M. K. Theodoratus, Fantasy Writer

A chitinous crunch and piercing squeal greeted Grant Highgrim when he stepped out of his dented rusted car, making his stomach turn as he scraped the remains of a huge bug from his shoe. Highgrim had hated creepy-crawlies ever since his older brother tackled him and made him eat the disgusting things. Resolved to get the interview with the world’s oldest man hiding in the small town nursing home, Highgrim ignored the sulfurous stench that rose from the bug’s carcass and his churning stomach.

My landlord’s not going to wait much longer for my rent.

Three months into his new job at the stupid ad sheet, his rent was overdue. His salary barely covered his rent and gas, let alone food and beer. The interview was a make-or-break. He rubbed the little starch belly growing underneath his belt buckle.

I’m sick of noodles and potatoes.

Peering around the parking lot, he saw hundreds of thumb-sized and larger beetles marching toward the far side of the care facility. They disappeared under cars, only to reappear closer to where stark branches of leafless trees leaned over the roof on the far side of the lot. The vermin sent his skin crawling. For a moment, he gazed at their progress, not believing his eyes.

More of the vile pests, disjointed antennae wriggling like tentacles, surrounded the nursing home than infested the fields around his apartment complex. Some of the vermin here were ten times the size too. These creatures mustered as if planning an attack. Shuddering at the thought of intelligent bugs, Highgrim, careful not to step on the large insects, sprinted across the lot into the nursing home as if hellhounds chased him.

When the doors hissed behind him, Highgrim glanced around the lobby to see if anyone had noticed his inelegant entrance. The foyer was empty. Highgrim leaned against the doorjamb to catch his breath.

If this keeps up, I’m going to have a heart attack before I get another paycheck.

A huge Wheel of the Master hung high on the wall across the well-lit lobby, the religious icon reminding the aged residents peace waited for them at the end of their life’s journey. The different pieces of colored glass along the spokes and rim sparkled, especially the amethyst chunk at the hub. Little splats of color sparkled across the flagstone floor, only to dim as a cloud passed overhead. The aroma of holy incense, blocking the stench of the infernal beetles outside, filled the air. The floor and walls were blessedly free of vermin, and a sense of peace, a warm benediction, flowed over him.

For the first time since moving to this infernal delta backwater, Highgrim felt safe. The low wooden counter below the Wheel appeared unattended. Surprised, the reporter scanned the lobby for someone to lead him to his subject. As he stared, the light from the skylight above grew dimmer.

Pulling out a handkerchief, Highgrim wiped his balding forehead. I wonder how they keep the vermin out of here. He searched for bug traps but saw none.

A piano began to bang in the distance. A host of wavering, off-key voices rose…or shouted…or just moaned rose in an oldies sing-a-long. One creative participant yipped like a dog in rhythm with the song. Grant Highgrim stepped deeper into the empty lobby, ready to run, but he had a deadline to meet if he wanted to call himself a reporter again. Somewhere in this confusion existed the world’s oldest human being, 150 years young, waiting to divulge his secret formula for a long life...if the geezer could remember…and Highgrim could coax him to talk.

His boss had bet him he would fail, just like all the other reporters who had tried to interview Dr. Henry J. Allsdipp had. Highgrim’s research told him not even one slick broadcast types had managed the feat over the years. He wondered why. Most people loved talking about themselves if given the opportunity.

Just like that SOB of a boss to stack the odds.

The gauntlet had been thrown when his publisher told Highgrim he had passed his probation period at the Ad Gazetteer. Gathering his courage, he had suggested that the shopper’s readers might like some local human-interest stories along with the quaint and curious facts then scattered among the ads.

The publisher had smirked. “I don’t need a reporter. I need a compiler of interesting facts. A high school kid could do the job after school.”

Highgrim had swallowed hard, knowing he’d gotten his job because he could design attractive layouts and readable pages. Still, he searched his mind for some way to convince his boss to give him a chance to be a reporter again and maybe a raise, but he came up lacking.

“You think you got the skills to interview our local celebrity?”

“Who’s that?” Highgrim cringed at the thought of interviewing some hog caller or crochet maven. “What’s their specialty?”

“Didn’t know we had an actual Noble Prize winner living in Delta, did you?” The chuckle shook his boss’ belly. “Bet you a bottle of Jack Daniels Black Label that you can’t get Dr. Allsdipp to talk to you. He talks to no one.”

“Can I do a real article a week?” Gathering his courage, Highgrim countered. “I get the interview, I get to do a couple articles a week. If I don’t, you get the bottle.”

His boss considered. “Fair enough.”

Highgrim pushed his luck. Raises were usually part of the bargain when a trial job turned permanent. “More money, too?”

“Was planning on giving you fifty bucks a month more.”

“Twenty-five a week?”

His boss stuck out his hand to seal the deal. Highgrim was relieved when he didn’t spit in his palm first.

Now Highgrim’s nose wrinkled at the sour smell hiding under the incense. A Nobel Prize winner must think this place is an inner circle of Hell.

The receptionist’s head, waggling like a jack-in-the-box, popped above the top of the counter, making Highgrim take a step back. Her eyes glinted with challenge in spite of her saccharine smile. “What can I do for you? All the residents and guests are at the sing-along.”

“Hi, I’m Grant Highgrim from the Ad Gazetteer, here to interview Dr. Allsdipp. Can you interrupt him?”

He could feel the heat flowing up from his collar and knew his face was a blotchy red. Once he had been proud to say he was a reporter for a respected newspaper before the Great Media Implosion. Print media had mostly disappeared except for local ad sheets with pretensions, like the Ad Gazetteer.

“Oh, yes.” The heavy woman levered herself up from the desk with her forearms and turned to call to someone in the room behind her. “Stella, that man from the paper is here about Hank.”

Stella smirked as she skittered into the lobby. Her quick movements reminded him of the bugs in the lot, and he shivered. Stark black braids circled her thin face and didn’t catch light from the overhead windows, making Highgrim think its color came from a bottle.

Doesn’t make her look any younger.

“Goodie. We were hoping no one would crawl out of some mountain valley to beat Hank’s record. He’s special, and we’ve made every effort to help him achieve his record. If you can get him to talk to you, we’d love the publicity if only to prove how good our care is.” With a shake of her shoulder, she clasped her hands in front of her to look dignified. “Come with me, Mr. Highgrim.”

“It’s only a write-up in the weekly…”

“But the TV stations read the local rags for human interest stories. You know how the game works, once you get your story up.” Stella took a deep breath. “We’re hoping we can sneak a local interviewer in under Hank’s guard.”

Highgrim inhaled, wanting to protest, but self-interest took over. He remained silent, not asking why the other media hadn’t managed to interview Dr. Allsdipp. There might be other stories lurking in the home’s woodwork. He glanced around the hallway, surprised that the walls and floors appeared to be lined with stone.

This place is strange. Surface’s too random to be plastic so it must be real stone. Wonder where they got the money.The former economist stared out a large window, listing against the arm of his wheelchair, his head angled up into the trees. Outside the sky had turned gloomy. Dr. Allsdipp sat alone at the end of a dim corridor. A flock of small, squabbling birds fed at a battery of feeders, bouncing back and forth from the bare branches hanging over the open patio surrounded by four walls. Allsdipp’s head bobbled on his unsteady neck when one bird or another landed on the feeder pegs. Highgrim noted he had the strength to move his chair so he got the best view.


(C) 2014, M. K. Theodoratus. All Rights Reserved.

Excerpt:


Doom Comes for a Sold Soul

Dr. Allsdipp sold his soul to win the Nobel Prize. Unlucky Greg Highgrim came to interview him for his adsheet the day the demons decided to collect.


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Doom Comes for a Sold Soul