Chapter 2

The gun went off with a bang, and I flinched. Well, obviously.

I also kind of expected to die. Or at least hurt a lot.

I didn’t.

Obviously the shot missed me. I opened my eyes again, surprised, the noise from the gunshot ringing in my ears, and saw…well.

My attacker was still there, but the hood had fallen back and he had both his hand in front of his face, trying to fend off the huge crow that was clawing at him. The crow was huge, and flapping wildly, screeching and clawing at him. He was covering his face with one arm while he swatted at the crow with his gun, but there were already scratches across his cheeks.

His gaunt face was a mask of fury, but he was not looking at me anymore. The crow’s attack, as freakish and surprising as it was, had given me a chance. Not much of one, but a chance.

I did not pause to think, I just moved. I staggered to my feet, pain lancing across my back muscles where I had hit the steps hard. I ignored it, and charged up the stairs.

I tackled the gunman like a football player, right across the torso, wrapping both my arms around him and slamming my shoulder into his stomach. It was not elegant, but it worked. He let out a grunt, a surprised whoosh of air. He was lighter than I expected, and we hit the ground hard. My knuckles scraped the concrete where we landed on the sidewalk, and I flinched, loosening my grip.

His elbow came down on my back, and his knee came up into my stomach. Pain lanced through me. The knee hit me again, and I let go of him, rolling away. He tried to scramble to his feet, but I kicked at him. He slipped, and it gave me time to get a foot under me and jump at him again.

This time I reached for his gun. I got my hands around it, but he wrapped his other hand around mine, and hit me with that damn knee again. I grunted, and I heard an unpleasant crunch from my ribs, but I held on.

He tried to knee me again, but this time I was ready. I twisted, bringing my thigh up between us, stopping him from getting the leverage he needed to hit me. I pulled, using my hand on the gun and my knee on the ground as leverage, and smashed my forehead into his nose.

“Take that, asshole!”

I felt his nose shatter with a satisfying crunch, but he did not let go of the gun. I pulled back and looked at his face, trying to assess the damage. I expected it to be covered in blood, hopefully getting in his eyes or something.

There was no blood.

His nose was shattered, all right. Not only shattered, but gone, entirely. I could see into his nasal passages, bone white and glaring, skin paper-thin and gray. It was torn around the edges of his nose, ripped away and flaking. His face was covered in a fine, gray powder, as if his nose had been make of old, dried paper instead of flesh and blood.

“What the FUCK?!?” In my shock, I loosened my grip on the gun, and he jerked it away.

He rolled away from me, and moved to aim the gun at me again.

Well, call me crazy, but I felt like I should keep from getting shot first, and deal with whatever the hell was going on here later. I pivoted on my hip on the ground, and lashed out at the gun with my foot. The tip of my shoe connected, and the gun went flying. It skittered across the road and under a parked car.

The guy watched it go, and stood. This time I let him. I clambered to my feet as well, watching him carefully, ready to dive for the gun if he did.

Instead, he just looked at me, dust from the freaky shattered nose drifting to the ground. We stared at each other for a second or two. This was the first I had had a chance to really look at him.

He looked…drawn, dried and hollowed out, like all the moisture had been sucked out of him. His skin was stretched tight over the bones of his face, his cheeks sunken. His eyes were sunken in deep sockets as well, but they were bright, and angry. Honestly, he kind of reminded me of a mummy, or a zombie. Something from an old horror flick.

Then he spoke, his voice gravelly.

“You are more trouble than you are worth, mortal.”

I stared at him. “And you tried to shoot me, you zombie-faced freak!”

He reached up, and touched his face, where his nose used to be. He looked angrier, if that was possible.

Suddenly, a siren started up in the distance. Thank god, some one had heard the gunshot and called the police.

Zombie-face noticed the siren too, and glanced the that direction.

“Enough of this!” He pointed at me, and said…something. It was not English, more like Latin, and they echoed weirdly, like they were coming from the bottom of a deep well, or from inside a tunnel.

Zombie-face looked like he expected something to happen, and his look grew puzzled when it did not. He said something else, more echo-y latin-sounding nonsense.

The sirens got closer.

He looked back in the direction of the sirens, then back at me, a look of incredulity on his face. “What are you?” he asked. Then he turned, and ran, loping down the street away from me.

I let him go. I sat down on the curb, my hand pressed to my side where my ribs were bruised, if not broken, and waited for the cops to show up.

“I’m a physicist,” I murmured. “What the fuck are you?”

***

I was still sitting on the curb when the cops showed up. Or rather, when they drove past. The police car flew through the intersection at the end of my street, lights flashing and siren wailing. And kept going.

I blinked. The sirens faded into the distance again, clearly headed somewhere else.

I guess the calvary had not been coming after all. I had assumed that when I heard the sirens that they had been called by someone hearing the gunshot, but I guess I had been wrong. But hey, Zombie-face had made the same mistake.

What does it say about my neighborhood that a gun can go off in the street in the middle of the night, and no one called the cops? Maybe I should think about moving.

I sat on the curb for another minute, thinking. It might be a good idea to call the police myself. After all, I had just been attacked, and almost killed. But what would I tell them? That I had been saved by the timely intervention of a crow?

And even if I left that part out, and the part about zombie-face’s crumbling nose…what then? They would assume that this was just some random mugging done badly, or something, and write a report, and that would be it. And if zombie-face decided to come back and finish the job, then they would find my body and write a report about that. Police are great at catching and punishing criminals, and by doing that making people think twice about breaking the law. But they are pretty terrible at actually preventing crime.

Also, I was tired, and my head and ribs hurt. It was almost one o’clock in the morning. The last thing I wanted was to spend the next two hours talking to the police.

Well that was settled then. No cops.

I sighed, and stood up. I walked across the street to where the gun had been kicked under a car. I crouched, then got on my hands and knees and reached under the car to grab the gun. I looked around a little furtively before I actually grabbed it, but the street was deserted. I pulled it out from under the car quickly, and slipped it into the pocket of my jacket.

Even owning a gun is illegal in DC, and just the weight of it in my jacket made me a little nervous. But I could not just leave it there to be picked up by some kid or something. Also, I was not exactly sure if it had my fingerprints on it or something. Not that the cops would check for fingerprints on a gun that they just found in the street, but better to be safe. I figured I could wipe it off really well, then… well, I was not quite sure. Maybe I would take it to a police station or something. Or maybe it would be better to just drop it off a bridge.

Whatever. I could figure it out in the morning.

Yeah, the morning. Tomorrow would be an interesting day. Tomorrow I would be meeting the Mr. Johnson at my great-uncle’s house, and maybe I could get some answers to why my life had suddenly gone crazy. Why did woman on the phone make it sound like my great-uncle had been killed? If his death had been at all questionable, why did Mr. Johnson not say anything about it? He had not mentioned anything about how my uncle had died. For that matter, what was the deal with the woman on the phone? What was her connection to my great-uncle, and why had he given her my number? I would have to give her a call in the morning as well.

And of course there was the big question of who the zombie-faced freak who tried to shoot me was. Was he connected to all this somehow, or was it some kind of random thing? Maybe he really was just a mugger or something. But it had seemed like he had been there specifically to kill me. What was it he had said? “You are more trouble than you are worth?” Something like that.

I stuck the gun in the bottom of my sock drawer. Probably not the best hiding place in the world, but it would have to do for now. Then I went to the bathroom, took off my shirt, and looked at my chest. There were ugly purple and black bruises starting to form on my right side, and the hurt like hell, but when I pushed on them they did not feel broken. Not that I was an expert, but I also did not feel like going to the hospital tonight.

I had a goose-egg on my head as well, where the boot had hit me, and the skin was torn just a little. It had not bled much for a scalp injury, though, and when I checked my eyes by turning the light on and off they seemed normal. Hopefully that meant no concussion.

Other than that I was in pretty good shape. I had a few sore spots from my relatively mild tumble down the stairs, but only one spot on my shoulder was bad enough to have a visible bruise. I took a shower, brushed my teeth, and spread some gel that was supposed to help with sore muscles on my ribs.

Then I went to bed. I figured I had done what I could. If any of my injuries seemed to be worse in the morning, I would find a doctor, but for now I just wanted sleep. I set my alarm, carefully laid down on my left, and closed my eyes.

Tomorrow would be a busy day.

***

I woke up in a cold sweat at three in the morning, fighting with my blankets. I was hyperventilating and shivering, and the shadows in my bedroom, cast by the streetlight shining in through the blinds on my window, looked sinister and threatening. Apparently my subconscious was not a fan of being shot at, and had decided to let me know by giving me bad dreams about shadowy attackers.

I reached to my nightstand and turned on the light. I was alone, of course. The room looked a lot less scary with the lights on. I took a deep breath, and tried to relax.

It took a minute, but I got my breathing under control. I do not usually have bad dreams, but I had also never been attacked before. I had spent a few years in martial arts classes, training to be prepared just in case I did get attacked, but I had never actually had someone try to kill me. I guess I could be forgiven for being a little freaked out.

Of course, I had been so tired and hurt when I went to sleep that I had not really thought about the idea that Zombie-face might come back. I had locked the door, right?

I walked to my front door, turning on the lights as I went, and made sure it was locked. It was.

I went back to bed, but just sat down on the edge. It was cold, out from under the covers. I shivered again, and this time I was not sure if it was from fear or from the cold. I suppose that is an improvement.

Well, I did need sleep, and if Zombie-face did come back, I would deal with it. There was not much I could do beyond making sure the front door was locked. Well, that and my window.

I check my bedroom window, a little dinky thing, high-up, which looked out onto the alley. It was locked too.

My heart rate had calmed down again, and there was not much else to do besides go back to bed. I really did have a busy day coming up, and I was tired.

I sighed, and stood up. I was still feeling nervous.

Then I smiled, went to my sock drawer, and pulled out the gun. I slid it into the drawer of my nightstand and smiled. That’s better. Let’s see Zombie-face try to mess with me now.

I climbed back under the covers, and went back to sleep.

***

“Hi, you’ve reached the voice mail of Carolyn Wilkowski. Leave me a message, and I’ll call you back!” Her voice sounded cheerful and chipper, quite different from how it had sounded on the message she left me.

“Darn,” I muttered, and waited for the beep.

“Hi Carolyn, this is Ben Cooper. You left me a message last night, something about needing my help. I’m sorry I missed you, but if you can give me a call back…well, maybe I can help.” I left my number, and hung up.

The cab driver looked at me in the rear view mirror, and said “Girl troubles, eh?”

I smiled. “Something like that.”

I had woken up at around eight in the morning, still sore but a little less tired. I was supposed to meet Johnson, the lawyer, at my Great Uncle’s house at nine, so I had take a quick shower, grabbed a granola bar, and hailed a cab.

I was a little disappointed that Carolyn had not answered the phone. I had some serious questions for her about what she had said about my Great Uncle’s death, and it would have been nice to get some more information from her before I talked to Johnson. Oh well. I would just have to find out what I could from Johnson now, and learn more from Carolyn later.

The cab stopped, and the driver said “This is it.”

I looked out the window.

The road where we had stopped was lined by a thick hedgerow, untrimmed and huge, standing taller than me. We had stopped in front of a gravel driveway through a break in the hedges, leading up to a pair of huge wrought-iron gates. The gates were closed, but I could see through them, where the gravel driveway continued for several hundred more feet, lined with huge oak trees that reached over the driveway to shade almost the entire length of it. The driveway ended in a loop around a small stone fountain, at the front of the house.

The house itself…well, it was not really a house. It seemed better to call it a small mansion. I could not see very much of the house, because the trees were in the way, but it looked big. And old. I was hardly an expert in architecture, but it looked like it was built in what I had heard called a Victorian style.

I paid the driver, and got out. There was a car parked in the driveway leading up to the rusty iron gate, a black luxury model, rather nondescript. As I got out of the cab, the driver door opened, and Johnson stepped out.

He smiled, and I immediately felt uneasy, without knowing why.

“Ben, good morning. I trust you slept well.”

“Not exactly.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” He glanced at the gate, and reached in his pocket and pulled out a set of keys. “Well, lets see the house, shall we?”

He turned toward the gate, but I said “Mr. Johnson?”

“Yes, Ben?”

“You never mentioned how my great-uncle died.”

“Ah. Natural causes. He was a very old man.” I looked at him. There was something about the way he said it that sounded a little too smooth, as if it had been practiced.

But maybe I was just being paranoid. I had still not talked to this Carolyn person, and I had no idea what she wanted, or why she though my Great-Uncle had been killed. Maybe I had misunderstood what she meant entirely. I had no real reason not trust Johnson. And even if my Great-Uncle had been killed, maybe Johnson did not know anything about it. Clearly there was no murder investigation, so if he had been killed, then whoever did it definitely made it look like it was not murder. So, no reason to press Johnson for anything more now.

“Okay, thanks.” He smiled, and turned back to the gate. I took the opportunity to look a little more at the gate. It was big, at least twenty feet wide, and split down the middle into two sections that looked like they swung inward on iron hinges. The gate was attached to a wrought iron fence that continued on both sides, behind the row of bushes. The fence was about ten feet high, and the gate was the same height where they met, but curved up in a gentle arch to be at least fifteen feet high in the middle. The bars of the gate were mostly straight up and down, a few inches apart, with a single strut running across the middle at about chest height.

In the center of the gate, bisected by the connection between the two swinging parts, there was a rather strange decoration. The iron bars had been molded into a huge circle, at least ten feet across, with another, smaller circle inside it, with perhaps ten inches between them. The space between the circles was filled with symbols I had never seen before, connecting the two circles. They almost looked like Hebrew letters, but I did not recognize any of them. Within the inner circle was a huge seven pointed star. In the middle of the star, the entire thing was repeated on a smaller scale, and in the middle of the smaller star was an old iron lock that was built into the gate.

Weird.

Johnson had unlocked a padlock on a new-looking chain that had been run through the gate. Next he took an old iron key out, and moved to put it in the gate’s keyhole, but as he moved the key close there was a tiny spark, like static, and he stopped. I smiled. He probably should have expected that, with the air so cool and dry, and he had just gotten out of his car. I got shocked getting out of cars all the time.

He turned to me, looking thoughtful, and held out the key. “Here. This is the key to the gate. It also opens the front door.”

I took it, but I did not move to open the gate. “Is there anything I need to sign or whatever?”

He blinked at me. “Yes, but don’t you want to go inside?”

“I kind of want to check it out by myself. No offense, but this is kind of personal.” Not to mention that there was something about him that was making me feel strange. I had not noticed anything like that the last time I had seen him, in his office, but this time there was…something. Something off.

He smiled. “Of course.” He open the car door again, and pulled out a briefcase. He slipped some papers out, laid them on the hood of the car and handed me a pen. “This just states that I have given you the keys to the property, and along with the deed and other paperwork I gave you yesterday, my official obligations listed in the will are complete.”

I read over the paper quickly, and signed it.

“That’s not to say, Ben, that you cannot still call me with any questions. I knew Michael for a long time, and I considered him a friend, and you are his family. If you need anything, just call.”

I smiled. I still has the strange feeling that something was off, but he sounded sincere enough. “Thanks, I will.”

He nodded, and got in the car. I watched as he pulled out of the drive and drove off, then I turned back to the gate.

I slid the key into the lock. No spark this time; I must not have built up a charge in the taxi. I turned the key. It turned smoothly, and I heard tumblers turning and clicking, and then a solid click as it unlocked. I pulled the key out, slipped it into my pocket, and pushed the gate open.

 

Chapter 3

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