Tuesday, October 11–Four Years Earlier
Karl Adams half-expected Mister Painter, his supervisor, to walk into the lav and catch him dawdling on the crapper whilst examining the latest TREKKERS GAZETTE. But he persisted in the practice, the danger of discovery serving to heighten his Star Trek fantasy life. He started when two of his work-mates blasted through the shower room door, the tile surfaces scrambling their loud voices with echoes.
When they finally settled into the adjacent stalls, he clearly overheard part of their conversation. “Yeah …” Harvey’s booming voice could have projected over a football field. “Saw it in the paper. It’s gonna be on Channel Eight. You comin’ over to watch?”
“Oh, I’m not much into Star Trek and all those other space-opera-type shows. Got burnt out on Flash Gordon when I was a kid. It’s all fake, you know, filmed on sets made of plywood and cardboard. Give me a good western and a bag o’ popcorn and I’m in hog heaven.” Karl would have contributed to the discussion, but he felt the others couldn’t truly appreciated the significance and subtleties of Star Trek.
Loath to risk missing such a significant event, that evening Karl stopped at the newsagent to purchase a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle for the Tele listings. Though he normally had little use for newspapers, he idly scanned the pages until he found a tiny advert hidden amongst the personals, where no one with a life of his own would likely find it. The words attracted him like a moth to a lamp. SUCCESS!!
No down payment.
216 Division Street (555)216-6666
He cut out the advert and filed it safely with the other assorted pieces of rubbish cluttering his hovel, fully intending to investigate its claims. But his customary procrastination postponed any action.
Karl’s thoughts wandered to the advert ever more often, and when he could stand the suspense no longer, he began searching for it. But now that he wanted it, the damned thing refused to be found. He even threw his precious Star Trek collection about; he had to find it.
Finally he decided to call the Chronicle. After finding a coin, he dashed to the corridor telephone, ripped through the directory until he found the telephone number, fumbled the coin into the appropriate slot, and dialed.
When the bored-sounding receptionist answered, Karl said, “Yeah, I haf’ta find out about a personals ad I saw in your paper!”
“When did you see it?” Her voice seemed calculated to tell Karl this was a monstrous imposition on her time.
“It was a couple’a weeks ago.”
“Please hold–“ And the line switched to innocuous music.
Karl didn’t wait at all gracefully, nearly hyperventilating from his rapid breathing. Had it not been for the nasal-sounding woman coming back on the line, he probably would have fainted.
“How should I know a name? It said something about success, and no down payment.”
“I need your name, sir, to charge for the research.”
“What d’ya mean, charge?”
“Sir, we charge sixty-three dollars an hour for–“
Karl slammed the handset into its cradle and began marching back towards his flat when the telephone rang. Though it was likely for another resident and he didn’t feel like answering it, there is always something urgent about a telephone ringing. He turned about and seized the handset.
Being the recluse that he was, Karl was quite taken aback when the caller spoke his name. “Uh, yeah, that’s me.”
“Here is the ad you requested. Please copy this down.”
“Just a sec, I haf’ta find a pencil.”
Karl dashed back to his flat, found a pencil and scrap of paper, and within three seconds was back at the telephone. “Okay, I’m ready.” Like a young child writing his letters, he copied the few words and numbers to the paper and hung up the receiver, saying “Thanks” as an after thought.
When he got off work the following day, he caught a bus to a less than prestigious location at the edge of the old industrial district near the center of town. With daylight waning and a frigid drizzle dampening his already miserable world, he trudged to the address he had copied. It seemed nothing lived there but cat-sized rats, and the occasional reprobate holed up in an abandoned office.
216 Division Street was a gray steel door at the base of a stairwell between two loading docks in an ancient textile factory. A bare lamp shown on the number, crimson, in the monochrome world of broken pavement and derelict buildings. The door’s filthy window afforded a glimpse of old, wooden boards: a stairway, rising out of view into darkness, its steps eroded by who knows how many pairs of boots over the years. Karl stood at the door, frozen in fear, asking himself how badly he wanted the advertized success, guaranteed, and with no down payment.
The hatred he felt for his existence overcame his misgivings and drove his right hand forward to grasp the spherical door knob. Though he prayed to no one in particular that it might not turn, it did. That self-hatred continued turning his wrist until the latch released and the door sprung open a fraction of an inch.
He drew the door further open and a shiver passed through his body as in response to a sudden chill. He placed his left foot on the first step and pushed himself up. A moment later he placed his right foot on the second step. Since he had unconsciously held his breath, when he finally inhaled, the stagnant atmosphere of the stairwell caused a coughing fit.
Suddenly he heard a heavy scampering sound from the opposite side of the broken, lath wall to his left. Panic shoved him back down the steps and he stumbled through the doorway, sprawling onto the concrete porch, wrenching his right wrist and abrading his left elbow and knee. He lay helplessly for some time, not thinking of the pavement’s cold dampness or the pain of his injuries, but watching the black maw of the stairway for some monster to charge after him. He hated the cowardice that held him there.
Finally Karl regained his composure and crept back through the door, listening for any sound to alert him of danger. His self-hatred once again pushed him forward, and he reached out to the rough wall to steady himself as he took one reluctant step upward, then another, and another, counting thirteen steps by the time he reached the top.
He turned and glanced back down the steps. Gloom hid the bottom, and silence caused his racing pulse to sound like giant pterodactyl wings beating in his head. He looked about the landing where he stood under a naked ceiling lamp, and found nothing remarkable but the place’s bleakness.
Karl noted a spot of light at the end of the cheerless corridor passing to his right, an impossible distance away. Groping for each footstep, he proceeded towards the distant light, and for the longest time it did not seem any nearer.
When at last he approached the lighted end of the corridor he noted the rich, mahogany-paneled walls, the thick, red carpet under his feet, and the stale odor of age, or decay, permeating the air. Portraits of prosperous-looking people hung at intervals along both walls. Some were heads of state, while others were captains of commerce, military and sports personalities, or media celebrities. The sight of those successful people gave him some hope that his quest might not be in vain.
Finally he arrived at an imposing, walnut-paneled door. Within the top panel a circle of the deepest black Karl had ever seen enclosed and touched the corners of an equally black inverted pentagon. It wasn’t as much the color black as it was a palpable darkness that gave him the impression of an infinite void. Fear quashed his impulse to touch the blackness, but his hand felt cold as he held it close.
Shiny, blood-red enamel filled the areas between the circle and the sides of the pentagon. In the same blood-red enamel, apparently suspended within the blackness, Gothic calligraphy formed the words “PERDITION INCORPORATED.” The lower door panel held a simple sign stating, “ALWAYS OPEN.”
Since he saw no latch on the door, Karl placed his right hand against its paneling and felt another shiver convulse his body. With only the slight pressure he had applied, the door slowly swung away from him on the quietest of hinges.
At first he could see no light in the room beyond, but when the door had fully opened he spied, far away, the dimly lighted end of the room. A voice that a network news anchor would have envied beckoned from within, “Welcome Karl. Please, come in.” Karl hesitated, and the voice repeated, “Please, come in Karl. We were expecting you.”
Karl’s legs obeyed the directive, carrying him forward through the darkness, towards the warm-colored light. As he passed through the room, if indeed it was a room, he felt a cold, non-resonant openness, rather than the sensation of walls enclosing the space. Nearing the lighted area, he saw a massive teak desk, with purple draperies hanging from the wall on either side extending upwards out of the light. A large version of the strange logo on the door decorated the mahogany wall behind and above the desk. He noticed a laptop computer sharing the top of the desk with a golden plaque bearing the name, Lord Gideon Ellasar. As he drew still nearer, he could hear a fast-cadenced tapping on the keypad, and finally he saw the person doing the typing.
The man behind the desk bore ruggedly handsome facial features in a ruddy complexion, with glossy black hair slicked back in a continental style. His pinstriped black suit coat didn’t disguise his muscular torso.
When Karl finally reached the desk, the man rose to his full height and his commanding presence made Karl feel more puny than ever. But the man’s warm smile and extended hand eased Karl’s apprehensions somewhat. With his painfully firm handshake the man said, “Our name is Ellasar. How can we help you, Karl?” That this stranger with the vicelike grip and disarming smile knew his name didn’t seem at all odd to Karl.
“I found this ad … ,” Karl’s halting speech embarrassed him, as he fumbled in his pocket for the scrap of paper. Producing it, he offered it to Ellasar and continued, “… in the paper, a few weeks ago, and I was just wondering if it’s still good.”
The man dismissed the scribbled note without even a glance, as his ebony-colored eyes seemed to drill into Karl, performing exploratory surgery on his soul. “Why yes. Of course it is still valid. Have a seat and let us get to the business at hand.” He cheerfully gestured towards an overstuffed chair that Karl hadn’t noticed before. “Would you like something to drink?” The gaze of those dark eyes never left his.
Karl thought for a moment. “Andorian Tea.” He felt cagy, hoping the fictitious Star Trek beverage might give him the advantage of confusing his host.
Without hesitation, Ellasar reached to his right and took the teapot from an ornate silver tea set that Karl had also previously failed to notice. A trail of vapor wafted from the spout, the strange, subtle fragrance capturing Karl’s imagination. Ellasar poured the steaming liquid into a silver teacup and reached across the desk to place it into Karl’s waiting hand. As a sense of deja vu filled his mind, he wondered if he had smelled this in another life? Perhaps his imaginings were more than that. Was he really a space explorer–
Ellasar’s voice broke into his reverie. “So Karl, you lust for success.”
Karl nodded gravely without noting Ellasar’s strange choice of words, and the man added, “How do you define success?”
The question took Karl aback. He had never thought to define “success” for himself, perhaps because he had never considered himself potentially successful. Thinking came hard in this strange environment, and he puzzled over the question for a long moment. Finally he managed to begin a halting sentence, “I think, it must mean getting what you want …” Karl felt incredibly stupid as he heard his voice trail off. “I guess.”
Was Ellasar’s smile a bit patronizing? Though he couldn’t be sure, it made Karl even more uncomfortable.
“Karl, we will be agreeing to a covenant, a legal document, so we must precisely define our terms.”
The headache that confrontations with his father had always caused began gripping him and he wanted to leave. When he realized he couldn’t move, panic seized him.
“Let us examine the question rationally.” Ellasar took the tone of a lecturer. “Success can mean reaching a goal, or achieving a desired outcome.”
As the imposing gentleman paused for effect, Karl said, “Yeah … yeah that sounds fine,” with his eyes quickly shifting about.
Ellasar made a show of struggling for patience as he continued, “Or, it can mean a general state of successfulness. I need your definition of success Karl. You tell me what it means to you.”
Karl’s headache was getting worse from trying to think under pressure. There was a long silence, but finally he managed, “I guess… I mean… If I try to do something, I can do it okay?”
“Is that a question, or is it your answer?”
“It’s … I think it’s my answer?”
“You,” Ellasar paused for effect. “‘think.’”
Karl hated being put on the spot like that. “I know!” he blurted out. “I mean, yes, that’s what I mean.”
“Yes. I suppose that is what you mean.” His subtle sarcasm was not quite lost on Karl.
“I have prepared a covenant for you to examine, and sign if it meets with your approval, Karl.” He reached into a drawer, and with a flourish, withdrew an ancient-looking leather scroll. He laid it on the desk and unrolled it. Then he pushed it across so Karl could read it.
The script appeared to be expertly handwritten calligraphy, and when Karl moved his hand across the warm, seemingly living surface, he felt that familiar shiver. Since the letters seemed to have a light of their own, Karl had no trouble seeing the words, despite the room’s dim illumination. And though such archaic calligraphy was at first impossible to read, the words seemed to come alive before his eyes:
Be it known to all interested parties, that the undersigned, Mister Karl Ichabod Adams, an adult of normal faculties and majority age, has of his own free will, choice, and volition, entered into the following covenant:
I, the undersigned Karl Ichabod Adams, do agree with and pledge to the following terms in order to have “SUCCESS” as defined in my own words: “If I try to do something, I can do it okay.” In exchange for “SUCCESS” according to said definition, I, Karl Ichabod Adams, do pledge by my signature below, in my own life’s blood, to grant to PERDITION INCORPORATED, as directed by its Administrator, Lord Gideon Ellasar, the right to possession, at the moment of my departure from this temporal life and for all eternity, of all that is now or ever shall be mine, including my body, my soul, and my spirit.
Said contract is irrevocably agreed to and finalized by the signature of the above named Karl Ichabod Adams in his own life’s blood below.
Karl blanched when he read the words, in my own life’s blood.
“Does the covenant meet with your approval Karl?”
“I … Well … I’m not so sure about this part, right … ” He pointed to the word blood. “Here.”
For the first time during their meeting, Ellasar’s smile faded. “I assumed you intended to take this business seriously.”
Karl hadn’t thought much in terms of eternity, and even now felt such considerations were only for those anti-intellectual, anti-scientific religious types. And certainly, no self-respecting star ship science officer would worry about such things. “Oh, I do … I mean, I am serious!”
Without another word, Ellasar held out an empty, crystalline fountain pen. Karl’s mind seemed lethargic, unable to fully apprehend the incongruity between this proposed act of faith and his staunch atheism, but his brief vacillation ended as if exterminated by some external force. He reached out to take the transparent pen, but when he closed his fingers about it, sharp pain shot through his hand, jerking his arm and forcing a grunt from his throat. He tried repeatedly to fling it away, but his grasp was frozen. Grimacing helplessly, he shot a pleading glance at Ellasar.
“Do you plan to sign the covenant, or simply hold my pen in agony?” Ellasar’s question conveyed no emotion.
With his mouth agape in a rictus of horror, Karl watched his blood begin oozing into the infernal instrument’s barrel. His heart palpitated and his head throbbed as his clammy hand began moving. As if by its own will, the nib scratched his crimson signature across the ancient, leather scroll.
Ellasar chuckled through a satisfied smirk while removing the pen from Karl’s trembling hand. “Congratulations Karl, you are on your way to, ‘doing it okay.’” His sardonic laughter gradually grew into a gloating, demonic howl. Finally he regained his composure enough to say, “Our business is ended … for now. The door is behind you.”
Confused, Karl stood and turned about, expecting to see a long walk back to the door, but found he was standing mere inches from it. He pushed it open to reveal total darkness, then looked back to where the desk should have been, but it too was darkness. He realized he was falling and tried to scream, but could not find his voice.