by J. B. Hogan
Driving across town, Jack Mercader could feel a headache coming on. Just thinking of old Lev Bronstein and his officious, annoying old wife was enough to practically cause a migraine. Lev was ill-tempered and demanding, his wife distant and mistrustful while being intolerably solicitous of her husband.
Pulling up to a stop sign in the couple's neighborhood, with the expected white picket fences, well-mowed lawns, and clean streets, Jack removed his glasses and massaged the bridge of his nose with the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. He was definitely getting a headache.
Jack had only been working for the Bronsteins a little over a month. Two nights a week he went to their home to ostensibly help type and edit a book of essays that Lev, a former college political science teacher, had been working on for the better part of a decade. In reality, all Jack did was see to the steady stream of trivial demands issued by the old man.
"Get me a cup of coffee," Lev would order gruffly. "A pen. A pad. An eraser. This. That. Get me, get me, get me."
In the short time he'd been coming to the Bronstein's, Jack had learned to totally mistrust the Mrs., who after frowning at him when he first arrived, would then scurry to the back of the house and lurk behind doors, listening to Jack and Lev's conversation, waiting, Jack was sure, for him to make any kind of mistake.
No wonder Jack's head ached. No wonder he had of late been harboring very socially unacceptable ideas in his head about eliminating Lev and his constant barrage of demands and complaints. His last visit had been the worst yet.
"My husband is a great man," Mrs. Bronstein had insisted to Jack, corralling him in the doorway before he even had a chance to get back to Lev's study.
"Yes, ma'am," Jack had said, maybe not as deferentially as he should have.
The old woman huffed off to a back room near the study complaining about the quality of help available these days. Jack shook his head and forced himself to the task: being Mr. Bronstein's typist, gopher, and assistant flunky.
"You're late," were Lev's first words.
"Sorry, sir," Jack had sighed.
"Well, get me some paper then will you?" Lev griped. "If you're here to get some work done."
"Yes, sir," Jack replied meekly, thinking how he'd like to tell the old man where to go. At least once.
Lev kept up his badgering for nearly the entire three hours Jack worked. He ordered Jack to bring him tea, to retype several pages that he insisted Jack had failed to key enter correctly, and to painstakingly transcribe several minutes of notes he, Lev, had recorded the night before.
Jack could feel an outburst of anger coming on and had left the room over Lev's objections. The Mrs. had darted in to her husband's side and Jack could hear them bitterly complaining about his poor work habits and lack of professionalism.
At that moment, Jack spotted a small, but sharp-pointed axe, the kind rock hunters use, lying on a shelf out in the hallway away from Lev's study. Jack picked up the axe, turned it over in his hands, felt its weight and balance, considered how effective its use might be on the skull of a whining, sexagenarian. While these murderous thoughts ran through his mind, Lev howled for him to get back into the study and do his duty.
"Coming, sir," Jack had managed to say evenly, but he made a mental note to put the axe where he could slip it under his coat when he left that night.
Now, as he pulled up to the curb fronting the Bronstein's home and parked his car. Jack, head throbbing, felt the inside of his coat pocket where he had hidden the small axe. Could he actually do something so vile? Could he actually kill another person? His mind told him no, but his aching head said yes. Without Lev and his constant harassing, the pain would go away. His mind would become clear, he would be free.
Letting out a deep sigh, Jack laid his arms across the steering wheel and nestled his head, face down, into the comfortable, vertical lap he had created. As he rested there momentarily, he noticed an abrupt, brief change in the lighting around him. Perhaps a large cloud had just passed overhead, temporarily blocking out the sun.
Whatever it was, Jack enjoyed the diminished sunlight, the reduction in brightness seemed to help his headache. For a minute or so, he remained in his face down position, resting, gathering himself. At last, and coincident with the return of the outside light, Jack raised his head. He could tell immediately that something odd had occurred. Things were just not quite right.
Climbing gingerly out of his car and walking around to the sidewalk, Jack felt slightly disoriented. For one thing, the Bronstein's house was set back further from the street than he remembered. The surrounding area, rather than being full of aging middle-income houses, was more upscale, grander, with lusher vegetation.
The place had a semi-tropical look and feel to it. Jack noticed a street sign not far away and marveled at the names thereon: Viena and Río Churubusco. How peculiar. Nearby was a sign advertising Plaza Hidalgo, Coyoacan. None of this was making sense. And when he looked back at the Bronstein's house, not only was it definitely set further back from the road than he remembered, but there were two uniformed men coming down the sidewalk leading up to the house. Guards? Jack didn't remember any such thing from before.
"What's your business?" one of the guards asked, as they stopped in front of Jack, blocking his way up the sidewalk. Even though he was sure the guard had not spoken in English, Jack somehow understood perfectly.
"I…I'm here to help, Lev," he stuttered, "uh, Mr. Bronstein."
"He means Señor León," the other guard explained to his partner.
"Oh, yes," the first guard said, shaking his head, "now I remember. You are the assistant. You help the señor writer."
"That, that's right," Jack again stuttered. He was a little confused by the presence of the guards, especially when he felt the small pick axe hidden in the pocket of his coat bump against his side.
"This is Señor Mornard," the second guard said, waving a hand that indicated his recognition of the new arrival.
"Jacques Mornard?" the first guard said, looking at a sheet of paper on a small clipboard.
"Sí," the second guard confirmed. "This is he."
"Now I remember you," the first guard said, "from the other day. You can go in now."
"Thank you," Jack said, wondering why Jacques Mornard sounded like it actually was his name. In some unexplained way, it seemed right.
By the time he reached the front door, things had become pretty much familiar. There was Mrs. Bronstein, as usual, greeting him with her beady, suspicious eyes.
"Why are you here again today?" were her first words.
"Who is it, mama?" Lev's voice could be heard from inside the house.
"It's that boy, Jacques," the Mrs. screeched back. "Mornard. I don't know why he's here."
"Your husband and I have unfinished business," Jacques said, acquiescing in the name not only with respect to the new situation in which he found himself, but internally as well.
"Hmph," the old woman grunted, but she opened the door and let Jacques inside the house.
I'm not the only one who hates Lev Bronstein, Jacques thought, as he walked into the main living room. Across the back wall of the room, in a semi-circle covering several feet, were several bullet holes, a stark reminder of an apparent attempt on Lev's life from sometime before.
I will be doing myself and the world a favor, Jacques told himself. Lev Bronstein has outlived his usefulness. He may have been great once, but now he is unnecessary, a problem. More powerful and far-sighted people than he, Jacques, wanted Lev, or León, out of the picture. Jacques would be the instrument of their wishes.
"Jacques," the old man's voice shook the erstwhile assistant out of his reverie, "are you coming or not?"
"I'm coming," Jacques answered, at first gruffly, then milder as he saw the Mrs. poke her head out of a nearby room.
She was ubiquitous, the old hag. She appeared any time Lev called for anything. Always checking to see if the assistant responded properly, efficiently, and quickly.
"Coming, sir," Jacques reiterated pleasantly. The old woman vanished into the interior of the house. Jacques snarled in the direction of her disappearance.
"Good morning, Señor León," Jacques said, using the semi-formal tone of the guards to address the great thinker.
"Get the Dictaphone," Lev ordered. "I've got many things to say today. Go on, hurry."
"But, sir," Jacques said, trying to smile, "I thought today we would go over the article I wrote for the Party. You said…."
"I said. I said." Lev waved off Jacques' suggestion. "There are bigger fish to fry. Bring that machine to me and hook everything up."
"But, sir," Jacques began.
"But nothing," Lev waved again. "Work. Work. That's your job here. I'll see to your article another time.
Jacques ground his teeth, felt like slapping the old man, felt the small axe inside his coat. I should do it now, he thought, rid the world of this pestilence right this moment. But he did not act. Not yet. He found the Dictaphone machine, hooked it up and placed the large microphone where Lev could easily speak into it. Went about organizing the typing he'd done the day before. He didn't understand why Lev would speak into the machine today, when he was there to type up whatever ramblings came out of his ancient philosopher's head.
Luckily for Jacques, Lev only spoke into the machine for about fifteen minutes. That wouldn't be so much work to catch up on, for a change. Seeing Lev set aside the microphone, Jacques decided to re-introduce the article he had written. It was just something he'd dashed off but now it occurred to him that it might be the catalyst he needed to take care of Lev once and for all. The guards were outside the house, the Mrs. was hiding somewhere. If he got Lev to concentrate on the article, it might be his chance. There would only be one. Jacques was sure of that.
"Well, alright," Lev surprised Jacques by agreeing, however reluctantly, to look over the article.
"Thank you, sir," Jacques replied obsequiously, cringing like a feeble peasant or corrupt courtier before a king.
Just Lev's tone was able to send flames into Jacques mind and blood today. This was definitely going to be the right time. He stood quietly behind the old man, fingering the axe inside his coat.
"No, no," Lev spoke to himself, no doubt finding flaws in the political logic of the article, "this will never do. Needs more detail."
"You don't like it, sir?" Jacques said, hovering directly behind Lev and now bringing the axe out from beneath his coat. "Something wrong?"
"Rewrite," Lev grumbled, not really addressing Jacques. "This part here. This there. Needs a stronger hand."
"A stronger hand?" Jacques asked, not really addressing Lev.
He could feel the disconnect between himself and the great thinker. He no longer saw Lev as a person, but a thing. Jacques felt himself go cold all over, in his veins, in his heart. He raised the axe and without hesitation brought it down on the top of Lev's head with all his might.
Jacques felt the axe break through the skull bone, felt its edge dig into the old man's brain. And at that moment he heard a cry rise up, a cry deep and elemental, energy-draining, death-signifying. Jacques heard the cry as if it came from far away, either far away without or far away within. He could not tell. He no longer felt linked to the real world. All that remained was the cry. A long sorrowful cry, full of pain, laced with the agony of unfinished life. It was a cry Jacques would never forget, never get out of his head again.
And then Mrs. Bronstein was on him, and the guards as well. The men beat him, slapping and striking him in the face. They pulled Jacques away from Lev, who had stood, holding the top of his head in his hands, then reeled towards the doorway. Jacques watched Lev stagger away until the barrage of punches from the guards brought the relief of silent, black unconsciousness.
When Jack woke it was with a start, eyes wide open. With a little cry, he lifted his head and pulled himself away from the steering wheel. How long had he been out? What had happened? He reached up timorously, carefully feeling his face, his head. No bruises, no cuts. Nothing. He had a slight headache, but that was all, except.
Except in his head he could still hear the sound of Lev's death cry. Jack shuddered. Had he really killed Mr. Bronstein? What had occurred, where was he? He remained motionless for several moments, allowing the sound in his head to diminish, to almost fade away.
With considerable trepidation, he focused on the world outside his vehicle. It was a bright and sunny day. And it was the right neighborhood – white picket fences, freshly mowed lawns. He was in front of the Bronstein's home. Things seemed normal. Jack let out a deep sigh that carried with it the last strange sound of Lev's final agony.
"Oh, thank God," Jack said out loud, absorbing again his familiar world, rejoicing in the opportunity it offered, the opportunity still to choose a different path, to make the good, the right choice.
Buoyed by a mild euphoria, he hopped out of his car and headed up the sidewalk to the Bronsteins' house. Mrs. Bronstein was waiting for him at the door, her usual suspicious self.
"Good morning, Mrs. B.," Jack spoke to her pleasantly. "Nice day."
Mrs. B. grunted something unintelligible and gave Jack what was meant to be a withering look. He merely smiled and slipped past her into the house.
"Who is that, mother?" Lev's cranky old voice rasped out from back in his study.
"It's me, Mr. Bronstein," Jack spiritedly called back to his employer. "I'm here to help you out."
"Hmph," the old philosopher and writer snorted, but when Jack came into the room he was greeted not by a demand but by a curious look. "Get me some paper?" Lev asked, with some of the sharp edge out of his voice.
"Right away, sir," Jack said, still thrilled that whatever experience he had had, or seemed to have had, was not of the here and now. He could still change. He could choose not to harm another person. He could be better than that.
During the rest of the session, Jack maintained his new attitude and Lev responded to it in kind. The complaints were fewer, the demands less harsh. The two men might never be friends, Jack knew that, but at least they could work together professionally, without open rancor.
At the first opportunity, when Lev was busy writing, Jack stole out to the hallway where he had first spotted and then taken the axe. Making sure that Mrs. B. was nowhere in sight, he hurriedly replaced the instrument on the shelf. Then, to block the axe and the impulses it had created fully from his mind, Jack looked around for something to completely conceal the would-be weapon.
On a higher shelf, above the one on which the ax rested, Jack found a small collection of very old newspaper clippings. They would perfectly hide the instrument. With only a cursory glance at the papers, the headline of one announcing the arrival of an exiled revolutionist to Mexico City, Jack spread them in front of and on top of the axe.
"Done," he announced quietly to himself. "No more of that."
As he turned away from the shelf and the axe, Jack heard his employer beckoning him.
"Jack," Lev called, his tone neutral, professional, "can you help me here, please?"
"Yes, sir, Mr. B.," Jack answered, smiling and hustling towards the great man's study, "coming. I'll be right there."
© 2008 J. B. Hogan
Bio: J. B. Hogan is a fiction writer and poet living in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He has a Ph.D. in English (Literature) from Arizona State University (1979) and worked for many years as a technical writer in Tucson, Arizona and Boulder, Colorado. His writing credits include short stories, poems, and creative or academic non-fiction in: The Swallow’s Tail, Poesia, Bewildering Stories, Avatar Review, Copperfield Review, Ascent Aspirations, Megaera, The Pedestal Magazine, Dogwood Journal, Mastodon Dentist, Poets Against War, The Square Table, Writers Against War (now Raving Dove), Mid-America Folklore Journal, Mobius, Viet Nam Generation, Flashback, The Mark Twain Journal, Arizona Quarterly, Bulletin of Bibliography, Encyclopedia of Arkansas, The Technical Writing Teacher, and San Francisco Review of Books. His story Kristallnacht appeared in the October, 2007 Aphelion.
E-mail: J. B. Hogan
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