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.
After 1120 Dunham Street, Jarvis took them to one other house. It was a ranch home that both Clint and Jennifer quickly rejected for a number of reasons. The house was outside the Mydale school district, the floor plan was awkward, and there was a suspicious smell in the basement that might have been cat urine.
“We really want to find a house in the Mydale school district,” Jennifer reiterated, as Jarvis drove them back to the real estate office. “That was a big factor in our selection of you as our agent. Your office is located in Mydale.”
Jarvis looked in his rearview mirror before responding to Jennifer, who was seated in the back seat of the Lexus with her husband. “And I thought it had something to do with my personal appeal.” The remark could have been interpreted as either routine salesman’s banter, or yet another attempt at flirtation.
Unseen by Jarvis, Clint smirked and shook his head. Jennifer replied: “You’re very charming, Mr. Jarvis, but please don’t forget that we really want a house in Mydale.”
“Duly noted,” Jarvis said. “We won’t be looking at any more houses that don’t have a Mydale mailing address, or that fall outside the Mydale school district.”
Mydale was a bedroom community that had been mostly rural only twenty years ago. Though technically incorporated as a city of 30,000, Mydale was actually a part of the Cincinnati metropolitan area. Despite the development spree of recent years, Mydale had not lost its feel of semirural prosperity; and there remained working farms a few miles beyond its borders.
Located twenty miles northwest of downtown Cincinnati, Mydale was far enough away to maintain its separate identity, but close enough to allow for an easy commute to the larger city, where both Clint and Jennifer worked.
But most of all, Mydale was known for its above-average schools. The town had been fortunate enough to attract a series of industrial parks in the early 1990s, and the tax revenues from the resident businesses allowed the Mydale school district to recruit the best teachers, to offer all the latest and most innovative educational programs.
In the parking lot of Jarvis Realty, Tom Jarvis invited the Hubers to come in for refreshments and additional discussions, even though he must have known that the day had reached its natural conclusion. It was past two o’clock, and they had to pick up Connor.
They had left him at Clint’s parents’ house. As was usually the case, Jennifer’s parents would theoretically have been a babysitting option, but Connor—with the typical candor of a six-year-old—made no secret of the fact that he preferred the company of Grandma and Grandpa Huber over that of his maternal grandparents.
This needled Jennifer a bit: Clint’s father was an older version of Clint—affable, not terribly serious, and vaguely childlike himself. Her own father, meanwhile, had been a partner in a Cincinnati law firm. Hank Riley loved his only grandchild, Jennifer was sure, but he was often stilted and remote when it came time to actually interact with him. Seventy-hour workweeks had absented Hank during much of her own youth. Jennifer’s fifty-seven-year-old mother, Claudia, meanwhile, seemed to be in denial about the very concept of grandmotherhood. Since turning fifty, Claudia had gone on a plastic surgery binge: botox, facelift, and even a mentoplasty on her chin. Jennifer often joked with Clint that breast implants were likely next on the list.
“Another time,” Clint said, shaking hands with Jarvis. “We’ll be in touch, though. Thanks for your time today.”
The realtor shook hands with Clint and then with Jennifer. “You’re welcome. If I can answer any additional questions, or set up any additional showings, let me know.”
“And just to confirm,” Jennifer said, “the Dunham Drive property is still on the market.”
“I’m sure Mr. Vennekamp will want to have a say, too,” Jennifer replied, proud of herself for not defaulting to the self-consciously feminist position. Moreover, the Richard Vennekamp in that portrait hadn’t looked like the sort of man who allows his wife to make all of the family’s major decisions.
Jarvis smiled enigmatically. “You haven’t met Deborah Vennekamp.”
“And here we have the basement,” Jarvis said, leading the way downstairs. “Watch your step.”
They stepped gingerly down the basement staircase, their eyes taking time to adjust to the darkness. This was the last stop on the grand tour. Clint and Jennifer had by now been through the entire first and second floor, and made a circuit around the front lawn and back yard. The last of these revealed unexpected surprises: a deluxe tool shed that warmed Clint to the house considerably, and several rows of hedges in the back yard. These would provide both privacy and a natural enclosure in which Connor could play.
“Basements are usually the least exciting part of any house,” Jarvis said. “But the basement is important to some people. I’m sorry to say that if you were hoping for a basement-level recreation room or entertainment space, you’ll be disappointed.”
“The floor is dirt!” Clint said, once they were all down the stairs. This was true: Jennifer looked down at her feet to see a floor not of concrete, as she had expected, but hard-packed earth. The rest of the basement was equally basic from what she could see: The bare walls were unpainted brick. The only illumination provided down here came from a few widely spaced light bulbs. She looked up at the ceiling, and saw nothing but shadows and bare rafters.
“It is a dirt floor,” Jarvis said, confirming Clint’s observation. “Keep in mind that this house was built right before the U.S. entered World War II—in 1940. Dirt basements are more or less unheard of in any house built since the 1960s, and rare even before that in Ohio. There are usually too many drainage problems to allow for that in this part of the country. Dirt basements are more common in New England, where the soil is rocky and rainfall levels are lower. But even there, it’s mostly something that you see in older homes.”
“So this turns to mud when it rains?” Clint asked.
“No, not at all,” Jarvis said. “You’ll recall that we had a heavy rain earlier this week, and look at this floor.” The realtor kicked the floor with the toe of his penny loafer. “Dry as a bone. This house was built at the top of a hill, so the water all runs downhill, away from the basement. If you take a look at the walls, you’ll see that there is no evidence of water damage. But that’s something that the house inspector will be able to confirm for you. That is—if you decide to make an offer on this house.”
“Oh, I think we’ll definitely be making an offer,” Jennifer said. She was now way past the seduction stage. She had fallen in love with the house at 1120 Dunham Drive. While touring the upstairs bedrooms, a series of movies had been playing out in Jennifer’s imagination: She saw them moving in just in time for the new school year. Then she saw the house as the scene for key life events: their tenth wedding anniversary, Connor’s first day of high school—maybe even their retirement. Why not? The house gave them room to grow. This would, she believed, be the home into which Connor’s younger siblings would be born.
“You heard what Tom said. This floor has been here since 1940 and the house’s foundation hasn’t washed away in the rain. I’m sure that the basement will still be dry in 2040.”
“Mrs. Huber,” Jarvis said with a laugh. “With your ability to see the possibilities in a house, you really ought to consider a career in real estate.”
“I see the possibilities in this house, anyway.”
“Well, let’s give the basement a good amateur inspection, anyway,” Jarvis suggested. “I don’t see you using this area for much more than storage—at least not in the short run. You could eventually put a concrete floor in, if you wanted. That wouldn’t be cheap, but it could be done.”
Jarvis gave them an unexciting tour of the basement. Jennifer noted that Clint was inspecting the walls for water damage. She was delighted to see that he found none. There were not even any damp spots on the dirt floor. As Jarvis had put it, the floor was “dry as a bone”.
The only odd or unexpected sight in the basement was the little room in the rear corner—the corner farthest away from the stairs. It was not really a separate room, strictly speaking, but a makeshift enclosure of wood paneling. The room was about the size of a large walk-in closet.
“What’s this?” Clint asked, heading toward the little room.
“Oh, that’s a little storage space that Mr. Vennekamp built at some point. Wait a moment, let me go with you. I’ve got a penlight.”
Jennifer followed Jarvis over to the storage room. Clint was already standing in the room’s darkened doorway.
Clint stepped aside so that Jarvis could enter with the penlight. What the penlight revealed was a mostly empty storage room. The tiny beam of light shone on a small pile of bricks, some boards leant up against the room’s single brick wall, and some old cans of paint. The floor was mostly covered by several decaying pallets.
“Not much to look at in here,” Jarvis said. “It might come in handy for storage purposes, though. Or you might want to tear it down. Either way.”
They also examined the water heater, and Jennifer was relieved to find that it had been installed a mere three years ago. The house was certainly old, but most of its key elements were either in good shape or recently updated.
“Well,” Jarvis said, as he led them back upstairs, “what do you think?”
This time Clint preempted Jennifer. “I think we need to talk between ourselves—the two of us—and get back to you.”
Tom Jarvis guided Jennifer and Clint into the main area of the first floor, where the living room, the kitchen, and the dining room all intersected. Every room on the first floor had cathedral ceilings; and the kitchen looked to have been updated within the last ten years.
Whereas Jennifer was transfixed by the interior details of the home, Clint gravitated immediately to the sliding glass double doors at the rear of the kitchen.
Mildly disappointed, Jennifer briefly studied Clint’s tall, lanky frame. His body was silhouetted against the sunlit glare as he cast aimless glances around the shrubs, the trees, and the ivy garden that dominated the back yard.
Her husband—the son of a union machinist—had spent his entire childhood in the same postwar-era tract home. Since their marriage, the two of them had lived in one rented condo and two apartments. Clint knew next to nothing about real estate. That much she could have lived with. What bothered her was that he did not seem very interested in learning. They had toured more than a dozen houses so far, and Clint had yet to ask what her attorney father would call, “a reasonably intelligent question”.
Jennifer ran her hand across the marble countertop in the kitchen. “The first floor, at least, is awesome,” she announced, mildly embarrassed for inadvertently reverting to a childhood word. The present owners of the house, the Vennekamps, were tasteful decorators. And of course, the house had been immaculately cleaned for showings.
“Want to take a look at the fireplace?” Tom Jarvis asked from the living room. Jennifer nodded, then walked past her husband and tapped him on the back. Clint turned around suddenly, giving her a blank expression that made her think of their six-year-old son, Connor. But he dutifully followed her.
Jarvis flipped a switch on the wall, and a little artificial flame shot up within the fake logs inside the fireplace. “Gas burning,” Jarvis said. “It can get a little expensive if you use it a lot, but it’s a lot cleaner than the original wood-burning setup. And what’s more, you don’t have to chop any firewood.”
Jennifer nodded, her attention drawn away from the fireplace to the pictures and knickknacks on the adjacent shelves. During the touring of prospective houses, she had often found herself inexplicably curious about the little details of the resident families’ lives. There was something vaguely improper and voyeuristic about this impulse, of course; but it was probably harmless. It wasn’t like she was opening people’s private closets and drawers; she was only noticing what they had displayed in the open for the house showings.
Her gaze fell upon a framed photograph: a family of four posing for a studio portrait. This was Jennifer Huber’s first look at the Vennekamps.
“That would be them,” Tom Jarvis said in response to the unspoken question, “the current owners. Richard and Deborah Vennekamp. And their children, David and Marcia.”
“You were saying during the ride over,” Jennifer said, continuing to study the portrait, “that there was some disagreement between the couple about selling the home. At least that’s what I understood you to say. But the house is very clearly on the market. So what’s the story there?”
“The story,” said Tom Jarvis, “is that Richard Vennekamp is too sick to maintain the yard and he wants to move into someplace smaller.”
“What’s wrong with him?” Clint asked.
“Pancreatic cancer,” Jarvis said. “And no, I’m not sure if it’s the kind that can be cured. What I do know is that Richard Vennekamp is no longer the man you see in that picture.”
The Richard Vennekamp in the portrait was, indeed, the picture of early middle-age male vitality. He was stocky with blond hair. His tight smile asserted a kind of quiet, calm masculinity.
“Richard Vennekamp had his own contracting business,” Jarvis went on. “He made out well during the construction boom, before the big real estate crash a few years back. But that all ended when he got sick. He had to sell off what was left of his business; and now he’s got to sell off this house, too.”
“That’s horrible,” Clint said.
“It is,” Jennifer agreed. Her enthusiasm for the house was now tempered by a vague sense of guilt. This nice home inside the Mydale school district was such a bargain because Richard Vennekamp was a sick—possibly dying—man, and the house was priced to sell.
Still, if the house had to be sold, then somebody had to buy it. And why shouldn’t that somebody be Clint and Jennifer Huber?
“Plus there’s the fact that the Vennekamps’ children have long since moved out,” Jarvis continued. “The empty nest thing. David and Marcia would be well into their thirties by now. Possibly older.”
If that was the case, then this portrait of the Vennekamps was rather old. The David and Marcia Vennekamp in the portrait were both teenagers.
David Vennekamp was a moderately overweight, awkward-looking youth with thick-rimmed glasses. He must have combed his hair for the picture; but he still looked like he had just gotten out of bed. David seemed sullen, and his smile for the camera looked both coached and forced.
Marcia, meanwhile, was a mousy, diminutive teenage girl whose shyness was unmistakable, even in this old family portrait. She stared wide-eyed at the camera through glasses that were thankfully not as thick as her brother’s. Her smile was tight-lipped, as if she did not want to reveal her teeth. Jennifer wondered if the girl had been wearing braces.
Two teenage misfits, Jennifer thought, not uncharitably. She had thankfully never had to worry about “fitting in” during her high school or college years. But nor had she ever been one of the “mean girl” types who take a perverse delight in tormenting the David and Marcia Vennekamps of the world.
“That doesn’t explain the conflict,” Jennifer said. “I mean, we’re both very sorry to hear about Richard Vennekamp, but—”
“The problem,” Jarvis said, “is that Deborah Vennekamp doesn’t want to sell the house. Don’t ask me to explain exactly why. It seems that Mrs. Vennekamp has a sentimental attachment to this house. An excessive attachment, you might say.”
Jennifer could understand a sentimental attachment to a place where one had raised children, lived as a married couple, and passed through other milestone stages. She could understand it to a point.
However, the fact was that it made sense for the Vennekamps to downsize now, for all the reasons that Jarvis had enumerated. This was a big sprawling house that had been built for a growing family—not a pair of older empty-nesters. Deborah Vennekamp would surely get over her attachment to the house, once she and Mr. Vennekamp had relocated to a place that was more manageable and better suited to their needs.
“But the house is for sale,” Jennifer said. “Just like every other house that we’ve looked at.”
“Yes it is,” Jarvis replied. “But I can’t promise for how long that will be the case. Deborah Vennekamp is very strong-willed.”
Jennifer looked at the Deborah Vennekamp in the portrait. A thin woman with conservatively styled light-brown hair, she didn’t look very strong-willed. In fact, Jennifer rather suspected that Marcia had acquired her obvious timidity from her mother.
“Then we’ll need to make an offer on the house as soon as possible.” She noted the immediately raised eyebrows of both Clint and Jarvis. “Provided that everything else checks out, of course. Come on, let’s take a look at the rest of the house.”
To thirty-four-year-old Jennifer Huber, the house at 1120 Dunham Drive seemed pretty close to perfect. If only, she would later think, there had been something wrong with it—something that would have sent her and her husband Clint running, never to return.
That wasn’t the way things worked out, though. On a sun-scorched Saturday afternoon in mid-July, the house at 1120 Dunham Drive drew the Hubers in. Or at least the house drew Jennifer in.
The seduction began in earnest in the realtor’s car, as Jennifer, Clint, and Tom Jarvis (the realtor) pulled into the driveway.
“It’s a Tudor!” Jennifer exclaimed.
“And what would that be?” Clint asked.
“This style of home,” Jennifer replied. “This is what they call a Tudor style home.”
Jennifer had a fairly extensive knowledge of residential architecture, and she had studied the house’s spec sheet on the Internet the previous night. So she already knew that this would be a Tudor-style home. Her surprise had been feigned: It had simply been a gambit to prod Clint into showing some more enthusiasm about what they were doing today.
“You’ve got to admit, hon: It looks good from the road.”
“It’s a good-looking house,” Clint allowed.
Built in 1940, the house had a look that was simultaneously homey and classic: It had steeply pitched gables (a prerequisite of the neo-Tudor style), decorative half-timbering on the exterior walls, and brick inlays around the ground-floor windows.
“Let’s have a look-see,” Tom Jarvis said, turning off the engine of his Lexus and opening the front driver’s side door. Jennifer didn’t wait for either Jarvis or Clint. As soon as the vehicle was parked, she was out of the overly air-conditioned back seat and racing ahead of the two men.
“It looks like somebody really wants a house,” she heard Jarvis say conspiratorially to Clint.
Who wouldn’t want a new house? Jennifer thought. That’s the sort of thing we work for, after all.
That thought reminded her of the job she hated and the secret that kept her bound there. She pushed these thoughts away. Today was a happy occasion. She wasn’t going to think about her job at Ohio Excel Logistics. Not on a Saturday afternoon like this.
“Check this out,” Jennifer said, pulling her husband Clint by the hand. “Japanese maples.”
The front garden did indeed have three Japanese maples, plus several small pine trees and a whole lot of ivy. It was the sort of landscaping that took years to develop—either that, or a whole lot of money.
“Connor would like the yard,” Jennifer observed as Tom Jarvis bent down and retrieved the key from the lockbox on the front door.
“He probably would,” Clint replied.
“And best of all, it’s in the Mydale school district.”
Their son, Connor, was going to be a first-grader in a mere two months. The public schools in Mydale were regarded as the best in the Cincinnati area.
And then there was the most important thing about the house—the factor that made this a real possibility: The asking price of the home at 1120 Dunham Drive was within the Hubers’ range. Most of the homes in Mydale were a lot pricier.
By now Jarvis had unlocked the door. He smiled and held the door open for them.
Jarvis smiled again as Jennifer walked by and looked down. He wasn’t overly obvious about it, but the realtor had clearly taken the opportunity to check her body out.
It wasn’t the first such glance that she had noticed from the real estate agent. Nor was it all in her imagination. Clint had remarked the other day that Jarvis had taken so many liberties with his eyes during their real estate office meetings and home viewing excursions, that he owed them an additional ten percent off the asking price of whatever house they eventually settled on.
She asked Clint if it made him jealous—Jarvis looking at her that way. Clint had scoffed in reply: Jarvis was an old guy, basically harmless.
Jarvis was indeed older than them, maybe in his mid- to late-forties. He was balding and could have dropped ten pounds; but he still carried himself with the swagger of an ex-jock. Jarvis had probably been a “hound” back in the day; and his manner strongly suggested that he still considered himself a claimant to that title.
As Jennifer walked into the cool house and out of the midsummer heat, Jarvis closed the door and briefly loomed over her. He finally looked away, but not before allowing himself a furtive glance down her blouse.
Okay, that one was a bit much, she thought, but did not say.
Since roughly the age of thirteen, Jennifer had noticed that a large number of men noticed her. That seemed to go along with being thin, blonde, and reasonably pretty. Most of the time it wasn’t a big deal; and for a period of her life it had been undeniably flattering.
But she had been married for most of a decade. She was a mom now; and she was devoted to Clint.
Or at least she thought she was. Would a woman who was totally devoted to her husband and son get herself into the jam she was in at work?
Is there something wrong with me? she wondered. Do I give off the wrong signals?
Her unpleasant thoughts were pushed aside by the interior of the house. The front hall was high-ceilinged and spacious. Their footsteps echoed on the hardwood floor. Unlike many older houses, this house wasn’t dark and dingy. Quite the opposite, in fact, the windows of the downstairs flooded the first floor with natural light.
“I think I love this house.” Jennifer declared, setting aside what she knew to be her habitual skepticism about being sold anything at all. Clint, who was standing beside her, gave her a curious look.
Then the realtor said what Clint must have been thinking:
“Well, Mrs. Huber, you’ve only just seen the front yard and the front hallway. But that’s a good start.”
It’s like he doesn’t want me to get my hopes up, she thought. They had toured numerous homes with Tom Jarvis—most of them homes that Jennifer and Clint had preselected through exhaustive, late-night Internet searches. Practically none of those homes had given her instantly warm and fuzzy feelings.
But this one did. And Jarvis wasn’t exactly right about her having seen only the front yard and the front hallway. Having spotted this house online and grasped its potential, Jennifer had poured over the available photographs of its interior and landscaping. Jennifer had bookmarked the home’s portfolio in Internet Explorer, and had returned to it numerous times, in fact.
On the drive over from the realty office, Tom Jarvis had said that the situation surrounding this house was “complicated”. He had started to explain; but apparently the act of giving an explanation was complicated, too.
“For now lets just keep our options open,” he’d said. But what exactly did that mean? Was Tom Jarvis planning to ultimately steer them toward another house? Maybe a turkey of a house that could only be unloaded on a naïve young couple making their first home purchase?
Well, she thought, the unknown motives of a self-serving and mildly lecherous real estate agent were not going to dissuade her if this house turned out to be as perfect as it seemed. Real estate agents were always working their angles, she’d heard. None of them, she had been warned by friends, were to be trusted.
She didn’t want to make a negative generalization about an entire profession. Still, she and Clint would have to be careful. The Internet was filled with horror stories about dishonest and prevaricating real estate agents. Tom Jarvis knew they were first-time homebuyers. That might lead him to the conclusion that they could be easily led.
One thing was undeniable: For some reason, Tom Jarvis didn’t want them to purchase this house.
“That concludes our presentation,” Amanda said to the room full of lawyers, and to Hugh, of course. “Are there any questions?”
Hugh was certain that there would be questions, and he would make sure to field these unless Amanda intervened. With Evan leading off and Amanda finishing the presentation, he had been little more than ornamentation thus far today.
Hugh had offered to take over when Evan unexpectedly left the room; but Amanda had insisted on taking over herself. This was her way of demonstrating that she could come through in a crisis, and indeed she had. Hugh had to hand it to her: She had done an admirable job of recovering the big pitch from the very jaws of disaster, speaking extemporaneously based on the PowerPoint slides that Evan had prepared.
One of the lawyers—or rather, the accountant who worked for the lawyers—raised his hand.
“Could you explain again about how the outstanding accounts receivables will be updated?” he asked.
Hugh grunted discreetly to let Amanda know that he would take the question. “Certainly,” he said. “When you go to the main screen, you’ll find a little icon with an image of a dollar sign and a left-facing arrow. All you have to do is double-click that, and you’ll see a complete list of all the outstanding accounts receivables. You can print out the report, of course; and you can narrow your parameters using the drop-down fields at the top of that screen—based on date, vendor, or the amount of the invoice.”
“And this is updated regularly, I take it?” the accountant asked.
“The user interface report updates against the database every eight hours,” Hugh replied. “So yes, we can say that it’s updated regularly.”
The accountant nodded thoughtfully, apparently satisfied with Hugh’s explanation. Hugh was happy to see that the meeting was going well, after all. But the other half of his mind was focused on Evan, who had been gone from the meeting for far too long. He thought about going after the younger man, who had no doubt forgotten the warnings issued to him earlier this morning.
Hugh felt an undeniable weight of responsibility here: If Evan had failed to take the warnings seriously, then he was at least partially at fault, wasn’t he? He had not given Evan much to go on.
Hugh realized that he had been extremely vague about the potential dangers lurking in this building. But on the other hand, he could not really be certain about what he had seen during his previous visit to Lakeview Towers. The memory still gave him an uneasy, insecure feeling, as if the ground had shifted beneath him.
It might have been an optical illusion, a trick of the light—that security guard who was not quite a security guard, the one who had approached him in the corridor just outside the suite rented by Rich, Litchfield, and Baker. At first Hugh had thought nothing of the security guard’s presence, until he had taken a close look at the guard’s face: Then he had seen that it wasn’t a person at all, but some sort of a mannequin—a robot, in fact.
And then one of the lawyers had suddenly stepped out of the firm’s suite. Opening the door and standing in the doorway, he said that he wanted to catch Hugh to ask one final question.
Hugh had turned to talk to the lawyer. When he’d turned back around, after answering the lawyer’s question, the creepy security guard had been gone.
So maybe it had been nothing. Maybe. Nevertheless, Lakeview Towers made him feel uneasy. There was something odd about this building—some quality that didn’t belong in a modern office complex. Lakeview Towers had been built no more than ten years ago. Yet there was something much older here—a presence that Hugh could sense, but could not articulate. It might have been nothing more than his imagination, he told himself. Still, there were too many vast, open spaces here, and too few people. Something simply wasn’t right. Hugh just didn’t know what that something was.
If my heart were better, Hugh thought. If my heart were better I would come here one day—perhaps even on my own time—and walk the halls of Lakeview Towers. (A fifteen-year employee of Merlesoft, Hugh had plenty of vacation time, and too little to do on his vacation days.) I would get to the bottom of whatever is here. Or I would satisfy myself that nothing was here; I would be able to say with confidence that the mannequin-like security guard had been a trick of the light, a rare but harmless illusion of some sort.
If not for my heart… That was exactly the excuse that he had been using ever since his twenty-first birthday, after his father had died at the age of fifty-two, from what Hugh now thought of as “the family heart condition”. The cardiologist had informed Hugh that he had inherited the same life-limiting cardiac defect.
“Your odds of suffering a fatal myocardial infarction will increase by a certain percentage each year after the age of thirty-five,” the physician had told him. Naturally, the doctor had been unable to give Hugh any more specific indication of the odds. But his paternal grandfather had lived until the age of fifty-four—two years longer than his father had lived—so it seemed that the family medical curse was shortening their lives progressively with each generation.
In an attempt to end on a positive note, the physician had told Hugh that with the proper diet and light, controlled exercise, he might be able to live a “reasonably long” life. But what did that mean? Fifty-three? Forty-nine? Hugh was already forty-five years old, and he knew that he would almost certainly be dead within the next decade.
The attorneys had a few more questions, which he again answered, and then finally the meeting was over. Evan had still not returned to the meeting.
During the post-meeting banter with the Rich, Litchfield, and Baker folks, Hugh was distant, lost in his own speculations: Had Evan encountered that security guard—the mannequin or the robot, or whatever it was?
And he reminded himself that “it” might have been nothing more than a normal security guard, who had appeared to be something abnormal due to a trick of the light. What was that old rule he had learned years ago—the one known as Occam’s razor? “The simplest hypothesis is most likely to be the true one.” Or something like that. The simplest explanation was that his eyes had played a trick on him that day. Without incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, there was no reason to let his imagination take off on a flight of fancy.
Hugh and Amanda gathered up the equipment that they had brought in with them, including Evan’s laptop and the projector, both of which Evan had transported in. Amanda offered to carry both of these additional items; but Hugh insisted that they divide the extra load between them. He made a point of carrying the projector himself, which was heavier and bulkier than the laptop.
Amanda knew the basic story regarding his heart condition, and she had always gone out of her way to be deferential about it. But sometimes this embarrassed Hugh, her kind intentions notwithstanding. I’m not that fragile, he thought. And even if I am—well, I’d rather go down fighting, carrying my share, versus allowing someone else to shoulder my burdens for me.
On the way out, Hugh made a final visual sweep of the table and noted the key fob for the pool car Camry. Prior to beginning the meeting, Evan had removed it from his pocket and had nervously passed it from one hand to the other. He had set it down on the tabletop just before starting his presentation. Hugh snatched up the key fob: they wouldn’t get far without it.
At the doorway between the law firm’s suite and the hallway, Barry Litchfield was waiting for them. “Give us a few days to discuss this internally,” he said. “We’ll be in touch by the middle of next week.” Hugh perceived this as normal: Even when sales presentations went well, even when all of the i’s were dotted and all of the t’s were crossed, clients still needed time to arrive at a decision. That was the way bureaucratic organizations worked. Some salespersons allowed themselves to be driven batty over this; but Hugh had always regarded the waiting game as just another inescapable step of the sales process.
“I hope your colleague is all right,” Barry said. This was the first explicit reference that anyone had made to Evan’s sudden departure since he had left the room. “It would be a shame if he were sick—or anything.”
Hugh thought he detected a subtle shift in Barry’s facial expression when he uttered that last word, although it might have been nothing more than his imagination. Does Barry believe that there is something wrong with this office complex? he wondered. Does this lawyer know more than he is letting on? Barry was, by Hugh’s estimate, an intelligent, perceptive man. If there was something amiss at Lakeview Towers, it wouldn’t escape the lawyer’s notice.
“I’m sure he’ll be okay,” Amanda said. “Thank you again for your time. Thanks to all of you. It was a pleasure.”
Barry Litchfield held the door open for them. “Of course. Thank you again for coming.”
With that Hugh and Amanda found themselves alone in the deserted hallway. Amanda turned to Hugh.
“Do you think Evan is okay?” She looked up and down the length of the deserted corridor. “Or did a lion get him?”
Hugh reflected that this was an odd remark from the hardboiled, all-business Amanda. She and Evan weren’t exactly on the best of terms; but her remark reflected genuine concern about the younger man’s safety. Does Amanda sense something odd about this place, or is that just my imagination, too?
She gave Hugh a quick, terse laugh when he failed to respond. “Hey, Hugh, I was just kidding.” She started walking toward the lobby. “Come on. Let’s get this stuff to the car.”
“Of course,” Hugh recovered, following her. “And I’m sure Evan is fine. He probably just decided that for him to make a second entry into the meeting would be more disruptive than simply staying away; and he was probably right. After all, you and I did fine. I’m sure we’ll find him waiting for us in the lobby.”
Evan stared at the closed double doors, wondering for a moment if the robot would follow him into this room. Did its artificial intelligence include a knowledge of door latches and locks? One of the two doors had a handle; and so far, at least, the handle had not moved. Perhaps the thing had wanted nothing more than to maneuver him out of the hallway. Perhaps that was the limitation of its programming—to keep the hallway free of trespassers. The robot’s only words, after all, had been the statement that the hallway was off-limits.
He absently noted that the sales presentation to Rich, Litchfield, and Baker would be a complete washout for him now. The unexpected, and as yet unexplained, encounter with the robot had shifted all of his immediate priorities.
Now reasonably content that the robot would not pursue him beyond the door, Evan turned and surveyed the room in which he now found himself. It was a large storage room of sorts, with high ceilings and little light. High overhead, about a dozen widely spaced florescent bulbs provided a minimal amount of illumination. There were also networks of pipe and electrical wiring overhead, as would be expected in any room with an unfinished ceiling.
The storage room was dominated by metal shelving: Rows of shelves were positioned in the middle of the room, and also along all of the walls that Evan could see. He also noticed two pallets in an open space a fair distance from him. Cardboard boxes were stacked atop the pallets.
A dusty, mildewy smell permeated the air. This was obviously a room that was seldom entered, and seldom cleaned.
Evan walked toward the nearest row of shelving. The first thing he noticed, on the shelf that was approximately level with his shoulders, was a tangled mess of computer cables. Behind the computer cables was a much older item, one that he recalled having seen in photographs: It was an ancient IBM adding machine. Now why would something like that be here? Manual adding machines hadn’t been used in offices for decades—not since the sixties, at least. This thing was an antique, probably worth some money. To store it away in this room was a waste.
He stepped over to his right, to the next section of shelving, and noticed a mass of lumpy objects obscured beneath a large sheet of bubble wrap. They were irregularly shaped—possibly more antique office equipment.
He lifted the sheet of bubble wrap upward and gasped as multiple sets of eyes stared back at him. He jumped back, momentarily jolted by the optical illusion. When he was able to breathe again, he chided himself, the incident in the hallway notwithstanding. What lay on the shelving was not a pile of dismembered human heads, but a pile of mannequin parts: heads, arms, and legs. They all appeared to be fashioned from smooth plastic, just like the robot out in the hallway.
Just like the robot out in the hallway.
Were these parts of similar machines, then, Evan wondered. And why were they here?
Evan then reflected that he would have a lot of questions for Hugh when the two of them were reunited. Hugh obviously knew something about this highly unusual office complex, but for some reason he had chosen to only hint at the big picture, preferring to leave Evan with a vague and indecipherable warning about not wandering off, and avoiding security guards.
The security guards, Evan thought. The human security guards—there must be some way to contact them. They could take care of that thing in the hall, probably.
He removed his cell phone from his pocket. The phone had Internet access, so he would be able to use it to find the general number for the Lakeview Towers office complex. He could call the front desk, and alert the security guards to the robot that had threatened him. It was probably still in the hallway. (Evan still clung to the belief that the robot was a research prototype of a high-tech firm that rented space in Lakeview Towers.)
But when he turned his phone on, he found that neither the Internet access nor the phone itself was able to receive a signal. He turned off the phone and returned it to his pocket. It was useless for the time being.
There might be an internal landline phone, then. He walked toward the far wall, being careful to avoid the debris on the floor, which seemed to be everywhere. This room was not only untidy and unused, it was unsafe. He could imagine someone taking a nasty fall in here, then suing the Lakeview Towers management for negligence.
Halfway between his starting point and the far wall, his toe struck something hard and unyielding, causing him to curse aloud. He had not seen the object, since it had been obscured in shadows. Cursing at the unseen item, he bent down and lifted a layer of plastic bubble wrap from a solid metallic body. This revealed the last thing he would have expected to find in the storage room of an office building: It appeared to be a ship’s anchor. And it was an old one at that, based on its traditional admiralty design.
Evan ran his hand along the surface of the metal and noted that it was coated with rust. Along the main shaft of the anchor he felt the concavity of an inscription.
The room was too dark to allow him to read the inscription, so he removed his cell phone from his pocket again. Since the thing could not receive an Internet or phone signal in this room, it ought to be good as a flashlight, at least.
He turned on the phone and held it near the inscription. In the illumination from the phone’s screen, he read the words,
“U.S.S. Danville, 1842”
This was even more bizarre than the antique adding machine. Even stranger than the mannequin/robot parts, in a way. What sort of a storage room was this?
Shrugging off the anchor as one of many unanswerable questions that had arisen in the past hour, Evan stood, pocketed his phone, and resumed his walk toward the far wall. When he finally arrived, he found nothing but more shelving pushed up against the cinderblock surface of the wall. This time, he did not investigate any of the items on the shelves before him. He already knew that he could anticipate finding all manner of strange things in this room.
He scanned the length of the wall in one direction. It appeared that the shelves extended all the way into the distance, where the shadows finally made them invisible. In the other direction, the shelves continued into yet another cinderblock wall.
He walked back into the middle of the room, looking for a light that would indicate another exit—other than the door through which he had entered. Much of the wall space around him was obscured; and he could not see any illumination that might indicate another door. Sometimes doors in buildings were indicated with lighted “EXIT” signs. There didn’t seem to be any such doors or signs here. Was this room compliant with fire codes? Probably not.
Then his attention was drawn by a series of noises from overhead. It sounded like tiny fingernails—or maybe claws—scraping against one of the ventilation pipes.
Rats, maybe? He walked in the direction of the sound, then looked up in time to see the shadow a long tail disappearing behind one of the large overhead pipes. The tail was long and thick, definitely not anything belonging to a rat. Evan thought: What else is in this room with me, besides plastic body parts and antiques?
He heard tiny, scurrying footsteps thudding along the top surface of one of the pipes. He followed the sounds, simultaneously exercising caution to avoid tripping over the junk on the floor.
Finally the footsteps stopped. There was the sound of more scraping, and Evan saw a brief glimpse of a large reptilian face, something with shiny black scales and yellow eyes.
Evan caught his breath. I did not see that, he thought.
He knew, however, that he did see that; and he heard another set of footsteps, and then more overhead. One of the tailed reptilian creatures (he assumed they were all alike) made a chirring sound.
It was time to get out of this room. Surely the robot was gone by now. Although there was a certain risk involved, Evan decided that he would attempt to exit this room via the door through which he had entered. He would peek out, at the very least; and if the robot was no longer in the hallway, then he would make a run for the lobby. If the robot was still there—well, he would deal with that contingency when he was confronted with it.
Evan walked quickly back toward the double doorway, much less worried about the robot now than he had been. He heard more scraping, scurrying, and chirring sounds overhead. Were those things, too, some sort of prototypes? Could it be that a biotech company was also housed in Lakeview Towers?
Then he grasped the outlandishness of the scenario that he was proposing to himself: Could he really believe that both a high-tech robotics company, and a rogue biotech company were housed in this office complex? Could he further believe that both companies had somehow built horrific “prototypes” and allowed them to run loose in the building?
He couldn’t believe that, of course; but nor could he think of a readily serviceable alternative theory.
Keep calm, he told himself. Keep calm. There is a logical explanation for all of this. There simply has to be.
But when Evan arrived back at the spot where the door was located, he was confronted with yet another impossibility: The door was no longer there. It had been replaced by an expanse of bare cinderblock wall, painted in a color that looked like a dull tan in the dim light.
No way! Evan thought. Doors do not disappear. Doors do not disappear!
Evan now concluded that he was in a truly desperate situation. Whatever was going on here, it was no longer interesting, it was no longer merely curious. It was intensely frightening.
Since joining Merlesoft as a new college graduate, Evan had often been frustrated at work, and he had occasionally been angered and humiliated. But today would mark the first time that he had actually been frightened at work—even while on a sales call.
Still, there had to be a way out of this. He couldn’t give up.
Evan began to walk back and forth along the blank wall where the double doors should have been. He occasionally called out, just in case there was someone beyond the wall who might hear him.
“First, I want to thank all of you for taking the time to hear Merlesoft’s presentation today,” Evan began. He was the only one standing in the darkened room. Six attorneys from Rich, Litchfield and Baker were seated around one side of the oblong table. This number included an accountant and an information systems person, who weren’t really attorneys, but merely employees of the law firm. Amanda and Hugh were seated on the opposite side, their backs to Evan.
The PowerPoint slide that was projected on the screen at the far end of the room contained an image of the law firm’s logo alongside an image of the Merlesoft logo, almost as if the two were the same company. The message being conveyed here was that the two organizations were joined in an ad hoc partnership of sorts, their mutual goal being to devise the optimal accounting solution for Rich, Litchfield, and Baker.
This was a standard bit of sales psycho-strategizing. The idea was to spin the (hopefully) imminent purchase order as a partnership between Merlesoft and the client. Then the client representatives wouldn’t feel that they were on the receiving end of a sales process. Even though that was exactly what was happening.
Evan then launched into the sales presentation, clicking through the slides with the projector’s remote control. He had studied his lines so much in advance that he was almost able to run on autopilot, which was a good thing—as the dizziness that he had briefly experienced in the hallway was now returning with a vengeance. And once again he was aware of that peculiar smell. The odor might best be described as a mixture between gasoline and burning vegetable matter.
The smell was all around him now, as if it were coming through the air ducts.
The dark room began to shift before his eyes. He knew that his voice was wavering, because everyone in the room had turned their attention away from the screen at the front of the room. They were looking at him—no doubt wondering what the hell was going on.
That was a question that was acutely troubling him, as well. The partially illuminated faces around him began to shift, to melt into the darkness. When he tried to read the slide that was currently projected up on the screen, the words ran together.
I’ve got to get out of this room, he thought. This isn’t working.
Then an additional complication arose. He was acutely aware of the large breakfast that he had eaten—the one that was supposed to give him energy to concentrate on his presentation. It was churning and bubbling in his stomach, threatening to erupt and spill out on the meeting table.
To pass out before a room full of customers would be bad enough. To upchuck in front of clients would be an unmitigated disaster, though.
Evan made a snap decision. He placed the projector remote on the table between Hugh and Amanda. One of them would have to take over.
“You’ll have to excuse me,” he announced to the room. “I’m afraid that I’m going to be sick.”
They pushed through the entranceway. Evan exercised extra caution so as not to drop anything. He briefly imagined the projector slipping out of his hands and crashing to the floor. Then the whole sales presentation would be ruined, all because of his momentary blunder, his failure to anticipate. The resultant recriminations would be unbearable. Like a disgraced Japanese samurai, his only option would be to commit hara-kiri.
The lobby was state-of-the-art, contemporary office chic. There was wall-to-wall, nondescript grey carpeting, comfortable-looking soft, frameless chairs in the waiting area, and strategically spaced abstract paintings. The three of them headed immediately to the wood-paneled security enclosure, where two security guards—a heavyset woman and a rather frail-looking older man—sat beneath soft cove lighting.
Amanda motioned for Hugh and Evan to complete the sign-in procedures before her. She wanted to check the messages on her Blackberry before signing in, apparently. Or maybe she wanted to check her personal cell phone for messages from Oscar, Evan thought.
While Evan and Hugh were pinning on their temporary access security badges and waiting for Amanda to finish with the security guards, Hugh pulled him aside and said discreetly:
“Stick with me while you’re here. And don’t talk to any other security guards you might happen to see here. Only these two at the front desk are okay.”
Once again Evan found himself wondering if Hugh was suffering from some sort of a delusion, or possibly setting him up for an elaborate practical joke.
“You’re really serious about wanting me to not wander off in this building, aren’t you?” Evan asked, smiling in an attempt to break the tension from the quarrel with Amanda, and to calm the butterflies in his stomach. He often felt a slight degree of nervousness just before a big client pitch. “Are you going to tell me what this is all about?”
He had expected Hugh to smile in response, but Hugh’s expression was suddenly more resolute, if anything.
“I’m completely serious, Evan. And I don’t have the time to explain this to you now. But if we make it out of here okay, then I promise you I will.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Maybe nothing more than my imagination, buddy. But maybe something. In any case, safety is the best policy. Just remember what I said.”
Evan opened his mouth to ask another question. And then Amanda appeared, her temporary visitor badge pinned to her blouse.
“Are you ready, gentlemen?”
“We’re ready,” Hugh said, answering for both of them. “Follow me. I’ve been here before, after all.”
Evan followed Hugh as he led the way down the hallway directly in front of them. The law firm’s office suite was on the first floor, then. Evan was conscious of the combined weight of the portable projector and his laptop. Amanda was carrying her briefcase, and a satchel that contained the handout materials for the presentation. Hugh was carrying only his attaché case. Given his heart condition, neither Evan nor Amanda would have expected him to carry anything more.
They passed by a number of office suites, Hugh leading the way. Each office suite was located behind a stately wooden door; and on each lateral side of each door was a panel of transparent glass. The overall effect was a balance between enclosure and visibility.
Given this arrangement, it was possible for Evan to look into the office suites. He saw comfortable-looking settings, but no people. Strange that there were no people. Perhaps there was more vacant office space here than he had imagined.
Miles and miles of space, he thought, for no reason that he could fathom.
On and on forever…
A wave of unexpected dizziness hit him. Evan nearly stumbled at one point, as he felt abruptly light-headed. He feared that he would drop the projector—for real this time. He experienced a moment of genuine panic, a sense that he was about to faint.
Then he quickly recovered and righted himself. As suddenly as the odd feeling had come upon him, it was gone now. Since he was walking behind both Amanda and Hugh, neither of them had noticed, he was glad to see.
What’s wrong with me?
He detected a faint whiff of something unpleasant in the air. It was a burnt, sooty smell—not exactly organic, but not exactly chemical, either. Perhaps it was this odor that had made him suddenly dizzy. It might be the result of a problem with the ventilation system here.
Evan felt almost himself again when they finally arrived at the decorative wooden door that read: “Rich, Litchfield, & Baker, Attorneys at Law.” A receptionist was stationed immediately inside the suite, and there was a small waiting room that was dominated by an imitation fireplace, more ultra-modern office furniture, and paintings that looked much like the ones in the main lobby. The receptionist—a young, redheaded woman who caught Evan’s eye—informed them that they could proceed directly down the adjacent hallway to meeting room 1A—the law firm’s media room.
Meeting room 1A contained a large oblong oak table, which was surrounded by about a dozen high-backed, leather-padded chairs. The attorneys had spared no expense to make their home base attractive, it seemed. At the far end of the room, Evan spotted the roll-up screen that he would use to project the PowerPoint presentation. Being careful not to make direct eye contact with Amanda, he went about setting up the projector and connecting it to his laptop. Luckily, there were plenty of electrical outlets in the room, and he had brought extra lengths of extension cord.
Hugh had warned him not to talk to any other security guards. Now why would Hugh say something like that? What did he mean? Evan could have asked him—if not for Amanda’s hovering presence.
Evan had just finished setting up the equipment for the presentation when the lawyers filed in, headed by the eponymous Barry Litchfield. Evan was still feeling a bit light-headed, and he was still more than a little angry at Amanda. He was also dreading the inevitable follow-up confrontation that would surely be instigated by today’s exchange with his boss. When they returned to the Merlesoft office, there would surely be hell to pay—in one form or another.
But now he had a job to do. And he would spite Amanda Kearns by doing it to the best of his abilities.
Following the directions generated by the Camry’s GPS system, Evan guided the car off the interstate at the designated exit. They were about five miles south of the Columbus metro area, and the scenery was still pretty rural. This area had probably been nothing but farmland a mere five or ten years ago. There were still plenty of cornfields around, high and dark green in their late summer lushness. On the far, flat, horizon Evan could see a scattering of barns, and even a grain silo. Closer to the highway, though, the landscape was dominated by several newly built industrial parks and office buildings. A bit farther away was a swath of recently erected McMansions. These minor palaces doubtlessly sold far more cheaply here than they would inside the Columbus city limits.
The exit took them around a long, sloping curve that dead-ended in a two-lane highway. The android voice of the GPS told Evan to turn right.
“That’s the Lakeview Towers complex over there,” Hugh said, pointing in that direction. Evan made the right turn, and as the Camry traversed the rural highway, the office complex called Lakeview Towers gradually came into view.
The glass-plated, ultramodern architecture looked somewhat out of place here in the middle of the Ohio countryside. True to its name, Lakeview Towers consisted of a series of four towers that must have been ten or twelve stories high. The towers were connected by a series of shorter segments that were perhaps three stories in height. How many office suites would there be in Lakeview Towers? Hundreds, at least. A lot of space to rent this far south of Columbus, Evan thought. Then he concluded that the complex must have been built at the end of the recently collapsed commercial real estate boom.
They approached in the car, at about thirty miles per hour, and Lakeview Towers seemed to grow even larger as it drew closer. This was only an optical illusion, of course. Down at the exit, the towers had been partially obscured by the topography. As they crested a hill and drew even with the office complex, they saw it at its full height. How tall are those towers? Evan speculated. And what were they doing here, out in the middle of nowhere? All of the other office buildings on the exit were modest, boxlike structures, no more than four or five stories in height.
The morning sunlight glinted off the high columns of the towers, but Evan could not help noting that there was something dark about them—vaguely medieval and almost sinister. Yet they were undeniably modern—certainly no more than ten years old.
The immaculately manicured “campus” (as it was now trendy to call corporate facilities) was filled with plenty of “green space” between the parking areas. A pair of artificial ponds dominated the weed-free lawn opposite the main entrance. In the middle of each pond was a water jet. Evan also noticed a small gaggle of white geese distributed between the two bodies of water. This was a good place for the birds: There would be no hunters to disturb them here.
Fortunately, there were plenty of open parking spaces. Evan found a space located reasonably close to the main entrance, adjacent to the two ponds, and parked.
Before killing the engine, Evan looked at the dashboard clock: It was 8:37 a.m.: They had time to spare before the appointment, even with factoring in the time needed to set up the projector for the PowerPoint presentation.
Evan stepped out of the car, then leaned down to smooth his tie and his white dress shirt in the driver’s side exterior mirror. The right breast of the shirt bore a monogrammed “MSS” and the logo for Merlesoft Software Systems—a generic computer motif. Hugh and Amanda exited the vehicle as well. Finding the key fob in his pocket, Evan pressed the button that opened the trunk automatically. He reached down to lift the projector out of the trunk.
That was when Amanda pounced. “Did you remember to include a slide containing the timeline of the four quotations we submitted?” she asked, not quite casually.
Evan stared back at her, nonplussed. He had remembered everything, or so he had thought. He had spent hours preparing the PowerPoint slides and additional hours preparing himself to deliver a flawless sales presentation. But he had not thought to include a slide depicting the timeline of the quotations.
He could imagine what Amanda wanted: A visual representation not only of the successive changes in pricing, but also something that summarized the technical change points. This would demonstrate how Merlesoft had recommended cost-effective changes to the original specifications provided by Rich, Litchfield, and Baker.
It wasn’t a bad idea; but it was the one thing he hadn’t thought of—and the one thing that Amanda saw fit to remember, less than thirty minutes before game time.
“No, Amanda,” he said, pausing with his hand on the handle of the projector’s carrying case. “I didn’t think to include a slide showing the timeline of the quotations we submitted.”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Evan realized that he had delivered them flippantly. This hadn’t been his intention. He had meant to express the idea of, “I see what you’re getting at, but no—I forgot!”
That admission would be bad enough; it would add to the long list of black marks against him, a list that Amanda Kearns maintained, he was certain, in one form or another.
But now it was clear that Amanda perceived his words as a challenge to her authority, the one infraction that any manager at Merlesoft despised more than anything else.
“Don’t think that I don’t hear the resentment in your voice, Evan. I wouldn’t have to ask you this sort of thing, if only you would think of it yourself.”
Evan felt a wave of anger and resentment suddenly surge through him. Amanda was addressing him as if he were a slacker, a ne’er-do-well. The truth was that he had thought of many things. He just hadn’t thought of that particular thing—the one thing that she had chosen to ask about. And in all the sales presentations prior to this one, he had never prepared a visual timeline of the quotations. Early quotations, in fact, were usually regarded as irrelevant. Final sales presentations usually focused on the most current quotation.
He now saw what Amanda was doing to him: She was using the process of elimination to trip him up. She had rigged the game so that he would inevitably lose it. There was no way for him to win in a situation like this.
Finally his temper snapped. “Do you want me to create the slide right now? I have my laptop computer back here.”
“Evan,” she replied with an air of calm superiority. “We both know that there’s no time for you to do that, when we have to meet with the client in a matter of minutes. My point was that it should have been done earlier.”
That was when Hugh intervened.
“Whoa, whoa,” he said, gently squeezing Evan’s arm and interposing himself between Amanda and him. “There’s no time now, buddy. She’s right about that. Let’s just focus on doing the best we can with the presentation we’ve got now. We can talk about next time later on. As it stands right now, we’re going to be on in about fifteen minutes.”
Evan nodded silently, allowing himself to be mollified by Hugh. Amanda, too, allowed this to be the last word about the matter—for now. (There would doubtlessly be further recriminations later—especially if an order from Rich, Litchfield, and Baker failed to materialize.) Evan noted (and not for the first time) that Amanda sometimes allowed Hugh to exert a subtle form of authority, as long as he didn’t step on her toes in the process.
Loaded up with gear and presentation materials, they walked toward the double doors that formed the front entrance of the Lakeview Towers office complex. Evan could see their reflections bobbing in the glass face of the building. He again recalled the vague warning that Hugh had given him while they were sitting in the McDonald’s—or the warning that Hugh had tried to give him.
They headed out to the McDonald’s parking lot and piled into the Merlesoft pool car. It was a generic Toyota Camry that was tolerably comfortable for three people and a two-hour drive on the interstate. Evan climbed behind the wheel. It wasn’t an absolute, formal rule—but the way it always seemed to work on business trips was that the junior person on the team did most of the driving. That was okay with Evan, though. He enjoyed driving; and the act enabled him to slip into a controlled trance where he could become lost in his own thoughts.
What had caused his recollection of his mother this morning? After all, he could be fairly sure that his mother was not thinking of him at this moment.
Evan was not technically estranged from his parents; but he was not exactly close to them, either. It occurred to him that he had not communicated with either Roger or Janet for about three months, and then only by email. “Hi, Roger!” “Hi, Janet!” “How are you doing? Hope all is well!” His parents were long since divorced. When he communicated with them at all, he sent them separate versions of this more or less identical, perfunctory message.
Mom and Dad. Roger and Janet.
Who the hell calls his parents by their first names? Yet Evan had been doing it for so many years, that it was now second nature.
The Roger and Janet thing had started when he was still in junior high. His parents were already divorcing by then, both of them already moving toward other relationships that would shortly become other marriages. They had encouraged him to address them both by their first names. So far as Evan knew, none of his friends addressed their parents by their first names. It had had a faintly grown-up appeal, however; and it was what his parents wanted. So it had been Roger and Janet ever since then. And the next year, when he had two new stepparents, it was Roger and Monica and Janet and Mike.
Evan shook his head as he guided the pool car Camry onto the entrance ramp of the interstate, leaving the McDonald’s behind them, a rare outpost of suburbia in what was otherwise the unbroken farm country along the vast highway stretch between Cincinnati and Columbus. He realized now that his parents’ marriage to each other had been a mistake, a dry run of sorts. Although neither one of them had ever intended as much (or so he liked to believe) the net result was that he, Evan, had ended up feeling like a bit of a dry run as well—a test case, if you will.
Both Roger and Janet ended up having more children with their new spouses. Evan had met his multiple stepsiblings, but he wasn’t really close to any of them. Nor did he make a habit of showing up at either parental household on the main holidays, though a pro forma invitation was usually extended. He knew that he wouldn’t fit in. And somehow, he was okay with that. Despite his parents’ divorce, his life hadn’t been exceptionally traumatic. He had endured a vacuum; but he had suffered no abuse or deprivations.
His life since then had been peopled by a variety of casual and undemanding friendships. He had had reasonably good luck with women, too—though he had not yet met the woman whom the more dramatic types would call, “the love of his life”. But after the example of his parents, perhaps it was natural that he was cautious—even cynical—about that sort of thing. Perhaps this was for the best.
“Are you all ready for the presentation today?” Amanda asked from the back seat, interrupting his thoughts. She had her Blackberry in her lap, and was busy typing a message into its tiny keyboard. Evan apparently wasn’t entitled to her full attention, but that was okay. The less interaction with Amanda, the better. Hugh had mercifully climbed into the seat next to him. If Amanda had chosen to ride shotgun, he would have felt pressured to make conversation with her during the remaining ride to Columbus.
“I’m all ready,” Evan said, doing his best to sound corporate gung-ho and cheerful.
Then he recalled what Hugh had said about not getting off the beaten path at the office complex where Rich, Litchfield, and Baker rented space. What was it called? Oh, yeah: Lakeview Towers. Now why, exactly, would Hugh give him a piece of advice like that? It had almost been a warning, as if the office complex were some sort of a dangerous neighborhood. But nothing bad happened to people in offices—nothing physically bad, at least.
Evan Daley would later reflect that he should have known better than to enter the Maze. After all, his coworker and sort-of mentor, Hugh Jackson, had tried to tell him about the Maze, and Hugh had tried to tell him that it was probably dangerous.
But how do you take seriously a warning issued in a McDonald’s on a bright, warm, September morning? Besides, before Evan saw the Maze, he would have sworn that he dreaded nothing so much as Amanda Kearns, his boss. But then, Hugh seemed to dread Amanda, too—albeit in his own quiet way.
Evan and Hugh occupied a table in one corner of the McDonald’s dining room. The McDonald’s was located just off I-71—the interstate that would take them to this morning’s sales presentation. The restaurant was filled to near capacity this late in the morning—mostly with truck drivers and other business travelers.
Evan was digging into his Big Breakfast with Hotcakes. He felt a little guilty, eating this artery-clogger in front of Hugh. The older man had mentioned several times that he had a heart condition; and that was why Hugh was contenting himself with a low-fat, sensible bowl of Fruit and Maple Oatmeal. As Evan forked a mouthful of pancake, he noticed Hugh staring down jealously at his syrup-smeared Styrofoam plate.
“Sorry,” Evan said. “I’m eating a mountain of delicious fat and cholesterol here, and you’ve got to eat that bowlful of grain and berries—or whatever that stuff is.”
And Evan was honestly sorry. Hugh had always been good to him; he shuddered to think what it would be like to work in the sales department without Hugh to serve as a filter between Amanda and him. There was something vaguely unfair about what he was doing—torturing a man with the sight of what his body wouldn’t allow him to have—a man who had to count his daily fat and cholesterol milligrams lest he drop dead of a stroke or a heart attack. Hadn’t Hugh said something once about his father dying at the age of fifty-something?
“Just because I’ve got a bum ticker, it doesn’t mean that you have to suffer along with me,” Hugh said, waving away the remark. What exactly was the problem with Hugh’s heart? Evan wondered. He wanted to question Hugh about his condition—whatever it was—but he held back. The poor man was obviously living in a state of ongoing confrontation with his own mortality. No sense in making it worse for him.
Amanda’s coffee sat steaming in front of her empty chair. She was out in the children’s playground area, intensely talking into her cell phone in a visible state of outrage. Evan could see her from where he sat: Her long, slender body was leant against a plastic blue slide. The slide was topped with a dome fashioned to resemble a McDonald’s hamburger.
Evan discretely gestured toward Amanda. “She talking to Oscar, you think?”
Hugh nodded ominously. “It would appear so.” Amanda had sat down with them initially. Within a few minutes, though, her cell phone had rung. After a clipped, moody hello into the phone, she had immediately stood up and headed outside, where she could talk privately.
They both knew that Oscar was Amanda’s boyfriend. They also knew that the relationship had been less than harmonious of late. Oscar was a big shot in one of the investment banks headquartered in Cincinnati. Oscar had accompanied Amanda to the Merlesoft holiday party last December, showing up ostentatiously overdressed in a Brooks Brothers three-piece suit. Evan had talked to Oscar for all of five painful minutes. The investment banker made a few snide, clipped remarks about Evan’s choice of college major—English literature. Apparently Oscar—a finance wizard with an MBA from Wharton—didn’t think much of folks who elected to spend their undergraduate years dissecting The Canterbury Tales and the collected short fiction of Ernest Hemingway.
I can’t blame him, Evan thought, recalling his brief and mostly humiliating exchange with Oscar at the holiday party. I should have majored in something more practical. What the hell am I doing with my life—an English literature major working in software sales?
It was a question that he had asked himself many times over the past twenty-odd months since he had been working at Merlesoft. This was his first “real” job—that is, his first post-college job. It wasn’t too bad, really—or yes, really it was. The corporate politics at Merlesoft were baffling and unrelenting. Then there was his inability to pass himself off as a software guru during customer presentations. And finally there was Amanda, who seemed intent on riding his ass all the time.
Amanda. Damn Amanda, he thought. And damn Oscar for doing what he was doing right now—whatever was causing his relationship with Amanda to go south. Evan had been hoping that Amanda would get an engagement ring soon. Then he could reasonably anticipate her maternity leave—five or six blessedly Amanda-free months.
She was well into her mid-thirties after all; and if she were married, she would want to start having children as soon as possible. But that wasn’t going to happen if she broke up with Oscar.
“Anyway,” Hugh said, changing the subject away from breakfast. “I want to warn you about something.”
Evan could tell immediately that the older man intended to broach some topic of considerable magnitude. Probably something in regard to this morning’s sales presentation. Today’s clients—the attorneys of the law firm Rich, Litchfield, and Baker, were a stodgy, hard-to-please lot. Hugh had made the preliminary sales call by himself and had reported as much.
The accounting software packages that Merlesoft sold were expensive, and required a client company to reconfigure a considerable portion of their internal accounting procedures. The sales process was therefore a multistep one—usually beginning with an exploratory sales call, followed by several quotations, and multiple customer consultations over the phone.
They had been going through this back-and-forth with Rich, Litchfield, and Baker for the better part of four months. Evan had yet to visit the clients’ office; but he had talked to several of the law firm people over the phone. Today would be the final dog-and-pony show, which would hopefully result in a purchase order from the law firm. Amanda, Hugh, and Evan would make a PowerPoint presentation and answer any remaining customer questions. This was the whole purpose of making the two-hour drive from Cincinnati to Columbus today. It was “do or die” now, in the typically hyperbolic language of the corporate subculture.
As Evan contemplated this morning’s meeting—barely an hour in the future—he felt more like dying than doing. Amanda had given him a “challenge”, announcing that he would be making the sales presentation solo. He knew from experience what this actually meant: Amanda would vigilantly wait for him to make the slightest mistake or omission. Then she would pounce and interject during the middle of his presentation, throwing him off his rhythm and undercutting his credibility in front of the customers.
“You don’t have to warn me,” Evan said, anticipating the nature of Hugh’s advice. “I know that Amanda is going to be watching me like a hawk today, waiting for me to make the slightest flub-up, or to forget the smallest detail. That’s why I’ve crammed for today’s presentation, buddy. I stayed up till midnight last night going over everything. First I reviewed the four quotations we’ve submitted up to this point. Then I went over the procedures that Rich, Litchfield, and Baker use in their accounting process at present. And I didn’t stop there. I also made a list of questions that I could reasonably anticipate them asking today, and I think that I’ve got every one of them nailed. You ought to see the notes I prepared, Hugh: They fill a good ten pages on a legal pad.”
Evan finished off the last of his breakfast, wadded up his napkin, and dropped it onto the Styrofoam plate. He smoothed his tie to make sure that it contained neither syrup, egg fragments, nor sausage crumbs. Noting also that the sleeves of his white dress shirt were free of stains or debris, he nodded at Hugh with a cautious air of self-contentment.
“You can feel free to offer me any last words before the wedding, though, buddy. Or you can hit me with any questions that you think I might have missed. But I believe that I’ve got them all down.”
Hugh leaned forward. “That’s not what I want to talk to you about. It’s something else.”
“What, then?” Evan was suddenly alarmed by Hugh’s expression. The older man sometimes let him know when a shake-up was imminent at Merlesoft: a firing, a promotion, a resignation, or a reorganization. Evan had also discovered that most of these changes ended up being disagreeable in one way or another. This was yet another rule that he had learned during slightly less than two years of corporate life: The devil you know is always less objectionable than the devil you don’t know. Or, to put it another way: Change is usually bad.
“Don’t tell me you’re transferring to another department, Hugh,” he said. “Or—wait a minute—you aren’t leaving the company, are you?”
Hugh shook his head. “No, no. Nothing like that.”
“Well, what then?”
Hugh dropped his plastic spoon into the little plastic container in which his Fruit and Maple Oatmeal had been packaged. “This is going to sound a little strange to you, but I’m going to tell you anyway.”
“Hugh, I’ve learned to accept things that are strange—especially since Amanda entered my life.” He allowed himself another quick glance at Amanda, who was still outside, still talking to Oscar. By the look of her facial expression, the phone call definitely wasn’t going well; and that would only mean a more difficult morning for him. Amanda would have to wrap up the call pretty soon, though, troubles with Oscar notwithstanding. Otherwise, they would arrive late for their nine o’clock appointment at the lawyers’ office.
“I know you haven’t been to the Rich, Litchfield, and Baker office yet,” Hugh continued. “It’s located inside this place called Lakeview Towers—a huge office complex with hundreds of individual offices that are rented by probably hundreds of different companies.”
Evan had no idea of what Hugh might be getting at with this line of explanation. He didn’t want to be rude, though. “No, Hugh, I haven’t been there,” he acknowledged. “But I’ve given presentations at unfamiliar locations before. It shouldn’t be a problem. I’m green, but I’m not that green.”
“That isn’t what I’m getting at.”
“Well then, exactly what are you getting at?”
Hugh paused and looked around, probably to make sure that Amanda was still outside talking to Oscar. “Well,” he began, “let’s just say that you ought to not allow yourself to get too far off the beaten path at this place. What I mean is, don’t go wandering around unnecessarily.”
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.