PITCHFORK RED

Posted: July 19, 2011 in sci-fi

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N.B.   The previous series: The HATHOR DIARIES – now available on Amazon in the Kindle bookshop .  August  2011.

Read reviews of HATHOR DIARIES here: Across the Pond : Review of Hathor Diaries » Troll in the Corner   trollitc.com/2012/10/review-of-hathor-diaries/

thecultden.com/1/post/2012/03/the-hathor-diaries-ren-zelen.html …

Ren Zelen interview here: The Knights: Ren Zelen  Interview kotwg.blogspot.com/2012/08/ren-zelen-interview.html

A science-fiction ‘Noir’

PITCHFORK RED

Chapter 1:  PURSUIT

His eyes feel hot and smarting, staring for hours at this dark road. No moon tonight. The way ahead is just a few yards of wide grey ribbon in the headlights. Driving fast into the blackness – too fast – headlong into unknown space, like a diver plunging into black water – in over his head. Doggedly chasing those tail-lights hovering in the distance. They are all he can see – glowing red like the eyes of a devil, like coals on a dying fire. They’re getting away from him… moving off into the distance, further and further away – now like tiny pin-pricks of glistening blood on a black sleeve…. He leans over the steering wheel and presses his foot down harder onto the accelerator – feels the jolt and elation of increased velocity. He stares back at those red eyes ahead…

His head feels thick and woozy. The stars in the moonless sky above are throbbing – spinning like tops. He blinks –  a momentary blackout. Against his eyelids he sees the starry nebulae stretch out glittering arms as they revolve – beckoning to him to join the dance – a girlish gesture. He sees them waltzing in his minds’ eye as he hurls forward into the blackness – they pirouette in their shimmering finery, their skirts of stars billowing out – rotating in silent splendour. His mind is expanding – far beyond this single strip of black road, expanding into the limitless sky above and its distant galaxies – time and silence spread out like an endlessly unfurling  blanket, muffling the sounds of the engine roar. Colours oscillate through the spectrum. He is speeding – a bullet of light through the dark – ahead he senses the red tail-lights taunting him with their vanishing point. Pronged points of red – jabbing at the darkness – like a pitchfork at his eyes.

He shakes himself awake. Was he slipping into unconsciousness – into dreams or memories… or memories of a dream? He forces himself into wakefulness, calling on his last reserves of self-discipline. He concentrates on the car ahead – he must catch up with the golden-haired driver, find out what she knows, and then he must make sure he gets to the place first – must get there before they come. Which place? So many questions. He grips the wheel tighter and steadies the cars’ position on the ever unwinding tarmac of the night-covered road. The gun is on the seat next to him, glinting grey metal – still radiating a faint heat. His ID and badge have been tossed next to it. Why did he take out his identification and badge and throw them onto the seat by the smoking gun? The symbols of his allegiance to the bureau – they should be kept on his person, surely?

A dank, metallic odour fills the interior of the car. The gun lies on the seat next to him, like a living thing, pulsating with warmth in the coldness that pervades the air. His chest feels slick and sticky. He rubs the bristles on his chin. When did he last shave? His fingers leave a tacky residue on his face. His hands feel like they are stickily adhering to the leather cover of the steering wheel. No, not sweat, he’s too numb to be perspiring, and the stars are steely cold this night. He forces himself to look away from the road and at his hands. They are covered in a viscous, black substance. His white shirt is glowing faintly in the reflection from the headlights – except where the black, slimy stuff is clinging to his chest and stomach. The metallic odour is cloying and coats the back of his throat and nostrils. He gags suddenly. Appearing black in this darkness, but its colour is red in the light. He realises that he’s covered in congealing blood. Whose blood?

He’s beginning to feel nausea and mild panic… he wipes his left hand on his trousers, keeping his right hand on the wheel – then alternates hands. The smell of the drying blood is making him sick and lightheaded… and something hurts in his head and chest. Then pain begins to loom behind him like a hulking, shapeless beast, leaning near enough to whisper – threatening to envelop him in its widening maw. The road ahead is getting darker – he can still see the red tail-lights but they are fading into blackness. The stars suddenly seem to come spinning closer, until they are almost pressing their flashing faces against the window – curious neon sparks. Vaguely aware of his mounting delirium. Then the pain lunges onto him and grasps him in a suffocating grip. His foot slides off the accelerator and the windscreen seems to slip sideways out of his line of vision as the car bumps off the road and slams into the forest of tall corn stalks in the adjoining field with a creaking and snapping shower of sound. The last thing he hears is the slapping of stems against the bodywork, before the car groans to a halt and he slips into unconsciousness.

It’s grey dawn by the time he wakes, his head throbbing like a bass guitar string. The car is stuck, nose first, in a dull-green tangle of thick corn stems. He raises himself up gingerly. The ache in his head swells to a crescendo of pain as he sits up – it begins to subside slowly. He leans over stiffly and opens the door as little a gap as the crowding corn stems allow. Dewy morning air seeps in. He leans back against the drivers’ seat, closes his eyes and lets the coolness of the breeze caress the skin of his face and neck. Perhaps he drifts off into sleep again because when he raises his head and snaps open his eyes the light outside is stronger, albeit a grim iron-grey in hue. He looks down at the gun lying in the passenger seat next to him. Cold and heavy now, inanimate and blameless – merely an implement, like a spade or a fork. Dull metal. He picks up the FBI ID wallet, squinting slightly as he examines the picture of the man inside, ‘Special Agent: Michael Tego’, he repeats to himself mentally, before flipping it shut and sliding it into the inner pocket of his black jacket. He notices that the jacket lining has also been discoloured by blood. In the bleak morning light his bloodied hands and the stain over his creased white shirt has dried to a dull, cherry-purple colour and has crusted up and adhered to the skin underneath. He grasps the stiff cloth and winces as he peels it painfully from his body. Some chest hair and flaking scab come away with it, but at least now he’s separated from the hardened, stained stuff. No question but he has to clean up – get a fresh shirt at least. He leans over to the passenger side and snaps open the glove compartment. It contains a score of brown paper envelopes. His hand hovers over them for a moment before he snatches two of them up and stuffs them into his trouser pockets, one on each side. Then he slams the compartment shut.

Time to get moving and pick up the trail again, somehow. He is feeling stronger now, and he leans against the car door at his side, giving  it a shove to open it wider – pushing the corn stalks out of the way enough to let him slide through. He has one leg out of the car before he remembers and leans back in, grasping the gun lying on the other seat and tucking it firmly into the back of his trousers under his jacket. Outside he scrambles past the corn stalks pressing against the doors to the relatively open space behind. The car has left a flattened trail of broken corn all the way back to the road. It should be easy for him to get back up there and take a look up and down the road apiece – not that he expects there would be much to see out here, in the back of beyond.

He fumbles with the lock of the trunk. His hands feel dry and gritty  and the thicker globs of dried blood flake off as he works to open the trunk and hoist it up. Inside he sees the spare can of gasoline he is looking for and jerks it out and onto the flattened pale-green stalks behind the car. Leaning in he opens a small metal first-aid chest and takes out all the gauze he can find, some iodine, and a small box of matches. The gauze and iodine he puts into his jacket pockets but holds the matches in his hand as he lifts up the gasoline can, unfastens the cap and throws it into the open trunk. It takes a few minutes to empty the whole contents of the can all over the car. He works methodically – making sure the pungent liquid goes all over the front, roof and back. He reserves a good amount to splash inside the vehicle. He throws the empty can into the trunk and takes a few steps back. The early morning breeze has died down and the smell of gasoline hangs heavy in the air. He strikes one match, then closes the box tight and pushes it into his pocket. The conflagration is almost instantaneous. Searingly hot flames run all over the car and catch on the dry corn stalks around it. Time to get away before the whole field catches fire, he tells himself. Pity about the corn, it’s been a dry summer, it will burn. Then he turns and runs stumbling up along the flattened path of crushed stalks towards the road, as the black sedan crackles and shrieks on its funeral pyre.

Once on the road he turns to look down at the burning mass and the flames licking ever further across the cornfield. The wind, what little there is, is blowing away from the road and downhill into the field,  so he can’t feel much of the heat, but the fire is growing and it’s time to be moving on, before the blaze attracts attention. He starts to walk in the direction he was heading last night. Even, measured steps – the regularity of his walking rhythm will steady his mind and he needs to consider his situation. What does he know? He knows he must find that car and its’ driver again. The azure-blue, hardtop Corvette – and the tall, blonde girl with cork-screw curls tied back from her face, wearing the tight-fitting jumpsuit - they’d turn heads anywhere they went… except… except… they were always so damn hard to track. Almost no-one admitted to seeing them. He always saw her though, and she saw him, too. He could never seem to move with his usual stealth, when those moments came.

He stops for a moment and looks up at the horizon of the road ahead. It’s still early morning by his estimate and according to his watch it’s only six forty-nine, but folks in these places get up early. The blaze is behind him now, but curls of thick black smoke are rising from the bonfire. It’s bound to be noticed soon. Some way ahead, but easy to spot in the flat landscape, he sees a tall red wooden structure – a barn perhaps? Got to clean up and get rid of these blood-stained clothes. Maybe he’ll be in luck. It’s a good fifteen minutes’ walk before he’ll get close.

As he approaches he sees it is indeed a barn, freshly painted in a vibrant red, except for its’ doors, which are a sombre green. He feels exposed and conspicuous in the open space of the sawdust covered courtyard  – a tall man emerging out of the silvery dawn, wearing a black suit and tie, and a white shirt covered in dried blood. But he can brazen it out if anyone appears unexpectedly – he has his ID and badge in his pocket – it says he is Special Agent Michael Tego of the FBI… and besides, he can feel the nozzle of the gun tucked snugly under his belt behind his back – waiting for trouble.

 

Chapter 2:  FRIENDLY ELECTRONS

 

He approaches the large, green doors of the barn but soon sees, with some dismay, that they are locked shut – the door-handles bound together, wound around with a sturdy padlock and chain. He puts his hands on his hips and sighs in exasperation, regarding the chain with resentment. It’s keeping him out – he wants to get in – that’s the plain truth. He stares at the chain, channelling his displeasure. His mind begins to sift through possibilities – he should walk a circuit around the barn and see if there might be another point of entry? But if this way is locked it’s unlikely that another has been left unsecured. Perhaps some kind of implement has been left around with which he might pick the lock? The sawdust on the ground seems to be freshly spread. Sawdust means wood has been cut or fashioned here – carpentry perhaps? As he continues his speculation, no sound is heard, except sporadic birdsong in the distance. He shifts his weight onto his other foot and gives vent to a louder sigh of annoyance. His intention was to gain entry – his intention IS to gain entry! He continues to glare at the padlock and chain that is keeping him out.

As he stares at the stubborn chain, he is suddenly overcome by the feeling that his mind is diving – like a bird of prey, down, down onto a point of focus. His minds’ eye is like the eye of the bird, swooping down into increasingly lower levels. Staring at one link of the chain – it seems as if the dull iron surface of the metal parts open, and allows him to delve deeper inside – into the very structure of the thing itself – plunging further and further through the layers of its being. Swiftly, his mind drops into the spaces between what holds the metallic architecture together – down deeper and deeper into the network of atomic structure. He sees the almost crystalline beauty of the metallic bonding – the metal ions floating in their sea of electrons. The electrons are only loosely held – they spread around and between all the metal ions – they can slip and slide, they are malleable – or can be made so. It becomes clear that any atomic vibration can be easily passed from one atom to the next. His mind is making these observations and calculations, seeing what is required – he has no notion as to how it is happening, but he is compelled to go with the flow… to go with the flow… go with the flow… go with the flow…. As this phrase repeats itself, he can sense the electrons begin to shudder, to vibrate, as if in consequence of his thought and command. They, like him, are being compelled to ‘go with the flow’, and the electrons DO begin to flow – the sea is moving forwards, flowing around and around and around the loop of the chain – faster and faster speed the friendly electrons. Beyond his concentrated vision, a quiet humming sound emerges, and grows louder. The solitary chain link begins to glow dimly from within – a hesitant blush of acquiescence – quickly blooming into the radiance of arousal. He takes his chance and grasps the other links of the chain. They remain cold and hard in the damp morning air – only his chosen one is humming and glowing in its excited state. He pulls the chain apart. The metal link his mind singled-out gives way, as if it were made of warm, orange clay – the chain separates into two hanging lengths and the single, incandescent link drops to the ground, sizzling and singeing the edges of the sawdust where it lies.

He takes a step back and looks down at the single, broken metal link, lying in the blackened sawdust. The humming has stopped and it is quiet – only the sound of the occasional, distant birdsong relieves the silence. The little loop of metal is cooling, and is again a dark grey in colour, but twisted where a glaring gap has appeared to disrupt its’ symmetry. He blinks as he inspects it, perplexed. Then he looks up at the broken chain hanging from the barn door – mystified as to how this happened. He seemed compelled into the concentrated effort taken in observing the chain and probing into its’ most fundamental structure, and somehow it was manipulated to his will. No explanation presents itself readily. He admits defeat. Feeling nauseously fatigued again he raises his hands to cover his face. His head is aching and an unnatural exhaustion is creeping into his limbs. Energy has been drained from him and he needs to sit and rest – he needs food. His closed and stinging eyes feel eased in the darkness under his hands, but the insides of his palms are rough and flaky. He pulls his hands away and looks down at them. Still covered with the dry, powdery stain of dried blood. He takes a deep breath of the cool air and steps forward to unwind the padlock and broken chain from the doors – with a push, they swing apart.

Inside there is a refreshing chill and the odour of hay and hops. The semi-darkness is comforting. He waits, but his eyes quickly become accustomed to the dimness. The barn is on two levels and seems to fulfil two functions. There is an upper storey arranged as a wide balcony about halfway up the walls and circling around the entire perimeter of the structure. It’s from here that the smell of barley and hops is emanating. The platform can be accessed by ladders on either side. The rectangle of space in the middle of the building reaches up all the way to the roof. Not a particularly efficient use of the area, he considers, but pleasingly eccentric and individual – self-designed and self-built, he would guess. It would explain all the sawdust lying around, and as he suspected, there are numerous planks of wood stacked up against the walls beneath the floor of the upper platform. Various implements of carpentry are carefully positioned around a central workbench. The proprietor of this place seems to be uncertain of his main source of income, or is perhaps in the process of changing it? He evaluates the situation as he surveys his surroundings. This is interesting, but not particularly relevant to his immediate needs.

He continues to walk further into the barn, edging around the centre where he notes the vice and buzz-saw on the workbench. Heavy work. Perhaps then there would be work-clothes? He senses there is something in the far corner of the barn, obscured in shadow. He knows what is there before he turns to look at it, but nevertheless feels the tingle of recognition and relief. Confidently, he strides over to the dark corner. There it is, as he’d anticipated – a single tap, positioned above a large, deep, rectangular stainless-steel basin. There is a shelf above it at chest level – that should do. He looks around and spies a discarded circular saw-blade. A number of its teeth have been broken or have split off and it is dusty with sawdust but it will serve his purpose. He lifts it up and balances it on the shelf over the basin. It will do as a mirror. As he is positioning the spiky, shining blade at a suitable angle he tries to avoid looking at the image of the man reflecting in it. Not yet time to do that – nor yet the inclination. Casting his glance around in the gloom, he sees that on a nearby post holding up the platform of the upper storey, is a hook. On it hangs a shirt. He moves over to it, takes it down and examines it. It’s a plain, dark-denim shirt – dusty with sawdust but that will come off clean with beating against the post and some vigorous shaking. It’s certainly won’t be as arresting of anyone’s attention as a white shirt covered in dried blood.  He removes his jacket carefully and hangs it on the hook sticking out of the post. Feeling in its pockets he pulls out the rolled up gauze and iodine he took from the first-aid box in the sedan, and places them carefully on the shelf above the basin next to the saw-blade mirror. He takes off his tie. The end of it is stiffened with the blood that had soaked through the cloth. He throws it on the floor. In the small of his back he feels the weight of the gun – the nozzle up tight against his spine, tucked into the belt of his trousers. Without looking he pulls it out and slides it into his pocket against the bulging brown envelope he removed from the glove-box. Then he starts undoing the buttons of his filthy shirt. It takes some effort to work them free as the blood has glued them rigid inside the buttonholes. At last he strips it off with some irritation, takes it over to the shelf and uses the part that is still white to rub the dust off his makeshift mirror, before he throws it onto the floor. It’s time to make an examination. Moving back to the mirror-blade, he takes his first good look at what is reflected back.

In the slightly warped, but still reflective metal, he sees the head and shoulders of a tall, very pale-skinned man. Broadly built yet rather slender, and with finely defined bone-structure in a narrow, serious face. There is a mop of dishevelled, curled, soot-black hair, which seems to be stuck down flat on one side. He reaches up long, white fingers and touches the place cautiously. As he thought – more congealed blood. Yet as he explores the area warily, he feels no wound, though it is very tender under his touch, like a fresh bruise. There are dried rivulets of dirty blood all along his face on the right side, under the hair and down his cheek. Turning on the tap he reaches out and takes a handful of the gauze and runs it under the water until it is almost soaked. Then, working from left to right, he glides it across his blood-stained chest – across then back, across then back – working steadily. The gauze is immediately reddened in the process, but the cleaned area reveals no wound under the caked-on blood. There is, however, an angry-looking circular welt, spreading out into a surrounding bruise in several vivid colours. His head cocks to one side and then the other as he considers the injury and tries to identify what kind of weapon could have made that shape of welt and bruise on his body. He can’t remember how he got it.

He tosses the soiled gauze on top of the shirt and tie and takes another handful of the porous cloth. He repeats the wetting process and this time goes to work on cleaning his face. As he leans closer to the mirror to wipe off the streaks of blood thoroughly, he catches a better look at the face of the man reflected there. Pausing for a moment, he focuses directly onto the eyes. Certainly they are familiar, palest-blue in colour, yet, something in the gaze? He moves closer to the makeshift-mirror. Even here in the shadows, he can see a silvery sheen glistening under the pale-blue of the iris. When he moves back, it becomes less noticeable – one might even think one imagined it, but close-up it has the lustre of liquid mercury. In bland daylight it would simply give the impression of a somewhat piercing and perceptive gaze – those light-blue eyes in that pale, drawn face, contrasting with the severity of the black lashes, brows and hair. He considers for a moment – that’s not important right now – and he recommences his wash by placing his whole head under the tap and rinsing the blood out of his matted hair.

He flicks his head back and smooths the uncouth curls back slickly against the sides of his head, wishing he had a comb – his hands will have to do the job for now. He regards his reflection –  good – looks neater. Next he takes down the iodine bottle and rubs a little of the brown liquid into the welt on his chest, although his skin appears unbroken. Waiting until he is sure it has dried, he snatches up the denim shirt. It’s a reasonably good fit – for a smaller man undoubtedly, but not as slender as he, and it buttons up naturally. He tucks it into his trousers and using a relatively clean corner of the gauze he rubs at the small splashes of blood on his belt and upper trousers and taking down his jacket from the hook, he rinses the lining of the blood-stained corner under the tap until the water runs clear. Once that job is done he hangs the jacket up on the hook and bends to pick up the pile of dirty clothes and soiled gauze off the floor and dumps them into the steel basin. A few full handfuls of sawdust goes on top of them. It’s time for another bonfire. He takes the little box out of his pocket, and tosses lit matches onto the heap of clothes and sawdust until they catch fire. When there is nothing left but ashes, he’ll simply flush them away down the drain. His fatigue is making his bones ache now and he allows himself to sink to the floor into a sitting position, his back propped against the wooden post.

He sits for some time, recalling snatches of images, unravelling threads of information. What the threads and snippets mean, and what pertains to him or to someone else is still muddled and unclear, but he feels perfectly calm. He will start to remember, soon enough, he feels confident of that. He is already beginning to remember that it all began when he and his partner, Dan?…Yes, Dan Freeman, were called out to a small hick town in the mid-west called ‘Severance Falls’  where a woman had gone missing. A woman, as it turned out, that others were also anxious to find.

Chapter 3:  SEVERANCE FALLS

One week before

Soft October sunshine broke through the sombre clouds and glinted golden gleams off the mirrored glass of the downtown city skyscrapers, as Michael Tego drove in to work that brisk morning, almost a week before. The traffic moved fluidly and he found himself at the office early. Assistant Director Stolz was already sitting at his desk and beckoned to him through the open blinds of his glass-fronted office. “Yeah, yeah, Morning Tego,” he muttered brusquely, “Got a case I want you and Freeman to look into.” Michael noted the element of tension in Stolz’s voice – something about this case was evidently irksome to him.  At that moment his partner, Dan Freeman, bustled in through the door, and greeted them breezily – “Morning Michael. Morning Sir! Got your message to come right in.” Dan had also arrived early, and was clearly in a good mood. He’d had a night of satisfying sex with his pretty wife, a cheerful breakfast where they’d laughed and teased each other, the traffic had been clear and the sun had finally burst through the clouds, as if to consolidate his feeling of well-being. Assistant Director Stolz however, was not having a good morning, and only grunted a reply as he continued to rummage over his desk. Michael nodded cheerily at Dan, but regarded him incisively.

There had been a few raised eyebrows in the office when Michael Tego and Dan Freeman had first been paired as partners. Temperamentally, the two men could not have seemed more different. Dan Freeman was a native of Illinois. He had the fair hair and complexion of his Irish father, and the easy-going and relaxed nature of his Italian mother. Eighteen months ago, he had married a plump and pretty social worker called Maggie Delin, about the time his previous partner had been relegated to a desk job in another city, due to an indiscretion.  Michael Tego had been transferred from the Washington department of the FBI fourteen months ago, with a flattering reference from his superior. He had taken an apartment in a remote suburb along the further reaches of Lake Michigan, and was ostensibly a loner.  Yet, despite predictions of personality clashes, the men worked well together. Due to his amiable nature, his colleagues underestimated Dan’s perceptive judgement of character. He had quickly appreciated Michael’s ability to assess situations and process data, and was gratified when Michael also acknowledged his strengths and sensed when it was right to take a step back and let Dan use his people-skills to charm and lull nervous or difficult witnesses.  Also, despite a tendency to keep to himself, it became increasingly evident, that there was something about Michael Tego that inspired trust and confidence – he emanated an aura of calm. No-one could quite put their finger on it, but when in his company, one felt that the situation was under control, or soon would be. Perhaps it was the eyes? Palest-blue, almost grey. Perhaps it was the way he looked at people? Penetrating, yet strangely disarming. Something about his gaze felt a little mesmerizing, like looking into a hypnotist’s silver bauble – one felt a little… distracted, and found oneself talking about matters one had never even meant to touch upon.

Motes of dust circled in the narrow beams of early sunlight that slanted through the slatted blinds of the Assistant Director’s office, as the two men waited silently in front of the desk. Stolz had continued to shuffle papers, eventually pulling out a brown-covered file marked ‘Confidential’. Sighing and smoothing down his neatly cut, grey hair, he leaned back in his chair, absently fingering his expensive tie with his free hand before he looked up at them,  “It’s a missing person case in a small town out in the sticks called ‘Severance Falls’.  A woman, mid-thirties, ran a little antique shop there. She disappeared five or six days ago.” Stolz had been trying to look casual, Michael observed, but the way he’d slapped the file on the desk at the end of each sentence gave away his tension.

Michael and Dan exchanged perplexed glances – and Dan burst out, “What? Come on! Really? A lady shopkeeper in a two-bit town disappears and the FBI come crashing in? This is a job for the local cops! We’ve got four relevant cases on our desks that… ” but Stolz interrupted before Dan could continue. He leaned across his desk, holding the file like a cleaver, “This case is a priority! Information is on a ‘need to know’ basis only. You’ll get your instructions, you’ll go to the damn town, you’ll find out where she’s at AND you’ll keep your mouth shut! We’ve been told to use discretion. Is that clear?! Understand?!” Dan opened his mouth as if to respond but Michael was there first, “Yes. Understood, Sir,” he said in a quiet, even tone, diffusing the mounting anger between the two men. He had been watching Stolz closely, as if assessing his body-language. After a few moments of meeting Michael’s calm gaze Stolz seemed placated. He leaned back in his chair and began again, “The thing is, this woman is under the protection of… certain government bodies, shall we say?  They would very much like to know where she is and maybe have a little talk with her,” Michael nodded reassuringly at the Assistant Director, “I see, Sir.” The director blinked up at Michael for a moment or two, then continued, “It seems, that those ‘higher-up’ aren’t quite ready to let us in on exactly who is looking for her, or what information she’s got… Maybe she knows something they’d rather she kept to herself, who knows?”! Stolz coughed and straightened his tie again, Michael was watching him closely, “Anyhow, it appears that she’s gone and run off – At least, that’s the best case scenario…” his voice trailed away.  Michael spoke up, “And the worst case scenario, Sir, is that she might be dead?” he asked, but without conviction. “No, Agent Tego, worst case scenario is that she’s been taken away by other parties who might use the information she has for their own advantage – or so I have been led to believe,” he broke off in some irritation. Michael concluded that Stolz didn’t like being kept out of the loop, it offended his sense of his own self-importance. He regarded him for a few seconds longer, then asked quietly, “And her name?… Sir..”

Dan watched the interaction between Michael and their superior with some amusement. How did Michael manage to say the word ‘Sir’ and still make it sound as if he was actually the one in charge?  He’d seen Michael do this number on people before. It was a good trick. He didn’t actually DO anything – just looked at them and waited until they spilled. He always seemed to know when someone was holding out on them, and whether the information was worth their wheedling out. Dan knew he was useful at ‘preparing the way’- at putting their subjects at ease, distracting them, or making them jumpy with a few veiled threats, but he had seen how it was under Michael’s silent scrutiny that the words would come spilling out.

Stolz was about ready to offer some more now – he was holding the file out to Michael, “Here’s all the information they’ve consented to give us,” his sense of wounded pride was evident in his tone as he handed the papers over. “We’ll use what we have as best we can, Sir,” Michael assured Stolz and skimmed the first pages “Starting with the woman’s name…. Unusual,” he commented dryly and read out the words, “Lilith Turpis” – and the corner of his mouth flickered the slightest downturn, then the movement was gone.

After Stolz dismissed them, Dan had rushed home and thrown some clothes and toiletries into a suitcase. It would be at least two day’s journey to the remote little town. He called his wife at work and explained he’d be away for a few days, and was gratified at hearing the disappointment in her voice. Three hours later he found himself speeding out of the city in a black sedan driven by Michael. He peered out of the car window as the city suburbs dwindled and were gradually replaced by the rural farmlands and grasslands as they headed further out west.

The road stretched out far ahead, straight as an arrow thrusting into the horizon. The sky seemed to grow enormous, doming over the flat green and yellow fields – a glassy blue expanse. A few picture-book clouds drifted across it lazily. Dan looked at it in awe, and suddenly felt very small. “Man…” he sighed, “What a sky!” Michael glanced away from the empty road and upwards through the windscreen. “When the landscape is this flat it’s possible to see the curvature of the earth,” he’d said, “Look. Can you see it?“ he’d glanced at Dan. “Hey, yeah! Will ‘ya look at that?” Dan noticed the slight yet unmistakable curve at the far ends of the horizon. Before he knew it, he was chatting to Michael, and the hours of the journey passed as he told stories about his childhood, his parents, his wife and her work. Michael spoke little, except for the occasional comment or question to encourage Dan in his conversational flow, skilfully avoiding all but the most general references to his own life and experiences. During a pause in the talk Dan realized how little he still knew about Michael, except that he’d transferred from Washington and had once lived in California, presumably as a youngster, as he could only be in his mid-thirties now, but before he could ask a question Michael distracted him with an anecdote about one of his superiors in the Washington branch, as if offering it as a substitution.

The wide sky had begun to turn a deep, rosy pink as they turned into the dusty car-park in front of the Sagebrush Inn on the outskirts of one of the many small towns they’d passed through. It seemed better maintained than some of the other places they’d driven by. They pulled up close to the motel office and climbed out of the car stiffly, Dan breaking into an awkward hopping dance around the back of the vehicle, “Damn foot’s gone to sleep,” he stammered and limped, stumbling towards Michael, “Gratifying to see we are maintaining the dignity and gravitas of the FBI out here too,” said Michael, regarding Dan sardonically. Dan smiled sheepishly, “The FBI gimp Squad is on the case!” he declared. Michael smiled and shook his head at Dan’s tingling foot, “Ohhh..” Dan muttered, “All better now…”

They strolled across to office, their long black coats flapping in the cool evening wind rising over the plains. Their monochromatic clothes looked as out of place amongst the bright attire of the passing tourists and cheap, shiny suits of the travelling salesmen, as two black bats at a summer picnic. The two men were unconcerned by their incongruity. Sometimes being identifiably FBI was advantageous. It engendered a sense of self-consciousness or undefinable guilt amongst the populace. Those people who were determined to act naturally were the ones they usually investigated first.

The proprietor of the motel, a fat, bearded man in a faded Harley Davidson tee-shirt, eyed them narrowly, then decided that his best option was jovial helpfulness. He took their details in the register and allocated them adjacent rooms. “Say,” he interjected suddenly, “Is that your name?” he looked up at Dan, jabbing his finger at the place where the name was written. Dan looked resigned, it was a question he’d answered a hundred times before, “Yes, that’s me. My Mom was an educated Italian lady and named me ‘Dante’- you got a problem with that?” he challenged the smirking redneck behind the counter. “No, no buddy, just checking I had it right, that’s all!” the Harley guy nodded at him and hurriedly changed the subject by recommending a diner a little way along the road, “You guys look about ready for some dinner. That’s the best place around here!” he smiled at them broadly.

“What?” Dan said irritably once they were outside, in response to Michael’s silence. Michael turned to him with a neutral look, “Dante Freeman is a good name – a man freed from the nine circles of hell? How could that be a bad thing? Your Mom knew a thing or two, I think,” he smiled, then turned and walked away along the dusty sidewalk, his black coat swinging.

The lamps of the restaurant were just coming on and glowed welcomingly in the gathering dusk. They were greeted by a neat, matronly lady. ‘Alma’ was written in fancy typeface on her nametag. “Now, there’s a good sign,” Michael whispered to Dan, “It means ‘nourishing’ in Latin,” Dan winked back at him. Alma seated them at a shiny, red-topped table and, living up to her name, served them a hearty dinner of succulent fried chicken and greens, followed by a generous slice of blueberry pie and cream, accompanied by two steaming mugs of milky decaf – for sure, the produce in these rural towns was good.  She waved them goodbye from the doorway as if they’d been regular patrons, once they’d paid the bill – leaving a generous tip. Feeling contentedly sated, they walked at a leisurely pace back along the road towards the distant twinkling lights of the motel.

The surrounding fields were now inky-blue and rustling gently. A soft breeze stirred the dusty earth. The stars were dazzlingly white against the velvet blackness and outshone the small slice of chalky moon. Then, one of the twinkling beacons appeared to slip down suddenly, like a child on a slide, and the two men stopped on the road and stared up into the huge sky. “See that shooting star?” Dan whispered reverently, as if in a church. Michael looked in the fallen star’s direction, then immediately above their heads. “Meteor-shower coming now,” he announced.  Barely a second had passed when the black sky was unexpectedly filled with streaks of silver falling around them, like a twisting curtain of foil ribbons, “Wow! Hey! Wow!” Dan whooped and spun around so as to get the whole effect of the light show. “The Draconid meteors,” Michael stated, “Their radiant point coincides with the constellation Draco the Dragon in the northern sky. Seems that this year ‘the dragon has awakened’! At this rate, fiery Draco will spew forth a thousand meteors an hour.” Dan found Michael’s language oddly archaic at times, but he was as excited by the display in the heavens as a child seeing fireworks on his birthday. He turned to look at Michael’s upturned face, illuminated by the myriad of tumbling lights. Michael wore a worried expression, “‘Hurld headlong flaming from th’ Ethereal Skie’” he whispered absently. Dan could not be sure he had heard his words correctly, “Yes! Looks like thousands of them!” Dan exclaimed, but Michael seemed deep in thought – staring up at the mid-point of the heavens directly above him, “So many? Must be close…” he muttered, “What? What’s close?” Dan asked. Michael turned and looked at him. Even in the darkness, his eyes seemed to harbour a silvery sheen – it must be the reflection from the falling stars, Dan assumed. Michael answered, his eyes shining. “I meant…” he paused for a moment, “Winter is close, already,” “I guess so..’ Dan agreed, unsurely. The stars fell all around them.

 The car-park of the Sagebrush Inn was filled with residents who stood open-mouthed, watching the waning star-shower in the skies as if it were New Year’s Eve. The two men picked their way through them almost unnoticed. The proprietor was outside with the other spectators, so they helped themselves to their room keys, which were hanging on hooks behind the fake-wood desk.  “Want a beer? We could get one and stand out here for a while?” Dan asked Michael, “That sounds tempting, but I think I’ll take another look at that file and turn in,” Michael smiled, and continued to thread his way through the crowd towards his room. “We’d better get an early start tomorrow, if we’re going to get to Severance Falls before dark,” he added. “Yep, sure thing. Wake me when you get up,” Dan said through a stifled yawn. Michael gave him a sidelong look, “You’re tired…” he said – it sounded more like a statement than a question. “No, no…well…just a little, maybe,” Dan had indeed begun to feel drowsy, so much so that after he closed the door on his room he abandoned his plans to raid the mini-bar and began to peel off his clothes carelessly. A shower and bed suddenly seemed like the most appealing course of action.

The congregation of observers had dissipated once the astral lightshow had petered out and the car-park was soon deserted. The sky resumed its quiet rotation. Nothing moved now except some dry leaves blown about by the wind in the hushed hours before dawn. Dan had long been sound asleep in his bed, half-waking once to stretch out a hand sleepily, only to find the absence of his wife. Next door,the light in Michael’s room burned on until sunrise.

Chapter 4:  CONCEALED IN PLAIN VIEW

 

Dan started up in his bed when the staccato rapping hammered on his door. He’d been sleeping heavily and had been torn from a vivid and disturbing dream – his wife, Maggie, had been crying bitterly, kneeling next to a shrouded shape. She’d been wearing a veil of roughly woven cloth draped over the crown of her head, covering her long hair, and she had buried her face in a loose corner of it to muffle her weeping. He could still hear the fading sound of her sobs. Sharp knocking on his door tore into the image once again and Michael’s voice came from the other side. “Everything okay with you Dan? You’re awake now, yes?” Dan shivered, rubbing at his eyes and attempted to get his bearings – a bland motel room, the blinds down, his bed dishevelled…”Yeah…Yeah!” he answered, calling out, “Yeah, sorry Michael, just woken up! I’ll come round in a moment – just give me a minute…”  “I’ll walk over the diner and meet you there – I’ll order you some breakfast, alright?” Michael called back through the closed door,  “Sure, sure buddy – that would be great,” Dan replied, ”I need some coffee! Not decaf!”  Michael’s steady footsteps moved away and faded off into the distance. What was the time anyway? Dan grabbed his watch off the bedside table. Nearly eight a.m.? Not the early start they’d planned. He’d better get himself dressed and down to that diner pronto.

 Alma the waitress jumped in surprise as Dan burst in through the diner doors fifteen minutes later. A few customers looked up from their plates at the counter – there were some tourists from the motel and a few hicks who hadn’t bothered to remove their baseball caps, even while they ate. Michael was sitting in the same booth by the window where they had had their dinner the night before and had observed Dan’s entrance. He wore a sombre expression. He took another sip from a steaming coffee mug and nodded towards the seat opposite, where a similar steaming mug had been placed, waiting. Dan slid into the seat, his long coat trailing along the bench. “Sorry, I went out like a light last night,” he glanced at Michael apologetically as he took a long swig from his coffee, “Must have been the good supper and the excitement of that nocturnal lightshow!” he smiled. Michael nodded, “Eggs and ham and pancakes coming, courtesy of Alma. Once we’ve finished we’d better get on our way,” he said, “We need to get to Severance Falls before dark and check out Lil….” he quickly corrected himself, “…Check out the missing woman’s shop and residence.” Alma appeared with two plates piled with scrambled eggs and ham and a further plate of pancakes. They proffered their thanks as she bustled around, refilling their coffee mugs. Dan scooped up forkfuls of eggs and looked up at Michael, “What was the missing woman’s name? Lily… something?” he asked. Michael raised  a forkful of ham and said nothing, gazing out of the diner window at the road up ahead, but an almost imperceptible tightening  flickered over his lips once again.

 It was another day’s journey before they reached the small town of Severance Falls. The low-lying green and amber patchwork of fields rolled past with monotonous regularity. The great arch of sky above shimmered with a chilly, translucent blue. Dan wondered if its glistening quality had something to do with the previous night’s meteor shower – as if the falling stars had left some kind of glittering residue in their wake. As the day wore on and they came nearer the outlying district of their destination, the landscape began to change. The horizon remained flat, but the fields became wilder and less cultivated and had an unkempt and neglected look. Invading weeds of dull green tangled themselves amongst the sparse crops and the intermittent colours of meadow flowers along the verges gave way to a thorny, dry looking shrubs. Even the light seemed to become heavy and glowering. The air took on a heady stillness. Dan glanced over at Michael nervously, “D’y’think there may be a thunderstorm brewing, or somethin’?” he asked, “The weather’s got real oppressive.” Michael continued to stare at the road ahead, flinty faced. Dan shifted uncomfortably in his seat, it was October for heaven’s sake, not the season for these kinds of weather conditions. The increasing dismalness of the countryside made him uneasy and he found that he couldn’t shake off the feeling of impending menace. He flinched when Michael spoke, “Take it easy Dan,” Michael said – his voice sounded placid and steady, though his face remained set, “There seems to be a ‘microclimate’ phenomenon here – meteorologically speaking.” Dan nodded eagerly – that must be the case. Michael’s tone was easy and soothing, and generated a sense of security – yes, they were safe, quite safe, here in the car. Then Dan turned and looked sharply again at Michael. How did he do that? How did he create a…a blanket of words that somehow dampened down feelings and reactions? Something in his voice? His manner? Dan wrestled with the question, and stared intently at Michael, as if that would reveal an answer. As he did so, Michael slowly smiled, although his eyes never left the road, “Don’t let it worry you Dan,” he said quietly, “Just go with the flow…go with the flow…”

They drove into Severance Falls in the late afternoon. Michael slowed the car as they passed along the main street of the town so they could observe and assess their surroundings. The shops and cafes were old-fashioned, and had a weary, baleful look to them. Most of them had seen better days. Their peeling, glossy black frontages seemed to emit a hard-edged watchfulness, rather like the residents, some of whom stopped and stared at the black sedan crawling along the street. They were still watching as the two men pulled up in a parking space outside the town police station at the far end of Main Street. Michael and Dan got out of the car and the slamming of the doors reverberated amongst the buildings and side-streets, so quiet was the afternoon. Not a single car followed down the street behind them and more of the residents were coming out of the shops and bars to take a look at the strange arrivals. Dan and Michael stood for a moment and looked around, before ascending the steps into the building.

 The police station was small, but brightly lit. A young, clean-cut officer behind the front desk looked up at them as they walked through the swinging doors. He was wide-eyed, “Hey, you’re the Feds, right?” he asked unceremoniously, then, after they flicked open their wallets, displaying their badges and IDs, he coughed, hiding his consternation, and added, “Sheriff Porter’s in his office – Y’all had better come on through.” He regarded them with a slightly questioning expression, but lifted up a section of the front desk which afforded them entry into the area behind. He placed the section down again carefully and turned to lead them to the door. “What’s your name officer”, Dan asked, “Why, I’m Officer Randall – Abe Randall?” he answered emphatically, “Let me take you through to the Sheriff,” Randall edged past them and knocked on a door at the back of the room, almost hidden behind tall filing cabinets. A grunt from inside announced permission for entry. When they came into the room Sheriff Porter stood up from his desk, making his way around, hand outstretched, “Hello there gentlemen,” he said pleasantly. He was stocky man with wayward greying hair and a careworn, lined face. He looked harassed and tired – old before his time, “Pull up a couple of chairs,” he indicated. Dan had found their lack of formality refreshing but Michael noticed how the Sheriff paused and, with a furrowed brow, made a careful study of their FBI identification and badges. He handed them back with a nod, “Thank you Agents Tego and Freeman, and now perhaps you’d like a cup of coffee and we can settle down to business?” he nodded to Randall who muttered his excuses and exited hurriedly. Sheriff Porter resumed his seat behind his desk and waited for the two agents to make themselves comfortable on the creaking wooden chairs in front. Michael glanced at Dan – this was his cue – Dan launched into the conversation, “Thanks for your time Sheriff. Why don’t you begin by telling us all you’ve found out about the situation so far…” Sheriff Porter looked troubled, “Well, not much has come to light since I last spoke to you fellows,“ he smiled at them apologetically, “S’cuse me?” Dan sat up in his chair, “Since you LAST spoke to us? What do you mean?” the Sheriff blinked at him, “”When we last talked..” he repeated. Dan snorted slightly in impatience, “Sorry Sheriff Porter, but I do believe this is the first time we’ve met!” and he threw a perplexed glance at Michael. Michael returned Dan’s look, then leaned back in his chair and shifted his gaze back to the Sheriff – he gave a deep sigh of resignation, this was going to be a long night. “But, well now,” the Sheriff laughed nervously, “You boys were here just two days ago!” Dan leaned forward in his chair and fixed his gaze on the man, Michael did not move. Dan spoke slowly and clearly “No Sir, we’ve just arrived today – we were only given this assignment the day before yesterday.” Sheriff Porter looked confounded, and began to look over his desk in confusion. Suddenly he called out “Randall! Randall! Can ya’ come in here please?” The door opened almost immediately and Randall sidled in carrying two coffee mugs, “Here you go, Sirs..” he grinned at them. “Thanks Randall, but tell me now, weren’t these two agents here just two days ago?” Randall put the coffee mugs down on the Sheriff’s desk and studied the two men before him, “Well, y’see Sheriff, when I first saw ‘em I’d have said ‘yes’ but, y’know, it’s the darndest thing..” Randall paused to scratch his head, “Now I look at ‘em again, I can’t rightly remember them, at least…. not so as I could be exact about it….” Dan shot up out of his chair in exasperation, “Now what the devil is going on here!” he snapped. “What the hell are you saying?!” Michael looked up and smiled ruefully at the outburst, but remained seated. “First you say we were here two days ago – then you don’t know if we were – What in blazes are you talking about!” Dan was close to losing his temper. The Sheriff stood up also and replied to Dan using placating gestures, “Now, just steady on there son – we’re just as confused as you are,” he began, raking his fingers through his unruly grey hair, “Let me just take another look at you…” Dan spun around to look at Michael and raised his hands in amazement, “Do you believe this?” then turning to the Sheriff, ”I’ll say it again – we’ve just arrived – if someone was here two days ago, it wasn’t us!” The Sheriff sat down again heavily and shrugged at Randall, “You know boy, it’s just the same for me. The more I try and remember what those fellows looked like, the more I get…befuddled…Now, wasn’t one of them a red-head?” Dan put his hands on his hips and started to laugh, “You folks are faking us out, right? This is some kind of joke on the new guys in town, yeah?” Dan’s face darkened suddenly, “That’s really not a good idea! Don’t you know that agents of the FBI are trained to have no sense of humour…” There was silence and the four men exchanged uneasy glances.

Suddenly Michael raised himself out of his chair. He walked slowly to the desk and leaned over it, putting his face close to the Sheriff’s – gazing at him intently. The Sheriff jerked back slightly in alarm, but then, as Michael began to speak, he became slack – staring, round-eyed – like a rabbit caught in headlights, “Now Sheriff Porter, just relax. I want you to think back and try to remember,” Michael’s voice was low and sonorous, “Just take it easy, but think – these men that came before, what did they look like? Were they tall or short, were they fair or dark?” the Sheriff had nodded slowly, seemingly arrested by Michael’s gaze, “Well…I’m thinking they were tall…” he stared at Michael, “Yes, tall and dark and pasty kinda fellas…There sure was something about them though…something – kinda like you…” the Sheriff answered dreamily. Michael straightened up abruptly, breaking the spell. The Sheriff sat up and sniffed, “But you say you just arrived, and I guess you got no reason to lie about that,” he said weakly. “Sure is strange though,” Randall interjected, “There were two guys like you here two days ago, going around, checking everyone out – asking people questions about…” Michael directed his attention at the young man, “About what?” he demanded, Randall swallowed, Michael’s eyes had turned on him – shining a luminous grey, “About the lady that’s gone missing – ‘bout Miss Turpis who owned that ol’ curiosity shop, yeah, ‘bout her.” “Did you ask to see their IDs?” Dan broke in sharply, “They showed us some ID,” the young man nodded, “And a badge!” the Sheriff added emphatically, “You saw this when these men arrived at the station?” Dan snapped. The Sheriff and Randall exchanged a confused glance – the older man continued hesitantly, “They didn’t rightly come into the station – they went straight to Lily Turpis’s shop, we saw them there.” The room was quiet for a moment as the two agents regarded each other and assessed the next move. Michael then gave a sharp nod to Dan as if in assent. Dan turned to the Sheriff, “Take us to the Turpis shop – take us there right now!” he insisted.

The shop was quite neat, considering almost all the space had been taken up by curious tables, chairs, china, lamps and mirrors. Dan noticed a hat-stand in the corner and he couldn’t help wondering if Maggie would like one of the pretty felt hats displayed there. He was drawn to them, taking one down and examining it more closely. Hats from the twenties, he estimated, ‘cloche’ hats he thought they were called? “So you met the men here?” Michael’s questioning voice had brought Dan back to the business at hand.

The Sheriff and Randall had accompanied them to the shop – it had been within walking distance of the police station. The townspeople had returned to the interiors of the buildings, but the twitching curtains of upper windows and inquisitive glances from inmates of shops and cafes were not lost on the agents as they made their way along the street. The Antique shop frontage had been recently painted, but in the same glossy black as all the others along the street, as if determined to blend in. The electric lights inside shone rather dim, bathing every surface in a dull golden glow. “Well, Agent Tego,” the Sheriff seemed keen to answer their questions now, “The men didn’t come to us, but we saw ‘em arrive here and we came over – just to check things out, you know,” “Quite right you should,” Dan affirmed, putting the hat he’d been examining back on the stand, with some reluctance, “This area is designated as part of an on-going investigation – your investigation, Sheriff Porter,” the man straightened up, “That’s what we thought” he said, gathering some dignity, ”But when we came to check things out.. “Oh, we were real polite like,” Randall interrupted, “Yeah,” the Sheriff agreed,” We were friendly like, but those fellows didn’t say much. Just showed us some ID and asked questions about the missing woman – what did we know about her, who was she pals with – that kinda thing,” “Right, about that ID you saw…” Dan continued and glanced over at Michael, who had moved over to the shop window and seemed to be distracted by something he’d seen outside. “About that ID,” he began again, “You sure it was FBI?” Randall and Sheriff Porter exchanged a worried look, “Ye-es..” the Sheriff said, then more firmly, “Yes, course it was, else we’d never have given them the run of the place!” Randall nodded enthusiastically. Dan sighed, he did not feel convinced or confident in the capabilities of the police here in Severance Falls – they seemed to be so vague about everything. “Don’t be so quick to judge, Dan,“ Michael  said quietly, but continued his vigil at the window, “It may not be their fault,” he added – Dan thought it a strange statement and decided to ask Michael exactly what he’d meant by it later. “You made a report, right, you did the paperwork?” he asked the two policemen, “Sure did!” Randall answered immediately, “We’d like to take a look at that if you’d get it ready for us,” he requested, trying not to let his tone of exasperation be too evident. “If you don’t need me here, I’ll get onto that right away, back at the station,” Randall asked diffidently, “Sure, with Sheriff Porter’s permission,” Dan had been polite, but the Sheriff was under no illusion as to whose case it was now – it belonged to the Feds – they were in charge. Randall was duly dismissed to the station. He nodded at Michael on his way out but Michael barely noticed him. He was still standing at the window, staring out. Dan had begun to wonder what was so interesting out there. “Listen Sheriff,” Dan turned to the older man, “Do you know where Ms. Turpis kept a record of recent transactions and correspondence to do with the business, or any personal papers – a computer, a blackberry or something?” The Sheriff chuckled, “No, no don’t think she had anything like that, Agent. Maybe a leger or two, some files – think she kept everything on paper,” ‘Oh that’s just great’ Dan thought, ‘Piles of papers to wade through..’ “Do you think you might be able to dig some of those ledgers out? You know where she kept them?” he asked the Sheriff, “Sure do – we looked all around this place once we realised the lady was missing,” the Sheriff was sounding more confident now – he was on solid ground again – had something material to do. He pulled up his belt and addressed Dan, “I’ll go and find those leger books for you fellas then, shall I?” “Much obliged, Sheriff,” Dan dismissed him – he was anxious to get over to Michael to find out what was outside that had been taking up all his attention.

 Once the Sheriff disappeared into the little room at the back of the shop which served as the office, Dan moved across to Michael at the window and looked out to where he was gazing. The twilight was drawing in but the streetlights had not yet come on. There was still light enough to see that the street was perfectly empty. He turned back to look at Michael – there he was, observing something intently, brow furrowed – but what? Dan looked out again at the quiet street – he could see nothing. “What in heaven’s name are you looking at?!” he challenged him, “You’ve been looking at something out there for the past five minutes. What have you seen?” Michael turned slowly to look down at his partner. For the first time Dan noticed that Michael seemed perturbed, his eyes  appeared wide and shining, his customary self-possession shaken, “Look,” Michael whispered, lifting a finger to point, “She’s been over there all the time we’ve been here, just watching us – watching this shop.” Dan looked in the direction Michael was pointing – the street was quiet, barely a breath of wind stirred the flaky, dead leaves lying in the gutters. He could see nothing. “What is it Michael? Where IS she? Is she hiding somewhere? Where?” he whispered back, his friend’s anxiety was beginning to worry him, “Just there,” Michael pointed again, “Across the street. Just standing there. Can’t you see her?– The tall girl in the blue jumpsuit, with the blonde curls…”

Chapter 5: OPENING DOORS

Dan was at a loss – what was Michael seeing? “I’m sorry Mike, but..” he started, ”No, no, I understand,” Michael answered quickly, “You haven’t.. ‘noticed’ her, I suppose…” “Er…No…Not at all,” Dan said unsurely. Michael hesitated for a moment, then turned to Dan and looked at him keenly, ”Listen,” he placed a hand on Dan’s shoulder, “I’m going to ask you to trust me for a moment,” he said,  “I need you to go along with me for a minute – I need you to just ‘go with the flow, alright?” Dan found himself nodding in acquiescence. “Good, but this needs to be done first,” Michael placed his right hand firmly at the base of Dan’s neck behind his head, his thumb and forefinger on opposite sides. His fingers were cold and Dan shivered, furrowing his brow at Michael, “It will help with the focus, that’s all,” Michael explained, “Okay?” Dan answered, puzzled. “Now, just relax – relax your shoulders,” Michael continued. Dan could feel his shoulders droop under the pressure of Michael’s fingers on either side of his neck. Warmth began to pulse beneath them.

“I want you to imagine your mind as a huge room,” Michael’s voice took on an intensified tone, ”Close your eyes if you like, if it helps you – see it as a huge room with thousands of doors…” Dan’s eyelids closed and he saw – darkness…then hurtling towards him a pinprick of light – travelling at incredible speed and growing by the second – it was immediately upon him and hit him with what felt like a physical smack – he winced, but he was now in a room with an infinite number of doors scattered around in all directions, “Some of these doors are open wide,” Michael described, and Dan saw, “They give you easy access to what is on the other side. Some doors are shut. Some of them you have shut yourself, preferring to keep what is on the other side out of sight, isn’t that right?” Dan was nodding - the voice seemed further away now. “Dan, I want you to turn your attention to one door in particular – you know which one I mean, don’t you?” Dan knew Michael meant the door that was closest to him. He knew it was there, out of his line of vision but he could see it, just out of the corner of his eye, ”Yes Dan, that’s the one,” Michael’s voice was encouraging, speaking from somewhere far away. “Look at the door Dan – Look at it now!” Dan jumped as the voice spoke close to his ear, and he span around to face the door before it disappeared out of his sight, “Good!” said the voice, softly again “Tell me what you see,” “I see it, but it’s a strange door,” Dan whispered, “Yes? Tell me why it’s strange?” the voice was asking him, “It’s a blank door – I mean it has no doorknob – no doorknob at all… What’s the point of that?” Dan mumbled, “Ah yes. But now, look again,” the voice commanded, and Dan saw that the door had changed – at about hip-hight, there was a shining brass doorknob, “Now you can turn the doorknob and go through to the other side,” the voice stated, “Don’t worry, just go right through, it’s perfectly safe…” Dan grasped the knob firmly, gave it a sharp turn and he felt the door give suddenly – there was the sensation of falling and he reached out to save himself, ”It’s alright, I’ve got you!” Michael’s voice was peremptory – breaking through his vision. Dan felt a tightening around his neck and Michael’s other hand on his shoulder steadying him. Dan snapped open his eyes in surprise, “Wha..?” he grabbed onto Michael’s arm and looked up blinking. Michael smiled at him and removed his hand from the back of Dan’s neck. Then he pointed again through the window of the shop, Dan followed his gesture. The sky had darkened and the streetlight on the sidewalk across the road finally snapped on – “Wow,” Dan said in astonishment – standing in the pool of light underneath, was the woman. “She sure is good-looking!”  Dan muttered.

The blond woman in the blue jumpsuit was certainly tall, almost willowy. Her unruly light-golden curls were tied back from her pale face. The expression in her translucent blue eyes was serene as she looked back at the two men on the other side of the street regarding her through the shop window. She stood alongside an azure blue corvette, parked to her right. As the men watched, she gave a small smile, lowering her chin. Then she lifted up her hand, extended her index finger and slowly wagged it at them in a gesture of denial – as a mother would do to two unruly children. Then gracefully, yet incredibly swiftly, jumped across, flung open the door of the car and disappeared inside. Michael suddenly made a dash to the door of the shop, Dan following. They burst through to the street outside just as the blue corvette roared away into the gathering darkness.

The two men stood on the sidewalk outside the shop and stared down the empty street as dry, dead leaves span in the twisting wind drag that the vehicle left in its wake. The place was deserted. The falling dusk brought no vibrant sunset, but rather a dull, misty gloaming. The black shop-fronts were mostly shut up and empty, and revealed only blank and dead-eyed windows to the outside world. Dan shuddered and turned to his partner. Michael was still gazing perplexedly after the blue car, though it was out of sight. “That,” Dan spoke pointedly, “..was very weird. I need some answers Michael! What’s going on? What just happened here?” But before Michael could respond Sheriff Porter came out into the street to join them, “Hey there fellas?” he said with unsteady joviality, “What y’a doin’ out here? Did I miss something?” “You heard the car?” Dan asked, already suspecting the answer, “Car?” said the Sheriff, “Nope, I didn’t hear no car?”

Sheriff Porter hovered uncertainly while the two men regained their composure, then said “I got the legers and such ready, and someone is here wanting to talk to you,” he added. He led the way back into the interior of the shop explaining, “Betsy Tranter is here – Betsy was Lily Turpis’s ‘hired help’. A kind of housekeeper and sometimes helped out here in the shop too. She’s been out of town last few days visiting her sister – shock of Ms. Lily gone missing n’all, she says. But she wants to be of help to the investigation,” the sheriff glanced at the agents sceptically, and leaned closer to whisper an aside, “Bit of a busybody our Betsy – but she means well..”

A woman in her mid-fifties with slightly unnatural but carefully groomed honey-blond hair, was standing near the shoptill grasping a shiny black handbag. Dan approached her, flicking open his FBI ID wallet as he came, “Agent Dan Freeman and this is my colleague, Agent Michael Tego – you have some information for us regarding the disappearance of Miss Turpis?” The woman nodded eagerly, grasping her bag more tightly in her agitation, “That’s right sirs!” she declared, “I’m Betsy Tranter, Mrs. Betsy Tranter, although Mr. Tranter passed five years ago this coming May, bless his heart,” the words came tumbling out. Dan closed his ID and nodded at her bag, “That’s a very nice bag you have there,” he smiled, “Oh my, yes!” she patted the smooth patent leather. It was the kind of handbag that had been fashionable in the nineteen-fifties, a rectangle of black ‘crocodile skin’ patent leather, with a short handle and a gold clasp to hold it shut. It was in perfect condition. “Miss Turpis saw me looking at it a few times, I really had a hankering for it,” Betsy said, “And then she said I could have it if I helped out with a few extra things here and there around the shop, and she gave me some money too,” Betsy added. “Was Ms. Turpis a good employer?” Dan asked, though he was distracted by the woman nervously clutching and unclutching the shiny black bag. “She kept herself to herself mostly, but she was always regular with her pay and kept out of the way when I was cleaning up,” Betsy stated firmly, “Where did she live? Where did you keep house for her?” Dan asked, “Well, she had a small flat above the shop here,” Betsy jerked her head up to the celing, “Up there,” Dan turned to the Sheriff, “That’s been cordoned off?” he asked him, the man nodded. “We’ll take a good look at it tomorrow,” he said.

Michael stepped forward to look more closely at Betsy Tranter, “You had something in particular you wanted to tell us?” he asked her softly. He took another step closer – he seemed to tower over the neat little woman. Looking up at him her eyes grew rounder and she clutched the bag closer to her chest. “Ye..es…” she began, “Well, it was just that I was tidying up in the back office there on Monday of last week, and…” “Yes, Betsy? Something happened?” Michael spoke to her steadily, “Well,“ her words came rushing out again, “I noticed Miss Lily was out in the little yard behind the back door, walking up and down, up and down, and I thought she was talking to herself or something, she was talking and talking. Then I realised she was speaking into one of them little portable phone things people seem to have nowadays….Cell phones they call ‘em? Silly me …” she smiled meekly, “You heard what she was saying?” Michael prompted, “Well, I couldn’t help but overhear some of her words,” Betsy looked defensive, “She was getting kinda excited, and that wasn’t really like her y’see – she was usually real calm and collected as they say, but she was getting pretty het-up talking just then and I could hear some of what she was sayin’,” Dan leaned forward and asked, “What was she saying Betsy, what did you hear?” Betsy glanced at Dan and them back up at Michael, she looked frightened, “Well, I got worried when I heard y’know? I didn’t feel right and I wanted to say something, but I thought Miss Lily might get mad if I let on that I’d heard ‘cos she was such a private woman…” “What did you hear Betsy?” Dan interrupted. The woman swallowed and looked down, she began fondling the gold metal clasp of the bag, “Miss Lily was talking louder and louder and I heard what she said quite clear – plain as day! She said, ‘They’ve got Dolores and when she breaks they’ll know about me and then they’ll come here and get me too…” Betsy’s nail broke against the metal clasp, but she continued , “I can’t keep them off if they’re on the trail,” Betsy looked up at the two agents, “Then she said, ‘I’ll have to run – before the demon gets here….The ‘DEMON’she said, and it wasn’t like no joke!”

There was only the sound of Betsy’s broken nail scraping against the clasp of the bag, as the agents wondered how to respond. The lady was clearly shaken. “Erm, Sheriff Porter?” Dan began, “Perhaps you could take Mrs Tranter into the kitchen and give her a glass of water – she might like to sit for a moment?” he suggested. The Sheriff nodded and reached out to take Betsy’s elbow. Before he could Michael spoke, “But there is something you want to give us first, isn’t there? Something you have brought in your bag?” Betsy stared up at him, and nodded, “I don’t rightly know if it means anything but…” she twisted the gold clasp and the bag opened with a ‘snap’. She pulled out a small crumpled piece of paper. “The day before Miss Lily disappeared I saw her in the yard looking at this, but then she noticed me and screwed it up and came in and we sat and had a cup of coffee like nothing was wrong, but she kept playing with it in her pocket and she must have dropped it, because I found it under the kitchen table later. I knew it was the same paper as it had this weird purple ink on it. No-one saw any visitors but this ain’t her handwriting and I don’t know what it means, I’m sure…” Betsy stopped and took a breath as she handed a scrap of paper to Michael. He smoothed it out and looked over what was written there:

Ἥξει δὲ ἡμέρα κυρίου ὡς κλέπτης ἐν ᾗ οἱ οὐρανοὶ ῥοιζηδὸν παρελεύσονται στοιχεῖα δὲ καυσούμενα λυθήσεται καὶ γῆ καὶ τὰ ἐν αὐτῇ ἔργα εὑρεθήσεται.  

“Is that like, some kind of code, Mister?” Betty asked anxiously, “Miss Lily was nervous after she read it alright, even though she was actin’ like everything was fine,” Michael passed the paper to Dan and the Sheriff, “What is this?” Dan hissed, “Ain’t like nothin’ I’ve ever seen,” the Sheriff shook his head. Michael took the paper into his hands again, “I believe it’s ancient Greek.” “What would Miss Lily be doin’ reading somethin’ in Ancient Greek?” Betsy scoffed, “Well,” Michael looked down at her calmly, “She dealt in antiques, perhaps she was also familiar with antiquities and…’older relics’,” he ventured. “I guess, maybe so,” Betsy shrugged. “Now, Mrs Tranter, how about you go and have that glass of water and rest a minute,” he began, “Then perhaps Sheriff Porter will be kind enough to escort you home. You’ve been most helpful,” Michael smiled and took her by the arm, manoevering her gently towards the Sheriff. “Don’t worry now, we’ll check into this and follow up every lead to trace Ms. Turpis,” Betsy Tranter noticed the quicksilver gleam in Michael’s eyes, and she felt reassured. She went with the Sheriff placidly, weaving in and out of the tables loaded with unusual articles of all kinds, and glancing back over her shoulder once at the two Agents before she left the room, still grasping her bag close to her body. Dan nodded at her and smiled.

Once they were alone, Dan took the paper from Michael and glanced over it again, “It’s possible she could read this, I guess, I mean she might have some knowledge of antiquities – the amount of stuff there is in this shop!” Dan flicked at the paper with his index finger, “Thing that gets me is, all these items are in such good condition – can’t all be genuine, surely? Was she a con artist? Had she conned a collector and then got into trouble for it maybe?” he mused, “I think you’ll find all the items are genuine,” Michael answered, looking around, “And yes, we must assume that Miss Turpis knew what was written on that paper,” Michael sighed, “It made her nervous, certainly, perhaps with good reason,” he added. “We’ll need to get it translated,” Dan said decisively and reached for his Blackberry, “I can photograph it and send it to a department in Chicago who can deal with it,” he pulled the device out of his pocket. “No need for that,” Michael took the paper from him, “I can tell you what it says,” he looked down at the characters scrawled on the paper in purple ink, and began to read out,  “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up” he finished, and handed the paper back to his partner. Dan looked at the unrecognisable Greek letters and back again at Michael -” No kidding..” he said humourlessly. Dan regarded his enigmatic colleague – what did he really know about Michael Tego – after the day’s events it was clearly much less than he needed to, “I think there is a conversation we need to have, pal,” he said, ” And I think it’s overdue.”

‘PITCHFORK RED':  further chapters of the story can be found on the next page entitled ‘PITCHFORK RED: Quantum Stage’ 

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