by Bill Bowler
part 5 of 6
Yanosh Straker hunts monsters for a living. He’s stumbled on a nest of them and is tracking them down, one by one, and eliminating them. One young man, Josey, is terrified to discover that Straker is after him for some reason. Josey runs, but his world seems to be changing. His old life is fading and a new, confusing, unreal existence seems to be opening up before him
Josey woke with the sun streaming through the high window and the faint and fading memory of an interrupted dream. Tamara lay beside him, long strands of dark silken hair fallen across her face, her eyes closed, fringed by thick lashes, her red lips in a half smile as she slept peacefully.
Memory of the past night’s events began to return in pieces: the convenience store, Straker’s gun, Josey’s leap over the alley wall, Tamara. The memories were a confused mosaic, more difficult to understand now in the light of morning. He rolled out of bed and got dressed.
* * *
Prof. von Holzing noticed the empty chair in the last row. The young man who had attracted Straker’s attention was not with them today. Von Holzing did not put much stock in coincidence. The tools of his trade were logic and deduction. The sequence of events from Straker’s suspicions to the boy’s absence was no random series. It was governed by cause and effect. More information was required, of course, more study.
Sitting next to the empty chair, Tricia wondered where Josey was. There was no answer when she called his apartment last night or this morning. It seemed like he had not spent the night at home. It wasn’t like him to just disappear without saying anything. What if something had happened to him? What if he was still sick? She worried all through class, imagining the worst. After class, she came out onto the front steps of the Science Building and called him on her mobile phone. Still no answer. No one home. She would keep trying.
Josey spent the morning with Tamara. He felt as though he were falling into a bottomless pit. There was no future, no past, only the all consuming present moment that stretched into forever. The memory of his former life was fading from view like an old photo. None of it seemed to matter.
Madame Sonya came into the parlor late in the morning. She smiled to see him and showed no surprise that he was there. She brewed a pot of some beverage with pungent herbs and spices. The aroma made Josey’s head swirl.
“Drink this, Josey,” Madame Sonya gently urged him. “It will strengthen you for the trials ahead.”
“Aren’t you having any?”
“It’s not for us,” said Madame Sonya. “Our systems are immune to its effects as yours will soon be, too, once you’ve developed a tolerance.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s an ancient recipe, a blend of hyssop, boldo leaves, and celandine. Some say these herbs have magic powers. Some say they ward off evil, and strengthen and protect the good of heart.”
Josey sipped the tea. He felt its warmth coursing through him, relaxing and invigorating.
“Can he stay with us, Grandma?” Tamara’s voice had a hint of pleading.
“Of course. He is always welcome. It is even we who need him, and not he who needs us.”
Tamara turned to Josey. “Don’t leave. Live with us.”
Her words opened the locked gates to a fantasy kingdom. Why not? he thought. This is where I belong. I feel at home. These are my people. The future is here. I’m not going back. I’m not even looking back.
“I should get my things. I don’t have much. One suitcase.”
“I’ll go with you,” Tamara said.
“But what if that nut Straker is there? He was on my street last night.”
“He wouldn’t dare cause any trouble in public in broad daylight. Let’s go. We’ll get your things and you’ll never have to go back there again. You’ll stay with us. We’ll be happy.”
Madame Sonya said nothing.
Josey and Tamara took the train downtown to Josey’s place. They approached his building cautiously, searching the street for signs of Straker or his black SUV. The coast seemed clear. They climbed the drab stairwell to the third floor and went to his apartment.
“I’ll get my stuff. Just wait,” he said. He went into his bedroom, pulled out a suitcase from under his bed, and started packing things from his dresser drawers.
Tamara sat by the window, keeping one eye on the street below. The phone rang. It hit Josey like a summons from another world. He stopped throwing his things into the suitcase and stood still as the phone continued ringing. Finally, he seemed to make up his mind.
“Can you pick it up?” Josey called from the bedroom.
Tamara lifted the receiver. “Hello?”
A long silence and then, “Is Josey there?” A female voice, cold as ice, came through the line.
“It’s for you,” Tamara called to Josey.
Josey came to the phone,
“Hello?.. Tricia!.. Um, yeah. No, I’m fine... Oh... That was my, uh, friend. Tamara. She...”
Josey put down the receiver.
“She hung up.”
“A friend of mine.”
* * *
That afternoon, Straker barged into von Holzing’s office without knocking. His arm was no longer bandaged or in a sling.
Professor von Holzing looked up from the yellowed pages of a thick, musty volume of Alhazred’s Necronomicon, took off his glasses, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “What is it, Yanosh? I’m rather busy at the moment.”
“He’s one of them!”
“Your student. I had him under surveillance last night. When I confronted him, he ran — danced circles around two bullets at close range, sailed over a ten-foot wall, and disappeared.”
“Remarkable. Quite an athlete. Are you sure it was he?”
“Please, professor. It was easy to get his address from the university. I went down there and stood as close to him as I am to you now. He’s one of them. Stinks like a rat to high heaven. We’ve got to stop him before he strikes, follow him back to the nest and exterminate the bunch of them.”
“Yanosh, your arm. Where’s the bandage?”
“I heal quickly, Professor.”
Von Holzing knit his brow in some puzzlement. “Very well. How shall we begin.”
“We stake out the apartment. When he returns...”
“He may not. You may have scared him off.”
“We have to start somewhere.”
“All right, Yanosh, make the necessary preparations and we’ll start at once.”
* * *
Straker’s black SUV was parked again on Houston Street. Straker and von Holzing sat in a booth in the front window of the coffee shop on the corner of Elizabeth. On the opposite corner, occasional customers came and went from the brightly lit convenience store. Down from the corner, the sad line of drab tenements faced the street, their rows of windows and zigzag rusted fire escapes forming intricate patterns like some huge Persian carpet hung along the street front.
Straker sipped a mug of black coffee while von Holzing stirred milk into his tea.
“No one’s come or gone from that apartment for three days, Yanosh. We’re barking up the wrong tree.”
Straker grunted in the affirmative.
“The apartment is dark. It’s abandoned. He’s not coming back.”
Straker nodded, his eyes fierce, his mouth set in a grim line. “We’re too late. We must have just missed him. He’s moving more quickly than I anticipated.”
“We must try another line of attack. What leads do we have?”
Straker thought for a minute. “The girl.”
“The one who sits next to him in your class.”
“Of course. Since the boy disappeared, she’s been weeping in class, that sort of thing. You’re right. She’ll find him for us. She’ll take us straight to him.”
“All right, Professor. To hell with this slum. Let’s talk to the girl and see what she has to say.”
* * *
Tricia was surprised when Professor von Holzing asked her to come to his office after class. She was even more surprised to find that creep Straker sitting there when she arrived.
“Please be seated,” the professor asked her, smiling kindly and motioning to a chair.
Tricia sat down and glared at Straker. “Why is he here?”
“Mr. Straker is a close associate of mine and the reason I called you here concerns him greatly, as well. We’d like to ask you a few questions.”
Straker looked straight at Tricia and she felt like a deer in the headlights. He was looking right through her like a mind reader. She wilted under his gaze.
The professor went on, “This conversation will be held in strictest confidence. The subject is your friend...”
“You mean Josey?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“What makes you think he’s my friend? How would you know?”
“We know quite a bit about him,” said Straker.
“I’ll handle this, Yanosh,” said von Holzing. He turned to Tricia. “Josey has gotten himself into a very bad situation, a very dangerous one.”
“What are you talking about?!”
“We want to help him,” said the Professor, gently.
“If he cooperates, he won’t get hurt,” said Straker.
“Yanosh, that’s enough,” said von Holzing. He turned again to Tricia. “When was the last time you saw Josey? Did you notice anything unusual? Has he been acting strangely in any way?”
Tricia lowered her gaze and whispered, “I haven’t seen him in four days. He’s disappeared.” Tears welled up in her eyes. “It started when he fainted in the subway and those people...”
“What people?” asked von Holzing gently.
“I don’t know!” sobbed Tricia. “He fainted in the subway and some people helped him and he hasn’t been the same ever since.”
Von Holzing nodded. Straker’s eyes narrowed.
“He was physically ill the next day. He had scratches on his neck. I think some animal bit him.”
Straker stood up.
“Please, Yanosh. Let’s hear her out.”
“That’s all, Professor. He’s disappeared. I’m worried sick. Can you find him? Can you help him?”
“I wonder,” said von Holzing quietly, “if there might not be another woman involved...”
Trica began to sob quietly.
“There, there, my dear. Don’t take it so hard. Mr. Straker and I are here to help. We’ve dealt with cases like this before. Your friend has fallen in with a bad crowd. He’s come under the influence of some very undesirable people who may try to harm him. We know just how to straighten this out, don’t we Yanosh?”
Straker nodded, his face emotionless, like a mask.
“My dear, tell us, please, if you know. Where is he now? We’d like to keep an eye on him, to protect him and keep him out of trouble. If these people he’s fallen in with try to make contact with him or attempt to harm him in any way, we’ll intervene.”
Tricia looked through tears at Straker, then at von Holzing. The professor’s eyes expressed kindness and sympathy.
“I don’t know,” she sobbed.
* * *
Tricia sat in the back row of von Holzing’s Para-normal Psych class next to the empty chair where Josey used to sit. She was pale. Her eyes were red from crying. She dabbed the corners of her eye with a tissue, then blew her nose and sighed deeply. She hadn’t seen or heard from Josey in close to a week. He had just dumped her and disappeared without a word.
With a shiver, she recalled the sound of that female voice that had answered Josey’s phone when she called. Wasn’t that enough? Didn’t she have any pride? Was she going to go crawling back when he was cheating on her? But what if he was in trouble, like the professor had said? What if Josey needed her?
Tears welled up in Tricia’s eyes again and she took out another tissue. Von Holzing was lecturing from the podium. As he spoke, he kept one eye on the girl in the last row. At the end of the hour, he concluded his remarks and dismissed the class. As Tricia left, he walked to the window and signaled Straker. Straker was standing below, between the building entrance and the main campus gate. He waved back to von Holzing in the second floor window and waited.
Tricia came out the building entrance, stood for a moment in indecision, and then sat on the steps, her books in her lap. It seemed hopeless, but she took out her phone and called Josey’s apartment again. Still no answer. He couldn’t just fall off the face of the Earth. Maybe he was sick again? Like after the circus when he fainted in the subway. And then she recalled his words: “Some people from the circus helped me.”
Tricia stood up. Her heart was racing. She hurried out through the gate and down into the subway. She got off the train at Lincoln Center and ran across the plaza to Damrosch Park. A sign in front of the big tent said, “Last Performance Tonight. 7:00 pm.” Tricia slipped past the rope and headed for the arcade, to the fortune teller’s parlor.
When Tricia pushed through the curtain, she found the dimly lit parlor empty. An acrid smell wafted through the room. A small, thin stream of white smoke rose from a burner in the shape of a pentagon that lay on a stand in the corner of the room. The globe in the palm of the marble hand was glowing and pulsating.
Tricia walked to the table, leaned over and looked into the globe, into the milky cloud that swirled and sparkled. It began to make her head spin but she couldn’t stop watching. Inside the swirling cloud, she saw an eye — unblinking, piercing, inhuman. It stared right back at her from within the globe. Tricia struggled to breathe and cried out quietly. She stumbled back and bumped against the chair.
“May I help you?”
Tricia froze. She recognized the voice. It had answered Josey’s phone. She looked up at the dark haired girl who had come into the parlor from a rear room.
“We’re closed now. We don’t open until five.”
Tricia steeled herself. She was too close now. She felt that Josey might be near. She wasn’t turning back because of this bitch.
“Where is he?”
Tamara paused and looked carefully at Tricia.
“He’s not here.”
The front curtains parted. Von Holzing and Straker entered the parlor.
* * *
Copyright © 2008 by Bill Bowler