"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."
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.
"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;
behind her had her phone out recording video. "Frank? Is this good? Are we okay here?" Taylor
"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.
"Yep," Frank said. "Did she look back?"
"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.
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