“First thing. Don’t overthink,” said Duke. “They’re old. Okay?”
“Ancient, actually,” Brimsnod added. “Dead before the pyramids got built.”
“No point in mentioning your smartphone, your car.”
“Stick to the basic emotions,” said Brimsnod. “Fear. Hatred. Loyalty. Family. Clan. Survival.”
“That’s our key, you get right down to it. Survival,” Duke said. “You need a strong man. Instead you got Leo. Can he protect you? Leo can barely drool. He slows you down. He’s a hindrance, not a help.”
“If he were any kind of man he’d walk out on an ice floe and drift away,” Brimsnod said.
“But I don’t need him to protect me. I just need him…”
“Out of the way. Sure. We understand. But them?”
Brimsnod nodded toward the opening to the cave. That humming noise waned and waxed, interrupted by excited jabbering.
“You’re at the crossroads here. Loyalty and survival,” said Duke. “Clan loyalty. Big deal to these guys. But you get down to the basics, personal survival trumps loyalty. That’s our sell point here.”
“This sounds like we’re running around in fur with spears in our hands.”
“Who says we aren’t?” Brimsnod asked.
She grinned, revealing a line up of sharp little teeth, then patted Jen on the shoulder. Jen did her best not to cringe.
“You’ll kill it,” Brimsnod said. “Stay out of the weeds. Talking points. Survival. Leo’s obligations to the clan.”
“The clan? Leo’s kids just spend his money. They don’t hang around the fire pit and roast mastodon together.”
“Your message is, Leo owes it to everyone to get out of the way. But he won’t do that.”
“Why not? What’s his reason?” Jen wondered.
“Evil spirits, that’s good. Possession. You can run with that,” said Duke. “You’re not dealing with the scientific mind here.”
“You ready?” Brimsnod asked.
“Let’s go,” Duke said. He strode through the cave entryway like the big man of a warrior tribe.
Flattering: not what you would call underworld lighting. In the cave of the ancients it was worse.
How many of them were there? Hard to tell.
My eyes adjusted to the new level of gloom. I saw the dull gleam of a jaundiced eye, a yellowed tooth, eccentric costuming. A fireman’s helmet, a top hat, a gingham dress, a baseball uniform that would have fit in a Cooperstown museum.
“What’s this?” I whispered to Duke. “Halloween?”
“Their clothes rotted centuries ago. What they get their hands on, that’s what they wear.”
“Ladies! Gentlemen!” Duke announced. “Great to be here!”
In return, that humming, rising and falling like the noise of crickets on a summer night. Except that here it was mingled with a Tower of Babel squawking, layers of language stacked on top of each other, until finally a figure stepped forward from among them.
“He looks like Abe Lincoln,” I said to Duke.
“He is Abe Lincoln.”
“He gets closer, check out the back of his head.”
“Despite the fact that we are and continue to be gathered here,” Abe said, “it remains our unwavering belief that this is neither a great nor fitting conclusion to our labors upon the earth.”
“Far be it from me to arg…” Duke began.
”Shall we proceed to the point? What do you want?”
Duke pulled himself to his full height in the presence of the great man. “We represent Mrs. Jen Litely in a matter of unnecessary and harmful extension of existence, sir.”
Abe turned and muttered into the gloom, unleashing another volley of interpretation.
“The ancients ask you to proceed,” Abe said. “They remind you that they don’t have all day.”
“They do, but never mind,” Duke whispered to me and Brimsnod.
He gave Jen a push forward. She stood frozen for a moment, like Dorothy contemplating Oz.
“Well?” Abe said.
She took a breath. “This is the thing,” Jen began.
Tomorrow: They don’t want meta claptrap