OMNI FICTION

OMNI



In the multiverse, there must be some timelines — probably hundreds, even thousands — in which the colonies lost the Revolutionary War. Here’s a look at one of them . . .


His Powder’d Wig, His Crown of Thornes

by Marc Laidlaw


A Different Path
Photo illustration by Robert K. J. Killheffer.
Images: nazlisart / 123RF Stock Photo, artbyallyson / 123RF Stock Photo
and Milan Lipowski lipowski / 123RF Stock Photo



Grant Innes first saw the icon in the Indian ghettos of London but thought nothing of it. There were so many gewgaws of native “art” being thrust in his face by faddishly war-painted Cherokees that this was just another nuisance to avoid, like the huge radios blaring obnoxious “Choctawk” percussions and the high-pitched warbling of Tommy Hawkes and the effeminate Turquoise Boys; like the young Mohawk ruddies practicing skateboard stunts for sluttish cockney girls whose kohled black eyes and slack blue lips betrayed more interest in the dregs of the bottles those boys carried than in the boys themselves. Of course, it was not pleasure or curiosity that brought him into the squalid district, among the baggy green canvas street-teepees and graffitoed storefronts. Business alone could bring him here. He had paid a fair sum for the name and number of a Mr. Cloud, dealer in Navaho jewelry, whose samples had proved of excellent quality and would fetch the highest prices, not only in Europe but in the Colonies as well. Astute dealers knew that the rage for turquoise had nearly run its course, thank God; following the popularity of the lurid blue stone, the simplicity of black-patterned silver would be a welcome relief indeed. Grant had hardly been able to tolerate the sight of so much garish rock as he’d been forced to stock in order to suit his customers; he was looking forward to this next trend. He’d already laid the ground for several showcase presentations in Paris; five major glossies were bidding for rights to photograph his collector’s pieces, antique sand-cast najas and squash-blossom necklaces, for a special fashion portfolio.

Here in the slums, dodging extruded plastic kachina dolls and machine-woven blankets, his fine-tuned eye was offended by virtually everything he saw. It was trash for tourists. Oh, it had its spurts of cheap popularity, like the warbonnets, which all the cyclists had worn last summer, but such moments were fleeting as pop hits, thank God. Only true quality could ever transcend the dizzying gyres of public favor. Fine art, precious stones, pure metal — these were investments that would never lose their value.

So much garbage ultimately had the effect of blinding him to his environment; avoidance became a mental as well as a physical trick. He was dreaming of silver crescents gleaming against ivory skin when he realized that he must have passed the street he sought. He stopped in his tracks, suddenly aware of the hawkers’ cries, the pulse of hide drums and synthesizers. He spun about searching for a number on any of the shops.

“Lost, guv?” said a tall brave with gold teeth, his bare chest ritually scarified. He carried a tall pole strung with a dozen gruesome rubber scalps, along with several barrister’s wigs. They gave the brave the appearance of a costume merchant, except for one morbid detail: Each of the white wigs was spattered with blood . . . red dye, rather, liberally dripped among the coarse white strands.

“You look lost.”

“Looking for a shop,” Grant muttered, fumbling Mr. Cloud’s card from his pocket.

“No. I mean really lost. Out of balance. Koyaanisqatsi, guv. Like the whole world.”

“I’m looking for a shop,” Grant repeated firmly.

“That all then? A shop? What about the things you really lost? Things we’ve all lost, I’m talking about. Here.”

He patted his bony hip, which was wrapped in a black leather loincloth. Something dangled from his belt, a doll-like object on a string, a charm of some sort. Grant looked over the brave’s head and saw the number he sought, just above a doorway. The damn ruddy was in his way. As he tried to slip past, avoiding contact with the rubbery scalps and bloodied wigs, the brave unclipped the charm from his belt and thrust it into Grant’s face.

Grant recoiled, nearly stumbling backward in the street. It was an awful little mannequin, face pinched and soft, its agonized expression carved from a withered apple.

“Here — here’s where we lost it,” the brave said, thrusting the doll up to Grant’s cheek, as if he would have it kiss or nip him with its rice-grain teeth. Its limbs were made of jerked beef, spread-eagled on wooden crossbars, hands and feet fixed in place with four tiny nails. It was a savage Christ — an obscenity.

“He gave His life for you,” the brave said. “Not just for one people, but for everyone. Eternal freedom, that was His promise.”

“I’m late for my appointment,” Grant said, unable to hide his disgust.

“Late and lost,” the brave said. “But you’ll never catch up — the time slipped past. And you’ll never find your way unless you follow Him.”

“Just get out of my way!”

He shoved the brave aside, knocking the hideous little idol out of the Indian’s grasp. Fearing reprisal, he forced an apologetic expression as he turned back from the hard-won doorway. But the brave wasn’t watching him. He crouched over the filthy street, retrieving his little martyr. Lifting it to his lips, he kissed it gently.

“I’m sorry,” Grant said.

The brave glanced up at Grant and grinned fiercely, baring his gold teeth; then he bit deep into the dried brown torso of the Christ and tore away a ragged strip of jerky.

Nauseated, Grant hammered on the door. It opened abruptly, and he almost fell into the arms of Mr. Cloud.




He next saw the image the following summer, in the District of Cornwallis. Despite the fact that Grant specialized in provincial art, most of his visits to the Colonies had been for business purposes and had exposed him to no more glorious surroundings than the interiors of banks and mercantile offices, with an occasional jaunt into the Six Nations to meet with the creators of the fine pieces that were his trade. Sales were brisk: his artisans had been convinced to ply their craft with gold as well as silver, supplanting turquoise and onyx with diamonds and other precious stones; the trend toward high-fashion American jewelry had already surpassed his highest expectations. Before the inevitable decline and a panicked search for the next sure thing, he decided to accept the offer of an old colonial acquaintance who had long extended an open invitation to a tour of great American monuments in the capital city.

Arnoldsburg, DC, was sweltering in a humid haze, worsened by exhaust fumes from the taxis that seemed the city’s main occupants. Eyes burning, lungs fighting against collapse, he and his guide crawled from taxi after taxi and plunged into cool marble corridors reeking of urine and crowded with black youths selling or buying opiates.

It was hard not to mock the great figures of American history, thus surrounded by the ironic fruits of their victories. The huge, seated figure of Burgoyne looked mildly bemused by the addicts sleeping between his feet; the bronze brothers Richard and William Howe stood back-to-back, embattled in a waist-high mob, as though taking their last stand against colonial lilliputians.

Grant’s host, David Mickelson, was a transplanted Irishman. He had first visited America as a physician with the Irish Royal Army, and after his term expired had signed on for a stint in the Royal American Army. He had since opened a successful dermatological practice in Arnoldsburg. He was a collector of native American art, which had led him to deal with Grant Innes. Mickelson had excellent taste in metalwork, but Grant had often chided him for his love of “these marble monstrosities.”

“But these are heroes, Grant. Imagine where England would be without these men. An island with few resources and limited room for expansion? How could we have kept up the sort of healthy growth we’ve had since the Industrial Revolution? And without these men to secure this realm for us, how could we have held on to it? America is so vast — really, you have no concept of it. These warriors laid the way for peace and proper management, steering a narrow course between Spain and France. Without such fine ambassadors to put down the early rebellion and ease the co-settling of the Six Nations, America might still be at war. Instead its resources belong to the Crown. This is our treasure house, Grant, and these are the keepers of that treasure.”

“Treasure,” Grant repeated, with an idle nudge at the body of an old squaw who lay unconscious on the steps of the Howe Monument.

“Come with me, then,” Mickelson said. “One more sight, and then we’ll go wherever you like.”

They boarded another taxi, which progressed by stops and starts through the iron river of traffic. A broad, enormous dome appeared above the cars.

“Ah,” said Grant. “I know what that is.”

They disembarked at the edge of a huge circular plaza. The dome that capped the plaza was supported by a hundred white columns. They went into the lidded shadow, into darkness, and for a moment Grant was blinded.

“Watch out, old boy,” Mickelson said. “Here’s the rail. Grab on. Wouldn’t want to stumble in here.”

Grant’s hand closed on polished metal. When he felt steady again, he opened his eyes and found himself staring into a deep pit. The walls of the shaft were perfectly smooth, round as a bullet hole drilled deep into the earth. He felt a cold wind coming out of it, and then the grip of vertigo.

“The depths of valor, the inexhaustible well of the human spirit,” Mickelson was saying. “Makes you dizzy with pride, doesn’t it?”

“I’m . . . feeling . . . sick. . . .” Grant turned and hurried toward daylight.

Out in the sunshine again, his sweat gone cold, he leaned against a marble podium and gradually caught his breath. When his mind had cleared somewhat he looked up and saw that the podium was engraved with the name of the hero whose accomplishments the shaft commemorated. His noble bust surmounted the slab.

BENEDICT ARNOLD
FIRST AMERICAN PRESIDENT-GENERAL.
APPOINTED BY KING GEORGE III
AS REWARD FOR HIS VALIANT ROLE
IN SUPPRESSING THE PROVINCIAL
REVOLT OF 1776-79

David Mickelson caught up with him.

“Feeling all right, Grant?”

“Better. I — I think I’d like to get back to my rooms. It’s this heat.”

“Surely. I’ll hail a cab, you just hold on here for a minute.”

As Grant watched Mickelson hurry away, his eyes strayed over the circular plaza, where the usual hawkers had laid out the usual souvenirs. Habit, more than curiosity, drove him out among the ragged blankets, his eyes swiftly picking through the merchandise and discarding it all as garbage.

Well, most of it. This might turn out to be another fortunate venture after all. His eye had been caught by a display of absolutely brilliant designs done in copper and brass. He had never seen anything quite like them. Serpents, eagles, patterns of stars. The metal was all wrong, but the artist had undoubtedly chosen them by virtue of their cheapness and could easily be convinced to work in gold. He looked up at the proprietor of these wares and saw a young Indian woman, bent on her knees, threading colored beads on a string.

“Who made these?” he said, softening the excitement he felt into a semblance of mild curiosity.

She gazed up at him. “My husband.”

“Really? I like them very much. Does he have a distributor?”

She didn’t seem to know what he meant.

“That is . . . does anyone else sell these pieces?”

She shook her head. “This is all he makes, right here. When he makes more, I sell those.”

In the distance, he heard Mickelson shouting his name. The dermatologist came running over the marble plaza. “Grant. I’ve got you a cab!”

Grant gestured as if to brush him away. “I’ll meet you later, David, all right? Something’s come up.”

“What have you found?” Mickelson tried to look past him at the blanket, but Grant spun him around in the direction of the taxis — perhaps a bit too roughly. Mickelson stopped for a moment, readjusted his clothes, then stalked away peevishly toward the cars. So be it.

Smiling, Grant turned back to the woman. His words died on his tongue when he saw what she was doing with beads she’d been stringing.

She had formed them into a noose, a bright rainbow noose, and slipped this over the head of a tiny brown doll.

He knew that doll, knew its tough, leathered flesh and pierced limbs, the apple cheeks and teeth of rice.

The cross from which she’d taken it lay discarded on the blanket, next to the jewelry that suddenly seemed of secondary importance.

While he stood there unspeaking, unmoving, she lifted the dangling doll to her lips and daintily, baring crooked teeth, tore off a piece of the leg.

“What . . . what . . .

He found himself unable to ask what he wished to ask. Instead, fixed by her gaze, he stammered, “What do you want for all of these?”

She finished chewing before answering. “All?”

“Yes. I . . . I’d like to buy all of them. In fact, I’d like to buy more than this. I’d like to commission a piece, if I might.”

The squaw swallowed.

“My husband creates what is within the soul. He makes dreams into metal. He would have to see your dreams.”

“My dreams? Well, yes, I’ll tell him exactly what I want. Could I meet him to discuss this?”

The squaw shrugged. She patiently unlooped the noose from the shriveled image, spread it back onto its cross and pinned the three remaining limbs into place, then tucked it away in a bag at her belt. Finally, rising, she rolled up the blanket with all the bangles and bracelets inside it and tucked the parcel under her arm. “Come with me,” she said.

He followed her without another word, feeling as though he were moving down an incline, losing his balance with every step, barely managing to throw himself in her direction. She was his guide through the steaming city, through the crowds of ragged cloth, skins ruddy and dark. He pulled off his customary jacket, loosened his tie, and struggled after her. She seemed to dwindle in the distance; he was losing her, losing himself, stretching into a thin strand of beads, beads of sweat, sweat that dripped through the gutters of Arnoldsburg and offered only brine to the thirsty. . . .

But when she once looked back and saw him faltering, she put out her hand and he was standing right beside her, near a metal door. She put her hand upon it and opened the way.

It was cool inside and dark except for the tremulous light of candles that lined a descending stairway. He followed, thinking of catacombs, the massed and desiccated ranks of the dead he had seen beneath old missions in Spanish Florida. There was a dusty smell, and far off the sound of hammering. She opened another door and the sound was suddenly close at hand.

They had entered a workshop. A man sat at a metal table cluttered with coils of wire, metal snips, hand torches. The woman stepped out and closed the door on them.

“Good afternoon,” Grant said. “I . . . I’m a great admirer of your work.”

The man turned slowly, the stool creaking under his weight, though he was not a big man. His skin was very dark, like his close-cropped hair. His face was soft, as though made of chamois pouches: but his eyes were hard. He beckoned.

“Come here,” the man said. “You like my stuff? What is it that you like?”

Grant approached the workbench with a feeling of awe. Samples of the man’s work lay scattered about, but these were not done in copper or brass. They were silver, most of them, and gleamed like moonlight.

“The style,” he said. “The . . . substance.”

“How about this?” The Indian fingered a large eagle with spreading wings.

“It’s beautiful — almost alive.”

“It’s a sign of freedom.” He laid it down. “What about this one?”

He handed Grant a small rectangular plaque inscribed with an unusual but somehow familiar design. A number of horizontal stripes, with a square inset in the lower right corner, and in that square a wreath of thirteen stars.

“It’s beautiful,” Grant said. “You do superior work.”

“That’s not what I mean. Do you know the symbol?”

“I . . . I think I’ve seen it somewhere before. An old Indian design, isn’t it?”

The Indian grinned. Gold teeth again, bridging the distance between London and Arnoldsburg, reminding him of the jerked beef martyr, the savage Christ.

“Not an Indian sign,” he said. “A sign for all people.”

“Really? Well, I’d like to bring it to all people. I’m a dealer in fine jewelry. I could get a very large audience for these pieces. I could make you a very rich man.”

“Rich?” The Indian set the plaque aside. “Plenty of Indians are rich. The tribes have all the land and factories they want — as much as you have. But we lack what you also lack: freedom. What is wealth when we have no freedom?”

“Freedom?”

“It’s a dim concept to you, isn’t it? But not to me.” He put his hand over his heart. “I hold it here, safe with the memory of how we lost it. A precious thing, a cup of holy water that must never be spilled until it can be swallowed in a single draft. I carry the cup carefully, but there’s enough for all. If you wish to drink, it can be arranged.”

“I don’t think you understand,” Grant said, recovering some part of himself that had begun to drift off through the mystical fog in which the Indians always veiled themselves. He must do something concrete to counteract so much vagueness.

“What I’m speaking of is a business venture. A partnership.”

“I hear your words. But I see something deeper in you. Something that sleeps in all men. They come here seeking what is lost, looking for freedom and a cause. But all they find are the things that went wrong. Why are you so out of balance, eh? You stumble and crawl, but you always end up here with that same empty look in your eyes. I’ve seen you before. A dozen just like you.”

“I’m an art dealer,” Grant said. “Not a . . . a pilgrim. If you can show me more work like this, I’d be grateful. Otherwise, I’m sorry for wasting your time and I’ll be on my way.”

Suddenly he was anxious to get away, and this seemed a reasonable excuse. But the jeweler now seemed ready to accommodate him.

“Art, then,” he said. “All right. I will show you the thing that speaks to you, and perhaps then you will understand. Art is also a way to the soul.”

He slipped down from the stool and moved toward the door, obviously intending for Grant to follow.

“I’ll show you more than this,” the Indian said. “I’ll show you inspiration.”

After another dizzying walk, they entered a derelict museum in a district that stank of danger. Grant felt safe only because of his companion; he was obviously a stranger here, in these oppressive alleys. Even inside the place, which seemed less a museum than a warehouse, he sensed that he was being watched. It was crowded by silent mobs, many of them children, almost all of them Negro or Indian. Some sat in circles on the cement floors, talking quietly among themselves, as though taking instruction. Pawnee, Chickasaw, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Comanche . . . Arnoldsburg was a popular site for tourists, but these didn’t have the look of the ruddy middle-class traveler; these were lower-class ruddies, as tattered as the people in the street. Some had apparently crossed the continent on foot to come here. Grant felt as if he had entered a church.

“Now you shall see,” said the jeweler. “This is the art of the patriots. The forefathers. The hidden ones.”

He stopped near a huge canvas that leaned against a steel beam; the painting was caked with grease, darkened by time, but even through the grime Grant could see that it was the work of genius. An imitation of da Vinci’s Last Supper, but strangely altered . . .

The guests at Christ’s table wore not biblical attire but that of the eighteenth century. It was no windowed building that sheltered them but a tent whose walls gave the impression of a strong wind beating from without. The thirteen were at supper, men in military outfits, and in their midst a figure of mild yet radiant demeanor, humble in a powdered wig, a mere crust of bread on his plate. Grant did not recognize him, this figure in Christ’s place, but the man in Judas’s place was recognizable enough from the numerous busts and portraits occurring in Arnoldsburg. That was Benedict Arnold.

The Indian pointed at several of the figures, giving them names: “Henry Knox, Nathanael Greene, Light-Horse Harry Lee, Lafayette, General Rochambeau . . .

“Who painted this?”

“It was the work of Benjamin Franklin,” said his guide. “Painted not long after the betrayal at West Point, but secretly, in sadness, when the full extent of our tragedy became all too apparent. After West Point the patriots continued to fight. But this man, this one man, was the glue that held the soldiers together. After His death, the army had many commanders, but none could win the trust of all men. The revolution collapsed and our chance for freedom slipped away. Franklin died without finishing it, his heart broken.”

“But that man in the middle . . . ?

The Indian led him to another painting. This was much more recent, judging from the lack of accumulated soot and grease. Several children stood gazing at it, accompanied by a darkie woman who was trying to get them to analyze the meaning of what was essentially a simple image.

“What is this?” she asked.

Several hands went up. “The cherry tree!” chimed a few voices.

“That’s right, the cherry tree. Who can tell us the story of the cherry tree?”

One little girl pushed forward. “He chopped it down, and when He saw what He had done, He said, ‘I cannot let it die.’ So He planted the piece He cut off and it grew into a new tree, and the trunk of the old tree grew, too, because it was magic.”

“Very good. Now, that’s a fable, of course. Do you know what it really means? What the cherry tree represents?”

Grant felt like one of her charges, waiting for some explanation, innocent.

“It’s an English cherry,” the teacher hinted.

Hands went up. “The tree! I know, I know! It’s England.”

“That’s right,” she encouraged. “And the piece he transplanted?”

“America!”

“Very good. And do you remember what happened next? It isn’t shown in this painting, but it was very sad. Tinsha?”

“When His father saw what He had done, he was very scared, he was afraid his son was a devil or something, so he tore up the little tree by the roots. He tore up America.”

“And you know who the father really is, don’t you?”

“The . . . King?” said Tinsha.

Grant and his guide went on to another painting, this one showing a man in a powdered wig and a ragged uniform walking across a river in midwinter — not stepping on the floes but moving carefully between them, on the breast of the frigid water. With him came a band of barefoot men, lightly touching hands, the first of them resting his fingers on the cape of their leader. The men stared at the water as if they could not believe their eyes, but there was only confidence in the face of their commander — that and a serene humility.

“This is the work of Sully, a great underground artist,” said the jeweler.

“These . . . these are priceless.”

The Indian shrugged. “If they were lost tomorrow, we would still carry them with us. It is the feelings they draw from our hearts that are truly beyond price. He came for all men, you see. If you accept Him, if you open your heart to Him, then His death will not have been in vain.”

“Washington,” Grant said, the name finally coming to him. An insignificant figure of the American Wars, an arch-traitor whose name was a mere footnote in the histories that Grant had read. Arnold had defeated him, hadn’t he? Was that what had happened at West Point? The memories were vague and unreal, textbook memories.

The jeweler nodded. “Yes, George Washington,” he repeated. “He was leading us to freedom, but He was betrayed and held out as an example. In Philadelphia He was publicly tortured to dispirit the rebels, then hung by His neck after His death, and his corpse toured through the Colonies. And that is our sin, the penance which we must pay until every soul has been brought back into balance.”

“Your sin?”

The Indian nodded, drawing from the pouch at his waist another of the shriveled icons. Christ — no, Washington — on the cross.

“We aided the British in that war. Cherokee and Iroquois, others of the Six Nations. We thought the British would save us from the Colonists; we didn’t know that they had different ways of enslavement. My ancestors were master torturers. When Washington was captured, it fell to them — to us — to do the bloodiest work.”

His hands tightened on the figure of flesh; the splintered wood dug into his palm.

“We nailed Him to the bars of a cross, borrowing an idea that pleased us greatly from your own religion.”

The brown hand shook. The image rose to the golden mouth.

“First, we scalped Him. The powdered hair was slung from a warrior’s belt. His flesh was pierced with thorns and knives. And then we flayed Him alive.”

“Flayed . . .

Grant winced as golden teeth nipped a shred of jerky and tore it away.

“Alive . . . ?”

“He died bravely. He was more than a man. He was our deliverer, savior of all men, white, red, and black. And we murdered Him. We pushed the world off balance.”

“What is this place?” Grant asked. “It’s more than a museum, isn’t it? It’s also some kind of school.”

“It is a holy place. His spirit lives here, in the heart of the city named for the man who betrayed Him. He died to the world two hundred years ago, but He still lives in us. He is champion of the downtrodden, liberator of the enslaved.” The jeweler’s voice was cool despite the fervor of his theme. “You see . . . I have looked beyond the walls of fire that surround this world. I have looked into the world that should have been, that would have been if He had lived. I saw a land of the free, a land of life, liberty, and happiness, where the red men lived in harmony with the white. Our plains bore fruit instead of factories. And the holy cause, that of the republic, spread from the hands of the Great Man. The King was dethroned and England, too, made free. The bell of liberty woke the world; the four winds carried the cause.” The jeweler bowed his head. “That is how it would have been. This I have seen in dreams.”

Grant looked around him at the paintings, covered with grime but carefully attended; the people, also grimy but with an air of reverence. It was a shame to waste them here, on these people. He imagined the paintings hanging in a well-lit gallery, the patina of ages carefully washed away; he saw crowds of people in fine clothes, decked in his gold jewelry, each willing to pay a small fortune for admission. With the proper sponsorship, a world tour could be brought off. He would be a wealthy man, not merely a survivor, at the end of such a tour.

The Indian watched him, nodding. “I know what you’re thinking. You think it would be good to tell the world of these things, to spread the cause. You think you can carry the message to all humanity, instead of letting it die here in the dark. But I tell you . . . it thrives here. Those who are oppressed, those who are broken and weary of spirit, they alone are the caretakers of liberty.”

Grant smiled inwardly; there was a bitter taste in his mouth.

“I think you underestimate the worth of all this,” he said. “You do it a disservice to hide it from the eyes of the world. I think everyone can gain something from it.”

“Yes?” The Indian looked thoughtful.

He led Grant toward a table where several old books lay open, their pages swollen with humidity, spines cracking, and paper flaking away.

“Perhaps you are right,” he said, turning the pages of one book entitled The Undying Patriot, edited by a Parson Weems. “It may be as Doctor Franklin says. . . .”

Grant bent over the page and read:

“Let no man forget His death. Let not the memory of our great Chief and Commander fade from the thoughts of the common people, who stand to gain the most from its faithful preservation. For once these dreams have faded, there is no promise that they may again return. In this age and the next, strive to hold true to the honor’d principals for which He fought, for which he was nail’d to the rude crucifix and his flesh stript away. Forget not His sacrifice. His powder’d wig and crown of thornes. Forget not that a promise broken can never be repair’d.”

“I think you are right,” said the jeweler. “How can we take it upon ourselves to hide this glory away? It belongs to the world, and the world shall have it.”

He turned to Grant and clasped his hands. His eyes were afire with a patriotic light. “He brought you to me, I see that now. This is a great moment. I thank you, brother, for what you will do.”

“It’s only my duty,” Grant said.

Yes. Duty.




And now he stood in the sweltering shadows outside the warehouse, the secret museum, watching the loading of several large vans. The paintings were wrapped tightly in canvas so that none could see them.

He stifled an urge to rush up to the loading men and tear away the cloth, to look just once more on the noble face. But the police were thick around the entrance.

“Careful, Grant,” said David Mickelson at his elbow.

News of the find had spread throughout the city and a crowd had gathered, in which Grant was just one more curious observer. He supposed that it was best this way, although he would rather have had his own people moving the paintings. The police were being unwontedly rough with the works, but there wasn’t anything he could do about that.

Things had gotten a little out of hand.

“Hard to believe it’s been sitting under our noses all this time,” said Mickelson. “You say you actually got a good look at it?”

Grant nodded abstractedly. “Fairly good. Of course, it was dark in there.”

“Even so . . . what a catch, eh? There have been rumors of this stuff for years, and you stumble right into it. Amazing idea you had, though, organizing a tour. As if anyone would pay to see that stuff aside from ruddies and radicals. Even if it weren’t completely restricted.”

“What . . . what do you think they’ll do with it?” Grant asked.

“Same as they do with other contraband, I’d imagine. Burn it.”

“Burn it,” he repeated numbly.

Grant felt a restriction of the easy flow of traffic; suddenly the crowd, mainly black and Indian, threatened to change into something considerably more passionate than a group of disinterested onlookers. The police loosened their riot gear as the mob began to shout insults.

“Fall back, Grant,” Mickelson said.

Grant started to move away through the crowd, but a familiar face caught his attention. It was the Indian, the jeweler; he stood near a corner of the museum, his pouchy face unreadable. Somehow, through all the confusion, among the hundred or so faces now mounting in number, his eyes locked onto Grant’s.

Grant stiffened. The last of the vans shut its doors and rushed away. The police did not loiter in the area. He had good reason to feel vulnerable.

The jeweler stared at him. Stared without moving. Then he brought up a withered brown object and set it to his lips. Grant could see him bite, tear, and chew.

“What is it, Grant? We should be going now, don’t you think? There’s still time to take in a real museum or perhaps the American Palace.”

Grant didn’t move. Watching the Indian he put his thumb to his mouth and caught a bit of cuticle between his teeth. He felt as if he were dreaming. Slowly, he tore off a thin strip of skin, ripping it back almost down to the knuckle. The pain was excruciating, but it didn’t seem to wake him. He chewed it, swallowed.

“Grant? Is anything wrong?”

He tore off another.

[ THE END ]



BACK TO OMNI FICTION ARCHIVES




This story copyright © 1989 by Marc Laidlaw. Used by permission. All rights reserved.



Join the OMNI mailing list