The Willie Button Series


The Whispering Men



Albert J. Manachino


Night. Moonlight bathed the streets and buildings in a mantle of tarnished silver. The streets and buildings were, for the most part, abandoned to the loneliness that must befall every sunset. A few indecisive snippets of sound from the more populous sections of town made their way into the court and were swallowed by the predators that haunt lonely places. The street clock struck four in a lugubrious undertone and then again there was silence.


Willie Button carried a blue canvas bag which he shifted from one arm to the other as his physical condition permitted. The bag was not very large but it gave an impression of being very heavy in proportion to its size. He had walked the earth a thousand years and was doomed to walk another thousand, carrying it and seeking means of ridding himself of it. To date he had been unsuccessful. He could not give it away, throw it away, or destroy it. The curse had been incurred by celestial displeasure.


His troubles began one night in an empty house. The only furnishing appeared to be a huge iron safe of an obsolete pattern There was not a single stick of furniture in any of the rooms.


As any good burglar should, Willie hated to walk away empty handed. Yes, Willie was a burglar by profession. He was sur­prised at the ease with which he opened the safe. It contained only a large book of bilious appearance. And, it emitted a rancid stench highly reminiscent of an unclean toilet.


Willie shoved the book into his tool kit with an exclamation of disgust and left. The book looked very old and he imagined it would bring a few dollars from a collector. On his way home, he was killed by a drunken driver.


He was refused entry into heaven. The book he had stolen was the Devil's Bible written in Lucifer's own hand. Willie became a wanderer. Sleep, hunger, all hope eluded him. He became an earthbound spirit.


The street clock struck five. He had. been standing in front of the store an hour. The only hint of life was a battalion of trash cans that patiently waited by the curbside for the morning collector.


The object of Willie's fascination was the only lighted window in the court. The sign that hung over the entrance to the shop was ancient but it still legibly announced that the premises under it were the property of Mr. I. M. Thade and Mr. Jonah, master coffinwrights. Willie was barely able to discern the lettering.


Someone shared the darkness with him. A glow, followed by a trail of sparks, indicated that a cigarette had been smoked and discarded nearby. The cigarette described a tiny arc and extinguished itself on the cobblestones of the court. Willie inhaled cautiously. He recognized the slightly medicinal odor as a brand smoked mostly by people with lung problems.


Finally he discerned the outline of a tall thin man. He was dressed in a somber hue popular with undertakers and hangmen. He came forward to meet Willie. As cadaverous as he was, his suit fitted him far too tightly.


"Good morning," he whispered. "We don't open for business until eight."


The only article that fitted was a haberdasher's tape slung carelessly over his shoulders. Willie guessed he was one of the coffinwrights. Willie suspected, from his bearings that he must be the senior partner. He introduced himself as "I'm Mr. Thade."


He pressed a business card into Willie's hand. It was still not light enough to read the miniscule print and Willie put the card into his pocket. The sun was just beginning to show its face behind the taller buildings.


"Isn't it rather early to be opening shop?"


"I suffer from insomnia," whispered the man. "Never miss a chance to conduct business. If you're looking for a nice, well made, well finished casket, you've come to the right place."


He stepped into the circle of light cast by the shop window. Willie saw him in completeness for the first time. Thade was a human scarecrow. His gloves were burst at the tips. The protruding fingers looked like clothes pins. Shaking hands with him was like shaking hands with a skeleton.


"Pleased to meet you, Mr… Mr…"


Willie supplied the name. "Button. William Button. My friends call me, Willie."


"I'm pleased to meet you Mr. Buttons" he whispered. Thade motioned to the window. The showcase offered a variety of tasteful coffins and burial memorabilia. All in somber shades, none of which were calculated to brighten Willie's perspective.


Thade opened the door suggestively. He performed a half bow to welcome Willie inside. They passed under an old fashioned shop sign depicting a skull and crossbones.


"Really," Willie protested, "I'm not shopping for a coffin. I was just taking a constitutional when I passed your shop." He did not add that his own funerary requirements had been adequately met by a practical, if not loving municipal sanitation department. Willie's final journey was not made in anything so pretentious as a coffin.


Mr. Thade led him down a flight of stairs into the workshop. "I know how it is. I have trouble

sleeping myself. I haven't slept for a million years."


Willie caught himself whispering. "You are speaking allegorically, of course,"


The stairs terminated in a combination workshop and office. Mr. Thade swept the room with an all encompassing movement of his arm. "Look around. You might see something the little woman might like."


Willie searched his companion for a trace of facetiousness without detecting any. He decided that Thade always spoke that way. He did not explain that a burglar's income precluded a family. Mr. Thade beckoned Willie to the office and introduced him to the junior partner.


Mr. Jonah smiled a welcome. Willie picked up the blue canvas bag he had momentarily set on the floor. Jonah's first words were spoken in a whisper also. "Have you seen our show­room?"

Willie admitted that he had not. "We came here directly."


Thade whispered an explanation. "I wanted Mr. Button to see how we made things first. It makes the tour upstairs so much more interesting."


Jonah whispered his approval and added, "We have a wide selection. You cannot equal the choice we offer you even in the more prestigious establishments uptown. "We can even offer you a used coffin ... refurbished, of course, with the occupant removed."


Jonah was carried away by his enthusiasm. "We fit every client as if he was being measured for a suit.


He waved a hand toward the rear of the shop. "That is the children's section. For apartment dwellers, we offer a simulation of a window box. It saves that weekly trip to the cemetery. Artificial flowers come with the window box."


"And," he underscored the and, "our selection is set aside until you are ready to use it."


The sales talk defeated its purpose. Willie's attention had wandered to the walls of the office. The walls literally were covered with old book collectibles in wall-fronted glass cases. One section was devoted to reprints of the Gutenberg bible. There was no doubt in Willie's mind that the reproductions were several hundred years old. They drew Willie like a magnet. An idea was brewing in the back of his mind.


Jonah noticed Willie's preoccupation. "Compelling, isn't it?" he whispered. "No one in the world can lay claim to an older collection. The Gutenbergs were printed by contemporaries of his . . . with varying degrees of skill."


Thade whispered, "We designate them all as bibles but much is secular ... if not actually pornographic."


"How did you acquire such a collection?"


"Most by gambling," Thade admitted."


"I have a very old bible in this handbag. Would you care to contest for it?"


"Only proof of presentation." said Thade. I will select what I consider to be my oldest publication and we both will place our entries on this desk. An expert will pronounce on their authenticity."


"And the winner?"


"He gets to walk out of this place with the prize … the losing entry.


"Who is your expert?"


Mr. Thade waved a hand at his partner. "He will be."


Willie considered for a moment. "I accept."


Mr. Thade slid the glass fronticepiece back from the book case. Carefully he selected the book to represent the coffinwrights. He laid it on the desk before Mr. Jonah. The coffin­wright laid a hand on his book and pronounced, "This entry con­tains the soul of the most evil man who ever lived. It is at least a thousand years old."


Jonah whispered. "Your entry must be older than ours to win."


"I understand," Willie said.


He reached into the blue canvas bag and brought out the book Carefully he placed it face down before Mr. Thade.


"What is it," Thade asked.


"It's the Devil's Bible. It has cursed the earth since the beginning of time."


The coffinwrights looked stricken. "I concede," whispered Jonah.


Willie objected. "But you've scarcely looked at my entry."


"I'm sensitive to these things. I felt sick the moment you opened this book." He pushed the bible back into the canvas bag and shoved it toward Willie.


"What are you complaining about?" said Thade. You get to keep your entry and you have one of ours."


"But, I wanted to get rid of my book."


"You'll have to try somewhere else." Jonah was looking at a wall clock. "You have three minutes to get out of here," Thade whispered. If you aren't gone by then, you will become a part of our collection."


Willie picked up the canvas bag and fairly flew up the stairs and out the door. In the court, he paused to regain his breath. The street clock struck five. Willie turned. Where had stood a coffinwrights shop was an empty lot. He felt the square of paper Thade had given him. Willie fished it out of his pocket and held it up to the light. With a sigh of disgust, he hurled the business card away. It was not for several minutes

that he experienced a twinge of fear. "Thade" was a synonym for death.



- To Be Continued -

Copyright by
Albert J. Manachino

Copyright by
Kevin D. Duncan

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Willie Button Series