The Beginning of a 5 Chapter Novella
Read the Conclusion
Howard Marlin, aka “Merlin the Mysterious,” noted magician and debunker of claims of the paranormal, received a phone call at 9 o’clock on a Tuesday evening. Nothing unusual there. He had received calls at such times before, usually from his agent who lived out on the West Coast and generally called just before knocking off for the day. What made this call unusual was the manner in which it began.
“Hello,” Howard greeted, evenly.
“It’s a pocket comb,” the caller said. No “Hi.” No “My name is.” Just “It’s a pocket comb.” Howard was immediately intrigued, if somewhat put off.
“Pardon me,” Howard replied.
“The object in your safe,” the caller explained. “It’s a pocket comb.”
As part of his debunking career, Howard maintained a standing offer. Anyone who could divine by psychic means the contents of his safe, which he changed every week, would receive a personal check for $10,000. Howard never worried about this money as he had received few calls on the matter and, of those, no correct guesses.
Until now. The object in his safe was, indeed, a pocket comb. Howard began to feel uneasy, not because of any coming radical shift in his view of life, however. Other explanations sprang easily to mind. Perhaps he merely picked an object that was too easy a guess. Pocket combs were not all that uncommon. He would have to pick something more obscure in the future. Worse yet, the caller may have made his successful guess by bugging Howard’s house. This could prove a troublesome invasion of privacy, especially if he ended up, Gene Hackman-wise, tearing out the walls of his house in order to find the bug.
It had to be the former, Howard concluded. He had picked too common an object and was now about to pay for the lapse with a lot of unwanted publicity towards this caller, proclaiming him a true psychic. Not to mention the $10,000.
“You can keep the money,” the caller continued, as if reading Howard’s mind. “My task is not to make money or even gain publicity. For myself, at any rate.”
“Well,” Howard began, maintaining a friendly tone in spite of his misgivings, “I must say I’m rather impressed. You have correctly identified the contents of my safe. Might I ask your name?”
“I’m Lonnie Decree,” the caller replied. “I have been given special powers by God, the purpose of which is to allow testing to convince skeptics such as yourself of His reality.”
Howard almost laughed. I know what this is, he thought. Some of his buddies down at the Wine Pantry are cooking this up. Howard made it a point not to get drunk, but he still imbibed the occasional Chablis. In all likelihood, he had a little too much last Saturday. One of the boys heard him mention the contents of his safe and is now pulling his leg.
“Darren,” he chuckled, picking the voice that was most like the one on the phone, “you really had me going there. I was almost…”
“I’m not Darren,” the caller interrupted, “or any other of your associates. If I could visit you, I could prove to you who I am and, ultimately, who God is.”
“Well,” Howard replied, attempting to keep his composure. “What does this power entail?”
“Anything you want,” Decree answered simply. He certainly was a confident sort, Howard thought. “My plan is as follows. I would like to visit you first to convince you by whatever means you think necessary of the powers God has given me. When you are sufficiently convinced, I would like for you to arrange a meeting between myself and your colleagues within the science community along with any other magicians you would like to bring along. At this meeting, I would like the group to arrive at a test of divine power which they would regard as completely convincing of the existence and presence of God.”
“So you’ve met God, then?” Howard asked. If this man had some confidence scheme going, Howard couldn’t spot it. Why didn’t I pick a more exotic object, he thought? Then, I likely wouldn’t be in this spot.
“I’ve heard Him, yes,” Decree answered. “He has explained to me the course I must take.”
“This meeting between us,” Howard continued. “Are you going to arrange for the press or should I?” Howard hoped to use this blunt a question to smoke Decree out. If he could get Decree to admit to a desire for publicity, perhaps he could get him to fess up to the rest of his plans.
“The press can come later,” Lonnie reassured. “For now, I wanted this to be just us, although if you want to include anyone else in the first meeting, be my guest. Once I convince you of the powers I have been given, we can move on to the meeting with the scientists. Once they propose a good test, then the press will be necessary for providing witness to this test.”
“One last thing,” Howard requested. “I’m thinking of a number between…”
“Thirty-six,” Decree replied immediately. “Would six o’clock tomorrow evening be convenient for you?”
Howard was dumbfounded. He hadn’t even given Decree a range of choices and Decree nailed it. Mentally, Howard tried to think if there was significance to the number thirty-six that would make it an easy guess. His musings were interrupted by the realization that he had been asked a question.
“What?” he asked, remembering the query. “Six o’clock? Yes, that should be fine.”
“Thank you,” Decree said. “I’ll see you then.” He hung up without asking for directions to Howard’s house.
Howard spent the next two hours poking around his basement where his safe was, trying to remember his exact movements when he switched out his father’s railroad watch for the pocket comb last Saturday. He gave the walls a good going over but found no miniature cameras or bugs of any sort. What is going on? Even if Decree had bugged the room, how could he have guessed the number right? Howard would liked to have held Decree on the phone longer to ask him additional questions. There are tricks mentalists use in their acts, some of which Howard himself had used. With more questions, Howard could determine if Decree was using the same tricks. Finally, exhausted, Howard climbed into bed, looking forward to the next day’s meeting with a combination of anticipation and dread.
The next day, Howard opened his door at 5:15 to greet not Decree, but Jim “Magic Man” Able, a colleague of his. The two followed each other’s work a lot and had even performed together on occasion. Where Howard’s specialty in the magic arts was sleight of hand tricks, Jim was more the “nuts and bolts” type magician; sawing a woman in half and that sort of thing. Howard had wanted someone else here when Lonnie Decree arrived, to make sure Decree wasn’t a violent type of nut. Howard also felt Jim would be helpful to spot any deception that Howard might miss. Howard let his friend in and offered refreshments. He then began to lay out the tale of the phone call from the previous night and asked Jim if he had any ideas as to how Decree could have guessed the safe contents.
“That’s a toughie,” Jim admitted, taking the tea that Howard offered. Howard had his own special brew which Jim had always liked. “Has anyone called recently to guess the safe contents, other than him, I mean?”
“No,” Howard replied. “In fact, I have not gotten a call in several months. It’s been a might slow of late. Usually, I get at least one guess every couple of weeks.”
“Huh,” Jim said thoughtfully. “That speaks against my guess, although it still doesn’t rule it out. I was thinking that one might call every so often and make a random guess in the hopes of making a correct one by chance eventually. A person could even go so far as to change his voice each time or even get several of his friends to call for him.”
“That’s true,” Howard agreed, “although if he did, he sure waited a long time to hazard a guess. Maybe patience is a virtue, to him at any rate.”
“Another trick,” Jim offered, “might be to go through your trash to guess what things you had in your house, the way a computer hacker works. For instance, if you had the wrapper the comb came in, he might guess that as an object.”
“Oh, yeah,” Howard replied. “That’s one of the things that bothers me the most about all of this – the invasion of privacy aspect.”
“Occupational hazard,” Jim noted. “Being in the public eye invariably leads to this. Add to it the fact that you are dealing with people that have nothing to lose and everything to gain from getting some kind of nod of approval from you.”
“Exactly,” Howard agreed. “That’s why I wanted you here. I plan to put this Decree through tough tests and I wanted you to watch my back, as it were, and make sure he isn’t pulling anything that I might not see.”
“You can count on me,” Jim said. “What did you have in mind?”
Howard thrust his finger in the air by way of reply. Rising from the living room sofa, he went to the hall closet and began to rummage around. Finally, he emerged from the closet and returned to the living room, carrying a boxy looking structure.
“This is something I had always planned on using in such an event,” he explained, presenting the box to Jim. “I can put this over the head of a test subject and be assured that he could not possibly see out of it. This way, I can have him guess the values of playing cards, for instance, and know that he can’t be seeing reflections or such.”
“Good idea,” Jim agreed. “As a hedge, I would make sure that you use two full decks of cards. Also, don’t announce the card by saying anything more than ‘next card.’ You don’t even want to say something like ‘number three’ because the tone of your voice may change if number three is actually a three.”
Howard chuckled. “I’m sure I got the right help for this. Those are excellent suggestions.”
Promptly at 6 o'cloak, the two’s conversation was interrupted by the ringing of the doorbell.
“I wonder who that could be,” Jim laughed.
“Show time,” Howard announced, heading for the door. He opened it to reveal a man of a little over six feet who looked to be in his early fifties. Caucasian, white hair, blue eyes. He was dressed in a light blue waist-length coat over a white button-down shirt. He looked fairly ordinary. Didn’t look dangerous, at any rate. For that matter, neither did Ted Bundy.
“Mr. Decree?” Howard surmised, extending his hand.
“You can call me Lonnie,” the man replied, offering his. The two shook hands and Howard motioned Lonnie inside.
“This is Jim Able,” Howard said, indicating the other man standing in the living room, “a colleague of mine.”
“I believe I’ve caught your act a few times on cable,” Lonnie said, shaking the other’s hand. “It’s right impressive.”
“Thank you,” Jim replied. “I try to give a new take on some of the old basics.”
“Jim’s a right modest sort for the entertainment business,” Howard chuckled. “He’s one of the best, though. I called him here as a safeguard because there are some tricks he’s more familiar with than I am. I hope you don’t mind.” Howard did not add that he felt the two of them could probably take Decree on if he got violent.
“Not at all,” Lonnie replied. “As I explained over the phone, this first phase of my mission is to convince you sufficiently of my, actually, God’s powers in order to arrange a meeting with some skeptical scientists. I welcome anyone who could help you verify what you will see.”
Howard took in Lonnie for a moment in silence. Regaining himself, he said, “Well, er, have a seat. Could I get you anything? Jim and I here were just drinking tea, if you would like some.”
Lonnie sat down in a chair opposite the sofa. Jim and Howard took the sofa, facing him. “Yes, I would like that,” Lonnie replied.
“Tell me,” Howard began, pouring a cup of tea and handing it to Lonnie, “how did you come about these powers? Did God visit you directly or come to you in a dream?” The tone of his voice was more one of humoring than of any attempt to gain knowledge. Lonnie, however, took the question at face value.
“In a dream, actually,” he replied. “God explained to me that he wants to give skeptics one last chance to believe. In times past, skeptics tended to be religious skeptics. They didn’t doubt the existence of gods, just whether or not a particular one was powerful or not. God could perform miracles to sway these people over to his side. Since the world is now more science-oriented than it was two thousand years ago, he felt that something along scientific lines would be convincing.”
“Interesting,” Howard remarked, taking a sip of his own tea. “That would have to be a pretty compelling dream. I’ve had some vivid dreams in my time but I don’t generally awaken with any belief in them.”
“I didn’t either, at first,” Lonnie explained. “The first person God had to convince was me. He did. I discovered the next morning that I could move things in my house by just thinking about them. It was quite heady.”
“I can imagine,” Howard said over a chuckle from Jim. “Perhaps you could demonstrate some of those powers later.” Howard actually had no interest in seeing that. Jim himself could do such stunts without any divine help.
“If you desire,” Lonnie replied. “The test I will perform will be anything you choose.”
“Er, Lonnie,” Jim asked, “what does this God look like? In your dream, I mean.”
“Jewish,” Lonnie said. “Early thirties, dark hair, dark eyes. Had holes in his hands.”
“You sound like you’re describing Christ,” Jim noticed. “Do you generally refer to Christ as God?”
“Always,” Lonnie answered simply. No elaboration was forthcoming.
“If this sounds hateful,” Jim began again, breaking the ensuing silence, “I don’t mean for it to. Why did he pick you?”
Lonnie shrugged. “I really have no idea. I’m not a particularly good or charitable person. I have faith, though. Abraham kept faith with God and it was counted as righteousness. Maybe, that’s all he required.”
“What do you do,” Howard broke in, “for a living?”
“I’m a CPA,” Lonnie replied. “I keep the books for various businesses.”
“Really?” Howard asked, amazed. “You’re not a preacher or anything, even part time?”
“Nope,” Lonnie responded. “You will recall that none of the original twelve disciples were members of the clergy. One of them was a tax collector.”
The three passed a few moments in silence. Jim had ran out of questions and Howard considered where to go next. He finally remembered his apparatus waiting in the corner behind the front door. He rose and went to retrieve the box, quite light in spite of its bulky appearance.
“Mr. Decree,” he finally began, “I wonder if your, er, powers would include some ESP, or whatever you would like to call it?”
“As I explained,” Lonnie replied, “I am willing to perform any test you would like to propose.”
“Well,” Howard said, not quite as nonplussed as he would like to appear, “what I have here is a helmet of sorts. I can place this over the head of a test subject, meaning you, and be assured that you cannot in any way see out of it. I have some playing cards over here and what I would like you to do is see if you can guess them while I hold them up. You won’t be able to see them with this on so you will need to use some supernatural source to determine the values of the cards. Would you be interested?”
“Of course,” Lonnie said, glad to finally be moving along with what he thought of as phase one. “Please proceed.”
“Jim,” Howard beckoned, “if you’ll give me a hand.” The helmet itself was a sort of clamshell with a hole at the bottom to clear the neck. Howard had even added a cushion around the neck for comfort and some cloth-covered air-holes at the back so as not to smother the test subject. The two lifted the affair over Lonnie’s had and fitting it around his neck, engaging two clasps to hold it in place. Lonnie was the only other person to try on this device besides Howard himself. Most would-be psychics that had taken him up on his various offers gave up at this point, pointing to negative vibes or some such nonsense.
“Comfy?” Howard asked, after giving the helmet a final adjustment.
“This will do,” Lonnie said simply. With this, Howard retrieved two decks of playing cards out of a nearby drawer. Within the drawer was a pen and paper which he handed to Jim, instructing him to record the guesses and the actual value of the card. Jim mouthed the words “remember, next,” to Howard. Howard understood the counsel, gave Jim a thumbs up and took a seat opposite Decree.
“Are you ready?” Howard asked while giving the two decks a good round of shuffling into each other. Lonnie assured him he was, so Howard held up the first card and announced, “This is the first one.” Ten minutes later, Lonnie had correctly guessed one hundred and ten cards, including one hundred and four playing cards, four jokers and two cards that Lonnie described as “official rules.”
“This is Dr. Westlake,” Terry said by way of greeting into his phone. He had been putting the finishing touches on his latest non-fiction book, a sweeping description of the rise of man in relation to other forms of humans that had existed side-by-side. Terry Westlake’s expertise was not in paleontology or anthropology, but he and his publishers had long since discovered that he could write about anything with enough clarity to appeal heartily to the lay reader. Previous efforts had been written about cosmology, probability, topology and, his own specialty, quantum mechanics. Usually, he stayed home to write these but it was such a nice lightly clouded day that he decided to bring his work to his office overlooking the campus of the University of Colorado.
“Hi Terry,” a familiar voice greeted.
“Howard?” Terry asked before the other could continue. Terry and Howard Marlin were debunkers from way back and had become good friends due to the mutual interest. They had appeared on numerous talk shows and documentaries together and made a good team; Terry by explaining the science or lack thereof behind various claims and Howard by showing how some remarkable things could be done using purely natural means.
“It’s me,” Howard confirmed. “I haven’t chatted with you in a while. How are things going out there? You almost finished with that book you were working on?”
“Almost,” Terry replied. “I’m done now but there are always rewrites and edits. What about you? I caught your act on one of the late shows last week. That was remarkable.”
“Well, thank you,” Howard said. “I may have something more remarkable than that for you.”
“I’m all ears,” Terry said, his interest piqued. “What’s up?” Howard replied with a description of the previous two day’s events, elaborating on the precautions he had taken to assure there was no fraud and then told of the successful tests. He went on to tell of additional tests that followed the accurate card guesses. Decree had even boiled tea in a cold cup by thinking about it, evidently. Frankly, Decree had left Jim and Howard stumped.
“That is strange,” Terry agreed. “I’m sure two experienced magicians like yourselves should have been able to catch something. You say you couldn’t figure any of it?”
“No,” Howard admitted. “It was the impromptu manner he went about it. Most effects require some amount of preparation. He didn’t seem to prepare for anything and was able to perform everything we suggested.”
“Wow,” Terry enthused. “That’s pretty amazing. How do I fit into this?”
“Well,” Howard replied, “Decree made a rather unusual request. He had called this demonstration in front of Jim and I ‘phase one.’ Now, he’s wanting to move onto ‘phase two.’ He would like to meet an assembled group of scientists and skeptics for the purpose of performing an experiment.”
“Such as?” Terry asked.
“Anything,” Howard explained. “Anything the group would choose.”
“You’re joking,” Terry remarked. “What’s his goal in all of this?”
“That’s where it gets rich,” Howard answered. “He says he wants to provide scientific proof of God – his reality and his power.”
At this point, Terry started to feel like his old friend was pulling his leg. He wondered briefly if Howard had the phone bugged, preparing to play their conversation on some TV show. Howard had never done such before and, anyway, it would be too much like joining “the other side.”
“You’re serious,” Terry said after a pause.
“Dead serious,” Howard replied. “I admit it’s hard to believe. When he guessed the contents of my safe two nights ago, I spent probably two hours going over my basement, trying to figure out how he could have determined that. Last night’s tests frankly blew me away.”
The feeling of leg-pulling began to subside. Howard actually sounded quite serious. Howard was never taken in by the various hoaxsters he had come across, even the ones that the mainstream press found the most remarkable. Whatever this Decree did, it would have had to be something astounding.
Briefly, Terry considered who all he could get to attend such a meeting as Howard proposed. It would depend on what Howard meant by “anything.” Anything as in anything at all? Or anything as in anything within well described boundaries. What would even prove the existence of God, for that matter?
“Terry?” Howard asked, breaking the lengthy pause.
“Sorry,” Terry replied. “I’m just putting together a list of people. Where do you want to have this meeting, anyway?”
“I haven’t really thought about it,” Howard said. “I suppose we could have it out there.” Out there being, of course, Colorado. This would require Howard travel from his home town of Cincinnati. “Decree hadn’t actually mentioned a preferred site. I would need to ask him. For that matter, I don’t even know where he came from to show up at my house.”
“Hey, Howard,” Terry asked, “what exactly does ‘anything’ mean? Did he elaborate on that? The choice of people to get will depend on what conditions he imposes on this, er, test.”
“All he said,” Howard explained, “was that it must be a test that would convince you and other skeptical scientists of the existence of God. Beyond that, he didn’t say, although I would expect he would want you to propose something that is impossible according to the laws of physics.”
“Hmm.” Terry mulled a moment. “Maybe we would need to round up a general group of scientists covering several fields. I think I may save you the trouble of traveling. A lot of people I can think of are on the east coast, so Cincinnati would probably be as central a venue as any to meet. I know some people at the university there who could set us up a meeting place.”
“Then you’ll do it?” Howard asked, hopefully.
“I will,” Terry answered, “as long as you can assure me that this is no joke. A lot of people are going to have to take time out of their schedules and travel and what not. I wouldn’t want to lead them on a wild goose chase.”
“I can assure you,” Howard assured. “If Decree does for you what he did for Jim and I, I think you’ll be amazed.”
After further discussions concerning logistics, Terry hung up. That was a strange call, he thought. Now the problem was how to convince his colleagues to come to this unusual meeting. “Hi, doctor. Would you like to come to a seminar on proving God?” Such an invitation wouldn’t even convince Terry to come.
Still deep in thought, Terry gathered up his manuscript and slid it into a cardboard box. His last task with the computer was having it print out a mailing label with his publisher’s address on it. Once this printed out, he peeled it off, slapped it onto the box and exited his office, turning off the lights and locking the door behind him. Students passed by and gave him greeting. He greeted back automatically but his mind was still on the bizarre conversation with Howard Marlin. Entering the elevator, he punched the button for the first floor.
He decided he would try to invite one scientist from each of a variety of disciplines. Time was, he had the usual physics elitism, assuming physics was the only science and the rest was just bookkeeping. His field of quantum mechanics, however, put him in contact with a lot of chemists, so he gained respect for their field as well. Since writing about a variety of other subjects, he had managed to find an appreciation for a lot of disciplines.
Mark Stapledon was high on his list. Mark taught at the University of Virginia and was a renowned paleontologist. Mark had written a few books himself to popularize the field, not that it needed any. Everyone likes dinosaurs. A man out to convince scientists of the existence of God, which probably meant proving the Bible was correct in all particulars, would have to face the evolution thing sooner or later. Terry doubted that Mark could propose any good experiments but he could at least ask some very probing questions.
Don Stafford, the astronomer and cosmologist, also came to mind. Ditto for him in regards to experimentation, but also ditto that he could ask good questions. Don worked at Greenbank Observatory in West Virginia. The two of them wouldn’t have much traveling to do, at any rate. Maybe the three of them could convince this Decree guy of the impossibility of his task and he would withdraw his offer. A smaller group would at least be less embarrassing for the fellow.
The door to the elevator opened and Terry began subconsciously to head for the parking lot until he remembered the package under his arm. Once at his car, he opened the door and tossed the package into the passenger seat. He then started the car and headed for the university post office.
At the post office, he went in, package in hand. After paying the necessary postage, he returned to the car and headed for the freeway and home, all the while mentally going over potential participants. He also mulled back-ups, in case he couldn’t find anyone else to come to the meeting, which was highly likely. It was not just the weird nature of the whole thing. A time would have to be chosen that coincided with everyone’s schedule, which became more difficult with each added participant. Another reason to keep the roster to a minimum, he thought.
Once having settled on the group, the next thought he mulled was what type of experiment to perform. Did Decree really mean anything at all? Terry supposed that would mean he was looking for something that was an impossibility; something that only a deity could perform. Terry could think of hundreds of things, in all likelihood. Making the building they will be in disappear and reappear one minute later. Moving the moon to half its distance from earth and replacing it. Surely, Decree did not think he could stand up to suggestions like that? Anything, indeed. The more Terry thought about it, the more he was sorry he agreed to set this up. It looked like such a waste of time. He would really have to pull in a bunch of favors to get any attendance at all.
© 2008 David Rawls
Original fiction debuting at ResAliens
Read the Conclusion
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