Better Than One
By Carl R. Merritt
His name was Stephen Hughes, a very successful advertising executive with few friends and more enemies than he could count. For years, he'd been pushing both pencils and people around in an effort to achieve his final goal . . . to be so rich, he'd never have to work again. And Steve didn't particularly care if he had to walk over a million people to reach that point.
In the advertising business, it really wasn't hard work that made the difference, it was brains. It took very original thinking to succeed here, and the luck not to be outclassed by a co- worker.
One day, a Friday, Steve Hughes was making a presentation which he thought he had prepared well for. Cliff Massey, the CEO of a high-tech company that produced chips for computer boards and assorted components for home PCs, sat patiently waiting to see how this bright young man would bring more business to his company.
"So you see, sir," Steve said, winding up his presentation on a positive note, "With this ad running on TV, radio and in the newspapers, you should have a five to seven percent increase in your orders by the end of the month. An additional three percent can be expected with the use of billboards. And that, sir, is a substantial increase, considering the cost to you is minimal."
Steve walked over to his chair at the far end of the large conference table, all the while trying to get a "feel" on how the client was going to react. He would either accept the proposal, or he wouldn't. Well, in a few seconds, I'll know, Steve thought, sitting down.
"I don't know," Mr. Massey muttered. "It seems too 'ordinary' to me, too conventional. My company likes to stay on the cutting edge, to be the first to try something, even with our advertising. I'm afraid if I take this back to my people, they're sure to scoff."
Ron Thompson, Steve's boss and co-owner of the agency, looked at his young employee with a look of disapproval. It was clear that he believed Steve could have done better.
"Mr. Massey, this will work," Thompson began in an effort to save the account. "Regardless if the techniques are antiquated, or contemporary, the goal is to have a larger profit in the end. Steve's ideas will do it, sir. They are proven techniques!"
"Possibly," the CEO said, not sounding totally convinced. "However, our company does not like to follow 'proven techniques.' Through experience, we've learned that to 'follow' anything means not coming out ahead. In the computer business, if you aren't ahead of the field, you're on a one way trip to bankruptcy! I'm sorry, gentlemen. Our company doesn't follow, it leads. Unless you people can think of something more modern, more inventive, I'm afraid we'll have to find ourselves another advertising agency."
Mr. Massey rose and began to walk towards the door, doubtful if either Steve, or his boss could come up with anything that his company would accept. In the end, Massey was correct, Steve and Ron Thompson couldn't think of an alternative advertising stratagem . . . their secretary did.
Theresa Summers, a twenty-four year old college graduate who worked much too hard and put in way too many hours for so little money, thought she had the perfect solution. Before thinking about etiquette, she blurted out an answer which seemed to her to be the perfect solution.
"You know," she said without looking at her two bosses, "I don't see why you don't simply advertise on a web site. Then use the papers, TV and radio to promote the site and nothing else. Promoting the site only, the advertising costs for the media would be much lower since the time and space would be less, and you'd draw a lot of curiosity from those who see it. Eventually, people would have to go to the site just to see what it's all about."
Both Steve and Ron were giving their secretary looks of disapproval while she was speaking and were seriously considering disciplining her after the meeting was over. However, Mr. Massey's response changed all that.
"Young lady, that isn't a bad idea! We could just put up a ten second spot, say white lettering on a black background, with the web's address showing. No explanations, no music, nothing but the address." He stopped to think a moment, then continued. "You're entirely correct! People would have to click on that address! Their curiosity wouldn't allow them to do anything less!"
Ron Thompson hadn't made it this far in the advertising business by missing golden opportunities such as this. The second he realized the potential, he jumped right in.
"Mr. Massey, I think our gal just came up with the perfect ad campaign! It's definitely original, cheaper and will still get the message across. So, how about it, sir? You wanted something out of the ordinary . . . this is it."
"Draw up a contract and I'll sign it. Keep the same money though that we've already allocated for the ads. We'll just get that much more exposure! Yeah . . . I like it!"
An hour later, Steve and his boss were sitting in the office lounge going over the fine details of the contract before it was printed up. Steve was in a foul mood, and Mr. Thompson noticed this.
"Come on, Hughes! You did all right in there! It certainly wasn't your fault Massey wanted something different from what his profile said he would. Clients change, you know that."
Deep down, Steve knew his boss was correct. According to the file on Massey, the CEO should have went for Steve's original ideas. But the young executive had always prided himself on thinking things through and knew now that he should have come up with a second ad campaign, something more radical . . . something like that damned secretary suggested. Damn!
"Yeah, I know. I just wish I'd have thought of it, that's all."
"No one can think of everything. No one is that smart."
Steve admitted to his boss that was true, but in his heart he knew he'd better get that smart if he meant to make it big in the business. To him, nothing was more important. And to be outdone by a lowly secretary...
"What are we going to do with Theresa? She shouldn't have spoken up like that even if she did have the answer."
"I'm promoting her, of course! Hell, she just saved us a twenty million dollar account! In fact, I'm putting her under you starting tomorrow. I want you to teach her the ropes, get her started right. Any problems with that?"
" 'Any problems with that?' he asks! Damn! Hell yes, I have a problem with that!" Steve was by himself, sitting down in front of his television, pretending to watch it. The anger he felt for the secretary . . . the newest account executive . . . was building by the second. But the anger he felt at himself for almost letting the account slip away was growing even faster. Up until that day, Steve had thought he was intelligent enough to handle almost any circumstance! He thought he could handle any CEO! But not now. Steve was beginning to understand that he was just like all his colleagues - limited in his thinking.
"Even the damned secretary has more brains than I do!" Suddenly, Steve caught on as to what he was doing. "And if I don't do something about that sad fact, I'll soon be talking to myself!"
Steve's self-pity was interrupted by a story on the evening news. A gruesome picture on the screen caught his attention. Something about a guy from Moore's Lake . . .
After watching the news story, Steve knew what he must do. Never one to put something off once a decision has been made, he quickly called the office to check his schedule. He heard nothing of importance. Next, he left a message for Mr. Thompson that he was taking a few days off work.
The long drive to Moore's Lake had not been a problem for Steve. With only part of his attention on the road, he thought over his options before he reached the point of no return. Steve knew he didn't have to make this trip to Abe's Tomb to get what he wanted. He could always go back to school - further his education - but that would be time consuming. Time that would allow others, like that damned secretary, to pull ahead of him in the corporate game.
No, Abe's Tomb seemed to be the best, or at least the quickest, solution.
As he pulled into the small town of Moore's Lake, Steve had a sudden attack of the jitters. He was remembering the news story and how this "ghoul" had taken the life of yet another one of his visitors. Pulling into the parking lot of a small carryout, Steve parked and ran inside. With no difficulty at all, he found the tabloids. He was not surprised when he noticed that the carryout carried past issues . . . the ones that contained stories of Abe's tomb. He bought a copy of each that appeared relevant.
Back in his car, Steve read them all and soon came to the conclusion that this Abe character granted the wishes of those who entered his grave site, but not always in the way the victims expect. The key, he reasoned, was to be very precise with how he worded his wish.
A bit more relaxed now, Steve began searching for someone who could give him directions to the tomb while he gave some thought as to how he should phrase his request to the ghoul.
Less than an hour later, and with a hundred dollars less in his wallet, Steve knew the exact whereabouts of Abe's grave site. Foolishly, he considered himself lucky.
It was already dark by the time Steve entered the graveyard. After learning the tomb's location, he had taken the time to eat at a small restaurant. Afterwards, he had gone to a hardware store to purchase a flashlight so he wouldn't have to go tromping through the woods in complete darkness.
As Steve made his way past the gravestones, several details grabbed his attention at once. First, there were the dates on the tombstones and crosses- all of them indicated these people had died during the Civil War. Next was the soil. It was overturned in front of most of the markers. It was as if the bodies had been dug up for some reason or another, then the dirt replaced. The odor of the dirt was powerful.
The young executive was pondering all this when his vision began to blur. He began to see images of what looked like zombies rising from the ground. They were dressed in Civil War uniforms and were soon attacking an armed party, probably a SWAT team. It was a massacre. The ghouls had the humans outnumbered at least twenty to one and were taking full advantage of it. Within minutes, the zombies had the five humans trapped inside old wooden coffins and were soon burying the crumbling boxes deep underground.
The vision ended just as suddenly as it had begun. Steve was shaking uncontrollably as he realized he was now standing in that same cemetery. He was all too aware that the very same thing could happen to him at any moment.
Taking a look around while he attempted to calm himself, Steve noticed movement off to his left. Spinning, he saw a horrible looking creature forcing itself out of the ground . . . one of the zombies he had only moments before envisioned.
Its face was entirely gone, only the bones remained with a few patches of dried up skin and blood. It had no eyes, only empty sockets with soil and insects spilling out from the holes. It wore the uniform of a Union officer, although it was now mostly rags. As the zombie hobbled toward him, Steve noticed the severe limp. Looking down, he saw that the filthy monster had no left foot, just a stub at the ankle.
Steve Hughes was petrified at first and was just about to run away until he became aware of the zombie's intentions. As the creature of horrors neared, it raised one arm, an indication to Steve that it was not there to harm him. The foul smelling fiend stopped ten feet away from the human and began signaling with its arms.
Instinctively, Steve knew the zombie was warning him off, telling him to go home and forget about Abe's tomb.
Steve was trying to think of some way to communicate with the dead soldier when suddenly, a thin black mist began to swirl down from somewhere above. Looking up, he saw that the swirling vapor emanated from high up in the sky - well beyond the distance he was able to see at night. Perhaps in the clouds themselves. And it was descending straight towards the fiend!
When the zombie saw the black tendrils spiraling down upon him, it immediately recoiled in fear, raising its arms for a minuscule amount of protection. It did no good whatsoever. The instant the mist touched, the zombie blew apart in a million bits of dust, bone and cloth. Only the skeletal head remained intact as it rolled to a rest at Steve's feet . . . staring up at him.
Things were happening much too fast for Hughes, and he understood none of it. If he would've had any common sense at all, he'd have listened to his own fears and ran for his life. However, his greed, ambition and his desire for greatness spurred him onward towards a destiny with fate...
Steve took a deep breath and resumed his search for the tomb.
The first thing Steve noticed upon entering the cave was the total absence of light. Absolute darkness engulfed him and heightened his fears to new levels. He took the flashlight he had purchased from his pocket and turned it on. Steve cursed when he saw that the batteries were almost dead.
They must have been sitting on the hardware store's shelf for months, he thought, still mumbling curses. However, the dim light was just enough to see by so Steve began making his way further into the cave.
Stumbling over rocks and sloshing through puddles of some black gooey substance, Steve figured he was about twenty yards into the cavernous tomb when he heard a flapping sound. Searching with the flashlight as the noise continued, he saw nothing. But it sounded very close. So close in fact, that Steve had the impression if he could see whatever was making the noise, he'd probably be able to reach out and touch it.
"Are you Abe?" Steve asked, fear making his voice break.
After trying again, Steve gave up and decided to keep on going only to hear the flapping sound get louder . . . closer.
Suddenly, Steve was under attack. Something unseen flew into his face and cut him deeply above his right eye. His own blood running freely and threatening to blind him, Steve began taking wild swipes with the flashlight hoping to drive whatever it was off. When he accidentally hit the cavern wall with the light, causing it to shatter, the flapping noises instantly ceased . . . as though making the light go out was the hidden enemy's goal.
Now Steve was injured and in total darkness.
Cursing again, Steve knew he couldn't quit now. If nothing else, his own pride would be enough to keep him going after such a cheap trick by whatever it was that had been making the noise.
"Damn you anyway! Do you think a little darkness is going to stop me?!" With that, Steve blindly groped his way further into the cave, unable to see his own hand in front of his face.
As Steve stepped into another puddle, his feet got stuck. Whatever this stuff is, he thought, it's thick! And damned sticky! Trying to pull a foot free of the goo, Steve found he couldn't. Then horror overtook him as he realized the strange stuff was working its way up his legs! It was already up to his waist when Steve began yelling and screaming for help. Within moments, the thick black substance was covering his entire body, going inside his mouth, nose and eyes...
Steve was gagging, gasping for air. The substance was suffocating him and there wasn't a damned thing he could do about it. As he passed out from lack of oxygen to the brain, Steve's last thought was one of regret. He had failed in his goal. He'd never be as smart as he wanted to be. To his way of thinking, having failed in that was even worse than dying...
Steve awoke at the base of a stone wall sometime later, a bright light hurting his eyes when he opened them. He was surprised to see that someone had lit a couple of torches and hung them on the cavern walls. Whoever had done this, he couldn't even guess.
Still in shock from his near death experience, Steve quickly ran his hands over his body to ensure himself that first, he was still alive, and second to make sure that the black goo was no longer covering him. He was surprised once again when he learned that with the exception of a little dirt and grime, he was relatively clean.
Maybe all of that was just another illusion, he thought.
Getting up and looking around, Steve's attention focused on the stone wall. There was a hand-painted skull and crossbones above the words: All ye who enter beware! A price for those who dare! Cute, he thought. So Abe's a poet, huh?
Steve Hughes couldn't have cared less about the warning . . . for just to the right of the ominous advice was a stone door with the letters RIP inscribed near the middle. Above that was the name, "Abe."
"All right! I made it!"
The door, actually nothing more than a large headstone, was slightly ajar. Steve used the iron handle located on the left-hand side to further open the door and cautiously entered the tomb...
...and immediately tripped over something.
Steve fell face first onto the dirt floor. The taste of the rotten and mildew infested soil nauseated him. He rose to his feet and inspected the tomb as he spat out the dirt. It was then he noticed the bones he had tripped over. Steve didn't let the gruesome sight bother him and began calling out.
"Abe! Are you here? I have a wish!"
Instantly, another swirling mist appeared out of thin air. Steve noted that it was very similar to the cloudy tendrils that destroyed the zombie, except this seemed to have miniature stars - or at least lights- imbedded within the vapor. Faster and faster the mist spun until a shape took form.
It solidified into the Grim Reaper!
"WHY HAVE YOU INTRUDED, HUMAN?" the ghoul asked, appearing to be quite annoyed at being disturbed.
"I have a wish!" stated Steve as formally as he could, terrified down to his soul.
"AND THAT IS . . . ?"
Steve knew that this was the time to be VERY precise with the way he worded his request. He knew that if he screwed this up, he would be paying for his mistake the rest of his life. After a brief moment to collect his thoughts, he said, "I wish to be twice as smart as I am now. And as part of that wish, I also request that you do nothing else, including changing my normal life span or anything else not directly related with making me twice as intelligent."
Abe had always been amazed at the total arrogance and the lack of motivation with the human race in general. Here before him stood a perfectly normal human being with an above average intelligence. This human had every opportunity life had to offer and yet he refused to take the extra step and accomplish his goals on his own. He wanted it the easy way...
"SO YOU WANT TO BE SMARTER, IS THAT IT?" Abe confirmed with an attitude of humor. The spirit already knew what his price would be and how he would extract it. It humored Abe to envision the outcome.
"Yes," replied Steve, worry and doubt now surfacing when he considered the ghoul's demeanor.
"THEN I SUGGEST YOU LEAVE NOW! THAT WOULD BE THE SMART THING TO DO!"
"No! I will not leave until you have granted my wish . . . AND under the terms I have previously stated! Will you grant my wish?"
Steve Hughes awoke slowly the next morning with the knowledge that he would now be more intelligent. That had been Abe's promise - that when Steve wakes up the following day he would be twice as smart, just as the young executive had detailed in his request.
Nearly fully awake now, Steve lay on his back and tried to determine if the ghoul had kept his word. As he stared at the ceiling, Steve tried to come up with a good advertising slogan for one of his more hard-to-please accounts.
But Steve found himself thinking strangely. He couldn't make up his mind! He seemed to be having a debate . . . with himself!
Steve idly wondered if this was how it was with the brainy people of the world. Did they always have an inner debate before coming to a decision? Steve scratched his head...
...and immediately knew that something was terribly wrong! Everything felt out of place!
Jumping out of bed and running to a mirror, Steve Hughes screamed when he saw his reflection. Steve was twice as smart alright...
He now had two heads!
As he stared in horror, Steve's reflection in the mirror wavered slightly, then disappeared altogether. Slowly, Abe's image loomed in the glass, slightly distorted by a dark and ominous haze. The mirror vibrated as Steve heard the ghoul's words, "THE PRICE HAS BEEN EXTRACTED!"
"Why have you done this?!" Steve's two mouths shouted at the mirror in unison. "You were just supposed to make me twice as smart and that's all! We had a deal!"
Abe, never one to be outwitted by a mere human, would have laughed if he were mortal. Instead, he simply answered the two-headed man's question with another.
"HAVE YOU NOT HEARD THE EXPRESSION THAT TWO HEADS ARE BETTER THAN ONE?"
The look of horror on Steve's faces pleased Abe. As he watched the human plead and beg for another wish, Abe's image in the mirror vanished.
Steve fell to the floor and cried, knowing that he would remain like this, a two-headed freak, for the rest of his life.
Never Ending Terror...
Be sure to read the next story . . . Times
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E-Mail me at: CarlMerritt@compuserve.com
A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR
I will never ask for money from my readers for any stories that I put on the web. However, if you wish to show your appreciation, you can always sign my guest book. It's located on the Main Page. If you have comments you would rather not have anyone else see, you can either E-Mail me, or make the comments in the guest book a "private message." Lastly, I would like to thank you all for making Abe's Tomb one of the hottest horror sites on the web!!! The feedback I'm getting from those of you who read my stories is truly inspiring! Again . . . THANX!