Arthur Freeman couldn’t explain it. Normally the trinkets he encountered on his business trips were of little note. But for some reason, this particular statuette—an intricate, jade dragon—had caught his eye.
“You are interested in that statue,” a smiling storekeeper stated a bit obviously.
Arthur grimaced. As a salesman himself, he knew how to play hardball. “I don’t know if I’m interested as much as I am curious. What can you tell me about it?”
The shopkeeper, a thin, Chinese man, widened his grin. “That, sir, is a very special statue. The jade dragon is an important part of our culture, and this one is very valuable.”
“What makes it so ‘valuable’”?
“That is a good question. This statue once belonged to a monk who was an expert healer. It is said the owner of this dragon will experience good luck and vitality.”
Arthur had to fight the urge to laugh. “That’s certainly a colorful backstory.”
The shopkeeper twirled his long, white mustache. “Yes, but it is not just a tale. It is true. The monk was very devout and used the dragon to help focus his thoughts when healing others. He is known to have saved many lives.” He paused to close the case containing the dragon. “But I am not sure I can sell this precious artifact to you.”
Arthur looked stung. “And why is that?”
“This statue, if given to the right person, is very powerful. To the wrong person, on the other hand, it would bring devastation. The spirit that dwells within this dragon can be vengeful if ignored.”
“What do you mean? How does one ignore a statue?”
The shopkeeper appeared disappointed by Arthur’s questions. “This is not merely a statue, sir. Its original owner knew this and attended to the spirit’s needs.” He clasped the case closed. “It does not sound as if you would be as willing to do so.”
“You won’t even consider selling it to me then?”
The shopkeeper began to speak but seemed to reconsider his words at the last moment. He stood quietly, in thought, for another second or so. “You would have to promise to care for the dragon’s qi and meditate on its truths. I would not want to be responsible for what might happen to you otherwise.”
“I don’t understand how you do it,” Deidre Freeman said with a smile and a kiss on her husband’s cheek.
“And what’s that?” he asked.
“Everything. You’ve been working so hard lately but don’t even seem tired when you get home. Did you go running again this morning?”
Arthur nodded. “Five in the morning. I like to watch the sunrise while I’m out there.”
“Well it’s certainly working for you,” she said as she patted him on his ass. “Just don’t burn yourself out.”
Arthur smiled as she left the bathroom then began to strip for the shower. As the water hit him, he sighed in contentment. Deidre was right; everything really was going well recently. In fact, it’d all started a few days after he’d arrived home from his trip to Beijing.
A strange thought crept in as the steam rose around him. Why had he recently experienced such a drastic change in energy? He was almost fifty—not old, but also not at an age when you suddenly feel more athletic. Deirdre was also correct in saying he was working longer hours at the office. So far, though, the new schedule hadn’t caused him any stress.
Arthur shook his head. It couldn’t be. The very idea that the jade dragon statue could have something to do with his newfound vitality seemed ridiculous. He smiled to himself as he let the water wash away the silly notion.
“Can you believe it?”
Arthur looked at the heavyset, angry man sitting across from him and smiled. “Nothing we can really do, Hank.”
Hank Carson glared at Arthur. “You don’t think the new quotas are unreasonable?”
“I suppose they are,” Arthur shrugged, “but at least we have jobs.”
“We have to fight this, Freeman, and you know it!”
“You can if you want to, Hank. I’m just going to put in the hours and keep my head down. You know management’s been laying people off the past few months. Hitting these numbers is our best bet to keep our jobs.”
Hank gritted his teeth. “Some of use can’t pull all-nighters like you’ve been doing, Freeman.”
“You mean you won’t; you could if you chose to.” Deep down, Arthur this probably wasn’t true. Hank Carson was so out of shape he usually broke a sweat walking to his car every night. He was just tired of getting shit for choosing to work a little more lately.
“Screw you, Freeman, and your high-fucking-horse. You don’t think we know what you’re doing? Ease up or you’ll get the rest of us fired!”
Arthur shook his head as Hank stomped from his office. He’d not be bullied into being lazy and risking his job. If Hank were in better shape, he’d probably be able to work late, too. Maybe Arthur should loan him the jade dragon.
Arthur watched as a young woman in spandex bent over to pick up a dumbbell. There were all kinds of benefits to his new gym membership.
With a grin and a grunt, he returned to his own machine.
As the weights glided along, Arthur couldn’t remember ever being more relaxed. He’d joined the gym a week ago after complained to Deidre he felt “pent up” and needed some form of release. She’d suggested it right off. Damn, if she wasn’t always right.
The problem was finding a twenty-four hour gym close to the office so he could go very early in the mornings. It also had to have a pool—Arthur was very fond of swimming. This one, with its bright lighting, large weight room, and Olympic-sized pool was perfect.
Arthur glanced back at the woman stretching across the room. The other clientele didn’t hurt, either.
Suddenly he felt a twinge of pain in his shoulder as his muscles locked up. Quickly setting the bar down, Arthur knew something was wrong. He immediately began to rub at his arm, but the searing in his shoulder seemed to be growing. He hoped he hadn’t torn anything.
Arthur rose gingerly and made his way to the locker room. He could feel the eyes of the woman on him as he hobbled past. It made him feel old.
Arthur hurriedly turned the lamp back off again. “I didn’t mean to wake you,” he said apologetically.
“That’s okay,” Deidre mumbled as she rolled over to face her husband. “Working really late tonight, huh?”
Arthur nodded. “I didn’t really have a choice. Have to meet the sales numbers or I’ll wind up like Hank.” Arthur’s belligerent co-worker had been let go a little better than a week earlier.
“Well try to get some rest. You look terrible.”
Arthur furrowed his brow at the comment but held his tongue. He stumbled into the bathroom and began to peel off his wrinkled suit, but froze upon seeing his reflection. Deidre had been absolutely right.
Frowning, Arthur took a moment to inspect the dark circles under his eyes, the wrinkles cropping up all over his tired face, and his spotty, ashen complexion. It all added up to a less than handsome sight.
Arthur was in shock. Not more than a few days ago, he’d felt like a teenager again—full of energy and a “go get ‘em” attitude. Now he looked like this. What was more, he felt an exhaustion he hadn’t in quite a while. Arthur stared at the sad creature in the mirror. How had this happened?
When the answer to his question actually dawned on him, Arthur was reluctant to believe it. Dropping his clothes in the floor where he stood, he quickly shuffled from the bathroom and down the hallway, stopping when he’d reached the living room.
There it was on the shelf, grinning back at him: the jade dragon. Could it really be behind both his original strength and sudden fatigue? The old man had warned him not to ignore it, but he had anyway. What if his good luck had run out and been replaced by something much more malevolent?
“Are you all right?”
Arthur tore himself away from the idol to find his wife standing in the doorway. She looked concerned. Suddenly he felt like an idiot.
The next day Arthur overslept and was late for the first time in weeks. He’d come slinking into work, hopeful no one would notice, but had immediately been called before his bosses, Mr. Dawson and Mr. Barlow. The seat across from them felt like the loneliest place on earth.
“I’m sure you know why you’re here,” Dan Barlow said in a condescending tone. “So we’ll just skip the formalities.” He glanced over at Dawson, who was apparently sending a text message. “What do you have to say for yourself, Freeman?” he continued.
“I’m very sorry I was late. I’ve been working long hours and…”
“We all have, Freeman,” Barlow interrupted. “Right now, that’s what’s necessary.”
Arthur nodded plaintively.
“I’m afraid we can’t have people staggering in at all times of the day,” Barlow explained in a disinterested tone. “We’ll give you until the end of the day.”
Arthur was dumbstruck. He sat quietly, letting the words gel in his fatigued mind.
“Do you have anything to add?” Barlow asked.
“You’re… you’re firing me?” Arthur stammered. “Just like that?”
“You didn’t leave us much choice.”
Arthur could feel something bubbling up inside of him. “I’ve been here longer than either of you!”
“I don’t see how that’s relevant.”
“With the hours I’ve put in recently, I’m late one damn time and you fire me?”
Dawson, finally taking notice of the situation, looked up from his cell phone. “Please, Mr. Freeman—you’re making a fool of yourself.”
Arthur stood to point his finger in their faces, but found he lacked the words to express his feelings. “BAAAAAH!”
The two executives stared at him for a moment or so then began to laugh. “Yes, well said,” Barlow jeered.
Angry but embarrassed, Arthur turned and stormed out of the conference room. He didn’t stop until he’d reached his car in the parking garage. “Fuck them,” he said under his breath as he wrestled with his keys. “I’m not going to stick around and help for even a minute longer.”
The drive home was difficult. Arthur found himself somewhere between rage and tears, his mood growing darker with every passing mile. Barlow and Dawson had just been looking for an excuse to fire him, that much was for sure. They’d probably been salivating at the opportunity all morning, waiting for him to arrive.
“I was only an hour late!” Arthur growled.
He’d done everything they’d asked. Come in early, stayed late, and met their quotas. But he’d still ended up just like Hank Carson. It wasn’t fair.
And what would Deidre think? The very idea of disappointing her made him feel sick. He’d always provided for his wife, done his best to make sure she wanted for nothing. Now he was fifty and without a job. He hoped she could understand and forgive him.
Arthur had just turned on to his street when he noticed something strange. There was a car he didn’t recognize in the driveway, and it was in his spot. He pulled to a stop at the side of the curb and sat there for a minute or so collecting his thoughts. This car wasn’t completely unknown to him—he’s seen it before. It belonged to an old co-worker of Deidre’s. A man.
Quietly, Arthur made his way from his own vehicle and up the driveway. Heading around the back of the house, he furtively inserted his key and opened the door before tiptoeing down the hallway to his and Deidre’s bedroom.
That’s where he found them.
With his head spinning, Arthur sought refuge on the living room couch. He’d been unable to say anything, even after seeing his wife with another man, and had instead chosen to simply walk away. Now he sat silently while they, oblivious to being discovered, continued their fun in the adjacent room. The sounds of someone else making love to Deidre were almost more than he could bear.
But what had he expected? All of the late hours at work. All of the business trips. Of course she had found solace in someone else. He couldn’t really blame her.
Are you really that weak?
The words seemed to bore a hole right through Arthur’s brain. But they hadn’t come from him.
Do you like the idea of someone else fucking your wife?
Arthur looked around for the source of the taunting voice but didn’t see where it could have come from.
How long will you let the world treat you like shit?
With a look of panic in his eyes, Arthur peered across the room and saw the jade dragon statue. It couldn’t possibly be talking, could it?
I can help you, if you’ll let me. But first I need to know you have what it takes.
“Why should I listen to you?” Arthur asked out loud. “You’re the reason I’m in this mess to begin with!”
I’m not surprised you’d blame me for your problems. It proves how pathetic you are.
Arthur buried his face in his hands. “The shopkeeper warned me what would happen if I ignored you for too long. Now you’re making me suffer.”
The old man was a fool and didn’t understand. I have always wanted to help you, Arthur, but you won’t let me.
“Then why did you stop giving me strength? I needed it!”
There is more to life than vitality, Arthur. There is power. But you never would have asked for the latter if I had not taken the former from you.
“And you can give me this power? You have that ability?”
Yes, but you have to want it enough to do what is necessary. Do you?
Arthur’s heart was pounding. “What do want me to do?”
The question is not what I desire, Arthur. You must throw off your life of weakness if you want more.
Arthur nodded. He knew what the dragon required.
His face vacant of emotion, Arthur strode quietly into his bedroom. As his wife began to scream, he calmly opened the top drawer of his bedside table and removed the handgun kept there. The first bullet was for the stranger in his bed. He toppled into the floor and lay still. The second he had saved for Deidre; he wanted her to have time to realize what was about to happen.
Relief washed over his entire body as Arthur emerged from the bedroom, gun still in hand. He’d done it.
I am impressed.
Arthur looked over at the jade dragon. “So am I. I’d never have thought I could do that.”
How do you feel?
“Strong. I feel strong again.”
And you will feel stronger soon. This was only the first step.
No one questioned Arthur when he suddenly showed up again carrying a box to presumably empty his desk. Even his bosses agreed to see him—he’d explained he wanted to apologize for his earlier outburst.
Robert Dawson was the first on Arthur’s list.
Robert Dawson was the first on Arthur’s list.
“I didn’t want to leave on such bad terms,” Arthur began after Dawson’s secretary had left them alone.
“Yeah, well no one likes to get canned,” Dawson agreed while reading an email. “Even when they deserve it.”
“Naturally. I think everyone has a tendency to shift blame, really.”
“Like you, for instance. You’ve pretty much shit away the company’s money for years on strip clubs and vacations, right?”
Dawson peered around his monitor. “Excuse me?”
“No, I don’t think I will. While you were living it up on the company’s dime, the rest of us were pouring our fucking lives into it.”
“Now wait a damn minute, Freeman! Those trips were for business!”
“More excuses, eh, Bob?”
“I don’t have to explain anything to you, Freeman. Get the fuck out of my office.”
“No thank you,” Arthur added with an air of civility. “I’ve come here for a very specific reason, and leaving isn’t it.” His hand crept towards his coat pocket.
“What’re you going to do, Freeman,” Dawson asked sarcastically, “shoot me?”
“I’d never dream of it, Bob,” Arthur replied cooly. “The gun would make too much noise and then I wouldn’t get to kill Dan, too.”
The two men stared at each other for a moment, Dawson trying to gauge how serious Arthur was. Then, suddenly, they both ran for each other, colliding in the center of the room.
Arthur was quicker. With a flash of seemingly inhuman speed, he removed a paring knife from his jacket, ramming it just below the ribcage of Robert Dawson. At the same time, Arthur brought his hand up to strike his victim in the throat to stifle the scream. Several more thrusts of the knife followed. Within a few moments, Dawson had bled out and lay dead on the office floor.
You are almost there. Do you feel the power growing within you?
Arthur nodded. “I can do this,” he reassured himself.
Yes, you can. Then you will have everything you crave.
Without a word, Arthur emerged from Dawson’s office and walked quickly to Dan Barlow’s. He didn’t even pause at the secretary’s desk before bursting into the room. Barlow looked surprised to see him but didn’t get up from behind the desk.
“How can I help you, Freeman?” Barlow tentatively asked. There was a clear look of alarm on his face.
“I needed to meet with you,” Arthur explained. “There’s something important I have to take care of.”
Barlow looked him over. “Is it safe to assume you’ve already had this conversation with Robert?”
Arthur nodded as his hand once again started towards his coat.
“Don’t do it, Freeman,” Barlow said forcefully.
Arthur smiled. “What was it you said to me earlier today? Oh yes… you didn’t leave me much choice!”
With a yell, Arthur Freeman drew his knife and started towards Barlow. But he never made it. There was a loud pop as the gun Dan Barlow had been hiding under a stack of files went off. Arthur dropped where he stood.
Cautiously, Barlow crossed the room to check on the whimpering he heard from a few feet away. There was Arthur, no longer a threat, slowly bleeding into the carpet. Why he’d thought Barlow wouldn’t immediately notice the blood—presumably Dawson’s—covering his shirt, the executive couldn’t guess. Barlow assumed he’d just snapped and wasn’t thinking at all rationally by the time he’d stormed into the office.
Barlow bent over to listen to Arthur’s final words. He seemed to be whining about something and his face was contorted in pain.
“Why won’t you help me?” he mumbled. “I did everything you asked me to do.”
The storekeeper waved as another satisfied customer exited his small curio shop. Behind him, a second man grinned broadly.
“How do you do it?”
The shopkeeper chuckled. “I tell them what they want to hear, that’s all. The rest is easy.”
“And where did that one supposedly come from?” the second man asked.
“That particular dragon once belonged to an emperor who had many concubines. It will give the owner sexual powers beyond his wildest dreams.”
The other laughed. “And he believed you?”
“We hear what we want at times. Desire can easily cloud one’s better judgment.”
“Well I’ll never understand why anyone would buy these stupid knock-offs, desire or not.”
The shopkeeper nodded as the other man disappeared behind a curtain to retrieve another of the many jade dragons kept in the back room.
**Want More? Tales of Terror is now available.**