Exercise, good for the body, the mind, and the heart. What constitutes exercise? Lifting weights, cycling, running, and playing ball sports are all prime examples. Of course, there are many more. Exercise is a broad brush dipped in sweat. If a person was morbidly obese for instance, exercise might be a two-hundred-foot round trip leg drag to the mailbox, including the last two steps to get back in the house with or without the aid of a railing.
Any fair and accurate description of exercise would have to include sage, coachy advice such as, ‘Do it correctly and you too can enjoy the pain. The harder you push, the more it hurts and the stronger you become’. Advice that would make Knute Rockne blush if he relayed the same information to a pregnant woman. The health club is a midwife presiding over the birth of your longevity.
The club was a two-story concrete and glass, neon spectacle that offered every modern exercise convenience known to man. Open 24 hours, even offering late evening classes, it lived in the eastern parking lot of the Miller Creek Mall. As revenge for its building size envy, it took the best of the morning sun.
For Roy, breathing was the smallest of victories. He didn’t even know he missed it until it happened again. The young woman hovering over him had red shoulder length hair, soaked and stringy from her time in the water. Roy was shirtless, donning nothing but a pair of red shorts. He was also wet, a direct result of being pulled from the bottom of the pool.
CPR is not a kiss, but Roy enjoyed it never-the-less, although be it temporarily. Roy happened to be a premium model, built for professional instruction, a happenstance for which he ought be grateful. Most CPR dummies are nothing more than a blind head on a torso. In his case, it paid to be a drowning victim.
For the young woman, an absolute and life-changing terror opened up a rift in her soul roughly the length of a dog’s lifetime the moment Roy opened his eyes and sat upright. He saw himself, his legs, his arms, still plastic but this time with tone and girth. His joints articulated but his hands were frozen, welcoming half-open. It was the same sort of open hands that Jesus and Mary statues offered. Jesus either has his arms extended towards the heavens like he is expecting to catch something heavy, or in various degrees of in-flight wing angle as if he were coming in for a landing. His hands are pretty much always the same though. Why are there so few molds of Jesus’ hands?
The young woman flung herself backwards, crab crawling towards the wall without ever taking her eyes off him. As for the rest of the class attendees, there was a heady mixture of panic, screaming, and in at least one case, fainting.
Roy rose to his feet but wobbled like a newborn foal. His former chariot sported a much stiffer suspension. Staggering like a drunken fool he held on as long as he could before falling right back into the pool. This time, he could be awake to drown, a level of hell premium models were made to appreciate over and over again.
The screaming attracted the attention of the few who were lifting weights in the adjoining workout area. There, people could watch themselves in a wall of mirrors on one side or surveil pool goers through a glass wall on another.
John Buries was the kind of man who used the mirror to watch people in the pool. He was tuned-in to the demonstration even before Roy woke up. When the chaos broke out, he was going in while people were running out. He retrieved Roy from the pool and took him to the locker room before anybody even knew for sure what was going on.
John feverishly swung locker doors open while Roy laid on the floor next to a dressing bench. A naked man teetering on the edge of outrage decided discretion was going to be the better part of his daily valor and returned to the shower where he might plead plausible deniability.
“There we go,” John said.
He flapped open an extra-large nylon duffel bag, folded Roy in half and stuffed him inside.
“Fate had me here to rescue you my friend. Stay still,” he said.
The sirens were still blocks away as John left the building. Even the front desk people hadn’t heard what happened yet.
As I fumbled with her office door key, the phone was busy ringing off the hook.
“Hello! Yes, hi, what? Okay I’ll be right there,” I said.
Bethany Wilbur was waiting for me just inside the first set of doors at the main entrance to the mall.
“This is getting out of hand Ms. Maximine, I mean, I’m going to have to call the police on this, but I was hoping you could help us get to the bottom of this a little more quickly. So far I have to say, well, this just isn’t going to look good for us,” Betty said.
“Where is he?” I asked.
“He’s in my office but,” she said.
“But what?” I asked.
“But you have to see this first. Trust me, it puts it in perspective,” she said.
Betty was hurrying through the mall like a penguin hopped-up on coffee. I needed a cup of what she had.
“You got him?” I asked.
I never really got a great look at him as he was running through the mall, but I felt like it had to be the same mannequin.
“Nice outfit,” I said.
“Yes, well, apparently it’s Paul’s,” Betty said.
“The security guard? So, whoever hit him, put his clothes on this guy?” I asked.
“Yes,” Betty said.
“What did they put on the security guy then?” I asked.
Betty grimaced a little the way a person does when they tighten up the rear muscles of their jaw.
“I see,” I acknowledged.
I took a good look around, not much out of place. The note was a bit cryptic, but I put it together in pretty short order.
“We need to take a closer look at this thing don’t you think? Plus my guess is someone is going to want his clothes back,” I said.
Paul was holding a rolled wet washcloth against the lump on his head when I carried the mannequin into the room. I dropped it ass first onto the floor in the middle of Betty’s office.
“I think this guy has something that belongs to you. What do you remember?” I asked Paul.
“One minute I’m standing there, just, you know, looking things over, and the next, bang, something hit me. And then I wake up to the walkers. Can I?” Paul asked pointing.
“Yeah go ahead,” I said.
Paul got down and started taking his clothes off the mannequin, muttering about someone’s idea of funny not being the same as his.
“Nothing else? No noises, voices, a smell, anything?” I asked.
“Nope, nothing. Guy musta had soft shoes, snuck right up on me,” Paul said.
“Or boots maybe?” I asked.
“Weren’t no hard soles. They’d have to be pretty soft, like a hiking boot or something,” Paul said.
“Here. Let me give you a hand,” I said.
I wrestled the obviously referenced boots off the mannequin while clueless Paul slid off the shirt and accessories.
“What do you think they hit you with?” I asked.
“Don’t know, something pretty hard though,” he said.
“Mind if I have a look?” I asked.
“Be my guest,” he said.
I gently took the towel from his hands and placed it on the ground next to me. The wound inspection was a ruse. What the hell did I know about it? As I picked up the towel to hand back to Paul, I wiped the dried blood off the hand of the mannequin. Paul didn’t notice, and what the cops didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them.
Speak of the devil
Detective Tom walked into the office right on cue.
“What the hell you doing here Maximine?” he asked.
“You know, just happened to be in the neighborhood,” I said.
“Yeah right. This the guy? Why’s he half-dressed?” Tom asked.
“Well, we’re guessing whoever hit him put his clothes on this mannequin,” Betty said.
“You’re guessing? You’re guessing? Whadya say we leave the guessing up to the professionals,” Tom said.
“I guess then the facts are up to me,” I said.
“Very funny Maximine, very funny. But not as funny as me runnin’ you in for tampering with that evidence,” he said.
“Cut the crap Czerneski, I carried this thing down here, it’s either not the same one, or, or…” I stuttered.
“Or what?” he asked.
“Or I don’t know. But what are the odds? It’s gotta be the same one. I mean, whoever made it run through the damn mall, I mean, if they ain’t the perp then they damn well sure know who is,” I said.
“Did you see it? Did you see this thing runnin’?” Tom asked.
“No, not up close anyways,” I said.
He was right, for all I knew it could have been an actual person that day, but I had other ideas.
“That’s what I thought. C’mon Maximine, you know how people get, with the old woman on the floor and all. Tensions are high, especially around the holidays. You was there, you seen how it was. Lemme just have a talk with Mr., Mr.,” Tom paused.
“Paul Owens,” Paul said.
“Paul Owens, and then I gotta talk to ya so don’t go too far,” he said.
“What’s up,” I asked.
“Look, I’ll tell ya when I’m done, in private,” Tom said.
Tom accentuated every syllable of the last word so I knew it must have been important.
“I’m going upstairs to get a cup of coffee. I’ll be around,” I said.
I was starting to wonder what might have been in my first cup of coffee that morning. I wasn’t dizzy, nor was I exceptionally happy. The direction my mind was wandering could not lead to a logical destination.
Closed for Sabbatical. I thought only priests took sabbaticals, but most signs don’t lie. The Unique Boutique was dark inside, definitely nobody home, not even the mannequin. I needed to see for myself that the thing we had downstairs was the same one John had placed in the display window of the boutique. The same one that jumped from his arms and later ran unabated through the mall. The same one that probably assaulted the security guard and took his clothes. If it could do all that, it could kill, but proving it was going to be tougher than the skin on an overcooked Thanksgiving turkey.
I am unaware of any time in history when a gun has gone to trial as a defendant. It’s supposed to be the person who pulled the trigger. This thing, this puppet was no more than a gun. Someone or something pulled its trigger. Mannequins don’t come to life on their own. I had to find Tempest.
Once he was back in his apartment, John placed the gym bag reverently on the floor.
“You’re lucky I got you out of there. No telling what the cops would have done to you. I wonder what brought you here, to this body?” John asked.
Roy was wondering that himself. Being zipped-up in a gym bag gives a person time to think. The old woman’s warning played over and over in his head. She warned that if the body failed he would die so he tried to stay alive. She warned that he had aligned with the wicked, so he tried to run away. Then it occurred to him that there was one more warning. ‘Say your name and I tell you the vessel of your despair will change with every wind.’
I guess I know what that means now.
When the flash of light hit him, he didn’t realize he never finished writing his name.
“I’ll admit I’m somewhat infatuated with you my friend. Life is easy to take but now you see, it can be given. I don’t know how, but the witch must. The old one is dead, yet you are still alive. The spell dies with her, so it must be the young one. Stay still, I’m taking you apart. You’re coming with me to find the witch tomorrow. She will answer me and then she will die, and you will be free my friend. But first, I have to tie up a few loose ends,” John explained.
Cops are slow walkers, it was a good thing the mall coffee made it worth the wait.
“What’s up Czerneski, what’s so important?” I asked.
“Thought you’d like to know, last night we got a call from the health club up the street. Witnesses say a CPR dummy woke up in the middle of a class and started runnin’ away,” Tom said.
“What?” I asked.
“Hand to God, absolute hand to God. One lady fainted dead away, smacked her head on the tile,” Tom said.
“What about all that ‘You know how people are’ BS? You buyin into this?” I asked.
“Like I said, you know how people are. I wasn’t gonna say anything in front of the guard or the manager, and especially him,” he said.
“Him?” I asked.
“Yeah him, the mannequin. Besides, I bring this to my Captain, and I’ll be on psych leave before the day is out,” he said.
Tom gave me a few names of witnesses. They all said the same thing, the dummy just woke up and started to run. A few of them also mentioned a man, a gray haired, muscular man with bright blue eyes. Nobody was sure where he went, or if he even did anything, but most of them remember seeing him, at least for an instant anyways.
Back at my office my head was spinning trying to put it all together. The phone startled me.
“Hey John, I definitely heard about it, as a matter of fact I was just over there this morning. I don’t think I can, gotta track someone down. Dinner? Maybe. I kind of wanted to touch base with you on a few things anyways. I’ll call you and let you know… No phone? What about the store? Um, sure, I should be here. Hey John, um, I know it’s kind of a personal question but hey, let’s be honest, look at you for God’s sake. You work out right? Lift weights and that sort of thing? Yeah, that’s kind of what I thought, thanks. You know what? I’ll definitely see you tonight. Eight sharp, see you there,” I hung up.
I stared at the phone for a while.
There’s something odd about you Mr. Buries, something odd indeed. I think it’s time to find out a little more about John Buries.