~ Forrest Aguirre
The odds were clearly not in his favor.
50,346 square miles of England, approximately 2200 years of numismatic history, most of it buried underground, and what was planned to be a twelve-mile hike along the Monarch’s Trail, all versus a lone, middle-aged American tourist hiking the hills in worn-out tennis shoes, reliant wholly on luck, trying to find a misplaced antique or, better yet, medieval coin somewhere in his path.
No, not wholly reliant on luck, though it might appear so to any of the trail’s ghosts or amblers who might happen his way. He had no metal detector, just a sassafras walking stick to aid in digging up any currency he might find stuck in the dirt. But Dalton Lapine knew something about “proper mindset” in turning so called “luck” one’s way. He had, this late in life, abandoned the faith in ESP he had as a child and his dalliances with Chaos Magick that were all the rage when he was in his twenties. Religion never interested him. But he knew that “proper mindset” could hedge an individual toward his desires in subtle ways that made, or at least seemed to make beneficial coincidence more likely. He had used this notion much to his advantage, he felt, to excel in job interviews, to make smart moves with his investments, to get himself into desired relationships, then out of undesired troubles that usually resulted from those relationships.
And now, as banal as the circumstances were, his mind was set to find a coin to add to his collection on this hike. He knew it would happen. It had to. He willed it.
But it hadn’t happened yet. Eight miles out along the path, on a stretch that claimed to be a “ley line,” according to a book he had read, he was walking on a small portion of paved road that passed by a rural estate—a short-cut lawn a few acres in size, punctuated by well-kept rose bushes leading up to a sizeable (though not ostentatiously so) two story house in a faux-colonial style combining the worst of English Victorian and South Indian architecture.
Ahead of Dalton, a man rode his mower to a stop as the American approached, eyes to the ground. The air was redolent of fresh-cut grass, humid, and on the hot end.
“Did you lose something?” the man on the mower called out, wiping sweat from his brow.
“Sorry?” Dalton said, lifting his eyes.
“It looks like you might have lost something,” the man said, alighting from the machine. “Can I help you find it?”
Dalton watched the man as he approached. He was the sort of man whose large girth implied strength and power, rather than indolence. Beneath curly red-brown hair and behind a thick mustache was the face of a man in his mid-thirties, though his sun-burnt features—a large brow and a wide nose, most noticeably, might have added a few illusory years to the countenance. He was dressed in a dirty yellow tank top, ragged cargo shorts, and cheap flip-flops. His teeth were terrible.
“Oh no,” Dalton laughed. “I wouldn’t want to keep you from your work.”
“This?” the man held his hands out to indicate the breadth of the massive lawn. “I’m just mowing because the government makes me do it or pay a fine.”
“You, you own this property then?” Dalton tried to hide his surprise.
The man chuckled. “Yeah, it’s mine, mate.” He reached out and shook Dalton’s hand. “Name’s Kevin. Kevin Shrike.”
“I’m Dalton Lapine.”
“Well, Dalton, I can tell you’re American by the accent.
Dalton nodded, smiled shyly. Not your typical brash American tourist, then.
“Then we really need to find whatever it is you’ve lost or you might get stuck on this side of the pond.”
“Ah, well, I haven’t really lost anything. Really.”
“What were you looking for, then? You were pretty intent on the ground.”
Dalton hedged, embarrassed, then finally said “coins”.
“Coins!” Kevin said with a laugh. “Then you’re a numismatist?”
Dalton was pleasantly surprised that the man even knew the word.
“I have a small collection . . . back home.”
“Well then, this is truly your lucky day,” Kevin said. “I’m a collector myself.”
The pleasant sensation that occurs when one discovers a fellow hobbyist shivered through Dalton.
“Have you found anything so far?” Kevin asked. “Occasionally . . .” He let the word hang in the air, among the odor of fresh-cut grass.
“No, not yet. I guess it’s sort of a silly notion, thinking I might find a coin, let alone something valuable, on a random hike.”
“Nothing’s random,” Kevin said with surety. Then: “They can be found,” he said with a wry smile. “Oh, I know they can. I know,” he emphasized the last word.
Dalton, encourage, perked up a bit.
“I’ll keep my eyes to the ground, then.”
Kevin, staring hard at Dalton, as if assessing him, yet never dropping that mischievous smile, said “Perhaps you’d like to see some of what I’ve found?”
Dalton held his hand up in protest. “Oh, I couldn’t impose. Besides, I’m keeping you from your tax duties.”
Kevin looked at the grass with a sudden frown.
“This? This can wait. The tax man will always come and collect his dues, whether we want him to or not. Besides, you’ll never come this way again.”
Dalton considered, bobbing his head from side-to-side, as if weighing a decision.
“Never again,” Kevin repeated. The smile returned. “Come on then, I insist.”
The inside of the house was more stately than Dalton had expected. Surely, he had misjudged Kevin’s dress and accent. He wondered how such an ordinary-looking and, to all appearances “lower class” man had come upon such a posh estate. He never voiced his questions.
Kevin led Dalton through a portion of the manor, lemonades in hand, to a broad, sunlit room whose windows looked out over an immaculate rose garden. Birds and small animals flew, hopped, and crawled their way through, oblivious to the two men inside.
“Idyllic,” Dalton commented.
“They know the place is safe for them,” Kevin replied, taking a set of keys from his pocket. He set about unlocking a row of long, glass-topped tables, which held scores of coins in protective plastic sleeves. “I can’t get away with having all this and living alone, without some measure of security.”
“Wow,” Dalton said in a reverent half-whisper, as if on sacred ground. “You found all of these?”
“Most. Not all. I bought maybe half a dozen to fill in gaps. One was given to me.”
“Given? That’s generous.”
Kevin did not respond. He put his hand on his stomach and a pained look crossed his face. He gulped down his lemonade and stood still for a moment as the pain passed.
Dalton, gazing on the collection in wonderment, barely noticed.
“It looks like you went to the continent for some of these.”
“Many times,” Kevin said. “Germany, Austria, The Netherlands, France. Here,” he pulled out a coin and handed it to Dalton, “this is a 1612 Seville 4 Reales that I found while snorkeling off Majorca.”
After closely examining the coin, Dalton handed it back.
Leaning over the display cases, Dalton again scanned the collection.
“You’ve got a Thaler here I’ve never seen; ‘JOHAN:GEORGE.ET.AUGUST:FRAT.ET.DUCES.’ Ah, Saxony. What year?”
“Go ahead and take it out. The date is on the obverse, but I love the reverse portrait so well that I keep it wrong-side up.”
“1612,” Dalton said after pulling and examining the coin. “Elector Christian II. I’m not familiar. I’ll have to read up on him and the pair on the back.”
“He was dead the year before that was minted. Nothing particularly spectacular about his reign. His brother, one of those on the reverse, though I can’t remember which one, took over as Elector of Saxony. He was similarly unimpressive.”
Dalton replaced the coin then, making his way to another table, he peered through the glass.
“What’s this?” he said, pointing to the far back corner of the case.
Kevin had his hand on his stomach again and the furrow to his brow and squinting eyes indicated even more pain.
Dalton looked to his host, but did not mention the man’s expression, not wanting to offend him.
Kevin forced the beginnings of a smile and nodded his head toward the coin, as if indicating to his newfound numismatic friend that he should examine it more closely.
Kevin nodded in the affirmative.
“Are you okay?” Dalton asked.
“I’m fine. Excuse me for a moment. I’ll be right back. Feel free to take anything out to examine it, just please put it back in the place you found it.”
Kevin passed through a pair of double doors that led into a hallway that was lined with bronze sconces. Dalton thought he caught a glimpse of a suit of armor as the door closed.
The coin that had caught his attention did so because of the dark patina that covered its face, quite unlike the other coins, which shone with gold or silver brilliance. Perhaps it was heavily-tarnished silver? The coins position, atop a small pile of Elizabeth I silver groats, might have indicated provenience, but there was no visible date on it. One side showed the ¾ portrait of a grim-faced, bearded man wearing a Burgundian sallet, partially obscured by a high pauldron. An arquebus rested on his shoulder. The lettering around the legend was worn down so as to be inscrutable. The other side of the coin (he assumed to be the reverse, though there was no clear indicator that the knight’s portrait was the obverse) showed a crudely-fashioned image of a hare standing on its hind legs, with its forepaws upraised, as if engaged in a human dance. Above it, in the air to the left, was an image of the sun with a fine-featured human face on it. To the right was a similarly-visaged crescent moon.
He squinted hard, then, finding a lamp, turned it on and held the coin directly under the light. On the hare’s side of the coin he could make out the phrase “+Lepus dolorum+,” in the legend, but nothing else.
He found himself fascinated by the motif and mystified by the legend. He could only imagine the story behind why that phrase became engraved. Why would anyone label a coin “rabbit of sorrow”? He walked back to the case, determined to ask Kevin about the strange words and image.
But then, he thought as he walked back, what is stopping me from studying it out and learning for myself?
Butterflies erupted in his stomach as a thought, then a nervous desire, then utter cupidity arose in him. Kevin’s words echoed in the memory halls of his skull: . . . you’ll never come this way again.
Kevin returned to the room to find Dalton, hands respectfully held behind him, looking down at the case furthest from where he had left him.
“This 1748 Maria-Theresa-Taler,” the American said, “is it a replica? Forgeries are so common on these.”
“No, it’s an original,” Kevin said. “I’ve had it certified twice.”
“It’s in beautiful condition,” Dalton said, turning to look at his host.
The man was pale as a ghost, but the smile had returned and any indication of pain was gone.
“You’re doing better, I hope,” Dalton said.
“Didn’t drink enough water while mowing, is all. I got some in me and am feeling much better. Thank you for asking.”
Dalton looked at his watch.
“This has been fabulous,” he said, “but I must be moving on, soon. Dinner reservations and all that.”
Kevin nodded. “Understood. You’ve travelled over an ocean to be here and taken a long hike on a hot day. You’ll be famished by the time you get back.”
“Mmm, yes. But before I go, would it be okay to take a few pictures of some of the coins?”
“Absolutely, Dalton. Be my guest,” Kevin said.
“Oh, but I already am.”
Dalton could not hide a smile.
The clothes in his suitcase were piled up like a volcano, slopes spilling out onto his bed, and at the bottom of the crater, nestled snuggly in fabric, the coin. Good, it had made it through security and across the ocean without an issue.
Dalton removed the coin, oblivious to the mess he had made. His usual fastidiousness was cast aside as he clawed the object out and unwrapped it.
For a brief second, he though that the coin had somehow been replaced by another, but that was ridiculous. Yet, something was different. He checked the legend: “+Lepus dolorum+” was exactly the same as he remembered it. Looking at the knight’s portrait however, Dalton questioned if he had, in the excitement of the theft, falsely remembered the face of the knight being more hale, less gaunt than it now appeared. The eyes seemed to be shadowed in a way he couldn’t recall, the beard slightly less sparse than he remembered; and the stern expression more attentive, as if the knight was coming into awareness about something that had been heretofore hidden.
Flipping the coin back over, he was startled to see that the rampant hare had moved from the position he remembered. And wasn’t the moon closer to full now? Surely, the waxing was a function of the sunlight, which shone more direct at his latitude than it did at England’s. That must be the explanation.
He found a lock box and, though he could hardly stand it, placed the coin inside and tucked the box in a drawer before preparing for work the next day. He fell into a deep, jet-lagged sleep.
The following day at work was long and grueling. Dalton had literally hundreds of E-mails to check through and his work was frequently interrupted by well-meaning co-workers asking about his trip. At first, he regaled them with detailed stories, but as the day wore on, the resolution of his recitations became more and more pixilated. The longer the day went, the more irritated he became. By the end of the day, he grew sullen, until he could check out and leave.
Once home, he retrieved the lock box and opened it. He stopped reaching for the coin when he saw the knight’s face again. The eyes had sunken in and darkened, and the muscular upper-body (apparent even under the armor) seemed thinner. This definitely was not how the coin had looked the day before.
Looking at the reverse, he swore the hare had moved, dropping to all fours and appearing, like its obverse, to be thinner, the eyes darker. The moon, Dalton noticed, had grown again, nearly to a half-moon. The sun seemed smaller.
But he must have misjudged the images on the coin previously. He had no picture to compare against, as it had been in his pocket when he took pictures of the others. This time, he would record the coin as it was with a series of photos.
The second day of Dalton’s return to work was less demanding, but no less taxing. His energy would lessen with his interest in work, leaving him bored and tired. After lunch, he fell asleep at his desk, then startled awake with no idea of how long he had slept. He stood, yawned, and ambled to another co-worker’s cubicle—Michael Schwent’s—to talk about the upcoming football season, as well as to answer Mike’s many e-mailed questions about Dalton’s trip to England. The conversation stretched for as long as they felt they could get away with it, then Dalton meandered about, taking the long way back to his desk where he fiddled with spreadsheets and meaningless tasks until quitting time. He didn’t quite succeed in fully waking up until his shift ended, after which he felt a sudden rush of enthusiasm that kept him alert for the walk home.
The closer he got to home, the more the anticipation of seeing the coin again rose within him. He picked up his pace. By the time he got to his apartment door, he could hardly put his key in the lock because of the shaking of his hands.
Once inside, he pulled the coin from the place where he had secreted it, nearly dropping it, but catching it before it fell to the floor.
As he held it up to examine it, he wished that he had let it drop.
He didn’t need to check his photos to verify the changes.
By the end of the work week, Dalton’s boss had sent him home early. “Get some rest,” he was told. “You really ought to see a doctor. You sure you didn’t catch something while you were overseas?”
He visited the doctor, just so he could say he had, if for no other reason. He was hardly awake for the appointment, mumbled a few things automatically, feeling as if he was more and more outside of his own body. Sheer willpower kept him from collapsing, “proper mindset” . . .
A prescription was written.
A handful of pills.
A shot of whiskey.
Kevin was on his back, desperately trying to crab-walk away from the looming hedge in front of him. But his hands and feet continuously lost purchase in the slippery grass.
A shadow, darker than the gloomy, cloud-covered night, emerged from the hedge, shaking and rattling its branches, sending a shower of moisture onto Kevin’s near-prone form. The etiolated shade was nearly as tall as the hedge itself. A pair of long ears, pulled by the tug of the hedge, trailed behind the head. Pinpoints of pure void, a black that one felt more than saw, projected loathsome rays from the place that might have been a face.
“I haven’t got it!” the man on the ground cried out in a piteous, pleading voice. “I don’t know where it went! If I did, I’d bury it in the burrow; you know I’d do that for you! But I don’t know where it went, now do I? You can’t hold me responsible if I don’t know what happened to it. That wasn’t part of the deal!”
Kevin’s screams . . . no, his screeching, his mewling, begging, sobbing still echoed in Dalton’s ears as he rolled off the couch and thumped on to the floor.
He got up off the floor and looked outside—sunrise on the eastern horizon. To the south, the full moon was half-hidden by the edge of the Earth. It was Monday. He set off to work.
Around six o’clock, Dalton found that he had caught up on all of his work and even worked through what was supposed to be a long-term project that he had begun in fits and starts before he had left for England. No one had disturbed him and no mention was made of his being sent home early the past Friday, though water-cooler gossip about the incident had surely made the rounds.
He noted that Mike was also around, working late on some machine-programming project for the shop floor, no doubt.
“Hey, Mike,” Dalton said.
Mike looked up from his work, welcoming the break with a smile.
“Dalton! Glad you’re back with us in the land of the living, man.”
“Yeah. You heard about last week then?”
“Someone told Paul . . .”
“Then everyone knew,” Dalton said with a half-disgusted smile. “Anything else happen while I was out?”
“Nobody told you?”
“Seriously? I can’t believe no one told you! So, after you left last Friday, some dude comes in through the front door looking for you, asks for you by name.”
“Not even the start of weird, my friend. Stephanie is kinda freaked out because this dude is cosplaying as a knight.”
Dalton’s smile fled.
“I kid you not: armor, sword, ‘thou’ and ‘thy’—the whole schtick. Dude was super-hipster, with the twirly mustache and pointy beard. And he would not drop character! We could barely understand him, though he was trying to speak English.”
Dalton stood gape-jawed and wide-eyed.
“Some euro-trash you met in bloody old England?”
“No, I . . . I don’t know him. Look, I need to get back to work. Gotta stay late to make up for lost time.”
“I hear ya. Anyway, glad you’re back and in working order.”
Dalton went back to his cubicle and stared at his monitor for a long time, numb. Mike left, calling out “good night!”. Eventually, the night security guard told Dalton it was time to lock up.
“As they say at the bar: ‘You don’t have to go home’,” he joked, “’but you can’t stay here!’.”
Rain and the rumble of thunder had moved in by the time he left for home. He had left for work that morning in such high spirits that he had utterly failed to check the weather. The thin trill of cold water down his spine reminded him, now too late, that he should have brought an umbrella.
Overhead, cloud-smothered lightning occasionally gave a dull glow to his immediate surroundings, not quite compensating for the rain’s damping of the already-inadequate streetlights. It was under that dull, irregularly-pulsating light, accompanied by low thunder, that revealed to him that he was walking past one of the larger city parks, a riverside strip thickly-crowded with willows and bushes, the municipality’s attempt to extend the river bank’s natural reach out into the city.
Amidst the burble of water and the groans of the storm, Dalton thought he could hear rustling among the trees. He stopped, momentarily preventing the tapping of his shoes on the road, and listened.
The rustling, as of animals in the bushes, sounded again, then stopped.
He moved on, shoes tapping, sometimes splashing in a puddle. The sound in the bushes continued.
The sounds in the bushes stopped.
He continued and, as he did, became aware that whatever was in the vegetation was matching his movement, stride for stride.
He walked faster.
Ahead of him, off the road, amongst the trees, he heard a familiar voice.
“That’s the one! There’s your man!”
The clank of metal on metal sounded from the hedge. A large shadow emerged, shattering branches as it crashed out. Fallen sticks pinged off the armor.
Between the knight’s feet, a hare stood upright, ears perked, nose twitching.
From behind the pair, as if from a great distance, he could hear Kevin’s voice:
“Time to collect the debt, Dalton Lapine. The crown always gets its taxes. Always.”
The hare shot out, sprinting full-speed toward him. He could only stare.
He heard the click of a hammer on a flash-pan, smelled gunpowder mixing with the scent of rain on the air and a flash blossomed out from the shadows. Thunder sounded.
He wasn’t entirely certain if the thump of the striking bullet or the springing rabbit reached him first.
It was night again. His feet were cracked and bleeding from the long hike to get here. The rabbit flopped around inside his belly, kicking and pushing against his ribs so hard that he thought they might burst out from the skin.
He opened his hand and looked down at his palm, where the coin lay. He flipped it around. Dirt was still encrusted in the legend’s divots, between the gothic-scripted letters. He mused on how far the dirt had travelled, how far he had travelled, since he had felt the compulsion to disinter the coin from the ground outside his apartment, where he had buried it.
The sun shone brightly above the wholly-restored hare, who leapt and danced on the meadow, the moon only a faint sliver.
The knight’s face had transformed. It was now a more familiar face. His prominent brow, curly hair, and mustache were even more exaggerated on metal than in the flesh. His teeth were still terrible.
Closing his hand on the coin, Dalton looked at the estate, knowing the treasures that lay therein. He smiled, despite the pain the hare was giving, kicking him in the ribs. Kevin was right: the tax man always comes to collect his dues. Kevin was right about many things.
All, save one.
Dalton, clutching his distended belly, stumbled onto the lawn, toward the house.
He was here, again.
Forrest Aguirre’s work has appeared in over fifty venues, most recently Vastarien, Infra-Noir, and Synth. He has also written several roleplaying game supplements including Beyond the Silver Screamand Killer of Giants. He is a World Fantasy Award-recipient for his editorial work on the Leviathan 3anthology. His novel, Heraclix and Pomp, is available from Underland Press.
Forrest lives in Madison, Wisconsin.