STORYMAN: A Kharzai Ghiassi short-story

He held his breath and took in the silence that lay heavily in the cool, moist morning air.

During the hours between the bar closings at two am and the earliest of the delivery vehicles at six am traffic was practically non-existent in the city. The din of noise that reverberated through the streets and alleys, on the sidewalks and in shops and restaurants and bars had ceased hours ago.

The sound of cars, trucks and busses, people talking, shoes scraping, music blaring, had been replaced by the echoing drip of water from a leaking pipe on the side of a brick building in a dark alley. Rat claws scraped against the concrete behind the dumpster a few yards from the restaurant’s back door. Empty wine bottles and various paper refuse lay strewn beside the metal container. Some other beast, a cat or a racoon, rummaged through the trash inside. Street lamps hummed and throbbed with a deep electric pulse.  A lone siren sounded in the distance several blocks away.

The ambient sounds of the urban night were nothing like what he had heard the previous afternoon. A sound nearly indiscernible in the noise of the day.  

He had heard it…no…he had felt it coming through a wall in the children’s home. It felt like a heart breaking. A tiny heart that had been crushed and was bleeding out it’s last bit of life.

A group of students from the college had come to the children’s home to help for a week with the tasks of cooking and cleaning and playing with the children. Some of the boys and girls who resided at the home were orphans who had lost their parents.  Most were drug orphans whose parents were still there in body, but little else.  Nearly all were young, under ten. The home took them in for periods ranging from days to months until proper foster care could be found.

Kharzai Ghiassi was not particularly interested in playing with kids. He had only come along because an attractive young lady who had recently gained his interest had volunteered. Regardless of the extra credit for class, he was taking the chance to be able to flirt with her more than anything else. Once at the home though, Kharzai’s heart was filled with empathy for the lost urchin wraiths.  

His own childhood had not been easy.  At a young age Kharzai had been branded by the school system with ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. The school tried to coerce his parents to give him drugs like Ritalin that could force him to a state of stillness in the classroom. They had fled a country whose new leadership had no qualms about using mind-altering drugs to punish those who rose against them and they would have none of it.

Drugs or not, the brand stuck and he frequently found himself in the awkward position for a child of being instantly disliked by most teachers and ignored by his fellow students. Even though his grades were perfect all the way through graduation, and he spoke four languages with native fluency before he was fifteen, the ADHD label preceded his record.

Kharzai did not like being labeled. He had no problem admitting he was hyperactive, but he whole-heartedly disagreed with the Attention Deficit label. To the contrary Kharzai felt that he had no deficit of attention. No, the reality was more that he had a surplus of attention and could process the details of multiple tasks and conversations simultaneously. This flustered his teachers, especially when they thought he was ignoring them only to have every word they had said for the past thirty minutes repeated back to them verbatim, as well as the text he had been reading or the other conversation he had been in.

Kharzai came up with a name for his condition that he felt more applicable. Bilateral Rapid Understanding Hyper Active Hyper Attentive. He shortened it to an acronym: BRUHAHA.

It was his BRUHAHA that drew his attention to the van that pulled away from the children’s home just as he arrived early on the second day.  It looked like any ordinary delivery van, powder blue, no windows, unobtrusive.  Others like it were delivering goods to offices and warehouses all over the city that morning.  But this one caught his eye.  The driver’s movements had been stiff, nervous. The passenger, head covered by a greasey sweat stained ball cap fired a threatening glare at Kharzai as they passed him in the alley.  The man’s eyes growled at him as if saying, “Mind your own business, jerk.”

BRUHAHA brought the sound to his ears late on the last day. He had been performing a a highly animated solo version of “Cinderella” to the gathered group of children sitting on the floor in the meeting room of the house. The full assembly of children had their eyes glued to him in rapt attention as he played out the characters all vying to wear the glass slipper. Even the other college students, including the cute girl he was after, were totally enthralled by his skill at story telling.  

At one point he drew in a breath and paused dramatically, allowing tension to build. As he held the silence, his audience standing at the edge of a virtual cliff about to drop to the valley below, a sound echoed in a chamber in the back of his mind, not so much heard as simply known.  

Somewhere up and behind his head, on the wall above him, it slid through the air.  A whimper. Pain. Sorrow. Despair. Without breaking character, he held the silence for a split second more, spun and glanced in the direction of the sound. His eyes passed over the reflective brass finish of a furnace intake grate near the ceiling above his head.  He spun back towards the audience, continuing the show.

The children and college students in the group let out a collective gasp as he expertly carried the story to its end in a manner none of them had ever experienced. The room burst into exhilarated cheers as he finished with a bow and a flourish.

The applause went on too long, his ears strained to find that noise again. He had to find out what, who, had been its source. He had not merely heard but felt it in his soul. Someone suffered at the other end of that air duct.

Children rose and with wide smiles and gleeful giggles hugged his legs and pulled his arms.

“Tell us another one Storyman.”

He had made them happier than they had been in a long time. Soon they were all calling him by that name. Storyman.

The headmaster of the home approached. His thin, pale appearance accentuated by a dead emptiness in his eyes that gave Kharzai an uneasy feeling in his gut. Cheekbones and jaw line shone skull like through nearly translucent skin. Wispy strands of blond hair raked in thin lines across his pasty white scalp in a poor comb-over.  Blond eyelashes and brows, nearly invisible against his skin, encircled the globes of his dull gray eyes that swam in their sockets like puddles of tepid soap scum.

“Young man, that was wonderful,” he said as he reached out with a clammy dead fish handshake. “I honestly don’t think I have ever heard such good storytelling. One would think you were a professional actor. You are marvelous.”

‘Thanks,” replied Kharzai. “Say, were all of the children down here for the story?”

“Yes, of course. Why do you ask?”

“Oh, I just thought I heard something in the middle of my story.”

“Oh, well I can guarantee that this is all of the children we have at the home right now,” the headmaster said.

He was lying. BRUHAHA enabled Kharzai to read souls, no one had ever been able to lie to Kharzai for very long. It was very obvious, he was covering something. Kharzai shot a disarming smile that relieved the tension brewing behind the headmaster's eyes.

“It must have just been the furnace then,” he said and then added with a chuckle, “or ghosts.”  

The headmaster’s lips turned up in a vague impression of a polite smile. He excused himself and walked stiffly away. Kharzai rejoined the party and the gaggle of kids. He stood near the air grate as long as possible in hopes the sound would come again but it didn’t. Not the same sound at least. From a floor he reckoned to be two stories above their heads came a heavy thump, like something being dropped.  

Kharzai turned to one of the other college students with a start, “What was that?”

The other student dismissed it, “Probably someone moving furniture, or cleaning up stairs.”

The children had not heard the sound, or ignored it, and kept playing. Several minutes later he saw the headmaster again. The man looked calm. He raised his hands to calm the children.

“Children,” he called out, “children, it’s time for your new friends to go now. Say your good-byes because they will not be returning next week.”

The children let out mournful sounds that broke the hearts of the college students, several of whom promised to return again. The headmaster again reached out to shake Kharzai’s hand. As he stretched it forth Kharzai noticed a round light bluish bruise on the back of his knuckles. Fresh. It hadn’t been there when they first talked less than thirty minutes ago.

“What happened to your hand sir?” he asked with a look of shock on his face.

“Oh, I hit it on a doorknob,” he replied. “It’s nothing really, my light skin bruises quite easily you know.”

Kharzai stole a longer glance at it. The bruise was round, but not full. It was only the outline of something round, a ring of blue. And it was not totally round. In the split second of the extra look, he saw something else his eye quickly focusing on something dark, black, embedded in skin of the headmaster’s knuckle.  Less than a centimeter long, but clearly visible against his nearly translucent pale skin.

An eyelash.

The eyelash was not the headmaster’s. His were blond. This was ebony black.  

He smiled up at the older man and peered deeply into his eyes.  The headmaster stared back for a moment, but turned away. Kharzai found what he sought. Guilt. Deep seated guilt. This man had been, make that was doing, something bad…very bad.

Kharzai’s smile stayed in its place, veiling his thoughts. The students filed out at five PM just before the children were to sit for their evening meal. At four AM the following morning Kharzai stood motionless, silent, in a deep shadow in the alley between the children’s home and the restaurant, the alley the men in the van had pulled out from and given him the evil eye a few days earlier. At four nineteen the same van returned and pulled up to the back door of the children’s home.

Two men got out of the van. One from the passenger seat wore a blue denim jacket and jeans of the same color. A greasy cloth ball cap was pressed over a stream of equally greasy, long brown hair.  The second man exited from the back of the van.  He was tall, well over six feet and appeared big under the long black leather trenchcoat that flowed around his ankles.  He looked like someone out of a cheap action movie. Cheap actors or not, they were both armed.  The bulge of weapons pressed against their coats. The van’s driver stayed in his seat.  Cigarette smoke floated in thin blue strands from the driver's window.

The pair crossed the alley toward the back of the children’s home. Trenchcoat rapped his knuckles against the brown metal door set into its red brick wall. Ball Cap looked around nervously. Kharzai was invisible to them in the inky blackness of the shadow in which he stood.

The door creaked open and out stepped the headmaster. Although the men spoke in hushed tones their voices echoed in whispery strains against the concrete walls.

“Are they all ready?” said Trenchcoat.

“Yes, of course,” replied the headmaster,  “lovely specimens, perfect, beautiful.”

“As long as they are fresh,” said Ball Cap. His voice was weird, like a nineteen thirties movie gangster. Kharzai half expected him to say “see” at the end of his sentences.

“Bring them out,” said Trenchcoat. He motioned for Ball Cap to open the van doors as the headmaster disappeared into the building.  

A moment later the headmaster stepped out the door with four children in tow. They were small, no more than six or seven years old, and were bound to one another at the wrists, tied together like slaves being led to market.

The children moved as a group, single file toward the back of the van. Their faces looked odd, unnatural. Their lips were too red, their skin did not reflect light in a natural way. Thick black mascara encircled their dazed eyes.

Kharzai glanced at Ball Cap as he opened the back of the van. The greasy man’s lips spread in a sickening smile. He licked his lips. The front of his jeans stretched with an obscene bulge.

Kharzai stepped out from the shadow and moved silently into the alley.  As he passed the restaurant’s dumpster he squatted without breaking stride and scooped up a discarded wine bottle in each hand. Beneath the mass of curly black locks that bounced with each step his eyes glowed with hateful fire. Blood coursed thick and hot through his veins. Its metallic taste pulsed in his tongue.

Trenchcoat slid the Headmaster a thick brown envelope. The pale old man’s greedy fingers snatched it from his hand. Ball Cap looked up from the children. He saw the shadowy figure moving in their direction.

“Hey, move on asshole!”  

Kharzai did not respond.  

“I said, move on!”

Trenchcoat slid his hand into the folds of long black leather. A glint of stainless steel flickered in light spilled from the lamp over his head onto the body of the semi-automatic pistol.

One of the children, a little girl, looked towards him and snapped out of her daze.  

“It’s the Storyman!” she cried out.

The other kids turned to see him too. Their eyes widened with excitement, smiles sprouted across their faces but were quashed by Ball Caps rebuke.

“Shut up you miserable little shits!” the children flinched under his grating voice.  “Get in the freakin’ van! NOW!”

Trenchcoat raised his arm. The barrel pistol aimed at Kharzai. Terrified by Ball Cap’s order, the children remained frozen in hopeful expectation of salvation from the shadowy Storyman.

One of the boy's drew in a breath and shouted, “Look out Storyman!”

Ball Cap’s hand flew up, a small black box wrapped in it’s grip. He squeezed the trigger on the box. A loud buzz tore the air and the boy screamed in agony, a high pitched, ear splitting screech that shattered the early morning stillness into little pieces that bounced off the walls and the pavement below. The child lurched like a marionette whose strings had been yanked.  He slammed into the ground pulling the others down by their commonly bound wrists.  They all tumbled to the pavement eyes wide in terror.

Trenchcoat’s eyes diverted to the tumbling children. Kharzai leaned forward and broke into a headlong sprint. His hand flashed up and let fly one of the bottles. It rocketed through the air with the force of a major league baseball pitch. Trenchcoat turned back and fired his pistol without aiming. The explosion of the shot boomed like an artillery round in the wide brick walled alley.  

The bullet crashed into the dumpster by the restaurant door with a loud clang followed by a whirring ricochet. Before he got a second shot off the thick bottom of the glass bottle smashed home into Trenchcoats face.  The force of the bottle flattened his nose, blood splattering in every direction at the impact. Trenchcoat screamed in a gurgling throaty rage through his broken nose and swollen lips.

Ball Cap, stunned by the speed at which his bosses face had been rendered a bloody mess, was unable to react in time to avoid Kharzai’s attack. The hairy Persian speared him in the ribs like an NFL sacker, driving him into the back compartment of the van accompanied by the sound of cracking ribs and whooshing air. Ball Cap struggled to grasp for a pistol stashed in the back of his pants as they tussled in the back of the van.  He brought it around but Kharzai snatched the pistol from his hand in one swift motion, straddled Ball Cap’s torso and raised the barrel to his face.  

“NO!” screamed the pathetic child molester. Terror distorted his features as death threatened to take him.

A flash of movement from the front drivers seat, a figure spun towards the back of the van, arm extended, the shadow of a gun in its grip.  

Kharzai flattened against Ball Cap, mashing the butt of the pistol into the screaming man’s forehead, silencing his screams.  Two quick shots rang out from the pistol in Kharzai’s hand. The man in the driver’s seat lurched violently into the steering wheel.  Blood splattered across the windshield and the man slumped into the space between the two seats.

A shadow appeared in the open back door of the van. Trenchcoat. His arm raised with it’s weapon. Kharzai grabbed the semi conscious Ball Cap’s denim jacket and spun him around as a shield. Trenchcoat fired two quick shots into the space.  

Ball Cap’s eyes burst wide with shock as the bullets impacted his body.  The forty-five-caliber hollowpoints exploded inside Ball Cap's back slamming his body into Kharzai. Blood sprayed Kharzai from remnants of Ball Cap's shattered lifeless face as he forced the dead man’s body up far enough to get the pistol around him.  

Trenchcoat fired twice more into Ball Caps shattered body then roared with anger as a bullet jammed in the pistol’s breach. Kharzai finally got the pistol up and fired four consecutive shots from Ball Cap’s nine-millimeter pistol. All four slammed into Trenchcoat's chest, but he didn’t fall.  

The crazed kidnapper glared down at Kharzai, still trapped beneath Ball Cap. A bloody hand reached behind his back and drew out a long, wicked looking knife. The two men stared at each other’s blood slicked faces. Trenchcoat raised the knife towards Kharzai who watched the man in amazement, certain that he must be animated by demons.  

Trenchcoat spun toward the children and stretched his arm high. He aimed to bring the blade down on the one nearest him. Suddenly energized, Kharzai flipped Ball Cap's limp body aside like a rag doll and fired into Trench coat until the pistol was empty, the last two shots blasted into the back of the man’s head and blew the bones of his face apart as they exited leaving a bloody nightmare of a mess. Trenchcoat toppled over onto the still unconscious child who had been tasered.

Kharzai leaped from the back of the van, the empty pistol still trained Trenchcoat’s mangled body. He snatched up the taser Ball Cap had used on the child then grabbed  Trenchcoat's collar from behind and heaved him off the child, ready to zap him if he showed any signs of life.

Sirens sounded in the distance, drawing closer.

The headmaster stepped out from the door of the house.

“What is going on here?” he said as if he had just walked onto the scene. “You!  You’ve come to kidnap to these poor children!”

Kharzai stared intently at him.

“How could you,” muttered the hairy Persian storyteller.

“Me?” said the headmaster acting the part of a man in shock. “I had nothing to do with this. I saw the whole thing.” The sirens drew nearer. “You and your gangster friends tried to kidnap my poor children.”

Kharzai moved towards him. The children cowered in terror at his feet, watching the scene unfold, unable to speak, to scream, to breath.

“It would be better for you to have a millstone tied around your neck and be tossed into the sea…” Tires screeched at the entrance to the alley as the police cars turned in.  An explosion of headlights burst upon them “…than to lead one of these, my little ones, astray.”

Kharzai stood before the headmaster. Eye to eye, he glared.

“Freeze!” shouts came from the patrol cars. The sound of rounds being chambered into shotguns and pistol safety levers clicking off rattled above the din of sirens and the flashing of lights.

“You’ll never prove anything…Storyman.” he said with a sneer.

Kharzai’s wrist flicked up.  His finger mashed the trigger button on the taser and the headmaster felt a pain he had never imagined possible. He lifted bodily and flung against the back wall of the children’s home, carried by the ten thousand volt current of electricity that grasped his testicles and forced every muscle in his body into an involuntary contraction.

Once the convulsion ceased, the headmaster slumped to the ground. Kharzai dropped the Taser and put his hands in the air as the police officers approached weapons raised.

“On the ground! Now! Face to the pavement.”  

Kharzai obeyed. They cuffed him to the pleading cries of the children.

“No! He’s Storyman.”

“Storyman saved us.”

The Path to Writing: how I got here

  In 1993 I was a manager at the military dining hall for the National
Security Agency at Ft. Meade MD, The House of Four Hats. Yup...I was
chef to the spies. It was the coolest job and I loved it then and its
memories now. We took third in the international Hennessy Award
competition (we likely would have won were it not for a rather
injudicious feat of stupidity performed by an Air Force officer I will
forever remember as Major Buttknuckle Tweedbottom. His real name was
long ago wiped from my memory as a result of the professional trauma he
induced)
.
  Alas through the labyrinth that is government contracting
and some shady midnight deals my company lost the contract and I was
unceremoniously dumped from the funnest job I ever had. A short stint in
fast food management quickly soured me on the industry and I opened
computer store in Columbus, Ohio putting my hobby to money making use.
After three years my bank and I discovered that while I was a bang up
technician and could get along well with almost everyone professionally
speaking (Buttknuckle never came to my store) my business acumen
did not attain to the same heights as my nerdiness and geekhood. The
operation ended in failure and I sold the business for pennies then
moved home to Alaska where I worked a series of odd jobs from carpenter,
to pc technician, to mess hall cook for the Alaska Smoke Jumpers to EMT
and explosives packer at a dynamite plant (that job was a blast).
  Eventually
I ended up with a government IT job that sounded challenging on paper
but turned out to be veeeeery booooooooring. With long hours of screen
staring time I started writing stories for my kid's bedtimes. Then a few
poems. Then a couple of shorts. Then some one read one of my shorts and
asked me what happens next, and I got curious. Yeah...what does happen
next?
  And, Blamo! A novel appears. Then I podcast it and people like
it then I join The KillZone and send my cousin Leonard back and forth in
the time machine and learn that in the future in another dimension I am
famous on Planet Fluxinerstationiousis, especially in its capital city
of Fluxinerstationiousisville. But Leonard would not tell me how I did
here on earth. He just smiled a silly grin and said “Oh, you'll find out
soon enough,” then showed me a picture of his alien Fluxi-chick
girlfriend who looked surprisingly like a young Lindsay Wagner with a
few differences and he said, gazing dreamily off to some far away place,
“I'm in love.”
  So now here I am. Had I not lost that
multi-million dollar contract at Ft. Meade and not failed miserably at
being a business man, and not spent a year packing dynamite until my
wife begged me to do anything else I would probably not have written,
audiobookified and epublished three novels, with a fourth on the way and
a bunch of short stories!

by the way did you know those Fluxi-chicks have an extra .... uh … and there's a....on her …. how does that even work?

Cover art done by Jerry Scullion of sculliondesign.com