The Man Who Sold Time
by Arthur Davis
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Henry passed the pharmacist, the sporting goods store, Hartley’s General Store. People waved. Which ones were already compromised? he asked himself. Who would be lost when Sunday fell?
Was the town so weak and so wanting that they themselves gave Devlin the opportunity by not filling the church and the town with a God-fearing defender? Why had they hesitated? Why hadn’t Henry seen this possibility in the vacuum of righteousness?
He turned down Leggett to Dawson and stopped. He got out of his truck and looked around. Children at play up the street, trees tempering the wind, sunlight trickling through a thicket of clouds.
Peace and peace-ability.
Henry’s mouth ran dry. Helen’s lemonade would be perfect right about now, he thought as he approached the church. He knocked, waited, and then pushed open the front door.
There were no pews separating the nave. The stained glass windows had been painted over. There were no icons or religious artifacts anywhere. The stone church seemed more like an abandoned barn than a house of God.
Now it was a place of desperation, of despair and death. Devlin Mercy had come to his town, to Henry’s birthplace, determined to consume its collective soul.
Mercy appeared from behind a long black curtain that was strung the width of the apse at the far end of the church. It was the third time they had met, although Henry felt he had indirectly worked all his life to isolate this man’s evil from those he was ordained to protect. Mercy’s countenance again, was not as it had been. With each encounter there were small, subtle differences in his face and stature, as if he were constantly evolving, or molting—casting off one effrontery for another in order to deceive and dissuade.
“Do you like what I’ve done with it?” He raised his hands as if to celebrate his darkened heaven.
“It’s certainly original,” Henry answered.
“You know, you have to be these days to win over the skeptics. With all the people out of work and families suffering, many have become cynical.”
“Is that why you’re here? To win over those who question their faith?”
“And, of course, to win you over too.”
“I do not doubt my faith, Mercy.”
“And I am certain you are certain of that.”
Henry moved easily about the space. He felt less threatened than he first thought he would be. The idea that he was standing next to this vengeful pretense, this darkest of dark incarnations, as if he was your neighbor discussing crabgrass or the latest rumor about the scope of Mrs. Roosevelt’s affections, was uncomfortably disarming.
“What would it gain to have me on your side?”
“People come to you for help. You’re a lightning rod for hope. Deprive them of your special—how shall we say?—gifts, and their lives will immediately become more difficult and desperate.”
“And, without doubt, even more hopeless.”
“And this is good?”
“This is my reason for being. Indeed, for living.”
“What you do can hardly be described as living, Mr. Mercy.” Henry’s eyes were magnetic, compelling. “We build, we create and you spend your life trying to destroy. Does that bring you joy?”
Mercy thought a moment. “It fills me with reassurance, and brings me far greater pleasure than your kind can imagine.”
“While we’re confessing our sins here, do you mind telling me what’s going to happen this Sunday?” Henry felt himself moving backwards, as if his legs were preparing him for flight. Or was it merely his imagination?
“It’s quite simple, really. This church will be filled with the good people of Longly Falls who will listen to my plea for their souls.”
“With no pews, religious icons, and windows blackened?”
“My flock will be huddled, standing in the center of my church hanging on my every word.”
“And you will prevaricate, twist, and distort the truth?”
“Naturally, like all great religious leaders, I will do whatever it takes to increase my flock.”
“And to increase your flock, you had to kill Fred Kinney?”
Mercy’s expansive forehead reddened. A shadow cast itself over his face. “I didn’t kill your foolish friend, sir. He killed himself.”
“Nonetheless, what you did killed him.”
“He came here and confronted me. He was belligerent and disrespectful. I will not condone such behavior. I caused him considerable pain, as he deserved, and he went rushing out to warn you as I knew he would.”
“Then you used him to make a costly point.”
“For him, not me.”
“That’s the difference between you and humanity. We’re all one. There is no him and us. When one suffers, when one of us dies, a small light goes out in all of us.”
Henry was about to leave when something Mercy had said caught his attention and, for the first time since marching down to his basement, he sensed a glimmer of hope. “This is something of a personal cause for you, isn’t it? You sold the paint to Fred but you had no idea who he was, or for what purpose he might use it?”
“A matter of fact there. It was just another opportunity for me.”
“To poison the world?”
“And why not?” Devlin asked, almost indifferently.
“Because I say not,” Henry said in a tone one can only muster when their flock is in danger and they’re the only thing standing between relief and damnation.
“Why should what you say stand in my way?”
“Because this small hamlet of Longly Falls is my hereditary flock, and is hereby given an eternity of protection. And, because I so command it.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I am the man who sells time. I alone have that power. If you strike me dead at this moment, that gift will be in place, as I have given my word to my flock in the instant that just passed.”
Mercy’s body shook imperceptibly. The tips of his fingernails clawed deeply into his palms.
There were times during their confrontation when Henry believed he could smell the rancor of the man’s breath and other times when he could feel the tug of Helen’s love, or recall his mother’s warm embrace.
Mercy seemed to grow, his sizable frame extending in height, his head becoming proportionally larger, his disagreeability transformed into a distorted howling malevolence. “That is not possible,” he growled.
“A lifetime, Mr. Mercy. My word has already been given on it,” Henry said defiantly and moved forward. “A lifetime to figure out a way to rid itself of your evil.”
“No. I will not let it be so.”
“As I so have that power, I have so commanded it,” Henry repeated, in a voice that thundered with clarity and certainty.
“NO!” Mercy said in a wail. “I WILL NOT HAVE IT!”
“And I hereby extend that covenant to every living relative now and in perpetuity and to their heirs’ friends however remote!”
“You have not the power for such madness!”
“You’ve not begun to grasp the measure of my power,” Henry commanded, his fists raging in Devlin’s face.
Mercy’s cheeks burned crimson with rage. The snaking pulse in his temples roiled with fury. His fingers became long and misshapen. His clothes shrank around his bulging body making him somewhat of a comic, if not horribly frightening, sight. “I will not have it!”
“And I will, and IT IS ALREADY SO,” Henry thundered again.
“And the immunity I have this day granted from the plague of your breath shall henceforth be the exclusive heritage of Longly Falls. A town which in time and over generations will come to be known as a miracle on earth for the longevity and the courage of its inhabitants.”
“Then I will crush every town and village within a hundred miles of here!”
“And draw more attention to this island sanctuary?”
“Still, I will have them.”
“You already have them. Your pestilential presence fills their hospitals, their graveyards, and jails. They curse you daily in every town and village a thousand miles from here and far beyond.”
Mercy moved toward Henry, who held himself to the threat. “You have no idea of what I can do beyond what I’ve already put my mind to.”
“Not in this town. Not in my town! You have lost Longly Falls forever!”
A noise one might associate with the cry of a disemboweled animal erupted from within Mercy’s chest and filled the chamber.
The guttural groan sickened Henry, but he forced himself to listen in case, on some future cool autumn night, he should hear such a hideous noise coming toward him on a darkened path.
“Now you hold your Sunday Mass and, as God is my witness, I will be standing on the lawn of this holy shelter warning off the curious and you will be exposed as both deceiver and demon, for even as we speak my word is taking effect. Souls are listening to me, as they are coming to know you and preparing themselves to renounce you.”
“I will not permit this!”
“You are a creature of the night and as I have shed daylight on your evil, so you are without purpose here. I suggest you leave, immediately.”
Mercy began to breathe in and out deeper and deeper until gushing steam vented from his nostrils. The heaving became a bellowing sound of its own until Mercy’s head jerked back, his eyes fused red, his lips bloated and split, his blackened tongue slipped in and out as a reptile would when testing the air for prey.
Henry, whose arms had already collapsed at his sides, his fists numb with fury, slowly moved back towards the doorway as the creature’s shriek became unbearable.
He didn’t know if he could actually save an entire town. He only knew that he had done whatever he was already empowered to do against such evil. By the time he turned and opened the door and slammed it shut behind him, he was certain the pounding in his own chest would kill him.
For whatever it was worth, he had given all he had. Later, Henry would recall that he couldn’t be certain if he had seen one living creature or heard another sound from the time he left the church until he fell into Helen’s arms.
“Dear God, you’re back.”
“You look like you were crying,” he said, barely able to climb out of the truck.
“Why? Why? Why was I crying? Because, you old fool, you are the love of my life.”
Henry checked his body for vital signs. He wasn’t hurt; his mind seemed intact, though there was still the echo of an unnatural pounding in his chest. His left fist was clenched, and he was grateful his right fist had already worked itself through the terror. “That’s it?”
“And, because I was certain you would forget to get us fish!”
“Seems reason enough to shed tears.”
“I agree, my love,” she said, kissing him gently, over and over. “I so agree.”
He took her in his arms. She felt frail, as did he. “It’s all right now.”
After a while she managed, “Now what?”
“Now we wait.”
“To see if I’m a man of my word,” he answered and guided her home.
Copyright © 2016 by Arthur Davis