Sunday, June 19, 2016

Return to Forsythia, Part One

Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! The night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! In my fashion.
—Ernest Dowson

* * *

The woman looked just the way my client had described her: Tall and slender, long black hair streaked with silver, with a crescent-shaped scar on her chin. Her eyes were icy gray, like icebergs in moonlight rushing toward the Titanic.
            She walked across the coffee shop’s dirty gray tile in a long black coat and high heels like a supermodel on the runway. The customers around me probably all wondered why she was walking up to my table. So would I. A young black guy in a denim jacket winked at me. His blonde girlfriend kicked his knee.
            “Are you Tom Jurgen?” She peered down at me as if she’d expected someone who looked tougher, meaner—more like a private detective. That happens a lot. I’m not exactly Humphrey Bogart material. More like David Schwimmer with less hair.
            “Yes.” I shrugged. “Are you Cynara?”
            She dropped a white envelope in front of me. “I’m only here to give you this.”
            Again, just like the client had told me. “Is there anything else?”
            “The location is there. Nine tonight. Don’t be late.”
            “Thank you.” I slipped the envelope into my jacket and stood up. “Can I get you a latté or something?”
            She smiled and shook her head. “Maybe in another life.”
Norman Bell—my client—lived in a small townhouse on Chicago’s west side. The sidewalk leading up to the door was cracked, but the doorbell worked fine. The door shot open immediately when I buzzed.
            Tall and lanky, in his sixties, Bell had thin gray hair and bushy eyebrows, along with a salty grizzle on his cheeks. A scowl of impatience curled his face as he snatched the envelope from my hand. “Thanks. Come on in.”
            All he’d hired me to do was meet Cynara and take the envelope. He wouldn’t explain why he’d hired a private detective instead of doing it himself, but that was his business. A few hours’ work wouldn’t mean much money, but it was simple and would help pay my Internet bill for the month.
            “Okay.” Bell folded the paper up and jammed it back in the envelope. “Will you come with me tonight?”
            I didn’t have any hot dates. “Where are we going?”
            Bell bit his lip. “It’s a cemetery.”
            Uh-oh. “We’re not going to raise the dead, are we?”
            “No, no. Nothing like that. It’s just . . .” He leaned against the sink and looked me over, suddenly nervous. “I’m going to get my son.” He pointed to a picture hanging on the refrigerator door. “That’s him. Greg.”
            Greg had long gangly arms and a baseball bat slung over one shoulder. He grinned, shy and maybe a little bored at having to put up with another picture by his dad. He looked about twenty-one, skinny and tall, but he had Bell’s blunt chin and broad shoulders.
            I nodded. “Okay. What’s going on?”
            Bell ran a hand over his rough face. “I called you because people told me you handle cases that are, uh, unusual. Outside the regular PI stuff.”
            Yeah. I do have a reputation for getting involved with weird activity—ghosts, vampires, the occasional demon. It started when I was a reporter, and either the weirdness was following me or I was following it. It made for a strange assortment of clients and cases, but it was also turning my hair gray faster than I liked.
            So I nodded. “Should I bring a stake and some holy water?”
            Bell shook his head. “It shouldn’t be dangerous. I just may need some help when he shows up.”
The cemetery was just outside of Evanston. Bell had apparently made some kind of arrangement for us to get inside—and hopefully back out again—because the gate was open even though the sign warned that it closed at eight. I followed his car down an empty road through the darkness, and questioned, yet again, my choice of occupation. Mom still reminds me that I could still go back to school and become an accountant.
            We stopped close to the west wall of the grounds. Bell led me past gravestones and flowers, scanning names with his flashlight. I tried not to think back to all the Buffy the Vampire Slayer reruns I’d ever watched, and managed to resist jumping every time a twig cracked under my shoes.
            Bell finally stopped in front of a broad maple tree near a tombstone named “Forsythe.” It listed a married couple who’d died three days apart in 1932. Broken heart? Murder/suicide? The stone didn’t say.
            Bell reached into his back pocket and pulled out the envelope. He unfolded the letter inside. I caught a brief glimpse: a few lines of instructions, and then words in no language I recognized. He held his flashlight over the page. “What time is it?”
            I looked at my watch. “Two minutes until nine.”
            He sighed. “Okay. Stand near the tree.” Bell cleared his throat, licked his lips, and began to read.
            You hear a lot of different languages in Chicago, and I’d run across a few nonhuman languages from other realities too. This didn’t sound like any of them.
            Bell’s chant went on for five minutes, until I began to wonder if one of us was being scammed. My feet were getting cold, and the wind was whirling around us. But I stayed put, watching the tree, listening to Bell’s voice.
            He paused once, then started again, hoarse and insistent. I plunged my hands into my pockets, shivering, and thought about a warm cup of coffee. Even if it was overpriced.
            The tree began to shake. The roots shifted in the earth, rising up and down under my sneakers. I took a step back, nervous and faintly nauseous. Bell kept chanting, his voice louder now, and the wind kicked up as if a tornado were circling the graveyard.
            Splinters of bark flew through the air. I planted my feet on the soft ground and crouched, ready for whatever happened. I hoped.
            Then the tree split open as if struck by lightning.
            I saw a blue star in a white sky, and field of yellow grass. Then a shadow, long and large, blocked the light.
            A body lurched forward through the gap in the tree. Lanky like Bell, probably in his late twenties, the guy was dressed in some kind of tunic and breeches and boots that looked made of deerskin, like Daniel Boone or an extra from The Last of the Mohicans. He tripped over a root and tumbled to the ground, groaning.
            The tree closed up like a curtain sliding shut after a magic show. The bark threaded back together, and the roots went back to sleep.
            “Greg!” Bell darted forward. “Oh my God, you’re here! Are you all right? Greg?”
            I knelt next to them, my heart still pounding. “Is this your son?”
            Bell grabbed his shoulders. “Greg—it’s me. It’s Dad. You’re back. You’re here.”
            Greg’s eyes flickered. “What?”
            His body shook. He stared up into the cloudy sky through the branches of the tree, and then he closed his eyes and bit his lower lip. “No . . . no . . .” He shook his head back and forth as spasms ran through his body. “No . . .”
            “Help me get him to the car.” Bell moved around to grasp his shoulders.
            “He may need a hospital.” But I crawled over to take his legs.
            “He’ll be fine.” Bell’s throat was raspy. “Just let me get him home.”
            “No,” Greg moaned. “No . . . Shiola! I have to . . . Ohhh . . .”
            We lifted him. Bell took most of the weight. We got him down the hill to the Nissan and laid him in the back seat. Greg as he whimpered softly as Bell strapped seatbelts around him, and he seemed to go to sleep by the time his father slammed the back door.
            Bell turned, leaning against the car. “Will you come back with me? I might need help. You can bill me for all of this.”
            I certainly would. “Of course. Just be careful driving.”
            He peered into the back seat. Greg was rocking back and forth, breathing slowly but steadily. “I will.”

We carried Greg into Bell’s townhouse, but he started to wake up as we planted him on the living room couch. “Shiola . . .” he insisted. “I need to—”
            “Greg!” Bell shook him by the shoulders. “You’re home! It’s me! Dad! Are you all right?”
            Greg sagged on the couch. “Dad?”
            Bell leaned down and wrapped his arms around his son. “Oh, thank God.”
            Greg forced himself to sit up. His eyes were cloudy, and he was still breathing in long gasps. He coughed. “Oh, God. Where am I? Where’s Shiola?”
            “You’re home.” Bell looked up at me. “Get him a drink of water, will you?”
            Greg clutched at the tall glass I brought, his hand shaking. “Oh-oh-oh-” He dropped the glass on the carpet and leaned his head back, his legs flailing. “Uhhh . . .”
            “It’s a seizure.” I ducked as he came close to kicking me in the face. “If it doesn’t pass soon, you’re going to need to get him to a hospital.”
            I held him as firmly as I could firmly while his body trembled with uncontrollable spasms. His tunic felt rough and scratchy, like pioneer clothes straight from a Little House on the Prairie convention. His face was dark, burned by the sun, and a thin beard covered his cheeks and chin.
            Greg looked up at me. “Who are—” Then he closed his eyes his head twitching back and forth as he gasped for breath.
            “All right.” Bell stood up and grabbed a phone from the table. “I’m calling an ambulance. I’m just glad he’s back.”
            From where? Bell seemed to know more than he was telling me. But that happens. “Good,” I said.
            “You don’t have to come.” Bell pressed the 911 digits. “Just send me your bill in the morning.”
            “That’s fine.” I was a reporter too long to want to drop this before I knew what was going on. But this was a family thing. I’m a private detective now, and if the client didn’t want me there, I had to live with that. “I’ll wait for the ambulance.”
            “Thank you. Yes, My name is Norman Bell, and I need an ambulance for my son—”
            Greg sat up. “Shiola! Where is  . . .”
            Then he sank back down on the couch and closed his eyes again.

So the next morning I slept late—eight o’clock—and by nine I’d finished my invoice for Norman Bell and was working on research for another case. It involved dirty pictures and sexual harassment, which was actually a relief after the night before. I was pretty sure I could nail the executive sending the photos around his company with a little work, and that made me happy. Then my phone buzzed.
            Bell. “I’m sorry.” He sounded tired. “Can you come around to the hospital this morning? Greg is better, but I’d really like some help with this.”
            “Of course.” I hadn’t sent the invoice yet. “I can be there in an hour. What’s the situation?”
            “Do you know anything about . . .” He lowered his voice. “Other dimensions?”
            I leaned back and looked at my coffee. “A little. Do you mind if I bring in another associate? Her rates are—”
            “Jesus, bring anyone you want. Just . . . I don’t know what to do.” He sounded close to collapse.
            “I’ll be there.”
            We hung up. I looked at the invoice I’d prepared for Bell, and filed it instead of sending it. Then I made a call. 

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