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October 03, 2022

The Glass Man

By Steven Comstock

Devin, coughing and muttering about how the weather worsened his cold, climbed the wet marble steps of the Placidans mansion in the dismal evening rain. The mansion was home to philanthropist, banker and artifact collector Bertrand and his wife, Sheila. Fluted columns in need of more paint held up the overhang, and a broken pediment -- literally broken at the top -- adorned the front double doors, which were also in need of more paint. Devin folded his umbrella and gave it a few shakes. He smoothed his fading red hair, the thoughts of Bertrand's strange request still on his mind because Mr. Placidans could have asked any of his many art and relic collecting associates to satisfy his demands. Bertrand had called Devin at Uncell personally to ask his opinion on a "spectacular" find. With a final cough to clear his throat, he rang the doorbell.

A young, mustached butler greeted him at the door.

"Hello," Devin began. "I'm Dr. Clearwater. Your -- " he didn't want to say master. "I mean, Mr. Placidans invited me here this evening."

"Of course," the butler said eloquently. "Please come in, doctor. Mr. Placidans is in his study." After taking Devin's gray trench coat and umbrella, he led him down a long, wide hallway lighted by yellow orbs nested in bronze holders. He wasn't sure, as the light was dim, but he saw piles of artifacts from various cultures piled everywhere, and when he passed by adjoining rooms, they were stuffed with similar items and cardboard boxes. Very expensive looking vases rested sideways on the floor, easy targets for a misplaced footstep, and native American headdresses stacked like baseball caps too, like a flea market was about to happen. He imagined that they must be getting ready to move.

The butler came to a door with yellow light peering out from the bottom. He knocked once, then motioned for Devin to enter. The room was rectangular, with high ceilings and a steel spiral staircase allowing access to the upper level. This room had no clutter. Bookcases tight with tomes stood to one side, a fireplace and chairs crafted of fine leather and polished wood to the other. An old but physically healthy-looking man wearing gray casual pants and a white oxford shirt stood with closed eyes before the bookcases holding a heavy book, a softly curling smile on his face.

"Pardon me, sir," the butler said. "Mr. Clearwater has arrived."

"Doctor," Devin reminded him, not harshly. He just liked his title. The butler bowed a slight apology.

Bertrand opened his eyes slowly, revealing kind and intelligent eyes, not like the yellowed gaze of the elderly.

"Some things," Bertrand began, as if orating before an audience. "Just radiate wisdom. Like this book. I can feel the energy still there, dormant but so alive." He held up the book and shelved it. He went to shake Devin's hand.

"Dr. Clearwater. What an honor. Thank you for coming," he said. "I can just feel the knowledge emanating from you." Devin couldn't tell whether the old man was serious, kidding, eccentric or all three, but at any rate, he blushed slightly.

"Mr. Placidans," he said.

"Call me Bert."

"Okay."

"Care for a drink?" Bertrand asked after Devin took a seat on one of the leather chairs.

"Definitely," Devin said, relieved to be off his feet after a long day teaching. The heavy rain storm and piles of student work demanded it. "Got any Johnnie Walker? I take it straight, please."

Bertrand nodded to his butler, who returned a few minutes later with a glass and three bottles. The butler asked him his preference.

"The blue label," he said. "Best for the best."

"Thank you, Frederick. That's all for now," Bertrand told his butler, and Frederick left them to talk in private.

"How are things at Uncell?" Bertrand asked. Devin was a professor of physical anthropology, an expert on New England native American tribes, and a field veteran with decades of digs and artifacts to prove it. Instead of watching television when he was a teen, he collected arrowheads and studied maps of southern Connecticut. He could tell you the kind of feather natives used to make a headdress and the kind of animal skins they used to make clothes. He knew more about native culture than the natives did themselves, although this kind of dedication charged a high price. After realizing Devin would never stop researching, lecturing and publishing, his wife asked for and got a divorce. Devin didn't fight to hold onto his marriage. He told her that anthropology was his life. It was his kingdom, and he never left his kingdom.

"Steady as ever," Devin said, "but I think the students are getting dumber every year. If they had any idea of the work I had to do at their age." He waved his hand. "Really."

Bertrand grinned in an understanding way.

"Doctor," Bertrand said. "I asked you here tonight because I have something incredible to show you. It's not in your specific area of expertise; in fact, I don't know what area of expertise it derives from, but I think you will appreciate it anyway. I know that you're the expert on New England's indians, but I was hoping you could shed some light on what I have to show you." He walked over to the first bookcase, where he had stood before.

"What's it about?" Devin said, sipping the golden liquid and viewing it through the lamp light. That's good whiskey. Bertrand ran his hand on the inside of the bookcase, talking to himself as he did, until there was a beep. Something unlocked behind a wall.

"Modeled on a bank vault," Bertrand joked. Where once a solid wall of mahogany stood engraved with the Placidans coat of arms, a state-of-the-art display case now called Devin's attention. Aquamarine lights and near invisible glass showcased a humanoid skeleton, shorter in arm and leg than a modern man, but compelling in its composition, for the skeleton was, as if cut from obsidian, gleaming black.

"See it there," Bertrand said wondrously. "Is she not miraculous?"

Devin moved closer to inspect, instantly filled with thoughts of hoax, trick, and lie. It was a deliberate fake, though he couldn't be entirely sure. Questions first.

"Where did you find it?" he said while gauging the thing's proportions using his thumb and pen. The skeleton was about five feet, five inches.

"Northern Maine," Bertrand replied. "Some white-tail hunters discovered her south of a town named Allagash, near the Allagash River. Supposedly the man tripped over its half-buried arm. One in a billion, really. They pulled her out of the ground and got word to a nearby research team that works for me."

" ... makes absolutely no sense ... ," Devin thought aloud, studying its jawbone, and Bertrand seemed to feel the doctor's apprehension.

"This is no trick, doctor," he said. "You have my complete confidence. My analysts verified its age, about 10,000 B.C, but they cannot discern her composition." He paused. "Do you think I'd jeopardize my name for a trick?"

Devin let his gaze search for honesty in the old patriarch's face. "I don't know. Would you? History has its share of rich men who played scientists for fools, and the public too. I can't speak for your motives." The claim about the skeleton being female was accurate, at least. He could tell by the pelvic tilt and width; otherwise, the thing kept its secrets well hidden. Devin weighed his choices, since he could easily go out on a limb for Placidans, but given the nature of the find and his own desire to hold onto the familiar, he didn't, if he decided to help the old man, feel himself. His kingdom didn't include the bizarre or grotesque. But the drink loosened his pragmatic mind a bit. It wouldn't hurt him to take one trip outside native America for once in his life, and maybe it would open his eyes to a new path.

"Let me make you an offer," Bertrand interrupted his thinking. "It's very simple. Go up there. Look around. Put that renowned intellect toward a new venture. Find something out or find nothing out -- I'll give you the funding for that new grant you're working on."

Devin stiffened. "How did you know about that?" he said. Suddenly the room got smaller, putting him and Placidans uncomfortably close. Truthfully, he felt a little annoyed, because Devin was the only one who knew about his grant proposal. He'd be extremely upset if he found out the old man was spying on him.

"Knowing is my trade," Bertrand answered. "You professors are always looking for grants, right? Great in mind but often lacking in funds, eh? I just assumed you were looking for funding." He chuckled.

"Here's my counter offer," Devin said. No way was he going to Maine without something on the table first. "Write me a check right now for part of the grant. When I get back, you give me the rest." Bertrand, not appearing put upon in the least, wrote him a check. Devin relaxed when he had the beige slip of paper in his pocket, and the two shook hands on it.

A few quick calls to the dean and faculty settled business at Uncell. A bus ticket -- he hated flying -- had him set for Maine, and the trip took him through the heart of New England's classic fall foliage. Chilly, slate blue rivers flowed by, birch trees, and gold and red leaves by the millions. He wrote in his journal to pass the time, how he felt doubtful about the trip and wondering whether Bert was a nut or just a rich man bored with being rich and looking to play games with unwitting people. He wanted to relax too. The skeleton was just a distraction for him that might even refresh the old drink of his scheduled life. He would let the people he'd be meeting up there handle the hard work while he advised.

He exited the bus, and the wind caught him off guard, much colder than October in Connecticut. Devin saw a man and a woman dressed warm and waving at him.

"Dr. Clearwater?" the woman said. She shook his hand. "I'm Mary Collar. This is Frank Staxe." After handshakes and pleasantries, they drove in an Xterra back to her place in Allagash. At sunrise the next morning, they left to make the most use of the daylight.

"How do you two know Bert?" Devin said after many miles of traveling.

"We've been working for him for ten years now," Mary said, her eyes meeting Devin's in the rear-view. "He's a rabid collector. Doesn't care what it is. The guy's got no taste, but he loves to collect. He just assumes that anything older than him is worth owning." Frank laughed.

"I noticed that his house was full of artifacts. What a shame, to treat those things like that. Does he collect for the sake of collecting or does he care about the past?" Devin asked with an edgy tone.

"I wouldn't know." Mary laughed. "Frank and I have never been there."

Devin noticed the signs of human activity lessening as they drove farther north.

One in a billion chance anyone would find that skeleton thing up here? he wondered. More like impossible. Still, he held on to the slim chance that Bert wasn't lying, and that he would give him the rest of his grant money if they found something or nothing.

"What's the site you're working on?" he said. "Bert told me you two were researching another matter for him."

"We're in charge of a team at a site farther north of Allagash. They've found authentic Viking artifacts. Here. In the states."

"Vikings?" Devin said abruptly. Now he knew he was in trouble. "That's impossible," he said, and instantly regretted his outburst. His field work had taught him that one must assume man always went farther than the history books gave him credit. He himself had found native relics where they weren't supposed to be, and musical instruments cut just a little different, or clothing made with an exotic dye. Frank turned around.

"Check this out -- we have a stash of iron long swords already. They are the real McCoy," he said proudly. "Unmistakable proof of Scandinavian culture. We've named the site Little Norway. What we're really hoping to find is a funeral ship like the Sutton Hoo. That would crown this dig just perfectly. Can you dig?" Both he and Mary laughed at Frank's predictable pun. The Xterra rolled up to an unremarkable location far from any living soul. A shallow stream flowed by, and there was a massive oak tree, some bushes, dead grass, and many rocks. A few crows squabbled in the distance. Devin stretched his legs and arms, glad to have worn his winter coat, and went to grab his canvas equipment bag. This was the place where the "Glass Man," as Mary and Frank called it, was found, much to his irritation. The thing was clearly female. His senses, trained for finding signs of past societies, immediately assessed the area for human activity. Nothing of the place invited human habitation. Mary and Frank stood around as if waiting for him to give them orders.

"Has there been a survey of this area?" he said.

"What?" she replied. "Oh. No, there hasn't been a survey. We're not even at first stage here. Bert's hoping that you have the answers. Remember, we're just here to get you here and back."

Devin rolled his eyes. Frank lighted a Camel, looking bored by the whole thing. Devin hoped they would've been of more help once they began, but their behavior told him they wanted him to run it alone.

"Well, can you at least tell me where the Glass Man was found?" he said rudely. Mary led him to a bare patch of ground near the massive oak. Devon got down one knee and felt his joints pop. He considered how the hunters dug her out of the near frozen ground without shovels. It's a bad move to take artifacts away from a dig site. Like removing evidence from a crime scene, creating a picture of the past requires all parts be present to make a believable story. Carefully, he swept his hand over the dug up dirt where the hunter had supposedly tripped over her. Small flakes of glimmering black were his reward. He pressed his fingertips down to pick them up. They looked like the same stuff the skeleton was made of.

"Could one of you hand me a container?" he said, inspecting the glass closely. After a few seconds, he turned around to find neither Mary nor Frank was there. Maybe they're behind the SUV. Devin checked it, found nothing. I can't believe this, he thought. The situation didn't make sense to him. There were too many unanswered questions dangling around. He wiped the glass slivers on his pants. This was obviously some kind of joke or becoming a joke very soon, but the thing was, he wasn't laughing. Devin felt angry and afraid, being out a hundred miles from anyone with two complete strangers. The fear was palpable as vibrations in his hands.

He looked at his hands. That wasn't fear.

The vibrations tickled his fingers and moved up his arms like a mild electric shock minus the pain. He thought he was having a heart attack. His calls for help went ignored as the vibrations intensified, stopping at his shoulders, but he didn't feel ill or dizzy. Pulled two ways, he had to figure out what happened to those two idiots and what the hell was happening to himself. The SUV was his way out. Opening the driver side door he found the keys were not in the ignition, so he checked under the seats and everywhere for them. Mary must have them, but where is she? The vibrations still flowed through his arms. He held them straight out, shaking them, and realized that turning in a certain direction made the vibration even stronger. Devin became the first human compass.

Fearful but curious, he followed the strength of the vibrations, crossing the shallow stream and up its bank. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and he felt increasingly hot under the heavy sweater. The temperature was rising markedly. His eyes must be playing tricks, for the sky had gone from overcast to clear blue, the Sun was rising higher in the sky, and the leaves were reversing from orange and red to green. Fresh grass bent below his work boots. Birds praised the beautiful weather with song. Something was cooking. It was definitely fish, crisping in fire, a smell that reminded him of his empty stomach. And he heard human voices.

There they were, impossibly so. Gasping, Devin crouched behind a cluster of chest high white pines and removed his red winter coat to avoid being seen. Then he went face down on the ground. This is not real, he thought, but he heard their voices, men and women and kids speaking an unknown language. Devin made like a corpse.

"Truly," Bertrand said. He was in his solarium. His hands had split into many fleshy threads and were waving over him like tree branches. He sat on a gold throne taken from Pharaoh Thutmose IV's tomb, with what could be called a smile on what could be called his mouth. "An impossibly hidden anachronism." He adjusted the crown once property of Edward I, 'Longshanks,' with his tentacles.

"Is the disruptor in place? I cannot feel them at this location," said a disembodied, high-pitched voice that sounded like dolphins.

"Mary and Frank took him there. They told me he had synched with the anachron almost immediately," Bertrand said. His tentacles slithered around the room, feeling and grasping for more artifacts. "His betas were perfect. They're waiting for him to close distance. Then they'll disrupt and we can enter safely."

"Wonderful," the voice squeaked. "Then we can set down Acquisitions."

"In ten zobs, no sooner," Bertrand said. "The savages would kill them."

"Proceed then."

The long houses, the hanging iron swords, the clothing -- all insisted he was seeing something that should not be, but was. It must be a commune or a hippie village, he thought, or an incredibly well done fake. This is the perfect place for exiles and outcasts. Slowly and carefully he brought himself up to kneel, not realizing he'd been lying face down for almost half an hour. How danger accelerates things. His watch hands had moved from 8:30 to 1:00. Devin questioned his sanity when his senses kept telling him he was standing on the edge of a living Viking village. Maybe he did die back at the oak tree, yet his all too human reaction -- beating heart, sweating, and racing thoughts -- informed him that he had not reached the afterlife yet. Fight or run, his mind urged him. And Devin didn't feel crazy either, not that men newly inducted into madness understood their changed condition. Should he chance it and stroll into their midst to test his theory of reality? They might vanish back into his psychotic mind, or they might slice him up for fish bait.

Either way, a group of young men sat around a cook fire, talking. Some were bare-chested, while others wore leather. All of them looked savage. He remembered what Mary told him about Little Norway. Devin's knowledge of Vikings (one class: Ancient Scandinavian Societies) came to mind. Vikings enjoyed killing, their name more a verb for pillaging and not their true title, and here was the civilized professor wearing a nicely made shirt and only a pen to defend himself. He had to act. He couldn't sit there for hours waiting for dark, and the longer he stayed there, the greater the probability that one of them would find him.

The trouble was, he couldn't remember the way in, or if he even "entered" anything at all. Suddenly, without his knowledge, the world went from Maine in autumn to summer in Norway, if this was Norway. It must be seventy-five degrees, he thought. Devin saw no sign of the Xterra although he'd walked for fewer than five minutes, seven tops. The stream he crossed wasn't there either. Panic closed in, followed by numerous curses for the bastard who'd sent him up north, as he wondered whether he could ever get home again.

"Proximity check," Frank called.

"Feel him," Mary confirmed. "Not proximal enough." Devin's betas put his position near the periphery of Little Norway. He had to move closer so he was standing in the center of them all.

"He must get closer," Mary said. "If we disrupt too soon, the anachron will split into a geometric artifact replication."

"I know," Frank said, tentacles pulsing around the cuboid zoq. "Just tell me when."

"Two zobs," Mary said. "Hold for now."

Maybe, he thought, I can bolt backward, the way I came. He rotated to face the other way and saw walls of gorgeously green and useless leaves facing him, giving him no reference points back to the SUV. He had to move now.

A dog barked. More barks joined in, not warnings but the sound of animals at play. Devin saw a light gray and white dog the size and shape of a German Shepherd running around a group of young boys. One boy held a stick up and kept making as if to throw it for the dog to fetch. The dog barked and jumped at them. Another dog, bigger than the first, joined the stick-throwing club. A third one trotted in to play. If Devin could smell the fish, the dogs could certainly smell him or would soon if he didn't move. The boy threw the stick.. The dogs raced off for it, nipping at each other, until one seized it triumphantly in its teeth as the others tried to pull the stick away. The prize winner trotted back to the boys with its defeated brother next to him, but the last one, the big one, caught the scent of an intruder. It lifted its nose.

Devin ceased all bodily functions. A statue couldn't do a better job. No way to get the scent of soap and shampoo off of him. The clean scent clashed with the Vikings' lack of hygiene. Warily, and growling, the dog approached the white pines, letting the invader see its sharp, meat-tearing teeth.

Devin flew as fast as he could away from the village. The dog closed fast, barking to alert the village. His throat hurt from his cold and running so fast, but he knew the dog would do much worse to his throat if it caught him. He forced his body forward. Adrenaline helped take the edge off his burning leg muscles. Behind him, an alarm went up in the sound of many shouting voices. The entire village of eighty Vikings chased after him.

"The car!" he pleaded. Where the hell was it? The dog bit at his legs. Up ahead, he saw trees. Devin's last hope was to climb one and at least get away from the damned blood thirsty animal, but when he got near it, the tree was too wide and its branches too high to grasp. A whistle told the dog to back off. He stood with his arms around the trunk, heaving for air, and turned around to find twenty half naked warriors holding swords and axes looking at him like cornered game. Their hair was unwashed, and their eyes, unforgiving. They seized him.

"Little Norway has him. Almost within beta pulse. Mark: five ez-obs. Continue holding. We want every last one."

Frank held.

Ancient Scandinavian Societies, he remembered. He was nineteen and just coming into his own brand of arrogance born from his aptitude in anthropological studies. The Vikings' greatest asset, he once wrote, was their own cruel nature. Terrorize, kill and take. Regrets to be pondered later in mead and song. In fact, half of England suffered under Viking excesses until an English king finally beat them back to Scandinavia. Devin was getting a first rate education in their culture right now, but he didn't think he'd survive to tell anyone his conclusions.

The Vikings hit him in the stomach and face, tore his shirt off, and tied him down to a granite slab covered with the rust of dried blood. Yes, he recalled, they practiced human sacrifice too. Their dirty faces looked down on him, hooting mouths filled with brown teeth. Chaos ended. Devin heard a strong male voice. He couldn't understand their speech but he knew they were repeating his words, like churchgoers following a priest. The man bent over Devin, grim and angry, holding an iron spike with blood dried on its piercing tip. Never a praying man, Devin decided now was the time to be one. He began mouthing the 'Lord's Prayer' and closed his eyes: "Our Father, Who art in Heaven ... "

Vibrations started in his fingertips, growing more intense, stronger than before. It seemed like weeks ago he stood at the huge oak tree when that first happened. The Vikings chanted faster, and their unholy words became a unified scream. The vibrations passed through his shoulders, up his neck and into his brain, radiating outward. He waited for the spike to puncture his heart.

"Thy kingdom come ... "

The Viking screams of ritual sacrifice became cries of pain. They collapsed to the ground, grabbing at their heads in agony, flopping around like fish on dry land. Blood and yellow fluid ran out their noses.

"And forgive us our trespasses ... "

Dogs groaning in madness along with the tribe, urinating and defecating from fear and pain. People shaking like in a fever, trembling, and sweating.

" ... but deliver us from evil ... "

All of them were dead. Devin opened his eyes. He yelled against the things he had seen:

"Amen. Amen. Amen."

He moved his eyes left and right trying to see what was happening. Only silence answered him, so, exhausted and overcome by what had just happened, he closed his eyes and fell asleep. Minutes later he awoke to find a shiny red thing like a vine or snake twisting over him. He was able to sit up. The tentacle withdrew to its owner floating by one of the long houses. Its other tentacles seemed to be searching for something as it picked up items and dropped them. Devin saw there were several of them in the village. One of them farther away from the village center made high-pitched noises to which others dropped what they were doing and floated over.

It was the ship, Devin saw, almost complete and resting on supports, the defining masterpiece of Viking culture. The creatures swarmed over it, their tentacles split into many more threads and inserted themselves into the ship's structure. They got into the boat, and it rose from its supports straight up to a distorted section of the sky, rippling as a reflection on water. And then the ship vanished with its new crew. The anachronism imploded. Suddenly the temperature dropped from seventy-five to forty-three degrees. The Sun zipped down from afternoon position to near evening. Green leaves returned to red and yellow. Birds stopped singing. Grass yellowed. About a hundred yards away, with so many leaves on the ground now, Devin saw the sporty red Xerra revealed. He quickly jumped in, relieved beyond expression to find the keys in the ignition, and drove home.

One week later at his home, Devin received a manila envelope in the mail. He had been working longer days at Uncell in his effort to keep himself from dwelling on his experience. He'd also been drinking more. On his desk stacks of books on native culture waited to be read. He opened the envelope and found a typed letter that thanked him for his skillful handling of Little Norway and that in the future his expertise would be most sought in service of Bertrand Placidans. No mention of the Glass Man at all. Devin read each word carefully, hoping nothing in the letter hinted at dissatisfaction or anger. Pulsing, shiny tentacles reached for him through the bedroom windows in his dreams, to take him to some unknown place in the sky.

And there was something else. It fell spinning like an autumn leaf out of the folded letter onto the rope rug. Picking it up, he saw it was a signed check from Mr. Placidans to Dr. Devin Clearwater. But it was not the remaining part of the agreed upon money. The field where you put the sum was blank. Hush money or extremely generous gratitude he didn't know, but he put the check in his bedroom floor safe along with the other check and his most prized relics with no intention of ever cashing them. Devin, after going outside his realm and nearly dying, wanted nothing more to do with the old man. He tucked the incident away in a dark place in his mind. Sure, he thought, put time traveling Vikings and artifact hunting alien squids out of your mind. Devin put on his trench coat, went out to a local bar to get a drink, many drinks, of whiskey and planned for the next day of lecturing at Uncell.

Article © Steven Comstock. All rights reserved.
Published on 2009-12-14
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