“Roger! Stop it!”
A pause. Nothing.
And then again. This time louder and more urgent.
“Damn it, Roger! Stop it!”
A longer pause. “Right now!”
With a loud sigh, Wesley Hicks heaved slowly up from his knees, appreciating with every movement that his body was not as young or nimble as it used to be. Once again, he silently promised himself that next week for sure he would go back to his early morning workout at the Y before catching the Queen streetcar to work. He hadn’t made it to the gym since Cassie had gone to a girls’ night out almost a year ago. She never returned.
On this particular mid-summer Saturday morning, he had been grumpily pulling weeds for over an hour, squeezed uncomfortably down in the damp, black smelly earth among the lush cucumber vines and staked tomato plants. Until he met Cassie several years ago, he hadn’t the slightest interest in growing vegetables. Wesley Hicks was a city boy, born and raised, so he preferred getting his vegetables right off the produce counter at the nearest Freshco.
Roger had been barking continually for at least ten minutes, ignoring all commands to stop. Walking toward him, Wesley noticed that his dog had dug a hole so big that almost the entire front half of his body disappeared into it. Frequently he would stop digging, but his tail continued to wag rapidly. Even when Roger was a pup, he didn’t seem able to wag, dig and bark all at the same time.
That’s how he got his name. Cassie and Wesley had a good friend who was so remarkably uncoordinated that they joked he was an accident always about to happen. “That silly pup reminds me of Roger” Cassie had observed. So in honour of their friend, Puppy became Roger even though Wesley had badly wanted to name him Jackson, just like his first dog as a little kid.
In spite of himself, Wesley smiled at the memory. It turned out that was one of the few things he and Cassie appeared to agree on. But then again Wesley reminded himself, when you are in love or at least believe you are, one’s just expected to make compromises. Looking back, he had made more than his fair share of compromises for the few years he and Cassie were together.
Roger the dog was deep in the hole now, growling and worrying something with his paws. Sometimes nudging it with his nose then jumping back suddenly as if whatever it was wasn’t taking kindly to his noisy attention.
Leaning over, Wesley grabbed the excited dog by his collar, jerking him backwards up onto the edge. “Stay, Roger!” Wesley commanded.
Lying at the bottom of the small pit was a slobber covered, mud-caked object about the size of a half brick. “Well Roger, what have you found this time?” Wesley knelt onto the freshly dug soil around the hole and reached down.
In spite of its size, the object was surprisingly light. Brushing away the dark, damp soil, Wesley realized that the wrapping was some sort of old canvas material, deeply darkened with age and dotted in a few places with the thin, white spider lines of water stains. Wesley blew away some of the more sticky chunks of dirt. Tightly spaced stitching appeared at both ends and down one side of the brick.
“What the hell is this, Roger?” exclaimed Wesley as he fingered one of the seams. “It looks and feels like some kind of leather lacing. Look here how some of it seems to have rotted away. This has been buried for a long time, my friend. Let’s get a better look.”
Wesley held the object in both hands as he headed for the mid-morning patch of sunlight on the forever peeling back porch steps right off the kitchen. Roger followed closely along, still growling low. Wesley noticed that the dog’s long slim tail was curled tightly up and under his hind quarters. He had never seen Roger do that before.
Sitting cross-legged on the lower step, Wesley turned the object over and over in his hands, blowing away lingering dirt and occasionally spitting on his fingers to better expose more of the seam lines. His fingertips seemed to be tingling slightly. Wesley realized that all of his fingers felt warm, much like when he held a fresh mug of hot coffee.
Down on the grass, Roger was keeping a comfortable distance from the package. Yet the dog persisted in leaning way forward, almost off balance, his brown eyes focused intently on Wesley’s hands. The growling had stopped, but been quickly replaced with loud snuffling as Roger’s muddy nose fluttered rapidly in and out, actively sampling whatever new scent he was picking out of the air.
“Ok, boy let’s see what’s inside.”
Wesley shifted awkwardly to one side and reached with some difficulty into the side pocket of his jeans. His fingers felt the cold shank of the small, expensive Lee Valley folding knife that Cassie had given him on their first anniversary of being together. “Every guy needs his own knife” she had told him with a teasing smile, even though she knew that her Wesley was that very rare exception to the rule.
For Cassie, the knife had been a symbol of her undeclared and dedicated campaign to make him over. But Wesley, who truly believed that it was totally silly for a guy in this day and age to carry a knife, dutifully kissed her on the cheek while silently vowing to lose the god damned knife at his first opportunity. Now as fate would have it, several years later he still had the knife but had lost her.
Wesley cautiously worked the sharp blade along the side seam, soon leaving only the ends still tightly stitched. “First time this damn knife has come in handy” mumbled Wesley as he concentrated on separating the end seam stitching.
His careful work had exposed what appeared to be the end of a small box. Grasping the unopened end, he gently shook the object up and down until the contents slid out into his empty hand. It was a beautifully carved wooden box.
Even though Wesley was not skilled with hand tools, he could tell that this was the work of a master craftsman. All sides of the box were delicately and intricately carved. What Wesley guessed was some kind of gel-like coating had protected the box from any dampness in the ground that had managed to seep through the canvas cover.
As Wesley admired the carved birds and human stick figures on the box, Roger backed slightly away from the box and began to quietly whine. His eyes remain fixed on Wesley’s fingers as they continued to gently trace the finely carved lines.
“Looks a bit Egyptian don’t you think, old boy?”
Roger cocked his head to one side
“Here’s what appears to be a lid ridge along one side.”
It wouldn’t budge using his fingernail. So he worked the knife blade slowly along the ridge, putting a small amount of upwards pressure on the blade. There was a soft popping sound as the lid separated from the lower half of the box. Wesley was sure he recognized the subtle, sweet scent of eucalyptus rise from the open box.
The box was lined with what looked like the tufts of long, stiff mane hair of a lion or some other wild cat. Before he had met Cassie, Wesley was a regular visitor to the City Zoo, often attending the public evening seminars on endangered wildlife habitats. His special interest was in the uniquely fascinating adaptations made by its animals, especially the large cats of Africa and the Asian sub-continent. So Wesley was pretty sure he was looking at lion hair.
In the centre of the box, nested tightly in the deep folds of dark fur, was a small object wrapped tightly in a piece of soft, lightly tanned leather. Setting the box down on the step, Wesley gently lifted out this smaller object, about the size of a large hazel nut. It felt warm to his touch. He decided it was just the adrenalin fueled excitement of his imagination working overtime.
Wesley carefully peeled away the leather wrapping. He gasped involuntarily.
Roger instantly jerked back a couple of feet and began a low howl that turned piercingly shrill. Wesley immediately experienced it not only as irritating, but inexplicably unsettling. The fur along Roger’s back rose in an alarming Mohawk ridge, his tail now fully and stiffly extended.
“Roger, for god’s sake, shut up!’ shouted Wesley. Oddly, he too was feeling shaken at what he was cupping in the palm of his hand.
It was a magnificent, brilliant turquoise coloured gemstone set on a ring mount of expertly crafted and twisted gold strands. Like the box that had held it, the ring was delicately carved with exquisitely detailed symbols on both the gemstone itself and along the sides of the ring’s base.
“Oh my god, it’s so beautiful.”
Wesley was instantly embarrassed by his sudden and totally uncharacteristic outburst. That was so Cassie-like, he scolded himself. It was all emotion with her and rarely any logic. “My ying to your yang”, she used to spit at him when she wanted to cut him with her words.
Holding it lightly between his thumb and forefinger, Wesley re-positioned the ring more completely into the sunlight, turning it slowly every which way.
The stone had been expertly carved along its surface. Whoever had crafted the stone had slightly shaped it, apparently to give it a bit of a waist-like tuck about a third of the way down. Its colour was not translucent but still strikingly vibrant in the sunlight, exposing shades and subtle shimmers of deep blue violet and surprisingly, small flashes of bright crimson from deep within the depths of the stone.
On one side of the gem, Wesley unexpectedly found a small fragment of a different stone, light brown with flecks of white embedded within it. The shape reminded him of the geographic toe of Italy. Odd, he thought, that a master carver would choose to use a turquoise stone with such a noticeable imperfection in it.
Another surprise revealed itself.
On the inside hoop of the ring, up near the top slightly below the gem itself, there appeared to be an inscription of some kind. Telling Roger to stay in place, Wesley quickly went into the kitchen to get a magnifying glass from the junk drawer beside the old, chipped white porcelain sink that Cassie had always threatened to replace when he was at work. What a bitch, he thought for no particular reason.
Returning to the bright patch of sunlight still flooding the porch steps, he settled back down in front of Roger and turned the ring so he could see the under markings clearly.
Using the glass, he discovered a cluster of letters. Not hurriedly or amateurishly scratched into the soft gold, each letter had been carefully inscribed. It was as if someone had definitely wanted each letter to be noticed. Shifting the glass to sharpen the image, the inscription appeared faint but readable.
Auribus teneo lupum
“What the hell does that mean?” Wesley looked at Roger as if waiting for an answer.
Wesley smiled at his recent tendency to speak aloud to his dog as if he was a human.
“Looks like Latin or something to me. Shit, I knew I should have taken it back in high school when I had the chance.”
Wesley laughed as he knew that was just nonsense as back then all he was interested in was playing football, getting drunk and hopefully getting laid.
“But not in that order, Sir Roger” Wesley slipped naturally into a respectful form of address for his loyal companion.
“I think I need to get a social life and stop being a dog whisperer.”
He chuckled softly at his own joke. But with a twinge of embarrassment, he realized that there was indeed some truth in it ever since Cassie had suddenly and unexpectedly abandoned him and Roger.
Wesley went to the kitchen, brewed some coffee and returned to the porch steps. Just beyond, Roger lay watching him intently. Curious, Wesley moved the ring slowly back and forth from his body. He smiled when he saw Roger’s eyes lock steadily onto it and move in time with the motion of the ring.
With the movement, Roger once again began a deep, menacing growl. Wesley laughed at the weirdness of it all. Still examining the ring, he slowly sipped his coffee.
His fingers holding the turquoise ring began to tingle and feel warm. Must be the sun warming the gold band of the ring. So Wesley shifted the ring to his left hand and waited. Sure enough, each finger began to tingle and once again the unusual warmth of the ring was noticeable.
Looking at the carvings on the turquoise stone more carefully, Wesley realized that what he initially thought was a random design created by the gem maker, actually had a defined, vaguely familiar shape to it. A memory slipped unbidden into his consciousness of a documentary he had numbly watched in the dark, ugly days after Cassie had left.
It was about the priceless treasures uncovered in a recently discovered pharaoh’s tomb. Among them was a sacred finger ring with a gem stone carved in the shape of a beetle. A scarab beetle if he remembered correctly.
“Yes”, he said aloud. “That’s exactly what’s on this ring.”
“Come Roger.” And with that Wesley got up and went into the kitchen followed by the dog who, while cautiously keeping a safe distance behind his master, never took its eyes off the hand holding the ring.
On the scarred, gray formica counter, Wesley fired up his Apple and searched ‘scarab beetle; ancient Egypt’. Numerous sites popped up. The first link Wesley clicked on showed a piece of ancient Egyptian jewellery that had a gem stone carved almost identically in the shape and markings of his ring.
Further links indicated that the Scarab beetle could be both an amulet of good fortune or in some rarer cases, the symbolic messenger of a sinister curse or dire warning of pending misfortune. Interesting, thought Wesley as he pocketed the ring and returned to the yard to finish his weeding while pondering on what exactly he and Roger had uncovered.
Later in the afternoon, Wesley began to feel like he was coming down with the flu. His bones ached. His leg and arm muscles began cramping up. A few times, his vision seemed to blur then clear. Twice he had to grab onto the neighbour’s fence to prevent sudden dizziness from knocking him down.
Hurtful memories of Cassie and their tumultuous times together flooded uninvited into his racing, oddly frenzied thoughts. Frightening feelings of stabbing grief and irreconcilable despair similar to what he had experienced in the months following her disappearance, caused him to sweat and gasp in short, raspy breaths. For Wesley, it seemed as if he was once again being overwhelmed by the corrosive bitterness and paralyzing panic of those past dark times.
When supper time arrived, Wesley was feeling too lousy to make anything, so he ordered in a pizza. While waiting, he barely managed to fill Roger’s food bowl and water dish. With the pizza on the coffee table, Wesley sat restlessly on the front room couch, half-heartedly eating several slices until he felt too wobbly and nauseous to finish what remained.
Wesley was holding the Scarab ring, sometimes pausing to unsteadily examine it more carefully with his glass. He stared at the faint but careful inscription inside the hoop. For some vague reason, it seemed faintly familiar to him. And then unexpectedly, the confusing fog in his mind cleared somewhat. Now he was certain he knew where to find the meaning of the words.
Getting up slowly, feeling more than a bit wobbly, he stumbled back into the kitchen, the ring clutched tightly in his fist. It seemed hot but he was determined not to let it go until he had the answer. For a brief moment, Wesley lost his balance, banging heavily into the small, overflowing and disorganized Ikea bookcase by the kitchen table. Feeling faint and slightly disoriented, he sagged heavily into a nearby kitchen chair. Once he was sure he wouldn’t faint, Wesley slowly reached out to the Apple on the counter. He set the ring on the table.
His mental confusion was deepening. Wesley couldn’t remember the words on that beautiful ring. He thought he might have written them down but searching clumsily through his pockets, he could find no paper. Inexplicably angry at his stupidity, he wildly swiped the computer off the counter and began to cry.
Was that someone speaking to him? Wesley looked up. Cassie was sitting opposite him, smiling and nodding. The old washed denim blouse that he had always loved to see her wearing was unbuttoned half way down. She wore no bra, teasing him with the promise of delights to come. She has returned, he thought.
“Oh, Cass I’m so sorry about us.” He cried aloud and reached out to warmly embrace her.
But Cassie swirled and disappeared. Wesley felt like he was inside a bad acid trip, far worse than the numerous rough ones of his college days. If I just close my eyes and rest, he thought, it will all pass and I will be fine again.
The ring lay beside him on the table and something was terribly wrong. It was glowing and pulsing with a pale blue light. The Scarab beetle suddenly freed itself from the restraint of its gold mounting pins and scampered quickly and menacingly directly toward him.
Somebody or something was howling now. Wesley knew he was helpless, being swept away in a roaring tempest of unbearable sound and a blinding turquoise blue light. He felt his bladder let go. His legs felt warm, wet, sticky. Vaguely, he knew he should be embarrassed but he didn’t care.
The snapping giant mandibles of the hungry Scarab beetle hungrily grabbed his arm. He could hear the crunch of the bones but felt no pain. Losing consciousness, Wesley slipped awkwardly from his chair onto the floor beneath the table. As he fell, Wesley’s involuntary spasms knocked over his chair and shifted the table heavily toward the counter. The ring scittered across it, falling end over end as if in slow motion, then scattering along the floor.
Roger’s howling soon attracted the attention of Simon, the next door neighbour. Coming into the kitchen from the back porch, Simon discovered Wesley’s twisted, rigid body lying beside a defiant, snarling and growling Roger. The dog refused to let him provide assistance to Wesley. Paramedics were summoned, patrol officers arrived and soon thereafter two homicide detectives from 52 Division came in to take control of the scene.
An autopsy two days later could not determine the exact cause of death. Subsequent toxicology results were negative. Wesley’s death was a mystery. Of course, the detectives would keep the file open but in their experience with such matters, they knew that in time the unexplained death of Wesley Hicks would become another cold case.
In an upstairs room, his parents found a brown manila folder containing the Last Will and Testament of Wesley Randall Hicks among a scattered pile of files on an untidy work desk. Dated about three months before the separation, his entire estate, monies and chattels were left to ‘Cassandra Eve Williamson, common-law partner’.
Two weeks after Wesley’s funeral, at the request of Wesley’s lawyer, Cassie reluctantly met him at the house to sign papers completing the probate process for the Will. After the lawyer left, Cassie wandered aimlessly through the rooms, lost in memories of a few good times and a whole lot of bad ones.
On her way to the meeting, she had retrieved Roger from the city pound on Eastern Avenue. The day after Wesley’s death, one of the detectives called to tell her that Roger had been taken there, growling and snapping the entire time. She was surprised when Roger seemed to easily slip into his familiar and comfortable routine with her.
If Cassie was honest with herself, there were only a couple of things she missed the most when she had escaped from Wesley. First was Roger. She loved that mutt. Second was her veggie garden. Now living in a small, walk-up apartment on Beverly near the Art College, she had no realistic way to indulge this particular passion. All the plots in a nearby community garden made available by the city were assigned and there was at least a two year wait to get space.
With Roger trailing happily behind, Cassie turned and headed through the kitchen for the yard and her much missed garden over in the far corner.
As they passed the neatly piled legal papers sitting at the end of the pine harvest table, Roger growled quietly, his spine hair rising sharply.
“What is it, boy? What’s the trouble?”
Cassie bent over to rub behind his ears. This had always calmed him before. But this time, Roger remained stiff and alert. He was fixated on something out of her sight beneath the lower cupboard door next to the Frigidaire.
Curious now, Cassie knelt down beside Roger and looked with interest. “Oh my god. It’s a ring!” She reached beneath the cupboard door and pulled it toward her.
“Oh what a beautiful blue stone. Abyssinian turquoise, I think. And look at the design work on the gold band. Exquisite craftsmanship, don’t you think Roger?”
She held it out to him so he could sniff it and realize it was not going to harm him. But Roger backed away and began to bark loudly, fake snapping at her open palm and the gold ring sitting on it. How weird is that, Cassie thought. It’s just a bloody ring for god’s sake.
Ever since she was a kid in grade school, Cassie had loved unique jewellery pieces. As an adult, she frequently haunted vintage stores and antique shops along King West, looking for collectible and wearable pieces. When she and Wesley were together, they would often argue bitterly about how much she was spending on what she laughingly dismissed as her hobby. Of course, Cassie would never admit it to anyone, but antique jewellery was really her secret addiction.
This will make an excellent addition to my collection, thought Cassie.
So she pocketed the ring and carried on to the garden. She was astonished to see that Wesley had kept it in great shape. “Not too shabby, city boy” she said to no one in particular. Everything seemed to be flourishing. She picked half a dozen Giant Burpee tomatoes, a few cucumbers and the last of the summer crop of the ever blooming red raspberries.
Returning to the house, Cassie carefully slid the veggies and fruit into an empty Freshco bag she found neatly folded on the counter beside the frig. Taking Roger’s plaited leather lead from its usual spot on a hook by the front door, she clipped it onto Roger’s collar. Cassie locked up and stepped out onto the street. She and Roger walked slowly north a block to catch the Queen East trolley home.
That evening, Cassie studied the ring with the turquoise stone, trying to understand the meaning of the strange engravings on it and the surrounding gold band and tiny clasps. She didn’t notice the inscription inside the hoop.
Throughout the evening she turned the ring over and over, occasionally slipping it on and off the ring finger on her left hand. She just loved how strikingly beautiful it looked on her delicate finger. Twice she thought the ring felt warm, almost hot. Once she even thought it was vibrating very subtly.
But Cassie, never being one to believe in such silly hocus pocus, dismissed it as the inevitable result of being overly tired and seriously stressed from Wesley’s sudden and mysterious death, the boring but necessary meeting with the lawyer and worst of all, the flash back memories while wandering alone though the house she and Wesley had shared.
“Ok, Roger, it’s bed time.” He knew the routine.
Roger followed her into the small, sparely furnished bedroom. With a deep sigh, he curled onto a red wool blanket she had taken from the sofa for him. Cassie slipped off the ring and set it on the dressing table near her bedside.
“Good night Roger” she said. “Sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite.”
She smiled at how easily those words still came to her lips. That’s what her late mother used to say when Cassie was little and frightened of the yellow eyed monsters that most certainly lurked beneath the bed or lay hungrily waiting in the closet. Of course, her mother’s words did nothing to calm her fears. Although she had never seen a real live bed bug, she always expected to wake up in the morning totally covered in itchy, swollen, red blotchy bites.
Cassie awoke abruptly from a fitful sleep. She had been dreaming that she and Wesley were making love out in the garden at their old house. The tomato plants were gossiping about their mating behaviours. That’s odd, she thought. Not once since I left him, have I ever had a dream that he was in. That’s when she noticed that her sleeping T was drenched with damp, cold sweat.
There was an unfamiliar, soft bluish glow in the room. It seemed to be pulsing slowly. Startled, Cassie sat up and looked around. She noticed that Roger was also up and staring at the dressing table. His ears were turned toward it and he was growling deep in his throat.
Cassie followed Roger’s gaze and her heart stopped.
“The ring is glowing. It’s pulsing just like it’s alive.” Hearing the unnaturally high pitch of her own voice, scared her. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. A cold sliver of fear pierced her gut and sliced painfully upward toward her oddly tightening chest. She blinked her eyes once. Twice. The glow disappeared and the pulsing was no more.
Roger stopped growling and lay down on his blanket. She could hear a soft whimper from him. “It’s ok, Roger. It’s gone now. Nothing to get excited about. It’s just a silly old ring. No damage done.”
With her words, the whimpering stopped. Cassie lay down on her side, involuntarily curling up into the fetal position that she had found so comforting when she was that scared little kid waiting for the monsters and blood sucking bed bugs to attack her.
Later, she had another vividly frightening dream.
Wesley was sitting beside her on the bed. His normally tidy and clean clothes were stained, torn in places and he smelled like burning sulphur. His gorgeous blue eyes were now a brilliant yellow, the pupils tiny black slits like a cat.
Wesley was smiling weirdly. He was missing his front teeth. His red gums and lips were blistered with specks of dried blood and spit. Lumpy, pale green-yellow snot dribbled freely down from his nose. Wesley seemed to be speaking to her but it was as if his voice was on mute. Both arms were extended toward her, all the fingers long, bony and covered in tiny red, licking flames at the tips where nails should be.
In Wesley’s right hand, the open Lee Valley pocket knife twisted and jabbed menacingly toward her. In the other, he held the ancient gold ring with the turquoise stone. He was offering it to her. He was insisting by his actions that she must take it.
And suddenly, just like it had on the table, the gemstone in his outstretched hand began to pulse in a deliberate one, two, three rhythm. It gave off a faint blue glow that blended into a soft red aura that expanded and contracted like a beating heart within the bedroom. The four walls seemed to be shimmering, glowing then shimmering again.
Without warning, the light rapidly transformed itself into a brilliant crimson mist which rushed like a rampaging river of blood from his outstretched hand and wrapped itself tightly around her.
Cassie screamed. And Roger began to howl.
Auribus teneo lupum
An obscure Latin phrase meaning “I hold a wolf by the ears”. These words suggest that one is in a dangerous situation because either holding on or letting go could be deadly.