The Transubstantial Man

Frankie Witt crawled out of a stupor and into a hangover. The crust inside his mouth crumbled like a wasps’ nest as he puckered.

Aghh. Again. Head feels like it’s oozing pus. You stumblebum, just die and be done with it.

Frankie shambled into the bathroom, drank a glass of off-color water and weaved into the kitchen area of his one-wide trailer. The sink and counter top were overgrown with dirty dishes and food remnants. Eat or drink? His churning stomach kept time with the agony in his head. Both.

Where’s the blender? Frankie’s eyes crawled over the mess. Aha! He grabbed the blender, and sloshed water into it, brightening the margarita scabs inside it.

Put the vodka in last. He tossed in a vintage pizza slice, two dried-out hot dogs, and mildewed strawberries, topping up with a slug of the brownish water and a half pint of vodka.

The blender complained, sparking, but ground out a dung-colored mix. Frankie ignored the bubbles forming in the slush and swallowed a mouthful from the blender. Ouph! Damn, that’s nasty. Alum and mold.

His sinuses reflated like they’d been stented, and Frankie felt snot slithering down toward his throat. He was blowing his nose on a stained paper towel when his guts and muscles cramped and he dropped to the floor.

*

Frank Witt Dossier, NSA interim report: The well water is contaminated with animal faecal matter, micro-organisms and lead from the piping. Unfortunately none of the biological contents of the blender remain for analysis, the blender having baked inside the uncooled trailer. Analysis of the residue revealed traces of arsenic, gold, and mercury in addition to the expected levels of lead, iron, and calcium. Twenty-seven unclassified micro-organisms were discovered on the food remains in the trailer kitchen, as well as two previously unknown species of fly.

*

Frankie came to three hours later. He winced out of habit, then realized that nothing hurt. Why do I feel so good? My mind, it’s like I hadn’t had a drink in days. Is it this glop? He stood up without staggering, walked to the sink and drank from the faucet. I’m starving. Wait, take care of the concoction first.

He began rinsing out a tequila bottle. The back of his right hand swung into a rusty steak knife, the blade penetrating almost through his palm. Frankie cursed at the pain, pulled his hand away, and stared as the wound stopped bleeding and closed back up. In three seconds there was nothing on his hand but a faint pink mark. Sweet Jesus Murphy! Must be DT’s.

Frankie pulled the steak knife out from the dish pile and stared at it. The blade showed smears of his blood. I wonder. He took the knife by its handle and jabbed it into and out of his left palm. Blood welled out for a second and then the skin healed over. It hurt, I must be awake.

He began poring the contents of the blender into the tequila bottle with steady hands and recapped it. Then he put on pants, tee shirt, and shoes, and walked through the trailer park and across the road to Bernice’s Oasis, a bar masquerading as a diner.

Two all-day drinkers perched at the far end of the bar. Bernice Stanton stood at the other end, shifting her attention between her cell phone and a shopping channel on the television. “I didn’t think you’d make it this time, Frankie.”

“Bernice, I’m starving. Please, a burger and fries?”

“And you don’t have any money.”

“Please, Bernice.”

“You already owe me two hundred.” She sighed. “Hell, all right. Better food than booze. Save your liver from the freak show.”

Frankie set the tequila bottle on the bar, the gelatinous contents quivering. “Okay, I do owe you. I’ll give you a shot of this stuff. It’s incredible what it’ll do for you. Once you see how good you feel you’ll wipe out the two hundred.”

“Two-oh-five counting the burger. Get that slimy looking filth off my bar, I’m not drinking it.”

Frankie looked her over fondly. Bernice was zaftig, hard to budge in body or opinion. But she’s wrong. This stuff is the water of life. I should be charging $2,000 a pop, not $200.

“Okay, Bernice, you win. But I want to show you something before you cook up that burger.”

Frankie took a folding knife out of his pocket and, without hesitating, sliced a line down his right forearm.

“You rotted-out alkie! You’ve lost it.”

He said nothing, holding his arm over the bar so Bernice could watch the wound close.

“Well, jack up my sagging tits!”

Frankie glanced at the day drunks and pushed the bottle toward her. “Please, Bernice, you’ll feel better than you have for a long time. Better sit down first, though.”

“Not a chance, Frankie. You’ll probably be running from both ends in a couple minutes.”

Ten minutes later, Bernice delivered a burger, fries, and beer to his table and sat quietly with him, working things out. “That brown slime seems to work on your shakes, Frankie.”

“Yeah. I’ve been thinking. There’s maybe three quarters of a quart in the bottle. If I’m stingy, that’s twenty shots. I should be able to get five, maybe ten grand a shot, easy. Problem is, I don’t know people who’ve got that kind of spending money.”

She patted his arm, avoiding the mark left by the knife. “You know I do, from before, but consider, Frankie. If that stuff works, your golden goose will squat out twenty eggs and then you’ve got no income.”

Frankie could sense relays clicking in his mind, amazed that he could again think more than two steps ahead. “Yeah, and if I get the government to believe me, they’ll confiscate the bottle, lock me up as a lab rat, and bleed me every so often.” He exhaled slowly, calculating.

Bernice went behind the bar, poured a triple shot of cheap scotch, and brought it back. “Here, your hangover must be pushing your eyes out onto your cheeks.”

“Thanks. It’s weird, but this is the first morning in months that I haven’t felt like a bad death.” Frankie downed the drink in four swigs and frowned. “There’s no pop, no jolt. It’s like the stuff is neutralized as it’s running down my gullet.”

“You want another?”

“Don’t think it’ll do any good. Look, Bernice, I need someone like you to front for me, to be a cut-out from the buyer. Here’s the deal. You become like my agent, ten percent for helping set things up.”

Her smile stretched almost to her jaw line. “Crap. Fifty percent or no deal.”

“Sugar, don’t rely on our two-backed beast act, this is business.”

“Look, Frankie, I’ve got almost no money and you’ve got none. You’re going to need cash to get rolling, that means selling a shot or two cheap. But the people I know, first thing, they see this works, they’ll want to muscle in, maybe take the bottle. You’ve got to be smart to play on their turf. Got to sell this stuff like a street drug. You only know booze.”

“Okay, fifteen percent.”

“Twenty-five.”

“Twenty, and you’ll still have the option to get a shot.”

“Done.”

They didn’t bother to shake the hands that’d previously explored each other.

“Run my tab up a little further?”

“What the hell.”

“Bottle of Cuervo to take home. And a mini bottle of anything. Need to figure out how to stash the mixture.”

Bernice pulled the bottles from behind the bar and handed them to Frankie, then watched him walk away. Two Cuervo bottles. Is he smart enough to work a switch? Not Frankie. Oops, not the old Frankie. This guy knows when to change his underwear. Frankie with a twist.

Frankie surprised himself by setting the real tequila bottle down unopened. Don’t think I can get smashed any more, and that’s all I know how to do. Think, you drunk, how are you going to handle this stuff?

He went into the bathroom and knelt on the floor next to the toilet. Opening his knife, he pried up a floor tile. The tile had been glued to a same-sized section of cut-out plywood flooring underneath it. Below the opening, the toilet drain pipe ran down through two feet of air and into the ground. Next to it was a length of PVC piping Frankie had used to stash cocaine during his dealing days.

He pressed his cheek against the base of the toilet bowl and reached down through the hole, knife in hand. He scraped off an inch of dirt and animal droppings, then pulled his arm back out of the hole and dropped the knife. He stuck his arm back down and grabbed the screw cap of the five-inch-diameter tube. Frankie wiggled the tube back and forth to enlarge its hole, then pulled the tube up through the floor hole.

Sweat dripped down his body, moisturising a five-day accumulation of drinker’s funk. He unscrewed the PVC cap, dropped the Cuervo bottle into the tube, and screwed the cap back on. Frankie shoved the PVC tube back into its hole, and scraped debris back over the tube cap. He looked pensively at the result, then grabbed a paper cup, scooped water from the toilet, and sprinkled water over the disturbed dirt until he couldn’t tell any difference from its moldy surroundings. Time to celebrate. He took a small nip from the remaining bottle. I thought so, doesn’t have any more kick.

Frankie found some soap and showered and shaved. The rusty razor blade nicked him several times before he was done. He chuckled as the cuts snapped shut.

His clothes were all soiled. He wrapped everything in a sheet and walked outside and over to the laundry room trailer, then paced back and forth naked until the machines were finished and he could put on clean pants and shirt.

Once back in his trailer, Frankie’s body commanded him to take a nap. It’s like the install needs to be completed, he thought, drifting off. The banging on his door woke him up. “Frankie, get your skinny ass out of bed.”

Frankie opened the door to see Bernice, sweating in the desert heat. “Jesus, Frankie, it’s eleven in the morning. I got news. Come over to the diner.”

The diner’s air conditioning whacked Frankie as he entered. Goose bumps started popping, but within two seconds they disappeared and he felt comfortable. Man, I got a professional-grade thermostat now.

“Talk to me, Bernice.”

“Okay, I made some calls while you were passed out. Nobody believed me, but one guy, Harry Crispen, owes me a favour and says we can see him at three. Then I fired up the laptop and put in some search words. Frankie, you wouldn’t believe how many thousands of flaky websites there are. But I asked some questions on a couple sites that looked sane.”

“You didn’t tell them where we are, did you?”

“Come on, I’m the smart one, remember? I just lurked. Well, maybe a hint or two. We gotta go if we’re going to make the meeting on time.”

“Where’d you set it up?”

“A little restaurant I know. Crispen should be there.”

*

Frank Witt Dossier, DEA excerpt: None of the interrogated adult males reputed to be part of Mr. Harry Crispen’s crime organization admitted to knowing Ms. Stanton and Mr. Witt, nor of any involvement in drug trafficking. In sum, they admitted nothing at all.

*

The restaurant was little, with only nine tables. At three pm, the only people in the restaurant were a waiter and two large, seated men. Frankie focused in on them. Late thirties, fat packed on muscle. Shirts hanging out over their pot bellies. Careless, they’re not checking to see if anybody else is around.

Bernice and Frankie sat down wordlessly.

“You Bernice?”

“Yeah. Where’s Harry?”

The talker of the pair tapped back half a glassful. “Harry sent us, says you gotta convince us before he’ll talk to you. Where’s the weird drink? And who’s the drunk?”

“He’s Frankie. And it’s real. We got a drink makes you feel like you’re screwing a seventeen-year-old cheerleader. And not only that. Show ’em Frankie.”

“Hello,” Frankie said. “Watch this.” He reached in his pants pocket and pulled out the folding knife. Both men moved their right hands under their drooping shirts and belly flab.

Bernice let out a strained laugh. “No, no, relax. This is a demonstration.”

Frankie slowly opened the knife and sliced a one-inch cut in his forearm. He turned the forearm so both men had a good view. They watched as, in less than three seconds, the bleeding stopped and the wound closed. “We think it’s permanent,” Bernice said. “One drink and you’re set. I knew Harry would doubt me, so I told him he could down the shot and pay me five large when he sees that it works.”

Two burly necks twisted as they glanced at each other. The talker answered. “Harry says different. He says you give us the shot of this stuff for free. He likes it, he talks to you about how much you get when you give him the rest.”

Bernice kept her eyes on the two men, but she could feel Frankie’s smoldering presence.

“That’s not what he said. I’ll call Harry again and explain things. Don’t take it the wrong way, but no deal.”

The talker leaned forward and backhanded Bernice across the face, splitting her lip. “Look bitch, we’re doing it our way, or you’re going to take a beating you won’t be able to heal from.”

Frankie leaned forward, taking the mini bottle out of his pocket and showing it. “Look guys, let’s just talk.” As he was saying this he grabbed a plate from the table top and slammed it into the talker’s mouth. The plate snapped in half and Frankie swung the jagged edge across the mute’s throat.

“Holy frig!” Bernice yelled, jumping backwards.

The two obese men fell out of their chairs and hit the floor. Frankie grabbed his own chair and bounced it off the two men’s heads. “This didn’t work out so well, Bernice.” He unscrewed the mini and drank it. “Not for you, suckers.”

The waiter had run back into the kitchen. The two fat men on the floor weren’t moving. Bernice’s eyes swung back and forth. “Are they dead? Harry’s gonna kill us both.”

“Don’t think they are. We’ve got a few minutes before the cops come. Go through their pockets.”

“Huh?”

“Chances are they brought the money just in case.”

Bernice dropped to her knees, rolled the fat mute guy over and found his back pocket wallet. “Must be three, four large here.”

“Great. What about our other buddy?”

She crawled over to the other man, trying to ignore his splintered teeth, and reached down into his front pockets. “Got it. Exactly five grand. And they’re both breathing.”

“Check the back pockets too. He’ll have money on his ass.”

She found the wallet. “Yeah, another couple thousand. Here’s all the money.”

“Peel two grand off the top. That’s for you. Okay, we gotta go.” He took the rest of the money, then helped Bernice up, taking her arm as they walked to the car. “I’ll drive.”

Ten minutes into the drive Frankie glanced over at her. “Harry’s people will be at your diner in a few hours. Repack your trousseau into the hope chest, we need to leave before they get there.”

“They’ll trash the place.”

“You insured?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.”

As Frankie began to crest the last hill before the diner and trailer park he spotted two SUVs parked in front of the closed diner, and three men in suits standing near the door. “You expecting anybody?”

“Nope.”

“Suits in the desert. It’s looking like Uncle Sam wants me. How much did you spill on the websites?”

Just what the stuff did for you and that you had more of it to sell. No names or locations.”

You told exactly what happened to me?”

Yeah.”

They must be trying to come up with the same concoction. Look, I’ll stay hid up here and watch you walk down like a beauty contestant.”

“You abandoning me?”

“No way. But you can find out what they want. Go ahead and tell them the truth, except for the part about robbing Crispen’s men. I’ll figure some way to get your car back to you.”

The three suits circled Bernice as she approached her diner.

“Bernice Stanton?”

“Yeah?”

“We need to ask you some questions about your web search last night. The product you described falls under national security guidelines.”

“And who the hell are you?”

The three men flashed identity cards.

“They look different from each other.”

“Joint task force, NSA, FBI, DEA, agents Withersi, Haunchez and Greune. How did you get here?”

“My chauffeur just quit.”

The men exchanged glances, but knew they had no real chance of finding a driver in an unknown car. The shortest guy spoke. “Shall we talk inside?”

Twenty minutes after the questioning had begun, the diner’s wall phone rang.

“Okay if I answer that? Might be important.”

“Okay.”

Bernice got up, walked behind the bar, and picked up the phone. It was Frankie.

“Hi, sweetie. Put one of them on, please.”

She turned to them. “It’s for you.”

The FBI man in the middle got up, walked over, and took the phone from her. “Hello?”

“I’m the guy who drank the stuff. I’ll do something for you, but you’ve got to do something for me.”

“Keep talking.”

“In maybe a half hour, a car full of large men will pull in and begin to threaten Bernice. If you hide in the kitchen with no lights on you’ll be able to see and hear their threats, so you can arrest them for assault. They work for Harry Crispen. I’ll give you what you want, but you make very sure that Harry knows to lay off. She gets hurt, you get nothing.”

“And you’re jerking me around. Come back here so we can talk.”

“You looked sweet in that dark suit, but I don’t think you’re my type.”

“Where’s the substance? What’s your name?”

“I’ll call back in a couple hours. If Bernice tells me you took care of the posse, I’ll tell her where you should look. Put Bernice back on, please.”

“Frankie?”

“Sweetie, listen. Tell these guys everything you know. Everything. Chances are they’ll eventually drug you and get the answers anyway. They’re supposed to take care of Crispen’s goons for you. I’ll call back in a couple hours and make sure they did. Then I’ll tell you where I put the Cuervo bottle. I called a TV station and tipped them that federal agents were arresting perps at your bar. They’ll maybe get there before I call. Busy, busy, gotta run. Later.”

“Frankie? Frankie?” She dropped the phone back onto its hook.

“Okay,” she said, “here’s the whole story, no crap.”

Forty-five minutes later a silver-gray Escalade pulled into the lot. Four men got out and walked into the diner. Twenty minutes later, the same four men were escorted out in handcuffs and put, two apiece, into back seats. The TV crew had just arrived, and, with no access to the diner and no real idea was going on, began filming the squirming men in handcuffs.

When the phone rang, the DEA agent picked it up.

“Hello?”

“Is this Hello of Hello and Company? Aren’t you supposed to announce yourself as Agent Sterling of the Incorruptible Agency?”

“Don’t try and goad me, we’ve still got your girlfriend.”

“Oh, yeah, her. Put Bernice on, please.”

The agent balked. “Where is it?”

“Ah, so something’s checked out for you. In good time, once I’ve talked with her. It won’t take long.”

The agent waved Bernice over and held the phone away from her ear so he could listen in.

“Frankie?”

“Are Crispen’s thugs taken care of?”

“Yeah.”

“Is agent man breathing heavily on your cheek?”

“Yeah, but he’s an Altoids addict.”

“Good, a conference call. Okay Mr. Fed, the TV lice have been given Bernice’s name, and warned that you’ll try and kidnap her. I’ve retained a lawyer who’ll be calling Ms. Stanton shortly to make sure that her civil rights aren’t being violated.”

“Really, Frankie?”

“Yeah, Johnny Beckdahl, that the bail bondsmen use. Okay, a deal’s a deal. You guys agree with the lawyer that Bernice is free to resume her normal activities. He tells me you’ve agreed, in writing, Bernice will tell you where the slimy salvation is.”

“Look, Mr. Witt, don’t make it hard. Turn yourself in, it’ll go easier on you and her.”

“Do they still teach you guys to say that? I don’t think I’ve committed a crime. Thank you for your help with the heavies, now please back away from the phone.”

“Bernice, is he out of ear shot?”

She pressed the phone more tightly to her ear. “Yeah.”

“I buried the Cuervo bottle in a tube next to the drain pipe under my trailer. The lawyer will hopefully keep you from being drugged. Keep ’em dancing for a couple weeks if you can.”

“Sure. The young guy reeks of stud, should be pleasant.”

Bernice hung up, smiling, and turned to the agents. “I’m going to go talk to the TV crew now. If you stop me, I’ll scream – thin walls, they’ll hear me fine. Don’t worry, I’m just going to praise you for collaring the four guys. If the phone rings it’ll be my lawyer. Just ask him to hang on a minute till I get back in.”

*

Frank Witt Dossier, FBI excerpt: On day three of the investigation Mr. Witt’s trailer and its contents were deconstructed into small pieces. The ground underneath was excavated to a depth of five feet. A full bottle was discovered next to the drain pipe, but was revealed to contain only alcohol.

*

Four months later, Bernice was briefing her bartender and wait staff when the bar phone rang. The bartender made a move for the phone, but Bernice waved him off.

“Bernice’s.”

“Are you just as nicely packed as ever?”

“You son of a bitch! Abandoning me like that!”

“I hear the diner cash register wore out.”

“Yeah, we’ve been full ever since the arrest, mob groupies and weirdos, and they pay, not like you.”

“Sweetie, listen. The Feds will have this line tapped, so I’m not going to tell them anything they don’t already know. Did you ever get it on with the young stud?”

“Nah, he was too married. You owe me a shot of the good stuff.”

“Something else I’m going to have to welsh on. They’ll pinch me if I try and see you, so we’ll have to have phone sex.” Frankie cleared his throat.

“I thought it out, Bernice. You were right. Giving away the tonic would have not only amputated my future income, it would’ve created competition. I drank it all. It’s done – things – to me, mostly good, some not.”

“You okay?”

“Yeah, thanks. I’ve got to finish under their trace time, so listen up. I found a corporate protector that treats me like a medical superhero, uses my flesh and fluids for research and treatment. I’m a self-healing golden goose, providing the company with heaps of money. They also sell bits of me to the government, which keeps the feds less unhappy.”

“So you guzzled down my shot.”

“Yeah, sorry. But look under the rubber mat for serving drinks. There’s an envelope for you.”

“Wait a sec… Damn, Frankie, that’s really my account?”

“It’s twenty percent, like we said. Deposits every month from an offshore account.” His voice changed. “And if you feds dick with it I’ll cut off your supply of me.” His voice softened. “I miss you, sweetie, but some of the weirdos post pictures of you online, so I can see you’re doing okay.”

“Frankie?”

“I know.”

*

Frank Witt Dossier, Joint Task Force excerpt: Bernice Stanton had been kept under tight surveillance for seven months when she eluded operatives and disappeared for two weeks. She returned with a deep total body tan and a cheerful demeanor but no explanation to friends, staff or federal informers as to where she had been. No trace of the liquid or Mr. Witt has thus far been found.

*

by

Edward Ahern

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