The boy peered from the brush at the edge of the forest towards the figure sitting in the middle of the meadow. He didn't dare reach his hand up to brush at the sassafras leaf tickling his cheek as the breeze seemed to toy with the sapling in an annoying attempt to declare the boy's position. The man quietly hummed and chanted to the bright blue autumn sky no more than a stone's throw away.
Yugli knew that if he were caught spying on the medicine man again he'd be in big trouble. Not just the little trouble when little Asfra had told on him for pushing her into the river - he'd only received a beating and then thrown in the ice-cold river himself for that one. No, this would be 'big' trouble. Maybe even a moon-time away from the clan with no help except his own underdeveloped survival instincts. That was 'big' trouble when you're only five years old. But he wouldn't be found out. This was too important, and the mere thought of 'big' trouble just made Yugli concentrate even harder on concealing himself from not only the old man in the meadow, but the birds and other animals here in the forest. Even from the sun himself if he could manage that...
For there was one thing Yugli's young mind had learned very well. The surrounding forest and the animals within it could tell any person who knew how to look for exactly what he or she wanted to know. For instance the movements and chirps of the little swallows near the cave could tell you if a clan lived there. Or even better, the movement of the brush in the breeze near the edge of a meadow could tell almost anyone if a sneaky, mischievous little boy was spying on you. Yugli couldn't quite read all the signs yet, but he had an almost subconscious understanding of what little changes in the surroundings could give someone away. So he did his best to become the forest, the leaves, the breeze, just a tree sprouting up next to an annoying little sassafras.
November 14, 2090. The wipers couldn't seem to keep up with the near horizontal sheets of rain as they plastered the windshield of the old beat-up Chevy. Johnathan Wilkes had shelled out a lot of mullah for this car, in desperation, upon his return to southern California just twelve hours ago. Even for a twenty year-old four-door, the wipers should work a little better than this, dammit.
Given the fact there seemed to be what looked like a big belly-buster of a hurricane blowing in, and no fog lines marking the shoulders of the road -- not even a dashed yellow line in the center -- Johnathan couldn't shake the feeling the storm, the road, the beat-up piece-of-shit car, anything and everything which had hampered him on this trip into the hills, was all set up to keep him from meeting a certain old man.
Johnathan grinned at that thought. What was it about the old geezer for whom old Mother Nature herself had to step up and defend him? Were they in cahoots somehow? That would be too much to even try to grasp -- one man controlling the forces of nature. But Johnathan couldn't shake that ominous feeling. He'd felt it in the clenching of his gut ever since he'd started out on this crazy journey.
Still, treading the path of reality was a hard thing to accomplish once you began to know a little of what Christopher Smythe had accomplished in his life. Johnathan had to give himself a little pat on the back for finding out what he had learned only in the past two weeks.
According to the official records, there was no such man as Christopher Smythe -- never had been a Christopher Smythe. No parents, siblings, aunts or uncles. No birth certificate, no death certificate, no social security number, no nothing. Absolutely nada in the ICD. In today's world, not being listed in the International Census Database meant you weren't only without a name, but also never existed. Smythe seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, made a fortune while completely skirting the visible world, and then magically removed himself from the face of the earth.
"But I know..." Johnathan murmured to himself as he cautiously maneuvered the car up and around an impossibly sharp curve. Even as the wash from the deluge rushed down the road and tried to pry the old, balding tires from the asphalt, he grinned. Mr. Smythe couldn't hide from him. Johnathan had a knack. A knack like no other he'd heard of. And if his intuition was right, which it usually was, old Chris Smythe, whom nobody had ever heard of, had a knack just like it. Or something similar anyway.
As old mother nature kept up her defenses, pummeling the car halfway off the road at times, Johnathan steeled himself curve after curve through the California coastal mountains and thought out-loud to himself with a smirk, "You're here somewhere old man. I'm close, and despite what you might think, I'll find you, and you'll teach me what I need to know..."
The gale-like winds buffeted the old log cabin with an almost unyielding strength. The windows rattled, a few shingles flew off the roof into the back yard, and the surf pounded the rocks with a fury the old man hadn't seen in years. He watched one pipeline after another break as they hit the shallows and then come rolling in breaking hard on the rocky beach a hundred yards out across the lawn from his front porch. He watched the storm safely from behind the big, glass doorwall leading to that porch, almost hypnotized by the steady onslaught of wave after wave. He couldn't see the shingles flying into the back yard, but could hear them ripping off the old roof now and then. "Almost as old as me..." he muttered to himself with a little grin. Oh well, it's nothing he hasn't fixed before.
Old Anne Potter down the road would probably give Jacob hell if she caught him up on the roof at his age, but she, along with the rest of the world, didn't know he had a few tricks up his sleeve when it came to attempting things such 'old' people shouldn't even consider attempting. With a short, sarcastic giggle at that last thought, he spoke out-loud to the wind as it came hard at the doorwall again, "How the hell do they think I've lived this long anyway...?"
Turning from the gray, somber, overcast view, Jacob Lightner retreated through the darkness of the living room and into the kitchen to try and scrounge up something to eat for lunch. The storm had crested about nine this morning, and as it was getting on to around noon, he figured he'd whip up a bologna sandwich and continue on with the crossword puzzle book he'd picked up late yesterday.
The day before, with the feeling in his gut telling him to actually believe the weather forecaster this time, he'd picked up a few game-books, some batteries, and even a little am/fm radio from the local Meijer's. The power had been off this morning when he’d arisen, but no matter, nothing he couldn't handle. His gut had told him to be prepared. He had no worries about that. There were twenty or so gallons of purified water in the pantry and a few months supply of canned goods. He had the fireplace to cook with if it came down to it and good supply of chopped wood he'd steadily split himself this past summer, all neatly stacked just outside the back door. And his gut hadn't failed him in the hundred and seven years of his life. Actually it had made him a wealthy man, but there was no need to dwell on that now. He was content. He'd had a good life.
A loud, urgent rapping rattled the house from the back door and jolted Jacob from a fitful sleep on the living room couch. He found himself still sitting up, the crossword puzzle book lying on his lap, and the pen on the floor. No more daylight filtered through the bay window behind him, and he wasn't quite sure how long he'd been dozing before getting startled out of his slumber. Hitting the light button on the digital Timex strapped to his wrist, Jacob viewed the cool blue read-out as it silently informed him it was now just past eight p.m. "Damn," he muttered. "Must be a tree on the line."
The power still hadn't been restored, and it was not quite pitch dark in the house as Jacob carefully felt along the end table for the oil lamp. Finding it, and keeping it's location known with the tips of his fingers, he reached into his left hip pocket for the book of matches he usually kept for the burning barrel out near the driveway. He hadn't smoked in years, but he just couldn't kick the little habit of keeping a quick light in his pocket. You never know when you might need one. As he was putting the lit match to the oil-soaked wick of the lamp, the urgent, almost frenzied noise of knuckles-to-wood came again, startling him while at once becoming annoying, and in the process he almost burnt his fingers as the wick caught, flamed up too high, spilling black smoke into the shadows of the room.
"God damn it. Who the hell could this be...?" he cursed in a low growl while getting up and making his way to the far wall and the back door. The house was mainly just one big room with a cathedral ceiling, with nothing much in the way as he cautiously approached the door. The only walls in the house were a couple in the northwest corner at ninety degrees to each other making that section of the room into a somewhat more private sleeping space.
Holding the lantern up while parting the white, lacey, country-style curtains, Jacob attempted to peer through the panes. Having no power was against him in the attempt and the glare from the lantern only reflected his own lined, graying profile back at him. So he unlocked the deadbolt, but not the chain, and cracked the door enough to shed some of the lantern's yellow luminescence on what appeared to be a man, no -- a boy -- completely soaked and hair matted to his forehead shivering and bouncing in place, no doubt trying to keep warm. Jacob at first glance had thought man looked middle aged, due to his wardrobe of what looked like dress slacks, shirt and tie, all covered over with a blue knee length rain coat -- the kind you see every 'suit' wearing in any city on any given business day.
But as the man opened his mouth to speak, Jacob did an involuntary double take and the man's face, and realized the boy couldn't be a day over fifteen. That shock wasn't the one that gripped his old heart like a frozen vice though. It was the words, erupted out of the boy's young mouth.
"Mr. Smythe...? My name's--"
Just barely containing surprise at that old, almost forgotten name, Jacob interrupted the boy, "No. You've got the wrong place..." Even as he spoke the words he started to close the door, but the boy wouldn't have it. Quickly and desperately the soaked and shivering youngster placed the toe of his leather shoe between the door and the jam.
"Wait. Please. If you allow me only a few minutes of your time I can explain..."
"Get your damn foot out of my door before I call the police," Jacob growled, for the fear in his heart was quickly turning to anger. Nobody knew that name. He hadn't used that name in forty years. And now this boy, not only calling him by that name, but right in his own home.... What the boy said now started him out of his reverie.
"Sir I have a knack. I think maybe the same knack you do... or did..."
Well now that just about made Jacob sick to his stomach. Not only did he feel he might be on the verge of having a heart attack, but suddenly to feel his stomach lurch at that one word the boy just mentioned. Knack. Nevertheless he immediately stopped trying to pry the boy's foot out of the doorway. Although reeling inside, and completely masking his inner turmoil, Jacob looked up with a calm face and straight into the boy's eyes. The boy had given up pleading and just stared back with a nervous, and what seemed a bit of a hopeful expression. They stared at each other in silence for what seemed an eternity, the wind ripping at the boy's dripping, shoulder length hair and coat.
Finally, wrenching the words from his churning gut, Jacob broke the silence, "Son, if you got a knack, of which I might or might not believe in, and if you think I am who you think I am, well, then I guess this here door doesn't make much difference, now does it?"
"No sir, it doesn't. Not for a time anyway."
Jacob couldn't believe his ears. 'Not for a time anyway'? This kid just might be real. "What do you mean 'Not for a time...?'"
With a quick, little sigh and a shiver, which seemed a bit like relief to Jacob, the boy mumbled, "You know how it works."
"Let me just say that I may or may not have any idea what you're talking about. But if you got something to prove to an old fart like me then get to it..." Jacob sneered through clenched teeth. As he said it, the boy took his foot out of the doorway and allowed Jacob to close the door. Turning the dead-bolt, Jacob turned and took a few steps away while watching the floor so he didn't trip on the Chinese rug he so often forgot was there. Turning around towards the back door he looked up and involuntarily jumped, almost out of his rabbit-fur slippers, to see the boy standing only a few inches away, almost nose to nose and dry as can be. Leaning to the left a bit, and glancing over the boy's shoulder he could also make out just the faint outline, mostly just a shadow, of the boy still standing on the porch.
Hesitating for a split second, and not altogether without a little fear, Jacob slowly turned back to face the stranger.
"So you got the knack."
"Yes sir," whispered the boy.
"Well..." Jacob sighed more that spoke, "Go get yourself and come in to warm up a bit. Looks like we got some talkin' to do."
A relieved smirk spread across the boy's face as he let out the breath he'd been holding for what seemed like from the moment he stepped out of the old Chevy and into the blustery wind of the driveway. As Jacob turned to make his way into the kitchen, he heard the dead bolt unlatch, the chain drop, and the door open behind him, as the boy, one body now not two, step inside the house.
Upon returning to the living room, Jacob looked up to see the boy standing just inside the back door and looking back at him, his clothes dripping on the floor like he'd swam through the pacific instead of just walking from this car to the house. It had taken at least five minutes for Jacob to stir up a couple mugs of hot chocolate, and the boy must have been standing there the whole time.
"You know how to start a fire?" asked Jacob.
"Of course Mr. Smythe."
Cringing again at that old, almost forgotten name, Jacob said, "Well don't just stand there. There's wood next to the fireplace over there and a hook on the mantle. Hang your coat up and get us a good one roaring and I'll go see what I can find in the way of dry clothes."
With another sigh of relief, Johnathan said, "Thank you Mr. Smythe. I really appreciate you letting--..."
"Excuse me boy," Jacob interrupted, "The name's Lightner, not Smythe, and I would appreciate it if you'd quit speaking that name in this house."
"Sorry Mr. uh... Lightner. I just--..."
"Just get the fire going, eh? We got time enough for all the rest."
By the time Jacob reentered the living room from the bedroom, the boy had a pretty decent fire going, big enough to warm the place considerably, but not burn it down. At least the boy's got common sense thought Jacob. He tossed a pair of sweats to the boy, told him to change in the bathroom, and not to forget to mop up whatever puddles he left on the floor. He'd already headed to the kitchen for a mop as Johnathan quietly closed the door to the lavatory. With no power, and only the use of a candle, Johnathan changed and had to literally feel the floor with his fingers, into the shadows, for the little pools of rainwater he inevitably dropped there.
While the boy was changing, Jacob mopped up around the back entrance, in what would look like to a common person, complete and utter self-control. Far from it. Turmoil threatened to eat him from the inside out. Who the hell was this boy? What in God's name did he want? Sure he seems to have something of that knack I was born with... But most importantly how did he find out? And how does he know that old alias of mine? That name's nearly forty years old, almost completely forgotten, and then I get some piss-ant knocking on my door, virtually bragging about his own knack and how he knows exactly who I am..? If this little shit knows, then who else? FBI? The ICD..?
Putting the mop away, Jacob mumbled to himself, "But that's something, isn't it...?"
The boy was sitting on the floor near the fireplace when Jacob returned. Taking the armchair opposite the picture window, he carefully sipped his hot chocolate and sized him up. Well, actually he looked more like a man now, what with the reflection of the flames dancing across his face. What made him look so much like a boy earlier? For clearly he wasn't and hadn't been for at least a few years now. The subtle crinkles of flesh at the outside corner of his eyes, the unshaven scruff tracing his jawbone... No, this man had to be in his late twenties. Maybe it was his vibrancy that made him seem younger than he really was.
Jacob had always been a good judge of character, and what he saw in this man disturbed him. He had picked the right word, vibrancy. At once the man seemed confident, a bit cocky, but vibrant. Yet at the same time he appeared to be humbling himself to Jacob. It was in his posture, his seating himself on the floor, lower than Jacob himself in the chair. It was in the way he seemed to want to size Jacob up himself, but couldn't quite bring his own eyes to meet with Jacob's intensely blue, piercing ones. Dangerous. That's the word for this boy. And arrogant. At that realization, Jacob determined he had to keep control of whatever was about to happen. It's how he'd survived all these years, and he wasn't about to let some lucky, smug, know-it-all prick gain the upper hand.
"So..." Jacob uttered into the silence. "You've shown me what you can do. What do you want with me?"
"To teach me how you did it."
Johnathan looked down at his feet, not unlike a little boy getting caught by his parents in the act of hiding something he thought for sure would never come to be known. As Jacob watched this, the set of the boy's face changed from worry to determined confidence. Careful thought Jacob. The man's still boyish mouth suddenly formed into a slight smirk and his light green eyes rotated up and pierced Jacob with an almost indomitable gaze. Though Jacob was at first a little unsettled, his one hundred and seven year old instincts kicked in, and he calmed an instant later believing the boy's bark was more than likely worse than his bite.
"Shall I list them for you? Let's see... First National in December of 2005. Bank of the Americas in August of 2007. Then there was Citibank and the Labor Union of North America both in 2010, December and July respectively. Should I go on? I know all of them. Maybe I should mention the one that got me really interested. The Federal Reserve. 2040. Forty billion in cold, hard, paper cash. Gone in one night. The security guards saw no one. Nobody on the camera's either. No prints. Nothing wrong with the locks, lasers, or for that matter the guards' eyes. The dogs didn't see or smell a thing. And then there was..."
"What of all these places...? What do they have to do with me?" Jacob demanded.
"Please Mr. uh... Lightner, don't play dumb with me. It's taken me the last ten years to come up with the dirt on you. The last four of which to actually find you. I've spent a lot of time and money in this little journey, and I aim for you to teach me."
Jacob's jaw dropped at the absolute arrogance of the boy. Normally he was in complete control of his outward appearance, but the rude and forward way this boy approached him with this information was so completely astonishing and unsuspected, the only thing keeping his bottom jaw from hitting the ground had to be the ligaments, muscles, and hinges God had given him to keep it there. The jaw clamped back shut only when he realized what had been bothering him ever since the boy had opened his mouth--he reminded Jacob of himself when he was around that age. Ambition, a bit cocky, with confidence of the sort needed to rule the world.
Staring down at the young man by the fireplace for the better part of five minutes, hot cocoa completely forgotten and lost in his thoughts, Jacob finally decided to test the waters.
"What's your name?"
"Johnathan Wilkes. I grew up-"
"I didn't ask you where you're from now did I?" Jacob growled. "Now let me get this straight. These banks. All these depositories of huge amounts of paper currency. You think I had something to do with some sort of... let's see... heists?"
"I don't think so. I know it."
"You do, do ya... How do you know it?"
"The knack sir. Just what I showed you by the door back there," he pointed to the back dark shadowy room. "Leaving your body somewhere so you can accomplish, let's say, certain 'tasks' completely unnoticed."
Jacob grinned sarcastically. "Now if I could do what you just showed me, and grab all that money from these various institutions, how come no one saw me? I saw you bright as day in this unlit house standing before me. If I could do what you just did, why'd no one see me? I think you're full of horse-shit."
Johnathan glanced at the fireplace as the flames slowly devoured the nice, dry cedar log he'd ignited about an hour ago. When he answered, it was in a calm almost hopeful timbre, "Because if I concentrate enough when I do it, I realize there's potential in this...talent. I could only leave my body for a few seconds at a time when I started. Now, it's nothing to be 'out' for hours on end. And I've got to believe there's a way to do it without being seen. Oh, I know wherever I leave myself I'll always be seen as if passed out and unconscious to the world. Its just...there's got to be a way to take it further. To the next level." As Johnathan spoke this last sentence, he looked up to Jacob in an almost pleading gesture. From king to beggar in an instant Jacob thought.
"Johnathan Wilkes," Jacob tested the name. "Is that your original name, or an imaginary identity, an alias? If you know anything about this business we're discussing, you know a name doesn't hold a candle to the mouth of a politician. So what is it?"
A grin spread from the worried frown of the boy. "So you admit it? You are who and what I thought. I..."
"Just stop right there!" Jacob interrupted again. "First things first. I asked you a question and I'll tell you right now, if you want my help, you'll pay attention to what I say and play by my rules. That's the only way it's going to happen. And to answer one of your own questions, yes there is a great deal of potential with this knack. And if I didn't want you here right now, you wouldn't be. You'd find yourself out wandering the streets, far from here, not knowing how you got to that place, with not another thought of who I am or what I've done. I've allowed you to stay because I'm a bit curious. You're not the only one I've met with this knack. Just the only one who searched me out." After a brief pause, "Now answer the question."
It was the boys turn to pick his jaw up off the floor. "Johnathan Wilkes is my name Mr. Lightner. I come to you humbly, and with complete honesty, guessing if it were with anything less I'd be taking my own life in my hands..."
Jacob thought on that for a few minutes. Let the boy squirm a bit even though he'd made up his mind. He liked this Johnathan Wilkes. God, it was like meeting himself as a young man after all these years. Jacob liked him because of the dangerous quality emanating from the boy. And the arrogance. And the confidence. He'd need those qualities if he were planning on staying in the business Jacob had literally invented at the turn of the millennium. He smiled down at the boy.
"Alright Johnathan Wilkes. I'll teach you what I know. But in order for you to understand anything at all about what we've got, you'll have to hear my story...or at least the parts I'm willing to tell you. But it's late, and I'm going to bed. There are blankets under the couch there, and you know where the john is. Another oil lamp above the fridge. Just remember what I said about the 'potential' of this knack. I've by no means mastered this talent, but I do know quite a few tricks you don't. So no funny stuff. I'm not your average old geezer. Good night."
With that, Jacob Lightner picked up the oil lamp and headed for the bedroom, leaving 'the boy' in utter silence near the settling fire and the slackening wind outside the picture window.
(all content © 2015 Corey J. Bloxom)