The driver dropped them off at a tavern on the outskirts of the city, and Anton told him to return in two hours.
“I know this place,” Anton said to Marc. The hovercraft sped away. “The food is good here.”
Marc found himself doubting Anton’s assurances. Eating establishments on Leonis III were typically brighter, cleaner, and more modern-looking than this place. The tavern consisted of a long cinderblock structure covered by a rusted metal roof. The tavern reminded Marc of a barn or a warehouse. A weak light glowed behind its shuttered windows, which were coated with a heavy film of dust.
They entered a room filled with the smells of cooking, sweating bodies, and alcohol. The tavern’s interior was semi-dark and the air was close. Decorations were few. There was no paint on the interior brick walls. A massive wrought iron chandelier hung overhead; gaseous flames dancing inside its rings of light-globes.
Customers milled about; many appeared to be intoxicated. There was raucous laughter and apparent good humor; but several of the hooded faces at the bar turned to eye Marc suspiciously when he entered.
Marc followed Anton across the stone-tiled floor to a rough-hewn wooden table in a corner of the main room. A waitress soon spotted them and presented herself to take their order. Marc allowed Anton to order for him: he was unfamiliar with the human foods of Kelphi.
Along with the food, they also ordered a pitcher of Kelphi grog. It was bitter and sweet and mostly water, from what Marc could tell.
While they were waiting for their food to arrive, Marc queried his host about the alien race that dominated life on this planet. He was especially curious about the Kelphi he had met today.
“Does this Lord Satu have a wife?” Marc asked. “Is there a ‘Lady Satu’”?
Anton shook his head. “You are unlikely to see any female Kelphi.”
“What’s up with that? Do the males hold some grudge against the females of their own species? Do they keep them sequestered away?”
“That isn’t the case,” Anton explained. “Kelphi mating practices are a bit violent.”
“Why does that not surprise me?” Marc quipped, unable to stop himself.
Anton ignored the barb. “Immediately after mating, the Kelphi male kills the female and eats part of her. But the larva lives within the female’s carcass. The whelp quickly matures, and it lives off its mother’s flesh during the period of gestation. It finally emerges—and that is a process which few humans would consider to be pleasant, I assure you.”
“I can imagine,” Marc said, trying not to imagine.
It turned out that the Kelphi were similar to the Terran spiders in more ways than one. Spiders had been stowaways on the original pioneer ships. They were common on most of the worlds now inhabited by humans, and every human on Leonis was familiar with them.
The spider mating ritual was also violent. Among most species, it was common for the female to kill the male after copulation. The Kelphi had their own, similar version of sexual homicide—only in reverse. The male slaughtered the female.
“You don’t much like the Kelphi, do you?” Anton asked.
“What human being would? Frankly, I don’t see how you all manage to live under them, in this state of subjugation.”
“What you call subjugation we call coexistence. We have found ways to be valuable to the Kelphi. And they seldom take us as prey anymore.”
Marc stifled a snort. This was unbelievable. But he reminded himself of his obligations to his company.
And besides, he had more questions.
“What do they eat, then?”
“Other creatures—livestock that we raise for them.”
“But a Kelphi can still kill a human—eat a human, for that matter—as freely as a human can take the life of a chicken. Am I correct?”
“You are correct,” Anton allowed. “But most of the time they choose not to. Why would any rational being destroy a valuable asset?”
Because it’s hungry, Marc wanted to say—though he held his tongue. He knew that this line of discussion would only lead to trouble.
Luckily, their conversation was interrupted when a noticeable silence fell upon the room. There was a little stage in the center of the tavern, where a minstrel was preparing to perform. The minstrel was a young woman. She had pale skin—like most all of the humans on this darkened planet. Her flaxen hair was braided on either side of her head. The dress she wore was a simple, bluish garment that might have been homemade.
The minstrel sat on a small stool that had been placed in the center of the stage. She lifted a small musical instrument to her breast: a fretted lute with perhaps a dozen strings.
As the minstrel plucked the first few chords of her song, Anton nodded in recognition. The muscles in his face relaxed. Anton was apparently a connoisseur of Kelphi folk music. Marc remembered having read that this sort of entertainment was popular among the humans of this planet.
Although the minstrel was obviously trying to give a quality performance, Marc didn’t think much of her voice, her playing, or the song. But what could you expect here on Kelphi? These people had precious little to enjoy; it would therefore not take much in the way of entertainment to enthrall them.
“You seem to know this song,” Marc whispered discreetly to Anton.
“Yes. She is singing one of the ballads of Horat. Horat was a poet and thinker who lived on Kelphi about a hundred solar cycles ago—not long after the end of the human-Kelphi conflict. He chronicled the new state of peace that was established between the two races. His ideas have quite a following.”
As the minstrel plucked her lute and sang, Marc paid particular attention to the next verse:
“Submission is the path to peace
I unclench my fist, and free my mind
Come take my hand, come close my eyes
Show me the path to paradise
Resistance is the cause of pain
Surrender brings its just reward
I drop my sword, and so attain
The end of strife, release from war”
And we humans of Leonis would rather die than live as slaves, Mark thought, memories of the recent war ever-present in his mind.
Marc wanted to ask how the great poet Horat had died: Had he been devoured by one of those beasts? But he knew that such an inquiry was bound to offend his host.
The surface of Kelphi became visible as the shuttlecraft that belonged to the Rapid GeoWorks Company cleared the planet’s lowest layer of clouds. Kelphi looked more like a moon than a planet—a mostly barren landscape of waterless rivers, asteroid craters, and ancient volcanoes.
Marc’s pilot was a fellow veteran of the Leonis Defense Forces, and the two men had exchanged war stories throughout the long journey.
“Maybe I’ll like it better when I see it by day,” Marc said.
“This is the day.”
Marc sighed inside his flight helmet. The shuttlecraft rocked back and forth as the pilot applied the rearward thrusters and the ship encountered a band of turbulence.
Volcano number 1683 appeared far below, on the starboard side of the shuttle. This volcano was the reason for Marc’s presence here. A recent series of eruptions had released a huge amount of lava, and severely destabilized the southern slope of the volcano. This threatened a Kelphi mining operation.
If the volcano collapsed, the mines near its base would be flooded with lava. This would kill the thousands of humans who toiled in the mines. Marc knew that the Kelphi weren’t concerned about the potential human deaths; but the loss of the mine would mean a huge blow to their economy.
The shuttlecraft touched down in the spaceport of the Kelphi capital. It was a vast, cavernous facility without the slightest touch of ornamentation. The lighting was so insignificant that Marc nearly tripped as he exited the ship.
A pale, hooded figure approached from the murky semidarkness. A tall man with an aquiline nose and a bushy beard.
Mark knew immediately that this was Anton Cherney, his assigned human intermediary.
“Welcome to Kelphi,” Anton said, grasping Mark’s hand with a clammy grip. “Please come with me. All is prepared for your visit.”
Marc sped home through the streets of the city. He set his hovercraft to autopilot so he could allow his thoughts to drift.
His experiences from the recent war were still fresh, reddish bright memories. Flames and screaming. Men and aliens being torn asunder. The smell of scorched bodies and the smoke of a destroyed civilization.
The people of the four Leonis planets had been locked in a war for their survival, and at length they had won. Although their economies still suffered and the dead were too many to fully count, a collective sense of relief followed the war. People could begin to think about the future again.
After his discharge from the Defense Forces, Marc had returned to his home planet, Leonis III. He had saved enough ducats from his military pay to make a down payment on a house just outside the city. And then he had married Beth. She had waited so patiently for him for three solar cycles, while had been away fighting.
They had been living as husband and wife for a complete solar cycle now; but he still felt a warm rush of affection (and truth be told, outright lust) whenever he thought of her.
He had led a charmed life throughout the war; and it seemed that he would be pushing his luck if he took unnecessary risks now…
There was presently no war on Kelphi; but it was still a violent place in its own way. Marc knew the basics of the planet’s history. Kelphi had been colonized by humans centuries ago, in the wake of the first great migrations from Terra. The human colonizers of Kelphi had quickly learned that they were not alone.
In the early days of the Kelphi War, entire communities of human settlers were devoured like so many ants. The dominant native life form of Kelphi was inferior to humans in some aspects, but superior in those that counted most. Marc had heard many times that the human settlers on that dark planet had never had a chance; the outcome of the conflict was a foregone conclusion.
After their defeat, the human population of Kelphi found a way to live with their new masters. But what kind of life was that—to exist like cattle?
And then he saw the house that he and Beth shared—a modest domelike structure constructed upon a knoll that overlooked the Saris River valley. He forgot all about Kelphi and the devil’s pact under which those faraway humans lived. The war was behind him. Death was behind him. And soon the trip to Kelphi would be behind him, too.
When he entered the house, she was waiting for him. He pressed his face into her hair and absorbed the scent of her. Then her arms were around him and their bodies were entangled in a familiar, almost furious embrace. She led him into their sleeping chamber, and in a little while, he felt fully alive again.
Kevin Lang had no idea that I was anyone other than who I purported to be. In the days before I approached him at the Backstop Bar & Grill, I had let my beard stubble grow. Sitting in my rented car in the parking lot of the bar, I deliberately mussed my hair a bit, so that it looked like it had been covered by a safety helmet all day.
My assistant and sometime lover, Claire Turner, says that even when I try to look disheveled, I still look like a Calvin Klein underwear model. When I step into a role like this, I try to remember that the average 35-year-old factory worker already looks like his best years are far behind him. Well, if I looked like a Calvin Klein underwear model, then at least I looked like one who had been operating industrial machinery for the last eight or nine hours. And I was wearing the uniform of the average Joe: jeans, a tee shirt, a denim jacket, and a “Union Yes” baseball cap.
I certainly didn’t look like what I actually was: a highly paid corporate consultant, a graduate of the Wharton School of Business, and a former employee of a major East Coast consulting firm.
I stepped out of my car into the damp, cold air of an early winter afternoon in Cleveland, Ohio. I had driven to this spot in a 1999 Chevrolet Cavalier. The vehicle had 123,576 miles on its odometer, rust around the wheel wells, and a busted exterior mirror on the passenger side. The sort of transportation that a semi-employed welder named “Ben” might drive. A far cry from the Lexus LS 460 that Craig Walker owned. But then, at this moment I wasn’t Craig Walker anymore. And I would not be for the next hour or so.
I had no trouble locating Kevin Lang inside the Backstop Bar & Grill. He was seated at the bar, right where I expected him to be. I had studied Kevin’s picture dozens of times: He was an early middle-aged guy with a receding hairline, goatee, and the beginnings of a beer gut. He had a distinctive birthmark on his right cheek. Kevin’s evening routine seldom varied. I knew that from the research and surveillance work that I had paid for. Everyday he headed to the Backstop following the end of his shift. He ordered either a pizza sub or a Reuben, usually with fries or onion rings. He also downed an average of two to three beers before finally heading home for the night.
The barstool beside him was vacant, so I took it. I ordered a beer; and after a suitable amount of time I gestured to the television set above the bar and said to him:
“This is too painful to watch.”
ESPN was replaying highlights from the previous Monday’s Browns game. Cleveland had been clobbered by Cincinnati—the town that every self-respecting Clevelander loves to hate. Cleveland and Cincinnati are at opposite ends of Ohio, and the sports rivalries between the two cities are the stuff of legend.
He turned around and looked at me and gave me a double take: It was an expression that I’ve seen from a lot of women over the years, and yes, more than a few men. One of the items noted in my file on Kevin Lang was his “ambiguous sexuality.” Kevin was thirty-six and unmarried. He had no girlfriend, and we had never observed him contracting the services of an escort, picking up a streetwalker, or entering a strip bar. We had discovered that Kevin maintained a profile on a bisexual Internet dating site—a site for “bi curious” males. My researchers had been unable to confirm if this aspect of his life had progressed beyond online activity. Kevin had not logged on to the site for a number of weeks.
I resisted my reflex reaction—which was to flinch when another man appraises me like that. A key element of my success is my ability to get underneath people’s skin, to expose their weaknesses. This means that I sometimes have to be adaptable. Within limits, of course.
“I’ll say,” Kevin said. He recovered himself, and seemed vaguely embarrassed that his eyes had lingered on me a few seconds too long. He returned his attention to the television set. Like my character of the day, Kevin was a blue-collar working stiff. But whereas “Ben” was a fabrication, Kevin was the genuine article. He lifted his sandwich and took a large bite from it.
“I turned the game off during the third quarter. Not worth the time,” he said through a mouthful of food.
Kevin was an employee of a medium-sized manufacturing company called Great Lakes Fuel Systems, or GLFS for short. GLFS had recently been bought out by TP Automotive, a large automotive components conglomerate that owned various factories in twenty-three countries. TP Automotive was the company that had hired me to be here on this barstool beside Kevin.
“That’s okay,” I said, taking a sip of my beer. “At least the Monsters are doing well.” The Lake Erie Monsters are the hockey team that everyone in Cleveland follows. “I’m more into hockey, anyway.”
I noticed that Kevin was wearing a United Autoworkers tee shirt beneath his Cleveland Browns windbreaker. Although I had a job to do, I wished for Kevin’s sake that he had not embraced the UAW. TP Automotive’s management team had immediately pegged Kevin as one of the troublemakers at GLFS; but his decision to support the union had been his real undoing.
Truth be told, I didn’t like assignments like this. Most of the time, my clients hired me to go after white-collar agitators and malcontents: people who were hauling down high five-figure and even six-figure salaries, but still weren’t happy with their lot in life. I didn’t relish the idea of taking down a man like Kevin. There was an aspect of him that reminded me of my father, who had spent thirty years as a machinist in a grimy industrial plant near Dayton. Dad had been a lot like Kevin in some ways: he worked long hours in a job he tolerated, and he took his pleasures in simple pastimes like following professional sports. Nothing like my life.
But merely tolerating your job is one thing; hating it is another. Acting on your resentments and grievances is another thing still. Practically every person who I have ever targeted is one of that 71% of the population who, according to pollsters, “hates their jobs.” It is rare for a truly satisfied and dedicated employee to run afoul of their management to the degree that my services would be required. My clients pay me to handle the most intractable elements of the unhappy 71%. Employees like Kevin Lang.
They call me the Termination Man. I never really cared for that nickname; but once the moniker arose in client circles, it sort of stuck. The Termination Man inevitably calls to mind that series of movies from the 1980s and 1990s, in which a future governor of California portrays a homicidal android who goes about blasting hapless mortals to kingdom come.
There is nothing even remotely science fiction-esque about the services performed by Craig Walker Consulting, LLC. In my job, I am part lawyer, part private investigator, and part crisis management specialist.
I am called when a company wants to terminate an employee for reasons that cannot be strictly traced to job performance issues. This is more common than you might imagine—unless you have ever worked in corporate human resources, or in one of the corner offices of company management. There is a wide range of factors that might drive a corporate employer to oust one of its own.
A few years ago, every CEO and CEO-wannabe was reading a management book entitled Good to Great, by Jim Collins. The author stated that in order to succeed, a company has to “get the right people on the bus.” Otherwise, the bus—the organization—won’t go in the desired direction.
The corollary here is that a company sometimes has to get the wrong people off the bus. This is where my services become essential. I get the wrong people off the bus.
The target employee can fit a variety of profiles. He might be a rank-and-file staff professional who poisons the atmosphere with his bad attitude, turning his colleagues against management. She might be a first-tier manager who has made veiled threats about filing a frivolous sexual harassment or discrimination claim. Or he might be a union agitator, like Kevin Lang.
Kevin and I had both downed several beers when I finally made my first reference to the marijuana cigarette that was in the breast pocket of my shirt. We had already exhausted the full gamut of working-man-at-the-bar topics: professional sports, the best places to drink after work, our respective trades. I had studied up on the basics of welding the week prior; and as usual, my thoroughness paid off: It turned out that Kevin knew a thing or two about welding himself. If I hadn’t prepared, Kevin would have been able to see through my cover in a heartbeat.
“Just out of curiosity,” I began when the conversation reached a lull. “Are you 420 friendly?”
Four-twenty is a codeword for smoking marijuana, known universally within the cannabis subculture, and sporadically throughout the general population. I don’t move in cannabis circles, but a cursory Internet search informed me that the term had originated in California in 1971, when a group of high school students developed the habit of lighting up just outside the grounds of their school at 4:20 p.m.
Kevin made a perfunctory display of being mildly shocked.
“Why would you ask me something like that?”
I shrugged. “Just curious. I’ve been known to light up myself every now and then. Nothing heavy. A joint here and there. You know?”
In fact, I knew from my file that Kevin Lang was more than a little 420-friendly, though he had apparently been abstaining of late. Great Lakes Fuel Systems had tried to nail him through their ostensibly random drug testing program twice in the past three months. The results were negative both times.
“Yeah,” Kevin said with a reluctant smile. “I know. But I haven’t smoked any weed in years now. My employer is aggressive with the drug testing. By number has come up two times in the past three months.”
“Doesn’t sound very random to me,” I said.
Kevin placed his beer mug on the bar. It made a loud clapping sound. “When did I say it was random? My company doesn’t much care for me. They’d be glad to see me quit. They’d be even happier if they could can me for toking. Say—what’s the real reason why you’re asking me this? I don’t even know you, after all.”
Kevin was giving me a long, slow stare. I would have to be very careful now if I wanted to avoid arousing his suspicion.
“Okay,” I said, laying my hands flat on the bar. Luckily, the buzz of a dozen conversations and the blare of the television made our discussion virtually inaudible to others. “I’m not much of a smoker myself. But I like to dabble with it. From time to time.”
“Yeah. Keep going.”
“Well, I got my hands on some Citral the other day.”
“Citral!” Kevin said. I could tell that I had pushed the right button. Kevin’s natural sense of apprehension was weakening. “Been a long time since I’ve had any of that stuff. Where’d it come from?”
Citral is a sweet, high-grade form of marijuana that is grown mostly in Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. A favorite of European potheads, Citral is rare in the United States. And expensive.
“Bought it from a friend of a friend,” I said. “Kind of on impulse.”
“Potent?” Kevin asked.
“That’s what those little green men told me. It stretched my limits.”
Kevin laughed. “I might have seen a few green men in my smoking days. How much did you buy?”
“Well that’s the thing,” I said. “I bought two joints. The first one I smoked already. And like I said, it was a little too much for one person. I overdid it. I’ve got one left.”
“How much did you pay for them?”
“Forty for both,” I said.
“Geez,” Kevin said, wincing. “You got taken.”
“I know, I know. But I’ve still got this one left, and—”
“You were wondering if I might like to buy it,” Kevin said. “I’ve got to tell you, man: I’m not used to dropping a twenty for a single joint. A bit too rich for my blood.”
“I was thinking we might share it,” I said. “And you could give me five or ten bucks—whatever you can spare. That will defray some of my costs—and I won’t have to smoke it alone.”
I was worried for a moment that the use of a word like “defray” might be a bit out of character. But this had apparently escaped Kevin’s notice.
“It’s tempting,” he said, nodding contemplatively. “Citral is really good weed. But still—I’ve got to think about that drug testing thing.”
And now I inserted a piece of logic that would be almost impossible to argue with: “You say they already tested you twice in the last three months? And you came up negative both times? No way they’re going to hit you again in the near future. That would make them liable for harassment charges.”
“Unless I come up positive on their third try,” Kevin said.
“Yeah,” I allowed. “But it’s not like somebody from your company’s HR department is going to smoke it with us.”
Kevin paused for a moment and gave this some more thought. As I had anticipated, my argument was bulletproof.
“Sure,” he said, smiling anew. “What the hell? I may not get another chance to smoke Citral for a long time.”
The scream stopped suddenly, as if cut off or forcibly muffled. They waited for a second scream, or any other sound. A scream should not occur in isolation, with no context to explain it. A scream was usually connected to other events.
After they had waited in silence for the better part of a minute, Tony said in a loud whisper: “I think that came from the kitchen.”
Chang recalled the dark red smears that he had seen on the tablecloth.
“And I think we should leave,” he said. “There’s something about this restaurant that I don’t like. Something’s wrong here.”
“We’re not going anywhere,” Blake said. “Not until I’ve had my Peking duck. And how do you know something’s wrong here? You haven’t even tasted the food yet. So one of the cooks cut his finger on a butcher knife and he yelped. That’s all there is to it.”
Chang was about to protest when their waitress approached. She was a Chinese woman in late middle age. Her black hair was pulled into a tight bun behind her head. She was wearing too much blue eye shadow.
Chang started to ask her about the scream but Blake waved him silent. He was hungry, after all. They placed their orders. Chang ordered moo goo gai pan. Tony asked for the sweet-and-sour pork. And Chang wanted to strangle Blake as he ordered Peking duck.
“What do those characters mean?” Tony asked hurriedly as soon as the waitress departed. Tony had no doubt been uncomfortable during the heated exchange between his boss and his colleague, Chang figured. Tony was pointing to the brass-plated plaque on the far wall. The plaque was large and round, decorated not only with Chinese characters, but with depictions of dragons, and several creatures that defied classification.
“You can read Chinese characters, can’t you, Vincent?” Tony asked.
Chang nodded. “I’m a little rusty. But yes, I can, more or less.” Chang’s family had emigrated to the U.S. from China when he was only eight years old.
“It’s a coat-of-arms for a sanhehui,” Chang explained. Then, when Tony gave him a puzzled look, he elaborated. “A triad. A secret society.”
“You mean—like a criminal gang?” Tony asked.
“Not all triads are criminal in nature,” Chang said. “But some of them are.”
“Is that all it says?”
Chang read the remaining characters on the coat-of-arms, squinting because it was some distance away. When he grasped the full meaning of the characters, he felt his stomach lurch. He read the inscription again to make sure that he had not made a mistake.
Then he spoke quietly to Blake and Tony:
“We have to get out of here, guys.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Blake said. “What the heck could that thing say that could be so bad?”
Chang didn’t want to reveal what he had read. Blake would accuse him of being an idiot or worse. And that would give him more ammunition to use the next time he had one of his private conversations with Nick Porter. Blake hadn’t explained exactly what “changes” were in store for the sales department; but one thing was certain: the changes weren’t going to favor Chang.
Nevertheless—the risk of keeping silent was enormous, too. They could not remain here.
“Let’s just say it’s something bad,” Chang finally said.
“’Ancient Chinese secret’ huh?” Blake said with a singsong lilt. “Sounds like pure bullshit to me. Even if that thing does belong to some criminal gang, or Chinese commies, or whatever, they’re no threat to us. Not here, not now.”
“There’s more to it than you know, Blake.”
Blake appeared not to have even heard him. “Once when I was in Detroit,” he went on. “I ate at the very restaurant where Jimmy Hoffa was last seen alive. The place was a mafia hangout, I tell you. And nothing happened to me. Nothing. Which is exactly what is going to happen to us here. Nothing. We’re going to eat dinner, and then we’re going to get in that rental car and drive home to Cincinnati. That’s all there is to it.”
Blake smacked his palm against the tablecloth. Then he said to Tony:
“Tony, what the hell are you gawking at?”
Tony was gazing away from the table as if in a trance. Before he could answer, the sound of feminine laughter made Blake and Chang turn in the same direction.
On the far side of the dining room was a darkened doorway that led into another part of the restaurant, perhaps a spillover dining room or a section for private parties. Three young women stood in the wide space of the doorway. Each was wearing a traditional Chinese dress, or qipao.
“Damn!’ said Blake. “Those three are a sight better than the old bag who waited on us.”
The three women were making beckoning gestures. One of them spoke and giggled impishly at the table full of men.
“What did she say?” Blake asked Chang. “Come on, man. Translate!”
Chang shook his head. “I don’t know. She’s speaking in an old rural dialect. Nobody under the age of a hundred would understand it.”
“What are you saying?” Blake demanded. “Those women are all in their early twenties.”
Tony started to stand up from the table and Chang grabbed his arm and yanked him back down.
“No!” Chang said.
“But they’re so beautiful,” Tony protested. He had a dreamy expression on his face. Tony held a degree in electrical engineering; but at this moment he was like a child. “She told me that I should come to them. Then they could all kiss me and make me feel….so good.”
Blake snorted. “Sounds like Tony understands that ‘old rural dialect’ just fine.”
Ignoring Blake for the moment, Chang leaned across the table and slapped Tony across the cheek.
“Ouch! What did you do that for?” Tony shouted.
Tony was angry; but at least he had broken eye contact with the three women. He had also snapped out of his trance.
“To save your life. And maybe more. Listen to me: Don’t look into their eyes. That’s how they get you.”
Tony reappraised the three women, heeding Chang’s warning not to stare directly into their eyes. When the one in the center opened her mouth, Tony noted her long, canine incisors, and the thin trail of drying blood that ran from one corner of her mouth down to her chin.
She spoke to him. But this time he heard only incomprehensible Chinese.
“Oh my God,” Tony said. “When she spoke just a minute ago, she was speaking in the voice of this girl I had a crush on in high school and—“
“What’s wrong with you guys?” Blake said. “Are you afraid of girls now? Why don’t you go over and talk to them, Tony? Vincent’s got the excuse of the ball-and-chain at home; but you’re single. No reason to be shy.”
“Blake, you don’t get it, do you?” Tony said. “They’re—they’re—“
“They’re women!” Blake fairly yelled. “Now I see why neither one of you can make a sales presentation like a man. Neither of you is a hunter. And being a hunter starts with sex!”
Tony and Chang looked at each other in amazement. They both suddenly realized: Blake hadn’t yet grasped the situation. The women might have gotten through his defenses somehow. Or perhaps Blake was simply that dense.
“No, no, Blake. Vincent’s right; we need to get out of here!”
“Oh, that’s just great!” Blake shouted. “Now you want to leave, too. Admit it, you guys were pissed off about coming here in the first place, and now you’re trying to come up with any lame excuse to leave, because you don’t want old Blake to get his Peking duck. You wanted to eat at that stupid truck stop!”
“No,” Tony said. “You’ve got it all wrong.”
“Tony,” Blake said in cool, deliberate voice. “Aren’t you black guys supposed to be smooth with the ladies?”
“Blake, this hardly the time—“ Tony began.
“Is there something more I should know about you, Tony, my man? You’re not—you’re not a faggot or something, are you?”
“Go to hell, Blake.”
Blake pushed his chair away from the table and stood up. “I’ll have your job for that little remark,” he said. “You guys either don’t like girls, or you’re afraid of girls. So I’ll have to do the honors for all of us.”
“Blake, stop!” Chang shouted. “Let me tell you what that coat-of-arms really says.”
“I’ve had enough ancient Chinese secrets for one day, Vincent. Yo, ladies, the Blakeman is coming.”
Tony and Chang watched Blake stroll across the room to where the three women were waiting. As Blake closed the distance between them and stepped into their midst, they dropped their feminine postures. The three women became like wolves, crowding around him with bared teeth and grasping hands.
“Hey,” Blake said to one of them. “Your hands are ice cold.”
In the final few seconds, Blake understood everything, but by then it was too late. He screamed as the women dug their fangs into his throat, restraining him with the strength of ten men.
“We can’t help him,” Chang said to Tony.
“No,” Tony acknowledged.
“Let’s get out of here.”
When they rushed out of the restaurant they encountered the old man again. But he was not alone and he was no longer quite as old.
The old man was on the floor, leaning over a slightly overweight, fiftyish man clad in a business suit. Chang surmised that this might be the customer whose blood had been smeared on the tablecloth.
The fallen man’s white dress shirt was spattered with blood; the region around the collar was drenched in red liquid.
The old Chinese man dipped his head and placed his mouth to an open wound on the victim’s neck. He glanced up when Chang and Tony hustled by. The old man now looked thirty years younger than he had earlier. His wrinkles were all but gone. His previously patchy white hair was now thick and black.
The Chinese man bared his incisors at Chang and Tony and growled. The resulting snarl summoned thoughts of wolves and other predators that civilization had mostly eliminated. The sound could not have been produced by human vocal chords.
One of the customer’s wing-tipped feet jerked.
“Keep moving,” Chang said as he shoved Tony forward. There’s nothing more we can do here.”
On the way out they both glanced at the statue of the dragon that had earlier impressed them so much. The dragon’s blank eyes still flickered with candlelight.
“What are we going to do?” Tony asked Chang when the Wallachia exit was about thirty miles behind them. “We have to tell someone—someone in authority—what happened.”
As before, Chang was in the driver’s seat of the Chevrolet Malibu and Tony was riding shotgun.
The back seat was empty.
“We’ll need to come up with a cover story,” Chang said at length.
“But Vincent, you saw what happened to Blake. You saw the man in the front of the restaurant. They’ve been killed…”
“By vampires,” Chang finished the thought for him, uttering the word that both of them had avoided until this point. “And what do you think the state police will say when we tell them what we saw? Let alone the local yokel cops in Wallachia, Ohio.”
Since Tony did not know about the triad whose coat-of-arms had been hanging in the restaurant, Chang took some time to fill in the details. He told Tony that residents of China’s rural Anhui province had whispered about a secret society of the undead for centuries. Chang told him how the triad habitually ensnared its victims: They made deserted buildings and caves look like inns and taverns, using a combination of earthly artifice and black magic. Then, when they had taken their quota in a given location, they dismantled their temporary lairs and moved on.
“So you’re saying that really wasn’t a restaurant?” Tony asked.
Chang smiled ironically. “It was for as long as they needed it to be,” he said. “But if someone stopped by there tomorrow, they’d likely find nothing but a deserted building, or an empty warehouse, or an old barn.”
“So we’ll have to say that we stopped at the truck stop and Blake took off and we never saw him again,” Chang said. “It sounds a little farfetched, but people disappear like that all the time.”
“Just like Jimmy Hoffa,” Tony added, recalling Blake’s mention of the infamous restaurant in Detroit.
“I’m not happy about doing it this way; but we don’t have any choice, do we? And there’s nothing we can do for Blake now.”
On the subject of Blake, Chang knew that that there was more that Tony needed to hear and understand; but it could wait a day or two.
They had always regarded Blake Lewis as a nightmare of a boss; and now that metaphor would take on a more literal meaning. The victims of the undead do not sleep; they return to claim victims of their own. And the nosferatu habitually prey on those they knew in life. Chang and Tony would therefore need to take precautions. If possible, they would also need to anonymously warn Nick Porter and his daughter, Julie. This last item would be difficult, of course. The Porters would dismiss any such warning as a hoax or a cruel joke.
I’ll address those questions tomorrow, Chang thought. He tried to push away the enormity of what he had witnessed, if only for a while. Tonight he would have a late dinner at home with his wife. Then he would watch his daughter sleep for a few minutes from the doorway of her bedroom.
The man seated at the bar was making Carla Marsh more than a little nervous, even as she studiously tried to ignore him. Go away, she thought. Just leave me alone. The last thing I need tonight is to attract the attention of a weirdo.
It had been a rough week at school. Carla’s GPA was hovering perilously close to the lower threshold of the 3.0 mark. She had promised her parents that she would maintain a GPA of at least 3.1. Maybe I’ve been going out a bit too much this semester, she thought. She wasn’t a heavy drinker—not compared to some people, at least—but it was hard not to get swept up in the hubbub of campus social life. More than 50,000 students attended the Ohio State University. There were so many people to meet. So much going on.
Of course, there were some bad apples in that cast of fifty thousand. Carla looked up from the glass of beer that she had purchased with a fake ID, the one that gave her age as twenty-one—rather than her true age of twenty.
The weirdo was still giving her the eye.
She considered glaring at him or even giving him the finger, and then thought better of it. Sooner or later he would find another target to obsess upon. She wasn’t the only unescorted woman in the room, after all. Far from it. The Buckeye Lounge was an off-campus drinking establishment, and by definition, therefore, a meet market. Young men and women in their late teens and early twenties milled about everywhere. Lots of mingling going on. Dozens of young men hoping to get lucky tonight. Carla reflected—not for the first time since men had starting noticing her—that the entire bar and entertainment industry would probably collapse if not for horny young men.
That was really what it was all about, wasn’t it? Practically all of the young men here were on the prowl in one way or another.
And that explained the noise—the sheer excess of it: When college-aged men wanted to impress women, Carla had noticed, they seldom did it quietly. A few tables away, a guy wearing an Ohio State sweatshirt was responding to one of his companion’s jokes with exaggerated laughter. As if playing the role of a loud drunk were the best way to make yourself attractive to the opposite sex. You aren’t going to get laid that way, buddy, Carla thought.
She returned her gaze to the bar: The young man—the weirdo—was still looking at her.
Since he was looking at her, she took a moment to look back at him, to assess him: He had the generally tall and broad-shouldered build of an athlete. But something told Carla that this one was no member of the football or basketball team. He didn’t look like the type to associate himself with teams or groups, and he was definitely alone tonight. Jocks usually traveled in packs; and come to think of it—so did most everyone else. On the campus bar scene, loners were rare. And the weirdo was obviously a loner.
This wasn’t the first time that Carla had been ogled by an anonymous male in such a venue, and probably not the hundredth time, either. That much went with the territory––especially when you were twenty years old, female, and more than a little attractive.
But something about the lone man seated at the bar was different. Unlike other would-be campus lotharios, he was making no effort to be either furtive or flirtatious. He simply stared at her over the rim of his beer mug, fixing her with half-lidded eyes, and a smile that was somehow knowing. He seemed to be claiming his possession of her, even though they had never even met. He definitely wasn’t her type. Not that he was a bad-looking guy—not really. But he was creepy. Way too creepy.
“Carla, what the hell’s up with you?” Jill Johnson asked her, having noticed her distraction. “Have you had too much to drink?” Jill was seated across from her at the small table that the two of them shared. But Jill was seated with her back to the weirdo. She couldn’t see him.
“Are you drunk?” Jill persisted.
Jill was half-drunk herself, but she knew that something was up. Jill always seemed to know when something was up with her. Jill was Carla’s best friend in the world, and a fellow native of Cleveland. Less than two years ago, the two of them had headed off for OSU together. They were roommates and shared many of the same classes. Watch out for Jill at college, the other girl’s mother had told Carla. Make sure that she doesn’t get into trouble at OSU. Both sets of parents acknowledged that Carla was the more responsible member of the pair.
But now Carla was the one with a problem, and he was seated at the bar only a few yards from their table. Since Carla had known Jill forever, her friend was able to discern that she was seriously spooked. They seemed to share a wordless sense of mutual understanding.
In her Japanese 101 class, Carla had learned that the Japanese referred to this as inshin-denshin—“an unconscious sharing of the minds between two individuals”—or something like that. She had taught Jill the term and it had become a running joke between them.
“I’m getting those inshin-denshin vibes from you,” Jill said. “So what’s up? Is something wrong?”
Carla reached across the little barroom table and placed her hand gently atop Jill’s wrist. For some reason that she could not completely identify, it seemed necessary to play it cool, to conceal her alarm from the man at the bar. Carla was suddenly certain that if she revealed her fear, the young man would exploit it to his advantage.
“Don’t make a big deal of it,” Carla said. “But take a casual look at that guy seated at the bar.” For once Carla was grateful for the excessive noise in the Buckeye Lounge. The blare of the jukebox and the incessant clamor of voices gave her more freedom to talk. The constant din assured that the man at the bar would not overhear her—even if he was able to maintain his surveillance.
Jill turned around—less discreetly than Carla would have preferred—and then turned back.
“Oh, I’ve seen him around campus,” Jill said, nonchalant. Apparently the weirdo didn’t disturb her as much as he disturbed Carla.
“You know him?”
“No, not exactly. I think I had a class with him last semester.” Jill paused for a moment to think, with the deliberate effort that intoxicated people often require. “Yeah—that’s it. Someone mentioned that his father is rich. A big executive at some company. I never got his name, though. But, oh—now I remember—he was in my abnormal psychology class.”
“How apropos,” Carla said.
“He really isn’t a bad-looking guy,” Jill said. “Just a little weird. Very intense.”
And now that she got a better look at him, Carla noticed once again that he wasn’t all that bad-looking. No, not at all. He was seated; but she imagined that he would be more than six feet tall when standing. She had always had a weakness for tall men.
But not this one.
“He might not be bad-looking,” Carla said in a low voice. “But that staring routine of his is kind of a deal killer. And something about him looks, well—mean, too.”
Mean? Carla thought, wondering if that was the right word. Lots of her girlfriends were mean. She was mean sometimes herself. But the weirdo looked capable of physically hurting someone. That represented a different level of mean.
She felt a chill begin to creep up her spine and stopped herself: Don’t let your imagination get the best of you, girl.This guy is definitely an oddball; but that doesn’t make him dangerous.
Jill merely shrugged at the suggestion that the stranger might have a truly dark side. Carla sighed: her friend had always had a soft spot for the bad boy types.
Their conversation was suddenly interrupted by a burst of feminine laughter. Then their drinks nearly slid onto the floor as someone practically fell upon their table.
“Tina!” Carla said—half in amusement, half in annoyance. Only a quick reaction on her part kept the table from tipping over. Carla was gripping both sides of the table now, feeling like an Atlas trying to hold the world aloft. The young woman leaning on the wooden surface weighed perhaps ninety pounds soaking wet; but it was difficult to keep the table righted with all of her weight on it. “Tina, stand up! I can’t hold you and the table both.”
Tina responded by moving to a crouching position. Carla was now supporting perhaps a third of her weight.
Tina Shields was a young woman with whom she had shared a number of classes. The two of them had gotten to be casual friends. Not close friends, though. Tina moved in wilder circles than either Carla or Jill. There were persistent rumors about her sleeping around a lot—and she had a reputation as a bit of a drunk. Well, more than a bit of a drunk. Carla didn’t know about the sleeping around; but Tina Shields most definitely had a drinking problem.
“Tina! You’ve got to watch where you’re going!” Carla said, helping the other young woman lift her head from the table.
The baby-faced coed didn’t look old enough to be legally drinking in the state of Ohio. In fact, she barely looked old enough to have a high school diploma.
Carla didn’t want to play the prude; but it seemed incumbent on her to impart a word of caution. As Jill’s mother had long recognized, she was the responsible one, after all.
“My God, Tina. You look so sweet and innocent,” Carla said. “You keep stumbling around like that, and one of these guys in here is going to take advantage of you.”
“Maybe so,” Tina said, smiling vacantly. She righted herself onto wobbly legs. She gave Carla and Jill a little mock salute, and then moved on, becoming lost in the crowd.
“Who was that?” Jill asked.
“Tina Shields.” Carla shook her head and smiled. “Tina likes to party.”
They laughed, because there was nothing else to do about Tina Shields but shake your head and laugh. But the situation really wasn’t funny, Carla reflected. A girl like Tina Shields could come to a bad end in all sorts of ways. She needed help.
“Am I interrupting something?” a male voice said.
Disrupted by Tina Shields, Carla had almost forgotten about the weirdo at the bar. But when she looked up, there he was—no longer at the bar—but standing at their table. She had been too distracted to notice his approach.
He smiled—though it wasn’t a friendly smile. Nor did he appear to be the least bit nervous, as most men would be when approaching two unfamiliar females in a drinking establishment.
“What do you want?” Carla asked. “We’ve both noticed that you’ve been staring at us for the entire night.”
“What do I want?” he repeated. “Well, let me tell you.”
He proceeded to describe a sexual act that involved both of them—along with him, of course. This, too, was delivered deadpan, without the slightest hint of humor, shame, or empathy.
“I think that would hurt,” Carla said. “Not to mention the fact that it would be more than a little disgusting. Especially with you involved.”
There, Carla thought. That should be enough to get rid of him.
However, he did not seem to be content to take no for an answer.
“I’ll give you one chance to take that back,” he said.
Oh, the nerve of this guy.Who did he think he was? Jill had said something about his father being a rich big shot. Well, Carla didn’t care.
When a couple walked by—a man and a woman—she was suddenly seized by an inspiration.
“Excuse me!” she called out, catching their attention. The age and dress of the couple revealed them to be students, although she did not recognize them. No matter. “This guy here—” She indicated the man standing at their table. “He seems to get off on approaching unknown women and making perverted suggestions. What do you think of that?”
The male half of the couple took one look at Carla and Jill’s unwanted visitor. He shook his head and said, “That is so not cool.” The woman advised the intruder not to be a “loser.” The young couple showed no interest in involving themselves any further. After making these brief remarks they continued on.
But Carla could tell that the exchange had produced its desired effect. No young man wants to be called a “loser”—especially when the person assigning the label is an attractive young female. The word “loser” had made him flinch, like a slap across the face.
There, she thought. Humiliate him in front of all these others, make him feel like a total asshole. That’ll teach him a lesson.
Now Carla and Jill were alone with him again. Carla could see that the young man was shaking—not with fear, but with rage. His cheeks were crimson, and his hands were balled into fists. He stared first at her, then at Jill, his eyes seeming to bore through them.
“You ungrateful bitches,” he finally said.
“Oh, why don’t you get over yourself?” Carla shot back. She was still afraid, sure—but she felt her courage returning. This guy had been trying to play some serious head games with them. And clearly she had found a chink in his armor: the threat of public humiliation. Let him try to play the physical intimidation card. Let him just try. What could he really do to them, here in the middle of all these people? The bar was crowded, and she could easily humiliate him even more if necessary.
“You’ll regret this,” he said, just loud enough for both of them to hear.
“I already do,” Carla said. “Believe me.”
“Hey,” Jill said, speaking to their unwanted visitor for the first time. “Why don’t you go back to the bar, huh? Leave us alone. Can’t you see you’re not wanted here?”
And then—somewhat to Carla’s surprise—he did exactly that. He abruptly turned his back on them and walked away, though he didn’t return to his spot at the bar. They watched him disappear into the crowd.
“That was spooky,” Jill said when he was finally gone.
“That was annoying,” Carla said. In truth, she had also found the incident more than a little spooky. But she didn’t want to acknowledge the fear that was making her tremble right now; that would only be a way of giving the young man more power over them. He had surprised them—caught them both when they were off guard; that was all. He was nothing but an essentially harmless creep who had shrunk away at the first sign of determined resistance. “But he’s gone now.”
“You think so?” Jill asked. “You think that’s the end of it?”
Jill had a point. The stalker types often disappeared momentarily when rebuffed, only to make an unexpected appearance at a later time. You could never be sure. However, Carla had no intention of allowing the young man to afflict her with a lingering case of the heebie-jeebies. He would not get under her skin.
“We’ll never see him again,” she said. “Come on, let’s get out of here. I’ve had enough social intercourse for one night.”
“I think it’s safe to say that that guy had more than social intercourse on his mind,” Jill said. And Carla thought: Yes, I suppose it’s good that we can make light of it. Joking about it diminishes that creep’s power over us.
They stood up; the atmosphere of the Buckeye Lounge had been ruined for them—at least for tonight. As Carla pushed her empty chair under the table, she noticed the heavily intoxicated coed who had nearly fallen into their laps only a few minutes ago. Tina Shields nodded at her when their eyes met. Tina was seated in a beanbag chair that was pushed against the adjacent wall, giving her an unobstructed view of the table that she and Jill were vacating. Tina Shields probably observed the entire exchange between them and the weirdo.
Take care of yourself, Tina, Carla thought. But I have a feeling that you’re destined to come to a bad end. And then to Jill she said: “I think I need to lay off of the drinking for a while.”
* * *
From the Columbus Dispatch, November, 1996
Two OSU Students found Bludgeoned to Death in Apartment Near Campus
Jill Johnson and Carla Marsh, both 20, were found dead Sunday morning in their off-campus apartment on North High Street in Columbus. A spokesperson from the Columbus Police Division (CPD) stated that both young women died from multiple blunt force trauma wounds.
CPD investigators believe that the women were killed the previous Friday night. As the investigation is ongoing, the CPD has declined to give additional details regarding either the murders or the crime scene.
Johnson and Marsh were both Cleveland natives. Both were students at the Ohio State University.
The landlord of the two young women, 57-year-old Leonard Gates, discovered the bodies at approximately 9:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, after using his master key to enter their apartment.
Gates had received a series of concerned phone calls from one of the young women’s parents, who were concerned because their daughter was not answering her telephone or responding to voice messages.
For Lee the sound of helicopters would forever have an association with Iraq, But the helicopter was no Marine Corps bird. This was a Kentucky State Police helicopter. It was making wide circles across the fields and forests, following a general trajectory down the highway.
Perhaps Phelps had not pursued him into woods, after all. The sheriff had chosen to work smart rather than hard. Lee could appreciate the reasoning of his adversary. The sheriff would have looked more heroic if he had engaged in a foot chase. But that would have ultimately been fruitless. Lee was both younger and fitter. He had had a head start on the lawman. Phelps had no doubt taken these factors into account. He was thinking strategically rather than emotionally.
And now Lee had to control his own emotions if he intended to keep his life and his freedom.
There would be two men—possibly three—circling above him in the helicopter. He imagined them looking down on him through a pair of binoculars. Yes, that’s the man, they would be saying. He’s the one who killed those two people in that trailer.
If he fled across the field into the woods, he would draw the helicopter down upon him. A lone man racing across an empty field would not go unnoticed from their vantage point. They would descend upon him and call in more units and drive him into a noose.
Nor could he go back the way he came. And yet, he would draw attention if he merely walked down the highway.
A short ways down the road was a feed and agricultural supply store. Surely the general citizenry would not be alerted of his fugitive status yet. He could go in there and mill about for five or ten minutes, pretending to be another shopper. By that time the helicopter would be gone.
The aircraft made another circle in the general area above him. Had he already caught their attention?
He began to walk toward the agricultural supply store, his steps as deliberate and natural as he could manage them. There was a sign in the parking lot that advertised special pricing on herbicides. Another sign declared a deal on a device that captured carpenter bees.
Lee was within a few yards of the parking lot when he realized that the .45 was still jammed in his belt.
A pickup truck rolled past him from behind, slowed, and idled into the parking space near the front entrance of the store. What a damn fool he had been; the gun would have been in clearly visible from the front seat of the truck. Lee was lucky if the driver had not seen it, in fact; hopefully he had not been paying attention.
A sunburned man clad in jeans, a stained tee shirt, and John Deere cap climbed out of the parked pickup truck and walked through the front entrance of the supply store without giving Lee so much as a glance. He had been lucky; but he had to do something about the gun before another vehicle drove past.
The sound of the helicopter’s engine seemed to grow louder as it roared overhead again. He risked a brief glance at the sky: The chopper was moving away from him now, though he knew it would circle back, sweeping the area in a series of wide, gradually shifting arcs.
There was a culvert at the edge of the parking lot. Lee did his best to ascertain that no one was watching him. Then reached behind his back and removed the gun from his belt. He knelt and pretended to tie one of his boot strings. He slid the gun into the mouth of the drainage pipe, and pushed it far enough into the corrugated steel opening so that no one would notice it.
Then he stood up. The police helicopter was growing louder again. Hopefully the men above him had not noticed the lone figure stooping to push an object into a drainage pipe.
Lee crammed his hands into his pockets and walked toward the main entrance of the store. Two other shoppers walked past him, exiting the store: one with a bag of seed slung over his shoulder, another carrying a newly purchased shovel and hoe. Neither man was familiar.
The automatic glass door slid open and Lee stepped into the air-conditioned interior. The floors were bare concrete and the main area of the store was a maze of pallets: Many of the items that farmers bought were packaged in bulky sacks, bundles, and buckets. The pallets were stacked waist-high or shoulder-high. Along the outer perimeter of the main room were shelves of smaller items: hand tools and containers of insecticide, work gloves and spare parts for farm equipment.
At the back of the customer area was a television mounted near the ceiling on a steel frame. A group of three men and one woman were gathered around the set.
I need to kill about five or ten minutes in here, Lee thought. Just enough time for the police helicopter to move on. Lee prayed that none of the shoppers would recognize him. Of course, he had many friends and acquaintances in the county, and his picture had recently been in the paper following his return from Iraq.
Lee buried his face in a newspaper-sized promotional circular that was lying on an adjacent stack of boxes. The boxes contained a chemical fertilizer that was—according to the words printed on the cardboard—specially formulated for use on soybeans. The circular had been printed by the Burpee seed company.
He pretended to divide his attention between the circular and the television set. This strategy, he decided, would make him less noticeable than a deliberate and obvious effort at seclusion. He stood just outside the gaggle of shoppers watching the television.
The broadcast was a news magazine talk show of some sort. The show’s host was interviewing a middle-aged, bearded author. When the camera panned on the interview subject, the man’s name and source of distinction were identified by electronically generated letters: “Brett St. Croix, author of The Death Factory: How the U.S. Military Turns American Youths into Killers”
The interview had apparently been underway for a while, and St. Croix was in the middle making a particular argument.
“Militant Islam is nothing more than a reaction against Western interventionism!” St. Croix declared. The camera angle shifted from the author and the host to the studio audience. The author’s comments elicited a few groans from the crowd—but these groans were drowned out by a larger volume of cheers. “And we shouldn’t be intervening in the Middle East!”
Lee was in no mood for politics at the moment; but he found himself, ironically, welcoming the distraction from his more immediate predicament.
By God, I agree with you, Lee thought, repeating the author’s last statement in his own mind. Though for an entirely different set of reasons.
Hawkins County was red-blooded patriot territory; but Lee knew that the war in Iraq had been less than popular in many quarters of the country at large. He had seen the protesters on television and on the Internet. In fact, he had watched more than a few news reports of these protests while in Iraq. There was a television in the rec room of the fortified compound that had been his home in Iraq. On more than one occasion, he had subjected himself to the irony of these televised protests against the war, only hours or minutes before the Marine Corps subjected him to the real thing.
The protesters don’t get it, Lee thought. Even when they are right, they are right by accident.
There were perspectives on militant Islam and great power intervention that the media mostly chose to ignore. Lee remembered one particular Iraqi village that he and his fellow marines had entered during an anti-insurgent sweep. They had found no al-Qaeda in the village; but they had found something else that made Lee question the ultimate success and meaning of the U.S. mission in Iraq.
In the center of the village a group of men had been gathered around the body of teenaged girl. Her arms were bound around her waist. To Lee’s horror, the girl had been buried up to her waist in the sand so that the men could more easily pelt her to death with rocks.
The girl had already been dead by the time the marines arrived. The village men were in the last stages of their rock-throwing. A few members of Lee’s squad had fired in the air to make them stop. The marine interpreter had shouted at the male villagers, demanding an explanation.
There was much shouting, and more than a few threats hurled in both directions. Gradually the story came together. The sixteen-year-old girl had been married off to a man three times her age. Her father had wanted a choice patch of land that belonged to the prospective groom, who already had two middle-aged wives and four children who were older than his new bride.
Apparently the young girl had been quite beautiful, and she had attracted many admirers. Trouble had arisen when the girl’s husband had decided that she was too flirtatious with a young man in the village. Nothing had ever been proven; but there were damning accusations. The young man had fled one night in terror. The girl had remained to face the summary justice of the Quran. Her father and her estranged husband were among the men who had thrown the stones.
There was nothing about the girl that looked flirtatious or beautiful now, with half of her torso buried in the sand, her hair matted with blood, her face a mass of contusions.
Is this the society that we are fighting to preserve? Lee had thought, as he looked at the smashed concavity that had once been the nose of the young girl. Is this what I am risking my life for?
Standing in the feed store now, Lee recalled the dark, violent impulse that had seized him in that moment, as he had looked from the crushed, swollen face of the teenage girl to the sullen faces of her male executioners. He had wanted to gun down all of those men who had thrown the stones, to slaughter them in a righteous fury of the Old Testament variety. In the end he had restrained himself; but there had been moments since then when he had wished he had killed them—every last one of them.
These reminiscences came to an abrupt stop when there was a sudden change in the programming. The talk show was interrupted by a news bulletin.
Lee didn’t wait to hear if the news broadcaster mentioned his name, or to see if they flashed a photo of him across the screen. No doubt that would come with time. He turned as soon as soon as he heard the words “multiple shootings” and the name of the trailer park.
On the way out he bumped into a man who looked familiar. He greeted Lee with a smile. “Say aren’t you?” he began—for this man had not seen the images on the television.
Lee nodded and brushed past him, then out the main entrance of the store. He scanned the sky: there was no helicopter in the burnt blue haze, and its sound was gone as well.
He knelt by the culvert and quickly pulled the gun from the drainage pipe. He shoved it into his belt and stepped onto the two-lane highway. There was the screech of brakes, and a horn blared. Lee leapt aside as the driver of an old Ford Mustang shook his fist and accelerated again. Watch where the hell you’re going he shouted, mouthing the words through his windshield as Lee, more than a little dazed, silently stared back at him.
Back into the woods again. Lee had no idea where he was going now—except that he was still traveling south. It would be about noon: He allowed himself a brief glance upward and saw that the sunlight filtering through the tree leaves was intense, burning the outlines of branches into negative images across his retinas.
Perhaps he had made a mistake in leaving Tradd’s gun where the young father could find it. Tradd might be tracking a short distance behind him even now, as the law was surely tracking him.
He passed a deer blind that was suspended about a foot off the ground. There would be no hunters in June but the deer blind spooked him nonetheless: It reminded him of a machine gun pillbox on four wooden legs: He imagined Sheriff Phelps taking aim at him, sliding a rifle out from the wooden structure’s firing slit.
Was the image a premonition?Was that how this was all going to end? A bird darted across a shaft of sunlight in the middle of the trail and Lee started, expecting Tradd or Sheriff Phelps or perhaps someone else.
Calm down, he told himself. You have to think. You have to get your wits about you.
Lee also found that he was haunted by the parting look that the boy, Zack, had given him. He pictured the young boy telling his grandchildren about the incident someday, the way that old-timers sometimes told stories about chance encounters with famous outlaws from the 1920s. He knew that he was no John Dillinger or Baby Face Nelson; and at this exact hour much of the county still regarded him as a war hero. But that collective opinion of him would surely change—just as Tradd’s opinion of him had shifted in the flicker of an instant. The false accusations and the circumstantial evidence would be enough to damn him in most people’s minds.
Whatever Lee’s true motivations, whatever the truth of what had happened in the trailer, the young father would recall only one fact: that Lee had held a gun on him and, by extension, his family. And when the law learned of the incident it would only add to the weight of his apparent guilt. He was going to end up dead or behind bars—and probably dead—through a series of his own miscalculations and plain bad luck.
The trail descended and rose again and the woods abruptly ended. Beyond the woods was not the uncut meadow or cultivated field that he might have expected, but a stripped landscape of dirt and uprooted trees. The land had been cleared in a wide semicircle, and the uncomfortable fantasy of being an outlaw in the woods gave way to an even more uncomfortable reality: He was an outlaw in the open daylight.
Lee heard the sounds of the heavy equipment before he saw the men working: A county work crew was adding an extension to Route 257: The new road would pass by the campground where Lee had been an unwelcome guest at the campsite of Tradd and his family.
He sensed that he was walking into a bad situation; but once again going back the way he had come was not an option. Lee walked forward, trying his best to appear nonchalant, hoping that he would be able to make his way without attracting attention. It was a hope that soon proved futile.
“Hey, you can’t cut through here!” the leader of the work crew shouted at Lee above the rumbling of a road grader. He was in his early fifties and he had a considerable paunch. He badly needed a shave and a cigarette dangled from his lips. The crew leader had been talking to the crewman operating the grader when he noticed Lee. The massive yellow machine was about to transform a strip of this bumpy field into a more level surface that would become the next increment of the Route 257 extension. Black smoke belched from the machine’s vertical exhaust pipe.
The crew leader signaled for the crewman operating the road grader to hold on for a moment. He came jiggling over to Lee, shaking his head and muttering beneath his breath—no doubt cursing this fool who didn’t have the sense to stay away from a construction site.
“You can’t cut through here!” the crew leader said. He was close enough for Lee to smell the man’s sweat and the cigarette.
The .45 was tucked in the waistband of Lee’s pants at the small of his back. Lee did not think that any of the county work crew members were close enough to notice the outline of the gun beneath his shirt. But they were pausing their tasks and gawking now, as men engaged in tedious work will do in the presence of any unexpected diversion.
“I’ll stay away from the equipment,” Lee said. He knew that these words would not placate the man even before they were out of his mouth.
“No, you don’t understand,” the crew leader said. “This is a restricted area. You get hurt here and the county is liable. That would mean my ass and probably my job. I’m not going to lose my job because some fella wants to take a hike through the woods.”
“I’m just passing through,” Lee said.
The operator of the road grader had now killed the engine of his machine and was climbing down from the cab.
The crew boss removed his cigarette from his mouth, turned his head and spat in the dirt. “I can’t let you through here. Look—we’ve got pits and trip hazards all over the place. This is a dangerous area.”
I’ve witnessed a double murder, for which I’m now on the run, and this guy wants me to concern myself with “trip hazards” Lee thought.
Nevertheless, Lee was now facing a potential confrontation with two men, as the crewman from the road grader was beginning to walk toward him. He was a large man who looked like he had a temper—the sort of guy who regularly engaged in knock-down-drag-out bar fights on Friday nights—just for fun.
“What’s the matter, dude? You hard a hearin’?” the road grader driver called out. “You’re in a restricted area.”
A few more exchanges of words and there might be a real confrontation, Lee realized. He had the .45 of course, and the crew boss would back down in an instant if he saw it. But that would expose his presence to yet another set of witnesses. And the crewman from the road grader might call Lee’s bluff. Some men were daring and stupid enough to charge a loaded firearm.
“Tell me where I can go,” Lee said.
“Now that’s the spirit,” the crew boss said. “You got two choices: Go back in the direction you came from, or take that road outta here.” He jabbed a thumb toward a gently declining hill at the edge of the construction area. Lee could see pavement through the breaks in the trees.
Since Lee could not retrace his steps in the direction of Tradd, he would have to go down the hill, then.
He eased his way backward, taking short steps so that he would not take a pratfall and then roll down the hill. The road crew probably interpreted this maneuver as fear of an attack. In reality, this was the only way Lee could keep them from seeing the .45.
“Show’s over!” the crew boss shouted to his subordinates, seeing that Lee was going. “Back to work!”
Lee walked through a short band of trees and undergrowth and came out on a two-lane highway. His first impulse was to head for the grassy expanse on the opposite side of the road. Another forest lay beyond it.
Then he heard the thucka-thucka of the helicopter.
Last September, the folks over at Forbes wrote a story about Wattpad and its highly exploitive (though completely voluntary) business model:
Wattpad has more than 4 million writers, who post an average of 300,000 pieces a day. The company brings in an estimated $19 million in revenue, mostly from ads on its site and from stories sponsored by companies like Unilever who want to advertise alongside a specific writer or genre. Nearly all its writers are unpaid; several hundred make money from ad-sharing revenue and 200 of those also earn from writing sponsored content and inking publishing deals with Wattpad. That lean business model means Wattpad is profitable. It has few costs beyond bandwidth, its 130 employees and the Toronto offices. The model “is a great way to seek talent without having to pay huge amounts for it,” says Lorraine Shanley, a publishing industry consultant.
Forbes, September 2018
4 million writers, and only a minuscule number (about .005%) make any money for their efforts.
I have nothing against the concept of web fiction, web serials, or posting fiction for free on the Internet. Much of the content of this site, after all, is web fiction. (I have my own little Wattpad going on here.)
But the defining characteristic of digital sharecropping is the socialization of effort, and the privatization of rewards. Wattpad earns $19 million in revenue, because writers choose to post their fiction there, rather than writing on their own sites.
I can already anticipate your “but….” rebuttals.
Yes, I realize that only a handful of these writers, if they created their own web presences, would garner any appreciable audience, or earn any real revenue. But let me ask you: How much chance do most writers have on Wattpad, amid 4 million other writers, posting 300,000 pieces per day?
The odds of genuine success are about the same either way. The writers who are standing out on Wattpad could, with a bit of effort, stand out on their own online platforms. And then they would make a whole lot more money than Wattpad is paying them, you can be sure. Even more importantly, they would control their own platforms.
Digital sharecropping works because too many creative types are desperately slavering for any form of immediate recognition, like a thirteen year-old boy hopelessly infatuated with an eighteen year-old girl.
Look at me! Look at me now! …A like on a Facebook post! A retweet! A like on a YouTube video! Oh, any form of recognition will do! Pleeeeaaase!
The owners of the social media giants understand this weakness of all creative people, and they eagerly exploit it.
Resist. If you can’t afford your own independently hosted WordPress site, then start a free blog on Google’s blogger platform.
Yes, Google ultimately controls Blogger. But there you at least have some independence. (You can also run your own affiliate links, and eventually qualify for Adsense revenue).
Whatever you do—if you’re a writer—don’t post your fiction on Wattpad. Don’t be a sucker.
Just as Facebook and Twitter have become the cancer that destroyed blogging, so Wattpad has become the cancer that threatens to destroy independently published web fiction.
It was Friday evening and time to depart. The weather was clear, warm, and sunny. It would be a good night for an eleven-mile walk. Go for a walk, take some video footage, and make some thoughtful commentary. Then collect two thousand dollars. It sounded like a plan.
The shadows were lengthening by the time Jason loaded his backpack full of video-related equipment and other essentials into the back seat of his car. It was after eight o’clock; but the longest day of the year, the summer solstice, was only a few weeks away. He would be driving in at least marginal daylight all the way to Wagosh.
His 1997 Ford Taurus thankfully started. He noticed that the engine was making an odd ticking sound—probably something with the timing belt. It might be a good idea to allocate the money that he would earn from this job toward the purchase of a new vehicle. There were limits to what you could expect from a fifteen-year-old car, after all.
At this hour, the streets in the immediate vicinity of campus were comparatively lonely. Jason drove through a long stretch of inner-city neighborhoods on his way to the I-71 onramp. As he traveled farther away from campus, the neighborhoods became more rundown, and the faces that he saw were distinctly less welcoming. Pedestrians on either side of the street gave him long, vaguely hostile looks—or at least that was what he imagined.
Jason was a relative liberal, politically speaking. Both of his parents habitually voted Democrat—and this was one area in which Jason and his parents were in agreement. He was a progressive from progressive origins. An “Obama 2012” sticker dominated the rear bumper of his car.
Nevertheless, when driving through certain parts of Cincinnati, he felt some racially tinged anxieties that made him feel simultaneously ashamed and defensive. It was a stupid reflex, really, he believed—something that would not have occurred to him in Columbus. But Cincinnati was different.
Eleven years ago, Cincinnati had been the scene of bloody riots, following the fatal shooting of an unarmed African-American man who had fled from police. During four days in April of 2001, rioters in inner-city Cincinnati attacked random passersby and sacked local businesses. It became the worst instance of urban violence in America since the 1992 L.A. riots, exactly nine years earlier.
Like the shooting of the unarmed fugitive that preceded them, the Cincinnati riots had been marked by intense racial overtones. A disproportionate number of the mostly African-American rioters’ victims had been white. Local news stations recorded dozens of interviews of random white residents who were pummeled by mobs that day, their only offense being their presence downtown. Jason had been a kid then; but many of these videos were still available on websites like YouTube.
The situation grew even worse in Cincinnati when the police, in response to withering public scrutiny over the shooting of the unarmed man, reduced their presence in some of the city’s worst neighborhoods. For years afterward, Cincinnati’s violent crime rate had spiked, and sections of the city became virtual no-man’s lands of drug and gang activity.
As Jason drove toward the interstate onramp, all that was more than a decade in the past; but the quality of life and race relations in the city had been permanently changed, or so Jason had been told. Sometimes it certainly did seem that way. On this Friday evening, when most of the university-related traffic was long departed, an outsider could feel lonely and vulnerable in neighborhoods such as this.
At one stoplight, a group of young men around his age loitered at the intersection. Jason kept his head forward, not wanting to make eye contact. One of them made a taunt: nothing serious, really, just a probe to see if he could be goaded.
Yeah, I’m a skinny white boy, Jason thought, answering the insult in his head. What of it?
He stepped on the accelerator when the light turned green, with the thought that the Shaman’s Highway would probably be a lot safer than the streets of the city that he called home.
He headed north on I-71, and within thirty minutes the city fell away and was replaced by countryside. Ohio was mostly farm country outside the major metropolitan areas. On both sides of the six-lane highway, the urban sprawl of suburban Cincinnati had dissolved into cultivated corn and soybean fields, barns, and empty meadows. And farther back in the distance were woods. Acres and acres of woods, a vast and seemingly closed territory that faded into the twilight horizon.
An hour later he reached the Wagosh exit off I-71. It was not yet full dark, though dark was rapidly approaching. The first evening star—actually the planet Venus—was already visible in the burnt sienna sky. At the end of the exit ramp he turned right, toward the east, and followed the two-lane highway into Wagosh. This road was Route 68; but he was still well north of the Shaman’s Highway. The Shaman’s Highway began just south of town, on the far side of Wagosh.
Wagosh was technically categorized as a small city, but Jason would have described it as a large small town, if there even was such a classification. There were a few small factories on the north side of the burg, a few apartment complexes, and the usual gamut of fast-food restaurants: Burger King, Wendy’s, McDonalds and Pizza Hut.
As previously arranged, Simon Rose’s people were waiting for him in the parking lot of the Walmart. This particular outpost of Sam Walton’s retail empire was located in a middling strip mall, which was probably the main shopping venue for local residents. Jason spotted the ghost hunters right away based on Simon’s description of the pair. It helped that the parking lot was mostly empty. Even in Wagosh, there were better things to do on a Friday night than hit the local Walmart, apparently.
Jason saw a woman with long brown hair tied back in a ponytail, and a man who weighed perhaps three hundred pounds. The man was seated behind the wheel of their vehicle, but his heavy cheeks and jowls betrayed his weight. Jason knew from his discussion with Simon that their names were Gary Cook and Anne Teagarden. Both were regular members of Simon’s staff. Jason had looked up a few episodes of Ghost Hunting with Simon Rose on the Internet over the past few days. He thought he remembered at least one segment that included the woman.
As Jason pulled his car into the space beside their Toyota pickup truck, he got a better look at them. The man had a florid complexion, curly reddish hair, and a little mustache that reminded Jason of a caterpillar. The woman seemed to be in her mid-thirties. She smiled and waved.
They both stepped out the pickup truck and introduced themselves. As Simon Rose had noted, Anne Teagarden was quite pregnant. Jason was not an expert on these matters, but he guessed that she was within weeks of giving birth.
“Are you ready?” Gary Cook asked. “Ready for the Shaman’s Highway?”
“I think so,” Jason replied gamely, shaking their hands.
“If not for David Junior,” Anne said, “I’d be making this walk with you—or instead of you.”
Jason assumed that David Junior must refer to the protuberance in her abdomen; and that would make David Senior her husband or significant other.
“I’m not pregnant,” Gary said. “I just like to eat.” He patted his considerable girth.
Well, thought Jason. He is obese, but at least he has a sense of humor about it.
The man handed Jason one of his business cards. The card read: “Gary Cook, Senior Creative Consultant, Ghost Hunting with Simon Rose.” The card also contained Gary’s cell phone number and email address, along with the show’s logo: A cartoon caricature of Simon Rose surrounded by a trio of equally caricatured ghosts.
“Here’s mine, too,” Anne said. Anne’s card was more or less identical; she was also a senior creative consultant.
“Tell you what,” Gary said. “I know you’ve been on the road for a while, but why don’t you rendezvous with us on the other side of town? There’s a little place called the Country Creamery. Classic small-town ice cream and hot dog shop. The Country Creamery is located right on the northern edge of the Shaman’s Highway. You’ll be able to start your walk from there.”
“I’ll ride with you, Jason,” Anne said. “I know exactly where we’re going. And I’ve been stuck with Gary all day.”
“Very funny, Anne,” Gary said. Jason could tell that there was absolutely no malice in this exchange. Gary and Anne had likely worked together for years. This mutual ribbing was a way of passing the time. “But that isn’t a half bad idea. No sense in risking your getting lost, Jason.”
Jason didn’t think that he would have had difficulty driving a few miles and finding an ice cream shop by himself; but he did not protest. Anne Teagarden seemed to be pleasant enough, anyway. Jason opened the front passenger side door of the Taurus and said: “Welcome aboard. My car has one hundred and fifteen thousand miles on the odometer. It should have enough life left to get us to this Country Creamery, though.”
Laughing at Jason’s corny joke, Anne took her place in the passenger seat. Jason started up the Taurus and began to follow Gary in the pickup truck. The truck headed for the main exit of the strip mall, its taillights flaring in the gathering gloom of dusk. The truck proceeded to make a right turn onto Route 68, Main Street in Wagosh.
“Tell me, Jason,” Anne said. “Do you believe in ghosts? In the supernatural?”
The question should not have been completely unexpected; but Jason was somewhat taken aback. He had anticipated a smattering of small talk during the short ride, the level of conversation that was common at parties and on first dates. But Anne seemed interested in probing his innermost beliefs. Perhaps that’s common among these ghost-hunting types, Jason thought. Maybe that’s just their way.
“I’m not sure,” Jason said honestly. Then, turning the question around: “Do you?”
Anne smiled and looked out the window at the small-town view. About fifteen or twenty minutes of discernable daylight remained; and the outlines of Wagosh were still visible. They were coming up on the town proper. This would be the older part of Wagosh, the section that had existed prior to the more recently built fast food restaurants and the strip mall.
“For many years I didn’t,” Anne said. “But then when I was in high school, shortly after my sixteenth birthday, my family moved into a house in Pittsburg that changed my mind about all that.”
“Let me guess,” Jason said. “That house was haunted.” Jason hoped that his remark did not sound too flippant; but this storyline did seem somewhat predictable.
“Not exactly,” Anne said. “But there was a ghost in the area.”
“A ghost ‘in the area’?”
“Yes. And that ghost seemed to take a special interest in me—at least for a while.”
“I’m listening,” Jason said. “Please go on.” He was driving through the middle of Wagosh now. On the right side of the road was a historic-looking building called “The Malloy Theater.” The front of the theater was lit up by an old-fashioned marquee sign.
“Well,” Anne continued. “Sometimes during the night, I would have this feeling that there was a presence under my bed. Have you ever had that feeling at night?”
“Sure,” Jason allowed. “I guess everybody does, from time to time. It isn’t something I’ve really thought about much since I was a kid, though.”
“Yeah, I dismissed the feeling, too. At first, anyway. After all, I was a junior in high school, and this was the middle of the nineteen-nineties. I was no heroine in some gothic ghost story. I told myself that it was only my imagination.
“But then,” Anne seemed to hesitate just a bit. Jason inadvertently glanced down in the near darkness of the car, and he noticed that gooseflesh had broken out on Anne’s arms. “Then I started to hear someone whispering my name at night. And then there was the voice coming from directly beneath my bed.”
“Okay,” Jason said. “You’ve got my attention.” Jason had experienced the occasional feeling of being watched by an unseen presence. That was part of living alone, he had learned. Sometimes when you were by yourself, the heebie-jeebies were bound to get the best of you. But he had never heard voices. That would be something new for him—and most unwelcome.
“It got my attention, too,” Anne continued. “But believe it or not, it also got to be a little annoying. I mean, every night I would fall asleep, and then I would be awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of somebody whispering my name—someone who seemed to be just beneath my bed.”
“Did you ever take a look? That would have cleared things up.”
“I’m getting to that. For a long time I was afraid to look, and a part of me was hoping that it would simply go away—that the voice was only my imagination. But then one night I’d come home from some party and I’d had a bit too much to drink. The room was spinning, and I felt like I was going to throw up at any moment. You know what I mean?”
“Oh, yeah,” Jason said, recalling some of his high school drinking binges. The aftermath—the vomiting and the headaches—was always the worst part.
“I decided that enough was enough, that I wasn’t going to let this thing torment me anymore. And it would probably be true to say that the alcohol had given me a bit of what some people refer to as Irish courage.”
“Hey, the Kelleys originally came from Ireland, I think.”
“No offense intended, Jason.”
“None taken. So anyway—excuse me for interrupting. What happened?”
“So that night I looked down, and I could see the outlines of a man lying there on the floor of my bedroom.”
“You saw a man lying on your bedroom floor?” Jason repeated.
“It wasn’t really a man,” Anne said. “More like a pool of shadow in the shape of a man. That’s the best way I can describe it. But where the head of the man would be, I could see a mouth, and I could see two eyes. And when I looked down there, the eyes opened, and the mouth opened, too. That thing was smiling at me, and not in a friendly way.”
Jason felt a little shiver go up his spine. It was a creepy enough story. If it was true…
“So what did you do?”
“As you might expect, I couldn’t sleep. Who could, after that? But I must have passed out eventually, given all that I had to drink that night. When I woke up it was morning, and daylight. I went out to the family breakfast table and announced to my parents that there was a spiritual presence in my bedroom.”
“Whoa. You just blurted that out? ‘There’s a spiritual presence in my bedroom’?” Jason paused for a brief moment, hoping that Anne was not offended. When she smiled at his remark, he continued. “And what did they say? Excuse me for saying this, Anne; but most parents would think their kid was a little crazy if he or she said something like that.”
“I know, I know. But my parents were quite supportive. You see, I wasn’t the only one who sensed that something was amiss in my bedroom. It turned out that my mother had experienced some uncomfortable feelings herself when she’d entered my room to put away laundry. She’d never seen or heard anything concrete, mind you; but she’d had this odd sensation that something was watching her—just like you acknowledged feeling sometimes when you’re alone. When I told my parents what I’d seen and heard, my mom spoke up right away. She took my side and I didn’t feel foolish at all. Then my parents agreed to let me sleep on the living room couch until my bedroom could be cleansed.”
“We were Baptists, and Baptists usually adhere to a strict prohibition against anything that seems like New Age spiritualism or necromancy. All of that stuff is too closely related to witchcraft, you know; and fundamentalist Christians don’t make any distinctions between so-called “white magic” like Wicca, and outright devil worship.”
“I believe that anything of that variety is potentially dangerous, because it opens doors that are better left closed. But that’s another discussion best left for another time. My parents did agree to contact a woman who advertised herself as a ‘Christian spiritualist.’ She conducted a cleansing ceremony in my bedroom.”
“And then what happened?”
“Then the presence under my bed went away. I never heard from it or saw it again.”
“So that was it? The end?”
“Not entirely. Shortly thereafter, another young woman who lived a few houses down—a girl of fifteen or sixteen—started experiencing similar problems. She awoke to the sound of her name being called out, and she turned over to see a manlike shape on the floor beside her bed. I didn’t find out about this until years later, and no, I don’t know if her family ever managed to rid themselves of the entity.”
“Whoa,” Jason said. “You call it ‘the entity.’ That sounds pretty generic. Do you have any idea what it actually was? If it existed, that is.”
Anne smiled good-naturedly at Jason’s little jab of skepticism. “At the time, I had no idea. But a few years later, the Internet came along, and I was able to research the history of the neighborhood: In the nineteen fifties, it turns out, a man on our street had been accused in the abductions and disappearances of several young women in the area. Apparently he knew that it was only a matter of time until he was arrested, and he had no intention of spending the rest of his life in jail or going to the electric chair. So this man killed himself in his basement one night with a shotgun blast to the head. And after that the disappearances stopped, so everyone assumed that he was the one who had abducted the women.”
“Was that the house your family bought?” Jason asked, thinking that this would make the story a bit too tidy and convenient. “The man killed himself in the basement of the house where you lived?”
“No. The man who killed himself—the supposed child abductor and probable murderer—his house was demolished shortly after his suicide. No one would have wanted to live in it after that. From what I could determine, the house went back to the bank for a few years, and then the bank sold the property to a land speculator who bulldozed the residence. And by the end of the fifties, the other houses in the old neighborhood had mostly been abandoned or torn down, too. These were really old structures, I think, houses built all the way back in the nineteenth century. For a few years, the whole neighborhood became one large vacant lot, no doubt overgrown with weeds and the subject of many adolescent ghost stories.
“However, old ghost stories are eventually forgotten, and a large patch of residential land won’t stay vacant forever. That’s an economic vacuum. So during the early nineteen seventies, a new housing development was built atop the old neighborhood. And one of the houses in that development was the one my parents purchased in nineteen ninety-four, some forty years after the original events that made the place cursed.”
“So you believe that the place definitely was cursed—or haunted?” Jason asked. Perhaps opportunely, it was time for this conversation to draw to a close. Gary pulled the ghost hunters’ truck into the parking lot of a small establishment that could only be the Country Creamery, though Jason could not yet see the sign.
“I know what I heard all those nights long ago, when I was a sixteen year-old girl,” Anne said. “And I know what I saw that one particular night, and the evidence I later found about the history of that neighborhood. So yes, Jason, I do believe that some places are both cursed and haunted. Some people can accept that idea on faith, and others can’t. But once you’ve seen and heard for yourself, there’s no turning back.”
Jason nodded neutrally and pulled his car into a space at the rear of the Country Creamery’s parking lot. The establishment was a small cinder block building that might previously have been a garage or a small store. There were two customer service windows that opened to the parking lot, where a pair of teenage girls were taking orders. Above them was a large sign that bore the name of the establishment in stylized letters, and a stenciled relief of a cartoon cow and a bucolic-looking barn and country scene. Jason and Anne stepped out of the Taurus to greet Gary. Jason retrieved his backpack from the back seat.
“We can drive your car down to the destination point if you’d like,” Gary offered. “Or we can give you a ride back here to pick it up afterward. Your choice.”
Jason had no real qualms about entrusting his 1997 Ford Taurus to these two. It would be safer with them than it would be if left unattended in this parking lot. Also, Jason knew that he was going to be tired at the end of his walk tonight. No sense in backtracking the eleven miles.
He handed the key fob of the Taurus over to Gary. “If you’re not afraid of driving it, I’ll take you up on that,” he said. Then Anne took the key from Gary’s hand.
“I’ve seen him drive it,” she said with a smile. “I know how the car handles. Jason, your car will be safe with me.”
They were standing there in the parking lot, and it occurred to Jason that it was now dark, more or less. There wasn’t much for the three of them to do, unless they were interested in grabbing a milkshake or a banana split from the Country Creamery.
Apparently coming to the same set of conclusions, Gary looked at his watch. “It’s 10:00 p.m.,” he said, brushing away a gnat that was darting about the timepiece’s glowing surface. “And full dark. You can go ahead and get started now, if you’re ready.”
An interesting question. Was he ready? From where Jason stood, he could peer past the people in the parking lot and the little bubble of light formed by the Country Creamery. He could see partway down the road, where no lights could be seen, and the shadows thickened beyond a stone’s throw. Even from this distance, it was clear that the Shaman’s Highway led into the wilderness, comparatively speaking. Jason had always lived in the city or the suburbs. He had never been in the woods at night. Not real woods.
But nevertheless, he was ready. This would be an adventure, not to mention an interesting and lucrative filmmaking opportunity.
“I’m ready,” Jason said.
“Very good, then.” Gary clapped his hands together. “I’m going to pack up the truck and head down the road to John’s Mistake. Anne will drive your car. We’ll be waiting for you at Fran’s Pancake Hut. It’s a little greasy spoon located just inside the town proper. If you make it into town, you won’t be able to miss it.”
“What do you mean: ‘If I make it into town?’” Jason asked wryly. Was this man trying to mess with his head? There was no reason to think that he wouldn’t reach his destination, after all.
Gary paused for a moment to reflect on what he had said. “Sorry. I’m sure you’ll be fine. It’s just that this highway… well, it’s supposed to be a very active location, paranormally speaking. In preparation for our filming attempt last year, we hired a psychic from Columbus to ride down this stretch of road with us. We wanted her to walk around at various locations and give us her impressions. She didn’t even make it three miles before she told us to turn the truck around. She said that whatever was here was ‘very intense and very evil.’ Those were her exact words.”
Jason laughed. “So what about her fee?”
“She waived it,” Gary said. “She couldn’t even stand riding down the Shaman’s Highway in a vehicle. She wasn’t about to get out of the truck and walk around. And this was in full daylight, mind you, on a sunny afternoon in early summer. So here’s what I’m getting at: If you walk a mile or two and you discover that this place is too much for you, you can double-time it back to the Country Creamery here and give us a call. We’ll bring your car back, you can cancel the job, and life goes on. No hard feelings.”
“I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Anne Teagarden said, waving Gary silent. “A psychic is someone who is extremely sensitive to any sort of paranormal phenomenon, Jason. A really sensitive psychic will go bonkers at a location where a normal person might lay down and go to sleep without the slightest of qualms.”
That could be because psychics are probably self-deluded frauds who are peddling nothing but hokum, Jason thought, but did not say. He also wanted to ask her how that analysis jibed with her tale of the thing that spoke to her from the floor of her bedroom all those years ago. Anne had made no claim of being a psychic. Yet clearly she believed that she had experienced something genuinely supernatural. How did that fit into the theory that only psychics and electronic devices could detect the presence of ghosts? What about that ghost on your bedroom floor, Anne, Jason wanted to say. He had the feeling, however, that this story was something she regarded as highly personal in nature. It had been told to him in confidence; and she would not appreciate him speaking of it lightly, or with even measured skepticism.
“Anyway,” Gary said. “We’ll be waiting for you. Take your time, and get all the footage you can. We’ve brought our laptops, and we’re going to be working on some material for an upcoming episode of the show while you’re on your long walk. If you get into a jam—if you get a snakebite or you twist your ankle or anything, you can give us a call. My cell phone number is on my business card.”
“Maybe we should tell you,” Anne added. “That the cell phone coverage along the Shaman’s Highway tends to be kind of spotty.”
“I guess I’d better watch out for the snakes, then.”
“There won’t be any snakes,” Anne said encouragingly. “Don’t worry.”
“I’m not worried,” Jason replied. And really, he wasn’t: Not yet, anyway. He was standing in the parking lot of an ice cream shop, for goodness sake. It was impossible to believe in the supernatural while you were only a few yards away from a promotional sign that read, “Cool off with our Summer Raspberry Blizzard!”
“Of course you’re not,” Anne said. “But as Gary advised, you would do well to keep in mind that the Shaman’s Highway does have a reputation for being a scary place. You’re going to be walking eleven miles through a sparsely populated area after dark. Trust me, you’re going to get spooked before you reach the end. You might even see something that outright scares you.”
Jason wasn’t sure how he should react to these assertions. He had already stated that he was unafraid; it would be bad form to display too much bravado. Once again he found himself walking one of those difficult lines that were so often necessary in the presence of older people. He was an adult; but he knew that his membership in the club of adulthood was as yet new and, some would say, even provisional. He was barely old enough to legally walk into a bar and order a beer in the State of Ohio, after all. (Not that drinking much appealed to him, after witnessing the mess that a fondness for alcohol had made of his father’s teaching career and life in general.)
Simon Rose—a rather large player in the world of second-tier cable television—had demonstrated a certain level of confidence in him. Yet he detected a muted trace of condescension in this last-minute pep talk. Did Anne and Gary expect him to back out of the whole affair, now that it was time to actually walk down the Shaman’s Highway?
“We’re supposed to be encouraging him,” Gary cut in, perhaps sensing what Jason had sensed. “I’m not going to lie to you, Jason: This road scares me, but I’m sure there’s nothing here that you can’t survive.”
“Thanks,” Jason said, suddenly eager to get moving. He didn’t want to talk to these two people any longer. He had been feeling buoyant and confident. They were trying to psyche him out; and if he stayed here much longer they might succeed.
“Well, then,” Gary said. “Without further ado.”
Gary climbed into the pickup truck and started the ignition. Anne gave Jason a final little smile of encouragement and bravely stepped into the driver’s seat of his Taurus. Jason was relieved to see that there was plenty of clearance between her pregnant abdomen and the car’s steering wheel.
They both gave him a little wave as they departed. Jason watched the pickup truck, and then his own car, move forward and pause at the edge of the parking lot, the turn signals of both vehicles blinking. They turned right onto Route 68; the Ford Taurus’s engine pinged and knocked while it gained speed.
Jason stood there and watched the red taillights move farther away into the distance. Then both vehicles rounded a bend in the road and the taillights were gone.
Now it was his turn to follow them, albeit at a much slower pace, and without the safety that a moving vehicle’s speed and isolation would bring.
That was no way to think about matters, though, was it? He had to be careful, or else he would psyche himself out.
I’ll be walking down the very same road that they are driving down right now, Jason thought. That was one realization to banish any misgivings he might have about this walk: He would simply be retracing the route of the Toyota truck and his Taurus. He had no doubt that within a half hour Anne and Gary would be sitting in the all-night pancake restaurant in John’s Mistake. They weren’t going to fall victim to hellhounds or demonic witches, or the ghosts of long-dead Shawnees. And neither would he.
“The sooner you start, the sooner you get there,” Jason whispered to himself. He shouldered his backpack and moved carefully forward, being careful to avoid a carload of teenagers that was pulling into the Country Creamery. “You goin’ hikin’, man?” one of them shouted out the window—the boy was not trying to be threatening; he was simply reveling in his freedom to be an unoriginal smartass. The youth was not much younger than Jason, truth be told. In the same car was another boy of roughly the same age and two young women. The young women were attractive in a country-girl sort of way.
There was a significance here beyond the boy’s shouted remark, or the prettiness of the two girls: The four locals had arrived along Route 68 from the south. This meant that at least part of their journey would have carried them through the Shaman’s Highway.
You see, Jason thought. These kids obviously aren’t afraid of that road. Why should I be?
It was a good argument, and a solid one to bear in mind as he began his journey in earnest. He walked up to the road and—after checking for headlights in both directions—crossed over to the far side, so that he would be walking against the flow of oncoming traffic.
Jason looked south, down the expanse of Route 68, into the Shaman’s Highway. The asphalt of the two-lane road gleamed in the moonlight. He stopped to make a short video segment with the camcorder.
“I am now leaving the town of Wagosh, Ohio,” he said. There didn’t seem to be much else to say. But he needed to say something more. “Into the Shaman’s Highway,” he added. “I’m going to find out now if all of the legends about this road are true.”
He returned the camcorder to his backpack as he walked; there was nothing worth filming here. If there were real phenomena on this route, he would almost certainly find them farther down the road, deeper inside the Shaman’s Highway. There wouldn’t be any demons or boogeymen within shouting distance of the Country Creamery.
Then he saw a swirl of dark shapes on the roadway, and for a moment he thought that he had encountered his first supernatural entity—barely two minutes into his walk. But a closer inspection and few more paces forward revealed the shapes to be crows. They were picking over the remains of some small creature that had found itself in the middle of the road at the wrong time; and now its flattened body had become offal for these scavenger birds of prey.
He passed the metal highway sign that indicated the border of Wagosh proper. Off to one side he saw a water tower, its white girth faintly glowing in the moonlight. The town’s name was stenciled across the surface of the water tower in black lettering. A handful of stars could be seen dimly in the sky above the tower, their brilliance diminished by traces of illumination from the nearby town and the full moon.
This was the last outpost of Wagosh, and the comfort and safety it provided. From here on, there would be scattered human habitation, but he had passed the last threshold of real, honest-to-goodness urban settlement. There would be no more ice cream shops and Walmarts, no more brightly lit storefronts where he would be sure to find fellow human beings in considerable numbers. From here on out the only people would be those who resided in lonely farmhouses set back from the road; and even those would be few and far between—at least until he reached John’s Mistake. Wagosh was not much; but it was at least a place of electric lights and people—plenty of people. And Wagosh was now behind him.
This time last week, he had barely known that Wagosh existed. Over the intervening space of days he had become a minor expert in the town and its history. While doing his online research, he had learned that wagosh was a Shawnee word—“fox” in the Native American language. Upon acquiring this informational tidbit, he had then proceeded to research the Shawnee language in more depth. (That was always the way Internet searches seemed to work: You researched one thing, and before long you were researching a half dozen tangentially related things.)
The language that had given this town its name was a linguistic dinosaur. A member of the Algonquin family of languages, Shawnee had once been spoken throughout Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia. (Or rather in the lands that would become these states; the Shawnee themselves recognized no such distinctions, of course.) Jason had never met a Shawnee speaker, and there was a reason for that: Today the language was practically extinct, fluent speakers of this Native American tongue now numbering no more than a few hundred. The Shawnee had lost their fight against the whites in the early nineteenth century, and it had been all downhill for them and their language and culture after that. Today the remnants of the tribe were scattered throughout the Midwest; pockets of them still lived in Ohio, where they had more or less assimilated. Some also lived in Oklahoma, to where they had been transferred by the Indian Removal Act of 1830, a law that had been signed by President Andrew Jackson.
While he had been thinking about the Shawnee and President Jackson, the trees on either side of him had changed. The land at the immediate southern edge of Wagosh had been a belt of cleared high grass meadows rimmed with pockets of undergrowth. Now—still less than a mile into his walk—the landscape had abruptly changed. He was in the woods now—the real woods. On both sides of him were massive trees—towering oaks and hickories, he supposed; the exact species were all but impossible to discern in the dark. Some of these would have been saplings when Andrew Jackson was President. He felt suddenly small, placed here among these trees that had sprung up a hundred years or more before his birth.
In the moonlight the bark of the trees nearest to the road was the color of ash. The tree trunks glowed ever so slightly. There was not much visibility farther back into the woods. Perhaps it would not be a good idea to tempt his surroundings by scanning the undergrowth too closely. Amid the shadows, his eyes could play tricks on him.
He removed the camcorder from his backpack again and took a short bit of footage, but there was nothing here but trees. “I am now fully inside the Shaman’s Highway,” he said, and that sounded more than a little inane—nothing that was going to impress any cable television audience. The camcorder’s night vision allowed him to see farther back into the woods: He scanned the white-green glowing trunks for any signs of movement. There were none, though; and redundant footage of this spot seemed like a waste of space on the camcorder’s limited hard drive. He clicked the camcorder’s on/off toggle button and returned it to his backpack.
Jason stared up into the treetops. The moon was not visible here, though its light lent a degree of illumination to the canopy overhead. This place felt ancient, and yes—more than a little eerie. But was it going to be filmworthy? That was the question.
He whirled to his left as a branch snapped somewhere. He stared back into the inscrutable maze of trees. It was seriously dark now. He could see nothing unless he resorted to the night vision camcorder or his flashlight, both of which were now stowed in his backpack. He stopped and listened.
If someone were walking toward me through those woods, they would be practically on top of me before I would even be able to see them, Jason thought.
He paused on the roadway, straining his ears for any telltale sound—a discernable footstep or another indication of sentient activity. To his relief, there were no more sounds—no footsteps or low growls. And thankfully no breathing. It had probably been nothing more than a raccoon or a possum. These woods would be full of such creatures. There would also be shrews, field mice, and probably bats as well. None of these animals would present any threat. When had a person ever been killed by a rampaging possum or a field mouse, after all?
What about the Shawnee, though? If there were any Shawnee spirits in these woods, one could bet that they would not be disposed to be friendly to a lone white interloper with a backpack full of twenty-first century technology. Am I walking into a Native American burial ground? he wondered. Do the bones of long-dead Shawnee warriors lie on either side of me?
But so what? What if I am walking through a Native American boneyard? he countered to himself. According to the online material about the Shaman’s Highway, the Shawnee burial ground comprised only one theory that purported to explain this area’s paranormal activity. Another theory cited a satanic cult of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Long-ago teens and early twentysomethings who had smoked weed and chanted at the spirits of the great black beyond. Had devil-worshipping hippies once performed unspeakable rites in these woods? Had they summoned something truly horrible from another world?
Stop it, he corrected himself. You don’t even buy into that stuff.
Or to be more precise, you’re an agnostic, right? You don’t know exactly what you buy into.
Keep walking, he told himself.
The overhead tree branches eventually receded; he reached a place where the forest was set back from the road again. There was still nothing that warranted the camcorder, but he did stop to snap a few photos with his iPhone; the landscape was quite visible now in the moonlight. Then he activated the iPhone’s voice memo function and spoke into the microphone. “I am well into the Shaman’s Highway. So far I don’t see anything but a lot of woods. Lots and lots of woods.”
He arrived at the top of a hill, and he heard the sound of water running from the far side of the road. After looking in both directions for headlights, he crossed the pavement and looked down into the valley on the other side.
A shaft of moonlight illuminated a shallow creek that cut a winding path through the forest floor. The damp rocks of the creek and the muddy banks glistened. Jason noticed a large boulder on the near bank, and a forest floor strewn with poison ivy plants and the fallen leaves of past summers.
Something moved through the leafy, decaying carpet. Jason felt his heart lurch into his throat. Then he realized that it was only a snake—but it was a large one. The black reptile looked to be about two feet in length. It cut a sinuous path through the fallen leaves. It was no doubt looking for prey. Perhaps it was hunting one of the small mammals that had earlier startled him.
He recalled Gary’s remark about the possibility of a snakebite. Having grown up in the suburbs, Jason was no amateur zoologist; but to the best of his knowledge poisonous snakes weren’t a major threat in Ohio. The reptile slithering near the creek was probably a non-venomous rat snake or a blacksnake.
Then he recalled what he had learned in the Introduction to Theology class that he had taken to fulfill a general studies requirement: In most of the world’s major religions, the serpent was regarded as an agent of evil. In the Book of Genesis, Satan made his first appearance in the form of a snake.
Stop it, he thought. You’re out in the middle of the woods, in an unfamiliar environment. You are going to see and hear things that you aren’t accustomed to. That’s par for the course in any new environment. He knew that the snake was nothing more than a reptile, and its presence a natural occurrence in the woods at night.
It’s only the atmosphere here, he resolved. That snake is probably the most dangerous thing in these woods; and it’s essentially harmless, I’d bet.
The snake disappeared beneath a clump of tangled foliage. Jason sighed and returned to the road.
That night, I did manage to go to sleep. For a while, I lay awake in bed, listening to my parents arguing with Jack.
I don’t know if they gave him yet another handout that night. Eventually, though, he left. By then I was asleep.
Late that night—or early the next morning, I should say—I awoke from a dream.
The dream itself was routine enough: a mishmash of random scenes and events from my daily life. First I was at home with my parents, then I was going to classes at West Clermont High School. In another segment of the dream, I was working at McDonald’s.
The dream was subject to the usual distortions and inconsistencies of the dreamworld, but it contained no content that was especially memorable or disturbing.
And then some force invaded the dream.
The dream images of daily life abruptly dissolved, replaced by total darkness. I was awake now—but not quite awake. Paused on the boundary between sleep and full consciousness.
And I wasn’t alone there.
A presence was leaning over my bed.
I dared not open my eyes. As is often the case in this in-between state, however, I was capable of some version of sight, or what I imagined to be sight.
Lying on my back, I could sense the vague shape leaning over me.
It terrified me, whatever it was. It was horrible and seductive at the same time.
The thing was trying to speak to me. But before I could make out the words, I pulled myself out of this in-between state.
Fully awake now, I sat up in bed. Looked around my darkened bedroom.
I was alone. But I noticed something: The door of my bedroom was slightly ajar.
I had closed it when I went to bed, to drown out the sound of Jack’s rambling pleas for charity, and my parents’ frustrated but half-hearted responses.
But now the door was slightly open.
It was just a dream, I told myself. Just a dream.
Another part of me perceived that it hadn’t been a dream, though. The scenes of school and home life and McDonald’s—yes, those had been dreams. But I had been at least marginally conscious when that thing visited me.
I struggled to figure it out. The thing had appeared as nothing more than a mere shape.
Or no—more than a mere shape. The shape had been distinctly female. But no longer female in the sense that Leslie Griffin and Diane Parker were female.
The shape had once been female, it occurred to me. My visitor carried femininity—and humanity—as distant memories. But it was something else now.
Marie Trumbull, were the words that sprang to my mind.
Ridiculous, I told myself. You were not visited by Marie Trumbull, the executed Loyalist spy. You’re letting your imagination get the best of you.
I lay there, for perhaps an hour or more, before I finally willed myself to go back to sleep.
I’ve been adding pages of my dark fantasy/horror serial, Revolutionary Ghosts to the site more or less every day. (I did miss a few days during the holidays.)
The online version of the text represents a rough draft (with a brief editing pass for flagrant typos). This version of the book will remain online.
Before Revolutionary Ghosts is published, though (in formats that I’ll be actually charging money for), it will undergo additional editing and proofreading passes.
The basic plot of the story won’t change during the editing phases; but the descriptions may be enhanced, the character dialogue will be tweaked, etc.
Awkward sentence structures (inevitable in any first draft) will be eliminated. I’ll also make sure all the typos are nailed down. (I’m sure a few have slipped by me in the online version.)
E-book, audiobook, and paperback editions of Revolutionary Ghosts will eventually be available–not only from Amazon, but also from Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Google Play.
You are welcome to read the full text here. (That’s one of the options I had in mind when I decided to post it online, after all.)
You might alternatively choose to merely sample it here, and await the fully edited, finalized versions in the stores. (They won’t be expensive. Don’t hold me to this: But the ebook version will probably retail at $3.99.)
I plan to have retail versions of the book available no later than March 1st.
How you read Revolutionary Ghosts is up to you. In any case, I hope you enjoy the story.