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The Skull Hunter, 6
The Hunger

by S. Michael Leier

Table of Contents
“A Haunted Past” appeared
in issue 194.
Part 1 of 2

Ghosts, demons, witches... What a royal pain in the butt. If anyone ever has any doubt that something happens to us after we die, just send them to me. There is an existence after this life, and some of it is very, very bad. I know: I deal with it every day. I’ve seen it up close and personal. The things that make most people wake up in a cold sweat are par for the course in my job. My name is Rick Vargo. I’m a private investigator, and these are my stories.

The Hunger cover “Damn,” I sneered as I looked down at the gaping hole in coat. It wasn’t so much the hole that bothered me it was the fact that I was going to have to spend several hours sewing on it again. My trench coat already looked as though it had been through major reconstructive surgery. Lines of amateur stitching ran up most of the seams and several patches placed over holes made the coat look like it had come straight from a war zone.

That wouldn’t be far from the truth. Take tonight: I had just come from the basement of an old railway station that was in the midst of renovation. Several of the workers had disappeared and I’d been asked to look into it. I wasn’t down there ten minutes before something attacked me from the shadows, busting my nose and ripping my coat. The worst part was that whatever attacked me got away. Oh well, just another night in the life of Rick Vargo.

I walked through the front door of my office building as was surprised to see the building owner sitting at Sam’s desk cussing into the phone. His name was Harold Stuck. A fatter, greasier balding man had never been seen before. He always seemed to have two expressions on his face: mad and madder. Rumor had it that he inherited the building from his wife’s mother when she died. I believed it since I had never seen him do a day’s work. He was lazy as a penny and almost as tight as one. He was always going to fix something tomorrow like the heat, the water, or the lights.

“I don’t want excuses, damn it!” he screamed angrily into the phone. “You tell Sam that if he isn’t here within the hour he had better start looking for another job.”

He slammed the phone down, mumbling when he looked up and saw me. “You,” he said pointing a pudgy finger. “Do you know where Sam is?”

“How would I know?”

“You probably got him caught up in one of your lame-brain investigations, don’t ya?” He got up from the desk, snarling. “First you destroy half my building, now you’ve done something with Sam.”

“Now wait a minute,” I said stepping back as he blubbered out of the chair, red-faced.

“I knew you were trouble when I first met you. Paranormal investigator, what the hell does that mean anyway?”

“I’d explain it to you if I thought you had a chance in hell of understanding it.”

“Don’t push me, Vargo,” he said waddling past me. “You may have a five-year lease for that wreck you call an office, but it doesn’t say anything about what condition it has to be in for the next five years. If you don’t want to sit in a room with bare walls and no windows you’d better watch your step.”

He slung his coat over his shoulders and placed a wrinkled hat on his huge pumpkin head. “If you see Sam, tell him that nothing short of death is gonna save his sorry ass this time.”

He went out the front door slamming it. I heard a crack form in the glass. Hearing the sound, he stopped, dropped his head, lifted his collar, and walked off grumbling to himself.

I stood there confused as I looked at Sam’s empty desk. It wasn’t like him not to be there. In the nearly two years I had been in that building Sam had never called in sick, never taken time off, always been there.

I began looking through his desk, hoping to find some clue as to what had happened, but the drawers were nearly empty except for some paper, pencils, and his flashlight. In the center drawer, I found a phone index with emergency numbers written on the front page. One of the numbers said Megan King. Could this be his wife?

It was strange how I could have known Sam for so long and still know little about him outside of the building. He was always telling stories, and I remembered him saying something about being married. I picked up the phone, which still reeked with the stink of Harold’s sweaty hand, and dialed the number.

It rang only once when a shaky voice answered. “Sam, Sam is that you?” a woman’s voice cried into the phone.

“No, my name is Rick Vargo. I work in the same building as Sam.”

“Tell me you’ve found him... For the love of God, tell me he’s all right!”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know where Sam is. Is this his wife?”

“No I’m his stepdaughter, Megan. My mother, Hattie, is sick. I don’t know how I’m going to tell her...” She started sobbing uncontrollably.

“Calm down Megan.” I tried to talk in a soft, reassuring tone. “I am an investigator and a friend of Sam’s. Can you tell me anything that might help me find him? When was the last time you saw him?”

I could hear her breathing slowing as she tried to gather her thoughts. “I saw him last night before he went to work. We had a big fight about my mother. She has been sick for a long time now. She can’t remember anything, she can’t feed herself, and there are times she doesn’t even know who we are. I told him she should be put away in a hospital, but he wouldn’t listen. I spend every day taking care of an old woman who doesn’t even know who I am. I deserve a life, don’t I? I mean...

“Oh my God, the last words I said to him was I wished they both would just disappear so that I could get on with my life. How could I say such a thing... and now... and now...” as she spoke her breathing got heavier and she began sobbing again.

“Megan, listen to me, whatever is going on, it is not your fault. Understand? We have to focus on finding Sam,”

“You’re right,” she said, gathering her emotions.

“Good. Now, I know Sam was at work last night because I talked to him, so that means he disappeared somewhere between here and home. Is there any place he goes, anything he does before coming home?”

“No, not really,” she said thoughtfully. “My father usually comes straight home after work... Wait a minute, I remember him talking about a place he sometimes goes to... What did he call it... Oh yeah, Rummer’s Alley. He said he had a friend there, someone named Buck or Brock.”

I knew exactly the place she was talking about. It was an alley on the east side, where drunks and lowlifes lived. Some sarcastically called it the Palace Hotel, because old crates lined the alley walls where the homeless lived. I wondered why Sam would ever go to a place like that. It was a dangerous crowd down there, where a man would slit your throat for your shoes.

“I know where that is. Look Megan, I’m going down there to see if Sam’s been there lately. I promise I’ll call you back the minute I find something out.”

“Mr. Vargo, if you do find my father, please tell him I’m sorry... so sorry.” She began crying again.

I hung up the phone, reached into my front coat pockets, and pulled out my two 1911 Colt revolvers, checking them to make sure they were both fully loaded. If I was going into to Rummer’s Alley, I wasn’t taking any chances.

All the way there, I wondered why Sam would go to that part of town. I had never known Sam to drink or have any vice whatsoever. He was a devotedly religious man who didn’t even swear. It seemed like Rummer’s Alley would be the last place a man like Sam would go.

I parked my car several blocks away and walked toward the alley. The place had grown since I was last there. It still had the awful smell of human waste that stuck in your nostrils. People slept along the cracked and broken sidewalks, some of them hugging the only friend they had: a bottle of cheap wine.

I passed several men pulling the clothes off a dead man as the steam still rose from his body. One of them looked up at me and smiled a toothless grin.

I kept walking, then I heard footsteps behind me. I turned around and saw the same man staring at me.

“Nice coat, Mister,” he sputtered.

“Yeah, and it comes with toys,” I said as I lifted the butts of the pistols out of my pockets just enough for him to see them.

“I didn’t mean nuthin’,” he stammered, and he slouched down and scurried away.

I kept walking until I came to a long row of crates with legs sticking out of them. As I passed the people inside, they would ball up and snarl at me like wild dogs in a kennel. Some would wave pipes at me letting me know they would defend their home. I was shocked by the sheer number of people living that way. Drugs, alcohol, and gambling had brought some to this place, while others had been caught in the economic downturn. Jobs had become scarce as businesses downsized to make more profit.

I walked past a woman sitting in one of the wooden crates. A little girl was snuggled into her shoulder shivering from the cold. Their faces were pasted with dirt. The little girl’s blonde hair was in snarls about her shoulders. She looked like a small doll that had been abandoned. The woman looked up at me and lifted her hand with the palm outstretched.

My mind screamed at me to do something, anything to help them. I could feel a thousand eyes bearing down on me, waiting to see what I would do. I knew if I gave her any money, I would be immediately in a fight for my life. These were desperate people doing whatever it took to survive. That desperation could be seen in every eye that watched me. All I could do was turn my head away from the woman. It ripped at my very soul as I walked away, but I had to remember that I was on a mission to find Sam, and nothing could stop me.

I finally got to the entrance of Rummer’s Alley. It was packed full of makeshift dwellings. Old blankets stretched between sticks for roofs. Wooden crates lined with newspaper as small fires burned precariously nearby. I squeezed through the mass of people always ready for anything as bodies piled upon bodies moaned from the alley floor.

I saw a man leaning against the wall of the alley. He was wearing broken glasses reading a ripped piece of newsprint. Crouching down in front of him, I cleared my throat to get his attention. He peered over his glasses like someone noticing a fly flitting past then turned the torn paper over and continued reading.

“Excuse me, I was wondering if you could help me?” I said in a low voice so as not to bring undo attention. My eyes darted back and forth as I readied for someone to jump on my back at any moment.

The man lowered his paper and began laughing hysterically. “Young man, that is without a doubt the most foolish thing I have heard for quite some time. You come into this den of hopelessness and ask for help from the helpless. You, sir, either have a keen grasp of irony or are a fool,” he said as he lifted his paper again. “The fact that you are here makes the latter far more likely.”

“I am looking for a man by the name of Sam King. I was told that he comes down here sometimes.”

The man dropped his paper, pulled his glasses from his face, and stared at me. “Are you with the local constabulary?”

“No, my name is Rick Vargo. I am a friend of Sam’s. He’s missing and I thought maybe you know him or had seen him recently.”

“Indeed I know a kindhearted man of advanced years named Samuel. He has on more than one occasion keep me company on a cold morning. He comes down here offering food to the hungry, blankets for the cold, and companionship for the lonely. His stories alone are enough to fend of the chill from a damp morning.”

“Yeah, that sounds like Sam. Have you seen him recently?”

The man leaned forward with cold seriousness and stark expression. “Young man, if he was here and has disappeared, then I suggest you stop your search and leave this place. There are things here much deadlier then the cold and hunger.” He sat back dropping his gaze. “Death is a part we must all play and here the actors are cast nightly.”

“What are you saying?” I reached out and grabbed the man’s dirty coat. “I don’t understand.”

“Be here just before the dawn and you will,” he said as he rolled away from me. I tried to get him say more, but he simply ignored me.

I backed out of the alley and walked quickly to my car. The man’s words played over in my mind. I looked down at my watch. It was 3:43 a.m. I started the car and headed back to the office. The sun would rise around 6:30 in the morning and I had to prepare.

It was just after 6 a.m. when I finally arrived back at Rummer’s Alley. I parked the car just down from the entrance where I could clearly watch everything. Most of the alley’s residents were fast asleep except for a few who wandered aimlessly, stumbling in their drunken stupor. Steam rose from sewer grates in the street, casting a reddish glow from the street lights.

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, considering where I was, except I noticed that one of the street grates didn’t have any steam coming from it. I looked back up the street and all the others had a steady column of steam rising from the holes around the manhole covers, but one. Strange, that...

Then I saw the manhole cover move. It slowly lifted off and slid to the side. A dark figure climbed out of the hole followed by several more. I watched intently as they skulked over to the sleeping people by the alley. One of the men staggering around saw the figures. He dropped the bottle he was carrying and cowered to the ground. The dark figures grabbed the man and started dragging him toward the hole. The man struggled and screamed, alarming others around him, but they stayed silent, not helping.

I sprang from my car, pulling my pistols. “Hey, leave him alone,” I shouted as I ran at the dark figures. They ignored me as they continued dragging the helpless man.

When I finally reached them, I struck one of the figures who was draped in some sort of black cloak. It turned, snarling and hissing through glowingly white teeth. Shocked, I stepped back as it raised up and moved towards me. Its face was a pale grey and its eyes had no pupils, they were only white.

“What the hell are you?” I asked as it came at me strongly, purposefully, and very angry. I lifted one of my pistols, which it slapped easily out of my hand. Then, with its palm thrusting forward, it hit me in the chest sending me flying backwards.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2006 by S. Michael Leier

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