The bible repairman and.., p.2
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       The Bible Repairman and Other Stories, p.2

           Tim Powers
 
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  And then one day the house had been broken into, and the little shrine and the doll were gone, replaced with a ransom note: If you want your daughter’s ghost back, Mr. Torrez, give me some of your blood. And there had been a phone number.

  Usually these ransom notes asked the recipient to get a specific tattoo that corresponded to a tattoo on the kidnapper’s body – and afterward whichever family member complied would have lost a lot of memories, and be unable to feel affection, and never again dream at night. The kidnapper would have taken those things. But a kidnapper would always settle instead for the blood of a person whose soul was broken in the way that Torrez’s was, and so the robbed families would often come to Torrez and offer him a lot of money to step in and give up some of his blood, and save them the fearful obligation of the vampiric tattoo.

  Sometimes the kidnapper was the divorced father or mother of the ghost – courts never considered custody of a dead child – or a suitor who had been rejected long before, and in these cases there would be no ransom demand; but then it had sometimes been possible for Torrez to trace the thief and steal the ghost back, in whatever pot or box or liquor bottle it had been confined in.

  But in most cases he had had to go through with the deal, meet the kidnapper somewhere and give up a cupful or so of blood to retrieve the stolen ghost; and each time, along with the blood, he had lost a piece of his soul.

  The phone began ringing again as Torrez tipped up the can for the last sip of beer; he ignored it.

  Ten years ago it had been an abstract consideration – when he had thought about it at all, he had supposed that he could lose a lot of his soul without missing it, and he’d told himself that his soul was bound for Hell anyway, since he had deliberately broken it when he was eighteen, and so dispersing it had just seemed like hiding money from the IRS. But by the time he was thirty-five his hair had gone white and he had lost most of the sight in his left eye because of ruptured blood-vessels behind the retina, and he could no longer understand the plots of long novels he tried to read. Apparently some sort of physical and mental integrity was lost too, along with the blood and the bits of his hypothetical soul.

  But what the kidnappers wanted from Torrez’s blood was not vicarious integrity – it was nearly the opposite. Torrez thought of it as spiritual botox.

  The men and women who stole ghosts for ransom were generally mediums, fortune-tellers, psychics – always clairvoyant. And even more than the escape that could be got from extorted dreams and memories and the ability to feel affection, they needed to be able to selectively blunt the psychic noise of humans living and dead.

  Torrez imagined it as a hundred radios going at once all the time, and half the announcers moronically drunk – crying, giggling, trying to start fights.

  He would never know. He had broken all the antennae in his own soul when he was eighteen, by killing a man who attacked him with a knife in a parking lot one midnight. Torrez had wrestled the knife away from the drunken assailant and had knocked the man unconscious by slamming his head into the bumper of a car – but then Torrez had picked up the man’s knife and, just because he could, had driven it into the unconscious man’s chest. The District Attorney had eventually called it self-defense, a justifiable homicide, and no charges were brought against Torrez, but his soul was broken.

  The answering machine clicked on, but only the dial tone followed the recorded message. Torrez dropped the Budweiser can into the trash basket and walked into the living room, which over the years had become his workshop.

  Murder seemed to be the crime that broke souls most effectively, and Torrez had done his first ghost-ransom job for free that same year, in 1983, just to see if his soul was now a source of the temporary disconnection-from-humanity that the psychics valued so highly. And he had tested out fine.

  He had been doing Bible repair for twenty years, but his reputation in that cottage industry had been made only a couple of years ago, by accident. Three Jehovah’s Witnesses had come to his door one summer day, wearing suits and ties, and he had stepped outside to debate scripture with them. “Let me see your Bible,” he had said, “and I’ll show you right in there why you’re wrong,” and when they handed him the book he had flipped to the first chapter of John’s gospel and started reading. This was after his vision had begun to go bad, though, and he’d had to read it with a magnifying glass, and it had been a sunny day – and he had inadvertently set their Bible on fire. They had left hurriedly, and apparently told everyone in the neighborhood that Torrez could burn a Bible just by touching it.

  He was bracing a tattered old Bible in the frame on the marble-topped table, ready to scorch out St. Paul’s adverse remarks about homosexuality for a customer, when he heard three knocks at his front door, the first one loud and the next two just glancing scuffs, and he realized he had not closed the door and the knocks had pushed it open. He made sure his woodburning stylus was lying in the ashtray, then hurried to the entry hall.

  Framed in the bright doorway was a short stocky man with a moustache, holding a shoebox and shifting from one foot to the other.

  “Mr. Torrez,” the man said. He smiled, and a moment later looked as if he’d never smile again. He waved the shoebox toward Torrez and said, “A man has stolen my daughter.”

  Perhaps the shoebox was the shrine he had kept his daughter’s ghost in, in some jelly jar or perfume bottle. Probably there were ribbons and candy hearts around the empty space where the daughter’s ghost-container had lain. Still, a shoebox was a pretty nondescript shrine; but maybe it was just for travelling, like a cat-carrier box.

  “I just called,” the man said, “and got your woman. I hoped she was wrong, and you were here.”

  “I don’t do that work anymore,” said Torrez patiently, “ransoming ghosts. You want to call Seaweed in Corona.”

  “I don’t want you to ransom a ghost,” the man said, holding the box toward Torrez. “I already had old Humberto do that, yesterday. This is for you.”

  “If Humberto ransomed your daughter,” Torrez said carefully, nodding toward the box but not taking it, “then why are you here?”

  “My daughter is not a ghost. My daughter is twelve years old, and this man took her when she was walking home from school. I can pay you fifteen hundred dollars to get her back – this is extra, a gift for you, from me, with the help of Humberto.”

  Torrez had stepped back. “Your daughter was kidnapped? Alive? Good God, man, call the police right now! The FBI! You don’t come to me with –”

  “The police would not take the ransom note seriously,” the man said, shaking his head. “They would think he wants money really, they would not think of his terms being sincerely meant, as he wrote them!” He took a deep breath and let it out. “Here,” he said, extending the box again.

  Torrez took the box – it was light – and cautiously lifted the lid.

  Inside, in a nest of rosemary sprigs and Catholic holy cards, lay a little cloth doll that Torrez recognized.

  “Amelia,” he said softly.

  He lifted it out of the box, and he could feel the quiver of his own daughter’s long-lost ghost in it.

  “Humberto bought this back for you?” Torrez asked. Three years after her kidnapping, he thought. No wonder Humberto waved to me this morning! I hope he didn’t have to spend much of his soul on her; he’s got no more than a mouse’s worth left.

  “For you,” the man said. “She is a gift. Save my daughter.”

  Torrez didn’t want to invite the man into the house. “What did the ransom note for your daughter say?”

  “It said, Juan-Manuel Ortega – that’s me – I have Elizabeth, and I will kill her and take all her blood unless you induce Terry Torrez to come to me and him give me the ransom blood instead.”

  “Call the police,” Torrez said. “That’s a bluff, about taking her blood. Why would he want a little girl’s blood? When did this happen? Every minute –”

  Juan-Manuel Ortega opened his mouth very wide, as if
to pronounce some big syllable, then closed it. “My Elizabeth,” he said, “she – killed her sister last year. My rifle was in the closet – she didn’t know, she’s a child, she didn’t know it was loaded –”

  Torrez could feel that his eyebrows were raised. Yes she did, he thought; she killed her sister deliberately, and broke her own soul doing it, and the kidnapper knows it even if you truly don’t.

  Your daughter’s a murderer. She’s like me.

  Still, her blood – her broken, blunting soul – wouldn’t be accessible to the kidnapper, the way Torrez’s would be, unless …

  “Has your daughter –” He had spoken too harshly, and tried again. “Has she ever used magic?” Or is her soul still virginal, he thought.

  Ortega bared his teeth and shrugged. “Maybe! She said she caught her sister’s ghost in my electric shaver. I – I think she did. I don’t use it anymore, but think I hear it in the nights.”

  Then her blood will do for the kidnapper what mine would, Torrez thought. Not quite as well, since my soul is surely more opaque – older and more stained by the use of magic–but hers will do if he can’t get mine.

  “Here is my phone number,” said Ortega, now shoving a business card at Torrez and talking too rapidly to interrupt, “and the kidnapper has your number. He wants only you. I am leaving it in your hands. Save my daughter, please.”

  Then he turned around and ran down the walkway to a van parked behind Torrez’s Toyota. Torrez started after him, but the sun-glare in his bad left eye made him uncertain of his footing, and he stopped when he heard the van shift into gear and start away. The man’s wife must have been waiting behind the wheel.

  I should call the police myself, Torrez thought as he lost sight of the van in the brightness. But he’s right, the police would take the kidnapping seriously, but not the ransom. The kidnapper doesn’t want money – he wants my blood, me.

  A living girl! he thought. I don’t save living people, I save ghosts. And I don’t even do that anymore.

  She’s like me.

  He shuffled back into the house, and set the cloth doll on the kitchen counter, sitting up against the toaster. Almost without thinking about it, he took the pack of Camels out of his shirt pocket and lit one with his Bic lighter, then stubbed it out on the stovetop and laid it on the tile beside the doll.

  The tip of the cigarette glowed again, and the telephone rang. He just kept staring at the doll and the smoldering cigarette and let the phone ring.

  The answering machine clicked in, and he heard the woman’s recorded voice say, “No one is available to take your call, he had me on his TV, Daddy, so I could change channels for him. ‘Two, four, eleven,’ and I’d change them.”

  Torrez became aware that he had sat down on the linoleum floor. Her ghost had never found a way to speak when he and his ex-wife had had possession of it. “I’m sorry, Amelia,” he said hoarsely. “It would have killed me to buy you back. They don’t want money, they –”

  “What?” said the voice of the caller. “Is Mr. Torrez there?”

  “Rum he gave me, at least,” said Amelia’s voice. “It wouldn’t have killed you, not really.”

  Torrez got to his feet, feeling much older than his actual forty years. He opened the high cupboard and saw her bottle of 151-proof rum still standing up there beside the stacked china dishes he never used. He hoisted the bottle down and wiped dust off it.

  “I’m going to tell him how rude you are,” said the voice on the phone, “this isn’t very funny.” The line clicked.

  “No,” Torrez said as he poured a couple of ounces of rum into a coffee cup. “It wouldn’t have killed me. But it would have made a mindless … it would have made an idiot of me. I wouldn’t have been able to … work, talk, think.” Even now I can hardly make sense of the comics in the newspaper, he thought.

  “He had me on his TV, Daddy,” said Amelia’s voice from the answering machine. “I was his channel-changer.”

  Torrez set the coffee cup near the doll, and felt it vibrate faintly just as he let go of the handle. The sharp alcohol smell became stronger, as if some of the rum had been vaporized.

  “And he gave me candy.”

  “I’m sorry,” said Torrez absently, “I don’t have any candy.”

  “Sugar Babies are better than Reese’s Pieces.” Torrez had always given her Reese’s Pieces, but before now she had not been able to tell him what she preferred.

  “How can you talk?”

  “The people that nobody paid for, he would put all of us, all our jars and boxes and dolls on the TV and make us change what the TV people said. We made them say bad prayers.”

  The phone rang again, and Amelia’s voice out of the answering machine speaker said, “Sheesh” and broke right in. “What, what?”

  “I’ve got a message for Terry Torrez,” said a woman’s voice, “make sure he gets it, write this number down!” The woman recited a number, which Torrez automatically memorized. “My husband is in an alarm clock, but he’s fading; I don’t hardly dream about him even with the clock under the pillow anymore, and the mint patties, it’s like a year he takes to even get halfway through one! He needs a booster shot, tell Terry Torrez that, and I’ll pay a thousand dollars for it.”

  I’ll want more than a thousand, Torrez thought, and she’ll pay more, too. Booster shot! The only way to boost a fading ghost – and they all faded sooner or later – was to add to the container a second ghost, the ghost of a newly deceased infant, which would have vitality but no personality to interfere with the original ghost.

  Torrez had done that a few times, and – though these were only ghosts, not souls, not actual people! – it had always felt like putting feeder mice into an aquarium with an old, blind snake.

  “That’ll buy a lot of Sugar Babies,” remarked Amelia’s ghost.

  “What? Just make sure he gets the message!”

  The phone clicked off, and Amelia said, “I remember the number.” “So do I.”

  Midwives sold newborn ghosts. The thought of looking one of them up nauseated him. “Mom’s dead,” said Amelia.

  Torrez opened his mouth, then just exhaled. He took a sip of Amelia’s rum and said, “She is?”

  “Sure. We all know, when someone is. I guess they figured you wouldn’t bleed for her, if you wouldn’t bleed for me. Sugar Babies are better than Reese’s Pieces.”

  “Right, you said.”

  “Can I have her rings? They’d fit on my head like crowns.” “I don’t know what became of her,” he said. It’s true, he realized, I don’t. I don’t even know what there was of her.

  He looked at the doll and wondered why anyone kept such things.

  His own Bible, on the mantel in the living room workshop, was relatively intact, though of course it was warped from having been soaked in holy water. He had burned out half a dozen verses from the Old Testament that had to do with witchcraft and wizards; and he had thought about excising “thou shalt not kill” from Exodus, but decided that if the commandment was gone, his career might be too.

  After he had refused to ransom Amelia’s ghost, he had cut out Ezekiel 44:25 – “And they shall come at no dead person to defile themselves: but for father, or for mother, or for son, or for daughter, for brother, or for sister that hath had no husband, they may defile themselves.”

  He had refused to defile himself – defile himself any further, at least

  – for his own dead daughter. And so she had wound up helping to voice “bad prayers” out of a TV set somewhere.

  The phone rang again, and this time he snatched up the receiver before the answering machine could come on. “Yes?”

  “Mr. Torrez,” said a man’s voice. “I have a beaker of silence here, she’s twelve years old and she’s not in any jar or bottle.”

  “Her father has been here,” Torrez said.

  “I’d rather have the beaker that’s you. For all her virtues, her soul’s a bit thin still, and noises would get through.”

  To
rrez remembered stories he’d heard about clairvoyants driven to insanity by the constant din of thoughts.

  “My daddy doesn’t play that anymore,” said Amelia. “He has me back now.”

  Torrez remembered Humberto’s wave this morning. Torrez had waved back.

  Torrez looked into the living room, at the current Bible in the burning rack, and at the books he still kept on a shelf over the cold fireplace

  – paperbacks, hardcovers with gold-stamped titles, books in battered dust-jackets. He had found – what? – a connection with other people’s lives, in them, which since the age of eighteen he had not been able to have in any other way. But these days their pages might as well all be blank. When he occasionally pulled one down and opened it, squinting through his magnifying glass to be able to see the print clearly, he could understand individual words but the sentences didn’t cohere anymore. She’s like me.

  I wonder if I could have found my way back, if I’d tried. I could tell her father to ask her to try.

  “Bring the girl to where we meet,” Torrez said. He leaned against the kitchen counter. In spite of his resolve, he was dizzy. “I’ll have her parents with me to drive her away.”

  I’m dead already, he thought. Her father came to me, but the book says he may do that for a daughter. And for me, the dead person, this is the only way left to have a vital connection with other people’s lives, even if they are strangers.

  “And you’ll come away with me,” said the man’s voice.

 
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