They found his body contorted like a fortune cookie with dried foam at the corners of his mouth and a fallen hand-carved rosewood chair, with inlaid mother of pearl beside him.
"What are the odds," the officer said, to no one in particular, his tongue traveling a well-worn toothpick across his teeth.
The crime scene investigator noticed a faded yellow band on the dead man's wedding finger and scribbled MISSING WIFE on his tiny notepad. The man had no visible injuries.
The investigator turned the man's head to one side, wedged his thumb and forefinger in the man's cheek, and with great care pulled what looked like a ticker tape. After nearly a minute, the end of the coil popped out.
In tiny red letters, it read THIS IS ONLY THE BEGINNING.
"It's over Ben!" Sheila threw a handful of cancellation notices onto the kitchen table, knocking over some empty soda cans and an ashtray buried under a heap of cigarette butts.
"C'mon Sheila. You're making a mountain out of an island."
"It's molehill, you moron. And I am not. What did you do with the money I gave you- huh?"
Ben hated when Sheila spoke to him in that accusatory tone; as if he were a child. Hadn't he done everything she asked? The weekly meetings, the constant checking in? He slapped the table, stood up and walked out of the room averting his eyes from Sheila's self-righteous glare, wiping the perspiration from under his nose with the back of his hand.
Ted sat at a long mahogany table overlooking the downtown skyline. His thoughts were elsewhere as his superiors demanded answers. "How could you let this happen, Ted? You know what was at stake." The more questions they asked, the more muffled their voices became. The meeting had been going on for what seemed like an eternity and a day.
Eight years. That's how long Ted played his role as the "company man" without so much as a pat on the back or a 'Job well done, Ted. Here's a bonus to show our appreciation Ted'.
"You had three days to get this contract signed," said the wrinkled man with the cufflinks and bushy eyebrows. The other starched collars sitting alongside, nodded.
A pigeon perched on the window ledge ruffled its feathers and flew away. It soon became a tiny speck in the dull gray sky until it simply vanished.
"Well, what have you got to say for yourself?"
Ted looked away from the window and faced the angry suit seated directly across from him. He systematically capped his pen, placed it inside his coat pocket, closed the latches to his briefcase, stood up and walked out.
"Who cares ball fag17! every1 and their grandma knows that move. Luzr"
Eddie was learning quickly that as much as he'd hoped, fitting in in cyberspace was no different than being in school. Kids were cruel no matter where you went. But, occasionally there'd be someone who stuck up for you.
"CThunder205, leave bolvar17 alone. take the h8 someplace else."
"whatever, you don't own this thread. anyway it took ball fag forever just to figure out how to tank. no wonder he has no friends."
The one advantage for Eddie though, was in the forums, no one could see you cry.
"hey ball fag instead of getting us killed all the time maybe you should kill yourself. for real."
Sheila remained in the kitchen. Lit only by the mustard colored street lamp directly outside her window, she gathered the empty food cartons that Ben had left on the kitchen counter. She thought of how much she cared for Ben, but knew that staying together would be the end of both of them. I'm working the graveyard shift while his ass sits around all day and he doesn't even have the decency to leave me a single bite. A cockroach scurried across the wall. Startled, she dropped the box and a stale fortune cookie fell onto the counter. She hesitated, then picked it up and cracked it open.
"Mmm...that was delicious, Ted. Thank you."
Ted set aside his chopsticks and quickly swallowed his partially chewed tea-smoked duck. "So, what do you think?" he said, pointing off to the side at the manila folder serving as a coaster for the teapot.
"It's certainly an intriguing proposition."
"An opportunity of a lifetime, really."
The man took a sip and wiped the corners of his mouth with the cloth napkin.
Ted continued, "You know we'd love to get this partnership off the ground as soon as possible. Strike while the iron's hot, right?"
The man sat up and adjusted his waistline. "Sure, sure Ted. I'll take it back to the office and have the others review it. See what they say."
Ted's eyes darted from the man to the folder to the whirling fan in the coffered ceiling. His mind was empty.
The man stood up and extended his hand. "I'll call you. Thanks again for the meal."
As the folder disappeared around the revolving door, Ted's eyes fell onto the fortune cookie at the edge of the table.
Eddie groaned when a ring sounded from his backpack. He took his time rummaging through his things hoping the phone would stop ringing. It didn't.
"Eddie, where are you?"
"The Vice-Principal called to ask how you're feeling. You haven't been in school the past three days?!"
"Mom, it's f-"
"You get yourself home this instant!"
Sheila held a little strip of paper with tiny red numbers in one hand and filled in the little numbered squares on a card with the other. She handed the card to the clerk behind the counter.
He rang up the sale and said, "Good luck," and handed her the printout.
"Thanks, I need it." She kissed the slip of paper and tucked it in her tote bag.
"You fool!" she cried throwing a suede loafer that nearly missed Ted's head as he rushed out the door with little more than a suitcase and a travel bag. Her body wilted at the doorway. "There's nothing out there for you!"
Of the three cars parked in the driveway, he opted for the one closest to the street. He had neither the desire nor nerve to delay his decision any further. The sooner he could get out of sight, the sooner he could put his oversized house and the past twelve years behind him.
In no hurry to face the trouble that awaited him at home, Eddie took a detour and stopped at a small bakery. Every afternoon around this time the store put out a fresh batch of milk pudding buns. Maybe if he got an extra one for his mother, she'd be a little more forgiving. No such luck. He dug through the pockets of his backpack and found just enough to buy one fortune cookie.
"So what have we got?" The Lieutenant pointed to a cork board on which several long strips of paper were matched with photographs.
The lead investigator stood up. "Four vics in as many days. All found with ridiculously long fortunes jammed in their mouths. From left to right, Sheila M., 31, Dispatcher. Fortune reads 'Don't face reality, let it be the place from which you leap'. Lucky numbers: 39-27-44-11-21-42. Up next, Theodore B., 42, Broker. Fortune reads 'Dream lofty dreams, and as you dream, so shall you become'. Over here, Edward S., 14, Student." The detective cleared his throat. "He who climbs a ladder. Must begin at the first step." He returned to his seat.
"Okay, good," the Lieutenant began, "so, we've got a torn, claimed lottery ticket from the woman's tote bag found outside an ATM, three blocks from her apartment -"
"Not the greatest of neighborhoods," said another detective.
"Right," the Lieutenant said. "We also have an unused plane ticket to Tokyo found in the man's travel bag at the site of the crash."
"Who drives to the airport with almost no brake fluid?" the officer added, with a fresh toothpick between his teeth.
"Hmm...and for the boy, all we have is a step ladder propped against the parapet of the campus clock tower." The Lieutenant stepped back. "And today this gentleman, no sign of food poisoning and no motive. Have we found the wife?"
"Not yet, sir."
"Stay on it. And let's look into these numbers and messages. Are they directed at us or the victims? Locate anyone who spoke or spent time with the victims during their last forty-eight hours. And how the hell does someone swallow a four-foot strip of paper?!"
The group separated, each detective with his assigned duties. Over the next few hours they learned the numbers four and seven were considered unlucky according to Chinese numerology. If the latest fortune, fourth on the list, was intended to be a message to the police, then three more people would die in the next three days. The question was, how?
The investigator who made this discovery sat back in his chair, looked to the ceiling and said, "It's gonna be a long night. Where do we even begin?"
"If this works, Sun Tzu, you will be a hero, remembered for generations to come," the King said. Sun Tzu bowed before the court and retreated down the Great Hall and into the courtyard to contemplate his next steps among the plum blossoms. He continued through the Capital, passing the garden of passion flowers, mullein and opium poppies and stepped into a vast room lined with bubbling cauldrons of palm oil and glowing hearths of terracotta and stone. The treats were being prepared by kneeling widows who ground the rosettes and seeds of a delicate flower into a fine powder with a mortar and pestle.
"We haven't much time," he said.
The soldier gave a slight nod. "The first batch should be ready in one or two days, General." He pointed to his left where others were blending the freshly ground powder with black spice and gypsy wort. To his right, bare chested men dipped their swollen arms into large ceramic pots and uprooted snakes, scorpions and spiders to extract their venom.
Sun-Tzu placed his hand on the soldier's shoulder. "Do what you can, but remember, it's only a matter of time before they realize some of their men are missing. The fate of the dynasty is in your hands." He squeezed the soldier's clavicle and placed a crescent-shaped cookie in his palm.
Sun-Tzu walked away, leaving the soldier to revisit each step of the plan in his mind. All that was left to do was to fuse the Gu with the sweet, sugary rice mixture, press it into thin sheets and wait for the caramel-colored paper to dry just enough to enable the women to fold it into shape and bake it over the fiery coals. In two days' time, the delectable confections would be offered to their captives as tokens of goodwill. By then, the prisoners of war, feeble and famished, would consume enough of these irresistible treats for the toxins to leaden their already frail minds and leave them susceptible to the powers of hypnosis. Through suggestion they would betray their leaders, divulging the enemy's secrets before dying of asphyxiation some time later when the ingested cookies would expand in their bellies and extend into their throats, leaving behind messages that had been inscribed within the cookies' folds.
Whether or not the experiment succeeded is unknown. No written record of the events survived. What did survive were Sun Tzu's notes on the value of psychological warfare in military combat. Inscribed on bamboo slats and bound into a book, his writings traveled across continents as empires expanded, constantly changing hands as dynasties rose and fell.
Centuries later, a merchant discovered a handful of beaten laths that appeared to be part of a larger book. The threads that held it together were few and frayed. Decorated along the margins of each page was the logo of a magistrate in the form of a two-headed dragon, whose tail curled into the numeral eight. The contents appeared to be a recipe for an exotic sweet or pastry. Unlike other delicacies of the time, these were unusually addictive and repeatedly linked to irrational behavior. But demand grew and profiteers found ways to export them to every corner of the world. It was not until the decades' long Opium Wars of the mid-19th century, that distribution was pressured to skulk underground, until eventually any trace of their existence simply vanished.
Outside, the early morning sun was obscured by an intrusive fog suffocating the city streets. Inside, the intense pressure for progress on the recent string of slayings was weighing heavily on the officers' minds.
"I got nuthin', Lieutenant," answered one of the detectives, rubbing both eyes with the fat of his palms. "All my other leads went dry." He stepped up to the corkboard and removed some index cards concealed under a web of string, push pins, maps and photographs.
The Lieutenant stood up from the edge of the desk. "Well, we've got enough to bust the boyfriend, the wife and the kid from the forum."
The other detectives listened as the Lieutenant summarized the charges. It happened that Sheila's boyfriend Ben had been arrested multiple times for varying degrees of narcotics possession. Neighbors heard them arguing in the days leading up to her death. Detectives concluded that the addict followed his girlfriend to the ATM, waited for her to withdraw the money and attempted to steal it. When a struggle ensued, he did what any reckless junkie would do and took the matter into his own hands.
As for Ted, the businessman, it was no secret that he was unhappy and desperate for change. He had the means to quit his job and leave his marriage. What he hadn't anticipated was that his wife would do anything to prevent him from destroying their lives, even if it meant draining the brake fluid from his brand new convertible to prevent him from leaving.
With regard to the fourteen year old who jumped from his high school clock tower, the consensus was that the suicide was a direct result from the constant cyberbullying he had received from a peer whom the police tracked down through an online chat forum for video gamers.
Admittedly, there were two major pieces to the puzzle that still needed explaining:
"Lieutenant! What about number four?" said the Officer who ran out of toothpicks hours ago and had since tapped into his cache of lollipops.
The Lieutenant nodded and held up a plastic-wrapped fortune cookie from a pile on his desk, adding, "And how do these fortunes fit in to the picture?" He straightened up. "Let's bring in these three for questioning and go from there, shall we?"
The detectives grabbed their jackets and holsters and set out, leaving the dispirited Lieutenant behind. He plunked down onto his chair and observed the cookie from various angles, holding it cautiously between his thumb and middle finger. Eventually, he tore open the plastic and peered into the cookie through the opening of its fold. A tiny bit of the papers' corner mimicked him like a bratty child. "Speak to me, you little bastard," he whispered. Careful not to put the cookie anywhere near his mouth, he broke the cookie open and slid out the strip. "Patience is key, a wait short or long will have its reward, for your time has come. Lucky numbers 08-09-25-29-36-42."
The Lieutenant turned the paper over and saw a logo on the back. It was a 2-headed dragon whose tail curled into the numeral 8.
"Lieutenant!" The lead investigator shouted from the hallway. "You coming?"
Startled, the Lieutenant replied, "Right. Yes. Coming!" He then set the paper down, licked the stickiness from his fingers and ran out the door. •
The News Daily
13 November, 5:27 pm. Tower Hill Station.
Heading west aboard the District rail line, a group of roughly seventy to eighty young men and women swarmed several cars taking rush hour commuters by storm. Within minutes the flash mob was in and out after robbing dozens of passengers at knifepoint. No arrests have been made.
14 November, 3:54 am. Canary Wharf.
A woman's body was found floating along the southern end of the Millwall Outer dock. The cause of death is an apparent suicide as there are no signs of a struggle or evidence that anyone was with her. No witnesses have stepped forward.
15 November - 19 November, times vary. Royal London Hospital.
It has been reported that for the past few days, numerous patients have been quarantined for contacting a virus that has yet to be identified. Medical personnel are working round the clock to prevent its spreading any further.
20 November - 22 November, times and locations vary.
In the past seventy-two hours, police have received several calls for domestic violence, following the recent wave of layoffs announced at the City's nearby utility company. In each case, the offenders fled avoiding capture. The cases are being investigated and a hunt for the suspects is underway.
The Nightly News
22 November, 6:04 pm.
"That's right Nora. I'm standing here at the edge of Whitechapel Road in East London's Borough of Tower Hamlets, ground zero for what is now going on day eleven of what many are calling 'The Scourge of Spitalfields'. It all started right here at this temple behind me when, two weeks ago, a local resident, and custodian of the sanctuary reported that its halls had been vandalized overnight. Authorities have not released the scrawled messages left behind, but since then, there has been a litany of mysterious events occurring each day, beginning with the 'flash mob' robberies aboard the Tube between Tower Hill and Monument stations.
"What is most startling is that all of the incidents have taken place within a 5 kilometer radius of where I'm standing.
"It's unknown as to what exactly triggered these events, as there seems to be no logical pattern or known motive. The sheer indiscriminate nature of these acts and the randomness of the suspect's profiles appear to have law enforcement befuddled for the moment. Back to you."
It began earlier that Fall, when Detective Ruskin received a phone call. He'd been reading about the recent dips in the stock market, a matter that was of particular interest to him. He fancied himself a shrewd businessman and dabbled in speculative investments (a luxury he could afford with a modest inheritance he'd received from his grandmother a few years prior). Unfortunately for Ruskin, neither the paper nor the phone call delivered good news.
The charred remains of a man identified as an influential real estate developer was found amidst the rubble of his home in an affluent neighborhood overlooking the Thames. His petrified body was found slumped over next to the fireplace, clutching a small metal lock box.
"What was in it?" the detective said.
"Nothing. Just the melted key, stuck to the outside," replied the voice on the other end of the line.
"Jesus," Detective Ruskin said, distracted by an Op-Ed article in the paper. "Some people have no conscience."
"Sergeant! What can you tell us?" A wall of reporters assembled outside the station as a swelling wave of angry citizens holding signs surged forward, pressing against the reporter's backs, clamoring for answers.
"We're looking carefully into every available lead," the Sergeant said. "But we have nothing conclusive right now." He signaled to his officers to stay alert.
The crowd was not interested in carbon copy speeches, and what they heard only fueled their uproar.
"We ask that you please be patient. We're doing everything we can and as soon as we have more information, we will be sure to let you know. Thank you."
As the officers walked away from the makeshift podium, the mob spread and a projectile launched from somewhere within the crowd, shattered against a parked patrol car and burst into flames.
"Did you see that Phylo?" Andromache said, nonchalantly tossing a large bubble of water, the size of an ostrich egg into the air.
Phylo was busy tapping rocks of Anorthosite with his index finger and giggling. He delighted in watching them turn into butterflies and seeing them fly away.
The water bubble remained suspended in mid-air wobbling ever so slightly.
"Something is amiss. The Arrants are at it again."
"What else is new," Phylo said, his eyes following the curlycue path of another butterfly flitting away.
The surrounding air was warm and sleepy. The sky light made their skin glow.
"Hey you two, get up and make yourselves useful," Heron said, with a look of disapproval and resignation.
"Heron, look." Andromache poked the water bubble and Heron leaned in to have a look. People were running in different directions, colliding with one another, among shattered glass and pockets of fire.
Struck with a flash of sympathy Heron directed Phylo to put away those "ridiculous stones" and to assist Andromache in devising a plan to help end the Arrant's suffering. After a deep stretch and an audible sigh, Phylo joined Andromache and got to work.
Day 12. The Palace of Westminster.
Government officials are unable to come to an agreement on the educational budget due to partisan politics. The item will be tabled and addressed at a later date.
Day 13. Shoreditch.
Three high-rise flats in the trendy neighborhood of Shoreditch are burglarized while the homeowners are away, presumably at work. Fingerprints could not be found.
Day 14. King Edward VII Park.
A jogger is assaulted at a park just a few blocks from his home by what he described as "a homeless man wearing a gold watch." The jogger is fine, save for a bloody nose and a contusion on his left leg. Nothing was taken.
Day 15. Cabot Square.
A grocery store is pilfered after-hours as firefighters battle a blaze down the street. Arson is suspected. Investigators examine a possible connection between the two locations.
"Phylo! Put that back." While Andromache was scribbling her thoughts in the sand, Phylo was twirling Hope between his fingers. It took a whack on the back of his head for him to heed his sister and take notice.
"I have some ideas," Andromache said. She proceeded to draw a complex network of lines and arrows connecting a myriad of numbers and symbols.
After several minutes, Phylo's eyes glazed over.
Finally, when the last equation was laid down, Andromache stood up and wrinkled her nose and waved her palm in a figure eight. What stood before them was a three dimensional plot of a grand organic sandcastle in the form of a beehive's interior, complete with passageways of various sizes.
Phylo's eyebrows hinted that he was impressed. "Hmm."
It all boiled down to two ways of correcting the problem at hand. As they saw it, the Arrants had lost their way and simply needed some redirection. By implanting them with the missing virtues, their actions would naturally adjust over time. The challenge was modifying their behavior undetected.
"Heron's gonna love this," Phylo said.
"Heron? There's no time for Heron. We have to act quick. C'mon." Andromache grabbed Phylo's hand and off they went.
"Be careful" Andromache said, as Phylo poured Empathy into the city's rivers and reservoirs. "We can't afford to waste a single drop." As time passed, Andromache carefully monitored the effects of the subjects below and noted their lack of reaction. She concluded that acute disinterest was counteracting any potential remedy, so she instructed Phylo to commence with Plan B.
"How come I always have to do the dirty work?" Phylo said, as his sister sitting a few meters away, peered intently into her water bubble, while Phylo wearily planted Compassion into the Earth's soil for a new crop. Upon reaching the final stage, he put on the finishing touches and plopped on the ground to rest. Flushed with excitement, Andromache said under her breath "Now, we wait."
30 November (Day 19), 6:11 pm. Breaking News.
"...and so reaching nearly three weeks of continuous turmoil, there is still no explanation or sign of letting up. If we can spin the camera around, you can see here that local grocery store shelves lay bare and mounds of rubbish continue to accumulate in the streets as collection agencies are too frightened to enter the neighborhoods. Emergency Service Personnel are overwhelmed and gravely outnumbered by the number of rioters in the streets. In fact, the only bright light, if you can call it that, is the chaos has not spilled over into neighboring vicinities. The mayhem has strangely remained self-contained within the same five kilometer radius we reported on two weeks ago. Nora?"
Nora shook her head in dismay. "Elliot. What can you tell us about the..."
"Oh! Look out!..."
"Heron, I don't know what to do. Nothing's working." Andromache was at a loss. Both she and Phylo had spent several sleepless nights refining their design, but waiting for the new crop to grow, be harvested, and reach its intended targets required time and patience; two things they were short on. The lack of access to the new crop for many of those afflicted also limited its impact. For the damage to be reversed, a more potent and far reaching solution was required.
Deep in thought, Heron tapped his chin with a quail feather. "So far, you've tried water and earth, is that right?"
"Mhmmm." Phylo said, sitting on the ground with his knees up, making a little plant dance at his feet.
Heron paced back and forth. "Well, Fire won't work, so how about Air?"
Andromache, who for a moment was distracted by Phylo's swaying sprout, sat up.
Heron continued. Phylo and Andromache were to capture Innocence and transmit it through the air from the city's highest point down to the Arrants below.
"And how do we capture Innocence?" said Andromache.
Heron looked directly at Andromache and said, "You make - a sacrifice."
It wasn't the first time Andromache and Phylo visited the World. There had been numerous times back when the Arrants began populating the Earth, that maintaining a daily account was necessary to ensure success. Shapeshifting was their way of blending in. The difference between then and now was that they had to act quickly. So, off they went in search of that one object that had to be sacrificed.
Posing as school children, they slipped into elementary schools, playgrounds and children's hospitals, but came up empty. It was when they reached the labour ward on the sixth floor of the city hospital that they knew they had found what they were looking for. They set down their backpacks and pressed their noses against the glass.
A voice sounded from behind. "Well hello, you two. You shouldn't be here by yourselves. Where's your Mum?" the nurse said. Phylo was startled. Andromache answered, "Oh, we're just looking for the bathroom."
The nurse kindly pointed down the hall. "Through the double doors and to the left." She patted Phylo on the head. "Aren't you a darling?" Phylo looked at Andromache with a smile so wide you could practically count all his teeth.
The two made their way down the hall watching the nurse's reflection in the windows of the double doors. When they saw her walk away, they ran back to the room, seized their object and vanished.
Meanwhile, Heron had been preparing the altar for the ceremony. The ritual itself would not take long at all. When Andromache and Phylo arrived, Heron said, "bring it here," and held it over an urn resting on a pedestal. Andromache and Phylo took their places and repeated after Heron, a series of unintelligible utterances. A short cry was heard, followed by a whimper and then silence.
Andromache and Phylo nodded, yes.
Their eyes followed Heron's index finger as a thin trail of smoke drew a map of the city below. "Begin here, at the periphery of the disorder. You will avoid any hindrances this way. Take the District Line toward Westminster. It's exactly one stop. It should take no more than two or three minutes. When you disembark, take the stairs up and walk south across Parliament Square. The highest point will be before you. Andromache will be watching from up here should you need anything."
Phylo offered his assurance, took hold of the cup with both hands and placed it in a satchel. Andromache took her position and Heron watched Phylo disappear through the noticeably thick air.
In the distance, the night glowed orange as plumes of smoke deposited bits of ash onto St. James Park. Two storeys below Villiers Street, a crisply dressed man stood on the westbound platform with a polished, rectangular case resting at his feet.
Unbeknownst to him, a mere three meters away was a common thief, who ordinarily made practice of slyly picking pockets and lifting unattended purses. But today, traffic was extraordinarily light and the bandit's belly was beginning to rumble. •
The early morning glade was sleepy, motionless and for the most part quiet, except for the intermittent sounds of a soft crackle coming from deep within the woods. Unlike the soothing rustle of a forest's familiar breath, this crescendo of pops and snaps hung in the air, like the splintering of enormous dry bones. The noise lasted several seconds gathering strength with each passing moment. Finally, a whoosh swept through the tree leaves culminating in a crashing thud. In an instant, all fell once again silent and still.
"You're probably all wondering why I've called this emergency meeting this evening," Mr. Quigley said, pacing back and forth with his hands clasped behind his back.
I ventured a guess without raising my hand.
"Sshhh!..." He spun around before I could finish my question. We all wanted to know: Who was responsible for the toppling? Suspicions had been whirring day and night, but when the camp leader tells you to be quiet, you do as he says. Especially, if you believe the rumors.
Louie 'Doughnut' Dawson must believe those rumors, because no one has seen him since yesterday and some of us are beginning to wonder if Ol' Quigley had something to do with it.
"Can you really trust someone with such hairy ears and pale legs?" Teddy whispered into my ear. "It's as if he only goes out at night. Like he's hiding something."
I poked him in the ribs to shut him up. I didn't want to get stuck chopping firewood tomorrow while everyone else was having fun at the lake catching fish or shooting spitballs at squirrels.
"I heard about a guy in England once," Teddy was relentless, "who was a high school track coach and he looked normal and all, but he was actually a werewolf! He'd send the cross country kids out for a long run through the hills and then he'd sprint around the other side and wait for 'em. Then when the time was right he'd pounce, drag 'em back to his tree, string 'em up on a high branch 'til they dried like beef jerky and eat 'em whole. My brother said it was in the papers and everything."
"Werewolves don't live in trees, dummy."
Teddy persisted, "Anyway, how can you be so sure Mr. Q isn't in on this. I ain't seen Louie in two days!"
I couldn't argue with him there. Louie earned his Tracker badge last summer, so it's not like he just ventured off and couldn't find his way back. He knew these woods better than anybody. And if it wasn't our rival camp across the lake who chopped down our tree house and took Louie, then who else could it have been?
"Maybe it was cannibals!" shouted Augie, a pint-sized peanut with oversized glasses and an even bigger imagination.
"Boys! Please." Ol' man Quigley put his finger to his mouth, his eyes yellow from the flickering flames of the campfire. The light of the moon was so faint that you could barely make out the shapes of the trees as they watched over our circle. Quigley extended both hands in front of him as if he was about to conduct a symphony. We piped down and sat with our legs crossed.
"As you may have all heard, around daybreak yesterday our historic and beloved tree house collapsed after fifteen years of standing proudly at the lake's edge." Quigs leaned forward, "I'm here to assure you that we are looking into this and if there was any evidence of foul play, the criminals will be severely punished." His yellow eyes slowly scanned the group as if surveying a line-up. "We've been in touch with our neighbors to the north, Camp Windyvapors and they too, are assisting us with the investigation."
From the corner of my eye I could see Teddy shaking his head at what he knew to be a conspiracy: either Old Quigley worked the graveyard shift as a big hairy beast, or he traded 'naughty' kids to flesh-eating tribes who lived in the trees. Either way, we had to save Louie.
You see, Louie's dad was The Doughnut King. Yep, you know the commercial where a guy dressed up as a Bear Claw dive bombs into a giant tub of hot chocolate and pops up wearing a crown made of Churros? That one. If there was one thing that made waking up before dawn worthwhile, it was the Doughnut King's pillowy doughnuts with cream filling and powdered sugary goodness at breakfast time. Every summer Louie's dad donated a truckload of goodies to our camp. If it wasn't for Louie's dad, we'd all be stuck eating oatmeal and yogurt, which we all know is code for twigs and swamp water. Am I right?
"Hey! You coming?" Teddy waved his hand in front of my face; the others were already several yards away marching back to the cabins.
It was lights out for the others, but for us the night was just getting started. Augie plopped his pack on his bed and stuffed it with a poncho, flashlight, compass, a pocket knife, a whistle and some bubble gum. "The natives can't eat us if they're busy chewing," he said. Meanwhile, Teddy had spread out a map of the camp and was highlighting our route into what he called "the wolf's den." I gathered some rope, water and other essentials and before heading out, we formed a triangle in the middle of the room and whispered our secret pledge:
"Forever Glazed, or Boston Cream
We won't give up our Goal
To save our Friend, remain a Team
Fritter, Twist or Roll."
We wiggled our fingers as we raised our arms, forming a pyramid, finishing with
The canopies of the trees shrouded the forest in darkness. Even the moon was oblivious to what was happening down below. Along one of the many narrow trails, there was a clearing. It was there, that a carpet of leaves was being positioned over one of many deep holes scattered throughout the field. Implanted at its bed were crudely sharpened spikes made of fallen tree branches.
Several yards away, there was movement at the base of a tree. Another shadowy figure perched on a tree branch stirred the underbrush with low-hanging vines.
The traps were being set.
Whack! Augie slapped the back of his neck. The mosquitoes were especially surly tonight. Not a good time to forget my bug spray.
"It's f-f-f-f-freezing out here," Teddy said as we slopped through the mud, "maybe this isn't such a good idea."
"You could have said that an hour ago, I'm starving," Augie said.
I inspected Teddy's map with Augie's flashlight. "Hang in there guys, only about 45 minutes more 'til we get to the den."
"Yeah, assuming the cannibals don't get to us first," Augie said. "I saw a show about them once; they live in tree houses high up in the sky and hunt with spears and bows and arrows and they're really good tree climbers. I bet they cut down our tree house thinking we were the enemy." All three of us walked with our heads tilted up toward the sky. "You know what they call outsiders?"
"What?" Teddy asked, forgetting about the cold.
"Ghost demons!" Augie said. "Heck, they're probably watching us right now!"
"Hey, dju hear that?"
Augie and I looked at Teddy frozen in his tracks. "I heard a howl."
The three of us looked like mannequins in a department store.
We craned our necks to the left as if another half inch would make the sound crystal clear.
"There it is again," Teddy said.
"Kinda sounds like a bugle," I said.
We stood there for another minute with only our eyes zipping up and down and side to side, but heard nothing. Just as we stepped forward that same sound burst through the trees much nearer to us than before. All together we shouted "Run!" Panicked, we ran off the trail, leaping over boulders and nearly tripping over fallen logs. Our hot breath looked like steam from a locomotive. If something was after us, cannibal or werewolf, it had to be riding on the back of a cheetah, piloting a rocket ship, if it was going to catch us.
Unless of course, we encountered something unexpected.
"Aack, help!" Augie's feet were stuck and he was shrinking by the second.
Teddy and I turned around to look back. "Quicksand!" Teddy said.
I quickly fastened a bowline around a nearby tree and threw the loose end at Augie, nearly knocking off his glasses. He pulled it tight, tied it around his waist and Teddy and I pulled with all our might, but the cold air made gripping the rope difficult. On the count of three, we jerked the rope with the last bit of strength we had left and Augie sprung up onto solid ground. Unfortunately for Teddy and me, the momentum threw us back several feet, head first into a deep, narrow hole hidden under a pile of dry leaves.
Augie looked up. "Hey, where'd you guys go?"
Teddy and I unfurled ourselves as best we could, with me sitting on top of him. "Augie, down here!" I threw up another rope and told him to tie a "grapevine" to the other end. Eventually, I climbed out using the back of Teddy's leg as a footstool. Teddy made his displeasure known, before unpretzeling himself and finally scrambling up too.
"Guys, these are traps. Whoever set them can't be far," Teddy said.
We quickly brushed ourselves off and repacked our supplies when we noticed Augie picking something off the ground and putting it in his mouth.
"Augs, if you're really that hungry, I have a granola bar in my pack."
He picked up two more bits from the ground and ate those too.
"I think he's delirious," Teddy said.
"Augie!" I shined a spotlight on his beaming face.
Augie held out his hand to show us what he found, "Donut crumbs."
That was the breakthrough we needed to get our second wind. We followed the crumb trail for miles zig-zagging between the trees. Every so often, we'd call out Louie's name, crossing our fingers that we weren't attracting unwanted attention. Then we'd pause and listen, but never heard a reply. Although my tracking skills weren't nearly as good as Louie's, I could have sworn we were going in circles. So we plunked ourselves onto a couple of boulders near the river to catch our breath. We scraped off the mud, sticks and pebbles wedged in our shoes and stuck in our hair.
"What now?" Augie asked.
Teddy was hunched over a rock, Augie was laying on the ground and I stared blankly at the nothingness in front of me when we heard the crunch of leaves a few feet behind us. The three of us squinted through the darkness, spinning our heads like a trio of nervous owls.
"Hey!" Teddy called out to what looked like two figures running behind a tree. He jumped up and ran after them.
"Teddy!" Augie and I ran after Teddy.
Dodging mud puddles and getting smacked in the face by low-lying branches, we sprinted wildly through the brush, crossing streams, not really knowing where we were headed. The figures Teddy was after had vanished when we caught up to him, but we kept on running.
"Do you see 'em?" I asked, ducking under a bundle of leaves.
Teddy just kept running.
"Wait up!" Augie said.
I looked back to see where he was. Augie caught up and the three of us ran alongside matching each other stride for stride when one of us must have kicked a stick or tripped a vine, because instantly we were swept off our feet and hurled high into the air bundled in a giant net.
"Aaaahhh...heeeeelllpp!" we screamed, writhing uncontrollably like fish in a bucket. Visions of werewolves and cannibals roasting us over an open fire came to mind.
"They're coming!" Augie pointed through a hole in the netting as two silhouettes raced toward us.
I could hear their heavy breathing as they desperately sliced through the rope. I couldn't see if they were gnawing at it with their teeth or using their nails, but I knew it would all be over soon. The rope snapped and we fell hard onto the ground, tangled in a web of thick twine.
One of the figures reached out his hands and unraveled the mesh.
"Hey guys. What are you doing out here?"
Turns out Mr. Quigley recruited Louie to help him catch whoever was responsible for tearing down our tree house. Aside for a couple of rabbits and three whiz kids with a deep appreciation for sugar, they never did catch the delinquent party, even though the search went on until the start of Fall.
It wasn't all for nothing though. Louie earned his Trapper badge that summer.
The evening began to cool earlier than usual, signalling the arrival of Winter. As time past, a light frost formed on the tips of the tall grasses down by the lake where a "tap-tap-tap" could be heard as a family of beavers applied mud to their newly built lodge; the final touches of a summer long endeavor. Their good fortune and hard work would once again ensure a peaceful season free from predators and a sound supply of food. •
How did I get here? That's what was on Trolley's mind when he opened his eye and found himself dangling 200 feet above the forest floor. It's not the first place you'd expect to find a Spanish-speaking frog with an eye patch, but when you owe money to Thimbleweed, anything is possible.
How did he get here? It all started with a small pearl, a red summer hat and a coconut.
It was a new day. The sun's rays crept through the cantina's doors, smuggling long shadows across the sticky wide plank floors of El Lobo. Outside, the dust had settled overnight. Sitting at the far end of the bar, Trolley nursed his coconut juice, while picking at a bowlful of stale crickets (the only luxury he could afford with the few pesos he had left from yet another disappointing afternoon at the Turtle Track). Perhaps today would be different.
The double doors swung open and for the moment, things did indeed start looking up. In sauntered the most captivating creature Trolley had ever seen. Peering out from beneath her red summer hat were large brown eyes and thick, long lashes that seemed to be calling him over with every blink. Her silk sleeves sparkled against a gown that was perfectly fitted around her shapely bustle. This creature had more curves than the infamous one-lane mountain road El Espinazo Del Diablo. But, Trolley would bet everything he had even fewer men survived her spells.
That was reason enough for him to lay low and mind his own business.
As Olinda swayed past the bar, Trolley dipped his head in his coconut juice and from the corner of his eye, saw one of her feathers float to the floor. Gentleman that he is, he picked it up and casually made his way toward the booth in the back room where Olinda was preening.
"Pardon me, miss." Trolley cleared his throat. "You dropped this." He handed her the feather hand over arm, the way a waiter presents a fine chablis.
"Oh, my," Olinda said, blushing and acting surprised. "Thank you." She blinked three times.
Now Trolley was nothing if not amicable. The least he could do was be neighborly and offer to buy her a drink. So, he called out to the bartender and signalled a V with his his fingers.
The next several minutes Trolley and Olinda shared compliments, giggling and teasing one another as they sipped their coconut juices. It appeared that Trolley's luck was turning after all.
For the worse. Amid their witty banter and light touches, a great beam of light spread across the room as a pint-sized Caiman in a Panama hat burst in through the front doors. His silhouette was unmistakable. Squatty legs, tiny hands, long, bulbous snout. This could only be...
Olinda and Trolley both gasped and ducked under the table, very nearly bumping foreheads. As the figure shuffled toward the bartender, Trolley whispered, "Rats! He found me!"
"What? Who?" Olinda said.
"What are you talking about?"
"That ugly reptile that just walked in," Trolley said, scratching his head.
Olinda turned her head to one side, wondering how many juices Trolley had before their encounter. "That's my boyfriend, Oleander."
"You're what?!" Trolley bumped his head on the table.
"It's almost eight thirty. Our train's leaving soon. If he sees us together...well, you don't want to know what happened to the others."
It was all becoming clear now for Trolley. Goddess sashays through the door. They instantly hit it off. As charming as Trolley thought himself to be, it was simply too good to be true. And now, here he was, huddled under a table with this guy's girlfriend. Did she know that her boyfriend had an alias? Or that his chosen vocation involved the seedier side of things? Trolley had no intention of sticking around to find out. Together, they peeked out from under the tablecloth and slipped out the back door just as the bartender pointed Oleander/Thimbleweed toward the back room.
"Over there!" Olinda pointed to the train platform where the Sur Express to Panama was waiting. When they reached the bottom stair, Olinda hugged Trolley so tight that her pearl necklace snapped. The train whistle blew long and hard. Trolley quickly gave her a boost and she planted a kiss on him before jumping on board and disappearing around the corner. He remained there, frozen for a few seconds, when the clanging of the bell woke him from his trance. On the ground, he saw that one of her pearls had fallen off. He picked it up and hopped along the platform peeping through each window, but there was no sign of Olinda. He did however, hear some familiar voices approaching the train. It was Thimbleweed and his entourage. So, he sidestepped under the train and scampered off.
With a final whistle, the train blew its top, billowing a funnel of white steam toward the sky. It pulled away from the station, its steel wheels grinding against the rails as it forged slowly ahead.
Trolley could feel the branch giving way as the steel teeth of the saw blade continued to grind against the bark. Alas, his only choice was to hang on for his life. When he looked down, Thimbleweed was nothing more than a tiny dot; small enough to crush between his thumb and forefinger.
"You've crossed me one too many times, amigo!" Thimbleweed said, brandishing his steel-tipped cane in the air. "First, the racket with the bananas. Then, the stunt with the bumblebees. And now, this? It's time to pay the peeper!"
Even with death staring directly at him, Trolley managed to shake his head in disappointment.
"You will learn once and for all that when you do business with Señor Thimbleweed, you meet your obligations."
Trolley wished he'd never jumped on the that train back in Mexico.
"Wooohhh...woooohh, ding, ding, ding, ding...Wooohhh...woooohh."
"Final stop! San Miguel!"
Trolley woke up, eyes bloodshot, legs cramped, and covered in soot from head to toe. He had no idea where he was, but he did see Olinda enter the second cabin on the left, back in Honduras. It was since then that he spent the next day and a half folded up in between train cars, being pelted by stray twigs and desert dust.
"Chk, chk, chk, chk, pssssshhhhhhhhh..."
As the train pulled into the station, he popped his head up through the compartment's window and saw Olinda gathering her things. His eyes grew wide and he tapped on the glass. Unable to get her attention, he tapped again, only harder. At that very moment, Thimbleweed stepped out of the bathroom, adjusted his suspenders and looked to his right. The two were face to face, with only a thin piece of glass separating them.
Trolley didn't even bother to wait for the train to come to a complete stop before jumping off and stumbling onto the platform. A few bumps and bruises were nothing compared to what Thimbleweed and his henchmen were capable of, and right now they were closing in on his tail. As Trolley turned the corner, he spotted a pickup truck piled high with coconuts, rumbling down the street. He raced to catch up and dove in head first.
"Stop, you filthy toad!" Thimbleweed and his gang squeezed into an old taxicab in hot pursuit.
For a brief moment, Trolley was distracted by a red blur, followed by a trail of dust cutting through the trees below. The blur was making a beeline straight toward them. It was Olinda. Her gown was dirty and frayed, as if she'd been running for miles.
"Ollie, stop!" Olinda said, trying her best to adjust her bodice, which now hung loosely, as if held by tattered shoelaces.
"Olinda?" Oleander stood bewildered. His thugs were pleased to see her. Even disheveled, she was a vision to behold.
Catching her breath, she said, "you're making a big mistake. He's no criminal, he's a hero." She proceeded to weave a thrilling tale of how Trolley's bravery had saved her from a large menacing bandido who tried to steal her pearl necklace back in Mexico. Apparently, through Trolley's quick thinking and juggling proficiency (acquired during a stint in a traveling circus), he managed to fight the thief off by hurling coconuts at him with tremendous accuracy.
She reached into her bustier and presented Oleander with the broken necklace. Thimbleweed squinted up at Trolley with deep skepticism that this two-bit con was ever capable of such a courageous feat. But, he knew deep in his heart that his sweet Olinda would never intentionally lead him astray. She blinked twice in Oleander's direction to reassure him.
"Is this true, frog?" Thimbleweed said.
Trolley swallowed hard and quickly nodded yes.
Thimbleweed turned toward his colleagues on the ground and up in the tree, "What do you think compadres?"
The burly one on the ground simply shrugged and repositioned the toothpick in his mouth from left to right. The smaller, more nimble associate, leered at Trolley with suspicion while plucking bits of bark from the chainsaw resting on his lap.
All Trolley could do was regret his sweet tooth for crickets, because the added weight gain wasn't helping his cause. As the tree branch was succumbing to the strain, Thimbleweed said "Then prove it, sapo."
Trolley reached into his pocket for the missing pearl and held it out triumphantly. As everyone leaned forward to get a closer look, Trolley closed his eyes tight with the knowledge that his luck had run out. His life line, the tree branch, finally snapped in two. •
Only one box remained to carry down from the attic. Finally, Janus could move on with his life. With Mai long gone, he’d had plenty of time to think about all that went wrong.
“We’d better hurry, it’s getting dark,” the driver shouted from inside the cab.
Giving himself one final boost atop the ladder, Janus could see the lone box across the attic floor, sitting amongst the cobwebs. It was lit by a flue of blue dust traveling through a small crack in the north walls’ wood paneling. In spite of the unbearable heat, his tired joints, and the honking horn outside, Janus slowly straddled across the floor joists, careful not to put his foot through the exposed floorboard (the last thing he needed was the burden of repairs in the midst of a sale).
When he reached the far end of the room, he looked up, mindful of the low hanging rafters. The box was no longer where he thought it was. It had moved to the south end of the attic. Bewildered, Janus used his sleeve to wipe the sweat from his brow, then he looked forward and then again behind him.
“Just like Mai,” he said.
He could sense the cab driver’s impatience, but nothing could preclude Janus from retrieving this box. To strangers, it may be nothing more than a battered carton of abandoned relics, like those found in flea markets or garage sales. But to Janus, it housed a lifetime of treasured memories: shiny trinkets curled into hieroglyphic patterns reminded him of their travels to the other side of the world.
“How beautiful!” Mai once said, holding a delicate chain of silver made by the hands of children who twisted, fired and buffed the alloy using primitive tools. “I must have it.”
Countless moments such as these were captured in albums bursting with faded photographs. Even those occasions that were not quite forgotten but stored in the deep recesses of the mind, waiting to reappear at one’s loneliest hours, were buried here.
There was a neatly folded turquoise scarf with flecks of gold (just one of the many gifts they had exchanged during their courtship); a pair of tickets for a ferry ride taken the night of his proposal; Mai’s diaries and Janus’ sketchbooks, an archive of recorded trips to the zoo, hikes in the wilderness, and drives up the coast. Often, they played a game in which Mai would begin a poem in her journal and Janus would complete it with a pencil drawing in his. To anyone else, each book would appear to be nothing more than random, incomplete thoughts. Janus and Mai knew otherwise.
He didn’t know exactly how many diaries Mai had altogether, but one thing he did know for certain was she had one of them in her possession during her final days. It too disappeared without a trace. He recalled last seeing it laying on the bed by her side, looking just as worn, bowed, and helpless as she did.
At least she spent it here.
How much she adored this house, with it’s storybook pitched roof, bright bay windows and arched doorway; they knew it was theirs, from the moment they drove up its cobblestone driveway to the moment they made the offer.
“It’s lovely, Janus. This will be our home forever!”
By now the attic was so hot the dripping sweat and mournful tears were indistinguishable. His sodden sleeve proved as useless as the search for his missing wife the night she left him behind. That box was all that kept her close to him.
Janus gathered himself and turned toward it. He reached for the beam above his head with his fingertips and inched forward.
With the sunlight fading it was difficult to discern exactly where it was safe to step, so Janus took his time, occasionally looking in the direction of the box to ensure that his eyes had not deceived him. A startling horn blared from outside, causing him to lose his balance. Janus grabbed onto one of the aged rafters, splitting its spine down the middle, causing it to collapse onto his shoulder. Not since that fateful evening when he stepped away from Mai’s bedside had he experienced so much pain.
“I’ll be right back. I’m going to put on a pot of tea,” he said. When he returned, she was gone. The bed, with its pristine sheets was perfectly tended. Only the faint scent of his beloved remained on one of the pillows.
Over the next few months other cases of people vanishing in the same manner befell the community. Some from their homes, others from the town hospital. All of them terminally ill. Most alarming was that no one had any answers. To this day, the disappearances have remained unsolved. The result was a suburb in delirium. In a span of two years the once vibrant town had become little more than an abandoned settlement. With its barren streets and vacant buildings, the looted development stood frozen with hollow eyes and an expression of horror.
The final bit of light now extinguished, Janus heard the distant sound of a starting motor and the cab driving off.
Stooped in complete darkness, he labored back to his feet with one hand over his shoulder. He waited for his eyes to adjust before using his foot to feel for the floor joist. When he found it, he tapped it twice with the toe of his shoe before setting it down. When he swung his other leg over, he kicked over the box, which was now directly beneath him. The box burst open releasing its contents as Janus fell hard impaling his palm on a stray nail.
He cried out in pain as the items swirled around him. The air was a cacophony of celestial bodies colliding as the objects clashed and fell to the floor. Books and souvenirs battered the attic’s deteriorated frame before striking Janus on his legs and back. The room trembled, shaking up the soot. Janus could hardly breathe. At last, the final few loose papers scattered onto the attic floor and an old tattered three by five card landed on Janus’s bloody hand. It was a photograph of the newlyweds posing in their front yard with the inscription HOME, SWEET HOME.
Resting on his elbow, Janus sat in silence, unable to take his eyes off the picture. He brushed his wife’s cheek softly with his bloody thumb, staining the photograph. When he closed his eyes a quick chill, followed by a blanket of warmth flowed through his body. “Mai,” he whispered, before releasing his grip. •