Let me first say that the image has nothing to do with the chapter other than that the chapter title itself is an homage to John Dickson Carr.
If you’ve never read him before, you should give him a try!
And without further delay, here is chapter three. (As always a .pdf will be available on the main menu for those who prefer.)
The Hollow Man
They picked Ben up at the tennis courts.
“What’s the big deal?” he said. Karen had texted him from the car and asked him to wait. He got into the backseat with Karen. His arms glistened with sweat. The car seemed, all at once, to smell better. An Adidas cologne lingered in the air, but only a hint. Ben wasn’t one to make the common mistake of over spraying.
“You always smell this good after practice?” Tyler asked.
“Only when I’m meeting up with a pretty girl afterward,” he said and then tucked some of Karen’s stray hair behind her ears.
“Shucks,” Tyler said. “I didn’t know you thought I was pretty.”
Michael handed Ben the newspaper clipping Karen had brought and asked Ben, “Have you ever seen this guy before?”
Ben took the clipping and studied the face. “No, should I know him?”
Michael said no and then told Ben everything that had been unsaid about Lucky Point up until that moment.
“Let me get this straight,” Ben said. “You guys think that whatever happened to the cow happened to this guy in the paper. You’re basing that off of a vision Michael and Tyler saw in the woods when we were fourteen?” Everyone nodded, and had they been standing they all would have collectively bowed their heads and kicked imaginary cans. “Cool,” he said finally. “It’s at least better than going to those haunted houses Mikey finds. Those weirdos are nuts. How are we going to find the body?”
“We have to make a stop first,” Michael said, and Tyler started driving.
“Where are we going?” Ben asked.
“I’ve got a guy,” Michael said.
“Japheth’s,” Karen responded.
“He’s real?” Ben asked.
Michael gave Tyler directions to Japheth’s house. Japheth lived out on rural route 450—the opposite side of town from the Willis farm, though the terrain all looked the same. Once outside of Terrace Park all one was likely to see was corn, soy beans, or pasture. The house sat right off the road. Michael had only been there once, and the house itself was not anything like what he would have imagined. It was small, and sad.
Michael figured that Japheth would live in some sort of mystery manor paid for by Barnabas’s fortune. Japheth had explained that when his mother died, his father didn’t want to leave the house and his grandfather had insisted on moving in. The situation led to three men living in a two bedroom house. That sort of thing worked for sitcoms; in real life, however, it just wasn’t that funny.
When Tyler had pulled into the driveway, he shut off the car and asked, “What now? The house looks pretty dark.”
“He said he’d—”
A finger tapped the passenger side window. No one screamed, but everyone tensed up. Michael rolled down the window and a black-clad Japheth stuck his head in. “You didn’t tell me you were bringing backup.”
“Why are you dressed like a cat burglar?” Karen asked.
“Just came back from the morgue, darling,” Japheth said. He smiled and then a strange look appeared on his face, not unlike the kind cops get on TV shows when they realize that someone very dangerous has infiltrated a group. “I’m going to need to speak with Micky alone.” Japheth opened the passenger door, grabbed Michael by the arm, and escorted him out of the car. As Michael kicked the door shut with his foot, he heard Ben ask, “Did he just call him Micky?”
Japheth led Michael to the back of his house. A pair of motion-sensored lights illuminated the backyard. Michael felt like an escaped con. “Did you just call me Micky?” Michael asked.
“Yeah. Sounds better,” Japheth said and hurried Michael around a shed. The flood lights left a large shadow and Japheth pushed Michael into it. “Listen, we’re friends and all, but I gotta say, you’re starting to waltz into my territory. You handle ghosts and aliens. I take the criminals. That’s the deal.” Michael hadn’t been aware of any deal.
“Jape, this one might just cross over.”
“You know I don’t believe in that stuff, right?”
He continued, “I’ve got pictures of the body. I can give you those.”
“We need to see it,” Michael said.
Michael wasn’t sure how much he should tell Japheth. He liked him and didn’t want Japheth to think he was invading his turf. So he lied. “We’re teenagers. There’s a dead body. We want to see it. Plus there’s a legend that says it’s easier to communicate with the spirit of a person who was killed violently.”
“You want to hold a séance in the morgue?”
“Just a small one.”
“Will it be loud?”
“We’ll be quiet as morgue mice.”
Japheth considered the request. “And you really aren’t trying to solve the crime?”
“I thought he was attacked by an animal?”
The interrogation had flipped, and Michael knew that he had gained the upper hand. He’d never seen Japheth this territorial over anything. In fact, Michael wouldn’t have even thought Japheth capable of jealousy.
“That’s classified,” Japheth said. He then tried deflecting. “Okay, listen, I can get you into the morgue, but if you’re caught, you can’t implicate me. This never happened.”
Japheth handed Michael a cigarette and outlined the inner workings of Terrace Park General. “Shift change at the hospital is at eleven thirty. You’ll want to get there around midnight. There’s only one security guard on the weeknights, and he pretty much stays near the ER. There’s a side door where nurses go outside to smoke. It requires a keycard.”
“Where am I—”
Japheth handed him a small plastic rectangle the size of a credit card. “This will get you in that door. Once inside, make a left and you’ll be in the lobby. There will be a night nurse on duty. She’s your only obstacle because the elevator to the morgue is right behind her desk and to the left. I’m not even going to suggest you do what me and my grandpa did to get by that person because I don’t think it would work again in a million years. Let’s just say if the hospital catches someone else trying to let a dozen cats in the lobby, they’ll know something’s up. You’ll have to figure something out.”
“Where’d you get a dozen cats?” Michael asked.
“Barney got them. I didn’t ask. I’m not sure I want to know.”
“So you’ve seen the body?”
Japheth took a long drag on his cigarette and exhaled. “Yeah. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Was he hollowed out?”
“How’d you know that?”
Michael paused, relishing the moment where he knew more about something than Japheth. “Listen. I really appreciate what you’re doing for me, so let me do something for you.” Michael told Japheth about the cow and where to find it. “I don’t know if the two are connected, but I’d be willing to bet they are. Your dad’s not likely to hear about the cow because Mr. Willis keeps to himself, and I’m sure this isn’t his first dead cow. You know how it is out in the country; they aren’t likely to report that kind of thing. They’ll just tell each other and keep rifles on the porch.”
“Alright, Barney and I will check it out.”
Michael turned to leave, but Japheth stopped him. “You wanna meet behind the armory tomorrow and compare notes?”
Michael said sure, and then for the hell of it said, “Farewell.”
On the way back to the car, Michael realized he smelled like smoke. He had always taken great care to not smoke at any time before he was going to see one of his friends. They didn’t know he’d picked up the habit, and he really wanted it to stay that way. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a stick of gum for just such an emergency. He could blame the smell of his clothes on Japheth, but he wasn’t too keen on pinning the smell on his breath to the same culprit.
As he got into Tyler’s car he said, “You guys ready to do this?”
Terrace Park General boasted itself as the largest hospital in the county. At eight stories, it was the second-largest building in the city. The first was a bank on main. It was also the second-widest compound in the city at just over three blocks. The first was Terrace Park High thanks to the basketball gym built in the twenties. The other thing that TPG held second place for was healthcare. The general consensus was if you were going to get sick, you better do it across the river.
The Consortium held its impromptu meeting in the visitor’s parking lot on the south side of what the nurses were fond of calling “the Campus.” The parking lot sat behind the hospital, opposite the emergency room. Michael laid out the plan, explained about the keycard, and made sure everyone had alibis. The group as a whole hadn’t snuck out together since the night Karen and Ben disappeared. Michael and Ben told their parents they were going to be at Tyler’s house working on a school project. Tyler’s mom had promised to run interference as long as they brought back a picture. Karen told them she was covered but hedged when they tried to ask her how.
After a few minutes, they let it go, and Michael explained the kink in the plan. “The only problem is,” he said, “is that there’s some sort of desk clerk in the main lobby. That main doors are closed, but they still have someone monitor the phone and help family members that have to stay overnight. Japheth said the elevator to the morgue is right behind the desk. I thought maybe one of us could call and distract whoever it is.”
“That means one of us won’t get to go,” Tyler said.
“He’s right,” Karen said. “One of us should go in and make small talk, pretend like we have family in the ER or something, and then we get lost looking for the bathroom.”
“Did Japheth say who was going to be there?” Ben asked.
“No,” Michael said. “All he said was that shift change was at eleven thirty.” He glanced at the car’s dash. “Which is right about now.”
That’s when they saw her.
A girl in her mid-twenties cat-walked up the steps of Terrace Park General. She had in ear buds, and she marched right along.
“Oh my god! It’s Handy Candy.” Tyler yelled.
Candy Anderson, nicknamed “Handy” by some cruel, though not inaccurate seniors, graduated from Terrace Park High six years earlier. Her nickname, like everything else about her, was a double entendre. The G-rated version involved her always handing out personal belongings to help those less fortunate than herself. Essentially she was a people person. The non-Disney version still involved her being a people person, but it largely went unsaid.
Candy had wanted to be a nurse, and after graduating, selected a community college in nearby Vincennes. She flunked out her first semester. Not wanting to completely back down on her dreams, she decided she could still help people and work at the hospital. Now she pointed people where they needed to go and answered the phone.
“Well,” Michael said, “The distraction part won’t be too hard, but who’s going to do it.”
“Ben,” Tyler said.
“Me?” Ben asked. The words barely audible over Karen’s “Him?”
“Sure,” Tyler said, “Ben’s the one with the biceps. Surely I’m not the only one who’s noticed Ben’s abnormally large biceps?”
“I do not have overly large biceps,” Ben said.
“For a teenager,” Tyler corrected. “You’re sixteen and look like you just came out of a frat house.”
Ben lifted his arm and inspected the muscle. Ben pretended he’d never noticed, as if his arms surprised him. Michael had noticed one afternoon when Karen draped one of her arm’s through Ben’s. Her arm looked petite in comparison. In fact, Michael had thought at the time that Karen’s arms looked much like his own—skinny and pale. He had his dad buy him some weights that night.
“Fine,” Ben said after inspecting his physique, “I’ll do it, but you guys better wait down there for me. I didn’t come all this way just to flirt with Terrace Park’s easiest girl.”
Karen glared at Ben, but didn’t say anything.
The four of them got out of the car and walked up to a side entrance. Michael held the keycard up to a black rectangle next the door, and a clicking sound snapped somewhere inside the frame. Michael eased the door open slowly. The secondary entrance was set back across the lobby from the main entrance. Most of the lights in the foyer were out, but a few remained on for anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves in a hospital lobby at midnight.
Candy sat pecking at a computer, ear buds still in, oblivious to the opening door.
“Okay,” Michael whispered, “Ben, you make your way around the lobby so it looks like you’re coming from the inside. We’ll wait here until you distract her. Whenever you can get free, meet us downstairs. Japheth said we won’t have any company once we’re on the basement floor.”
Ben nodded and crept off. The remainder of the group watched as Ben made it successfully around the lobby and then started heading back toward the reception area. Halfway to his destination he yelled, “Candy! Is that you?”
From where they were standing they couldn’t hear her response, but Michael thought that it may have been because she responded in one of those wavelengths that were so high-pitched only dogs could hear them. After the introductions were finished, Candy and Ben talked at a much more reasonable level, but nothing could be heard. All they could see was the flashing of pearly white smiles from both parties.
After about a minute, Candy got up from her seat and began to approach Ben. She gave him a hug, which was lasting a beat too long, and caused Karen to blush. Michael worried what was going to happen next and was surprised to discover Karen grabbing his hand, interlacing her fingers with his, and saying, “Come on.”
He followed willingly. Tyler was not far behind.
As they passed the two huggers, Karen shot Ben a look that no boy wants to be on the receiving end of, no matter how big his biceps are. Ben made matters worse by gripping Candy tighter, but the look on his face indicated that he was only doing it so she couldn’t turn around. There was a smile on his face that said, “Tyler made me.”
Tyler not being hindered by handholding, and oblivious to the emotional scene playing before him, arrived at the wall of elevators first and pushed the down key. They waited thirty seconds and no one showed up.
Once safely tucked into the metal box, Karen let go of Michael’s hand and a guttural noise escaped her mouth like it had been trapped there for months, though she didn’t actually say anything. Neither boy could think of anything to say.
The door opened onto a hallway that looked like it belonged in a slasher pic and not a hospital. The overhead lights hadn’t been changed since the seventies, and they hummed with the cadence of a bug zapper. At intervals that were not quite regular, one would flicker like it had caught a fat mosquito. There lingered in the air a scent of lemon disinfectant tinged with dirty mop water. Across the hall, they could see their destination. There wasn’t a giant sign that said, “Welcome to the Morgue,” but there was a bank of walls with small doors to push the dead into.
Or so they’d seen on TV.
The hurried off the elevator, the atmosphere having no effect on the excitement of seeing their first dead body. Michael and Karen had already been touched by death before. For Karen, it was her parents. They’d died in a car accident an hour after a New Year’s Eve party. The funeral was held, and the caskets were never opened.
Michael had a brother who died of cancer. He wouldn’t look at the body.
“How do we know which one he’s in?” Karen asked quietly.
“I guess we have to open them all; can’t be too many dead bodies,” Michael said.
“Allow me,” Tyler said, and walked over to the wall. He found the body on his second try.
As silently as they could, they pulled the cart out of the wall. There was a sheet over the body. Michael rhetorically asked, “Ready?” and gently pulled the sheet off the head. It was the man from the woods. Michael stood there wanting desperately to continue pulling to see if the body was missing its organs like the vision he and Tyler shared, but he froze, waiting for the body to talk.
Suddenly, a noise came from the hall and they all automatically crouched though they hid behind nothing. They waited there hunched over until they were sure it was clear. Then Ben appeared at the door. They didn’t say anything, but Tyler motioned for Ben to come over and see.
As Michael stood back up to remove the rest of the sheet, the corpse turned its head, opened its eyes, and said, “Hey there, Tyger.”
Michael’s vision began to tunnel, and the last thing he remembered before he went away was Ben saying, “What’s wrong with him?”
Michael woke up on the sandbar at Lucky Point. His head hurting, and his pulse racing. Confused, he picked himself up off the ground, shook loose some of the grains trapped in the wrinkles of his clothes, and looked up at the sky. Immediately he knew something was wrong. He couldn’t remember the hospital, the hollow man, Handy Candy, any of it, but something bothered him about the sky. He stared, willing the answer to come to him.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” The voice was behind him. The question sounded innocent, but the intonation was off as if the thing he were looking at wasn’t beautiful at all.
“Why is everything orange?” Michael asked. He turned around, but no one was behind him. He looked back to the sky and realized what was bothering him. The sky itself burned orange like it does at sunset. Only in every direction he could see the dome above was the color of a dreamsicle.
“Because,” the voice said answering his original question, “This is where we come to see.”
Michael turned around again. An old woman stood on the other end of the sandbar, nearer to the river than Michael. Her wiry gray hair sprung out of her head at wild angles. Michael thought of Medusa, and then tried hard not to think of Medusa. “See what?” He asked.
“Everything,” she said, and the heavens burst. A million points of light streaked across the sky. The woman pointed and as she did a large meteor hovered overhead. She said, “Moros is coming.”
Michael asked quickly, “What is Moros?”
The old woman dropped her arm and watched him for a minute. “The bringer of fate,” she said. She walked closer to him, and Michael could see that her eyes were a pale blue. She must be blind, Michael thought and the thought made him feel safe; it made him feel as though he could hide from her if he needed to. His sudden courage shattered when she reached out and grabbed his wrist as if she knew right where he was. “Do you know what the other boy did when I told him about Moros?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “He cried. The two of you are cowards. You call yourself an ‘archivist’ and yet you don’t know Moros?” She laughed again, a mad cackling sound.
“I’m not an archivist,” Michael said.
She reached a finger out, poked Michael’s stomach, and said, “I’m looking forward to opening you up and seeing what I can see.” She released Michael’s wrist and reached into a pouch that was hanging off of her shoulders. She pulled out a long-bladed knife and plunged it into Michael’s chest. He started to scream, but no sound would come; he wanted to pass out from the pain, and realized nothing hurt.
She pushed him down to the ground and continued to draw the knife toward his belly button.
“As I thought,” she said. “The four will fail.”
Glancing up for a moment to be sure he heard her correctly, he saw that she had split him open as if performing an autopsy. He saw something red in her hands, and at that point, he did pass out.
Michael existed in a period of darkness, only hearing words. “Moros is coming,” “bringer of fate,” and “the four will fail.” He thought about his friends. Wondered where they were. He remembered Karen saying the old woman she’d seen had warned that they couldn’t stop her, and now this, “the four will fail.” Amidst his brain earnestly trying to find out what all of it meant, he became aware of new voices:
“I think he’s waking up.”
“Karen, go get his mom.”
“Do you think I should leave?”
The final voice was new. He didn’t recognize it.
Slowly he opened his eyes. The dim lights of the hospital room still seared his retinas. But he could see Tyler standing at the foot of his bed. There was a girl next to him. A small blonde girl.
“Who’s that?” Michael asked.
Skipping any pleasantries Tyler went straight to the point, “Mickey, meet the Consortium’s newest member. Her name’s Maddie.” He said the last part as if he were proud of remembering.
New member? Michael thought. He wasn’t sure what was happening. He wasn’t even sure he was really awake, but the thought of having five members overshadowed all other questions that danced in his mind. He said, “Good, we need you,” and fell back asleep.