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They had lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant not far from the library. Eagerly sucking down large bowls of pho outside next to Bentley, Neither of them had very much to say. The slurping of noodles and broth served as the only means of communication until both bowls were empty and they relaxed with a pot of Jasmine tea. For his part, Brian adored the comfort food, not to mention the tea was doing wonders for his frayed nerves. By the time lunch had been finished he'd even come up with an idea.
“So I was thinking about the coroner reports.” He said casually.
“And?” Sharice countered over her tea cup.
“Both the coroner and Mr. Baker had a really weird way of describing the teeth marks on the bodies.” He stopped for dramatic effect, but all it really earned him was a raised eyebrow from Sharice. “They both said that they didn't match the dental records of any living person.”
“So?” Sharice said impatient.
“So why make a distinction like that? Why not just say something like: 'Matches no existing records' or something along those lines?”
He thought he saw sudden comprehension leap into Sharice's eyes.
“Because they did find a match!” She whispered excitedly. “But from their perspective the match wasn't possible!”
“Precisely!” Brian said smirking and taking a sip of tea. “We need to get into that coroner's office and see if we can't find out who those teeth match.”
Brian had expected the job to be something of a lengthy one. Casing the office alone would have probably taken him a week normally. And then there was the security to worry about. A big government building like that was bound to be full of sensors and alarms, not to mention cameras and possibly guards. Sharice had other plans however.
“We're getting this done!” She had proclaimed as if she was the one who would be breaking into the County Coroner's office. They had worked out a possible assault on the building all afternoon, going over and over plans, trying to find a plan whose conclusion was not Brian in handcuffs. Sharice's brow grew closer and closer as the day wore on and no real solution presented itself. Finally she sighed and pulled something out of her jacket pocket. It was a large bronze coin on a chain. Runes were etched into the outside rim of the coin. Brian had seen these runes before connected with vikings and the Norse gods but he had no idea what they meant. Sharice placed it in his hand with an air of regret, as if she were singularly unwilling to give this token up.
“What's this,” Brian asked holding up the coin and examining the spiky, linear runes.
“That's my last resort. Mama had to call in a major favor to get that for me.”
Brian still had no idea what she was talking about so he fixed her with an annoyed look until she continued.
“This is something I was really looking to hang on to until I was in a tight spot. Its an amulet.” She sighed once, looking at the coin as if it were a precious family heirloom. “Certified ten minutes of complete intangibility.”
“Intangibility?” Brain asked
“You can't be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched for ten minutes when this thing gets activated.”
“Hot Damn!” Brian cried looking with renewed respect at the trinket he held. “Why didn't you bring this up before, This will definitely get me in there, no problems.”
“Yes,” Sharice said, all signs pointing to a caveat to this happy news. “But It's not really a solution. In the unlikely event you find your way through this place and to the records in under ten minutes, you still have to dig up the one's you're looking for. This could be multiple hours worth of work and all I can give you is ten minutes.”
The happiness in Brian's heart withered and died. He hadn't considered how long the actual searching might take. Still the coin would provide a way in, he just needed to stay unseen while there and find a way out. Still an aggressively tall order but he was a little heartened by the brass coin. He closed his eyes, entering something akin to a meditative state. In his head he saw the outside of the building. He saw the window on the first floor he could slip into, he saw front door large and imposing, he saw the small bits of the inside he'd managed to glimpse when he'd peered through the windows. His mind played a numbers game with him that was very difficult for someone who hasn't done much breaking and entering or robbery could comprehend. Finally his eyes snapped open.
“Whens the only time I won't trip the alarm?” He said in a curiously flat tone.
“When?” Sharice asked intrigue by this change in him.
“When they're already going off.” Brain announced triumphantly wondering why it had taken him so long to come to this conclusion. Sharice's look of utter confusion began to fade as Brian relayed his plan. Then it shifted to a look of worry, a look of outright skepticism and then finally a look of defeated resignation.
When night had truly fallen Brian and Sharice stood across the street from the building. Traffic what little there had been was almost completely dead in this part of town, so far from the residential districts and everything that wasn't corporate or government. The two of them stood balanced on the curb like divers on a spring board. They exchanged one last cursory look that said both “Are you sure you want to do this?” and “I'm ready if you are”. Brian zipped up his jacket, slipped on his gloves and pulled the ski-mask down over his face. He nodded at Sharice, who had also pulled down her mask, and they made their way towards the building. Brian went first skirting around the side of the building, making for the window he'd seen earlier. He had wedged an empty cigarette box in between the pane and sill and to his delight it had not been moved. There was the little red package holding the window just slightly open. All he needed now was the signal.
The signal came in the sound of a shotgun blasting into the building's front door. The sound of buckshot splintering the wood of the front door was shortly followed by the high pitched blaring of all the alarms in the general area. That was Brian's cue; and he wasted no time, wrenching the window open and slipping inside, silent as the sunset. He found himself in a small office full of four five cubicles. He liked and lamented the cover all at once; while it protected him from being seen, it also kept him from seen threats. Never the less he proceeded through the room into the hall. The building functioned as record house and coroner's office all rolled into one so as he emerged into the hall, he saw several rooms lining the hallway he was sneaking through filled with filing cabinets. HE cursed the marble floors of the building which made him go slower than he wished lest the footsteps alert any nearby guards of a closer threat than the gun at the door. The plaques on the doors weren't particularly helpful either. They seemed to be pointing out death certificates for the past hundred and fifty years or more and none of them were pointing where he could find the record of a more recent examination. Then he came to the en of the marble hallway and he had two choices.
Going back the way he had come was always a viable if risky option, or he could take the steel door in front of him labeled “to examination rooms”. As keen as he was to go poking around a deserted morgue in the middle of the night. He felt he would be just as likely to find the documents he needed there as he had been in this hallway. This was the county coroner's office. They brought bodies here from three cities around to have autopsies done.
“Goddamn it!” A voice not to far down the hallway exclaimed. It was a man's voice, strained and angry. It sounded like it was coming from the direction of the front door. The sound of it caused Brian to freeze in place. The high ceilings in this place had a bad habit of making every little sound bounce everywhere. “They got away! What the hell did they want?!”
“Probably just some asshole kid.” Another voice responded, female this time. Then Brian heard the beeping of a walkie talkie turning on. “Tony? Its Brenda, is the alarm still going off?”
A beep sounded as she presumably lifted her finger off the talking button. As an aside she added:
“I really fucking hate these silent alarms! I never know if we set the damn thing off.”
A voice blared from the walkie all of a sudden. It crackled with static and was barely audible but Brian managed to make out a few words from his vantage point.
“....going off...can't...alarm...in here...” Then the beep of the communication ending
“Alright, probably another damn raccoon” Brenda said sighing. “You get back to the camera and we'll wait here for the cops. If you see anything that isn't a rodent let me know.”
Brian's blood turned to ice. He had anticipated mainly three or four night guards if the state had felt affluent enough to employ so many, but he had hoped a shotgun hole in their front door might have kept them busy for longer than ten minutes. Now he looked at the door before him. He had no choice. They would be looking at those cameras any minute now, and there he'd be, bold as brass. He needed to find that record, if he walked out of here empty handed they'd never get another chance. Worse came to worse, he might be able to find somewhere to hide down there.
It took supreme effort to stay quiet now, He pushed open the door to the pitch black stair case and closed it silently behind him. Flicking on the lights he looked for something he could use to bar the door. The stairwell landing was large. There was a janitors cart next to the railing and a small window set into the opposing wall. No where could he find anything to brace the wall. It wouldn't have mattered even if he could, the floors were a seamless linoleum nothing for the bracing material to catch on.
That's when his eyes fell upon the janitors cart again. A small bundle of rags sat in the cart, dirty and stained with countless cleanings, but they would do the trick. He tied three together, making sure his knots would hold. Then he tied the one end around the door handle and the other around the base of the light fixture a foot or two above the handle. He tried it a few times, attempting to open and close the door. To his joy, the door held.
Knowing this was but a temporary solution, Brian turned and raced down the stairs leaping two at a time more often than not. When he finally reached the base and pushed through a pair of swinging double doors, he was in another hallway. Flicking on the light he saw that it was the sterile white of most hospitals and twice as foreboding sans habitation. The steel gurneys along the right wall made him more than a little unnerved, and yet they also gave him a bit of an idea. He pushed one of the heavy things in front of the double doors and kicked it over, blocking them from moving inward. The flapping doors had no handles, it would be a bitch to pull them open from the other side. Never the less he knew it unlikely to hold them for more than a few minutes. Hurriedly he moved forward. The left seemed to be made of little more than three large and extensively equipped medical examination rooms. Brian didn't stay overlong in these, the large metal tables with their drains and hose perched above them gave him an awfully clear picture of what happened here on a daily basis. Not to mention the medical saws and drills and other devices, drying on stands beside sinks. After the examination room was a long room, whose walls were filled with small metal doors. He had seen enough television to know opening one of those would not reveal anything comforting. The right side of the hallway was far more inciting.
Here were more rooms filled to bursting with filing cabinets. Unlike the ones above, these held mostly autopsy reports of ongoing police investigations. They were locked, Brian found when he went to pull the drawer of one open. However he put faith in the idea that people who worked in clerical positions everywhere were two tired and angry at their job to be overly careful about where they kept the keys, and sure enough he found them in atop one of the cabinets. Mentally combing the list of victims he found the first manilla folder without too much difficulty. Doing his best not to outwardly blanch at the autopsy photos within. Some he had seen before. Mr. Baker had somehow secured them for his dossiers, but some of the more graphic images were new and distastefully unique. Behind those were lists of measurements and medical jargon he didn't quite comprehend. It was all stuff about “fixed lividity” and “anterior abdominal abrasions”, things his pitiful grasp on the Latin and Greek languages couldn't really decipher. He knew enough however to look for anything relating to teeth. It took him about ten minutes to find anything, by then he could hear a distant crashing sound, signaling that someone was attempting to get past the first of his barriers. That in mind, Brian's eyes sped over the note on the page.
“Tooth impression's confirm, attacker was an adult human.” Was what he could make out before he could before the notes devolved into gibberish about bicuspids and canines. He saw at the bottom of the page was a handwritten note which appeared to have been scribbled out.
Much nearer at hand, Brian heard the raucous clangor of metal meeting metal in a none to friendly way. Now Brian could hear voices from the doorway.
“Damn it Frank!” The unrestrained voice of Brenda sounded as she screamed into her walkie talkie. “He pushed a gurney in front of the doors! Fuck!”
“We can take the elevator.” Frank answered, also gruff and sounding annoyed.
“I don't have the fucking key do you?!” Brenda shrieked unhelpfully.
“There's one in the office come on.” The crashes ceased and Brian could hear the sound of retreating feat.
Brian poked his head out of the room with a nervous look to the end of the hall he had not been yet. A large set of steel gray elevator doors sat at the hallways end like the gates of hell, and Brian felt panic flood him. There was nothing he could do to keep those bad boys from opening. He suddenly realized he'd been incredibly stupid. How else did they get these corpses down here, they certainly didn't wheel them down the stairs.
Knowing he had only minutes, Brian squinted at the note, attempting to determine the writing beneath the scribbling. He finally could see the words “possible match” and an arrow to the next page. Paper clipped to the page he was reading was a photocopy of an I.D. and what looked like a death certificate.
“Zhou, Timothy” the I.D. read. He was an Asian man, unsmiling in the photo on the I.D. According to the death certificate he had died in 1998. No wonder the coroner had dismissed the match out of hand. Smiling and content with the idea that he had found his ghost, he smiled down at the folder until he heard the elevator whir into life. Fear and panic flooded him like gasoline in an engine and he ripped the paper out of the folder and jammed it in his pocket. He slammed the folder back into the cabinet with maniac strength and slammed the drawer shut. He threw the keys in the general direction of cabinet and fled the room. Reaching inside the pocket on the inner lining of his jacket, he grabbed the small coin whipped the string around his neck. He fumbled with the words Sharice had tought him, and they came out in a heady mumbled rush.
“Freya, you who sit the seat of sorcerery,
Odin Allfather, you who walk the dark branches of Yggdrasil
Grant me your power,
Shield me from my foes
and let me be but a wisp of wind.”
To his absolute terror, nothing happened. The coin sat unresponsive in his palm, and he remained seemingly as solid as ever. The elevator doors opened before his body had gained back enough of his wits to run, and Two figures in black and blue uniforms rushed in. There was an older woman with copper colored hair, and an old gray haired man, flashlight's raised and guns at the ready. Brian held his breath not knowing whether to bolt and risk being shot. But their eyes went right over him without consequence. They looked from side to side and said not a word about him standing stock still, in ski mask and gloves. They began to move cautiously about the hallway peering into rooms, all the while ignoring Brian.
“Dammit! Where the hell did he go?!” Brenda said. Before Brian could do much of anything, she charged toward him, then miraculously, she charged right through him. She ran to the end of the hall peering in room after room. “There's nobody here Frank! He must have gone back up the steps!”
Frank ran through Brian as well and they both made their way through the double doors, leaping over the gurney as they went. Galvanized by relief and joy, Brian's body began to respond again. He ran after the guards, passing through the gurney like mist and through the doors as if they were made of fog. For some reason he could still climb the stairs and he made a run for it, so as to save as much of his intangibility as humanly possible. He made his way back to the top of the stairs, back to the offices and then, without even disturbing the air, through the solid wall out into the freedom of the night. He could see the distant flashes of light as the two guards searched for him, aided by their friend on the camera's who had to have been watching for his escape. He would see nothing however. Brian allowed himself a sly, foxy grin before running off into the night.
A couple of miles and fifteen minutes later, Sharice pulled up to spot of curb outside the O'Hare library. Brian stood and opened the passenger door and slid gratefully in.
“How'd you make out.” Sharice asked looking favorably on the smiling man.
“Like a very literal thief in the night.” With a bit of pride, he slapped the crumpled photocopy into her hand and reclined. “There's your ghost.”
Sharice smiled and slid the paper into her pocket. With a sense of accomplishment like he had never known before, Brian smiled as he was carried off back to the casino.
The night had not been restful for Brian. Firstly were the obvious reasons. While Sharice's sigil on the door certainly kept the ghosts at bay, it didn't stop sound traveling through the walls. So their ghostly wails and howls persisted until the sun rose into the windows. Brian's body had also been pumping him with adrenaline and fear responses every time on of the howls sounded, so it was impossible to simply ignore them. Less obviously, Brian was kept awake by the abject terror of what would happen if Sharice had made a mistake somehow. Every time he closed his eyes, he swore he could see the pale blue glow of the ghost's traveling through his eyelids, only to open them and find it had been the bedside lamp he had not been able to bring himself to turn off. He could still see the monster's eyes in his mind. Luminescent pale blue circles seemed to have been painted on the inside of his eye lids.
However poorly the outcome, no one could accuse Brian of not trying. He tossed and turned for four hours making desperate bids to ignore the howling until it stopped, which he then traded for desperately trying to ignore the sunlight. In the end it was no use and when Sharice came to collect him, she found him showered, newly dressed, and entering a state of exhaustion so profound it was almost like alertness. The ragged trio made their way outside, jumping at shadows the whole way. Sharice had brought her shotgun with her, which was frequently leveled at innocent object looking out of the shadows.
The casino had not lost it's menace by day. All around was the sense that something lay in wait, just biding it's time till the sun went down and you had your back turned. It was not a welcoming experience and Brian was looking forward to never seeing the place again. Sharice had destroyed this comforting notion by pointing out all their stuff was still inside and that they had a job to do. However, nothing felt quite like clearing the front the doors and sprinting gratefully to the car, which he clung to as a drowning man clutches a life-preserver. Bentley had ran to the car with him and sat on his haunches panting in a relieved sort of way. Sharice kept her cool, walking to the pair at a brisk pace and going around to the car's trunk rather than the driver's door. Brian accompanied her as she was pulling open the trunk. She leaned into it and knocked on a small protruding case in the side of the trunk. It seemed to contain a car jack but after the second hard bang, it and the whole side of the trunk it was attached to fell forward to reveal a hidden compartment.
“Nice!” Brian hissed in appreciation as he beheld the space full to the brim of glittering lethal glory.
Several hand guns were hanging from specially made clasps on the wall which held them perfectly still. Their magazines were held neatly underneath them. Half the space was covered in knives, all of varying sizes and styles. There was one so small it could have fit into the palm of his hand, which seemed to be for throwing, and there was also one that was longer than his forearm with a wicked serrated edge, whose purpose seemed all the more vindictive. In the middle of the hidden compartment was a large empty space which seemed to usually contain a long shape. Sharice unloaded the shotgun, placing the shells into a pouch at the bottom of the compartment and slid the gun into place. When the tableau of weaponry was complete, she lifted it's covering up and slid it back into place. Looking at it now, Brian found his appreciation increasing. He would never, even now, have guessed that there was anymore to the trunk than what met the eye.
“So where's our first stop?” Brian asked as Bentley leaped up into his place in the back of the truck. Sharice walked around to the driver's side door and Brian opened the passenger's side.
“I think we need to check out the history of this area.” She said, sighing as though she was expecting some tedious and pointless task. “Usually with ghosts, recent construction can stir up ghosts that used to be there. We need to figure out why the people who died around here are hanging on.”
And with that they swung out of the casino's parking lot (more than happily in Brian's case) and back onto the main road. Sharice kept consulting a small paper map she'd printed out from somewhere and making turns down side streets. Brian had no idea what they were looking for until they pulled up to a marble white building two stories tall, the entrance flanked by white columns. A large sign attached to the building's fence bore the words: “O'Hare Public Library”.
Sharice was already out of the car while Brian was observing the building. Surprised he hopped out after he and helped her tie a reluctant Bentley to the pole of street light right by the car. Bentley seemed to resent the leash, and no wonder. Brian had never seen him with one on in the whole day or so that he'd known him. Never the less he would have to make due. Sharice made it perfectly clear that he couldn't come in with them, and even shot down Brian's offer to stay outside with him.
“It's already going to be a lot of work.” She said, seriously. “I need an extra pair of eyes and I can't spare you.”
So it was that the both of them trudged through the thick, musty smell of old paper and leather binding. To the back of the library where old newspapers and historical records for the town were kept. Large leather scrapbooks held pages of newspapers fifty years out of date and several large filing cabinets held official documents that would have been lost long ago with time and the day to day renovations time demanded. If the atrium of the library had been musty it was nothing to this. The air was thick and close in here, pressing in on all sides. This part of the library didn't seem to have any windows and the air itself seemed dry and old.
“It's to keep everything as preserved as possible” Sharice informed him as he sneezed for the third time.
“The air?” He asked sniffling.
“Yeah, I remember the librarian back at home saying some places did this with their old records. Pumped in dry air so that it kept everything from rotting.”
“Spend a lot of time in libraries?” Brian asked sardonically.
“As much as I could.” She said almost defensively. “You don't make too many friends as a witch's daughter and after a while you have to find your own fun. Books were mine.”
While not particularly bookish, Brian felt he could relate to a lonely childhood and simply nodded.
“What am I looking for.” He asked after a moment's silence.
“Something, anything odd about the neighborhood near the casino.” She said walking away. “Odd deaths, unexplained disappearances, anything.”
Armed with only those vague instructions, Brian gave it a shot. He was hampered not only by the lack of specific guidelines but also by his lack of sleep. He could feel the exhaustion from the night before creeping in on him. The reading material was hardly stimulating. He started with the old records in the filing cabinets along side Sharice. After accidentally knocking out the third or fourth drawer of papers and seeing them fall all over the floor, Sharice angrily pointed him over to the leather bound books containing newspapers. He poured over leather volume after leather volume of old newspapers that seemed to cover everything from the building of a new steel mill at the turn of the century, young men enlisting and heading off to the Korean War, to a car accident that happened three weeks ago. None of it was very well organized or informative. There was a piece about Chinese workers settling into the town after the building of the transcontinental railroad he found particularly racist even for the time it was written. But other than these small glimpses into a particularly boring past. Nothing about the town seemed off.
Still he had weeks and weeks of papers to comb through. On a hunch he roamed through old obituaries and found really nothing of note. The Frustration was almost keeping him awake now. But even that faded in time. He keep feeling like this whole thing was a Sisyphean task. His eyes sagged as he propped his head up with a hand, barley able to get the tiny newsprint into focus. He was attempting to read a long boring article about the new casino coming to town and causing some sort of problem, but he couldn't do it. His head fell down upon the plastic cover of the page.
He was back in the casino, full pale blue moonlight was flooding in through the window. It lit the black gold and purple patterning on the carpet and changed it into something ghastly. Indeed this wasn't normal moonlight. Every thing it touched, did not become clearer or more easy to see as light usually made things. The things this moonlight touched became skewed and twisted. The moonlight crept down the hallway twisting the world out of shape as it came, and sweeping towards Brian with the air of a running predator. He felt fear as one always feels fear in a dream, Distant but still omnipresent. He began to run, but oh so slowly, too slowly. He had barely gone the length of the hall when he felt the light hit the back of his neck and sweep over him. It flooded his face with it's painful brightness, twisting his features out of shape and leaving him no other recourse than to scream his pain to the night. He rolled onto his side to escape the light, but through the haze of pain, he saw something down the hallway. Two children with their backs to him, one male and one female, held their hands and were determinedly walking away from him. Then he heard the rasping scream again, the scream he had prayed to never hear again. He rolled onto his back again in time to see a pale blue emaciated face fill the whole of his vision. It wrapped it's black hands around his throat and began to squeeze. Somewhere deep inside himself, he felt so hungry, so frightfully desperately hungry.
A slamming woke him out of his nap and caused him to fly back from the table, arms flailing in panic. The chair toppled spilling him onto the dusty library floor and sending that dust up in a cloud around him. His only consolation to the embarrassment he felt as he picked himself up off the floor was that he had just managed to contain his panicked scream. Sharice stood by the table smiling as he got up and rubbed his backside. It was that cock mischievous smile that bizarrely calmed him the most. All was well and his throat was not currently being wrung by angry spirits.
Well, Bully! Brian thought to himself sarcastically.
“Sleeping on the job, I oughta tell my mom about this.” Sharice was saying.
“She knows every other move I make I don't see how I could keep this from her.” Brian retorted, the pain, humiliation and lack of sleep were making him irritable. “How long was out for?”
“Barely an hour.” Sharice confirmed looking at her phone for a second. “I don't know about you, but I've combed this place back to front and I can find a damn thing.”
“Neither could I.” Brian yawned at her. Sharice fixed him with a dirty look.
“No shit, Sherlock.”
“I got through a decent bit of it before I passed out.” He shot back indignantly. “There's only so many times you can read about mayoral elections before they put you to sleep.”
He leaned on the plastic cover of the newspaper page, shaking his hair back into its elegant balance of messy and regal. Sharice crossed her arms and sighed deeply looking more than a little annoyed.
“Damn, I could have sworn those things were ghosts.”
“Maybe something happened here before papers would have been around.”
“I doubt it.” Sharice said dejectedly. “Something like this where people disappear and then reappear torn to bits and eaten. I think someone might have noticed it before now.”
Brian opened his mouth to make a rebuttal but suddenly found he didn't really have one. He just had the strange burning feeling that they had been on the right track, they had just missed some sort of vital clue. But he had no idea where or what that vital clue might be so he held his tongue.
“C'mon” Sharice said making her way back to the front of the library. “Lets get some lunch and maybe then we'll think better.”
Sighing deeply, Brian took one look down at his hand, resting on the plastic covered page of a newspaper. He looked at the black and white photo of the casino that would be, in the picture as nothing but cement and steel girders. He growled and attempted to bully his over taxed brain into some kind of conclusion, but nothing came. Finally he sighed as deeply as Sharice and followed her out of the library.
What he saw almost made him run screaming in terror, but his body wouldn't move. His legs seemed to be fixed to the spot and his limbs didn't seem to have the sense to leap into action.
Floating behind him was a naked human body, so deathly pale it was glowing pale blue in the darkness. It had no hair or distinguishing gendered features, no genitalia. It was simply a floating, grotesquely malformed human shape. The face of the creature was sunken and drawn, the skull underneath completely visible. The lips were pulled back over desiccated gums, the lips themselves dry and cracked. The eyes were barely visible, glowing pale blue circles in black pits. It's features were only vaguely human but Brian thought the creature looked slightly Asian in nationality. The neck was far to thin, barely the size of a couple fingers. It was from here the rasping cough emitted. The body was as drawn as the face, all fat melted off the bone, revealing all the contours of the skeleton beneath the glowing flesh. The only part of the creature not skeletally thin was the distended stomach. It made Brian think of late night television ads to feed third world children, which had shown their malnourishment quite plain. The worst part of it were its hands and feet. They contrasted horrifyingly with the pale flesh of the body by being a dark blue-black color.
These hands now raised themselves into claws, reaching out toward the immobile Brian. From the creatures mouth came the low guttural moaning scream Brian had heard before. His brain seemed to be firing at an expanded rate, screaming at his body over and over again to run, to move, to do something, but his body remained unhelpfully still. All he found himself doing was gazing transfixed into the bright blue circles surrounded by utter darkness.
The creature's hands were about an inch from his face when Brian felt something knock his knees out from under him. Not that it had taken any sort of monumental force as his legs had been trembling for minutes now. He crumpled to the floor just as an astoundingly loud blasting sound exploded above him. A second later the monster's scream escalated in both volume and pitch, until Brian was clutching his ears protectively and all visible glass in the area began to vibrate nastily. Brian was able to look up just in time to see the creature, floating with a conspicuous new hole in it's chest, screaming to the heavens, mouth distended beyond anything a normal human could have achieved. The hole was strange, it didn't seem to bleed or indeed act as any sort of hole in a solid body ought to. It was as if someone had punched a fist sized hole in a gaseous cloud. The seemingly solid image of the monster became fuzzy and vapor like around the edges of the hole and it seemed to spread out in ripples to the rest of the creature. As Brian watched from the floor, the creature dissolved into wisps of blue-white vapor and vanished.
The silence that fell was somehow more profoundly horrible than the monster's screaming had been. Brian scrambled to his feet, able to move once more and his body seemed determined to shoot as much adrenaline as possible into him as if to make up for its moment of inertness. Looking frantically around he could see Sharice, holding the smoking shotgun still aiming at the place the creature had been.
“Okay,” She whispered, and Brian saw her face break into something he never expected to see; embarrassment. “I guess you were right. Sorry.”
“No worries,” Brian said, his heart still frantically trying to escape his chest. He was visited with a horrible urge to laught. It was only through force of will that he was not fleeing the building screaming in his highest register. “What the hell was that thing? And what did you shoot it with that made it back off?”
“This,” She said a note of pride popping back into her voice. “Shoots rock salt, thats been soaked in rose water under the light of the full moon. Its a pretty potent anti-ghost and ghoulie weapon.”
“You can kill ghosts with a gun?” Brian asked astounded.
“Oh hell no!” Sharice corrected. “No all it really does is hurt them enough that they fuck off for a little while. But they can always come back.”
“So how do you kill them?” Brian asked.
“Assuming you're dealing with a ghost or anything else not too solid, you can't kill them because nine times out of ten, they're already dead. You have to make them move on, and this all depends on the culture.”
“The culture?” Brian asked. He was pacing in short lines back and forth. He was utterly admiring the matter of fact way Sharice seemed to be handling the experience.
“Different people die different ways.” Sharice commented vaguely and unhelpfully.
Shaking his head Brian looked cautiously around. He still had an uncanny feeling that he was still being watched and did his best to locate the feeling's source.
“Do you think there are more out there?” He asked teeth chattering. Sharice gave him a look that was incredulity bordering on pity.
“Yeah.” She uttered dryly
“Why...why don't we get somewhere more defensible? Rather than standing out here like a neon sign for a buffet.”
“Not a bad plan” Sharice said, and she began backing up toward the bedroom door, shotgun leveled at the menacing darkness. They both eventually managed to fumble their way inside the room and slammed the door closed with wholly too much force. Bentley had been noticeably subdued since the attack of the creature and he went and curled up in the space underneath the desk in the suite's living room. Sharice had also disappeared but was back within few minutes carrying a small box of chalk and a bundle of greenish-white herbs, the end of which was slightly burnt. Brian busied himself with turning on every light in the place and trying hard to keep his trembling to a minimum. In truth he felt very much like joining Bentley under the desk. Sharice, however, was showing no such inclination and his masculinity dictated that he needed to at least show slightly more grit that an admittedly gritty seventeen year old girl. She was now drawing symbols on the wood of the door, and burning the tip of the herb bundle. She was waving the smoke back and forth before the door, chanting something under her breath.
“Is that magic?” Brian asked when she had finished and put out the head of the burning herbs. The smell of them lingered in the air, pungent but not wholly unpleasant.
“Not really.” She said slowly. She concentrated for a moment, as if she were thinking of the best way to say something. Then she held up the bundle and pointed to the symbols. “Its like salt and roses. These things have a supernatural element to themselves and normal people can use them for supernatural purposes even if they're not witches. Its not the people who have the magic but the things they’re using. Does that make sense?”
“Seems to.” Brian said. He was following the explanation but he also had several hundred questions now about cosmology and how the world worked. He put them on the back burner in the interest of not having to concentrate so hard when he was bone tired. “So we're safe?”
“For the moment,” Sharice sighed looking back at the door, critiquing her work with a trained eye. “It won't hold longer than tonight though. We should think about getting out of here in the morning.”
“Do we even know what those things were?”
“I think their some kind of ghost but I'm not sure which kind. What did you turn up?”
“Nothing too productive,” Brian admitted. “I couldn't find any sort of pattern in the victims.”
“That makes sense,” Sharice said letting her self fall into a chair by the window. “I think these things are just trying to....feed.”
“Do ghosts normally need to...feed?”
“Not on people...” She looked pensive. She wasn't looking at him but staring off into space seemingly thinking of something. He posture was changed from her usual cocky strut. Her arms were crossed and her back was straight. She frowned viciously at a spot on the wall several feet away, her brows creased in concentration.
“So what's the next step?” Brian asked sitting down on the couch and running his hands over his weary eyes.
“We get out of here in the morning and poke around.” Sharice shrugged, then she sighed deeply and walked back to her room. “Try to get some sleep, we're leaving pretty early.”
With a jingle of tags, Bentley leapt up to follow her into her room and they both disappeared behind the closing door. Brian was left all alone and he had never really been so scared in his life. Dismally, he made his way back to his room, wrapping the blankets tight around him and curling up in a ball on the bed. He did his best from his position to sort of clear off the bed without tossing evidence all over the floor.
He folded up the written testimonies and the autopsy reports, packing them again into their folders. He filed them into the box slowly and quietly not really wanting to be here anymore. When all the paperwork was put away he turned to the laptop still running and paused at the last thing he'd been watching. It was the security footage of one of the last victims to be taken right before the distortion would wipe the screen and let him blink out of existence. Brian was about to close the video out and unplug the hard drive when he noticed something he'd not seen before.
Floating in midair several inches behind the man's shoulder, was a floating pair of blue circles.
The doors opened soundlessly onto a dark empty space. The lowlight of the hallway didn’t persist in this gloom. The windows all appeared to have their shades drawn. Bentley bounded off into the dark as soon as the doors were opened. It took Brian a moment to find any kind of light switch. It took a few minutes more than it should have as he obstinately refused to step into the room without the lights on, and had to stand just outside it, fumbling around the door frame, hoping he could find something. He did eventually get light into the room and moved into it shutting the doors behind him as he did, not particularly wanting any…thing to be able to get in after him.
It was, as he’d anticipated, a large empty room. Half the room was made up of a large, shiny wooden dance floor, relatively unscathed. The other half had once been covered in a beige carpeting which had since been all pulled up and piled against the far wall. It wasn’t very hard to tell why. Even from this distance, Brian could see the brownish-red stains that had soaked through the beige quite distinctly. He walked into the room on the floorboards where the carpet used to be, but even here, the tan lumber was discolored by splashed of rust red stains. The walls were all a blinding white, the color of primer. It was all painted in a hasty way as trying hard to hide something before anyone noticed. Brian had a crude suspicion, even more stains were waiting underneath the white brightness.
Bentley was already bouncing around the room sniffing hurriedly at the pile of ripped up carpets on the far side of the room. He was emitting soft whimpers as if trying to find the source to a smell that was eluding him. Brian was making his way over to Bentley’s side, when something crunched unpleasantly underneath his boot. Lifting his shoe he looked down to see a small human molar under his foot. With a large pronounced gulp, Brian backed up and around the tooth, making a wide circle to avoid it. He couldn’t take his eyes off of the tooth, it seemed to be the whole world. He was so fixed on the tooth, he didn’t notice the pile of carpeting behind him until he bumped into it. Screaming slightly he jumped and turned around. Seeing he was safe, Brian forced himself to relax. Bentley helped somewhat by pushing his shaggy head underneath Brian’s fingers. He squatted down before the dog ruffling his fur.
“So what was the point of coming here?” He said smiling into those bright golden eyes. “Did you get this out of your system.”
Bentley said nothing, he simply gazed in placid interest into Brian’s eyes. It’s was nice to see that one of us still has his nerve. Brian though the simple motion of petting the dog helping ease his agitation somewhat. It was rather hilarious for someone who scoffed at the mere existence of ghosts and monsters little over a day ago, to be squatting here to scared to really investigate. Brian had to laugh at himself. It was just, when he thought about exactly what had been found here…it was enough to unnerve anyone. Finally he was able to stand and continue looking around the room.
He didn’t find much. Not that he’d really expected to, what with the half dozen investigation teams who had gone over this place with a fine toothed comb before him. He had hoped, however, that maybe an outside perspective more open to less…traditional culprits would be able to see something the others had overlooked. He was wrong however.
Jesus H. Christ, He thought bitterly. I steal cars for a living! Why am I up at four in the morning playing mother fucking Ghost buster!
His eyes were itching the tiredness one usually experiences in the wee hours of the morning, his head was beginning to throb with all the facts he’d crammed into it in the last few hours, and both fear and exertion had left him a sweaty mess. He ran his fingers through his shaggy hair, a gesture of stress piling high. He closed his eyes and tried so hard to calm himself down.
A long low guttural scream rang out in the distance. Brian and Bentley’s heads snapped toward the sound. They both flew to the door looking up and down the hallway. After a moment of searching, Bentley shot off again, this time back the way they had come. The dog was growling now, bearing his teeth and looking quite frightening. Brain, Barely keeping up with him enough to see this change in demeanor, was wondering what had happened to make him suddenly so upset. They kept running along growing closer to their suite as they did so. When they were only a hallway or two away. Brian heard the scream again, much much closer than before and suddenly his blood turned to ice. Sharice! She had been alone and asleep when they had left and they had left her completely without help. Brian’s legs pumped with sudden terror. Bentley wasn’t even wasting breath to growl, just powering forward with a single minded fury. They turned a corner and sprinted to the door of the suite. Brian slammed into the wood with the force of a stampeding bull. He had meant to wrench the door inward but had forgotten about the key card. The breath went out of him in a huff and the arm that had struck the door went briefly numb. Forcing his now bruised arm to obey him, he shoved his hand into his pocket, fished out the key card and slapped it against the little terminal on the side of the door. With a small beep, the door swung inward almost depositing Brian on the floor.
“SHARICE!” He screamed with unnecessary force staggering to the dark outer room and taking a step towards her door. “SHARICE!”
With a deafening slamming sound, her bedroom door was kicked open. Sharice emerged carrying a long dark object Brian couldn’t quite make out. Judging by how she hoisted the object to one shoulder and began to look around the room with it, Brian guessed it was a gun of some sort. The way she handled the gun was a mite threatening even though she was wearing not much more than a white undershirt and a pair of baggy blue sweatpants.
“What’s up?!” She called. “Where is it?! What is it?!”
“I don’t know,” Brian managed to gasp. Seeing she was safe, he collapsed to the floor and knelt there coughing for a moment, completely convinced that he would throw up this time. Sharice lowered the gun slowly and walked over to him. Bentley bounded up to her, panting and nuzzling her knee.
“What happened?” She asked kneeling and helping Brian back to his feet.
“I’m not sure what it was but something was making this awful sound.” Brian was slowly getting back to his feet, still coughing slightly. Sharice helped him by slipping a hand under his arm and lifting him back up. “I sounded like it was headed this way.”
When he was back to his feet, Brian watched Sharice cross to the doorway. She looked both ways out of the door and looked back at him questioningly. Bentley was at her heels sniffing again and getting more agitated by the moment. Sharice walked out into the hall, gun hoisted back to her shoulders. When he had stopped wheezing quite so much, Brian went after her. While Sharice was scouting the left side of the hall, Brian combed the right. There was nothing to be seen. He could only see long empty dark hallway.
“Nothing here.” Sharice whispered. She took the gun down and let it hang limply by her side. She was looking a bit agitated, as though she didn’t really believe him.
“Something was definitely here.” Brian protested hands flung wide in annoyance. “Do you think I flew back here on a wing and a prayer because I was scared of the dark.”
“Maybe you just heard some noise from the highway?”
“Come the hell on!” Brian said, getting deeply angry now. Instead of the heat he usually felt when angry the hall was seemingly growing steadily cooler. He supposed his body temperature was just normalizing after his headlong flight. “You’re supposed to be the witch here! I’m telling you there’s something here.”
“Of course there’s something here!” Sharice said getting a little more annoyed. “But we can’t go around jumping at shadows till we find it. What the hell do you think we are?! We need to be professional, we’re not some piss ant ghost hunters jumping’ at every breath of wind.”
Sleep deprivation had eaten away at Sharice’s normally mocking but amiable nature but it was nothing to what fear and exhaustion were doing to Brian’s temper. He slammed down his foot as hard as he could. He had had enough, dragged over half the country to go look for monster that tore people apart with a little brat who slept through the parts she was supposed to be working on. All for the sake of convincing a witch to let him live till the end of this year. Some part of him had been frayed when they started the journey and now it snapped under the increased strain. A torrent of indignation came pouring out of him and he didn’t seem to be able to stop himself.
“Jumping at shadows?!” Brian yelled so fiercely that he didn’t even notice his breath steaming before him. “There was something walking the halls with us it was making it’s way here! Bentley felt it too! And I am pulling my ass back her at break neck fucking speed, to make sure your ungrateful ass doesn’t end up in bloody chunks somewhere.”
Sharice had noticed the steaming breath however. She watched it rise from Brian’s screaming mouth in billowing clouds. She had also begun to shiver in the sudden cold. A strange fierce look came over her face, cutting off Brian’s tirade more effectively than a punch to the gut. Bentley was growling again, a deeper and more threatening growl than Brian had heard him make thus far. The shaggy hair on the back of his neck was standing on end and his hackles were raised to show fangs that had been bred to rip out a wolf’s throat. Sharice slowly turned and looked behind her, scanning the darkness with her dark fierce hunter’s eyes. She couldn’t help but hug herself now, the air had grown so cold. Brian himself, who was still wearing his motorcycle jacket, was beginning to shiver a little.
Then a sound began to surround them, as if it were a pack of jackals. It was a dry rasping sound, almost like a human cough. It was as if the sound was from a human throat that hadn’t seen water in a hundred years. Rasping wracking coughs echoing out of the darkness seemingly all around them. Sharice had hoisted her gun to her shoulders and was taking aim. In the dim red light cast by the emergency exit sign, Brian could see a double barreled shotgun pointing into the darkness. They waited for a few moments, the coughing growing louder and more frequent. It seemed to grow into a low raspy growl that emanated from everywhere and nowhere. Brian was shaking, sweat beading on his forehead again. He wished he had thought to ask Rhonda for something to defend himself with, a gun perhaps. As it was he reached for the only weapon (and he was using the term liberally) he had on him. He pulled a large pocket knife out of his back pocket and opened it with flick of his wrist. The handle was plastic painted with wood grain and it’s pommel was a stainless steel wolf head, tarnished with age. The blade however was clean and sharp, Brian had been very sure to keep it so in his travels. He’d had to depend on it to keep him alive before.
He gazed with Sharice and Bentley into the darkness, scanning for the slightest movement or noise.
“I didn’t think they’d show themselves so soon.” Sharice was hissing. “Thought they’d want to stalk us first. I guess their hungry.”
Brian shook from head to toe, not really able to say a word. He felt small and terrified and had to fight every second to keep from sprinting away.
As abruptly as it began, the rasping noises stopped short. The cold stayed but with the sourceless angry rasping went the fear that something was looming directly above them. Bentley never stopped growling however, his shaggy fur still on end. Sharice, however, took the gun from her shoulder and let it hang by her sides.
“Well that was anticlimactic.” Brian said dryly, almost giddy with relief. Sharice turned back his way with something like the beginning of a smile on his face. That is, until she caught sight of something over his shoulder. Bentley too, had spun and was growling in Brian’s general direction. Sharice’s eyes were as wide as dinner plates and full of shock bordering on fear. With the most profound sense of dread he had ever felt, Brian turned around.
Brian couldn't sleep. Maybe it was because he had slept so much in the car ride over here. Maybe it was the hotel full of murderous undefinable things. More than likely it was a dangerous combination of the two; no matter, he was awake and going over the evidence in the box trying to make himself useful.
Sharice had passed out almost as soon as Mr. Baker had put the card key into her hand and waved them good bye. They had emerged through the door into a huge hotel suite. The kind with several adjoining rooms and a full sized working kitchen. With barely a few words, Sharice lugged her bag through the door, handed him the bag containing her laptop and closed the door behind her, clearly intent on a long sleep. Brian had shrugged at Bentley, who had stayed by his side, and they went into Brian's room, after raiding the thankfully well stocked fridge.
One by one, he went over the police reports, finding exactly the tone of confused impotence he expected to find. According to the reports, three different investigation teams and several different leading detectives had been attached to this case. All of them found the same thing, bupkis. The autopsy reports were a little more informative, though a thousand times harder to get through. The coldly cataloged folders of human bits and pieces, turned Brian's stomach over and he has trouble looking at the pictures for any length of time. What he could understand of the coroners reports continued in the utterly confused tone of the police reports. The victims had all been eaten alive, their limbs and flesh ripped from them with inhuman strength. All the marks on the bones were congruent to those made by human teeth and there were even enough viable markings that they had been able to get some dental impressions off of them. But that ended up going nowhere because, just as Mr. Baker had said, the marks didn't match any living person they could find.
He froze reading that line again and finding it odd. Both the coroner's report and Mr. Baker had specifically mentioned the marks didn't match any living person. Were they just using common jargon? Or maybe they were making the observation in the interest of not leaving anything out, but also, not really wanting to say exactly what they had found. He poured over that for a while and finally shook his head, unable to come to any conclusion.
He then took out the dossiers on the victims and started combing through them for similarities. An hour or so later, he rubbed his tired eyes in frustration, having been completely unable to find a common link. The guards were all the same kind of large chunky guys, meant to intimidate and keep rules from being broken in the first place rather than be reactionary. Yet as far as he could find, none of the missing men were close, they didn't live particularly near one another, hell they didn't even seem to work out in the same gyms. The casino guests were much the same. They had been vacationers most of them, down from more rural areas to see the city. They had jobs of every kind, from lawyers right on down to housewives. Male or Female, 18 or 87, nothing seemed to matter. They were taken indiscriminately and eaten alive.
He put the last folder down onto the bed with a long sigh. It had struck him as he read, just how much his criminal career had prepared him for just this kind of work. How many times he'd poured over his stepbrother's notes after they'd cased a liquor store or an electronics shop, finding weaknesses and open spots to bum rush the security. Not that he'd ever enjoyed that work, he had only been fifteen or sixteen at the time. But Rodney was four years older than him, and thousand times stronger, it seemed. He had done what he was told or he paid the price. He suddenly had never been so glad that Rodney was serving a fifteen year sentence in maximum security.
Finally there was nothing in the box but a large external hard drive, its case glinting silver in the low hotel light. Brian supposed this must be the security footage. Brian was about to put it back in the box, not up to sorting through hours of superfluous footage, but then he saw the post-it note on the underside of the hard drive.
“Annotated footage of the victims approx. 20 minutes before abduction.” It read, written in a messy scrawl. Brian sighed, relieved, plugging the hard drive's cable into the USB port on the laptop. Within seconds he had the video files pulled up and was sifting through them one after another. Here he actually did find something that all the victims had in common. We watched them in the twenty minutes leading up to their disappearance. It seemed like the instant one of the victims found themselves alone down a hallway, the footage would distort. Sometimes the rolling black and white flecked bars of static disruption would scroll through the image. Sometimes the brightness or darkness would wildly increase. In some cases the camera would wildly go out of focus over and over again. Finally, common among all the victims, the footage would give one last distortion crossing the image in a wave of static. When the wave had passed, the victims had, invariably vanished completely. He also noticed something about the time stamps in the bottom left hand corner of the security footage. It looked like all the victims disappeared only after midnight. Not one of the victims disappeared during the daylight hours or even before twelve A.M. but once the clock his midnight it seemed to be open game. Watching the footage was vaguely eerie. He could feel chills start to run up his spine every time a patron disappeared in hallways just like the one right outside his door. He looked down at the laptop's clock. It was just a little past three in the morning. He was trembling slightly as he forced himself to dig through the footage.
A sudden whine from below the bed made Brian start so bad he slipped sideways off the other side of the bed, landing with a crash onto the carpet. The large gray form of Bentley hopped up onto the bed, wagging his shaggy tail with glee. Brian had completely forgotten he was there. He got up off the floor, dusting himself off and settled himself back down on the bed. Bentley laid down across his lap and looking up at him with those soulful golden eyes. Brian ruffled his fur affectionately, as some of the terror he'd felt earlier began to leave him. He leaned back into the pillows behind him, closing his eyes and letting his fingers run themselves absentmindedly through the dog's shaggy fur. It felt good to gaze into the quite dark after hours of squinting at screens and papers trying to bully information into his weary brain.
Bentley began to scoot upward until his head was resting on the pillow next to him. Brian sighed, not having the heart or the energy to shove the big lovable dog back onto the floor. Instead he wrapped an arm around the warm body next to him, and he let the sound of Bentley's steady deep breathing send him off to a light troubled sleep.
A sound woke him, barely an hour later. It was something like the distant cry of a loon, lilting and haunting. He jaunted out of bed sitting straight up in bed, frantically scrubbing his eyes back to functionality. Bentley was already up and moving, he had leapt toward the door at the sounds and was still standing there ears back and a ready attentive look in his movements. Brian was fairly glad, now, that he had slept in all his clothes. He got up so fast he knocked several files to the ground. He opened the door to the rest of the suite and Bentley shot out of the room sniffing madly at everything he passed. Brian toyed for a moment with the idea of waking Sharice up, as he passed her door, but he thought it would be wiser to make absolutely sure he needed her before he woke her.
Bentley had wound his way to the door leading out into the hallway, whining and nudging the door with his snout. He looked back at Brian with the canine equivalent of an expectant smile. The last thing on Earth Brian felt like doing, was opening that door before the sun rose. However, Bentley was getting more insistent, jumping up and scratching the door with his forepaws.
“Alright, alright,” Brian hissed to get him to stop his insistent scratching. Maybe Bentley just needed to go out and relieve himself. Brian, tentatively poked his head out of the door looking up and down the hallway with a tingle of genuine fear. Bentley however, had no such compunctions. He shot out of the small crack in the doorway like a bat out of hell and was running halfway down the hallway before Brian could run after him. It took all the athleticism Brian had to keep up with the dog, not that this was saying much. Eventually Bentley was courteous enough to slow to a faint, driven trot. He was still sniffing like mad, Brian could just hear the constant in and out of air over his own ragged breathing.
“Stay!” Brian managed to gasp at the dog, clutching his side and barely keeping up. Bentley mercifully stopped his roaming to look back almost confused at the floundering human behind him. As Brian caught up to him, leaning heavily on his knees, panting and looking at the ground. He was trying desperately to keep his midnight snack in his stomach, Bentley came over and licked the sweat off his forehead. The affections of the amiable hound took a moment to fend off, as did getting his breath back. Once both goals had been accomplished however, Brian had the presence of mind to look up and get a grasp of where they were. Closest door too them bore a plague bearing the room number 408.
Brian's blood ran with an icy dread. He couldn't move for the sudden penetrating fear. He hadn't noticed where the dog had been taking them, but had he noticed he might have just let Bentley run and pray for the best. They were down on of the back hallways, a place where most of the rooms were spaced further apart than the one he'd been staying in. This particular part of the casino had been reserved for large conference and dance halls for some of the richer patrons to rent out for special occasions. This particular room, 408, happened to be the large empty space where all the victims had been found barely a month before.
Brian just stood for a few minutes staring at the closed wooden doors and their silver handles, shining a little in the light cast by the exit sign at the end of the hallway. Bentley had bounded forward and placed his forepaws on the wood of the doors, scratching as he had back in the suite. Brian looked down at him and back to the door, unable to remember a time when he wanted nothing quite so much as to run screaming away. A draft brushed the back of his neck and he spun around looking desperately for a ghoulish face peering at him out of the darkness. Nothing what so ever moved. His breath was coming in painful gasps again, his heart hammering far more fiercely than it had in his chase after Bentley. He wanted to be gone, needed to be gone.
Without warning a cold, wet, slimy thing touched his sweaty palm, causing him to jump about a food in the air and emit a small high pitched squeak. He looked down to see Bentley, wagging his tail serenely having just touched Brian's hand with his nose. Brian found himself feeling a little silly. He wasn't alone, he had Bentley, and whatever the things that went bump in the night here might be, they had always waited until someone had been alone to take them. Plus hadn't Rhonda said something about animals having better senses of monsters than humans did? Surely if there was something to be afraid of, Bentley wouldn't be here wagging his tail.
Forcibly calming himself, Brian followed Bentley back to the double wooden doors and with an inward squeak of poorly contained terror, he pushed the doors open.
By the time they had finally reached the casino, Brian had taken several more intermittent naps. His legs were severely cramped and he would have give his left pinky to go for a lengthy walk. Bentley seemed in even worse shape. He was whining louder and louder the more the hours wore on, which wore on both Sharice and Brian’s nerves. They were passing through more occupied places now, away from the wilderness surrounding the open road. As the sun went down they began to see the glow of towns off in the distance. The lights grew in closer and closer clusters until finally, They were there. They pulled into the city limits of Derkatze, Michigan, Narrowly dodging the traffic from a nasty tractor trailer accident on the main road. It still took another twenty or Thirty minutes to get to the casino proper.
The city was similar to ones Brian had seen before. Sprawling steel and glass skyscrapers reached up as high as they could, still lit in the dark of night. A black ribbon of river ran all along the east end of the city, giving the air a nice warm moist scent to it. Pedestrians had more regard for their safety then most in his own city had, they waited at the lights patiently for the myriad traffic to pass. Even the traffic was more polite than he was used to. No one shooting out of side streets desperate to get ahead of the traffic that would never allow them into the queue normally.
When they pulled into the huge, two or three football-field-sized parking lot, Brian and Bentley jumped out of the car as quick as they could. Brian reached for heaven, groaning as the tension built and released in his muscles. His legs still felt pretty stuff but he resolved to stretch his legs more as the night wore on. He didn’t feel much like sleeping. Unlike Sharice, who was looking dead on her feet, exhausted and rubbing her eyes. Brian’s eyes ran over the vacant space that was the parking lot. Something seemed off to him. He looked down at his phone, It was eleven PM. An early time for a casino to be closed. Casinos usually stayed open pretty late where he came from. Here, however, there were no cars parked; there were no drunken patrons being supported to their cars by annoyed spouses; no dejected faces walking from the doors, looking sad over their losses; no gambling junkies twitching in the parking lot, trying to beg bus fair from the other patrons. The place was utterly silent, save for the city sounds in the distance.
The Casino itself was a large three storied building. It was wide and tan with a red wide line painted around the windows on the upper stories. A huge lighted sign hung above the doorway read: “Baker’s Casino”. Here the lights were all dim too. There were lights on inside the building but most of them were out. Brian couldn’t even see cleaning crews or security officers (people his eyes had been trained to watch for long ago) walking about the place. It seemed utterly vacant. Brain was walking around looking for anything to indicate the places closure. He couldn’t really see anything about the casino’s hours where he stood, but the pole supporting the big light that had parked under was practically covered in white fliers. He pulled one from the mass and took a long look at it. He couldn’t immediately make out the text on it. It was badly faded from sun and the rains had left the ink running. Eventually, through much squinting, He could discern the words “Save Chinatown”. The faded image underneath the world showed two Asian children, one boy and one girl, looking sad and holding hands. There was a phone number down at the bottom of the flier that had escaped much of the warping and fading. He folded the paper up and put it back in his pocket, intending to ask Sharice about it later when she looked less likely to fall over.
Bentley, who had followed Brian as he walked dizzy circles, began barking happily looking towards the casino entryway. Sharice and Brian turned at the barking to see a tall man with graying brown hair walking towards them. He was a slender man in an expensive dark gray suit, his shrewd brown eyes were shielded by stylish silver-framed glasses. His face was relaxed but it seemed to have a pinched, suspicious quality about it. His eyes ran over Sharice and Brian quickly, even glancing disdainfully at Bentley who moved forward wagging his tail, expecting to be pet. Brian could tell he was not impressed by what he saw.
“I’m guessing you’re supposed to be the representatives Rhonda was sending?” Brian disliked the way the man formed the words ‘supposed to be’ and ‘representatives’. He managed to make them insulting. Sharice glanced at him just slightly out of the corner of her eye. She put her hands on her hips and cocked her head angrily. She opened her mouth, and all at once Brian could tell she would be responding in an equally offensive manner.
“Why don’t you-!” She began, but Brian spoke loudly and clearly right over her.
“YES!” He said putting a hand on her shoulder and with slight pressure, indicated for her to stop talking and leaving it to him. His voice scaled down to a pleasant, professional tone. “I’m Brian, nice to meet you.”
His eyes flicked to the sign behind the man and back to his face. It was one of the old con’s rules, if you didn’t know what was going on, you pretended like hell you did.
“Should I assume you’re here to represent Mr. Baker.”
The man laughed softly as he took and shook Brian’s offered hand. He shook Sharice’s as well, but she didn’t say anything, just nodded and crossed her arms.
“No,” He finally responded. “I am Mr. Baker.”
“Nice to meet you, Sir.” Brian said, smiling his most charming smile. “Rhonda didn’t tell us much about the nature of your issue. Could you fill in the blanks.”
“What did she mention to you?” He asked, turning back around and moving back towards the doors, giving Bentley a resigned glance as he passed. Brian looked at Sharice quizzically. She simply shrugged moodily and raised her eyebrows at him. They would have to sort out the division of labor later but in the meantime, He followed the retreating back of the be-suited man.
“She just mentioned something about people going missing and appearing the next day….in bits.”
“That’s a pretty succinct description of the problem.” He said, walking through the steel and glass doors. As he walked through them, Brian caught sight of an official sign hung on the door reading “Closed for renovations until further notice, we apologize for the inconvenience”. Mr. Baker lead them through the empty gaming floor. It probably would be sight to see when the lights were on. All Brian could make out in the dark was the slight glimmer of the metal frames of the thousand odd slot machines in one sections. That and the dark felted tops of deserted card tables. Empty bars and vacant restaurants stood all around the floor; all empty, dark and forlorn. It was a depressing sight to Brian, who had spent much of his late teens picking the pockets of those who frequented the river front casino back in Philadelphia. The absence of the bells, whistles, congratulatory cries and sympathetic ‘awww’s was making Brian more on edge than he felt he should be. The emptiness was also making him twitchy, raising goosebumps on his arms and raising the sparse hairs on the back of his neck. Or maybe that was just the knowledge that people had been horribly murdered here. Whatever the reason, he just knew he wanted out of here.
Mr. Baker led them through the casino flood, along a dimly lit pathway, to the back of the casino. Then he took out a thick ring of keys and opened an office door, barely visible in the dim light and given that it had the same purple and white paint job as it’s surrounding walls. Inside was a long hallway, but this was much less ornate and better lit. It had the look of a warehouse more than anything. Pure white with the large tubing of the air conditioning unit visible above. They passed door with plaques on them detailing the name and job of those who owned the offices. Finally they reached a pair of elevator doors. There weren’t any buttons that Brian could see just a key hole. Mr. Baker shuffled his keys around until he found a small brass one, and turned it in the hole. The elevator opened for them and they climbed in, even Bentley, who walked and sat on his haunches to save space. The elevator raised itself and a moment later, opened with a pleasant chime onto a large handsome office.
He gestured to a pair of large ornately carved and furnished mahogany chairs. Sharice and Brian sat in those chairs while Mr. Baker took his place in the big leather office chair behind the desk. He leaned back in the chair, noiselessly contemplating a copy of the Mona Lisa hung on one of the walls. Finally, after looking like he had made up his mind about something, he began to speak.
“About a month ago, several guests began complaining of loud noises in their hallways.” He began in a depressed sigh. “Naturally we put the disturbance down to drunken guests, stumbling to their rooms or something similar. There wasn’t much we could do in any case. We had security walk the halls and keep a closer eye on everything….but….”
He seemed to have trouble here. His eyes were flashing Lisa a very nasty look, furious and disturbed.
“Then my guards started vanishing.” He almost whispered into his steepled hands. It was as though he was trying to look like the villain from a Saturday morning cartoon, and Brian had to work at maintaining that interested but professionally concerned air. The temptation to smile derisively was rising steadily. “No sign, no note or two weeks notice…just…gone.”
“You’re sure it was on the casino premises they went missing?” Brian asked sobered a little.
“Dead sure,” Mr. Baker said to him, voice still coming in that angered hiss. “Most of them vanished in the middle of their shifts. They would go to walk the halls and just never come back. Naturally we called the police. They went over this place with a fine toothed comb, interrogated guests and staff alike. They came up with nil. We had no choice but to conclude if they had been abducted they were taken from the casino. It was a police case at that point and no longer my concern. So I reopened the casino and hotel.”
Sharice let out a soft hiss of air through teeth. He eyebrows were drawn together in disdain and shock. Brian did his best to knock the tip of her boot with his own. Mr. Baker gave Sharice a wry smile.
“I know that sounds bad at this point. But at the time…” he trailed off with a sad look in his eyes. “But that’s when the shit really hit the fan. Guests started disappearing now. Seemingly vanishing from their rooms or from the halls. Again the cops were here, investigations were made, people were questioned, security tapes were endlessly reviewed; but no matter what we did there was nothing to find. The tapes would show the people walking down the hall, usually alone, when they would simply vanish.”
He rubbed his eyes in weariness.
“I wish they were still missing though…” He said ominously.
“I’m guessing you found them in less than commendable condition.” Brian said softly. He was doing his best to control his creeping terror of even being in the same building that these things happened.
“That’s a diplomatic way of putting it.” Mr. Baker said in disgust. He was still gazing at the painting his eyes dark and distant. “A maid went in to clean one of the hotel rooms, one which had been searched just like all the rest. But when she walked into the room, it was covered in blood and…parts.”
Brian swallowed pointedly, feeling the sparse hairs on the back of his neck rise. He had the uncanny feeling he was being watched.
“Well,” Mr. Baker continued in a weary tone. “The police were once again were running all over the place. The took down all the parts and had a good long look at each of them. They couldn’t find any DNA or anything to lead to a suspect. All they could tell me was that the people had bite marks all over them.”
“Bite marks?” Sharice said leaning forward. “Human bite marks?”
“That’s what it looked like but the police couldn’t find anyone with dental record matching the victims. No one living that is.” He said in an almost bitter way. “Obviously cannibalism on such a significant scale would be rather difficult to hide. But the police combed this place for three weeks and finally came up with jack squat. I’ve had to close the casino so no one else dies, not that it matters too much given the publicity this has thrown our way. I need to either get this place up and running again or bulldoze the whole thing. That’s where you come in. A colleague of mine mentioned you deal with…unusual problems. This obviously qualifies.”
“Alright.” Sharice said, reclining in her chair again. She was suddenly business like. “We’re gonna need this place empty for the next few days along with all the information you’ve managed to collect.”
“Done!” Mr. Baker said lifting A cardboard box up and dropping it onto the surface of the desk. “I’ve had a room set up for you, you should be fine for food and anything else you need. The box had security camera footage, files on the missing people, police reports; the whole nine yards.”
“Alright!” Sharice said getting up and extending her hand to be shaken. “Mr. Baker, Show me where I’m sleeping and we’re on the job.”
Brian wanted to say something about the ill-advisability of staying in a haunted casino where people had turned up in gnawed pieces. But he could do nothing after Sharice shook Mr. Bakers hand and quickly followed him out of the office, leaving Brian to hurry along after them with the box of evidence. As he followed them into the dark and empty hallways beyond the casino floor, he knew he was in for a long disturbing night, and if he was lucky, he might just see morning. Brian gulped then remembering that luck had never really been something he’d had in abundance.
Brian woke from a brief nap an hour or two later, feeling warm and sleepy still. Something about sitting in the passenger seat on long trips usually knocked him out cold. Up until he had fallen asleep he had been smiling in wonder at the many capabilities his new phone offered. He had even sucked up his pride enough to call his mother and let her know it was alright.
“I even found a job.” He said to her after they had exchanged less than warm greetings.
“A real job?” She responded, her voice dripping with suspicion. Brian was slightly annoyed by her question but he supposed he had been in enough scrapes in his lifetime that he couldn’t expect much less.
“Yes a real job.” He said exasperated.
“What kind of job?” She asked, still with that edge of disbelief. Brian looked over at Sharice, who smiled at him. Like him, she was wondering exactly how to describe this job.
“Security work.” He decided on finally. “I follow some brat around and keep her from getting killed.”
He laughed when he felt Sharice’s admonitory punch on his arm. He stopped laughing, however, when numbness spread from the point of impact. Pulling the phone away from his mouth he hissed:
“A dead arm…really?!”
She gave him nothing but a side long glance and smile in response.
“You’re alright though?” His mother’s voice came back over the speaker. She sounded more anxious now, like she had legitimately been worried.
“I’m better than I’ve been in a long while.” Brian had replied sincerely and she had seemed very pleased. She didn’t say anything about the curse, maybe she didn’t want another fight. No matter the reason, they managed to have civil conversation for the first time in years, it had been worth the trip just for that really.
He had fallen asleep not long after that and had awoken to a bass thunder clap that was Bentley’s bark.
“Bentley, cut that out.” Sharice called back to him. “Those squirrels are outside. You ain’t getting at them.”
They were flying down a highway blanketed on all sides by trees and wilderness. The radio was emitting a low volume version of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and Sharice was even singing a few bars before she notice Brian wake. She had a good voice deep and smokey for a woman, it made him want to hear her sing some blues. But she stopped once she saw his eyes open.
“Finally with us again, huh?” She said.
“How long was I out?” Brian yawned, stretching as best he could in the confined space.
“An hour or so. You didn’t miss much.” She sighed grabbing a piece of beef jerky from the bag in the glove compartment and ripping off a large piece of the tough meat. The rest of her sentence came through as a garble of chewing and speaking simultaneously. “Not unless you’re really into construction.”
“Can’t say that I am.” Brian rubbed his eyes for a minute, sighing as his body returned all functions to awakened state. He could feel his body cramping, begging him to get out and move for a little while, but he didn’t want to be the first one to call for a pit stop, especially so early in the trip.
“So I’m guessing you’ve got a screwed up home life too?” Sharice pondered, looking at him briefly out of the corner of her eye.
“I guess that’s a good way to put it.” Brain sighed, not really wanting to discuss his past.
“Your dad died too, didn’t he?” It seemed that no matter how much Brian wanted to avoid the subject, Sharice would not be deterred.
“Yes.” He said reluctantly. “I never knew him though. I was only a couple years old when it happened. I wouldn’t even remember his face if my grandma didn’t have pictures.”
“You’re mom didn’t keep any?” Sharice almost gasped shocked.
“Mom got remarried about a year or so after Dad died. The asshole she married wasn’t very happy about her keeping her first husbands pictures so he made her throw them all away.” The memory of it still rankled. When he strained his memory he could come up with the vague memory of a male face in a picture frame hanging in their living room. It had been gone within a year and the last vestige of Brian’s father had been gone.
“At least your Grandmother got to tell you about him.” Sharice said awkwardly. It was as if she couldn’t imagine anyone just throwing away the picture of a deceased loved one and given her own hardships in the last year, it wasn’t hard to see why. Her eyes were distant and sad as they watched the road.
“I had to find her first.” Brian chuckled bitterly.
“New step-daddy wasn’t to keen on raising another man’s child. He had some big stupid macho complex about it. So if he was going to be a father to me, not that he ever really was, we were all to pretend like I was his kid.”
“He said that?”
“Not out loud, oh never out loud.” Brian scowled bitterly at the dashboard. “No, admitting you have a problem is a sign of weakness…hell to him breathing was a sign of fucking weakness.”
The sound of a leather belt snapping as it hit flesh seemed to echo through the intervening years, along with the screams of a frightened child. He could here the pain and anger in his own voice, and feel both emotions boiling in his heart. He decided to press on.
“Anyway, he didn’t want me or my mother to have anything to do with my father’s family.” He continued in a much more calm voice. “He kept turning them away and telling my mother not to take their calls and eventually they just stopped trying.”
Sharice was silent, she looked ashamed for some odd reason. Bentley let out a cautious whine from the backseat and Brian put a hand on his head to comfort him.
“But I was fifteen and getting more rebellious by the day, and I wanted to know where I came from. I had already learned some tricks from my stepbrother and it was far to easy to slip into my mom’s filing cabinet take a good long look at what information she still for dad so she could still get his insurance and it lead me to my grandma.” He paused to retrieve a piece of jerky from the plastic bag, at which point Sharice’s hand shot out and smacked the back of his. The gesture was so very similar to her mother that Brian couldn’t help but smile. Sharice pointed to the second bag of jerky unopened behind the first and her rummaged to fish it out. “Grandma was the one who told me about Dad, and the curse.”
He fiddled with the claddagh ring on his finger for a moment, remembering his grandmother’s face when she was talking about the curse.
“Did you believe her?” Sharice asked.
“Not at first,” He replied, eyes fixed on the tarnished silver heart. “But she seemed to believe in it so much and…it seemed like too much of a coincidence them more I found out about it all.”
They lapsed into silence for a few minutes while Brian fidgeted absentmindedly with the ring on his finger.
“Did she give you that?” Sharice asked nodding at it.
“How could you tell?” Brian said in surprise.
“It’s older than you, I’d say.” She said smiling at the road before her. “Looks like something that would get passed down.”
She held up her hand wiggling the finger bearing the U.S. Navy ring. Brian understood suddenly.
“Yeah, she passed it on. She said it had been getting passed down from father to son for the longest time.” He had loved this ring from the instant he’d received it. The band ending in a pair of upraised hands lifting a crowned heart. It felt like…seeing his father again when he slipped it about his finger. He had always felt better with it securely around his finger.
“I’m sorry about your dad.” Brian said suddenly. An old ache was inside him again, the old longing for home and happiness. He couldn’t really tell why but the recentness of Sharice’s tragedy might have been pushing it out onto the surface. Or maybe, he just was used to being miserable and didn’t know how to cope with the fairly decent situation in which he found himself.
“I am too.” Sharice almost whispered after a long sad sigh. But to her credit, she smiled sadly at the road and said no more. No tears, no crying, just the passive sadness that comes with a loss never quite forgotten.
And so, they sat. The silence never felt awkward, never hostile, it was companionable. It was as if both of them had learned to find peace in the silence by themselves, and now it could be just as friendly as a conversation. Brian wasn’t sure just what it said about his mental state that he had so much rapport with a seventeen year old girl. Maybe living the life he’d lived had kept him a little emotionally stagnated. Maybe the life she’d lived had caused Sharice to grow up a little faster than most her age. Whatever the reason, they both sat in relaxed silence, listening to the oldies station, feeling no need what so ever to break the silence. Except when they would sing a few bars of a good song, before lapsing again into thoughtful silence.
A few hours later, both Brian’s and Bentley’s bladders were crying for relief and Sharice had no choice but to pull of at a rest stop to accommodate them, though she had no qualms about insulting their manhood’s as she did so. She got out and stretched, watching Bentley sniffing at trees, as Brian sprinted to one of the public bathrooms. He had to stop his headlong rush however and dodge off to one side, avoiding a particularly burly pack of what looked like bikers but Brian could tell better. When you spent a decent portion of your adult life sleeping in rest stops and visiting roadside bars, earning a living through picking people’s pockets, you learned to spot real bikers and the guys who bought themselves a Harley and took it for a Sunday drive. These three were the latter. They had no tattoos or rings, no insignia’s on their jean jackets (except for the fairly recognizable one of a TV biker gang), he could see the didn’t have much in the way of beards either. Not all bikers had one, as a rule, but most did. As they nudged past Brian, one of the men knocked into him as hard as they could. He caught the whiff of alcohol coming from the pack, strong as if they’d had opened a beer under his nose. He didn’t much care as it made his revenge all the easier.
“Watch it, fucker!” The slightly slurred words came.
“Sorry,” Brian called, apologetically over his shoulder. He could hear the three drunks making disparaging remarks about him as they walked away. No doubt they trusted the menacing visages they seemed to think they had to protect them from any rebukes he might levy. It was a shame as it made it that much easier for Brian to conceal the black leather wallet he’d snatched from the man when they made contact. There wasn’t much in the way of cash, maybe only fifty or sixty dollars in it’s folds, but it was the principle of the thing really. So he pocketed the paper money, before throwing the wallet (complete with ID and credit cards) off into a nearby bush.
When he had finished his business and washed his hands, Brian emerged back into the sunlight to the sounds of drunken yelling. Feeling somewhat apprehensive, Brian rounded the corner of the building that housed the bathrooms to find the three drunks he’d passed earlier. They had formed a threatening looking circle around a girl. It was Sharice. She was several yards away and he couldn’t hear more than the tone of their voices. He heard one of the drunks make, what sounded from this distance, like a clumsy come on. He grabbed his crotch with one hand while a chorus of laughter went up from the two men on either side of Sharice. He could hear her answer cooly, and the instant angry uproar that followed. Brian began running forward. He combed the parking lot for Bentley and to his chagrin saw the wolfhound locked in the car, barking his head off silently through the glass of the back window, his fangs bared. Another cool toned response from Sharice prompted Brian to run just as fast as he could. What was she doing? Pissing off three drunks, each of whom weighed about two of her, was a very bad idea. He knew she was tough but tough and stupid were two separate things. Finally he saw one of the men fix a vice-tight grip on her upper arm, a gesture surely meaning her no good will. Brian was still too far away, he was about to open his mouth to distract the drunks, but then Sharice moved.
She seized the hand that held hear, using a pressure point in the webbing between the man’s thumb and the rest of his hand. The man screamed in pain as his hand released against his will and was wrenched in a direction it was never intended to go. Sharice let his arm and punched him full in the face, putting all her weight behind the blow. The man took the blow just below the right eye, several gashes opening in his face from the rings Sharice had not taken off, finally he toppled backwards onto the ground ans lay still.
Brian watched in awe as he ran. Sharice was facing him looking down at the man before her. A scuffling of boots on gravel told her the man to her left had recovered from the shock quickest. She dropped to her hands, spinning as she did so. She swept the man’s legs out from under him with one sweep of her long leg. He hit the gravel hard and didn’t move. The last of the drunks was moving to her unprotected rear, but she spun, rising from the ground in an elegant corkscrew and upper cut the man with, what looked like, the force of mack truck. He too, fell backwards onto the ground, moaning and prone.
“What took you?” She said smiling wickedly at Brian. He had no words, he simply stared, skidding to a halt, his boots digging into the gravel. She turned her back on his panting and went back to the car, stepping on her would be assailant as she went. Brain, panting and wheezing, had no choice but to follow her.
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Brian awoke the next morning, feeling better than he had in weeks. The bed Rhonda had offered him in the guest room had been fluffy and soft. It had utterly outdone the various places of respite he had been using. To his joy, he noticed that the raw abrasions on his knee had healed completely over night. He ran his fingers over the new fresh flesh with a feeling of astonishment. He saw that someone had done him the courtesy of taking the dufflebag, containing his clothes and toiletries from the back of his motorcycle and left it just inside the closed door. He grabbed a shirt with an image of Optimus Prime on it, as well as some fresh jeans and underwear and sneaked into the bathroom to take a long very hot shower. He emerged from the bathroom twenty minutes later cloaked in a cloud of steam, feeling cleaner than he had in a week. Sharice leaned against the railing that ran the length of the hallway, overlooking the dining room. He jumped slightly at the sight of her, not expecting anyone to be up this early.
She was clad in a green army jacket, worn threadbare through the years. Another pair of tight jeans encased her lower half as well as a thick black leather belt to replace the ornamental gold one. Her hair was the same as was her head band. But her shirt was a brown t-shirt emblazoned with the image of a desert landscape with a lone cactus. Underneath this white bubble lettering read “Lou's Barbeque”. She laughed when he started.
“Took you long enough.” She said when he had recovered.
“I didn't know anyone was waiting for me.” He gazed down at the watch on his wrist. “It's only seven in the morning. I thought you'd still be asleep.”
“Nope, I rise with the sun.” Sharice stated cockily getting off the railing and smiling at him. “I've been up since five thirty getting everything ready. Once you're done getting dressed grab some breakfast and meet me outside.”
“We've got a job already?” Brian croaked, rather taken aback.
“Of course!” Sharice trilled excitedly. “Been staking out this job for a week now, I can't wait to start.”
Brian felt himself wither under her excited stare. He didn't understand how anyone, much less a teenage girl, could get excited about going off and hunting monsters. But Sharice was definitely a different kind of girl than the one's he'd known in his teenage years. All confidence and cockiness bordering on arrogance, with none of the crippling self-doubt girls her age had in television and movies. He had a feeling that he would have to be the cautious one in the days to come, and the knowledge only increased his sense of foreboding dread.
He finished getting dressed as quickly as he could and descended the stairs. He could smell something glorious coming from the kitchen and let his nose carry him into the room. Rhonda was working diligently at the stove, making batch after batch of large perfectly fluffy chocolate chip pancakes. His mouth watered at the sight of them and he felt himself creep furtively to the ever-growing stack, making sure Rhonda's back was turned. He reached for the top most one, his hand trembling with anticipation. Quick as a flash, a hand shot out and smacked his hand with a sharp slap. He withdrew his hand and met the steely, amused gaze Rhonda was giving him.
“Get yourself a plate!” She chastised going back to her work. “I know you know better than that.”
He followed Rhonda's pointed guidance and grabbed a plate from the corner cabinet. In moment's his plate was loaded with a huge stack of perfect pancakes. A quick slathering of syrup and butter later and Brian was in heaven. The fresh mouthfuls of pancake making him groan and sigh with pleasure.
“Lord, Boy!” Rhonda cried, sounding amused, placing the last pancakes on the stack. “You'd think you hadn't seen food before.”
“Sorry,” He apologized after swallowing a particularly large mouthful. “I don't usually get to eat like this. Normally I have to pinch a wallet for a few McDonald’s meals before they cancel the credit cards.”
“Now, none of that while you're with Sharice. That girl don't need anymore bad influences.” Rhonda remonstrated gently, sitting down next to him at the large wooden table. “Lord knows her father was bad enough.”
“Where is her father?” Brian asked. “Divorce?”
“I wish,” Rhonda sighed. A pronounced sadness crept into her words but her eyes stayed quite dry. “No, my David died last year. He had a bad heart attack and died before I could get to him. They said he didn't even make it to the hospital.”
“I'm so sorry.” Brian whispered. He felt profoundly awkward.
“It's alright, Cherie.” Rhonda said with a small sad smile. “'C'est la vie' as they say down here. But Sharice took it very hard. The testing time's been one of the few things I've seen make her happy in a long while.”
They ate in silence for a while, Brian not really knowing what to say and Rhonda lost in her own thoughts. They only really came to their sensed when the front door slammed shut and the sound of boots and claws on wood announced Bentley’s and Sharice's arrival. Sharice threw herself into a chair and smiled at the stack of pancakes now in the center of the table, while the big dog curled up on a dog bed in the corner of the kitchen. She began to eat with almost as much gusto as Brian had, shoveling forkfuls into her mouth with occasional “mmmmmmm”'s and “mmmmmhmmm”'s. Rhonda smiled shaking her head indulgently at her daughter.
“Is the car ready?” She asked Sharice.
“Ready, willing, and able.” The girl managed through a large mouthful. “I just ran over all the systems with a fine tooth comb, we ain't breaking down anytime soon.”
“You know cars?” Brian asked, impressed.
“Better than I know my own face.” She explained excitedly, waving her fork around to point at him dramatically. “I could build one myself if you give me the parts.”
“What about supplies?” Rhonda cut in.
“We're good. Clothes are packed, we've got enough money for food for the next few weeks and some spare just in case we run into trouble. And the items of more...sensitive nature are in their hiding spot.”
“Good. You know where you're going?”
“Yes, Mama” Sharice said somewhat exasperated. “I've checked the directions like a million times.”
“I just want to make sure. Michigan ain't no Sunday drive.”
“We're going all the way to Michigan?!” Brian coughed, having breathed in a piece of pancake in shock.
“One of my older friends owns a casino up there that needs looking into.” Rhonda said casually. “It's not too bad a trip, only about fourteen hours or so.”
Brian supposed she had a point, he had made worse road trips in his life time. Hell, half of those had been conducted while flat broke and starving. He could stand a lazy drive with food, supplies, and the prospect of not having to sleep in a thorn bush. The issue was not really the drive itself but what came after it.
“So when we get to this casino, what are we going to be doing?” He said. Then, seemingly unable to contain his sarcasm, he added: “Are we exorcising the spirits of dead gamblers desperate for one more crack at the black jack table?”
Rhonda and Sharice shot him identical looks of disdain, before going back to their food.
“Truth be told, I'm not sure what you'll find.” Rhonda said, a vindictive glint in her eyes. “They've just been finding rooms full of blood and bits.”
Brian felt his fork fall from his hand to clatter against the nearly empty plate. He didn’t really remember dropping it, but that wasn’t the paramount problem in his mind. Sharice had gone back to her breakfast, no fear or horror in her face. Rhonda however was giving him a satisfied smile. He could feel the blood drain away from his face.
“Wait!” Brian cried, desperate to bring the situation back onto a logical plane. “This thing has been leaving behind nothing but bits of people, and we’re somehow supposed to take care of this.”
“I think the two of you will be more than enough.” She said with a nod, getting up and taking her empty plate to the sink. The mood of the room was oddly mismatched to Brian’s feelings. The two women were sedately eating and cleaning as if they were embarking on nothing more difficult than a long road trip. Brian sunk back in his chair pushing his plate away. He had lost his appetite in one brutal reality check.
He and Rhonda ended up doing the dishes while Sharice packed his duffle bag. Finally with nothing left to keep them, Brian, Sharice, and Bentley left the comfortable confines of the house for the muggy morning outside. A bulky tan Honda CR-V sat in the driveway, trunk popped open and gear visible. The gear had been stacked in a little square around a large dog bed.
“Bentley’s coming with us?” Brian asked, not willing to admit it but a little relieved all the same.
“Oh yeah, I’d never think of leaving him behind!” Sharice cried, squatting down and scratching behind the dogs ears.
“I this okay though?” Brian asked.
“Very,” Rhonda answered, walking out the front door and walking down the steps to meet them. “Animals are a huge asset on testing times. They usually can feel things humans have forgotten how to feel.”
She was carrying a black case which she handed to Brian with a smile before turning to hug and kiss Sharice. Confused, Brian opened the case. It contained a thick black leather wallet, a Louisiana state I.D. made out to him, a credit card in his name, and a new cell phone.
“Woah” Brian gasped as he opened the wallet to see two hundred dollars in cash. “This is…”
“Expensive, But it’s worth it.” Rhonda said. “I need to have you look legitimate at least. If I had you wandering off with no license no cash and no phone, well you’d be conspicuous.”
“How’d you get a legit state I.D. with my picture?”
“I know someone at the DMV and I found your mug shot easy enough on the web.” She said watching him tuck all the money and essentials away in his pockets. “Now that’s all for essentials. Paying for gas and food and anything else you might need in your travels. The phone is to keep you in touch with me and Sharice. Don’t go calling Tanzania or somewhere similar.”
Not having anyone in Tanzania, or indeed anyone anywhere else in the world to contact Brian simply nodded and tucked a phone away in his jeans pocket. He could barely stutter out his thanks but he think Rhonda understood. Her look was less severe anyway. He went to the passenger seat and threw his motorcycle jacket over it. Turning he saw Rhonda squeezing Sharice to her once more, tears were spilling from her eyes onto her daughters shoulder. Sharice wasn’t crying but her eyes did look overly bright. Brian felt ashamed of his trepidation in that moment. The hesitancy he’d faced this whole situation with now suddenly seemed like base cowardice and selfishness. He wasn’t the only one with their life on the line here. He suddenly wished desperately that he had not left things on such a hostile note with his mother. He almost wished she could be here to give him and equally tearful goodbye.
He felt a cold wet nose brush his hand, and he smiled as he looked down into Bentley’s gentle soulful eyes. Brian squatted down to pet him and the wolf hound licked his face with his big tongue. After fending off the beasts wet and amorous affections, Brian had to admit, he felt a lot better. The fear was something that would return in time. But at the moment he was ready to do this, not only for himself. He would do this for his family, for any children he might someday have. He would do it because Sharice needed someone to watch her back, and being a thief, no one could spot trouble quite like he could.
Sharice finally broke away from her mother, who followed her over to the car dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. Sharice jumped into the driver’s seat and Brian took that as his cue to hop aboard.
“Now!” Sharice said Speaking through the open passenger window. “Y’all keep yourselves safe, watch each other’s backs, and above all don’t go taking no risks you don’t have to.”
“I promise, Mama” Sharice assured her.
“Just get back in one piece.”
“I love you, Mama.”
“I love you too, darling.”
And with that, Sharice revved the car into life and began to back out of the drive way. Rhonda climbed the steps and waved at them as they drove away. They rounded a corner and left the cul de sac behind. Brian made himself relax into the seat. They had a long drive ahead of them, and at the end of it something dangerous, spooky, and possibly lethal waited for them. Still, he thought as he took out his new phone and gleefully began to check the internet, he’d had much worse road trips before.
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As if compelled by some alien force, Brian felt his leg lift and beginning to carry him along the way to meet the woman on the stoop. He was sweating with nerves and heat, and the amused look the woman was giving him made him all the more nervous. All the while he walked, he wondered why he didn’t turn tail and run. He felt real, honest intimidation flow from this short motherly woman and he couldn't really place just why. He knew deep in his soul she was more than she seemed. He knew without having to ask that this was Rhonda. He suddenly knew why everyone who even knew her name, spoke it in a hushed tones.
When he was finally standing beside her, he could do nothing but look nervously away. With surprising strength she reached out a mahogany colored hand and grasped his chin, forcing his powder blue eyes to meet her deep forest green ones. She seemed to be looking for something in the icy depths of his eyes because after a moment she nodded, apparently satisfied and released his chin. She then took a moment to look him up and down. Her eyes alighted on the rip in his jeans and the blood slowly soaking the denim.
“Boy, you resemble nothing so much as cat in a thorn bush.” She said laughing warmly.
“Story of my life.” Brian managed to sigh looking away again.
“Don’t I know it, Honey.” She chuckled grabbing his wrist gently. “Now come on outta the heat and I’ll see what I can do about that leg.”
Brian had no choice but to follow into a surprisingly bright foyer. A Beautiful mosaic of a green tree growing in a green circle on a backdrop of white was picked out in white and green ceramic tile all along the left wall of the entryway. He didn’t have long to stare as Rhonda dragged him relentlessly onward, through an old white wooden door into the living room. It wasn’t exactly “witchy” in it’s decor. The hardwood floors stretched all the way through the living room and across under a white arch separating the dining room. The windows facing the front of the house were letting in some late afternoon sunlight through the translucent purple curtains draped artfully around them. There was a large purple sofa against the right wall along with a large beat up brown leather armchair, set slightly away from the wall as to allow the chair to recline. A table sat before the sofa made of a dark brown wood, decorated in excellently rendered golden scrollwork, on top of this sat a single purple and white tiger lilly in a white vase. A huge rug covered most of the floor in the living room. It was largely white with a green encircled tree in the center. At the base of the tree was a smiling mask.
This mask caught Brian’s attention. He was so fixated on it that he hardly noticed Rhonda had released his wrist and strode off into the kitchen beyond the dining room. There was something about the mask he liked yet, found unsettling. The face was ovular with tribal markings around it’s eye holes. Its mouth was split in a wide grin but the whole picture wasn't exactly inviting. It was more like someone trying hard not to start laughing while playing a particularly cruel joke on someone. It was the face of someone you knew you couldn't trust. It was a trickster’s face.
The sound of clacking broke into Brian’s thoughts, making him jump about a foot in the air. It was the unmistakable sound of claws on wood and, sure enough, less than a minute later an enormous smoky grey dog came bounding down the stairs. Without a single sniff or bark, he leapt up and placed his forepaws on Brian’s shoulders. He began licking his face with a single minded intensity. Brian didn’t mind too much. He loved dog’s, the bigger the better, and this guy just about took the cake. Removing the paws from his shoulders, he squatted down on the floor to look the dog in the eyes. Not that he needed to get that low. Standing on four paws the dog was about four feet high, and he was taller than Brian when standing on two. He looked the dog in his honey colored eyes and scratched him behind the ears. The dog’s mouth lolled open in contentment. Judging by it’s size and the shaggy smoky hair in it’s coat, Brian decided he was looking at a particularly large Irish Wolfhound. His tag hung from a brown leather collar about his neck, reading “Bentley”. Brian read this and looked again into the Bentley’s eyes. He loved those eyes, they were a translucent gold and flavored with a warm genuine kindness he had never seen in a dog before.
“You must be special.” A voice said, forcing Brian to look away from the dog. “He doesn’t usually come see strangers without me at his side.”
A young woman was standing at the base of the stairs, one fist resting on a cocked hip, and the other on the bannister. She was tall, at least six foot probably taller, and she looked so different from Rhonda. She had no make up on, not that she needed it; with full lips, large beautiful eyes, and a strong jaw, she could captivate most people’s attentions without any artificial help. Her hair was natural to, Drawn back into a bun at the back of her head, the rest of it was covered by a headband made of what seemed to be bits of braided fabric. She was wearing a light sleeveless top in a dark rich purple color that matched the sofa almost perfectly. He lower body was encased in faded jeans tucked into calf-high boots. A gold medallion belt glimmered at her waist, drawing attention to the curves in her lithe frame. The most striking thing about the girl was her resemblance to the mask on the rug. Not in aesthetics but in expression. Again he saw that look of someone trying to hide laughter at a cruel jest.
She strode forward. Again, unlike Rhonda she didn’t dance across the floor. She seemed to move like a stalking beast, all predatory grace and slow movements. She extended a hand to Brian as he stood. He took it, noting the golden bracelet in the shape of coiling snake around her wrist, as well as three separate rings on her right hand, one a wolf’s snarling face, one a triangular shape that Brian didn’t recognize which looked almost like a sailboat, and the last being an old ring with the crest of the U.S. Navy on it. Brian felt himself run his thumb along the band of the claddagh ring on his right hand, feeling somewhat under-ornamented.
“I’m Sharice” She said, her voice was deep and unabashed. “You must be Brian.”
“Uh, yeah.” He said taken aback. “Everyone here seemed to know I was coming before I did.”
“Well you were asking after me, Honey” Rhonda said coming back into the room grinding something with a mortar and pestle. “Ain’t Nothing calls down a witch’s eye faster than saying her name.”
“So you are a...?” Brian trailed off, not really wanting to sound rude.
“Of course I am.” She said slightly exasperated. “Now I know it’s been a while since you’ve seen anyone genuine, but the soul knows a witch when it sees one.”
Not really knowing what to say to that, Brian kept his mouth shut and allowed himself to be steered to the sofa. He allowed himself to be steered down onto the purple cushions while she gave the concoction in her hands one more grind and mix. It smelled disgusting to Brain, like ginkgo trees and birch sap and when Rhonda removed it from the small bowl it was in, it was a foul dark green color. He had a shrewd idea where that paste was intended to go and was tempted to head it off before she could put it on his skin. He restrained himself. If this lady was as much of a witch as she claimed to be, he wanted to see a little of what she could do. Not only that, but if she was as genuine as she seemed to be, he didn't want to risk offending her.
Rhonda sat on the edge of her table, coated her fingers in the mixture and slowly began smearing it onto Brian's abused knee. Screaming was the first action that occurred to Brian. Whatever she was rubbing on him felt like liquid flame. It made him grit his teeth and roll his eyes in an effort to contain a wail of agony. He gripped the couch with all his strength and occasionally sputtered when the pain took an especially nasty upswing. But for all his pain, he sat as still as stone. Brian was used to pain.
“I'm impressed,” Brian barely heard Rhonda say. “I've seen grown men behave like children when confronted with this mess. Burns like the dickens especially on a big ole cut like this. Most of them go to pieces; stamping their feet, screaming, hands in the air.”
She turned an amused green-eyes smile on him, almost as though she knew the effort it was taking him to keep from stamping his feet and screaming. When she was done applying whatever it was, the burning resigned itself to a dull agony, and Brain was able to devote some brain cells to speaking once more.
“Nasty stuff!” He managed to gasp out wiping sweat from his forehead with the back of a shaking hand. The two women laughed, and there was a sudden resemblance between them, Brian couldn't tell why he hadn't seen it before. When they had stopped laughing, Rhonda stood up and crossed to stand next to the young woman.
“I'm afraid everyone here knew you were coming, Brian, but let me make the formal introduction as best I can.” She stood up a little straighter with a smile on her face warm and charming as always. “My name of course is Rhonda Wright, resident witch of the bayou. But you can call me Miss Rhonda.”
She placed her hand on the shoulder of the girl standing next to her. The girl made a joking curtsey and smiled at him.
“This right here is my daughter, Sharice.” Rhonda said. Brian attempted a smile and waved weekly at her. “And of course you've met Bentley.”
The wolfhound was nudging Brian's elbow with his nose, trying to get him to pet him. Brian finally relented and the dog sat on it's haunches to enjoy his ministrations. The pain in his knee was subsiding somewhat and Brian was able to lean back and relax just a bit. He suddenly realized how exhausted he was. Sleeping in his car, the back of a bus, then on road side ditches covered in leaves and trees had not lead to any sort of particularly restful respite. This was the first time he'd had any sort of chance to sit and rest and realize how poorly he'd been sleeping. It must of showed on his face because Rhonda crossed back across the room and took her place on the edge of the table again.
“Well let's get to business, you didn't drive all this way just for pleasantries.” She had lost her warm smile and instead had adopted a fierce penetrating glare. “You want to know if I can get this curse off you.”
“Yeah,” Brian nodded. “Sorry we don't have more time, but you were a hard lady to find.”
“All part of the territory, Mon Cher. Can't have it getting too easy, else every Tom, Dick, and Harry with a stubbed toe would come a-knocking.” She leaned back, her palms spread wide on the table and kept looking at him critically. “I might be able to get this off of you, that still remains to be seen. But you need to understand that whatever I do, comes at a price.”
“I've heard that.” Brian said, smiling at her darkly. “I'm guessing you know what the curse does? I hit twenty five and I'm a dead man. I don't have any money to pay you with. But I have a feeling your not asking for that. I'll pay you whatever you want.”
“Think careful now, Cherie.” Rhonda cautioned, cocking an eyebrow. “The things I ask for aren't things most part with easily.”
“There's nothing I have I wouldn't gladly give to keep breathing past my birthday.” Brian's eyes were locked on Rhonda's, once again the light powder blue met those forest green ones.
“Well if that's the case, Darling” She said sitting forward again. “We can save the discussion of payment until after the primary consultation. Let's see if I can do anything for you at all.”
Without another word, Rhonda placed her left thumb on Brian's forehead and her right above his heart. He stood stock still not really knowing how to react. He glanced around Rhonda towards Sharice but she simple shrugged and shook her head. He could hear Rhonda whispering under her breath, her quiet mutterings sounded almost like a quick chanting song. It proceeded to increase in tempo, volume and intensity for a while. Rhonda kept repeating the same lines of the song over and over again, faster and faster each time. It was strange and musical, in a language Brian didn't know. He couldn't even tell what language it might be. As the chanting continued, Brian began to feel dizzy, his vision blurring and his head starting to spin. He was tempted to shake his head to clear it of the strange drumming that seemed to be filling it but the thumb on his forehead held him fast. The drumming went faster and faster beating louder and louder, keeping pace with Rhonda's chanting. When the drumming had reached a crescendo, Brian felt her thumbs press hard against his heart and head, pushing both away.
All at once, Brian was gone from the living room, gone from the purple couch. He was lost in swirling colored mist. He seemed to flying through it at great speed his body awkwardly held still in the same sitting position. The mist was resolving itself into something more solid, he could see it taking the forms of trees and patches of grass. Finally he sat awkwardly in midair above a field of scorched earth. Blood splattered the ground in sickening puddles around the fallen bodies of men, women and children all in clothing native to a more ancient time. Broken shields, plows, carts, chariots and all manner of wooden objects littered the ground. What seemed to be the remains of a village lay smoking and destroyed several yards away, several of the buildings still on fire. He could smell, the sickening metallic stench of blood, pervading over carnage like smoke after a firework.
A woman stood on the edge of the field in a white dress, billowing in the fierce cold wind. She screamed a terrifying scream of utter loss, despair and rage. Wordlessly she cried her fury onto the world. She fell to her knees beside a heap of corpses, touching the face of one, desperate to feel warmth in the flesh. She hung her head in deepest despair. The sound of hooves rang out from behind Brian, but he couldn't move his head to see who was approaching. The woman seemed to notice him then. She locked eyes with him, and he could see the boundless pain and fury she felt reflected in them. She stood up, ignoring the crimson stains that had soaked into her virginal dress. She whipped back her raven hair in a gesture of furious defiance. It billowed about her head as if she was underwater, seeming to be another expression of her grief and promised revenge. Eyes still on Brian's, she snatched a dagger from her belt and pointed it at him. He felt sudden fear turn to bile in his throat. She was going to stab him and he couldn't move. He didn't have any idea what was happening and he desperately struggled against whatever force was holding him.
She did not stab him. She pointed the knife at him in dire accusation. She began to scream in a language he did not recognize, though he could tell that the words were tinged with fury. Her whole posture screamed retribution, and all he wanted to do was back away from it. The same sense of primal power that exuded from Rhonda flooded the field now. It swept over him like a wave of heat, making him itch and tingle. The woman was still screaming but her words had an echoing, repetitious quality to them. They became a furious keening chant, that repeated over and over and over. Finally the woman uttered one last phrase, gave Brian a viciously hate-filled look, and dragged the dagger across her own throat. Blood poured from the gash like dark red wine. It ran in rivers down her front soaking easily into the white fabric. She stood stock still as the blood ran out of her, the hatred in her eyes fixed and unchanging. Brian had never seen someone with their throat slit before, but he was fairly certain she was staying on her feet an unnaturally long time. Finally she coughed, blood bubbling out of her mouth in another gout of red. Without a single change in expression, her eyes rolled up into her head and she crumpled to the earth.
Brian wanted nothing more than to scream, to run, to find somewhere dark and hide. He shut his eyes as hard as he could and let out one hoarse shout of fear and discomfort. A dog barked in answer. Brian's eyes flew open and to his wholehearted relief, he was back in Rhonda’s living room. He leaned back against the cushions and lifted a shaking hand to cover his face. Bentley jumped up on the couch beside him and nestled down, his big head in Brian's lap.
“That was...educational.” Rhonda said, standing and beginning to pace. “Someone in your line pissed off the exact wrong person, Cherie.”
“What was that?” Brian asked, taking the hand away from his face.
“Well it was a look into the past, I suppose you could say.” She gave grudgingly. “What's on you boy is worse than most people ever see in terms of curses, but it doesn't change the game too much.”
“Can you help me?” Brian said intensely. The pure ferocity of his gaze seemed to make Rhonda stop her pacing and consider him coolly.
“I can help you, Cherie, but it wont be easy for either of us.”
“Tell me what I have to do.” Brian was ready. He was certain now that she could help. He believed wholeheartedly that she was what she said she was and he was ready to give up anything she asked of him, in order to stay alive.
“Well, this is a blood curse. Someone had to die to lay a curse this strong on your entire male line.” She began, pacing again. “We have two methods for getting it off you. Number one, we do it all at once.”
“Whats the catch?” Brian asked, knowing there was most definitely a downside for this all too easy option.
“Well the it would probably require just as much life to break it as it did to bind it. So I would more than likely drop dead. As sweet as you are, Darlin', I am not prepared to die for you.”
“So what's the second option?”
“A blood pact,” She said as if explaining where to find peas in the grocery store. “You form one with me, and you work for me for a year. All that time and energy would build up and I could use it to fuel the spell, as opposed to my own energy.”
“Okay...” Brian said slowly, again this sounded far too easy. “Again, what's the catch?”
“Just so happens.” Sharice said, speaking for the first time in her mother's presence. “My Testing Time's drawing close.”
“My testing time.” She said, shooting him a cocky grin. “I go round fixing things that have gone screwy in the paranormal department, basically to see if I'm a witch or not.”
“So you, what? Read palms, ghost hunt, take pictures of Bigfoot?” Brian's cynicism had been battling against his common sense the whole time. It seemingly won out and the temper of the room changed with a strange rapidity. Rhonda's warm smile faded and her emerald eyes flashed. Sharice crossed her arms across her chest, cocked a hip and raised an angry eyebrow at him.
“This isn't television, Boy.” Rhonda hissed in a deep threatening voice. “There's no safe ground for her. Do you know what a wendigo is?”
Brian shook his head with a sinking feeling that he was about to find out. Rhonda lifted her skirt several inches above her ankle to display her left calf. Five thin pale lines marred the otherwise flawless dark brown skin. The scars had a painful jagged quality about them. Brian felt his stomach contract at the sight of it.
“That thing got a hold of me, during my own time. And I only got out of it alive because I had my mama's knife on me.” She dropped her skirt and locked eyes with Brian. She radiated power once more. Like waves of heat that were also chilling. Goosebumps rose on Brian's arms and the sparse hairs on them stood on end. “Make no mistakes with me, boy. There are things that go bump in the night, and half of them would kill you for nothing more than the pleasure of it.”
He was pressed so far back into the couch, he thought he might become one with the upholstery. Seeing her point was made, Rhonda strode away.
“And it's my job to hunt down the nastiest.” Sharice chuckled, cocky smile back in place.
“And you don't even know?” Brian questioned. “Wouldn't it make more sense to wait to know if your a witch before wandering the country fighting monsters.”
“That's the whole point.” Sharice piped up smiling. “I throw myself at everything dangerous for a year and if my powers don't show up after all that, I'm not a witch.”
“That's where you come in.” Rhonda said, she had a slightly evil smile on her face as she said it. Brian felt his stomach clench again, this time it did not unclench. “Going alone into the deadliest of situations is not healthy for a young girl. I want someone there to watch her back. Someone who will do her best to keep her out of trouble.”
“And you want me?!” Brian exclaimed, he was tempted to break into hysterical laughter. “My whole life has been nothing but trouble!”
“So who knows better than you how to handle trouble once it finds you.”
“You're just gonna sign some random stranger up to go around the country with her? I could be a monster for all you know, what if I hurt her or something.” At this both women looked at each other with identical looks that said only too plainly 'not in a million years' and began to laugh.
“Cherie, I would be very surprised if you could over power Sharice. She might not look it but she knows how to hurt somebody in more ways than I have teeth. And for another thing, I took the measure of your character the instant I looked in your eyes. You might be lazy and a touch sarcastic, but you'll look after my girl as best you can, for her sake as well as your own.”
“Okay then,” Brian said running out of counter arguments and running his sweating hand through his hair. “So then what's the deal.”
“You make a pact with me, for one year you travel with Sharice, you do your best to help and protect her, you keep her alive no matter what, and when that year ends I lift this curse before your twenty fifth birthday.” She was intense again, power and confidence wrapped around her like a cloak. “You wont have to worry about clothes, food, lodging; I have plenty of money set aside for that. You go where the problems are and sort them out, get her out in one piece. Do all that and your a free man come midnight on your twenty fifth year.”
“Deal.” Brian grunted, standing to face her. Rhonda held out her hand and Sharice pulled a knife from a sheath behind her back. She slapped it handle first, into her mother's hand. Rhonda drew the blade across the palm of her hand, eyes fixed on Brain the whole time. Her face never changed expression even as a red line of blood welled in her palm. She clenched a fist and handed the knife to Brian. He felt like objecting, complaining about blood-borne diseases and how unsanitary this was, but one look at the intensity in Rhonda's eye reminded him of the power she could wield. He readied the knife above his palm, breathing heavily. He screwed his eyes up and drew the edge across his own palm. He grit his teeth to fight against the yell of pain fighting to escape as a white hot line of fire traced itself through his hand. Finally done he removed the knife, ignoring the blood spilling from the wound into his palm. He blinked tears of pain out of his eyes and met Rhonda's furiously. She held out her hand palm up to him. He placed his palm down on her's. She began chanting again. This time it was short staccato phrases. She sang them out in harsh sharp shouts. Finally with a last word and a feeling like an electric shock, their hands parted.
Brian shook his hand vigorously to rid it of the stinging pain the shock had left. Looking back at his palm, he saw that the cut had healed already, the skin perfect once more. The only thing that marred it now was a deep black mark in the form of an ovular laughing mask. Rhonda wiped the sweat from her brow and sighed deeply.
“Well that's done at least.” She said her warm smile back in place. “Sharice, go set the table for dinner, I'm gonna eat like a starved dog after all that.”
“On it, Mama” Sharice said and she walked to the kitchen. Rhonda began to follow her and Brian began to follow Rhonda. However when she reached the narrow doorway that led off the dining room, Rhonda turned sharply and gave Brian an intense piercing stare. She seemed more dangerous in that instant than she had at any point earlier in the day. Brian stopped his blood running cold.
“I wasn't playing, Cherie.” She said, voice a deadly whisper. “If she dies, you die. One way or the other.”
And without another word, she strode into the kitchen, leaving Brian standing there wondering just what he had gotten into.
It was the curse, Brian knew. The iron taste of blood flooded his mouth as his lip broke on the inside of his helmet. The wild scraping of metal and plastic rang through the twilight air mingled with the screams of the children he had swerved to avoid. The impact his helmet made against the ground caused lights to dance before his eyes. He could feel the ground tearing at his torso and arms. Luckily his tough leather jacket took most of the impact with little damage. His jeans however were not as sturdy. Brian could feel the serrated knife of the ground rip through the denim like paper to rip the flesh of his knee. The metallic whine of his skidding motorcycle was like a dirge to his ears. Out of the corner of his eye he could see sparks flashing from the skidding metal.Read More