I found them in less than a week. It wasn’t difficult and I’m good at what I do. In fact, I’m good enough to wait and watch them from the hill to the West for another week before Van Ginkel grew importunate. The delay wasn’t all for profit. I didn’t want to rush into anything without an idea of who was there. Were they alone and who were Jack and Jill in the first place? What were they capable of doing? A lot of kayaking apparently. It was pretty much all I saw them do. They left early each morning and returned late in the afternoon. Otherwise they grilled out and frolicked in the evenings as if they were on vacation. Then they sat next to a roaring campfire under the bright band of the Milky Way every night. They weren’t violent criminals by any standard. Deep in the evergreen forest, they were liberated and by no means fugitives from anything. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that something dangerous was near.
The professor chirped giddily when I told him to meet me at a small diner a few miles away. It was a mom and pop spot that sat at the crossroads of two lonely highways. The entire place was a couple converted train cars painted in pastel colors like giant industrial Easter eggs. The inside was covered with white and black checkered tile in just about every corner. I sat in the thick vinyl booth next to the big open window facing the parking lot. The entire place was empty except for the middle-aged waitress who poured me a coffee and gave me an empty smile. I remember feeling better that there weren’t many witnesses. The last thing we needed was someone asking questions and I had no idea how Van Ginkel would react under increasing pressure.
I was there a half hour early and he showed up ten minutes after me. He popped out of his car, fidgeted and looked left and right like a hare inching out of the bush. I sipped my coffee and watched out of the corner of my eye as he climbed the metal stairs. Patience might be the single most important trait for someone in my line of work. You have to be able to wait.
It takes a certain understanding of peace. Now I’m not trying to sell some bullshit mystical oneness with the universe. No, I mean you have to be at peace that everything is dead and rotten anyway, no matter what you do. All of my absolute worst decisions have come too quickly, but once you’ve learned the ultimate truth, taking that extra moment to rethink the circumstances isn’t so difficult anymore. Prudence is the word I like best for it.
I was there in that peaceful place until the moment he walked through the door. Then I felt the shiver of the unknown as the door chimed with his entrance. There was that feeling of the swatter again.
“Please tell me you’ve seen them both,” he said as he sat down.
“Relax fella,” I replied and waved the waitress over. “I have but there’s something we got to go over first.”
The coffee arrived and the professor shook his head brusquely.
“Wait a tick and have a cup, doc.”
He shrugged and bit his tongue until we were alone again.
“What else to it? I paid you and you found them.”
“Well, we’re not exactly clear as to what happens when we do. You don’t want the police involved, so I was wondering what your plans were.”
“I merely want them to return what they have taken and turn themselves in.”
“Seriously?” I said with a hearty guffaw.
He sighed and sipped his coffee.
“Of course, I am not completely altruistic in my intentions. I believe I mentioned that such a reconciliation may be the only way for me to continue my research, my life’s work.”
His eyes darted back and forth from me to the parking lot and to the waitress.
“Is that so?” I asked into the echo of my steaming cup.
“That’s about it,” Van Ginkel said with another shrug. “There is nothing more to tell other than my personal desire to retrieve the mechanism. I have told you about the safety and containment built for the transportation of a radioactive device. It is exactly why I want to recover it rather than some bumbling police officer.”
He convinced me after I pushed him to exasperation. We piled into my truck and prepared to confront the fugitives. The ride up the mountain was quiet. All I recall hearing was the sound of the professor tapping his fingers on the door the entire time. I rolled down the window and breathed in the grapefruit aroma of Douglas firs. The gray sky reflected the gray ground and the truck splashed muddy waters from the many puddles. Yes, it was that time of year between the death and rebirth.
We stopped about a quarter of a mile from the final turn toward the cabin. I pulled the truck into an old logger’s turnout. When we got out, the professor struggled to keep up as we walked over the piles of slash, limbs and uprooted stumps. At the first sight of the cabin, I stopped and waited for him to catch up. Then I gave him a wink and pulled out a forty five from my shoulder holster. Although his explanation seemed innocent enough, something smelled rotten in this deal, but my suspicions were misplaced. I was thinking the happy couple was less likely to greet us enthusiastically than to react stupidly and possibly maliciously. They might be even stupider than they looked in their happy-family photographs, and in my experience that’s the most probable outcome. Only thing is you can’t look in all directions at once.
We followed a deer trail until I could see the reflection of the wet front porch and the smoke pouring out of the chimney, so I assumed they were inside. We stopped just outside the line of trees. My intuition was going nuts. Something wasn’t right. This seemed too easy by a measure and a half. I motioned for the professor to catch up and get behind me. Two or three steps later, I regretted taking this job from the start.
I felt a sharp pain in the area of my back below my neck. Then there was the unmistakable locking of all my muscles by a high-powered taser. During the five seconds I crumbled to the ground, I could have filled an hour with all the venom and cursing in my mind. Not being the first time I felt a taser either, the effects wore off but my searing rage remained. I turned to see a horror-stricken Van Ginkel searching desperately through his pockets for his plan B. I clutched at his shirt but he doused the rag with a colorless chemical from a brown bottle and shoved it in my face. I can’t remember the smell of the fumes and all the world went dark to me in an instant.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
Why the hell are those cars all honking their horns? That was my very next thought. Then I wondered about the tall trees and where I was. I sat up and looked around for at least ten seconds before I remembered. I checked my shoulder holster and found nothing, but Mary was right in her place by my ankle. Thankfully, amateurs always overlook her.
I grit my teeth until I chipped a canine. That bastard never seemed to get better either no matter how many times I sat under the drill. How did that little weasel get the jump on me? I heard at least two car alarms and a home security siren chirping loudly. I should have sprinted toward my truck and sped for the hills but old habits die hard, I suppose. I was armed and flustered. Besides, someone else could be in danger, I told myself, but if I’m being totally honest, a little payback sounded pretty sweet.
None of this helped in the slightest bit as I approached the most dangerous place to be in a dust up, the doorway. I’ve seen why it’s called a death-way a couple times, and I had no intention of lingering where all the guns in a room are pointed, waiting. The best chance of survival was pushing through. The door was open slightly so I pointed Mary, kicked it open with the toe of my boot and bounded inside.
Every hair on my body stood up at once and tingled. It wasn’t from fright but felt more like being a kid again and sliding down a giant plastic tube at the playground. I couldn’t see much. At first I thought it was smoke but there was no smell and it couldn’t have been fog. It was clear as a bell outside. Plus it seemed somehow separate from the air I was breathing. I don’t know how to describe it. I thought I smelled sulphur but it had a sweet mesquite twinge to it like some kind of alien barbecue. I chuckled to myself but gallows humor was never a good sign.
The sparking and crackling apparatus was smaller than I had imagined. I expected antennas and glowing orbs but it was only a small metal box with a couple of wires running out of the side and a few rivets closing it all up. All this fuss and I wasn’t even going to get a peek at the inner workings. It was a wristwatch to me and complete with gears and electronics that I knew worked but couldn’t tell you what they did.
For some reason I still can’t explain, I flipped the switch. It was like a big red tease in the middle of the room. What would the mystery machine do? After all this, who wouldn’t want to know? I was kind of stoked to see the cool light show, honestly. It must be some kind of kaleidoscope for this much commotion.
The ground trembled beneath my feet and the walls shook and bounced the framed photographs on their hangers. Something glass shattered but I didn’t care. I was fixated on the metal apparatus in the center of the room.
A sapphire light shot out from between the edges of everything. It was like from where the shadows should have been came a ripple of blue water so clear it could only be a dream.
Then my heart skipped a beat and a knot swelled up in my throat. There he was in the corner. At least I thought he was a he. I didn’t get close enough to inspect. He had shimmering skin and giant green eyes but the rest of him looked sort of human. I stepped backward and bumped into the table behind me. Something electronic crashed and sizzled. I didn’t turn around to see because shoved in the firebox of the stone fireplace was the crumpled and contorted body of the man formerly known as Professor Van Ginkel. I recognized his tweed jacket despite the large blotches of dark blood.
The creature, whatever it was, turned to look at me and I took that as my cue. There was no way in hell I was going to stick around and ask questions. It was time to exit, so I scrambled, sprinted and clawed my way over a kitchen table and chairs and out the door. A laptop and a vase full of lavender crashed to the floor spilling water across everything in my wake.
After that, everything was kind of a blur. I panicked for the first time in a decade. I’m fairly salty in dangerous situations, so don’t go thinking I’m some kind of daisy in the breeze. I sprinted straight through the forest and over the rotting logs.
My truck was missing. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Sure, by the look of the approaching evening, a few hours had passed. I cursed and spat. Towed? I’d seen shanty vans parked on the side of roads like these for weeks with no sign of anyone coming back. Why in the fucking hell would I get towed in one day? Some kind of luck I had.
A blue light reflected off the ferns and flat leaves of ivy back near the cabin. I decided to get moving on foot. I’d make it back on my own, darkness be damned. It took most of the night but I did it. Five or six miles to the nearest gas station wasn’t bad at all. I guess I could have called an associate or someone who owed me a favor, but I’m a stubborn old bastard. I don’t like shouting for help.
My boots carried the load just fine. I busted through the door and the merchant looked at my like I was crazy. I looked down at my phone, thinking of a cab, and realized there was no service here for my cell phone anyway.
“Can you call a cab?” I asked the middle aged man behind the counter who seemed more than happy to get me out of there.
I walked outside and took a deep breath. Wildflowers and pollen filled my olfactory sense in a rush. How could that be? It was far too early to call it an eager spring. Ol’ Saint Nick hadn’t even passed through town just yet. But my own eyes and nose were hard to argue with. There was green about, a clear sky and the bustling activity of new life everywhere I looked. How did this make any sense?
“Hey,” I blurted and startled the lady pumping her gas. “What day is today?”
“Friday,” she said and tried to look away.
“What’s the date?”
“The twenty sixth.”
I looked at her shorts and tank top before I realized I’d been sweating my ass off in a sweater and blue jeans.
Then, she really looked at me like I was nuts. I don’t think she said a word but jumped in her car and sped away. I pulled out my phone and of course no signal but the date was still November, just like it should be. This was definitely not November here. I didn’t need her to tell me. I could guess around May or June by the sound of the tweety birds in the trees and bushes.
Eventually the cabbie pulled up and knew me as the guy without a word. I was halfway in the seat before he stopped and he didn’t even put it in park.
When I was finally back again in civilization or whatever you call it and the bars showed up on my phone. I downright smacked my ear with it as I tried to call a reliable informant, but all I got for my pain was to hear the recording for you didn’t pay your bill, jackass. I tossed it in the seat next to me as if it was a useless paperweight for an office desk I never wanted. The cab driver looked back at me in the mirror. I remember his look of revulsion as something I’d never seen on a nearby human. I was an undesirable. None of this made any sense, but I blew it off. I’d get my bearings. My old buddy from the University would set me straight on what happened. The cabbie stomped on the gas to get me on my way.