Chasing the dragon through tongues of fire, the dance is begun and damn the liar.
Kisses/The Way Down
Morphine and Triazolam; Basil held a couple of filled syringes in his hand and half a dozen small white tablets. After seeing Triazolam listed in Emily’s secret CLASSIFIED INCIDENT file, Basil had researched it. Triazolam was an interesting drug. Used widely in dentistry, patients would remain conscious during a procedure but have little or no memory of the event or the pain and discomfort involved. The drug relaxed their will and left them open to obey simple commands such as, open wider, spit, and such. It was believed they would not obey orders that went against their morals and ethics. Basil was familiar with Morphine. A derivative of opium, it should relieve acute pain and induce a state of well-being and sleepiness.
Basil reached for the logbook, stopped himself, and locked the medicine cabinet. As with the Cranial Loop, he hoped he wouldn’t have to use drugs to achieve his ends. He was determined to get to the bottom of Emily’s CLASSIFIED EVENT no matter what measures he was forced to take. Watching Hedgeny on the football field had removed all doubt from his mind. There was no natural physical way he could handle the man being touted as the young lion. He had to have an edge and these were the tools to that end. Tonight, come hell or high water (as Professor Grimes was wont to say), he would have his answers from Hedgeny.
Out of the loop when it came to social events, on and off campus, Basil was caught unawares when he ventured forth into the night. He had figured, Saturday night after the big game, he would find Hedgeny celebrating in one of the local watering holes. But the game had not been a typical big game and this was not a typical Saturday night after the big game. It was early when he made his first round of the usual haunts in search of Hedgeny, about eight p.m. The pubs were adorned in green, gold, and purple. They all had posters announcing they’d be open all night to celebrate Mardi Gras in favor of the University’s astounding victory over Colorado. No one would be admitted out of costume after ten p.m. Basil checked every place he knew of but Hedgeny was nowhere to be found.
Basil ventured to the central quad of the University and found out why. A huge pyre had been erected, twenty feet in height or more. It was composed of odd bits of lumber, old desks and wooden ladders, tree limbs and two by fours. People in festive costumes milled about, many of them adding wooden offerings to the pyre. Basil couldn’t imagine that they were actually going set fire to the mammoth pile of refuse. There must be regulations against such a huge open fire. In his opinion, a gust of wind could carry it to the University buildings and burn the whole place to the ground.
The answer to his musings came as he made his way through the throng of celebrants to the other side of the pyre. There sat the town’s fire truck and ambulance, ready to go into action if anything got out of hand. An amplifier squealed loudly and a rock band began to pound rhythm into the night. The crowd rushed toward the sound and Basil went along with them to where a large stage had been erected. Strobe lights played tag in a fantastic display on a giant screen, backdrop to the stage. Replays of Hedgeny’s already famous runback played in an endless loop beneath their colorful antics.
Basil was startled by a volley of small arms fire. He turned toward the sound and saw a squad of majorettes, batons flying high through the air. Behind them, a banner announced the town’s musketeers, who had reloaded and filled the air with another resounding whump of sound. Basil jumped at the sound even though he had watched the riflemen fire the volley.
He winced as a hand cuffed him upside the head. A heavily muscled and tattooed man, dressed in what looked to Basil like authentic pirate’s garb, sneered into his face. “It’s fine to watch the parade, boy. Mind my words, you’d better be in costume by the time the fire starts. It’s a tradition of Mardi Gras and no tellin’ what’ll happen to them what ain’t!”
Basil backed away from him, right into the path of a fat lady with a hand masque. She grabbed the back of his head and shoved his face into her ample bosom. She tasted and smelled of stale sweat, rancid liquor, and dead flowers. Basil felt his gorge rise. “Put your nose in there, laddie,” she twittered. “It’ll warm you up for the whole night!”
Basil broke away from her. He hurried through the crowd, careful now and aware of each step he took. He found a tree from which he could view the stage and the parade filing into the quad. He got a toehold in its trunk, heaved himself up, and grabbed hold of one of its lower branches. Once he found a good place to sit and relax, he felt a measure of safety from the lunatic frenzy taking place below him. “You’re all crazy,” he muttered, “Every last one of you. It was a football game, that’s all, not the second coming!”
Keeping an eye on the activity around the stage, he began to have doubts about his plan. How would he find Hedgeny in this riot of humanity? Which masque hid his face? A roar from the crowd drew his attention back to the parade. A long, low-slung, white convertible, chauffeured by a huge black man, motored into view. Its front wheels raised off the ground, chromed wire spokes spinning, pawing the air. There on its rear deck, feet resting on the back seat, sat Hedgeny. A beautiful girl in a bathing suit was glued to his side. He reached into the seat area, then stood up, each move slow and calculated. The muscles in his bare arms jumped as he held the championship trophy high over his head. The crowd of costumed celebrants went berserk. A host of motorcycle policemen surrounded the car and held them at bay. Hedgeny was lost to Basil’s view for a moment in an explosion of flashbulbs. Fireworks arced overhead and it seemed Hedgeny would be buried in clouds of flowers, panties and bras, gifts from the crowd.
Hedgeny jumped from the car and employed his evasive running skills to reach the stage. Watching those he toppled over, Basil supposed it must be some kind of special privilege to be knocked over by the person of Hedgeny. They laughed and picked themselves up from the turf, dusted themselves off and called out his name. An army of beefy bodyguards ringed the stage. They good-naturedly manhandled scantily clad groupies attempting to penetrate the perimeter. Powerful spotlights swept the stage, then fixed on Hedgeny. He was gyrating wildly to the band’s rendition of ‘Whiskey Man’, a drinking anthem, his favorite and the number one song of the day. A member of the band handed him a microphone. Hedgeny held it close to his lips, threw back his golden mane and howled like a wolf. Basil felt gooseflesh claim the skin of his arms.
“All right! All right! All right!” Hedgeny bellowed into the electric night. “I wanna thank y’all for comin’ out tonight! Are we gonna Mardi Gras, or are we gonna Mardi Gras?”
The crowd responded with a foot stomping howl of their own. Hedgeny pranced across the stage and egged them on. He had them in the palm of his hand. He raised his arms in a gesture for them to quiet down. “Okay folks, the Head Master of the University and His Eminence, the Mayor, have a few words to say. Let’s give ‘em an ear.”
Two portly middle-aged men in suits stepped into the spotlight. The Head Master made a grand show of shaking Hedgeny’s hand. Hedgeny threw an arm over his beefy shoulders and handed him the microphone. “Thank-you, Hedgeny. That’s all I have to say for now. I’ll defer to Mister Mayor and say my piece when the coach and the rest of the football team get here.” He handed the microphone off to the mayor.
The mayor tipped his top hat to the crowd. “What a wonderful and enthusiastic welcoming you have shown to our boys! I am ecstatic to be here!” He paused to receive a half-hearted round of applause. Let’s all have a good time, a safe and non-violent celebration.”
“Here, here!” a lone voice in the crowd shouted. Another voice began to chant, “Hedge-ny! Hedge-ny! Hedge-ny!” By the third round, the lone voice had been joined by all and escalated to a collective roar.
The mayor attempted to speak, couldn’t hear himself over the crowd, and handed the microphone back to Hedgeny. “C’mon guys,” Hedgeny pleaded, “Let the man say his piece so we can par-dy!” The voices in the crowd switched from Hedge-ny to Par-dy for a few rounds, then quieted down to a controlled buzz.
The mayor refused the microphone when Hedgeny offered it back. Wise to such situations, he had Hedgeny hold it for him while he spoke. “Without further ado, I crown Hedgeny King of our little Mardi Gras, King for the day!”
He beckoned to a group at stage-left and they came into the spotlight carrying a magnificent costume. It was complete with a body suit, sequins glistening like scales. It was adorned with black and green feathers and a long trailing cape. Hedgeny stepped into the body suit and the mayor’s attendants fastened it for him. He knelt down so the mayor could fit the fierce-looking warrior’s headdress onto his head and shoulders.
When the cape was fastened on, Hedgeny began to caper back and forth on the stage. He made a great show of kicks and blows, his head bobbing up and down, back and forth. The drummer in the band pounded out a loud primal beat to his movements and the mob went wild. This was what had brought them here on Christmas Eve. This was what they had come to see and Hedgeny wouldn’t disappoint them. He was the young lion become man-dragon, a spectacle for all to enjoy. Television vans with high lifts caught every moment, enhanced Hedgeny with slo-mo, fast forward, and loop shots. Reporters spoke into their microphones, straight-tied and crisp of voice, camera men feeding them and off them.
A man dressed as a tribal warrior, in headdress and breechcloth, mounted the stage and approached Hedgeny with a lighted torch. He performed an amazing double forward flip and released the torch in a high arc through the air. Hedgeny caught it single handed, bowed low to the warrior, and was escorted offstage to the pyre by a host of painted dancers. Hedgeny began to run in circles, creating serpentine visions with his flaming torch and flying sequined cape. The dancers complemented him, stepped out of his way, and followed his lead on the tails of his cape. He stopped abruptly and a lone guitar howled its message into the wild night, Hedgeny’s fighting song, his anthem. He paid silent homage to the signature introduction to ‘Whiskey Man.’ Hedgeny launched the torch, deep into the pyre, and was finally eclipsed by a thirty-foot high wall of flame.
Basil looked away, allowed his eyes to adjust to the darkness of his immediate surround then climbed down from the tree. He had seen enough. Hedgeny’s costume and behavior would stand out anywhere. Basil should have no problem locating him later. For now, he had to find a costume for himself so he would fit into the crowd and figure out how to get Hedgeny alone. He went back to the Psyche Building and took a black hooded sweatshirt from his closet. He smudged dark brown shoe polish onto his face, then put on the sweatshirt. It had large pockets in the front, which were handy for Basil’s weapons. He put the drugs in one pocket and a flashlight in the other. A glance in the mirror confirmed the fact that he wasn’t much of a costume creator. It would do though. He was ‘in costume’ and nondescript, perfect for the role he was about to play.
When Basil entered Emily’s room, her body stiffened. Her lips trembled and parted. Could it be that he had startled her? He rushed to her side. “I’m sorry, Emily. It’s me, Basil. They’ve thrown a sort of Mardi Gras to celebrate the football team’s victory today. It’s not safe or acceptable to be on the quad unless you’re in costume.” He pressed his hands against the front of his sweatshirt. “I’m in no way adept at this costume business but I want to see Hedgeny.”
He paused and stepped over to the light switch, which was set on dim. He turned it up half way and returned to Emily’s side. Her lips moved and Basil held his breath. “What?” he gasped. “What, Emily?”
She breathed in deeply, then spoke a single word, unbelievable and unmistakable, “Kissss.”
Basil brought his face down, close to hers, and touched her lips with his own. It took every bit of his resolve to keep from breaking down and crying. At the same time, he was so happy he wanted to scream at the top of his lungs. The corners of Emily’s mouth suggested the faint trace of a smile, as they had earlier in the day. Her eyes moved erratically behind their lids and Basil grabbed the day-book. ‘REMs’, he wrote quickly, ‘She’s experiencing rapid eye movement and spoke a word, KISS.’
He returned to her side and gazed lovingly at her face. How he longed to push her, to beg for another word, but he knew that it was important that she do things in her own time. His was the job of silent encouragement and patience. His was to be there; it was as simple as that. What was that above her lip? A thin, dark line. Basil wet a tissue and wiped the shoe polish off her face. Its appearance reminded him of how ridiculous he must look, brown-faced and dark-hooded, and what he had yet to do. “I’ll be back,” he promised and left the room.
The night was alive with fireworks and revelers dancing in the streets. ‘From the sound of things, the riflemen from the parade must be firing their guns at will,’ Basil thought. ‘It’s just powder,’ he assured himself, “they wouldn’t dare load the muskets with shot.’ There were crowds of people everywhere he went but Basil made his way through and around them. His earlier experience had taught him to watch them but avoid eye contact, to remember to be aware of his back. His biggest problem was that he was sure to find Hedgeny in the densest part of the crowd.
“What are you?” a dragon lady, painted and pretty, asked him, her sequins reflecting an awesome display of color and light.
“I’m an imp,” Basil replied simply, “Just an imp.”
“The hell you say!” she twittered and danced away, long legs and glitter skin.
Basil found a spot by the corner of the Administration Building from which he had a fair and open view across the quad. He was able to stand around the corner with his back to the wall and concentrate on the crowd. It wasn’t long before he spotted Hedgeny. He was a head taller than the average person, in the first place, and the plumage on his headdress added another six inches to his height. He was center point in a group of young men and seemed to be involved in a drinking contest. Hedgeny was performing a feat Basil had witnessed a few times before. It was known as ‘shot-gunning’. Hedgeny placed full cans of beer upside down on a table, a full case of twenty-four the last time Basil had watched. He would punch a hole in the bottom with a can opener, pull the tab, and inhale the contents in a single swallow. This created a carburetor effect and one can was consumed even before the next was opened. His record was twenty-four in just under a minute.
Basil breathed a deep sigh of relief. It was clear to him now the way in which he would catch Hedgeny by himself. Why hadn’t he thought of it before? The man couldn’t abide urinating in the presence of others. He was manic concerning his privacy in this regard. All Basil had to do is keep watch until the urge struck Hedgeny. Whether he chose a men’s room or a tree, one thing was for sure, he would do it alone. At the rate he was putting away the beer, Hedgeny knew he wouldn’t have long to wait.
Doing his best to keep his eye on Hedgeny, Basil almost missed his chance. He probably would have, in fact, if Hedgeny hadn’t decided to go around in back of the Administration Building. There was so much activity, so many people milling about, that Basil had lost track of Hedgeny. He stepped around the corner of the building to get a better look and was almost bowled over by the man he was looking for. “Scuse me,” Hedgeny said and hurried on his way.
Basil, temporarily forgetful about his black hood and brown-face, thought, “He must be really drunk. He didn’t even recognize me.’ “I’m not me,” he said to himself as he followed in the wake of the scurrying dragon.
Hedgeny made his way to a small stand of trees behind the Administration Building. He took a quick glance around, braced himself against a stout tree with one hand, took his business out with the other and began to drown the tree. “Ahhh,” he moaned with relief.
Having decided the direct approach was best, Basil walked to within a few feet of Hedgeny’s back and said, “Emily needs to speak with you, Hedgeny.”
Hedgeny choked off, midstream. “Whuzzat?” He glanced behind him. “Who are you? What’d you say? Can’t you see when a guy’s tryin’ to take a piss?”
Basil stepped around to his side, just out of reach. “It’s me, Basil. I came to tell you that Emily has woken up and wants to speak with you.”
Hedgeny stomped a foot impatiently. “Damn you, Basil! You near scared the shit out o’ me. You know I don’t like to be bothered when I’m takin’ a piss.”
Basil chuckled. “That’s true. I also know it’s a good time to catch you alone.”
“It’s not gonna do you any good,” Hedgeny said. “For one thing, I’m not through pissin’ yet and I can’t finish with you standin’ there. For another, I told you before, once and for all, I won’t talk to you about Emily.”
“I don’t want to speak with you about Emily,” Basil said softly. “Emily wants to speak with you about Emily.”
“The hell she does,” Hedgeny laughed derisively. “Like she woke up and no one bothered to tell me about it.”
Basil decided to take a gamble. “She woke up this afternoon while I was watching the football game in her room in the Psyche Building. I wanted to notify Administration, maybe take her to the hospital to be checked out, but she insisted on meeting with you first.”
“What’d she tell ya?” Hedgeny asked.
“She said she’d talk to me about it after she spoke with you,” Basil replied. “It’s just like old times, Hedgeny. You always came first with her. Once she gets things straight with you, she’ll let me know what’s going on.”
“I don’t know,” Hedgeny wavered. “Seems to me we could just do this tomorrow or somethin’. I’m pretty busy tonight, got a lot o’ things to do. I don’t see why it can’t wait.”
“I’ll tell you why,” Basil said, his voice controlled and angry. “Emily is very fragile right now. She’s been in a coma for months. There’s a very real chance she might not be here tomorrow. I’m tired of messing with you, Hedgeny.” Basil looked at his wristwatch. “It’s ten o’ clock. You meet me in Professor Grimes’ office by ten thirty. If you’re not there by that time, I’ll go outside and have a little conversation with the ambulance driver parked in the hell that used to be the University Quad. I’ll tell him I have a very sick young lady on my hands and that she needs to be transported to a hospital immediately.” He turned around and walked away.
Hedgeny’s voice trailed after him in the dark. “Hey buddy, don’t get your pecker in a knot. Tell Emmy I’ll be along. Hey, Basil, I’m talkin’ to ya, man!”
At ten thirty, Basil decided to resort to Plan B, which was to do what he had told Hedgeny he would do. Hedgeny was covering for somebody and that somebody was bound to hear the news of Emily having regained consciousness. Basil damned himself his lies. He had put Emily in the path of danger. She would probably be safer in the city hospital than she was here. Basil decided he wasn’t very good at the detective business. What had made him so cocksure Hedgeny would meet and give him information he had refused to come forth with from the beginning? What would he have done with the information anyway? Weary of questioning himself, Basil looked in on Emily, locked her door and the door to his quarters.
He stepped out the front door of the Psyche Building and bumped into a black and green dragon. Hedgeny grabbed his arm. “How am I supposed to meet you in Grimes’ office when the front door to the building is locked?”
“Sorry,” Basil said, sick with fear and ashamed of himself for feeling that way in Hedgeny’s grasp. “I always lock up at night. I guess I locked the door when I came in out of habit.”
“We’ll see about that,” Hedgeny said suspiciously. He reeked of alcohol but didn’t appear to be as drunk as Basil thought he would be.
“Let go of my arm and I’ll let you in,” Basil said with a calm he didn’t feel.
“No tricks,” Hedgeny warned. “I could break you like a stick, Basil.”
Basil tugged at his arm. “Why all the animosity, Hedgeny? I thought we were friends. Since when did I become a threat to you?”
Hedgeny released his arm. “Somethin’ just don’t smell right. Hey, did you really watch the game?”
Basil realized he’d been holding his breath. He opened the door and Hedgeny followed him inside. “I only saw the last few minutes,” Basil said. “You were utterly fantastic. I’ve never seen anything quite like that in my life. It must feel wonderful to be that good at something.”
“It’s like breathin’,” Hedgeny said. “The ball is my breath. All I gotta do is smell it and it’s mine. Nobody can keep it away from me, nobody.”
“This way,” Basil said, “We’ll take the elevator down. Emily is downstairs waiting for you. Her room is on the same level as the treatment center, the Cranial Loop.”
“The what?” Hedgeny asked.
“The Cranial Loop,” Basil repeated, “I’ll show it to you when we get down there. It’s an apparatus that provides stimulus to the cranial nerves, purely experimental at this point in time but we’re very hopeful about it in Emily’s case.”
He stepped into the elevator and Hedgeny followed along reluctantly. When Basil pulled the scissors gate, Hedgeny said, “Oohie, I don’t like tight spaces.”
“We’ll only be in here a couple of minutes,” Basil assured him. “Just relax. I’ve ridden this thing a thousand times.” He pressed the ‘down’ and ‘sub-level three’ buttons and reached for the clamp holding the break.
“What’s that?” Hedgeny asked nervously.
“It’s both the set brake and emergency brake,” Basil explained. “It’s what holds the elevator in position in the shaft. It can also be used to stop it at any point. He released the brake and the elevator started down with a jerk.
Hedgeny lunged across the car and slammed the brake down. He set the clamp in place. “Whew! I gotta get out o’ here!”
“Settle down,” Basil said, “We’re in between floors. You can’t just stop the elevator and get out whenever you feel like it.”
“The hell I can’t!” Hedgeny growled. The elevator was stopped mid-floor. Hedgeny pulled back the scissors gate, pivoted on his feet, and rolled into the black void of sub-level one, taking the cobweb spanning the opening with him. Basil heard him crash into something, the sounds of a struggle, heavy footsteps, and then silence.
© 2017 artwork, music and words
conceived by and property of
Tom (WordWulf) Sterner 2017 ©