You are wonderful!

There are no excuses not to do.

The whole world

is waiting for you.

All things will happen

the way

they were supposed to.

So,

Be imperfect.

Be unafraid.

Marvelous you.

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Part I The Wrong Briefcase

Mark walked into a bar and ordered.

He was an alcoholic and if he showed up drunk to court one more time, the female judge would declare him unfit.

“Scotch, rocks,” the bartender said.

And Mark left his drink to walk into the rain. A taxi was parked up the block and he ran for it.

“Where to?”

“City Court.”

“Will you share a ride for discounted fare?”

“I guess.”

A businessman entered, carrying a leather briefcase. He had all the looks of sophistication, while still being plain.

“Downtown,” he said.

Mark looked at his cell phone. “WHERE ARE YOU?”

“You never escape your ex-wife, even if you divorce her.”

“I wouldn’t know,” said the man. “Never been married.”

“Good for you. What’s your line of work?”

“IT. Trust me, nobody’s life is perfect. I’ve got a boss who lets me know it 20 times a day.”

“If only we had our freedom.”

“You can be free, but most men are unwilling to pay the price for it. Do you think the cabbie wants to be driving us around?”

“Hey cabbie, what do you like to do?”

“Fish.”

“Why do you drive a cab?”

“I need to pay the bills.”

“You see, everybody’s the same. They’re doing something they don’t want to do for a few moments of freedom in the yard. They’re in a prison of their own design. You have to escape your mind to get out.”

“You sound like you know what you’re talking about,” Mark said.

“I watch a lot of YouTube philosophy.”

Gridlock was an understatement. The cars weren’t moving, and the rain stopped.

“I guess I’ll walk.”

“You owe me 48.58,” the cabbie said, and Mark gave him a 50.

“Nice talking to you.”

“Likewise.”

Mark grabbed his briefcase and ran towards the city courthouse. His lawyer and ex-wife were waiting.

“Any longer and they would’ve granted me life-time custody,” his ex-wife said.

Mark opened his briefcase and pulled out his papers, but they weren’t his. CONFIDENTIAL was written across all of them. I took the wrong briefcase!

“Mr. Tscheulin, would you care to make your opening statements?”

“Your Honor, I seem to have lost my briefcase. This one isn’t mine.”

“You see judge, he can’t even take care of himself, let alone our 8-year-old daughter.”

“I see what you mean. Young man, your military service aside, it’s not looking too good for you. Do you have anything that can sway me otherwise?”

Mark looked at the judge. “I love my daughter mam.”

“I’m afraid that’s not enough. Sole custody granted to the mother.”

“No…No!”

“Mr. Tscheulin, I will have you thrown out of my courtroom for contempt if you raise your voice!”

Mark ran to the bathroom to throw up and then he remembered the papers that weren’t his, marked confidential.

He needed his briefcase. Maybe he could spot the cab in traffic. What was the number again? 339? Mark rushed outside and scanned the pollution. And there it was; not 20 feet away.

“I took the wrong briefcase?”

Mark expected to see the plain man, but it was a fat woman.

“Excuse me?”

“Sorry.” He looked around and then his cell phone vibrated.

Mark answered.

“Bring my bag to the dolphin fountain in central park and don’t talk to anyone. We will make a trade.”

“I’ll be there in 10 minutes.”

There was the fountain and there was his briefcase. He was nearly there when a New York Times truck pulled between him and the fountain.

Then his ears started ringing, the tree was on fire, and the newspapers scattered all over the street. Mark had almost picked up a briefcase bomb.

Chapter 3 A Book with no Name

Carl needed to save something and if it wasn’t a human life, it might as well be a book. He backed out of the room and right when he did, a bookcase fell where he’d been standing. It’s a thrill to know you cheated death by seconds. You must be near it, to know it, and most people are too terrified to try.

“So, you saved one book out of thousands. Good for you. Are you going to read it?”

“I have profound dyslexia,” Carl said. It takes me 10 minutes to read 1 paragraph. Why the hell else would I be working with you guys? I’ll probably glance at it in my spare time.”

Back at the firehouse, something odd was happening. Carl’s mind kept drifting towards the book and he couldn’t focus on the stupid conversations. This was his education in reverse. He was always the kid who did everything to keep his nose out of a book. “Maybe if I just look at the pictures, the thoughts will go away,” he said.

And he retired to his bunk, pulling the book from behind his pillow. It was covered in ash and he wiped it clean. There was no title and no author. Carl opened it up to page 1 and tried to read the words; they were in Latin. “Oh well, forget that.” But something odd happened. His eyes glanced over the page and he learned something. It was not theoretical or abstract, and now he knew how to talk to his creditors. Carl closed the book and made a phone call.

“Yes, I want to make a lump-sum payment and close-out my credit card debt.” He took the black book with him to the racetrack. If he got bored, he could always read. Carl opened the book while he was waiting in line for his ticket. There were the Latin letters again and a flash of brilliance fluctuated through his brain. Suddenly, he knew what to do. “200 on the 7 horse.”

“But that’s 19 to 1 odds. Are you sure you want to do that mister?”

“As sure as Satan,” Carl said.

Chapter 2 Burning Books

All of that was about to change on a sunny Sunday morning. Some of the guys were having church, others were sleeping in, and Carl was reading the morning paper while he ate his fruit loops. “There’s an arsonist burning down libraries across the county. The police don’t have any leads.”

“Carl, we only want to hear share-worthy news; like if a strip club is closing or the Yankees win!”

“Aye Aye, Captain.”

Suddenly, the siren wailed. “Lexington Library is on fire. We’ve been called. Suit up and bring your A game!”

Riding a truck to a fire is a lot like driving a stagecoach towards some faceless monster. There were flames shooting out of the fifth and sixth story windows and pages of wisdom were fluttering to the pavement like half-eaten sandwiches consumed by a foolish beast.

“Shame, to think how long those books took to write; let’s put em out.”

Flames inside the library were a towering inferno. Books were a greater accelerant than jet fuel and the outgassing of chemical pulp from their pages poured off the shelves and into the air like moths burning in flame.

“Somebody, get a hose in here quick!” Carl’s asbestos fire suit was heating up and his mask was fogging over with smoke.

“Is that somebody on the 3rd floor?” Carl asked. It was a black figure or was it a cloud? It vanished as quickly as it appeared.

“Turn on the pressure!” Carl held the great python like he was wrestling a bull while the water shot 4 stories into the air. It evaporated before it got there.

“This is a lost cause. We’d better back out before we get cooked.”

But when Carl was about to leave, he noticed something odd; a book that wasn’t burning.

Chapter 1 The Firefighter

If you find something you can’t explain, but it starts explaining things to you, leave it behind and never look back. -Intellectual Shaman

Things run slowly at a firehouse, until they don’t.

Carl was easing into his late 30s. He had one divorce behind him, no kids, and he wasn’t going to do that again. He loved the bullshitting, weightlifting, and teenage antics that happened before a call.

“If a guy were to get a bunch of chickens and raise em up, could he theoretically compound his money by hatching a bunch of chicks?”

“No. No. That would never work. You have to feed hens and take care of them; their just like women.”

“But what about roosters?”

“No. No. Roosters will tear each other apart. What you need to do is move to China and raise cats. We know cats can take care of themselves. Then find abandoned warehouses that need extermination. Turn the cats lose to eat the rats. Then sell the cats to restaurants.”

The siren wailed. “We have a 300-pound fat woman who has fallen in the park. Greg, you’ve been working out; you got this one. Where’s Pete?”

“I’m in the bathroom. Somebody stole the toilet paper! How many times do I have to tell you; only 4 plies per wipe!”

“In case it’s a heart attack, you’d better bring the shock kit.”

Right-sizing fat women, wrangling cats out of trees, and playing monopoly in the evenings with immature alpha-males is fun for a season, but after a while, even the best jobs are like an endless winter when the spring won’t come.

Chapter 7 Mr. Bezos and His Flamethrower

The flight to Amazon Headquarters was gut-wrenching as Gregson clutched his barf bag with sweaty fingers. The helicopter was like a blender churning the clouds into a whirlwind and when they landed, Gregson was ready to fight anything besides the weather. Bezos was there to greet them. “I have your package here, on time; happy hunting.” It looked like a vacuum cleaner ready to hurl fire and Gregson couldn’t wait to test it out. “To the shopping mall and Suits and Blooms!”

Jesepi drove them in his Maserati until they reached the mall and Gregson surveyed the mannequins, wondering if he detected worry on their faces.

“We’ll need to burn one-at-a-time in the dumpster out back.” And when Gregson said this, he swore 50 eyes darted towards him. Let’s start with the dandies in the men’s section.” But before he reached the mannequin, it jumped off its pedestal and ran. Gregson let the fire rip out of the vacuum cleaner and the wooden man incinerated. When this happened, all the mannequin men and women rushed for the exit and Gregson didn’t have time to throw fire.

“Where do you suppose their headed?”

“Into the crowd. And telling them apart from regular folks, will be impossible. They’ll be well-dressed and too polite. Shoppers were exiting the mall like bees buzzing out of a hive. And all those fake people were entering society.

“What should we do?” Jesepi asked.

“There’s nothing we can do. Let’s just hope your mannequins want to be responsible. If they pay their taxes, the government won’t care.”

Epilogue

And that’s why there are so many fake people in society. Of course, the butler did it, but Gregson couldn’t prove it. Hopefully, mannequins can’t reproduce, but lately I’m starting to think they do.

Chapter 6 Mummified Mother

“Jesepi, how long have ghosts been haunting this island?”

“I can’t say for sure, but about the same time my mother’s mummy returned from Egypt.”

“Where did her power come from?”

She was a gypsy who abandoned my father to study the black arts. Her life’s ambition was to transcend death, and, in a way, she has.

“How do you get the mannequins into the stores?”

“We have a contract with a local fisherman, but Steven takes care of that.”

“I bet he does. It sounds like you depend on him. Would you be able to take me to the wharf?”

“But of course; it’s quite a distance, so we’ll need to take horses.”

As they rode in silence, Gregson looked at the ocean. It was magic. It was power. It was all those things that exist beyond the world.

The fisherman’s hut was nothing more than rotting planks and a dock you couldn’t trust to walk on. Rectangular boxes were stacked in perfect rows, accept one; it was splintered open, like a resurrected body got tired of lying there.

“We’d better chart your helicopter out of here and I need to call Jeff Bezos.”

“What for?”

He manufactured 40,000 flamethrowers and I’m told they’re very effective.”

Back at the castle, Gregson looked at Jesepi’s mother. “Has the hem of her dress always been unraveling?”

“No.”

“And this glass has recently been removed.”

“Oh.”

“I think you’d better talk with your butler.”

Chapter 5 The Butler is always Guilty

“Already breaking rules, I see.”

Gregson looked at the butler. Butlers were always guilty. “I took an evening stroll.”

“That’s fine but clear it with me first.”

“Whatever you say, I’m off to bed.” And Gregson walked up the stairs two at a time, sliding under the covers, wishing himself a goodnight.

Gregson forgot how working a case made him feel. There was always some problem to look forward to and he was good at solving them. In the morning, the butler was waiting for him.

“Will you take coffee, sir?”

“That will be fine,” Gregson said. In the lounge, there were leather-backed armchairs tucked under a stone table with a bear rug on the floor. A mummy in a green dress was encased in a glass display on the wall.

“That’s my mother,” Jesepi Vargas said. “Probably one of the last really powerful women in history.”

Gregson looked at the face. Even in death, she was beautiful.

“We have bacon and eggs and hash browns. Everything an Englishman needs. Except perhaps the fox chase afterward, but maybe you will have that too.”

“Why does the lighthouse point into the forest and not out to sea?” Gregson asked.

“I used to walk through the woods at night, but I started to see strange figures between the trees. It could be my imagination, but shining the light on the forest helps me sleep; call it an oversized night-light.

“I found one of your mannequins in the woods. Do you have any idea how it got there?”

“No; perhaps Steven knows.”

“You called me sir?”

“Yes; how did a mannequin end up in the middle of the woods last night?”

“That’s incredible sir. We are the only ones on this island, save for the fisherman, but he hasn’t been here in some weeks.”

“We’d better ask him. Is he due back anytime soon?”

“Not until Tuesday, I think.”

“Well, you’d better take me to the spot after breakfast,” Jesepi said.

“Indeed.”

The woods were dark, even in the daytime. But Gregson knew where to go. He led Jesepi to the rock where he found the mannequin.

“It’s gone!”

“Are you sure this is the spot?”

“Yes, do you see? I marked it with an X.”

“Well… there is nothing for us to do now. I’ll take you to my shop.”

There were heads floating on spindles and arms waiting to be sown into torsos. Jesepi was an artist; there was no doubt.

“Have you ever wondered what would happen if you made one of these look so real that it came to life?” Gregson asked.

“Mannequins don’t have a heart or a soul, so it’s horrible to think what they’d be capable of, but luckily you’re speaking of the impossible.”

“Maybe the impossible is possible, for an artist like yourself.”

“You are too kind.”

Chapter 4 What was in the Forest

Gregson thought he saw something moving between the trees, but he couldn’t say for sure.

“Enjoying the view?”

Gregson jumped out of his skin. He turned around and noticed an elderly man in a smoking jacket and pink rabbit slippers.

“My butler said you wished to talk to me and that it was urgent.”

“Yes,” Gregson said. “A girl is dead, and we think one of your mannequins might have something to do with it.”

“But that’s impossible. There’s nothing but wood and fabric and cotton in there. I’ll admit, they’re life-like, but to think they could have anything to do with a murder?”

“We have one of your mannequins on camera. It walked across a room.”

“But that’s impossible. Are you sure it wasn’t a customer dressed like a mannequin?”

“I considered that and perhaps I can show you the video?”

“I’d like that.”

Gregson pulled out his smart phone and showed him.

“Someone is playing a practical joke on you, that’s all.”

“That joke cost a girl her life.”

“Well, I’ll show you my factory in the morning, but there isn’t much to see; just some needle and thread and countless hours of doing what I love.”

“Well… goodnight then.”

“Goodnight.”

And Gregson heard the pitter-patter of rabbit feet walking down the stone steps.

Gregson looked at the dark forest. This time he definitely saw something. “Time to load the revolver,” he said. But when he walked to the door, he noticed the butler downstairs, on watch, or so it appeared. “There must be another way.” Gregson looked at his bedsheets and smiled. “I’m too old for this.” But he was out the window and touching his feet to the ground like he was 21. He walked boldly towards the trees with his silver flashlight in one hand and his revolver in the other. God, it was good to be young again.

And there it was again. A figure danced in front of him. “Stop or I’ll shoot!” But it just kept running. Gregson held his fire. He walked deeper into the woods until he found what he was looking for. A mannequin lay prostrate on the ground, lifeless. And Gregson checked to see that it was unarmed. “I wonder if it’s playing dead?” But there was no way to find out and he walked back to the castle to ring the doorbell.

Greatness

There is an ebb and flow

come and go,

rise and fall,

Days

offering

everything

So why do we stay in our heads?

Remember…

Greatness

seldom

smiles

on the sane.