He mounted the stairs, taking them two by two to catch up. “It’s just,” he huffed, “her way.” He rounded the first landing, cradling the bag in both hands. “She just,” he glimpsed Valerie turning the corner to the second flight, “does what she,” again, he came up short for air, “does.”
This is not attractive. Nathan stopped talking and focused on climbing.
He caught up with her on the last half flight before the stairs terminated in the third floor hallway. The front-facing apartment had a door directly adjacent to the stairwell. Nathan knew it was empty because he had helped its former tenants carry their kitchen table down the stairs a few weeks ago. The other side of the hallway terminated at the chipped wooden door to Ella’s apartment.
Nathan gestured to the door at end of the hall. He and Valerie advanced on it as one until they were facing its peephole, standing shoulder-to-shoulder.
He knocked firmly.
Krisis, Book 1
Issue #1: Girl Disappearing
Chapter Three: Dissemblers (pt. 1)
“Ella, it’s Nate,” he said in what he thought was a booming, masculine voice, though he wasn’t entirely sure for whose benefit. Possibly his own. “Just stopping by with my friend before dinner.”
There was no sound from within the apartment.
Nathan again withdrew the ring of keys from his pocket with one hand, plucking one of a pair of smaller keys to open the first of two locks on the door, and then the other smaller key for the deadbolt.
He pocketed the keys and spoke again in his chesty voice, “Ella, I’m coming in now.”
He considered for a moment, and then added, “Don’t be naked.”
Nathan pushed the door open.
The lights in the living room were off, and he reached out blindly for the switch on the wall to his left. He caught the edge of it with his fingertips and the ceiling light winked on, bathing the room in light.
Nathan set down the bag of pie and yarn as he glanced around the room.
The green couch was clear of all the debris that surrounded Ella when he visited, and her textbooks were neatly piled on the end table, next to her half-melted candles. The sink in Ella’s tiny kitchen was clear of the plates and dishes from their dinner together. Martina’s old guitar sat on its stand, a capo clipped across the third fret.
It’s too tidy.
It wasn’t that Ella was dirty, or messy. She just tended to let things lie. Nathan had never seen her couch and floor bare of history textbooks and sheet music, or her drainboard completely empty.
“I guess she’s not home,” Valerie said, as she admired a photo on the wall. It was an old photo of Nathan and Martina taken after they played a show. While Nathan posed intently for the camera Martina was laughing with her mouth open, seemingly unaware that she was being captured on film.
“This is Martina, huh?” Valerie traced her finger down the picture’s frame as she examined the photo. Nathan half heard her, as he was becoming more and more agitated as he examined the apartment.
“I’m going to look in the bedroom,” Nathan announced, leaving Valerie alone with the photograph.
The bedroom wasn’t so much a bedroom as a bed-shaped alcove on the other side of the wall from the bathroom that split the apartment in two. Ella’s full bed fit exactly into the space with no room on either side for a bedside table – to get into bed she had to climb onto it from the foot. A small closet occupied the wall facing the bed, while across its width a single wall sconce eyed a double window on far wall. Heavy black curtains were drawn across the window’s face.
Nathan reached over the bed to pull the chain hanging from wall sconce, bathing the alcove in soft, yellow light. The bed was made, if halfheartedly. Unlike the couch, it was not bare – it looked like Ella had emptied the contents of her mailbox onto it. Nathan sifted through it with one hand. Amidst the pile of takeout fliers and credit card offers, one piece stood out. It was a postcard with a beach on the front. Nathan picked it up and flipped it over to find Lilly’s distinct cursive handwriting:
“Finished an engagement and plan on spending at least a month with this view of the ocean. You should visit. I emailed you a ticket. Fly in for a few days before finals.”
“Hmm?” Nathan felt Valerie behind him, one hand brushing against his hip as she peered over his shoulder at the postcard.
“A postcard.” He paused. “From Lilly.”
Nathan turned the card over in his hands. It had the right stamps and cancellations. It looked appropriately battered by the mail stream. Lilly’s handwriting was exactly as he remembered it. Yet…
“Wow,” he could feel Valerie’s breath behind his ear as she read the card over his shoulder, “do you think Ella took her up on it?” His heart began to race. “Is her suitcase still here?”
Nathan stepped out of Valerie’s half embrace and took a deep breath. I am not having a first date in Ella’s empty apartment. There will be no flirting. Especially not adjacent to her bed. “…it should be in the closet on the wall behind you, I guess? There’s not much storage in this place.”
Valerie turned away from him in the tight space at the foot of the bed and pulled open the pocket door of the closet.
“No suitcase?” he asked.
“No,” she responded, “no suitcase.”
He stared past her lithe form into the closet, which seemed to be missing some clothes in addition to the suitcase. It really did look like Ella left for a brief vacation, and he could even believe that she might have tidied up before she left. Yet, something kept tugging at the edge of his thoughts, trying to make itself known.
“The guitar,” he breathed.
“Yes, I saw it in the other room.”
Postcard still in his hand, Nathan paced back into the living room. He stared at Martina’s old guitar, still on the stand with its silver capo clipped across the fretboard.
“If she was really leaving she would tell me…”
Valerie cut him off, her voice wafting in from the other room, “If she was as freaked out as you said…”
Nathan focused on the guitar on its stand, “…she wouldn’t leave Martina’s guitar.” His voice trailed of as he peered at the instrument more closely. It was battered and careworn, with several hard-won nicks in the finish courtesy of Nathan bumping into Martina on the tiny stages they used to play. She was never upset about it. “That’s how you know it’s loved,” is what she used to say.
“Nate, she was upset,” Valerie returned to the living room and gingerly plucked the postcard from Nathan’s grip. “She got a postcard from her mother – who she hasn’t seen in years – telling her to come and visit her. On a beach. Do you really think lugging a guitar along would be her first priority?”
Nathan continued to stare at the guitar. The two highest, thinnest strings were broken, their sagging remains sprouting from the bridge pins and dangling from the grasp of the capo.
“The strings are broken,” he said.
“That happens, right?” Valerie asked, as she reread the postcard.
“…and the capo is still on the neck. It’s as if she was interrupted in the middle of playing.”
Another mysterious departure, again leaving him all alone with the guitar.
Not again. Not like Martina.
Yet, Ella was not like Martina – or Lilly and Ward, for that matter. Ella was stubborn and headstrong, but she wasn’t impulsive. She didn’t make rash decisions. She needed time to set her mind and dig in her heels.
Once, when he and Martina were in college together, she decided on a Friday they should visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They began driving twenty minutes later and arrived in Cleveland the next day. It was impossible to predict when Ward would even return a phone call, let alone express an interest in his daughter. Lilly elected to go on a years-long international tour and left with the most perfunctory of goodbyes to her husband and daughter, and three curt sentences to Nathan.
The three sentences? “You are her big brother now, Nate. It is your job to look after her. Protect her for me.”
Valerie stood next to him in front of the guitar stand, still examining the postcard. Nate looked down at its postmark. A few days ago. Ella might have received it before his visit.
Is that why she was so agitated? In the midst of her unintelligible rant she had mentioned Martina and Lilly, and being hidden. Could she have simply been trying to decide if she should visit her mother, who seemed to have suddenly regained her maternal instinct and deigned to see her daughter?
Nathan heard a low, dull crash somewhere below them.
“Valerie, there’s something wrong.”
“What do you mean, ‘wrong’?” she asked.
“I think we should go.”
A muffled, pounding noise emanated from outside of the apartment.
Someone running up the stairs? More than one someone.
Nathan made a quick decision. Turning to Valerie, he said, “There’s a fire escape outside the bedroom window. Come on.”
“What? What is…”
Nathan surprised himself with the force of his reply, but he felt a lingering dread about the noises outside the apartment. He swiftly pulled Valerie back into the bedroom. He climbed onto the bed, pulling back the dull black curtains to expose the pair of windows beneath. He reached up to flip the old wooden latch on the top of one of the window frames, but didn’t feel it there. He groped across the dusty wooden frame. His hand came away with a sticky substance clinging to his fingers – like melted wax.
Puzzled, he wiped his hand against his jeans and noticed that the pounding was louder, closer. Now he heard the echo of voices booming up the stairwell and remembered that Valerie hadn’t locked the front door behind them.
Nathan experienced a moment of blind panic, freezing in place. Then he felt Valerie’s hand on his back, and he sprung back into action on a surge of adrenaline. Whoever was at the door, he had to get her out.
In one motion he flung open the window, which had no screen behind its glass pane. A metal fire escape stretched below it, descending to the alley beside the building.
Possessed by nervous energy, Nathan wrapped his arm around Valerie’s waist and pushed her through the open window out onto the fire escape.
“Nathan! What are you doing?”
From behind them he heard voices, probably advancing on the front door.
“Voices,” he hissed at her. “At the door.”
“I hear them, too.”
“If it’s the police, I’ll explain.”
“Who else would it be?” she asked, searching his face for reassurance.
He reached into his pocket and drew out his cell phone, pressing it into Valerie’s hands.
“Climb down,” he said, firmly. He had no idea where this sudden confidence was emerging from, but he imagined Danny would appreciate it. “I’ll call you on my cell when everything is sorted out.”
Valerie looked like she was about to say something, but before she could get the words out of her mouth he slammed the window shut and pulled the drapes closed over her beautiful, gaping face.
Nathan heard the voices again, this time close and intelligible, just outside the front door.
“… unlocked … not in the living room. … here springs … seem closed.”
It was a woman’s voice, so delicate he could barely make it out.
That doesn’t sound like cops. And, what springs?
Nathan shifted his knees on the mattress and heard the faint squeak of the bed below him.
Could she have meant she ‘hears’ bed springs? Who the hell hears bed springs from out in the hallway?
“Solution number three; masks on.” This second voice was a low baritone, easy to make out even slightly muffled by the front door. It had a ring of familiarity to it, but Nathan couldn’t place it.
He sat frozen on the bed. He had no idea what solution number three could be, but the requirement of masks made it sound rather ominous. Meanwhile, Valerie was just outside the window, hopefully climbing down the fire escape. He resisted the urge to peek through the drapes to check on her progress.
If they can somehow hear me sitting on the bed they might be able to hear her on the escape. He needed to make some noise to cover Valerie’s exit.
Nathan stood up from the bed and took a leaden step back towards the living room when the smell hit him. It was a pungent, sickly-sweet scent. The tang of it in his nostrils sent him reeling backwards, weak at the knees.
Lightheaded, Nathan plunged sideways into Ella’s still-open bedroom closet. He crashed against hangers and a broom tucked against the wall. Clawing across the clothing, he pulled out a heavy winter scarf and wrapping it around his face.
It dulled the odor, but his head was still swimming. Emerging from the closet, Nathan thought he saw a puddle of clear liquid shimmering on the living room floor.
Some kind of alcohol? Trickling in under the door? This is all too weird.
A wave of dizziness swept up Nathan’s body from feet to head, and he whipped a hand out against the wall to steady himself.
I need to open a window or I’m going to pass out. He breathed tentatively through the thick scarf and glanced behind him at the heavy black shades. But I don’t want to lead them to Valerie.
Nathan crashed back into the living room, his legs practically bowing beneath him. His shoes squelched in the thin layer of liquid now rapidly streaming across the floor. He reached over Ella’s green couch and pushed open a window, nearly pressing his scarfed face up against the screen as he drew in a lungful of cool spring air from outside the building.
“… opened a window.” It was the woman’s voice again, a little clearer now that he was in the living room.
“Alright,” said the baritone, “let’s go.”
Nathan barely had a moment to turn around before the door flew open, slamming hard against the wall behind it. Four figures were silhouetted by the light of the hall – two male, two female – each dressed in dark camouflage pants, flak jackets, black baseball caps, and what looked like dark green surgical masks winched tightly across their mouths and noses.
Nathan froze with one knee on the couch, breathing heavily into the scarf. One of the four figures advanced into the room and pulled off his half-mask to expose a familiar face, framed by wisps of honey-colored hair.
“Danny? Is that you.”
Indeed, it was Danny – Nathan would recognize that nearly-albino skin anywhere, especially when peeking out from an mostly-black SWAT team outfit.
“Nathan! Are you okay?”
Nathan stared back at his friend in disbelief from across the room. He realized that Danny was the only of the four figures not in a heavy Kevlar jacket – he was simply wearing a long-sleeved black t-shirt.
“Where’s Ella, Danny?”
“We don’t know. That’s why we came…”
The larger male figure with the booming voice spoke, “Can it, Danny.”
Nathan looked from Danny to the larger man and down to the floor, covered with a slick of the peculiar liquid. He still felt high from the fumes.
From the fumes…
In a quick motion, Nathan reached over to Ella’s scuffed end table and plucked her zippo from beside her copse of scented candles.
“Danny, I don’t know what’s going on,” Nathan spoke as calmly as he could, while he set his feet shoulder width apart on the floor to try to balance his still-weak knees, “but Ella’s gone. I don’t know what you’re doing here dressed like that,” he gestured with the lighter, “but if what’s on the floor is what I think it is you really don’t want me to light this.”
Danny stood, frozen and dumbfounded. The baritone voice spoke up from behind him.
“That would not be an intelligent move, Nathan.”
He said Nathan’s name with a certain dismissive contempt that sounded familiar. Nathan stared hard at his dark eyes, exposed above the mask. They, too, seemed familiar.
“Char, your turn.” The man with the familiar voice inclined his head to the taller of the two women.
The woman lifted her bare hand and extended an exquisitely manicured pointer finger at Nathan, like the barrel of a gun.
Nathan’s world lit up in a burst of blazing white. His eyes seared with what seemed like a firework going off directly in his face, though he felt no heat.
Disoriented, he tried to step backward as he fumbled with the lighter, and felt the backs of his wobbly knees connect with the couch. His left foot slid outward, the sole of his shoe slipping across the wet wooden floor. In a second he was flat on his back in front of the couch, still blinded and gasping for air. The zippo skittered away from him under the couch, out of arm’s reach.
“Still enough ether in the room,” the familiar voice said calmly, “give me a second. Danny, put on your damned mask.”
Ether. And that voice…
With one ear planted on the floor Nathan could hear the liquid trickling around him. The pungent fumes of the ether returned, stronger than before. He was still seeing stars as he felt the liquid, cool across his back. It crept up Ella’s scarf, still wrapped around his neck.
…I know it from Khep Right. It’s…
The cloying scent of the ether filled his nostrils. The bright spots seared across Nathan’s vision began a quick fade to black as the now sopping scarf pressed tight against his chin.
A moment later he was unconscious.
That’s it for the first issue of my novel! I’m still deciding if, how, and when to present the second issue, “Shedding Light,” where we learn more about the mysterious intruders in Ella’s apartment. If you like what you’ve read, leave a comment or consider contributing to my Patreon campaign for as little as $1/month.