The Most Vital Asset
Ezra Hall felt like a deer caught in the headlights as he neared the climax of his speech, knowing the Kawalsky twins from the Financial Times, were staring directly at him from the front row. They were ‘natural born critics’ with pointy noses and squinty blue eyes. One transcribed at a furious pace on his laptop, while the other’s eyes bored into their subject. Ezra knew one wrong move could spell disaster. If they’d found nothing wrong with his first publication: Choosing Your Assets Wisely, they could still lampoon him for errors and inconsistencies made in his speech tonight. Ezra was hoping his book would gain him considerable recognition from the financially literate community. He yearned to be someone more important than a mere accountant. Someone who could be in the same room as his Uncle Leo (an economist) without feeling overawed. In his mind, the economist sat at the top of the pyramid – seeing further and deeper from their lofty height.
Ezra tried to follow his speech plan without trembling, stuttering or showing other signs of weakness:
“So how do you determine what constitutes a ‘healthy debt’ as opposed to one that swallows you up and spits you out like yesterday’s garbage? Well rest assured, there are certain fundamental principles one can abide by to sidestep the pitfalls.”
Ezra summarised the principles and the pitfalls, careful to let his audience know that if they wanted a full analytical treatment of the subject, they’d have to read his book, if they hadn’t done so already.
At this point in his speech he noticed a strange phenomenon. The longer he spoke, the dimmer the room became. The shadows gained the upper hand in their endless war against the light. In an odd way it helped lift his confidence. There was no chance of locking eyes with the dreaded Kawalsky twins. His voice rose, louder and shriller, like wind swirling up an open spiral staircase, as he intended it would. He’d rehearsed this many times the previous night. He’d even watched YouTube videos of evangelical ministers from America’s Deep South to learn their oratorical techniques. Their energy impressed him, along with their ability to rouse the excitement of their congregations as they shouted such catch phrases as: “He gave his life to save your soul!” or “Open your heart to Jesus!” Their message did not, since he believed in a physical universe, built upon cold, hard facts, numbers and probabilities. There was no place for men walking on water or rising from the dead.
“Now I wouldn’t go as far as saying that every investor who doesn’t claim a debt deduction they’re entitled to, should be shot. Perhaps, a public flogging would be a better idea,” Ezra quipped, expecting laughter, but hearing none. Self-promotion is a bitch, he reflected.
“On a more serious note,” he continued, shifting gears by lowering his voice, “Mismanaged, debt-ridden assets costs our economy billions. It tears at the fabric of society; turns hope to despair, ruins livelihoods, destroys families. You have a moral obligation to choose your assets carefully and manage them appropriately. A good analogy can be found in the movie, Gremlins. In Gremlins…” He was interrupted by the sound of a door creaking open. A tall shadowy figure, with a blue and black striped beanie, entered and found a spot at the back of the room to stand and watch. Ezra gasped in shock. There were several things about the figure that bothered him. He staggered, nearly collapsing. He caught the eyes of the Kawalsky twins for a second. One looked genuinely concerned; the other stared blankly with a hint of confusion. Ezra, recovered a fraction, enough to be able to address the audience again.
“We can execute our strategy for asset acquisition and wealth creation to perfection but we can’t escape the fact there’s one asset more important than all the rest… ” He paused for dramatic effect. “The most vital asset is of course our health! Please excuse me so I can attend to mine!”
He was greeted by thunderous applause. Pure elation coursed through his veins, until he saw the figure in the background clapping slowly, perhaps mockingly. Clack Clack Clack Clack. The sound was not right and then Ezra saw why. There was no flesh on those hands. The figure stopped, stood dead still for a few seconds, and then turned back towards the door it had come from. Ezra noted it was wearing a black and white sports jersey. The number 63 glared at him in white. The figure left, this time without a sound.
Ten minutes later, Ezra was waiting for the bus home. It was a night of a Black Moon. His mood was no brighter. I guess my mind is more fragile than I realised, he mused. I will make an appointment to see a GP tomorrow. It could be sleep deprivation, who knows? I might be referred to see a psychiatrist. He recalled how as a child, his grandmother (his mother’s mother), terrified him with stories about the Grim Reaper. Maybe what happened in there was a manifestation of my repressed traumatic memories? The arrival of the 126 bus was a welcome distraction from his train of thought. For a brief instant, the bright white numbers, glowed red. He shook his head and boarded the bus.
There was only one other passenger on the bus – a man close to the front, fast asleep. Ezra settled at the back of the bus. The voice of his grandfather (his father’s father), echoed in his head. He’d become accustomed, during childhood, to being dumped with his grandparents, so his father could pursue whatever whim took his fancy. When he was born, only two of his grandparents were still alive. The birth, claimed his mother, Maria, who suffered a massive haemorrhage.
His grandfather was fond of quoting Benjamin Franklin’s, often repeated observation about the two certainties of life. Ezra learnt to appreciate that while death was inevitable, he could do something about taxes – learn everything he can and avoid paying too much. Both grandparents believed in a ‘tough love’ approach to raising children. Sentiment and self-pity were to be shunned. “What ever you do, don’t become like your father!” His grandfather would say.
Ezra was shocked back to the present by another dizzy spell. He lay down, trying to think of absolutely nothing. Several stops later a man boarded and let out a piercing whistle.
“Hey wake up Snoopy, you useless mongrel!” He yelled.
The other passenger jumped up from his seat. He was very tall, bald and powerfully built. “Shit Charlie, I’m sorry! Have to stop the late night gambling!”
Meanwhile, Charlie pulled out a pistol, aiming it at the bus driver.
“Sorry Bruno, you’ll have to make this your last stop. You’re coming with us!”
Charlie was a plump man with curly grey hair. His long legs supported a fat arse and a short torso. His neck overwhelmed an ill-defined chin. His eyes were cool, dark and implacable – like fixed marble stones in a murky, brown creek. Ezra was reminded of someone. The person eluded him.
Bruno complied with Charlie’s demand, while Ezra tried not to move. His heart was thumping so hard he thought his chest would explode. The three men prepared to leave – first Bruno, Snoopy and then Charlie. Ezra was about to expel a sigh of relief, when Charlie glanced over his shoulder and saw him.
“Godammit we have a witness! Damn you Snoopy! Can’t rely on you to do anything right can I? One more slip up and I’ll tell the Boss. He sure won’t be happy. Okay, we better sort this mess. You take him; I’ll take Bruno. If he screams, break his neck!”
Resistance was not a viable option. The street was deserted. In any case, there were only seconds before his hands were tied behind his back and he was dumped in the boot of a silver sedan with Bruno. Bruno’s hands were also tied behind his back, but unlike Ezra, his mouth was duct-taped. It was a tight squeeze. Bruno’s rolls of fat, both cushioned Ezra from the bumps in the road and threatened to suffocate him. Time dragged by – the passing minutes punctuated by Bruno’s groans.
Ezra considered his plight. How did this happen? Why? Why me? No don’t be self-piteous. Life is too short for that. Was there anything I could have done differently? No. There was nothing to suggest this would happen. Or was there? Then he remembered the flash of red across the number display and the skeletal figure wearing a number 63 sports jersey. His mind, well versed in pattern recognition, instantly saw the connection between 63 and 126. A devilish little voice suggested that: if 63 represents Death, then perhaps the 126 bus was a vehicle of doom.
What morbid rubbish, his dominant voice countered.
But…the other voice protested, 126 contains two 63’s; two bad guys show up and there could be two deaths.
Quit this superstitious hogwash! His dominant voice demanded, and the other one finally shut up.
His thoughts turned to his late father, Colin. He remembered waiting anxiously for Colin to pick him up from school. Finally the noisy, orange Kombi van arrived and Colin would toot the horn. Ezra could count on three things. His father would be wearing a blue and black striped beanie
– a reference to a Neil Young song Colin loved; the Kombi floor would be littered with empty beer cans; he’d never apologise for being late. Ezra’s mind fast-forwarded decades to his last visit to see his father. He told his father to curb his drinking and drug use. Colin, partially intoxicated, reacted with fury:
“You dare to come here and lecture me? I’m so close to my wit’s end, I tell you. One more snivelly comment and I’ll wring your neck, you sorry excuse for a son!”
Ezra wanted to say (sarcastically):
Well I’m sorry I’m not bohemian enough for you. I’ve never been able to please you have I? You’ve never been able to accept that I admire Ralph Nelson Elliott, founder of the ‘wave principle’, not T.S.Eliot. You hate that I’m a success and you’re a total failure!
But all he could manage was:
“It’s not great for me either, coming here and seeing you living in squalor, self-destructing…” “Then go! I don’t wish to see you again…ever. Leave me in peace!”
While Ezra was leaving he overheard his father mutter to himself: “I wish he’d never been born. I’d still have Maria.” Colin then started sobbing uncontrollably. Ezra wasn’t sure what troubled him more – the last comment or the sobbing fit. Two years later, Colin died of liver failure.
The car stopped and Ezra heard the squeak of the handbrake. He tried to suppress the rising panic, bubbling inside him. Snoopy came and opened the boot, pulled him out effortlessly and slammed it back down on Bruno. Ezra felt his shoes crunch on gravel. He could see a dim outline of treetops, a few stars, but little else. During the day, he would have recognised the place. It was an Nature Reserve where Colin had taken him as a boy, introducing him to Romantic poetry. Ezra did not enjoy it, wondering what was so special about a Grecian urn and wishing Wordsworth occupied himself with something more meaningful than looking at daffodils. Years later, on Ezra’s 18th birthday, Colin wanted to take him here again, share some beers and cones, and watch the sun set over the sea from the top of majestic cliffs. He was hoping they’d take turns reading out Allen Ginsberg’s, “Howl”. Father and son would finally share the same wavelength. But it was not to be. Ezra declined politely, seeing a sad, defeated expression on Colin’s face. Their relationship only deteriorated from there.
Snoopy dragged Ezra up a slight incline, leaving the gravel for soft, squelchy grass. Charlie’s faint silhouette closed in on them from behind. Suddenly, Ezra realised who Charlie reminded him of. His long legs and fat arse, triggered the memory. He was a bully named Walter Kite from high school. There were times, during the teacher’s absence from the classroom, when Walter would take advantage of his unusual physique to fart in Ezra’s face. Most of the class would break out into laughter. Another time, Walter began by asking Ezra if he’d “like to know something really funny?” “What’s that?” Ezra asked with a sinking feeling.
“Your first name spelt backwards makes A-R-Z-E. So that makes you an arse Hall!” Walter Kite and his sidekick, Max Malone, laughed hysterically.
Ezra, offended, mustered up the courage to say: “You’re the arsehole Walter.”
It did not go unpunished. During the lunch break, Walter and Max forced Ezra to visit the toilet to experience one of Walter’s specialties – ‘The Royal Flush’.
Salvation came after Walter Kite was caught stealing the panties off the art teacher, Miss Jankovic’s clothesline. He was promptly expelled. The leaderless, Max Malone left Ezra to his own devices.
Ezra was hoping another unforeseen occurence might liberate him from his present predicament. But he knew his prospects were abysmal. He wished Snoopy had kept him ignorant about the means of his demise. The big man simply could not resist. Ezra knew he’d either be killed by a 25-metre fall or failing that, a wave smashing him against granite. He tasted bile and everything below the waist was feeling pretty numb. To calm his nerves a tad; he made an uncandid offer:
“Hey Charlie, how about we do a deal. You spare my life and I’ll do your taxes for life, free of charge.”
Charlie and Snoopy chuckled.
“Seems we picked a funny guy Snoopy. If it weren’t for the fact I haven’t paid any tax since 1973, I’d be sorely tempted! You’ve got some pluck about you Tax Man. I like that. Not nice of you to leave my mate, Snoopy out of the deal though. Tell you what – I might just grant you one last wish, as long as you don’t wish for too much if you get my drift. Make it snappy!”
Ezra was completely lost for words.
“How about a short goodbye message on Facebook,” Charlie suggested. “Something for your family. Just tell us how to log into your Facebook and I’ll do it later. Cross my heart. “
“I’m not on Facebook and I have no family,” Ezra said dismally. As much as he admired his Uncle Leo, their relationship was formal and distant.
“Well I’m sorry to hear that. Although…it does makes our job easier,” Charlie said nonchalantly.
A flicker of light appeared near the cliff’s edge. Charlie went to investigate, reassured it was from a lighthouse. When he returned, Ezra overheard him whisper to Snoopy: “Looks like we’ re going to have to shoot him. It’s not that rough out there tonight.”
Ezra felt as though a tropical low-pressure system had just infiltrated his head. Various thoughts clashed against each other. He recalled how his grandmother told him to “always make the best of your situation, no matter what difficulties you face.”
And his grandmother also told him that if he was “ever forced to do a deal with the Devil, you have to know something about what makes the Devil tick. Otherwise you will always lose out. If the Devil wants mustard in his sandwich, make sure he has mustard in his sandwich!”
So Ezra tried to eliminate the fear and emotion from the equation to consider his options (or lack thereof) as rationally as possible. He knew the probability of surviving being shot and dumped over the side of a sea-facing cliff was next to zero. If there was a choice, that should not be the first one. “There is something I’d like to ask of you Charlie,” Ezra began in a quivering voice.
“And what is that Tax Man?”
“Please allow me a death by nature. My dad always wanted me to be a poet. It would be a more poetic death…and besides…” Ezra added before Charlie could respond. “I’m sure you’d rather it could be explained away as a suicide. I have no chance. If the fall doesn’t kill me, the water will; I can’t swim!”
In actual fact, he could only doggy paddle and tread water so technically he wasn’t lying. Charlie did not answer straightaway. Ezra was almost sure Charlie could see him through the darkness like a wolf, gauging his level of sincerity.
“Hmm…seems the Tax Man thinks he knows how to do our job better than us. Oh what the hell. He’s not asking for much is he? Snoopy, remove his restraints and give him what he wants!” Snoopy obeyed without hesitation, but once they reached the cliff’s edge, he seized on the opportunity to torment his victim by holding him over. The cliff jutted out like the bow of a ship; waves lapped against granite far below, creating small pockets of foam. Ezra did not think he was too smart now. The fact his peripheral vision sighted a beach about 100 to 150 metres to his left with twinkling lights, was no consolation. Snoopy smiled sadistically.
“Nice view eh? You like it, don’t you? What was it you said before? Poetic!”
A line from a Dylan Thomas poem, leapt into Ezra’s brain. It was one of the few poems he related to.
“Rage rage against the dying of the light”
Charlie yelled: “Stop messing with him Snoopy, you sicko! Get it over and done with!”
Snoopy could have ended matters by dropping him. Instead, he allowed Ezra’s feet to return to solid ground. Meanwhile, Ezra was overcome with rage. A rage at having worked hard to make a name for himself and steadily grow his assets, only to die a horrible death at the hands of two lowlives.
He was never known for any physical prowess. The strength he found was the sort found by a cornered snake. As Snoopy pushed him, Ezra’s right arm whipped out, catching Snoopy’s collar for a split second or two. It slipped through his fingers and he fell screaming. Snoopy was taken off balance, and like a tenpin bowling pin, he went first one way then the other; finally toppling over the edge.
“Holy crap!” Charlie shouted. “The Tax Man’s taken out George! Didn’t see that one coming!” He walked up to the edge and peered over. Neither man could be seen. He shivered, surprised a lump was growing in the back of his throat.
“Farewell George Lawrence McPherson. Thanks for making my life…er…um…interesting. God who am I kidding? Farewell Snoopy, you stupid stupid boy!”
Ezra opened his eyes, finding himself suspended in an air bubble. He was near the centre of a large underwater chamber, illuminated by some mysterious means. There were starfish and barnacles of mainly blues, yellows and violets, situated on the walls of the chamber. A few sand eels wriggled by, trailed by two imposing wrasses. They left through one of several cave exits. Then, first one mermaid, then several other mermaids and mermen, entered the chamber and paddled towards him. They surrounded him. Ezra had never seen so much naked breast and he quickly averts his eyes. One strikingly beautiful mermaid, with long golden locks and bright, green eyes, introduces herself; her voice sounded in his head as clear as a bell:
“You will know me as Raevus, Queen of the mermaids. My true name is much longer, which I don’t intend on giving to a human anyway.”
Ezra gulped. His senses were too alive for this to be a dream, so the only logical explanation he could think of was that his mind had manufactured an elaborate hallucination.
“Normally we don’t meddle in human affairs,” Raevus continued. Her eyes narrowed. “You belong to a pernicious race with little or no regard for the creatures of the sea.” Ezra’s thought process at this instant went something like this:
My mind has produced a crazy vision but what if I’m wrong? Then my life is in the power of mermaids that make no secret about how much they despise people. I have no gills, this air bubble could pop at any moment, and I’m going to run out of oxygen at some point. So what do I have to lose by playing along with this vision as though it’s real, even though I’m 99.9% sure, it’s not?
Ezra tried to think of something agreeable to say, but failed. Raevus went on:
“You can thank Mershell here, otherwise you would have drowned long ago.”
Mershell was an old mermaid with shiny, white hair, a hooked nose resembling a bird of prey and bright, blue eyes. She winked at Ezra kindly.
“Mershell thinks your coming could be linked to an ancient prophecy. So answer me this. Are you a virgin?”
“Um…yes…just,” Ezra replied awkwardly.
Raevus looked dismayed and Mershell nodded knowingly. There was an uncomfortable silence. Ezra thought they were waiting for him to elaborate. So he attempted to explain himself, referring to a time when he was starting to form a close relationship, until he broke it off abruptly before it became intimate. He believed he’d lose sight of all the things that mattered most to him. He was also deeply afraid of intimacy.
Raevus interrupted him angrily; her eyes flaring up like a car switching on the high beam. “Spare it! I’ve heard enough! I’m not going to pretend I like you. You’re a mean little man, incapable of giving love. But according to the prophecy – as the stars fall from the sky, so to will a virgin man fall into the sea and rise again, performing great deeds for the benefit of all creatures. So as much as I hate to admit it, Mershell might be onto something.” She paused to calm herself down. “Do you think you might be willing to help us in some way?”
“Your wish is my command.” Ezra replied. For a brief moment of insanity, he thought of asking if mermaids pay taxes? And (assuming they did) if they would like him to do their tax returns for them?
“We need you to swear to repay your debt to us if we restore you to land. You must swear by what’s most precious to you.”
“How do I repay the debt,” Ezra asked enthusiastically, pleased the conversation had landed on such familiar territory.
“That will come known to you in due course. If we told you now, you’d only forget and that won’t do. Now quit beating about the bush and swear! Be warned, if you break your oath, bad things will happen to you!”
As if they haven’t happened to me already, Ezra thought, but it was not a good time to be cheeky. “I swear by all the assets I own, I will repay you for saving my life,” Ezra declared solemnly. “Okay Rakella, sweetie, would you like to do the honours?”
Rakella was a child mermaid with golden hair and green eyes like her mother’s. The child placed an object on the air bubble about 45 degrees from Ezra’s forehead. It was some sort of bauble that made pink sparks inside. The air bubble expanded and Ezra became more aware of his weightlessness, as it was somehow propelled slowly forward in the direction of the most central cave exit. He was overcome by drowsiness, falling asleep before the air bubble reached the exit.
Ezra regained consciousness, lying flat on his back on the beach, he’d glimpsed from the top of the cliff. A man and a woman were pumping at his chest, while saltwater oozed from his mouth. There was a crowd of onlookers. One man with a South African accent said:
“Gawd, he’s lucky people were down here waiting for the meteor shower.”
“There was a strong current pulling him in our direction too,” someone else added.
“Hush!” The woman performing First Aid called out. He’s not out of the woods yet, she screamed silently.
Ezra kept slipping in and out of consciousness for the next few hours. He barely registered the coming of an ambulance and his transportation to hospital. His mind was still awash with images of the sea and all the strange creatures inhabiting it. Eventually, the shock started to wear off and pain became an issue. A nurse gave him an injection, making him feel very relaxed. He drifted back to sleep. A doctor came to see him shortly after his next awakening. She introduced herself as Dr. Claire Roberts.
“Are you able to give me your name sir?”
“No sorry, I can’t recall,” Ezra mumbled.
“That’s okay. Try not to stress about it. You’ve been through a major trauma and it’s normal to have some temporary cognitive impairment. Can I ask you to lift your arms for me please?”
Ezra lifted his arms without difficulty. “That’s good, how about your legs?”
Ezra lifted his legs, trying not to grimace from the pain that shot up his spine.
“That’s excellent, well done. I’ll let you rest again soon sir – just one more question, which I ask because the memories people retain in similar situations often have a random quality to them. Can you name the Queen of England?”
“Er…is it Queen Rae..Raevus?” Ezra stammered.
“Queen Raevus?” Dr. Roberts exclaimed. “I can’t say I’ve heard that one before. Excuse me sir.” Dr. Roberts left the ward and found nurse, Susan Bradford at the nurse’s station.
“How much pethidine did you give my patient in ward 18, bed 9, Susan?”
By Michael Hornung from Australia