The Storytellers Ch. 03byParis Waterman©
"Yes, well, it's about a fellow named, well, he's had several names, but I'll use his original name, Bill Harbidge."
"Harbidge," I repeated. "I've never heard of him."
"Of course not, but if you choose to write about him, he'll become famous enough."
"Who is he?"
"Ah, now that's the story, Roy, that's the story."
I lit up a Philip Morris, ground the match into the sand, and said, "I'm listening, Arthur."
"Good, I thought that would get your attention."
"Bill Harbidge was a baseball player back in the 1880's. He was a catch... I believe."
"Do you mean a catcher?"
"Yes, a catcher. Thank you. And he was good at it, although his career was relatively short. He earned my gratitude one day, and I rewarded him by giving him the ability to prolong his baseball career as long as he wanted to. He informed me that baseball players cannot play indefinitely; that their careers, as he called it, tended to last some ten to fifteen years."
"That's about right even by today's standards. A very few manage to play for twenty years, or so, but that's very few."
"Yes, and so I stretched the gift out by allowing him to take over the body and mind of such persons as he thought might prolong his playing days, even if it were not as Bill Harbidge."
I gulped at the thought, and asked, "How did you manage that?"
"I won't get into how I managed it, but will tell you what he was able to do. I gave him a special word, which when uttered in the proximity of an individual, would permit Bill to shed his current persona and...."
"Excuse me," I said interrupting him. But just what do you mean by 'persona?'"
"I mean the personality, character and . . . well, the very being of the person addressed by Bill. He takes them over, and leaves his previous body."
"That's impossible!" I exclaimed.
"Is it? Bill has been doing it for over fifty years, with a great deal of success, I might add. I should also mention that the body left behind is intact, retaining all the memories previously held, up to the moment that − let's call it, the spirit − leaves to join the new body."
"You... you're not kidding, are you?"
"No, I don't kid, Roy."
"How... does this thing work?"
"Let me go into it with some detail. Bill felt badly that his career was ending and he had not accomplished his dream; which was to be a great player. I rewarded him − he had saved my life, much as you did, Roy. Under different circumstances of course, but in any event he did save me and as a reward for so doing, I gave him a gift. The gift empowered him to change places with the person of his choice, ostensibly to improve his chances to become a great baseball player. But I would point out that he could change places with anyone he chose, man or woman, and as often as he wanted to do so."
"And you know that he's done just that, don't you?"
"Yes, I do."
"So, given that he can change places with virtually anyone, anytime, and as often as he desires, how am I expected to find him?"
"There's the rub, isn't it?"
"Arthur, are you playing with me?"
"Yes and no. Will you take me to Utah, now?"
"I have more questions, but... yes, of course I will. Do you have a specific location?"
"Bryce Canyon. We rendezvous there often."
"Fine, but I want...I need to know much more about this body changing."
"I prefer calling it shape-shifting."
"Alright, Utah, it is." I said and started the Desoto.
And so we drove north slicing through parts of Nevada into Utah, and after two days of straight driving, arrived at what Arthur described as a scientist's laboratory and a child's playground. He told me that the canyon and surrounding area exist in three distinct climate zones: spruce/fir forest, Ponderosa Pine forest, and Pinyon Pine/juniper forest.
As excited as I'd ever seen him, Arthur went on to extol the many species of birds, mammals and plants contained in and around the canyon.
I fought to keep from yawning. I was tired from all the driving, but more than that I was somewhat annoyed at the fact that Arthur had thus far resisted my attempts to extract additional information about Bill Harbidge.
"I remember when the "Spires" were once mountains," he said. I glanced at Arthur then; I had seen pictures of the "spires," no more than thin limestone peaks, worn away over eons, by the elements. Had he really "seen" them that long ago?"
"How long ago was that, Arthur?"
"Goodness, I'm not sure. It had to have been at least a million years ago."
"You're telling me that you're a million years old?" I said the disbelief evident in my tone.
"No, not at all, I'm only... let's see, in Earth years... about 133,000 years old."
For some reason I accepted his answer and never doubted him. "Um, Arthur, there's a discrepancy somewhere in your last statement."
"No, there's no... discrepancy," he replied. Beings from Crytos share their memories at will. We have no secrets from one another as you Earthlings do. So I can merely probe, let's call it a kind of memory bank, for any thoughts or sights that anyone from Crytos has had... ever. And, yes, we have been visiting Earth and other planets for much longer than that. Why I could tell you. . ."
"What?" I asked, knowing he would go no further on that subject.
"Never mind, Roy," he said, and then, "Oh, turn right!"
I followed his direction and turned right. According to the wooden sign, we were headed toward a place labeled "Inspiration Point."
When we arrived, I pulled the car over to the side of the road. It was a scenic lookout, across the canyon, and in the not too distant future it would become a major point of interest for tourists, America was not yet a mobile society and Inspiration Point, for all intents and purposes, was still undiscovered.
"This is where I will meet my brethren," he informed me, and I could almost swear I saw a tear form in the corner of his eye. But of course, I knew I was imagining it.
"Will they be coming soon?" I asked, knowing it was a dumb question.
"Soon is relative, but yes, they will be coming soon."
"I guess what I really meant was should I wait with you, or will a hundred years pass?"
"Oh, you'll be leaving me here, Roy. I can't impose on your generosity any longer."
"What about my novel?" I asked, suddenly concerned that I was to be abandoned without the necessary information he had promised to impart to me.
"Do you remember what I've told you about Bill thus far?"
"Yes, I think so."
"Let me add this, then; when you find him, call him Bill. No matter what, always call him by that name and no other. I cannot emphasize enough that you not make the mistake of calling him by any of the names that he has used since leaving Bill Harbidge."
"All right, may I ask why?"
"Roy, I am not at all sure that Bill has remained a good boy. I have serious doubts that he has used the power as I thought he would."
"Arthur, is Bill dangerous?"
"Not to you, nor do you pose any real threat to him. Again, I see no reason to fear him as long as you call him Bill. Please, Roy, keep that thought foremost in mind when conversing with him."
He paused reflecting on his words, and then nodded as if assuring himself that he had remembered everything of import to be imparted to me.
He nodded again, recalling an omission. "Roy, there is one last thing."
"Don't trust him."
"All right, I won't. But how can I find him? If he's changed personas, and you say he has, how can I ever locate him?"
"He told me he wanted to become a great baseball player. That was at the turn of the century. Does that help?"
My mind raced back over baseball history: Ruth, Cobb, Collins, Lajoie, Mathewson, or Walter Johnson? Or had he chosen someone else who never achieved greatness? Worse, had he opted to go in another direction?
Suddenly, I heard Arthur speaking in my head: "He's been many people, of that I'm sure. You can search for him . . . but perhaps you might let him find you."
"Will I see or hear from you again, Arthur?"
"It is possible. First I must reconnect with my shipmates and confirm to them exactly what happened."
"I thought that they could listen in... or somehow know what's happening as it happens?"
"Yes and no," he said, in that contradictory manner I was beginning to tire of.
"Please, Arthur, could you embellish on that for my sake?"
"Of course I can. Yes, they probably heard our last words. But it was a time of extreme excitement. Our last words may not have been the best suited to clarify what was happening at the time."
"What about our subsequent conversations?" I asked.
"There again, I've told you certain things that might not be correctly interpreted by my shipmates."
"You mean you've lied to me." I stated as a fact.
"No, I wouldn't lie to you."
"But you might mislead me, by stating things so that I would misunderstand them."
He nodded in agreement. "That may be so," he admitted.
I was angry with him, but held off saying something I might regret later.
"Arthur," I said after my feelings were under control. "I'm going to Los Angeles. I'm going to pursue the Black Dahlia murder. I don't for a minute believe in the poppycock about Bill whatshisname."
"His name is, or was Bill Harbidge. You can look him up. He played for the Hartford team."
"Yeah, and he's a... shape-shifter."
"Yes, he is."
"And I should let him find me."
"Pardon me if I don't drop everything and wait for him to call on me."
"Please, your sarcasm is not called for. You saved me, and I agreed to provide you with the story of a lifetime. Why berate me?"
"Because, Arthur, I am having some difficulty in believing anything you tell me."
"Very well, I'll tell you this. Go to Los Angeles. Talk with the police and newspaper people there. Investigate the crime. You will not uncover anything new. When you are satisfied that that is the case, do some research on Bill Harbidge. At least know who you are looking for. Then place an ad in the major newspapers in the country. Mention his name. Mention baseball, and anything else you feel might matter. He will respond to you. He may think it's me trying to find him. But he will contact you. Then meet him, interview him. I guarantee you will be able to write the novel of the century."
I was floored by what he said. It was probably the most information he'd conveyed thus far.
And eventually, that's exactly what I did.
We said our goodbyes a few minutes later, and I got back into my Desoto after making certain he had everything he needed, and drove off, with Los Angeles my destination.
The City of Angeles
I found a dump on Ventura Boulevard, and drove to the site of the murder to familiarize myself with the area. Then I found a bar and went in to quench my thirst. It was a typical bar, with minimal decorations and some beat-up furniture. But to many of the locals it was their meeting place and social club. In a more upscale area one might have called it a sportsmen's club, but along North Clark Street that would be too much of an affectation. There was a bar along one wall, with stools, and eight bare tables with chairs along the opposite wall. Most of the patrons were drinking beer, and listening to the jukebox. The men seated to my right at the bar were essentially displaced persons, ex-servicemen having returned from the war and trying to find their way back into civilian life. The atmosphere was light, almost frivolous, their ages ranged from about twenty, to mid-thirties, and they spent most of the time drinking and bantering one another, occasionally telling a war story or two. But most of them had heard enough of those to last a lifetime.
Up in the corner of the bar was a television set showing a cartoon of Felix the Cat. The picture quality was terrible, but it was still getting a lot of attention. Television was just coming on the market commercially, and nobody I knew had a set at home. I took a look in the rear room to see if a gin-rummy game was going on, there was, but since they had enough players I went back to the bar area.
A red-headed guy, named Frank, about thirty, was reminiscing about London's Piccadilly Circus and the local girls who were called Piccadilly Commandos. He was talking about a certain girl that he had dated. The girl's last name was Catchpole, which led to a lot of comments from the others at the bar; but eventually Frank got to tell his story, and it went like this. On their second date, they boarded a double-decker bus to go to her apartment. They go to the upper deck of the bus to take their seats, and Frank notices they are the only ones up there. He decides to start his romancing early, so he reaches down into her blouse. She immediately pushes his hand away. He tried groping her again, only to be rejected even more forcibly. Undaunted, Frank tried getting his hand up her skirt, causing her to cry out, "Any more of this familiarity, Yank, and the whole fuck's off!" After the laughter died down, a couple of guys to my right began discussing their war experiences.
One wore a fedora, one was bald.
The Fedora said, "Do you remember what it felt like when you went overseas?"
Baldy replied, "As well as I remember my own name."
"Bet you remember most everything happen while you were over there, too."
"Not really. I remember guys getting killed, and the near misses I had. I remember some shitty details I pulled. But so much was just waiting."
"I know, I know," the fedora said. "Me being in the Navy; at sea most of the time, seems like almost everyday was the same."
"But you remember the combat, and all, right?"
"Well, I spent most of the time below deck and didn't see the action. I mean, we saw plenty of it; but me... I didn't see shit because I was down below running the engine room."
"I know what you mean."
"Anyways, we took a torpedo and I lost my hand. I didn't know anything until I woke up in a hospital a week or so later. I had some bad burns and all, but damned if I know who pulled me out of the engine room, or got me on the life boat."
This was the first I'd noticed the fedora had a hook for a hand. I guess I could say the same for the bald-headed guy too, because he was staring at the hook the other guy had for a hand.
Baldy let a moment pass, then said, "Christ, that's something, you know?"
"Actually, I'm a very lucky guy," the man with the hook said with a grin.
"Yeah... just nervous out of the service, I guess, huh?"
Ignoring the comment, the man with the hook said, "The thing that scares me most is that everybody is trying to rehabilitate me. All I want's a good job, something with a future, a little house big enough for me and my wife. Give me that much and I'm rehabilitated." He clicked his claw as one might their fingers, "like that."
"Well, I'd say that's not too much to ask."
"Are you married?"
The bald-headed guy said, "Yup."
"Going on twenty years."
"Twenty years? Holy smoke! Me and my girl didn't even have twenty days before I went over. I married her when I was in training in Norfolk.
"Well, now you and your wife will have a chance to get acquainted."
I saw the man with the hook give the other an odd look. "Yeah, well, it's been swell; but I gotta run. Can't keep the little lady waiting."
Swallowing the last of his beer, the bald-headed guy said, "Me too; although after all these years I don't think she cares all that much."
They left, together, although once outside they went in opposite directions. I ordered my third mug of Pabst Blue Ribbon and thought about my own situation. Although I'd been wounded I was lucky. I had a good job, but wasn't satisfied. Yet I had my whole life ahead of me. A hell of a lot of good men I'd fought with and against didn't. Then I put that out of my mind and began to review the details of the Elizabeth Short murder that I'd gathered from the local library.
A moment later, the sex kitten strolled into the bar.
She was spectacularly good-looking, albeit in a vaguely threateningly way. Her hair was auburn and long; tied loosely at the back with a red ribbon. Her eyes were blue, and her skin was pale enough to make the hints of red at her cheeks look like twin sunsets, while her lips would have kept a Freudian symposium going for a month. She wore a dark blouse that wasn't quite transparent, yet still managed to hint at what appeared to be very expensive black lace lingerie. Her gray skirt ended just above the knee, and she wore a pair of black stockings, and I could only imagine the lingerie that was holding them up.
She looked like the kind of woman who would promise a man a night of ecstasy unlike anything he had previously imagined, but only as long as she could kill him slowly afterward. And judging from the expression on her face as she sat down only one barstool removed from me; I thought she was about to make me that kind of offer.
She shook out a Chesterfield, and brought it to those mesmerizing lips. I picked up my Zippo from the bar, and quickly thumbed the flint wheel, firing the lighter, and held it out in front of her. She accepted the light, and after inhaling blew the smoke out through her nostrils. She gave me a faint smile and said, "Thanks, my name's Belva, and you are?"
"Roy," I replied, and decided to let it hang right there.
"Roy, that's a nice name. Are you from LA?"
"No, Columbia, Missouri. And you?"
"Oh, I'm just a couple blocks from here, over on Larrabee."
I nodded, but for some reason said nothing.
"You gonna flap your lips, or what?" she said.
Startled into action, I stammered then said, "You work nearby?" I thought it a safe enough conversational gambit since I wasn't the type who easily conversed with gorgeous dames.
"Yeah, you know the insurance company down the block? I usually stop in here and have a martini before heading home.
"Potent drink, the martini," I said before taking a swallow of my beer.
She nodded in return, as the bartender, obviously recognizing her, brought a Martini shaker and wide-stemmed glass to her, and after setting down the glass, made a small production of pouring her gin into the glass and then adding an olive on a toothpick to it.
"Perfect, Joey," she told the bartender. "Cheers, Roy," she said, toasting me. I raised my mug in return, and smiled.
"And you, Roy, you work around here too?"
"I write for the Chicago Tribune," I told her, hoping it would impress the hell out of her. It didn't seem to, as she went on about other things like how difficult it was to buy everyday items.
"I mean, rationing is over..." she said, "So where the hell is everything?"
"Well," I offered, I couldn't help but notice you're wearing those black stockings...."
"Yeah, after waiting an hour and a half in a line. You know..." she paused then went on, "...the rich keep getting richer. They must be stocking up on the goodies until we'll willingly pay more than the stuff is worth to have it." Then she laughed and my opinion of her as a potential black widow type was modified to that of an enormously desirable woman.
"You may have something there," I replied.
Someone tossed a nickel in the jukebox and a Glenn Miller standard began its throbbing beat. I asked Belva if she'd like to dance. "I'd love to," she replied, and we both hopped off our stools and headed for the postage-stamp sized dance floor.
A dead hoofer pulled his Jane off to one side making room for us as we began to dance. I wasn't a great dancer, especially with the Lindy. But I was capable enough, and soon we found a comfortable rhythm, and segued into a slower number, featuring the Benny Goodman Trio.
Belva felt awfully good in my arms and she appeared to like what I was pressing against her as well. When the music ended, I strolled over to the jukebox and fed it a quarter – enough for five tunes. I selected three slow numbers, two by Sinatra, and a couple Lindy's.