(So, the release of the new book is this Thursday 3/19, and leading up to it I’m posting the first three chapters, one per day. Today, here’s a chance to see how The Hungry Dark gets going.)
The breeze drifting through my window was only cool in that it was a lower temperature than the air inside my office. Old buildings like mine often have heat that runs on a calendar. Sometime the end of September it kicks on, regardless of the weather. It was the week of Halloween, the air danced with the smells of Autumn, but it was a balmy 70 degrees outside. Which made it somewhere north of 90 degrees inside. Done for the day, I shut the window ready to bolt for the open air. I’d just mailed the itemized invoice on my most recent case. They’d brought me on to consult on an otherworldly phenomenon that turned out to be poor electrical wiring. It wasn’t a large fee, but it would cover my light bill the next month. If they paid.
I had just thrown on my coat and just got my hat situated on my head when a thin shadow knocked on my office door.
“Sorry, closing for the…”
I got a look at the knocker and the words died in my throat.
He wasn’t a frightful thing, just the opposite. Slender and flabby. A bit on the disheveled side and self-conscious about it. But the look on his face fought a war between nervous and terrified. I watched for a moment as the battle raged.
“Mr. Carson?” he asked.
“Can I help you with something?”
I didn’t want to help. I wanted to get on with my plans for the evening. I was on my way to see Hannah. But he was too pitiful, and I couldn’t help myself.
“My name is Ronnie,” he stammered. “I need your help.”
He handed me a card. I used the motion as an opportunity to slide out into the hall with him, closing the door behind me. I took the card, then locked my office.
“I’m shutting down the official business for the day,” I explained. “If we can talk while we walk, come with me.”
Ronnie had a stunted but precise gait. Even though he was nearly my height, I had to slow my pace to not leave him behind.
“What can I help you with… Mr. Kelly?” I asked, surreptitiously checking the card to make sure.
“I need someone with your special skills,” he said.
“I’m not a wizard,” I said. “Or medium. I don’t read palms and I can’t tell the future. I don’t even know any card tricks.”
Reading the look on his face, I could tell I’d completely missed the mark with my assumption.
“I need protection,” he said.
“Why not go to the police?”
“You have a reputation for being able to deal with certain, odd occurrences,” he answered. “And I don’t wish to involve the authorities.”
We’d made it to the front door to my building, and I stopped.
When people don’t want to bring the cops in on something, it’s usually on the shady side of legal, at best. Keeping my license meant steering away from most of the extra-legal jobs that came my way. But I had a reputation for operating on the blurry side of the law. Unearned, but there it was. Sometimes it helps in dealings with the less savory crowd.
“I’ve found myself in business with people,” he said in a hushed voice. “Bad people.”
He displayed so many nervous tics and twitches that I would have taken him for a speed freak. Looking back on it, I guess he had reason. Outside, in the clear October light, I finally got a good look at him. He was slim and shapeless and looked incredibly small standing on the sidewalk in front of my office. In his mid-thirties, most likely, but the rings under his eyes magnified by coke-bottle glasses, and the pale skin draped over his bones made him look older. Ronnie was the least threatening person I had ever met. It’s probably why I dismissed his story as pre-Halloween nonsense.
“All the more reason to go to the cops,” I said. “They can put you in protective custody.”
His face sagged in frustration and fear.
“They have ways of getting to people, even people the police are guarding,” he said.
The situation was beginning to sound more and more dangerous, and less and less worth it. The feeling must’ve showed on my face.
“I can pay,” he added quickly.
“Sorry,” I said. “I can’t help you.”
I stepped out of the door and down to the street. Ronnie dogged my heels, all but begging. I’m not the crusading type, so I don’t know what would’ve changed my mind. But just then I had no interest in helping a criminal escape the consequences of his actions, no matter how scared he looked or how much money he offered. I turned to tell him something to that effect and froze before my lips parted.
What little color there had been drained out of Ronnie’s cheeks. He shook. Not little tremors either, but jerky, full body shakes that looked just shy of convulsions. His rheumy eyes glazed over and tried to roll back in his head.
Then a shadow blocked out the sun.
Didn’t need intuition to alert me that the day just went sideways with extreme prejudice. I spun, .45 already in hand.
An oily black cloud dove from the sky.
And the world drowned in darkness.
Tune in tomorrow, for ch. 2.