Chapter 5: A Discussion of Mules

Billy watched as Geoff Schenk read the notes on the crumpled legal pad. Geoff held them between the tips of his fingers as if they were coated with toxin. He gently flipped the legal pad around then turned it upside down, flipped it again and read it for a second time. Placing the notes on the table and sitting back he ran both hands through his hair then wiped them on this shirt. He sat on a highboy barstool at the head of tall, narrow dining room table, a thin slab of poured concrete framed in dusky metal and mounted on iron, riveted legs. If there was anyone Billy knew who could make sense of an incident involving drugs it will be Geoff.

In a fog of paranoia and dread Billy had collected his sleeping bag and his discarded t-shirt. Operating on instinct he removed any traces of having been in the apartment. There was an email thread and credit card payments tracking him and Beth back to the apartment but he’d deal with that later. He left and walked home hoping, for some reason, that Beth had gone back to their apartment. Their car was in the driveway, the door was locked and she wasn’t there. He dug in his pockets and realized his keys were in the bag that was stolen. Frustrated, he stood shivering outside the door of their basement apartment.

Scenarios multiplied in his mind: she was in a hospital, she was kidnapped, she was picking up coffee, she had to deal with an emergency at work, she had been raped, beaten senseless and left bleeding in an alley. She was dead, a broken lifeless thing covered in frost and dew.

Was it possible that he had done something horrible in the depths of his hallucination? His thoughts lingered on the worst scenarios and a rich sweetness filled his mouth. It was the taste of decay and rot. His body tingled with warmth and he felt something inside of him delight in the pain. Sickened, he flipped the lid of a trash can behind their apartment and dry-heaved over black plastic bags of garbage. Holding himself upright, his hands on the rim of the can, he felt weak and unsure of himself. Bile burned in the back of his throat. The impulsive sense of joy that he felt at the thought of Beth’s suffering had come from nowhere. Shaken, he put the lid back on the trash can and began walking to clear his mind.

He needed a destination and, as a reflex, he visualized going to the police. Again pressure flared behind his eyes. The pain came so suddenly, a sharp, blinding migraine aura, that he stumbled into the side of his house. It came faster every time, as if the migraine worked out the kinks and switchbacks of his brain. The pain eased as he recoiled from the thoughts. A dull ache remained as he considered his options but the pain was manageable when he avoided thinking about the police. Something was actively pushing him away from that option but he couldn’t tell if it was stress, the natural by-product of everything that was happening, or a darker impulse. Physically he had been altered by the ceremony but how else had he been changed?

It was a twenty minutes walk to Geoff’s apartment downtown. Twenty minutes to think about what happened, what he should do and what he had become.

He rang the buzzer, waking Geoff, and chose the stairs over the elevator after he was buzzed into the building. The apartment door was ajar and Geoff was already brewing coffee when Billy walked through the door. He caught his breath and started explaining what happened from the moment he woke up.

Geoff listened, nodding and asking questions, refilling both of the cups when needed. With some trepidation Billy showed Geoff the stone. As he unzipped his hoodie he felt an invasive, tremulous buzz run through his body. Up until now he had entertained the thought that he was still hallucinating but a witness to the stone would place it firmly in reality. Gently Billy lifted his stolen t-shirt to expose the stone. Disgust flickered across Geoff’s face, followed by curiosity and, as he stepped closer, a look of fascination. He examined it from every angle then stepped back with his hands on his hips.

“How deep does it go?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Billy answered. “I hadn’t even thought of that.” He gave it a small poke and was surprised that it didn’t hurt as much as he anticipated. “It doesn’t really move, like it’s attached to my sternum.”

Geoff frowned.

“Yeah, I know, it’s fucked up on a bunch of levels,” Billy said, “but I’ll deal with it later.” He pulled his t-shirt down. “The bigger issue is finding Beth. Can I borrow your phone?”

“What happened to yours?”

Billy shrugged, “When I woke up it was gone.”

“Why’d they take your phone?” Geoff asked. “That’s kind of peanuts compared to kidnapping and whatever the hell they did to you. Are they that hard up that they need to steal phones on top of all this other shit?”

“Maybe they just wanted to slow me down to buy themselves some time?”

“What,” Geoff scratched at his chest, “you couldn’t just pick call the cops using the landline at the apartment?”

“I don’t know, man, none of this makes sense to me.” Billy held out his hand and made a grabbing motion.

Geoff frowned but handed over his phone and watched while Billy dialed Beth’s mobile. The call went straight to voicemail and he left a message. Using the phone he tracked down the number for Vedge, the restaurant Beth managed. After several rings an employee answered the phone and verified that she wasn’t at work. Billy hung up and handed the phone back to Geoff. “That didn’t go so well.”

“Dude,” Geoff began, “we don’t know what happened to Beth. There might be a dozen reasons she isn’t picking up her phone.”

Annoyance flickered across Billy’s face. “You seriously don’t think there’s a reason to be nervous?”

“I’m not saying that.” Geoff said waving his hands. “I’m just saying we shouldn’t panic. Where she is, whatever happened, we can’t help her if we panic.”

Billy grunted in agreement. Pacified, he handed over the phone and began walking a circuit of the apartment, looping from the kitchen through the living room and back into the kitchen while Geoff sipped coffee and flipped through the pages of Billy’s notes. The stone ached in his chest but the pain was distant, the glow of a stubbed toe or jammed thumb. Gently he probed the facets of the stone through his t-shirt, pushing it gently and he feeling the pull in his sternum. It wasn’t attached superficially to the skin and muscle. Somehow the stone had taken root in the bones and cartilage of his chest.

When he was eight he and his neighbors were racing bikes. Billy looked over his shoulder when a car backed out of the driveway ahead of him. He spotted the movement ahead, a flash of sunlight off the windshield and he threw his heel backward to break and he cranked the handlebars. The bike flipped perpendicular to this forward movement and sent him sprawling headlong into the car. His head and shoulders hit the hood, cracking his collarbone. He hit the ground in a loose pile and pavement ate the exposed meat of his hands, knees and elbows like it was a carnivore. He had his appendix removed in the 8th grade. When he was 19 he was knocked out by a drunk with half-cast on his arm. He broke a rib playing rugby. He’d been punched, kicked, bitten and choked. But nothing compared to the invasive nature of the stone. A crystal welded into his body, half exposed, with no bandages, no pain-killer and no memory of the event. He should be paralyzed by the pain.

“Okay,” Geoff sighed and tapped the paper, “so you think there’s a connection between your vision and this...stone...in your chest.”

“Yeah. I’m certain. In the vision she melted down and became the stone.”

“So...you think that’s her?” Geoff pointed at Billy’s chest.

“I don’t know.” Billy shook his head. His eyes were red and he was breathing heavy, close to hyperventilating. “Yeah, the stone and the vision are connected. No, I don’t know if she’s...the stone. For all I know I flipped out and did something while I was hallucinating.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know.” Billy admitted. “I just have this feeling that...that somehow it’s my fault.”

“The ceremony?”

“No. We made that decision together. I’m talking about whatever happened while I was out. I either did something horrible or I didn’t prevent something horrible.”

Geoff raised his hands. Stop it. You’re beating yourself up. Yes, something happened but you don’t know what. I’m no doctor but I’m pretty sure you couldn’t surgically embed a stone in your own chest while you’re passed out and hallucinating. I agree there’s a connection between the stone and that vision but you’re assuming the stone in the vision and the one in your chest are the same thing. That the events happened at the same time. But you don’t know which event happened first. Ayahuasca, it’s not that literal. It’ll show you something but it’s up to you to figure out what it's telling you. ”

Billy considered this. “No idea what you’re talking about.”

“I’m saying it’s possible something happened in the real world,” Geoff explained, “and the vision happened later. The vision is trying to tell you something about what happened and the drug, the vine, is feeding you images to be interpreted but not taken literally.”

Billy jerked a thumb at the stone. “This thing is pretty literal.”

Geoff leaned forward with his elbows on the table. “Fair enough. I’m just saying the explanation for how it got there might not be literal. The burn on the floor could have been there already and her sleeping bag was covering it. The redness on your stomach could be a rash. An allergic reaction to something. The stone? I don’t know what the hell that is. People have bad trips on ayahuasca but their hallucinations don’t usually manifest in the real world.”

“Usually?”

“Right.” Geoff acknowledged. “There’re stories about shamans who use darts in the other planes to poison other each other. It’s mostly one guy against another guy, local politics and petty bullshit. But more relevantly, I’ve also read about shaman’s coming back from visions with stones, or glass, embedded in their bodies. But, to my knowledge, no one has ever verified it.”

“What?!” Billy looked hopeful. “This has happened before?”

“There are stories, anyway.”

“What are they? The stones, I mean.”

“I don’t know.” Geoff admitted. “Crystallized energy from the other Plane or something. I’m trying to remember where I read it.” Geoff stood and walks to a bookshelf that lined one wall, filling the space between the front windows and another window by the dining area. Billy sat in silence, watching Geoff skim shelves, pulling out titles, flipping through pages and reshelving books. Geoff mumbled to himself, shaking his head. The only other sound came from a neighbor down the hall, slamming their door.

“No dice. I can’t remember where I read it.” Geoff walked back to the table. “Either we find more info online or you’ll have to ask a shaman. Speaking of which, what do you think happened to the Don Raul and his boytoy, Cesar?”

Billy exhaled. “No clue. If this thing is valuable, they didn’t stick around for the drop off.”

“The drop off?”

“Yeah,” Billy explained. “Let’s say you’re right. The vision was telling me something about the stone and the whole thing with Beth and the shadows was just a metaphor for her disappearing or something. So what’s the point of the stone? Why bother with this eff’d up surgery? That couldn’t be easy so it must be important that’s it's there specifically. The only thing I can think of is that I’m being used as a mule. You can’t swallow a stone this big so maybe this is the next best thing. It sure doesn’t give me an option. There’s no backing out without going to a hospital.”

Geoff thought about it, stroking the stubble on his chin. “And Beth is held as insurance?”

Billy nodded. “That’s what I’m wondering. Except there weren’t any instructions. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do or where I’m supposed to go.”

“Maybe you left too early.” Geoff offered. “Could be the buyer was supposed to meet you where the ceremony was held. But who would come to Kalamazoo, Michigan to buy a rock that size? In this way? I mean, why even bother with the whole ceremony thing?”

“No idea.” Billy admitted. He stared out the windows. “That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out.”

“Jeez, man,” Geoff said, “could you maybe step away from the windows? Now I’m a little freaked out you came here. I mean, someone could have followed you and now you’re, like, here. In my living room.”

Billy stopped pacing and looked through the floor to ceiling windows at the Kalamazoo Mall two stories below them. It was the country's oldest pedestrian mall and the recipient of multiple renovations and facelifts since its creation in 1959. Across the street was a row of boutique shops and condos, products of the mall’s most recent upgrade. The current incarnation of the mall featured a single, one-way lane for cars flanked by wide sidewalks. Nothing could be seen through the glare of the morning sun against the windows across the street. He imagined people in the opposite condos watching him, obscured by the glare, and he stepped away from the windows, deeper into the hipster chic of Geoff’s living room with its deliberately mismatched high end furnishings and concert posters. An expensive gypsy enclave with throw cushions, candles, hookas, a flat screen TV the size of bed and voice activated lighting. It was a living space, a museum, a gallery, a gathering spot and and escape from the conservatism that still ran deep in the local psyche.

“Sorry.” Billy apologized. “I didn’t even think of that."

Geoff arched an eyebrow. He stood, walked to the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of beer. He waggled it at Billy who shook his head.

Geoff popped the top and walked back to his position at the head of his dining table. “What happens if you meet the buyer? Retrieving that thing,” he gestured at the stone with the beer bottle, “won’t be pretty.”

Billy frowned.

“Right,” Geoff said, “let’s not talk about that. Anyway, you said the mule thing doesn’t make any sense.”

“Well,” Billy said, “it doesn’t. But the only thing I know about...muling...is what I’ve seen in movies.”

“And what’s that?” asked Geoff.

“That it doesn’t make sense to hide something on the outside of the mule’s body. Whatever they carry is either small enough to be swallowed or hidden and carried. And like you said, if the thing is too valuable to be broken down it’s probably too recognizable to be sold in southwest Michigan.”

“Fenced,” corrected Geoff.

“What?”

“Selling stolen goods is called fencing. If you’re a mule we can assume that thing is stolen, otherwise they’d sell it legitimately. Aside from that I think you’re spot on.” Geoff sipped his beer. “Can I see it again?”

“Sure.” Billy walked into the kitchen where there was more light and lifted his t-shirt. In this light the edges of his skin were less pink and raw where they met the stone.

Geoff leaned towards the stone. He poked Billy’s chest. “You’ve been working out.”

He held his pointed finger over the stone. Billy nodded and said, “Yeah, go ahead. It hurt pretty bad when I woke up but the pain is kind of fading. Maybe they gave me some heavy duty painkiller before they split.”

Geoff tapped the stone and looked up at Billy. He tapped it harder and presses his hand against the stone. “It’s warmer than I expected. Are you sure this is quartz?”

“There are a millions variations of quartz. I can’t be positive but, yeah, I think so.” Billy answered.

Geoff examined the stone from the side. “I just associate quartz with hippies. Is it valuable?”

“It can be,” Billy said, “but it’s not so valuable that someone would go to all this trouble. Some pieces can be worth thousands but it isn’t nearly as valuable as diamonds or precious stones. Its supposed to be good for channeling energy so, yeah, the hippies like it.”

Geoff stood and crossing his arms, leaning against the kitchen island. “Speaking of energy, how are you feeling?”

Billy shook his head and made a so-so gesture with his hand. “I’m kinda fuzzy and a little weak but I think that’s the effect of the ayahuasca. Maybe it’s affecting the pain as well?” He pulled his shirt back down.

“No,” Geoff said, “I don’t think the ayahuasca is doing the pain management. You took that hours ago and its effect should be wearing off, not increasing, and you said you’re in less pain now than when you woke up. And if they gave you the kind of painkiller you’d need to deal with this kind of surgery you’d be on your ass right now.”

“What are you saying?”

Geoff said, “I’m saying I don’t know how the hell you’re standing right now. Either you deal with the side effects of monstrous painkillers like a champ or you’re you can handle physical trauma like nobody I’ve ever seen. I deal drugs for a living. I can spot someone under the influence a mile away and, aside from looking tired and stressed, you seem normal. Kind of freakishly normal.”

“You deal weed,” Billy said, “that’s barely a drug.”

“And shrooms and ecstasy. Why are we debating this? I’m saying that, aside from an ayahuasca hangover, a stone in your chest and missing girlfriend you seem pretty normal.”

Billy held up his hands, palms forward, in a sign of truce. “You’re right. It’s just too much right now, trying to figure out why I’m still standing after...this.” He glances down then back up and his friend. “One thing at a time.”

Silence. They looked away from one another, each taking a moment to process what’s happened. Outside a siren wails in the distance.

“Have you called your dad?” asked Geoff.

“No,” Billy sighed. “He’ll just blame me and contact the police or call in an airstrike. I don’t want to call him unless it's necessary.”

“Right,” Geoff nodded. “Just so I understand, by your definition, what does ‘necessary’ mean?”

“It means I’ll call him if we need an airstrike.”

Geoff was wearing jeans and a wrinkled gray vest over a faded black t-shirt that said Club Soda in an art deco font. The clothes looked like they’d been slept in. He smoothed the vest and picked a piece of lint off his shirt. “At least we know that’s an option.”

Billy pulled out a stool at the table and took a seat. He was frowning slightly and tracing the outline of the stone through his shirt. In the years they have been friends Geoff has never seen Billy flustered or upset and even now he seems strangely calm.

They met at a Renaissance Festival on a humid, August afternoon. It was the summer of Billy’s freshman year at the Western Michigan University. It was same year Geoff would drop out of school at the U of M. Heavy clouds hung low in the sky and promised rain. Visitors to the faire moved slowly, itchy from the August heat, arms and legs angled out to avoid friction. Their clothes were wet, stains spreading out from their armpits and sticking to their bodies. Even the turrets at the park entrance sagged in exhaustion.

Geoff and his friends had come to the festival for beer and easy laughs. The heat and pending rain had scared off most of the locals so the event was sparsely populated by dedicated medievalists and truly committed drunks. Both supplied plenty of entertainment. Geoff and his friends spent the afternoon drinking mead and harassing maidens at the taverns. By the time they staggered past Billy's glasswares booth, their laughter was souring in the heat.

The afternoon joust was in progress and the knights were tilting lazily for the favor of the Princess, Clara, who was seventeen and also served drinks at The Kings Pub between performances. She was sweet, smart and spent her free time sewing garb for herself and the other actors. Despite his drunkenness one of Geoff’s friends recognized Clara from the pub and began shouting for the table wench to fetch him some grog. He was a thick-necked jock in khaki shorts, a short-sleeved collared shirt and looked a model from the rugby edition of a J Crew catalog. If his friends were embarrassed they hid it behind taunts and swagger. The actors and the audience did their best to ignore him but the small knot of drunks was grating in their persistence.

Billy stepped out from behind the table where he was making and selling glass goblets, mugs and knick-knacks. He stepped into the circle of Geoff’s friends and laid a dirty hand on the loud drunk’s shoulder.

“Hey, why don’t you lay off and let them do their jobs,” he said. It was a statement, not a question and the oxen prep turned slowly, eyes slipping in and out of focus.

Billy was in period costume: a leather apron, a tunic with the sleeves rolled up and ridiculous, striped pants that looked like pajamas (they were, in fact, pajamas) and he was barefoot. His body shone with sweat and his face was red from the heat.

Recognizing things could become ugly Geoff stepped between them, facing Billy and with his back to his friend. Billy wasn’t big but Geoff seemed tiny and delicate sandwiched between Billy and the drunk. His shoulders were narrow and his skinny arms were pale and lifted with his palms forward. “Whoa, no need to make a scene. We were just about to head…”

The drunk pushed Geoff aside with one arm, sending him sprawling into the dirt, and he lurched forward, jabbing a meaty finger at Billy’s chest. He was mid-expletive when Billy swatted his hand down and stepped sideways with his other arm bent and held high. At the last second he snapped his hips and swung his far elbow in an arc that connected with the side of the drunk’s head. The giant grunted and took a staggered step backwards then his knees gave out and he slipped to the ground in an tumble.

The actors in the joust paused in their action while Billy stepped over to Geoff and offered him a hand. “You should choose better friends.” From the nobles and peasants alike there came a smattering of applause.