Witch Doctor - Wiz in Rhyme-3

THE WITCH DOCTOR

by

Christopher Stasheff

Chapter One

What can you say about a friend who leaves town without telling you?

I mean, I left Matt sitting there in the coffee shop trying to translate that gobbledygook parchment of his, and when I came back after class, he was gone. I asked if anybody'd seen him go, but nobody had-just that, when they'd looked up, he'd been gone.

That was no big deal, of courser didn't own Matt, and he was a big boy. If he wanted to go take a hike, that was his business. But he'd left that damn parchment behind, and ever since he'd found it, he'd handled it as if it were the crown jewels-so he sure as hell wouldn't have just left it on the table in a busy coffee shop. Somebody could have thrown it in the wastebasket without looking. He was just lucky it was still there when I got back. So I picked it up and put it in my notebook. "Tell him I've got his parchment," I told Alice. She nodded without looking up from the coffee she was pouring.

"Sure thing, Saul. If you see him first, tell him he forgot to pay his bill this morning."

"Saul" is me. Matt claimed I'd been enlightened, so he called me

"Paul." I went along-it was okay as an in-joke, and it was funny the first time. After that, I suffered through it-from Matt. Not from anyone else. "Saul" is me. I just keep a wary eye for teenagers with slingshots who also play harp.

"Will do," I said, and went out the door-but it nagged at me especially since I had never known Matt to forget to pay Alice before.

Forget to put on his socks, maybe, but not to pay his tab. When I got back to my apartment, I took out his mystical manuscript and looked at it. Matt thought it was parchment, but I didn't think he was any judge of sheepskins. He certainly hadn't gotten his.

Well, okay, he had two of them, but they hadn't given him the third degree yet-and wouldn't, the way he was hung up on that untranslatable bit of doggerel. Oh, sure, maybe he was right, maybe it was a long-lost document that would establish his reputation as a scholar and shoot him up to full professor overnight-but maybe the moon is made of calcified green cheese, too.

Me, I was working on my second M.A.-anything to justify staying around campus. Matt had gone on for his doctorate, but I couldn't stay interested in any one subject that long. They all began to seem kind of silly, the way the professors were so fanatical about the smallest details.

By that standard, Matt was a born professor, all right. He just spun his wheels, trying to translate a parchment that he thought was six hundred years old but was written in a language nobody had ever heard of. I looked it over, shook my head, and put it back in the notebook. He'd show up looking for it sooner or later. But he didn't. He didn't show up at all.

After a couple of days, I developed a gnawing uncertainty about his having left town-maybe he had just disappeared. I know, I know, I was letting my imagination run away with me, but I couldn't squelch the thought.

So what do you do when a friend disappears?

You have to find out whether or not to worry.

The first day, I was only a little concerned, especially after I went back to the coffee shop, and they said he hadn't been in looking for his damn parchment. The second day, I started getting worried-it was midnight and he hadn't shown up at the coffeehouse. Then I began to think maybe he'd forgotten to eat again and blacked out-so I went around to his apartment to tell him off.

He lived in one of those old one-family houses that had been converted into five apartments, if you want to call them that-a nine-bytwelve living room with a kitchenette wall, and a cubbyhole for a bedroom. I knocked, but he didn't answer. I knocked again, Then I waited a good long time before I knocked a third time. Still no answer. At three A.M when the neighbor came out and yelled at me to stop knocking so hard, I really got worried-and the next day, when nobody answered, I figured, Okay, third time's the charm-so I went outside, glanced around to make sure nobody was looking, and quietly crawled in the back window. Matt really ought to lock up at night; I've always told him so.

I had to crawl across the table-Matt liked to eat and write by natural light-and stepped into a mess.

Look, I've got a pretty strong stomach, and Matt was never big on housekeeping. A high stack of dishes with mold on them, I could have understood-but wall-to-wall spiderwebs? No way. How could he live like that? I mean, it wasn't just spiderwebs in the corners-it was spiderwebs choking the furniture! I couldn't have sat down without getting caught in dusty silk! And the proprietors were still there, too-little brown ones, medium-sized gray ones, and a huge malecater with a body the size of a quarter and red markings like a big wide grin on the underside of its abdomen, sitting in the middle of a web six feet wide that was stretched across the archway to the bed nook. Then the sun came out from behind a , loud, its light struck through the window for about half a minute-and I stood spellbound. Lit from the back and side like that, the huge web seemed to glow, every tendril bright. It was beautiful.

Then the sun went in, the light went away, and it was just a dusty piece of vermin-laden debris.

Speaking of vermin, what had attracted all these eight-legged wonders? It must have been a bumper year for flies. Or maybe, just maybe, they'd decided to declare war on the army of cockroaches that infested the place. If so, more power to them. I decided not to go spider hunting, after all. Besides, I didn't have time-I had to find Matt.

The strange thing was, I'd been in that apartment just three days before, and there hadn't been a single strand of spider silk in sight. Okay, so they're hard to see-but three days just isn't time enough for that much decoration.

I stepped up to the archway, nerving myself to sweep that web aside and swat its builder-but the sun came out again, and the golden cartwheel was so damned beautiful I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Besides, I didn't really need to-I could look through it, and the bedroom sure didn't have any place that was out of sight. Room enough for a bed, a dresser, a tin wardrobe, and scarcely an inch more. The bed was rumpled, but Matt wasn't in it. I turned around, frowning, and scanned the place again. I wouldn't

say there was no sign of Matt-as I told you, he wasn't big on house

keeping, and there were stacks of books everywhere, nicely webbed at the moment-but the pile of dirty dishes was no higher than it had been, and he himself sure wasn't there.

I stepped out into the hall and closed the door behind me, chewing it over. No matter how I sliced it, it came out the same-Matt had left town.

Why so suddenly?

Death in the family. Or close to it. What else could it be?

So I went back to my apartment and started research. One of the handy things about having some training in scholarship, is that you know how to find information. I knew what town Matt came fromSepar City, New Jersey-and I knew how to call long-distance information.

"Mantrell," I told the operator.

"There are three, Sir. Which one did you want?" I racked my brains. Had Matt ever said anything about his parents' names? Then I remembered, once, that there had been a

"junior" attached to him. "Matthew."

"We have a Mateo."

"Yeah, that's it." It was a good guess, anyway.

"One moment, please."

The vocodered voice gave me the number. I wrote it down, hung UP, picked up, and punched in. Six rings, and I found myself hoping nobody would answer.

"'Alio? I1

I hadn't known his parents were immigrants. His mother sounded nice.

"I'm calling for Matthew Mantrell," I said. "Junior." Mateo? Ees not 'ere."

"Just went out for a minute?" I was surprised at the surge of relief I felt.

"No, no! Ees away-college!"

My spirits took the express elevator down. "Okay. I'll try him there. Thanks, Mrs. Mantrell."

"Ees okay. You tell him call home, si?"

"Si," I agreed. "Good-bye." I hung up, hoping I would see him indeed.

So. He hadn't gone home.

Then where?

I know I should have forgotten about it, shoved it to the back of

my mind, and just contented myself with being really mad at him. What was the big deal, anyway?

The big deal was that Matt was the only real friend I had, at the moment-maybe the only one I'd ever had, really. I mean, I hadn't known Matt all that long; but four years seems like a long time, to me. Four years, going on five-but who's counting?

It's not as if I'd ever had all that many friends. Let me see, there was jory in first grade, and Luke, and Ray-and all the rest of the boys in the class, I suppose. Then it was down to Luke and Ray in second grade, 'cause jory moved away-but the rest of the kids began to cool off. My wild stories, I guess. Then Ray moved, too, so it was just Luke and me in third grade-and Luke eased up, 'cause he wanted to play with the other kids. Me, I didn't want to play, I was clumsy-I just wanted to tell stories, but the other kids didn't want to hear about brave knights rescuing fair damsels. So from fourth grade on, I was on decent terms with the rest of the kids, but nothing more. Then, along about junior high, nobody wanted to be caught talking to me, because the "in" crowd decided I was weird.

What can I say? I was. I mean, a thirteen-year-old boy who doesn't like baseball and loves reading poetry-what can you say? By local standards, anyway. And in junior high, local standards are everything.

Made me miserable, but what could I do?

Find out what they thought made a good man, of course. I watched and found out real quick that the popular guys weren't afraid to fight, and they won more fights than they lost. That seemed to go with being good at sports. So I figured that if I could learn how to fight, I could be good at sports, too. A karate school had just opened up in town, so I heckled Mom until she finally took me, just to shut me up. I had to get a paper route to pay for it, though.

It only took six months before I stopped losing fights. When school started again in the fall, and the boys started working out their ranking system by the usual round of bouts, I started winning a few-and all of a sudden, the other guys got chummy. I warmed to it for a little while, but it revolted me, too. I knew them for what they were now, and I stopped caring about them.

It felt good. Besides, I'd connected with karate-and from it, I got interested in the Far East.

One of the teachers told me I should try not to sound so hostile and sarcastic all the time.

Sarcastic? Who, me?

So I learned to paste on the smile and sound cheerful. Didn't work. The other kids could tell. All I succeeded in doing was acting phony.

Why bother?

Of course, things picked up a little in high school, because there was a literary magazine, and a drama club, so I got back onto civil terms with some of the other kids. Not the "in" crowd, of course, but they bored me, so I didn't care. Much.

So all in all, I wasn't really prepared for college. Academically, sure-but socially? I mean, I hadn't had a real friend in ten yearsand all of a sudden, I had a dozen. Not close friends, of course, but people who smiled and sat down in my booth at the coffee shop.

Who can blame me if I didn't do any homework?

My profs, that's who. And the registrar, who sent me the little pink slip with the word probation worked in there. And my academic counselor, who pointed out that I was earning a quick exit visa from the Land of Friendship. So I declared an English major, where at least half of the homework was reading the books I'd already read for recreation-Twain, and Dickens, and Melville. I discovered Fielding, and Chaucer, and Joyce, and had more fun. Of course ' I had to take a grammar course and write term papers, so I learned how to sneak in a few hours at the library. I didn't take any honors, but I stayed in. Then I discovered philosophy, and found out that I actually wanted to go to the library. I started studying without realizing it-it was so much fun, such a colossal, idiotic, senseless puzzle. Nobody had any good answers to the big questions, but at least they were asking. My answers? I was looking for them. That was enough. So I studied for fun, and almost learned how to party. Never got very good at it, but I tried-and by my senior year, I even had a couple of friends who trusted me enough to tell me their troubles. Not that I ever told them mine, of course. I tried once or twice, but stopped when I saw the eyes glaze. I figured out that most people want to talk, but they don't want to listen. It followed from that, logically, that what they liked about me was that I listened, but didn't talk. So I didn't. I got a reputation for being the strong and silent type, just by keeping my mouth shut. I also found out, by overhearing at a party, that they thought I was the Angry Young Man. I thought that one over and decided they were right. I was angry about people. Even the ones I liked, mostly. They wanted to take, but they didn't want to give. They cared about fighting, but they didn't care about brains. They spent their time trying to get from one another, and they didn't care about why they were here. Oh, don't get me wrong-they were good people. But they didn't care about me, really. I was a convenience.

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