“Well, there’s only two reasons people come here.” He held up one finger. “Something bad.” He held up a second finger. “Something worse.”
“Worse, huh? So why drive out the day before just to turn around and go home?”
“Case the joint,” he said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Guy like that”—he nodded to my phone—”What is he, a preacher or something?”
“Something like that.”
“Guy like that isn’t too sure he can take care of himself, know what I mean? But he’s up to no good, so he’s gotta come by himself. Preachers are into some weird shit, man. Trust me.”
“Not this guy.”
“No crypto or kiddie porn or anything like that? You sure?”
My new friend thought for a moment. “Information, maybe? Meeting somebody here? Maybe it went bad?”
“Right, right. He meets someone, but something’s not right. He gets spooked. And for whatever reason, his phone’s dead, so he can’t call for help. And he doesn’t trust the police. His lawyer made that clear. So . . .” I looked up and down the road again. “What does he do?”
My adviser shrugged nonchalantly. “He hides.”
“He hides . . .” I repeated as I scanned the scene again.
Across the street, one block down a side road, there was an abandoned apartment complex. Looked like it was in the middle of being demolished. There was a fence, but it had been bent in several places. Inside were three identical housing blocks, parallel to each other, each two stories tall. Their lower halves were covered in faux stone, which was falling off in rectangular panels. Their upper halves were all shingled, except for where the windows poked through, like they used to do back in the ‘70s. Demolition had started. I saw a pair of those giant movable trash bins they roll in for renovation projects—big metal monstrosities that get dropped off and hauled away by semi. Pieces of broken drywall poked up at an angle. Looked like they’d been there for a while, exposed to repeated bouts of rain and sun.
“Naw, man.” I was warned before taking my first step. “I wouldn’t go there.”
I looked at it. I looked at him. “Why not?”
“No one goes there. Not even when there’s snow on the ground and it’s witch-titty cold out.”
He shrugged. “Some places are just bad.”
“Bad,” I repeated. I reached into my pocket. “Do me a favor.” I handed him a twenty and Ollie’s card. “If I don’t come out of there in ten minutes, run down to the gas station and call that number. Can you do that?”
He looked at the cash. Then he took it. “Sure thing, pal. Your funeral.”
I crossed the street and read the warning sign that had been posted. It said the lot was being developed. Only it wasn’t. Construction had clearly stopped months ago, another dead-end husk in a marginal neighborhood left to rot by people who’d never even seen the place. There was a gap in the fence where it had started to lean, and I squeezed my way through. Each of the three identical buildings on the lot had an open stairway at the middle, with hallways flanking to the right and left. The roof of the first structure had been torn down by a backhoe, or so it seemed. The whole front of the building had been ripped open. There was no way in through all the debris. It seemed an odd place to stop work. Couldn’t have been that much more money to level the building and avoid the potential lawsuit.
I walked to the second structure. The aluminum gate that blocked the central alcove was locked. But it was old and worn. I grabbed the bars and shook and it rattled loudly. I stepped back. There was a long, U-shaped metal bar in the debris—bent, but workable—and I wedged it between the gate and the wall. I pulled. When that didn’t work, I pressed hard against it. Still nothing. I took off my bag and bounced against the bar, over and over, with my arms out, using my momentum to increase the force of my weight. Harder and harder and harder. I gritted my teeth. I growled. It felt good. Like letting off steam. I started imaging I was hitting the man my wife had slept with. Harder. Harder.
It snapped. The metal bar tore the back of my hand as I flew forward into the faux-stone siding. My cheek got scraped pretty bad. It stung when I touched it. I twisted my knee as I fell. And I felt like an idiot. But it had worked. I hadn’t actually broken the lock, but I’d bent the aluminum catch for the deadbolt. I got up and touched my face again gingerly. That’s when I noticed my hand was bleeding. I had some tissues in my bag, and I held them firm over the wound as I walked up the steps. The air smelled of stale cat piss and old wood, and there was a slight metallic tinge underneath, probably from the exposed pipes. Piles of debris had been left by the workers. Doors were either open or missing. Several walls were bare to the interior. Insulation hung unevenly from the ceiling like strips of flesh. The whole thing reminded me of a roadside carcass halfway through being scavenged clean.
I turned down the left hall, where the floor not only groaned but bowed under my weight, but there was nothing but trash and waste. Not wanting to risk a collapse, I turned and walked the opposite way. I was almost to the far end when I stopped suddenly.
I walked backward five steps.
Just past the third door from the center there was a long narrow hole, about knee high, where two boards had been knocked out. The wood was thin. It was also old and dry. The splinters were bent outward. Toward the hall. All the other debris bent in, as if the workers had been standing in the rooms with hooks, pulling it all down. But this was bent out.
I knelt and looked closer. Through the gap, I saw a symbol.
I stepped into the room. A pair of old mattresses had been fixed over the windows. Along with the boards on the exterior, they blocked most of the afternoon light—all except a thin shaft that snuck in at the top. Brown wall peeked from irregularly torn wallpaper. Someone had recently spray-painted three big words in yellow-green glow-in-the-dark paint:
PREPARE THE WAY
Underneath was another symbol: an upside-down triangle offset with swooping curves tipped in little circles. I snapped a picture with my phone. What did it mean? I reached to touch it but stopped at the last moment. I felt like I was being watched.
I turned my head and listened.
Nothing. Quiet. Not even the distant rumble of a passing car.
I caught movement. Something small. Behind me. And I turned around. There was a jagged hole in the opposite wall, about chest height. It didn’t go all the way through. It merely exposed the interior space, which was dark enough that I couldn’t see anything. A wasp walked along the lip. Another flew out of it, lazily, and landed on the ceiling. I saw its antennae move and its wings twitch as it crawled. I scowled.
There are all different kinds of wasps, of course. Not all of them have wings, but they’re all nasty, vicious creatures—aggressive and armed. Wasps account for four of the six most painful stings in the world, and unlike bees, which sacrifice themselves for the hive, wasps don’t die after stinging you. They can go right on doing it. Over and over.
Many species of wasp hunt benign, helpful insects. Others are parasites. The females of one species use the barb on their abdomens to inject their eggs into the bodies of caterpillars, which get eaten alive by the babies from the inside out. Another species is effectively a vampire, living entirely off the blood of the creatures they capture, paralyze, and drain.
Two more insects flew lazily out of the gap. They seemed oblivious to my presence. They were busy preparing for winter.
That hole, though.
Dark. Still. And I had the most uncanny feeling.
I remembered my little brother. And a shed near an abandoned church.
As I stepped closed to examine the hole, I realized the wall at the back of the closet had been knocked away. Another mattress lay against it, covering it from the other side. I walked over and pushed it out of the way. Beyond was another room. Long. Tall. Longer and taller than seemed possible for the building. The whole of it was dim and decaying, like the rest of the place. I stepped in. It took my eyes a few moments to adjust. At first I thought the ridges on the floor were exposed boards. But they weren’t. They were bones. Hundreds, at least. Animal bones. Not discarded. Not tossed in piles. They had been organized, like with like, in a large radiating circle. The smaller bones were near the center, the larger ones at the rim. In a gap at the center sat the skeleton of no creature that had ever existed. Bones of different species had been fixed together. It was about the size of a large dog and sat up, like a bear on the ground, facing the wall to my left. In front of it, as if carrying its gaze to the horizon, the bones of the circle were turned relative to the rest and made a kind of ray pattern. The rest of the collection made a complex labyrinth.
The skeleton’s skull seemed to be that of a deer. Large antlers rose from the crown, like the creature was the King of Death surrounded by an army of loyal supplicants. And there was something in its mouth. It almost looked like . . .
I took a careful step, planting the tip of my shoes in a gap between bones, a passage of the labyrinth. I barely had time to shift my weight before I heard a creak in the hall, as if someone had tread the weakened floor. I turned my head and listened again. But there was nothing. Either nobody was there, or they were doing the same as me—breathing shallow, trying not to make a sound. A minute passed like that. Then two. My legs were getting stiff. My sore knee burned. But I didn’t dare shift my weight. I thought—but couldn’t be sure—that I heard the sound of faint, distant scratching.
Three minutes passed. I didn’t move. Then four.
Were they out there?
I took a single step out of the bone circle.
In the near-silence, I heard the sound of a drop hit the floor. A spot of my own blood had fallen from the cut in my hand. In seconds, a wasp landed on it, its abdomen throbbing. I stepped to the closet wall, breathing as soft and shallow as I could. I stepped into the room. I listened.
I peered around the door frame, slowly, and looked into the hall. Just down from the door on the opposite side, three uneven, scrawling letters had been scratched into the brown drywall. The markings were faint and could have been there before. I might not have noticed. But I saw them then.
Rational or not, I got the hell outta there.
selection from the first course of my full-course occult mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS. Volume One available soon.