Then to the rolling Heaven itself I cried,
Asking, ”What lamp had destiny to guide
Her little children stumbling in the dark?
And- ”A blind understanding!” Heaven replied.
— Omar Khayaam
“I’ll be home a little late,” Adam said to his wife on the cell phone.
“How late is late? You know we have guests tonight. Salad and entertainment are your responsibilities.” Shiva said.
“That’s exactly why I’ll be late. I need to get a book before I come home. I’ll show you some incredible artworks. A co-worker of mine had a calendar designed with optical illusions. They’re amazing. You’ve never seen anything like it.”
“You mean like M. C. Escher’s artwork?” She asked.
“Yes, but more mystical. Some of them are really mind boggling. These artworks really threw me off. You’ve got to see them.”
“Most of them are not. We’ll find out tonight.”
“Hmm, that’d make an interesting subject of conversation.”
“I won’t be too late, half an hour max,” Adam assured his wife.
That Friday afternoon, when Adam got off work, he drove to a Barnes and Noble on the way home and picked up the book of these obscure artists. Since this morning, he’d been amazed by the depictions of impossible realities. As he glanced through the fascinating images, he lost track of time until he was staggered by the sudden ring of his cell phone “Didn’t you say half hour?” Shiva grumbled. “They’ll be here any minute and I need your help. I expect you to be right here in fifteen.”
“Yes, my lady.” He was still captivated by the awkward imaginations of these artists. As he was heading toward the cash register, a picture on the cover of another book caught his eyes. The title was “Crime Scene Photographs of the New York City Police Department from 1943 to1973.” He could not resist glancing through those pictures but he was already too late and the thought of having an aggravated wife on a Friday night convinced him otherwise. He grabbed that one too, paid for both and darted out the door.
When he arrived, the house was caressed by the aroma of Chateaubriand and he was starving so he couldn’t resist kissing his wife. Then he poured red wine for two “I know I’m late but tonight we’ll all have a taste of infinite loops and circular logics, I promise.” He started crawling all over his wife.
“Stop it you horny animal. They’re on their way.” She chuckled.
“Give me a few minutes or give me death!”
“I said stop it. This book of your better be good Mister! I did the salad and dessert tonight.”
“And I’m returning the favor by doing you!” He was now chasing her.
“Stop it, minuteman!”
He was running after his wife with a piece of steak between his teeth when the doorbell rang.
“I told you they’d be here. Go get the door.”
An hour later all four were cozily sitting on the couch enjoying the wine after a delicious dinner.
Jay said “Did you guys know that Chateaubriand was an author and a diplomat who worked for Napoleon?”
“Was he a chef too?” Nilo asked.
“No, originally this steak was a thick tenderloin cut that was prepared for Chateaubriand by his personal chef. That’s where the name came from,” He responded.
“Coffee anyone?” Shiva offered.
And Nilo reached to her purse and pulled a small bottle of Irish Cream. ”Oh, I almost forgot, Jay got this to compliment the coffee.” She then poured a little into everyone’s cup.
And that was the time when Adam revealed his latest acquisition. He grabbed the book off the end table, opened to every page and enthusiastically showed the designs to everyone. “Look how he can morph one form of life into another. I don’t believe in reincarnation but these works makes me wonder. ” he explained.
“The concept of infinite loops is so fascinating.” Shiva said.
“This is what I call absurd reality.” Jay said.
The designs dazzled all four. They spent more than an hour discussing various aspects of artworks in the book.
Nilo said “This is the intangible side of life. Sometimes I feel we are all destined in this world.”
Jay said “Here you go again. My wife is shifting to her eerie mode.”
Nilo said “Really, sometimes I feel everything is happening for a reason unknown to us.”
“Don’t we play a role in our destiny then?” Shiva questioned
“That’s not what I’m saying. We shouldn’t just accept it but we can’t change the course unless we understand it.” she responded.
“What if we’re not smart enough to understand it?” Jake asked.
“Then you’re doomed,” Adam answered.
Nilo continued, “There is a mysterious dimension we all have in our lives that we cannot logically explain. Occasionally we’re drawn uncontrollably into that realm. That’s when we emerge from this world and enter this unknown territory. In that state of mind we can see, touch and feel like never before.”
Shiva said “I think so too. We all travel to this bizarre world at times. Yet, we never grasp the concept clear enough to articulate it.”
“Isn’t that what religion is for, to guide us through this mysterious dimension?” Jake asked.
“Actually I think all religious faiths deliberately try to quench this very thirst of their followers to explore the dark aspect of our existence.” Nilo responded.
“Do you blame them? Jay sniped, “They don’t want people to go nuts like you.” Jay said.
Adam said, “She is a writer. Maybe these spiritual expeditions should be the writer’s jobs.”
“Why not? At least they’re uninhabited and imaginative.” Shiva said.
Once again, they turned their attention to the eerie designs of the book until Shiva asked her husband, “Adam, didn’t you buy two books today? Show us the other one too.”
Adam said, “Well, the other book must be depressing. I don’t want to ruin the night.”
Nilo said “Come on, ruin our night. We’re in the mood.”
And Jay said “we’re already in the twilight zone. Bring it on my friend.”
Adam grabbed the book off his computer desk and said, “This is a book of dead people. Are you guys still interested?”
Nilo raised her glass “corpses go well with Merlot. Long live death!” She was tipsy. Everyone burst into laughter.
“Why would you be interested in this book?” Shiva asked with a surprised look on her face.
“The cover caught my eyes.”
“Better yet, why would anyone be dumb enough to pay for such a book?” Jay teased.
Adam said “All right, you all made your points. The book is here now and we’re going to see what’s in it.” He then read the title and sat down and opened it.
Nilo was stunned to see the book in Adam’s hand.
Shiva said, “These vintage black and white photos of the victims seem more like paintings than photos. Don’t you think so, Nilo?”
“Yah, they’re all mystical renditions of the ended lives,” Nilo responded without looking at the pictures for herself.
Jay asked, “But you haven’t looked at them yet. You’re not spooked out already? Are you?” Nilo had a bad feeling about this book.
Adam flipped through the crime victims and stopped at the crime scene photos of the year 1963. Shiva sensed Adam’s peculiar curiosity. It was the year he was born.
Among the photographs of the murder victims of that year, Adam’s gaze was fixed on the body of one victim on the floor facing down with his hand stretched out. The picture was taken from the third floor of an apartment building from where he had plummeted to his demise according to the caption.
Shiva and her husband instantly noticed the date of murder. It was Adam’s exact date of birth. Appalled by this disturbing coincident, Shiva hastily slammed the book shut, “Show is over. We had enough death for a lovely evening like this.” She snatched the book from Adam’s grip. “Let’s all watch a funny movie.”
Jay carped, “Funny movie? I’m just getting warmed up here. Give me the book. I want to see dead people.”
Nilo was even more shocked than Adam and Shiva seeing the murder victim from that particular year. Her head was spinning and she was sick to her stomach.
“What’s going on here tonight? What’s wrong with you guys?” Jay was baffled.
“Shut up Jay, Just shut up? Nilo hardly uttered these muffled words before she excused herself and rushed to the bathroom.
She splashed water on her face, looked at her miserable image in the mirror and burst in tears. She quickly turned the faucet on all the way so they couldn’t hear her cry. She had no choice but to pretend this bizarre coincidence had nothing to do with her. Yet down deep inside she knew that was not the case.
5 years earlier
Jay said, “Honey, I think you should keep your mouth shut, otherwise you’ll blow it. I mean it.”
“You know I can’t,” Nilo said.
“Once and for all, get it into your thick skull. No one cares about your idealism. Well, maybe some lunatics and radicals. People like Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela may find your humanitarian ideas interesting but others don’t give a rat’s ass. Let’s face it, your fan base is either dead, incarcerated, fugitives or buried in history books.”
Nilo kissed him on the cheek. “you’re such an idiot. Sometimes I wonder why I love you.”
“You love me because I represent everything you’re not, a voice of reason and sanity.” Jay threw his hands in the air and chuckled.
“Oh, what a predicament this life is sometimes,” Nilo said.
“You’re a good writer but you can’t change the world. You go to that meeting, stay calm and try very hard not to insult the publisher,” Jay emphasized.
Two days later, Nilo flew to New York City and checked in a hotel for the night. The next morning, she took a scorching shower, had a bagel with cream cheese and a cup of coffee determined to keep her mouth shut before Mr. John Shuster as advised by her husband. One hour later, she was sitting in the publisher’s office with a long face wondering why she was listening to a load of crap.
“Your novel is well written. I’m especially intrigued by the way you see the world. Your vision is bizarre yet fascinating. Your ghostly characters have unique perspectives on life.” he droned on.
“But what?” she was rattling like a jet engine ready to take off. She knew where he was going with this, so she broke her promise.
“Well, you know what I mean,” he said.
“It wouldn’t sell, would it?” Nilo was now hastily plucking the scattered pages of her novel off his desk.
“People are not into reading open-ended stories. Your novel doesn’t offer a full resolution. It’s too intellectual and too abstract to appeal to mainstream readers,” He said.
“So what do you want me to do?” She huffed. “You expect me to write for a target audience. Is that it? Maybe I’m better off writing a damn book on spiritual healing or how to please your partner in bed? We can both make a bundle that way! You want readers to read what goes down well with their junk food. Is that what you call literature?” She said.
“This is the business,” he said.
“That’s exactly what’s wrong with it. Literature is not a business.” she hastily shoved the manuscript into her folder. “This is it, no damn happy ending. You’re not interested, tough shit.”
“Let’s compromise,” he said.
“Screw you, screw your compromises and screw your mainstream readers,” she stormed out of his office slamming the door behind her.
Her great opportunity to get published had just evaporated. She left the building cursing everyone under her breath and rushed into a crowded coffee shop across the street and ordered a latte. In a minute or two, the drink was ready and she walked outside and sat at the only available table and lit a cigarette. She was still cussing Mr. Shuster when an old man appeared by her table. “May I sit here? All other chairs are taken and you have one available. Please.”
“Yes you may,” Nilo responded with a little hesitation.
“If you’re not in the mood, I won’t say a word. You know sometimes it serves us best if we keep our mouths shut.” The stranger grinned.
“It’s too late for that, you’re already talking.” She smiled. “Forgive me for being rude. I just screwed up a great opportunity with a publisher.”
“I hear you. I work with a publishing company too. They can be hard ass sons of bitches sometimes.” Nilo’s face opened up upon hearing this appropriate reference.
“Are you a writer?” She asked.
“Oh no. No. I used to be a crime scene investigator and years later I became a private detective.”
“That’s an interesting line of work,” Nilo said.
He said, “Yes, it is. You get to see bizarre things in this business.”
“People like you should write. You never run out of stories to tell.”
“True, but some stories are better not told,” the man pensively added.
“So, how are you associated with the publishing business then?” Nilo asked.
“Well, I had a large collection of pictures that happened to catch the attention of a publisher. So he offered to buy them and since I had experience in the field, he wanted me to select pictures to be published,” he said.
“What kind of book is this?” Nilo was excited.
“Crime Scene Photographs of the New York City Police Department. I’ve been instructed to select a murder victim for each year and write a short caption for it.”
“What were your selection criteria? There must have been so many victims to choose from especially in this city,” Nilo said.
“I was personally involved in many of those murder investigations and knew about so many others. Those photos are in public domain and anyone can see them if they know where to look but I had access to archives. I could pick any case and find out the details. The publisher was more interested in the victims of mysterious cases.”
“So you’re making money off dead people. How cool is that?” Nilo said.
“To me, even the most simple murder case was mysterious, death is always mystifying. But I admit some are more puzzling than others,” he said.
Nilo said, “I’m trying to make money off dead people, too. But this damn editor says my novel lacks full resolution. Isn’t that absurd? What could be more final than death? How can death be open-ended, I have no clue.”
“A story of an ambiguous death or a death after an ambiguous life lacks final resolution, I say.” He was thinking out-loud.
“This is ironic. Most writers write without having a real story to tell and you’re sitting on a treasure of untold tales,” Nilo said.
“it’s a bizarre feeling but sometimes I feel responsible in a way for some of those murders, I have investigated,” the man said.
“That’s nonsense. You always got there after the fact. Your subjects were already in horizontal position.” Nilo was trying to unburden the stranger of a guilt she knew nothing about. “I, on the other hand, am very responsible for the deaths of my victims. I write the cleverest plots to murder innocent people. Isn’t that shameful? If one of us is supposed to have a guilty conscience, I’m the one, not you.” She chuckled.
“I know it’s absurd to feel this way. But in a very weird way, I may have been instrumental in carrying out those deaths. I don’t know how to explain it though.” He said.
“But how could that be?” Nilo said.
“In my line of work, it was sometimes difficult to stay unattached to a case,” he murmured.
“Now you’re losing me. Be more specific please. What is your dilemma?” Nilo, infatuated with the subject, was desperately trying to get him to talk. She’d met anyone quite like him.
“My quandary is how to choose pictures for this book.” He said this with overburdened conscience.
“Well, choose the victims of more mysterious cases. Isn’t that what the publisher prefers?” Nilo suggested.
“That’s what I did but I’m stumbling over the victim of one specific year.”
“What’s so special about this year?” Nilo was trying to help her new friend.
“I feel weird picking out a victim for 1963.”
“If we were in Dallas, I would suggest JFK. No one’s death was more mysterious than his,” Nilo said.
“Yah, but his death’s been publicized to death already, no pun intended. Besides, including his photo is like adding a black hole in the book. It takes all the attention away from other victims. That wouldn’t be fair to others victims.” He smiled.
“If you, Sir, have reservations about selecting victims, let me assist you. I have a knack in this field of expertise. I’ve taken so many lives in my novels with no remorse. Let me do the dirty work for you,” she volunteered.
The man opened a huge folder packed with pictures of murder victims of 1963 and scattered them on the table. One picture instantly caught her eyes, the only one with a small object by the victim’s body right outside the chalk outline. She quickly fished that one and handed it to the man and said. “Here is your lucky victim.”
The fascinating conversation with the retired police investigator took more than two hours. Nilo’s anger and frustration was alleviated when they exchanged contact information and she went back to her hotel room to get ready to fly back home empty handed.
After that meeting, although she didn’t get a chance to contact him, yet his mysterious tales, eerie anecdotes and bizarre references made a profound impression on her writing.
The park vendor
30 years earlier
“Originally called Oyster Island, Ellis Island acquired its name from Samuel Ellis, a colonial New Yorker. At the mouth of the Hudson River, Ellis Island was at one time the main port of entry for immigrants entering the United States.” the tour guide ushered visitors to the large dining room.
Battery Park was packed with tourists, flooded by thousands of foreigners.
“How many immigrants came?” one asked.
“The peak year for immigration at Ellis Island was 1907 with more than a million immigrants processed,” the tour guide answered.
“Is this Rolex fuck?” An old foreigner separated from the rest of the group asked the park vendor.
His fourteen year old daughter standing next to him interrupted, “No, Baba. Don’t say this word in America. Sir, is this watch fake?”
“Fake is an ugly word. It’s a genuine reproduction. The real Rolex costs about four thousand dollars and this beauty is yours for only $60,” the vendor said.
“If you really think my father pays $60 for a fake Chinese junk, you have another thing coming. In my country he paints a frog and sells it as a Volkswagen Buggy in the market and you’re trying to swindle him,” she sniped.
“I pay ten for this fuck,” the old man said.
“Baba, please, let me do the talking. Excuse my father’s broken English but ten is his final offer,” she said.
“I let it go for 40 dollars and not a penny less. Take it or leave it.” The ticked-off vendor walked away from these tough negotiators cursing all immigrants under his breath.
He could still hear the tour guide. “Those with visible health problems or diseases were sent home. All immigrants were asked about their occupation, and the amount of money they carried with them. Some unskilled workers were rejected outright because they were considered ‘likely to become a public charge.’ About 2 percent were denied admission to the U.S. The Ellis Island was sometimes known as ‘The Island of Tears’ because of those who were not admitted after the long transatlantic voyage…”
“Only two percent were rejected? No wonder we have all these problems. The two percent is what we should’ve admitted,” He lit a cigarette and sat down next to a water fountain and opened his small suitcase piled up with souvenirs. He could see his competitors closing deals faster than he ever could wondering how to improve his skills.
Another tourist walked away from his pack and approached him, “how much for this Rolex watch?”
“Sixty dollars,” he said.
“Oh, too expensive,” the tourist cursed in his native language.
“Wait! I have some Rolexes for 40 dollars,” he was growing desperate. The buyer returned.
“Here, how about this one? It shows time in two countries.” The sun was hiding in horizon. He had bills to pay.
“Does it work for three weeks?” the customer smirked.
“It works for a life time, Sir.”
“Twenty dollars, no more.”
“Thirty if you buy two.”
The customer didn’t dignify his counter-offer by listening. He swiftly fished a twenty dollar bill out of his back pocket, dropped it in his suitcase, and took the watch.
“What about cuff links? Only five dollars a pair and a great selection to choose from.” The tourist had already walked away.
Where the hell do they learn how to bargain like this? The vendor whispered to himself as a man walked up to him and pointed to the lighter with “AA” initials engraved on its case, “How much?” He asked.
“This is an original Zippo, fifty dollars. They don’t make this style anymore, a vintage souvenir to last a lifetime.”
“I’m interested because of the initials. My kid brother has no middle name. His initials are AA. I don’t know if he smokes or not. This should get him started.” He grinned.
“Five dollars off regular price because you have a unique brother.” He knew he’d closed a lucrative deal when the customer reached for his pocket. He’d just made more than fifty percent profit. It was now almost dark and most of the tourists had disappeared. The park was almost empty.
The Book of Dead
Nilo waited in the bathroom for a few more minutes, splashed water on her face, put some make up on and nudged the door ajar and called her husband, “Jay! I don’t feel well, would you please come here?”
When he came, she whispered, “Let’s go home right now, I’m sick.”
“What happened to you so suddenly? Are you crying?” he was baffled.
“Just hold me tight and help me out of here, please. Don’t say a word. Oh my God. Just don’t say anything. Let’ go.”
They walked through the living room. “Guys, sorry but we have to leave. She doesn’t feel well.” Jay said.
Adam and Shiva showed no reaction to their guests’ sudden departure. Yet Nilo could not bear seeing the haunted expressions on their friends’ faces. They left the house and when they sat in the car, Jay said, “Would you fill me in?”
“You won’t believe it even I tell you the whole story. I can’t believe it myself. Let’s go back. I’ve to help Adam, we have to help him,” she cried.
“Help him? Why does he need help?” Jay was growing impatient.
“You’ll find out soon. What have I done?” Nilo was holding Jay’s hand as they were walking back inside wondering what to do next.
When they returned, Shiva furiously slammed the book and tossed it on the floor. Adam was petrified. Neither one had anything to say.
The room was plunged in a dreadful silence when Nilo picked up the book off the floor and with a rattling voice filled with remorse said, “This is just a fluke, nothing else.”
”What are you talking about? Do you know what’s in the book? Do you know anything about this?” Shiva pleaded.
Nilo was about fainting when Shiva held her arm and helped her sit. “It’s like a nightmare coming true. How could I possibly…“ Nilo didn’t have the courage to tell them what she knew. She was now hiding a secret she wasn’t sure was a secret in the first place. But if she did tell them about her peculiar involvement in selecting this picture, she would’ve added more mystery to this already bizarre affair. Yet down deep inside, she knew well all these events were linked.
Shiva said, “I know this is a weird coincidence but look at him. We’ve got to help him.”
Jay was silently sipping his coffee trying to understand the situation without being inquisitive.
Shiva sat next to Adam and held his hands, “Don’t let it get to you.”
The bloody image of the victim was engraved in every one’s head. Nilo cautiously opened the book to learn more about the victim and the cause of his death. The book didn’t offer much detail.
Shiva told Jay, “This victim died on exact day Adam was born. That’s all.”
“Why is it so surprising to you Adam? They’re thousands who died on the exact day you were born, what’s the big deal. Our birthdates are not reserved for us only. I bet so many died the minute I was born.” He reasoned. “We’re all born and die some day and there are only 365 days in a year,” he said.
“Look at him, look at this victim,” Adam said.
Others looked at the picture once again. Shiva cried, “What are you saying? We can’t see his face.”
“It’s me, damn it. I am the man in the picture,” Adam cried.
“Are you out of your mind? How could that be possible?” Shiva was terrified.
Nilo signaled Jay and Shiva to follow her out of the room and they followed her to the kitchen. She told them of her meeting years before and her eerie involvement with this book.
She said, “Now, I remember my lengthy conversation with that ex-police investigator five years ago in that coffee shop in New York. He was the man I helped pick this particular picture for the book. He said somehow he felt responsible for the death of victims whose cases he’d investigated. And I told me there was no way he could have been remotely involved with their destiny as he had always got to know them after their deaths. Now every word of that conversation takes a different meaning.”
“Are you suggesting that meeting was not a coincident?” Shiva uttered these words with terror echoing in her voice.
“What if it wasn’t? Do you know the odds of such coincidence?” Nilo was thinking out-loud.”
“What else did he say?” Jay asked.
“Did he mention this picture? Did he tell you anything about this case? Oh, Nilo, please try to remember” Shiva begged.
“Why would Adam buy this book today?” Jay held his head between his hands.
“What are you getting at guys? Shiva said.
“We better go back now,” Nilo said.
They went back to the living room where Adam sat like a statue with an open book in his hands. Jay snatched the book from Adam’s grip and examined the picture carefully, “I don’t see any resemblance whatsoever. What’s got into you tonight?” he said.
“What do you mean when you say it’s you Adam? You are scaring us with this none-sense.” Shiva was crying.
Adam pointed to the blurry little dark spot by the victim’s body and said, “Do you see this? Do you know what that is? That’s my lighter on the floor next to the body. The one Ethan brought me from his New York trip when I was fourteen.”
“Be reasonable Adam. The date of this man’s murder and your birth-date being the same is just a weird coincidence. Don’t make up stories. Let it go,” Jay knew well not all these could be coincidental.
And Nilo continued, “I warn you sir, leave this mumbo-jumbo to me. I’m a mystery writer and I can’t make up such absurd tales.”
Adam pointed his trembling finger at the picture and said, “I can even make out the ‘AA’ initials on its case. I still have this very lighter somewhere in the house.”
“If you have the lighter after all these years, then how could it be with the dead guy?” Nilo was desperately trying to make a sense of all these. She was now asking this question for herself and not Adam.
Everyone knew Adam was not losing his mind. Evidently, logic had nothing to do with the chain of events they were witnessing.
Adam said, “This is my Zippo by the body. I’ll prove it to you.” He staggered out of the room holding his aching head with both hands. Shiva followed him and watched how he feverishly searched through old trunks and suitcases covered with dust in the attic. He frantically emptied every box filled with the odds and ends, old photo albums and knickknacks and finally found the lighter still full of fluid and functional. He touched his initials and walked back to his computer followed by Shiva, Nilo and Jay. He scanned the picture in the computer and enlarged the victim’s body and zoomed on the object until the initials became more legible.
Adam gasped for air and gently positioned the lighter on the computer monitor next to the image. The initials on the lighter in the picture were the same as the ones in his hand. At that moment, the life drained out of his body. He looked back with a ghostly expression on his face and said, “I died the day I was born.”
Shiva’s knees buckled. Nilo helped her to the sofa. Jay choked up. For a long period of time, the room plunged into an eerie silence. Everyone was checkmated.
“Adam, this is just a disturbing coincidence. Maybe more than one coincidence, I admit. But that’s all there is to it. Don’t let it ruin your life. I’ve known you practically all my life. You are the most rational person I’ve ever met. Don’t lose your head over this.” Jay had nothing to say to calm the situation.
“I have to find out who I was, how I lived and how I died.” Adam was talking to himself.
Shiva composed herself. “Adam’s right. These events are too bizarre to ignore.”
Nilo said, “We’ll get to the bottom of this. I promise you, Adam. We must understand the grand scheme behind these happenings. Don’t give up, even to your destiny, if that’s what it is. You get some rest tonight. We start our investigation tomorrow.”
When their guests finally left at 2 am, Shiva took Adam to bed but neither could sleep. “Maybe we should not try to figure out what’s going on. Maybe, it’s a logic we’re not supposed to understand. Just like the artworks of impossible realities. I was fascinated by those artworks just to go to the bookstore and see this book,” Adam said.
“We cannot yield to ignorance, that’s the worst alternative. If there is a way out of this illusive abyss, it would only appear to us by knowledge. I agree with Nilo. We’re all into this now and we’ll do our best to decipher these mysterious signs. Look at yourself! Can you ever have a normal life after tonight? Sitting idle and waiting to see what happens next is not an option. Inaction means slow and agonizing death to you and I won’t let that happen,” Shiva reasoned.
Nilo barely slept for a couple of hours and woke at five and made coffee. Jay was already awake in bed wondering what to do. First thing Nilo did was to look up the book on the net and found out who the publisher was. It was too early to call them.
Jay said, “Are you trying to track down the ex-cop you met in New York?”
“Yah, he’s the key in all of this. I’ve lost his phone number but the publisher must be able to help,” she said.
“They won’t give out that information, let me call,” he said.
“Impersonating authorities is illegal.” Nilo was concerned.
“Come on! This is not the time to be a ‘Goody Two-Shoes’. Didn’t you see the dreadful look on Adam’s face last night? How long do you think he can take this horror? We’ve got to do something and do it right away.”
“Why don’t you call Alex? He works in New York City. He should be able to help. Have him contact the publisher,” Nilo suggested.
“Yah, why didn’t I think of that?” Jay kissed her.
Nilo called Shiva at seven. “How is he?”
“He’s delirious, doesn’t eat and can’t sleep. He can’t go on like this much longer, I’m so worried,” Shiva was crying. “Maybe we should call for professional help,”
“And tell them what? He saw his own dead body in a book. That he died the day he was born? They would laugh at us. Besides, what kind of professional help should we seek? An exorcist?” Nilo asked.
“What bothers me the most is the chain of events that led us all to this point. Maybe all these clues and signs are leading us in a certain direction for a purpose,” Shiva said.
“That might be the case. But what are our options? We have no choice but to delve into this and find out,” Nilo said.
“But that’s his life we’re talking about here. What if he gets hurt by us probing into this matter?” Shiva was weeping.
“The damage is already done, and you know it. He will never be normal again unless…” Nilo said.
“Unless we’re a part of this. We’re pieces of a larger puzzle. I mean all of us.” Terror echoed in Nilo’s voice.
“Maybe Adam is not the only subject,” Shiva pensively added.
“We must somehow unravel this puzzle, that’s all I know,” Nilo said.
Shiva said, “I checked the newspapers archives and New York police department’s public records online, no leads yet, nothing so far.”
Jay called his friend early morning, “Alex, this is Jay, Jay Pittman. What you’re up to these days?”
“Good to hear from you, buddy. Are still married to that hottie?”
“For the last eight year and still counting,”
“How you could keep up with her for this long is really puzzling. She’s too smart for you.”
“I didn’t call you to hear you complimenting my wife, you nincompoop. Are you still with the Police Department?”
“I’m a lieutenant now.”
“I have a favor to ask then,” Jay told him as much as he knew to get him onboard.
At 9 am, Alex made a conference call to the publisher with Jay, Nilo and Shiva online listening. The publishing firm had no knowledge of such contributor in publishing the book. “Our staff collected crime scene pictures from various sources and the chief editor made the final decisions, we didn’t have outside help.” The managing editor explained.
This new development caught Nilo off guard, “What did she mean they had no collaborator? I met the man, I had a lengthy conversation with him and I picked out this very picture myself. I’m not dreaming all this, am I?”
Over the next several weeks, they followed every lead and probe each clue in their fact finding mission. There was nothing more they could possibly do to decipher the puzzle or to end Adam’s nightmarish situation. He wouldn’t eat unless he was urged to by Shiva and his friends. The insomnia tormented him every night before his nightmares when finally he fell asleep. His life had vanished in the haze of death by a twist of fate. He could not make sense of this horror that he’d brought upon himself by randomly picking up a book from the bargain section of a bookstore on a Friday afternoon.
Alex investigated the murder case in the book and for days he pored over thousands of police files and found no evidence of such a crime ever being committed. As far the authorities were concerned, that photo was not in existence. By now, not only did they have no clue to go forward but they had plunged into a deeper vortex of mystery. They were entrapped in an infinite loop. They knew less as they probed deeper.
Adam’s obsession with the dead man in the book morphed him into a being they could no longer recognize. For weeks he stayed home, fixated on the picture wondering what had happened to him the day he was born.
As a last resort, Nilo suggested all to go to New York and investigate the matter to the end. First they met with Alex and together went to central police station and shared their dilemma with various crime investigators. Since the case was not in the current record, they were sent to the archives where they kept closed investigation files and the documents of unresolved cases.
After days of searching through hundreds of boxes full of obsolete files, Shiva found the same crime scene picture in a folder. Since there was a lighter by the body, they quickly found a few more shots of the same victim scattered in different folders, and the address of where the crime was committed. They also came across a name, the only one mentioned in the investigation. Alex helped them track him down and they finally found out where he lived.
The next day, they gave the address to a cab driver to take them to Mountain View nursing home, a state–run hospice about two hours from the city where the man in file resided.
It was almost noon when they arrived and walked into the management office.
“This man has lived here for fifteen years and you’re his first visitors.” the surprised administrator informed his guests and a uniformed staff escorted them to his room. They walked through long corridors and entered a small room where they faced an old man sitting in his squeaky armchair peering out the window.
The employee left them alone without saying a word. Shiva introduced everyone and the man suddenly started complaining about the tasteless fried liver and green beans he had for dinner the night before. As he was droning on about his poor living condition, the four visitors curiously scanned through his little room looking for a clue to connect him to what had happened more than forty years ago.
Shiva asked him, “What would you like to have for lunch?”
“Any decent meal would do,” the old man said.
Jay took Adam to buy lunch and Nilo and Shiva sat down and told him about the picture in the book and the purpose of their trip.
In half hour, when the two men came with boxes full of barbeque, fried onion and steaming fresh rolls in one hand and big cups of Coca Cola in the other, the man’s face shone with satisfaction. After lunch, he asked Jay to pull a shabby suitcase out from underneath his bed. He then opened the dust covered suitcase and grabbed a worn out folder and pulled a stack of papers out of it. The title “Illusion” was scribbled on the top of the first page.
Nilo could not wait any longer. “What is this?”
“How I got this folder is much more important that what’s in it,” the old man said.
Shiva asked, “Is this related to what we told you about?”
“I don’t know how it could be, really. But that’s the only thing worth telling you about that I have in my life,” he sighed.
Nilo said, “please tell us your story.”
“As a young man, I moved from city to city and resided anywhere I could get a job that paid enough to get by. I’ve done every low-paying job you can imagine in so many parts of the county. I could always mange to keep my head above the water but never managed to keep a job for more than a year or two. I wasn’t exactly a drifter and I’d never been on the wrong side of the law, although I was tempted at times when I had the opportunity. Well, maybe I wasn’t gutsy enough to the wrong thing.
Only once in my life, I got tangled in a situation that to this day I feel uneasy about. My involvement in that affair surely wasn’t illegal and as far as I know harmed no one, but it may have. That I don’t know. My longest stay was in New York City where I managed to keep the same apartment for about two years without being evicted. That was a record for me. One night after a long day at work as I was drinking a beer and before I collapsed on the couch, I heard a knock on my apartment door. A well-dressed man, looking like an insurance agent was at the door. He asked me if I knew where my next-door neighbor was and I told him that I didn’t know I had one.
He invited himself in politely of course and sat down. Then he opened his leather briefcase and pulled this envelope out and put it on the coffee table and asked me if I wanted to make some cash. I told the man that as much as I needed the money, I didn’t believe in quick cash, especially if it came from a stranger.
He assured me there was nothing illegal about what he wanted me to do. He then pulled ten crisp one hundred dollar bills from his side pocket and laid it next to this envelope and said, “Give this package to your neighbor whenever he comes back. That’s all I want you to do.”
I was stunned. For that kind of money, I would’ve done much more. He paid me more than I could make in a month just to deliver an envelope. He made me promise not to give it anyone but him.”
“Did you look inside the envelope?” Adam shrieked.
“Not at first. I was paid a large sum of money in advance to do the simplest job I’d ever had. One thousand dollars could go a long way back then, remember we are talking about the sixties when you could buy a brand new car for about $4000 and a gallon of gas was a quarter. I don’t remember what year it was exactly though…”
“1963?” Nilo said.
“Yes, yes the same year Kennedy was assassinated.”
“Was it March 12th?” Shiva hardly uttered Adam’s birth date.”
“No, No, that day I never forget, it wasn’t that day. It was a week or so before that.”
“What about March 12th? What happened on that day?” The visitors pleaded.
“Well, after I got paid, the first thing I did was to stop going to the park selling souvenirs to tourists and stayed home all day watching The Andy Griffith show and the I Love Lucy show on the tube waiting for my neighbor to come back. After all, I had a job to do.
I waited for a week for neighbor I’d never met. Every time I heard footsteps in the hallway, I rushed outside to see if they were his. I knocked on his door several times a day and night with no success until that fateful night of March 12th. Late that night when I hit the sack and before I felt asleep, a loud noise in the hall terrified everyone in the building. Every tenant rushed outside and looked over the banister just to see a dead body on the ground in the lobby downstairs.”
“Was that your neighbor?” Shiva asked.
“I don’t know. As I said, I’d never met him.”
“Was it me?” Adam asked.
The old man could barely hide his smirk by hearing his absurd question.
“Did you get a good look at the dead body? Did he look like me?” Adam asked.
“I don’t know how he looked. I didn’t go downstairs but before the cops showed up, I took a few pictures of the body from the third floor.”
“Did the police search your next-door apartment?” Nilo asked.
“Yes indeed. It was empty. It’d been vacant for months. And that’s what spooked me out. I was paid a wad of money to deliver a package to one who was not in existence.”
“Didn’t you ever find out who he was?” Nilo asked.
Shiva took the copies of the victim’s pictures and showed them to him, “Are these the pictures you took?”
“I’ll be darned, I sold these same pictures for $50 to a newspaper reporter forty years ago and now I’m seeing them in your hands.” The old man was stunned. “I’m not going to ask you how in the world you ended up with these pictures. This entire affair was so bizarre that I don’t have the desire to figure it out.”
“Didn’t you tell the police or the newspaper reporter about this envelope?” Shiva asked.
“Oh, no. If his death was related to the mob, I would’ve ended up floating in the Hudson. I’m not stupid. Besides, how did I know these two incidents were connected?”
“So you decided to keep the envelope forever? You never cared to see what was inside the damned package?” Adam was furious.
“Yes, after the murder, I became suspicious and poked a little hole in the envelope and peeped inside, I could read the title. It must have been a story of some sort, but not every story must be told. I tried so hard to suppress my curiosity. It was not my business anyway to read it. I was paid very well by a total stranger to deliver a package to a man who didn’t exist, wasn’t that strange enough? I didn’t know what to do with this envelope, so I kept it ever since hoping maybe one day I could unravel this mystery. And now you people showed up.”
“How come your name was mentioned in that murder case?” Nilo asked.
“That’s another piece of the puzzle. The investigators found a lighter by the body and it had my fingerprints on it. They questioned everyone in the building and took me to down town and interrogated me for days.”
“Was the lighter yours?” Adam was growing desperate.
“No. But I had recently sold only two lighters with ‘AA’ on their cases, the only pair with two initials. I was a park vendor selling fake Rolex watches and fancy lighters to foreign tourists in the parks. Those initials were neither mine nor the victim’s. I opened my briefcase and paraded a variety of lighters like that one for the police investigators to see.”
“What about the other lighter with the same initials as the victim’s?” Nilo asked.
“Obviously I’d sold both lighters with same initials. One to the victim and the other to a tourist…”
“Did they believe your story?” Shiva asked.
“They had to. It was the truth. Investigators were convinced I had nothing to do with his death. They could not pin his murder on me, so they left me alone and closed the case unresolved.”
“Did you ever hear from the man who gave you the money? Did he ever come back?” Shiva asked.
“I don’t know if he did. I couldn’t live in that building after what’d happened. I moved out and left the city. I never understood this impossible reality but it gave my life a vague purpose.”
“And now that we came here, every piece of the puzzle falls in place,” Shiva said.
Nilo read the paragraph under the title, “Life is an illusion. A book of an ongoing allegory we live only a chapter of. We narrate our tales as long as we live and pass it on to the next when we die.”
She then said, “There is more to it than that. Adam, you must not read these pages.”
“Why?” he asked.
“Don’t torment yourself in finding the meaning of your life. Give it one yourself. You live as long as you have a story to tell, tell your own. This is your kismet.” Nilo said.
The old man nodded, “Yes, the game started when you were born. On that day, one man died and the torch of his life was passed on to you and eventually you pass it on to the next. An illusion, that’s what life is, a shiny moment in eternal darkness. The beginning and ending are the only sure things about this tale. Just like that Persian poet, Omar Khayaam wrote,
We’re puppets and destiny the puppet master
This is truth, not an imaginary tale
For a while we play our roles on this stage
And return to chest of death one by one!
“He’s right Adam. You’ve been on expedition to discover your own death. We all are. Most people usually don’t pay attention to signs and clues but you did. The more you probed, the closer you’ve become to the finish line. Your nemesis is your obsession. Just walk away. Interrupt your fate. Live.” Shiva said.
The old man grabbed a cigarette, “Life is an il lusion, until we give it a meaningful reality.” And the dancing flame mesmerized everyone in the room when Adam lit the cigarette with his lighter.