down the pain but biting on a leather strap. But he had never felt searing pain like this before. His legs buckled as the air gushed from his frightened lungs. He reached to defend himself but he was already falling.
He woke sometime later on the cold stone floor, gasping in pain. He managed to drag himself from the rectory to his truck. With one hand on the wheel, the other arm destroyed at his side, he drove just slow enough to steady the wheel and fast enough to accurately gauge the measure of what life remained.
The truck wandered up the dirt road then unexpectedly swerved into a patch of begonias Helen had planted last year. Helen and Henry rushed across the lawn.
Henry opened the door and Fred fell out. His face was ashen, drained white and contorted; the bubbling spittle on his lips, the barest indication of life. Henry lowered Fred to the ground, laying his head in a forest of begonias, and bent to hear what he was saying.
“It’s Mercy!” Helen cried, “I’m certain of it.”
The once robust man looked like he had been dead for some time. Henry opened Fred’s torn shirt revealing the full extent of the shattering purple wound that had already engulfed the man’s shoulder and much of his chest. They remained at his side for some time, unable to accept the obvious. Their fears were justified, and they had lost the only other witness to the truth, and to the horror they and Longly Falls were facing.
“What are we going to do?”
“We are going to bury him.”
Helen was shocked at Henry’s coolness. “What?”
“We’re going to bury our friend.”
“How can we?”
He turned to her. “Because that’s all we can do tonight, and that’s what he would’ve wanted.”
Two hours later, Fred was lowered into a shallow grave wrapped in Helen’s favorite sheets. Henry joined her on the porch, as she would have nothing to do with it. “It’s not right to leave him in a pit.”
“It’s just until we can sort things out.”
“But the man needs a coffin and proper ceremony. It’s just not—”
He took her in his arms. She was shaking. “It’s all right—I’ve given him time for us to get him one.”
Helen sobbed, clutching at him. “I’m so frightened.”
“I am too, sweetheart.”
It took time to comfort her—and himself. They sat on the back porch swing that had seen them through almost every crisis of their lives. Finally, he could feel her body relax, soothed more by time than his caring. Her eyes were closed as his scanned the darkness between their home, the town church and the enemy within. What foolishness had Fred made of it?
By the time Helen fell asleep, Henry had made no progress save to note Fred’s last word, or broken letters that he refigured from what seemed at first to be ‘coven,’ to ‘converts.’
The next day Helen was silent, her eyes flooded with fear. Henry prepared himself for a very different kind of day, certain that the good Lord had not put him on this earth to be consumed by such an aberration.
How many souls had already been lost, including Kevin Pruitt’s, though hopefully not irrevocably. And yet Henry was not surprised. In a way he could not clearly understand, he knew this time might come, though he had no idea in what form it would arrive or what his response would be to the threat.
Settling into her favorite position next to her Henry as they stared into nature’s blessed openness, Helen spoke softly, “I love to sit out here with you.”
Henry looked out over the morning haze blanketing the lake that filled the horizon behind the home his father built. He felt Helen reach for his hand. He knew he would have to protect her in ways he didn’t yet understand. He was not a man of violence, though he didn’t believe that violence would help.
“It’ll be a cloudy day. Maybe rain,” Henry said.
“I would like some fresh fish.”
“I’ll get us some.”
“I’d like that.”
“Do you think I would have made a good preacher?”
Helen was so anxious she didn’t understand the question. Was he joking or did this have to do with Sunday mass? She was afraid he would go in harm’s way and yet she knew her Henry was the town’s only hope. But what was he going to do, what could anyone do, in the face of such malevolence?
“I think you could be anyone you wanted.”
“I don’t know much about preaching, and what I’ve learned about God has come mostly from you.”
She tightened her grip on his hand. “You don’t have to know anything about God to be one of his greatest disciples. You’re the most decent, loving, kind man I and this town has ever known.”
They sat on the porch, each counting the number of times fish broke the surface. On long evenings they would sit on the porch and play a game to see who could count the most times in ten minutes. Helen suspected that Henry might have exaggerated his count on more than one occasion. But that was just fine with her.
“I should be back around noon,” he said and got up.
“And what if you’re not?”
“Just set a table for the two of us for lunch, honey.”
As soon as she could hear him getting dressed, moving about in their bedroom upstairs, she began to weep uncontrollably.
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Arthur Davis