Cosmo felt a caress on his face. He reached toward Olivia and came up empty. As he slowly awakened he remembered she was long gone. Maybe the cat had given him a wake-up tap. No, the feline was dead too. But something had touched his face. He began to suspect what it might be. When Olivia committed suicide thirty years earlier he stopped arming his home security systems. They had been for her far more than for himself. A few systems in the house remained active, but not the alarms on the doors and windows. For all he knew, the decades-old technology was no longer functional even if it were keyed on.
He opened his eyes and saw a silhouette next to the bed. The shape of a small handgun was in its right hand. The tap on his cheek had been from the cheap .22. Two other silhouettes were in the room. One was a woman. Perhaps they were just burglars, he speculated – young hooligans out for a thrill. He wouldn’t yet assume they were murderers. In his experience there were five kinds of killers: mercenary killers, ideological killers, revenge killers, fear killers, and pleasure killers. The law treats mercenaries most harshly, yet they are the least dangerous to anyone but their specific targets. The ideological types have far and away the highest body count, convinced as they are that they are doing the right thing for the greater good, but they rarely sneak into private homes at night. Revenge killers at least limit their targets; he knew of no one nursing a lethal grudge against him. Then there are the people who just enjoy killing, and who are eager to have an excuse. Anyone, though, if they feel threatened enough can kill out of fear. He would avoid making the intruders feel threatened, and would wait to see if they were any of the other four types.
“Hi there old man,” said a young man’s voice.
“Call me Cosmo. I wouldn’t want to be your old man.”
“What kind of a name is Cosmo?”
“It’s mine. What do you want?”
“Have you tried a job? Flipping burgers might be within your skills. You should be able to buy an ounce in three weeks.”
“You’re hilarious. We have jobs, old man. We’re at work right now. We’re thieves.”
“Fine. So, finish robbing the place and go away. Let me get back to sleep.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve got a gun. Show a little respect.”
“I noticed the gun.”
“Last week you hired Otis to reroof your boathouse, old man.”
“What of it?”
“You paid him with krugerrands. If you had two, you have more. Hand them over.”
The boathouse was the only structure on his property vulnerable to decay. The main house was custom built out of reinforced concrete. When the doors and windows were sealed it was watertight. It had weathered Hurricane Katrina without a drop getting inside despite its waterfront location on Lake Pontchartrain. Cosmo had known at the time it was a mistake to pay Otis in coin, but he had run short of paper money that week. He could have driven to his usual gold dealer to get some, but he never liked to make a tradesman wait for his pay. He avoided checks and electronic payments whenever possible in order to keep his public profile to a minimum. Cash won friends and silence. Gold coins, however, were odd enough that Otis apparently mentioned it.
“You aren’t friends of Otis. He is an honest man,” said Cosmo.
“We’re not. He told his wife. His wife told his kid. His kid told friends. One of them told me.”
“You shouldn’t rely on such a lengthy concatenation of rumors. There is fresh speckled trout in the fridge. Catfish, too. Caught them myself. Take them and go have a fish fry somewhere.”
“Cut the crap. Get out of bed and take us to the gold.”
“What if I told there is no gold? People tell stories you know. You shouldn’t believe them all.”
“You’d better be the one lying, old man, because if I can’t have the coins, I’ll kill you. At least I’ll have the fun of that. And then maybe Otis’ kid for wasting our time.”
Cosmo crawled out of bed. He considered himself lucky he had worn pajamas.
“Geez, what, are you like a hundred?”
“No, but I’m told a hundred is the new seventy.”
“Well, like you say old man, you can’t believe everything you’re told.”
Cosmo addressed the other two intruders “Young man and miss… this is a bad decision. You don’t know just how bad. You should leave now before you do yourselves irreparable harm.”
“An old creep like you already did ‘irreparable harm’ to me. You would too if you could,” said the girl.
“No I wouldn’t, but I’m sorry someone hurt you. Don’t let him ruin your life further. And if you must deal in revenge, deal it to him directly. Who knows? Maybe I’ll help.”
“Help by giving up the gold. Where is it?”
“Downstairs in the basement.”
“Let’s go,” said the fellow with the .22.
“Have it your way.” Cosmo paused to look out the window. In the distance the causeway stretching across the lake to New Orleans was just barely visible. Olivia had loved being this close to and this far from the city. He walked out to the hallway. One of the intruders behind him flipped on the hall light. Cosmo glanced back.
It was a shame, thought Cosmo. They were so young. In the light he could see they couldn’t be much more than 18. The fact they weren’t hiding their faces was a bad sign – either that or they were incredibly foolish. He led them through the kitchen and to the basement stairs. The treads creaked under his feet. The stairs ended in a finished room with pine paneling deeply yellowed from age. It was filled with disused furniture.
“Damn, don’t you get water down here?” asked the gunman. “The Lake is right there.”
“No. I never get water.”
“You’ve got a bad electrical connection,” said the gunman. “I can tell you that.”
There was indeed something like an ionized sharpness in the air.
“The connections are good.”
“If you say so, old man.”
“Once again, I prefer ‘Cosmo.’”
“I don’t care.”
Cosmo spoke patiently to the intruders. “Suppose I said once again that there is no gold, and I’ve gone along until now just to give you a chance to reconsider your actions.”
“I already told you I’d kill you. Maybe I’ll let Wanda do it. I think she’d like that.”
“I’m not so sure she would, but I believe you would.”
“Why are you using names?” asked the boy who until then had been silent. He was a mop-headed teen with acne. “You said not to.”
“Because he intends to shoot me anyway,” said Cosmo. “Surely you’ve figured that out. Look son…”
“I’m not your son.”
“Fair enough, but I’m old enough to know you are far too young to destroy your life over this. I’m not going to save you from yourself if you insist on being pig-headed, but I will give you one more chance. Leave now. These two don’t need you here. Besides, are you aware that as a witness you’ll be a liability to them? Have you considered the implications? Leave now, and I promise there will be no consequences to you. I’ll tell no one you were ever here.”
“You’ll tell no one all right,” said the gunman. “If you leave now, Jack, you get nothing,” he said to the quiet boy. “And then we’ll come after you.”
Jack stayed. Cosmo sighed.
“A collection of tea cups?” asked Wanda, fingering a dusty corner hutch. “Doesn’t suit you, Cosmo. Were you married or something?”
“Or something. A long time ago, and yes those were hers. I haven’t let go of some things even though I never use them.”
Perhaps he should have let go, he thought to himself – especially the habit of sleep. Had he been awake all this would have been avoided. He had taken up sleep in the first place only to please Olivia, but then he found he enjoyed it. An old Rita Rudner line: “It’s the best of both worlds; you get to be alive and unconscious.” And there were the dreams. He assumed that what he experienced was what others meant by dreams. Sometimes he got to visit people and places in his dreams that were long gone in reality.
“Never mind the damn teacups. The gold! Focus!” The gunman nudged the barrel of the gun between Cosmo’s eyes.
Cosmo turned to a wall and pulled on a pine panel. It popped off exposing magnets and a small wall safe set in concrete. He dialed the combination, turned the handle, and opened the safe door. Inside were two dozen coins, a mix of krugerrands, eagles, and maple leafs.
“That’s all?” asked the gunman.
“What were you expecting? Fort Knox? I make them as I need them. Why stock up?”
“You make them? You’re crazy, old man.”
“Look, I can close the safe and you all still can leave. I won’t call the police.”
“It’s a pretty good haul, Darryl,” said Jack. “So it’s not a million bucks. Let’s take it and go.”
“I told you not to use my name.”
“You used ours.”
“Shut up! And you… back away from the safe, old man.”
Darryl reached for the coins and froze in place.
“Darryl? What what’s the matter?” Jack touched Darryl’s arm and also froze in place.
An aroma similar to overcooked lamb joined with the ozone. Cosmo grabbed Darryl’s shoulder and pulled both boys away from the safe. They sprawled on the floor and lay still. Wanda ran forward and picked up the gun dropped by Darryl. She pointed it at Cosmo. With her other hand she pointed at the safe.
“It’s electrified,” she said.
“Obviously.” He closed the safe door and spun the dial. A spark arced from his finger to the door face. He strode to the stairway and blocked it.
“Why are you still standing? Are you insulated or something?” she asked.
“No. Actually I’m grounded. Not that it really would matter. Put the gun down, Wanda.”
“I want to leave. You said I could leave.”
“That was before the recent unfortunate events. Now your leaving poses a bit of a problem.”
Wanda fired two shots. Cosmo didn’t move. She fired two more.
“You’ve ruined this nightshirt. Good thing it’s not a favorite,” he said.
“Can’t you die?”
“Oh yes, but not from that.”
“What are you?”
“You wouldn’t believe me.”
“Yes, I would. ‘Cosmo’ is a joke, isn’t it? You’re from out there,” she said with a wave upward.
“Let’s just say I’m not from around here. You’re at least open-minded if not particularly smart.”
“Come now, Wanda. Would you call your actions tonight smart?”
“I’ll accept ‘foolish.’ Smart people can be foolish.”
“True. Also, I think you fired the handgun in fear, which is the most forgivable motive – not excusable but forgivable.”
“So I can go?”
“I haven’t decided,” he said.
“You weren’t joking about making coins as you need them, were you?”
“No I wasn’t. A device you need not see extracts and separates elements from the salt water of the lake. The extracted gold particles are assembled to duplicate a model, such as a krugerrand. It’s not a cheat. The homemade coins are real gold, at least as pure as the original. There is much of value besides gold in the water, of course. It’s not a fast process, but it is steady.”
“Was your wife also from… um…”
“Olivia wasn’t actually my wife. And no, she was from Jackson. That was the problem. She didn’t like growing old when I didn’t. It was too much for her in the end.”
“But you do age. You’re an old geezer.”
“Because I so choose. I have to look the age on my driver’s license and other documents. She knew it wasn’t real.”
“You mean you could look 20 if you wanted?”
“Yes. I could look like a great Dane if I wanted. A change that radical would take some time though.”
“Forget the great Dane,” she said. “Look, I think you’re lonely. That’s why you’re still talking to me. If you could look 20, maybe I could…you know…keep you company. I don’t like old dudes, though.”
“So you said. You don’t seem too concerned about your companions on the floor. Why would I think you’d be better company to me?”
“Because you’d be better company to me than they were?”
Plausible. I’d have to create a new identity in order to be young again. That is harder now than the last times when I just could print up a birth certificate and stuff it in a county Hall of Records file somewhere. Then I’s have to sell this place to the new me.”
“But you can do it – make a new identity, I mean.”
“Yes. Truthfully, it’s near the time when I’ll have to anyway. After a certain point, age itself draws attention, and I don’t want attention.”
“Then it’s settled. What do we do with the bodies?” she asked.
“I could feed them to the machine that makes the coins. It would break them down into their constituent elements. Or… Does the old creep you hate so much live near here?”
“We could plant these two on his property and then give the police an anonymous tip. The tip could say he abducts young men, and that we saw him carrying something suspicious.”
“I told you I’d help.”
“Is this how you met Olivia?” Wanda asked.
“Why are you here, by the way?”
“I like to fish.”
“OK, I’ll pretend to believe that.
“I think it’s for the best. But I do like to fish.””