Tuesday, August 07, 2007


Something a little more recent: this short story is from 1999 - but be darned if I can remember where or even if it was published.


I never claimed to be the best candidate for the job; I want you to understand that. But that’s often how the White Shirts do things. Someone who shows an interest, or has some background in the general area, or maybe is just being a pain in the ass – that person often gets the posting without even an attempt to find a better, more qualified person, from among the four thousand plus police officers on the Force.

That’s how I got the job. I wrote a report suggesting that the Force would benefit by having a “Profiler”. I drew a little bit on the Psychology I remembered from college and a whole lot from a chance meeting with a “qualified” profiler from the FBI. My report disappeared into the ivory tower that is the abode of the senior officers – the White Shirts. One of whom spoke some magic words or waved a wand and I was seconded for five years to the Major Crime Unit with the title of “Profiler” and a mandate to make the position into something useful. Sometimes that’s how they do it.

Do you see what I’m driving at? That I didn’t want to be here? Didn’t ask to be? I listen to the sound of the respirator and think about hearing it stop. I think about winking out of existence. I think about everything coming to an end.


Dr. Emil Tobias was a nice guy. You might think the Director of the Creemore Institute would be like the warden from some old fashioned prison movie – it is after all an institution for the criminally insane, but Toby was a genuinely nice guy. I’d talked to him a number of times and met with him two or three when I was thrashing around trying to define my job. Toby gave me some good advice and welcome guidance. When he called a few months later and told me about Vigor Johnson I immediately cleared some time and made the two-hour drive up to Creemore.

Vigor Johnson had been convicted of thirty-five counts of sexual assault against teenage girls, although the actual number of his victims was probably much higher. Fifty-seven years old, Johnson would befriend the girls over the telephone or on the Internet by posing as a teenage boy. Once he gained their trust he suggested a meeting and told the girls his father would pick them up at some agreed upon location. The pretend involvement of his father was a touch of genius – it gave the girls an added feeling of security and didn’t raise their suspicions when a middle-aged man showed up at the rendezvous. Once a girl got in the car her fate was sealed and the almost sterile term “sexual assault” doesn’t begin to describe what he did to them. The archaic word “rape” applies here. He raped them. Viciously. Sadistically.

“A bona fide psychopath,” Toby said over the phone. “He’s here for a psycho-sexual evaluation as part of an eight-ten application. I thought you might like the opportunity to go one-on-one with a real psychopath.”

The officer in charge had applied to have Johnson declared a Dangerous Offender – an eight-ten application – and after only a few sessions Toby recognized what kind of monster they were dealing with. A real psychopath is exceedingly rare. Despite the paranoia of our times that convinces parents that one lurks around every corner, most of the sickos out there are just that – sick. A psychopath is on a whole different level. In the few cases where a real psychopath is at work more often than not he is long dead before authorities figure out what he was.

Johnson agreed to be interviewed. Creemore didn’t have videotape facilities but Johnson had no objection to the presence of my Sony cassette machine so that I could have a verbatim record of our conversation. Toby had him placed in a small interview room, introduced us, and left.

He wasn’t a big man – average height and weight. Clean-shaven and almost completely bald, which gave him a strangely youthful appearance. The only distinctive thing about him were his eyes. Clear, steel blue, intelligent eyes that seemed to take in every detail. There was nothing in his outward appearance that gave away what he was. And that made sense – he couldn’t be a monster if he looked like a monster.

Johnson spoke easily, candidly, providing details about his system of victim selection and never once denying what he had done. Born while his father was in a Prisoner of War Camp, he told of being raised by a man who abused his son by the same methods of physical and psychological torture used on him by his Japanese captors. He spoke dispassionately of his father’s subsequent death during a drunken barroom brawl when Johnson was fifteen.

After perhaps an hour of background I turned the conversation to more esoteric topics – I wanted an insight into how he thought, what made him tick. “Let’s talk a bit about your relationships,” I said after sliding a new cassette into the Sony.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Your adult relationships” I said. “You’ve told me about your parents, your family. As an adult, how do you feel about other people?”

He laughed. “There are no other people,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Exactly that,” he said. “It wasn’t until I grew up that I began to realize that I’m the only person on the planet. Maybe the only one in the universe.”

Now this was interesting - a primal delusion. “In what sense do you mean that?” I asked. “Do you mean that other people don’t seem real to you or...”

“Oh no, you all seem real,” he said ““...as does everything else: the cars, the buildings, the trees. Everything looks and feels like it has its own reality, but it doesn’t. It’s all just a detailed illusion that I create in my mind.”

The prevailing wisdom about psychopaths is that they think they are the only ones who feel anything; everyone else is kind of like a robot. Johnson had taken this delusion to the nth degree. I didn’t want to challenge his belief system but I wanted more detail as to how it worked.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said “...the old saw about nut cases who believe that a room ceases to exist when they leave it. It’s okay. It’s what I expect you to think.”

“Well, it’s not every day that I’m told that I’m just the figment of someone’s imagination,” I said.

“I don’t imagine that it is,” he said and smiled. Did he mean that as humour? Or proof?

“Do you know anything about programming?” he asked.

“Programming? You mean like on a computer?”

“More involved,” he said. “Programming the mind. Since being locked up I’ve been experimenting with it. It occurred to me that rather than being subjected to the whims of my subconscious it might be more fun to take conscious control of my surroundings. You know, shuffle things around a bit."

“And is it working?” I asked.

He smiled. “That’s enough for today,” he said.


I played the tape back in Toby’s office.

“Fascinating,” Toby said. “Johnson disclosed his central delusion to us of course. Disclosed it quite readily. But not a word on this notion of altering reality. And I know that I tried to explore the conscious versus unconscious aspects of his delusion. I wonder why he chose to tell you about it.”

“Just responding to my sparkling personality I suppose,” I said.

“Maybe,” Toby chided. “Or maybe he believes that you are here as the result of his controlling reality; that he brought you here. I don’t suppose you could spend another day with us, could you?”

I could have said no. Should have, in fact. But Toby had been so kind to me. Not only by involving me in the Johnson case but when I was first seconded. Toby took me seriously when my total lack of qualifications would have made it easy for him to be dismissive. I agreed to stay the night and see if Johnson would speak to me again.


I used the afternoon to make phone calls and move things around in my schedule. After a tasteless institutional meal at the staff commissary, Toby spent two hours coaching me on the questions he wanted me to ask Johnson. Toby emphasized that I shouldn't push too hard or too fast on the 'control' issue - not at first. He was worried that I might scare Johnson off the topic if Johnson perceived that I doubted its plausibility. I decided to start the interview out of left field.

"Do you like music?" I asked the next morning.

"Yes," he answered.

"What's your favourite kind?" I asked.

"I like a Gershwin tune. How about you?" he answered.

"I don't think I know Gershwin," I said.

"You do, you just don't know you do," Johnson replied. "George and Ira Gershwin were brothers. George wrote music; Ira wrote lyrics. They were equally talented but George is the better known because he wrote some splendid instrumental pieces on his own. But I particularly like Ira’s lyrics. Listen." And he started to sing in a surprisingly good voice: "Won't you tell him please to put on some speed, follow my lead, oh how I need, someone to watch over me-ee-ee. You know that?"

"Yes," I admitted. I did know it.

"Don't you want the answer to your question?" he asked.

He'd caught me by surprise. "What question?"

"The one you asked yesterday. I was telling you about my experiments in programming and you asked if they were working."

Apparently Toby's concerns had been unfounded. I made a mental note to step cautiously. "I remember," I said. "Are they working?"
He smiled. "Famously," he said "...or should I say, infamously? I'm not sure which is the more appropriate. Would you like to see an example?"

Careful... I thought ...mustn't push too hard. But I was curious to know where he would take this.

"Oh come now," he said at my hesitation. "Just a small example to show you that I'm not --crazy-- it'll be the last of my little experiments before moving on to bigger things."

"Okay," I said.

"Splendid," he smiled. "Tell me, do you have plans for lunch? Will you be dining out or will you be joining us for the sartorial splendour of a Creemore meal?"

"Toby, that is...Dr. Tobias mentioned something about going to a place in town." I stammered; completely baffled about the direction this was taking.

"Ah, so the Good Doctor is planning a working lunch away from this dreary institution. Well, I hate to deprive you of whatever epicurean delights our head Head-shrinker has in mind, but if you eat any lunch at all today it'll be from the Creemore cafeteria."

"And that's to be the experiment?" I asked.

"Yes," replied Johnson. "I'm going to shuffle things around to make it impossible for you and Dr. Tobias to get away for your lunch date. Oh, don't worry. It won't be anything catastrophic, just a mild inconvenience."

There didn't seem to be anything more to say on the subject so I tried to steer the conversation to the questions that Toby had prepared but Johnson became uncharacteristically reticent. "We'll talk again this afternoon," he said as an orderly led him out of the interview room. I picked up my Sony cassette machine and headed for Toby's office.


"I just don't understand it," Toby said, pushing food around his styrofoam plate. "I know it has to be a coincidence but God, what a coincidence!"

I didn't share Toby's bafflement. I admit I had been confused when first his Celica and then my Chevy refused to start. And my confusion grew as Toby checked every vehicle he could in the Creemore parking lot only to find that they all suffered from the same ailment - dead batteries. After about half an hour, Toby gave up and instructed an orderly to hook up a battery charger to get all the vehicles re-charged so the staff could go home at the end of their shifts. We returned to Toby's office, stopping to pick up some food at the commissary on the way.

"Toby," I said "...you may have the finest education the Sorbonne can provide but you aren't devious enough to think like a criminal."

Toby looked askance.

"Vigor Johnson has an accomplice," I continued. "Someone - an orderly or a nurse - someone from inside the institution with access to the parking lot. Johnson convinced this accomplice to sneak out and do something to the cars to drain their batteries. It's the only possible explanation."

"You're right!" Toby brightened. "But why would he go to all that trouble?"

I shrugged. "I don't know. The bigger question is: what's the best way to handle this when I go back in to talk to him?"

Toby looked at me. "You'd be willing to talk with him again?"

"Willing?" I said. "I think I have to. Don't you?"


"How was your lunch?" Johnson snickered as an orderly let him into the interview room.

"Very impressive," I said. "Not the lunch of course, my being here to eat it." This was in keeping with the strategy Toby had devised: honest cynicism. Johnson was far too intelligent to be taken in by any pretense so I was to acknowledge what had occurred and express bewilderment that it had - nothing more. To let him know we'd figured out how he pulled it off would only make him confrontational. Or worse, cause him to shut me out all together. Toby theorized that Johnson's massive ego would eventually require him to disclose how he'd managed it.

I hit the ‘record’ button on the Sony. “I admit that what you predicted did occur. And I also admit that I am at a loss to explain it,” I said. “Beyond that I guess I’ll have to reserve judgement. Do you want to say any more about it?”

“You were the kind of kid who asked the party magician how he did his tricks, weren’t you?” he said.

“Was it a trick?” I asked.

“Okay...illusion. Since your whole reality is an illusion I guess this qualifies,” he said. “But not an illusion in the sense that you’re thinking. No smoke, or mirrors, or hidden wires.”

“So how do your experiments work?” I asked.

“In the details,” he said. “Basically I conceive of a different set of circumstances that would exist should a thing occur and when I’ve thought it through in sufficient detail it happens. That’s why I’ve kept my experiments on the small side – fewer details to think through. But I’ve gotten better at it.”

“So why are you still here?” I asked.


“I mean here, in Creemore. In custody. Why not think of a set of circumstances that would result in your freedom, work out the details, and walk out a free man?”

“I have bigger fish to fry,” he said.

“Oh? What?” I asked.

“Revenge,” he said.

“Against who?” I asked. “The judge who put you here? The cops who arrested you? The girls you raped? Who?”

“Everyone,” he said. “You, Dr. Tobias, the fat orderly who brings me my supper. From the President of the United States down to the lowliest urchin on the streets of Calcutta. Have you stopped to think what it would mean if I am what I say I am?”

“You mean, if you really are the only person on the planet?”

“Yes. I know you don’t believe it; you think my experiment with the car batteries was some sort of a trick. But imagine for a moment that I’m right. Think of what that would mean.”

“It would mean you were pretty important.”

“That’s an understatement. It would mean that for your very existence I was vitally important. Everyone on the planet had better wish me well – pray that I stay in good health. Because if something happens, all of you are going with me. That will be my revenge.”

“Pretty big gamble isn’t it?” I said. “Suicide? That’s what we’re talking about, right? Die and take the rest of us with you. But if you’re wrong all that you’ve managed to do is take your own life.”

“Hence the experiments,” said Johnson. “One more to go – a big one. It’s taken me quite awhile to figure out the details but when this one works I’ll know I’m right and not taking a gamble at all.”

“What’s the experiment?” I asked.

“My father had his flaws,” he said “...but give the devil his due, that man knew how to drive home a point. You see, you pay strict attention to what’s being said if someone is beating you while saying it. My father would get drunk and beat me. And the whole time he’d rant and rave about the Japanese and what they did to him in the war – they starved him, they tortured him. They were nothing but a bunch of sub-human maggots who should be wiped off the face of the earth.”

“I imagine that a lot of POWs felt that way,” I said. “But it was the Japanese military, not the Japanese people.”

“My father never made the distinction,” he said. “Neither do I. My final experiment is to give Dad his wish and wipe Japan off the map.”


“I think you’d better put Vigor Johnson on Suicide Watch,” I said to Toby. “He’s approaching some sort of critical mass.”

Toby nodded. “I’ll arrange that,” he said. “Tell me what you found out.”

I gave him a quick run-down on Johnson’s plan for revenge by suicide and his plan to prove he was right by avenging his father’s mistreatment at the hands of the Japanese.

“Fascinating,” Toby said. “I think you’re right – he is approaching critical. The extent and detail of his delusion is incredible. And brilliant – the circular logic. I mean, creating a fictional country so that he can convince himself that he destroyed it. Fantastic.”

“Don’t kid around, Toby” I said. “We have no idea what the reaction to his failure might be.”

“What are you talking about?” Toby asked.

“When he finds out that Japan is still there,” I said.

“Oh,” said Toby. “Is it a real place? I’m sorry, I never heard of it.”

“You never... what do you mean? It’s the second largest producer of automobiles in the world. You drive a Toyota, for God’s sake!”

A frown crept across Toby’s face. “I’m a Chrysler-man,” he said.
“I’ve always driven a Chrysler.”

“Toby, I was in your car this afternoon – it’s a black Toyota Celica. Not a Chrysler. ‘Never heard of Japan’ – for God’s sake, practically every electronic device in the world comes from Japan. My cassette recorder...”

And with that I picked up my Sony. But something was terribly, terribly wrong. Because on its face where raised chrome letters used to be was now a blue plastic faceplate that said: Philips.

“I don’t want you going in to talk to Johnson any more," Toby said. “I think I know what’s happening. He’s planted some sort of post-hypnotic suggestion. Don’t worry, it won’t be permanent. You’ll laugh about it tomorrow when you wake up.”


The next morning I wasn’t laughing.

I tried to figure it out during the drive home from Creemore. At first I thought the post-hypnotic thing might have some validity but that Toby had received the suggestion. I remembered a TV program where a hypnotist planted the idea in a guy’s head that there was no number three. And I watched the guy’s mounting frustration as he kept reaching eleven when counting his fingers. If that hypnotist could make someone forget something as basic as a primary number then I figured Johnson could make Toby forget there was a country called Japan.

But that didn’t explain the total lack of Japanese cars on my drive home – not a Honda or Toyota in sight.

I tried to consider the possibility that Toby was right, that Japan was a figment of Johnson’s imagination planted in my brain. I’d never been to Japan but the more I thought about it the more I realized that I knew an awful lot about the country. The names of cities, some of its history, Kabuki theatre, Sumo wrestling, the novels of Mishima, Yoko Ono. If I had been with Johnson a month he wouldn’t have time to plant all the details that were in my head. And I couldn’t have dreamt them up myself – I just don’t have that good an imagination.

I didn’t go to work that morning – didn’t even call in. Instead I went to the library. I checked every atlas on the shelf – no Japan. Nothing but water where Japan used to be, but never was. A check of the file catalogue produced the same result – no entries. While scanning through the encyclopedia I happened upon a reference to the Second World War ending in 1945 and was taken aback. I would have thought, not having to fight on two fronts, the allies would have ended the war sooner. A little more research and I pieced together that because there was no attack on Pearl Harbour the United States was delayed from entering the war. That delay made the fight in Europe harder and used up more resources.

This must have been the kind of ‘detail’ that Johnson had referred to. And he was right; there would be a lot of them. I signed out some history books and went home to study the impact the non-existence of Japan had had on my world. In spite of myself, I was fascinated. Excising Japan should have left a giant gash in history but Johnson had neatly stitched around the wound so that no one who didn’t know it was there would see the scar. I was the only one who knew where it had been.

The telephone jarred me out of my reading frenzy at about two o’clock. It was Toby.

“I’m afraid our Suicide Watch leaves something to be desired,” Toby said. “An orderly just found Vigor Johnson in his room. He used his pants to hang himself.”

“He’s dead?” I gasped. Then why weren’t we?

“Not yet,” Toby answered. “We rushed him over to the medical wing. They’ve got him on a respirator.”

“I’m on my way,” I said.

“Why? He can’t talk,” Toby replied. “Hell, he probably won’t last until you get here. His neck’s broken.”


I went anyway. Changes were happening all around me as I pushed the Chevy as hard as I could in a race to... what? Johnson’s bedside? Would everything really pop out of existence at the moment of his death? If so, what did I think I could do about it?

The rate of change accelerated as I drew closer to Creemore and Johnson drew closer to death. I saw things literally disappear. I caught up with a station wagon loaded with a family and their camping gear. As I pulled out to pass it just winked out of existence. One moment it was there – solid and real. The next moment there was nothing – open road.

I turned on the radio. On the few stations still broadcasting the announcers sounded like everything was normal. I heard an advertisement for some worldwide television broadcast “...from Florida to California.” Florida to California? Worldwide? I tried to think of all the permutations and alternate histories that had to wink into existence and then out again for each successive change and my mind reeled.

The radio stations dwindled and dwindled until there was nothing on AM and only one station right in the middle of the FM band. It was playing a piece I didn’t recognize. As I listened I remembered hearing it during the Opening Ceremonies of the Los Angeles Olympics. And I remembered its name – Rhapsody in Blue – I don’t know if it was written especially for the occasion. I shut the radio off but checked it again half an hour later. The one station was still there, playing the same music.

Roads began to disappear. Exits from the highway that where there yesterday simply weren’t there anymore. Soon houses, farms, and towns disappeared as well. All that was left was one giant field of grain. One field of grain broken only by a single highway that ran straight and flat. Straight to Creemore. To Johnson.

Toby met me at the gate, dressed in an orderly’s uniform. He had been educated in Europe but now Europe was gone and with it Toby’s Ph.D. I couldn’t imagine the alternate history that resulted in him ending up at Creemore as an orderly but it must have included me because I was expected. Toby led me to a room on the fourth floor of the medical wing. After he unlocked and opened the door he looked at me, smiled, and then just disappeared. Like the cars and the off-ramps, the farms and houses. One moment he was standing there smiling at me and the next moment he was gone. Just like Japan.

Vigor Johnson was inside the room. There was rubber tubing running from the respirator to a hole in his neck as he lay on his back on the hospital bed. There was no one else in the room. Outside, darkness fell. And then there was no one else anywhere.


Outside this room, I don’t know what is left. It doesn’t seem like anything could penetrate the black emptiness that lies beyond the door and the few windows. This room was on the fourth floor. I don’t know if it hovers now thirty feet above the ground, or stands on the ground, or if there is any ground for it to stand on. I suspect not.

I suspect that the entire universe has been reduced to this one room, floating in the empty vastness of eternity. Somewhere inside Vigor Johnson’s mind is the smallest sliver of awareness: just big enough to maintain his immediate surroundings. And me.

I don’t know how long I’ve been here, tending him. My watch says three-thirty but long ago I lost track of the days and there’s no sun to tell me if it’s AM or PM. I used to have a chronograph to keep track of these things but it was a Seiko.

There are only three things left alive: Vigor Johnson, me, and my meager hope. I’m only a grunt cop who graduated in the bottom third of his class with nothing but a lousy Bachelor of Arts. The sheer tonnage of what I don’t know about any given subject would be enough to sink a battleship. If there were any battleships left. But I do know this: the only hope lies on that hospital bed. Inside the mind of a psychopath, a convicted rapist, a madman ...and the most important person in the universe.

The only hope is to keep him alive, help him recover. And then to convince him to put it back. Put it all back. The way it was. If he dies that meager hope dies, too.

The plumbing works. The electricity works. Food continues to show up in the food cupboard. I don’t know where it comes from. No... I guess I do. It’s there because Vigor Johnson expects it to be. Just as he expects me to be here. Someone. To watch over him.

Copyright (c) 1999 by Bill Clarke. All rights reserved.

No comments: