By James C. Clar

“Thou art a creature of the magicians. Return to thy dust.”
(TALMUD: Sanhedrin, 65b)

“Your assistant is remarkable, Mr. Demorovic,” the customer commented before he paid for his books and left. “He knows where everything is. He never hesitates and can locate anything in the store, no matter how obscure. You’re fortunate. It’s so hard to get good help these days.”

The man was right. I had gone through numerous assistants over the past few years, and Gus was easily the best. I owned a large antiquarian bookstore specializing in metaphysics and the occult and thus couldn’t offer much by way of pay or benefits either, for that matter. I made enough to keep body and soul together, more or less, by catering to a small but devoted clientele. By no stretch of the imagination, however, could I compete with the large chain stores like Borders or Barnes and Noble. But then, the people who frequented my shop weren’t likely to find what they were looking for in those places in any case. And, to be sure, anyone who went to work for me had to be willing to do so for far less than what they most certainly would have been offered somewhere, anywhere, else. Not only was Gus good at what he did, he did it for next to nothing. You might even say that he was heaven-sent.

Gus had what could only be described as an eidetic memory as to the placement of every volume in the shop, and that was something, considering that I had books stacked upon books and crammed into every nook and cranny of the two creaking floors that make up my aging establishment. What’s more, he did his work efficiently and, I must add, without hesitation. No matter how menial or how daunting a task was set before him, Gus got to it without complaint. He was virtually tireless and, at times, would work for hours (literally!) without so much as looking up.

I have a few close friends who own businesses. They are forever complaining about how much time is wasted by their employees: making personal calls on their cells, surfing the web on company computers, taking cigarette breaks and the like. The fact that Gus did none of those things made it easier to put up with his other eccentricities. For one thing, Gus couldn’t talk; he was mute save for the ability to make a grunting sound which served, most of the time, as a means of expressing agreement or compliance.

Then there was his appearance, which could only be characterized as disheveled. That effect was further reinforced by his shambling gait. Arguing that the image of the store was in some regards dependent on how he looked, I took the liberty of buying him some clothes. Nothing Gus wore, however, seemed to fit him properly. Everything hung off him in a vaguely disturbing fashion. The only thing that didn’t look strangely askew or out of place on him was the black watch cap that he wore at all times and in all weather.

Having no family or friends to speak of—apart from me—and no where to live, Gus stayed in a small room located in the back of the shop on the first floor. I trusted him and was more than happy to have someone on the premises at all times. When people questioned me about our rather strange arrangement or, as was more often the case, asked where I had managed to find Gus—who seemed simply to appear in the store one day—I explained that he was a distant relative from Eastern Europe. His parents had been killed during one of the numerous ethnic conflicts that simmered continually below the surface in that eccentric and tribal part of the world, and which were fanned into flame from time to time even in our own day. The peculiarities that beset Gus, I would continue, were the result of the consequent trauma and deprivation he experienced as a child.

“It’s so nice of you to take him in like that,” more than one customer or acquaintance would respond at the end of my story. From that point on—and given his uncanny ability—most of my clients accepted Gus without further inquiry and certainly without complaint. Many of my patrons whose tastes, admittedly, ran toward the eccentric and the arcane, undoubtedly also felt that the presence of someone like Gus added a certain charm, or more accurately, a degree of rather outré character or ambience to the business.

And there I think is where the trouble started. One or more of my competitors, of which there are a handful, fed up with the antics of their own employees and searching for that certain je ne sais quoi with which to set their shoe-string operations apart from the pack in these tough economic times, must have approached Gus in an effort to lure him to work for them. Obviously that was something that I simply could not allow.

The change in Gus was quite subtle. Indeed, anyone who did not know him as well as I would probably not have noticed anything untoward. Yet both his work ethic and, so far as it could be established with one so singularly uncommunicative by nature, his attitude, took a decided turn for the worse. His background notwithstanding, I was stung by his lack of gratitude considering everything that I had done for him. In fact, it would not have been an exaggeration to say that everything he had become—such as it was and given his incredible limitations—had been because of me. That a creature like Gus could fall prey to something akin to ambition was, well, unprecedented.

As the days and weeks passed, it became clear to me that drastic measures had to be taken. The thought of Gus turning on me or, worse, being lured away by an unscrupulous bookseller was more than I could bear. Besides, explaining why it would be unthinkable (impossible, even!) for Gus to work for anyone else would have been uncomfortable in the extreme. Although deeply regretful of my subsequent decision, I knew precisely what had to be done.

One night while Gus was sleeping—or while he was doing what for him passed for sleep—I returned to the shop and let myself into his room. The fact that he lay with his eyes open only made matters even more difficult. When I lifted the watch cap off his forehead, exposing the word Emet that was written there he, of course, offered no resistance. “I’m truly sorry, my friend,” I said. Then quickly, reluctantly, I erased the first letter of the inscription. With that, the dread term Met resulted, and Gus gave a shudder. In a matter of seconds, all that remained of him was a pile of the dust from which he had been formed.

Explaining the sudden disappearance of Gus to my customers, who are in general a credulous lot, has been far simpler than finding someone to replace him. Once again, I’ve hired, fired or received resignations from one assistant after another. If things continue like this, I’ll have no choice but to bring Gus—or someone just like him—back. The problem is, I can’t remember the formula. I’ve spent what little free time I now have searching for a tome by R. Eleazar ben Judah of Worms which contains his famous Commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah, but I can’t find it. If Gus were here, though, he’d be able to put his misshapen hands on it in an instant.

James C. Clar teaches and writes in upstate New York. His work has been published in print as well as on the Internet. Most recently, his short fiction has found a home on Antipodean Sci-Fi, Apollo’s Lyre, Flashshot, The Taj Mahal Review, The Shine Journal, Static Movement, Residential Aliens, Powder Burn Flash, Bewildering Stories, and The Magazine of Crime & Suspense. His short story “Starbuck” was recently voted “Story of the Year” for 2008 by the editors of Long Story, Short.

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