Chapter 1

I think it all started with the crow.

Until I saw the crow, everything was normal. A normal life, with a normal job. Nothing terribly out of the ordinary.

That all changed when I first saw the crow.

The first time I remember seeing the crow, I was running. I run a lot, at least three times a week. It keeps me in shape, and keeps me sane. I ran in high school, and stopped when I got to college. When I got a little older and started gaining weight for the first time, I decided to start again. It was a lot harder than I remembered it being in school, but it grew on me. It got to the point where it was more than just exercise, to the point where I look forward to it. Running is a release, a time along where I can forget about everything but the trail and my body.

I was on mile five when I first saw it. I try to pay attention to nature when I run, and I saw the crow out of the corner of my eye. It was flying from tree to tree, paralleling me. It seemed a little weird at the time, but I did not pay much attention.

I saw it again that evening, while I was eating dinner. It was sitting on a branch of the scraggly tree that is desperately trying to grow in the tiny planter between the sidewalk and my apartment wall. There were only a few leaves left, and those were red and brown and curled. It tended to give in to winter a little earlier than other trees. I figure that it has such a hard time in general that when the weather starts to get cold it just throws in the towel for the year.

The crow was just sitting there in the fading light, staring at me. Almost like it was judging me. I am a bachelor, I can eat Raisin Bran for dinner, dammit!

The crow blinked at me.

I closed the blinds.

***

It was there when I left for work in the morning.

I walked out the door, pushing the screen door out with my back while I closed the front door. I turned around, and there it was, sitting on the rail of my tiny swoop, only a few feet away.

I jumped, and yelled, and sloshed the coffee around in my travel mug. It splashed a little on my hand.

“Fuck! Dammit bird, what the fuck! That hurt.” It cocked it’s head to the side, just looking at me while I swiped at my tie, making sure I had not gotten coffee on it.

My tie was fine. I stopped, and looked at the bird. It looked at me.

“You’re fucking creepy. Go away!” I gestured at it, trying to startle it. It just looked at me unimpressed.

Then it took off, as if it was waiting just long enough to make it clear that it was leaving because it wanted to, not because it was scared.

“That’s right, you’d better run.”

***

The phone on my desk rang, and I answered.

“Ekhart Consulting, this is Ben.”

“Is this Benjamin Cooper?” The voice was profession, calm, and a little cold.

“Um…Yes? I mean yes, I’m Benjamin Cooper.”

“Good. Mr. Cooper, I am Mr. Johnson, from Johnson, Johnson, and Speckt. I’m afraid I have bad news.”

Uh oh, I thought.

“Uh oh,” I said.

“I regret to inform you that your great uncle, Richard Cooper, has passed away.”

“Who?”

He paused. “Your great uncle? Richard Cooper. He has passed away, and you are named in his will. My office is the executors.”

“Oh. Um. Okay. Listen, I don’t think I have an Uncle Richard. Maybe you have the wrong person?”

“Is this Benjamin Michael Cooper, of 347 R Street NW, Washington DC?”

“Well, yeah, but I don’t have an Uncle Richard.”

“Perhaps you knew him as Dick. In any case you are named in his will, and as the executor it is my duty to inform you.”

“Oh…okay. So what now?”

“The will is extensive. It would be difficult to discuss it in detail over the phone. Perhaps you could come to our offices in Alexandria?”

“Yeah, I guess I can. When can I come.”

“Sooner would be better, Mr. Cooper.”

“Yeah, I guess so. Okay, I’ll see if I can get out of work early today.”

“Excellent Mr. Cooper. I will be waiting. Let me give you our address.”

I wrote down the address, and hung up. I just sat for a minute, absorbing. I almost felt like this was a joke, like something from a movie. A mysterious uncle I had never heard of put me in his will? That stuff never happens in real life.

Well, one person would certainly know.

I picked the phone up again, and dialed. It rang a few times, and then-

“Ben, honey, how are you?”

“Hi Mom.”

“You know I love to hear from you, but I have class in a few minutes. What going on?”

“Mom, do you know anybody named Richard Cooper?”

“What? No, honey, why?”

“Well, I just got a call from some lawyer, saying he died, and named me in his will as his nephew or something. I just figured if I have an uncle that I never knew about, maybe you would know.”

“No, honey, I’m sorry. But if his name was cooper, he must have been on your father’s side, and you know how he was about his family.”

“Yeah, that’s true. So I guess it could be for real then, huh? The lawyer wants me to stop by his office. I guess I just wanted to know if this was a hoax or something.”

“Sorry, I have no idea.”

“Okay. Thanks anyway Mom.”

“No problem honey. Tell me how it turns out.’

“Will do. Bye.”

“Bye Ben. I love you.”

“Love you too, Mom.”

I hung up. Well, it looked like this could be legit. Huh.

***

I got off the metro at the King Street station, and walked the four blocks to that lawyer, Mr. Johnson’s, office. It was getting cold out, and the wind was whipping down King Street from the West, gusts carrying bits of paper and fallen leaves and cutting through my coat. I shivered, wishing I had worn a heavier coat. It was already late fall, but it had been warmer in the morning.

Heh. Welcome to Northern Virginia. Summer in the morning, winter in the afternoon.

I found the address. The office was in what must have been an old brick rowhouse that had been converted. There was a little painted wooden sign next to the door that said “Johnson, Johnson, and Speckt. Attorneys at Law.”

I opened the door, which was clearly as old as the house and a little narrow, and stepped into the waiting area. It was annoyingly plush and crowded, with two overstuffed couches with paisley upholstery, a few antique chairs of dark wood with paisley cushions, and an antique coffee table in the middle of the room. The floor was hardwood, which made sense for the age of the house, although there was a huge throw rug covering the middle of the floor. It was paisley too.

They must like that shit.

There were a few paintings, all of them portraits, and one big tapestry on the left wall. A tapestry, for heaven’s sake. Who were these people?

There was a door in the far wall, with a little sign that said “bathroom”, and a hallway next to it, leading deeper into the house. There were portraits lining the hallway too.

I didn’t see anyone, so I walked in and looked around a bit. There were magazines on the coffee table, the usual doctor’s office crap. Or lawyer’s office crap, as the case may be. Maybe it was just a waiting area thing.

I suddenly wondered if there were people whose entire job it was to sell magazine subscriptions to places with waiting areas. How depressing.

One of the paintings caught my eye. I stepped over and looked at it a little closer. It was of a young man with dark hair and eyes, looking somewhat wistful. His clothes were dark, and the background was dark as well, which it almost look like his head was floating without a body. It gave the whole thing an almost foreboding air.

There was something about that face, though, something…familiar. Like I knew the young man. Like he was an old schoolmate that I had not seen in years, and had almost entirely forgotten. But I knew that I had never seen this person before. I have a good memory for faces, and I certainly would have remembered this one. No, it was more that, something deeper…

“Ah, Mr. Cooper.”

I started, and looked. There was an old man standing at entrance to the hall, looking at me. He must have come up the hall without me hearing.

“Mr. Johnson?” I said.

“Yes, we spoke on the phone. I am glad you could make it.” He walked slowly into the room, the floor creaking as he stepped. I took the opportunity to take a good look at him. He was old, at least in his sixties, with silver hair and a clean-shaven face. He was dressed in a dark blue pinstripe suit with a matching tie, which looked expensive, if a little wrinkled. He was smiling slightly, but it did not seem to touch his light blue eyes.

He held out his hand, and I shook it. He had a firm handshake, and his skin was old-man soft.

“I see you like the painting. Do you recognize it?” He was still smiling, but he sounded…sharp. Like he was hinting at something.

“Sorry, no. I’m not really into art.”

“Not the artist. I meant the subject.”

“Uh, what? No, no I don’t. It just looked kind of familiar, is all.”

“I should think so. That is your great uncle, Richard Cooper, when he was a young man. There is certainly a family resemblance.” He stared at the picture for a moment, and so did I. So this was my “great uncle”? I could actually see a little of the resemblance now, in the dark unruly hair and dark eyes. And apparently we had the same mouth, although the picture was almost frowning.

Mr. Johnson shook himself, and looked back at me. There was certainly some emotion in his face, but it disappeared too quickly for me to read it.

“Would you kindly step into my office, Mr. Cooper? As I mentioned on the phone, we have much to discuss.” He gestured toward the hallway, and I went ahead of him.

The hallway turned out to be rather short, and the office at the end was large. There was a lot overstuffed furniture here too. The man really did love faded flower patterns.

I sat on one of the chairs, and Mr. Johnson settled himself behind the huge desk. He leaned forward on his elbows, steepling his fingers and said, “How much do you know about your great uncle?”

“Nothing. I didn’t know he existed until this morning.”

“I have been his lawyer for a long time. In that time I have gotten to know him rather well, and he did mention you on occasion. I find it somewhat curious that you did not know him.”

I was not sure what to say, so I just looked at him.

He sighed. “Well, that is neither here nor there. On to the matter at hand.” He opened a large manila folder on his desk, and pulled out the first set of papers.

“I am not, of course, authorized to tell you the details of his will except for the portions that he expressly intended for you. Fortunately it is a rather simple arrangement.” He handed me a few pages, stapled together, covered in legalese.

I started to read it, but I got lost rather quickly. I have never been good at reading the convoluted wording of legal documents. “Listen, I’m not great with this legal jargon. What’s this mean?”

“Mr. Cooper, your uncle left you his house, and everything in it.”

***

It was after midnight when I got off the train at the metro stop closest to my house. I climbed the from the metro station to the street slowly, still a little wobbly from that last beer. Well, let’s face it. I am a bit of a lightweight, and I had probably had at least three too many.

My phone beeped. I pulled it out and looked at it as I walked. Apparently I had missed a call. I did not recognize the number, but there was a voice mail. I must have missed the call while I was in the subway with no service.

It was a little odd that someone I did not know would be calling me this late. Usually the only people that called me and left messages were businesses of some sort, and I could not think of a business that would call me after midnight.

I called my voicemail.

A woman’s voice came on.

“Hi, um, I’m not sure if this is the right number.” Her voice sounded shaky, like she was scared, or at least out of breath. “I’m looking for someone named Ben Cooper. I am a friend of Michael, your Great-Uncle. He gave me your number in case something happened to him, he said you could help. I think the same people who got him might be after me.”

Wait, what? The lawyer, Johnson, had said nothing about someone “getting” my Great-Uncle! She made it sound like he was killed!

I was so startled that I almost missed the last bit. “I would give you my name but…well. Please, just, please call me back.” She left her number.

What the hell?

I listened to the message again. Yes, she definitely said “people who got him”.

“Okay,” I said out loud. “Let’s think about this. The Johnson guy didn’t say anything about my uncle – er, Great-Uncle, getting killed. But this chick sounds like she does. And if my Great-Uncle told her to call me if something happened to him, that sounds like he knew something might happen. Also, it means that he knew me, and lived like twenty miles away, and never said anything. But whatever.”

A man and woman walking hand-in-hand down the sidewalk toward me gave me a strange look as we passed. I ignored it. Talking things over out loud, even if no one was listening but me, helped me to sort things out.

“That is, if this chick is telling the truth. But then, why would someone lie about that? I guess if she is trying to sell me something, like a private detective agency or something, maybe that’s a reason. But that seems a little out there.”

I kicked at a pebble as I walked. I had questions now, big questions, and no real answers. It was pissing me off. And my buzz was gone.

“Well, fuck it. I guess I’ll call her. What’s the worst that can happen?”

In case you are wondering, for future reference, never, ever, ever say that.

I stopped at the top of the stairs down to my basement apartment, grabbed a pen and a receipt from my wallet, crouched, and listened to the message again. I wrote her number on the back of the receipt, using my knee to write on. And just as I wrote that last digit-

A heavy boot caught the side of my face, and pain exploded in my head.

I went sprawling, falling sideways into the wall of the stairwell. I tumbled, and ended up on my back, at the bottom of the short flight of stairs, looking up at the person who kicked me. I blinked against the pain and the scattering of little stars that were shooting across my vision. It looked like a man, tall, in jeans and a dark hoodie. He was tall and thin, and what little of his face I could see inside the pulled-up hood looked gaunt and pale.

And then he pulled a stumpy revolver out of the pocket of the hoodie, and I stopped looking at his face.

He pointed the gun at me, and pulled the trigger.

 

Chapter 2

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