Tall Man in the Hat
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by William W. Koonce
Description: Daniel has been trained by the Roman Church to rescue those who have sold their souls to the Prince of Darkness. God often intervenes and offers a final opportunity for repentance as long as it happens before the man in the tall hat arrives for his payment. After forty years of service as a Redeemer, Daniel is called upon for one last assignment. He survives attempts on his life, joins up with a team of physicists at a Top Secret lab, and becomes part of an experiment where three people are transported into the depths of Hell to stop the conquest of earth by demonic forces. If you believe that God and the Devil struggle over every human soul; if you believe in the possibility that Heaven and Hell are real; or even if you believe that all of us can use a second chance this is the book for you.
eBook Publisher: Double Dragon Publishing/Double Dragon eBooks, 2004 DDP
eBookwise Release Date: July 2004
16 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [488 KB]
Reading time: 382-534 min.
In Los Angeles a thick warm brume embraced the city's inhabitants like an unwanted lover, its suffocating advances objectionable and despised. Fierce and condemning the sweltering heat showed no prejudice, no bias, only devilish contempt as it burned like the fires of hell; not a few cases of heat stroke sending many to meet their maker, forcing others to jostle for scant sidewalk shadows like race horses do the inside rail of the Kentucky Derby. Only the city's dead were ignorant of the suffering, but even their graves were brown and flowerless.
To the west, in Marina Del Rey, a few blocks from trendy Abbott Kinney Blvd, a mansion looking north with Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains in the distance, stood alone against the heat. The twenty-three-acre estate was in disarray-its groundskeepers fired-two riding lawnmowers abandoned on a trail of cut lawn that stopped like an unfinished highway, as if road crews had left their equipment at a dead end. Other lawn tools (rakes, hoes, trimmers) had been abandoned as if those wielding them had melted under the blistering sun, wisped up and away by hot vapors. There were other oddities: the outdoor pool had been drained and capped; and despite the heat wave, the Jacuzzi was as dry as the day its fiberglass shell was laid. Security lights as big and luminescent as searchlights on a helicopter were placed about the perimeter. It was as if the house was packed up, shutdown, and discontinued like an out-of-season hotel.
Certain structural modifications had been made to the house, as exhibited by a front-loading commercial dumpster sitting on the mansion's six-car garage driveway. Inside the dumpster, two-by-fours of odd sizes stacked haphazardly like strands of broken fettuccine and discarded pieces of metal furring twisted and coiled, the longer pieces having sharp edges that peered over the dumpster like curious snakes. Within the house safer plastic knives, spoons, and forks replaced metal eating utensils. Every unused electrical outlet had protective inserts. All medications had been removed a week ago, not even an aspirin could be found. There would be no overdose, accident or not. Industrial fire extinguishers--checked daily for a full charge--were located on each floor. Still, twice within the past week, the Los Angeles Fire Department had been called--resulting in two false alarms--because the mansion's owner thought he had detected the scent of smoke.
On the third floor, in a room suited to be called an enclosed bunker, a desperate man coward like a frightened child behind newly installed three-inch metal walls. Despite the best efforts of an oscillating fan turbulently whirling in one corner of the room, he profusely sweated. The man had no idea what the weather was like outside, for the unbearable external heat was masked by the mansion's two central air conditioners that had pumped furiously for several days. No. The apprehensive man had no idea what was going on in the world, not since he'd locked himself in his man-made steel enclosure several days ago.
A strangled gasp escaped his trembling lips as he watched a wall clock tick silently away. The time was 6:30 PM. He shook his head in despair. I'm dead, he admitted. As if hypnotized, he stood underneath the wall clock and stared. Below average height, he strained his neck, and caught his breath when 6:30 became 6:31.
Hopelessness filled his countenance with absolute resignation. For the umpteenth time he wiped nervous sweat from his eyes. Despite the oscillating ceiling fan he could feel the fires of hell drawing close, licking his body like hungry tongues anticipating a scheduled meal. A meal, he mused bitterly, that's what I am.
His mental equilibrium was shot. It had been that way for weeks. He teetered on the edge of madness and would have welcomed the disabling consequence of insanity. But things were all too clear--he understood exactly what his future held. The hangman's noose has a way of bringing clarity of thought to the most bizarre of situations.
Shivering with fear he surrendered to the hopelessness of his condition. He stood transfixed under the clock and watched another minute expire, never to return, gone forever, forgotten and pointless when all a man has left is impending doom. Nothing more. Just doom.
His eyes blinked involuntarily with each passing minute, as if each sixty-second transition of time was accompanied by a gun's loud report. What have I done ? Then he answered his own question, a condemning grin in his mind. You sold your soul, you idiot.
Dear God! How he regretted his fateful meeting with the tall man in the hat.
Twenty years had transpired since that cursed meeting when he made that contract with evil. At the time it seemed like a good idea: the fame, drugs, women--all of it, all of everything. What a wild adventure it had been. But things change with time. And now it was time to pay up, and no power on earth would negate that fact. A rueful expression changed to a forlorn one, godforsaken and hopeless. The contract for his soul was firm, clear...final. Was it worth it? He didn't need to answer; his shaking bones confirmed what he already knew.
He jerked uncontrollably as another minute disappeared, watched the remnants of his life wind down like a worn-out spring of an antique watch. And that had been it from the start: just winding down. Twenty years of fame and fortune coming to an end.
He stared at the clock. Each second seemed to transpire faster than the previous one. There was no escape from the tall man in the hat. It dawned on him that the analog clock would keep running long after he was dead. He had bought it at the beginning of the year; its' shape--a brass techno head--was never a determining factor for purchase. He purchased it because of its synchronization with atomic clocks used by Global Positioning Systems. The clock was never wrong.
He truly hated that clock, but he stared anyway, watching another minute expire. His oval face sagged, fleshy jowls dangling from despondency. His nose, the shape of a Western Meadowlark's bill wrinkled at its bridge as if smelling the stench of his impending doom. His walnut shaped eyes hid under bushy, unkempt eyebrows that supported a furrowed brow. Gray speckled stubble covered his face. It had been several days since the sharp edge of a razor had touched his neck. Since the psychological feeling of despair was more real to him than the olfactory property of bad hygiene, a bodily odor hung thickly about him--shower floors were ominous, wet and slippery and best not used.
Another minute ticked off. He shuddered again. His entire body shook to the core.
There was not, unfortunately, much he could do. Tragically, others would follow in his place, lines of eager men--men darker than he--jostling for position like hyenas at another's kill, each wanting more in exchange for their soul; all eventually finding themselves in the same dilemma. Yes. Everyone had his time under cover of night, and with the rising of the sun all would inevitably pay in full, just as he was about to do.
The man blinked as if coming out of a trance, and gazed about the room through thick glasses that couldn't hide the dark circles under his eyes. Lines of regret compressed on a high forehead as he surveyed the walls that had become his prison. Platinum covered plaques hung everywhere, each one indicating another multimillion selling rock 'n' roll hit. Numerous pictures signed by influential and powerful people in the recording business hung as reminders that his singing career was long and successful. And now it was time to pay up.
One soul for a glorious singing career; wasn't that the deal? The answer burned panic into his hazel eyes. An involuntary shrill of fear ran up his spine and caused him to shudder again. His eyes darted back and forth, searching for a way to escape, but he was imprisoned--a frightened man finding solace in an artificial womb of decorative wall panels over hardened steel.
Stark naked, he crossed the room. He wanted nothing on his person, not a single thread of stitching that might catch fire, nothing that might hide a poisonous snake or a deadly spider. He even forsook his hairpiece. The same hairpiece his fans always saw him with. Long and full it lay like road kill on the room's huge mahogany desk. He moved behind that desk. As he sat, his stick-white legs seemed to buckle under the pronounced weight of his short frame. Through the years he had become fat, but not obese; liposuction and tummy staples had ensured that.
Fearfully, he glanced back at the clock, hoping another minute hadn't yet expired. He wished he hadn't looked. Disappointment metamorphosed into desperation. Like a bed-bound invalid on life support he was close to taking his last breath. His life was over; he could never escape--he had a bargain to keep. But the intrinsic nature of self-preservation had its own inertia, providing him with the will to try. So try he did.
His shaking hand reached across the desk to manipulate an intercom system. He toggled the switch for the guard at the front door of the house. Leaning close to the microphone he spoke with the dullness of someone who has repeated the same name over and over.
"Preston." He waited for a moment, and then leaned closer. "Preston?"
After a few anxious moments a voice finally came over the speaker. "I'm here."
Preston's voice sounded bored over the expensive two-way radio he grasped in one hand, the other hand expertly manipulating a switchblade. With that knife he notched another mark representing another call from his employer--fifteen in the last three hours--on the front door frame of the mansion. Preston was a lean, ropy man. Only twenty-three years of age his sleepy eyes--hidden under dark eyebrows and a bushy tuft of long, dark hair--had, in his adolescent years, attracted young girls. That attraction abated after drifting from job to job.
"Anything...have you seen anything?" the mansion's owner asked, nervousness in his voice. Preston used the knife's blade to pick out a piece of evening dinner from his teeth. "Preston!"
Preston's cheeks bubbled and then exhaled. "Paranoid moron," he remarked, to no one. His eyes rolled as he brought the two-way to his mouth and pressed the transmit button.
"Nothing...sir." His tongue scooted across molars, finding food fragments and spitting them out. "Everything is clear."
The terrified man toggled a switch connected to a different guard stationed at the back of the house. "Simpson," he said, fearful expectancy inching into his tone.
Simpson was a new hire with a new family. He had that terrified look of a young man realizing the responsibilities of family and life. Just out of high school, he had recently regretted not applying himself to studying. Instead, he had wasted his time trying to be the next Michael Jordan. Skipping classes to play basketball kept him in the dark regarding his ability until after graduation. He responded quickly.
"All clear, sir. Excuse me, but I've got to use the restroom."
"You've seen no one?"
"No one, sir. May I..."
The man toggled a third switch. "Jenkins."
In the hall outside the triple-bolted three-inch steel door that was the only entrance to this man-made prison, another guard responded. This security man was the largest of the three guards. Broad in the shoulders and thick in the neck, he looked like a comic book hero with indestructible muscles. The guard's resume stated he held a black belt in karate. His employer didn't mind that the man did time for assault and battery, as well.
"Yeah?" The guard had a deep voice that rumbled slowly, a confident voice.
"Stay on your toes, Jenkins." The anxious man glanced at the clock. "He'll be here any minute."
Jenkins leaned against the door leading to the room-fortress. He looked at his watch; relief was thirty minutes late. From his shirt pocket he unraveled another stick of gum; boredom itched across his face.
Inside the steel-enclosed room the mansion's owner leaned back into a soft, high-back leather chair. As much as he tried, he couldn't keep his eyes from that cursed clock. The time was 6:40. He's coming to take my soul. He's coming to take my soul . The fatty part of sweaty hands slapped against his temples.
"Stop thinking that!" he said forcibly.
He wiggled his back; tried to get comfortable. The skin on his sweaty backside clung to the chair's leather. He sat up, and felt his back peel off the chair's surface. He leaned his elbows on the desk and clinched his hands together. Itchy sweat trickled between his shoulder blades, and then down his spine like long caterpillars, trailing to his exposed crack and pooling on the chair's seat.
"Dear God, I don't want to die," he said softly, desperately.
Teary eyed, he scanned the room, resting momentarily on each picture within his view. Most showed toothy smiles and warm handshakes. Bucky, Love you baby , or Best wishes to you, Bucky was written on them. There were no pictures of family. And rightfully so, for this scared and hopeless man, Brian 'Bucky' Trends, had no family. After all, he had left his pregnant girlfriend to pursue his music career. At times, when he was terribly drunk, he would talk to anyone who might listen about the girl he lost and kid he never knew; the only truly important people ever to come into his life. And then, just before the liquor would cause him to pass out, he would babble about some stranger--a tall man in a hat--who took it all away.
Absentmindedly, Bucky withdrew a cigarette from his desk drawer and struck a match with his shaking hand. Instantly, a horrified expression exploded on his face, as if he had witnessed a fatal accident. He stared at the small flame as though it were the first time he had ever seen fire. Hastily, he blew on the match--much harder than needed--and spat on it to make sure it was doused; only then laid it carefully in the middle of a clean ashtray. He made sure the cigarette was unlit--not even warm--before tossing it into the trash. There would be no accidental fires tonight. He would make sure that his body wasn't found charred like a used briquette. Yes. This is what his world had come to; this singular prison, this silent room--a personal hell--that spoke all there was of his life, and even now mocked at his striking a match. He stared at the trashcan a moment longer, then turned away, confident the cigarette wouldn't mysteriously ignite.
He wrung his hands as he stared about, his eyes resting on a hanging picture depicting the early years with his band Breaking Edge. All the members were in the picture. Chance Franks played drums, Billy Cradle on bass, and Bucky on electric guitar. It had been a few years since the band had played live. Even private sessions with friends had stopped as each member of the band began their preparations to 'pay up'.
Bucky closed his eyes; his head sagged onto supportive palms. Chance and Billy had already paid: one with an accidental overdose and the other burning himself to death with a cigarette while asleep in bed. The funny thing: Chance stopped taking anything stronger than a vitamin many years ago. Ironically, despite the band's wild ways, Billy had never smoked a cigarette in his life. Bucky could have accepted a burning joint, but not a cigarette. Bucky fretted in despair. Now, it's my turn to pay.
"If I could only turn back the clock," he murmured miserably between cupped hands. "Somehow change what I have done." Reflection crept into his voice quivering with repentance. "It...just...wasn't...worth it."
He spoke in a cadence that reflected knowledge garnered too late. He understood that now. Long ago, he had stopped finding solace in what he had gained after selling his soul to the Prince of Darkness. The pleasures of flesh, the veracities of youth, paled at a time when a man began to understand what was important in life: love, family, obligation. Yes, ultimate realization dictated that thirteen number-one pop hits could never make up for a lost soul and wasted life. He stretched over the desk and activated the intercom again.
"Preston." Silence. "Preston, answer me." Nothing. Straining his voice. "Preston!" Bucky bit his lower lip, and flipped the second switch. "Simpson?"
Bucky exhaled. "Is Preston there...with you?"
Bucky's hand went up to wipe the nervous sweat from his face. "Circle the house and tell that bum to wake up! I pay your company too much money to have you sleeping on the job." Satisfied that Preston was off somewhere taking a piss, Bucky shook his head...yeah, that's it...taking a piss.
"But, sir. That means I have to leave my post."
The anger in Bucky's voice barely masked the shrill of fear rising in his throat, threatening to stifle all speech. He forced himself to shout, hoping to chase away the demons that haunted him. "No kidding, Einstein!" He leaned toward the intercom. "Now, go and check before I have you fired!" Bucky's eyes unraveled a plan. "Simpson! Simpson!" he shouted into the microphone. "Leave the line open. I want to hear what's going on."
Simpson clicked the hold-open button on the two-way as he briskly rounded the corner to the front of the house. Bucky listened to gravel steps as Simpson walked on landscaping that surrounded the brick-facing portion of the twelve-bedroom home. He heard Simpson lose his breath; heard Simpson scream in horror. The handheld fell to the ground and with it, silence. Bucky froze in his chair. Everything was quiet. Not even static.
Bucky's jaw began to tremble as if the silence were a monster. Then, a voice he couldn't forget--from twenty years ago--was using Simpson's two-way.
"Hello, Bucky. How you doing old friend? Told you I'd be back. My, my, how time flies when you're banging and hanging." Bucky stared wide-eyed and slacked-jawed at the intercom. The static of the two-way radio clicked several times. "You there, Bucky? Don't be rude. Aren't you going to invite me--"
Bucky nearly jumped over the desk, hands flapping at the intercom switches until all registered off. He flopped into his chair and scooted back against the wall, far from the intercom's speakers, pushing so hard on the chair that its front wheels tilted up.
Then, from the intercom, "Bucky. You're being a rude little--"
Bucky shot off his chair, reached for the intercom's cable, and violently disconnected the link from the wall. He tossed the intercom on the floor and reached into his desk to withdraw a revolver. He ran to a corner of the room next to a full-size poster of himself that thousands of fans used to pay money to buy, nearly burying himself in the corner's shadow, the revolver shaking in his sweating hands.
From the disconnected intercom laying on the floor, "Okay, Bucky. I'm coming...for you."
For a few moments Bucky was unable to move. Eventually, he stood, and slowly--each step a great effort--approached the intercom, picked it up, and plugged its cable back into the wall. He toggled the switch for Jenkins' two-way radio, afraid that no one would answer.
"Is anyone...," he asked like a scared child, "...there?"
Out in the hall Jenkins' big hands fumbled in his pants for the two-way radio. "Yes."
"Oh, thank God...Jenkins...he's," Bucky stumbled on his dry mouth, then weakly, "here."
Jenkins' frowned. "That's impossible. Simpson and Preston would have checked in."
Bucky became hysterical, screaming like an inmate on death row running from the inevitable, incapable of swallowing the rising panic filling his throat. Jenkins told him to calm down and repeat himself. It took all of Bucky's will to oblige.
"They're dead! Both of them...he...he's coming to take my soul!" His voice became shrill again. "Judas priest! Stop him! You have to stop him for cris'sake!"
Bucky dropped the microphone and backed against a wall. His body deflated like a leaking balloon as he sank to the floor. Jenkins tossed the small handheld onto a chair and pulled another cordless from his jacket pocket, the type all employees were required to carry by the Security & Protective Service Company.
"Simpson. Check in." Nothing. "Preston. Check in." Nothing.
Jenkins spit a huge wade of gum onto the carpet and withdrew his automatic 9 mm from a shoulder harness; positioned himself in the hall, feet planted, shoulders squared, weapon hanging low and ready. His head turned, bringing his ear in line with the length of the hall. Soft steps floated from down the hall as someone ascended the spiral staircase. Jenkins' jaw clenched as he raised the gun and aligned his eyes with the gun's sight.
A specific and identifiable stair step creaked on the staircase. Jenkins nodded his head. He knew exactly where the intruder was: halfway up the staircase, just past the one step that did creak under weight. Jenkins checked it himself earlier, planting his feet securely on each step before he took his post outside Bucky's armored room.
Somehow, Bucky got the courage to rush to the door and listen. He put his ear to the cold steel while his pudgy fingers made sure that door locks were secured. He held his breath as he attempted to listen.
Jenkins caught the first shadow of the intruder. "I have a gun," he warned. "I will use it."
The idea that a well-placed bullet can't stop pure evil never crosses a nonbelievers mind. Jenkins was no different. The absolute truth that good and evil battle each other on some galactic scale is a foreign concept to most. For any atheist, the thought that good existed--and the alternative as well--was better suited for lesser minds. No, Jenkins could not possibly understand what he was about to face. Otherwise, he would have run with all the speed his legs could muster.
The shadow continued to ascend to the top of the stairs. Jenkins could make out what looked like the silhouette of a tall man in a hat. A curious look crossed Jenkins' face.
Inside his prison, Bucky pulled away from the door. He couldn't hear a thing. Nothing was getting through the door's three inches of steel. Even the paneled walls hid another three inches of hardened steel. The room was a bunker. A fortified box. An acoustic nightmare! The pounding was deafening.
Something thunderous banged at the door, actually denting the steel inwards. Bucky dropped his weapon and put his hands to his ears. He sagged to the floor, teeth clenched, eyes forced shut, eardrums bursting. The assault continued until hinges squealed and strained...loosening. Best sellers vibrated off wall supports as if propelled from a slingshot. Another pound on the door and it flew open, angled low and buckled.
A tall man in a hat stepped into the room with an intimidating air of unchallenged might. His movement forward was determined, confident, as if he had never taken a step backward in fear. Bucky's eyes, tired and defeated, looked up from his kneeling position. He begged for more time promising anything in return, but his time was up. He gasped between labored sobs, hyperventilating. He could feel the evil that emanated from the creature. He dared to stare into the tall man in the hat's small, yellow eyes that seemed to float like two corks in water, eyes that washed away all hope of escape. Bucky's hands went up to his mouth. He began a hysterical shrieking that seemed to annoy the tall man in the hat.
"How pathetic," the servant of the Prince of Darkness sneered. "At least this one fought back."
The tall man in the hat held Jenkins by his neck, as he might hold an uprooted weed. Jenkins' feet dangled a foot off the floor. In his other hand, the tall man in the hat grasped a smoking 9 mm gun. The gun fell to the floor. He turned to Jenkins as if examining him for the first time, listened as strangled and gurgled sounds escaped Jenkins' mouth. The tall man in the hat seemed to contemplate his next move. He turned Jenkins' face from side-to-side.
"No, I've already got your soul," he said, and squeezed.
A cracking noise snapped, and Jenkins' body went limp. The tall man in the hat tossed the lifeless body against a wall where it slid to the floor. He turned his attention to Bucky.
Bucky watched helplessly as something hellish, a living need, an unquenchable appetite, a brute creature not yet rent asunder by the laws of God stretched forth its arm like the tentacle of a squid from a dark abyss. Bucky's chest heaved forward, drawn inexorably toward that extended appendage. His perception of eternity changed from the past need for instant gratification to the present reality of eternal regret. Pay up time was now.
Bucky's body flopped like a fish out of water as the tall man absorbed the most precious part of man--his soul. His violent screams of horror filled the room until even the wailing drained from his body, absorbed by the tall man in the hat like rain on a dry riverbed. As the last remnants of what is eternal in man were siphoned off, Bucky realized that fame was anything but eternal. Rather, it was a less than a single thread in the tapestry of God's eternal plan.
Bucky's body went limp. He had paid in full. The brass techno head clock showed 6:53...no...6:54 PM.
The tall man in the hat walked down the hallway of Bucky's house and ran a fanged finger along wallpaper. The drywall began heating, spitting, and snapping sparks until tiny flames grew to massive ones that consumed not only the bunker where Bucky lay dead, but turned the entire house into an inferno that burned relentlessly under the hot sun until there was nothing left to fuel the fire. By the time firefighters arrived all that was left of the mansion was a mound of ash in the shape of a huge, smoldering briquette.
Copyright ©2004 William W. Koonce