It was a sunny spring morning by the duck pond in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Breezes tickled the elms. Swans slid insouciantly over the lake. Turtles basked. It was exactly the kind of morning lovers canoodle on park benches, happily trepanned in the proximity of their respective beloveds.
There were, in fact, many such couples in the park that morning, but Jeanine Tod was not one of them. Her dejected attitude, hunched posture and watery eyes struck a jarring note in the spring symphony.
It hadn’t always been this way. Five minutes before, she’d been half of an apparently happy pair. She and a youth named Zach had been holding hands and regarding three ducklings waddling past in the wake of their dignified female parent. She’d asked Zach if they weren’t the darlingest duckywuckies he ever did see and he had readily agreed that they were. Then, just as he was leaning in to kiss her with the lovelight in his eyes, she’d put a finger to his lips and gave him The Speech.
It was always the same. She had it memorized by heart, right down to the inflections and pauses calculated to make It more persuasive (or at least, less immediately objectionable). She’d practiced it so often that she was almost convinced that this time it would work. This time, all would go well.
It had gone worse than ever. At the end of the speech, Zach was silent for several seconds, leaving her in agonizing doubt as to whether her fond hope had soared to the clouds or plunged to the abyss. She stole a glance at his face and saw that his cheeks were flushed and that he was staring into the distance with a kind of inscrutable squint.
“So, how about it?” she asked brightly.
“Um…” Zach was biting his lower lip as if thinking it over. She reached out a hand to pat his arm, thinking that this little physical caress might help tip the scales in her favor. At the moment of contact, Zach sprang up from the bench as if he’d been electrocuted. He opened his mouth in a noiseless scream, then turned around and started running away as fast as he could.
In spite of her disappointment, Jeanine couldn’t help admiring the grace and speed of his retreat. He wove through cyclists, baby strollers, clots of school children and dog walkers with astonishing athleticism. She glanced down at the ground and noticed that one of his sandals had fallen off in his urgent haste to get away. She picked one of them up and stroked it affectionately as the first tears fell.
“What a shame! Better luck next time,” said Apollonax brightly. “Now, let’s take the R train to Manhattan and visit my uncle at the museum.” The jeweled scarab paced restlessly on her shoulder as it rose and fell erratically with her sobs.
“You’re ruining my life! I hope you know that,” Jeanine hissed. “How am I supposed to go on like this? It’s stupid. There’s no point! No one is ever going to agree to it. I hate you!”
Apollonax opened up his carapace and buzzed over to her other shoulder.
“Pish! You don’t know what you’re saying. Anyone would think that you were one of this vulgar new breed with nary a thought for the journey ahead. Remember, you are the heiress of traditions preserved for millennia! Remember that you are the queen’s representative on earth at this time!”
“Funny, I don’t remember agreeing to that,” Jeanine scowled.
“Your obstinate ingratitude pains Her Majesty unspeakably.”
Jeanine thought about saying exactly what she thought of the Queen, but the truth was she was a little bit afraid of her. She decided to hold her tongue.
“I’ve told you before,” said Apollonax in the tone of an exasperated teacher, “As soon as you are able to find a suitable volunteer, you may abandon your privileges as Queen’s Envoy (though why you would want to is beyond me) and pursue whatever foolish nonsense you prefer. At that time I will leave you in peace, but not before.”
Jeanine clenched her fists, closed her eyes and counted to three.
“Perhaps,” she said in a strangled voice, “If I might suggest some small modifications to the formula? It doesn’t seem to be working very well as is.”
“Any alteration of the text, apart from exact translations, is strictly forbidden. And in fact, I must disagree with you here, it is working very well. Do you think we should be admitting all and sundry? No! This is a formula that has been perfected over millennia. If you alter it in the smallest way, the results will not be admissible.”
“It’s just,” Jeanine sighed, wiping her cheeks with a sleeve, “I don’t think describing the embalming process in such detail is conducive to—what I mean is, it’s extremely off-putting, especially the bit about transnasal craniotomy.”
Apollonax scoffed. “Bah! They don’t want to live forever? That’s their loss. Donkeys. Goat-fish. Doomed to crumble to dust. Mere chaff, that’s what they are. What you need is someone with the pure, light heart of an emperor!”
“Why don’t we try the hospices or the rest homes or something? At least people there have had a chance to contemplate the coffin. They might be more open to the idea of eternal life, seeing they’re on death’s doorstep already.”
“As you are perfectly well aware (or would be if you’d been listening), Her Majesty has very specific requirements.” His voice became higher, more nasal to indicate that he was quoting the holy ordinance, “Let the youth be young and well made, in excellent health, with a slim waist and broad shoulders, full lips and long feet. Let his voice be low and soft, let his heart be light.”
“Yes, yes, yes, I know. But, short of kidnapping, I’m telling you, no healthy young man is going to let his brains get sucked up through a straw for some crusty old queen. And that means, by extension, that I’m doomed to a life of having a beetle pontificating in my ear and—uh oh, is that the Police?”
“Quick! Make a fast retreat. These periods of incarceration are slowing us down.”
Jeanine, who had already instinctively risen to her feet, sat down again with a thud.
“I don’t think I will, actually. I’m sick of all this. A trip to the station would give me a rest from listening to you, at any rate.”
She sat with her arms folded until the officer approached. She looked down at a pair of black shoes and, despite her pique, noticed how long and slim they were.
“Excuse me, ma’am, is your name Jeanine?” came a voice unexpectedly soft and chocolatey.
“Yes, I’m Jeanine,” she said, still gazing at his shoes.
“We’ve received a complaint from a gentleman about abusive threats.”
“Threats?” Jeanine asked, looking up at a very fine head—full lips, almond-shaped eyes, smooth youthful forehead.
“Yes ma’am.” He seemed to blush a little under her admiring gaze. “It seems that a woman of your description was threatening to present him as a human sacrifice, then to, ahem, do things to his corpse.”
“What?” Jeanine feigned shock, then giggled. “Oh my goodness, what a mix-up! The poor boy is confused. I was just telling him about my research project. No wonder he ran away!”
“Research?” the officer asked doubtfully.
“Yes, I’m a student of Egyptology, you see, and I was describing to him how they used to prepare royalty for the afterlife. It didn’t even occur to me that he’d take it personally! I’m very sorry.”
The policeman relaxed a little and smiled.
“Well, that’s a relief. I have to say that you don’t have the look of a Zodiac killer.”
“Well, thank you for the compliment!” Jeanine smiled. “Officer…?”
“Penn, Steven Penn.”
“May I ask how old you are, Officer Penn?”
“I’m twenty years old today.”
“Perfect!” she exclaimed, clapping her hands.
“It’s your birthday today, perfect,” she said. “Let me buy you a celebratory drink!”
“Well…” he scratched the back of his neck doubtfully. “I’m kind of on duty right now.”
“Come oooon!” she cajoled. “Just one little drink?”
One hour later the two were ensconced in a nearby dive enjoying their sixth round of drinks.
“Dear Stevie, can I call you Stevie?” Jeanine asked.
“Yesh,” he replied, attempting to put his arm around her shoulder but not quite making a go of it.
“Stevie, would you like to live forever?”
“Hell yeah!!!” he roared, punching the air with both fists and nearly falling off his bar stool.
“What would you say,” she said, tracing a fingertip along the nape of his neck, “If I could guarantee the immortality of your soul this very day?”
“I’d say, ‘Yes ma’am, sign me right up!’” he wriggled his head with humorous swagger.
Jeanine, hardly able to believe her own luck, took the plunge.
“Stevie, I’m going to tell you some secrets right now.”
“Shecrets? I like shecrets!”
“No one knows it except you and me. So listen to me and at the end, all you have to do is say, ‘Yes.’”
“I say yesh?”
“That’s right. I talk, then you say ‘Yes’.”
“Not yet. Just wait a little tiny bit, OK?”
Jeanine decided to go ahead anyway.
“Her Royal Highness and Divine Pharoah Hatshepsut charges her most loyal servant Appollonax to find a beautiful youth for her enjoyment and companionship in The Field of Reeds. Let the youth be young and well made, in excellent health, with a slim waist and broad shoulders, full lips and long feet. Let his voice be low and soft, let his heart be light.”
Seeing that Officer Penn was about to speak, she stopped up his mouth with a judiciously timed kiss, then continued quickly.
“Upon his explicit consent, the fortunate youth will be struck dead as if by lightning and then treated to the preparations as if he were indeed royalty. That is, his internal organs shall be carefully removed and preserved in beautiful jars, his body shall be treated with balsalms and drugs to maintain its perfection for Her Majesty’s pleasure. It is here expected that the candidate shall indicate his assent—”
Jeanine pointed to Officer Penn, nodding and smiling to give him his cue.
“Yesh!!!” he said and got up in an effort to jump up and down.
Just as he was falling over his own feet, a lightning flash appeared in the room and Officer Penn disappeared.
“What the—” came a scared cry from the other end of the bar.
“Is everyone all right?” the bartender called out.
“Call 911!” came another voice.
Jeanine, who’d ducked under the bar covering her head with her hands, looked up.
“Appollonax?” she whispered. “Are you there?”
Nothing. Blissful, beetle-less silence.