Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Soul Stripper 4

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4


"What the hell happened to me?"  Frank was sitting on a park bench, holding his head. "What did you do?" Eyre was next to him with her hand on his back. 

"I only took you to see the Powers That Be," she said.  "The Chondria."

Frank was miserable.  He coughed, deep, hacking, moving lots of fluid in the process.  He hawked and spit.  "Jesus," he said.  "Jesus Christ this hurts."

The lady in the grey suit tried to soothe him by drawing her hand, palm flat, back and forth across his shoulder blades.  Concern showed on her face.  Frank coughed, hawked and spit again.  A couple walking along the path ahead took a turn to avoid the pair.

"How long have I been gone?"  Frank looked up at Eyre.  "I've got obligations, you know.  How long?"

Eyre paused and brought her hands to her lap.  "A few hours.  Three or four," she said.

"Last thing I remember is calling Bettie," Frank said.  His eyes went wide, his brow straight up.  "Bettie.  I've got to get home.  I've got to call Hansen.  Did I send her to the Weaver in the Well?  Do you remember?  Did I call her?"

"Yes," Eyre said.  "You did all that."

Frank stood up and wobbled, nearly fell over.  "God," he said.  He sat heavily and put his head between his knees again.  "What did your people do to me?"

"The Chondria aren't my people, Frank.  They're what makes the Universe go."

Without raising his head, Frank held out his right hand.  "Do you have a phone?" 


|||

Joel Siever was led out of his shop by Detective Marly Hansen who helped him into the back seat of her Jaguar.  Bethany Taylor locked the front door of the old man's shop and joined the tailor and the detective in the car.  "All closed and locked," she said. 

"Thank you," Siever said. 

"I'm taking you to the gates of the Well," Hansen said as she turned the key.  The engine purred to life quietly and the powerful thrum of the engine rolled through the body of the car.  "I need every detail you can give me about Emily, but first I need to know where I can find her."

After sunset the streets were even more deserted than before and Hansen expertly navigated the turns that would take them to the entrance.  "She always came to me," Siever said.  "I have no idea how to contact her."

Bethany mocked Siever.  "'I don't know her last name, I never got her number',” she said unsympathetically.  “I've been hearing that since high school."

Marly Hansen nodded.  "Maybe we'll just leave him to the guards at the gates and go on about our business."

Several blocks passed in silence until Joel Siever spoke.  "I'm supposed to meet her in the bodega on the corner of Holmes and Spelvin at eleven tonight."

"Why?"  Hansen looked in the rearview mirror and watched the old man talk.

"I'm supposed to deliver a dress, a suit jacket and two pairs of pants.  A lady's overcoat, too."  He sighed and then frowned, looked out the window, bit his lip.  "They are on  the workbench in the back room of my shop."

"Good," Hansen said.  "I'm going to check this out while the guards at the shack take your statement.  Tell 'em everything: the names you know, dates, items of clothing you worked on for her.  Everything.  Understand?"

Joel Siever nodded and closed his eyes.  "Yes," he said quietly.

"What's that?"

"Yes, I said."

"Good," Hansen said, turning the Jag wide to the left.  "We're here."


|||

Frank stood in the empty apartment.  "She's gone," he said.  "She took everything."

Eyre was near the door, watching him pace back and forth.

"Everything," Frank said.  "All my stuff.  Everything! How long was I gone again?"

"Less than half a day," Eyre said, her voice flat.  "For what it's worth, I'm sorry."

Frank punched the wall in the living room.  He screamed. He punched the wall again.  He pulled his fist out, covered in white sheetrock dust, knuckles bleeding.  "Dammit," he said quietly.  "I really loved her."

Eyre didn't move. 

He stared at his hand, turned it over and saw the little dents his fingernails had made in the palm.  He flexed his fingers, rolling the knuckles.  He looked into the hole.  "What the - " he said.  Frank reached his other hand into the hole and pulled out slivers of wood.  He moved them around with dusty fingers and held them out to Eyre.  "I should've broken my hand.  I punched through a stud in the wall."

"Yes," she said. 

"What did they do to me?"

"It's hard to explain," Eyre said.

Frank laughed.  "Now I understand what sardonic means," he said.  "I really want to fly off the handle, get hysterical and shout a lot.  That's not going to help me much, is it?"

"No.  It won't," Eyre said. 

"What am I supposed to do now?  Am I correct," he said, "in assuming that you're here to guide me through --- through whatever this is?"

The lady in the grey suit nodded.  "You've been tapped by the Chondria, Frank.  You're the new Seeker since Strangiato's death."

"What does that mean?"

"Just what you think it does," Eyre said. "You find people, you find things.  You detect."

Frank scowled.  "You mean I work for them, do what they want."

Eyre shrugged then nodded.  "You'll live a long time, though.  Travel to places you've never dreamed of.  Meet people."

"But it won't be mine, that life," Frank said, "none of it. No matter how much I try, it won't be mine."

Eyre walked up to Frank; got close enough he could smell her perfume.  He turned away from her.  "If you think of it that way, I suppose so.  He chose you, Frank.  Strangiato told them to look at you as his replacement."

"What happened to him?  How'd he die?"

"Does it matter?"

Frank was quiet, glanced out the big window.  "It might," he said straightening up, adjusting his coat.  "But not today.  When do I start working for them?"

"You already have," Eyre said.  "You should finish that thing with Hansen first, though."

"Good," Frank said and pulled out his phone, began punching the keypad.  "Because I've got some ideas."


|||

The little groceria at Holmes and Spelvin had two booths near the coffee counter.  The good-looking older woman turned a cup of the swill round and round, every so often looking out the window to the street.  She couldn't see Marly Hansen and Bethany Taylor watching her through micro binox.  "She's there, Frank," Hansen said into her phone.  "She's looking nervous, watching for Siever."

"Okay," Frank said.  "We're going in."  He closed his phone and took a deep breath.  Eyre was stoic, but patted Frank's forearm.  "I know," he said then turned around the corner and walked straight to the door of the bodega.  Eyre followed ten steps later.

Inside, he strode past the rows of candy bars, bags of chips and four-packs of condoms to the coffee counter.  "Emily?"

The woman turned, her long blond hair twisting with the movement, but Frank saw her eyes.  "Bettie?"

"Frank," the woman said, her voice low.  Eyre was behind him.  "I see now." She took off the blond wig and laid it on the table.

"What the hell?"  Frank threw out his hands and looked out the window, motioning Hansen and Taylor into the bodega.

"What's going on, Bettie?" 

"I've had a lot of names, Frank," Bettie said.  "Stephanie's the one I was given at birth.  That's the one I'd like you to know."

Shocked, Frank looked over his shoulder at Eyre.  "This is the person I told you about.  This is Emily, the thief."

"Look," Bettie/Emily/Stephanie said.  "Call me Stephanie, okay?  That's my name and I know I'm at the end, here, so if you could give me that I'd be grateful."

Hansen came in holding her pistol; Taylor behind her had her phone out recording video.  "Frank?  Is this good?  Are we okay here?"

"No. This is my wife, not a time-hopping criminal mastermind," Frank pointed at Eyre, grim and intense, "or thief or something and she," he pointed at the woman in the booth "says she's had a lot of names but wants to be called Stephanie now."

"I love you, Frank," the woman in the booth said.  "I loved you more than anyone else and I was safe with you as long as we were in the Well.  No one could find me there, no one was looking there because ---"

"Because no one thought you'd ever stop," Eyre said.  "Brahmen most of all wouldn't have allowed it."

"Which is why I hid there," Bettie said.  Frank sat down across from her, his hands in his lap.  She looked at him, crying.

"None of this is going to make sense and whatever I tell you," she said and glanced over at Eyre, who stood with Hansen and Taylor flanking her.  "Well.  Whatever I tell you they'll spin how they please.  No one's understood anything I've ever done."

Frank's face hardened.  His eyes bored holes into the woman he loved more than anything else.  "You did it," he said.  "You made the Weaver sew those threads into the clothes, you worked the charm, you killed those people."

"I killed a lot of people, Frank, in a lot of places at a lot of times."  Emily/Bettie/Stephanie's eyes were full of tears.  "I spent a long time in the Well doing penance until I met you.  With you I found peace once I realized I was well and truly hidden from the powers that be, the powers that had manipulated me for more than thirty years."

"I should ask you why, I should ask you a lot of questions," Frank said, icicles dripping from his words, breaking on the tabletop.  "The only thing I really want to know is whether or not the life we had in the Well was real or if you were masquerading there, too."

"It was real, Frank.  Remember how I didn't want to leave?"

Frank stared, unblinking, at his wife.

"Well," she said now staring at her hands, "I didn't want to leave because I was safe there.  Hidden.  Brahmen couldn't find me and I had a good thing."

"That why you hated me working for the cops?  Because you knew I'd eventually clear myself?"

"I was happy there, Frank.  Content and in love.  It was the best time of my life."

Frank was cold and looked down his nose at her.  "I don't believe you.  This Stephanie person you say you were --- I don’t know her.  Emily, I’m told, is a consummate liar.  You wore Bettie's face for a lot of years and lied to everyone in that community, to me. 

"I just can't believe you."

Bettie/Emily/Stephanie set her mouth and nodded.  "I understand," she said.  "You should find the Rook, Frank.  That's a key to stopping Brahmen."  Tears streaming down her face, the woman clenched her teeth and gripped the table like she was drowning in a whirlpool.

"Bettie!"  Frank reached out as foam appeared at the corners of her mouth. She spasmed, let go the tabletop.  "Poison! Bettie!"  Frank pulled her out of the booth and laid her down on the floor.  The woman's eyes rolled up white as her body shook and her mouth went open and slack.  Frank shouted her name over, over.

He felt the last breath leave her body.

He hugged her, sobbing. Eyre, Marly Hansen and Bethany Taylor watched briefly then turned away.


|||

"You call me using a landline at this number," Frank said to Marly Hansen.  "You call and I'll do what I can to help you though I don't know how that works, yet."

"What are you going to do?"  Hansen looked up at him.  "Where will you go?"

"I've got a train, new bosses and a new job.  I'm sure I'll figure it out."  He put his hand out to her.

Hansen looked at it and then grabbed him, hugging him tight.  She sniffled against his chest, squeezed him again.  Hansen pulled back, wiped her eyes.  "I'll call you soon," she said.

"Only when you need me," Frank said. He studied her, watching as she smoothed out her jacket in the cool night air, tried to compose herself.  "But I'll find a way to come visit you soon, okay?"

She nodded and tried to smile.

Frank looked past her.  Eyre was at the end of the block watching them.
"I've gotta go," he said.  "Do good work, Hansen.  Be good police, okay?"

"Yes, sir," she said.  She made sure he felt her hips against his as she brushed past him.

Frank smiled as he walked toward the lady in the grey suit.  He didn't look back.

"You ready?"

"Yep," Frank said.  "Did she look back?"

"Twice."

"Huh.  Guess I better come back for a visit soon, eh?"

Eyre put her arm around Frank's and walked with him into the darkness of the city.  "First we have to find this Rook 68, stop Brahmen and save the world."

"Think it'll be that easy?"

Eyre laughed: a deep, throaty chortling that sounded dirty to Frank's ear.  "Oh, no," she said.  "Not at all."


Thanks for reading Soul Stripper! Come back next week Click here for the final story in The Long Range, a double-sized tale of redemption and reunion called "Reader".  Tell your friends, won't you?






©2010 By Jason Arnett.

Some Rights Reserved under a Creative Commons Attribution-

Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States

You can buy the whole story, and any story from this website for 49¢ by clicking on the button below and I’ll send you a DRM-free PDF via email.








Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Soul Stripper 3




3


"Who are you and what are you talking about?"

The lady in the grey suit didn't move, still held her hands out.  "I'm Eyre and we don't have time for games," she said.  "Things are fast tipping out of balance."

Frank shook his head, frowned.  "What does that mean?"

Eyre dropped her hands and walked toward Frank.  "Surely Strangiato has mentioned me and the others?  Jimmy Cavanaugh?  The Chondria, Brahmen, Ben Rose?"

Frank narrowed his eyes and cocked his head to the left, processing everything.  She put her hands on her hips.

"Okay," he said.  "You know some things, some names.  How do I know you're really one of them?"

"Them?"  Surprise in her voice.  "You really don't have any idea."  She smiled then as if looking at an idiot child.

Frank's mistrust crept across his face.  "If there's no time," he said, "if 'things are tipping out of balance' and Strangiato's really dead?  Why are you acting like this?"  He stepped backward from her and held his hands at his sides. 

The woman in the grey suit started and looked as if she were thinking about what he'd said.  She relaxed.  "You're right," Eyre said.  " My apology.  This is  difficult."

"I'm assuming that you didn't come here just to tell me he was dead," Frank said.

"No," Eyre said.  "I need to take you somewhere."

"I can't really leave," Frank said.  "I'm working a case."

"We know.  You still need to come with me," Eyre said.  "Your case crosses over."

"I don't understand."

"Will you --- will you just come with me?  It will make sense once we get there."

Frank sighed, looked up at the sky, gritted his teeth.  "Can I make a couple of calls first?"

|||


"Don't do this, Frank."  Hansen was pacing back and forth in Bethany Simms's office.  "What do you mean you have to leave?  Where are you going?  Huh?"  She listened and Bethany tapped away at the keyboard of the wheezing desktop computer.  "You're a consulting, Frank.  You don't get to do this.  No.  I'm not firing you, I can't.  What the fuck?  What?  Jesus, Frank, no, I don't.  What?  I mean it, Frank, what the fuck?"

Hansen pulled the phone suddenly from her ear and stared at the screen: Call Ended.  She threw it across the room and it bounced twice before coming to a stop against the far wall of the M.E's office.  "Sonuvafuckingbitch!"  The detective stomped around, threw up her hands and mumbled for two and a half minutes, according to the stopwatch Bethany Simms had pulled up on her desktop.

"He quit?" she finally said when Hansen was only breathing heavily from the efforts of her rage.  Bethany Simms kept her face as blank as possible.

"I've read about this with him, you know," Hansen said.  "I've read his file, seen the jackets, but Christ it's something else when he does it to you."

Bethany didn't change, didn't move, kept looking at Hansen.

"He's gone off on some lead he said he couldn't share," Hansen said.  "If Jurgens hadn't been such a prick, I might've believed him about Frank.  Goddammit!"

"You done?"

Hansen whirled on Bethany and started to say something, then thought better of it.  "Yeah," she said.  "I am.  Fuck."

"Good, have a drink."  Bethany poured two glasses of vodka and picked up one.  "Go on, it won't bite you.  You're a grownup and a cop, you can handle a bit of liquor in the middle of the day."

Hansen clenched and unclenched her fists, set her jaw and frowned then took the glass and drained it.  "Ugh," she said.  "That's not really vodka, is it?"

"Nah," Bethany said and slugged her drink.  "It's the rotgut we make in the still downstairs.  We just saved some good bottles and after a few it doesn't matter anyway." 

"You're kidding."

"Yes," Bethany said, frustrated.  "Jeez, Hansen, lighten up.  Did he say anything else?"    She reached over and took the other woman's glass and replaced them both in the bottom drawer of her desk along with the bottle.

"Yeah," Hansen said.  "The Weaver.  We're supposed to go to the Well and see the Weaver."

"Back to the Well," Bethany said.  They looked at each other for a beat in silence then both broke out in laughter.  "What a stupid name.  Who came up with that?"

"I'll tell you on the way," Hansen said.  "Bring the fibers."

|||


"Okay, Frank.  No, I don't understand so you're going to have a lot of explaining to do when you get home."  Bettie listened as he told her how much he loved her.  "You do what you want and I'll either be here or I won't when you get back.  I'll wait for a while but not forever.

"I love you, too."

She hung up.  Looking out the window over the city that she'd grown up in for the first time in fifteen years, her whole body shook.  She walked to the window and watched the beginnings of rush hour traffic.

Far out to the west, she could see the rounded top of the terminal at Arrowhead Center.  Lights twinkling where there used to be only farmland and four-lane highway. Bettie sighed and scanned the horizon from left to right.  She stood there, silhouetted by the sun, her shadow crossing the living room floor until she tired and went to the bedroom.

She pulled out a small suitcase and opened it on the bed.

|||


Hansen drove her Jaguar through the gates at the north entrance to the Well and pocketed her badge.  "They think we're coming here to have sex with the deviants," she said hooking a thumb over her shoulder at the guards.  "It's not that uncommon."

"I've actually been here," Bethany said.  "To Black Bettie's."

The detective nodded.  "Yeah, me, too, but it's gone now." 

"No shit."

"Absolutely no shit," Hansen said.  "Got blown up last year.  Frank's her husband."

"What?  No!  He's Black Bettie's husband?  Wow."  Bethany was starstruck.  "That's cool.  How'd he get out?  Is she still here?"

"All a mistake in the first place," Hansen said.  "He was set up by his former partner who ended up being my captain and well, long story short, when the partner came to finish off Frank, the old man put up a helluva fight."

"He's your partner now?" 

The street was short and nearly empty.  As the sun was setting, long shadows crawled across the blacktop.  The buildings formed a dark canyon with an eerie orange light seeping over the tops.

"Not exactly," Hansen said, turning left onto Jameson Street.  "He's a consulting detective, like Philip Marlowe or Sherlock Holmes.  Didn't want to come back on the job."

"So where're we going, then?"  Bethany was watching the few pedestrians who didn't look at the car as it passed.

"There's a hotel on the other side, where the newbies land," Hansen said.  "If anyone'll know who the Weaver is, it'll be Effraim Yogai."

|||


Frank lay face down on the carpet.  The room was all white and had no furniture other than a settee and a wingback chair.  He wasn't bleeding but was barely breathing.  His hands were down at his sides, but his legs were splayed as if they'd suddenly given way underneath him.

"How long will he be unconscious?"  The woman might have been anxious when she asked, but she tried to show respect in the question.

"Hard to say."  The male voice wasn't human, but might have been mistaken for such if a casual bystander had been anywhere nearby.

"What's his subjective time lapse?"

"Three days."

She nodded and then swallowed.  "When will we return?  How many days will have gone by?"

"Less than one quarter of one.  It will be as if he --- what's the term use? --- Took the afternoon off."

"What's he going to remember?"

"More later than now."  The male turned and looked over his shoulder.  "We have much to do."

Frank lay on the carpet, barely breathing, as his fingers began to twitch and his eyes moved as if he were dreaming.

|||


The doorbell on the little shop in the middle of the Well sounded its happy little notes as the top of the door brushed underneath it.  The two women walked in and looked around.  "Interesting," Bethany said.  "You sure this is the right place?"

"It's the address that Yogai gave us, isn't it?"  Hansen whispered without turning around to face Bethany.  "Shut up, now."

"Mm."

The shop wasn't dingy, but it wasn't well lit, either.  There were carpets and rugs rolled up in one corner, bolts of cloth in two neat little rows, some sewing kits on the wall behind that and a gang of mannequins, male and female, in various states of dress. 

"Hello?"  The voice echoed up from the back room behind an elegant Chinese-patterned curtain.

The man who came through the curtain wasn't old, exactly, as much as he was ancient.  Hansen knew there were all sorts of prisoners in the Well, all ages and persuasions and peccadilloes, but Bethany showed surprise.  Marly Hansen threw a short elbow jab at the other woman.

"Joel Siever?  Do they call you the Weaver here?"

"I'm afraid so, a dreadful rhyming of my name," the old man said.  "May I help you?"

"Yeah, I hope so," she said and introduced herself along with Bethany.  "We're here hoping you can tell us where some fibers might have come from."

"I'll do what I can to help," the old man said. 

"What can you tell me about these?"  Hansen turned to take the evidence bags from Bethany, then handed them to the old man behind the counter.

He held them up to the light and squinted through his glasses, then looked over the rims at Hansen.  "These are mine," he said.  "Where did you get them?"

"You make steel silk?"

"Young lady, when one is incarcerated here, there's very little to keep one from experimenting.  Of course I found a way to make steel silk."

The old man laid down the evidence bags, put both hands on the counter.  "Am I being investigated?"

"Are there nanites in the steel, sir?"  Hansen was as cold as she could be.

"There most certainly are not," the old man said.  "I use only the purest chromium and higher amounts than anyone else."

"These fibers are pretty flexible, Mr. Siever," Hansen said.  "Do you sew them into your clothes?"

"Only at the behest of certain clients," Joel Siever said with an air of haughty exasperation.  "It's very expensive and each strand sold by the foot."

"To what purpose?"

"Whatever purpose the purchaser chooses," the old man said with impatience.  "I make no judgment."

"Can I see your back room there?"  Hansen stepped around the counter and toward the curtain. 

"No, you may not," the old man's voice had a sudden strength to it, belying his age.  He waved his hand as though he were a mystic in a 1930s monster movie.  "As a matter of fact, you and your companion will turn and leave now."

Hansen stared at Joel Siever, who waved his hand twice more.  "That's enough of that," she said and took his wrist, surprising the old man.  "I'm asking you nicely to see your back room as I think you may be involved in a series of murders, Mr. Siever.  You have the right to remain silent.  Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.  You have the right to an attorney.  If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you.  Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you?"

The old man nodded.  "There was a woman," he said.  "She brought me articles of clothing and had me sew the threads into the labels.  She knew the charm to make the threads move.  She showed me."

"What's the woman's name?"  Hansen put handcuffs on Joel Siever's right wrist.  "How many articles of clothing?"

"Can you cuff me in front?  My shoulder joints aren't what they used to be."  He looked at her with tears in his eyes, looking suddenly frail.  "Please?"

Hansen stared back, cold, icy, uncaring.  "All right," she said.  "What was her name?"

"She never gave her last name," Joel Siever said.  "The only name I got was Emily."



Thanks for reading "Soul Stripper".  Come on back next Wednesday Click here for the conclusion and tell your friends, won't you?


©2010 By Jason Arnett.

Some Rights Reserved under a Creative Commons Attribution-
Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States


You can buy the whole story, and any story from this website for 49¢ by clicking on the button below and I’ll send you a DRM-free PDF via email.