The Clock Tower An insurance executive develops a pathological fear of clock towers.

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Oct 25, 2015 No Comments ›› admin

FICTION
By Lynn Woolley

Editor’s note: This story was inspired by a comic book short from 1958 written by Otto Binder and entitled “The Amazing Spectacles of Doctor X.” I was eight years old when I first read it and it was terrifying. With “The Clock Tower,” I took the premise from the comic book world and attempted to move it into a more realistic setting, with, of course, a very different situation and surprise ending. This story was written over a four day period from May 16 to May 19, 2015.

Is it possible to cheat death?

You might as well admit it; the subject has crossed your mind, and that of every sentient human being at one time or another. With me, it became an obsession.

My name is Matthew James Larsen – or “Matt” as my family and co-workers call me. If you read this – please don’t mention anything to them because they’ll think it’s silly. I’ve been futurephobic since I was twelve years old. I read a story about a young reporter who found a pair of magical spectacles that allowed him to see the near future. Everything he saw through the glasses came true within a matter of hours, and he was scooping every other reporter in town.

But then, the spectacles showed him his own death. He saw himself fishing from a boat, snagging a big fish, and being pulled under after his leg became entangled in the line. In the story, he began to look for a way to “cheat” the future he had seen for himself. But as the tale progressed, he kept inching his way closer to that fishing trip no matter how hard he tried to avoid it.

That damn story caused me to have nightmares.

As I grew older, it just made me wonder: suppose you knew you were going to die. You knew how it was going to happen, and you knew that it would be soon. You could cheat death! Couldn’t you?

Of course, the situation in the story was entirely fictional, and barring some super computer that could make accurate predictions based on the odds – or some such – no one will ever face that problem.

But, still…

Suppose you knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt that an airplane would crash. Suppose you knew the name of the airline, the destination, the flight number — everything! Could that plane crash be stopped?

It’s a hypothetical question. I know that.

But have you ever considered this: Every time you take any kind of action, you have just changed history. At the very least, you’ve changed your history and that of a few other people. Here’s what I mean: When you drive to work each morning, you typically take the same route. What if you decided one day to take an alternate way to the office – and you slammed into a school bus? By making that decision, you’ve affected the bus driver and his young passengers, caused at least two insurance companies to get involved –and you could be dead!

See what I mean?

You could say that you just won’t ever change your route. But what if it’s not a school bus? What if it’s a tour bus and it’s passing through your town and turns onto the street you normally take, and you slam into it anyway? So you should have taken the alternate route? Maybe so, but…

How do you know? This is the question that has tortured me for years.

By the way, I mentioned insurance companies a moment ago. That’s what I do. I work in the claims department of a large insurance company based in Austin. Once the investigators have made all the reports, and the in-house lawyers have studied the claim and the suits have determined that we can’t get out of paying a settlement – the case goes to people like me. I represent my company and try to negotiate the smallest settlement I can that will keep the case from going to court. The last thing we want is to have a case go before jury because our clients are corporations, and juries hate them.

So my job is to keep us out of court. It can be tedious, but I get performance bonuses and I get to travel a lot.

It was on one of those business trips that my life took a very strange turn. I had to fly to New Orleans to try to work out a deal with another insurance company about a highway accident involving an eighteen-wheeler. The guy driving the truck worked for our client. It’s a long story, but the long-and-short of it is that the driver fell asleep at the wheel on a long haul trip and hit a car — and the survivors were suing us. We didn’t have a leg to stand on, so I was authorized to make a very generous offer. Anything to stay out of court.

As it happened, the offer was accepted following some tough negotiations. Essentially, they took us to the cleaners. But it left me with some extra time to poke around in the city.

New Orleans looks pretty good today, considering it got slammed by a hurricane from hell. It got me to thinking about the little exercise I just mentioned. Suppose – just suppose – that a few decisions had been made differently. Suppose people had heeded the warnings, and gotten into their cars and high-tailed it out of town. Suppose all the city’s busses and all the area school busses had been used to move people out.

And then, it hit me!

This was almost the same situation from the story. The one area of our lives where we can predict the near future with some accuracy is the weather! Forecasters may not have known precisely where Hurricane Katrina would hit land – but they knew a range, and they knew it would still be a powerful storm.

Remember, the reporter in the story did everything in his power to avoid drowning in that fishing accident – and he couldn’t stop it from happening. In the exact same manner, the people of New Orleans were told that they might die in the next 48 hours. Evidently, that was their destiny. They could not — or would not –avoid it.

There is some type of mystical force at work here. I know there is. But what happened next bordered on the bizarre.

I was seeing a few sights before flying back to Austin when I came upon an old house that looked as if it had just barely survived the hurricane. I hit the brakes on my rental car when I saw this sign:

What’s YOUR future?
Madam Theresa will tell you.

I pulled into the small parking lot, killed the engine, and swallowed hard. These fortunetellers were all frauds. I knew that. Yet, here I was (by chance) in New Orleans, a city that had (by chance) been devastated by the hurricane of the century after it had been predicted, and I (by chance) just happened to drive by a fortuneteller. My lifetime obsession took over. I went inside.

The “reception” area had once been a living room. It was intentionally dark and had been dressed up a bit to appear mysterious; that is to say, there were some portraits on the wall that might have been Edgar Cayce, or Jeane Dixon, or Nostradamus himself. One of them, I thought, might have been of Madam Theresa, carefully juxtaposed with the greats of clairvoyance. If so, she was quite pretty in her robe and headscarf.

After a few moments, I was greeted by a young brunette woman who got right to the point. “If you’re here to see Madam Theresa, you’ll have to wait. She’s with a client.” I took a seat on a somewhat threadbare couch and waited for my turn.

Presently, an elderly gentleman emerged from a back room. He had a smile on his face, and a checkbook in his hand.

“Well,” said the receptionist cheerfully. “That must not have been too bad.”

“Not at all,” he said. “My future looks bright indeed. Now what do I owe you?”

My heart sank. Go ahead – call me stupid. But something in this once-battered city had me under its spell. I was beginning to believe that my being in New Orleans was no fluke; you know, the whole destiny thing, and that I was led in some mystical way to Madam Theresa’s house. On the other hand, the whole idea of an elderly (and moneyed) gentleman emerging from a session with a smile a mile wide screamed of fraud.

Was this Madam Theresa a charlatan who would tell a “mark” what he wanted to hear? What if this man had cancer or some other terrible disease? What would she tell him? What could she tell him? Any thoughts I was having about a date with destiny were dissipating. But it was my turn.

“Madam Theresa will see you now,” said the brunette.

I was led through a dark hall to a modest room and told to sit at what appeared to be an everyday card table. The atmosphere was perfect. The lighting was low, the room was festooned by curtains all the way around, and there was a low humming noise. It might have been music, but whatever it was, it helped with the mood. I waited for the Madam to make her grand entrance.

Only it wasn’t so grand. It was a handsome woman that walked into the room, a bit older than the portrait up front, but tactfully made up and resplendent in a modern woman’s business outfit. She extended her hand.

“I’m Theresa Thompson,” she said. “Professionally known as ‘Madam Theresa.’ I’m so glad to be of service.”

You could have knocked me over with a feather. “Glad to meet you,” I responded. “I’m Matt Larsen. I’m here from Austin, Texas on a business trip and thought it’d be fun to have my fortune told.”

She might have been reading my mind. “Is it that simple?” she asked. “You’re not looking for something specific – such as how your medical tests will turn out?”

“No. Nothing like that.” I chuckled. “I just want to see what you can tell me.”

“Just a simple fortune,” she said, matter-of-factly.

Her mood seemed to change. She was reading me like a dime novel. I could tell that she possessed a sherlockian ability to made split-second inferences from simple appearances.

“Your suit is expensive,” she said. “You travel a lot and you deal in large sums of money. You’re not asking me about something in your life that you’re anxious about. You make a very considerable salary. People such as you rarely stop here, Mr. Larsen.”

I had been skeptical of her, but now the tables were turned.

“I suppose that’s true. But let’s just say that destiny led me here.”

“Oh! So you are a believer in such things?”

“‘Believer’ is a strong word, Madam. Let’s just say that I have an insatiable curiosity about a certain thing.”

She considered that for a moment. Then she said, “People who are curious about one thing can be divided into three camps. The first wants to know if they will find true love. The second wants to know if they will become wealthy. The third wants to know how long they will live. Which is it with you, Mr. Larsen?”

She was good. Strike that. She was great.

“Madam, I’m of camp number three. I would very much like to know how and when I will die. And I would like to know whether I can avoid the circumstances that will kill me. For example, I am scheduled to fly back to Austin tomorrow. What will happen if I take that flight? Or what if I get a text that a seat is available on an earlier flight?”

“You are not my usual client, Mr. Larsen.” She produced a wry smile. “At this point, I should put on my robe and headscarf –“

“Not necessary,” I interjected.

“As I thought.” She rested her chin on her hand, her right elbow steadied by the edge of the table. “Suppose we discuss my methodology and the odds that I can tell you something you don’t already know.”

“I think that would be fine,” I said. I liked this woman.

“There are three ways to foresee,” she said, avoiding the redundancy of the word “future.” “There are tarot cards, palm reading, and the crystal ball. I do any or all, but in the end, it comes down to what I see in my mind. To take my readings seriously, Mr. Larsen, you will need to have faith in my psychic abilities.”

“Do you have psychic abilities?” I asked, looking her straight in the eye.

“I see things. The cards, the palm reading, the crystal ball, are mostly for show but they help me to focus. It’s what I see that matters. Shall we proceed?”

I told her everything. By the time I was finished, she was aware of the story, my theories on destiny and fate, and my lifelong obsession with the idea of cheating death.

“In short, Madam, I want to know details. How will I die? When will it happen? I’m especially interested to know if I will die by violence because that’s the type of death that can be cheated. I’m sure of it! If I just knew the details, I could avoid certain places, cities, even buildings. I could just – not be there – when the time comes.”

“All right,” she said with a big exhaled breath as if she was about to do something profound. “Let’s take a look at your palms.”

She read my palms. She did the tarot card thing. I couldn’t be sure, but I didn’t think she was getting any vibrations – or whatever she was looking for. Eventually, she produced an ominous looking crystal ball that looked all cloudy inside.

I stifled a laugh. “Is that thing for real?” I asked.

“It’s a real crystal ball, if that’s what you mean. It’s made so that light shining on it makes it change. I can move the light above with a foot pedal or I can simply move the ball itself with my hands.”

She was right. The “mist” or whatever it was inside the ball changed into all kinds of creepy-looking patterns. A gullible person would be very impressed.

“I don’t tell most of my clients what I have told you,” she said. “Most of them prefer the illusion of magic.”

She was intent on the crystal ball now. The light seemed to be dimming, but a gleam from the ceiling was dancing on the crystal ball. Every time the light, or the ball moved, the images changed. It was spooky, to say the least. I was waiting for her to say something. She was in the middle of what some might call a “trance” and then she seemed to come out of it. Was it an act? I couldn’t tell.

“Oh, my!” she said.

I laughed.

“No, don’t,” she said. “I did see something. Something dark and unsettling.”

I wasn’t sure where this was going. The thought crossed my mind that she might be a fraud after all.

“Mr. Larsen, are you very sure that you want to know how you will die?” She said it slowly and deliberately.

“You’re saying that you saw my future? You know how I will die?”

“I saw something. I can’t say for sure.”

“Madam, cut the mumbo-jumbo,” I said. “Give it to me straight.”

“All right. Your airplane ride back to Austin will be uneventful. However, sometime in the near future – it could be days, or weeks but it will not be long – you will die a violent death. I’m so sorry.”

I was taken aback. I liked her, but I was still wary that this might be a scheme to get more money out of me. I said, “All right, then. Where will this take place?”

“I can’t say exactly where. But I saw something falling, and then you, dead, on the ground beneath a tower, or some type of tall building.”

“Then all you have to do is tell me the name of the building, and I’ll stay away. So is it in Austin, or where?

“I truly wish I could tell you, but I didn’t see the building clearly.”

I needed something specific if I was going to believe her. “Can you describe the building?” I asked.

“It was hidden in the mist,” she said. I got up from my chair, ready to leave. This was going nowhere.

“Wait,” she said. “There is one thing I saw clearly.”

I sat down and gave her my full attention.

“The tower,” she said, “…the tower has four clocks at its very top. One on each side.”

The lights came on. The session was over.

I walked into the reception area to pay the fee. For this information, I expected it to be quite substantial. But the hairs on my arm stood up when I was told:

“No charge.”

***

My obsession took over. I tossed and turned in my sleep that night thinking about all the dreaded choices the morning would bring. What route should I take to the airport? What might unfold if I miss my flight and have to take another? Every decision spawned a unique pathway. My futurephobia was debilitating.

I rose early, ordered breakfast, and then cancelled it. I dressed, caught my flight, and returned to Austin without incident.

***

From my office on the 34th floor of a downtown Austin skyscraper, I have an amazing view of Congress Avenue, the State Capitol, and beyond to the University of Texas campus. Today, I was ignoring it to the extent that I could, and going over my list of assignments with my boss, Lew Lipson.

“Good job in New Orleans, Matt!” he said. “I think that turned out as well as we could expect.” He handed me a computer printout. “Here’s your e-ticket from Bergstrom to O’Hare and then back through Dallas-Fort Worth, but first you’ve got a meeting to attend.”

The life of a claims adjuster can be hectic. I had a case to settle in Chicago, and another in Dallas. But before that, I was going to drive north about an hour to work out a deal with Bell County Commissioners and their insurance company.

I was determined to concentrate on my work and dodge the window, but I found it impossible to avoid stealing a glance. It was there, looking back at me, as I knew it would be: the University of Texas Tower with its four magnificent clocks.

***

Belton is a nice, bucolic town with a small Baptist university and an old-time town square that serves as the city’s focal point. The centerpiece is an historic country courthouse – and that’s where the meeting was set.

Bell County Courthouse. Belton, Texas

Bell County Courthouse. Belton, Texas

I felt confident that this would be a simple negotiation. County Commissioners maintain roads and bridges in unincorporated parts of a county – and they buy and lease a lot of big earth-moving equipment. One of the backhoe loaders had malfunctioned and injured a couple of workers resulting in a broken leg and some serious cuts and bruises that could leave permanent damage. The equipment manufacturer was dealing with the malfunction. We represented the leasing company. Obviously, our client had little to do with the accident, but it could get messy if it went to court since lawyers like to sue every company along the supply chain. I was going to offer to set up a fund to help defray the hospital bills – if the County would sign an agreement not to sue.

Commissioner Richard Colby met me at the courthouse — a beautiful three-story structure topped with a decorative tower that rose another two stories. On each side of the tower was a clock.

Colby introduced himself and offered to show me around. I asked about the clock tower.

“It’s something we did to restore the courthouse to its original appearance,” he said. “We’ve got a moment. Would you like to go up in the tower?”

“No!” I stammered. I took a deep breath. “I… don’t like heights. I’m sorry.”

I had it all figured out. Madam Theresa saw something falling from a clock tower and I’ll bet you any amount of money that it was me she saw. There’ll be an accident of some sort, or maybe someone will push me over the edge. It’s possible that I could meet someone in a clock tower that holds an old grudge from a settlement. Or maybe – and I’ve thought a lot about this – maybe I’ll have some kind of wild notion come over me, and I jump to my death.

So no way, Jose, am I going up in any clock tower anywhere, anytime.

We proceeded on to the meeting room. Presently, the County Judge, the other three commissioners and all the lawyers came in and took their seats. I asked to speak first. I made my pitch and put my best offer on the table – right up front. The lawyer for the county whispered a few things to his clients and they accepted the deal. I got out of Belton as fast as I could, watching the faces on that brooding clock tower recede in my rearview mirror.

***

At least I wasn’t as worried about the implications of right turns versus left turns; by now, I was only worried about clock towers. My next stop was Chicago, and Lord only knows how many clock towers might be there.

Chicago is the “hog butcher for the world…city of the big shoulders” as the poet Carl Sandburg famously proclaimed. So as you might expect, the Chicago claim involved an industrial accident. I took the Blue Line train from O’Hare, got off at the station at Clark and Lake and took a cab to the hotel. I was planning a nice night with some dinner, relaxation and a chance to catch up on the news. As I was paying for the cab ride, a text message buzzed on my phone, alerting me that the meeting room we’d planned to use would not be available. The new plan was to meet in the boardroom of one of the high tech firms involved in the negotiations. That was fine with me. The Wrigley Building was just up Michigan Avenue from the hotel.

I hung my suit in the closet, unpacked my suitcase, ordered room service, and tuned the TV to one of the national cable news channels. There was a candidate’s debate in progress, and I was interested enough in politics to watch.

The panel was pressing hard about the idea of going to war. It was the age-old question:

If you knew then what you know now, would you have gone to war?

Was the TV set playing games with me? Of all the questions that might have been asked, why did they have to choose this one? It was unfair! It was unanswerable! It got me to thinking about my clock tower dilemma and about that text message. We had been scheduled to meet in a conference room at a hotel. That was great! The hotel was a nice, boxy building with no clocks on any of its four sides. Now, we were going to meet in the Wrigley Building. I’d heard of it, but didn’t know a lot about it.

So I ordered internet service and looked it up on my laptop computer. And there it was, high-res, on my screen!

Oh, God.

In my mind, I paraphrased the question the debate panel had asked:

If I knew this meeting would be in a clock tower, would I have come to Chicago?

Just as the young reporter in the story could not avoid lakes, I could not escape from clock towers. It seemed that wherever I went, there was a clock tower. I tried to pull myself together. I turned off the TV, and took a small bottle from the room’s tiny refrigerator. After consuming the drink, I stopped shaking and went to bed.

Wrigley Building, Chicago

Wrigley Building, Chicago

When the morning came, I told myself that everything was all right. But I didn’t believe it. On impulse, I called the hotel and asked for information about booking the meeting room – the one were supposed to have used. It was available. There had been no double booking. Someone had called the hotel and deliberately cancelled the room. It was the clock tower itself, I thought. Somehow, it wanted that meeting to take place in the conference room below it so it could – what? I slapped my own face – hard – and came to my senses. The clock tower could not hurt me so long as I stayed on a lower floor, and that is precisely what I intended to do.

I hailed a cab for the short ride up Michigan Avenue. Exiting the taxi, I looked up at it.

They call the front side of a clock a “face.” They call the little arrows that point to the hours and minutes “hands.” But I could see in the clock a real face with a laughing mouth and the hands pointing right at me. No one else seemed to notice, so I looked down toward the ground and made my way inside the building.

This was Chicago, and the claim I was here to settle was as big as the city. We negotiated through the morning, sent out for sandwiches, and continued the back-and-forth into the late afternoon. I knew it was getting late, but, having stopped wearing a traditional watch, I relied on my phone for the time. Five o’clock. Five of THE clock. The clock, all four of its faces – were scant feet above, plotting against me; I knew it. Madam Theresa was right all along.

We had a break in the negotiations about an hour later. I signed the papers, had them scanned, and, when I boarded the elevator, made sure it was headed down. I made it to the street with no problem, stood in a short line for a taxi, got one, and abruptly changed my mind. If I stayed another night, something might happen to bring me back to the tower. I tipped the driver generously and asked him to wait while I checked out of the hotel. With clothes hastily jammed into the suitcase, I was soon on my way to O’Hare Airport. I could have stayed another night – or do as I did and try to book an earlier flight. I made the right decision! I know I did!

***

The Dallas case was much smaller —more like the Belton one had been. I was going to meet directly with our client at his apartment in the Mercantile Building – an old, high-rise bank that had been converted into urban apartments. Now, it was called the “Merc,” and it was billed as stylish and upscale. I expected to get this meeting done in short order, and then it was back to Austin where I could continue to avoid the UT Tower.

That split-second decision I had made in Chicago – to leave town early – was like a right-turn versus left-turn situation. My futurephobia had led me to do it because I had some strange feeling that, if I had stayed in Chicago, the Wrigley Building’s clock tower would have found a way to kill me. Of course, I was safe from it now and I couldn’t think of any prominent clock towers in Dallas. I could have used my laptop to check, but I really didn’t want to know. Anyway, I was in Dallas a day early and my personal history was changed for better or for worse.

I checked into a downtown hotel near Reunion Tower. Reunion was an observation deck and it had no clocks, so I felt pretty good. I had breakfast in my room and then took the short walk over to the Texas Schoolbook Depository where Lee Harvey Oswald is said to have shot President Kennedy from a sixth floor window. It’s all very interesting. They have a museum there now, and there’s a big “X” on Elm Street marking the spot where the President was struck. It all looks normal today – Dealey Plaza, the so-called “grassy knoll,” the triple underpass and all the other trappings of the assassination and its various conspiracy theories.

I looked around and saw no clocks, so I walked over to the JFK Memorial and read the inscriptions there. The design is called a “cenotaph,” – an open tomb that the designer intended to symbolize the freedom of the late President’s spirit. It was simple, but elegant in its own way, and it provided a nice history lesson for those of us too young to remember.

Old Red Courthouse, Dallas

Old Red Courthouse, Dallas

My mood was good, even celebratory. For the moment, I was a tourist, lost in the past and walking along the pathways of history. Then, I saw it. A monstrous, deep-red, ancient beast of a building, crouching, and showing me its teeth: four gleaming clocks guarded by a similar number of turrets, beckoning me to enter its gaping mouth.

I had no business there. I ran back to the hotel and locked the door to my room. I looked out the window, but the big, red, one-time courthouse was not visible. I understood it and I knew what it wanted. It had conspired with that clock tower in Chicago to make me come here a day early. It wanted to kill me. But I would outsmart it. I would stay ensconced in my room until my meeting tomorrow. I would take a cab straight to the Merc and then to the airport and back to Austin.

There must be a million clock towers in the world. No really! Think about it! You don’t see them; you don’t notice them. But then someone ties you to them in some macabre way, and then they’re everywhere you look.

I was determined to stay on course, have my meeting, and get home as fast as I could. I had some cash put back for a rainy day and I might even think about quitting my job and moving somewhere with no high-rise buildings; some town where the taxpayers had better sense than to spend their money on clocks that wanted nothing more than to force you to leap to your death. And then to mount them on the top of a public building so they could watch you all day and all night and plan your demise. I could imagine the hands of the clock reaching out and pushing you over the edge. I know you think I’m crazy, but Madam Theresa knew precisely what she saw in the haze of that crystal ball.

So that’s how I played it. Careful and close to the vest. When the morning came, I had a good breakfast and put on my newly pressed suit and my best power tie. I wanted to get this meeting done and over with.

The client had a penthouse apartment – 30 floors above Main Street, but was I worried? Not at all. I had braved the Courthouse in Belton, the Wrigley Building and Old Red – and lived to tell about it. That’s three clock towers – four if you count UT – and I was still above ground and hadn’t assumed room temperature.

And there it was – the Merc!

The Merc, Dallas

The Merc, Dallas

What kind of disturbed mind could have designed this, I thought! There it was, almost lost among the newer, taller skyscrapers, at the very top of this restored, luxury apartment building, a square four-sided box from which protruded four of the most evil-looking clock faces I’d ever seen. And how they wanted me.

I entered the building and requested elevator access to the 30th floor. I swear I could hear it when I stepped out into the upper-level hall, the quadraphonic TICK TICK TICK TICK of those faces, each ready to smite me down and hurl me to the concrete below. They were so close…so close…

“Matt, come on in and check out the view,” said my client.

I went in. I checked out the view.

I wanted to leave.

“Johnny,” I said, “I think we approach this situation like this…”

TICK TICK TICK TICK

“…by this time next week,” he said.

“I’m sorry! You were saying…?”

“I think we can wrap this up next week. Are you OK?”

I wasn’t OK and the clocks knew it. All they wanted was to get me one little floor higher, and then they could have their way with me. Johnny helped tremendously when he suggested we go have lunch at a nearby sandwich shop and finish talking there. That way, I might be able to escape the clocks at the Merc just as I had done three times before. If I could get out of Dallas alive, I could make a plan. I began to think about a way to beat the rap, a way to cheat the death I knew was coming. I was looking forward to a nice plane ride home – but no!

On the way to the airport, my text alarm went off. The message was from Lew, my boss. I read it, and I got the shakes again.

Matt, we’ve got a little job coming up across the pond and I’m assigning it to you as a reward for the great work you’re doing. Matt, you’re going to London!

Lew was wrong. I was NOT going to London. The king of all clock towers was right there at the Palace of Westminster. If any clock tower could kill me, it would be this one. I kept feeling more like the hero in that old story. He just couldn’t get away from lakes. Here in the real world, I was being stalked by clock towers. But wait a minute! I tried to remember how that old story ended. I seemed to recall that the reporter won – he cheated death – but how did he do it? When I got back to Austin, I’d check – and whatever he did, that’s what I’d do. I resolved that no clock would ever lay a hand on me.

***

Back in Austin, I dug out the old book and reread the story. Now I remembered! The hero of the story beat death through a technicality! What he saw in the future was accurate, but it was a staged death. He had seen himself appearing as an actor in a public service film promoting boating safety. It was brilliant – and I was sure that I could duplicate it. All I had to do was stage my own death, and make it look real, and that would be what Madam Theresa saw in her crystal ball. It worked in the story, and I saw no reason why it shouldn’t work for me!

I went to a home-improvement store and bought a few supplies, and then I built a framework in the general shape of a man about my size. I dressed the framework in a pair of faded jeans that I’d worn many times and one of my well-used dress shirts. I stuffed the clothes with rags and straw. I made hands from a pair of gloves, feet from some old tennis shoes, and a head from a ball wrapped with dishrags. The “body” looked all right, but the head looked too much like a scarecrow.

I took a selfie with my phone, downloaded it, and blew it up on my computer to 8 by 10 inches. I used glue to attach it to the “head.” It started to look pretty good. I worked on it for hours, until I had a perfect effigy of myself. Now, I needed a clock tower!

I called my friend Richard Colby, the County Commissioner in Belton, and asked him if he’d be interested in having me owe him a big favor! I couldn’t tell him the truth, of course. I couldn’t just call him up and say, Dick, old buddy, I’m futurephobic, and I’m being stalked by clock towers – and…! No, that would not do.

So I made up a story about a claim I was supposedly working on where this man fell (or was pushed) from a clock tower just about like the one in Belton. I was deathly afraid to go up there, so I wanted the Commissioner to throw the effigy over the side and I would videotape the fall with my phone. He said he’d do if for me if the County Judge said OK, and that we’d probably need to do it over the weekend when no one was in the courthouse. That was all fine with me, and we got it done.

I went down on Sunday and stood in the courthouse lawn while Richard hauled the effigy, packed in a box, up to the clock tower just like I asked. “Why’s it have your face?” he yelled after he’d unpacked it. He was up there, and I was down on the ground.

“It’s gotta look real,” I screamed back at him. “I didn’t have any other face to put on it.” That seemed to satisfy him.

“Are you ready for me to do it?”

“Got my phone ready to roll.”

“Just toss it over the edge?”

“You could act a little mad! Give it a good shove!”

“You’re not giving this to my next political opponent!” That was stated as a fact rather than as a request.

“I promise! No one but me will ever see it! I just want to see how the body falls – you know, whether it hits the side of the building or goes directly to the ground!” That was all hokum, but I tried to make it sound good. I was hoping he wouldn’t ask anything else, because I was a simple claims adjuster and negotiator, and yet here I was playing the role of Barton Keyes in “Double Indemnity.”

Colby counted down 3…2…1…

He stood the dummy up as if it were alive, grabbed it viciously by the shoulders, pretended to scuffle, and then swung it over the top. It hit the side of the building with a thud and then landed on the grass face up. I swallowed hard. I had just witnessed my own “death.” There was scattered applause from a few townspeople who had gathered to see what was going on.

I waited for Richard to come outside, thanked him profusely, promised him the moon if he ever needed a favor, and tossed the effigy into the trunk of the car. As I was leaving, I rolled the window down and shook my right index finger at the clock tower. “You lost,” I said. “I won.” I was sure the falling dummy was what Madam Theresa had seen in her vision. Just like the young man in the story, I had provided fate with a scapegoat – a reason to let me live. I felt better than I had in days.

Back in Austin, I wanted to celebrate. I considered running a stop sign on purpose just for the hell of it, and seeing what would happen if a policeman stopped me and looked in the trunk.

“Yes, officer, that’s my body! I fell off of a clock tower a few hours ago!”

I opted not to tempt fate. I had beaten the rap. I had cheated death. I had nothing to fear from clock towers. Not anymore.

University of Texas Tower, Austin

University of Texas Tower, Austin

Then again, why not allow myself one tiny moment of celebration? Since I lived so near to the most famous clock tower in Texas, I thought I’d walk over to the campus and let it know that it had no more power over me. That’s what I’d do on my lunch hour on Monday. I’d walk over there with my head held high and I’d stroll all around that nasty tower, and I’d shake my fist at it and I’d tell it who’s boss!
At noon on Monday! That’s what I’d do!

***

“And that’s when the window glass fell on him?”

“Yes, Your Honor. He never knew what hit him.”

“Objection! He saw the workmen installing the window at the top of the tower, he saw it slip loose and begin to fall, and he stood right under it!”

“And you contend that it was suicide.”

“Yes, Your Honor. As you can see from his diary, he was obsessed with death by clock tower.”
At this point, the other insurance company’s lawyer objected. “He was obsessed with staying away from them!”

“Not that last time!”

The judge banged his gavel. “Gentlemen, let’s have order or I’ll find you both in contempt. If the court finds this was a suicide, there will be no settlement to the plaintiffs. And if the court determines it was an accident, the settlement is more than a million dollars. So we need to get this right.”

The judge listened intently to the testimony for most of the day. Then, the plaintiffs’ attorney called the final witness.

“Theresa Thompson, would you please take the stand!”

She pledged to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The lawyers asked her about her practice in New Orleans, her psychic abilities, and the emotional state of Matthew James Larsen at the time she told his fortune.

At last, the judge stepped in.

“Ma’am, do you have the so-called crystal ball here in the courtroom?”

“Yes, Your Honor. I was instructed to bring it.”

“Good. I want to see what it is about that thing that had Mr. Larsen so worked up.”

She removed the ball from its case, and put it in on a stand in front of her. It sat there like a big, clear marble.

“That’s it?” asked the judge.

“There’s too much light, Your Honor,” she said.

“All right. I’ve seen enough. You may step down.”

The judge’s mind was made up.

“I’m going to rule in favor of the plaintiffs. Counsel did prove that Mr. Larsen was disturbed enough to believe in all this hocus-pocus. But he clearly was taking great pains to avoid being killed by the malevolence that he had come to see in these clock towers. The ruling is ‘accidental death.’” He banged his gavel. “Case dismissed!”

Madam Theresa was packing the mysterious crystal ball into its case, and noticing that it was clouding up inside.

The judge had stepped down from the bench and was moving in for a closer look.

Madam Theresa seemed uncomfortable and was clearly ready to go.

“Did you see something in there?” asked the judge.

“I may have seen something. I’m not sure.” She paused, and then said, “Your Honor, do you ever have occasion to be around suspension bridges?”

“Every now and then –” he said – and then stopped abruptly in mid-sentence.

“Oh, my!” said Madam Theresa.

THE END

© 2015 by Lynn Woolley.  All rights reserved.

 

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