A hot bath and a tumbler of scotch will do wonders for generalized anxiety; I recommend a gold-plated tub, if you have the cash.
In any case, the warm water and alcohol soothed my nerves, and soon I forgot about the image of Joachim over the door knocker. That’s the trouble with martinis and driving, I said to myself, they don’t mix, whether you happen to be behind the wheel or not. I laughed the apparition off, laughed until i was stopped by a rumbling stomach. Of course ... I was hungry, practically at the edge of starvation ... low blood sugar, my doctor always told me, was a leading cause of hallucinations and anxiety. The answer for my nerves was right there. Dinner ... it was time to eat.
The meal was light. Fried oysters, streamed clams and mussels, and a raw squid salad for starters, served with a nice, dry white wine. Likely flown in from France that day, but I couldn’t swear to it. Then the main course, nicely done by my small army of cooks and servants, and presented the way I like it -- on an oblong table with one setting (I pay them extra to keep Mrs. Tater away). My mouth watered when I saw it ... a whole fried duck ... scalloped potatoes, thick asparagus, grilled lamb ribs, steamed carrots, lettuce with candied pecans ... my staples, as I liked to say.
I feasted, belched, and feasted some more.
I think I lifted my face from the table to mumble “More wine” and didn’t utter another word until I'd eaten my fill.
“You guys have outdone yourselves,” I said to my butler. “Really good job tonight.” I gestured over the duck carcass and lamb bones -- both picked clean. “Clear this stuff away, will you? And bring a pot of coffee to my den, I’ve got a lot of paperwork to do. But,” I added as he left, “don’t neglect the preparations for breakfast, you know I’m an early riser. Heavy lies the crown, and all that.” I smiled and watched him bow .. subservient and silent, just how I liked it. No lip about Christmas from him!
I was ready to work once the coffee arrived and was set by a bottle of 15-year old port ... alternating sips of black French roast and wine, I worked in the comfortable den, surrounded by dark wood and the heat of the fireplace ... I scanned the treaty proposals and found nothing useful (I didn’t like too many entanglements) ... more documents, memos, and still nothing of note from the foreign diplomats, though I did like the sound of the speaking engagement at the University of Las Vegas ... I yawned ... I signed the papers authorizing ground-breaking on the new national highway system (the fifth such endeavor I’ve blessed), from which I could expect a large payday ... last were the requests for sentence commutation. I yawned again. The fucking parasites would never learn. What did I care about their miserable existences? DNA evidence? Coerced confessions? Boring details, if you asked me. I burned every last one. I stretched ... was that it? No, another stack. There’s no escaping bureaucracy, take it from me. I poured another glass of port for inspiration ... and sat up in my chair ... startled by the loud and close sound of rattling chains ... then the booming sound of wooden steps, the chains ringing, much closer ....
Was this the coup d’etat I'd feared for years? Some disgruntled general? I had rotated the more ambitious ones to border patrols recently but perhaps I was slipping. I braced for the bullets, ready to die like a true megalomaniac.
Nothing came. Nothing, not a sound, not a ball of lead. Nothing, except for the uncomfortable sensation of heavy breathing, of labored breath being pushed through something and emerging wet and cold.
I turned around in my chair.
“Joachim!” I shouted, and fell to the floor.
The phantasmagorical-face had returned, this time attached to body of my old dead friend.
He was as thin as I remembered him, but taller, much taller, and his long neck and head towered over me as I quivered at his feet. Chains wrapped around him, thin bright links secured to manacles on his feet and wrists, looping his waist and up around his neck. Bandages partly covered his face and flapped over his lips. The chains secured a loose, elongated tunic, and though its folds I could see his semitransparent body ... I saw the hints of organs, the suggestion of a blackened liver and engorged spleen.
The voice was his, but I didn’t want to believe it. I rolled on my belly, away from the spirit, and pulled myself up, placing the desk between us. Dead as he clearly was, I did not want to take any chances.
The barrier made me feel better, though his unblinking state was unsettling, hypnotic. A hiss of steam from a damp log on the fire broke the spell, and I was able to speak.
“Joachim? Is that you?” I stood up straight behind the desk and tightened the sash of my robe. “You startled me. I honestly never thought I would have to see your ugly, emaciated face again ... glad as I am to have proof of an afterlife, I can’t say I’m happy ... you’re still pretty ugly, friend.”
I smiled. “Nice try, commandante. But don’t you remember? I’m the one that gives the orders?”
The spirit was quiet, for the moment at least. And I was feeling better and better. Perhaps I could use the wight for my purposes (always explore every angle, young dictators, no matter how outlandish). I smiled my best smile, and asked the ghost how he felt about visiting Professor Yergin, or one of the other opposition leaders ... or perhaps he’d like to lead an SFOP raid, break up an illegal voter registration drive?
He didn’t answer, and honestly I began to feel a bit annoyed.
“All right,” I said, “you don’t like my ideas. That’s how you were in life, so I’ll grant you that you are you, and not some impostor, a figment of my imagination, or an ill-humor brought on by too much duck fat. So I believe you are real, at least. What is it you want from me?”
“Much as I’d like to take back that bullet, I can’t.”
“I smoothed it out with the papers, though, and your family. They all bought that heart attack line. Not terribly original, but effective, that’s the bottom line, right old buddy?”
“The net out was pretty favorable, I have to admit --”
I trembled. The scream had a force to it, and it seemed to penetrate, the air vibrating and stabbing through me, shaking my organs and forcing me back a step. Joachim shuffled closer and I sank to my knees, waiting until he reached me and pointed an accusing finger in my face. The chains dangled off his wrists, clinking.
“Look at me,” he said, “I wear the chain I made in life, the chain you helped me forge, the chain of all the lies I told, the lives I crushed, the generations I wounded. Ten years dead, and I’m forced to walk the shadowlands bound like a convict ... because of you.”
“No one forced you to play back-up man in a coup d’etat, my friend --”
He stared at me, daring another interruption. I covered my eyes ...
“You don’t need to be afraid, Richard, not yet. But you were and are far worse than I ever was. You have no conscience, you do murder casually, and lie and steal and cheat on a gargantuan scale, all to further the small amount of power you’ve accumulated.”
“I see you’ve read my book,” I said.
“And you wrote a book glorifying your iniquity. That may be the worst of your sins. But, despite all that,” and here he leaned in, so close I could see the wasted face behind the flapping bandages, “despite a record that cries out for your painful death, I am here to offer you a chance, a fragile chance but a legitimate one, a chance to redeem yourself.”
“Sorry,” I said, “not interested in redemption. Get your kicks before the shit-house goes up in flames ... that's my philosophy, as you might remember. But, on the other hand, if you have a couple of hundred shoulder-fired rocket launchers, I could use those.”
“This chance,” Joachim said, “is limited to tonight. Christmas Eve. Unless you repent and make a great penance TONIGHT, your fate will be the same as mine. An eternity in chains, tormented, tormented, tormented ....” He shook his chains and they jangled in my face, the sound like laughter, the terrible laughter of enemies that I never expected to hear.
“Tonight,” he said, “you will be visited by 3 spirits. The first will come soon. The second a hour before midnight. Expect the last at the stroke of the witching hour.”
I was about to respond when he pressed his face close to mine, almost touching. I could smell him ... the terrible scent of new car, packaging, and manure, the fragrance of the future.
“They will show you things,” he said, “show you glimpses of paths not taken, of choices made, of lives lost. Each visit will bring a lesson ... be vigilant, Richard, and you may escape.”
With that, he vanished, chains, smell, and all.
I took a deep breath and looked around. The fire in the den roared; the bottle of port waited patiently on the desk. The glass was empty. I filled it and took a long drink.
To hell with the great beyond ... a hallucination, in all likelihood. Nothing much to worry about, I decided, though perhaps cutting back on the duck and oysters would be a good idea. It was back to work for me ... no rest for the wicked, I thought, laughing and marveling at my resilience and wit.