Here is the story "Philomena's Gift" from the book Eve of Valor: 25 Tales of speculative-fiction writings by Lorenzo Samuel (me). The protagonist of this tale is a disillusioned assistant district attorney at a time when crime has fallen off dramatically. Philomena, a delisted saint from the 3rd century, invents a plan to provide a new game for the modern age. It makes for interesting reading. I present to you the first 1/3rd of the tale "Philomena's Gift." Enjoy.
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Mela’s mind rumbles. Something has to break.
Time leaves marks on her. Lack of tint pales her flab, and hues turn her gray. She trudges through the smog toward her destination. The stench of the place keeps her on track. This Thursday morning she can’t stop wheezing ‒ she’s a filter trying to produce fresh air after that stifling rampulse ride.
One block from the parking lot that imprisons the station, she snatches her eyes off the sidewalk and flings them onto a building looming out of some nightmare. The sun shrouds shadow around the edifice. In its crannies, mold wriggles into the grime.
Dressed in a blouse straining at the buttons, pants that clinch her thighs, and a bandanna full of grease spots, Mela slogs through the entrance. Hardly noticing the foyer, she hangs up on an oxymoron that seems to define her world: If the lives of people have gotten safer and more bountiful, why is everything so filthy?
The answer to that question might as well go to Ulan Bator; she doesn’t want to think about it. Besides, she believes that most answers yield little truth. She blanks out her query while stumbling onto the people mover that will carry her from the foyer to the elevator bay.
The bay creeps close to the elevators, then, it clouds over, and she can’t see. She blinks her oversized eyes, which clears the miasma, but finds herself in nothing. “What the hell,” she mutters. The nothing becomes a space illuminated by pricks of light. She wipes her spectacles, but the sparkles still glisten.
The lobby has disappeared; the lifts have vanished into motes. Light twirls, spins upwards and spreads into fantasy. Sounds fade away; gone the whir of elevators, the ratcheting of gears, the groan of air-conditioners and the hum of voices. Her nose drizzles as the odor of olives seeps into her.
The illusion trembles. She clutches her hands together, and the vision becomes insubstantial. This world discovers itself more and more a part of her mind. As she binds to the phantasm, her shaking increases, and a scene springs out of the void ‒ past, present and future, all solid. Chimeras zing by too fast to name. Togas dive like birds. Dancing hip hop, a vial of crimson blood leads a parade of criminals out of the catacombs.
The people mover has reversed and dumps her at the entrance to the building. She lurches back on. Glances at the clock at the end of the lobby. Its seconds creep through her like syrup as she rolls toward the bay. An elevator opens. She pushes the button to the 4th floor. Mind-death starts; it pounds into her, same yesterday, same the week before and probably the same a month hence.
She expects nothing from her work; no cases on her qubit to excite her. She lumbers down the aisle. Spreads her buttocks against the ergonomic seat. Nibbles the peanut butter and jam sandwich from yesterday then tosses it under the monitor. Blanking out the walls’ slate-gray, ignoring the other ten assistant district attorneys pretending to work, she recalls flitting into the void that greeted her when she first encountered the elevators. She ponders, I sure didn’t want to come up here.
That dream, vision, hallucination or whatever pulls on her again. Oh, mud puppies. I'm reasonable. I don't buy a bit. She surges out of that castle in the air and into the middle of the 4th floor of a one-fifth-full building in Midwest Center.
Fifteen years before, citizens knew the office’s location. The facade of the six stories lustered azure. Now, with panels missing and the rest smudged, the structure borders a walkway coming from humdrum and wending to nowhere.
Like the tentacles of a squid, the milieu creeps inside the building, slithers into the elevators, oozes across the floor, clings to the grime on the desks and establishes the center of Mela’s world. In this pitfall, 40 assistant district attorneys used to bustle handling their caseloads. Now 10 dally.
Since the janitors quit, the D.A.s are supposed to clean their areas. But they've given up. Like Mela, they’re used to the grunge covering every surface and filling all the nooks. Their dolor subtends their morale; they slouch in their chairs waiting for something to happen.
Mela yearns for the hour when the walls will beep the end of another impotent day. Since she arrived this morning, other than trips into ennui, she's fiddled with one task only. Maims her brain to think of it. Scratching her dun, she wonders if what she's doing will ever lead to anything worthwhile.
Oh yeah, a greengrocer welshing on payment for a load of cabbage because it contained a few heads with spots ‒ Whoopee. Go Mela. Nail the fraud. The case fails to acknowledge her humor and fades into the rest of her drudge.
There seemed a time that work excited her ‒ when at 25 she entered the profession out of law school, married 2 months and hot to impact the world. Remembering that uplifts her briefly, then she sinks back into reality, submerged in the staleness that threatens to suffocate her. She stares at her qubit. “4:50 P.M.” flashes. During the day, she’s written one paragraph of her brief of who-cares.
Beeping from the wall, the trumpet calls end of work. She springs from her chair with vigor, her mind unfogging like mist over a lake at mid-morning. She opens the drawer under her workstation and scoops leftovers into its disarray. Fruit flies follow the plum she bought a week ago as it thuds into the waste unit. She shuffles papers and disks into a heap in the middle of her station over a glob of jam. Surprised by her activity, dust leaps from her desk to powder the air. She promises the god of dirt that she will clean up tomorrow.
No sooner made, that promise evaporates into a mirage of intentions. She yearns for wine and whist, her once-a-week with the girls. Her lips crack a smile that changes into a grimace when the wall rumbles for her to stop by her boss's office. Something interesting for her. Her eye gleam flees, and grime reasserts its hold on her mood.
Oh, crayola. Always he waits until after quitting time. Interesting new case, bull. Claptrap he wants to pass off. Give me a break. Once again boredom trumps excitement. She trudges toward the slave-master’s office like an elephant forced to carry logs along a jungle trail.
Eyes to the floor, she shuffles through the stations of her co-workers, each suffering from her or his own brand of apathy; they avert their eyes as she lumbers by.
Why not one of them? Why me on the one night of the week when I can have fun? Her pleasure postponed, Mela's mind wanders back to before she got into this mess. How about those space-transport rackets? Jacob and I kicked tail there. Now he prosecutes pirates among the asteroids. Lucky bastard. I need a challenge, a criminal case, dammit.
She had turned down going to the belt. Her marriage to Rip enthralled her then. Tears form in the corners of her eyes, a remnant of past happiness. She maunders, I lost Rip too.
With soiled bandanna that masks her fleshy cheeks, she smears the tears of remembrance. Still dabbing, she trudges into Gus Acropolis’s office, instantly feeling misplaced in his sanctum. Her boss the D.A., perfect weight, perfect height, right out of some machismo periodical, lounges with groomed fingers tapping to music flowing from clean rose walls. Something by the old-time Carpenters. Looking as if he came from wardrobe a minute before, he faces her picture-ready; Gus can go all day in suit and bandanna without ruffle or smudge.
I hate this office, I hate the Carpenters. She smashes her flab onto the visitor’s bench and asks what's up. Viewing her from an elevated chair, Gus's mouth crinkles. Mela flinches. She leans forward past her protruding stomach and sees crumbs clinging to her lap. A robot scoots around gobbling what’s fallen.
Gus eyes Mela’s corpulence quiver, then warns her not to jump to conclusions before she hears his levy. Not a new case, mind you, but something way more. He needs her to attend a briefing at the FBI Academy tonight. He would go, but District Manager Burns has asked him to entertain some out-of-town moguls. No notes or record of the briefing required; handout disks will suffice.
Mela thinks, doesn't dare say, Why don't you go to the briefing if it will be so frigging interesting? This is whist night, damn it! With the only bright idea of her day, she grabs for an out, "How about I zip in, get the disks and split. No sense wasting time listening to some bore. I'll give you a report first thing tomorrow. No one will be the wiser." She winks then pretends to scrutinize a wall hanging.
Gus's face bores in deadpan ‒ no sauce flavors what he's cooking. He studies Mela. "That's what I like. The thing that makes you a good assistant D.A." Then he smirks. "You forgot something though. We always humor the feds. Never know when we'll need a favor." His eyes become titanium bullets, the kind with explosive caps. He shrugs termination. "Stay until the end and have a nice time. After all, this might mean a break in the crime lull."
Mela’s elan fled before Gus’s pronouncement; she plunges into her dark space. Shuffles hang-dog to the door. Gus adds, "And wear a decent outfit."
When she started with Midwest, back when criminals abounded, she'd flaunted a trim 125, stunning in tight pantsuits. Now a divorced slob at 40, 165 pounds, only her memories keep her sane: the girls looking enviously; the guys wanting to date me.
Now, she wears clothes that attempt to hide her flab. Missing her bouncing buttocks by a millimeter, the office door hisses shut. Back in the sewer again, befouled, she staggers into the gloom.
Ashes flutter off the sackcloth. With each step, pus oozes through his torn-canvas shoes. His cloak stinks of rotten garlic. He limps out of the desert trailing powder that marks his path toward the Little Saint. The blazing sun enhances his blemishes. He stops, leans on a crutch as friable as his bones and pleads through cracked lips, "Help me, Little Saint." He grovels at the Lady's feet. Bleating like a sick goat, he begs Holy Philomena to cure him of his running sores.
She refuses and berates him for malingering. He sneers. Rotten teeth clack in his mouth. From out of his robe he pulls a dirk. "You beggar," Philomena hisses and signs the cross. He raises the weapon, but when the knife plunges to a millimeter of her left breast, the four-and-a-half-foot Little Saint evaporates like perfume in the desert.
Ibn Saíd trembles from the vision. Under the sheet, his right hand makes that idolatrous sign. Already the day broils; his sweat doesn't cool him. With a hand-smash to his head, he jerks himself erect. “What have I done? No one saw me, praise the Prophet. Perhaps that beggar’s to blame. Yet, my hand did make the sign.”
His eyes scour the room. Perplexed by his blasphemy, he lunges out of his stupor. His gaze darts into the shadows. He finds nothing, only the curtains billowing like sails before the wind. As he rolls out the mat for the day's first prayer, he whiffs garlic and realizes that the supplicant has left a trail.
One does not fool Ibn Said. So says his goatee; so attest his bullet eyes. A trader in ivory and antiques, he demands respect and gets it, if not sincerely then through force of will. He makes money sufficient to live commodiously and eats tender meat. A practical man, he gives no alms for need, only for advantage.
He shuts his eyes, alert to movement. Silent as a bankrupt merchant's stall. Out the window, only a mange pads through the rays. Still, that odor stagnates, suffocating him with the memory of his dream.
After his prayer towards Mecca, the odor vanishes. He scrambles to the bazaar. His three friends sip grounds in the canteen. He collapses onto the mat. The boy brings a cup. In silence the four nibble dates, swish coffee around to wash pieces of skin down, then relax. Fumes from their cigarettes mingle near the roof of the tent.
Only then does Said complain that every night, the same tramp accosts him and calls him ‘Little saint’. "I'd pass it off to the dream," he stammers, "yet when I awake, stench clings to the air. I've sworn off garlic. My woman changes the linen and airs the room daily, but it remains. Four nights now, same dream, same stench."
Assir, the eldest of the three, maintains it abnormal to suffer such a recurrence. "Come with us to the gypsy," he implores. "She'll make clear its meaning."
Said's dried-fig face wrinkles further; he scoffs, "Only dung eaters make fools of themselves with gypsies." Still, he struggles with his perplexity. He examines a fly buzzing around his cup. Flies always seem confused, flying here, flying there, for no apparent reason. Leaving the fly to its business, he wipes his mouth with his right sleeve and says to Assir, “I'll go only to amuse myself.”
As he and his friends stride from under the awning, a caravan of jeeps wheels by, fogging the area with grit. Like heat from a pita oven, the sun cooks Said's head. His words twirl in the dust. Under their hijabs, houris swivel; Ibn Said never speaks to himself. Yet before them, he mumbles into the sky like a mendicant banned from Paradise.
Assir guides him through the stalls. Hundreds of men and women languish, examining wares. Children dart by chasing balls and hoops. Said’s eyes cast around; the supplicant could hide behind anyone, poised to leap out and slit his throat. Passersby mark him with glances, fouling his skin. Little do they care for his faithfulness to the Five Pillars....
The gypsy makes short work of Ibn’s three companions, then turns toward him with eyes that dig in. She says, "Philomena?"
To keep from falling to the floor, Said grabs his seat. Why did he come to this fraud? Yet, she draws him, and from her flows blue balm. Like a shower, penetrating eyes caress him. The gypsy’s mouth emanates waves of cool, breath like an orchard of plums. She offers him chilled tea.
Despite his caution, he lowers his defenses before this olive-skinned girl. She's no more than 13 years old, though her look vouchsafes assurances. “Demon of magic,” he says. “I do not need a fortune told. Still, you must know something, calling me by that name."
With her dreamy eyes, the gypsy glances at the top of the tent and says, "Philomena swells from afar to succor your soul, your faith, your way of life. To her, you must offer joining; after all, she came before you were born into Tunisia." Her glare fixes him. Said tries to hold her gaze. He has stared down many a man in trading, women too, but his eyes waver.
The girl continues, "I'll give you proof that I know what I know: You had a dream in which a pilgrim dressed in sacking begged you to cure his sores. He called you 'Little Saint'."
Said's face flushes. He shouts, "I am Ibn Saíd and none other!"
The gypsy doesn't flinch. Shifting under her caftan, she says, "True, but Philomena none the less."
Said holds his hand aloft to disagree, but reasons have vacated his head. He tells the gypsy, "Philomena died nearly 2500 years ago. She can't live again other than as some construct of mind."
The gypsy's eyes flare, rolling out smoke. Her body blends into the wisps, which swirl in under her robe. Like a helicopter landing, her garments whoosh to the dirt. Said gawks at the pile. He levitates her caftan. Nothing there besides dust devils twirling in the shadows.
Something snaps his head up. Three meters above, another figure forms from the vapor, a lady in a toga glowing like Paradise. She's rain from across the sea. Said's djellaba rustles in the breeze that drifts from her. The lady's eyes sparkle. She announces that she answers to "Philomena," although she retains no monopoly on that name. "We spring from the mysteries," she whispers. "This is no religious thing. Decide, and we appear."
The dance of these words sparks tears cascading down Said's cheeks. His mind opens to Paradise. Does he dream a vision? In the diffuse light of the tent, he blinks for the answer. The lady places her hand on a hip and nods, and Said interprets this as a blessing. The Lady smiles, fades, and before him, like a quilt patched together, the gypsy reforms.
She laughs. "All missions have beginnings. Yours, you accepted long ago." Under a tablecloth stitched with camels at an oasis, her hands vanish. She shrugs and seems to manipulate something under the table. Said bends down, pulls the tablecloth aside. There's nothing visible in her hands although her motions are those of stacking paper.
She stares at him and asks, “Do you really want what I have here?” His eyes must have returned a "yes,” for her left arm levitates. In her hand rests a bundle secured with camel gut. Not a mirage, solid as iron, she plops it on the table. Off the ancient cloth, dust rises two centimeters into the air then resettles. The gypsy cuts the binding and unfolds the covering to expose, faintly lambent, a bundle of plastic-encased parchment leaves. Holding the 2 dozen pages under Said's nose, she says, "The writing's Old Latin. Get it translated and you will learn the truth whereof I speak."
"Where did you get these documents?"
"Philomena guided me to them before her martyrdom. You see, her plans were forming even then. Much later, I had an archivist preserve the pages. I am the first actor; you are the second, a manifestation of Philomena in the current day. There are others lining up for their parts in the play."
Ibn Said stumbles out of the tent speaking into the parched bazaar, “Philomena came to the gypsy long before me. However, pronouncements do not make truth.” He hefts the bundle close to his right thigh. The package of vacuum-processed sleeves lies firmly in his hand.
He tries to avert his gaze to a camel cruising by; his eyes won't shift from the vision before him, a prepubescent in a toga, dancing the Bibasis, springing high into the air, striking her feet several times behind her, and beckoning him with a vial of crimson blood.
Thunder clouds roll through a carmine-crusted sky. The few trees, survivors of neglect, bend in the wind. With her plans tucked in, Mela scurries trying to beat the storm.
She voice-passes through the stile. Frustrated at Gus’s assignment, her gears gnash in a purgatory that should have ended in fun. When she enters her pad, however, she brightens up and utters "wine" to the frig. Her favorite brand pops out, and the lid disintegrates. Breathing the aroma deep, she plows her way to the vid, shuffling through containers, clothes and stuff you can't see that accumulated since the robot broke.
She collapses into her exerciser. Doesn't notice the clutter, the grime clinging to the walls or the carpet lying under papers and containers. The apartment absorbs her; she has become part of the mess. She sighs and orders up the news. The system hums if she wants to disable interaction. Damn straight. She punches a button, and the lights fade out.
Peaches, her tabby, whom Mela saved from the rubble of a tenement, sneaks out from under a pizza box and jumps onto her lap. The filth of her abode provides places to hide, so she likes it. She nuzzles Mela’s flab and meows for a chuck under the chin. Mela complies and relaxes.
On the screen, appears an interview ongoing with her ex, science-writer Rip Dorn of the Daily Vidscan; something about the paranormal replacing science. She sees more of him on vid these days than in the flesh when they lived together. He blathers to the interviewer, "Science should be encouraged, not replaced."
Mela reminisces, To think I once loved him, maybe still do even though he wouldn't let me keep my cat. Still, I can't blame him for turning hard. At least he lives an exciting life, not one like mine.
The holograph skips a beat, disrupting the interview and leaving in its place a reflection. Mela examines her face, ruffles her clumps of hair. Why would he want me? I'm no prize.
The interview floods back on. She pays scant attention to Rip's report of government agencies taken over by dogmas. She turns off the program, shuts down the exerciser and escapes into a nap. She wakes. Why am I thinking of undetected crime, and that because of it, I stand a fool? She has no answer, promptly forgets, shimmies out of her pantaloons and hollers across the room for food, "Spaghetti and meatballs, micro-zap."
The contraption whirs for 2 minutes, then pops out delight. The unit collects the savor, intensifies it then shoots it back into the room. Mela grabs the plate. Ordinarily, she’d rapture, but tonight enjoyment hangs off because of that damn FBI trip. She shoves containers from the last three days off her dinette and dallies with her dinner. Sensing the speed of food disappearance, the plate tweaks the flavor to where Mela wolfs down her repast, each bite misshaping bits of flab. She slurps in the last morsel, skids the container to the floor, showers off spatter, and puts on her only dress-suit. She hangs a bandanna about her neck. Doesn't bother to check her appearance in the mirror, thus misses that some of the blotches on the scarf weren't there when she bought it.
She drags herself to the landing, down the stairs, through the grunge at the bottom and onto a street sprinkled with mom-and-pop stores and vacant markets. In the 3 blocks to the station, bars and clubs mimic success in an oasis of dull lights. Chatting, gazing at offerings, checking their cash and credit, ready to purchase, customers depress her. Her mind runs to another time when robbers and pickpockets would work the crowd. That halcyon has gone the way of her waistline.
At the station, the groundliner that's her ride to the Academy feeds on energy from tectonic-plate movement; travels at nearly mach 1, the fastest in the Federation. In 25 minutes, she zips the 300 miles of tunnel to the FBI campus in Quantico. She exits the station, ruminating, If only this rampulse could travel in time ‒ take me back to when criminals played their games.
The walk from the station to the FBI dungeon takes her 1/4th the time of the entire trip. She shelves that perception as she approaches the Academy. The building’s facade has degraded since she attended briefings (ho-hum) on inter-agency cooperation. Trash litters the street in front of the building. Weeds have taken over the lawn. She stumbles over the tiles in the entrance. Rather than curse, she smiles. Even the suits feel the effects of good times.
She presents a face to the agent who clears her through to a patio surrounded by murals depicting the history of the Bureau. There among smudges on the walls, J Edgar still attempts to direct operations via his portrait. He set the agenda for decades after his death, but crime waned; only fresh ideas could keep the Bureau alive and working on worthwhile tasks. Instead, the place subsists on governmental-contract breaches, which makes Mela feel a bit better about her own work.
Gypsy, another whist player, saunters around a fountain that spurts pee-yellow. After a few seconds of banalities, they set up a game at a lounge far enough from the Academy to hinder agents from showing up. Splitsville, soon as they can. Chaka, a cigar-smoker from Baltimore, and Rose, a prosecutor from Philly, all crazy for little to do, join the plot.
The conspirators drift into the auditorium. 1/5th of the worn-out seats, sectioned off for the briefing, await them. Holding the grime at bay, a lonely ceiling light struggles to illuminate the occupied section and the stage.
Mela leans left to counter the spring in her seat. Bracing her port leg, she keeps her butt from sliding off. As the light dims, Rose tenders a joke. The other girls guffaw. Mela passes it to the next row. By the time the host mounts to the podium, he faces a madhouse of prosecutors and cops.
"Must be science," Gypsy offers. She points to Rip Dorn setting up his devices. Dorn's mane and rags remind one of Albert Einstein. In one article Dorn tried to convince readers that Einstein's theories were unscientific, paranormal in fact. Reader interest in his conjecture proved nil. Nevertheless, he doesn't give up; keeps pumping out exposés. One row back, he wiggles on his seat as if his undershorts chafe.
Mela sees through his guise, views him as through a backward glass ‒ 20 years past: natty and eager. She pines, We made quite a pair back then.
Her attention drifts to the agent at the podium. He tells a joke that bombs. Still, it achieves silence. Agent John Lawless begins, "Tonight’s briefing might seem bizarre, but I assure you that, unlike the joke I told, what we have to say is serious." Giggles and groans drift from the mob.
Over his shoulder, Lawless double takes. "First, some statistics." The display flickers on a yellowed screen. Nothing new: Crime down 80 percent over the last 20 years. Many prisons closed or converted to production ‒ tool and die, small manufacturing, cloud-storage fumigation, virtual-document destruction, IoT enhancement, sleep learning. "Although we are pleased," Lawless states phlegmatically, "none of us has anything to do except diddle in breach."
Frigging A, ain't that the case? Mela thinks.
The display flutters ‒ unsolved crime appears: 5 percent now, 75 percent 15 years ago. Legislation eliminated much crime. Many criminals went legit, others were grandfathered in by laws that narrowed the definition of crime. Governments cut budgets. Until bureaucrats started losing their jobs, no one considered reversing the trend.
Only the populace thinks less crime an improvement. Of course, they don't understand human nature. Rumors abound among law-enforcement about conspiracies to cut budgets to fund education and business.
Mela nods off; her mind conjures up dreams: Waters solves another case from years ago.
The host clears his throat. Mela sucks in the torpor from 100's of bodies. She turns to Rose, “No air conditioning. Must be their budget.”
Like androids out of balance, the prosecutors and cops sway in their seats, their adventures kilometers away, half listening, not expecting any reform in their lives. Mela tells herself, I can't stand this anymore. Under her breath, she mumbles, “No crime is boring. Something has to happen.”
Off stage in the bailiwick, a lilliputian fidgets. In the air above him, a piece of parchment floats. Fingers hold a quill that’s jotting on the wisp. To dispel the illusion, Mela smashes a hand onto her forehead. Hurts, but the scribbling continues.
Still holding the quill, a ghost morphs into a toga-clad lady. Chin like china, nose, neck and hands like jewels, the lady waves the parchment over her head, then points at Mela. A ray from the apparition waivers through the air. It spatters against her brain and makes her tremble. She blinks 10 times a second. Hyperventilates. She studies her own hands and feet. Stares, squints, shakes her head. The line wraps around her body, and vroom, the tether snaps to her.
A new story from the book Eve of Valor: 25 Tales will post on or about 1 Sep.. To get the book "Eve of Valor: 25 Tales" click here.