Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Paragon: Chapter 2

It always makes me happy when we get repeat offenders here on Glass Cases. Back in September '09, Bob Young shared with us the first chapter of his novel, The Paragon of Animals, in which his main character, Somerset realized he needed to "take a giant leap forward" in his life after meeting the heroic Hadrian. Enjoy this continuation of Somerset's story!

The Paragon of Animals
By Bob Young

Chapter Two
Hadrian Falconer got out of the cab on a busy Manhattan avenue. Buying a newspaper before he entered the office building, he was approached by several excited people. Despite his fierce reputation, Hadrian always gave off the vibe that he was approachable. People liked him. He didn’t mind strangers coming up to him. On the contrary, regardless of his privileged upbringing, he fancied himself a man of the people.

Entering the building where his office was located, he bantered with the doormen and talked to some people in the lobby while he waited for the elevator. He was glad people weren’t too intimidated by him to start conversations. Even though he could kill someone in six seconds with one hand in the dark, he was still a magnet for people. And he had a sharp—albeit often merciless—sense of humor. He didn’t know anyone in the US who disliked him. No one except people he’d captured, like that nut who tried to shoot Eddie the environmentalist. Certainly those people weren’t thrilled with him, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Arriving at his office, which said ‘HADRIAN FALCONER: PROFESSIONAL ADVENTURER’ on the door, he greeted his only two employees. One was Anne the receptionist and the other was Benny, a teenager who ran errands. Anne was sixty years old and saw Hadrian as a frivolous rich kid with too much time on his hands. (This was somewhat accurate.) Sometimes her impatience with him showed. Young Benny, on the other hand, was a big fan.

“Please keep your seats, you crazy kids!” Hadrian said in his usual jovial voice. “Anything exciting hereabouts?”

“No sir,” Anne said officiously. “We just work in the office. You do all the exciting stuff.”

“Did I forget your birthday, Annie?” He asked jokingly. He always enjoyed Anne’s little fits of pique. None of his servants at home would ever have spoken to him like she does. It was refreshing.

Annie held out a handful of ‘While You Were Out’ slips. “You have twelve messages and a bunch more on voice mail.”

“Och, you’re glad to see me,” Hadrian said, taking the slips. “Messages! I love getting messages!”

“You’re a very strange young man,” she answered.

“You’re only just catching on to that, are you?” He said, and sat at his desk, reading his messages.

Ben rushed over with some coffee. “Morning Hadrian. Heard you had some excitement yesterday.”

“That?” Hadrian asked, “You call that excitement, do you? Tackling one sad, incompetent berk? Hardly exciting. As thrilling as eating cereal without milk.”

He read his messages and was disappointed. None of them promised any adventure. Just tedious stuff, like yesterday’s bodyguard job. No man-hunting, no invitations to a fight club. Nothing to test the prodigious talents of someone who was trained by the mysterious and legendary Candymen.

‘Dull, dull, dull,’ he lamented.

The most interesting one came from a movie studio. They needed his combat tutorial expertise, for the sake of realism. True it was a waste of his formidable talents, but it was something to do. He liked the chaotic atmosphere at a movie studio. It wasn’t particularly challenging but it was fun. He dialed the number, and the secretary at the other end of the line transferred him to Morgan Hogarth, production head.

“Your Grace, thanks for getting back to me so quickly,” Morgan said.

“Call me Hadrian,” the Scotsman said. “I’m only ‘Your Grace’ back home. Here, I’m just your average handsome hero. At any roads, I’m considering the offer. I quite enjoy cinema work. No biz like show biz.”

“Excellent,” Morgan said. “You’ll love this one. It’s right up your street. We’re doing a film version of Hamlet.”

“Another one? What happens when you get to 100? Is there a trophy?”

“It’s timeless!” Morgan said. “Why so surprised? Aren’t you from the land of Shakespeare?”

“England is the land of Shakespeare, brainiac,” Hadrian said. “I’m a Scot.”

“There’s a difference?”

“Not to you, apparently.”

“If I’ve given offense…” Morgan began.

“Och no, it’s an annoyingly common mistake,” Hadrian interrupted. “I tolerate it, much as I tolerate yourself. So, you’ll be wanting me to coach your actors in some dueling and fencing?”

“That’s the ticket,” Morgan said. “And maybe help us with some fight choreography. You excel at that.”

“Stop your stroking,” he said. “My ego’s nay my weak point. Boredom is. When do I start?”

“Next Thursday, if possible. Name your price.”

Often, Hadrian didn’t charge a fee. He didn’t need to. If the client were not wealthy, or seemed in legitimate danger, or if the cause was a good one, Hadrian would waive his fee completely. Also, if the mission promised to be an adventure, Hadrian would eagerly take the job without asking a cent. But in a case like this, when a big movie studio was asking him to do something tedious like teaching actors how to fence, he charged a very high fee. He knew he was worth it. Not that he needed the money, but they don’t respect you if you give it away for free. And Hadrian would have respect!

The old car made noises that no human being had ever heard before but Somerset didn’t care. Just so long as it managed to make the entire trip home before it broke down, it could make whatever noises it liked. As Somerset drove along the hilly and increasingly familiar road in Colorado, the smell in the air started to ignite his often-inaccurate memory. Inaccurate, because he tended to remember things as being much worse then they really were. For example, the clown that had performed at his 7th birthday party didn’t really have fangs and try to swallow him whole. Somerset tended to exaggerate, even to himself. He had remembered this area as being sort of gray and smelling like chalk. But now he had to amend that memory. It was green and fragrant. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, butterflies were fluttering by, and everything was just as nice as a person could possibly ask for. It wasn’t the way he remembered.

Then he saw the sign. The sign that, as a boy, had been like a marker for the edge of the world. Much like the ships in pre-Columbus days feared to sail past a certain point because they’d fall off the edge of the earth, so too, a young Somerset had never passed this sign because he feared what he would find after he left the only world he knew.

The sign read: You Are Now Entering the Town of Woeful. Population 300.

The population was still 300. Some things never change. Nothing ever changed in Woeful. That was why Somerset had wanted to leave. And possibly why he now needed to come back. He needed the comfort of the unchanging town of his birth. ‘The town that time forgot’, as he used to call it. It was like a museum, preserved perfectly.

It was dull. Maybe that was why he remembered it as being gray. It was as exciting as a gray room. Living there was like watching a banana speckle. But at the moment, Somerset needed that lack of excitement and danger. There was no danger in Woeful. The town motto was ‘Don’t expect the unexpected.’

The town came into view. The little, Norman Rockwell-ish hamlet that made Mayberry seem like Las Vegas. The same little houses. The same little stores. The same little…everything! It was all the same.

“If you lived here, you’d be bored by now,” Somerset paraphrased.

The car rolled into the town of Woeful, obeying the 10-mph speed rule. There weren’t too many people on the streets this morning. There never was, except for Sunday morning, when they got up to head for the church. The few people who were out walking looked curiously into the car to see who was driving. When they recognized the prodigal Somerset, they smiled and waved. Somerset waved back. They were good people. He liked them all. They were just boring.

Somerset drove along the main road, waving to people who waved to him. He was glad to see these faces that he had grown up with. Familiarity may often breed contempt, but in this case, it bred comfort. All the comforts of home. He needed that now.

Somerset pulled over and parked in front of the general store. He got out, stretched his legs and looked around. “Feels like I never left,” he said.

Somerset walked into the three-isle store. This was where Somerset had gotten his very first job. There were no customers. That was no surprise. No business in this town was ever swamped with patrons. What struck Somerset as being unusual, and unique to small town living, was that the proprietor was not here. Only in a town like this would someone walk away and leave their store unattended.

Everything was exactly where he remembered it to be. Canned tomatoes, isle three. Paper towels, isle one. Nothing had changed. It was like a time capsule. As he perused the unaltered aisles, the owner returned.

“Well, well, it’s Somerset, back in town,” Mr. Moss, the storekeeper said. “Welcome home, son.”

Somerset thanked the friendly old man and got into a brief discussion which reminded him that he was in the boredom capital of the universe. He excused himself and quickly exited the store.

He decided to leave the car where it was and walk across town. He headed for home, slowly, taking in the sights like a tourist. He knew every inch and was comforted by that fact. The bowling alley. The TV repair shop. The hotel, where no one ever stayed except traveling salesmen and people just ‘passing through’. Woeful was like a still-life painting in his mind, forever unchanging.

“Nothing changes,” he mumbled to himself. “Not even me.”

Somerset almost passed his house. But that all-too-familiar peach-colored mailbox, with the name ‘Ross’ in white letters, caught his eye. He looked over the house he had grown up in. It seemed smaller than he remembered. But otherwise, it was totally unchanged. Even the little garden in the front lawn seemed to have the same flowers. Somerset walked down the cobblestone path to the front door. No key. Should he ring the bell? Nah, this is Woeful. He tried the door handle. It was unlocked. Of course it was.

He walked inside and observed, with no surprise at all, that not a thing had been moved. The same “Brady Bunch”-like furniture. The pictures of himself and his sister as children still adorned the wall.

“Mom?” He called out. “I’m home.”

He heard footsteps moving quickly upstairs. He saw a shadow coming around the bend at the top of the stairs. The person who had cast the shadow appeared. But it wasn’t his mother. It was someone that he was more anxious to see. It was his sister Heather.

Heather was two years younger than Somerset. She had just started college. Heather was a pretty, petite girl with an infectious smile. Like Somerset, she had green eyes and brown hair. Hers was shoulder length. Heather and Somerset had always been very close. She was the only one who Somerset had really missed.

“Somerset!” She yelled, as she leaped from the bottom step and bounded into Somerset’s arms. They hugged affectionately.

“Hi sis.”

Heather kissed him on the cheek. “It is so good to see you again,” she said. “I’ve missed you.”

“Yeah, I’ve missed you too. How are you?”

“I’m doing OK,” she said. “Everything’s quiet on the western front. And you?”

“Doing great,” he said, trying to hard to be cheerful. “Where’s mom?”

“She’s at work,” Heather answered. “She tried to get out early, but she had some sort of teachers meeting after class today. She’ll be here soon.”

“How is she?”

“She’s fine. But I can tell something’s bothering you,” Heather said. “I know you too well.”

“I’ll be all right. I just need a little downtime. A little rest,” he said convincingly.

“Well, your old room is still yours,” Heather said, gesturing grandly toward the stairs. “Feel free to rest your weary bones, and I’ll call you when mom gets home.”

“Thanks Heather. We’ll catch up later.”

“Absolutely,” she said. “I want to hear all about everything you’ve done while you’ve been away.”

“Sure, sis,” Somerset started to walk up the stairs. He stopped and looked back at Heather. “It really is good to see you again.”

“You too, sweetie.”

Somerset climbed the stairs and went into his old room. There is no need to point out that nothing had been changed. Somerset didn’t even bother to look around. He just collapsed onto the bed. He had left his luggage in the car. But that didn’t matter. This was Woeful. No one broke into cars. There were no robberies. There were no surprises.

He found one of his old books. ‘The Complete Works of Shakespeare.’ He loved Shakespeare. He always had. This was the kind of hobby that used to get him beaten up in high school. But he always found solace in literature. He didn’t care if no one else he knew shared this love. He never fit in with the crowd anyway.

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