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“Gampa! Did you see the wooden Indian? It’s really cool!”
“Gampa Jack, you have to look at the view out the back window. It’s awesome.”
The trio of kids – his grandchildren, in truth, Jason, Eric, and little Tanya – crowded around the old man, telling him of all the things they’d discovered since arriving here two hours before. Terry and Jean-Paul were up in town, apologizing for the kidsitting “imposition” which, in fact, he joyfully welcomed.
“I’ve seen that view, Jason,” he said. “I’ve seen it in bright sun, where you can look for miles and see the snow-capped peaks. I’ve seen it in a blizzard where you can’t even make out the silo out back. And I’ve seen it at night, when the ghost ship? drifted past on the currents of darkness.”
“Aw, Gampa Jack,” Jason said, rolling his eyes. He was the eldest, and getting a bit too grown up for that sort of thing, the old man mused. Or thought he was.
“A real ghost ship?” Eric was more impressionable, more willing to see the magic and believe in its telling.
“Well, a fake ghost ship would be kinda tough to do,” the old man grinned. “So it must’ve been real.”
“Eric –“ Jason began, then cut off. Getting too old, perhaps, but he wouldn’t be the one to call the old man a liar.
“And what about you, honeypie?” The old man looked at Tanya, who was huddling up close to the shiny red leather chair the old man was sunk into, here in the bric-a-brac-laden lobby of the Inn. “You seen anything I ought to see?”
Tanya hesitated, then pointed. “Who that?”
The old man followed her gaze. Behind the young lady at the front desk, an older, elegant man was standing, sifting through papers with a critical gaze, a single framed lens wedged before one eye. He was wearing a tuxedo at three in the afternoon, a top hat sitting on the credenza behind him, all of which seemed perfectly in keeping for the eclectic nature of the place.
“Ah, him!” The old man’s eyes lit up. “Why, kids, that’s no one other than … the Black Monocle!” He considered, then rejected, adding in a “dum-dum-duuuuuuuum …” musical sting to that, like in the old radio shows.
“Back Munkle?” Tanya asked.
“Who’s that?” Eric asked.
“He’s just the manager or the owner or something,” Jason explained.
“Ah. You have the truth of it, boy, but only a partial truth. What matters less is what he is now, and more where he came from and why he’s here.”
“Okay,” Jason replied, “where did he come from?”
The old man smiled. “The Baron Heinrich von Froelich was one of the great fighter aces of the First World War – the one before mine. He was a terror of the skies, with his Crimson Eagle Squadron cutting a bloody swathe through the Spads and Nieuports of his enemies, each victim creating their own funeral pyre of dark smoke and flame as they crashed into the fields of France and Holland.”
He had Jason and Eric’s attention now. War stories did that, at least until you had to fight in one. Tanya looked a bit worried, though, and kept glancing at the man, who was now discussing something in low tones with the desk lady. His black-framed monocle was clearly visible across the room, glinting in the light coming through the front bay windows.
“Von Froelich’s greatest enemy was the American ace, Mike Rhodes. They battled a dozen times in all, and each time worked out to a draw, each man’s plane riddled with bullets and barely able to fly. Von Froelich himself was crippled in one dogfight, one leg shattered and held together by pins thereafter, so that he walked with a limp, and many of his best friends and comrades were even less fortunate. So the baron swore a mighty oath that he’d defeat his foe, but, then – the armistice was declared, the war ended, and Rhodes shipped back home.
“Von Froelich remained consumed with revenge. After a dozen years, he sold all his family estates and used the money to travel to the US. He spent the money freely, hiring Pinkertons and other private agencies to track Rhodes down, but the only hints found were tantalizingly vague. It was the Great Depression then, don’t forget, and people moved around a lot.”
“What’s a Great Depression, Gampa?” Tanya asked.
“Don’t interrupt!” Eric chided her. “I wanna hear.”
The old man smiled. “At length, his money almost exhausted, Von Froelich came here. He’d heard rumors that Rhodes and his new wife vacationed here, so he changed his name and took a job here at the Inn, first as a waiter, then as staff, then as a manager and all-around functionary, laying in wait for his long-time enemy.
“And he’s still here. Waiting for his moment ... to strike!”
They started at the last word, then giggled. Eric looked impressed. Tanya's grin turned to a frown -- she was expecting more of an ending.
Jacon was skeptical. “Hey, that would make him, like, a hundred years old or something.”
The old man smiled, and leaned forward in the chair. “It’s the waters,” he whispered.
“Huh?” The old man wished Jason knew the lines from Casablanca.
“Is that story really true?” Eric asked.
The old man laughed. “No. No, it’s just a story. The truth, though – that’s really interesting …”
Tanya clambered up in his lap.
“The Black Monocle,” he explained, “was once one of the preeminent stage magicians in the whole United States. His real name was Lee Fox, but he used the stage the Black Monocle because of his distinctive eyewear.” He nodded over toward the man in question. “And because it sounded mysterious, too. He was one of the biggies. He headlined in Vegas, opening for Sinatra and that crowd, and was even a big draw in the early days of Atlantic City.”
“We’ve been to Atlantic City,” Eric noted. “It smelled funny, and Daddy lost a lot of money.”
“Ssshhh!” It was Jason’s turn to quiet his younger brother.
“One night," the old man continued, "standing out behind a theater, he heard a scream, and ran to see what was going on. He found a woman being assaulted by a band of hoodlums. He tried to intimidate them by going into one of his stage routines, threatening to summon the spirits of the dead to befuddle them. He hoped they’d be your typical criminals, a cowardly and superstitious lot, and they’d get scared and run off, or at least be confused enough for their victim to escape.
“Instead –“ he paused dramatically. Tanya hugged him closer. “—instead he found that his magic spell worked, and a wave of ghosts and phantasms swept in from the shadows and enveloped the thugs. They screamed, cried, dropped their switchblades, and fell to the ground, covering their heads.
“He discovered that he really did possess magical powers, and he began a career of fighting crime both conventional and mystical, beginning to specialize more and more in the latter -- you know, fighting invasions from the netherworld and ghosts and demons and other things that eat little children in their beds.”
“Daddy says there aren’t any ghosts,” Tanya said in a small voice.
“Of course he does,” the old man nodded with a warm, reassuring smile. “’Cause you can’t see them. Most of the time, at least. Anyway, at length, he finally discovered that there was one particular place in the planet where the walls between our world -- the world the living -- and the other worlds of spirits and ghouls and ghosts and imps and fiends, where that wall had gotten the thinnest, and incursions from the other side were most likely to find their way to ours. And you know where that place was?”
The kids shook their heads.
He poked his finger into his other palm just to emphasize each word. “Right. Smack. Dab. Here.”
They all looked around quickly.
“Actually, right under that pretty rug right there,” the old man pointed. “Give or take a bit, depending on the phase of the moon and the current zodiacal sign.”
The kids stared at the carpet.
“And so he moved here, gave up his career, and, by day, he’s an elegant hotel manager, waiter, and sous-chef. By night, he battles the forces of the underworld and the netherworld, to keep us all sleeping safe in our beds.”
There was a brief silence as eyes shifted from carpet, to the monocled man (who was now watching impassively as a woman in a sharp blue pants suit wheedled with the desk clerk for a particular room she wanted), and back to the old man.
“Really?” Eric breathed.
The old man smiled. “Well, maybe I got a few of the details wrong.”
The kids relaxed.
“Here’s the real story.”
They all leaned in.
“You remember your Bible?”
Jason and Tanya nodded. Eric chimed in, “Daddy doesn’t like us going to Bible school on Sundays. He says it’s full of nonsense and stuff.”
“With all due respect to your daddy, I disagree. The Bible's full of all sorts of great information,” the old man said, sternly. “Like why it’s a bad idea to poke fun at guys with bald heads. But I digress. You remember the story of Sodom and Gomorrah?”
Eric and Tanya looked blank. Jason smiled. “Yeah, they were these wicked cities, and they got nuked by God.”
A trio of ladies walked past. One of them chuckled at the comment.
The old man nodded. “Pretty good. Left out some juicy bits, but pretty much the size of it. Well, what the Bible doesn’t tell was that there was this other fellow who lived there, Manakiel. He was a hotel keeper, and he ran a very nice, and quite upright and virtuous establishment in the southern parts of Gomorrah. He was off visiting his cousin in Sidon, and came back right after the big dust-up, to find his house, his inn, his customers, his cook, his dog, his wives, and his prize grape vines, all gone. He’d been spared, it seemed, because he was ‘righteous,’ and it just worked out that way, but everything else he held dear – just ashes and salt and sulfur.”
Tanya looked a little scared. He gave her a hug and a wink. “So Manakiel, he started shouting and screaming at the Lord, carrying on, and by and by he and the Lord ended up having a conversation, which, unfortunately, got missed by the Old Testament writers. The Lord actually started apologizing, and offering to give Manakiel a brand new home, but Manakiel was really ticked off and wouldn’t have anything to do with it. He spat on the ground and said he wouldn’t take anything from God, not even a new home, and he’d just set out himself to find one.
“Well, the Lord in the Oh-Tee never did much care for those sorts of challenges, so He said that Manakiel would never find a home of his own, not even in Heaven, until he repented and said he was sorry and all that. Manakiel said a few other unkind things, got his hair singed, and set out from there.”
The old man lifted up his palms. “And that’s about it. He became known as Shadowed Manakiel, or Black Manakiel, and the name stuck. He’s wandered the world for the last five thousand years or so, never able to settle down, never able to find a home of his own. He finally ended up here, about as far from the Dead Sea as you can make it and still get newspaper delivery, and went back into the hotel trade. But even here, in this Inn, it’s not his home. It’s still just a place to stay, and every night he sleeps in a different room, or wanders the halls looking for a place he can call his own.”
“Wow,” Jason said. He looked thoughtful.
“What about the thing in his eye?” Eric asked.
“That?” The old man considered. “I think that’s just a coincidence.”
“He doesn’t have a home?” Tanya asked in her small, quiet voice. “That’s sad.”
“He doesn’t have family, so, no, no home,” the old man said, looking at his grandchildren. “And, yes, that is sad. But sometimes sad’s what makes a good story.”
“It’s all a story?” Eric looked shocked.
“Well, maybe a bit --”
“Hey, kiddos!” Terry’s voice carried across the lobby, and the kids turned. “Mommy!” they all shouted and went running back over to her. Jean-Paul was a few steps behind, holding some large package from that art store that Terry had wanted to visit, a slightly sour look on his face.
They clambered around their parents, blocking folks trying to get in and out of the door, each wanting to tell bits and pieces of what they’d heard, complete with furtive glances over at the apparently oblivious innkeeper and, on occasion, gestures at the rug.
Jean-Paul enlisted their help in carrying in stuff from the car, while Terry came over to where the old man was sitting. “Thanks, Gampa, for watching them.”
“No problem. We kept busy.”
“So I heard.” She hesitated a second, then continued, “I do wish you’d – maybe tone down the stories a bit. They sounded sort of scary, and I wouldn’t want to embarrass anyone.” She threw a quick look over at the front desk.
The old man sighed. “Sorry, sweetie. I’ll try to do better.”
She chuckled. “Right. I know you. I used to listen to some of those tales when I was growing up. The kids were kind of confused on some of the details, but the stories sounded like par for the course.” She hesitated, took another peek at the Black Monocle, then back. “They – were just stories, weren’t they, Gampa?”
He smiled at her beatifically. “Of course they were, sweetie.”
She chuckled again, this time at herself. “Of course they were. Silly me. Well, I’d better go rescue Jean-Paul from the horde. See you in a bit for dinner.” She leaned down and pecked his cheek, then left him in his comfortable, worn, red leather chair.
He watched her go, then looked over at the man behind the desk, who was watching him now, a glint in the eye behind that glass lens.
“Of course they were just stories,” the old man murmured, and memory brought flickers of images – a mighty rain storm, a one-eyed cat, a sobbing clown, horns of white and silver, a shot in the night, luminous wings of gold and flame ….
“The truth -- well, now, the truth is actually a lot more interesting.”
-- Dave Hill
(Phantom entries I really wanted to make: "Two Little Indian Boys," "The Fire Within," "Tears from a Vengeful God")