Black Virus

            Jack Ross stares blankly out his living room window. He lives in a downtown apartment on the thirtieth floor, and the skyline is usually breathtaking at this time of the evening. Instead of a clear moon ascending out from behind the buildings, and casting the glass towers around him in a softly romantic glow, there are again those black clouds above that have made every night this week a nightmarish vision from a muggy, fly infested hell. It is like the underbelly of a swamp is spreading out across the heavens from every horizon. Before long, the swamp will clamp over everything as far as the eye can see, and the flies will descend like locusts on the quivering flesh beneath them.

            The image is like something from Sunday school, and it has been many years since Jack cracked a Bible. He is a real believer, though, not so much in Jesus and the saints, but in the homicidal tenacity of that Black Virus out there. Like everyone else in this city, he has been in self-isolation for twelve days straight, watching non-stop cable news reports about the global pandemic, and then when that is too much bad news switching over to an old favorite on Netflix.

            Jack has done everything the government has told the public to do: He stays indoors, orders food to be delivered, washes his hands compulsively, and sprays at anything that even resembles a black fly. He did so begrudgingly at first, since like a lot of people he presumed that the whole thing was overblown. He snickered at the “end of the world” madness that seemed to spread even faster than the virus, and in that vein he thought of Bill Murray in Ghostbusters: “The dead rising from the grave. Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria.”

            Then, a few nights ago, he became a believer. What first caught his attention was the static noise of a police radio in the hallway. He looked through the peephole in time to view several paramedics and a cop stepping into the apartment across the hall. Like all first responders since the pandemic hit the front pages, the paramedics and the cop wore identical HAZMAT suits and helmets. The only difference was that the paramedics had stitched red crosses on their chests, and the cop with the walkie talkie had a stitched police badge.

            Jack felt his heart beating hard against his chest, while watching through the peephole. He hardly knew the kindly, old woman across the way but always sensed her goodhearted nature. She was one of the “good ones,” which is a rare enough find in big cities too often peopled by the fast and the furious.

            Jack’s heart dropped when he saw her strapped to an ambulance stretcher. In the seconds before they all passed from view he observed an ashen grey woman just consumed with anguish and pain. Her eyes were bloodshot, and in contrast with her near colorless skin they looked like the eyes of a convulsing demon. Jack could see at once why in past centuries men associated viral infections with demonic possession.

            Most dishearteningly, he saw the stark fear in her eyes. She looked like a tiny, fragile soul about to be pushed over the edge. She saw the abyss, but she did not see the end. Moreover, she did not see anyone about to take the terrible plunge with her.

            Jack cried all that night. He had no idea if the kindly, old woman would live or die in the hospital before dawn. Whatever happened to her she would be alone then. Even if she had family, she would need to be quarantined from them.

            No one deserves that; certainly not one of the “good ones.” The Black Virus is impartial. As someone said on the television, it is the great equalizer. It does not care if the victim has been a saint or a scoundrel. Whomever it infects will suffer horribly, and many will die. The survivors will observe all of this unfold in front of their cable television sets or from behind peepholes. In a less dramatic way, they too will be left isolated, frightened, and alone.

            The only bright spot all these days has been the daily phone call with his love, Margaret Darling. Jack met her a few months ago at the Abigail, a downtown bar that he frequented. She was sitting alone in the corner, nursing a cocktail, and wiping off an occasional tear. As much as he was smitten at first sight, he did not approach her at first. He could see that she was in no mood to speak with anyone. Nevertheless, he kept her in the corner of his eye all that night, and hoped that she might come back.

            She did a week later. She came with a girlfriend and, more importantly, with a smile on her pretty face. The two ladies chatted amicably. When the girlfriend left, Jack casually took her stool, and struck up a conversation with the pretty redhead in the white, flared, cocktail dress.

            The conversation has continued since that moment with as few interruptions as possible. They made love about a week after they met, and until the pandemic the sex had been frequent and always good. Mostly, they talked, though, like two lifelong friends who paradoxically have just found one another. They explored every subject with a verbal and a tonal intimacy all their own. Jack’s idiosyncratic speech patterns were becoming hers, and vice versa, and the result was a kind of elopement through shared stories, humorous asides, and contagious laughter.

            When the pandemic hit like a gut punch from out of nowhere, Jack urged her to self-isolate with him at his place. He had never been to her place, and some of her things were already in his bedroom. She hesitated, and could not provide him a good reason why not. He pressed her again, but before she finally agreed the government cordoned off her part of the city from his.

            Until the pandemic ended, they would have no connection except through the telephone. Jack lived for those calls. Nothing else managed to put a smile on his face.

            Margaret did not call today. Jack tried several times to call her, but she never picked up her cellular phone.

            Jack steps away from the living room window. He knows how dreary and hot the night will be. He does not want to see it anymore. All he wants is to hear his love on the telephone even if only for a few minutes.

            Jack picks up his cellular phone from the sofa. He speed dials Margaret while nervously tapping his left hand on his thigh. Her cellular phone rings in his ear. This means her battery is not out, for otherwise it would go straight to voicemail. So why then is she not answering? It is not like she can go anywhere. Did something happen to her today? Did she get infected with the virus?

These questions and more flash inside his mind like yellow danger signs on the side of a dark road. Jack is totally alone on that road, and he is frightened more than he can remember, while Margaret’s cellular phone continues to ring in his ear.  

*   *   *

            Dr. Cecil Darling picks up the cellular phone. This is the fifth call today from that number. He will grant that whomever is calling is persistent. He wonders if his wife would have broken her vows, if he too had been as persistent as this Don Juan.

            He sets that thought aside. After all, he did not do anything wrong, unless it is wrong for a rich plastic surgeon with a red Ferrari to leave his wife and four kids for a sexy nursing assistant turned gold digging tramp. If that is a sin, then almost every doctor with a tony country club membership and a few million in mutual funds has a standing appointment with his Father Confessor or his psychiatrist, depending upon his religious persuasion. His mistake is that he married the redheaded fling with the three dozen cocktail dresses and matching accessories. Every one of his golf buddies gave him the same advice before he took the plunge: Keep her as a mistress, rent her a nice pied-a-terre, and buy her off with jewels whenever he gets drunk and smacks her around a little too hard. In that way, she will be “manageable.” Mistresses can be managed. Wives never are, no matter how much the groom thinks he can control the bitch when he puts the ring on her finger at the altar.

            Cecil agrees that he should have listened to their advice. Does that mean that he did anything wrong, though? Is it wrong to get caught up in the steamy whirlwind romance? Is it immoral to imagine that the whore deep down has a heart of gold that is meant for him? The short answer is no. Living for a dream got Cecil through a high priced medical school that lower class boys like him were never supposed to be able to afford. Indulging the fantasy transformed him from an underpaid critical care doc in a county hospital to an uptown “beautiful nose and face specialist” with celebrity clients and late night infomercials. Taking the plunge got his hands on a Ferrari once owned by a Saudi prince and autographed pictures with Charo and Pia Zadora. A life without risk is not a life worth living, so Cecil is not going to blame himself for taking a chance on a spendthrift beauty queen with a roving eye.

            The blame game is a worthless effort anyway. Cecil knows just how much of a victim he has been the past year. With the aid of a private investigator, he has caught his wife with three different men in that time. His private life has been a sordid page turner, as he has had to cope with her financial and sexual deceit. All the time he has had ample reasons to blame her, but he has not. Instead, he has handled the problem in one way or another. Closed the chapters on those pretty gigolos. Dispatched them.  He has resolved each crisis without ever letting her know exactly why it is her party boys have stopped calling her. Rather than play the blame game, which only leads to adolescent name calling and finger pointing, he has acted on each occasion with that same decisiveness that has allowed him to pull himself up from poverty to glory. His bitch wife is lucky to be married to a man who grabs the bull by the horns, even if on occasion he has had to resort to behavior that does not fit well with his public image.

            Cecil waits until his wife’s cellular phone stops ringing. Let the Don Juan who calls himself “Jack” leave another pathetic voicemail message for his “honey.” He has no desire to speak with the interloper. Conversation is not going to resolve anything here, and this evening he is all about resolution.

            He carries the phone to his home office computer. The city view from up here is truly spectacular. He had chosen the lot on the side of the mountain that overlooks downtown precisely because of how tiny the people and the automobiles appear. He likes to think that the gods on top of Mount Olympus had a similar view of mankind. Like the deities, he is largely isolated from the riffraff. Before the pandemic he drove to and from work everyday in his hermetically sealed Ferrari, attended to his largely rich and well connected patients, and played a few times each week with his equally rich and well connected mistress. He had been one of the “little people” once, but he had learned more recently how to limit his exposure to them as much as possible. In his mind, this aloofness gave him the perspective of a Great Man. It permitted him to jettison the moral code that keeps the “little people” in check and, as a result, to be a lot more clearheaded and decisive in advancing his own interests.

            Cecil delegates when possible. When he cannot, he is willing to act where the riffraff will hesitate. “Bold moves,” he likes to say. “Like TR at San Juan Hill.”

            Since the pandemic hit, his private investigator has been out of commission. He could have waited for the all clear to hire his gumshoe, but who knows how long until that happens? Moss does not grow under the feet of a successful man, so Cecil decided to act the first time he observed the stranger’s number on his wife’s cellular phone. He acted without hesitation, which for a normal man would be way too risky a move, but he is not a normal man. He owns a red Ferrari. He has met Charo and Pia Zadora in person. One of his golf buddies has promised to introduce him to Caroline Munro when this pandemic is done. If he plays his cards right, he will leave her with another autographed picture for his wall. He would not remain the Great Man he is now if he had not acted lightning fast and with boldness. That’s the truth, even if all those “little people” self-isolated in their apartments down there cannot even begin to understand, let alone to empathize with him.

            Cecil sits in front of his Mac. He first goes to iTunes, and clicks on Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville Overture.” He turns up the volume. He likes to be in a flood of music when he acts decisively. It is like the soundtrack for his great scene.

            One of Cecil’s golf buddies is a higher up in the police department. In return for a discount on a nose job, his friend had given him his password to the classified police people search website. He can find the names and addresses associated with unlisted cellular phone numbers. Once he gets the man’s name, he can search nearly all of the public (and not so public) records that have anything to do with him. Cecil does not do this often. It is work he usually delegates, but when he does he finds it a lot of fun. Sometimes, he wonders if he would have been happier as an investigator, but then he looks out his remarkable view and remembers what big money can buy.

Gumshoes have fun, but “beautiful nose and face specialists” clean house.

*   *   *

            Jack is sitting up on his bed. He stares at the muted television set before him. It is another news story about the Black Virus. There are images of scared people in their apartments, dying people on stretchers, first responders in their HAZMAT suits working around the clock, and black flies. The flies appear to be stock footage from a 1970s bug invasion movie like “The Swarm.” Jack half expects to observe a younger Michael Caine in protective goggles leading a team of scientists (including of course a pretty, busty blond in a khaki outfit) against a swarm of pre-CGI special effects. In the movies, the heroes always win at the last moment, though invariably there is the epilogue scene that suggests that the bugs, or spiders, or bees will be returning soon to a theater near you. If only this pandemic could play out like a Hollywood shocker.

            Real life is never that tidy. Too often the television screen shows a still, close up photograph of the villain in this whole affair. It is a picture of the black fly, which alone spreads to humans the appropriately named Black Virus. Flies are frightening in close up, which is why abnormally large, mutated flies have been movie monsters since the silent era. Given that everyone on earth now knows what carries the Black Virus, and keeps a flyswatter or a fly spray within reach, there is no reason to show constantly the black fly in close up except to shock the viewers. Even when the last pandemic wipes out every last television station but a lone wolf broadcaster in the middle of Nevada somewhere, that guy still will be broadcasting frightening images with creepy soundtracks just to keep up his ratings. People strangely are even more fascinated with dark death and destruction the closer they actually live to the edge.

            Jack switches off the television set. He is tired of the Black Virus, and he is in no mood for a Netflix movie. He cannot get his mind off of his love. Something must be wrong with Margaret. He cannot recall the last time she did not call him. Though their conversations tended to be marathon sessions, she would call even when she had no more than a few minutes available. She spoke in a hushed voice on a few of those shorter calls. Once, Jack asked her if she was at a concert hall. He recalled one of her girlfriends is a concert violinist, and he could hear loud classical music in the background. After a brief pause Margaret had answered yes, and then got off of the phone pretty fast. If she were going to call him even on those occasions, then surely she would have called him back today, unless something bad had happened to her.

            The worst part is that Jack cannot call anyone else. He has called every one of the city hospitals, but they are too overwhelmed to provide him information on who has been admitted. He realizes that for all their hours conversing with one another he knows very little about her. He does not know her address. He only knows some of her girlfriends by their first names. He does not know her age, her birthplace, or even her alma mater. Part of what he loves about her is that she talks about so much else but herself. So many people are too narcissistic to have any interest outside of their own memoirs in the making, but Margaret has well thought opinions and quite a bit of knowledge about the larger world around her. What she has to say not only tickles Jack’s heart, but also is downright interesting, which is a rare find nowadays.

            Jack knew that he knew little about this ravishing, redheaded woman, but he had presumed that the biography would become clearer over time. He did not press her, and until this evening he never thought he needed to know more.

            Jack looks out his bedroom window. The view is as dreary as before, except it is even darker now. If there is a moon up there in the sky, it is buried behind endless black clouds. There is a distant rumble that suggests that thunder and lightning may be gurgling through the sky swamp toward downtown. Unless there is rain, though, the muggy stench stew outside will remain as thick as it looks from up here. Even if there is a downpour Jack doubts that that will have any impact on the flies. They are resilient little buggers and appear to delight in the havoc that they are carrying from one scared person to another. Jack knows that that is his imagination working. Flies do not delight. They have no emotional response to what they do, and yet living this close to the edge inspires a primordial superstitious dread long thought suppressed. Jack and his fellow twenty-first century, high density packed, city dwellers are really not so far removed from their cavemen ancestors, as they like to think. A beast man lurks under the skin of everyone trembling from the death just outside his windows.

            As if he has summoned it with his thought, a solitary black fly buzzes outside his bedroom window. It is so silent otherwise he cannot miss the distinct sound. He walks away from his bed, and stands to within an inch of his window. He still cannot see it, for the night is so dark.

            A powerful spotlight switches on from somewhere. Jack is not sure why, but lately the city police have been shining spotlights on the skyscrapers intermittently throughout the night. The light beam moves through his apartment like the ghost of a burglar checking out what he would steal if only he could materialize into a living man. Every item is cast in bluish light for a moment, and then lost again to the thick blackness, as the beam moves steadily from one wall to the next. The windows glow all this time, and if there is anything close to them on the outside they will appear as black silhouettes against a blue haze.

            With the aid of the spotlight Jack thinks he sees a black fly sitting on the other side of his window. He presses his forehead against the glass. His eyes are as close to the fly as possible. The fly is no more than a dark speck illuminated temporarily by a moving light. He wonders if this is real, or his overactive imagination. If this black fly is real, is it the one that spread the virus to his love? Is she convulsing in agony, or is she already in an overcrowded, makeshift morgue somewhere, because of this same filthy speck sitting less than an inch away? He has no idea if she is sick or not, but his fear is starting to crystalize into a certainty that she is gone and that everything he is and has ever loved is about to be snatched away from him too. The Great Thief is not going to be a strong and powerful man, nor even an oppressive government, but just a dark speck that someday sneaks through a chip or a hole in his shield. He will learn soon that all the contrivances of modern life are nothing before a mindlessly buzzing spot of viral poison. How fragile are those glass towers man has built to the heavens!

            The spotlight passes as quickly as it came. If the black fly is still there (or ever had been there), it is consumed by the absolute darkness. There is nothing now, but the distant sound of thunder approaching and the fear gnawing away at Jack’s heart.

*   *   *

            Cecil stands in front of his dresser mirror. He has wrapped his favorite plaid bowtie around the inner collar of his white dress shirt, and he is about to tie it. Any bowtie connoisseur will tell you that a finished bow should be a bit off-kilter. If it is too symmetrical and tight, then it will look like one of those bourgeois clip-on bows properly meant for little boys. He is aware of the incongruity of using a steady hand to tie something slightly unsteady, but that is the artistry of a genius plastic surgeon. A mediocre surgeon cuts, tucks, and sews so perfectly that all of his patients appear like identical, tightly stretched, plastic people. They look like oldsters masquerading garishly as people half their age. The true artiste will leave behind just enough of an imperfection in the finished look that the patient appears younger but also real. This is not something that can be taught in medical school. The surgeon either has such a higher-level talent, or he does not. That is the mark of true nobility among surgeons.

            Cecil finishes his bowtie. It is slightly unsymmetrical. He puts on his Scottish plaid vest. Unlike the bowtie it should be pressed and fitted perfectly for his prettily toned physique. He presses his palms down the front of his vest. It is as perfect as he is, and he smiles at himself in the mirror.

            His smile lasts only a moment. He sees a slight imperfection on his red beard. It is an errant hair; another upstart that has strayed from the reservation. He grabs a hold of his clipping scissors without removing his eyes from his mirror. Otherwise, he will lose sight of that hair before he has a chance to cut it down to size. He snaps off the overgrowth. It falls listlessly to the dresser like dead things are prone to do.

            He checks his red hair. It is thinner than it used to be, but he believes that he has mastered the art of the comb over. He will avoid hair plugs, because he has seen how fake they look on his golf buddies. He has decided that elongating a comb over with gel is a superior option. Seeing how good his hair looks right now reminds him just how keen an eye he has for aesthetics.

            Cecil steps over to the closet. His HAZMAT suit and helmet are hanging there beside his $10,000.00 jackets. He hates the look of the damn thing. It reminds him of a spacesuit from a 1950s drive-in movie. Aesthetically, it is a loser. He got this suit in the mail a few days ago because as a doctor he may be called to emergency care duty in one of the city hospitals. When he first took it out of the package he called to see if they could send him something that looked better. They hung up on him, and he has been stuck with this since.

            The one advantage is that with the suit he has mobility. He can come and go as he wants, and if a roadblock officer stops him he can flash his hospital badge and continue on his way. This is important because a decisive man, a man of action, has the right to live his life without the restraints forced on everyone else.

            Still, he hates it every time he puts in on over his good clothes. It is a full body suit, which means it even covers up his Italian loafers. That is a crime.

            Suited up and ready for action, the Great Man carries his helmet back into his home office. Johann Strauss’ “Tales from the Vienna Woods” is being broadcast over his computer loudspeakers as loudly as possible. He stands still, closes his eyes, and allows that orchestral waltz to flow through him. It is pretty music meant for pretty men, and he likes to think of it as an important feature in his private life soundtrack.

            Opening his eyes, Cecil smiles, and strolls over to his desk. He sits down, and unlocks the top drawer with a key kept hidden under his desk mat. Inside is a velvet box, and inside the box is a Civil War Era scalpel with a wooden handle.

            Cecil removes the scalpel. He holds it up in the lamplight. Though an elegant slicer used to save lives, in the right man’s hand it can be an instrument of slow and torturous death. Either way, it takes care of problems, and this evening Cecil will be taking care of a problem frankly he should have handled a long time ago. No one will be able to stop him, and no one should try, for in difficult times especially the world needs decisive men to rise to the occasion.

*   *   *

            Jack awakens suddenly from a restless sleep. He is still clothed and on top of his bed. He thinks he had seen a light while opening his eyes, and he expects now to observe the spotlight gliding through his apartment.

            There is no spotlight, but within seconds there is a clash of thunder. It is a lot closer than earlier this evening.

            Jack looks over at his digital clock. It is almost 1:00 AM. He glances at his TV set. It is the same news footage as before. The clock face may click from one minute to the next, but time stands still on cable news. Until this pandemic is over one way or another, there will be only one time on the old boob tube: “Black Virus Footage.”

            Jack remembers switching off the TV set earlier. Why is it on again? He thinks a moment and then vaguely recalls turning it on in the hope (or fear) of finding news about his love. Perhaps, though countless people have been infected, the cable news channel will see fit to do a story on one person’s fate in particular. Perhaps, while he stares blankly at the screen he will see Margaret’s photograph appear there. She will have that blank, open-eyed look that you always see in the photograph of a “Missing Person.” The caption below will say that she has been found and is recovering safely at one of the local hospitals, or it will say something much darker. Even bad news is news, though, and Jack would have preferred that to knowing nothing.

            He does not recall seeing anything on the news about Margaret, and at some point he fell asleep while the muted images continued to flash into his bedroom like projected frames from a silent horror film. The horror film must have penetrated his sleep, for he recalls a multitude of angry black flies buzzing in and out of his dreams.

            Jack switches off the TV set. He would not be surprised if he turns it back on again in the middle of the night. For now, though, he just wants to lie still in the dark.

            There is another flash of lightning. This one is as intense as the spotlight, and for a split second he believes that is what it is. Unlike the spotlight, though, lightning does not glide slowly from one wall to the next. Rather, it flutters like a pair of eyes opening up from a deep sleep in the heavens. No wonder the ancients saw lightning and thunder as the antics of a sentient god looking down on them. It can be viewed as a mischievous god, but on nights like this one it is also very clearly contemptuous of the little people it beholds from on high. The gathering storm is toying with them all, and in the case of Jack Ross on the thirtieth floor it is teasing him that it knows a secret that it is not about to tell him.

            Jack remains still, but his mind returns to the torment of questions: How well does he really know Margaret Darling? He likes to think that he would come to know more about her life in time, but is that really true? How real is a relationship anyway when he does not even know basic biographical information about his partner? Was she purposely withholding facts from him, like she had something sinister to hide, or had she simply not come around yet to talking about herself? He likes to think that is because she is so much less narcissistic than most everyone else, but is that true? Or is that spin? Love is blind, because the person in love spins away inconvenient facts. Is that what he did? If so, then how much did he fall in love with her rather than with an idealized fantasy of a woman he hardly knew?

            Jack really cannot answer any of these questions. Or he can, but does not like the unsettling answers. Regardless, he decides that if and when he reunites with his love he will ask her to tell him everything. He will look straight into her eyes. He will be kind, but will also demand the truth. He cannot survive future nights like this one.

            The thunder grumbles like an upset stomach. It is not loud, but it is close, and much more menacing than if it had been a clash of pots and pans. The storm is here, but like the swamp sky it is hanging low and heavily over the dark skyscrapers. The black flies will swarm in and out of this black ink soup like winged demons. The flies will sweep down to infect the vulnerable, and sweep up the sad cries of the infected.

*   *   *

            Cecil stands behind the “Beautiful Woman” van. He can see that everything is tied down properly, so he closes the two back doors with a loud thump. He looks for a moment at the glistening Ferrari to his right. He would much prefer to conduct his personal business in style tonight, but the roadblock officers out there will not raise any eyebrows if they see a doctor in a HAZMAT suit and helmet driving in a medical van.  Many patient transportation vans have been requisitioned lately as makeshift ambulances, so why not his?

            Cecil walks down the left side of the garage to the driver’s side door. On both sides of the white van the words “Beautiful Woman” are painted in mauve. There is a set of “before” and “after” pictures beneath the words. He could not get any one of his celebrity patients to sign off on using their faces for his medical van, so he had to spend a lot of time finding a face from among his non-celebrity patients who looked vaguely like someone we all know. He thinks he picked the right face, as he gets a lot of compliments for his van. It has even been featured on a “lifestyle” segment on the nightly news, and his agent is confident she can get it to appear soon on “The View.”

            The ostensible purpose for this van is to drive back his patients after surgery, when they do not have a husband or a gigolo available to drive them home. His post-surgery care malpractice premiums went way down when he started to provide this service, but that is icing added to the cake for what is in truth a marketing gimmick.

            Cecil sits behind the wheel. He opens the garage door, and starts up the van. Once he closes the garage door behind him, air ducts will unleash poisonous sprays inside his garage. It is like something from a Sean Connery Era “James Bond,” but if any black flies buzz into his garage at that time they will be killed. The rich can take added measures to protect themselves from this pandemic, just like the lords of old could pull up their drawbridges. Cecil deserves that, because he has pulled himself up from poverty to the status of a Great Man. All the others down there are suckers.

*   *   *

            Cecil reaches downtown much quicker than anticipated. There had been only one manned roadblock, and the officer waved him through with only a cursory look.

            He pulls into the parking lot of the apartment building where his wife’s “Don Juan” lives. He still thinks of him as “Don Juan,” even though he knows his name, his apartment number, his reported income, where he went to college (No Name U, like so many other little people), and even his misdemeanor drug charge for smoking on a joint at a Lollapalooza concert years ago. He bets the pretty boy never told his wife about that one. Everyone has a skeleton hanging in his closet, which they try to hide. The privileged also have HAZMAT suits and helmets which give them the freedom to do what they are going to do without thinking about the rickety skeleton back home.

            He is careful to park close to the fire escape. He does not see anyone now, but you never know when a security guard in a HAZMAT suit may be making his rounds.

            The fire escape is locked from the outside, as he assumed it would be, and so he walks around to the front door. There he observes a young Latina with a nametag (“Hello. My name is Rosarita. I am here to help you.”) sitting alone and clearly bored at the front desk. She is not wearing a HAZMAT suit. Every time she buzzes someone in she may be buzzing in a black fly too. Surely, this proves that she is expendable, as even among the “little people” there is a ranking system maintained in subtle (and at times not so subtle) ways. Cecil does not care. None of that applies to him.

            Rosarita buzzes in the man in the HAZMAT suit. She barely glances up at him, when she asks: “Which floor?”

            “Thirtieth,” Cecil says.

            Rosarita walks over to the elevator. She swipes her fob over a scanner, which opens the doors. She presses “30” on the keypad, and returns to her desk before the elevator closes. Cecil thinks she does her limited duty well enough. He also admits to himself that she is kind of cute. He has not banged a girl from the ‘hood in awhile, so perhaps he will do so when he finishes with his personal business.

*   *   *

            Cecil stands in front of the apartment door. It is locked, as he had expected at this time of night, but that has never before deterred him. He removes a Swiss Army knife from his HAZMAT suit pocket, and inserts the sharp edge into the lock. It does not take long before the lock clicks. If Don Juan had dead bolted his door, then there would be a problem, but sky rise apartment dwellers like him have too much faith in the front desk security. They seldom dead bolt their doors, and that is the case here.

            Cecil pushes open the door. There is no noise. The hinges are well oiled, so at least maintenance is halfway competent in this place.

            It is pitch black inside. That means the TV set is off. Most likely, Don Juan is in bed, fast asleep, and dreaming about the last time he banged his wife. Cecil does not blame him for his late night fantasies. Even a dirt big wife stealer deserves one more good dream before the end.

*   *   *

            Jack awakens with a sense of alarm. He is still clothed and on top of his bed. It must have been a nightmare that scared him into stirring so suddenly. If so, then it is gone now, and all that is left of that fright is the fast beat of his heart inside his chest.

            Jack looks over at his digital clock. It is 3:00 AM.

            He sits up on his bed, just as lightning flutters through the windows. It blinks bluish light into his living room and adjoining bedroom. Everything that he observes is where it should be, though in that blue tinted light what he actually sees looks like a ghostly silhouette of his real possessions. 

            The lightning gives way to blackness. The stillness and the silence both are so thick as to be oppressive. He feels like a prisoner inside a sensory deprivation cell. It would be useless to scream, since any sound he made would be bounced back to him as an echo.

            Is that really true, though? Is he really alone? The hair rises on the back of his neck. His ears feel like they are opening up wider, if that is possible. It is like his ears are straining to hear what they have sensed already is approaching.

            The thunder grumbles outside. It is as close as it has been all night. All of the apartment windows rattle. Though it takes longer than normal, the grumbling does not cease so much as it slinks back into that unctuous cloud stew from which it had escaped. The result is an unsettling heaviness in the sky out there ready to explode.

            The seconds pass slowly, like each one is an eternity unto itself. The dread is unbearable, even if it remains inchoate and dreamlike. Jack’s mouth opens, because he is not taking in enough air through his nose.

            Lightning flashes again. It is much the same blue tinted light flutter, but this time it reveals a space age man in a bodysuit and helmet standing motionless in the living room. With each light flutter the man moves a pointed edge out from a pocket and closer to his own face. There is a moment of darkness between each flutter, and the result is a ghostlike image that looks like something in a film moving too slowly through a projector. The dread is palpable, but the image is too much like a monster emerging in and out of a nightmare. The intuitive mind knows what it is, and is now urging Jack to get away, but the conscious mind cannot really grasp that this is real.

            The space age man holds the sharp edge forward, like it is an extension of an accusatory finger pointed into the bedroom at Jack. There is a moment of hesitation, and then the space age man starts his slow and methodical steps towards his victim. All the while he never moves his sharp edge up or down.

            The lightning stops, but Jack can see the dark form of a man entering into his bedroom. Jack’s conscious mind has caught up with his intuition. He reaches fast for his lamp, but only manages to knock it off of his nightstand.

            Jack staggers off of his bed. He holds up his right arm defensively. He starts to scream, though because he is also hyperventilating the scream is more of a pressure in his throat than an actual sound.

            The space age man reaches into a pocket on his bodysuit with his free hand. While still holding up the sharp edge with his other hand, he removes a small bottle with a spray on top. He thrusts the bottle close to Jack’s face, and sprays really hard.

            The room starts to spin almost instantly. Jack stumbles back, while flailing his arms. He passes out, and slithers down the front side of the nightstand to the carpet.

*   *   *

            Cecil drags Jack out of the apartment. Cecil moves fast, because he figures he is being recorded on a video camera now that he is in the hallway. The good news is that with his HAZMAT suit and helmet he is going to be impossible to identify on the screen. Also, as long as he keeps the suit and helmet on, he is not leaving behind any fingerprints, hair samples, or even sweat. From the perspective of a CSI investigative team, he may as well be a space alien who does not leave behind any traceable DNA.

            Still, if that Rosarita chick happens to glance at the right video screen in time, she may see an unconscious man being dragged down the hall on the thirtieth floor. The sooner he gets him on that maintenance elevator the better, for as privileged as he is (and deserves to be) even he is going to have a hard time explaining this whole situation to a security guard or a police officer.

            Cecil pushes the button for the maintenance elevator. He cannot use the main elevator, since he knows already that it will take him straight down to the front desk and the bored señorita. He hopes that the maintenance elevator will take the two of them to the indoor garage. From there, he should be able to find the fire escape that leads to the outside parking lot.

            The maintenance elevator seems to take forever to get to him, but because no alarm has been set off he figures that the coast is clear still. When finally it opens, he drags his unconscious Don Juan inside, and leaves him on the elevator floor. Though he cannot say for sure, he suspects the camera inside this elevator cannot record the entire floor. So long as he keeps Don Juan down there, Rosarita most likely will only be able to view the man in the HAZMAT suit and helmet heading down to the garage.

            As expected, the maintenance elevator drops them off in the indoor garage. It is very dark and stuffy down there. It takes a while for Cecil to find a neon EXIT sign in the far corner. Cecil drags Jack across the oil stained concrete and out the door as fast as he can. The whole time Jack remains totally unresponsive, and Cecil wonders if perhaps he had knocked him out too well with his concoction. He desires to get his revenge on this Don Juan before the man expires from respiratory distress, and so if necessary Cecil will give the wife stealer CPR while exiting from the garage.

            That turns out to be unnecessary. Cecil hears Jack start to moan just when he arrives at the van. Cecil pulls out a stretcher, firmly straps Jack onto it, and pushes it back inside. He looks around for good measure before closing the doors. He believes that the coast is clear, and so he strolls casually to the driver’s side door.

*   *   *

            Cecil makes a sharp turn out of the parking lot, and speeds up the van. There are no operable intersection lights, but apart from the “Beautiful Woman” van there is no traffic to control either. The downtown streets are dark and wet, and except for a spotlight here and there spreading across the face of a skyscraper there is no light above. It is like driving into a black sludge broken up occasionally by the bump of an unfilled pothole.

            Given the limited visibility, an ordinary person would drive carefully, but the Great Man behind the wheel is not ordinary. Everything is happening as planned, at least thus far, and Cecil is allowing himself to relax a bit.

            Normally, when alone in the vehicle, he switches on classical music, but now he decides to play the song he plays when driving one of his female patients back to her place. The song always brings a smile to their bandaged faces, while they recline in comfort in the back of his van. Cecil grins, as he sees readily just how appropriate the song is now. He even starts to tap the beat on his steering wheel before it begins.

*   *   *

            Jack feels like he has suffered a concussion. He has never been so nauseous, and it takes every bit of energy just to open up his heavy eyes. He wishes at first he had not bothered, for there is nothing to view but a blinding fluorescent light above him. He wants to shut his eyes, but a voice in the back of his head tells him that if he does so he may never open them again. 

            He tries to move, but he discovers soon that he is strapped firmly to a bed of some sort. He hears a motor, and feels an occasional bump beneath him. He is in the back of a truck or a van.

            He remembers a space age man attacking him in his bedroom. He had a sharp edge, and he sprayed something onto his face. It was like a dark scene from a surreal David Lynch film. He wonders if he imagined the whole thing.

            Perhaps, he did. He had been so stressed he may have hallucinated the attack. Regardless, he surely lost consciousness and hit his head. If so, then he is likely right now in the back of an ambulance.

            That is as much as he can deduce with his rational mind at the moment. He is too sick to focus his thoughts much at all. That is part of the problem, but even more so his intuition is telling him that now is not the time to try to figure out what really happened or where he is. There is something much more urgent he must face before anything else.

            Jack strains to move his head to the right. A strap digs into his neck whenever he moves his head in any direction, but he feels drawn to see what is next to him. His whole body is crippled with pain and nausea anyway, so the added discomfort in the neck really does not mean much now.

            He sees a dead, white hand hanging over the edge of the stretcher beside him.

            Jack starts to hyperventilate. He does not need to see anymore. He recognizes at once whose hand that is. He looks back up at the fluorescent light, and the anguish building up from his heart explodes as a cascade of tears. He cannot scream. There is too much pressure in his sore throat to release sound, but the tears flow effortlessly.

            A happy-go-lucky reggae song starts to play through the speakers in the front and the back of the van. It is Toots and the Maytals’ “Beautiful Woman,” a party song from the early 1980s that is darkly ironic in the present circumstance.

Yeah, she’s such a beautiful woman

And she have so many ugly men

And when she go to the marketplace

She’d leave all characters at home, oh

            Straining against the strap over his arm, Jack reaches with his right hand. He is barely able to touch the dead fingers. They feel like brittle icicles that could break off with the slightest pressure, and they seem to have been washed thoroughly with a waxy cleaning solution. His love is more mannequin than human, but he grasps at what little remains of her. He tries to imagine her pretty smile and infectious laugh, as the reggae song bounces off of the sterile van walls; but the memories are fleeing from him as soon as they come. The song is crowding out his thoughts, and the iced cold fingers are turning less substantial to his soft touch with every passing second.

*   *   *

            Cecil sees a roadblock up ahead, and stops just in time. Unlike the previous one, the police officer here does not just wave him through the stop. Cecil turns off the music, and reaches into his glove compartment for his hospital ID. He holds up the ID card by his driver’s side window.

            The police officer shines a flashlight on the card. He studies it for a long time, and Cecil wonders if there is something wrong. For the first time this evening, Cecil starts to feel a bit anxious.

            The police officer gestures for another cop to take a look at the ID card. Cecil is now frantic, though outwardly he keeps his composure. Did the card expire? Is he not authorized for this part of the city? Worst of all, are they going to demand to see what is in the back of his van?

            The first officer indicates that he wants Cecil to open his window. Cecil does not want to do so. Even though he is in his HAZMAT suit and helmet, he really does not want one of those black flies buzzing around in his cabin. He knows better than to hesitate, though. Give the Gestapo any reason to be suspicious, and they will find an excuse to search everything in reach even including the inside of a man’s asshole.

            Cecil lowers his window. The first officer steps in closer, while his buddy is a few feet back shining his flashlight into Cecil’s face. Cecil pretends that he is not even slightly surprised or inconvenienced by the interrogation.

            “Who ordered you into the Sunset Park District?” The first officer asks.

            The Sunset Park is a subsection of downtown that surrounds the picturesque lake of the same name. City Hall, the Federal Building, the Courthouse, and tony law offices protect the lake from the riffraff packed in high-density units elsewhere. The authorities vacated this district as soon as the Black Virus hit the front page. For this reason, Cecil figured that Sunset Park is the most out of the way place for putting his plan into effect. He had not figured that the police would give him a harder time here than anywhere else, though.

            Cecil does not have the time to consider an alternative plan. He is very careful not to hesitate in responding to the intrusive officer.

            “St. Charles Hospital,” Cecil says. “They asked me to conduct a street by street search for anyone who may be alive still in there.”

            Of course, there is no such order, but Cecil figures that when the police phone St. Charles to verify his authorization it will take the overworked admin staff there a few hours to get back to them. By that time, Cecil will be back at home celebrating in his office with an uncorked bottle of champagne.

            The officer stares into Cecil’s eyes a moment. He wants to catch Cecil in a lie, but Cecil’s eyes do not give anything away. The officer steps back begrudgingly, and confers with his partner. The whole time his partner continues to shine his flashlight into Cecil’s face, and Cecil affably nods back at him.

            The first officer steps forward again. The look in his eyes is cold, like he does not want to say what he is about to say but has no choice.

            “You may conduct your search,” the first officer says.

            “Thank you, sir,” Cecil remarks, while forcibly holding back his displeasure at having to call this glorified “meter maid” a “sir.”

            “But you need to be out of there by 6:00,” the first officer continues. “We are spraying the district this morning.”

            Cecil had heard through the grapevine that the military would be unleashing soon an experimental spray on the black flies. It is his bad luck that this is occurring in a few hours where he had intended to resolve his problem. He decides to change his attack plan to accommodate this.

            “Understood,” Cecil says with a smile.

            The first officer gestures for an unseen third officer to raise the gate. As that is happening, the first officer sprays poison into the cabin of the van just in case one of those black flies buzzed in there.

            “Appreciate that,” Cecil says with a nod.

            Cecil closes his window, and drives through the roadblock.

*   *   *

            Cecil turns into the parking lot. He passes by a sign that states: “Sunset Lake. Love Nature and She’ll Love Ya Back.”

            Cecil parks the “Beautiful Woman” van in a space next to the windy trail that descends to the lake. It is a steep slope of waist high grass that shimmies in morning breezes. Normally, the low hanging moon at this time casts an eerie glow across the face of this grassy hill, but there is no moon today. There is instead the dark soup of clouds that occasionally flashes bluish lightning everywhere. When the thunderous drum gurgle invariably follows, the sky seems to fall closer to the damp, windswept earth; and the few souls outside of their gopher holes feel that much more besieged.

            For all of his appreciation of beauty, Cecil does not care about this small slice of swamp ecology on the side of Sunset Lake except that the foliage provides a good cover for his plan. He has resolved past problems at this same location several times already. The black hours before sunrise and the waist high grass are natural covers, but it also helps that the jogging trail does not extend to this portion of the lake. The lamppost at the top of the hill that had been installed by the WPA has not worked in so many years even the park ranger has forgotten it is there. Cecil suspects he is not the first Great Man to take care of his personal business at the spot, and given that it is a stone’s throw from City Hall he doubts he will be the last.

            Cecil opens the doors, and steps into the back of the van. He sees that Jack is holding Margaret’s hand.

            “How touching,” Cecil remarks.

            Jack looks up at the space age man and squirms in his straps. His face is a red, grotesque mask of fear, sorrow, and tears. He voices a low, guttural moan that is not able to be fashioned into words, but the message is clear enough: Go away! Go away! For the sake of God, just get the hell away from me!

            Cecil has no patience for Jack’s gibberish. He sprays Jack in the face, and Jack is unconscious within seconds. This time, Cecil uses less spray. He does not want his Don Juan to miss out on his own horrible death.

*   *   *

            Cecil carries Margaret’s corpse down the windy trail. He can never get over how heavy corpses are. They are literally dead weights. Thankfully, he has kept up with his daily fitness routine.

            There is a small patch by the side of the lake that is especially secluded. The ground is little more than swamp mud slithering in and out of the lake. Cecil knows firsthand that whenever he leaves anything edible there it is bitten to the bone fast. Even more pervasive than the mosquitos and the worms are the flies. Entomologists have identified dozens of flies that frequent that spot, but in this flying smorgasbord of filth and disease only the black ones matter.

            Cecil places Margaret’s corpse on the small patch. Her white cocktail dress is already speckled with mites picked up from the tall grass. Within seconds, flies buzz out from everywhere and land on her snow white face and mud caked hair. It is too dark for Cecil to see any of this, but he can hear the flies buzzing toward their prey.

            “Bonne nuit mon amour,” Cecil says to Margaret’s corpse with a slight wave.

            Before ten seconds have passed Cecil is done paying his last respects. He has more work to do, and less time to do it.

*   *   *

            Cecil carries the unconscious Don Juan down the trail. As physically fit as he is he is tired of lugging around his wife’s boy toy. If he ever again has to dispatch an upstart dirt bag, he will hire someone from the ‘hood to do the heavy lifting.

            He places Don Juan beside Margaret’s corpse. He thinks a moment, and then adds the personal touch of putting Don Juan’s right hand on her left one. Let the two of them hold hands into eternity. Really, they deserve one another.

            Lightning streaks above them, and thunder rumbles across the sky a second or two thereafter. The storm seems to have converged from all ends to a point over them. Cecil is not normally a superstitious man, but even he notices how this seems like a dramatic scene from a Cecil B. DeMille epic. He sets aside that thought as fast as he entertains it. The Great Man after all cannot be as irrational as a caveman first trying to make sense of electricity in the heavens.

*   *   *

            Jack started to awaken when he was being carried down the trail, but he had enough wits about him to keep his eyes shut. He could hear flies buzzing all around him, as the top of his head brushed against the wet grass.

            When the space age man dumped him into the swamp mud, he again almost opened his eyes. He has never experienced a smell so powerful and bad. He wanted to roll over to the side and to vomit up his guts. He also wanted to swat the millions of critters that seemed to appear all over him instantly. This time, his rational mind controlled his intuition, and his reason told him that he would have just one shot at opening his eyes and knocking back his tormentor. He had better not waste it, even if the smell and the critters overwhelm him to the point of near madness.

*   *   *

            There is a break in the cloud cover, and the first indications of sunrise start to penetrate the overhead swamp. The intense blackness recedes at once. In its place is a reddish glow that rips the visible world out from the cover of night. Instead of dark forms illuminated briefly by lightning strikes, there is fluttering grass, clumpy banks of rock and mud, and algae encrusted lake water. There are two human forms on the ground, one clearly dead, the other one dying, and both sinking into an unctuous pit. Most of all, there are bugs, spiders, worms, and of course flies. The flies are a mass of buzzing black specks that collect on everything with a kind of ravenous delight, and the two human forms increasingly look more like mounds of flies than actual people.

            Cecil has to swat away the flies constantly in order to see anything. He would be consumed too but for his HAZMAT suit and helmet. He knows that he could leave Don Juan now, and let the flies finish him off, but he has to add insult to injury. Cecil is pursuing more than revenge. He is asserting his dignity. He is demanding back an honor that his wife and this wife stealer had tried to steal from him. He lives high on the mountain, but he knows that he needs to do unspeakable deeds in the muck now and then in order to stay up there. That is the blood price that men pay to be able to look down on beasts.

            Cecil takes the scalpel from his pocket. With a devilish grin, he steps forward, and straddles Don Juan’s upper thighs. He squats down, and places the sharp edge of the scalpel on Don Juan’s upper throat.

            “In my professional opinion, you need a neck job,” Cecil teases. “Don’t worry. I’ll invoice your estate after the flies are done with you.”

            Cecil begins to slice open Don Juan’s neck. Blood squirts out, and the flies go wild with blood lust.

*   *   *

            Jack opens his eyes wide. Because the space age man’s mask is now so near to his own face, he can see the man’s eyes. There is blank madness in those eyes, and in that moment Jack sees in them a beast consumed by a vicious dream.

            Jack feels the physical pain of the open wound in his upper throat. Even more so, he is repulsed by that beast man burrowing into him. Jack’s hyperventilating fear transitions at once into red-hot anger.

            The space age man’s eyes look startled suddenly, and he hesitates a moment in continuing to slice open Jack’s throat. Apparently, the space age man just intuited Jack’s madness, and he had not expected that from the lamb he is about to slaughter.

            Jack kicks up his right leg. He smashes his knee hard into the man’s crotch.

            The space age man drops the blood-splattered scalpel, and slams down on his right knee. He is in pain, but even more so he is surprised.

            Jack grabs the scalpel off his chest, and stabs the man’s left thigh through his bodysuit. He slices down until he hits the knee.

            The space age man screams in agony, and falls back. He grabs instinctively at his thigh. Flies swarm into the rip in his bodysuit.

*   *   *

            Cecil scoots back like he is trying to get away from a fire. In fact, the burn is in his left leg. It is the red-hot sensation of an open wound being attacked by thousands of buzzing flies all at once.

            Worse, the fire feels like it is spreading up his leg and over his torso. Though his eyes are moving every which way, in his delirium he manages to see the growing bulge in his bodysuit. Flies are swarming up the inside of his bodysuit. The blood on his leg is the first course, and they are moving up his flesh to feast off of the anxious sweat spread across his dapper clothes.

            Cecil hobbles on his right knee toward the lake. There are even more flies on the algae there, but instinctively he wants to submerge himself in water to get away from the fire. He stops by the lakeside, and grabs at his own mask, as the flies reach his face. The flies poke furiously into his nose and his eyes, while he shuts his mouth tight in an attempt to keep what he perceives as fire from burrowing into his throat.

            Cecil’s bearded face is buried beneath the swarm. Unable to sense anything at all but hellish, flesh burning fire, Cecil stumbles into the lake.

            Cecil sinks beneath the algae. He looks like he is being consumed by a fibrous, green goo. Flies from elsewhere swarm over to that part of the lake, and collectively they form a shroud over his demise.

*   *   *

            Jack sits up on his elbows. Through the swarm he just manages to see gloved fingers sinking beneath the algae. The flies have covered every inch of those fingers, and so they look like vibrating, black tentacles grasping anxiously at the fly infested air just above the water surface.

            Jack turns toward Margaret’s corpse. She is sinking fast into the swamp, and with the flies, worms, and mites everywhere he barely can see what remains of her face. Her eyes are wide open, but they are so stuffed with flies that he cannot make out even a hint of the beautiful way she used to look at him. Her red hair is gone. In its place are black, snakelike strands pulling her forehead back into the stench. Most disturbingly is the blood smeared hole where her nose used to be. It appears that at the end she endured an excruciating nose job.

            Jack is revolted by the mutilation. He feels the blood sliding down the front of his throat, and he determines to get away before the ravenous flies can finish him off too. He manages to sit up on his knees, but when he tries to stand he realizes that he is far too weak. He sees the trail leading up to the parking lot, and commences a slow and laborious crawl in that direction.

            Midway up the hill, Jack hears what sounds like an air raid siren from one of those old war movies. He has no idea what that means, except that it means trouble. He tries to quicken his pace, though he is already grasping at the grass and the mud before him with all the energy he has left.

            Up on the parking lot, Jack sees the “Beautiful Woman” van. The back doors are wide open, and the space there is full of buzzing flies. That is not going to work as a shelter for him. He crawls around to the driver’s side door. It is locked, and he presumes the key is at the bottom of the lake with the space age man.

            So he continues on all fours towards the road. He can feel the blood flowing faster out of his wound. He is nauseous, and suspects that if he were to look up the world would be spinning. He has heard nothing but the buzz of flies for some time, but with consciousness seeping out from his flesh and bone the sound is becoming more distant and unreal. In his lightheaded delirium, he imagines that this is all an ugly dream. He will awaken beside his love, and with her inexhaustible humor and pretty smile she will help him to recognize that this has been just another long and anxious night under quarantine. Except that now they are in isolation together, and the Black Virus contagion beyond their windows can no longer threaten their love.

            Jack collapses along the side of the road. He loses consciousness. He is about to die when a police car stops beside him.

*   *   *

            Jack is alive because someone at St. Charles Hospital responded sooner than expected to the inquiry from the roadblock officer. When the hospital administrator said that no one had authorized Dr. Cecil Darling to look for survivors in the Sunset Park District, the police combed the area to apprehend him. One of them found Jack on the side of the road just before the second air raid siren. He got Jack out of there before the military helicopters unleashed the experimental spray.

            Jack does not remember much about the weeks that followed. He caught the Black Virus, and he remained in the ICU on the precipice of death most of that time. Because of the quarantine no one from his family could visit him, but his love came daily into his dreams and once or twice as a hallucination. Was that her real ghost, or was that an expression of his deep longing for the love and companionship that he had just started to experience with her? Is there really a difference? In the end, ghosts are for the living, and so are memories. Whatever the medium we keep the dead with us, and when the darkness seems unbearable we learn to find solace in a look, or a joke, or an infectious laugh that brings the one we really loved back to us.

*   *   *

            The experimental spray that the military unleashed over Sunset Park turned out to be a bigger success than first realized. They had intended to render the black fly infertile, and when the black fly population in the area increased in the next few weeks everyone assumed that the spray had been a dud. Eventually, entomologists learned that the spray mutated the offspring, and epidemiologists finally concluded that the mutated black flies could not transmit the virus to humans. Military units in countries around the world have been spraying black fly concentrations with all the intensity of aerial bombardments in a world war. Sometimes, they first remove the human population from a targeted area. Sometimes, they do not bother. Regardless, most everyone is on board with the great campaign, and the anti-GMO activists who continue to oppose these “freedom sprays” have been very effectively marginalized.

            Dr. Cecil Darling knows all about this, because after much wrangling with the prosecution and the judge his lawyer was able to get a TV set inside his padded cell. It is hardly a victory. The TV set is too small, and the color is bad, but Cecil has come to realize that getting a television puts him on a higher level than those schmucks in the other cells who have nothing with which to occupy their time. The guards do not give him the dignity he deserves, and the psychiatrist who interviews him two times each week is a lowly creature. He likely went to a public university. At least when he plays his TV set as loud as possible the other patients on his ward are reminded that he has something they do not.

            When he is not watching television, he thinks about what went wrong. He has no doubt Napoleon entertained much the same thoughts when exiled on Elba. In the end, every Great Man has to face his demons alone, for the “little people” do not have it in them to be able to share in his struggle. The loneliness of the Great Man at these times is part of what gives him a legendary pathos. As Cecil has asked himself quite a few times: What would Hitler have become if he had not had his time in prison? How would we remember Napoleon if he had not come back from exile?

            Cecil had devised the perfect cover story: An unknown person impersonating him had stolen his HAZMAT suit and helmet, his ID card, and his “Beautiful Woman” van. He had killed his wife and her lover. Perhaps, his wife had spurned him for Don Juan, and he had acted out of jealousy. We shall never know, for the murderer is long gone, and the dead tell no tales. Of course, in order for the cover story to work, Cecil would have had to ditch his “Beautiful Woman” van; since it is not likely the mystery murderer would have returned it to Cecil’s garage. That would not have been much of a loss, though, for Cecil had intended to get himself a new van anyway. Leaving no DNA evidence anywhere Cecil could never be prosecuted no matter if the police did not really believe his cover story. The Great Man is always two steps ahead of police investigators, so it really does not matter what those bureaucrats with badges think.

            He never expected Don Juan to throw a sucker punch, though. Stabbing him in the thigh with his scalpel? Talk about below the belt! Don Juan did not fight back fairly. If Cecil miscalculated, then it was in not realizing just how low “little people” can go. He knows he will never make that mistake again, once he manages to leave this bureaucratic hell in which he currently finds himself.

            He nearly died in that infected lake. It is only because of his great athleticism and mind that he managed to remove the helmet and swim back to shore. He tried to limp back to his van, but the police found him before he could escape. They took him to a hospital where he suffered for many weeks from the Black Virus. He spent all of his time in the ICU going over in his head what went wrong. He learned to love being the center of so much attention while at the hospital. In a way, he wishes he could be there still, even though he feels better, for hospital nurses really know how to serve.

            Cecil switches off the TV set. He is tired of the news. What does he care about those damned “freedom sprays,” especially now that he is immune to the virus? The immune people deserve television programming that matters to them.

            Cecil walks over to his small window. It looks out over the prison yard. When the judge finally agrees that he is “insane,” he will be sent to an asylum. He presumes the view will be better there.

            A black fly lands on the opposite side of the window. Cecil watches the fly up close, until it flies away. For a moment it is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen.  

Published by Michael Sean Erickson

I write, act, and produce films in Los Angeles. Everything else is conjecture.

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