Short Story: “Spirit of Place”

What can I say? Halloween was coming, and our government was looking increasingly scary.

Spirit of Place
by P. Orin Zack
(November 28, 2005)

Lonnie was quiet for a long moment. When he finally spoke, his quavery voice hovered just above a whisper. “You’d better be careful who you say that to. They’re liable to drag you to some offshore gulag and melt the keys.”

I just stared in disbelief. “Of all the people I might have shared this with, you’re the last one I expected to have bought into their scare tactics. I’m serious about this.”

“Serious? You’re mad! How is blowing up the White House, both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court building going to save the country?”

The SUV blocking my view finally started to move, so I eased off the brake enough to drift along with it. I closed my eyes for a moment and walked my inner sanctuary. “Lonnie, have you ever noticed a difference in how you feel when you go into some old building with a lot of history?”

He shrugged. “You mean like a church?”

I hooked a thumb at the marble palace on our right. “Sure, or an old bank like that one. Have you watched the way people change as they enter?”

“Are you on about that again? Man, I never should have let you into the —“

“But you did. And the time I spent in the book vault below the library was what convinced me that I was right.”

Lonnie chuffed. “Right. So now I’m responsible for you going off your nut and turning into a poster boy for the war on terror? Look, Pat, whatever happened to you down there was between you and the stacks. I had nothing to do with it.”

“Exactly! But it wasn’t the books down there, either. It was the awe that people have held for the place for so long. That’s what I felt. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. It’s the same thing with the buildings our government works out of, but it’s gone the other direction. Everyone who—“

He pointed out the window. “Hold on. Look, you just missed our turn. I told you I had an appointment to get to, and you assured me that this errand of yours wouldn’t take us too far out of the way. All you’ve done since I got in is rant, and now we’re out of time. Just pull over and let me out. I’ll walk.”

“Sorry, Lonnie, but I can’t do that. Not until I’ve had my say. Unless you know the whole story, there’s no way I can let you go.”

“What whole story?”

The SUV made it across the next intersection, leaving us first at the traffic light. I looked past the cars crawling by, at my target four blocks up, and hoped the load in the trunk would be enough to do the trick. “I’ll make this brief,” I told him. “We don’t have much time to argue about it.”

Lonnie crossed his arms. “Good. Would you get to the point, then?”

“They’re alive, in a way.”

He screwed up his face. “Who are?”

“Buildings. That’s why we get those feelings when we go inside them.”

“What the hell are you saying? That the bank we just passed has a life? What’s it do all day then?”

“It doesn’t ‘do’ anything; it just is.”

“So?”

“So this: it may be alive because that’s just how the universe works, but its attitude, its effect on anyone who goes inside, is based on what’s happened there over the years.”

“What…? Counting money?”

“For the bank, yeah. For a church, it’s praying. And for government buildings, for the most part, it’s lying.”

He drooped. “Lying.”

“Lying, deception, politics. Call it whatever you want, but the point is that anyone who spends a lot of time there will start to behave like that. Bankers get more bankerly, whatever that means. Religious leaders get more preachy, more embedded in the official mythology they subscribe to. And politicians — congressfolk, judges, public servants, elected officials — get slimy.”

“I won’t argue with you about that last bit, Pat, and I’d like to get rid of the lot of them, too, but why save the slime and trash the buildings? Wouldn’t it be simpler to just off the government and start over?”

“Haven’t you been listening? It’s the buildings, not the politicians. It doesn’t matter who you elect. Anyone who spends enough time in the halls of power will start acting just as slimy. How many times have you read about some new face in Washington — someone who’s supposedly as incorruptible as Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — who gets sucked into that cesspool of corruption anyway. It’s the buildings! And the only way to put an end to the madness is to get rid of them.”

Lonnie turned away. “Oh, so you want Congress to meet out under the stars? Dream on.”

“It wouldn’t hurt. They might be a bit uncomfortable, but the government would be a far sight better, and we wouldn’t have to put up with all the damage that’s been done to this country by the shadowy types calling the shots.”

“Look. Not everyone who goes to D.C. is slime. A few of them did oppose the administration’s grab for power. Doesn’t that kill your theory?”

“No. All it means is that some people are centered enough to maintain their balance in a high wind. How long do you think they can hold out, though? Eventually, they all succumb.”

The light changed, and we started down the home stretch. Three more blocks. I was right to have gotten Lonnie to come along. Arguing the point was an effective way to maintain focus, and to block out the strengthening influence of the building I was vowed to destroy. I could already feel the doubts gnawing at the back of my mind, fueling an irrational urge to back down. That was why I’d driven the route so many times, so I’d know just where it’s effects ramped up. That bank had been my safety marker: once past it, I’d need to keep Lonnie agitated, or I’d lose my nerve.

But with traffic so slow, it was taking far too long to get there, and that was a problem. The more time it took, the longer I had to fight it off, and the weaker my resolve might be when we were finally in position. I’d have to go for the jugular.

I touched his shoulder. “You’ve been affected, too, you know.”

He narrowed his eyes. “Oh really? And how exactly does a law library affect the people who work there? Does all the quiet make us afraid to speak?”

“Worse. It blinds you to the truths all those laws were written to cover up. It blinds you to the miscarriages of justice that have been meted out over the years in the name of justice. It blinds you to the truth about your wife’s so-called ‘accident’.”

Lonnie turned a stony pale and raised a clenched fist. “Back off! Don’t you dare accuse me of letting those scumbags who poisoned her get off without a fight. I moved heaven and earth to get the best lawyers money could buy. Hell, all the time I spent researching that case was what got me the job there in the first place. Just because—”

“But that’s the point. They weren’t the best lawyers money could buy. Only the best ones that your money could buy. The conglomerate that killed her had far more money, and they bought your silence with it.”

Two blocks.

“All right. That’s it! Don’t bother pulling over. Just stop this thing and I’ll get out right here.”

I kept driving. “No. I’m doing this for you, Lonnie. I couldn’t bear to watch the firebrand I knew get doused like that. Ever since you accepted their settlement, I’ve watched you sink further and further into their trap. And that’s just what they want. By accepting their payoff, you bought into their whole line of crap about how it was all a horrible industrial accident, and how sorry they are about it having cost several people their lives. Well, that’s all a lie, and until a few weeks ago, you knew it, too. But now, look at you.”

The courthouse was now just a block away, and I could feel the spirit of the place tearing at me, desperately searching for a way to undermine my resolve, poking and prodding at anything that could give doubt purchase, and a place to grow.

Lonnie was fuming. “Are you finished?” he asked tightly.

“For the moment.”

“You have a hell of a nerve telling me what I did! That settlement was anything but hush money. You know perfectly well that I never agreed to drop my investigation—”

“But you did. You buried yourself in that job they offered you.”

Red light. It was just across the street now. Too far to make my move. And another delay. I glanced at the clock, and then back up at the light. The moment stretched. Something snapped.

“Damn.”

“I know why you’re here, Pat,” he said calmly, glancing ahead, all the strain inexplicably gone from his face and voice. “I know about the bomb in the trunk, and about the switch in the turn signal.”

I stared in disbelief. Something about him didn’t quite fit. “How?”

He smiled someone else’s smile, and it wasn’t pretty. “How do you think? Do you suppose the effect goes only one way? You said that when you walk into one of us, you can feel something. Well, so do we. And to tell you the truth, you’re like an open book. In your case, a pretty boring one. You said that people act differently afterwards, but did you ever stop to wonder why?” He looked at me, as if from a distance. “Oh. Did you think you were still talking with your friend Lonnie? Look where you are. That’s me out there. You’re on my turf now. You were right on the money, you know, but now it’s too late.”

He opened the door and stepped out, then leaned back in for a moment, an unsettling gleam in his eyes. “And oh, yes… I have a little job for you to do. Why don’t you go home to your wife and kid?”

THE END

Copyright 2007 P. Orin Zack

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