Story by D.V. Bennett
Illustration by Toe Keen
Eric Henderson had been bitten by the bug at summer camp when a counselor from Cabin 3 approached him about acting in her play.
He had shied away from the notion at first, but the counselor was an attractive older girl of sixteen named Amy, and because his hair was the right color she had explained, Eric would be perfect for the role. She cemented the deal by running her fingers through his ash blond locks.
His face flushed with embarrassment when he stepped onto the stage wearing knickers and shoes with over-sized buckles, but from the first moment he spoke his voice and his body were no longer his. They belonged to a kindly old gentleman who longed for a family of his own. His spirit begged and hoped for the impossible, only to be shocked when the laws of physics were bent and broken to comply with his wishes.
As the play progressed the children came alongside him, all the way to the point when his wooden puppet became a real little boy. The kids were awestruck, and Eric had never looked back.
At thirty-three he had done children’s theatre all over the country. He didn’t care what the venue was like as long as the kids were there, but he had only managed a few decent paying gigs over the years. After college, he had been forced to find steady work to supplement the life he loved.
A loud tapping on the car window startled him out of his reverie.
“We’re on.” Bobby Leung trotted around to the passenger side of the car, “They won’t be coming back here. Apartment’s bare.”
Bobby belted himself in as they rounded the block, Eric allowing the subjects a sufficient lead. They tailed the white ‘06 Chevy Malibu through town, out I-5 for twenty miles until taking an off ramp to drive into the town of Tukwila, Washington.
The other vehicles on the road turned off one by one, forcing Eric to drop back and avoid calling attention to their government Ford Taurus. The Malibu went another two miles before stopping in front of a small cottage. Except for the seamless metal roof, everything about the place screamed English countryside.
Eric and Bobby made a slow pass as the man and woman exited the car. A Blue Healer rose from the tall grass as they walked past. He sniffed a couple of times and laid back down as they stepped up onto the porch and knocked on the front door.
“Lots nicer digs than the place they just left.” Eric pointed to Bobby’s tablet, “Pull it up.”
Bobby found the county records, “The house belongs to one Elvis P., Listed as owner.”
Eric rolled his eyes to the right without turning his head, “No way.”
“No kidding, that’s what it says. Maybe the owner had his name legally changed.”
“You think? I can’t wait to see what this guy looks like.”
They didn’t have to wait long. After thirty minutes a man emerged from the house. He was dressed in a tee shirt, gym shorts and flip flops, sporting the tallest jet-black pompadour either of them had ever seen. He carried a thick garment bag over one arm.
“Want to bet that bag is full of rhinestones and high collars?”
Bobby drew his lip up into a sneer, “Uh huh-uh huh-uh huh. You know, sometimes it’s hard having only you to talk to about this stuff, because I would sure like to tell my girlfriend about it.”
“You don’t have a girlfriend.”
“That’s one of the reasons I’d like to tell her.”
The Blue Heeler jumped repeatedly, bouncing its front paws off Elvis’ back at every third step. “Daddy will be back, Rollie. Daddy will be back,” they heard the man say.
“He doesn’t sound like his namesake.”
“Oh, I don’t know, the daddy part sounds authentic. My guess is it’s safe to let the King go on his merry way while we sit on Graceland here.”
“I don’t see another choice.” Bobby pulled a quarter from his pocket, “Heads or tails?”
Having lost the toss, Eric got out of the car and waved Bobby on. There were several good vantage points to choose from. He selected an empty house for sale two lots down the street, pulled up the real estate agency for sale sign, picked the lock and let himself in.
He placed a call to the Agency and had them call the number for the real estate firm on the sign. They would spend a few thousand bucks to run interference. All Eric needed to do was get comfortable and keep watch on the house until Bobby came back with the company van.
He tapped Cassie’s number and she answered on the first ring, “Hey.”
“Are you coming over soon, or will this be another one of those mysterious evenings?”
“The latter, I’m afraid.”
“Sorry. I was looking forward to running my lines with you.”
“That’s what you were looking forward to?”
“Well, and that other thing.” He loved her giggle, but his heart dipped a little at the sound of it, “I’ll be there as soon as this job is done. Count on it.”
“I guess I’ll have to wait.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
They closed the call. He didn’t like lying to her, but it came with the job. He had told her that he was a professional bodyguard. It was the perfect cover, explaining away his frequent absences and spur of the moment need to be gone for days at a time.
Cassie Stewart was a painter and sculptor, but Eric had taken to calling her an arteest when introducing her to anyone. He was as intensely proud of her abilities as she was of his. They had met months earlier, when Eric was playing Yellow Dog in a local production of “Go, Dog, Go!”
On her break from designing the sets, he had seen her reading a book about art and seated himself next to her. They had shared a conversation and a moment. After that he made sure he found her every day. She and Eric had been cut from entirely different cloth, but it seemed to him their worldviews had been stitched together by similar influences.
Bobby returned almost three hours later, at dusk. He cut the headlights before creeping along the quiet rural street. Eric stood in the glow of the reverse lights as his partner backed the van into the garage. Bobby lowered the door while Eric began unloading groceries and surveillance equipment.
They took turns napping. Eric slept first, but his rest was fitful. His mind wandered between sleep and anxiety. He dreamt about offering Cassie an engagement ring over Italian food at Il Bistro.
He jerked awake. Had he been dreaming, or had he just admitted to himself he wanted to marry Cassie? He looked up to see Bobby staring at him.
“I’m sorry Rex. Was some big ol’ cat chasing you in your sleep?” Eric shook out the cobwebs. “Seriously man, you alright?”
“I’m fine, I was…”
“Dreaming—loudly.” Bobby put his eye back to the spotting scope, “I have to say, you’ve seemed a little distracted on this one. Is there something going on I should know about?”
“Not really. I’ve met someone.”
“Ah, the woman of your dreams.”
“You might say that.”
Bobby turned away from the window, “You’re serious?” There was an uncomfortable silence. “You know the case protocol. No new relationships in ongoing cases. You walk away.”
“I’m not ready to end it.”
“You might not be ready, but I’m not ready to take the consequences because your head isn’t in the game.”
Eric stared back at his partner, perturbed, “My head’s in the game, Robert. You worry about your end of it. I’ll worry about mine. I’ll let you know if anything breaks. Over?”
“You’re good, Eric. I’ve never worked with anyone better.”
“Hey, it’s none of my business, but if you’re interested in the truth, I believe you’d be a much happier person if you stuck to what you’re best at. You really shine on stage.”
“What the hell?”
“What? If our private lives are supposed to remain a secret, you shouldn’t stand on a public stage and perform for large crowds of people.”
This was an argument Eric knew he couldn’t win, “Where?”
“I saw you in a play at the Renaissance Faire in Bonney Lake. I was there on a date. Afterward, you were wandering around in costume, talking to kids.”
“We aren’t supposed to be talking about this.”
“That cat left the bag about a year ago.”
“Why didn’t you say something then?”
“I didn’t want to butt my life into yours.”
“As opposed to what you’re doing now?”
“So, I’m a slow mover. Hey, two people can’t work in close community the way we have for several years without learning a few things about each other. You’d have to be dense not to.”
Headlights illuminated the treetops at the end of the street and brightened the yard as the SUV bounced onto the lawn.
“The King has entered the building,” Bobby checked to make sure they weren’t recording. “Hey, somebody had to say it.”
They watched as Rollie followed the man and his pompadour to the front door. He stopped to pat the dog’s head and scratch his ears before going inside. Rollie barked once and was shushed by the King. After the door closed, Rollie stood in the dark for a time and finally walked off the porch to plop into the un-mowed grass.
“Did you find out anything about this guy, Bobby?”
“His name used to be Gregory Vaughn. He’s got a regular tribute gig at a place called Loose Lips Bar and Grill in Capitol Hill. Hires out for events, too. Not a great singer, but he puts on a hell of a show. Watched him on YouTube.”
“None. He’s clean. Not so much as a parking ticket.”
“How did he get connected with these two?”
Elvis P. in a house with the Ghost and his accomplice. He, Bobby and two other teams had been watching this man and woman for over three months. He hoped the suits had attached them to the right couple. Otherwise they might be following a pair of house-sitting mooches.
No, he told himself. It was him. This was the guy who had killed the Sudanese Ambassador to the United States two years ago, and now he was here to kill someone else. Eric knew it in his gut.
He examined his service weapon, a Beretta Px4 Storm, and checked the two backup magazines in the sleeves on his belt, “We need more people.”
They added two-man van teams around the corner from both the north and south ends of the street. If anyone needed following, Eric would make the call.
For the next few days, no one left the property. Elvis P. came out several times to feed Rollie and throw a tennis ball for him, and the lawn grew longer.
Friday evening at nine, the King came out again. It was dark, but Bobby and Eric could make out the tee shirt, the gym shorts, the flip flops and the hair. Rollie sniffed the air as he walked by. The King laid the garment bag in the back of the SUV. He got in, started it, eased onto the street and drove south.
“Anything about that bother you?” Eric laid his field glasses on the window sill and snatched up the two-way, “Team Two, Team Two—stop the target. Repeat, stop target and detain.” He grabbed his windbreaker and threw it on as Bobby gave chase.
They hit the front lawn running and rounded the corner at the south end of the long street in less than fifteen seconds. They found the surveillance van with the engine still running, its front bumper resting against an immense Douglas fir tree on the gravel sidewalk.
Bobby checked for pulses, but both team members had been finished with head shots, “I’ll get out descriptions of Elvis P. and the car and send some guys to the club where he works. We’ll get him.”
“It wasn’t him, Bobby. Rollie never even moved when the guy came out the front door. It was the Ghost with the pompadour.”
They ran north, passing Rollie the dog and climbing the porch at Elvis P’s house. Rollie stood and followed, tail wagging.
Bobby patted the soft head as he walked by, “Stay.”
They found Elvis P. bunched into a sitting position between the wall and the washing machine in the laundry room. For his hospitality, he had been repaid with a bullet through the right temple. The woman had been given the same treatment, sprawled face down on the master bed.
Bobby called in a cleaning team. They left the bodies where they’d found them and vacated the premises immediately. Including Elvis P., four people had lost their lives because they had been played by the Ghost, and they hadn’t seen it coming. Eric saw a long night ahead.
— ♦♦♦ —
It was one p.m. before Eric’s eyes fluttered open to the sound of his work phone vibrating with a call from Bobby.
“Our guys found the car abandoned a few miles from the house. Eric?”
“Dude, this isn’t your fault. He’s an assassin. It’s what he does. You know, black hat?”
“We should have stopped him.”
“Stopping him wasn’t the detail,” Bobby reminded him. “The suits wanted to know who he was after and why. We could have given them a dead body three months ago.”
“The suits got it wrong. How’s the dog?” Eric could hear Bobby patting the rough fur coat of his new houseguest.
“Seems to like it here, but he misses his previous owner.”
“I’ll let you know if anything breaks. Over?”
Eric chuckled, “Yeah, over. Thanks Bobby.”
So now the job was likely to fall into somebody else’s lap. If the normal pattern held, he would have some serious time off. It was Saturday, and the day was still young. He picked up his phone and saw Cassie’s face by her number. His thumb hovered over the image.
Thirty minutes later, Eric was strolling through the park, dressed in a baggy court jester’s costume. He knew precisely how to bounce and wiggle the bells on his hat to make kids laugh, especially while juggling bean bags.
At one point, a group of about fifteen kids and their parents had gathered close around him while he told stories and jokes. When he was about ready to leave, he saw Cassie leaning against ancient mulberry tree a hundred feet away. He thanked the kids and waved goodbye.
Pulling his hat off, he walked to her. She put her arms around him, hugging him, kissing him hello, “I thought I might find you here.”
“How did you know I was off?”
“I didn’t. I hoped.”
“I know I promised to call. I’m sorry.” It was hard to look sheepish in his present condition, but he managed. “Work was especially stressful last night, and I guess I needed to recharge before I inflicted myself on you.”
“You don’t owe me an explanation.”
“That’s sweet of you. Thank you.”
“You love these kids, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“Have you ever considered having your own?”
“Yeah, but I have no confidence in the kind of father I’d make.”
She gestured at the park, “But you do this for them, out of love.”
“The world would be a much better place if everyone treated children the way that they should be treated. They’re one of our best hopes for the future.”
She smiled, looping her arm around his, “Would you like to grab a late lunch with me?”
“Sure, but I’d like to shower and change first though.”
“That would probably be best,” she wrinkled her nose and tugged at his costume.
They walked the few blocks back to his apartment and she waited while he showered. He emerged from the bathroom, buttoning up his blue jeans.
“Here,” she lifted the towel from his shoulders and dried his hair, slowly rubbing away the moisture. Letting the towel fall back around his neck, she brought her mouth to his. He responded, and they held each other close as his lips moved to her neck.
She tilted her head back until their eyes met and they fell onto the bed together. She unbuttoned her blouse but stopped when Eric’s cell phone vibrated across his night stand.
It was his work phone, and she knew he was required to answer it. He shook his head and picked it up, swiping the screen, “Yes?”
“Eric, where have you been? We got a break.”
“You’re kidding. Just a sec Bobby.” he covered the phone, “I’m sorry, I have to take this.” Cassie didn’t hide her disappointment as she sat up on the bed. Eric moved into the living room, “Go ahead Bobby.”
“One of our guys talked with the owner of the club he worked at. He said Elvis P. had a gig scheduled today at a birthday party. Said Elvis wouldn’t say who it was but wouldn’t shut up about what a big deal it is.”
“The Vice President, man. He’s here attending a meeting right now in the Trade Center at Bell Harbor, and guess whose birthday it is?”
“And they hired Elvis P.?”
“VP loves the King. We’ve been called in. The party will be at the VPs hotel in two hours, and they want us on location to put eyes on the Ghost.”
“I’m on my way.”
He ended the call and set the phone on the dining table. When he turned to face the bedroom, Cassie was leaning in the doorway. His Beretta was in her hand, dangling at her side. “Cassie, put the gun down, please.”
Instead she raised it, leveling it with his chest, “I’m sorry Eric. I can’t let you go to your friend now.”
“Don’t kid around Cassie. That gun isn’t one of my stage props. It’s real, and it’s loaded.”
“I know. I made sure.” She straightened her arm, engaging the spot sight. He found the bright red dot in the center of his torso, “Sit on the sofa, Eric—now.”
His stomach sank as he complied, “So, not a struggling arteest, I take it.”
A loud knock made him jerk, and Cassie walked backward until she stood to one side of the apartment door. “Yes?”
“Me,” a man answered.
She opened the door to allow him to enter the room. Still sporting the jet-black pompadour, he man drew a gun and slowly attached a sound suppressor to the barrel.
“The Ghost,” Eric said quietly.
Cassie gave Eric a half-smile, “Is that what you call Kasper, here? Funny.”
“Hilarious.” The Ghost waved Cassie to the door. “I’ll be quick. You can wait downstairs if you wish.”
“No,” Cassie placed herself between the two men.
“Cassie,” he waved his gun, directing her to move, “I have to be at the Downtown Westin in an hour. I don’t have time for this. He and his partner have seen my face.”
“As have several other people, and they undoubtedly have you on video. You’ll never make it past their security. Your days in the US are finished.” Cassie waved Eric’s gun toward the window, “Go back downstairs, get a cab and wait for me outside.”
He raised his gun, but Cassie fired first. The Ghost dropped like his strings had been cut.
She pointed Eric’s smoking gun back at him, “Get on your face, please.”
As he rolled over onto the sofa cushions, the muzzle of his gun met the skin of his right temple, “One in the head. Isn’t that your signature?”
A stinging sensation in his hip caused him to turn over.
Cassie backed away holding the Beretta in one hand, a half-empty syringe in the other, “Sit up now, please.”
“You discharged a .45 in my apartment. The police will be here in no time.”
“It was one shot. This is Seattle. The police won’t come unless they’re called, and it’s not likely anyone will.”
“You’re going to sit here and watch me die?”
“If I wanted you dead I would have let Kasper shoot you.”
“Then what you injected me with…”
“A tranquilizer, love.”
“I need you to hear me, Eric. I’ll be gone when you wake up and Kasper’s body will still be here. You’ll be a hero. He tried to drug you and kill you, but you shot him first.” She wiped her fingerprints from the Beretta and laid it on the dining table next to his phone. “You’re lucky to have survived. If he had injected you with all of this, you would have died, instead of merely passing out for several hours.”
Her words seemed distant to him. He held out a hand to her, “Why?”
“I’m sorry, Eric. I had hoped we would have more time. Damn. I may have injected you with a little more than I needed to.”
Dizzy, he fell backward, but she stepped in to put a hand on the back of his neck, lowering him the rest of the way. “It’s alright, my love.” She bent over him, kissing his forehead and lips, “You were right about this world, about the children, and I won’t be the one to deprive them of your affection.”
Cassie checked her watch, hurrying now. She had a chartered flight to catch. She wiped her prints from the syringe, carefully placing it into the Ghost’s open hand. After taking a final look at Eric asleep on his sofa, she locked his apartment door behind her and stepped out into the afternoon breeze.
— ♦♦♦ —
By D.L. Wells, Art by Tim Soekkah
Have you heard it? The slithering? The thrashing? The sound of talons grinding on wood?
To whoever finds this note; stay away from this dreadful place! Keep away from the thing of an unknown form that approaches my residence at twilight. It comes to my door every night and bucks, thrashes, and claws my door. Whatever you do, do NOT answer the Thing at the Door!