The Long Contract

Two men walk the hallway from the entrance of the museum, their feet tapping out a broken rhythm against the marble floors. The long, pale man wears a suit too dark for his complexion. The other man clutches a hat in both hands; his fingers work the brim like a baker kneading dough.

“You will be impressed, Mr. Bixley.” The thin man steps to the wall and snaps on the main switch. Lights come to life down the hallway as electricity works through the circuit.

“I’ve heard good things, Mr. Gaunt.” Bixley looks down at his hat. “The endowment from the Arts Council…the respect of my colleagues…”

Gaunt clicks his tongue. “I’m glad they understand the value of what we do here. Come, let me show you the new exhibits.”

The two men continue walking. Soon, tall, glass-walled enclosures flank them. A simple scene plays out in each. On one side, an grey gentleman reads in his library; opposite, a pair of men sit playing checkers; two windows down, a man stands, hands on hips, admiring a model ship. A damp paintbrush rests in one hand. Each window opens to a living diorama, immaculate to the embossed titles on the spines of the library books.

“We take special care to make sure each exhibit is accurate.” Gaunt folds his hands. “Sometimes, our models balk at the stiff Victorian dress, but one wouldn’t want false advertisement. It would mar our reputation.”

“Women?” Bixley asks.

Gaunt’s lips part, showing a slender line of white teeth. “Females are so hard to find, especially in our usual…haunts.”

Bixley rubs the back of his neck. He returns the smile despite the sweat that has started to form on his upper lip. “Where…well, what kind of recruitment do you do?”

“Most are vagrants. Last week we pulled two from the alleyway behind First National, one empty bottle between them.”

The man with the model ship looks out of the glass. His eyes appear black, glistening. Bixley shudders and steps away from the glass.

“He can’t see you, of course,” Gaunt says, his voice deep enough to resonate in Bixley’s chest. “One-way glass.”

“Oh. Of course.” Bixley brushes the perspiration from his lip. “Do they know?”

“Do any of us know?” Gaunt’s eyebrows knit together as he tilts his head downward. He steps to the wall. “Are you, Mr. Bixley, afraid to die?”

With a shake of his head, Bixley says, “No…well, yes…at times, I suppose.”

“Nothing is more natural.” Gaunt brushes his long fingers over a wall panel, revealing three buttons: one red, one blue, one green. “But still, we fear so much.” He burns his gaze into Bixley’s eyes. “A sampling, for your trouble. Drowning, asphyxiation, or perhaps something quicker. Something messy.”

Bixley swallows even though his mouth is dry. He runs his tongue across his lips. “I really don’t…no need.”

In a slow, thoughtful motion, Gaunt tilts his head. “I insist.” His index finger pushes the blue button. “Drowning it is.”

Water begins to pour into the top of the ship-builder’s cubicle. The man inside looks up, watching the downpour for a moment, then tries the door at the back compartment. His face flashes back to the glass. The water level rises quickly, already now at his waist.

“Really…” Bixley starts, but his voice vanishes.

The cubicle fills in less than a minute. Inside, the water distorts the man’s face into pale rubber—white as the belly of a fish. His cheeks puff like balloons. He struggles, pounding his fists against the glass. The sound barely registers in the hall.

Bixley makes a small motion with one hand, but stops.

It takes a few minutes for the man to open his mouth, but as he does, natural reflex takes over, and he inhales a lungful of water. After thrashing about, his body hands limp, bobbing inside the cubicle like a discarded toy.

Gaunt smiles. “You can see the importance of our work, can’t you Mr. Bixley?” With another push of the blue button, the water drains from the room. “I would have stopped the process at a word, of course.”

Bixley’s eyes open wide, watching as the corpse drifts to the compartment floor with the receding water. Both hands latch onto his hat, kneading again. His eyes won’t meet Gaunt’s. “Of course,” he mutters.

“I hope to see you on the next inspection.” Gaunt extends a hand. “We seldom have repeat visitors.”


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