The Albatross
The Willie Button Series



The Albatross

by

Albert J. Manachino


For Willie Button, the book had become a nightmare. It was in its most literal definition an Albatross. It hung around his neck and every step he took was one more to complete exhaustion. Vaguely he remembered opening the safe. He remembered the disappointment he felt at the paucity of its contents — a book.

What was the use of having a safe unless you had something to put in it? He did not regard the book as a possible storehouse of knowledge or as an afternoon of enjoyment and relaxation. This particular book was merely something he had wasted valuable time on.

The book sat there, neatly placed on a shelf in the exact center of the safe. Indisputably, it was very old. The cover had faded and reeked of mold and other unpleasant odors. The stench made him want to hold his nose and it hastened his departure from the house. Willie was a burglar and not a very successful one, at that. The safe was empty of valuables and the room he stood in was impeccably bare. Other than himself and a blue canvas bag, the room was empty and gave an impression of never having been lived in. The blue bag held Willie's tools. In the trade, he was known as Blue Bag Buttons. The house too exuded an air of neglect and abandonment.

Willie opened the book skeptically and thought "Maybe it's worth a few bucks to a collector." As a conscientious burglar, he hated to leave the house empty-handed. There was no doubt even to an eye as untrained as his, that the book was old. It shouted its antiquity.

The spine of the book was one long brass hinge. It was secured by a clasp fitted with a tiny lock. The book was designed never to be opened accidentally.

Willie worked the book to the front of the shelf, remarking as he did so that it was too heavy to be accounted for by its size alone. "As heavy as an automobile battery," he thought.

Finally it was in the canvas bag with his tools. He hefted the bag experimentally and grunted. "A job for a circus strong man." he thought.

The house remained ominously silent. Its echoes lay in ambush behind unpainted baseboards. There was no scurry of mice, or the noises of a house settling for the night.

Willie Button got as far as the door through which he had entered when he paused to reflect. He could not, for the life of himself remember having opened the safe or whether it already had been open on his arrival. For a moment he thought of returning to the room. A safe with even a book in it should not have been left open. It defied logic.

"Leave it alone," he finally decided. The fact was that Willie had lost his nerve.

It was still dark. Willie hadn't taken as long as he imagined to open the safe, which was of ancient pattern. He opened the door warily and examined the street. It was as deserted as when he had entered the house. A lamp at each end provided a frugal glow that did no more than to broadcast the shadows. He wavered between which side to depart and finally decided that no one had seen him and took his leave.

The blue canvas bag with the tools and the book in it was infernally heavy. Willie decided to go directly to his merchandiser. He was closer. Willie was certain that old Glossman would still be up. The fence never slept. All-in-all, it had been an unprofitable as well as a disquieting one.

Willie pulled the door shut after himself and with his departure, the house, somehow, seemed to cast a brighter and pleasanter atmosphere. Willie crept into some convenient bushes and subjected the street to a final scrutiny. He cast a look behind him to confirm he had not left the door open. His nerves definitely, were getting the better of him. Despite what was printed in the newspapers and the more lurid magazines, burglars were basically a timid society. Few, if any, carried guns or other weapons.

Old Glossman was Willie's fence. He bought whatever street people brought him. That is, if there was a profit in it and difficult to identify. He slept in the back room of his dingy, ill-lighted shop. Glossman was working on his accounts when Willie arrived. He was always working on his accounts. No one knew why because they had never seen any merchandise being carried out of the store. Willie used the street knock to gain admittance. All the street people did. In brief, the private knock stated, "Let me in, I am not a cop."

The little bell over the door jangled when Willie entered. Glossman admitted him. The set of his jaw announced, "Let's use the counter in the back room."

Glossman smiled and rubbed his hands together in anticipation. "Vot you got Villie, the crown jools of the Czar?" Fifty years of American culture had not erased the argot of his forgotten native land.

They entered the back room. Willie hoisted the canvas bag onto the well worn counter. He wished that he had a dollar for every shady transaction conducted over its well worn surface. Glossman opened the bag and reached inside. He had not actually expected to see the Crown Jools of the Czar or anything remotely valuable. Glossman bought a lot of junk to keep in good standing with his suppliers. Odds and ends of valueless trinkets paraded through that room and vanished into limbo. He upended Willie's bag and the book spilled out onto the counter. Somewhere in his travels Willie had found a large, dirty bath towel and wrapped it around the book. He did not know why he did this. Certainly not for the concealment value of the towel. He attributed the act to a vagrant impulse.

Willie's explorations had never gotten any farther than that of opening the front cover of the book. He had never actually explored its pages, an intellect he was not. Nor, up till now had Glossman. Willie was only interested in the small change it would bring him.

Glossman was a deliberate worker who enjoyed savoring each transaction for its own sake. He commented on the weight of the book, a weight that was not accountable by its size.

Glossman removed the towel. The book seemed to absorb rather than reflect the meagre light of the low wattage bulbs. He wrinkled his nose in distaste. "Ach! It schtinks. Mine Gott, Villie, Haff you been robbing graves?"

The question was pure rhetoric, he knew that Willie did not have the nerve and he was well acquainted with the Specialties of all his employees. He frequently contracted out for special jobs where there was a demand for certain merchandise that brought a high return at little risk. In effect, Glossman was much wealthier than his surroundings implied. He became wealthier each succeeding month for the fence was an accomplished miser. He spent little and garnished much.

Willie went into an explanation that was totally unnecessary and mostly untrue. "The book was locked up in a safe for God knows how long. You'd be moldy too if you'd been in the stir that long. Naturally it's gonna get a little musty. It's old, ain't it? It ought to fetch a nice price from some collector."

"That is not what I meant vin I said, it schtinks. It's something I don't vant to tink about." He shoved the book back at Willie. The odor was intensifying. To Glossman it brought back terrible memories of Buchenwald and Dachau. "Take it away. Take it out of my shop! Don't come back no more." Willie put the book back in the blue canvas bag without the formality of rewrapping it in the large dirty town.

Glossman backed away and let Willie pass, as if confronted by something vile and disgusting. For some reason, Willie was immune to the terrible stench. For him it did not as yet exist. He took his departure. The shop bell tinkled him out. Glossman wiped his brow and spat.

Willie was torn between a desire to dispose of the book in the first convenient trash receptacle or try to peddle it on the street. He could not understand Glossman's reaction. He sampled the air about him. There was no foul odor.

He doubted the feasibility of approaching pedestrians with the book but considered the practicality of the used book vendors that haunted his section of the neighborhood. They were always on the lookout for fresh merchandise. But, not one of them would be open at this time. Willie continued to wander and in time found himself in one of the better sections of the city which still were aglow with their brilliance. Obviously the denizens had not yet gone to bed.

He stopped on a street corner to view his surroundings. Every time Willie had worked up enough courage to discard the book in one of the myriad street receptacles, his courage failed him or something would happen to prevent it. Either a policeman would come around at the crucial moment and tell him to "Move on" or the bag would be returned by a well meaning pedestrian.

Willie, as yet had not personally opened the book and looked inside it. He was not a reader. He detested people who read. The men who read were effeminate and the women affected. The weekly race results were enough for him.

He continued to walk the streets with no destination or plan of action in mind, He did not even think of the dingy boarding room he called home. Occasionally he would pause to rest on one of the benches so thoughtfully provided by the city and try to collect his thoughts. He was past being merely tired. He did not even think of food.

Dawn broke. The city began to stir. The used book vendors were out in force. Each store a hive of activity. Each proprietor anxious to display his merchandise first. Willie decided to approach the closest to him. The proprietor was just letting his awning down. He eyed Willie expectantly. Willie asked, "Can I sell you a book?" He replied, "I'd rather sell you one but I'll look at whatever you have." Willie opened the blue canvas bag and set the volume down on a counter. The book merchant looked at it appraisingly and said, "Hey! That is an oldie. You don't see books like that outside a museum." The brass clasps and catches captured his attention. "I'll tell you what. There really isn't that much demand for books of this kind. I'll give you five bucks for it." He picked up the book and subjected it to closer scrutiny. He undid the clasps and looked inside book. The stench that rose from the mildewed pages was so foul as to make them gasp. The vendor gagged, "My God! That horrible face! I'll remember it all my life. So terrible was the odor as to make the vendor retch. He drew a hand across his face as if to shut out something filthy — something obscene. He thrust the volume back at Willie. "Take it back. Get out of my shop!" He continued to vomit.

"Can I give it to you free … for nothing?"

"Under no circumstances. Get out." He pointed to the door. Willie left the shop. The proprietor continued to retch.

Willie made no attempt to discard the albatross — the albatross, around his neck, as he had come to think of it. He knew that it would always come back to him. He no longer possessed the courage to open the book and look at the contents. He stumbled along the sidewalk unseeing and uncaring. Momentarily, he toyed with the idea of self-destruction. Willie bumped into people and apologized. Other people bumped into him and snarled or more often they simply ignored him and went on their way.

He started to cross the street. Willie did not look one way or the other, nor did he observe the traffic signal. A wildly driven taxi careened around the corner and struck him. Willie was dead before the first of the excited onlookers reached his body.

The weariness departed, as did the pain. For a moment he again was a little boy running through the fields and meadows of his childhood. His hand came into contact with the handle of the blue canvas bag as he died. The lightness of the bag surprised him. He rose, clutching his chest.

Awareness returned. He was standing in an endless line of people. The line stretched as far as he could see in either direction. He stood there waiting for it to move. It seemed to be what was expected of him. Willie still clutched the canvas bag to himself.

Infrequently, the line moved and Willie moved with it. There was an amorphous quality about the people in front and in back of him. They were mere suggestions of people. None of them registered on his senses. The woman in front of him was as indistinct as the man behind him. Nobody spoke. He could no more have described them than he could have described a kaleidoscopic pattern.

The weather changed from Spring to Summer to Fall and then, Winter. Willie did not leave his place in line. He was never hungry or tired. The changes of season brought no more discomfort than the turning of leaves in a calendar.

There was a realization that they were nearing the front. Nobody told them, they just knew. Jaded, worn-out eyes recaptured a new and refreshing sparkle. It was becoming lighter in the Sky. Willie thought he could distinguish the hum and activity of a busy office.

And finally, when one day, he was the first in line, he was confronted by an elderly, cherubic gentleman seated behind a desk that could only be described as majestic. He was examining small books which were being handed to him by an assistant.

He would glance briefly at each book and then assault it with a rubber stamp. The notarized book was then returned to its owner.

Willie well realized that he had no little book to pass on to St. Peter who everyone knew, was the guardian to the pearly gates. All he had was a blue canvas bag with a dubious acquisition inside. Perhaps the saint would accept that as a substitute though he doubted it.

Eventually, he was close enough to verify his guess. St. Peter's name was emblazoned on a desk plaque. The books he so assiduously authenticated were passports. They were the passports to heaven.

Everyone in the vicinity of the desk wore a halo of differing sizes and intensity. They were the office staff. The importance of the wearer was stressed by the size of the halo he wore, beginning with the very small ones of the office boys to the gigantic halos worn by the Archangels. St. Peter wore the largest halo of all.

In time, Willie stood before the saint. An assistant held his hand out for Willie's passport. Willie shook his head. The saint looked down on him.

"All right, young man. Stop wasting my time. Give the boy your passport.

Willie trembled suitably. "D…Did you say passport, Sir?"

"That's what I said, your passport to heaven. You know that you can't be admitted without one."

"I'm sorry, Sir. I don't have one."

The managerial staff stopped what they were doing to stare. An office boy stopped with a drinking cup halfway to his lips. The office recorder stopped chewing her gum. The silence that followed was deafening. The Archangel gasped. He fought to regain his breath. When he had regained his composure, he impaled Willie on the end of a long glacial scrutiny. He demanded, "What nonsense is this? Everyone has a passport."

Willie repeated, "I don't have one, Sir."

The judicial frown deepened. "How, exactly, did you get in here?" At this point, the saint permitted himself a long drawn-out sigh of exasperation.

"I was killed in an accident, Sir."

For the loss of anything better to say, the saint asked, "What is in that bag you are carrying?" It was the first time he had noticed it. "People do not bring handbags into heaven."

"I have a book, Sir," and he went on to detail everything that had occurred from the aborted safe burglary to the fateful accident that was the cause of his appearance before the Pearly Gates. A court assistant took the bag from Willie and carried it to St. Peter. He placed it on the desk before the saint.

The frown deepened. He opened the bag and reached inside and permitted his nostrils a grimace of offended dignity. His nose seemed to pinch itself as he remarked, "Young man, this book smells as if it was published on used toilet paper." The frown was replaced by a look of extreme distaste.

He addressed Willie in a decisive tone, "No! Definitely not! I can't let you enter heaven while this thing is in your possession. He waved the book away with a look of disgust. The assistant returned it to Willie.

"I suppose, Sir, that you are disqualifying me because I was a burglar?"

"Heavens, No! Most of the people I am admitting into heaven have at one time or another, stolen something, from pickpockets to corporate executives.

"I am disqualifying you because you are in possession of the most detested volume in the universe … the Devil's bible, written in Lucifer's own hand.

"You will remain disqualified until you rid yourself of it."

"But Sir, I am dead,"

"That should make it an incentive and if you are successful, it will entitle you to a higher position in heaven."

He turned his head so that he faced the man who had been standing behind Willie.

"Next!"
To Be Continued …

Copyright by
Albert J. Manachino

Illustration
Copyright by
Kevin D. Duncan

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