Bad Day at the Bluff
“Out here on the perimeter there are no stars; out here we is stoned, immaculate.”
“Yeah, yeah, connected, connected,” his voice said, “You could say that. They shagged each other, and then they got arrested. That's a connection. Why do you keep going on about connection? It's weird. Anyway, you gonna be at Martina's house tonight? She's expecting both of you so don't disappoint her. Cuidate.”
“Okay, are you ready yet?” Samantha from the kitchen. She was ignoring the obvious. I didn't want to go to Martina's. I couldn't bring myself to converse with, people.
“They are your familia,” she said as if I had spoken aloud. Had I? Samantha walked into the dining room and it reminded me. Of that past life. I used to get so horny just from her walking across the room. She hasn't changed. I have been killed.
“Oh good! You're ready. Why do you leave me to wonder like that?” she smiled and kissed me lightly, not wanting to spoil her lipstick. Then she looked down, and used a very mellow tone.
“You know Martina. She hangs on your every word, now that you're back. She still relies on you- just to be there- that's all. You're going to be there, right?”
“Let's go,” I said.
Martina's place. Nice. She married a very capable young man who works hard to please her. A beautiful neighbourhood, in a place I don't belong. Still, I raised Martina after our parents were taken. Not her fault I went off to war. She is fragile, and I am obligated.
I hate that word.
We walked into the finely decorated house. Martina the perfectionista. There she was pretending to be busy and not wanting to make this into a scene. I could still play this part.
“Martinita! Por favor,” I said, and put my arms out. The family raised their voices. Approval. Martina sobbed and ran over to hug me like I had been gone for her entire life, instead of a few years. Madre de Dios, we only lived across town. Sam smiled so brightly that I was almost touched.
Food, that I taught her to cook.
Her husband drank Scotch that I told her men would appreciate.
My brother in law drank too much as usual, and Martina put him in his place, as I taught her to do with drunk men I- can't, feel, anything.
In the upstairs room for some air. I smoked and blew it out the window to see if I was real. There was more yelling downstairs.
“What! Something has to bring him to life. I barely touched him.” he had hit me in the face.
“What happened to you out there?” he had demanded.
Now he was coming up the stairs and into the room again, “Hey! Hey! Why aren't you having sex with my sister, huh! She's not good enough for you anymore?”
In the car, on the way home. Sam was cursing at me fiercely.
“Why did you tell him that in the first place? You know he is half crazy. Dios mio, he is going to be in the hospital for months.”
I was. I-
The night and the stars held no sympathy. I wanted none. I just wanted to feel something. I sped up and drove into the night toward home.
I felt nothing. In my own home, at my desk, on my phone, receiving my assignment, I should feel something.
“The thing is,” the phone was connected. It connected me to someone, to my editor at the Caracas Star, Bob Ganz, “Gimson is kitschy these days…”
“Kitschy”, a word that could mean anything. I never know what Ganz is talking about. He used jargon like a substitute for authority. In his mind, he had no need to forge alliances or relationships, or connections, only dole out assignments, and sound like he knew what to do. He had never been in the field. He could mimic the impressions he got from those who had but it came out like poor television dialogue, leaving the sense that he was not real, like the hint of a memory I might have had.
“Because you were in Iraq…”
My cigarette smoldered insolently at the end of my yellowed fingers. The fresh particulate wafted, straight up, then wavy, and finally curling up into unknowable entropy. I should be so- so particulated. Caracas heat sweated the realism out of a person.
“He lives out on the bluff, which is creepy.”
The Bluff: A spooky, local legend of murders, betrayals, and clandestine political arrangements. The Bluff was a Keep built in the seventeenth century to keep watch for British Navy ships. It was later taken by force by King Phillip V, traded to Charles III, who lost it in a card game, of all things, to Louis XIV, who in turn gave it away as a concession to some of his debts.
The old keep was blasted to pieces by Phillip’s war galleys after Don Carlos del Bastardo, an illegitimate son, disappeared there. It was rebuilt by other local leaders, but holds its odd history of periodic destruction. It’s cursed, but it sells, always to foreigners who want the view. Every new buyer builds a new mansion more grandiose than the previous, and each falls to disaster of some sort. Then, after a few years, it’s empty again, the owners nowhere to be found. The city resells the property.
The fact that it sells is only part of the story, though. The type of buyer suggests more. Phillip the Fifth and his son Charles believed that treasure rested beneath the stones in secret caves. In a diary I picked up from a reseller in Salamanca, Charles recorded for Phillip something far more mysterious; legends linking the site of the Keep to tales of ancient sorcerers, and a sordid history of missing people. True or not, the stories motivated other buyers since to purchase the site. One of the local leaders in the late Eighteenth Century, Benicio Del Nuriago, formed a secretive group reminiscent of the Illuminati and claimed to induct worthy- which meant rich- supplicants into their exclusive nether-world lounge. Their “Hellfire Club” approach proved reliable enough to keep the group wealthy and powerful here in Venezuela.
Lev Gimson, producer of corny horror flicks, was just the latest buyer. The word from Woody Pines, his home outside of Los Angeles, was that strange events on the set of his last movie had frightened him so terribly that he had to be rushed to a hospital. Apparently it put a stop to the project entirely. Whatever had happened, Gimson retired from movies, and moved here to study some mysterious artefacts with the aid of psychologists. Locally it was a big deal because his movies were popular with this superstitious Hispanic audience.
It would be worth telling in the Star if it hadn’t been told a thousand times. All of it, including the Bluff’s reputation for missing people, was known. It had connection. Even before the Keep had been built, the tolcatistas, the local natives, had stories about people who never returned from that place. All of the missing owners over the years had only validated them. Nobody doubted anymore. To them, and everyone else, The Bluff was a spot to access the underworld, for anyone who didn’t want to come back. I guess Gimson fit the profile.
The rumor of his arrival here was flushed into truth. His handlers played down the psychotic break, and granted my interview with him. The connection had been established. There must be something to feel in that.
“So be there at four o’clock.” The phone disconnected. Ganz was gone, like the sense that I was actually here. Four o’clock was one hour away.
In this place, time passes like a change in air current. From across the room the minutes, hours, and days; like the air, move with insubstantial geist. People come and go in buzzing fits of activity, bringing, taking, entering, exiting, walking, driving, all inattentively mindful. If they had feelings, it would surely connect them somehow. I should connect. I have a phone. I could call Sam.
But I was going to The Bluff where, as a journalist, I would connect with Gimson.
I pulled into an artery of cars. Caracas was crammed with vehicles heading out of town. I avoided most of them by looping beneath the Veintiseis to Playa Baja Road, which winds out to the Bluff. Radio voices related the weather. Another tropical storm approached about five hundred miles out. It would miss Venezuela, but we would certainly get the fallout: wind, rain, some nasty hail, maybe. The Bluff would be more windy than usual. In the city, the heat was a sweaty bubble around every individual, and they struggled to breathe through the mandatory masks, but out here the sea freshened the sunlight with cool air. Clouds beyond the farthest islands warned of tribulation like the hint of a scowl on Sam’s face.
She had slipped in the front door, sweating from her run. I hugged her, and took in the glistening fresh scent in her black hair, but she had her hands between us. Something…
“Your sister is in the hospital,” she had said, “Thought it was a heart attack.”
“Just a panic attack,” I informed, “No. I wasn’t scared.”
“Nothing touches you.” The hint of a scowl foreshadowing her displeasure. We had been together for years, always depending on each other, but after I returned from Iraq things were different. I couldn’t reach her. She, maybe I, stopped trying.
The phone is right there. I don’t know. I pulled up to the extended edge of the roadside where the stairs led down to the mansion on the bluff.
The breeze loose and uncertain, I stood at the elderly wooden stairway that had been laid into the grassy hillside of the Bluff. It led in short, straight sections down, across, over and down to the colossal mansion. There had to be fifty rooms, all laid out behind the massive windows facing the ocean, and the huge outer deck. Several rooftops reached the height of the road. As I made my way in through the lavish stonework entrance, the memory of Ganz’s voice reminded me of my own disconnection. Is that what I am here for?
The Salon, where I was to meet him, was more like a posh men’s club lounge. There, the men of grotesque richesse sat in plush leather seats, rolling brandy in snifters as they read newspapers in Italian and Dutch. There was General Rui Velasquez sitting with Emil Calderon of the Brazillian newspaper consortium, Calderra Mancha. I worked for him, peripherally. Over there was George Bush, the elder, and another oil tycoon, Frank Manger. Each of them looked up at me, then went back to their papers. It was just an odd place for a men’s club. Perhaps to them the Bluff was a sexy place to meet. All the dark wood paneling and expensive rugs, the lush young women serving the men, the decadence: Lounging in the spirit world was just more swag.
There was a small crowd, a study of psychologists, around Gimson at the far end, all silently researching relics. Only he looked at me, then scribbled notes.
“Don’t look at him,” he said to the others.
I announced myself, but they did not respond, as if doing so would establish a connection, as if I was a ghost to be acknowledged at their peril. Or, I mused, maybe they were ghosts, sparing me from permanent residence by avoiding me. In time like the subtle brush of air, I stood ignored.
“Would your relics make sense to a novice, Mr. Gimson?”
Nothing. He stood up and walked away. One by one, the entourage got up and left also. Unconnected, I left the mansion. The wooden stairs creaked. The wind had found itself, and the tall flaxen grass waved with some urgency. At the last wooden section before the car, I picked up a small stone artefact. It must have been dropped. Words were carved in it that said, “The Call. Answer the Call.”
I panicked, and tripped. My heart was bursting, pounding with painful pressure. I couldn’t get enough air. Gasping, and gritting my teeth at the pain, I clawed upward toward the top of the stairs, yoked by hysteria. A sense of unreality, vast and profound, separated me from my body, and deepened my fright. As I drifted away, I scrambled harder up the stairs.
Desperation cinched my throat, making me struggle for air. Exposed on the stairs I cast about for succor, but the safety of my car was another thirty steps or more. Anything could happen! The rocks were far below. A dilation of time spun around my head, and I couldn’t tell how long I was there. There was wind in my ears. My back and my face were wet and cold. There was hard wood under my hands and knees. My heart was pounding under the force of the wind. -And then I was sitting in my car. I needed to drive home and- how did I get here? I was soaking wet; it was raining now. I don’t remember the rain! I keyed the ignition, and the car purred to life, but how could I trust myself to drive? I was shaking like a leaf! A storm had attacked suddenly, and the road was wet. I couldn’t see from the rain. And the wind, the gale? It could throw my car right off the road! No, I needed to be safe. But to stay in the car was to risk the lightning. If I got out, I would freeze from the rain, or die from the wind. If only Sam were here. If I could get back to her…
She had called me on the cell- was it before the rain, or after? The phone was wet. Was it ringing even now? I should answer the call.
Lightning, thick and demanding, blasted the lone tree ahead of me. Shards of wood bunted on my windshield. I froze.
Sam would be better off without me.
I looked, and thus moved, toward the mansion, as if reality had become serrated, and I danced along the jagged peaks. I was beside the car in the rain. Then on the steps, frozen in mid stride. The last ramp to the foyer. The door. The Salon. And then I was looking at Gimson, seated comfortably in a plush tan chair, a brandy in one hand, a naked serving girl kneeling to one side. The lambent jazz music in the background had a latino rhythm. I was dry and the atmosphere seemed to carry something more than just air.
Gimson sighed when he looked at me.
“You should have answered the call. I didn’t answer mine. If you don’t answer the call, you lose all connection. It’s all in my notes.
“You’re going to see things,” he added, “Upsetting things. Ignore them. They’re just the breath of dying comrades.” His notes were still on the coffee table, but most were blank. I shuffled through them madly until I found one covered with “The Call. Answer the Call.” The Call. The Call. The Call. It just said that all over it! I stormed over to Gimson, clutching the paper,
“I won’t answer,” I yelled, “I won’t do it!”
“Then you’ll lose Sam, Martina, and all of the others. You lose everyone,” he shrugged, pointing toward the back.
I looked there to see Sam walking, jerking robotically, bewilderment on her face. She was here on the Bluff! She caught my eye for one second. She didn’t know what was happening. She saw me and tried to say, “What?” but she disappeared. Martina looked up from her hospital bed, reached for me and winked out of existence. And then our friends began to disappear, our family. I would see them in their homes, and then, stricken dumb, they were drawn into the Bluff to be taken. Everyone I knew disappeared.
A low growling noise grabbed my attention. From behind me a painted and feathered Toltec lunged at Gimson, the force knocking his chair over backward. Another savage, stone axe in hand, assaulted the naked girl, hacking her to pieces in front of me. Neither of them cried out or protested. Blood pumped onto the gold rug and spattered my pants and shoes. More savages attacked them. Howling and head-shaking, they tore the girl apart, her blood showering my face. The first bounded back over the chair with Gimson’s head in his fist.
The head looked at me, “Just ignore this,” it said. They leaped right through me. The other savages broke away from the mutilated girl and followed them into my chest, pieces of her in hand.
Soldiers rushed at me from both sides, Sunnis and my squad, quiet like professionals. I was here again, home in the moment of my real death. No ammo left, they unsheathed their knives. Men squared away, but I stood apart, detached, disconnected, but panicking. Dammit, I should feel something! Gasping, grunting. They killed each other with equal numbers and skill until only two were left, and me. My gun was loaded. I had it in my hand, powerful and ready. Davis looked at me, calling, but his enemy dug the knife into his neck. Davis sighed into silence, relaxed and betrayed. The killer noticed me. He backed away furtively, then ran. I sank into the wall behind me, alive, and undead. A frozen wasteland opened up and I gratefully became solid with cold. On a distant world, my body walked out of some arid, Iraqi town just as a detonation disconnected my link to humanity.
I am despicable. I looked at my hands. My skin was red, and my black nails sharp and long. My fangs bit into my lip, and I tasted blood. I am a demon. Disconnected and dead. As dead as my squad. Free as warm smoke. I will sever all connections, to preserve the sanctity of it all!
On my way to the stormy deck, where I would spread my disconnection in the wind, I passed a huge mirror, behind which were trapped Sam, Martina, Davis, and all of the damned ghosts, associations, relations, of being. Sam and Martina calling to me, “Answer the Call! The Call. The Call. The Call.” She could see me even as I was, demonic and dead, wispy and particulated, and still she made the Call. I could hear it ringing beside me in the car. I smoldered at her, wishing I could be a man in her arms, but you can’t make a man out of smoke; only those who are real can answer the Call. I picked up one of Gimson’s artifacts, the stone message of my vengeance, and threw it at her. It blew out the wall, revealing a black void where I, and everything, merged with nothingness.
The Bluff remained steady under the lazy breezes that followed the storm. Mid way up the hill, on the lower beach road that brought inhabitants of the city to the spirit world, the lone sports car purred with continued life as local Police prowled around it searching for clues. Finally they opened the door and tried to make some kind of contact with the unresponsive driver.
When Samantha arrived, sobbing and shaking, they explained to her,
“We are very sorry. This is how we found him. He was soaking wet. The car was running, and he had his cell phone in his hand. He does not respond, so the ambulance is taking him to the hospital.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has no entry for Hugh, who resides in a mysterious part of BC often referred to as “the middle of nowhere”
He can be reached by email.