The Bean King
It nearly broke his tooth, is what it did. Tilman swore and spit it into his hand. He probed his tooth with his tongue. It seemed to be intact, but still.
“Why is there a fucking rock in my food?”
Which brought the dinner to a sudden pause. Forks and spoons in mid air, everyone at the long table stared at him. He felt his cheeks flush and he froze. Tilman wasn’t one for getting embarrassed, but even he had his limits. Mr. Drew was the first to break the silence with a small chuckle.
Tilman grinned, and the whole table started to laugh, fifty people seated along an immense table nearly choking on their food. There had been something there between them, the walls of politeness and shyness among a group of mostly strangers. Tilman’s outburst was a release, and the laughter that followed was as much tension being released as humor.
Drew was a balding, bearded man with a smooth pink face. He could have been anywhere from forty to sixty and despite his finely tailored suit, he looked like he could do double duty as Santa Claus, his body all teddy bear plumpness. Indeed, there at the table, laughing, his belly looked like it might resemble a bowlful of jelly beneath the bespoke suit.
Which was at odds with what Tilman expected from a lawyer, who he usually pictured as slim vipers in dark suits and serious looks. As Tilman understood it, Drew took care of pretty much all the town business in Holly Falls, serving as the defacto town government. Amongst those duties was sponsoring, arrange and, for all Tilman knew, cooking, this dinner.
Holly Falls was a tiny town, barely a town at all with just over a thousand people, but prosperous for all that. The little town had one of the highest per capita incomes in the country, a town full of unassuming millionaires. Their prosperity did not fall on the ungrateful, and in addition to the town’s many charities, they also sponsored this dinner.
They didn’t advertise, but if you showed up in Holly Falls on New Year’s Day, Mr. Drew would invite you to this dinner, where all who showed were treated to the finest that the town could muster. No one was turned away, and all were welcome. Tilman was heading North anyway, chasing the work, and he figured that at the very worst, he could spend a night at a bed and breakfast, maybe drum up a few investors, even if the dinner proved to be bullshit.
It wasn’t. Tilman had wined and dined with the best of them, back in better days, and this meal was better. Different than the haute cuisine he wasted so much money, oh god SO much money on, but incredible still. The best of all was the stew, believe it or not. Or at least it had been right up until he had damn near busted his expensive dental work on what appeared to be a small black rock.
“May I?” asked Drew with a smile. He held out his thick hand, covered with a napkin for propriety and hygiene’s sake. Tilman dropped the tooth breaker into Drew’s palm. Mr. Drew looked at the thing, squinted and nodded.
“Your rock is a bean, albeit one cooked to the point of petrifaction.”
Tilman pushed the stew away. He needed all his teeth.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Tilman, you can finish your stew. There’s only one.”
“Now how exactly would you know that?”
“Because I put it there.”
“Are you trying to get sued?”
That last bit was louder than Tilman intended, and once again, all eyes were on him. Mr. Drew stood then, looking up and down the length of the table.
“Could you come with me, Mr. Tilman?”
“Look, I’m sorry, I didn’t…”
“Please,” Drew interrupted, his jolly face gone serious.
Tilman wiped his face and followed the man into the kitchen. Drew gave a glance at the anonymous cooks, and they found another place to be.
“Look, I didn’t mean any-“
“Mr. Tilman, I have to apologize. This dinner is important to the people here. We’ve been very, very lucky, and we realize that part of maintaining that luck is to give back. The dinner is just a symbol of that.”
Drew held up the bean, pinched between his fingers.
“And so is this. Tradition is important, Mr. Tilman. Even when it’s silly, and I realize this is. But tradition keeps us together, gives us unity. The reason things have gone so well for us here is because we have never lost sight of the principles that lead to our success. Because of these traditions, we’ve never forgotten how lucky we are. The bean, silly as it maybe is an important part of that tradition.”
Drew had the decency to look away, look embarrassed about the next part.
“And so is the Bean King.”
George Tilman was a lucky man, although not necessarily in the way that people thought he was. As far as the world was concerned, he’d managed to revive his failing company despite his disastrous turn as CEO of his old company, going from has been and laughing stock to the comeback kid, although at age forty two and staring down the barrel of heart disease, he was no one’s kid.
Tilman was a smart man, and the last year, the year since he caught the bean, he’d developed a talent for introspection that had eluded him in a previous life. Part of that was knowing what the public didn’t. He was lucky. There was no doubt about that. But luck had nothing to do with his rebound success, to the repair of his reputation. That was all down to him being the Bean King.
He took his hand off the wheel for a second and rubbed the bean, still indistinguishable from a stone to him, secure in it’s leather ouch on a thing around his neck. Like Tilman’s status as this year’s Bean King, it was something he almost forgot about but played at the edges of his mind nearly all the time, like a song stuck in his head.
Before the Bean King, Tilman blamed his failure on everyone but himself. In the year since, he’d come to see that the only person that could be blamed for the tens of millions that had gone down the tube was Tilman. He had panicked too late and not soon enough, and he’d lost everything.
Tilman ended up with a company that vivisected by investors and creditors while he watched, a wife who took half of everything which, in what Tilman now looked at as bit of small luck, ended up being half of nothing. His house was on the auction block and the car he’d had was his until the repo man caught up.
He hadn’t really minded losing all that. They were trophies, not prize possessions. He’d made his bones in the early days in sales, and he was just as happy on a hard mattress in small room as he was in a California king at his entirely too palatial home. Tilman was happy when he was winning. Where he was winning was purely a secondary consideration.
He had time to consider what he was responsible for in the last year because he really wasn’t responsible for much in the past year. While those that were in a position to know who Tilman was and be aware of climb back to the top considered it a combination of luck and savvy, with the emphasis on luck for those who were still stung from the fall, Tilman knew that it had nothing to do with luck and everything to do with Holly Falls and Edward Drew.
The idea was simple, if you accepted the position as Bean King, then the people of Holly Falls did everything they could to make your life as ideal as possible. Considering the sheer accumulation of wealth and power in the town, the possible was considerable.
Exactly what ideal was varied from Bean King to Bean King. Tilman gathered from what Drew said and, more importantly, didn’t say, that the last King had been a homeless man who’d ended up staying in the town when winter fell. His needs had been simple, a roof over his head and some company. Tilman’s impression was maybe that the man was a bit off in the head, as well, and that the people of Holly Falls had helped take care of that, too.
The catch they told you about was that the position was only for one year, from New Year’s Day to New Year’s Eve. After that, you were on your own. This was, in Tilman’s estimation, a pretty big catch. As Drew explained it, the town considered it important to do this as thanks for their good fortune, but extending it for more than one year would be go against the values of hard work and self sufficiency, so the one year ‘term’ was the compromise.
Tilman had many failings, but being stupid wasn’t generally one of them. The problem wasn’t getting what you wanted; it was keeping it once you had it. If you weren’t smart enough to get it in the first place, you’d be damn lucky to be able to hold onto it. A long line of lottery winning loser had more than proved that.
So Tilman was happy to take the offer, and smart enough to understand what it meant. The Holly Falls residents had poured money into his new business, and propped up his decisions. They manipulated things behind the scenes, and to all the world it looked like Tilman was a magnificent lucky genius. He knew he wasn’t a genius, and the only luck involved was biting down on a petrified bean and nearly breaking his teeth. If you could even call that luck.
Because Tilman wasn’t stupid, he also made sure that he had plenty of other investors. He was good, maybe great, at the hustle and jive. He could sell a dream like nobody else, and with the good people of Holly Falls behind, he’d sold a lot of dreams. He’d made sure to pack some of that money away on a few nice little island with favorable laws, far away from the eyes of the IRS and the SEC. If he failed again, he wouldn’t be left with nothing again. Tilman didn’t really care about money or the trappings of, but you’d needed cash to stay in the game.
Drew didn’t say it, not outright, but he knew that as soon as his tenure as Bean King was over, the town would sell of their stocks and pull away from Tilman and all his works. His stock price would plummet, and he figured he had maybe a fifty/fifty chance of surviving it.
He’d done the best he could to shore up the company with other investors, but if they jumped ship, too, the company wasn’t stable enough to survive that. Maybe Tilman could convince them to stay on, maybe not. He grinned with anticipation, the buzz in his blood again. There wasn’t a businessman who’d ever done a damn that wasn’t a gambler in his bones.
There was another catch on becoming the Bean king, not just unspoken but hidden. Like Holly Falls was hidden. Oh, the town was easy to find, at the north end of the state in winter country. Anyone could drive through the town, and many did, in the fall, when the leaves changed and the land was rendered in Technicolor glory. But all you’d see was a town that barely qualified as town, beautiful with old style buildings and possessing the benign charm of a Norman Rockwell painting.
That was not Holly Falls. No book cited it as the wealthiest town per capita in the country, but that was what it was. Its residents didn’t appear in Forbes or Business Week, but billions or more poured through their subtle fingers. They didn’t advertise, and they had the wealth and the power to make sure that they stayed private in a world where nothing was.
But no one was invisible, not in this life, and Tilman had used the resources they gave him to push and probe. There was nothing to find, but Tilman was smart, and years of experience had shown him to look for what wasn’t there. That was how he figured the secret cost to being the Bean King, and that was why he was driving through the snow, back towards Holly Falls and Edward Drew.
George Tilman was a lucky man, and he meant to push it all the way.
Edward Drew was working late. He usually did, managing the inner works of a town like Holly Falls was two full time jobs, maybe more. He’d be here, on this night, regardless, and he wasn’t tired. He was working, he was always working, but what he was really doing was waiting. He glanced at his watch. Almost midnight, almost the beginning of a New Year. He had expected George Tilman to be earlier, but the man had proved to be a surprise in many respects.
Drew scratched his beard. He wasn’t nervous exactly, and he wasn’t exactly excited either. It had been years since he’d had a Bean King that didn’t follow the script, and the idea that the completion of the tradition might be in question was both horrifying and exhilarating.
He didn’t really doubt that everything would go fine, he had too many years of experience and too many redundancies to believe that, but even the idea of fear had its novelty. He checked his watch again when he saw the headlights, reflected through the snow. Just before midnight. Right on time.
Drew wasn’t sure what Tilman had planned, although he had a suspicion. He closed the ledger on his desk, but it away. Leaned back in his chair and intertwined his fingers and waited for the door to open.
And so it did, without prelude and without a knock; George Tilman stepped into the room and Edward Drew smiled. Tilman was silhouetted in snow and moonlight. He closed the door quietly behind him. He looked at Drew.
“Hello, Mr. Drew.”
“I think, Mr. Tilman, that after all this time, you can call me Edward.”
Tilman smiled at that as he pulled his gloves off.
“You don’t seem surprised to seem me, Edward.”
“Well, I’m not an easy man to surprise.”
Tilman smiled, pulled a pistol from the heavy coat, and shot Edward Drew twice in the chest.
“How about now?”
Tilman kept the gun trained on Drew who, ironically, did indeed look quite surprised. He didn’t gasp, or flop, or any of the other things that Tilman might have expected. He simply touched the wounds gently, eyes wide and staring. He looked up at Tilman, who smiled slightly and hadn’t moved.
He coughed then, nothing coming up but blood and pain, and now Drew did look hurt and afraid. Tilman stepped closer.
“Look at me. Edward, look at me.”
Drew looked up, his blue eyes fading. Tilman sat down in the chair to watch him dying, Drew’s fingers squeezing tight against the edge of his desk. He was staring hard at Tilman. Life was pouring out of him and hate was pouring into his eyes.
“Look, Edward, I know that the men you usually get for your Bean King are usually random assholes. Did any of them see it coming?”
Drew just stared at him. Tilman chuckled a little, to himself, for himself.
“Yes, I know. I know that you planned to have me come here, and that you were going to feed me a nice dinner and then you and the sick fucks you work for were going to run me across the snow. I know you were going to kill me.”
Drew didn’t say anything. Tilman thought he might be dead, but he wasn’t sure. He kept the gun pointed at him, regardless.
“I am not even going to pretend to understand. I don’t care. But I want you to understand, Edward, that I am not anybody’s fool. You want to fuck with me? Fine. But I’m going to fuck you back. Your asshole bosses will probably come after me for this. But you know what?”
Tilman stood, fairly sure that Drew was dead, but what the fuck, he was on a roll.
“Fuck them. I’m betting that fucking up your little game will throw them off. They want a sacrifice? They’re going to have to earn it.”
George Tilman stared at Edward Drew, dead probably, dying definitely, and then he stepped from the office into the snow.
The snow was worse when he left the office. That was actually a good thing, as far as Tilman was concerned. Lost in the whiteness, he felt like he was invisible. The night was silent, all the sounds muffled by falling snow. He shrugged up his coat and went to the SUV.
As he opened the door, he felt, very certainly, that he was being watched. He put his hand in his pocket, gripped his gun. He turned around and looked. He didn’t see anything in the snow except grey shadows. He shivered and slid inside the car. He’d left it running.
He took the pistol out of his pocket and dropped it on the seat. Tilman pulled out and tried to leave Holly Falls.
He drove slowly. He didn’t have a choice. No plows had gone through, and he could barely see where the road was. He was glad he’d picked the SUV, the four wheel drive was probably going to come in handy. He drove through the town and didn’t see another soul. No one was on the roads, no one was out shoveling snow or doing any of the other things that he would expect. Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
There were no lights either in any of the houses, either, and Tilman felt like he was driving through a host town. The only lights were the streetlamps, and they looked like they came from another century. Tilman suspected that they might actually be gaslamps.
Tilman felt tension that he hadn’t even realized was there when he put the town behind him. He wasn’t sure what he expected, not really, but he was sure that this wasn’t it. He resisted the urge to keep looking in the rearview mirror and kept his eyes on the road, headlights barely cutting through the falling snow.
Something moved across the road and Tilman braked hard. He felt the tail end of the SUV whip around, and he pushed down on the gas, steered into the skid. Fucking deer. He got back on the road and slowed down. He looked over his shoulder and tried to see where it went. He didn’t see a damn thing.
He drove on, and he saw something in the rear view mirror. He stared, too long and too hard, and nearly drove into a ditch. He took a deep breath and held it, Exhaled. He needed to pull it together and concentrate on his driving.
Tilman flexed his fingers and tried to relax. He stretched his neck and got his shit together. He could do this. He could win. All that mattered was winning, and he figured the odds were in his favor. All he needed was a little luck and George Tilman could come out on top.
His tire exploded.
The SUV went into the ditch this time, and Tilman fought against the wheel. He got the SUV stopped. His heart pounded in his chest. He felt like his head might exploded and he was breathing hard. He sat there for a while, he wasn’t sure how long, before he pried his fingers off of the steering wheel.
He grabbed the gun off the floor and stuck it in his pocket, He checked the mirrors and look around him. He didn’t see anyone or anything around. He opened the door and stepped out into the snow.
The driver’s side tire was the one that had gone. Tilman squatted and looked at it. The problem was that there was a six inch long shard of black glass in it. Tilman pulled on it, and it sliced right through his leather gloves. He swore and shook his hand, and flicked red blood across white snow. It was obsidian, he thought. It was not an accident.
He pulled the gun out and pushed his back against the SUV. He didn’t see anything in the snow. No, that was wrong. He saw too much in the woods. Through the snow, there a thousand shadows and Tilman saw something in every one. He was motionless, blood dripping into the snow. He listened and heard nothing but the wind. It sounded like whispers.
Tilman moved around to the other side, where the SUV was tilting into the ditch. He didn’t like what he saw there. The wheel was pressing against the wheel well. The axle was bent. He stared at it for a second and then he kick the wheel. Again. Again. It was stupid but it felt good. He heard something move behind him.
He spun and nearly slipped, caught his balance against the SUV. He saw snow sliding down the bank. He aimed the gun into the shadows. He thought he saw something moved and he squeezed the trigger.
There was more movement off to his right, and he jerked the gun over. Fired again. In the snow, there was no echo, the sound lost in white. He kept the gun trained and listened. Nothing.
“I know you’re there, motherfucker!”
He backed around the SUV, keeping his back protected. He slid back inside and locked the doors. Shit. Shit. Shit. He turned on his cellphone and hoped. No signal. Naturally.
He peeled the glove off of his hand and looked at the cut. It was deep and red and as soon as he started looking at it, the wound throbbed. He frowned and wrapped it up with a handkerchief. He looked out the window at the night.
Tilman wasn’t used to indecision. One of the reasons that he’d been successful was that he was able to decide instantly. He was ahead of the pack. When he hesitated, he lost. He had two options; he could stay here in the truck and wait, or he could try to walk to the next town.
The decision was made for him when it crashed into the window. The window shattered out of the way, and all Tilman saw was teeth and fur. He kept pulling the trigger until the slide kicked back. No more bullets. He squeezed the trigger anyway.
He dropped the clip out and fumbled putting another in. Tilman had practiced with the gun all year. It should have been easy, but his hands were shaking. He tried to steady himself and slid the clip. He released the slide. Snow blew in from the outside.
Tilman got out of the SUV, sweeping the area with his gun. He walked around to the other side of the SUV and looked for whatever it was that had come through the window.
There was nothing there. There were some pieces of broken glass, there was snow and there was blood. Tilman tried to remember what he’d seen. A dog? No. No, it had been a wolf, or something like a wolf. Something huge and dark.
Tilman stood over the place where a dead animal should have been, and looked into the woods. He could feel eyes watching him, but there was nothing to see but shadows.
Something howled, something that sounded too close to human but not human at all. Something close. A chorus of howls joined it, and every one of them sounded close, Cold sweat ran down his back.
George Tilman ran.
hey chased him. Tilman was in decent shape, especially for a middle aged businessman, but he was already exhausted. They were silent, except for the near silent shuffle of the snow, and he couldn’t really hear them over the beating of his own heart in ears, but he knew they were there, behind him. Always behind him.
He was out of the woods and running through a clearing. He could see them on either side, just barely in his vision. He was so focused on them that he barely realized where they were pushing them.
Tilman nearly stepped over the edge, and barely caught himself. In the dark, the snow made everything a smooth white plane. The top of the mountain was just a drop into the black. His feet slipped from under him and he came down hard on his ass and for a second he thought he was going to fall. He didn’t.
Fuck it. He turned and faced them. They were moving slowly now, wary. He aimed and fired. Again. Again. He was still firing when they surged at him. He felt teeth sink into flesh and he kept pulling the trigger even as they went over the edge.
It hurt. He thought he was dead, but he didn’t imagine being dead would hurt that much. He didn’t figure that he would still have a gun in hell either, so he was apparently alive. He was flat on his back in the snow and he looked at the ledge above him. He couldn’t tell how far it was. Fifty feet? More.
He’d half fallen and half tumbled and he figured these things had probably saved his life. The rest of them were looking down at him from the edge of the drop off, glowing eyes in the dark, shadows on the horizon.
He laughed, and that hurt too. He felt one of them that had fallen with him start to move and he shot it. That, at least felt good. They could die. He could kill them. He could still win. He stood up. He was squeezing the gun so hard that he could only half feel his fingers. He was bleeding from a dozen small wounds and he coughed up blood, but he was still mostly intact. He looked up at the eyes in the dark.
He fired a shot at one, had no idea if he shot.
“You want me? Come and fucking get me!”
They did, they came sliding down over the ledge, tumbling as they did, small avalanches coming towards him. He gritted his teeth and moved away from them, up the other side of the tiny niche they were in. It was climbable, but just barely. He put the gun in his pocket. He could barely pry his fingers off of it.
He was mostly up the other side before the things were there behind him. The hill was steep and would have probably been hard to climb in the best of times, especially without hands. One leap and he could feel its jaws snap at his pant leg before it fell back down. They couldn’t follow him. He smiled as he climbed over the top of the ledge on the other side.
They were waiting for him. Grey shadows against white snow. He didn’t even bothered to look back down below. They waited.
He put the gun against his temple and tried to pulled the trigger. Something stabbed him in the wrist and he lost the gun in the snow. A chunk of black rock, smooth and polished as glass, protruded from his wrist.
“No, no, you can’t spoil the hunt like that.”
He dropped to his knees. He looked up as the speaker stepped out from the dark of the woods.
“Would you like to keep going, Mr. Tilman?”
He recognized the voice. Edward drew pulled back the hood on deep red robes fringed with white fur. He smiled at Tilman, not unkindly. Tilman stared.
“I killed you,” he said.
Drew coughed. Once, twice. A deep, wracking cough. He coughed into his hands, and Tilman saw his saliva was tinged with blood. Drew held out his hand for Tilman to see. Two bullets rested in palm. Drew dropped them and wiped his hand on his robe.
“That’s not possible”
“You’d be surprised, Mr. Tilman, “ Drew said, “Just how many things are possible.”
The gray shapes, the wolves not wolves, stood up, becoming gray robed people. Maybe they always had been. Tilman saw claws made of obsidian. Their faces were lost in the hoods they wore. They didn’t move. They simply stood and watched.
Drew pulled something that was like a knife from his robes, more black and polished rock, its handle raw wood, bound together with what Tilman thought, for no reason in particular, was almost certainly human flesh.
Drew looked at Tilman, waiting, knife in hand.
“Well?” Drew said.
Tilman looked at the good people of Holly Falls, saw the glint of their eyes and the moonlight reflecting off the black claws. He reached over and delicately, careful not to cut himself, pulled the black glass from his wrist,
He stood up, slowly. He looked at the glass in his hand, at an edge sharper than sharp. He smiled. He hadn’t lost. Not yet. He looked at them. He gestured with the blade,
“Come on then.”
And they did. They swarmed him, and he slashed with the knife until the weight of them pushed him back down into the valley. More slid down the slope after him, and they tore and tore.
When everyone had gotten their share, when there wasn’t much left but a red stain on the white snow, Edward Drew slid down the slope himself. His employers watched him. What was left was not for him. He managed the hunt, he did not participate. That was the bargain he’d made.
He cut away the last bits of flesh holding Tilman’s heart in place. He put the knife away and squeezed the heart. Near black blood poured from it, and he kept putting pressure on, as hard as he could.
Finally he opened his hand and smiled. All that was left of George Tilman’s heart was a small black bean.