“But they’re going to kill you,” the woman said.
Harkim sighed at her silhouette.
“Of course they are,” he replied.
The car lurched again. Harkim looked up from his agent’s face on the backseat screen, wondering what on earth was wrong with his driver. “Luketon? Have you been at the scotch again, man?”
There was no answer, but of course he hadn’t pressed the intercom button. He kept forgetting that he had to. “Harkie, what is it?” Janet’s voice, tinny through the screen’s speaker, echoed in the limousine compartment. He knew he should’ve brought the headphones.
“Nothing,” he said, out of habit. Through the one-way privacy screen he could see the silhouette of the driver, just a head and a hat and a hint of shoulder. But was that head shorter than it should’ve been? And was that a lock of hair falling from the hat to curl over one shoulder? Luketon hadn’t had hair since Harkim’s first son—now a father himself—had grown his.
Harkim pressed the button this time. “Is Luketon ill?” he asked. “He seemed fine this afternoon.”
There was silence for a moment. Then the door-locks suddenly went down. A moment later, Janet’s face vanished in a haze of static; the Citywire connection had been shut off.
A woman’s voice returned over the speaker: “Please don’t be alarmed, Mr. Harkim.”
Pressing the button hard enough to make his thumb twinge, Harkim said, “Who the hell are you?” And the silhouette turned its head enough that Harkim could glimpse a night-lit profile. One eye, barely visible.
“You don’t know me,” said the woman. “I’m just a fan.”
“—your greatest fan,” gushed the girl in front of Harkim, inhaling deeply and bouncing a little on her toes. And though Harkim was too old to fall for such blandishments—or at least, he’d thought he was—he gave the girl an extra-wide smile.
“‘To my greatest fan… ’” he said, writing with an exaggerated flourish, and then politely raised his eyebrows.
“Wanda,” she said.
“‘…Wanda,’” he finished. “‘From a grateful old man.’”
She beamed and leaned forward to pick up the book. The pendant between her breasts—something indistinct preserved in amber—swung forward as she did, which gave Harkim a lovely excuse to feast his eyes. “Thank you so much, Mr. Harkim. If you don’t mind, can I ask just one quick question? Given the chiastic structure of the narrative in Dayton’s Gate, did you intend for Inez to symbolize the impetuousness of youth? I can’t get over how she died.”
Some of Harkim’s pleasure faded, though he resisted the urge to sigh. “My dear,” he said, as gently as he could, “I haven’t a clue what a chiastic structure is. And you’re spoiling the book for those who haven’t read it.” He smiled and nodded toward the line behind the girl. Several of its members were glaring at her.
She went from simpering to sulky at once. “Sorry,” she said. “I thought you might like a little intelligent conversation for a change. Never mind.” She turned and stalked away.
The next woman came up to the desk, holding out an old and tattered first edition of The Mighty Bob, his first published novel. Looking at it, Harkim could not help breaking into a grin.
“Well, well,” he said, taking the book reverently; its cover was loose, and so dog-eared that he marveled it was still legible. “Someone’s loved this book. Where shall I sign?”
“Anywhere,” said the woman. “And there’s no need to address it to me. But please sign it, ‘From the Opus Award Shoe-in.’” Harkim laughed at that, as did several of the people in line who were near enough to hear.
“You want me to jinx myself, do you?” But he grinned and signed the book with that phrase anyway, just because it was such a pleasure to meet a true fan.
As he handed the book back, she brushed his fingers with hers before taking it. “I love you,” she said.
“Thank you,” he said, and gave her a kind smile before beckoning the next person forward.
The words did not make sense. Janet spoke to him again, and he blinked, recovering enough to focus on her.
“I’m sorry,” she repeated. She touched his hand.
Across the banquet hall, tears sheening her face amid sweat, Rasa Abrogado hurried toward the stage through a gauntlet of cheers and standing ovation and stamping feet. She climbed the steps shakily, though they had both done it easily during the awards rehearsal. Harkim remembered joking with her that if either of them won, they would raise the award and say in their speech that the other had been robbed.
Rasa babbled her way through the speech, then hefted the award: a full-sized, blunted replica of Yukio Mishima’s famous tantou, complete with sheath. She thanked the jury and her readers, and then walked off the stage.
“What is this?” Trembling, Harkim fumbled for the door-latch, even though he knew it was locked. There were such tales in his mind: famous people hunted, stabbed, tortured to death by the fans who claimed to love them.
“A kidnapping,” said the woman, and Harkim’s heart fluttered and clenched within his chest. “For your own good.” He tried the door. Locked. The car was moving at full speed anyhow. What could he do, fling himself out and break every bone in his body? Be run over by the cars behind them?
“That is an impossibility, madam,” he said. It was a small salve to his pride that his voice did not shake. “By definition, a kidnapping takes its victim somewhere he does not wish to be, against his will. How could that be to anyone’s good?”
“I’ve read your books for years,” the woman said, and all at once Harkim placed her voice. His jinx. The Mighty Bob. “I’ve read all of the Opus candidates this year. It’s not right that you’re on the shortlist.”
That? Was she upset over that? “Madam, please. I understand that you may want a different author to win, but I assure you—”
“It isn’t right.” The car lurched a little, as though she’d jerked the wheel. Harkim caught his breath, hopefully not loudly. “It just isn’t right.”
He closed his eyes, trying to think past panic. “There are five shortlisted candidates this year,” he said. Reasonable, yes. He wanted to sound reasonable, calm, reassuring. “An eighty percent chance that someone else will win, yes? So there’s no need for this.”
“A twenty percent chance you’ll win!” Somehow, despite the thin reverberation of the limo’s intercom, he heard the sob in the woman’s voice. “How can you stand it?”
“Well, this isn’t the first award I’ve been nominated for—or lost.” He added the last quickly, lest she think him arrogant. “After all—”
“Do you know what a piece of Vonnegut’s face is worth?” the woman asked.
Harkim flinched. “Nothing,” he said. “His grave is state property, protected—”
“Now.” Amazing, really, how much derision the intercom could convey. “Not before the relic-hunters got to it. His fingers alone went for millions on the black market. And he died naturally.”
“No.” It was probably a bad idea to argue with someone demented enough to kidnap him, but Harkim had never been able to ignore a blatant falsehood. Janet had always warned him not to spend much time with people from Hollywood, because of that. “It wasn’t natural. Natural is going to sleep and never waking up. He fell. Hit his head. Lingered for weeks before he finally kicked off. It was a miserable, slow, ignominious death for such a great man.”
“Compounded,” the woman snapped. “His heirs fought over his estate. His publisher and agent and film rights-holders fought over every scrap of his oeuvre. Pieces, everywhere. Once they found his grave—” Her voice thickened with tears. “That was the least of what they did to him.”
“Great men leave legacies,” Harkim said. He spoke more harshly than he should have, but he was not afraid anymore. Just a child, he realized. She was just a foolish, idealistic child. “That is the nature of greatness, to change all those who follow. It is an artist’s fate, an artist’s duty, to share all that they are and have been with the world.”
“And when you win?” The woman was breathing hard, barely coherent. “When they give you that award, your legacy ends. It means they think you’ve done all you’re going to do, the best you’ll ever do. It means they stop listening.”
She was right, Harkim realized with some surprise. Not wholly a thoughtless child. That made some of his anger fade, replaced by sympathy.
“They always stop listening, eventually,” he said, sitting back on the limousine’s leather seat. “Sooner or later. Now, please.” He closed his eyes, feeling old and tired. “Take me to the ceremony.”
Afterward, Harkim walked out of the hotel alone. To his very great surprise, the same limousine was there, waiting for him. The driver who stood beside the car was hidden behind dark glasses and beneath a chauffeur’s hat, but the body within the uniform was unmistakably female. Harkim stopped in front of her.
“You’ve gotten your wish,” he said. “I’ll live to see another day. Congratulations.”
“Yes,” she said. The glasses did not wholly screen her, in the intensity of the hotel lights. He could see her eyes searching his face.
He looked away, tired of her worship. Rather than face it, he looked up at the sky, where a few stars—or perhaps satellites—managed to penetrate the city’s light-haze. “They’ll have taken Rasa away by now.”
“So she can be killed.” The woman’s voice shook again. “To be dismembered.”
“Yes.” Harkim slid his hands into his pockets. “They’ll send the pieces to all the usual places: museums, libraries. An ear or two to the University of Iowa’s writing workshop. The obligatory tooth to Columbia, those hacks. Wherever she can inspire the next generation of creators.” He shrugged. “More dignified than what happened to Vonnegut. Not as messy as what Mishima did to himself.”
“Killed!” She didn’t raise her voice, but he felt her vehemence. Her earnestness radiated against him like heat. He closed his eyes, basking in it, since it was all he had.
“Her novel was brilliant,” he said, at last. “She deserves to be remembered like this, honored at the height of herself. Not to die alone and poor and forgotten, as so many of us do.”
A long and fragile silence fell.
“Do you… want me to take you home?” the woman asked.
He shook his head. Going home would reinforce his failure. He’d notified his landlord that the apartment might become available; he’d have to rescind that notice. But he had nowhere else to go. If he went somewhere with other people, he would have to endure their pity and gloating. “I don’t know.”
“What do you want to do, then?”
He laughed a little, running a hand through his sparse hair. “Nothing. Everything. I don’t care. I am open to suggestions.”
After a moment, the woman said, “I have a gun.” She spoke very softly. Surprised, Harkim looked at her. This time, she looked away.
He considered her offer. If it happened this way—the night he lost the Opus, at the hands of a crazed fan— He shook his head. Impossible to say how people would react. What they would remember. Some would value him even more given the strangeness of his death; some would lose interest, thinking he’d hired the woman to do him in, for the glory. He could control only the when and why of his legacy, not whether or for how long.
He was glad for the woman’s kindness, even if she would not think of it as such.
“Drive on, then, my good woman,” Harkim said. When she opened the door, he got in.
(Editors’ Note: “Henosis” is read by Stephanie Morris on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 18A.)
© 2017 by N. K. Jemisin