Jeffrey Hollar’s Picture Choice: Both
Gwyneth shivered as an errant breeze blew a light dusting of snowflakes through the woods. Perhaps, she should have dressed more warmly but her wardrobe had been a distant concern to her as she’d left the city that morning. She wasn’t sure it had been wise to come here at all. Whomever she would be meeting here, presumably, had information concerning what had happened to Jack.
Whether the police chose to believe it or not, she knew, with a certainty she could never explain, that his death had not been the unfortunate result of a botched mugging. No mugger would have had any reason whatsoever to expend the time and energy to beat a man to death so savagely that the positive identification of his body had only been possible by means of dental records and fingerprints.
While the detectives had, initially, been very solicitous and understanding, their entire demeanor had changed to something very different with astonishing speed. Within days, they were “too busy to continue returning her calls” and while they assured her Jack’s case was being pursued with “all due diligence and vigor” she could tell when she was being given a brush-off. If the circumstances of Jack’s fate were to ever come to light, it would certainly not be as a result of the efforts of the NYPD.
On a whim, she’d gone to his job and spoken to his editor, Sol Greene. She had no reason to think he’d been involved in anything at the paper that could have led to something like this but she had to be sure, didn’t she? “Gwynnie”, Sol always called her that, “I know Jack fancied himself the next Woodward or Bernstein or some such but I’m afraid I got nothin’ to tell you. I had him workin’ the metro beat over at city hall…doin’ some pieces on the aldermen elections but that’s about it. Kid, you know as well as I do this is a lousy place to live sometimes. You know some poor schmuck is gettin’ knifed or shot or somethin’ every hour of every day. It’s part of the charm of life in the Big Apple. I can make some calls, if you want, but I got a feelin’ this is nothin’ more than just a raw deal and that’s it. Go home. Get some rest. Try to put this behind you and, for God’s sake, move some place bright and sunny and far, far away from this shithole city once and for all. Two years to Boca is my credo these days.”
She had to give it to Sol for his common sense, gritty outlook on things. Maybe he was right. There wasn’t anything keeping her here and her college friends were all on the other coast. Maybe…just maybe…it was time to get out, to get away. Could she run far enough away or fast enough to leave the memories of Jack and their two years together behind? She supposed there was really only one way to find out. By the time the taxi had dropped her at her building, her mind was made up…maybe. She would grab something to eat, get a hot shower and in the morning she’d begin making plans to move on with her life. Then, she’d found the note on the coffee table.
It sat there as if it had always been there…as if there were no more proper place for it to be than on the coffee table of her apartment accessible only through the single door and its three sturdy locks. Yet, there it sat in its simple, unassuming tan envelope waiting for her to arrive home. It remained there while she and her NY Mets commemorative baseball bat did a slow circuit of her apartment in search of the source of the note. She found no one and nothing untoward at all. What the hell?
Stowing the bat back in the umbrella stand, she plopped down on the couch and stared at the envelope for what seemed like an eternity. Was she expecting it to suddenly burst into flames or to jump up and dance across the table like Michigan J. Frog in his heyday? It was an envelope. Within it was? Obviously, she chided herself; it’s not going to read itself.
The envelope was heavy, high-quality stationery stock that was rare to find anymore. Within was a single piece of crème-colored bond paper, folded with a single, meticulous crease so sharp she imagined she might cut herself on it. She unfolded it slowly; unsure of what it might be and less sure she wanted to know. It had been written in a strong flowing script with a heavy pen that had made a firm imprint on the paper. She paused to reflect on how beautiful it was, so old-world and artistic. Shaking her head she focused on the contents.
In life there is much mystery and confusion and uncertainty. It is in the nature of man to seek answers to matters which puzzle them and this is, in general, a thing to be admired. There are, most unfortunately, some mysteries which it is best remain so, some confusion which must be accepted and dismissed and a certain degree of uncertainty which will always remain. If you would seek answers to matters which have, most recently, come to puzzle you then come tomorrow at nine of the morning to the Riverside Park gazebo. There mysteries may be discussed, confusion assuaged and some uncertainty dispelled. For all to be best resolved, it would be most unwise for you to bring anyone else with you.
There was no signature on the note only a curious stylized symbol of a dark keyhole surrounded by a golden border.
So Gwyneth stood in clear view of the gazebo…waiting. She still the urge to check her watch, yet again, and instead tugged at a handful of her long, blond hair. It was a nervous habit she’d had since she was a girl and she smiled at the thought of how Jack used to always ride her about it. He’d told her, if not once a thousand times, that sooner or later she’d snatch herself bald if she kept at it. As if on cue, a voice spoke from behind her.
“Calmness, Miss Sinclaire, calmness. There is already so much unrest and disorder in the world without one inflicting more upon oneself. And your hair is far too fragile to bear the burden of dispelling such in any event.” Gwyneth whipped about to behold a man standing scarcely two feet behind her. She’d heard no sound of his approach and his black boots showed no signs of even the tiniest snowflake having touched their polished black luster. He was, she noted, a most unusual looking man.
Of medium height, he radiated an aura of contained strength and solidity that was, at once, reassuring and at the same time mildly intimidating. He was bald as an egg without so much as eyebrows. His skin was a burnished golden color and offered no suggestion of any ethnic or racial origin. While she, at first, took him to be quite young she decided, instead, that his smooth, unblemished flesh instead spoke more of an ageless quality than of youth. His eyes were a particularly intense shade of jade green and looking into them she sensed a depth of experience, a worldliness that belied any impression that he had ever been young.
Dressed in a simple but well-tailored dark suit and overcoat he defied categorization or description beyond that. He was, quite obviously, both solid and real and yet she found it very difficult to fixate on him, as if there were an ephemeral, otherworldly aspect to him.
“I apologize if I startled you. I find myself, at once, quite pleased but also unaccountably distressed you chose to come. I find my actions may have been a bit…precipitous and it would have been best for us both had you simply proceeded with your plans to put recent events behind you and relocate to California.” Before Gwyneth could voice her confusion he continued.
“We are, perhaps, placing ourselves at significant risk by meeting thusly but I find myself unable to pursue other…endeavors until certain matters have been laid to rest. Walk with me, please. I find it…disconcerting…to be so exposed at this juncture and would suggest a but lower profile venue for our discussion.” He extended a hand, beckoning her along as he turned, without further ado and walked to the tenuous shelter of the gazebo. Silent, Gwyneth found herself drawn along.
She stood facing him as he removed his overcoat, placing it delicately on a bench. He removed his suit coat as well and rolled back one shirt sleeve. She gasped, involuntarily, as she saw the symbol that had appeared at the end of the note imprinted upon the man’s forearm. The edges of the tattoo had a red, inflamed appearance as if it were newly-inked.
“I know you have seen this symbol before in my note but I sense no indication it holds any significance to you other than that. Such does not surprise me. It is the symbol of an order at once far older than you could possibly imagine and yet quite new and most unknown to you. Is not the inherent dichotomy of such a thing…fascinating?”
She, at last, found her voice, “Look, I don’t know who you are or what that symbol means or what this has to do with Jack but you better start making sense pretty quickly or I am so out of here. How did you get in to my –“
He held a finger to his lips and his expression hardened, “Shush. Silence is called for now, Miss Sinclaire. Questions, when asked, should serve to elicit needful information and required facts and not, merely, be voiced for the sake of speaking. I will explain to you what I wish, when I wish and in the manner I deem most expedient. This is a statement of fact which can not be disputed and will not be repeated.”
“This symbol is the hallmark of a society known as the Scrutineers. We reside in the domain of shadow and silence, of secrecy and subterfuge. Our gaze is at once everywhere and anywhere it is deemed of importance for it to be. We see, we chronicle and we safeguard. It is not for you or for others not of our order to know our purpose, our objectives or our motives. Your…Jack did not take my assertions of this as fully to heart as I might have wished and for that he paid a most terrible price, yes?”
“And…so…you nutjob secrecy whackos KILLED him? What the freak kinda sick game are you people up to that you KILLED Jack to cover it up. I don’t care how freaky-deaky super scary you pricks think you are I’ll see every last one of you wind up with a needle in your fucking arm for this! I can not fucking believe this! You…bastard!!” She rushed at him with every intention of clawing out his smoldering jade-green eyes. Instead, she found herself sitting on the bench, groggy and confused.
“Most regrettable you should choose to throw reason to the wind and make foolish assumptions. It is even more regrettable that you forced me to…dissuade you from your intent to wreak havoc upon myself. I did not, in any wise, say my brothers or I caused any harm to Jack. It is true his unwise curiosity regarding us was a key factor in his undoing but we did not harm him. That is also a statement of fact which should not be disputed but I will warrant you have no means to be sure of that and make allowance.”
“We have been here far too long. You were, sadly, unconscious for far longer than was anticipated. I know of a place we can continue to speak with less risk of discovery from…others. We will leave your vehicle here as it is far too well known to too many interested parties to be safe. Come, we must leave now if we are to prevail. Speed, Miss Sinclaire, speed is most assuredly called for.”
Without another word, he donned his garments and walked away from the gazebo at a brisk, determined pace. Stifling the urge to scream in frustration, Gwyneth followed.
Jeffrey Hollar is half Klingon, half Ferengi, visiting Earth in an attempt to negotiate a merger. He is currently working on a novella and a collection of zombie stories with his wife, Lisa McCourt Hollar. Jeff writes almost daily for his blog, The Latinum Vault, found at http://www.jeffreyhollar.com.