Greg F. Gifune
“Evil is obvious only in retrospect.”
“He’s still out there.”
As he sat up, Jeff’s perspiration-soaked back peeled away from the bed sheet. He squinted drowsily at the clock on the nightstand. The numbers were a jumbled blur. “What are you doing up?”
“I couldn’t sleep.” Perhaps carelessly, Eden stood nude at the apartment window. “I needed something cold to drink.” She held up a bottle of water in evidence. “It’s after midnight and he’s still out there.”
“Of course he is.” Jeff swung his feet to the floor. “That’s where he lives.”
“It’s ridiculous. No one should be living on the streets in this day and age.”
“I’d call the cops,” he said through a yawn, “but they won’t do anything.”
“Why would calling the police be your first reaction? He’s not doing anything wrong. He’s not a criminal, Jeff, he’s homeless.”
“Let him be homeless someplace else.”
“Don’t be so cruel.” Eden ran the cool plastic bottle across her brow and down along her flushed cheek. “He’s harmless.”
“How would you know?”
“He seems harmless, OK?”
“The guy’s probably a drunk or a drug addict-maybe both-and there’s a good chance he’s mentally ill. Most of them are, you know.”
“Well I feel sorry for him,” she muttered.
“Bums are bums for a reason. They’re usually bad news, these guys. For all we know he could have a criminal record a mile long.”
“And he could just as easily be someone who caught a couple bad breaks and found himself out on the street.”
Jeff searched the nightstand, located his eyeglasses and slipped them on. “Jesus, get out of the window.”
“It’s dark, he can’t see in.”
“No wonder he’s been trying to talk to you lately.”
Eden pushed a wisp of short brown hair from her eyes. “If you don’t get a job soon we’ll be out there with him. And then people like you can say horrible things about us too.”
“People like me?”
“You used to be a lot more compassionate.”
“That’s when I could afford to be. I don’t see anybody helping us, do you? We’re all on our own in this life.”
“And here I thought we had each other.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Not sure I do, actually.”
“Don’t turn this into an argument, OK?”
Eden delicately placed her free hand flat against the screen, as if to touch the night itself, or perhaps escape into it. “The bills are piling up.”
“I’ll take care of it.”
She faced him, pale breasts cutting the darkness. “If something doesn’t break soon-”
“I said I’d take care of it.” Jeff stood, peeled his boxers from his thighs and headed out of the room. “I need some aspirin.”
Eden looked back at the street two stories below. The man huddled at the base of their steps was watching her. He could see her, and they both knew it. For reasons unknown even to her, Eden felt inexplicably drawn to him ever since he’d first appeared on their street a few days before. Ignoring the rapid beat of her heart and the tingling in her nipples as they slowly stiffened, she wiped a trickle of sweat from between her breasts but made no move to cover them. The man gazed up at her, a crippling sorrow filling his eyes as he slid one hand down the front of his soiled pants.
She held his stare with an impassive version of her own. The man’s hand moved slowly at first and then more quickly. He nodded at her, encouraging her to take it farther, his hand jerking furiously now. She could see his lips moving but couldn’t hear what he was saying, just vague whispers in the night.
The man took a quick look up then down the avenue. No traffic, no one else on the street. As his stare returned to her, he unzipped his pants and pulled his erection free, stroking himself in plain view.
She stared at what he’d exposed, knowing it turned him on.
A throaty moan escaped him, echoed along the otherwise empty street.
Eden closed her eyes. A shiver breached the stifling heat and coursed through her. Absently, she dropped a hand to her upper thigh, fingertips just inches from the soft mound of pubic hair and the beginnings of wetness between her legs.
“I’ve got a splitting headache.” Jeff’s voice snapped her back as he returned to the bedroom. “Not sure if it’s allergies or what.”
She casually slid her hand up onto her waist. “It’s probably stress,” she managed, clearing her throat.
Jeff sat on the edge of the bed and watched shadows slink along the smooth contours of his wife’s bare back. Glistening with perspiration, her flesh looked like it had been sprayed down with a fine mist. “I was having a dream,” he told her. “Just now, before I woke up.”
“What was it about?”
“I was here, in the city, but I was lost and I couldn’t find you.
It was like I had no memory of the city at all. I just kept aimlessly wandering the streets looking for you. I looked everywhere, but I couldn’t find you.”
“It’s OK,” she said softly. “I’m right here.”
Eden opened her eyes. The homeless man was gone.
Jeff left the apartment earlier than usual. As he exited through the main doors at the end of a small lobby, he saw the man sitting on the front steps. His clothes were filthy and ragged, his thinning dark hair snarled and matted, and the scraps of material covering his feet just barely qualified as shoes.
“Excuse me,” Jeff said firmly, “but I’ve asked you not to hang around here. If you keep it up I’ll have to call the police, understand?”
The man looked at him through bloodshot eyes and scratched at the heavy growth of stubble along his chin. “Why do you hate me?” he asked in a raspy voice.
Eden’s face came to him just then, her words from the night before ringing in his ears. You used to be a lot more compassionate. Jeff continued to the bottom step. “Look,” he said, attempting a considerate tone, “I don’t hate you, all right? But you make a lot of people in the building uncomfortable.”
“Then how come you’re the only one who gives me a hard time? I’ve never done anything to you.”
“Don’t you have anywhere else to go?”
“If I had anywhere but the street, don’t you think I’d be there?”
Jeff found himself studying the man closely for the first time.
They were roughly the same age, middle thirties, and he couldn’t help but wonder how things might’ve been different had their lives taken even slightly altered courses. Maybe they’d have been friends or colleagues, or maybe their roles would’ve been reversed. “Isn’t there anyone who can help you get on your feet?”
“I wasn’t born like this you know.” The man did his best to smooth his hair into place with his grimy hands. “I used to have everything you’ve got, things just went bad. It happens.”
Jeff reached for his wallet. “Listen, I just lost my job recently so I’m not in a position to do much, but let me give you a few bucks.
Go get a bite to eat and clean up a little.”
The man stared at the twenty in Jeff’s hand. “I don’t want your money.”
“Just take it and go, all right?” Jeff thrust it at him a second time.
The man struggled to his feet and slowly walked away.
Whatever, Jeff thought. I tried. He returned the money to his wallet and started off in the opposite direction along Massachusetts Avenue. Their apartment, located in Boston’s Back Bay, was only a few blocks from the Boston Commons public park. Their neighborhood consisted largely of residential three-story walkups sandwiched one against the next that catered mostly to long-term tenants or college kids renting apartments from local college-owned buildings. But for the nearly constant traffic along the avenue, it was a nice area, though one Jeff couldn’t be sure how much longer they’d be able to afford.
He turned at the corner and continued on until he’d reached Boylston Street. There he stopped at a newsstand, bought a Boston Globe then crossed the busy intersection leading to Copley Square, a large cement park between the Hancock Tower, a shopping complex and several enormous old churches. He sat on a bench, watched the intricate water fountain at the center of the square. It was still early, but the commuters and businesspeople were already hurrying about on their way to jobs, juggling briefcases and coffees, babbling into cell phones and furiously texting on their BlackBerries. Not so long ago he’d been just like them, and now here he sat on a park bench like some loser. With a weary sigh, Jeff opened his newspaper to the “ Classified” section.
He’d not been scanning the ads long when he noticed a strikingly attractive young woman scoping out the square. Dressed in a pinstripe skirt-suit and black heels, she stood out from the crowd and looked like an up-and-coming business executive, her raven-black hair styled perfectly, her makeup flawless. Sexy but professional, she held a leather briefcase in one hand and a cell phone to her ear with the other. She caught Jeff looking at her, smiled, then after saying something into the phone, slipped it into the side pocket of her briefcase and started toward him with a confident and purposeful stride.
Holy shit, she’s coming over here. Heart racing, he quickly pretended to return his attention to the newspaper, but she’d already closed the gap between them.
“Hey there,” she said, her smoky voice laced with a slight raspy quality. “How are you?”
Jeff looked up over the paper as if he’d just noticed her. “Oh hi,” he said, nervously clearing his throat. “I’m fine thanks. And you?”
“Outstanding.” She bent her knees and placed the briefcase on the ground next to her, then reached inside the main compartment and removed a flyer of some sort.
Christ, he thought, she’s selling something. Yet the woman looked far too well-dressed and successful to have a job peddling wares or handing out flyers to strangers on the street.
“I hope you won’t think I’m being too forward, but may I ask a question?”
Jeff’s cynical instincts kicked in but he still couldn’t seem to get beyond how gorgeous the woman was. “Sure,” he said, setting the newspaper aside, “ask away.”
“Are you looking for work by any chance?”
“It’s that obvious, huh?”
“Well, let’s see. It’s a little before nine in the morning on a weekday, you’re sitting on a park bench rather than on your way to work, you’re dressed casually-which means it’s either your day off or you’re unemployed-and you’re reading…” With a mischievous glint in her eyes she looked to the bench and zeroed in on the newspaper, “…the classified section. Call me crazy, but I bet you’re looking for a job.”
“Impressive.” Did I just wink at her? I did. Jesus. “Are you a detective?”
“So I’m not under arrest then?”
This time she did the winking. “Not yet.”
Gushing like a schoolboy, Jeff laughed longer and louder than seemed necessary. Why am I so nervous? You’d think a beautiful woman had never spoken to me before. Eden’s gorgeous, she-EDEN-shit, right, Eden. Ratchet it down a few million pegs before you get yourself in trouble, dipshit.
“Check it out.” She thrust the flyer at him, her bright smile still in place and her dark, exotic and catlike eyes studying him.
“It could change your life.”
Jeff took the flyer. It advertised interviews being conducted later that same day but gave no indication what the jobs were and no specific information
about the company itself. IF YOU’RE SERIOUS ABOUT CHANGING YOUR LIFE WE MAY HAVE THE EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY YOU’VE BEEN SEARCHING FOR. FOR ONE DAY AND ONE DAY ONLY, INTERNATIONAL FACILITATOR, INC. AND ITS CEO AND FOUNDER, WORLD-RENOWNED ENTREPENUER F. HOPE, WILL BE CONDUCTING EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEWS IN YOUR CITY. IF YOU’RE RIGHT FOR US THIS COULD BE THE FIRST STEP TOWARD MAKING YOUR DREAMS COME TRUE.
He’d never heard of International Facilitator, Inc. or F. Hope, but whoever they were it was obviously some sort of con. Legitimate companies didn’t recruit employees with street flyers. Probably a sales seminar conducted by some douche bag with a middle-of-the-night infomercial, Jeff thought. A self-appointed expert sharing his ‘secret’ of success if you’ll buy his insanely overpriced videos and books. Get in on it now and I’ll make you rich. Uh-huh, sure you will.
“It’s not what you think,” the woman assured him.
He looked up at her questioningly.
“The expression on your face gave you away.”
He attempted to hand the flyer back. “Thanks, I think I’m all set.”
“I don’t want to be a bother,” she said, sliding onto the bench next to him. “But do you mind if I ask your name?”
Up close she was even more beautiful, and smelled intoxicating.
He felt himself blush. “Jeff.”
She extended her hand. It was dainty, with small, thin fingers, nails manicured, tapered and painted power red. “Jessica Bell.”
He shook her hand. It was warm and soft and he felt a tingle that began in his lower back spread out across his entire body the moment they made contact. “Jeff,” he said again, head spinning. “Jeff McGrath.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Jeff.”
“The pleasure’s mine.” He hoped to come off suave but knew he was more than likely making a fool of himself. He hadn’t seriously flirted with anyone other than Eden in years and it showed.
“Frankly, Jeff,” Jessica said in a conspiratorial tone, “I’d no longer have any interest in setting up an interview for you if you weren’t skeptical. I know this whole thing seems suspect, but trust me, it’s no scam. This is one of those instances in your life when you can either walk away or seize the moment, you know? A few years back, when one of his other recruiters approached me and handed me a flyer, I thought it was all a crock too. I was in New York, and I’d been working as a secretary at an accounting firm and taking acting classes at night. I wanted to be an actress back then, before Mr. Hope showed me my full potential. Anyway, I’d just been let go from the firm due to budget cuts and I was in trouble, a small town girl not long out of junior college and all alone in the big city, right?
But I figured I had nothing to lose, so I went to the interview just for the hell of it. It changed my life, Jeff. It changed my life.”
Jessica crossed her legs then smoothed the skirt down over her knees.
“You see, what I didn’t know then was that the recruiters are trained to spot potential, to look for certain signs in individuals that indicate they might be right for our company. Back in New York the recruiter saw those signs in me. Just now, Jeff, I saw them in you.”
Even though he knew it was probably all part of some carefully calculated pitch, he couldn’t help but feel a bit flattered. Losing his job had damaged his self-esteem and confidence, and there were worse things than having a beautiful woman sit so close and say nice things about him. “I’m curious,” he said, “what exactly are those signs?”
“We’re talking intangibles here.”
“Can’t even give me one example?”
She thought a moment before answering. “What I do involves instinct, utilizing a highly-developed ability to spot that special something in people that sets them apart. Strength, confidence-”
She relaxed her smile into something a bit more genuine. “And need,” she confessed softly. “But if you’ll notice, Jeff, this area is mobbed with people. The only person I’ve given a flyer to is you.”
“Well, so far anyway.”
“No. I was just about to leave when I spotted you sitting here.”
She drew a deep breath and let it out slowly, turning away from him and gazing out over the square. “Did you lose your job recently?”
“A few months back.”
“I’m well-trained. Were you in management?”
“Right again. Twelve years with the company, nine in management.”
He arched an eyebrow.
“I’m good, not psychic.”
Jeff chuckled. “It was a high-end car audio business. We did sales and installation, but unfortunately the giant discount stores have wiped out most of the specialty chains.”
“I noticed a wedding band. Do you have children too?”
Jeff relaxed a bit and decided to enjoy the game. “You tell me.”
She turned back to him, looked deep into his eyes. “No kids.”
“No.” Jesus, he thought, I’m actually swooning. “Not yet anyway. Hopefully at some point soon but right now we’re not in a position to-”
“Your wife works but doesn’t make a whole lot, right? It’s not enough, is it, Jeff? You’re in financial trouble.”
“It’s getting tough, yes.”
“Then tell me, what in the world do you have to lose at this point? There are a very limited number of slots, and I’ll be honest, I only get paid if one of my finds actually gets hired. So if you’re really not interested just tell me now, OK?”
“I thought I already had.”
“OK,” she said, hopping back to her feet, “it was nice to meet you then.”
“Wait,” he said. “How am I supposed to know if I’m interested when I don’t have any particulars? I don’t know what the job is or what your company does.”
“It’s a multifaceted company,” she told him as she sank back down to the bench. “A great many tentacles, if you will, involved in a great many ventures. It’s better to attend the interview and speak with Mr. Hope directly. He can give you the specifics and discuss things with you in detail. If I didn’t think there was a position you’d be qualified for or worth training for, Jeff, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you. Look at me, I was a secretary and was trained to be a recruiter, something I had no experience or even interest in until I was hired and saw the potential not only in the position, but in myself.”
“Is this a company or a cult?”
“Oh, definitely a cult,” she cracked. “But you don’t get your official robe and hood until you eat your first baby under the light of a full moon.”
Jeff couldn’t take his eyes from her. “The interviews are today?”
“Yes, Mr. Hope will only be in Boston a few days. His time is limited.”
“What the hell,” he heard himself say, “I’ve got nothing else to do anyway.”
“Where and when?”
She consulted her watch, which from the looks cost slightly more than his car. “The next available slot is around noon, 11:45, to be precise.”
“Good, then I have time to run home, get into a suit and grab a resume.”
“Not necessary. You’re fine. Listen, have you had breakfast?”
“No, actually, I-”
“I’m starving.” Jessica stood up, straightened her skirt and picked up her briefcase. “Want to join me for a bite to eat then we can head over to the interview? I’m staying over at the Plaza. They have a nice restaurant there. I hate eating alone, don’t you?”
Jeff willed himself to remain seated. “I’m flattered, but my wife wouldn’t-”
“It’s OK, really.” She smiled at him the way a child might smile at a puppy. “You love your wife and you don’t fool around. I respect that, says a great deal about your character. But I was talking breakfast, not a weekend in Aruba. I’m thinking coffee, maybe a bagel and some conversation, nothing spectacular or adulterous. Unless,” she said, leaning closer, “sharing a pitcher of orange juice constitutes cheating, in which case we’re into some seriously scandalous shit.”
You ass, he thought. She wasn’t making a pass, she was just being nice. Or could be she’s afraid if she let’s me go now I’ll blow off the interview later.
“Come on, breakfast’s on me.” She offered him her free hand.
Still mesmerized, Jeff placed his hand in hers. “OK.”
Afterward, Jeff and Jessica took a cab to a small office building tucked away on an out-of-the-way side street in a drab neighborhood not far from the waterfront. They rode in awkward silence, Jessica fiddling with her cell phone-perhaps texting someone, he didn’t look closely enough to know for sure-and Jeff trying desperately to remain calm and appease the tempest raging in his head. He’d no longer wanted to go to the interview, but had gone along anyway, allowing Jessica to lead him there as she might a pitiful, guilt-ridden dog on a leash. But all he could see, all he could think about, was Eden.
And the very thought of her devastated him.
What have I done? Why did I-what have I done?
The building was old and dreary, just one in a line of several brownstones that had been converted into office space. Most looked unoccupied, and but for one burned-out carcass of an automobile near the end of the block, there were no parked cars or any signs of life whatsoever. Jeff took it all in, his depression and regret growing stronger with each passing second. Just tell her you’ve changed your mind and you’re no longer interested. Tell her you’re going home.
When the cab lurched to a stop Jessica put her phone away and turned to him, making eye contact for the first time since they’d left the hotel. “Ready?”
Looking into her eyes he found it impossible to be angry with her or to feel anything but the primal attraction that had gotten him into this in the first place. He nodded submissively and forced a smile.
Once inside the unmarked building they arrived at a modest reception area, but the desk where a receptionist should’ve been sitting was empty. The office space was clearly a short-term rental, had a transient, unfinished feel and possessed no indicators that identified it as belonging to or being associated with any particular company or cause. Just beyond the reception area a row of plastic chairs sat in a line against the wall along a narrow hallway leading deeper into the building. Jessica told him to have a seat then slipped into the first office, closing the door behind her.
The building was eerily quiet, the usual din of city noises hushed here. Somewhere far off, the sound of a slowly dripping faucet echoed about with maddening repetition, but he couldn’t quite hone in on its point of origin. At the very end of the hallway, in an open doorway which led to another part of the building he couldn’t make out from there, Jeff noticed a man who looked to be in his late fifties or early sixties standing in the shadows. Was he waiting for an interview too, was he an employee, or was this F. Hope? Dressed in an inexpensive black suit, a white shirt and a skinny black tie, the man was unusually tall-probably close to seven feet-and thin to the point of appearing emaciated. He was bald with pointed features, his face long, drawn and skeletal.
Though he was a good thirty feet away, Jeff raised a hand, offered an apathetic wave and mumbled, “How’s it going?”
He watched Jeff with the dark, sunken eyes of a man shackled with profound sorrow. His pale thin lips parted, as if he were about to respond, but then he seemed to think better of it, and with a slight nod of his head, turned and disappeared through the doorway.
What the hell am I doing here? Go-I-I should just go. Now, right now.
Jeff dropped his face into his hands and fought the desire to weep. He’d never felt so alone in his life. After a moment he looked up. There was no one else around, why not just get up and leave?
He was about to do just that when the office door opened and an elderly man poked his head out. “Mr. McGrath?”
“Please.” The man stepped back and opened wide the door. He was dressed in a cream-colored summer suit, his snow-white hair neatly combed into place, straight back and away from a face with badly aged features. Jeff guessed that in the man’s youth those same features had been chiseled, and he’d probably been quite handsome. “Won’t you come in?”
On shaky legs, Jeff entered the windowless office. Sparsely furnished, with only a meeting table and two plastic chairs, there was a box of donuts, a coffeemaker and a stack of Styrofoam cups at one end, and a clipboard with a standard employment application at the other. On the far wall, another door through which Jessica had apparently gone prior to his arrival stood closed.
“Hope,” the man said, offering his hand, “Foster Hope.”
“Jeff McGrath.” As they shook hands Jeff was struck by how clammy Hope’s palm was. Like shaking hands with a corpse, he thought. And is he kidding with that name?
“Since I’m sure you’re wondering,” he said with a wry smile, “yes, that is my real name. You don’t honestly think I’d make up such a thing, do you?”
“No, sir,” he answered, attempting a smile of his own.
Hope released his hand and motioned to one of the chairs. “Take a seat.”
Jeff slid into the chair closest to the door as the old man sat in the other. Hope shifted his position so he was facing Jeff. With a small frame and pale complexion, he was rather unremarkable, except for a pair of piercing green eyes that were so bright they looked artificial. Jeff figured them for contact lenses.
“So you’re looking for work.”
It wasn’t a question but he answered it anyway. “I am.”
“Hardly uncommon these days, I’m sorry to say.”
“Rough economy right now,” Jeff agreed, “lots of people out of work.”
“I’m actually semi-retired,” the old man said. “As luck would have it I did quite well for myself, but my time’s passing. There comes a day in everyone’s life when it’s time to step aside for the next generation of go-getters.”
“Plenty of go-getters,” Jeff said, “just not enough jobs.”
“Of course it was a different time when I was coming up. I went to war when I was young, but once it was over and I came home my father built a house for my new family and me and we settled in nicely. Things were different then, easier, not so complicated as the world’s become since. At any rate, he was quite talented in that regard, my father, one of those men with a natural gift for building things, you know the type. I always envied him that, as I had absolutely no skill in those areas whatsoever. I’d always been a good talker, though, had the gift of gab as they say, and I’m a good negotiator, so I became a salesman. Ms. Bell told me you’re in sales too.”
The very mention of Jessica brought visions of Eden crashing down on him again. Guilt struck him like a baseball bat to the back of the head.
“Well at least up until a few months ago, eh?” Hope smiled as if pleased. “Car audio, wasn’t it?”
“Are you feeling all right?” Mr. Hope adjusted his already perfectly positioned necktie. “You look a tad peaked.”
“I apologize. I’m just tired, haven’t been sleeping particularly well.” Jeff cleared his throat and sat up straighter in the chair.
“So what exactly does your company sell?”
“Oh, I’ve been in sales for years now, little of this, little of that, but a long while ago I found my niche in insurance.”
Inwardly, Jeff cringed. In sales circles the only thing worse than selling cars was selling insurance. It was the end of the road for most salespeople, and unless you were exceptionally good at it and more than a little lucky, insurance was one tough way to earn a living. “I don’t mean to be rude, but if it’s a position in insurance sales you’re offering, I-”
“I don’t recall offering anything.”
Jeff drew a deep breath. “I understand. I’m just not interested in-”
“Tell me about your last job.” The old man put an elbow on the table and let his chin rest in his hand, those severe green eyes glittering like emeralds.
“I worked for a company over on Tremont Street,” Jeff explained.
“Unfortunately the big discount chains made it impossible for us to stay in business. Twelve years and just like that I’m out on the street.”
“Dreadful,” Hope sighed, “positively dreadful. Do you have a family?”
“I’m married but we don’t have children.”
“Does your wife work?”
“She’s a receptionist.”
“At least you’ve got her income.” He seemed more upset with the situation than Jeff was. “It’s unforgivable the way companies treat people nowadays. Shameful, particularly in this economy, or lack thereof, I should say.”
“Well, I like to think that any good salesman isn’t unemployed long.”
“That’s a sound philosophy, young man.” Hope looked away a moment, as if he’d slipped into deep thought. “I understand you’re not interested in selling insurance, and while that is part of what we do here at International Facilitator, Inc., it’s only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. We sell many things and offer many services.
Tell me Jeff, do you have your heart set on a sales position, or might you be interested in a slightly different line of work?”
“Sales and sales management are the only things I’ve ever done.”
“Then maybe it’s time to try something new.”
“Maybe it is.”
“Remember the old tale about the man that discovers a genie in a bottle, frees him, and is granted three wishes?” He smiled warmly, revealing a large set of chalk-white teeth that were obviously dentures. “Have you ever thought about the wishes you’d make if you were that man?”
Oh spare me, Jeff thought, here comes one of those lame scenario deals where he makes a point, shows you how clever he is then thinks your answers will actually give him some deep insight into who you are . “Not really, no.”
Mr. Hope slowly blinked his eyes. “I know it sounds silly, but it’s actually a good way to gage a person. One’s answers tend to reveal an awful lot about the individual.”
Fine, just play along. “Makes sense.”
“If you could have only one wish, Jeff, what would it be?”
“You mean besides world peace?”
His answer seemed to amuse the old man. “Yes, besides that.”
“I’d like to be financially independent.”
“If I never had to worry about covering the rent or credit card bills, car payments-all of it-if I could live without having to worry about all that stuff and just be financially independent, I’d be the happiest man in the world.”
“You want to be rich then?”
“That’d be nice, but I’d be happy just being comfortable enough to be able to pay our bills and live life without constantly having to worry about money.”
“And what would you say if I told you I could grant such a wish?”
“Let me guess. You’re a genie.”
“Wouldn’t that be something?” The old man laughed heartily and waved a liver-spotted hand in the air. “No, no, I’m just a businessman, Jeff. Although, at the risk of sounding rather crude, a very successful, wealthy businessman.”
“Well you certainly have my attention, sir.”
“Good, because the position I think might be right for you pays quite well. If you’re able to perform your job successfully, it could easily yield a level of compensation that would make your wish for financial independence a reality. So as you can imagine, we don’t just interview anyone for this kind of position. It takes someone special. Are you special, Jeff?”
“I’d like to think so.”
“You seem like a nice young man, a bright, articulate, hardworking and conscientious fellow, someone who could not only use a break, but someone who deserves one.”
“Thank you, I appreciate that.”
“Jeff, I’ve spent my life reading people. In sales you have to immediately discern a person’s strengths and weaknesses, you know that yourself. The best salespeople are excellent judges of character, and use that to their advantage. I’ve been around a long time. I know a good man when I see one. You’re just down on your luck, that’s all.”
Jeff crossed his legs and attempted a relaxed posture. “So what kind of position are we talking about then?”
“Specifically, I have an opening for a negotiator. My company employs several to handle negotiations with clients when it becomes necessary or when it’s beneficial for us or both parties. I’ve found those with sales backgrounds tend to be perfect for the positions.”
“I see,” Jeff said, though he had no idea what he was talking about. “So, negotiations as in…”
There was a soft but sudden knock on the interior door. As Mr. Hope turned in its direction, it opened and a mousy middle-aged woman in a frumpy dress leaned into the room, her brown eyes comically large due to a pair of eyeglasses with black plastic frames and unusually thick lenses. “I’m sorry to interrupt, sir, but you have an extremely important phone call.”
“Thank you, Ms. Gill. Tell whoever it is I’ll be with them momentarily.” He struggled to his feet with a weary sigh as the woman retreated, closing the door behind her. “Jeff, go ahead and fill out an application.” He slid the clipboard over to him. “It’s just a formality, really, but a necessary one. I won’t be long. This shouldn’t take but a minute or two. And help yourself to a cup of coffee, perhaps a donut.”
Once Hope had left the room, Jeff took a look at the application.
It was generic and unimaginative and requested little beyond the basics: full name, address, social security number, phone number, education and work history and two lines for references, one personal, one professional. He considered the application a moment, unsure if he wanted to continue. You’ve come this far, he thought. Might as well stick it out and see what happens. What happened earlier is over and done with, and nothing can ever change that now. He sighed, ran a hand over his face and back through his hair then picked up the pen lying next to the clipboard. A new and lucrative career could solve all their problems. You’ve done some stupid-ass shit in your life, but you really stepped in it this time, boy. You fucked up, and huge, but this might be a way to do something right. If this job pays as well as Hope says it does and you get it, you could go to Eden with some good news for a change. Clear your head and get in the game, moron, this could be your one chance to really come through for you and your wife. And you owe her, you piece of shit.
Jeff poured himself a cup of coffee then filled out the application.
While awaiting Mr. Hope’s return, he heard strange shuffling sounds in the hallway behind him, and then muffled voices beyond the door on the back wall. Jeff couldn’t be certain but one of the voices sounded like Hope. The tone indicated he was reprimanding someone, though it was hard to tell for sure.
Not long afterward, Foster Hope returned to the room, closed the door and sat in the chair he’d occupied earlier. “I apologize for the interruption. I’m sure you understand these things are often unavoidable.”
“Perfectly understandable, sir,” Jeff said, game face firmly in place.
“Where were we?”
“We were about to discuss specifics regarding the negotiator position.”
“Of course.” He crossed his legs and assumed a more relaxed posture. “I’m from the old school-call me foolish if you will-but I’ve never believed in the need for formal written contracts unless it’s absolutely necessary to protect both parties. In my day, for the most part, a person’s word was sufficient. And do you know why, Jeff?
Because in my day one’s word had significance and meaning, it meant something beyond words or even intentions. It had weight, do you understand?”
He gave a sheepish shrug. “At any rate, due to the way in which I sometimes conduct business, it becomes necessary for one of my negotiators to convince clients that they need to do the right thing.
Settle their accounts, fulfill whatever they agreed to in a given business deal, etc. Most of the time it’s a simple oversight or miscommunication, but now and then people actually try to double-cross us. Regardless, these matters must be attended to and resolved, and that’s where the company negotiators come in.”
“Isn’t that why God created lawyers?”
“I promise you, God had nothing to do with the creation of lawyers.” Hope chuckled softly. “No, these situations are delicate and need to be handled with the utmost care, professionalism and above all, discretion. Those who can perform these duties well are not easy to find, Jeff, so when we come across someone we feel is right for the job we pay them handsomely.”
That’s the deal then, this is some sort of criminal enterprise, Jeff thought. I should’ve known this was all too good to be true.
“With all due respect Mr. Hope, I’m a salesman, not a leg-breaker.
If you want to hire a goon to lean on people there are plenty of characters in the city that do that kind of thing. I’m just not one of them.”
“No, you misunderstand, that’s not what I’m looking for at all. I abhor violence, even the mere threat of it. I’ve seen violence, real violence, and there’s nothing glamorous or appealing about it, trust me. Anyone that’s ever traversed a battlefield will tell you the same thing. I simply need someone to calmly and rationally convince delinquent clients that it’s in everyone’s best interest if they do the right thing. It’s a negotiation, not a threat or intimidation.
Who better than a gifted salesman like yourself to talk to someone and sell them, in a sense, on the appropriate course of action?
Besides, the kind of scum you’re referring to are wholly unnecessary in these situations. It’s been a personal policy of mine for years to never deal or interact in any way with those sorts of individuals.
Frankly, they scare me. I’m a legitimate businessman, Jeff, not a criminal.” Mr. Hope scratched at his cheek delicately and smiled. “I need people I can trust, people with ethics and morals, businesspeople, professionals. I need someone who can do this job correctly, in a civil manner, and if that someone has a particular need that I’m in a position to meet by hiring them in exchange for their services, all the better. Of course even if we did decide to offer you the position, were you to find it unsuitable, simply resign and we’ll part as friends. But hopefully you’d find it to your liking, remain with us and excel in the position. However you must also understand that you’d begin on a trial basis. Generally the period only lasts the length of a single assignment, and we make a decision from there whether it’s working for us or not. Again, if not, we part as friends. But if we like what we see once you’re in action then we move forward together and welcome you permanently to the International Facilitator family.”
Though Hope’s explanation helped to soften his initial apprehension, he wasn’t sure he liked the emphasis the old man put on the word permanently. It was an odd conversation at best, and with a total stranger to boot, but curiosity had slowly gotten the better of him. He still knew virtually nothing in terms of specifics, but that would come later. He needed this job and the hefty salary promised along with it. “Well I hope we can pursue this then,” he said. “I think I’d like to learn more and see where it takes me.”
“Splendid.” Hope rose to his feet and gave Jeff a pat on the shoulder. “We’ll review your application information and someone will be back to you very shortly, most likely later this evening or perhaps tomorrow. If you haven’t heard from us by tomorrow evening you can assume we’ve decided to go in a different direction. I thank you for your time.”
“Not at all, thank you, sir.” Jeff stood and they shook hands.
“I look forward to hearing from you.”
“I take it you can see yourself out. Good day.”
Jeff watched the old man turn and stride off through the door, uncertain if this was the luckiest day of his life, a total waste of a few hours, or if he’d just met the Devil himself.
When Jeff returned to his apartment building he saw that the homeless man had again taken up position on the front steps. Though it annoyed him he was too distracted by everything that had taken place that morning to give a damn. Rather than confront him he simply flashed the man a dirty look then started up the stairs without comment.
“You should stay away from her.”
Jeff froze, slowly turned back to him. “Excuse me?”
“The woman you were talking to before.” The man looked up at him.
“You should stay away from her.”
Anger welled in him, followed by a touch of fear. “What woman?”
“The pretty one you were talking to in Copley Square.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes you do.”
“Have you been following me?”
The man shook his head and sighed.
“Answer me,” Jeff said, moving a step closer.
“No,” he mumbled, “I haven’t been following you.”
“Then how do you know about her?”
“I was already hanging at Copley Square. A vendor there gives me a pretzel for free every morning. He’s a good guy. Anyway, I saw you talking to that woman. Then I saw you two leave together.”
“Yeah, well that’s none of your business.”
“She offered you work, didn’t she?”
Jeff tried to swallow, nearly choked. “How do you know that?”
“Guy like me, I see a lot, hear a lot. Most folk-especially city folk-don’t notice someone like me. No more than streetlights, garbage cans or telephone wires running over their heads. It’s all right there in front of them, but they learn to filter it out until they don’t even see it anymore.”
“Apparently you missed your calling as a poet, but-”
“I’m just saying you should stay away from her is all.”
“And why would you say that? Do you even know who she is?”
“It was a business meeting and none of your concern, I-for Christ’s sake-I don’t have to stand out here and explain myself to some homeless loser like you.” Jeff stabbed a finger at him. “You stay the hell away from-”
“I’m trying to help you.”
“Well if you don’t mind I’ll skip the life advice from the local neighborhood bum.” Jeff started up the steps again then thought better of it and turned back. “I’m not telling you again. Stay away from me, my wife and this building. Got it?”
“I’m not some piece of garbage, you know,” the man said, his face a mask of sorrow. “I’m a human being, the same as you.”
“You’re nothing like me.”
“Neither is your wife. She’s a very nice person.”
“Leave my wife out of this.”
The man struggled to his feet and stumbled back a few steps, bloodshot eyes never leaving Jeff. “She’s beautiful, intelligent, caring and very giving.”
“Get the fuck out of here or I’ll call the cops.”
“Do you ever wonder what she sees in you?”
“I’m warning you, asshole.” Jeff’s hands clenched to fists.
“Or I’ll kill you.”
“Go ahead.” The man smiled. His teeth were brown, many were broken, his gums bloody and diseased. “I’m dying anyway.”
Jeff was still taking the stairs to his apartment when his cell phone began to ring. His former coworker Craig Henderson’s number appeared on the small screen. They’d worked together for years and Craig had become his closest friend in that time. “Hey, man.” Jeff pinned the phone between shoulder and cheek as he fumbled keys from his coat pocket. “What’s up?”
“Got some great news.”
“Good, I could use some.”
“You know that general manager gig I was going for at that independent superstore on the cape? They just called me back. I got it.”
Jeff unlocked the apartment, slipped inside, closed the door and leaned back against it. “Congratulations, Craig, that’s awesome.”
“Here’s where you come in. I can replace any existing staff I want. If you’re up for running the car audio department I’ll bounce the current guy.”
The idea that someone else would have to lose their job in order for him to get one was troubling, but Jeff told himself he couldn’t worry about such things. “It’s a bit of a commute but yeah, of course, definitely.”
“Not exactly sure what the salary is because I haven’t seen the budget yet, but from the numbers they threw at me I know it’ll be real close to what you were making before. I start next week. You’d be starting about a week later.”
“Sounds good.” He pushed away from the door and tossed his keys on the kitchen counter. “I’ll take it.”
“Then consider yourself hired, bro. I’ll be back to you in a day or two, soon as I know the particulars. I’m taking Katy and the kids out to dinner tonight, the drought is officially over!”
“Craig, seriously, man, thank you. You just saved my ass.”
“You’d do the same for me. Talk to you soon.”
“Later.” Jeff disconnected then forced himself to stand still a moment and take it all in. The guilt about what had taken place earlier continued to throttle him relentlessly, but for the moment it took a backseat to relief and joy. He knew it would be a long time-if ever-before he’d be able to forgive himself for what he’d done, but at least at this point the job would allow him to get them out of debt and back on the right track. It also meant he could forget about Jessica Bell, Foster Hope and whatever the hell their creepy company was all about.
From now on, I’ll make it right. I’ll do everything in my power to make Eden the happiest woman on the face of the Earth. I’ll never screw up like this again.
With newfound purpose, Jeff showered, changed his clothes then headed out to the local market. Without care for what things cost, he filled a shopping cart and got all the items he’d need to put together a romantic dinner at home. He’d get the apartment cleaned, make a nice meal, maybe light a few candles and then, over a glass of wine, break the good news to Eden.
He had just unloaded all the groceries when a call came into the house phone. “Hello?”
He recognized the voice immediately but pretended he hadn’t.
“Hi. I wanted to let you know we’ve reviewed your application and everything seems to be in order. Mr. Hope has given me the authority to go ahead and offer you the position. He’ll discuss salary and benefits with you himself. He’d like you to come into the offices where you interviewed tomorrow morning for an orientation and-”
“Jessica, I’m sorry to interrupt, and please tell Mr. Hope I appreciate the offer, but I’ve actually taken another position.”
“But again, thanks for your time and-”
“Jeff, this is very disappointing.”
“I’m sorry, but as I say, I’ve already accepted another position.”
“I hope this isn’t about what happened between us.”
He pinched the bridge of his nose, hoping to head off the headache that was drifting in behind his eyes. “That was a mistake,” he said softly. “I’m not upset with you, I-it’s not like we planned it, we-it just happened and I feel terrible about the whole thing. Look, I’d rather not discuss it, OK? I have to go.”
“So there’s nothing I can do to persuade you to-”
“No, there isn’t.”
“Mr. Hope will not be pleased.”
“I apologize if I wasted your time or his, but-”
“Did you hear what I said? Mr. Hope will not be pleased.”
OK, enough. “Well that’s too bad, Jessica, but not my problem.”
“Are you sure?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” He shuddered from a sudden chill as a quick burst of nervous laughter escaped him. “Are you threatening me?”
“I’ll let Mr. Hope know of your decision. Good luck to you.”
Though the line clicked and fell silent with disturbing finality, Jeff couldn’t shake the feeling that he hadn’t heard the last of these people.
– 5 Eden entered the apartment looking haggard and exhausted, purse slung over her shoulder, a plastic bag containing items she purchased from the local drugstore in one hand and her keys in the other. Just inside the door, she hesitated and looked to the table. It was set with their good china and silver, their best cloth napkins and draped with a matching tablecloth. Red candles burned in silver holders on either side of a beautiful flower centerpiece, and the aroma of broiled steaks and a hint of garlic filled the air. She smiled cautiously as she dropped her purse on the counter and crept deeper into the room.
He stepped in from the kitchen wearing an apron, a large serving spoon in hand. “Good evening,” he said through a wide smile.
“What’s all this?”
“I’m making us dinner, steaks-and not just any steaks but top of the line Porterhouses-angel hair pasta with shrimp in butter and garlic sauce, and a freshly-tossed garden salad. I also grabbed a bottle of really good wine, so why don’t you go get changed into something comfortable and I’ll pour you a glass?”
“Dinner should be ready in about fifteen minutes.”
She slumped against the counter, deflated. “Sweetie, are you out of your mind? We can’t afford all this.”
“Oh, but we can.” He grinned.
She watched him a moment, waiting. “We can?”
“Remember the job down the cape Craig was up for? He got it.”
“He called this afternoon and offered me a position managing the car audio department. I start in two weeks. Don’t have an exact figure on the salary yet but he said it’d be in the same ballpark as what I was making before.”
Eden stared at him as if he’d spoken Swahili.
“Well don’t just stand there looking all gorgeous,” he said, playfully pointing the spoon at her. “Go get changed. Let’s celebrate.”
Without a word she vaulted across the space separating them and threw her arms around his neck with such force they nearly collapsed.
Laughing, Jeff held her in his arms as she peppered his face and neck with kisses. “Oh Jeff,” she said breathlessly, “I’m so happy, I-are you happy?-we were in so much trouble, you have no idea how bad-this is great!”
“We’re going to be just fine,” he told her, his free hand gently stroking her cheek. Feeling her so close to him and so happy filled him with a rush of joy he hadn’t experienced in months, but it made the guilt stronger, too. She was so beautiful, so unaware, so completely trusting. How could he have betrayed her?
Before he could think anymore about it, Eden kissed him again.
One kiss became two, and two became three, and finally, as they kissed passionately she dragged him back across the room until they had both fallen onto the couch, laughing and tickling each other.
“Dinner!” he reminded her.
As they settled down, him atop her, she gazed lovingly into his eyes and held him close. “Let it burn.”
Later that night rain fell over the city but did little to combat the oppressive heat. Jeff drifted off to sleep listening to its steady cadence, oddly aware that the sound was shifting, changing and slowly becoming something else…the faint rhythm of ancient Arabic music echoing in his ears, the ethereal cries of exotic flutes and various percussion instruments dancing and swaying about him like whispered remnants from some distant time. And then from the darkness came blinding light. Stretched out before him was an open expanse of desert for far as the eye could see; the sand so pale it was nearly white. Shuffling beneath a blistering sun, Jeff trudged up the side of an enormous dune. As he reached the summit he saw a lone tree in the valley between this and the next dune. Large and peculiarly jutting up out of the sand, the tree’s branches were long-dead, gnarled and reached toward an unforgiving sky. Lying at its base was a leopard, its deep golden color and spotted coat contrasting sharply against the white sand. As the music grew louder and more intoxicating, a woman emerged through the waves of heat rising from the desert floor as if she’d been burned into existence just then by the relentless sun.
Nude and glistening with sweat, Jessica, curled up next to the beast, her hair a wild and tangled rat’s nest, eyes wide and smeared with swathes of thick black makeup, lips painted blood-red. Her hands slid back and forth with erotic precision along the leopard’s flank.
Jeff froze, heart racing. The leopard blinked slowly, watching him with regal indifference as a low growl emanated forth, majestic and violent.
The distant horizon began to shift and change, growing darker then darker still as the beginnings of a storm roiled and surged across the desert, kicking up great black clouds as if summoned straight from the bowels of Hell.
And somewhere in the turmoil, he heard Jessica laughing seductively.
The sound of voices woke him, luring him from sleep gradually. As Jeff drifted closer to consciousness he realized he was not in a desert but the relative safety of his own bed. Still, he was certain he’d heard voices. The bedroom windows were open, perhaps the intrusion had come from outside and could be blamed on inconsiderate passersby having a late-night conversation.
Still trying to sort out the thoughts filling his head, he reached for Eden. She was next to him, nude and asleep on her stomach, her back rising and falling in a slow and steady rhythm, bare skin damp with perspiration.
The apartment still smelled vaguely of dinner, and as the strange visions from his dream faded, Jeff felt himself smile.
Draping an arm across his forehead, he watched the darkness move gracefully, like water stirred by a gentle breeze. It seemed almost… alive.
He listened a moment. The voices had stopped.
Maybe I was still dreaming when I heard them.
Jeff closed his eyes and zeroed in on the downpour a while.
Through the soft hissing rain the voices returned, this time sounding like they’d been whispered from somewhere inside the apartment. He opened his eyes and looked to the door. It was open.
He brought his hand down to his face, rubbed his eyes and fought a losing battle to suppress a yawn. Once it passed, he drew quiet, shallow breaths and strained to listen. Nothing…
His head tingled, and the sensation quickly moved through him, as if his entire body had fallen asleep. Jeff blinked a few times and ran a hand over his chest. Like Eden, he was damp with perspiration.
He wiped his palm on the sheet and struggled up onto his elbows, propping himself into a semi-sitting position and focusing his vision as best he could.
Something shifted, separated from the darkness…something in the doorway. Or was it the door itself? Was it moving… closing?
Jeff squinted into the darkness. My glasses…
He knew they were on the nightstand where he’d left them, and his mind told him to reach over, pick them up then switch on the nightstand lamp, to call out and warn Eden that there was an intruder in the room, to jump from bed and confront whoever had broken into the apartment. But he couldn’t move. He tried to scream, but could only manage a choking sound.
The door swung partially closed, enough to reveal that someone had been standing behind it all along. An indistinct silhouette crept across the wall…
Foster Hope stood mere feet from the bed, glaring at him excitedly with the same yellow eyes the leopard had possessed in Jeff’s dream.
But before he could fully comprehend what he was seeing, the old man’s eyes turned black and cold and his lips quivered into a hideously demonic grin. A tongue, impossibly long and black, darted from his mouth like a snake, slithering about as if for purchase.
I’m dreaming, I-this is a nightmare, just a nightmare-I’m dreaming .
Hope’s liver-spotted hands reached out through the shadows, the fingernails long and curved, shiny white talons of bone piercing darkness.
The razor-sharp tips dripped what could only be blood, and it wasn’t until he moved even closer that Jeff realized Hope, like them, was completely nude. But something had wrapped itself around the lower portion of the old man’s body and was clinging to his pallid legs. Something alive and moist, coiled about his knees and thighs, writhing and pulsing like some slimy creature, perhaps a skinned human appendage or a thick serpent-like entity with a network of spider-web veins traversing a mass the color of raw meat.
Hopelessly paralyzed, Jeff watched with horror as the man glided toward the side of the bed. Eden’s side. Struggling, Jeff tried to scream, but his throat constricted and felt as if someone was strangling him. Though he couldn’t see them, he felt the unmistakable grip of cold ghostly hands wrap around his throat and tighten like a vise. Familiar hands…feminine hands…
Others had joined them. But were they… people?
They moved swiftly beneath the cover of shadow, hurrying about beyond the bedroom doorway and throughout the apartment.
This is a dream, a – a nightmare -
“There are no nightmares,” the old man said, flickering tongue slurring his speech. “There is only the torment of darkness.”
Eyes wide, Jeff’s body bucked and convulsed against strangulation as spittle bubbled in a thick froth from his mouth.
The bed shifted. Small shadowy forms scurried up over the foot of the bed, growling and clawing at the lone sheet until it fell away and Foster Hope reached for Eden’s exposed flesh.
Deep guttural laughter filled the room, and Jeff’s mind splintered as he spiraled down into a boundless darkness the likes of which he’d never before experienced.
Madness, it seemed, had swallowed him whole.
Though he’d been more or less awake for several minutes, Jeff remained in bed, flat on his back, the sheet tangled around him like a toga. Despite the early hour the humidity was already high and hung over the room like a shroud. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept so late. Sluggishly, he studied a series of hairline cracks in the bedroom ceiling a while. Distanced from his nightmares, they no longer held much power over him, but their memory remained vivid in his mind. Remnants of a headache scraped at his temples then faded as he turned his attention to the gliding motion of an oscillating fan on the bureau.
The sound of Eden’s heels clacking against the floor preceded her, and as she swept into the room with an enthusiasm and glee she hadn’t shown in a very long time, Jeff caught a whiff of her cologne. It was quickly dissipated by the fan. Makeup done and hair styled, she was dressed in a skirt and blouse and ready for work. “It’s alive!” she chuckled. “You were out cold and snoring so loud at one point the whole room was shaking.”
“A little too much wine, I guess.”
“You were having bad dreams too, you kept moaning in your sleep.”
“Yeah, had some strange ones last night.” He sat up and swung his legs around to the floor. “What time is it?”
“Little after eight.”
He rubbed the back of his neck with one hand and snatched his glasses from the nightstand with the other. “Can’t remember the last time I slept this late.”
“Enjoy it while you can, you’ll be back in the rat race soon.”
She leaned close, and they kissed. “Gotta run.”
Jeff slid his glasses on. “See you tonight. Have a good day, baby.”
“I love you, too.”
She stopped at the door and looked back at him. “Jeff, I…I’m sorry things have been so tense these last few months.”
“Me too. But it’s over now, OK?”
Her smile lit up the room. “OK.”
“Everything’s going to be fine from here on out. I promise.”
After Eden left for work, Jeff had a bowl of cereal, watched CNN for a bit then showered, shaved and threw on a pair of jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers. He was about to give Craig a call when the buzzer rang.
He looked out the window at the front steps and saw a young guy in spandex and a helmet holding a large manila envelope in hand, his bicycle chained to a streetlight a few feet away. Jeff raised the screen, poked his head out and called down to him. “Can I help you?”
The man looked up. “Oh. Hey. Courier service. Got a delivery for…” He glanced at the envelope. “Jeff McGrath.”
“That’s me. I’ll buzz you up.”
A few moments later he opened the apartment door to find the lanky, heavily tattooed courier had just made it to the landing. He was drenched in sweat and looked like he hadn’t bathed or laundered his outfit in several days. When he got closer the smell confirmed it. “This heat’s a bitch,” he said with the detached boredom of a teenager. “Just won’t let up.”
“Yeah, hopefully it’ll break soon, huh?”
With a nod, he handed Jeff the envelope.
Something about the kid’s eyes didn’t seem quite right. Was he stoned?
“Problem?” the courier sighed.
“No, I-sorry-do I have to sign or anything?”
A mocking smile spread slowly across the courier’s face as he pulled a bottle of water from his belt and started back down the stairs. “All set.”
“Thanks.” Jeff closed the door. Something creepy about that kid , he thought. But he dismissed it and quickly returned his attention to the envelope. It felt nearly weightless. His name had been written across the front in magic marker but there was no return address or anything that suggested where the envelope originated from.
He tore the top open. A silver disc slid out.
The label designated it a DVD-R and revealed the manufacturer’s name but offered nothing else. Confused and more than a little nervous, Jeff forced himself to the entertainment center on the far wall, turned on the television then slid the disc into the DVD player.
Remote in hand, he backed away to the couch and hit PLAY. Static filled the screen. Jeff was about to hit fast-forward when the screen blinked and the snow was replaced with darkness. An eerie and monotonous rumbling sound groaned through the speakers like the drone of some unknown machinery. A few bars of interference bent and rippled across the black screen, and then slowly, the darkness gave way to reveal grainy black-and-white footage shot by what appeared to be an old VHS camcorder of some sort. The frame blinked and became a hotel room.
Jeff’s hands began to shake. He wanted to hit the STOP button on the remote but his finger refused to cooperate. Throat dry and eyes watering with fear and rage, he watched as he and Jessica entered the room. They’d had breakfast, and after an hour of flirting, she’d insisted he come with her up to the room for a minute, using the excuse that she needed to get something for his interview before they left. He’d agreed, already knowing what was about to happen. And now he watched himself nervously fidgeting just inside the hotel room door as Jessica reached around him, purposely crushing her breasts against his chest as she hung a DO NOT DISTURB sign on the knob.
There was still no audio, only the continuous rumbling sound.
He watched as Jessica pulled the door closed, their faces nearly touching. And then they were kissing, their bodies suddenly entangled.
Jeff’s legs wobbled and he sank down onto the couch, remote still aimed at the television. He looked closer. Apparently the person filming had been on the far side of the room, near the bathroom, but how had he not seen him standing there? He and Jessica fell back onto the bed, him atop her. Free hand to his mouth, Jeff tried to breathe, watching as the camera moved closer. But he could tell from the motion that the operator hadn’t zoomed in, he’d actually stepped closer. So close in fact, that he was only a few feet away, standing right next to the bed where he and Jessica were rolling about, pulling at each other’s clothes.
It’s impossible, I-I would’ve seen the person standing there, I…
Slowly, the camera turned back toward the person using it.
An unsettling gaunt face filled the frame. Jeff recognized him as the tall thin man he’d briefly seen in the hallway of the building where Foster Hope had interviewed him. The man’s bald head, long face, emaciated and skeletal, tilted slowly to the right, dark sunken eyes staring at him as if he could see Jeff sitting there watching at that very moment, pale thin lips drawn into a horrifying grimace equal parts misery and cruelty.
The camera turned again, panned across the bed long enough to clearly show Jeff and Jessica nude and making love, and then continued on to the opposite corner of the room.
Someone else was there, standing in the shadows just beyond the nightstand. A liver-spotted hand reached through the dim light to a telephone there, lifted the handset then punched in a series of numbers.
The screen blinked, went blank for a split-second then came back into focus. This time it was aimed at the outside of Jeff’s apartment building and appeared to have been shot very late at night. The droning sound continued, became slightly louder and then the image turned back to snow.
Jeff sat staring at the TV until the snow switched to a blank screen, indicating the material on the disc had ended.
Shaken, Jeff rose from the couch, switched the television off and ejected the disc. He was still holding and staring at it numbly when the phone rang.
Without speaking, he raised the phone to his ear.
A chill ran up his back.
“You can’t possibly be surprised to hear from me,” Hope said.
“You just saw me dialing didn’t you? Who did you think I was calling?”
“What are you doing, I-what’s this all about?” Jeff squeezed his eyes shut in an attempt to stop the room from spinning. “Who are you people?”
“It’s not as if we haven’t already met, Jeff.” The old man sighed into the phone, but it was forced, phony. “Of course I was very disappointed to hear you’d turned down my generous job offer. I thought perhaps I could persuade you to reconsider. Before you answer, you should know that as we speak, another copy of the disc is on its way to your wife’s workplace. It should be delivered to her any moment now. Should you change your mind and choose to come to work for me I could easily stop the delivery, but there isn’t much time, I’m afraid, so I’ll need your decision as quickly as possible.”
Jeff ran a hand through his hair and began pacing the room like a caged animal. “Why are you doing this?”
“What am I doing?”
“You know goddamn well what you’re doing. You’re blackmailing me!”
“Oh how distasteful, I’m doing no such thing. No one has forced you to do anything, and no one ever will. You’ve simply made choices, Jeff, decisions. You’ve made them on your own. No one forced you to speak to Ms. Bell. No one forced you to accompany her back to her hotel. No one forced you to have breakfast with her. No one forced you to sleep with her. No one forced you to come and interview with me. And no one is forcing you to do anything now. I’m presenting you with options. This decision, like all the others before and after it, is yours and yours alone.”
“I haven’t done anything to you, I-we don’t even know each other-why would you do this to me? It’s been a setup from the start, but why? What do I possibly have you could want? I’m broke, I don’t have any money.”
Hope breathed heavily into the phone, Jeff’s torment clearly exciting him. “We don’t have much time, Jeff. Should I have the delivery canceled? Or would you rather take your chances and allow your wife to see the disc?”
Jeff gripped the phone so tightly it hurt his hand. “No…don’t…”
“Keep Eden out of this. Cancel the delivery, I-I’ll do whatever you want.”
“Consider it done, Jeff.” A muffled sound as he covered the phone with his hand, and then: “Now, I believe you and I have an appointment, yes?”
“You know where to find me,” Hope said evenly. “I’ll be waiting.”
The line clicked, died.
And in that moment, in many ways, so did Jeff McGrath.
Still badly shaken, Jeff fired up their computer and plugged both Foster Hope and International Facilitator, Inc. into numerous search engines. They returned no information on either. Foster Hope simply resulted in several plays on the words and websites for various charities in which the word ‘hope’ was used in their name or information. International Facilitator, Inc. led to several management consulting firms, international businesses and the like, but nothing by that name and nothing that indicated the company even existed. He next tried Jessica Bell, but because it was such a common name it returned literally hundreds of hits. He checked several, but none were her.
After walking the apartment, replaying everything in his mind and trying to figure out what to do, Jeff finally decided to go see Craig first. He obviously had no choice but to keep his appointment with Foster Hope, or another disc would certainly be delivered to Eden before the day was through, but he and Craig had been friends a long time and Jeff knew he could confide in him. Maybe he’d know what to do. A clear-headed, objective opinion of everything that was taking place was needed, and Craig could provide him with that.
Disc in hand, he hurried down the stairs and out the building. He looked around for the homeless man but he was nowhere to be found.
His cryptic warning still lingered in Jeff’s mind, only now it had taken on even greater sinister meaning. You should stay away from her. “The one fucking time I want him to be here,” he mumbled, “he listens to me and stays gone.”
Jeff hopped in his car and pulled out, heading for Braintree, a town neighboring Boston Craig and his family had moved to a few years prior. As he moved through the midmorning traffic and headed out of the city, his mind raced uncontrollably with one frenetic thought after the next.
What the hell’s happening? Who are these people and what do they want with me? Why me? I didn’t-why did I do this? Why did I go to that hotel room with Jessica? What the fuck was I thinking? Eden, I’m so goddamn sorry, I-what am I going to do? What does Hope want?
And what’s with that creepy video? How could he and that other guy have been in the room? How could they-and the whole bit about dialing the phone and then mine ringing was obviously meant to frighten me and make it all seem-but no, it’s not even possible, none of this is. I would’ve seen them in the room, they-did they alter the tape maybe?
There are all sorts of programs now where you can-I-wait-did they drug me? Could Jessica have drugged me, put something in my breakfast maybe? Did I leave the table at any point? No, I didn’t, I-could she have slipped something in my juice or coffee or-no-this is crazy.
It’s all a setup. I’ve been the mark from the start, but why? None of it makes any sense. For Christ’s sake, I’m a salesman, what could they possibly want with me?
Just moments from the city, Jeff soon found himself barreling through the streets of Braintree. He’d tried calling Craig’s cell and home phones to let him know he was coming and needed to talk, but both went directly to voicemail, so he could only hope he was home and had simply missed the calls.
When Jeff turned at the top of Craig’s street he was relieved to see his car parked in front of the house, a modest raised ranch in a quiet working-class neighborhood. As he pulled in alongside Craig’s car, he noticed Katy, Craig’s wife, was in the passenger seat, and their two kids were in the back.
He waved. Katy returned it with an awkward, embarrassed, almost apologetic wave of her own then looked away as Jeff pulled into their driveway and stepped from the car.
Lugging a suitcase, Craig stumbled out the front door of the house. He froze when he saw Jeff. “What are you…what are you doing here?” he asked, voice shaking. He looked back in the direction Jeff had come, as if expecting someone else to pull in behind him.
“I need to talk.” Jeff hurried across the small lawn. “I’m in trouble.”
“I can’t.” He locked the door and checked the street again, his face a tapestry of panic and fear. Of average height, with dark red hair and a matching mustache, Craig normally possessed an extremely laid-back demeanor, but he was clearly terrified, something had frightened him beyond anything Jeff had ever before witnessed. “We’re going away for a few days before I start the new job.”
“Did you hear what I just said?” Jeff blocked his way. “I need to talk to you, man. I’m in some serious shit.”
“Yeah, I…” Craig nervously ran a hand up over his face, across the top of his head and down to the back of his neck. “I gathered, but I can’t.”
“Just leave me out of it. This has nothing to do with me.”
“What happened? What’s wrong with you?”
“Look, whatever it is you’re mixed up in, I want nothing to do with these people. I want no part of this.”
Fear crawled up Jeff’s back and nested at the base of his skull.
Hope and his people were going after his friends now? This was insane. How did they even know about Craig?
The application… the reference…
“I don’t believe this,” he muttered. “This cannot be happening.”
Craig tried to get around him then thought better of it. “I don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into-and I don’t want to know-just leave me alone, OK?”
“ Leave you alone? What the hell are you talking about? Did someone threaten you? What happened?”
“Please, I’ve got to get out of here.”
“Tell me what happened.”
Craig’s mouth twitched uncontrollably. “I have a wife, I-I’ve got kids.” He leaned closer. “ Children, you hear me?”
“Who frightened you like this? What did they do? I need to know.”
“I can’t talk to you, I-they could be watching right now, they-they told me they were watching.”
“You tell me. What’s wrong with you? You’re working with these people? I know times are tough but-”
“No, I’m working with you, remember?”
Craig tried to shoulder by. “I have to go.”
“Hey,” Jeff said, grabbing his arm. “I am working with you, right?”
“They told me you worked for them. I’m not about to interfere with that.”
“I need that job, Craig, don’t-”
“Goddamn it!” He yanked his arm free, dropped the suitcase and squared his stance. “I didn’t want a scene in front of Katy and the kids. Just let me go before this gets out of hand.”
“What are you going to do, hit me? You’re my best friend.”
“Get out of my way, Jeff. Please.”
“I need your help. I’ve got nowhere else to turn.”
“They said they’d hurt my family. My family, do you understand?”
“Jesus Christ,” he sighed, hands on his head. “I’m sorry, I never meant for any of this to touch you. I fucked up. Bad. Real bad. I got into something I didn’t mean to and-I don’t even understand what’s happening myself or how you got involved, but-”
“I’m not involved.” He picked up the suitcase. “I’m sorry too.
I really am. But you’re on your own on this one.”
Jeff watched as Craig walked to the car, tossed the suitcase in the trunk then slid behind the wheel and pulled away. He never looked back.
After a brief flirtation with calling the police and taking his chances with Hope delivering a copy of the disc to Eden, Jeff found himself standing on the curb in front of the brownstone where he’d been interviewed. Again, but for the burned-out shell at the end of the block, there were no other cars or signs of life, and the entire area seemed eerily quiet.
He climbed the steps, moved through the door, past the foyer and stopped at the reception area. As before, the desk was unoccupied, the odd sound of a dripping faucet echoed from somewhere deep within the building, and the empty plastic chairs lined the narrow hallway to his right. But this time the first office door was open, as if in anticipation of his arrival. Jeff swallowed hard. Except for the meeting table and two chairs, the office was empty. No coffeemaker, no donuts, no clipboard with application. Clearly he was alone. Why then did he have the overwhelming feeling he was being watched? Skin crawling, he forced himself into the office, sat in the first chair and watched the closed door on the opposite wall. They knew he was here, Jeff was sure of it. They were just making him squirm, letting him twist in the wind a while at the end of his noose, and probably enjoying it.
After several moments, the door opened and Foster Hope entered.
This time his presence was intimidating. No longer was he simply an eccentric and elderly businessman, but something far more sinister.
He was dressed in the same cream-colored suit as the day before, and Jeff imagined him having dozens of identical outfits hanging in a closet somewhere. The old man acknowledged him with a polite nod.
“Good morning, Jeff.”
“Why are you doing this to me? Who are you people?”
“I’ve done nothing to you.” He slid into the other chair and crossed his legs. “These are decisions you’ve made to-”
“What did you do to Craig? He was terrified out of his mind.
I’ve never seen anyone so frightened. Why would you threaten his family, his children?”
“I simply had an associate pass along some useful information to him, so he could make an informed decision.”
Jeff’s hands clenched into fists but he kept them in his lap. The urge to strangle the old bastard was overwhelming. “This is all just some sort of sick game to you, isn’t it?”
The look in Hope’s emerald eyes indicated he was thoroughly enjoying himself. “ Sick seems rather harsh, but otherwise, yes, that’s exactly what it is. Life is a game, Jeff, and we’re all players of one sort or another.”
“These aren’t just my decisions then. You’re manipulating things, forcing me into corners where I have no other way out.”
“There are always other ways out of any situation. We all move through the world and do what we have to do in order to survive and flourish. We look out for our best interests, and in the end we make our own decisions.” The green eyes narrowed. “Regardless of what I’ve done or haven’t done, you don’t have to be here. You’ve chosen to be here.”
“Why would you want me to work for you under these conditions?
Why would you videotape me with Jessica and-how the hell were you in that room without my knowing it? You and that other…man.”
“I often hide in plain sight, Jeff. I find it most effective.”
Jeff sat forward with an intense stare of his own, hands flat on the table between them. Despite the heat outside, the room was cool to the point of being nearly cold. Why then was he perspiring so?
And how was the temperature so low when there were no fans and appeared to be no air-conditioning? Like everything else, none of it made any sense. “What do you want from me?”
“I’d like to hire you on as a negotiator.”
“No, you’re forcing me to work for you.”
“You have every right to decline at any time. Have I chained you to that chair? Have you been restrained or in any way prevented from leaving? You can get up and walk out of here whenever you like. No one will attempt to stop you, no one will object. We’ll part as friends.”
“ Friends? Friends don’t blackmail and deceive each other.”
“They don’t?” Mr. Hope smiled with his large, brilliantly white false teeth. “Jeff, what most people fail to realize in their narcissism and selfishness is that they’re not always players in their own games, but often in someone else’s.”
“So it’s your game then,” Jeff said, pawing sweat from his forehead.
“Then what are you saying?”
“That you might want to consider it may not be yours either.”
Jeff couldn’t tell if there was literal meaning in what Hope was saying or if the old man was simply playing with him, so he dismissed his enigmatic musings and tried to focus on what he needed to do to bring the meeting to some sort of conclusion. He’d begun sweating like a stuck pig and needed to get out of there and away from this man. “If I agree to this… job…do I have to kill anyone?”
“Certainly not.” Hope frowned dramatically. “How absurd.”
“If I have to hurt anyone, I won’t do it.” Jeff drew a deep breath, and despite his fear, looked him in the eye. “So if that’s what this is about you can go ahead and deliver a copy of that disc to Eden and I’ll just hope she can forgive me for being so stupid.”
Hope folded his hands and placed them on the table. No bone-white talons, just manicured fingernails and a gold ring with a large ruby on the middle finger of his left hand. Had he worn that last time?
“I’m offering you a position as a negotiator.”
“Do I have to do anything illegal?”
“You don’t have to do anything at all.”
“How much do I get paid?”
“I’ve told you,” he sighed, “enough to grant you financial freedom.”
“I’d like an actual figure.”
“It’s hard to put a price on one’s happiness, Jeff. Don’t you think? Trust me when I tell you it will be a sum beyond anything you’re expecting.”
“And the discs?”
“What about them?”
“If I come to work for you, I want them turned over to me.”
“Once you’ve completed your trial assignment successfully you and I will decide whether or not your continued employment here is the right move for both parties. Either way, the other copy of the disc, along with the original, will be yours to do with what you like. I’ll certainly no longer have any use for them.”
“How do I know I can believe you?”
Mr. Hope’s eyelids nearly closed, giving him a decidedly reptilian appearance. “You don’t.”
“After the trial assignment, if I choose to no longer work for you, I can walk away free and clear? Even if you want me to continue?”
“That is correct. I will accept and respect your decision at that point. And of course I’ll expect you to accept and respect mine.”
“And you and your people will stay away from my family and friends?”
“Of course, I don’t involve myself in situations where I’m not welcome.”
Jeff looked away and nodded. “All right.”
“You’re accepting the position then? We officially have a deal?”
“I need you to say the words, Jeff.”
He bit his tongue until the anger and humiliation had weakened.
“I am accepting the position,” he finally responded. “We officially have a deal.”
“How exciting.” Foster Hope pulled a business-sized envelope from his inside jacket pocket and grinned like a demon. “Then let’s get to work.”
Behind them, through the still open door, the incessant sound of a dripping faucet continued to echo, and from the far end of the hallway came what Jeff guessed was someone shuffling their feet as they walked, accompanied by occasional indecipherable voices, muffled and hushed. Somewhere in the building were others-Jessica, the mousy Ms. Gill and the tall man among them, he was sure-but there was something more…something menacing. He could feel it. Sorrow…pain…fear…all of it palpable and thickening the very air he breathed.
“There’s a young man I had some business dealings with a few months ago,” Hope explained, his voice bringing Jeff back. “He agreed to pay me for certain services we provided, but when it came time to settle his account he double-crossed me. We’re relatively certain he’s here in the city, or at least he was as of this morning, but we’re not entirely sure where.”
“So what do you want me to do?”
“You’re to find this man and convince him that it’s in his best interest to live up to his end of our business deal.”
“If you and your people can’t find him, how am I supposed to?”
Hope stared at him dully. “I never said we couldn’t find him.”
Jeff sighed, stomach churning. “What’s the deal you had with him?”
“That’s between us.” A bright chalky smile returned to his face.
“Professional discretion, you understand.”
“Mr. Hope, how am I supposed to convince him to do something if I have no idea what it is he’s supposed to do?”
“ He knows, Jeff. Your job is to simply convince him to come to me and do the right thing. To reopen our talks so that we can resolve these matters quickly and efficiently.”
“Sounds like something you’d be more than capable of handling yourself.”
“It is, but he’s refused to return my attempts to contact him. So this is a perfect first assignment for my newest negotiator.”
“OK, then how do I find him?”
Foster Hope nodded rather formally, as if to agree that the initial phase of their conversation had ended and it was time to move on to other things. He placed the envelope on the table and slid it over to Jeff. “Inside you will find information containing the man’s name, his wife’s name and their last known address. Far as we know the wife still lives there. He may as well but we can’t be sure at this point. Inside the envelope you’ll also find a private telephone number where I can be reached once the job has been completed, successfully or otherwise. You will call me at that number, you will be paid immediately thereafter and then we will both make our decisions regarding your future here.”
Jeff left the envelope where it was. “And what if I can’t find this guy, much less convince him to contact you?”
“Then you fail. But I believe that if you use your intelligence, instincts and skills as a salesman, you’ll be able to persuade him to do the right thing, the honorable thing.” He carefully combed a renegade strand of snow-white hair back from his forehead with a finger. “In all honesty, this is an easy assignment compared to most.
Don’t want to give you too tall an order right out of the gates, especially without any formal negotiator training.”
“And I do this alone?”
“I am many things, Jeff. A fool is not one of them. Of course you’ll be observed, but you will work alone.” He arched an eyebrow.
“Unless you feel you need supervision, in which case, I’d be more than happy to have Ms. Bell accompany you.”
Jeff felt his face flush. “No, I…”
“I thought not,” Hope said, laughing lightly. “This entire matter shouldn’t take more than a day to accomplish, so I want you to begin work tomorrow.”
“Why not right away?”
“Tomorrow morning. No sooner.”
Don’t argue. Agree to the conditions and get the hell out of here . “OK.”
“But I’ll expect to hear from you no later than tomorrow evening.”
Nodding, Jeff picked up the envelope.
“Any longer than that and I’ll have no choice but to assume something’s gone wrong, and then I’ll have to come looking for you.”
The old man was no longer laughing, his eyes no longer sparkling.
“And you don’t want that, Jeff, do you understand?”
“Yes,” he answered tensely, “I do.”
“Then I look forward to hearing from you. Until then, good day to you.”
At nightfall the city was still unbearably hot. After dinner Jeff collapsed into his favorite recliner and attempted to watch a baseball game but was unable to concentrate. The conversation he’d had with Mr. Hope replayed again and again in his mind, and although the entire scenario seemed fantastic at best, he realized all too well just how real this situation was. Clearly there was an illegal, underhanded and dangerous aspect to this whole thing, but if the pay was in cash, no one would know and he could walk away once he was done, he had no choice but to take the risk. What was the alternative? Letting his wife see him in that hotel room with Jessica?
He knew he’d been infuriatingly aloof since Eden had gotten home from work, but he couldn’t talk to her about what was taking place.
The only way for her to remain safe was to know nothing about any of this.
She wandered in from the bedroom wearing only a long t-shirt.
“I’m fine, honey.” God how I love her, he thought. What the hell was I thinking? The guilt was so strong he couldn’t even look at her.
“Yeah, just a little tired.”
“When I left for work this morning everything was great, but since I got home you’ve barely spoken to me and you’re moping around like you got some bad news or something. Is there a problem with the new job?”
“You’re not acting like everything’s-”
“I just said everything’s fine, didn’t I?”
“Then why are you in such a lovely mood?”
“I’m sorry, I…” He forced a smile, aimed the remote at the TV and switched it off. “I told you, I’m just a little tired, OK? No biggie. Everything’s fine with the new job and everything else. I love you.”
“Love you, too.” She sighed, and then as if she’d just remembered, jerked a thumb at the window and said, “Hey, he’s not out there tonight.”
Jeff’s mind was so far away it took him a moment to realize who she was talking about. “I had a chat with him. I doubt he’ll be coming around anymore.”
Eden sat on the edge of the recliner. “What did you say to him?”
“I told him to stay the hell away from us and the building.”
“Jesus, Jeff.” She scooped up a magazine from the coffee table and began fanning herself with it. “That’s awfully severe, don’t you think?”
“Who gives a shit? He’s a bum, for Christ’s sake.”
“Oh how charming.” Eden tossed the magazine aside. “So warm and kind, you know? Why do you have to be so cruel to him?”
“What the hell is it with you and this guy?”
“What are you talking about?”
Jeff stood up. “Why are you so interested in him? It’s constant.”
She watched him a moment then began to laugh. “Are you jealous?”
“What is your fascination with him?” She balked, but he could tell he’d hit a nerve. “There are lots of homeless people in the city, why is he so special?”
“I’m a compassionate person, sorry if that offends you.”
“No, there’s more to it and you know it.”
“Oh no, you found out!” she said, eyes wide. “We’re fuck buddies!”
“You think this shit’s funny?”
“Yeah,” she said, laughing again, “I do, actually.”
He waved her off. “OK, whatever, no sense in discussing it then.”
“I don’t know what your problem is tonight,” she said, “but I find deliberate cruelty revolting. Especially in someone I love. I’m going to bed. Goodnight.”
“Wait, I-look, I don’t mean to be cruel, OK? I’m sorry, you know I’m not really like that, it-it’s just that I’ve got other things to worry about right now. I’m focused on us, on our life. I’ve been under a lot of stress lately and-”
Someone in the lobby downstairs buzzed their apartment. With Jeff following close behind, fearful it might be Hope or one of his associates, Eden went to the intercom just inside the front door and pressed the button. “Yes?”
“Eden!” a man’s frantic voice answered. “Let me in! Please, let me in!”
“I’ll be a sonofabitch.” Jeff recognized the voice immediately.
“You have got to be kidding me.”
“Please Eden! You can help me, please- please -help me, let me in!”
She glanced guiltily at Jeff, unsure of what to say.
“Please! Let me in! I don’t belong out here!”
“I’m sorry,” she said softly. “I can’t.”
When the intercom fell silent, Jeff ran for the bedroom and looked out the window. The homeless man had already begun to drift down the street, looking back over his shoulder at the apartment every few steps.
When Jeff turned from the window he found Eden standing behind him in the doorway. “How the hell does he know your name?”
She sat at the foot of the bed, hands in her lap. “When I left for work this morning he was out on the steps. He told me his name was Ernie Graham, so I told him my name too, all right?”
“No, it’s not all right. Are you insane?”
“I can’t believe you’re acting like this. It’s ridiculous.”
“Not gonna argue that one with you. The guy just buzzed our apartment and expected you to let him in. If that doesn’t qualify as ridiculous nothing does.”
“I said no didn’t I?”
“Eden, listen to me. We know nothing about this man. He could have a criminal record, he could be dangerous. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I’m familiar with English. Stop talking to me like I’m a child.”
Jeff steadied himself. Breathe… stay calm… “I know you mean well and you’re only trying to be kind, OK? I get it. But you don’t make friends with deranged homeless guys that live on the front steps of the building.”
“He’s not deranged.”
“How do you know?”
“OK, I admit I have sort of a soft spot for him.” She threw her arms in the air. “He just-I don’t know what it is-I know it sounds crazy but it’s almost like I know him somehow. For some reason I feel especially sorry for him. Maybe it’s some sort of spiritual connection, or a higher power is trying to tell me something, who knows?”
He stared at her, mouth gaping.
“He’s just a lost soul, Jeff, not a serial killer.”
“This isn’t like feeding a stray cat, Eden. It’s a little more complicated.”
“Have you ever actually spoken with him? Not spoken at him, not threatened him, but actually spoken with him like you would anyone else?”
“What’s your point?”
“He’s down and out and hurting. Look around the city. The homeless are everywhere, just like you said. But have you really seen them? A lot are women and children. Are they all deranged, too? Are they all criminals? They’re just people that have fallen on hard times. If you hadn’t gotten that job we eventually would’ve ended up out there with them. Are we criminals? Are we scum? Are we deranged? All Ernie’s looking for is a little compassion and understanding, enough to let him know he still matters and that at least some of us care about him and others out there like him.”
“Well it’s good to know that’s all Ernie’s looking for. I love it, my wife and the bum that lives on our street are on a first-name basis.”
“I had a civil conversation with him that lasted all of a minute.”
“During which you told him your name and apparently our apartment number. Was there any other personal information you felt compelled to share with your new best bud?”
“If because of my kindness he took it upon himself to buzz the apartment that’s not my fault. It’s probably not even his. We have no idea what it’s like to be out on those streets night after night.
We have no idea what that man’s been through. Maybe he broke down.
Maybe he just wanted to spend one night indoors and was making a crazy plea to-”
“There are shelters in the city, let him go to one of those.”
“For his sake I hope he finds one with a free bed.”
“Well if not we can always put good ole Ernie up on the couch, right?”
Glaring at him, she yanked the sheet back from the bed with an angry tug and fired a pillow at him. “Nope, you’ll already be on it.”
“Are you serious?”
Pillow clutched to his chest, he returned to the den and flopped onto the couch. “Yeah,” he mumbled, “like I need this shit tonight.”
Fine, he thought. Bright and early tomorrow morning he’d get this job done, get paid, make it right with Eden and put this nightmare behind him.
There are no nightmares.
Jeff closed his eyes, but it failed to silence the whispers from his dreams.
There is only the torment of darkness.
The following morning, Jeff hailed a cab. He didn’t know what to expect and didn’t want his car to be identified later if something went wrong. The address scrawled on a small sheet of paper inside the envelope listed an address located in a rough neighborhood in Chelsea, a small city just outside Boston located on the far side of the Mystic River. It also listed the name of the man in Mr. Hope’s debt: Stephen Wychek. Jeff had been through Chelsea but knew no one there and was unfamiliar with the layout. Thankfully the driver was able to find the address, a rundown two-story tenement on a relatively quiet street. But even in daylight, the area looked somewhat threatening.
“Wait for me,” he told the cabbie. “Keep the meter running, I’ll only be a few minutes.”
As Jeff stepped out of the taxi and approached the tenement steps he saw a faded lace curtain move in one of the windows facing the street. He hesitated, looked around. But for a lone elderly woman carrying a bag of groceries farther down the block, the street was empty. He continued up the steps to the front door, opened it and slipped into a foyer. The walls were cracked, the paint chipped and peeling, and a repugnant odor he couldn’t identify hung in the air.
He glanced down at the paper. Alongside the address were the words: First floor. Jeff knocked. No one answered, but he could hear movement inside the apartment, so he knocked again. After a moment, a shuffling sound indicated someone had moved up closer to the door.
“Hello?” he said, leaning closer. “Hello?”
From behind the door came a female voice; nervous and muffled.
“What do you want?”
“I need to speak to Mr. Wychek.”
“He’s not here.”
“Are you Mrs. Wychek?”
“What do you want?”
“My name’s McGrath. I need to speak to Mr. Wychek, it’s very important.” Jeff looked at the dark stairway leading to the second floor. It was filthy and strewn with garbage. “Could you open the door please?”
“I don’t know you.”
“Ma’am, please, my name is Jeff McGrath and-”
“What do you want with my husband?”
“I need to speak with him about some personal business.”
“What kind of personal business? If this is about the car payment the bank already did a repo, came and took it a couple nights ago.”
“It’s not about the car.”
“What bill’s it about?”
“It’s not about any bill, I-”
“Then what do you want?”
With a sigh, Jeff rubbed his eyes. This was ludicrous. He obviously wasn’t going to get anywhere without turning up the heat.
“Ma’am, I need to speak to your husband, understand? Now if he’s not home I need you to tell me where I can find him. This is very important. I’m not playing games.”
“Get out of here or I’ll call the cops.”
Jeff thought a moment. “I don’t think Foster Hope would appreciate that.”
After a lengthy pause he heard locks disengaging. The door opened slowly, but only a crack, the security chain catching. Through the opening, a middle-aged woman with bleary eyes and a drawn face peeked out at him. Her hair was mussed and unwashed, her skin pale and unhealthy looking, and she looked as if she hadn’t slept in days. She also looked deeply frightened. Her eyes were filled with tears and her lips trembled like a scolded child’s. “Please,” she whispered, “please, we…I didn’t know, I…”
“It’s all right,” he said, holding his hands up in an effort to calm her. “I’m not going to hurt you or cause you any trouble. I just need to speak to Stephen.”
“Please,” she hissed, shaking as tears streamed her face. “ Please.”
Jeff forced a swallow. “Tell me where he is. I only want to talk.”
“We have kids,” she said, choking on her tears. “Please, I-”
“I want to help your husband, do you understand? Tell me where I can find him and I’ll do everything I can to help him make this right with Mr. Hope.”
Her watery eyes seemed to focus for the first time, and her mouth fell open. “You don’t…You don’t know what’s happening, do you?”
Jeff looked around nervously, as if expecting to find Hope in the shadows, watching him from the top of the stairs. “Look, I don’t want to be here, but I don’t have any choice. They’re making me do this.
All I’m supposed to do is talk to your husband and try to convince him to contact Mr. Hope. That’s all.”
She shook her head, the tears coming faster now.
“Do you know why they’re doing this? What did he do to you and your husband? What are they doing to me?” Jeff placed his hand against the doorframe to steady himself. “If you know, please Mrs. Wychek, tell me. What’s happening? What have we done? Why us?”
She wiped the tears from her cheeks with a shaking hand, but they were quickly replaced. “Sometimes,” she said softly, “you don’t have to go looking for the Devil. Sometimes he goes looking for you.”
Despite the heat, Jeff felt a sudden burst of cold from deep within him. “Is there anything we can do?”
“Pray?” she asked hopelessly, her hand suddenly fingering a gold cross around her neck.
“Where is your husband, Mrs. Wychek?”
“He’s not my husband anymore.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Can you tell me where he is?”
Her sad and frightened eyes looked to the floor. “Yes,” she whispered. “God forgive me…but yes.”
Moments later Jeff was back in Boston. There was a slight break in the stifling heat as an enormous bank of storm clouds slowly rolled in off Boston Harbor. The cab moved through the streets between the theater district and Chinatown, then finally pulled onto a side street and lurched to a stop near a vacant lot strewn with garbage and debris. The driver pointed to a rotting shell of an apartment building just beyond the lot. “That’s it.”
“Crazy,” he mumbled, “no one could actually live here.”
“That’s the address you gave me. You want me to wait again?”
Jeff paid him and stepped out. As he crossed the lot thunder rumbled in the distance and a cool breeze provided an unexpected chill. He reached the base of the steps and looked up at the dilapidated, graffiti-covered structure. Most of the windows were blown out and the front doors were missing. He glanced around. The neighborhood was deserted.
A drizzle began to fall, startling a congregation of blackbirds perched along the roof into flight. Jeff watched until they disappeared into the dark clouds overhead. He slowly forced himself up the front steps.
As he entered what had once been a lobby his eyes adjusted to the sudden change in light. A variety of lurid smells wafted all around him, and rain trickled in through several cavities in the high ceiling. A timeworn staircase stood to his right. Jeff ascended it cautiously, testing each step with his weight before continuing.
When he reached the top he followed a long hallway filled with garbage and the splintered remains of furniture to the first apartment. The door had rotted from its hinges and collapsed just inside the entrance. He climbed over the door and into an open area.
Broken pallets and a few discarded empty crates lay scattered about, and upon seeing him, a covey of plump rats scurried off, seeking refuge in corners or small portals previously gnawed in the decaying walls.
A rustling sound diverted Jeff’s attention. A large piece of tattered plastic hung over one of the windows, rippling in the mounting breeze, and on the floor just beneath it sat a pile of spent liquor bottles.
“Hello?” The only reply was the echo of his voice. “Is anyone here?”
“Joint’s taken,” a voice behind him said suddenly.
Jeff spun round to see a man standing a few feet away. “Jesus,” he gasped, trying to catch his breath. “You scared the hell out of me.”
“What do you want?” Keeping a wary distance, the man produced an enormous hunting knife from his belt and brandished it about between them with a slow and threatening arcing motion.
“Take it easy,” Jeff said putting his hands up. “I don’t want any trouble.”
His eyes widened, as if he were losing sight of him. “Who are you?”
It was difficult to tell the man’s age. His clothes were soiled and worn, his hair and face needed to be washed and he was clearly exhausted. “McGrath.”
“I don’t know nobody named McGrath.”
“I’m looking for Steven Wychek.”
The man stared at him, dumbfounded.
“Are you Mr. Wychek?” Jeff asked, already wondering if he could outrun this man if need be. “Do I have the right person?”
The man slowly lowered the knife to his side. “Nobody knows where I am. How did you find me?”
“Your wife told me you were hiding here.”
“My…wife…” His hostility turned to terror. “My God,” he muttered. “You…You’re one of them.”
“No, I’m not, I-I’m caught up in this the same as you.” Confused, Jeff continued to hold his hands up to assure the man that he harbored no bad intentions toward him. “A man named Foster Hope hired me, he’s forcing me to work for him.”
Wychek raised the knife a bit higher, ready to use it if need be.
“That’s not necessary, OK?” Jeff smiled nervously. “All I want to do is-”
“Stay where you are.”
“I won’t come any closer,” he said, hoping to mask his own fear with a docile tone. “Relax, OK? Mr. Hope asked me to tell you that it’s in your best interest to settle your debt with him and that you should contact him as soon as possible. He just wanted me to deliver that message. That’s it.”
The man gave a questioning stare. “You don’t know what you’re into yet, do you?”
“Honestly?” Jeff asked through a sigh. “No. I don’t have any idea.”
“You will.” Wychek moved toward the window, the knife leveled in front of him. “But by then it’ll be too late.”
Jeff glanced in the direction of the doorway, fairly certain if he made a quick dash for it he could make it outside well ahead of the man. “What do you owe him? What does he want from you?”
“Everything.” Wychek slumped a bit, defeated. “And I’m tired of running, McGrath. I’m tired of being afraid.”
“Come with me, and I’ll get in touch with Mr. Hope. I’m sure we can all sit down and work out an arrangement both of you can live with.”
“You crazy or just dumb as a brick?”
“I’m frightened and confused, same as you.”
“Funny how it all fits together,” he said, as if to himself. “All I wanted was to get out from under my problems, I…I wanted me and my wife to be free from them, you know? My drinking, the drugs, my running around, I-I can’t stop, I’m a fuckup, and she-she’s a good woman, my wife. Too good for me, she never deserved this. I wanted to get better so we could both be happy…free. He told me he could help us, told me he could make it all come true. But it was a trick.
He’s a cruel and evil fuck.”
“Maybe you and I can help each other.”
“Ain’t no help against his kind.”
“He’s powerful, rich and plays demented games with people’s lives, but he’s a man just like you and me.”
“No he’s not.”
“Come with me,” Jeff said again. “We’ll confront the bastard together and get to the bottom of this.”
Wychek hopelessly bowed his head. “You tell Foster Hope I’ll see him real soon.”
Before Jeff had a chance to respond, Wychek rushed to the window, and with a horrific scream, launched himself through the plastic drape and plummeted to the street below.
A stomach-churning thud followed.
Jeff ran to the window and saw the carcass of an old refrigerator in the alley below. Sprawled across the top was Wychek’s broken body.
It flopped over like a rag doll, leaving behind a wide red wake as it slid lifelessly to the ground.
Staggering back, Jeff fell to his knees and vomited. When the nausea had left him he forced himself back to his feet and staggered from the room.
Ignoring the now heavy rain and a burning sensation deep in his gut, he crossed the vacant lot at a full run. As he rounded the corner and joined a more congested street he slowed his pace and tried to appear calm.
At the next block he leaned against the corner of a bank, fumbled his cell phone from his belt and frantically punched in the number he’d been given. It was answered on the first ring, but all Jeff heard was heavy breathing. “Hello?” he said, voice breaking.
“Jeff, is that you?” Mr. Hope asked.
“Something terrible has happened!”
“Calm down. What’s going on?”
“Wychek’s dead,” he said, blurting the words but trying to keep his voice down due to the amount of people passing by. “He’s dead.”
“I want to be certain I heard you correctly. Would you repeat that please?”
“Wychek. Is. Dead.”
“Dead, you say?”
Jeff wiped rainwater from his face with his free hand, looked out at the street and pressed the phone tighter against his ear. “ Yes,” he hissed. “He threw himself out a fucking window.”
“Excellent work, Jeff.”
“What?” Jeff spun back against the building. “Are you out of your mind?”
“You’ve successfully completed your first negotiation.
Unfortunately, I just don’t see it working out for you here at International Facilitator, Inc. Your lack of enthusiasm in this situation clearly shows you don’t possess what it takes to become a permanent member of our team.”
“A man is dead!”
“Yes, how marvelous. Be that as it may, I’m afraid I’ll have to terminate your employment with us, effective immediately. However, I am a man of my word, Jeff, and I do plan to live up to my end of our bargain. You will be paid for your efforts today, as promised, and the compensation will grant you what you asked for, financial independence. Meet me at the offices and payment will be arranged.”
“I don’t want your money, I want answers!”
“It’s been a pleasure doing business with you.”
The line clicked and disconnected.
“Mr. Hope? Mr. Hope!” Jeff snapped his phone shut and tried to clear his mind. He was soaked to the bone and his heart was crashing against his chest with such force he was afraid he might actually be having a heart attack. He slumped against the building, and despite his trembling hands, managed to flip open his phone and hit redial.
“The number you have reached is not in service,” a pleasant recorded voice announced. “Please check the number and try again.”
Jeff closed the phone and dropped it into his coat pocket as he fought back tears of anger, shock, frustration and disbelief. “This isn’t…this can’t be happening.”
He turned, and there on the corner, watching him through the rain, was Ernie Graham.
If the sight of Jeff hurrying in his direction alarmed him, Ernie Graham showed no signs of it as he stood statue-still in the downpour.
When Jeff was within reach, he grabbed Graham’s arm and squeezed tight, not sure if he’d intended to hurt him or if he was only hanging on for dear life. “ You,” he snarled. “What do you know about these people?”
He stared at him dully. “What people?”
“Don’t fuck with me.” Jeff turned and started them both down the street, hand still clamped on Graham’s arm. “You told me to stay away from Jessica Bell. You said you heard things, saw things, knew things.”
“You’re hurting my arm.”
“Tough shit, start talking.”
“Where are we going?”
As they reached the first alley they’d come to, his question was answered. About halfway through, Jeff spun him around and pushed him against the wall. Ernie slammed the bricks, grimaced and began to cough.
“It didn’t have to be you!” Graham said. “It could’ve been somebody else!”
“What does that mean?”
He doubled over and coughed harder until he hacked up a big ball of phlegm. “It didn’t have to be you,” he said again, spitting it out. “You could’ve been kinder to me, you-”
“I tried to be kind to you.”
“No,” he said, wiping his mouth, “you tried to get rid of me.”
“What do you have to do with all this?”
“Your wife, she was kind to me. Eden was kind. Eden is kind.”
“I told you to leave my wife out of it. Eden has nothing to do with this.”
He laughed, his chest gurgling. “Wouldn’t you say she’s your life?”
Jeff hadn’t expected the question, and it took him a moment to answer it. “Yes, of course.”
“Then she has everything to do with it.”
“She doesn’t even know anything’s happened.”
He nodded in agreement. “And she never will.”
“Tell me what you know.” Jeff raised his fists. “Or so help me I’ll beat it out of you.”
“I’m not the one you need answers from. Talk to Hope.”
“Who is he? Who is he really?”
“I don’t know.” Ernie’s bloodshot eyes blinked rapidly in the rain. “I only know he’s using magic…black magic…whole lot of black magic.”
“You can’t really believe that.”
“You’ll believe it soon enough.” He smiled his brown-toothed smile.
Jeff brought his hands to his head, ran them through his drenched hair.
“Could be you already do,” Ernie went on, “but you’re just too scared to admit it.”
“What do you mean when you say it didn’t have to be me?”
“No,” Jeff said, lunging for his throat and pinning him back against the alley wall. “No, you’re gonna tell me now.”
Ernie struggled to break free but couldn’t. “You’re choking me, I-I can’t breathe!”
“Tell me what you meant, you fuck!”
“You should’ve stayed away from them like I told you,” he said, gagging. “If you did they would’ve found somebody else and none of this would’ve touched you or your life.”
“How are you involved in this? Are you in on this with them?” He choked him even harder. “Are you one of them?”
“No,” he gasped.
Jeff released him. Ernie’s legs gave out and he slid slowly to the ground, finally plopping down on his behind in the middle of a puddle. He crawled onto his hands and knees and struggled to get up but didn’t seem to have the strength. The rain kept coming, pounding them down. “I’m just a man,” he said, weeping suddenly. “I made some mistakes but I’m a good person. Why do I have to live like some piece of trash in the street? I don’t deserve this. I never hurt anyone.
What did I ever do to anybody? What did I ever do to you?”
Ashamed, Jeff looked away.
He punched the ground, splashing at the puddle with his fist as his body bucked with emotion. “No one gives you anything in this life! You have to take it! Even if you don’t want to, there’s no other way! Life leaves us no choice but to rip it away from somebody else so we can have ours! It’s the nature of things, our nature!”
“No. It’s a lie someone like Foster Hope relies on us believing, because without it he’s powerless.” Jeff stumbled away, head spinning.
When he reached the mouth of the alley, he looked back. Ernie Graham was on his knees, head back and hands reaching for the sky as if to grab hold of something only he could see, some sliver of peace and salvation perhaps, promised by veiled and forgotten gods no longer believed in, safely hidden away in storm clouds and concealed by a relentless rain.
Nothing seemed real anymore. The world took no particular notice.
It just kept churning, bustling all around him as he moved through the city streets, another lost soul barely cognizant of the driving rain. All he could think about was Foster Hope, those horrible emerald eyes, the white hair, the lined face, the big false teeth, and then he’d fade to black and Steven Wychek would take his place, terrified but surrendered to the inevitable as he launched himself through the plastic-covered window and plummeted to the alley below.
Jeff stood across the street. If they’d already vacated the building he certainly wouldn’t have been surprised. He’d actually expected to find it empty. Regardless, he’d been drawn there. He’d dismissed his desire to simply return home or go to Eden’s office and take her out of there and explain to her what was happening and why together they needed to leave the city and go somewhere else, to put this madness behind them like the bad dream it was and move on with their lives. They’d find jobs, a safe place to live in a quiet little town, maybe have a couple kids and have real lives, real love…peace…
He crossed the street, climbed the steps and tried the door. It opened.
Once inside, he continued on to the reception area, his eyes slowly adjusting to the lack of light and bringing everything into eventual focus. The sound of rain softened, but the same annoying dripping sound echoed along the hallway. It smelled musty and old here, as if nothing alive had moved within these walls in a very long time. Rather than going into the meeting room, this time he followed the hall to the rear of the building instead.
Like a tunnel, the dark hallway turned and emptied into a large open room that looked almost like some sort of old ballroom. It was large, with high ceilings, no interior walls, old hardwood floors, plaster walls and a ceiling marred with age and littered with spider web cracks. Void of furniture, it was completely empty but for someone kneeling in the center of the room, rocking slowly in the shadows. He couldn’t be sure if it was a man or woman, as they were wrapped from head-to-toe in a sheer dark cloak, like an ancient burial shroud.
Jeff remained in the doorway. The person’s whispers, the cadence like prayers or chants, bled across the open space, but they seemed unaware of his presence. Even when the familiar clacking sound of heels hitting the floor broke the silence and Jessica Bell entered the room from a door on the far wall, the person continued rocking, head bowed and undeterred.
As she crossed the room in her business suit, towing a suitcase on wheels behind her, he saw her nude and atop him in the hotel room, her breasts wet with perspiration, her hair a tangled mess, her legs tight against his hips as she bucked and rode him, her hands pressed flat against his chest and her eyes wild and alive and burning with the crazed passion and fire of a woman possessed.
She stopped a few feet from him, looking almost pleased to see him. “Jeff,” she said, “what are you doing here?”
“What do you think I’m doing here?”
Jessica smiled, and he felt himself stir. “Same as the others, looking for answers you won’t find, not here anyway.”
“Why do you do these things to people?” He struggled even now to resist her, but the woman dripped sex. Disgust filled him. There, with the lust. “Why are you a part of this?”
“Like the card says, we’re just facilitators.”
“What do you possibly gain from all this?”
Her arrogance resembled that of any great predator, one completely confident in its invulnerability. “You can’t figure out if you want to fuck me or kill me with your bare hands,” she purred. “Deep down, you want to do both. Don’t let it tear you up. Truth is neither of us can help it. A mouse to cheese or a moth to flame, it’s no different. It’s the way we’re wired.”
“Does that help you sleep at night?”
“I suppose it would if I slept at all.”
Jeff ignored his fear and motioned to the shrouded person with his chin. “Who is that?”
“Doesn’t matter, aren’t you here to see Mr. Hope?”
She cocked her head toward the far side of the room and the door she’d come through. “Afraid I can’t stay, got a plane to catch.
Things to do, people to see. Business is booming. But then, our business is always booming.” Jessica winked, strolled by him then stopped. “If it makes you feel any better,” she said without looking back, “it was never really about you.”
The sound of her footfalls and the plastic suitcase wheels rolling along the floor resumed then grew fainter until they too fell silent, as if absorbed by the building itself. All that remained was whispers and the incessant dripping.
Jeff walked across the large, open, windowless room, taking a wide path around the shrouded figure. But when he was within reach, the woman-he could tell now that it was female-jerked her head up from prayer. The cloak slipped free of her head and fell down around her neck, revealing a hideously pale and sunken face, the skin so withered it seemed nearly mummified. Where her eyes should’ve been were two empty black sockets, remnants of blood and fluid still staining her cheeks like war paint. Horrified, Jeff took a step back.
The woman’s lips-thin, taut and bloodless-parted and her whispers became a frail voice. “Is someone there?”
It was impossible to tell how old she was, but the woman was more than likely middle-aged. Or had been…
“Are you there?” she asked, hands reaching out in darkness. “I can…I can hear someone…please… won’t you help me?”
Jeff swallowed. Hard. “I don’t know what to do.”
The woman’s head swiveled back and forth, trying to pinpoint the exact location of his voice. “Please, they’ve left me here and I don’t know what’s happening. There’s been some sort of mistake, I…I’ve been praying but…”
Jeff brought a trembling hand to his mouth. A pair of black glasses with unusually thick lenses lay at the woman’s feet. “Ms. Gill?”
“Yes,” she said, nodding furiously. “Do I…Do I know you?”
“What has he done to you?”
“I don’t know, but I can’t see. Please…” Her withered hands reached for him again, the fingernails torn free and the skin beneath sewn closed with thick leather-like thread. The far door creaked as it opened slightly. Jeff and the woman both turned toward the sound, but she began to groan in horror as she fell to her side and curled into a fetal position. “No, oh-oh no-don’t…”
A scratchy sound echoed through the room from just beyond the door, a stylus dropped into the groove of an old record album. A keyboard intro was followed by a haunting guitar riff, and as the eerie vocals kicked in, Jeff realized someone was blasting Iron Butterfly’s classic rock epic In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.
Jeff headed straight for it, stopping just before the cracked door. He reached out and pushed, swinging the door open wider. The music, deafening now, spilled out from a turntable and stereo system inside the narrow room. Standing in the shadows was the tall man.
Dressed in the same black suit, white shirt and skinny black tie, he seemed oblivious to Jeff’s presence, stood pencil-straight and swung his long arms up and down to the beat of the song, above his head then down behind his back in slow arcing motions, snapping his fingers and lolling his back and forth as if his neck had broken. The look of abject sorrow he’d had prior was gone, replaced with a blank, emotionless expression. Eyes closed, he continued to dance, arms swinging. Jeff noticed a desk against the wall to the man’s right, a cloth spread out across the top upon which numerous items had been placed. A closer look revealed a neat row of various medical utensils and instruments of torture and mutilation. Most were pristine and shiny silver, but a few were stained with blood and other fluids, as well as small chunks and slivers of what was probably human flesh.
Sitting just beyond the tall man, in the far corner of the room, was Foster Hope. The old man was slumped in a rickety wooden chair; head bowed and chin touching his chest as if in sleep. He too seemed oblivious to Jeff’s presence. Though he wore the same suit and tie, this time he looked different.
Hope’s hands, resting in his lap, now resembled those in Jeff’s dream, the manicured fingernails replaced with long, thick, bone-white talons that seemed better suited to the paws of a large jungle cat than the hands of a human being. His white hair was a bit mussed but it wasn’t until he slowly raised his head and turned to Jeff that the other changes became evident as well.
“Christ Jesus,” Jeff whispered.
The old man’s eyes were no longer a brilliant emerald. The lenses had been removed and all that remained were solid black orbs, moist, inhuman, disturbing inky pools. His lips parted and curled up into a hideous smile, the large false teeth gone, replaced by bloody, diseased gums he slurped at with a black and forked reptilian tongue.
Jeff felt his legs give out but he caught the edge of the desk at the last moment and leaned onto it, preventing himself from collapsing to the floor. Mind reeling, he stared at Foster Hope, wanting to turn away but unable to, his vision blurring and becoming watery.
Just off the room was a bathroom, the door open. Propped across a shelf above a large sink was a human head, eyes gouged out, mouth slashed wide into a freakish and Joker-like grin. Several others lay in a heap on the dirty tile floor. Blood plopped in a slow, steady rhythm from scraps of flesh that had once been a neck down into the sink, and though the music made it impossible to hear, Jeff now knew the source of the incessant dripping.
Everything in his being told him to run, but his body refused to respond. Shaking, he held tight to the desk until his vision slowly returned to normal.
The tall man fell still. After a moment he noticed Jeff for the first time. Eyes never leaving him, he lifted the arm from the record and the music stopped. The dripping sound returned as he rolled the instruments up in the cloth, tucked them under his arm then strode back out into the large room. The shrouded woman began to scream, and as Jeff looked back over his shoulder he saw the tall man dragging her by her hair across the floor and out into the hallway. He put his hands to his ears and fell across the desk. “Stop it, for-for Christ’s sake, stop it!”
The screams grew softer and were eventually silenced. Foster Hope sat grinning and staring at him with his onyx eyes throughout.
Jeff struggled back to his feet, clinging desperately to whatever scraps of sanity he could still claim, and saw that somehow the old man had returned to his previous state. Perhaps he’d never really changed at all. Or perhaps Jeff had only really seen Foster Hope as he truly was for that one horrifying instant.
“So good to see you again, Jeff,” the old man said. He rose from his chair and closed the bathroom door, emerald eyes sparkling as he smiled brightly.
“The tapes,” he managed.
“There, as I promised.” Hope motioned to two unmarked video cassettes on the desk. Next to them was a large wastebasket, a bottle of lighter fluid and a box of matches. “I assumed you’d want to destroy them.”
“How do I know these are them?”
He rolled his eyes. “Come on, Jeff, the game’s over. You must know that by now. Those are the tapes. You have my word.”
“Your word? You can’t be serious.”
The old man’s face hardened. “I’m dead serious, boy.”
Jeff scooped up the cassettes, pulled the tape free from within them and threw them into the wastebasket. After dousing them with lighter fluid he struck a match and threw it in. The tapes went up quickly, the awful chemical stench of burning plastic cases wafting all about the room.
“And now to the matter of your compensation,” Hope said. “You’ve earned it, and will therefore soon find that I have paid you in full.”
Jeff stepped back, closer to the open doorway. “Who are you?”
“Who do you think I am?”
“ What are you?”
“I have many names.” He traced his lips with a finger, the talons still in place, like razors. “Wizard…Necromancer…Djinn… Sorcerer.”
“This isn’t happening. None of this is real.”
“I’m as real as the human capacity for boundless greed and self-interest is. Do you really believe any of the wishes your kind ever have are anything but self-serving?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Then you’re a fool. And you’re weak. But you amuse me, much the way a mouse amuses a cat. I like to play, though I know my games are particularly disturbing to you. But then, that’s the whole point, isn’t it. Like the cat, I toy with my mice however I like. And when I grow bored I finish them off without remorse or thought or even a hint of compassion.” Hope moved closer, relishing the fact that each time he did Jeff took another step back. “Because I am eternal, and you are little more than a faded scar on the ass of your so-called God.”
“Run along, little rabbit.” Hope shooed him away with his hands.
“You’ve stumbled into a den of hungry wolves.”
The rain brought him back…wet and cold on his flushed face…away from those horrible green eyes, it was suddenly all around him, a tangle of lust, terror, regret, confusion and anger, clinging to him like flypaper. An explosion of faces-memories of people and events, time with no linear meaning but instead a sandstorm of disjointed seconds tumbling through space, a limitless number of possibilities flowing like water-a montage of two lives and the people, places and things that constituted them whirling together as one.
And then, Eden…looking on as one life-his life, her life, their history, love and laughter, tears, hope, disappointments, fears and triumphs-spiraled away into darkness, splintered to smoke and ash…taking her with it while the other life rose to prominence, one of sorrow and heartbreak, failure and neglect. Amidst screams-his and someone else’s-Eden was torn from him. And all that remained was the rain and faint traces of laughter. The horrible laughter of something no longer human, disguised as the cackling of a sick old man.
As if awakening from a dream, Jeff realized he was on the street.
Fighting back tears of shock and confusion, he leaned against the side of a building, drenched and frightened. “What the hell’s happening to me?”
Something hit the wall, not far from his face.
Startled, Jeff pushed away from the building and turned in the direction from which it had come.
A surly-looking police officer tapped the wall next to him with his nightstick. “Come on, keep moving, no loitering. Let’s go, move it.”
“Officer, there’s no problem here, I-”
The cop nudged him with a beefy gloved hand. “Just move along.”
“I stopped to make a call.” He reached for his cell phone. It wasn’t there.
“Uh-huh. I’m not telling you again. Move along.”
Jeff staggered away, caught his balance then started off down the block. Doing his best not to appear too upset, he purposely moved in a slow, controlled stride, but noticed people were giving him an unusually wide berth. Most looked away as if repulsed. With his discomfort growing, he stopped in front of a large store window to examine his reflection.
Very slowly, he touched his hands to the face staring back at him.
Ernie Graham’s face.
“My God,” he whispered. “What have you done to me?”
Through the constant surge of people moving along the street behind him, he saw Foster Hope emerge with a devilish grin. “You wanted freedom from the rent, credit card bills, car payments-all of it. Your wish was for independence from those things. Now you have it.”
“Don’t worry,” Hope told him. “Eden’s going to be just fine.”
“Eden,” he cried, his fingertips scraping down across the stubble on filthy cheeks that were not his own. “She…”
“Ernie Graham once worked for me as well. His wish was for a new life.” The old man licked his lips excitedly. “Your life, Jeff.”
“And now I’ve given it to him.”
He continued to stare, transfixed by his reflection and what he knew to be impossible. “God damn you.”
“Indeed He did,” Hope sighed, “a very long time ago.”
Jeff turned from their reflections expecting to see Hope standing next to him. But there was no one there. When he looked back at the store window, Hope’s reflection had vanished as well.
“He’s still out there.”
As he sat up, Jeff’s perspiration-soaked back peeled away from the bed sheet. He squinted drowsily at the clock on the nightstand. The numbers were a jumbled blur. “Eden?”
“Hey,” she said softly.
“What are you doing up?”
“I couldn’t sleep.” Perhaps carelessly, she stood nude at the apartment window. “I needed something cold to drink.” She held up a bottle of water in evidence and then ran the cool plastic across her brow and down along her flushed cheek. “It’s after midnight and he’s still out there.”
“Of course he is.” Jeff swung his feet to the floor. “That’s where he lives.”
“It’s ridiculous. No one should be living on the streets in this day and age.”
Jeff searched the nightstand, located his eyeglasses and slipped them on. “Jesus, get out of the window.”
“It’s dark, he can’t see in.”
He sat on the edge of the bed and watched shadows slink along the smooth contours of his wife’s back. Glistening with perspiration, her flesh looked like it had been sprayed down with a fine mist. “I was having a dream,” he told her. “Just now, it woke me.”
“What was it about?”
“I was here, in the city, but I was lost and I couldn’t find you.
It was like I had no memory of the city at all. I just kept aimlessly wandering the streets looking for you. I looked everywhere, but I couldn’t find you.”
“It’s OK,” she said. “I’m right here.”
“Yes.” He smiled. “You really are right here with me…aren’t you?”
“Of course, sweetie.” Eden pushed a wisp of short brown hair from her eyes. “Where else would I be?”
What he didn’t tell her was that in the dream he’d been running.
In a panic of frenzied terror he’d been sprinting through the streets of Boston as if a pack of wild dogs had been right on his heels…or perhaps as if he’d been one of those dogs himself…or something similar…feral and alone and lost in a rage of night, harsh, dangerous and without end.
“And I’m here, too,” he said, as if just realizing it, “with you.”
She cocked her head, baffled. “Are you still asleep?”
“No. No, I…I’m awake now.” He gazed at her beauty. “Come here.”
As she started toward him the buzzer for the door downstairs suddenly sounded, startling them both. Eden quickly threw on a lightweight robe and hugged herself, eyeing her husband nervously throughout.
Without a word, they crossed the apartment to the intercom just inside the front door. Jeff stepped aside and nodded for Eden to answer it.
She pressed the button. “Yes?”
“Eden!” a man’s frantic voice answered. “Let me in! Please, let me in!”
Jeff recognized the voice immediately but said nothing.
“Please Eden! You can help me, please- please -help me, let me in!”
She glanced guiltily at Jeff, unsure of what to say.
“Please! Let me in! I don’t belong out here!”
“I’m sorry, Ernie,” she said softly. “I can’t do that.”
She switched off the intercom, and together, she and Jeff returned to the bedroom. He slid into bed as she ventured back to the window for the bottle of water she’d left on the sill.
Eden looked at the street two stories below. The homeless man had returned to the base of their steps and gazed up at her, a crippling sorrow filling his eyes. For reasons unknown even to her, Eden felt inexplicably drawn to him ever since he’d first appeared on their street a few days before. She held his stare with an impassive version of her own. She could see his lips moving but couldn’t hear what he was saying, just vague whispers in the night.
She closed her eyes.
Behind her, she could hear Jeff slip out of his pajama bottoms, his breath heavy and excited. “Come back to bed, baby.”
Eden opened her eyes. The homeless man was gone.