The Maestro – New Fiction Writing by R. L. Saunders
I couldn’t believe my luck. I had found the one man who had ruined my life. Now I was prepared to end his. Or so I thought.
He was in the back of of a well-lit Denny’s practicing his card tricks while he nursed one of their bottomless cups of coffee. Probably over a dispute with his bladder.
I came up to his table and asked, “Maestro the Magnificent?”
He looked up and put on a practised Snake Oil smile while he looked me over. “By the judge of your frown, I should say, ‘Who’s asking?'”
“I’m one of your audience who bought one too many tricks of yours. Tried to use your book to follow your footsteps to fame and fortune. But it only brought me grief and a hardscrabble life. And it brought me here, at last.”
“So you figure to take out your pound of flesh on my hide? Stand in line.”
That took me back, the honest bitter sarcasm.
“But do sit down.” The Maestro continued, “I haven’t had my dose of bitters recently, even though as you can see I’m far from the flaming success you thought I would be. The ‘Special’ meal I bought will have to last me awhile as it is.”
I lowered myself onto the orange plastic padded bench. Wary of being conned once again.
“You see,” he went on without pause, “my life hasn’t been what you think it was. You probably read the accounts of my ignomious death, being cremated mysteriously and buried at sea. That was all just to throw the legal hounds off my trail.”
Taking another sip of coffee, he shuffled his deck once again.
“I was tired of it all. The ranch, the dedicated assistants, bodyguards, being The Founder of that movement and all that. I’d been moving funds around for years, setting up accounts I could live on that weren’t traced to all I’d been. It wasn’t too difficult to fake my death once I’d made friends with a local coroner. Everybody likes money, particularly in cash.”
He dealt himself a small solitaire row, one which was difficult to win in most cases. Then started solving it while he talked.
“You were just one of millions. And I could say I’m sorry. But you wouldn’t believe it and I wouldn’t mean it. People are patsies. You and I both know that. Pushovers. Chumps. Dupes. I’ve read the books you wrote. Like you’ve read mine. You called mine fantasy. And you were right about that.
“The point you missed is that people want to be lead down a rosy path. Their lives are miserable, and by their own choice. That was in your book. Their choice. Always.
“You were trying to inspire them to improve their existence. And so was I. My reason was said to be make myself rich. And I succeeded in that. For what it was worth.”
An ace turned up in the deal and he built on it with the 2 and 3 out of the visible cards. The next few rounds showed little improvement to build from.
“But money isn’t worth what it’s shaked out to be. I had to finally leave all of it behind to figure out what was making my life miserable. Let all those syncophants figure out how to run things. I was tired of being the shyster and living that life. They could have it for what it was worth. And it wasn’t worth very much. All the joy had gone out of everything I had.
“You probably read about my living in secluded retirement in an RV. And what you didn’t read is how minimal a life that was. Worth millions and all I owned was a few hundred acres of land at the end of a dusty gravel road, a couple of RV’s, a big house too smelly to live in, and a big lawn that had to be mowed.
“I even wrote my memoirs in a huge book. All fiction, in that pulp style I was known for.”
He sighed. Another two aces had turned up.
“While that in-house publishing company made it into a bestseller, even selling the same books over and over, NYT list and everything, that didn’t make me happy. And it didn’t get a lot of people in like it was supposed to.
“I had to finally realise that I had run myself to ground. The jig was up. There were no more tricks, sleeves, rabbits, or hats. I’d run out of reasons to continue my charade. Life wasn’t worth it.”
His deck was showing the same pattern, over and over. It looked like he had lost this hand.
“So the body in that morgue was someone else’s. The ashes they received had been cleaned out from the funeral home’s heating furnace. I had to take a ride in the ambulance. Changed clothes when it arrived and I was left alone with the other corpses.
Now, he reshuffled his remaining cards, completely breaking the rules of solitaire.
“Found my way out the back and over to the bus station where I bought a ticket north. Been moving ever since. Last job was for a carny show, pitching fortune-telling to the yokels they could attract.”
“That’s all I had ever learned from that pulp fiction I wrote. People had the same pattern of life over and over. They wanted a break from it. They wanted something better. All I told them is what they wanted. They bought their ticket and took their chances. The game was no more rigged than ever. I was just the last one they had poured their hopes into.
“Like you. You probably say I ruined your life. And of course, I would only say that I would tell you to take responsibility for your own actions. That was always the secret ending to all those special formulas I sold. Once you realized that you were ‘mocking up’ the result you wanted, then the show was over.
“I just got tired of people constantly asking me for a new game or new show. So I left.
“But the joke was on me.”
Now all the Aces were there, and he was rapidly building them back up to the gaudy red-and-gold royalty cards on each. Just a few hidden cards left.
“The trick was that any author could tell you that there are only so many popular plots, plus a lot of others. They’ve all been told over and over. Nothing new, except the spin any author puts on them.
“I seemed to have gotten tired of the spinning. That’s all.”
One card hidden, but now he had Jacks on most of the aces.
“Call it karma, call it fate, or whatever. Life wanted one thing more from me.
“I’d only wanted immortality, to leave a legacy of constant adoration. And now I had it.
“What you see in front of you, this withered husk, is all that’s left. But the trick is that I’ve gotten the same treatment in that old story I wrote. Suspended animation for millions of years to come.
“I’ve tried to end this life more than once. But I keep living on. This plot is one that has no end. No matter how I rig the deck to deal it for my willing victims, I always lose when I win.”
He pushed a bag toward me on the orange plastic bench. It’s weight caused a dent in the padded surface.
“Go ahead. There’s a loaded .45 in there. And some cash in hundreds. Take it all. Just take me out somewhere and end it all for me. I’ve tried several times. Just gives me a headache. Messy, but in a day or so I’m fine. And meanwhile, money keeps showing up. Just enough to keep me going. You’d be doing me a big favor to take everything.”
I pulled the bag to me and looked it over. What he said was true, other than omitting the change of underwear and socks.
At that, he had built up the entire deck to Kings and still had one card face down.
“You see, life is what you ask for. Don’t ask for immortality unless you’re ready to pay the price. And that cost, to me, is seeing the people like you who won’t look themselves in the mirror and see that their life is the one they really wanted, regardless of who they blame for what it became.
“My life is now a living hell, as you can imagine. It just keeps going and going. And all the people I see are simply trying to escape the same dull routine they all have built into it. All their choices have been to result in exactly where they are now and what they are doing.
“And I get to keep seeing all these people I could have helped and didn’t. Can’t. Won’t.
“So lets go out back and you can end it for me, maybe.”
I looked at him. Then pushed the bag back.
He just sighed.
And turned the last card over.
It was a joker.
Then the waitress came over to refill his cup…