The Preserved (Chapter 5)
I was driving Jean’s pick-up truck, an antique F-250, 1972, down 7th Avenue. The old truck ran smoothly, if not a bit hard on its heels. Its white on rust finish made it fade into the Miami traffic, a perfect camouflage from ‘them,’ I hoped. Nobody else gave me a second glance. Miami was about class, not rusty antiques.
The evidence from the City Lot was in my gym bag, but I had that feeling that I’d forgotten something. I was tired and hungry. Felt like I needed just little wind at my back. When you worked a case alone, it could get like that. And this one? A hurricane in the making.
Model City and Margie’s apartment were up ahead, but at rush hour, everything jammed. I wanted to poke around her apartment if they hadn’t locked it down yet. It could be a dead end, but people spent the most time at home -- usually. Margie was young. If she had a ‘silver ball’ under a brick, it could be anywhere – maybe even at the burned-out hulk of the Sentinels of the Sea.
The long accordion of brake lights aligned for the slow miles ahead. Twilight was grinding out the last bits of day, as downtown disgorged its suburban horde. Salmon returning to the spawning grounds.
Were we someone’s salmon, out there? Someone’s roe? I glanced at the few glowing stars blunted by the Miami smog, then dropped my gaze. Papa’s Chicken Restaurant was just ahead, steam puffing around the exhaust vents in the roof. Now that was more like it, I thought.
There’s no time like ‘rush hour’ to eat. It was a cop thing. An old joke. Like, what’s the first thing any good cop does when he reports to work? He plans lunch.
The Papas’ Chicken on 7th Avenue was one of my staples. Clean, fast service and good food. Papa had died last year, and I missed his big mouth. Always yelling in the kitchen. His sons, rushing back and forth, smiles pasted smartly. Respect and love, plain to see. It was a family affair, and everyone was part of it, so long as you paid. Even the cops. And that was why many of them went elsewhere. Tonight, nobody was yelling, but the chicken was still the same old Creole Supreme.
Afterwards, I was sitting in Jean’s parked pick-up truck, chin on the steering wheel, staring up at Papa’s face on the billboard. A tad drowsy from the biscuits, coleslaw, mashed potatoes and chicken.
Then it hit me. I hadn’t had time to sort everything out yet, and I would need some serious seat time soon, to do just that. For now, I was trying to keep my balls in the air, figuratively. But I had dropped one. I flipped through my notepad. It had to be there.
What had she said? What had Sheila said? Three bodies at the hospital? That had to be wrong. Two patients and a visitor?
What about the two dead guards on the floor, outside of my hospital room. Two burly guys, soaked in their own blood. I shook my head. Had I only imagined them? Wouldn’t the death count be five, at least? I thought Samantha would agree.
My notes confirmed it. ‘Deceased guards, two. White male. Hispanic male.’ I had the approximate time, date, address, witness (Samantha) information. Gunshot wounds. Multiple. To the back, both. Company: Secure Medical Facilities (SMF), Miami, Florida. I didn’t get their names.
I pulled one of the cash phones out. Jean that had given me three extra. I wondered if he knew more than what he was letting on? About this ‘Ghede’ thing? That it had to die. And about the ‘Rada’ – the good and bad spirit. I wasn’t one for fables, but why had Jean brought it up? Did his forefathers know something? Could some of these stories told by tribal people thousands of years ago have any basis in reality?
I flipped the phone open. Time to burn one, I thought. Trouble was, I’d probably get a visit. It was a chance I had to take, though. And maybe I could work it my way. If I couldn’t kill Jean’s ‘Ghede,’ maybe I could smoke some of its – what had Jean called them – ‘Petro Loa’s?
I stepped out of the truck. Looked around. Walked into the darkness behind Papa’s Chicken. There was an empty lot there. On the overgrown lot, around the corner, an abandoned house, boarded up. ‘Hurricane Irma: Go Away’ was still painted on the plywood that was nailed over the broken windows.
I drifted to the side of the unkempt yard, shuffled into the brush, knelt. I could see the boarded-up home and the street easily in the glow of the Papa's restaurant.
I turned on the cell phone. Dialed. A minute later I had Sheila on the line.
“You’re on the recorded line,” Sheila prompted.
I hung up. She called me back.
“Percy,” I answered simply.
“This your new number?”
“For now,” I said. I was checking how many bullets I had left.
“What can I do you for, Percy? They have us on overtime. I’m practically living here. We all are.”
“Okay, but I need to update you too.”
We went over the reported deaths at the hospital. Where each body was discovered. Sheila detailed it again, quickly. She seemed impatient with me.
“Nothing else? I mean no other bodies?”
“Like I said,” Sheila replied, “same, same. Wait, should there be more bodies at the hospital?”
“The room I was in. The small Nurses’ Station and corridor. What about that?”
“From what I know Percy, it’s a charred ruin. They are still amazed you got out, alive.”
“No bodies in that corridor?”
“Listen, Sheila. There were two guards outside of my door at the hospital. Ask Chuck. Get their names. Find those bodies. Find out who they were. Someone must be looking for them.”
“Will do.” Sheila sounded tired.
“I got to go. Will call you from another number, when I can. And Sheila?”
“Get some sleep. Use my office.”
“Thanks, but they have your office sealed.”
“Do you know where a Samantha Gallagher is?”
“Yes, she’s safe.”
“Good. She was on a missing persons list.”
“Yes, reports are coming in from all over Miami. People are going missing. More than I’ve ever seen. That’s what I wanted to tell you.”
“Are they mostly younger?”
“I’m not sure. Wait one.” I could hear her typing.
“What is it Sheila?”
“What about them?” I asked.
“None are earlier than 1998. Most are earlier. We even have infants missing.”
“It keeps growing. We are at…42 now. An hour ago, it was at 24. What’s going on?”
“Not sure, but I’m working on it.”
“Work fast, Percy. Things are getting weird around here. Officers are getting a little freaked out. There have been reports of…”
“Strange tall people appearing and then vanishing, usually in and around where people have been reported missing. Is it them, Percy? The ones you talked about? Should I hide my kids?”
Shit. This was getting completely out of hand. Knee deep now.
“Bring them to the station, Sheila.” I tried to stay even. “Tell everyone to do the same.” I was standing now, no longer trying to hide in the damned bushes.
“Everyone?” I paused. “Is this happening anywhere else?”
“I checked on that, but no. Only in Miami Beach. They are sending officers in from all over. Homestead, Boca Raton, even as far as Cocoa Beach.”
“How about me?”
“What do you mean?”
“They still think I’m part of the problem?”
“Yes, but they are coming around. And something else.”
“The news agencies, TV, radio – are all blocked.”
“We are getting word out through a single cell phone with some kid’s ‘onion’ app – I forget what it’s called – but his phone is all we have.”
“Then how are we talking?” I asked.
“I don’t –"
The line buzzed. Sheila was gone.
“Hello,” a voice said. I recognized the tone of it.
“You again? What’s the deal?” I asked. “Why do you need to take people?” I didn’t bother with the Mr. Blue label. Now he – it – was just a piece of shit that needed flushing.
“Ah, Detective, I knew it was you immediately. I liked the conversation you had with your friend. So worried about her children. How touching.”
Jesus, this guy or thing, was whacked. I was holding the phone away from my face. It was warming now.
“About the stock – the missing humans – I have, how can I say this? I have quotas to keep. And once you disturbed my processing center, well, I had to improvise, as you humans are so fond of saying.”
The phone was becoming uncomfortably warm now.
“Hey, how about you and I having a heart to heart here – leave this cell phone alone – I want to ask you a few questions. I promise, I’ll be nice.” I was walking now, looking for a place to ditch the cell phone if need be.
The cell phone cooled perceptibly.
“Thanks. Now before you send your goons after me, tell me, just who or what are you?”
“You know, Detective Percy, I’ve advised few humans of my true origin, but I think this time, since time is short, as they say, I will indulge. Your world will soon become what it must be.” He paused.
Vague answer, I thought. I checked my cell phone, it still felt cool to the touch. By now I was standing on a dimly lit porch of the abandoned house. The boards came away easily. Kids and crackheads had probably been by.
“Can you be more specific?” I asked.
“Forgive an old ‘Ghedian.’ We are an ancient species. In fact, the timescale of our origins would baffle you. Suffice to say, Detective, we have traveled far and conquered much. Your Solar System is next. Soon the Mass, what you might understand as our governing system, will come.”
While the ‘Ghedian’ talked, I had grabbed the gas cans Jean kept in the bed of his truck, under a tarp – he was always prepared – and a roll of duct tape, rags, and a cigarette lighter from my hit kit. I ran back to the abandoned house, hoping I was not attracting the attention of the diners at Papa’s Chicken.
The ‘Ghedian’ was still talking. Giving me an abbreviated version of its reason for being here – on earth. The fact that Jean had called it a ‘Ghede’ and it was calling itself a ‘Ghedian’ wasn’t lost on me.
“This Mass, what do they want?” I asked the ‘Ghedian,’ a bit out of breath. At the front of the abandoned house, I soaked the doorway, the porch and an old couch with gasoline. I shoved the rag in the can, screwed the cap on tight, then shoved the can under the cushions of the couch.
“The Mass does not want. The Mass simply takes,” the ‘Ghedian’ said. On an on. Almost like poetry. Clearly, it liked to listen to itself talk.
I was inside now. In a foyer. To the left, a bare linoleum floor, littered with used syringes, beer bottles, old blankets, empty boxes of Papa’s Chicken. I filled up the bottles with gasoline and taped some of them to the boarded-up windows – in the seams of the boards – so I could see them from the outside. The blankets I soaked with more gasoline, threw them over the kitchen cabinets.
It was going to be hot in here. I hoped Papa’s Chicken was far enough away.
The ‘Ghedian’ was still droning on.
“The Mass takes people? Why?” I interrupted, holding the phone against my cheek with my shoulder as I worked. Hoping he’d keep it up.
Laughter. A hollow sound, like the hissing of a broken tea kettle, slowly cooling.
“It consumes as any species consumes. It builds and conquers, just as humans have done for thousands of your years. Your Romans. Your Viking armies. Your bloody past.”
“What of peace, cooperation? –"
“We have come far,” I said. “Some problems, but we trade more than we kill, now.” I was trying to keep him talking. I kept working.
I found the back door and shoved. It popped open, but I shut it. Pushed an old table in front of it. Piled the chairs on top of it. I needed something that would burn easily. I found a smelly sleeping bag. Soaked it with gasoline and shoved the half-full gas can inside. I hung the bag over the table and chair pile. It would have to do.
I headed for the garage now, where I’d seen a side door, covered by debris -- on the outside.
“No matter, the event is near,” the ‘Ghedian’ continued. “And, Detective?”
I stalled. I was removing the debris from the side door, trying to keep enough of it in place to hide this exit. This was going to take a bit of timing. I was soaking the final blanket, then I set it next to the side door on a turned over grocery cart. My breath now came in gulps. Sweat streamed.
“Yes, Ghedian?” I said as calmly as I could manage.
More laughter. Hissing. “Call me Theodore Katz,” it said.
“Teddy?” I was through screwing around. “Are you a Ghede?” I moved to the front of the abandoned house. The front door was open. I had a clear view of the street.
Laughter. Hissing. “You’ve discovered some of our lore? African or Caribbean?”
“Does it matter?” I asked. “I understand that you and ‘Rada’ don’t get along so well!”
The phone was becoming warm. Much too warm. Teddy was pissed now. I had struck a nerve.
“Send in your ‘Petro Loa’ bitches!” I shouted, then I terminated the call.
I tossed my cell phone into the front yard. Immediately ran to the back door, almost tripping in the darkness. I lit the sleeping bag on fire, watched as the flames licked the ceiling. At that same instant I heard a popping sound. Had to be the cell phone exploding in the front yard.
If I was right, I should have some guests about now. Wrong? I’d have some explaining to do.
I returned to the front foyer in time to see four of them stepping out of a black void into the front yard. Bingo.
Uzi’s drawn, three now stood in front of one, scanning the area. A dark aperture closed behind them. I hoped they hadn’t seen the smoke coming from the back of the house yet.
I waved, but they didn’t see me in the darkness. I opted for surprise, instead of confusion. Stepping onto the porch I drew my pistol a fired. The center one folded backward, almost hitting the one behind it. That ‘it’ behind, looked familiar, even in the semi-darkness of Papa’s Chicken Restaurant lights.
They were fast.
Two split off, running blurs, heading to either side of the house, but not yet firing. The one in the middle, who looked familiar, held something up and began to step backwards. Was that that ball thing again? No time to think.
Just as the two blurs started to fire from the sides, I took a shot at the stationary target in the middle and ducked back into the house. I didn’t know if I had hit it as it disappeared into that dark doorway, but the new holes appearing in the wall near my head convinced me to run like hell.
I scrambled to the garage at a run. Once inside I quietly closed the door, then padded across the garage to the outer door.
I heard one of them buzz into the house from the front door, firing as it came. It sounded like dozens of hammers on the wood floors. More speed running then. More shots. Did these things have unlimited bullets?
I stayed low and hustled to the side garage door. Peeked outside, just as blur pounded by. Likely it was the other one. It had seen the fire at the back door and was now coming to the front, to help its buddy. My diversion had worked.
Slipping out of the side door and into the yard, I heard the first one inside again. It had entered the garage, Uzi firing wildly. I lit the blanket and tossed it at the side door and debris. It caught immediately, fire crawling up and into the eves in seconds. I started to run, just as bullets traced a line into the door I had just ignited.
Now I was taking the biggest risk. I hadn't actually seen the second one enter the house, but I could hear it. It was inside, on the opposite side, in one of the back rooms. Machine gun fire echoed. Behind the boarded-up windows, continuous flashes of light.
I ran. These two were shooting up everything, taking no chances.
As rounded the corner of the house, I stopped, fumbled for the cigarette lighter. Got it going. Reached into the brush beside the house and pulled out the Molotov ‘beer bottle’ cocktail I had prepared. Lit it. Tossed the cocktail at the front door. The bottle shattered, sending flames cascading onto the front porch. Flames traced a path from the door to the ratty couch. A moment later the gas can – the one I had sealed and stuffed inside the couch -- exploded violently. The front of the house was now engulfed in flames.
A second explosion. The gas can in the sleeping bag at the back door. Now several smaller explosions. The taped-up beer bottles, shattering. The neighborhood was brightly lit, smoke pouring from the shattered windows, flames were curling around the plywood boards that were covering the windows.
The Uzi firing stopped suddenly. I could see more flames spreading inside of the abandoned house, from the back rooms toward the front. If I timed it right, they should be near the big front window about now. Their one avenue of escape.
I gave them another moment. Saw shadows cross behind the boards.
I fired. The bottle I had taped to that window, full of gasoline, whooshed inward. A flash of fire. My little duct taped surprise had worked.
Circling to the front door, I waited. That one escape remained.
It wasn’t long. The first one leaped through the flames of the front door. It was on fire. It rolled to the walkway, began to thrash, pulled at its clothing. Yanked its hair off – its fiery wig – sending it into the bushes.
Two shots silenced it. I kicked the burning wig onto the sidewalk and stamped it out.
I waited for the last one. Nothing happened. The house bloomed now, fully engulfed. The diners at Papa’s were beginning to line the street. Some were on their phones, recording. Others were holding buckets of chicken, refusing to let a random house fire interrupt their dinner.
A machine gun blazed from inside, then went silent, stayed silent. Everyone ducked, even me. We waited. Moving to get a better view I saw the last one. It was at the threshold of the front door, cooking.
I walked over to the smoldering one, decided to use Jean’s nickname – Petro. Bent over Petro and wrote a message on its crispy forehead. When I stood, the thing was already evaporating. Shimmering away. Like Samantha said -- they were teleporting. It seemed logical.
I looked back. The one I had shot earlier was already gone.
Walking away, one of the people in the crowd asked me who I was.
I turned, soaked with sweat, streaked in grime, and said, “Detective Percy,” I held up my badge. “Has anyone called the Fire Department?” I asked.
A few of them nodded.
“Good,” I said.
I went to Jean’s truck, started it and pulled into traffic. Looked back at the blaze and the confused crowd. I’m going to have to report that, I thought.
But not now.
She heard laughter at one point. At least it seemed that way, but a short while later – crashing. As if someone was throwing things and screaming at a subordinate. Then silence.
Margie was still seated in the large oval room. Ted Katz hadn’t yet returned, but there had been a visitor.
Of all people, Corwin had stopped by. Her one-day boss. He had an ear missing. Where it should have been, there was now a blue smear, like grease.
Corwin approached, held a silver ball over her stomach and moved it in a circular motion. It reminded her of a scanner, but also of the mouse she had taken from the Sentinels of the Sea. The one she had hidden in a thermos and buried under a brick at a neighbor’s house.
Corwin held out the same kind of silver looking ball for her to observe. A questioning look. Now an accusing one...
Katz had never mentioned it directly, but he (or it) had implied that he wanted something from her. Was the floating mouse the thing he wanted? She suspected otherwise.
“You should return it,” Corwin said.
He knew. Did Katz know? She decided to push him. What else could she do?
“Why? Mr. Katz never asked for it.”
Corwin cringed. His ear leaked a blue fluid.
“Oh, I see. He doesn’t know…” she said.
“I could kill you now –”
Sasha’s head popped up. Yellow fangs and a low growl. Tension building in her powerful looking shoulders.
“Are you sure?” Margie pointed at Sasha.
Tabitha now took a strategic position behind Corwin.
“Who are you really, Mr. Corwin? You work for Katz?”
Corwin had backed away from the dogs, confused. Why was Katz sparing her? He thought a moment. Yes, that had to be it. The coupling. Katz still had his needs. A weakness of a pure biological, Corwin knew. He had no such needs.
“Ms. Gallagher, I only conduct certain business arrangements for Theodore Katz,” Corwin stated. “You are Mr. Katz’s entertainment. His permanent guest.”
“Permanent? Why?” Margie stood. Sasha mirrored her movements.
Corwin had climbed the wide steps toward the triangular doors, now. He was leaving.
“You have something that belongs to us and Katz will kill you if you do not return it. He might spare you, if you cooperate.”
Bullshit, Margie thought. I’m screwed either way. The doors opened, Corwin was stepping through.
“What happened to your ear, asshole? Did Detective Percy miss?”
Corwin stopped for a moment, turned. “Tell me,” he said, “what does ‘I’m crashing your party’ mean?”
“A message from Percy.” Corwin turned and left. The large triangular doors sealed shut behind him.
Margie thought she had struck pay dirt. Maybe Detective Percy had shot him. But when and where? The injury looked recent. But why blue? Did Corwin have some colored ointment on it? If fresh, it meant what exactly? And ‘crashing your party’? It meant that he was coming! But why would Corwin tell her?
And what was so important about that darned silver ball? She wondered. It must be more than a simple floating computer mouse. And Ted Katz has no idea it was missing? How were Katz and Corwin related. Master and slave? Commander and his troops? The later sounded more like it. Maybe they didn’t get along.
And the fact that she herself had scratched a message on the underside of her car’s trunk, after having been shoved inside, tied and gagged, made it more important that someone did find it. But that goon Martin had probably burned her car or dumped it in a lake.
Margie felt that she wasn’t being rescued. She felt abandoned, like when her mother ‘died.’ Died without a body? Where was she buried then? Grandmother never said. Why? Because she didn’t know. What was the big secret?
He’d slapped her hard after he found out that she had loosened her restraints. Martin was definitely human, but something was weird about him. He was a shell of a man. It was like dealing with computer. Half of the time he had ignored her. At other times, he seemed…too interested. Was he a bipolar sex fiend?
Still, there was an odd resemblance between Martin and Corwin. Not physically, but what? Emotionally? Some thread of something, for sure. She could sense it, but not understand it.
Margie did not have the energy to scratch another message out when Martin had dumped her in the second car. Besides, he’d wrapped her in plastic by then. But, she vowed to fight the moment he dared untie her.
Sasha didn’t leave her side after the Corwin incident. And Tabitha stayed by the big triangular doors, where Corwin has exited, sniffing around every so often.
As the day wore on, occasionally, each dog would leave, exiting through a small aperture that opened as they approached. Margie walked near the exit the dogs used, but it remained sealed.
Margie could see the dogs running along the blue flowers outside when they left, one at a time. The dogs would run along the perimeter wall and return. Each time the dogs returned, invariably they would drink water from a small fountain, eat from a basin full of dog food, about waist high, and settle back down for guard duty; and naps. They seemed bored and unhappy.
Occasionally, one dog or the other, would sit up at stare at her. Margie had a distinct impression, that in those moments, the dogs were not ‘home.’ That someone or something else was doing the looking. Was it the same for Martin and Corwin? Was that the feeling she was getting? Like some sort of temporary possession? Some evil spirit taking over, just for a moment, using their bodies?
Margie shook it off. Based on what she had seen over the last few days, anything was possible.
At Sasha’s next nap, Margie reached over and, carefully, pet her. Her coat was rough and stiff. Like she was not properly cared for. Tabitha stood, walked to the edge of the top step, and watched, but didn’t interrupt. When Margie looked back down, she saw that Sasha had opened her eyes and was staring at her, but not growling. Margie hesitated, but resumed her petting. If she was going to bite, so be it, she thought.
But Sasha didn’t bite. She relaxed and enjoyed the attention. Her head down now, Sasha began to dream once again. Margie could see it in her movements. Almost as if she was fighting something. Running away now, urgently.
Margie stared at the stars in the dome above her. They were there, always. The upper dome seemed to be in permanent state of night, the lower sides letting in the natural light, during the day. Only now, the night was complete.
As the symbols – this strange language – repeated, Margie began to see subtle patterns. Red flashes, the diamond shaped ones anyway, always winking on before dusk. Just above the miniature green ocean, the three diamonds would merge and below, the three floating islands, obvious representations of huge cities, moved to join as one.
At dusk, the islands in the giant green pool embraced, the high thin clouds changed to lavender, from their daytime purple and now the low bronze cumulus type of clouds turned a deep red. The three merged red diamond symbols, previously floating above, were gone. They had been replaced by a huge copper moon, spinning on its side, as rings of green flame pushed slowly outward, eventually licking at the sea and the single larger combined island, below.
The ocean had changed as well. No longer a boiling mass of serpents, it was as glass, nearly translucent. But beneath the quieting surface, things were rushing into the depths, madly fleeing.
Margie moved closer to the display, trying to get a better look. Why were these sea creatures swimming away? Without warning the copper moon ejected a fiery ring that ignited placid surface of the sea, roiling it anew.
Oh, that’s why, she thought. An ocean of fire. That must suck, she thought.
But the sequence was not finished.
The islands once again separated. Between them, something stretched now. It appeared to be surfacing from the fiery waves – a triangular shape. Then the shape burst high into the sky, piecing the low plump red clouds, writhing in agony. A serpent of gargantuan proportions. Its head pointed and short fangs, half again as large as the city islands themselves. The massive beast was pierced by long taunt cables, anchored to each city island. And yet the beast shook them, made the islands rock in the waves.
The finale was an anticlimax. Instead of some giant hero, sweeping into the scene from the clouds with a giant sword, a simple vessel approached from above. The serpent saw the small shape approaching and attempted to lash out with its long tail, but the nimble vessel easily maneuvered away. Then with quick slicing motions, the vessel itself projected a flat beam of red light. The serpent had been cut it two. It’s enormous head sliding away, its body slithering into the depths of the sea.
What could only be described as fireworks shot high above the islands. The whole affair had been a ritual killing. A celebration of morbid intelligence over a powerful beast.
To Margie, it was both mesmerizing and insane. A water world of emerald seas by day and emerald flames, at night. Serpents as large as cities. Why would anyone want to live there? Was it a real place or imagined? Somehow, Margie sensed that what she was watching was real – or had been real in the distant past.
Sasha awoke with a jolt and gave a thankful glance. She traded places with Tabitha. It took a few moments, but Tabitha also relaxed on her side. After some time Margie began to pet her, though more carefully than she had with Sasha. In a few minutes, Tabitha slept, snoring and…whining. Her dreams even more fitful than Sasha’s. Night terrors came to mind.
Margie moved closer. Felt Tabitha’s warmth. The dog visibly calmed with the contact. It was then that she noticed something strange about Tabitha’s collar.
© 2018 Jack Shorebird