You dropped hints all year. A milestone birthday came and went, and the cake was pretty good. Your anniversary yielded warm memories that in all likelihood will probably last another year. Then the big one rolls around, Christmas. The day dawns with the promise of just the right sized box and a sideways, knowing smile from your favorite Claus. You are so sure that you’re getting what you wanted that you trade excitement for arrogance. All of a sudden you’re a home-run hitter crowding the plate against a meat ball pitcher, pointing your intention to the fans in the left field bleachers.

The rug comes out approximately seventeen seconds deep into the box. The white filler paper is just another boring day in prison. You’re still smiling, but it takes effort now, and the eyes no longer match the teeth. Strike three.

John closely examined a short length of rope next to one of the trees where one of the three of the coven had been tied.

“Cut. Where did you go my mannequin friend?” he asked.

This is it, the moment of truth. C’mon Roy, you can do this, you can do this.

Roy stepped out of the darkness a bonafide medieval knight of olde. His plastic skin would be his shield, his sword a sturdy branch, embarking on his first crusade on his steed of a heart finally pure.

His wooden sword cut the air with helicopter whooshes, back and forth with every ounce of intention he had to give. John ducked and dodged, stepping backwards like a boxer to avoid a hurricane of blows. Weak and tired, I threw myself on the ground behind him, a human obstacle, a speed bump. I grabbed a handful of his pants behind his knees and John fell backwards onto the ground.

He rolled onto his left shoulder to cushion his impact. I grabbed my pistol from his waistband exposed in the fall. He rebounded quickly, defensively raising his hands low in the air, a motion instinctive to any person who has a gun pointed directly and intentionally at the center of their face.

“Dammit John I’ll kill you I swear to God. Gimme any reason, anything at all!” I yelled.

Roy stopped swinging and dropped his stick to the ground. He stood there, victoriously beaming through a face incapable of showing a hint of emotion. He just stared at me, motioning over and over towards John. I could only assume he wanted me to shoot him.

“No. He has to answer for what he’s done. Don’t you John?” I said mockingly.

Roy stomped his foot on the ground as if insisting, or possibly throwing a childish fit.

“John. That’s funny, John. But you’re not John are you? Are you John?” I accused.

He stepped back, feeling my anger.

“Don’t move, not another muscle John! I did some investigating, imagine that? Your company has no record of you John. Turns out the police have no record of you either John. Did you really think I wouldn’t find out? Huh? John?” I said.

I emphasized his name repeatedly, thinking he would appreciate my homespun version of irony. Irony seemed important to him, the least I could do is let him feel what the hot end of it felt like.

“So why don’t you tell me John? Just who the hell are you anyways?” I demanded.

“I am,” he stopped to think.

“Who? You are who?” I demanded again.

“I am, the one who sets souls free, Philippine,” he said calmly.

“What? What the hell does that even mean?” I yelled.

“Like I was going to do for him, but it’s too late for that now isn’t it my friend?” he said to Roy.

“Like I did for the old woman and John Blake, like I can do for you,” he said.

He started to walk towards me with his hand out. In whatever world he lived in, deep inside his own twisted broken mind he expected me to hand over my gun.

“You’re not going to shoot me Philippine, you can save me, you’re sure of it,” he said.

I steadied my aim at his forehead and squeezed the trigger unapologetically. My reward was nothing more than a hollow click.

“Bullets,” he said.

He hit me hard on the left side of my jaw. The sound from inside was dull and undramatic compared to what I had seen in the movies. I lost control of the gun, dropping it somewhere near where I fell.

I wasn’t out long, coming around sluggishly to the point of blurry vision. From a sideways view with my face on the ground I watched him dragging Roy by his leg towards the fire.

“You let them go didn’t you Roy? But still you managed to exact your revenge. I can respect that, but that’s it for you, I hope you know that. There’s nothing I can do for you now, her either,” he said.

He dropped him next to the fire, still raging from the fuel of the body in the center. Roy gave it a fair shot and tried to fight him, but it was really of no use at all as he was easily manhandled.

“You disappoint me. I was here to help. I could have been your father. We could have learned so much from each other. Death is everything Roy. Without it, there is no life, no love, no sorrow or joy. Everyone has to have it to survive, but they fear it, they don’t really want it. Don’t you see?  You will, now. The vessel of your despair will change with the wind. You told me that my friend, with the Ouija, remember? That is of course unless you are destroyed. You could have lived forever. She gave that to you, and you squandered the opportunity, just like so many of these people squandering their worthless lives, taking, using,” John said.

Without further ceremony he picked him up and threw him headlong into the flames. Roy’s clothes flared as the fire shot skywards. John stepped back away from the heat to watch him burn.

“Now, as for you young lady,” he said.

As he walked towards me, he tossed the bullets he removed from the gun backwards over his shoulder, one at a time. I managed to get up to my hands and knees, hoping against hope to garner enough energy to get away. I noticed my gun laying in the dirt right there in front of me, stark raving empty.

For you Philippine, for everybody!

Roy came out of the fire like he was, well, on fire.

He ran awkwardly, but surprisingly quickly straight at John, thrusting himself onto his back and wrapping his arms around his neck.

Just hold on…

John struggled to shed him. Within moments both men were drenched in fire. Roy held on as long as he could as John thrashed about. Burning globs of burning plastic sprinkled the area like water spraying off a dog’s wagging tail.

It’s funny how a good solid crack to the jaw can be the wind that blows the clouds out of a person’s head. In this case, I pictured myself walking away from my poor stuck car and tucking extra loaded clips into my back pants pocket. I guess between the cold water in the well and generally just being on my ass most of the night, I didn’t feel them digging-in anymore. It took only seconds to extract the spent clip, drop in another and chamber a fresh round.

I rose to my knees and did my level best to aim through the black toxic smoke pouring off Roy’s burning body. I fired over and over until the only thing that could be heard was clicks.

I couldn’t be sure I hit him. So thick was the smoke that for all I knew he was still standing there. Roy on the other hand laid sideways in such a way that he appeared to be looking right at me. I watched as pieces of his body melted away revealing the smoking dark hollow space inside.

Somehow managing to still be mentally culpable, with the nub of what was left of his hand he scribbled something in the sand. At that moment, a flash of light unlike anything I could accurately describe beamed out of the burned holes in his body. A light that without question came from within. His arm just as suddenly went limp and for all practical purposes, he appeared to be gone.

I got back to my feet as quickly as I could and fumbled for the other spare clip.  I staggered around Roy, around the other side of the black smoke. Among the burning islands of leaves was a decent amount of splattered blood. What’s a decent amount? The answer is, enough to make you wonder how the guy lived, but not enough to lead you to a body. John, or whoever the hell he was, was gone.

I dropped to my knees. I wanted to believe with all my hopes and dreams on the line that this whole show was officially over, that the curtain had fallen. The fire was starting to get out of control and there wasn’t a damn thing in the world I was going to be able to do about it. All I could do was get out of there.

I found a stick, about as tall as a man and wide as a bottle cap and put it to work as a crutch. I bid the body Roy had inhabited one final farewell. There, in the dirt next to him he wrote very simply, “I am Roy.”

The sun was well on its way up before I got back to the parking area. The waking forest cast ever-changing shadows amongst the trees, constantly tricking the eye. Blue Jays sounded the alarm of my arrival and squirrels retreated to their leafy nests, comfortably safe in their anonymity.

Ahead, on the trail, as we grew closer to the cars, a dark silhouette forced my stomach to turn. It was that feeling you get when you go over the first drop on a roller coaster, except your hands aren’t waving in the air and you sure as hell aren’t screaming for the fun of it.

The person moved slowly and away, never having seen me. He was hunched over, appearing more like a moving mass at times than a human being. If it was him, I owed it to the world to finish it once and for all.

I came at him quickly, keeping my focus on subtle body movements. If he turned to his left I’d duck off the trail to my right, likewise the other way. If he looked over his right shoulder, I would exit stage left. He was now officially the hunted. Once I was close enough, I could clearly see the anomaly was made up of more than one person. There were in fact, three.

“Hey! Hey you there!” I yelled.

Considering the gravity of the moment, I wished I knew their names.

“It’s me, Philippine, Philippine Maximine,” I told them.

“Philippine? Oh my God! Oh my God!” she yelled.

“Tempest? But I thought you? I saw you,” I stammered.

We met halfway in the middle of an embrace reserved for sisters who had been through a war together. Tempest did her best to explain through sobs and tears.

“Becky, it was Becky, my friend Becky. She was already gone. The bastard cut off her ears and watched her bleed to death. I, I watched her bleed to death Philippine, me. We had to, he would have come after me, I know he would. He thought it was me, that I did something, but I, I…” she cried.

She pulled away and looked into my eyes.

“It was him, Roy. He cut me loose, cut all of us loose. He burned me. He burned my face, so I’d scream but then he cut us loose. He sacrificed himself. He saved us Philippine, he saved us,” Tempest bawled.

“He sure as hell did. Who woulda thought he had it in him?” I said.

I helped them into Tempest’s car. She knew the quickest route to the hospital. I stayed behind to wait for the authorities. After they drove off, I made my way down the road to my car. I had forgotten all about being stuck as I collapsed on the hood.


I laughed out loud at what it might mean to have a little handmade voodoo doll tucked under the driver’s side windshield wiper, soaked in blood. I wasn’t sure of the message he was trying to send me, but I knew people that would, back home, where I was a little girl once. I was flattered that he took the time before getting in that shitty old truck and undoubtedly getting away forever. He didn’t seem to me to be the kind of guy who gets caught.

He was flat on his back when he woke with his arms crossed over his chest. It was all dark besides a sliver of light above him, outlining his prone position, the shape of which was undeniable. He could move, but space was limited. He tried to sit up but banged his forehead almost immediately. He could not recall a time when he was more afraid. The sound of footsteps approached him.

“Mommy, Mommy, let’s set him up!” a little girl said.

Someone opened the lid and he found himself staring face to face with what appeared to be a normal, everyday, run-of-the-mill, extremely excited sixish year old girl.

“Hey there Skeleton Man! Happy Halloween!” she said.


As he sat upright in the coffin and turned to look at her, the little girl released a blood curdling scream, the kind of scream that even the dead can hear.

Skeleton Man huh? Kinda has a nice ring to it.

Reanimating from a blunt force trauma black out while being emerged in total darkness is a whole new experience in the realm of uncertain consciousness. Being awake is as real as the depth of your imagination, or in my case, the depth of the well. Trapped is trapped, whether down here, or in a plastic body.

I felt a lump on the crown of my head, but the pain alone did not convince me I was awake. The water that drenched me was historically cold, but the chill in my body did not convince me either. Certain death plagued my mind, but the hopelessness of the situation still could not convince me.

Recollection protects and enhances your life. You learn from pain, remembering how it hurt without thankfully having to feel it again.  Sounds like songs or bells ring in your head even though you can’t hear them in the moment. After the party when you were a teenager, the room was gripped in a reprehensible odor that you haven’t smelled in years or maybe since.  

Hell, I declare could never be pitch black. As if designed specifically to thwart the Devil himself, beautiful life can be brilliantly recalled. You can see it in your mind’s eye, the shapes, the colors, the faces. Hell would have to be a place where eyes were open all the time, where the stench of rotten decay bellowed from the bottom of a well. I never knew that smell before, my mind could not recall it, therefore, I must have been awake.

The homemade ladder was crudely constructed with unstable uprights and rungs too far apart to be serviceable. It was of the sort hunters made in the field in order to ambush prey not conditioned to look up for danger. As I began the climb, I cried at the prospect of survival as the length appeared to be sufficient enough to get me out of the hole.

Finally back on top with my face buried in wet leaves I appreciated the exchange of one rotten stench for another. I still had my gun, even though I lacked the dexterity to use it. I walked ahead, stiff legged and slowly, relishing the early stages of hypothermia.

When I fell, I estimated roughly three hours had passed since I left the city, but now I didn’t know. All I could be sure of was that it was still dark outside.

Crisps of flickering firelight against leaf-less treetops were cemented in my memory by the sort of crying one would normally expect at a funeral or the scene of a terrible accident.

“Philippine, I was beginning to worry. We’ve been waiting for you. Allow me to introduce you. You’ve already met Tempest of course. The other members of the coven are See No, Speak No, and Hear No evil.  Ironic isn’t it? Witches stripped of their own evils? I thought so anyways. Very classic in nature, very, oh how should I say it? Cliché I guess. I couldn’t resist,” John said.

The three young members of the coven were all kneeling with their arms and ankles tied and knotted on the back sides of their respective trees.

“See no” was responsible for the wailing I had heard earlier. Blood replaced what should have been tears trickling out from under a blindfold, gluing strands of jet-black hair to her cheeks. She leaned forward, exhausted, letting the ropes that bound her wrists keep her from falling face first onto the ground.

“Speak no” made no discernable sound. She was the only blonde of the group, a fact I’m not sure had anything to do with her individual hell. A piece of wood whittled and tailored specifically for her, filled her mouth to the limits of an open human jaw. A handful of dislodged teeth laid on the folds of her black coat like crumbs after coffee cake. Her breath nearly whistled through what appeared to be a half of a fountain pen jutting from her trachea. The blood around it was coagulated making me wonder if she was first.

“Hear no” did not appear to be conscious. Both sides of her head were hastily shaved with what I’m guessing was the same knife he used to cut her ears off flush with her skull. They laid in the dirt she plowed up with her feet in front of her, kicking and most likely screaming until she passed-out from either pain or loss of blood.

Tempest was center stage, the apparent star of the show. Like witches of old, she was tied to a dead tree in the middle of a pile of dry kindling, ready to be burned at the stake. The gag in her mouth was wrapped tightly around the tree as well, effectively tying her head in place. She tried to speak to me, pleading with her eyes.

“I believe she’s telling you to run,” John said.

“You sick son-of-a…”

It was all I could manage to say. Once I was able to digest what I was looking at, I trained my pistol on the center of John’s fire-lit forehead.

“You let them go right now or I swear I’ll kill you where you stand. Now!” I demanded.

John looked at me and smiled, then looked towards Tempest

“Don’t worry about them Philippine, they’re going to be just fine. Well, probably. And that includes you as well, just as long as you do what’s requested of you,” he explained.

“Fuck you, you tried to kill me you son-of-a-bitch,” I accused.

He laughed.

“The well was never designed to kill you Philippine, only slow you down. Once you were inside, I knew exactly where you were. Once you got out, with my help of course, I knew exactly where you were going. As you can see, I needed a little time, you were too close,” he said.

“Now! Untie them now!” I screamed.

Someone tackled me low from behind, taking me to the ground. I was weak, injured from the fall down the well. I spun and fired once, twice, three then four times as he stood over me. The bullets had little to no effect, easily passing through his dummy body. While I sat paralyzed in wonder, he kicked the weapon out of my hand.

“Oh and let’s not forget our mutual friend Roy. I’m sure you remember him from the mall, well, from the health club. I’ll bet you’re wondering all about that Philippine. You know it’s funny, he practically begged me not to hurt you. Seems he has somewhat of a crush on you,“ John said.

Roy turned quickly towards John, tossing up his arms in silent protest.

“The security guard,” I said.

It had been a tea kettle, simmering in the back of my mind, but I would never allow myself to turn up the heat, to accept the alternate reality.

“Where’s John Blake?” I asked.

“John Blake was disposable. He’ll mean more to the trees now,” he said.

I moved to get my gun, but Roy beat me to it. He raised it slowly, pointing it directly at the middle of John.

“Do it, shoot him,” I said.

“Oh yes, that’s right. John Blake was a friend of yours. And what did your friend do for you again? Do you think he respected you as a guard Roy? Or did he dismiss you? Did he just tolerate you so you would leave him alone? Think about it Roy. He was using you, like the witch. They never spoke to you, never gave you what you needed to be free. I did that for you my friend, me. I’m going to help free you, and she’s going to help. Between us, we’ll make the witch break her spell. Then the two of you can go back together, just like you’ve dreamed,” John said.

“Shoot him, he’s crazy,” I said.

Unfortunately, Roy could no more shoot a gun than recite the emancipation proclamation, his hands nearly as useless as his hate.

John stepped up and quite easily took the gun from Roy’s hand.  He walked towards me spinning a piece of rope like he was a sick old man twirling a stopwatch, about to offer me candy.

“No way you’re doing me like them, no way, you’ll have to kill me,” I said.

“I wouldn’t dream of it Philippine. What sort of man would I be if I didn’t keep my word to my friend here? But I can’t really have you running, or should I say, limping away either. Hold her,” he said.

Roy was designed to save lives, not fight. I managed to tear-off his left arm during the struggle. Brandishing his limb as a weapon, I landed a solid blow to the side of John’s murderous head. He staggered backwards buying me enough time to flee as fast as my damaged body would allow. I hopped, I dragged, I limped and hell yes, I ran. Roy attempted to give chase but fell to the ground after only a few steps. Seems he wasn’t built for running either.

I pushed myself hard, fighting back pain while reeling from the shock of what I had just seen. There was a horrid familiarity in the air. Back again to the dark of yet another forest, another psychopath. I was lucky then. I remembered the flavor and I was desperate for another bite.

I broke out of the trees into an open field. I was turned around, but the starlight gave me hope. Time was a cellist, hellbent on playing my funeral song. He was coming. I couldn’t see him, nor could hear him over the cacophony of my own blundering retreat. But as sure as daylight, he was coming.

Over the crest of the field, on the edge of another wood line, I stopped to catch my breath and get my bearings. Quiet laughter from the dark broke my soul.

“Where for art thou Philippine?” he called mockingly.

A lump welled-up in my throat. I thought about crying, about just giving up and dying like the grass I laid in. I’d let the season take me in hopes that I’d grow back in spring.

“Come now Philippine, it is time. I need you. I need you to see what I see. All your questions can be answered. You can save him Philippine. You can save them all. If the witch dies, he will be trapped forever, and you my dear will have sentenced them. You are the judge Philippine, you are the key to their survival, you always have been since the day I met you,” he said.

I couldn’t see him, but he was close, lurking in the darkness, a sociopathic wraith.

Roy stood in front of Tempest, staring into her eyes for a million minutes. He picked up a branch nearly as long as himself and as wide as a bottle cap. With his one available arm, he pried the gag from her mouth.

“Please, please, I can’t help you Roy, I can’t help you. You’re not this person, you’re not him. But you can help us, please Roy, please,” she begged.

Roy laid the stick into the nearby fire until the top few inches were burning. He held it close to her face, watching the flames reflect in her eyes. He teased it over the pyre below, tapping it against the dry tinder at her feet that threatened to ignite at any given moment.

“You bastard! I guess you are who I thought you were Roy Manis. Go ahead, do it, lose whatever soul you had left.  Everybody already knows what you said to those boys on the beach. Too bad shit don’t float? Ring any bells? I don’t know how she did it, but you got what you had coming, every minute of it,” Tempest said.

Though the torch was no longer engulfed in flame, the coal on the end of the branch still glowed red. He pushed it into the middle of her right cheek, sizzling a brand deep enough to last a lifetime. Had it been a peaceful night, her scream may have been heard for miles, but it carried far enough.

“Time to go,” John said.

He stepped out of the brush astonishingly close to me and placed his hand on my shoulder. As much as my heart desired, I could run no more.

“Come, we have to hurry,” he said.

We were closer to the epicenter of horror than I knew. I felt like I was running in a straight line the entire time, but in reality I was just making a big circle. Upon arrival, the fire that threatened Tempest raged halfway up the tree to which she was tied.  The intense heat peeled the skin away from the body, her exposed flesh glistened and shined in the light of the fire, tickling black around the edges of fresh wounds.

“No. What have you done?” he said quietly.

A way too young kid gets on a motorcycle for the first time. A bunch of guys with cut-off shirts, drinking cheap beer with bad tattoos are egging him on. You know exactly what’s going to happen, no extra sensory perception necessary.

You’re watching him put away the clean dishes. You know something is going to break, not because he’s clumsy, but because you just know it somehow. If you’re on your game, you can even call it out before it happens. You blurt out something along the lines of “Watch it break”, or “Don’t drop any”, and then of course it happens and somehow you catch the blame when in reality, you should be getting credit for making the call.

It’s different with people because you can see them. Maybe the blind are better at it. It’s hard not to bite on the preconceived dangling carrot of a successful man with an impressive physique and bright, blue, life-changing eyes. But that’s why they hang carrots out there in the first place, as bait.

Any random filthy guy cleaning out the fryer at the fast-food place before they open might be a better person, but nerdy bait dressed in full uniform, including the paper hat, even when no one is around to see him isn’t quite as palatable and therefore he is much easier to dismiss.

Tell yourself whatever you think you want to hear for self-justification, but you’re only lying to yourself. You always knew better. You’re not sure how or why, but somehow, you knew.

After the failed abduction attempt at the restaurant, John fled on foot towards home. His only detour was the department store, a quick pit stop for interrogation supplies.

“After your time in the witch’s lair, I know you heard something, you just don’t know it yet. Let’s start from the top,” John said.

He opened up the package and assembled the pieces on the floor next to Roy.

“You’re going to talk my friend, one way or the other. I’m nothing if not patient. Do your best. Remember, if we find her, you’ll be free,” John said.

Over the decades, many have decried it as a tool of the devil himself, while some say it is nothing more than a harmless game. For certain people, it is a peak through the shroud of the physical world, a paranormal post office designed to give and take messages from the other side. The planchet cannot lie, only a user has that capability.

The inside of John’s second floor apartment was impressively sparse. He didn’t lie when he told me he didn’t have a phone. Besides the fridge that came with the place, there were no electric appliances of any kind. No toaster, no microwave oven, no hot plate, and for the love of God, no coffee maker.

There was no television, or table to place one on, or couch, or chairs. In the corner of the living room, on the floor, there was a conglomeration of radio devices all hooked to one speaker about the size of a dessert plate. It was composed of a standard AM/FM radio, a shortwave radio hooked to a long wire antenna that circled the ceiling of the room, and a police scanner.

Against the other wall was a stack of hard cases designed to keep scoped rifles safe during travel, a Ouija board and a leather duffel bag. Another identical duffel looked to serve as a pillow for the neatly laid out sleeping bag in the center of the room.

In the window was a telescope on a tripod, the kind an amateur would use to look at the moon on a clear night and still see nothing but a white smudge. I looked through it’s fixed position and wondered why he would be focusing on an HVAC unit on the rooftop of the mall.

No dishes, no food, an empty medicine cabinet, and no toiletries were visible besides a straight razor and one small, white towel. There wasn’t even any trash. I didn’t expect a bed, but I had to look in the bedroom anyways. Inside, I didn’t expect a CPR dummy either, but there it was, looking right at me.

There was no bedroom furniture of any kind and nothing in the closet, just the dummy pieced-out against the wall under the window next to a large empty gym bag. It’s arms and legs stacked neatly in a row.

“What the hell are you doing here?” I asked.

Looking back, I’m glad he didn’t have the ability to answer verbally. Turning his head to respond was jarring enough to my psyche that I had to wonder if I had broken a blood vessel in my brain. Really, I should have expected it, but accepting life from an inanimate object is notoriously difficult.

“Oh, my, God. It’s you,” I stammered.

He nodded his head affirmatively.

“It was you the whole time, in the window, running through the mall, everything, right?” I asked.

Again, affirmative.

There was a lag between the reality of what I was looking at and my understanding. I asked another question, hoping my mind could catch up.

“You did jump out of John’s arms that first night when we brought you to storage?” I asked.

He nodded yes.

“What are you? Can you see me? Obviously, you can’t talk.” I was officially waste deep in sensory overload.

It’s too easy to draw a pre-conceived notion when your subject can only provide yes or no answers. With that kind of control, I could circumstantially place him on the grassy knoll if I had to. I needed real answers from this thing, there had to be a way. If it could see, what did it see, and for how long? What was it, or maybe the better question was, who was it?

It seemed to be twitching its head in one direction, almost as if it wanted to draw my attention towards something. I didn’t catch-on until I heard the keys rattle in the door.

He’s back, he’s back! God I wish you could hear me. Look at me, look at my head. Hey, hey! He’ll kill you!

I ducked into the unused closet and quietly closed the door.

Due to the change in pressure, the interior doors of the apartment took a visible breath every time the main entry door opened or closed. I know because it happened five times over the course of the next hour. Finally, John came into the bedroom.

“It’s time, let’s go,” he said.

My heart was beating out of my chest while he packed the dummy up in the bag. I kept my hand on my gun, my next move playing out over and over in my head until there was one last breath of the door, and then all was quiet.

I gave it a few minutes before I came out. The apartment was cleaned out, right down to the single towel on the rack in the bathroom. I searched for a clue, anything that might tell me where he was going. The last place you look is on the door you leave through. There, stuck smack dab in the middle was a small note.

It read, ‘Dear Philippine, I’ll see you there.’

Did he know I was here, or did he just expect me to be?

A cocktail napkin stained with directions presumably penned by a fellow coven member was the chip I used to go all-in. A hunch bet perpetuated by a cartoony, porcelain witch glued to a magnet and tasked with holding papers to the side of Tempest’s refrigerator.

My destination was smack dab in the middle of a large tract of state forest. Due at least in part to relatively recent life events, one of the last places I wanted to be was in the woods. To make matters more complicated, I didn’t have an address, more like a general area. It was about an hour and a half north of the city, give or take. Would I see him there? Is that even what he meant?

About a buck forty-five later I found the obscure parking area depicted as a smudge on the napkin. Off the blacktop forest road, onto a gravel road, down a short two-track grass in the middle road, there was finally a spot to pull down next to the creek that ran under the road. There was parking for five cars, and I would have been number six. I drove past, hoping for another spot up the road.

As the condition of the road worsened, I was either going to have to find an acceptable spot to turn around or start backing up. Struggling through a “Y” turn, my headlights reflected off something deep in the woods. I backed up slightly further than I probably should have so that the hi-beams could have a better look.

Although I tried, forward was no longer possible, regardless of how hard I stepped on the accelerator. Stuck nearly perfectly perpendicular in the road, the car rocked, spun, and screamed like it was having muddy sex with the ground. The back tire smoked when it was over.

“I was going to be walking anyways,” I said to myself.

It had been an unusually warm winter with more rain than snow. I set off wearing a black winter hat, a hooded sweatshirt under my trusty flannel, and hiking boots I thought I’d never use again. I carried a plastic flashlight I bought off an end cap at a gas station in one hand and my pistol in the other. I tucked a few extra clips in my back pocket.

The forest floor was damp, the wet leaves wove a stinky carpet that looked like it should have made more noise when I walked. As I approached it became apparent that the reflection was pitted chrome on a rusty truck. At first glance, I may have considered it to have been abandoned some time ago, if not for the warm engine. It was backed in as far as the driver could muster before nature got in the way. Everything John apparently owned was inside, everything but the dummy.

I had to get back to the parking lot in order to have any chance at following the directions. I was admittedly spooked by every noise and developing shadow in the forest. I heard a banging noise made of wood in the not too far distance. An owl, bellowing his disapproval of my presence cost me at least a few quality years off the end of my life, assuming I lived that long.

Back on the road I picked up my pace, fearful that I may have been too late for whatever I might find. The terrain was comprised of old growth forest spanning steep hills and valleys created by the retreating glaciers at the end of the last ice age. Among the trees, occasional remnants of the area’s first annexed farmsteads rose like grave sites in a city park.

From the top of what I hoped would be the last hill, I could see firelight twinkling off treetops in the distance. I made my way hastily down the path. A curiously placed fallen tree on my way to the cheese was the wall of my maze. I was the mouse who just noticed the wood chips from the ax a moment too late before falling into an abandoned well turned into a Burmese tiger pit.

With inadequate time to fashion punji sticks, the architect tossed a rusted-out section of a chisel plow down the well, teeth up. I was lucky to have fallen next to it, if falling into the well in the first place was any luck at all.  A few cuts and bruises with a heady dose of shock seemed like it would be the worst of it. The water at the bottom was around a foot deep, smelled like a swamp and was about as cold as water could feel.

With my own mind working against me, I began to panic as I felt like I was taking far too long to catch the breath taken from me in the fall. I was standing now, shivering nearly uncontrollably. My fingers moved in slow motion and I tried to move the plow into a position where I might be able to climb out, or at least get out of the water.

The rusted pieces bent and gave way just as I made it above the water line sending me right back to the bottom of the well. Maybe ten feet above, the dark sky offered little contrast to the black brick, barely enough to make out the head and shoulder silhouette of the person watching me.

“Hey! Hey! Help me, please!” I pleaded.

The form disappeared sort of like the ghost stories you always hear about where a person supposedly sees a moving shadow out of the corner of their eye.  

Receiving no response after repeated attempts and an inordinate amount of time, I quietly wept while half-heartedly searching for finger and toe purchase in the brick of the walls.

“You bastard!” I yelled.

For a moment, I thought those would be the last words a person would hear me say until a piece of rope fell across my face. Pencil thin, and far too weak to climb out with, I pulled it until it tightened. Instead of the resistance of an anchor, it felt like I was pulling something towards the hole.

Whatever it was, I could hear it scraping across the leaves until its shadow appeared above the hole. I pulled harder, it was heavier on the unseen end, like a counterweight. One more mighty yank, and then it came all too quickly down the well.

It cracked me hard on my forehead, putting me on my butt right back in the water again. I was lucky to have a thick hat on, if getting hit in the head with a home-made wooden ladder in the bottom of the well was any luck at all.

How many times did you want to raise your hand in class as a kid and ask Mrs. McMath if there was ever going to be a practical application for the tripe she was teaching? Especially if math didn’t come easy for you. Then, like me, you probably became one of those students who wasted valuable learning time dreaming up scenarios where they would never use math. See? I saved the lives of every kid in that orphanage and never used a fraction of math. They gave me a key to the city. I got a gazillion dollar reward and now it don’t matter what milk costs.

In the P.I. game, the tastiest slice of math pie hands down is the common denominator. That’s when the bottom numbers, or the denominators of multiple fractions are the same. Once that happens, they are a hell of a lot easier to add up, and that’s my job, that’s what they pay me for, to add things up. Mrs. McMath would be proud of the fact that the irony was not lost on me.

The manager at the sporting goods store in the mall couldn’t have been more helpful. Turns out, he wasn’t a member of the John Buries fan club. He told me that John always creeped him out. He felt like John did his job well enough but was happier to see him go than come.

As a company rep John set up new displays, brought in new products, mostly hunting related and helped out in the department. He’d move from store to store around the country. Sometimes they’d be stuck with him for a few weeks and then not see him again for months.

The local store had no access to his records although the manager did put in a request for me with the home office. Initially they refused to divulge any personal information, but upon searching for it, seemingly just to make sure we couldn’t get it, deemed the records did not exist anyways. This may or may not have been true as the person responsible will no longer have to bother putting any energy into denying access.

Tempest meanwhile was going to require a little more legwork. She had a loft apartment in the warehouse district, an area where the hip and trendy crowd love to gather in drafty bars and spend way too much money on drinks for the pleasure of looking at old bricks. Thanks in large part to locks that predated WWII, I was able to determine that she had not been home in days. There were however other clues as to where she might be.

After a long day of breaking and entering, it was a few ticks after seven and I was looking forward to a glass or two of wine and a decent meal. I had less than an hour before I had to meet John. The restaurant, like the health club, was another satellite building in orbit around the mall. For John, everything revolved around the mall.

I arrived early, mostly to get a head start on some quality alcohol consumption, but I didn’t even know what kind of car he drove. I mean, was he a truck guy? A sports car guy? Or was he Mr. Practical, or maybe a gas sipper? A man’s choice of vehicle will tell me a lot about him. Even if he had no choice, and had to buy whatever rusty piece of shit he could afford, something to get him from A to B. That would say plenty about him as well.

The Apple Core was a chain restaurant known for its fake friendly wait staff, cheap stiff drinks, and glorified, over-hyped bar food. It was in essence, my kind of place.  A person could pass out in an Apple Core in Chicago, wake up in an Apple Core in Atlanta, and not even realize it until they tried to find their car in the parking lot.

John was dropped off at the front door in an everyday sedan driven by an everyday man. A non-descript driver of a cookie-cutter car was just his style. I caught the plate for kicks and giggles even though I knew it wasn’t his car. This was no organized cab service. It looked instead like an “I drank too much” ride service usually posted on a mimeographed flyer behind the bar. Thanks to a trick I just learned from the waitress, I put on my very best fake smile.

“Right on time,” I said.

“Being late would be an insult,” John said.

“So, the mall huh? Craziness. What did you hear?” I asked.

“I heard some poor woman slipped and fell to her death, tragic,” he said.

“I suppose they were talking about it at the store no doubt,” I said.

“Of course, you know how news spreads,” John said.

“So they said she slipped? Because I wonder how would they know that? Seems, I don’t know, quietly specific,” I said.

“Maybe they just presumed. How else would an old woman fall?” he said.

“Well, she could have been pushed, or even pulled I guess,” I said.

“Talk about specific. I wasn’t aware you were on the case,” he said.

“I’m not, well, not directly anyways. So they didn’t say anything else in your store? Nothing about a mannequin perhaps?” I asked.

“Now that you mention it, a couple of the younger guys were going on about it, sounded like a prank or something. I really didn’t give it much thought,” John said.

We ordered a fresh round of drinks and fought the glare coming off the plastic-coated menus to satisfy our collective urge for subpar food. The waitress returned in short order.

“It wasn’t,” I said.

“What wasn’t?” John asked.

“A prank, it wasn’t a prank. I saw it with my own eyes. Hell, I chased it into a department store. It got away from me, somehow, like it could think John, like it could think,” I said.

“Look Philippine, a person sees another person dead, especially in a situation like that and their mind, you know, does things, it compensates, as a sort of, defense. What you likely saw was nothing more than a poorly timed publicity stunt, or at worst a prank that due to unforeseen circumstances, simply fell flat,” John said.

Even I was surprised at how quickly I became angry.

“Don’t patronize me Buries, I was with you that first night when you were carrying that thing downstairs. You said it jumped out of your arms, I dismissed it as you being folksy about your clumsiness, but that wasn’t the case at all, was it John? And we both heard it after we left the storage room didn’t we? What the hell is that thing John, and where exactly were you when that old woman fell?” I asked directly.

“Watching, of course,” he said immediately.

“That’s not funny John, I’m serious. What about the damn mannequin? You’re not that nice John, some are, but you’re not the type. Why did you set up that window display for the boutique? No more bullshit,” I demanded.

“I believe the wine has gone to your head Ms. Maximine. What a shame, but I expected this from you, it’s one of the reasons I wanted to see you tonight,” he said.

“Oh really? So then you already have answers for my questions, like where were you last night? I’d be very interested to find out, and I will, because you see I have witnesses and I’ll damn well find out if they’ve ever seen you before,” I said.

“What will you know Philippine? What will you have learned?” he asked.

I couldn’t answer him, and it infuriated me. I knew nothing, could prove nothing. What would proof even look like?

“What did you come here for tonight John?” I asked.

“I wanted to show you something, something spectacular. Something you’re never going to believe,” he said.

“So show me,” I said.

“It’s not here, it’s back at my place,” he said.

“Well that’s not happening John so why don’t you just tell me about this spectacular thing instead?” I asked.

“I couldn’t possibly. It’s just something you have to see to believe,” he said.

The waitress brought our food and the conversation degenerated into hateful eye contact.

“I’ll think about it,” I told him.

I thought about it all I was going to but the longer I could keep him there, the better chance I had at getting something out of him. Had I trusted him, had I not heard about the health club, I might have gone with him.

The deep fried, breaded heart bomb was hot enough inside to make school kids gather in the cafeteria and crouch for a pointless nuclear war preparedness drill. I grappled for a cup of fallout water to cool the burn. John slid one within my grasp and I regrettably chugged it down.

I held on for maybe another ten or fifteen minutes after that, it was hard to tell. Everything just sort of slowed down, my eating, drinking, even my accusations. I heard John call for the check as if I were in another room napping.

For a minute, it looked as if regardless of my decision, I was going with him anyways. Management was apparently fine to let him carry me out after his convincing diatribe regarding my inability to hold my alcohol. His cute anecdote detailing my ruination of family Thanksgiving had them rolling in the aisles.

Enter naked man. He wasn’t naked in the restaurant, but he sure as hell was when he saw John at the health club, at least that’s what he told the cops.

All the man really wanted was anonymity, but accidentally coming face to face with John in the restaurant tripped his trigger. He hadn’t yet heard what happened in the pool when he saw John in the locker room. He laid awake at night berating his cowardice, unable to sleep with the thought that had he stepped-up, so many questions could have been answered.

He pointed at John with the sort of look on his face that is usually reserved for survivors of great tragedy.

“You!” You’re the guy!” he said.

“Excuse me sir, I have to get…” John started to say.

“You! It was you! Call the cops, call the cops! This is the, the, the guy, the guy from the health club! Call the cops!” he yelled.

A random woman with a curly gray wig and huge glasses chained around her neck chimed-in from the booth section.

“Oh my God, what did he do to her! Call an ambulance!” she screamed.

Nearly everybody in the restaurant was now standing, trying to see over each other’s shoulders to gain a premier view of the unfolding saga. John dropped me into a chair and pushed his way into the crowd.

“Somebody stop him, hey, he’s leaving, stop him!” the man pleaded.

John grabbed an entrée’ off of a table, something with either excessive sauce, broth, or possibly both, and flung it onto his fellow diners. Between the screaming, ducking, and general chaos he made for the door. A couple of suddenly crowd courageous diners ran outside to see if they could tell what direction he fled but could not locate him.

What would a peaceful morning in the hospital be like without a cop knocking at the door? I wouldn’t know.

“Morning Maximine. You might as well get your own room,” Tom said.

“I’d laugh if you were wrong,” I said.

“Rohypnol the doc said, knockout drug. Apparently he didn’t suppose you’d go willingly. Maybe you should be a little more careful about the men you date,” Tom said.

“Not a date jackass, he’s my number one suspect, especially now. And as much as I hate to say it, I could use your help. I need to find this guy. I doubt he’s going back to the store,” I said.

“The store? He’s connected to the mall?” he asked.

“I think he’s more than connected, I think he’s the cause of it,” I said.

“Of what?” he asked.

“Of everything,” I said.

According to the records obtained by Czerneski, John Buries did not check into the health club that night, or ever. Furthermore, Buries had no known address, drivers license, or social security number. John Buries had never filed taxes, been married, or paid a utility bill. On paper, the man did not exist.

Four men checked in to the club to work out that night. One of the names I recognized as being in the CPR class, two were elderly and the last was Alex Tenant, a guy with an out of state address and dead phone number. John buries may not have had a phone, but he sure as hell called me.

Once again, detective Tom came to the rescue. I really should be nicer to the man. I staked out the phone booth John called me from. I prepared for a marathon wait, including the means to relieve myself if necessary. There are however things a woman will not do in a car.

Two blocks away, at the gas station I saw John Buries hanging up the public phone and inconspicuously followed him home. It was no wonder the mall was his epicenter. He only lived a few blocks away.

After going home myself, I returned later that evening. Thanks in large part to locks that predated the Korean Conflict, I was able to let myself inside. Looking back, I wish he’d have been gone longer.

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.

“That’s all I can stands, and I can’t stands no more.” Pop a can of spinach, enjoy instant super- human strength and beat the crap out of Bluto. If Popeye would have fought evil instead, he could have been right up there with the supers, man, woman or bat. Consider evil in the general sense of the word though, nothing global. The official American hero representative overseas shouldn’t sound like he had a recent stroke, or a crippling speech impediment that may in fact have been an unfortunate result of repeatedly eating out of lead-soldered cans. Imagine the French, ‘Ees thees da best they had to offa?’.

And yes, Bluto was technically evil, but it wasn’t his fault. Olive Oyl played him and Popeye both. She was the real villain, tormenting Bluto and his over-active pituitary, flaunting her stick thin figure like an unemployed concubine. She messed with Popeye’s head so hard he had to drown his sorrows in soggy, broad leafed vegetables that looked and smelled like they were dredged from the bottom of a swamp pond.

Paul wasn’t sure how it happened. One minute he was admiring his metaphorical kingdom, the quiet domain that was Miller Creek Mall after hours, and the next? He wakes up Saturday morning sprawled on the floor in his underwear with Betty the mall manager and half a dozen elderly walkers standing over him wondering if he was still alive.

“Someone hit me with something. Something hard,” Paul said.

The question of who ‘dunnit’ will have to be shelved for the time being, as the day before, the Black Friday incident offered much bigger fish for frying. Friday fish fries are culturally significant in these parts.

“Is there a scenario where this was an accident?” Philippine asked.

“Maximine, tell me you’re here for a new pair of man stomping high heel hoof covers and an overpriced cup of bean juice,” the detective jabbed.

“Save it flat foot, you know you’re not that lucky Czerneski,” she said.

Detective Tom Czerneski had been swimming in the shallow pool of collaborative investigating so long that the skin on the top of his feet were worn raw.

“I suppose you’re going to tell me this is connected to your missing persons somehow,” Tom said.

“Well, now that you mention it, the thought had crossed my mind,” she said.

“Sorry Philippine, the only way you’re finding foul play here is if the supposed perp, in plain sight of a couple hundred people set up a real-life game of mousetrap. No way, no how. Hell, it was a good thing she hung there for minute, gave people a chance to get out of the way,” he said.

“How long are you going to leave her out there?”

“Not too much longer, the meat wagon is on its way. Besides, we still got a mourner,” Tom said.

“You’re a real sensitive soul Czerneski. Mind if I talk to her?” she asked.

“Knock yourself out,” he said.

Well inside the yellow tape Tempest Seely sat by herself on the same sort of folding chair that caught her friend. She was chanting something inaudibly, her lips moving like a subtitled movie on mute.

“Oh my Tempest, you knew her?” Philippine asked.

“I did, she was like, like my…”

Tempest took a moment to clear her throat and gather herself.

“She was just a few feet away, she was coming in to drop off dolls, just a few more steps,” Tempest cried.

“I’m so sorry. If there’s anything I can do…” Philippine said.

Tempest picked her head up slowly and stared directly into Philippine’s eyes.

“Find it,” she said.

“I’m sorry what? Find what?” Philippine asked.

“It. I don’t know what it is, who it is. I know you can feel it, it’s in your bones. She felt it, my lovely lady Pireau. She warned us in her own way, and it took her. It took her from us and now, now…” Tempest broke down again.

“As much as I would like to say I don’t know what you’re talking about, I can’t. I can’t because there’s something going on here Tempest, and it scares me,” Philippine said.

Tempest, once again gaining her composure grabbed Philippine by both hands and plead with her.

“The police will do nothing, you are my hope, John Blake’s hope, even Roy Manis’ hope,” she said.

“I thought you hated Roy,” Philippine said.

“Hate is what it wants, hate has lead us here, next to my beautiful friend. I have to go. I can’t be here anymore. Here, call me when it’s done. I have to go. I have to go.”

Tempest handed Philippine a note, presumably with her number on it and ran from the area. Philippine didn’t even look at it, she just kept her eyes on Tempest and tucked it into her front pant pocket.

“What the hell was that all about,” Tom asked.

“That’s her friend lying there, that’s what it was about. Sounds like they were close,” Philippine said.

“Ah, I get it, carpet munchers, huh?” Tom asked.

“Czerneski, I swear if there were more ways to say you’re a damn pig I can’t think of one. Anybody see anything?” she asked.

“Hell yes, about a hundred kids and their mothers. They all say the same thing, they looked up, she was hangin’ there and then she fell. She was holding…”

Tom was interrupted by a whole new array of panicked screaming coming from the second floor.

“Now what? Sergeant, can you go see what the hell that’s all about now?” Tom asked.

“Yessir, on my way,” he answered.

“How did she fall Tom?” Philippine asked.

“Something slippery on the ground, looks like oil,” Tom said.

“And that’s normal?” she asked.

“The way we figure it, they had a lift in here the night before last hanging decorations and what not. Probably one of them leaked,” he said.

“Did you sample the oil? Check it against the lift?” she asked.

“Not as of yet, Maximine,” Tom said, annoyed.

“And even if that’s true, it doesn’t explain why she was on the railing. I mean, people don’t just slip and fall up, right? It doesn’t make any sense, I mean, she’d have to be hanging over the edge almost, don’t you think? Somebody has to have seen something,” she said.

“Look Maximine, whether you PI’s like to admit it or not, accidents happen. Not everything is a big conspiracy. So if you don’t mind, I gotta make sure this here accident, slash old lady is cleaned up and outta here before them cameras get turned on. Cause you know what happens then? I put on my sad face and tell the city there was an unfortunate accident. Then, after that, the world’s most credible witness is gonna come on and say the same damn thing. Maybe you know him, he’s got a big white beard, wears a red suit, kinda heavy set if ya get my drift,” Tom explained.

 “Well, in that case, you mind if I ask a few questions?” Philippine said.

“Watch yourself Maximine, I don’t need no half-cocked PI makin’ waves,” the detective warned.

“Don’t worry about me Detective, I’ll be just like a little elf, you won’t even know I was here,” she said.

“Fine, knock yourself out,” he said.

Philippine was almost at the tape holding back the masses when Tom yelled back at her.

“Hey elf! Just in case you find anything in that stocking, you be sure to let me know first, huh?” he said.

Philippine nodded and disappeared into the crowd.

By the time Saturday morning rolled around Betty was at wit’s end. Between the accident, her missing people, Killer creek rumors and the press, who have consequently picked-up on the rumors, she sobbed uncontrollably.

“My God Paul, what happened? Are you okay?” Betty asked.

“Someone hit me with something, something hard,” Paul said.

“What happened to your clothes?” she asked.

“My clothes? Shit, my clothes!” Paul yelled.

He was so busy screwing his head on straight he didn’t realize he had been stripped. His guard uniform including his hat, nightstick, batman utility belt and everything on it was gone. He was left with a wife beater t-shirt, formerly whitey tighties, black socks jammed to his knobby knees and a pair of shiny, non-slip, short bus guard shoes.

The day before, after the incident, amid the chaos, Roy slipped out of the display window and took up a cliché pose closer to the front door.

He’s not getting away with this, not again.

He’d check, then move, check then move again as he inched closer to the door, eventually making it out in front of the boutique, a welcoming ambassador to the novel treasures inside.

“How did you get out here? I swear, it’s always something. C’mon, you’re coming with me,” Tempest said.

She had just left the scene downstairs and fully intended to close the boutique, send her staff home and disappear for the rest of the day. She picked Roy up by the waist and tried to carry him back inside the store, but he clobbered her arms and broke her grip. Tempest jolted backwards and bumped her head on the metal doorframe, hard enough for her to see stars.

It’s now or never.

Roy ran out into the very public second level of the mall. His awkward gate lacked balance. Unable to adequately contort his body to weave through and around obstacles, he crashed and bounced off nearly everything in his path, including people.

Some were too shocked to utter a word, others smiled and laughed, sure that they were part of some sort of hidden camera, or mass marketing event.  It was mostly the little ones who wailed in terror at the hard, plastic anthropomorphic nightmare. Their screams carried like a wave through the upper level until Roy finally ducked into one of the big department stores.

The second level of the store where Roy entered was littered with people picking through shelves, searching for deals on unnecessary items that will save them enough money to make them feel like their hamburger was free.

The people who chased him mingled with those already inside until nobody had a clue as to where he had gone. Inside the dressing room, Roy slipped out of his burlap overshirt and cargo shorts and into whatever article of clothing happened to be left on the hook. In this case, a black, tea-length party dress with rhinestones bedazzling a lacey handkerchief hem.

The boots didn’t do the dress justice, but the ensemble really did a good job of accentuating the solid tone of his legs.

This is just great.

Peering through the slats in the door he could see people searching. Every mannequin in the store was suspect, each an unwilling recipient of a pointed physical attack meant to make them blow their cover.

He saw the sergeant first and then Philippine. They spoke briefly to each other and then to a gaggle of witnesses who appeared to be pointing in every direction.

If I only… I gotta warn her.

All good things must come to an end, and this curiously undelightful Black Friday at Miller Creek Mall was no exception. The closing announcement was soon followed by the pitter patter of employee feet who collectively spared no time finding the exits.

Paul’s first round was uneventful, no people, no music, no mannequins. He heard about the chaos earlier and was pleased to have missed it. He didn’t believe what people said, chalking it all up to hysteria born of an unfortunate accident. He even laughed out loud at the prospect of a mannequin being alive, scoffing at the ridiculousness of the notion. And then it hit him, literally.

Roy needed to warn Philippine, but he was afraid. If he were to be caught he would surely be destroyed. The warning from the old woman played over and over in his mind. The only man who knew he existed, the only person who could help him was the evil to which she referred.

He would have cried if he could. Defeated, depressed, and overwhelmed with terror Roy repented, praying that God could hear him through his plastic shell.

Santa’s workshop, a velvet rope laden maze where kids wait lifetimes to see the Claus while parents posture themselves, planning for bad backs while they dissuade cherubic impending fears. Small tables along the route littered with coloring sheets and crayons offered consuming art opportunities victims never had a chance to finish.

Much like the children who infested the same waters, the popular theory suggested the twisted prankster simply ran out of time. It most likely took him so long to dress a mannequin in Paul’s uniform that he didn’t have time to finish the note before the mall opened.

‘Help me, I’m Ro’ was as far as the broken blue crayon and his poor penmanship could take him.

It’s hard to write with plastic hands. The white light blinded him, he felt like a stone shot from a giant slingshot.

Not again.

When Roy came to his senses, his lips were locked against those of a beautiful young woman. In a circle around them, half a dozen people knelt, watching with envy, their faces lit with the anticipation of trying it themselves. He relished the air pumping into his lungs, a feeling he had not enjoyed for some time. 

Keys. If you’re very young, or very old, it’s whatever you just had, but for an adult it’s keys. Keys are the most lost and often misplaced item an adult can own. There’s no official science here, no study brought to you by your favorite pharmaceutical company or current government, just an observation. You need keys for everything, cars, homes, safes, hotels, etc. The list is daunting. All because people are dishonest.

What do they look like?

They look like keys.

Where did you find them? You couldn’t have, I looked there.

I don’t get it.

Because you missed the key to understanding, the most oft lost key, hands down.

I spent the last few days wearing the numbers off my phone. I love pushing the buttons. The clicking and beeping satisfy to the point where sometimes I wish phone numbers were longer. A dial phone person might disagree with me, but I would argue that trogging your way through longer numbers with a dial phone might give you more time to think of things to say. Maybe answer the question yourself before you ask, before you had to waste that person’s time checking seedy motels, casinos, and park benches. There are only so many favors I was willing to call-in to have a guy I know flip and finger the bum with the newspaper blanket behind the nunnery.

Family would have been helpful, if in one case he had any, and in the other if they cared. John Blake has a cousin who was surprised to know he still existed. Seems their prospective families became estranged when both men were children. Marty Fischer lived a couple of hundred miles away and had little intention of caring about his cousin’s disappearance besides hollow placations and virtue signaling strong enough that he could sleep at night.

I was so hopelessly irritated that I tossed almost half a cup of perfectly good coffee against the brick wall outside the cop shop. Dead ends I could handle but asking Czerneski for help hurt like my soul stubbing its toe.

Turned out both of their places were clean. Normal guy stuff, messy, not much food, filthy bathrooms, a dead goldfinch, and a couple of dirty magazines. Correction, one of them had a parakeet, emphasis on had.

They only had one thing in common, the mall. I already squeezed Betty for anything useful, personnel files, habits, favorite foods, known hobbies, and sexual preferences. My only option was obvious, MawMaw said it more than once, ‘If you wants to find bodies, you gots to flip a few stones.’

Staring into the hobby shop window without the mannequin didn’t have the same mesmerizing effect. I tried, thinking maybe I could de-focus my eyes long enough to get into it, but all I got was an empty store.

Across the mall I felt as if I was seeing an old friend, the unspoken bond sort of friend. The friend who you don’t talk too often, but you can pretty much catch up with a glance and glass of something with alcohol. I liked his outfit, right down to the boots. Tempest didn’t sell boots. The store was about as busy as you might expect.

“Hi Tempest, remember me?” I asked.

“Why yes, how’s the leg?” she asked back.

I reached down and rubbed my leg.

“Oh, great, really good stuff, really got in there,” I said.

“Great, I’m so glad for you. What can I help you with today?” Tempest asked.

“I’m not sure if I made it clear last time, let me re-introduce myself. Philippine, Philippine Maximine. I’m a private detective hired by the owners of the mall to look into the history of a man who used to work here,” I told her.

“A man? Here? Oh no, I’m sure you’re mistaken. I’ve never had a man working here,” Tempest said.

“No, not here in the store, in the mall. His name was Roy, Roy Manis, he was the security guard,” I explained.

Tempest Seely took a deep breath, one step back and braced her arm against the sales counter behind her.

“I will tell you I have wondered, but not aloud. I didn’t want to curse it. Whatever the reason that man is gone is good enough for me,” she said.

“So I’m assuming you were not a fan?” I asked.

“A fan? Of a pig? No more than I am a fan of one cooked,” Tempest said.

“I see. Maybe you can elaborate?” I asked.

“Ms. Maximine, you could walk this mall day and night for weeks and never find a more terrible person.”

“Is that right?” I asked.

A loud crash and bang drew our attention to the front of the store. A small, gray, painted box, the type that holds shoes for sale closer to eye level tipped over in the display window. The mannequin must have been leaning on it for he too was pushed against the glass. The unique position of his landing place almost made it seem as if he tried to catch himself. He pointed forward, at a man who happened to be watching the whole episode unfold, John Buries. He tipped his English countryside gentlemen’s hat to us and came inside.

“Oh no, what have we here?” he asked.

“The box tipped over and hit the glass,” Tempest said.

“I’m so sorry, I must have left it uneven,” John said.

“Why John Buries, fancy meeting you here,” I said energetically.

“I assure you there’s nothing fancy at all. Just doing my due diligence, and it appears it’s a good thing I did,” he said.

“Actually, I’m glad you’re here John, I was going to get ahold of you anyways. In your time here, do you remember the mall security guard? His name was Roy, Roy Manis. From what I understand if you’d have met him, he’s the kind of guy most people remember,” I said.

“No, I can’t say that I have, especially considering his anecdotal repute. Did you say his name ‘was’?” he said.

“Um yeah, as a matter of fact it appears he has flown the coop so to speak. Can’t find hide nor hair of him,” I said.

“I wish I could help you, I really do, but like I said,” John repeated.

“Okay, well, if you don’t mind, I have a few more questions I’d like to ask Tempest away from prying ears. That is, of course, if you have a few minutes, Ms. Seely. May we use your office?” I asked.

“Absolutely, honestly though, when it comes to that man, I’m not even sure where to start,” she said disgusted.

“No problem at all. That’ll give me a chance to freshen up this display. I will, of course, do my best to make sure it doesn’t happen again as well,” John said.

“Great, and hey, thanks again. See you later?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” John said.

John worked his job like a busy little bee until Tempest and Philippine were out of sight.

“So, Roy Manis huh? What did you do to deserve this, Mr. Manis? I told you bringing you here was a good idea. It appears, Mr. Manis, we have found your witch. And if not her, then definitely her voodoo queen friend. Stay tuned, keep your place. We have to let the world know who you really are but, first, we have a few loose ends to tie off. One of the last things we need is a private dick sniffing around,” John said.

No! Not her!

Roy dropped his arm and pulled on John’s coat, doing his best to portray concern.

“Don’t worry, I said she’s the last thing,” John said.

You son-of-a-bitch.

While Tempest was busy with Philippine, John bought every last voodoo doll in the boutique, then put them in the public trash can out in the mall in front of the store. He kept one, flashing it from his inside coat pocket to Roy, like he was selling hot watches.

When the women returned John was waiting by the store’s front sales counter to greet them.

“It’s all taken care of, my sincerest apologies, Ms. Seely,” John said.

“It’s no problem really, thank you so much for your help with everything,” she said.

“Ms. Seely, as long as I have your attention, I have to ask you about this doll I purchased from your store. The authenticity is beyond measure, and frankly I’m enthralled with it. I would love the opportunity to purchase more of them. I know for certain that I have some family and friends who would absolutely love them, well with the holidays coming on,” John gushed.

“Oh, well I’m sure we have quite a few more right over…” The shelf was of course empty. “My, wow, I wasn’t expecting that. Tell you what, let me make a quick call and I’ll find out when I can get some more,” she said.

“That’d be great. I, or rather, we’ll, just hang out for a few minutes,” John said.

“Honestly, Mr. Buries I didn’t take you for the gift giving type,” Philippine said.

“I guess you just never know about some people,” John quipped.

“Good news, I just got off the phone with my supplier and she said she could have more here by Friday,” Tempest said.

“Hmmm, any idea what time? My schedule is filling up fast,” he said.

“Oh, she is usually pretty prompt. I’d say 10:30 would be on time and by 10:45 she’d be unusually late,” she said.

“Great, I’ll see you then. And what about you, Ms. Maximine? Would you have time for a lunch engagement this day?” John asked.

“Uh, I would love to, and thank you for asking but I’m not really having much luck tracking these guys down. I’m going to talk to some other people in the stores and see if I can’t put together some sort of working theory,” she said.

“Very well then, la prochaine fois mon amour,” he said.

Philippine was shocked into stunned silence. She knew the words. French was common where she grew up, but it had been awhile.

“My love? A bit presumptuous are we not, Mr. Buries?” she asked.

“I presume nothing, and reap the benefits of surprise,” he said walking away.

In the mall world, Christmas is the big season, the time of year when most retailers hope to make their nut. Having a properly decorated mall which is tasteful and inviting to customers without being over-bearing is crucial. Post close is the best time for crews to get the job done, especially the night before Thanksgiving.

“Not sure they could pay me enough to do that job, am I right Paul?” John asked.

“Oh, hey, yeah, no kidding. Hi, I forgot your name but what are you doing here?” Paul asked.

“Same thing as these guys, just finishing up downstairs,” he said.

“Oh, I didn’t know you worked here too. Yeah, you said it. No way you’re catching me up there on those lift things hanging decorations. I have a hard-enough time hanging lights on my gutter at home. It’s gotta be thirty feet,” Paul said.

“Fifty, I’d say. Hell, it’s probably twenty-five from the railing,” John said.

“Yeah, I guess they’re going to string holly up and down all those too,” Paul said.

“That would be a nice touch, don’t you think?” John asked.

“The more the merrier,” Paul said.

“Indeed,” John said.

Friday morning Lady Pireau was ascending slowly up the glass elevator with her burlap bag of dolls at 10:25 AM. She seemed pleased with the holiday decorations and stopped occasionally to notice and admire them. In front of the boutique, amidst the occasional pub table and plant boxes with tiny Xmas trees, the holly strung along the outer rail began to ring.

One lone bell drew her gaze, as it was tied to the leg of one of her dolls. She would have normally dismissed its presence as simple ironic ornamentation if not for its coal black face. Lady Pireau would never, not ever.

The situation demanded further inspection, she approached the doll and attempted to tug it free of the strand. Her mind dismissed the sensation of the holly tugging back. She tried but could not let go. In an attempt to preserve the doll as an ornament as well as add an embellishing shine, some enterprising soul coated it with a clear varnish that most obviously had not had time to dry.

Investigators believe she most likely never noticed the nearly clear oil on the floor, most likely leaked from the scissor lift the night before.

As she folded over the railing, the holly wrapped her neck. She hung there for a few moments, obliged by the screams of holiday shoppers patiently waiting for Santa below.

Once the strand finally broke, she caught the back of a metal chair on her way to the ground ironically breaking both her fall as well as her neck.

John sat at a small round table along the railing a few festive bows down the length of the holly strand, patiently waiting for his dolls to arrive. He joined the hordes gaping over the edge, taking in all the horrifying scene had to offer. He gave Roy a wink and a nod before disappearing into the crowd.

A few of the lucky kids in line received free voodoo dolls as consolation for Santa having to unexpectedly leave to feed his reindeer.

Have you ever considered any photo of yourself to be good enough? Are you the sort of person who loves having their picture taken? Do you love the process, the result, or both? Fearless people dress-up, paint themselves, and pose willingly without apprehension. The more they dive into the shallow pool of narcissism, the more likely they are to emerge dripping with a radiant glow. It’s some sort of cold fusion of self-confidence, a scientific breakthrough that keeps burning without fuel or outside stimuli. Yet, the picture could always be better.

For some, the end result of a photo session is a Ming vase shattered into a million pieces. Even though it was a handmade one-off and there will absolutely positively never be another, they offered to let the clown spin it on a tall stick at the circus. The photo is not to dread as much as it is a well painted door that usually stays locked. It’s where they store self-loathing and doubt, and the one and only favorite photo of themselves that doesn’t really exist. The picture is never good enough.

I don’t sleep. I wonder if I’ve ever slept. I guess my mind turns off for a while, time passes, and I become sentient again. Focus.

I’ll rush him when he comes in, he’ll never expect it. He acted like he knew I was me, but he was probably just being folksy. He doesn’t believe, he doesn’t know. No way he figured it out, but I did, because I’ve had the time. They think they took time from me, but they haven’t. It’s the opposite. They’ve given me time.

The boy. The boy and his mother and every person who have stared into my eyes. I move because of them. Every person who talked to me, who almost seemed to care. Treating me so much like the man who used to be me that they’ll never know. They didn’t then and they don’t now.

Imagine their faces, the fear, the horror. They’ll care then, they’ll know me then. I wish they could know my name, who I was is who I am, and they made me. Through disassociation and zero regard for the person I was, they made me. Now through plastic injection molds and a spell, or maybe divine intervention they’ve made me again. They made me in God’s image, and now in the image of an image that probably never existed. But I do, they’ll see.

Roy waited patiently, sitting to the full extent his metal and plastic joints would allow on the small step ladder in the storage room. Every time he heard footsteps in the hallway or the jingle of keys he felt a heart skip in a chest where there was no heart at all. It was opening night, and this was the first time he was ever cast in the starring role. He had woken up from his bad dream and found his center, his purpose. His focus on revenge, his intent on making someone pay for his condition was the talon that clenched the backside of his sanity. It was all he had left. 

Here we go.

John swung the sticky door open with a bit of help from a hip-check. He looked towards the wall where he had stood the mannequin up the evening before and then to the floor where it might have fallen. His brain never bothered to substantiate the figure on the ladder in the middle of the room. There are certain things a person knows to be true, and the mind often erases all other realities accordingly.

“How did you…” John said.

He fully intended on finishing his question but was instead immediately faced with the certain impossibility of being attacked by a department store mannequin.

Roy came off the ladder with astonishing speed. He pivoted at the hips, cocking his body to throw a blow with both arms, one back, the other fore. Purely by way of luck and instinct John managed a partial block. The other caught his ribcage, inflicting a pain recognized by any individual who has caught the upper corner of his or her car door high in their side during careless closure.

Roy followed with multiple quick kicks reminiscent of a marching wooden soldier. He caught a knee, then a shin. He struck hard enough to make John bend to the side and give up his position. He could run and now would be the time, or he could stay and finish him, beat him with hard plastic hands, or a ladder. Maybe even kill him, murder an innocent man.

Roy’s hesitancy, his cessation of aggression cost him the opportunity to benefit from the decision he did not make. John struck back. With his knee in Roy’s left side he braced and pulled the mannequin’s arm completely out of it’s socket. Using it as a bat he swung hard enough to dislodge the head, sending it careening across the room into wall and unceremoniously into the corner on the floor. The body remained plumb, still pivoting and swinging, taking long, broad steps desperately holding onto balance. John used a similar strategy to remove the right leg. The mannequin fell.

The post battle silence intrigued John more than being brutally attacked by what on all accounts is generally considered to be an inanimate object. The fact that it happened at all didn’t seem to surprise him.

“If it were a man laying lifeless before me, he would make no less noise than you my friend. Why do you seem so much more silent?” John asked.

John closed and locked the door to the room and retrieved the head. He relaxed with it for a bit leaning against the very same step ladder Roy used to launch his attack. He held it by the base of the neck, looking soulfully into its eyes.  For a moment, before he spoke, it was a fall day, vivid yellow and brilliantly orange maples decayed to peak color while the occasional red oak would remind him that he was indeed still attached to the earth. It was warm out, his side ached from an uncharacteristic slip and fall on the rocks while fly fishing earlier that morning.

“Let’s not do that again shall we? I’m not sure who you are, or even why you are, but you clearly are. And I’m not sure what I have to do with it, but I knew the second I saw you. Your eyes were too unreal, too plastic. They fake them to look real, that’s their job, but yours, yours weren’t real enough. There’s something in you, something even more fake than plastic eyes. Who knows, maybe that’s what landed you here in the first place,” John explained.

He assembled the pieces, re-attaching the arm first and then the leg while the head watched patiently.

“In case you’re wondering, the answer is no, I do not fear you. If I did, I would tell you. I would because there are men who go to war and return as heroes. These men cry themselves asleep at night because of fear, and of course guilt. Not for what they’ve done, but for not admitting their fear, to themselves more than others. Guilt is a tool, a one size fits all wrench of the damned, designed by the devil himself to build the very cage that holds you now. A cage you yourself constructed. You’re not a tool of evil but instead a victim of it, a tormented soul. That is why I do not fear you because if I did, I would very much destroy you,” John explained.

The head of the mannequin is attached to the body by a metal rod jutting out of the neck. John reverently slid the head back into place, stepped back and studied what he had done.

“There, that should do it,” John said.

Roy turned slowly to face him.

“So I have determined that you are indeed a man, or at least used to be. It was simple really, the possessed do not hesitate. Their decisions have been made for them. You could have finished me, but you chose not to. I’ve decided I’m going to help you, but the reason for my philanthropy is solely my own. Here, let’s put these on,” John said.

He slid a musty hemp woven coat onto Roy’s body.

“You’re not possessed so what’s left? It certainly was no accident so I can only assume that you have been somehow bewitched. In that case what better place to start our search for your cure than the witch’s castle? You, my friend, are going to be the new window display of Seely’s Unique Boutique, a fact I’m sure you’re already aware of based on your antics yesterday. Here, how about some cargo shorts to go with your shirt?” John asked.

Roy helped with the dressing, extending his arms and legs when necessary, even pointing to his bare feet.

“Socks? Yes, and some shoes. I suppose it could help with your lack of balance. Those feet weren’t exactly designed to walk with. Something rugged and outdoorsy. Hiking boots maybe, that should bode well with her clientele. Wait here. When I get back we’ll finish this and get you in place,” John said.

I could kill her right now and no one would be the wiser. It had to be her.

“John, thank you so much for all you’ve done. I never really thought much about this sort of marketing. And he, looks, great. I love the boots, really nice touch,” Tempest said.

“Like I said, it is my pleasure, and to be completely transparent, well… Your store here, your, how do I say it, your way of life intrigues me. I have great respect for people of the earth. You see I too gravitate towards the natural realm. There’s much to be learned here and part of me hopes that this will be the beginning of that opportunity for me,” John said.

“I knew it, I knew I sensed something about you John, something different than other people. How long have you known?” she asked.

“Known?” John said.

“Yes, known that you were, well, different?” Tempest asked.

“Since I was very young, after my mother died, there was something else, something I could not quite explain, something I do not wish to remember,” John said.

“I don’t want to alarm you John but what you’re saying lends itself to necromancy. You need to be careful John, the other side can be perilous,” she said.

“My dear, you speak as if there is only one other side. It’s oblivion, don’t you know? Go far enough and see yourself where you stand, upwards to the bottom of your own feet,” said Lady Pireau.

“Lady Pireau, I nearly forgot you were coming in today. John Buries, this is Lady Pireau, my friend and mentor,” Tempest said.

“A pleasure. I’m afraid I became lost in that conversation somewhere,” John said.

Lady Pireau did not answer John, nor did she shake his hand or even look at him more than for a second. Instead, she addressed Tempest.

“Why is he here?” she asked.

“He set up this display for me. He does this sort of thing for large retail chains. Turns out he has some interest in things we do so he offered to help,” Tempest said.

“Of course he did. I have brought you what you have asked for my sweet,” she said.

She pointed backwards over her shoulder as she moved towards the back side of the window display. She brushed John aside, ignoring his attempt at pleasantries.

“Excuse me,” he said.

Recognizing her obvious rude indifference to his presence, Tempest quickly dissolved the situation.

“Well John, thank you so much for all your hard work. Lady Pireau and I did have an appointment, so I guess we’ll talk another time perhaps?” Tempest asked.

“Yes, yes, I look forward to it. Like I said, it was my pleasure. Lady Pireau, also a pleasure,” John said.

As he left she still refused to speak with him.

“Might I ask what that was about?” Tempest asked.

“You invited him. No, no I cannot. I must leave very soon,” she said.

“Oh, well, let me get the dolls and I’ll go back and get you paid,” Tempest said.

“Very well. I will wait here,” Lady Pireau said.

She touched the mannequin lightly on his wrist then ran her hand lovingly across his face as she laughed quietly.

“You want to lash out mon amour, but you are frozen. I feel your anger. But as much as you would like, you cannot harm me. I am your mother. Nor can you harm your father for he is the world. He is all men, all women, every plant and animal, even me. We made you, fornicating in the darkest places in the shadows of men’s souls. This is the place where you were born, in that very darkness. Your path to light, to life, is to know him, to immerse yourself in the humanity that you have willfully never known. I warn you security man, if you are destroyed, if this erroneous body fails you, you will be gone forever. You have aligned with the like wicked. Bend to his will and say your name and I tell you the vessel of your despair will change with every wind,” she whispered harshly.

Lady Pireau backed away. With a rare and very slight smile she appeared to be thoughtfully admiring the display.

“What do you think?” Tempest asked.

“I think, I think… I think it needs more light.”

Have you ever wondered where witches shop? October would be the quintessential time of the year to buy a tall pointy hat, but how well are they made? An Oklahoma or Texas cowboy wouldn’t buy a costume ten gallon would he? Of course not, but then again he wouldn’t have to, cowboy hats are readily available. A high-quality witch hat durable enough to withstand the rigors of nighttime broom travel should also provide the wearer casual comfort. Nothing instills confidence and inner beauty like a hat that is just as at home on the burning stake as it is vigorously stirring a boiling caldron of children. Form versus function is as timeless a battle as hackneyed stereotypes versus reality, a campaign any woman in my business would be passionately familiar with.

“Welcome to Seely’s. How can I help you today?” Tempest asked.

Seely’s Unique Boutique was aptly named. It had an earthy vibe, not quite dark to the point of depression, but also a million miles from unicorns with rainbow manes and pink halter tops. Wooden handmade shelves offered a myriad of natural salves, ointments, and scents. At first I delighted at the clean smell of soap but then for some reason it started to remind me of vegetable soup. After ten minutes I could no longer determine with any certainty the smell of anything I have ever been accustomed with. The clothes for sale were clearly born of subsistence. Decisions were made to trade fashion for a more foreboding and daily bread attire somewhat reminiscent of burlap but not quite as hopeless. The home décor on the other hand spoke volumes to the idea that decorative items can also be functional. Dream catchers, various amulets, talismans, a seriously beautiful collection of God’s eyes, and a corner shelf with all too familiar hometown voodoo dolls rounded out the eclectic collection.

“We’re pretty good, and you?” I asked.

“I’m well, very well. Is there something I can help you find today?” she asked.

“My friend here has an injury to her leg. Naturopathic medicine in my experience has always been very effective and I understand you have quite the selection,” John said.

“Wow, absolutely!” Tempest said happily.

“I’m sure I have something that will help. What is the nature of the injury? Is it muscular?” she asked.

“Uh, yeah, I guess, feels like I probably pulled something, I’m having some trouble getting around,” I said.

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, I really am. The good news is I have a few different items that might work for you. If you’d like, I’ll make a few recommendations and you can try out some of our free samples. That way, you can be sure what you’re buying will work for you. We have very comfortable and secure dressing rooms where you can enjoy your own peace,” she said.

I wasn’t used to a high level of service and stood somewhat dumbfounded after hearing her sales pitch. Consequently her confidence had me looking forward to a remedy that didn’t include a handful of pills. I retired to a warm and plush dressing room with my cache of little jars. I was instructed to apply one fingertip of each to the affected area.

“Excuse me miss, miss?” John asked.

“Tempest, Tempest Seely,” she said.

“I would like to compliment you on your store. You’re very friendly and welcoming,” John said.

“Thank you so much,” Tempest replied.

“I feel it is my duty to inform you as a professional in retail marketing that your clothing selection is, shall we say, under available to the public eye. Take this for instance, comfortable, natural fibers and imminently affordable,” John said.

“Why thank you so much. As you can see, our merchandising is authentic and real. Sadly, the budget doesn’t really leave much room for advertising,” she said.

“I completely understand, but I will tell you that the store across the mall is closing and I know for sure that there are some things available that might help. Maybe for your display window for instance? Properly done, it could really help draw in some customers. Purely as a thank you for the breath of fresh air you’ve given to this industry I would like to set something up for you. Absolutely no charge whatsoever,” John said.

“I saw that. What a shame. I didn’t know Mr. Blake very well but I certainly wish him the best,” Tempest said.

I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation from the dressing room. They may have been warm and comfortable, but the paper-thin walls rendered audible privacy inert.

“I’ll be sure to let you know if we find him,” I said.

“Oh my, he is missing then, I presume?” Tempest asked.

“He sure is, but I think it’ll be pretty easy to track him down. This one right here, it kind of tingled and then went sort of numb but not like a dead limb or anything. I’m thinking this will be the one,” I said.

“Yes, lavender oil with capsaicin, very good choice,“ she said.

“Thank you so much for your offer Mr., Mr.,” Tempest stuttered.

“John, John Buries and I’ve been in sales, setting up retail merchandising displays across the country for years now. It would be my pleasure, really. My time here at Miller Creek is nearly at an end and I would love nothing more than to see an entrepreneur such as yourself prosper,” John said.

“Really? So you’ll be leaving soon?” I asked.

Tempest looked us both over. Maybe it was something in the lilt of my voice, maybe she was empathic, but probably it was just because she was also woman that she decided to take him up on his offer.

“Well Mr. Buries, it would be a bit of work, probably take a few days at least but I would be remiss not to take you up on your kind offer,” she said.

“Excellent! In that case there’s something I have to attend to immediately. Excuse me Ms. Seely. Oh, is there some place I might store a few items?” John asked.

“Uhh, we have a storage room in the basement that I’m quite sure is empty. Let me get you the key,” she said.

“Wow, that was awfully nice of you, almost, oddly nice,” I said.

“Some might think so, but maybe the world could use a little kindness now and then. How’s that leg? I could use a hand,” he said.

“It’ll be okay. Sure, I’ve got a few minutes. What did you have in mind? I asked.

“You’ll see,” he said.

After getting the key from Tempest we went back to the hobby store where once again I became enthralled with the display window while John went inside and had a short and apparently pleasant conversation with Betty the mall manager. My stupor was abruptly interrupted watching John’s almost unfairly muscular arms remove the naked mannequin from the display.

Putting on a clinic regarding the proper technique of a fireman’s carry, John left the store with the mannequin draped precariously over his shoulder.

“Hey, you, stop right there!” a man yelled.

The new and improved version of a mall security guard, sensing a crime being committed, put his black, shiny oxfords in overdrive and hotfooted his way to our position.

“Where do you think you’re going with that? Put it down this instant,” he demanded.

John gave him the minimal courtesy of at least not walking any further but didn’t bother to look at him.

“Hi, you must be the new guy,” I said.

Before he could answer, Betty hurried out from the hobby store.

“Paul, Paul, it’s okay. It’s fine, they have my permission,” she said.            

“Oh, sorry, Ms. Wilbur, I just thought, I mean, I saw…” Paul stammered.

“It’s fine, Paul. Ms. Maximine, John, let me introduce you to Paul Owens, our new security guard,” Betty said.

“Owens? Any relation to Mason Owens?” I asked.

“Yeah, he’s my brother? You know Mason?” he asked.

“Why yes, I do. Let’s just say him and I have done a little business together,” I said.

“Did you buy a house off him?” Paul asked.

“Not quite,” I said.

John looked at Paul closely. First at his shiny shoes, scanning him slowly upwards until his eyes reached the very top of Paul’s security man hat.

“You a hunter, Paul?” John asked.

“Heck yeah, deer mostly,” Paul said.

I thought the question to be oddly out of place and time.

“A man in your position should be. Hunting hones a man’s instincts. You know what I mean? I could tell that about you right away, that your instinctual, a natural born hunter. Tell you what, Paul, I’m in sporting goods, archery mainly but not exclusively. If you ever need anything from Outdoors World downstairs, you tell them I sent you and I said to give you my discount. John Buries,” John said.

“Thanks Mr., uh, John. I’m going to take you up on that, and sorry again for the misunderstanding,” Paul said.

“Please do, Paul, and don’t think twice about it, you’re just doing your job. Have a great day and keep up the good work,” John said.

We all smiled at each other accordingly while John and I walked away.

“That was pretty nice of you. Same with the lady in the store? Tell me John Buries, are you always this nice to people or are you doing it just to impress me?” I asked.

“Why, are you impressed?” John asked.

“Maybe, maybe. It’s just that I never met a man who was so outwardly helpful and kind to others,” I said.

“Like I said Philippine, the world could use a little more kindness, just doing my part. Isn’t that right buddy?” John asked the mannequin.

“Take this guy here for instance, we’re about to give him a new life in a new store, selling new products, give him a whole new perspective on the world. By tomorrow afternoon he’ll be wearing the best Seely’s Unique Boutique has to offer,” John said.

At that very moment John appeared to have tripped. The mannequin flew forward off John’s shoulder and landed with a hard, plastic slap onto the commercial vinyl tile floor of the mall.

“Wow, it’s almost like he flung himself off. What did you trip on?” I asked laughing.

John just stared at the mannequin on the ground not bothering to answer.

“John? You okay?” I asked.         

“Yes, fine. Nothing,” he said.

“Nothing?” I asked.

“Yes, nothing. I tripped on nothing. It was him, he did it. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he doesn’t want to be the Seely’s store mannequin,” John said.

I laughed more, impressed with his faux sincerity. Most men would have acknowledged their own joke nearly instantly, anxious to bask in the glory of their own wit.  John’s sense of humor was so ostensibly dry that he never let-on that he was kidding at all. Instead he just picked the mannequin up off the floor and we continued our trek to the basement of the mall without further fanfare.

Between the two of us we were able to successfully navigate the maze and find the storage room for Seely’s boutique.

“Here you go buddy, you can hang out here until tomorrow,” John said.

The room was nearly empty. Nothing but a short silver stepladder and half a dozen open cardboard boxes with balled-up newspaper packing inside. The musty odor reeked of a room that had not been open for some time.

John stood the mannequin up against the wall in the middle of the room. He moved up close, face-to-face and stared it in the eyes for long enough to make the whole scene feel uncomfortable. He took one step back and flicked it with his middle finger right on the tip of its nose.

“That’s for jumping,” he said.

“Don’t pick on the poor guy, I wouldn’t want to work there either,” I said.

After locking the door, John and I were a few steps down the outside hallway when we heard a crash come from inside the storage room. We both stopped in our tracks and gave each other a look that confirmed at once the situation had taken a turn for the creepy worse.

“Huh, I guess he really doesn’t want to go,” I joked.

John smiled and knocked on the wall.

“You just calm down in there buddy, I’ll deal with you in the morning,” he said.

“What do you say we get some lunch?” John asked.

“Why Mr. Buries, would you be asking me out on a date?” I quipped.

“Maybe,” he said.

“Well, either way I accept. Should we pick something up for your friend in there?” I asked.

“I don’t think so. Clothes models don’t eat, they feed off attention,” he said.

It was the best anthropomorphic hyperbole I heard all day.

People go missing all the time. Often, that’s the way they want it. The world becomes too much for whatever reason and they abruptly disappear. I’ve found them living under bridges hundreds of miles from home. I’ve found them in vans, in homeless shelters, and on beaches. I found one woman working in the local greasy spoon within a bus transfer from her former house. Her husband had no idea. She was barely earning enough to stay alive and couldn’t have been happier. In fact, I would venture a guess that most of the people I have found went AWOL on purpose, except when I found them dead, but occasionally, even then.

“Hello, I’m looking for Bethany Wilbur,” I inquired.

The manager’s office at The Miller Creek Mall lived underground in the catacombs of the sprawling atrocity. Few people ever get to see what it’s like in the bowels of their local shopping mall. Hallways are almost always shiny and white. Cinder block walls are the norm, but I’ve seen standard sheetrock as well. Reckless pushcart operators and careless men in brown clothes leave black scars and gouges sometimes so long and deep that you would have to swear they were done on purpose. Maybe they hated their jobs. Things always cheer right up though at the glass door of the manager’s office.

“Hi, I’m Bethany, you must be Ms. Maximine,” she said.

“Philippine, Philippine Maximine at your service,” I said.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you Philippine. You can call me Betty. Can I get you anything? A coffee maybe?”

“A cup of coffee would be great. What do you say we get right to it? You have a couple of employees who have gone missing?” I asked.

“One employee, one store owner. Here, please, have a seat,” she said.

“You’ll forgive me for saying so, but don’t you think it’s a little odd that the real estate company would be hiring me to find them? I mean, a client in this case would usually be a family member, maybe a close friend,” I said.

“Oh I agree, but in this case our security guard, Roy Manis hasn’t had a single person come forward. Mr. Blake was widowed some years ago and he has no family that I’m aware of. It just isn’t like John to just disappear. John is Mr. Blake, John Blake,” she said.

“Ya, got it, go on,” I answered.

“We’re not even sure how long Mr. Manis has even been gone. Not to be disrespectful but if you met him, I’m sure you’d agree that this job was, well, pretty much his whole life. He took security here at the mall more seriously that any guard we’ve ever had. Honestly, probably a little too seriously if you get my drift,” she sighed.

“I might, but just in case, why don’t you tell me more,” I said.

Betty was a middle-aged spinster who I could tell went the extra mile her entire life to be overly polite.

“Um, he had run-ins with people, especially teenagers,” Betty said.

“Run-ins?” I asked.

“Yes, well, I would say he didn’t like them. We had an awful lot of complaints from parents, store owners, even some of our elderly early morning walkers about how he treated people,” she said.

“Might I ask why you continued to keep him in your employ then?” I asked.

“Well like I said, it’s all he had,” Betty said.

“Why do you think he’s missing, Betty? Loners like him sometimes just up and leave. Especially if they didn’t have family or friends to speak of. I’ve seen it many times,” I said.

“The detective said the same thing. They even checked his house. They said it didn’t look like he took anything. I’m telling you Ms. Maximine, Roy wouldn’t just leave us like that,” she said.

“The detective? Let me guess, Czerneski right?” I asked.

“Why yes, do you know him?” she asked.

“We’ve met. But that’s neither here nor there. What about Mr. Blake?” I asked.

“That’s even stranger. One day, he just didn’t open his store. He owns the hobby shop up on the second floor. He called me the night before to ask if I had a replacement mannequin. Apparently the one he had was loose, and the arms kept falling down or something. The next day I sent one up, but he was closed,” she said.

“Isn’t the store responsible for their own sales merchandise?” I asked.

“Usually, but we have a whole room full of them and they would just be sitting there otherwise so we let our stores pick and choose through them if they need one,” she said.

“I understand. So, no calls from him, no notes, nobody has seen him? He’s not in the hospital, the morgue maybe?” I asked.

“Oh heavens no, I hope not. We haven’t heard from him. The only thing was I received a call from one of the vendors that same day saying there was an altercation in front of his store, something about an angry woman. John never mentioned it though, so I didn’t really think anything of it,” she said.

“A vendor? What, like a guy who fills machines?” I asked.

“No, a vendor is a business that sells to other businesses. He was in sporting goods I believe,” she said.

“Did you get his name?” I asked.

“John, his name was John. I remember because John was calling about John. You know, the whole word association thing,” she said.

“Ya, I got it, got it. Tell me, do these men have a history of being friends? Do you think their disappearances may be connected?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t know about that. Maybe, but it’s not like they were gone at the same time,” she said.

“Betty, how long did you wait to report Roy missing?” I asked.

She sipped her coffee hard, holding her cup with both hands while staring directly into my eyes. I could see the wheels turning in her brain, desperately trying to manufacture an excuse.

“I hate to say it, but, well, like you implied, if it was going to be a disguised blessing, we weren’t going to ask too many questions. I’m sorry, but Roy was, was… But when John disappeared, well, we grew concerned,” she said.

“At the risk of sounding like a broken record, how long? And I have to ask you again why would the real estate company hire me to find these men?” I asked.

“To be perfectly honest Ms. Maximine, Roy was such a boisterous figure around here that people noticed him missing. It was like the lights were brighter, people were happier. We even saw an uptick in traffic. That is until John also disappeared. Then, people started to ask questions. And then, well then kids were saying things like, ‘Don’t go to the mall alone, the Maller might get you,’ or ‘Stay away from Killer Creek Mall’. I guess you could say we are trying to get out ahead of this thing and the police haven’t been really any help at all,” she said.

“How long?” I asked again.

Betty sighed the long sigh and put her cup down on the desk.

“Three weeks. It’s been three weeks, and Roy has been gone for we think at least two weeks before that, maybe more. Between you and I John was getting pretty far behind. We let him slide because he’s one of our original stores, but in light of the situation, well, he used up his deposit for rent and I’m afraid from a business standpoint we have no choice. So honestly, by hiring you we can say we did absolutely everything we could under the circumstances,” she said.

“I understand, perfectly. Tell you what, you put your John Hancock on this contract, and I’ll get this ball rolling,” I said.

I had a strong suspicion we were talking about a dead-beat store owner who skipped town and a low life security guard who coincidentally beat feet as well, for whatever reason. There was probably a casino involved, lots of guys on their last legs try to win their way back into prosperity. It never works. Most of the time I find them spread eagle in the bottom of a bottle, occasionally alive.

“Yes, very good. After all the news lately we feel like you’re the obvious choice,” she said.

“Excellent. Can we head up to the hobby store then? I’d like to have a look around,” I asked.

I slammed the last drop of joe and waited for Betty next to the door.

“Of course. Oh my, Ms. Maximine, your limping. Should I call for a cart?” she asked.

“No, no, I’m fine. Like you said, all the news lately. Between a camping trip from hell, getting attacked by a lion, shot at and running from a burning house, well, a girl is bound to get nicked-up along the way,” I laughed.

“Oh my, I hope this case is a lot easier on you,” Betty said.

“Me too, Betty, me too.”

The intestines of the mall seemed to have two doors below for everyone above.

“Are these offices?” I asked.

“I think originally they were supposed to be, but now they’re storage. Every store has one included in their lease,” she said.

I didn’t think about it until we passed the food court on the second floor.  Maybe there was something about the smell of cinnamon rolls and polyester that made me wax philosophically. A dirty freight elevator brings you up to the ground floor, but during your next lift, you’re going to be able to gaze out upon all the sunshine and glory that was your time on the first floor. 

“I don’t remember you saying today was moving day,” I said.

The closed sign in the middle of a giant masking tape ‘X’ over the front display window signaled the end of the road for the hobby store. Workers were busy taking inventory of each bank of items before boxing them up and loading them onto push carts.

“Where is all this stuff headed?” I asked.

“Until everything is sorted out we are going to put everything downstairs,” Betty said.

I gave the place the once-over although there wasn’t much to see. A meager pittance of money was left in the register, maybe enough to make change for a twenty. His coat still hung on the back of his office chair and leftovers from lunch filled the top shelf of his tiny under cabinet refrigerator.

“Where was this altercation?” I asked Betty.

“Just outside the window from what I gathered,” she said.

I took a slow meander outside the store. The foreboding closed sign sucked up all my attention to the point where I felt like I had been standing there and staring at it for hours. They took everything, right down to the clothes on the mannequin.

“Hell of a shame, isn’t it?” he said.

A random man a few paces behind me obviously took note of my hypnotized state.

“Yeah, damn shame,” I said.

“Not really a surprise though considering the way he treated his customers,” he said.

“Really?” I said.

The man behind me was shockingly stark with vibrant eyes, the kind of eyes you remember for two days and then forget until you see something brighter blue than it should be, and then you think about them again.

“Did you know John?” I asked.

“A little. I spoke to him after he had what I would describe as a fight with a woman out here about a month ago,” he said.

“You saw this?” I asked.

“Yes, yes I did. What’s more is I spoke with him about the incident immediately after. I explained to him that it wasn’t in his best interest to treat customers with such contempt,” he said.

“And what did he say?” I asked.

“Well, let’s just say he carried that same contempt into our conversation. As a person with interests in the customer base of this mall I also thought it prudent to report the incident to management,” he said.

“Oh, so you’re the guy,” I gushed.

He smiled brilliantly and readily stepped forward to introduce himself amid an obvious air of reluctance.

“John,” he said.

“Philippine. Philippine Maximine. A pleasure,” I said.

“The pleasure is all mine,” he said.

“You know what, I’ve looked it over, and there’s really not much more I can get from looking inside. You’re really my best, my only lead at the moment John, John?” I inquired.

“John Buries,” he said.

“Berries? Like a blue berry?” I asked.

I thought I was being cute, my brain having inadvertently creating word play regarding his eyes. I was pleased to have thought it but I absolutely hated my mouth for saying the words aloud.

“Would you be a detective then Ms. Maximine?” he asked.

“Please, Philippine. And yes, well, sort of. I am of the private variety,” I said awkwardly.

“I see. Philippine, I couldn’t help but notice you’re favoring one leg. I would be remiss as a gentleman if I didn’t tell you about an herbal topical that works absolute wonders. As fate would have it, it’s only available right here in this mall. Right over there as a matter of fact,” he said.

He motioned to a dark little store across the mall on the same floor, Seely’s Unique Boutique.

“Allow me to escort you?” he asked.

I froze.

“Trust me, you won’t be disappointed, guaranteed,” he said.

After standing there with a stupid look on my face for a week and a half, I was finally able to get my brain and my mouth on the same page.

“Um, sure, what the hell. It’s not going to kill me,” I said.

“Probably not,” he laughed.

“Probably not.”