Saturday, April 21, 2018
Creepypasta


Amber Alert

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Amber Alert

By

Shannon Higdon

 

“No accountin’ fa taste, I suppose,” the soiled old man blurted into his face as he shuffled past.

“Watch it buddy,” Chad responded in turn before receiving the accused end of a gnarled and bony finger.

“YOU!  YOU!  YOU!” the bum screamed, his face twisting into a contorted sneer; “Did not order the soufflé!  What’d you expect it to taste like?”  Chad just shook his head and chuckled before turning away to leave the man for his next customer.

New York was supposed to have been an adventure…and in some regards he imagined it had been but the one thing Chad hadn’t been prepared for was all the crazy.  There was a person who qualified for time in a serious psychiatric institution on, quite literally, almost every street in Queens and the ratio only went up the further one descended beneath the ground.  If he had a dollar for every lunatic he’d seen in the subway system who desperately needed to explain the purpose of the Zeta Reticulans or show off their pet rat he would probably have just enough to give to the panhandlers he’d encountered in that same stretch.

When he first moved to the city four years ago it had been something of a shock.  Being intelligent and coming from a small, mostly suburban, town which thrived on its local farming, Chad had expected the culture shock; he looked forward to it even.  The lunacy shock however, wasn’t anticipated.  It took nearly six months for him to reach the point of being able to put his ear buds in, his head down and letting it all pass by and, even then, it didn’t come with any great ease.

The community he had grown up in was one which nurtured the idea of helping one’s neighbor whether one knew them or not.  These moralistic principles were so ingrained in his being, in fact, that things were actually quite difficult when he first arrived in the city.  There were people in the world who were just down on their luck and Chad’s parents had raised him to help those kinds of people whenever he could.  It stood to reason as well that not every homeless person was crazy or dangerous but it could be damn near impossible to differentiate sometimes.  He had been rapt by so many conflicting thoughts and emotions:  Do I help this person?  Do I call the police?  Will this person hurt themselves?  Will this person hurt me?  The mixed bag of actions and reactions culminated on one fateful evening when he found himself helping “Clara” to look for her missing dog.

For nearly two hours he showed remarkable patience by scouring a five-block radius with the sexagenarian in curlers and a bathrobe for “Poggy” despite the evident indications that something was amiss.  Clara was sweet and quirky and Chad wanted to believe he was helping her but he began to feel the doubt crawling up his spine when she started giving him descriptions of the dog in-between her screaming; “POG, POG, POG, POGGY-BOY!” at the top of her lungs.  Initially it wasn’t too bad with; “He’s a cross between a Sassy Lurcher and a Cross-haired Sockowat.”  Granted…they weren’t breeds he was familiar with…but he was far from knowledgeable on the subject.  Any breeds beyond the Golden Retriever, which he had growing up, or the Poodle, which his Nana had, were outside his scope of recognition anyway.

It only got worse from there, however, with her slowly releasing such gems as; “Poggy once rescued a baby from a burning building” and “Poggy stopped an assassination attempt on the Mayor’s life.”  Eccentricity no longer seemed a viable excuse when she finally got around to explaining how the animal could fetch a rainbow, read people’s minds and grasp objects with his tail.  The last of which brought Chad to his limit.  He had turned to her to say as much and she must have seen it in his eyes.  Before he could get the words out, the old woman screamed out in recognition and knelt down as Poggy came running into her arms to lather her with grateful kisses.  That was Chad’s best estimation of the scenario at least; it was impossible to know the specifics, however, of what the invisible and imaginary dog did or didn’t do when he was reunited with his owner.  When he left, they were headed to the park to fly a kite…sans the kite…and the park.

That had pretty much been the breaking point overall for his empathetic capacity in dealing with the mentally unwell.  He still felt bad for them; he wasn’t made of stone after all, but the ability to create blinders had been born and there was really no better place to put them to use than in the subway.  Sure there was plenty of things outside of the norm to see; musicians, street performers and the like, but there was a fine line one had to learn how to see:  that line that separates a voyeuristic experience from an interactive experience.  It was important to learn the difference between what was okay to look at and what would take being looked at as an invitation to merge their situation with yours.  A guy shredding it on a bass guitar you can watch; a guy shredding it on an air guitar…you probably shouldn’t.

The essence of the subway changes entirely after midnight.  It’s a different breed of person.  While the white-collar professional is snug in their sheets dreaming the American dream, Nocturnas-Personas comes out to play.  Their moods, much like their intentions, seem to be darker.  A wisp of the sinister always seems to linger in the air.  Some of this is paranoia; some isn’t.  This was never more true than when riding on the metro trains which crisscrossed through the beating heart of the Big Apple, connecting its extremities and forcing the full spectrum of its denizens to pass by one another in the area of chaotic activity.  Riding the metro lines at night was, in and of itself, a guarantee of the odd or unusual and generally not for the faint of heart.  The drunk Wall Street yuppies, art-house Cretans and fashion industry snobs mostly opted for a taxi or Uber these days instead, leaving the subterranean as a playground for those that preferred the dark.

Chad was a big guy who knew how to handle himself.  He never really walked around in fear of the unknown assailant but at the same time…he wasn’t one to tempt fate.  Unless he had a good reason, a really good reason, he didn’t ride late at night either.  It was more a case of ‘common sense’ than ‘cowardice’.  On this particular night, however, he did have a good one…a damn good one as far as he was concerned.  As he made his way down the first flight of stairs and through the twisting tunnel to the platform he couldn’t help but feel like his entire life had lead him to this point and he was having legitimate difficulties keeping the wide-lipped grin from his face.  The ride back to the loft in lower Manhattan probably wouldn’t go without incident if he couldn’t stop grinning like an idiot, however.

The reason Chad had moved to New York in the first place was to pursue his dream of being a successful graphic artist; that and to expand his cultural horizons beyond what the cornfields of central Iowa had to offer.  He loved the state in which he’d been born and lived in straight through to his graduation as a University of Iowa Hawkeye…but that was part of the problem.  He had never been anywhere else in his life and, beyond the professional possibilities that might have been available, New York City seemed like the best way to see everything.  It held the promise of being a microcosm for the entire world.  Not that it kept all its promises.

The employment opportunities and career prospects weren’t as plentiful as he had been led to believe…even with his degree.  The competition turned out to be exceedingly fierce, even for jobs that he knew he was overly qualified for and he struggled, at first, to make rent for a rat-hole in Brooklyn.  For twelve months the fear of having to move back home, hat in hand, was a very real and constantly looming figure and, subsequently, that first year wasn’t a lot of fun.  He had been too poor to experience any of that ‘culture’ he’d been seeking.  His down-home charm and attractive, without being intimidating, looks got him behind a couple of different bars where he made some decent money slinging drinks, but…he could have done that in Iowa.

After two and a half years, Chad had reached such a point of comfort with the city and his routine within it, that it would have been easy to give up on his dreams.  He had worked his way into a Manager’s position at an elegant restaurant and bar and was making, even by New York standards, a nice living.  There was still plenty of room for advancement in the franchise and the corporate headquarters seemed quite keen to keep him around for the long haul.  The path laid out before him was very…safe.  It made sense and put the goals of the average American dream on a road he could easily navigate.  He could have the money, house and car…plus the stability of a nine to five.  It may not have been what he had set out to do…or had wanted to do…but it was more of a success, in his book, than that of his father who spent his life mindlessly crop-dusting endless ears of corn.  It wasn’t the life of the hot-shot artist he had set off to be, but it had to be better than the hell his parents wanted for him by staying close to home.

Chad had more than conceded to the life-plan that was throwing itself at him…he’d begun actively pursuing it.  There’s no telling how far up that ladder he would have climbed either, had his trajectory not been dramatically altered…by her.  It took three years and dates with fourteen different women before Chad met Victoria.  Five were blind dates, seven were arranged through dating apps and only one came by pure happenstance.  Vicky and he arrived simultaneously at the same deli, seeking the same tuna-fish sandwich…the absolute last tuna-fish sandwich of the day.  Of course his upbringing dictated that he deferred the sandwich to her and, as he was considering a less-desirable alternative, she had offered to share her lunch.  She had been blown away by his chivalry, which had been forced out of her world at NYU in the name of liberal progressivism…and he had been blown away by her…everything.

New York had plenty of beautiful women…it wasn’t a unique experience to run into one but with her it was…different.  Vicky wasn’t like anyone else and her beauty went so far beyond her physical attributes that he struggled to find another word to describe her other than “perfect”.  As they ate lunch together at that booth in the back of the deli, Chad couldn’t find a single thing about her that he didn’t find desirable.  By the time they were finished, he’d decided that all the songs, movies and stories about ‘love at first sight’…which he’d always considered bullshit…may have been more accurate than he’d given them credit for.  They began dating shortly after and Chad could never again ridicule a Nicholas Sparks book or movie without feeling like a hypocrite.

 

It was her that convinced him to begin chasing his dream again…even if it meant returning to poverty for a while in the process.  “If we don’t have any money,” she had said; “we’ll still have each other.  I’m sure we can find ways of entertaining ourselves” and damned if she wasn’t right.  Just having her to hold in his arms every night turned out to be one dream come true.  Why couldn’t it happen again?  Despite the objections of his bosses, who pleaded with him to stay, and his parents, who informed him of what a stupid decision it would be, Chad quit the restaurant.  With Victoria’s support, he was going to put his full efforts into making it as an artist…and he couldn’t do both.

Professionally, the next six months were rough, but…personally…oh man.  Vicky and he had moved into the loft together and, despite the steady diet of Ramen, felt like the luckiest people in the world.  Everything that went on outside the walls of their love-shack only felt like a distraction and as long as the party consisted of the two of them, it was never necessary to go out to have a good time.  Draining their savings accounts as slowly as possible and doing their best to prioritize their expenses, they ended up spending more money on condoms than they did on food during that period.

After the initial hurdle of having nothing, Chad got a couple of small jobs designing advertisements for local businesses which put a little money in his pockets, but, more importantly, got examples of his work in the public eye.  Those jobs quickly led to a larger variety of employment, everything from a twelve by twelve mural for a library to illustrating a children’s book to designing custom tee-shirts for a “ironically” hip clothing store.  There were no major breakthroughs for him in that first year or so, but enough interest in his unique style existed to keep him from going broke and to help make connections in the art world.

The networking and politics of the New York art scene was, as far as Chad was concerned, just another example of the city’s abundance of ‘crazy’.  The people may smell better and have more money than the mass of homeless but…make no mistake about it…they were just as mentally unstable.  Both groups could be unreasonably entitled and the actions of many of the artists, dealers, critics and collectors would seem right at home on a street-corner, covered with filth.  Unfortunately for the homeless however, their eccentricities were frowned upon and even greeted with aggression.  Whereas, with the raving…and possibly dangerous, artist they’re called “peculiarities” and met with mild amusement or encouragement.  Only one color changes the hues of public opinions and that’s the green of money.  Enough green seemed to make just about any action acceptable.

Since Chad had very little of that, breaking into the exclusive society was no easy task and it had to be done based on his ability, alone.  No denying there was some luck along the way…as well as Vicky’s constant reinforcement, and, in just a little over a year since leaving the restaurant, he had his first show.  Since then, both their lives had been a whirlwind.  He was selling pieces for two or three thousand dollars at a time and had companies crying out for his work.  When money was no longer an issue, Vicky quit her job as a dentist’s receptionist to take over the administrative side for him.  It had become a full time job in and of itself and was leaving no time for him to concentrate on the artwork.

That was less than a month ago and since then, Vicky had gotten his work into some of the hottest art-houses and galleries in New York, as well as having some pieces sent to galleries in Los Angeles.  She was the one who made first contact with Markus, whom Chad had spent the day and better part of the night with.  He had introduced himself as “Markus with a ‘K’,” and was just as pompous as the introduction suggested.  Flamboyant and showy, with an ego the size of a Mack truck, the man wasn’t normally the type of person Chad would’ve chosen to spend time with.  However, being that Markus was the owner and curator of the hottest gallery in all five boroughs, Chad was more than happy to bite the bullet.  He was so damn thrilled that Markus wanted to give him an exclusive, month-long showing that pretending to like the self-proclaimed ‘diva’ wasn’t nearly as difficult as he thought it would be.  In fact, when Markus made mention of the fact that the pieces he displayed never sold for less than hundreds of thousands, Chad had no problem at all in joining the dramatic man in an improvised waltz through the main viewing hall.

True…he could have done without the kiss on each cheek when they finally said ‘goodbye’ less than an hour ago, as well as the ruby lipstick Markus left behind…but it did nothing to bring him back down from the clouds.  Hell…he had been so wrapped up in the narcotic haze of success…he probably would have let gaudy curator do more than that, had he tried.  So elated by thoughts of sports cars, jet-skis and summer villas, Chad had floated past the six-block walk back to the subway, barely aware of his surroundings.  If the grimy maître d hadn’t jolted him back to reality, he might have missed the 179th Street station entrance altogether.  Even if he hadn’t ordered the soufflé, he supposed he owed the guy.

The platform was relatively quiet with a small group of “goth” youths gathered at the far end, smoking cigarettes and talking amongst themselves.  They were all wearing dark clothes with even darker expressions and Chad chose not to make eye contact.  Instead, he looked up at one of the aging, tube-style television sets mounted to the ceiling, for the time.  It was rare to actually find one that was still working, but when you could, the time and temperature would always be at the bottom of the screen while local advertisements, civic announcements and government information scrolled above it.  It was 12:45am.  Either the F-Train was running a little late or…he had just missed it.  Momentarily, he thought about asking the kids if they knew, but they really didn’t look like they had any intentions of being helpful to each other…let alone a stranger.

Instead, he settled onto a metal bench a third of the way down the platform and pulled out his IPhone.  There had to be an app that kept tabs on the trains with GPS.  If he had missed it then at least he’d have his phone already out, an episode of “Game of Thrones” ready to kill the time until the next train.  His phone said 12:50am and Chad instinctively looked back at the mounted TV to see how far off it was…not that it mattered.  He wouldn’t know which one was wrong.  Confirming a difference of a few minutes, he was about to look back at his phone again when his eyes were caught by the face on the faded screen.  It was an Amber Alert…which wasn’t terribly uncommon in New York, unfortunately.  Seemed like there was a new one ever other day.  Regardless, Chad still took the time to look…every time.  He would read the name, read the description and, if possible, study the face.

Not that he had ever once seen a child from those horrible warnings in person…nor would he want to…but he felt compelled to look anyway.  In his opinion…everyone should.  As much as he believed we should all be helpful to each other and good stewards to our neighbors, first and foremost, society as a whole needed to watch out for the children.  We were required to protect and nurture all children; they were the bearers of innocence and the future, both.  The little girl’s name was “Kimberly” and she was ten-years-old.  With raven pigtails and a ‘melt your heart’ grin, she looked like a pageant queen or juniors model, something out of a commercial for children’s…whatever.  In the picture she looked truly happy and that made it all the more heartbreaking knowing that she’d been abducted from her bedroom nearly a week ago and could, in no way, be feeling that way now.

With a screen-wipe to the left, the picture was replaced with a list of announcement’s involving activities sponsored by the Shriner’s of New York and Chad shook his head, trying not to let his mood diminish.  The world was always going to be ugly in places…especially in this city; it was best not to dwell on the things that can’t be helped.  He had done his civic duty by making an effort to see the alert, at least, rather than looking right past it like the large majority.

Turning his attention back to the smaller screen in his hand, he sought out the NYC Transit website.  A couple minutes and a few taps later, his expectations were rewarded with confirmation:  the trains were monitored in real time.  It made sense.  In this day and age, when every new car, cell-phone and credit-card were equipped with GPS-tracking computer chips, they should definitely have figured out how to slip one somewhere aboard the seventy ton trains running beneath the streets.  As it turned out…they had.  Chad hadn’t missed the F-Train after all; it was nearly ten minutes late at this point.  A couple of minutes here or there weren’t unusual, but ten…ten was uncommon.  The intricate and complex nature of the crisscrossing railway lines generally required the operators maintain a precise schedule in order for it to run smoothly.  Without keeping a tight ship, the whole system could get jammed up and go to hell in an instant.  The Transit app didn’t indicate that there were any problems and he really hoped that was the case.  Their technical issues were his pain in the ass.

The last thing on Earth he wanted to do was spend two hours in Queens waiting for the subway repair team to do their thing, especially when Chad was dying to get back to the loft to tell Vicky how it went with Markus.  That wasn’t necessarily rare in itself.  It seemed to be a common theme for him to feel anxious about returning home whenever he was away.  It didn’t really matter the reason…he was always in a hurry to tell the woman of his dreams about his day, even if it contained nothing more than the mundane.  If the highlights consisted of a trip to the coffee house or watching “Friends” reruns on TBS all afternoon, Chad couldn’t wait to share it with her.  The truly amazing thing was…she seemed to feel the same way.  How it was possible that someone so clearly out of his league could look into his eyes every morning and say, “I love you,” was completely baffling and, for the most part, he tried not to pull at those strings.  On the rare occasions when he did study the mystery, it only led to a long list of detrimental qualities that should have sent her running.  One would think that being in a relationship with someone like Victoria would be good for the ego…it really wasn’t.

“You’re a dick!” one of the leather-clad teens screamed from the far end of the platform, apparently admonishing one of her ‘friends’ who had said or done something to piss her off.  Chad looked their way and the girl that screamed, covered in piercings and tattoos, wore black lip-stick on her scowling face.  His best guess was that the kids were millennials but he was finding it harder and harder to gauge the ages of the subsequent generations anymore…especially the young women.  The makeup and collagen industries had created a new breed of woman who was of an indeterminable age and trying to guess generally ended unpleasantly.

Eighteen year olds looked twenty-eight and twenty-eight year olds look eighteen.  Not that you could make assumptions either.  The world of dating had changed so dramatically in his life-time; it wasn’t funny…even though it should have been.  Not only did you have to have to be concerned with making sure they’re of age, which isn’t a new thing itself, having been a concern, outside of the Mormons at least, since the time of the Romans.  However, finding out how a person identifies, what pronouns they use…and even what sex they actually were…weren’t really issues when he was on the dating scene.  It was just another reason he was grateful for Victoria.

The screamer flipped off a guy whose black hair hung over his mascara caked eyes and, after a couple seconds, laughter broke out in the group.  Chad surmised that there would be no ensuing violence and turned his attention back to his phone and the time: 12:53am.  He would give it another seven minutes.  Arbitrarily rounding to the closest zero, Chad figured that was about all the patience he had in him.  If the train hadn’t arrived by then, he would head street-side and hail a cab or set up an Uber.  It would probably be a difference of a couple hundred dollars for the trip home but would be just as quick…if not quicker; and…he really wanted to see Vicky.  Besides, once he got his showing in Markus’s gallery that kind of money would be chump-change.

Chad dusted off a classic and pulled up the “Angry Birds” game on his phone to kill the seven minutes and subdue his socially engineered OCD.  According to the app it had been twenty-nine months since the last time he’d played and, rather than attempting the recollection of his last game, he decided to start over on level one.  He had just loaded the first bird into firing position for its aerial assault on the feebly constructed pig facility when his attention was pulled away at the last second, sailing the feathered missile well over its target.

The door to the men’s restroom, which sat against the wall to Chad’s left, opened and three people came shuffling out onto the platform.  It was immediately obvious that they were homeless and wouldn’t have been something that would have held his attention were it not for the last one to exit.  The first man was covered in multiple layers of dingy clothes, seemingly wearing his entire wardrobe in order to keep it close at hand.  His eyes looked like that of a young man, but his black hair and long beard were streaked with large swathes of grey which contradicted the rest of his face.  The streets were aging him prematurely.  Chad wondered how the man wasn’t covered in sweat beneath all the coverings; it was easily seventy-five degrees.

The second man to exit behind the ball of clothes was much larger than the first, despite the mass of fabric that consumed him.  It was difficult to estimate, but since he had to duck slightly to clear the bathroom door-frame, Chad guessed he was close to seven feet tall.  He had a beard as well, but unlike the full beard of the other man, it was shorter and grew in scruffy patches which jutted out in all directions.  Beneath the “hat” made primarily from plastic Walmart bags, he truly looked like a mad-man.  He might have been the nicest guy in the world, and if he was…Chad felt bad for thinking it, but ‘approachable’ would never be a word that would apply to him.

The headpiece was only the finishing touch for the ensemble, however, as the shirt, pants and coat seemed to be cobbled together more from plastic than fabric.  Utilizing garbage bags, grocery bags, sheeting and an industrial tarpaulin, he’d somehow created the ultimate look for the rainy season.  Honestly, Chad wouldn’t have been surprised to see something similar in one of the “avant-garde” fashion shows that Markus had insisted he attend with him and which, despite it sounding like a punishment of some type, he had agreed to do.  The outfit had somehow been stitched together in a fully functional form, but it didn’t stop him from crinkling loudly with each step he took.  If it weren’t completely beyond the bounds of the societal decency he believed in, Chad would have snapped a quick picture with the IPhone.  It was as amazing as it was amusing…oh…and sad.

He was just about to look away and return to minding his own business when the third one exited.  Chad’s first thought, which his rationale quickly dismissed, was that…it was a child.  That couldn’t be right though.  The one thing you generally didn’t see among the hundreds of homeless or street people with questionable sanity that you came across every day…was children.  It was pretty much common knowledge that the government would never let a child live in those conditions and if you did see a kid intermingled with the sea of unwashed…it set off alarms.  Which is why Chad couldn’t look away.  His second thought was that it was a midget…or little person…or dwarf…or whatever the hell the politically correct term was these days.  It was becoming impossible to keep up with terminology anymore.

He was unable to discern exactly how old the little guy was, however, due in large part to the oversized black hoodie he was wearing.  Obviously designed for someone five times his size, it buried him like a hooded Sith robe and, with the way he held his head towards the ground, hung well past his face.  He wasn’t holding hands with either of the other two, which is what one might expect from a child that size…if he were a child…which he couldn’t be.  He just kind of shuffled along behind them with the same purposeful steps they took.  None of them acknowledged each other but kept an even pace as they walked past and gave off no indications that it was anything other than normal for them to be doing so.  They didn’t look his way either and Chad strained his head down to the level of his knees in an effort of catching a look at the short one’s face…but it was to no avail.  The only sense that took in the full scope of the interlopers was his sense of smell…which was nothing short of assaulted.

The three continued past him, steady…in no hurry, and made their way to the far end of the platform, just past the group who had already given them a wide birth while snickering mercilessly.  It made Chad physically ill to see their actions and, much as he did at least once every day in the city, he reflected on the absolute shit-hole this world was becoming…each generation having less compassion as the last.  He had gotten used to being mocked for his conservative Middle-American views…but were helping and loving one another really such radical concepts anymore?  Had Worldstarhiphop, Rotten.com and the like really killed empathy, and if that were true…what did that mean for the future of this world?

The F-Train pulled into the 179th Street station at 12:55am, nearly fifteen minutes late and Chad tried to let his disgust subside as it came to a groaning, screeching stop.  He only hoped that the group wouldn’t continue to ridicule once they were all on the train together.  The doors gave a groaning jerk, teasing their inability to open for a split-second, before yielding to their manufactured purpose and sliding away.  Without fail, Chad always remembered and re-lived the scene in an action movie from his childhood where a guy lets his arm get caught in the closing doors and gets dragged to a less than pleasant end.  It was undoubtedly an irrational fear but one which always got his butt quickly onto a train regardless and he hustled into the car.  He tried his best to keep an eye on the kids and bums through the train window and, for a moment, it appeared that they would be getting in the same car together.

The three men didn’t get on the subway car, however, and instead entered a door that was such background scenery, Chad hadn’t even noticed it before.  Just a few feet from the train tunnel, the sign on its front read:  DO NOT ENTER.  Authorized Personnel Only.  Central Maintenance.  Line-F #4358, Section D-33.  It was more than evident that they weren’t supposed to be going in there, but what the hell was he going to do about it?  He wasn’t the Transit Police…if such a thing existed.  At that point, Chad realized that the moment would be nothing more than another, probably not interesting story that he would share with Vicky later and was about relocate his attentions to finding a seat when he caught a quick glimpse of the short man’s face as he just happened to look up and in his direction at that second.  Not just in his direction but…right at him…and…it wasn’t a man.  The moment was so quick that his mind had difficulty processing it with the speed he needed it to.

It was a child.  It was a little girl…and even though her face was mostly concealed beneath layers of soot and grime, it immediately seemed familiar; although he just couldn’t be sure.  Chad pulled the IPhone out of his pocket and quickly sought out the Amber Alert website.  It felt like it was probably the same child he had just seen on the TV but it could also have been his mind playing tricks on him, a combination of opportune lighting and wishful thinking.  He had to know for sure.  The bandwidth wasn’t great within the metal frame of the train and the website was slow to load.  The train began to groan again and he knew he had to make a decision.  There was no way he could verify that he had seen Kimberly before the F-Train left the station…or after, for that matter.  It was common knowledge that the cell signals were non-existent in the tunnels…at least until the city decided to spring for technology necessary to make the vehicles into mobile hot-spots.

“Dammit,” he swore to himself before jumping back onto the platform, narrowly beating the closing doors.  It went against every Vicky-centric addicted bone in his body.  The train pulled out of the station with Chad’s last shot at a subway ride north for at least thirty minutes and he shook his head with a bit of self-disgust.  Even he couldn’t believe the lengths to which his Samaritan actions took him sometimes.  In the end, however, it came down to the fact that it was better to ridicule himself over the results of his motivations than it would be to have turned his back on someone that truly needed help…especially a child.  That was the sort of thing Chad would never be able to live with…and the biggest reason why he was still standing on the 179st platform, rather than speeding home to the warmth and comfort of Victoria’s bosom.

The website was still trying to squeeze through his bandwidth and, while waiting, Chad examined the door that the three had gone through.  It should have been locked.  A small screw had been wedged into the locking mechanism, keeping the bolt from clicking into place that would make the door impassable to anyone without a key…much as it was designed to do.  One could only presume that those key-holders were the “Authorized Personnel” to which the sign referred.  He couldn’t help but to notice the tiny row of indecipherable symbols that had been etched in beneath the word ‘Authorized’; while they didn’t hold his attention for long, they did strike him as an odd type of graffiti…something between Egyptian hieroglyphics and the stuff he’d seen on “Ancient Aliens.”

The Amber Alert page finally finished loading and Kimberly Mary Masters beautiful face filled the screen.  Chad studied the details of her face for the second time in the last ten minutes, this time taking particular care to process the details the high definition IPhone screen conveyed that the dinosaur in the metal frame above him could not.  He did his best to match the girl on the screen with the child he’d only seen for a millisecond.  It sure looked like the same girl…but was it enough to call the police over?  It only took a moment to decide.  Even if the kid he had seen wasn’t Kimberly Masters, it was still a child walking into a maintenance tunnel with a couple of bums.  That alone should warrant interest by the authorities.  He quickly downloaded the Amber Alert pdf and switched over to the phone line.

911 took a full five rings to answer and then, when it did, it was a recording informing him that his call would be answered in the order it was received.  Chad sighed…not so much for having to wait, but rather the fact that there was this long a wait for emergency calls.  His situation was such that he could afford to wait, but if he’d been in a burning building, hiding from a home intruder or bleeding to death in the street…this would have really sucked.  Then again, in a city where ambulances roam the streets like taxi cabs and twenty-four hour medical centers that doubled as McDonalds were commonplace…what else did he expect?

The phone stated that three and a half minutes had passed when a real human finally came onto the line.  “You’ve dialed nine-one-one,” she informed him to begin the interaction, nearly prompting a chuckle in the process.  It was only three digits…did she think he’d forgottenDid that happen often?  “What’s your emergency?”

Chad hadn’t really thought about how to present the situation, but all he had to say to the operator was, “I think I saw Kimberly Masters from the Amber Alert,” before he was connected to a Detective Ricardo Capiro.  Detective Capiro was primarily a member of one of the NYPD’s ‘Special Victims Units’ but spent nearly as much of his time in ‘Missing Persons’, with child abductions being something of a specialty of his…if anything so reprehensible could be quantified as a ‘specialty’.  Spending the first ten years of his law enforcement career in his home country of El Salvador, where children were taken by the average of one every thirty seconds, Ricardo had more than enough experience to be called an “expert”.  He had been the Primary on Kimberly’s case and, after one dead lead after another, Chad could hear the frustration and skepticism in his voice.

“Are you absolutely sure it was her, Chad?” he asked after the preliminary identification questions were out of the way.  Chad tried not the judge the man…goodness know he couldn’t do that job…but it was still a little irritating; he did his best to keep it from coming through in his voice.

“No…I’m not absolutely sure.  Does it really matter though?  I saw a little girl…and she was heading into a friggin’ maintenance tunnel with two homeless guys.  Shouldn’t that be enough to warrant an investigation?”

“Of course, Mister Parker.  It’s more than enough…I’m just trying to get the facts straight.”  Detective Capiro put his hand over the mouthpiece and Chad could hear him talking to someone else muffled through fingers.  A moment later and he was talking to Chad again.  “Okay Chad…I’ve got someone heading to your location now.  Do you still have visual contact with the individuals?”  Chad shook his head despite the inability for the motion to be interpreted through the audio-only conversation.

“No…I told you; they’ve gone into the tunnel.  I’m on the platform.  Are you wanting me to follow them?”  The question held a sarcastic tone but the second it was out of his mouth, Chad regretted having released it, regardless.  If following potentially dangerous, potentially crazy, child-nappers into a dark, scary tunnel was the last thing he wanted to do, then he probably shouldn’t have brought it up.  Certainly he wanted to help…otherwise he’d be speeding back to Manhattan at the moment…but getting off the train and making this phone call was him helping.  There was no way they could ask him to do more than that…was there?

The line was silent for a moment as though the detective were really considering such a ludicrous question.  When he finally came back with, “Could you?” it was more than a little flabbergasting.

“Are you serious?”

“Well…I definitely don’t want you to put yourself into a dangerous situation by any means…however…I really don’t want to see these guys slip away.  Especially if it is Kimberly.”  He paused for a moment and Chad waited for the punchline.  “Maybe you could try and see which way they’re heading?  It’ll take my guys at least twenty or thirty to get there.  Any information to help direct them when they do is…invaluable.  What do you think, Mister Parker…can you help us out?  Can you help her out?”

You’ve got to be kidding me, Chad thought to himself, is it even possible for this guy to lay it on any thicker?   He couldn’t help but to wonder if there was any way this detective could have known that he wasn’t talking to the average, thick-skinned New Yorker that didn’t give a shit about helping anyone but themselves.  Sometimes he felt like he had ‘rube’ written all over him when he walked down the streets; if that was coming across over the phone as well…something might need to change.  If that wasn’t the case and Detective Capiro used the same approach on everyone…it might explain his lack of success.

Chad scoffed and began pacing, the answers he wanted to give echoing in his head.  No…sorry.  I don’t think I can do that.  It’s against my religion.  I’ve got a bad back…the flu…chronic IBS.  Anything other than the words that eventually came out of his mouth would’ve been better.

“Yea…okay…I guess I can try to follow them for a little bit.”  He looked at the sign again with disapproval.  “This says ‘Authorized Personnel Only’…I’m not going to get in any trouble for going in here, am I?”

“No Chad…you are now ‘Authorized Personnel’.  You just try to stay quiet and unseen…if that’s possible.”  ‘If that’s possible’…hell of a pep-talk.  Chad shook his head and looked around the deserted platform before opening the door and peering into the darkness beyond its threshold.  Was he really going in there?  He’d made plenty of bad decisions in the past…but this felt like it might be the worst.

“Yea…right…unseen,” Chad mumbled in agreement.  “You’re gonna’ stay on the line with me…right?”

“I’ve got my Bluetooth in, Buddy.  I’m not going anywhere.  The thing is…”  Chad took one step into the cramped concrete tunnel and the detective’s sentence was cut off…along with the call.  With instantaneous precision, the boundaries of his IPhone’s signal were clearly defined.  It could fight its way through the quarter mile of dense earth and steel frame, but the three feet of industrial concrete which lined the maintenance tunnel like a bomb shelter proved to be too much.

“Son-of-a-bitch,” Chad cursed to himself.  Detective Capiro might not be going anywhere…but he wasn’t coming with him.  The thick, metal door closed behind him and he took a couple steps forward, hoping his eyes would adjust to the dramatic difference in light.  After a few moments, and deciding that they wouldn’t, Chad decided to utilize one of the cellphone’s alternate functions:  the flashlight.  It was impressively bright and yet another reason why he called his IPhone a “Swiss-Army Knife for the twenty-first century”.  He couldn’t even count the number of times it had saved his ass by functioning outside its ability to make phone calls and, in this particular instance, he was immensely grateful for the unexpectedly large, round swathe of light it cast out.  It was probably his first big mistake, however, as it completely went against one of the only two edicts he’d been given:  stay unseen.  With the dust kicking up in the air around him…he looked like a walking snow-globe.

The tunnel itself was only dimly lit with tiny, yellow phosphorous bulbs spaced every ten feet or so. The five-watt lights did little more than remind the eye that the walls continued to exist as far as you could see.  Chad could see no sign of the grungy trio, but since they weren’t as illuminated as he was…that wasn’t surprising.  With the brightest light-source in the vicinity coming from his own right hand, it really wasn’t possible to see much of anything outside of his immediate comfort zone.  Taking a moment to realize how utterly anti-beneficial the phone’s bright light actually was, he acquiesced to the shadows and shut it off.  He gripped the wall for balance and tightly shut his eyes for twenty seconds, which was about how long it took for his IPhone’s flashlight to quit reverberating on the back of his eyelids.  Silently counting the seconds off in his head, Chad simultaneously listened intently for any ambient noise beyond his own breathing.

Nothing helpful offered itself, unfortunately…no shuffling of feet or murmuring of voices filtering down the tunnel, and when he opened his eyes again they were presented with the same stillness his ears had been taking in.  ‘Reluctant’ would be a huge understatement in describing his progress as Chad slowly began to put one foot after the other down the tunnel which was, he felt in its most simplicity, dark and scary.  Having no experience in construction or maintenance, it was a wholly alien environment.  The closest approximation he had of the experience was walking through the concrete walkways from concessions to the seats at Citi Field; and in that instance, the tunnel had been wider and much shorter…without even mentioning the bright light at its end.

This was significantly different.  With maybe three and a half feet from wall to wall, it was definitely more claustrophobic than at a Mets game, but on the plus side, at least there was no room for someone to jump out at him.  Which was exactly where his mindset was at.  The most sinister thing he could see were the tiny, unobtrusive spiders building webs in the corners…and yet he had already psyched himself into a ‘haunted-house’ frame of mind, letting the anxiousness and fear slowly build itself out of nothing.  He was reading too many of those damn “Creepypastas” online.  Every few yards, his feet would stop involuntarily and he would have to remind them why they were there in the first place: there was a child in there!  If he was scared now…imagine how she felt.

The tunnel bent at a slow angle and once he’d gone far enough to no longer see the door he came in through, Chad began to question just exactly how far he was prepared to take this.  Obviously, he had no intentions of walking the how every many miles it was to the next station.  There had been no indications of his quarry so far and with nothing to suggest that they were still in front of him, he was just about to turn around when he came across a metal door.  It was on the left wall, opposite the subway line, and while the tunnel continued to stretch into the distance, logic seemed to dictate that this had to be where they had gone.  That was unless they were as fast as Usain Bolt and as quiet as ninjas…and he knew for a fact that Mr. Glad Wrap wasn’t capable of either in his outfit.

The sign on the front was of the familiar, “Authorized Personnel Only” variety and this time he was fully prepared to ignore it, however something did grab his attention…much more than the first time he had seen it, at least.  Beneath the word “Authorized”, much as had been on the last sign, was a small, neat strip of those unusual symbols that were so foreign to him.  Pictographic in nature, something in the back of his mind said, maybe it’s Sanskrit, but how in the hell would he know that?  Maybe that fired neuron just happened to be the one paying attention to that episode of “National Geographic” that Chad had only thought of as background noise.  Whatever the case, whether it was Sanskrit, something from “Skyrim” or out and out gibberish…it was definitely out of place in this darkened armpit of the world beneath the city.  So seemingly random at first glance, he could tell, upon further inspection with the IPhone light, that whomever had carved the symbols into the metal had done so with the type of precision and care which appeared to be anything but ‘random’.  No…it looked like a message…a second sign placed inconspicuously upon the first and its intended recipient was anyone’s guess.

Chad tried the handle and it was unlocked, the deadbolt having been disabled with the same wedged-in screw trick that had enabled him to get through the last one.  He turned off the light again, not wanting to give away his position to whomever might be behind the door, and slowly opened it…only slightly aware that all his muscles were taut with tension.  It was probably more psychosomatic paranoia…but this felt like another ‘boo’ moment and he was going to be ready to come out swinging if it was.  It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the complete darkness within and when they did…he still wasn’t sure what he was seeing.  The three-foot by three-foot cubby-hole looked like the world’s worst janitor’s closet and Chad struggled to see the purpose of the space until he turned on his ‘I-light’ again…and then he kind of wished he hadn’t.  It revealed what he hadn’t been able to see a second before:  a submarine style hatch centered in the floor.  Was this for real?

Chad didn’t fancy the hatch-industry to be a booming one, but…there had to be other options than this.  He had a hard time imaging a group of people around a board-room table at some contracted architectural design company signing off on the nautically themed entryway placed in so obscure a location…let alone someone drawing up the blueprint that way.  Cursing the inevitable grime that would stain his khaki pants, Chad got on his hands and knees and tried to rotate the circular handle.  He was half-way expecting it not to budge and all-the-way hoping that it wouldn’t, but it gave way easily and spun to the left.  Well-oiled and quiet, this was a door that was not used infrequently.  The circular hatch-door lifted just as easily and he peered into darkness below; the top three rungs of the metal ladder were really all he could see.

As much apprehension as he had about coming in the tunnel in the first place could be multiplied by a thousand for as much as he did not want to go down that damn hole.  This isn’t your job, that voice piped in his head, there are people who get paid to do this kind of stuff.  You’re not trained to be in this kind of situation.  That was true…but he was “authorized personnel” and…that was something.

“Dammit Parker…you need to man-up!”  The whispered pep-talk did nothing to set his body in motion so he continued; “There’s a frightened, little girl in that hole and you might be her best chance of getting out.  Are you really going to let her stay down there…with them?”  Chad was smart enough to know that his assertions were really assumptions and were latent with logical fallacies.  He didn’t know for sure that they had gone down this hole; as far as he knew there was another hatch fifty-yards down the tunnel and then another after that.  Even if they had gone down this one…was he really her ‘best chance’?  Because that was a frightening notion in itself.  Regardless…the words worked and Chad began gingerly lowering himself through the hole and down the ladder, grabbing each rung with an iron-fisted certainty before reaching for the next one.

With phobias rating on the scale of the average person, he didn’t care for heights and he wasn’t really thrilled with tight spaces either.  The combination of the two had a thin layer of sweat building on his back and brow while his heart hammered in his chest.  It took a concentrated effort keep his breathing slow and steady: in through the nose, out through the mouth; and he had to keep reminding himself that he wasn’t doing anything wrong, he was allowed to be down here and most importantly…he was the ‘good guy’.

The ladder descended further than he expected and, after a point, he kept anticipating each step down to be the last.  Eventually it was…but only after he’d been wrong twenty times or more.  In all, Chad estimated that he’d climbed between fifty and sixty feet, or four stories, down and he was at a complete loss as to what could be down there.  The most obvious answer was sewage tunnels…it was too deep to see it ever being an alternate subway line…however the odor that almost always accompanied that ‘obvious’ answer was nowhere present.  He had learned the hard way how to recognize the oppressive scent from the ‘kitten in the storm drain’ incident.  The kitten was rescued, but the odor, much like the time he got sprayed by a skunk as a child, stayed with him for several days.

He appeared to be in yet another tunnel, much wider than the one above him; but there were no strategically placed little lights in this one to give it any definition.  If it weren’t for Apple’s ability to pack a lot of punch into its bulbs, there would be very little to see at all, a sea of smothering darkness hanging just beyond the fringes of his illuminated orb.  From what he could tell, Chad was smack in the middle of a tunnel which ran both ways.  There would be no way to logically determine a proper course of action from here.  Maybe if he were a Native-American ‘tracker’ or had some psychic powers…or even just a sign…he’d know what direction to go; but randomly setting off down a completely blackened hallway, a half-mile beneath the earth, where no one knew where he was…well…it didn’t seem wise.

He had placed a hand back on the ladder with full intentions of making the long climb back up where, hopefully, nice policemen would be waiting to take his place when a piercing scream echoed out of the shadows, freezing both his heart and is hands.  Three distinctive qualities registered immediately: first, it was a girl’s scream…a child; second, it was full of distinct fear and the third, final and possibly most upsetting was…he could tell exactly which direction it came from.

“Son-of-a-bitch,” Chad muttered to himself once his lungs allowed the breathing to resume.  You were wanting a sign.  He would have preferred something less forbidding, however, given the circumstances.  Taking his hand off the metal rung, he started off in the direction of the distressed noise.  After a few steps he decided to try it without the light, but the enveloping darkness was so overwhelmingly disorientating that he found himself getting turned around too easily.  For the time being he would have to keep it on, at least until some other semblance of light decided to present itself.

It did beg the question though: if they had come this way…how on earth were they able to see?  Chad thought about the way the three of them had walked past him earlier, unresponsive to one another yet shuffling along in perfect sync, step by harmonious step.  Then he thought about them repeating that action through the pitch-black of this tunnel…and it gave him the creeps.  Yea…that was probably it for the Stephen King books.  If it really was Kimberly he saw, however, and she was being forced somehow to trudge along behind those sick bastards…then it was a lot scarier than he’d imagined; and he wasn’t the one who should be scared.

Without the depth of field to judge the distance behind him, it was difficult to say how far he’d gone but eventually he came to an intersection that branched off in three different directions.  Once again he was struck with the guilt-inducing yet somehow totally relieving revelation that he had no clue how to proceed and, once again, as if on cue he was denied the opportunity to make a judgement-free retreat.  This time it was more than just a scream as actual words flung themselves from the center tunnel.  Clear as day and soaked with pain, a young voice called out, “Help me!  Someone please help me!” and then it was quiet again.  Chad was often guilty of acting before thinking and, more out of instinct than anything, he cupped his hands around his mouth and hollered in the direction of the voice.

“Kimberly!?  Is that you, Kimberly?”  He realized that, beyond the stupidity of giving away his location, it probably wasn’t the best thing to yell in the first place.  What if the child calling out for help wasn’t Kimberly?  Were they supposed to stop to take the time to explain that, no…they weren’t ‘Kimberly’ in point of fact, but could still use a hand being rescued from underground vagrants.  Something along the line of “Where are you?” or even “I’m coming” would’ve been better.  None of that mattered though as the answer he got was enough to get him moving again.  After a curt scream, the mystery victim shrieked, “Hurry!  Plea…”  Her last word, “Please”, was cut off by what sounded like the muffling of a hand over her mouth.

Chad began to jog through the darkened hall now, his footsteps echoing off the walls.  His fear of the unseen had been growing smaller and smaller the longer he was traipsing around in the dark and now the surge of adrenaline that was fueling his system was going straight to his protectorate mode.  It was that same sense of physical readiness and mental awareness that he felt when he was out in the city with Victoria on his arm.  In those moments he was prepared to fight off an army in order to keep her safe and completely willing to sacrifice his own life and limbs in the process.  Here’s to hoping it doesn’t come to that.

Again, the indeterminable darkness made established a distance nearly impossible.  He counted off the steps in his head but lost the count somewhere around fifty and gave up trying.  After several minutes of cutting through the oppressive wall of black, Chad thought that he saw something and stopped, turning off his light to be certain.  There was a light at the end of the tunnel; it wasn’t just a metaphorical one either.  There was very little distinction at first, but as he closed the distance the details slowly came into view…first the outline of the tunnel itself as it opened up into a much larger room beyond; and then the flickering shadows that danced erratically against the tunnel’s interior walls.  Whatever point the illumination was coming from, it was obviously being produced by a flame of some type.  Too bright to be candles, Chad’s best guess was that it was a burning oil can but, if he were being honest, the only time he’d ever really seen one of those was in the many dystopian movies he enjoyed.  Plus, given the odd choice of the submarine hatch, he wouldn’t have been entirely surprised to have seen torches lining the wall ala a medieval castle.  It was just as peculiar a design choice but would have seemed a lot more representative of the actual atmosphere down there.

Reaching the threshold of the end of the tunnel where it opened into a room that seemed cavernous in comparison to what he’d seen so far, Chad lowered himself into a crouching position and peered out as surreptitiously as someone of his size could.  ‘Weird’ had been the theme of the hour ever since he’d walked out of the 179th Street station and into a very special episode of “The Outer Limits” starring Chad Parker…but it would come nowhere close to adequately covering the spectacle that manifested itself before him.  An assembly line of questions ran through his mind on a conveyor belt as he processed the scene and the only one that paused long enough for him to acknowledge it was: how is this even possible?

The room beyond the tunnel was much larger than anything he’d anticipated coming across down here; but it was far from empty.  He had no clue what its original purpose could’ve been with its vaulted ceiling and evenly spaced support columns; it was nearly twice the size of the average station platform.  The once plastered and painted walls were deteriorating with age with large chunks missing in some areas, exposing the concrete beneath.  Despite that, there was still enough of the beautiful and intricate designs molded into the plaster to determine that it had once been used as something for the general public at large.   Oddly enough, to Chad at least, it resembled the sanctuary of the church he attended back in Iowa.  Whatever its purpose had once been, it appeared to now be a central hub for a…community.

A large group of unwashed street people had made their home in this, of all places…although these would technically be under-the-street people.  Mole-people was what popped into his head.  Garbage, cardboard boxes, egg crates, and the twisted metal bones of long dead appliances served as repurposed furniture and made up the bulk of their luxuries, arranged in haphazard fashion around the eight or nine oil cans burning strategically about the room. They were oil cans!  Given the source material from which he drew his assumption…that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.   As uninviting as the massive hall’s design choices might have seemed to the average subterranean tourist…the people were that much worse.  It was a truly motley crew, quite unlike anything he’d ever seen, gathered together in several small groups around their flaming light sources.  The heat that rolled out of the room was oppressive and appalling, like standing at the precipice of hell itself, and Chad wondered how in the world those people could even stand to be so close to the orange and white cans of burning trash.

The ‘mole-people’ seemed dirtier than their top-side counterparts, if such a thing was even possible; but that wasn’t what really set them apart from the others that Chad had seen in his four years as a New Yorker.  The most noticeable difference and the one thing that made his neck-hairs stand on end was…their skins.  Even though he was fairly certain that he’d deduced the reason that they looked the way they did…it didn’t make it any less creepy.  Unlike the top-side homeless who wore thick, weathered skin from their constant exposure to the elements, these people looked sickly pale.  As thin as Paper Mache and devoid of any color the sun might provide, their skins were nearly opaque and hung off their bones as saggy, white dermal-suits.  They were frail and weak and the smallest movements seemed like a laborious effort.  The picture of health…the mole-people weren’t.

The only plus side to this horribly depressing sight was that if Chad were discovered…and things went south…more than likely he could take them.  Not that it was any kind of real ‘plus’, the entire scene tore at his heart to the point that tears needed to be wiped away, but he needed to keep self-preservation in his forethought and consider all the possibilities.  He was, after all, the trespasser here.  If he was given a shit-sandwich to eat and things turned unexpectedly violent…well, he didn’t see a single one of them who looked like they could swing a fist at him once, let alone multiple times.  More than likely a feather-light touch would topple them all like dominos.  Hopefully, it won’t come to that.  Chad Parker had been in many fights in his twenty-eight years, the first coming when he was only six-years-old, however, all of them…every single one…came about in the defense of someone else.  Someone being bullied…someone being looked down on…someone struggling that no one else seemed to care about…someone like these people.

He hated himself for having any thoughts of violence against them at all and felt it necessary to repeat the ‘you are the good guy’ mantra to himself yet again.  You are supposed to be here.  You are looking for a little girl!  Unfortunately, that was one thing he didn’t see.  Chad had carefully taken in the entirety of the room…or at least what he could see; there seemed to be additional depth beyond the lighted area.  There was no indication of the two men, which didn’t seem to share the same uber-albino affliction as the mole-people, and the little girl he glimpsed for the full half-second they were allowed to share a look…the same little girl that he probably would’ve convinced himself by now that he didn’t really see had he not experienced her cries for help.  While this wasn’t exactly a dead-end, it was enough to allow doubt to begin creeping up his spine again; it was another situation which he had no tactical training to deal with…not to mention having no clue how to proceed.

The last two times this had happened, he’d asked for a sign of some type…and both times he was granted one, albeit in the form of a directionally trackable scream.  The part of him that had no desire to be there and continued to pull at his coattails which…let’s be honest…was most of him, demanded that he not request a third one.  It had almost gotten him out of the unlit, labyrinth buried far beneath the world he knew twice now…without success; and it was still biting at the chomp in anxious anticipation of his departure, prickling his legs with pins and needles and the restless leg sensation that sometimes kept him awake at night when he’d had too much caffeine.  Don’t do it!  It screamed in his ear; don’t you dare think it!

Unfortunately for his inner ‘Cowardly Lion’, the instincts his parents bred into him for eighteen years proved to be a stronger motivator and, after silencing the fear, he did think it:  I wish I had a sign.  After several seconds of the same, Chad was actually a little disappointed, having nearly convinced himself that the thought itself had somehow been the catalyst for initiating the child on the two previous occasions…a magic incantation of sorts.  That alone should have been proof enough that he wasn’t trained to be down here doing…this.  If he was counting on magic thoughts to help navigate whatever this situation happened to be…the kid was probably screwed.  Maybe him too.

Creeping back into the darkness of the tunnel a few feet, Chad pulled out his phone on the chance, unlikely as it was, that he might have a signal and cupped the screen with his hands until the brightness could be dimmed.  Now would be a really great time to be in contact with Detective Capiro.  According to Apple’s AI, which didn’t come with a disembodied voice like Alexa or Siri, it had been just over an hour since they’d been cut off the first and only time they spoke and, unfortunately, it seemed it would be longer still.  Edging quietly back to the open area, Chad extended the IPhone into the room as far as he could reach without revealing his position…still no bars.  Maybe he should just try and back-track a bit?  He had left both the hatch and the door to the hatch wide open…the police couldn’t be that far behind; could they?

Without warning, the IPhone gave its 2:00am, hourly notification beep.  Chad had barely noticed the 1:00am beep, having just entered the maintenance tunnel at the time, but now…now it seemed way too loud and completely out of place in the environment.  There was no way they couldn’t have heard it.  Jamming the phone into his back pocket, he prayed that it hadn’t been and barely squeezed one eye around the corner.  His prayers weren’t answered.  There was movement; several of them were looking around, the sunken cavities around their eyes darkened by the lambent flames and, in striking contrast to their pale, white faces, giving them the appearance of moving skeletons…Halloween costumes come to life.  Several of them were attempting to get to their feet, but it was done slowly and deliberately and looked like they might break something in the process.  All of them appeared to be speaking…although not necessarily to each other.  It was more like they were making announcements to the air in general.

None of them were terribly loud and the words came to Chad as a jumbled, incoherent mess.  The few times that a phrase or couple words managed to find its way to his ear unimpeded by the others…they didn’t even sound like a real language.  “Pluggy huggy, pluggy pluggy.”  “Huft ust.  Huft ust.”  “Kippy Mippy. Ippy wippy dippy.”  It was gibberish.  It sounded like how a baby would talk…or at least the wholly irritating way a doting parent talks to their baby; and it was the only sign he needed to signal the retreat.  Except, the second he had turned and taken his first step back into the darkness from which he came, Chad was halted once more by Kimberly’s cry; and this time there was no questioning whether it was actually her or not.  Much like their previous experience, the two of them were only allowed to make visual contact for a hair’s length of time, but it was enough to fortify his resolve and give him the motivation that he needed.  Not only was he allowed to be there…he was supposed to be there; he was being led.  There was no way he was leaving this hell beneath the earth without Kimberly Masters.

The cry was a weak one…her fading strength evident, barely held buoyant by the last vestiges of fear before she would finally slip into a comatose state of acceptance.  Chad had no children of his own and no brothers or sisters to provide nieces or nephews for babysitting on ‘date-night’, but he didn’t need the experience with children to know what those tones meant.  It was a deeply primal utterance, wholly human and capable of being made by all ages.  The heart-wrenching quality of the pathetic noise alone would have been enough to stir Chad onward.  Seeing her, however, did something to his fundamental being.  He could feel a complete change in his character as he was filled with an iron-willed ferocity he’d never known existed before as well as an absolute conviction in his own manifest destiny.  Earlier that evening, after schmoozing with Markus and pretending to enjoy the caviar which the gender-fluid collector had insisted they “gnosh”, Chad had thought that his whole life was leading up to this day…and now…now he was certain he was right.  Just not for the reasons he had imagined at the time.

When Chad saw her, she was on the far side of the room at the very edge of what the fire cans’ illumination allowed him to see, wearing that same black hoodie that very nearly enveloped her.  Grime smeared her cheeks which were pulled unnaturally tight against her bones and her eyes were wide with fear.  The poor thing didn’t look good…not at all…but at least she was alive.  Then, as quickly as he saw and recognized her, she was gone, jerked backwards into the darkened abyss by unseen hands.  He didn’t know if those same hands had once again stifled her ability to call out as she was pulled away, but Kimberly didn’t make another peep.  It was a violently quiet transition; first she was there…then she wasn’t.  Chad didn’t hesitate to move forward this time.

With the way the room was laid out and due to large portions of the floor being missing, the quickest and safest route to the location he’d last seen her standing…took him straight through the slowly moving horde of mole-people; and Chad was struck with another guilt-inducing thought.  Probably due in large part to the complete pop-culture indoctrination that warped the minds of most television viewing Americans, the image that came to mind was that of Rick and Michonne ripping their way through a room of the undead, or “walkers”.  For a very disturbing second, he had to remind himself that these people were not zombies before deciding that he might be done with “The Walking Dead”.  There had to be something better to do with his Sunday nights.

Chad’s plan was to try and juke them.  It had been since high school that Chad had played in a football game and even then it had only been as a defensive lineman and not a running back but…how hard could it be?  Honestly, his biggest concern was making sure he didn’t hurt them; while a strong stiff-arm looked impressive at the thirty-yard line…here it could be a fatal maneuver.  He was so jacked up with adrenaline and determination that putting one or more of these already suffering people in the hospital was a legitimate concern.  It was such a concern, in fact, that when they finally made contact Chad chose not to make any forceful movements at all.  By the time he’d reached the center of the room the majority of them had made it to their feet while the remaining still struggled to do so.  Five or six of them made frantic contact while encircling him and began patting their hands against him gently, all the while babbling incoherently with alternate rhyming phrases.

“Hicky uicky.  Picky.”  “Hiffa uiffa. Hiffa hiffa.”  “Hunny unny.”

Like the Dr. Seuss collection for the criminally insane, they were ramblings of mad-men and yet eerily similar; it was if they had created their own language…and none of them spoke the same dialect.  It was bizarre beyond the usual lack of sanity one saw top-side with its collective nature and it nearly brought him to a stop as he slowly tried to ease his way through the steadily growing group of bat-shit crazy poets building around him.

“Ducka iucka thucka.”  “Kappa mappa.”  “Killy milly; killy milly.”

The combination of inane verses coming in stereo from all directions, dirty hands leaving an ever growing number of prints on his dress shirt, a steaming rancid odor attacking his senses and the death masks with soulless eyes all pleading for him to understand their native tongue was almost enough to make Chad think he might just be losing his mind as well…almost.   Beyond the abject horror that was developing around him, he kept the image of Kimberly’s face at the forefront of his mind as well as her eyes…eyes that had been full of desperation in a way Chad had never seen before.  It kept him moving forward through the reeking collection that very much resembled what he would have imagined from real “walking dead” and pushed past them as gently as possible, although a few of them did go tumbling over with well-placed rhyming exclamations.

Chad shook his head as he tried to navigate the mass that was, in no way, trying to make it easy for him to do so.  “I don’t know what you want,” he did his best to explain.  “I can’t understand you.  I’m sorry.  I don’t have any money on me.”  He felt guilty for assuming that money was even the object of their desire…it was just what he was used to.  “Please,” he tried to plead with them; “I need to get through.  I need to help that little girl.  Did you see a little girl?”  He realized that without a degree in Advanced Mad Hatter, that last question was probably a stupid one.  It made sense, however, that they had at least seen Kimberly while she was down here and if, at their core, they were still…human…then they should want to see a child taken to safety, especially from a place like this.  His estimation was partially correct: they did have a reaction to his bringing up the topic of Kimberly Masters.  It wasn’t exactly what he was expecting, or at least hoping for, unfortunately.  The group seemed to double their efforts to keep him from progressing forward.  Bony fingers dug into his arms and took hold of his clothing with pitifully weakened grips that did nothing really to impede his progress.  It was a little irritating…and a little gross…but more than anything, it was surprisingWhy wouldn’t they want him to help a child?

It took several minutes to make his way to the far side of the hall without causing the kind of damage he wouldn’t be able to live with later, despite the spryer members of the group continually placing themselves in his path and pleading, “Nocka!  Nocka!”, “Nilly! Nilly!” or something as equally maddening.  Making his way through the sea of unwashed psychotics was like walking through a furnace and his entire body was slick with gritty, uncomfortable sweat.  Positive this aroma would stay with him for a while, Chad had done his best to breathe through his nose because, as bad as the odor was to smell, it was worse to taste; and now it was a part of him…stuck on like glue.  Vicky would insist on multiple showers.

The mole-people gave way as he reached the periphery of light, seemingly fearful of anything that laid beyond what they could see.  The Pavlovian reaction was disturbing in its own right.  Was this these people’s entire world?  Was it even possible to survive without venturing outside this little slice of hell?  It seemed incomprehensible and therefore…Chad didn’t even try.  One rescue mission at a time.  His priority had to be the abducted child right now.  Once he had her back in the arms of her parents, he could return with the proper authorities that would know how to help these people…or at least give them directions.  It felt unlikely that he would actually be coming back here himself.

He ventured a few feet into the darkness before pulling out his IPhone again.  It was tempting to stand there for a moment and enjoy the shadows which were nearly twenty degrees cooler than it was in the center of the room, but he stayed in motion.  The flashlight revealed another thirty or forty feet of treacherous terrain to be navigated before the great hall ended in a large set of double doors.  Chad felt some small degree of relief that there weren’t multiple options to choose from…but that scenario could change the moment he made his way through.  It took several large jumps and some back and forth maneuvering to reach the doors and Chad wondered how those men had gotten Kimberly across so easily in the pitch black.

The doors opened outward onto a metal platform and when Chad stepped out he was amazed by what he saw.  The first thought that came to him was: am I still in New York?  The platform was elevated well above the ground with a long ramp and a winding staircase that both extended to the bedrock base.  It was a large, open rock cavern.  When Chad was nine-years-old, his parents had taken him on the only family vacation that ever took them out of Iowa and away from his father’s crop-dusting business.  They had debated the vacation for a number of months beforehand and there were literally hundreds of places that Chad wanted to go.  His top requests included the beach…either coast would do; a Disney based theme park…and again, either coast was fine, or even a large metropolitan area where he could see a real Major League Baseball game.  With all these factors in mind, where did his father choose for them to go?  Western Kentucky…Mammoth Cave.  “It’s one of the ‘Eight Wonders of the World’,” had been his reasoning at the time and Chad couldn’t have been any unhappier about the decision.  That vacation was, for his younger self, a hallmark of disappointment.

That being said…Mammoth Cave was pretty damn cool.   Before squeezing through “Fat Man’s Misery” and crouching past “Tall Man’s Agony” the six-mile tour began in a massive expanse known simply as the “Rotunda”.  It was one of the largest discovered rooms, if that was the correct vernacular, in the world’s largest cave and this place looked like that.  With the roof of the cave vaulting to well over a hundred feet in some places, it was both majestic and beautiful; but so unexpected that the sight of it stunned Chad into immobility.  It had be a mirage or hallucination of sorts; it was definitely like nothing he’d ever heard of.  He recalled an article in “Vanity Fair” a few years back that took an extensive look at what existed beneath the Big Apple and it covered the water system, subways, railroads, tunnels, sewers, drains, and power and cable lines but there wasn’t one damn thing about giant rock caverns.

A short distance from the base of the staircase was what appeared to be some type of equipment, perhaps construction, as well as several enormous pallets of unused steel girders.  It was impossible to identify them with any certainty, however, due to the minimal degrees of available light.  The only lighting at all came from a series of store-bought tiki-torches which ran in a line from the end of the ramp, which came down on the opposite end of the platform from the staircase, straight into the depths beyond what they could signal back to him.  There was no point looking for his sign this time…they were definitely leading somewhere.

After the full minute it took for the bewilderment to wear off Chad began making his way down, choosing the stairs instead of the ramp and sporadically lighting the way as he went.  Part of it was because he didn’t like the tremendously steep incline of the ramp; but more than that…it was the closest thing he had to a back door in that moment.  Walking a straight line next to the only light sources in an unending mass of darkness might leave him feeling a little…exposed.  His plan was to put a little distance between himself and the path while still using the lights to navigate.  He would have to take it a little slower, of course, and do his best not to make any missteps that could result in a broken bone.  Something was telling him that 911 wouldn’t do him much good down here.  It may not have been the safest way to continue…but he wasn’t letting anyone get the jump on him.  If these guys had no qualms about kidnapping a little girl and then dragging her, screaming, through New York’s version of “Mordor”, then they probably weren’t opposed to jumping a guy from the shadows.  Especially when there was such an abundance of shadows.

The equipment at the bottom of the stairs was for construction, or at least as far as Chad could tell.  He wasn’t exactly what one would call ‘handy’.  There were a couple of load-lifters, several jackhammers and some items that he’d have to “Google” to identify.  The really odd thing about them, however, was their apparent age.  Without a doubt, the wrong person to make a guess at something like that, they looked like they were from the late-sixties or early seventies.  Whatever the case, it was apparent that the items had sitting here like this for a long time…inactive metal dinosaurs.  Evidently there were plans for this space at one point in time; what on earth could have happened that would cause them to just be left here indefinitely?

Turning his attention back to the cave which he still couldn’t believe he was standing in, Chad began making his deliberate steps into the dark.  Occasionally he needed to use the flashlight to safely verify a footfall, but for the most part the cave floor was smooth and easy to travel, albeit on a steady ascent, and he found the torches still provided enough light to keep him from killing himself.  Around a hundred or so yards into the cavern, where the metal platform could no longer be seen, the ground began to slant suddenly upward with a sharply graded incline which seemed to crown several feet above his head.  The precipitously laborious climb brought a burn to his calves while his lungs struggled for larger and larger gasps of the stale cave air.  Ever since his passage through the stifling ‘Den of the Mole People’ it felt like a thick layer of fuzz had gathered on his windpipe, trachea and bronchial tubes, much like his teeth would after binging on the spoils of a successful evening of ‘Trick or Treating’ as a child.

Meeting a wall after only a few arduous steps, it became obvious that they were arching inward on both sides and converging on the path, forcing him closer and closer to the lighted trail. At the peak a pause was necessary to catch his breath.  There was only ten to fifteen more feet before the cave met its end at a tunnel which the well-lit path continued through.  There would be no more avoiding the illuminated stream if he was to keep going.  Hands on his knees, sweat dripping from his forehead and straining for oxygen, Chad did his best to make out any sounds over his own panting.  The only noises he’d heard thus far were his own muffled footsteps and the muted echo they had produced.  There was no Kimberly…no scary bums…no growling cave monsters, just the questionable reality of his current environment.

As he took his first step into the mouth of yet another tunnel, two things struck him immediately.  The first was the tunnel itself, which shared similar dimensions to the one he’d been in earlier, but rather than the hard edges of the industrial concrete aesthetic he’d been seeing, it was defined with smooth, rounded rock walls.  There was a strip of precisely arranged, inch-high symbols that ran in a line on both sides, seemingly the length of the tunnel.  They were bizarre looking and would have been somewhat disturbing had this been the first time he’d seen them; since it was actually the third time, however, it made him physically ill.

The second thing that jumped out at him was something of a surprise and that was really saying something given the night he’d already had; it was the torches themselves.  They were far from the Dollar Store variety tiki-torches he’d presumed them to be from a distance…about as far as was possible.  Each torch had its own uniquely intricate design, ornately ordained with little, bleach-white stones that looked a little like…Oh Dear God no…those weren’t stones at all.  They were teeth, bones and segmented fragments of both.  With the care of a master craftsman, each piece had been individually placed onto hand-carved staffs to create morbidly detailed mosaics which culminated with flaming oil-lamps that looked as old as time itself.  Chad was hoping that they were nothing more than well-made Halloween props…praying really.  Careful inspection seemed to indicate that wasn’t the case, however, and it scared the shit out of him.  They were about the most sinister things he’d ever seen.  Of course he had jumped to the immediate conclusion that they were human bones and teeth, which probably didn’t help, but since the third torch in the row had the bones from a human hand, arranged as a human hand, holding the antique lamp…it didn’t seem like too far a stretch.  Everything else that had happened up to this point had been weird…creepy even…but this was sick.  This was evil.

Chad had to remind himself…yet again…why he was here in the first place.  Except it was more of a gut-check than a reminder.  The primitive ‘fight or flee’ reaction was in full effect as every nerve in his body came together in perfect harmony for a rousing chorus of ‘Run, run, you better Run!’  Oddly enough, the pace was a little more frenetic and panicked than the Pink Floyd melody one might expect.  The urge to backtrack his way out of the tunnel and back into a world of front doors with deadbolts was nearly overpowering.  A cyclone of inner turmoil tore at him; it had taken all his willpower to push forward this far, but after seeing this…something that seemed to suggest his actual mortality could be at risk if he continued…it was time to see who he really was as a man.  He didn’t want to die.  Most certainly he didn’t want to die.  His life was worth a lot to him.  That wasn’t the question though…was it?

The question was:  was his life worth more than Kimberly Masters’ life was…not just to himself…but to the world?  He had nearly thirty years of a good life: loving parents, popular in high school, graduated college, found professional success and, most importantly, found the truest of true loves.  Kimberly had eight years under her belt; what could her best highlights possibly be…braces…sleepovers…show and tell…being abducted?  If Chad Parker were the human-being he had always thought himself to be…was there even a question?  No…no there wasn’t.  It might have taken a few extra minutes to gather his composure but eventually he started down the “Temple of Doom” set piece, steadily placing one determined foot after another.  The tunnel itself wasn’t terribly long, maybe fifty feet in length and Chad worked hard to keep his eyes forward and off the god-awful bone-torches and demented hieroglyphics.

He crouched again when the tunnel opened up into its new room and it was, by far and away, the coup de gras…the icing on the cake…the cherry on his shit-sundae.  As unimaginable as it was that anything could top the bizarre cavalcade of events and sights that had unfolded before him since stepping back off the F-Train a million years ago…here it was.  This had to be the apex, the center ring in this ten-ring circus from hell he’d found himself in; Chad tried his best to take in and process the scene without giving in to the temptation to scream out like the frightened child he was starting to feel like.

The forty-foot by forty-foot circular room, much like the tunnel leading in, seemed to be cut out of the rock walls of the cave itself with the same smoothly curved walls.   At ninety degree angles on both the left and right of his position there were two additional openings in the disk-shaped room…possibly rooms themselves or more tunnels.  Directly across from him, at the far end of the oval, there was a large black cube with an additional marble slab resting on top of it.  It looked like, for lack of a better word, an altar.  Every inch of the walls and ceiling were covered in the complexly layered, and now completely distressing, cryptograms and symbols which seemed to dance back and forth in the flickering light of the six, evenly-spaced torches mounted to the walls.

They were more grotesque than the ones which lined the path, were that even possible; and appeared as decaying arms, shoulders fused into limestone at one end while sizzling fingers grasped the lanterns on the other.  While all of that could have been straight from a Stephen King daydream, it wasn’t what really curdled his blood.  That honor went entirely to the people in the room.  There were three evenly spaced rows of people kneeling with their heads on the stone floor, all angled to face the altar directly.  Chad’s best guess was that they were homeless street-people as well, but he couldn’t imagine why any human being…homeless, psychotic or otherwise…would allow themselves to be subjected to the wholly inhuman conditions he was seeing.

All eighteen of them were fully naked and severely malnourished to the point of nearly every bone being exposed through their skin.  Streaked with blood, both dried brown and fresh red, nearly all of them had either large gaping wounds or brutal lacerations…or both.  One man had a five-inch square neatly removed from his side exposing the missing portions of four ribs and it reminded Chad of the plastic mannequin Mr. Summer’s used in Biology 101.  That one had clean puzzle pieces that were easily removed nice and neat however; this guy…not so much.   A woman with only a few patches of long hair left on her scarred and balding skull was missing an ear, several fingers and a foot.  The injuries only got more repulsive and Chad to force his eyes away from the sight completely.

There was no human decency in this place.  It was a temple for the type of incomprehensible sickness that he’d only previously experienced in the realms of fiction.  The most striking aspect of all of it had to be the fact that these people were still alive…all of them; not only had they all been breathing and making slight movements, but they were chanting in unison as well…the ones who still had their vocal chords attached at least.  It was hard to make out at first with their faces towards either the ground or the altar, but after of few minutes of not looking at them…he thought he had it.

It was, “Alzaze…Alzaze…Alzaze,” over and over again.  More gibberish.  He didn’t know why he expected it to be anything but that.  As horrifying a display as the round room was…there were no little girls ‘escorted’ by a tall man in plastic or a round man in layers.  Logisticly, the smartest thing he could do now was to back-track until he found a searching detective and then lead them back here but…he couldn’t bring himself to do that.  The graphic and perverse turn this had suddenly taken only meant that a child’s life was in that much more danger.  The time he spent trying to find help might be the time used slicing Kimberly Masters’ throat from ear to ear.  Of course there was no way to say definitively that these were devil-worshipping sadomasochists…but he had been to the movies enough to know that the occult had to be involved here.  The people that were into those kinds of parties were the same ones that had proclivities towards child torture and sacrifice…people with appetites for pain, suffering and the kind of evil Chad could never imagine.

No…he was going forward no matter what; he’d gone too far to turn back now. There were only two options at this point and after brief round of “Eenie-meenie miney-moe”, his “mama” told him that the route to his left was “the very best one”.  Creeping as quietly as his six-two, two-hundred and twenty-pound frame could manage, Chad stayed low and edged his way along the curved wall.  His muscles were torqued and ready to break into a sprint if his position was revealed.  It wasn’t so much that he thought these poor souls would be any real physical threat to him as much as it was the fact that the room’s occupants were mostly likely carrying any number of diseases.  Then again, he wouldn’t have been entirely surprised if “Pinhead” had decided to make a guest appearance.  It looked like something he would be into.

He reached the opening without disturbing the worshippers, although he was already wishing they could do a word other than “Alzaze”.  Even the mole-people mixed it up a little bit.  Sliding through the four or five foot archway, Chad found that, against his expectations, it wasn’t a tunnel but rather led to another circular room, three quarters smaller than the last one but still covered with the same arcane writings as the ‘chapel’.  It was unoccupied which was something of a relief at first…unfortunately that included Kimberly as well so it was a short-lived feeling.  His silver lining was that it at least narrowed down the search and he’d planned on jumping right back against the wall of the main room when his attention was drawn to the actual items of the room he was in.  Seeing the smaller room was empty, his eyes, wide with adrenaline, had almost looked right past them and now…he wished they had.

There was nothing in the center of the room, but large divots of stone had been carved out of the walls, chest high and evenly spaced, to create…shelves.  Starting from his left, there were thirteen in all, but only the last three sat empty.  They were dimly lit by black candles held aloft by severed human hands, rather than the full arms that held the torches, it wasn’t the way he would’ve gone with the interior design but he had seen some artists who were celebrated for creating images more obscene than this. Even these, as repulsive as they are, would sell in L.A. to some H.R. Giger collector.

No two of the ten occupied shelves were the same, although they were all similar in nature: a small collection of items arranged on each as some sort of a memorial.  The one thing that they did all have in common was probably the most sickening.  Stuck to the wall within each shelf with some sort of clear epoxy and arranged to be fully bathed in the meager light was a flyer with a picture and some information.  They were all Amber Alerts!   Feeling like he’d been punched in the gut, Chad stumbled to the closest one…he had to be sure.  Tiffany Jane Martin.  Age 6.  Last seen in Central Park with her mother.  Arranged with what seemed like a tremendous amount of care were one of Tiffany’s pink Nike tennis-shoes, a yellow beret, a picture of Tiffany with her parents, a lock of her hair and…no…please no…not that.  It was her thumb.  Those sick son-of-a-bitch bastards took her thumb!

This boiling sensation which caused his blood to well up into his field of vision was a new feeling for him and as comfortable as it felt settling into its new home was as frightening as it was at the same time.  Chad Parker, for the first time in his entire life, wanted to kill someone.  He still hoped to God that wouldn’t have to be the case, but in that moment, he was ready to take a life.  He stared at the alert flyer for a full minute, praying the words would rearrange themselves into something less traumatic, before moving on to the next one.  He didn’t want to see the contents of each shelf…not at all; but…he had to see…had to know; these children deserved that much at least.  Each seemed impossibly worse than the last.

Marie Daniels Age 7: they left her two big toes, Cynthia Gentry Age 11: her ears, Jamie Knox Age 9: her nose, Shaniqua Masters Age 8: the skin from her face.  Chad threw up a small pile of art-house caviar and quiche.  It had been overdue.  By the time he got to the tenth tiny memorial, his entire body was shaking with primal rage.  Well beyond the point of simply wanting to kill, he was ready to break, maim and mangle; he wanted to cut whoever did this into so many pieces Humpty Dumpty’s best team of surgeons would look at the look at the pile of unrecognizable meat and say “what the fuck?”  It was such an incendiary level of unbridled rage that he was beginning to hope that he would run into Plastic-Lurch and the Puffy-Fuck face to face.  Nothing short of delivering the full extent of his wrath upon them would alleviate this monster that was eating him from the inside out and no one, even God Himself, would say that righteousness was not on his side when he did.

The only thing that restrained him from giving in to the complete catharsis of an Incredible Hulk rampage through the adjoining chambers were the contents of the tenth shelf, both what it held…and what it didn’t.  The picture on the tenth flyer was a familiar face…the one he’d been seeking from the start, and hoping not to find.  It was Kimberly: dark hair, dark eyes, dimples, infectious grin…heartbreakingly adorable.  He and Kimberly Masters had never met, spoke or even been in the same proximity as each other; despite that, after the events of the last few hours, Chad felt like he knew her.  As insane as it would sound if he ever said it aloud…he thought maybe he loved her. Perhaps it was just the crushing pressure of the night’s stress firing off synaptic reactions at an unprecedented pace and leaving his weakened emotional state vulnerable to suggestive misinterpretations, confusing sympathy and concern for something greater; but…he didn’t think so.

Regardless of the true motivations, seeing the things that were not on Kimberly’s shelf helped to lower his fury level slightly to DEFCON 2.  Not necessarily decreasing the rage any, but rather infusing it with the small dose of hope needed to avoid mindlessly running amuck.  Outside of the dreadful Amber Alert itself, there was one other item with any relation to the little girl that now felt like his child; it was a well-worn teddy-bear, one black-button eye lost in the sands of many bed-times passed. Clearly loved, Chad hated to see it here…in this place…but at the same time, seeing it alone was a welcome sight.  Without a gory appendage decorating this portion of their horrific trophy case, it was reasonable to assume Kimberly Masters was still alive.  It was what he needed to believe anyway.  Acceptance of the twisted alternative would probably require someone else taking the reins while Chad checked out for a bit.  Schizophrenia wasn’t really a thing in his family but, that being said, this was the type of thing that caused split-personalities to be born in the first place…wasn’t it?

Despite the fact that he was still puffing his air loudly through his nose, Chad decided that he’d finally gathered himself enough to return to the main sanctuary of the Church of Hades; although he was no longer crouching when he passed back through the long doorway.  That thing in him that had been screaming for a retreat all evening was now converted to the same bloodlust that nearly the rest of him was feeling.  There was still one small voice in the back of his head desperately trying to remind him that anger resulted in stupid decisions, stupid decisions caused stupid actions and stupid actions weren’t going to help anyone…not him, not the mole-people and most importantly…not Kimberly.  Defying all odds…it got through.  He took a couple steps backwards, paused and waited another ten seconds to steady his breathing.  It was a small relief to know rational thinking hadn’t been fully ostracized from his brainwaves, but it was terrifying how utterly close that had come to happening.

The second time he passed through the threshold he was staying low again and keeping his back to the wall the best he could.  For the first time since moving to New York…maybe the first time ever…Chad wished he had a weapon, specifically…a gun.  It wasn’t that he was scared of a hand-to-hand altercation; he knew his fists could be very effective weapons if he wanted them to.  It just seemed that he would be dealing with the kind of people who probably kept something long, sharp and serrated on their physical persons.  Everyone knew the old adage “you don’t bring a knife to a gun fight,” but the same rang equally true for the lesser known; “don’t bring your fists to a sacrificial-knife fight”.  With the tremendous amounts of bloodshed and gore exposed so far in this nightmare, and one path yet to explore, well…he wished he had a gun.

The sounds of Chad’s movement were pretty well covered by the Satanic Tabernacle Choir’s rousing rendition of everyone’s favorite, “Alzaze!  Alzaze!  Alzaze!” so he wasn’t overly concerned about the swish of his shirt sliding along the smooth rock wall.  That changed after only a few feet however when the entire group of chanters, all eighteen of them, stopped emitting the inane mantra at the same time, filling the room with a suddenly oppressive silence…the world’s least popular flash-mob finishing their last performance for the day.  What now…had they heard him?  Chad froze with indecision, but only for a moment.  As ready as he was for a confrontation…or thought he was…something deeply instinctual took control of his body and he quickly retreated back to the trophy-room.  With the arched doorway being several feet long, the angle wasn’t great for peering back into the larger, now quiet room but he did his best.  Part of the room could be seen…and so could part of him.  He had a decent perspective on the opposite doorway, the altar and those lucky few who got a seat in the front row.

Nothing seemed to happen for several unnaturally long seconds and he had just about decided to take his chances and give it another try.  It appeared to be the time for those seldom-used ninja skills he liked to brag about to Vicky.  While he was always joking when it came up, there was some thread of seriousness to it that he’d never admit out loud.  He had seen a lot of ninja movies…it didn’t look that hard.  The idea had no time to come to fruition however as activity in the room kept him in the holding pattern needed to observe for a moment longer.  The people began to move…the first four of the first row, at least…the only ones he could clearly see.  They lifted their heads from the ground and sat back onto their knees, still kneeling.

The woman closest to Chad had a great deal of difficulty getting her face unstuck from the stone floor; it had adhered to a dried combination of blood, viscera and the small bits of brain matter that had escaped the inch-wide gash in her forehead.  He couldn’t be certain, nor did he want to be, but it seemed that the missing piece of skull was still stuck on the floor.  It made Chad think of his father and what he said whenever something came along he found more than lacking: “I need that like I need another hole in my head”.  Was that woman’s wound an aesthetic choice…an ‘elective surgery’?  Was that additional hole in her head done to her or did she…need…it?  It was unfathomable…but it was also the kind of behavior this hellish atmosphere probably created in people.  The chanters didn’t seem bound in any way…not in any way that could be seen.  What was keeping them from leaving this place if they weren’t here by choice?

With purposely coordinated symmetry, the four he could see turned their heads simultaneously to the right to face the darkened archway across the room.  He could only presume that the entire room had done the same.  They were waiting for something…expecting something…and Chad wasn’t sure he wanted to know what it was.  A couple minutes ago…he did; he was ready to meet who or whatever it was head-on, even the Prince of Darkness himself.  Now that his sensibilities had returned somewhat and it was starting to seem like it might actually be the devil…his confidence was beginning to falter.  Who else but Old Scratch would demand worship in such a place as this?  What type of being would feel at home here other than the ultimate purveyor of sickness, lies, perversions and evil?

Chad’s mind had already painted the picture for him so that when the vile creature finally stepped out from the shadowy doorway, it wouldn’t be the heart-attack inducing surprise it might have been otherwise.  Walking on spindly caprine legs with hooved feet and sprouting two large, curling horns from its misshapen skull, it was one part Baphomet.  Not to be outdone by the goat-like portions, from its torso and arms which were as black as oil and just as slick, six-hundred and sixty-six gleaming red eyeballs watched the world from every angle.  A wispy, shushing noise followed the demon around from the incessant blinking of its many eyes, somewhere between an irritated movie patron and a hissing snake.  The face was one that no mother would love.  Having no need for additional eyes there, nor a nose apparently, the beast’s bulbous face was consumed by one large mouth which stretched from ear to ear and horns to chin.  Several rows of dull, flat-edged teeth lined the lipless mouth-face and when it opened for a bite, the back of its skull would fold in half.  The extreme pressure of its maxilla would be enough to neatly remove a man’s arm…if the teeth had been sharp.  It would simply shatter bones instead and keep you alive for just that much longer.  It enjoyed the process of chewing.

This was the perfectly disturbing image Chad’s mind cooked up for him and if it wasn’t what ended up walking through that doorway across the room and on the other side of the ‘Manson Family Reunion’ then…he really was going to have to cut out the scary stories and horror flicks.  Sure he was a creative guy…he was an artist after all…but this wasn’t the kind of thing he created.  The detailed specificity of the once fallen angel and its proclivities shouldn’t have popped into his head so suddenly and with such intensity…it simply had to be a premonition.  If that turned out not to be the case…then who else could he blame but Wes Craven, Clive Barker and John Carpenter?  He sure as shit wasn’t requesting additional horrifying input from his brain at that moment.

“ALZAZE!” the congregation screamed once in unison breaking up the penetrating stillness.  Chad flinched involuntarily at the group’s startling scream and then tried to steel his nerves for what was coming next…who was coming; but it wasn’t doing a lot of good.  Somewhere in the last two minutes he had lost that determined resolve that was firing on all cylinders and roaring for battle; without his even realizing it was happening…fear had taken complete control.  It felt like it should’ve been impossible to go from one extreme the other the way he’d seemed to…especially without cognitively registering the progression; but here he was… icy fingers wrapped around his spine, spreading their contaminating chill to each extremity.  If it were at all possible to have snuck away in that moment, he couldn’t say that he wouldn’t have done so.  It was too late for any such thoughts, however.  There was movement in the darkness…it was here.

Chad stared intently at the swirling shadows with burning, saucer-wide eyes, his refusal to blink causing salty tears to leave clean, white lines in the accumulated dust on his cheeks.  If he closed his eyes for even a second…that would be the moment hell would unleash itself upon him.  Whatever it was…it was tall, much as the demon he fully expected to arrive would be, but it was moving so slowly the big reveal became painfully dramatic.  If this had been a television show, they probably would have cut to a commercial.  With the frantic rhythm of his heartbeat pounding away at his eardrums, it teased the possibility of a young man’s stroke.  It also concealed the distinctive sound of what was coming.  When the entity did finally step into the light…it really couldn’t have been more anticlimactic.  It was Scruffy McRaincoat, one of the damn bums he’d been chasing all night.  The tall man with the blank expression and dead eyes was not who Chad had expected to see and in hindsight that was probably pretty stupid…this wasn’t “Hellraiser”…or even “The Omen” for that matter.  Life may have imitated art sometimes…but his anxieties of the preternatural may have been a little ridiculous.  His situation may not have improved significantly but…he did feel better about it.  At least he could compete on the same playing field as other humans.

With an identical cadence to his steps, the same mass of fabric that had been with the tall man earlier shuffled in behind him.  Chad leaned forward in hopeful anticipation that the trio would be complete; please let her be with them still.  For a short moment there was nothing and his heart began to sink in his chest…and then she was there, the intact caboose of their demented little train.  Still buried in her oversized, black attire, very little about her condition was revealed outside of her face; and that did not look healthy at all.  It was difficult to determine from Chad’s distance, but her eyes looked to be all white Cornea…the pupils disappeared somewhere in her head.  Remarkably she maintained the synchronized footfalls and followed along perfectly behind the other two.  What in the holy hell had they done to her?  A zombified version of herself, seemingly Kimberly Masters was no longer in control.  In fact…all three of them seemed to have relinquished their controllers and were now letting someone else play their game.

The only real plus to be had was the fact that Kimberly appeared fully intact; there was no blood on her clothes or face that would suggest that the sick freaks had removed anything from her body…yet.  The threesome moved with a slow-motion quality towards the altar while the bloodied and naked kneelers watched in venerated awe.  This was the best chance he was going to get…maybe the only chance.  They didn’t know he was there…she was right there…and not being dragged away from him for once; it wasn’t going to get any better than this.  He needed a plan.

Between himself and her were twenty deranged psychopaths…however…only two of them looked to be legitimate threats; and out of those two…only the Garbage-bag Giant really gave him any concern.  Much like the mole-people, the ‘slaughterhouse eighteen’ could most likely be pushed right through with ease…as unpleasant a thought as that was.  It was unlikely that more than a few of them could even stand in the first place, but Chad imagined going through the ones that could feeling like a horrendous car-wash.  Except instead of soap and water, it was blood; instead of strips of cleansing canvas smacking the sides of the car, limp hands and arms would flail about and instead of being dry in the driver’s seat…he’d get the same perspective as the front grill’s bug shield.

The middle fellow, Mr. Goodwill Men’s Department, may have had the layers to protect him from any significant shots Chad might try throwing his way, but at the same time it would prevent him from being a noteworthy hazard.  The guy waddled when he walked and couldn’t lower his arms more than a quarter of the way down; at worst…he was a barrier.  No…the only real threat Chad could discern was the two-hundred and forty pound frame of the patchy faced ringleader.  Was he the ringleader?  Was he the one they called ‘Alzaze’; some subterranean David Koresh or Charles Manson or even…something worse?  It made sense that he would be the one Chad should target first…or should he target any of them at all?  That may have to remain a fluid aspect based on their reactions once he’d made himself known.

Basically it came to down to two probable scenarios: they would react with aggression or they would choose to scoop up Kimberly again and flee.  If they chose ‘Option B’ then their most logical escape route would be to go the way they came in; there was no way they’d outrun him in the big cavern.  Since that was the only direction Chad was unfamiliar with, pursuit would be difficult…most particularly in the darkness that path seemed to contain.  The smartest plan, in his estimation, would be to make for the opposite doorway to cut it off…even if that required cutting through the rows of gory parishioners.  He would need to be fast if he was going to avoid contact with them…as well as any infectious diseases their spilling blood may be carrying.  If it seemed that they were choosing to put up a fight instead, Chad would adjust his trajectory and zero in on putting down their leader with as powerful a blow as he could deliver.  From there, it should be as simple as grabbing Kimberly, tucking her under his arm like a pig-skin and then bowling through tacklers for the long touchdown.  If he could get her across the cave quickly, it should be an easy escape to the police…who had to be close behind by now.

Chad moved a little further into the doorway and readied himself.  The three had just reached the altar and the tall man, or “Alzaze” as he was beginning to think of him, put out his arm to help Kimberly climb onto the marble slab, which she seemed to do in a voluntarily haze.

“ALZAZE!” the room called out together, surprising him into the same reflexive jump that the last one did.  Were there some cues he was missing…or had they just had a lot of time to practice?  Either way he had to give them kudos; it was sufficiently unnerving and every time they did it he wanted to shit his pants.  It required he take another moment to regather his jumbled nerves before turning the room into a flurry of distraction.  Kimberly sat cross-legged on the slab and faced the room while their unholy pastor reached into his crinkling coat pocket and pulled out…the knife.  Of course…the sacrificial knife the viewing audience had been expecting finally makes its appearance.  Long…check, sharp…check, serrated…check, ornate hiltoh but most certainly.  Alzaze displayed the weapon before him, blade resting on one hand, the handle on the other, in a ritualistic fashion and Chad realized that this was it.  This was the moment…it had to be…and as difficult as it was to set his muscles in motion he knew that inactivity now would end in something so tragically horrific it would never leave him; he would never be able to live with himself afterwards.  Go Parker! He screamed in his head; Go…now!  He did.

Chad broke into the room at top speed, the ‘bull in a china shop’ mentality in full effect.  It would only take a few seconds to reach Alzaze; when the blade came out he had scrapped going for a doorway defensible position.  The need to save the little girl became the most pressing…the little girl who didn’t seem to comprehend the immediate danger she was in.  The next few moments of time developed in such a shockingly unanticipated manner that it was impossible for him not to have been caught off-guard.  For starters, he was greeted by the room’s occupants with complete and utter lack of acknowledgment; he might as well have been a ghost for the welcoming he received. The rows of people that made up the audience turned not one eye in his direction, keeping their intense gazes fixated on the altar instead.  Kimberly, Alzaze and the Human Clothesline remained just as motionless as the rest of the class and their faces were devoid of emotion, giving off no indications that any thought processes were taking place…empty shells.  It looked like the only wax museum in the world that guests would pay to get out of.

As anticipated, Chad was upon them in only a few seconds before being presented with an instant in time he hadn’t seen coming…even in his wildest expectations.  Somehow, to his own amazement, he found himself standing before Kimberly…his hands inches away from initiating contact…and no one was trying to stop him.  Hell…no one was even moving; and Chad wondered if it were strange to find that strange…given that ‘strange’ had all but lost its meaning anymore.  All the adjectives in his vernacular felt inadequately underwhelming or blasé and he didn’t think he knew any words that could properly describe the shit-storm of oddities he’d been swept into.  Perhaps he’d find them somewhere down the line during one of the great many therapy sessions he’d be attending for his PTSD over the next decade.

Kimberly’s flittering eyes were all bloodshot cornea, as Chad had thought he’d seen before, and her pupils had rolled up into her head; the windows to her soul had been closed off.  He put his hands on her shoulders and shook her lightly, wanting no more than to rouse her from this induced state of catatonia, and was surprised by how powerfully she maintained her center of gravity.  She barely moved at all, feeling very much like the statue that was being portrayed.

“Kimberly,” he hissed quietly, afraid that going above a certain decibel would bring the rest of the room out of their states of inactivity.  “Kimberly Masters!”  He was partly correct.  Kimberly was unfazed but the bum with the long beard and multitudes of layers, standing to Kimberly’s right, began to slowly blink his eyes and shake the cobwebs from his head.  Chad watched in fascination as the man’s cognitive abilities returned and when he turned his head to meet Chad’s gaze…his eyes were clear and sharp; there was definite confusion there but some degree of recognition as well.  For a moment Chad allowed himself a brief bit of optimism with the hope that the man was coming out of a severe state of some type of hypnosis or government mind control program.  If that was the case, then maybe Chad wasn’t down here all by himself anymore…maybe this man could be an ally.  When he turned his attention from Chad to Kimberly that whole idea flew out the window like a McDonald’s receipt on the interstate.

An undefinable expression of horrible torment came over his pale, dirt-smeared face and Chad couldn’t tell if it were anger, fear, sadness or some trauma-induced combination of the three.  Starting gradually, a low moan came from somewhere deep inside the overcoats, sports coats, jackets, sweaters and tee-shirts, and built in intensity until it was an ear piercing shriek.  Chad instinctively looked around the room, deeply afraid that the man’s scream was an alarm for reinforcements intended on bringing the rest of his friends back to the ‘here and now’.   When Bundles took a step in Chad’s direction, still squealing at the top of his lungs, quick decisions had to be made.  Rather than take the time to apply his normal analytical approach to the problem…time he didn’t appear to have, he let himself fall into a pattern of instinct.  No longer Chad Parker, farm-boy from Iowa turned hot-shot artist, lover of cats, tuna sandwiches and all things Victoria, he was now just ‘human’ with the desire to survive.  It was too late to flee…so he swung his fist instead.

The crunch of breaking bone and sinew could be heard even above the sudden increased pitch of the man’s screech…but that only last for a split-second.  Blood exploded from his face and his eyes rolled back into his head; Chad knew instantly that he had killed the man.  It hadn’t been his intent to kill him.  Sometimes he could forget just how strong he really was and in that moment he’d swung with all the adrenaline fueled strength there was to be had.  In every other instance in his life where there had been fisticuffs, he’d shown some degrees of restraint…even the complete assholes only got eighty percent.  Unfortunately…given all the crap that had been pecking away at his sanity and the fact that he’d gone into ‘cruise control’…he’d forgotten to.  The squawking fool got a full one-hundred…if not more…and if Chad had struck him in any other location his layers probably would have protected him.  Instead his nose was jammed into his brain, most likely killing him instantaneously.  If there had been anything left in his stomach, Chad would’ve thrown up again.  Several retching dry-heaves had to do in its place and he knew that if he were able to ever come to terms with the man’s death, it would only be through the knowledge that he was trying to save a life…the life of a child.  Guilt could be felt later; for now…he turned his attention back to Kimberly…and away from the well-bundled corpse that would probably haunt him in later days.

Except it wasn’t Kimberly he was facing…but rather the tall one in plastic-wear…Alzaze.  He had moved silently while Chad was dispatching his partner and was now at the front of the altar, mere inches from Chad’s face.  Still holding the dagger forward in his outstretched palms and completely motionless again, it was almost as though he were offering the weapon to Chad.  With the same lifeless expression, he certainly wasn’t making any effort to keep it from being taken, and the ease of its removal was trying to tease Chad into action.  Much like his faulty premonition from earlier, the whole scenario came to him, from start to finish, with vivid intensity.

First, he would grab the knife from Alzaze’s pitiful hold on the thing.  From there it was easily plunged into the freak’s abdomen where it would, with a quick swipe, disembowel and effectively disable him.  The weight of the hilt feels good in his hands…feels right.  Warm with fresh blood, it becomes slick…but his grip is firm.  The front row gets to go first…being the closest and all…and the sadomasochists are efficiently dissected while loving every minute of it.  By the time he gets to the next row, they’re all lining up…eager for their turns on the chopping block; and he is covered in the cleansing blood of true believers.  When the room is barren and he is the bright and shining red star, he will finally be able to turn his attentions to…the child.  Once it’s only the two of them…he can take his time.  The pain will be exquisite and if he does it right…it can last forever.

Panicked, Chad took a backwards step away from the seemingly submissive statue, nearly tripping over his own feet in the process.  Dear Lord in Heaven…what was happening to him?  Those thoughts were such that his mind would never engineer…not on its own…not in a million lifetimes; and the sickness they left in their wake was nearly unbearable.  The images had come from inside him…but they weren’t him.  They were intruders…but as much more than uninvited trespassers, they were conquering invaders and he had just been mind-fucked by them…prison-bitch style.  For the second time in less than a minute, Chad was dry heaving spittle into the air; his gut was starting to ache.  He put his hand on the marble slab to steady himself from falling and there was an instantaneous physical reaction from the contact, like lightening shooting up into his arm, singing the hairs as it went.  As painful as the bolt of electricity was…the touch delivered a much worse side-effect than the defibrillation; it sent a full array of the most graphic and horrible images possible ricocheting through his head…images his mind would never create…all at once, a full nuclear bombardment of psyche.

Jerking his hand off the altar as quickly as it had been put there, Chad staggered backwards from the interaction, a heavyweight body blow to his gut.  Fully aware on a conscious level that his skin had only been in contact with the cool marble for a second and a half, his subconscious struggled with what felt like a year and a half’s worth of new memories flooding through his banks.  Memories of horrible people he’d never known and rancid places he’d never been, memories of torture, blood and death; and most of all…pain, so much pain…enough suffering and anguish to sate the cruelest minions of hell.  The circular room began to spin around him, the symbols blurring into kaleidoscopic patterns.  He couldn’t focus on anything in the present; even the people around him were spinning…which meant that they probably weren’t.  Chad was drunk with the overwhelming evil waylaying its way through his mind and his temples radiated with the heat of the bonfires burning behind them.  It was too much.  His sanity had been a smooth glass sphere that surrounded him, protecting him and providing a clear perspective of the world around him which, in turn, he used to assess each passing moment and then make judgements based on the evaluations.  The assault of ungodly phantasmagorias was a sledge hammer repeatedly bashing his sphere and cracks were beginning to spider-web their way across every inch of the previously unblemished surface.  It was very close to breaking completely.

“Baby…”  Like a single beam of light breaking through the darkest storm clouds, Victoria’s voice found a thin stream to slip through, a much needed beacon of love in the midst of everything that was its antithesis.  Chad had become lost in a place where every direction he turned, the sickest things imaginable stared back at him.  “Baby…you need to come home to me.”  Beyond all the hope he’d all but given up on, Vicky’s voice was there…and it was leading him back.  “I love you. You’re stronger than this.”  Was he? He wondered as he followed her back out of the mental labyrinth Alzaze had tried to bury him in.  His knew his rescue was nothing short of a miracle and, just as the real environment came back into view, Chad could hear Vicky’s last fading words: “Whatever you do Baby…don’t…touch…the…”  Unfortunately he never received the full message, but at this point it didn’t matter; he’d pretty much decided not to touch anything else…if possible.  Except for Kimberly, that is.

When the room did come back into view, it did so slowly from the bottom up and he realized that his eyes had been rolled up into his head, much like everyone else.  At least now he knew what was wrong with them.  Chad was surprised…but only a little…to find himself on his ass, looking up at the tall man with the ornate dagger.  Maybe he wasn’t Alzaze after all…maybe he was a victim just like Kimberly was…maybe they all were.  He tried to scramble back up quickly but the vicious demonic attack drained his energy, leaving him weak and shaking, overcome by severe fatigue.  There had been one previous occasion where Chad had been in a similar condition; his college roommate had talked him into trying a 5K marathon for the first time.  He had bragged about what good shape he had been in at the time but, in the end, his buddy nearly had to carry him back to their dorm.  That had only been somewhat the same though…this was much worse.

Panting for air and battling to keep the evil thoughts from reentry, Chad finally found his feet.  The tall man was still in his same position, arms forward, knife being offered.  Chad had half-expected that he would be in yet another position, inches from him and frozen in a terrifying stance.  It seemed pretty obvious that they were wanting him to grab the blade…probably part of their twisted ritual, but Victoria’s words still hung fresh in his mind.  No effen’ way he was touching that thing!  Especially after the brutal shock the altar had delivered.  Instead, after taking another quick look around to make sure no one else was trying to slip up behind him, Chad opted to do what he had come here to do in the first place.  He was going to grab the child, while being very careful not to touch the marble again, and get the hell out of here.  If the big guy or any of the naked statues came back to life then he’d address those issues then; for now…his priority was escape.  Not just for her but for himself as well.

He’d gone into this situation prepared for a physical altercation of some type but he was in no way ready for the psychological warfare being waged upon him.  For a moment the thought occurred to him that he might actually have been drugged and was in a government sponsored psy-ops experiment deep underground…some black-budget holdover from The Cold War that was never shut down or told about The Human Rights Act.  Would he suddenly wake up out of his current predicament only to find he’d just shot the President…or planted a bomb…or flown a plane into a building?  Chad didn’t hold on to the idea for long however; not that it was beyond the realm of possibility that the whole ordeal had been cooked up by the CIA, NSA, FBI or any of the other acronymic agencies known to specialize in lies and deceit…all in the ‘public’s interest’, of course, but this felt way too dark and evil to be anything a human being could conceive.

Kimberly was still sitting still, legs crossed, arms to her side, and Chad reached out with exhausted arms to grab her.  They felt like rubber as they extended and he knew he was tired.  That being said…he also knew it wouldn’t matter.  Once he took hold of her…he would not let go.  He would find the strength within him somewhere…and if there were none to be had, then he would create it.  ‘Feeble’ was a word one would use for an old lady’s grip on her handbag…not for the grip he would have on her.  With one hand on each arm he pulled her with all his might.  In one fluid, yet completely unexpected, motion, Kimberly lifted her arms and leaned her head forward.  The movements combined with her somehow being stuck to the altar sent Chad flying backward with her black hoodie in his hands.

For the second time in less than a minute he was sprawling on his backside.  Unlike the first time, however, he hadn’t landed in as clean a space.  Looking up from his spot on the floor, Chad could see the chin and torso of the nearly bald woman with the exposed brain, and realized that his back was squarely in her rather large puddle.  A shudder went down his spine; he could feel the warm wetness soaking through his shirt…and he didn’t even want to think about the bits of actual brain matter that might be stuck to him when he finally did get up…if he got up.  Turns out it was much more of a struggle than the first go around and he found himself slipping repeatedly in the woman’s gory discharge before resolving himself to the pathetic act of sliding several feet to a dryer area, his shoulder-blades leaving two chunky red streaks behind him.  Even then it wasn’t easy returning to an upright position.  He felt like a turtle trapped on its shell and for a few harrowing moments considered giving up.  It took looking to his right and seeing the dead man’s crushed face looking back at him with wide, glassy eyes to push him into the impetus he needed to stand…but even standing was becoming a chore.

Instinctively, Chad used the black hoodie to wipe as much of the blood off his hands and arms as he could with repulsed horror, feeling only a little guilty afterwards; it was doubtful she would mind.  Kimberly had returned to her eyes-white, upright position…except this time her arms were crossed in front of her chest in the “I Dream of Jeanne” pose he’d seen Vicky employ in her yoga routine from time to time.  Her yellow, “Hello Kitty” tee-shirt was more filth than yellow and nearly in tatters and after seeing it, the hoodie made a lot more sense.  Everyone else in the room was holding their spots, buried within their own personal nightmares, most likely.  Chad reached for the clearly brainwashed child once again and as tired as he felt the first time, his little blood-spattered break-dance session had doubled that.  As much as he wanted the resolve to believe that he could carry her…it wasn’t there.  Instead there was fear…and the very legitimate concern that he may not be able to lift her at all; and then if he were able to…just how far could he carry her?

His fingers slid around her arms; her skin was cold as ice!  It literally burned his palms with the extreme temperature.  Was it even possible for a living human to radiate such a severe frigidity?  It had to be…she was clearly alive; wasn’t she?  Fighting against the reflex to pull away, Chad pulled at her with everything he had left and a little that came on loan with an interest rate he’d pay dearly for at a later date…if there was a later date.  His plan was to toss her over his shoulder and break for the cave. A big contingency to the plan having any success at all hinged on the detectives being somewhere close to the end of the large cavern…because that was about all he had in him.  It was the best he had.

Unfortunately for the plan…Kimberly didn’t budge…not one inch.  To further the quandary…neither did Chad.  He could still feel the burning cold on his hands and move his eyes around the room…but beyond that, he was trapped in a state of immobility.  His muscles were forcefully frozen in painfully rigid positions and the utter lack of control that he had over them sent his heartrate spiking and the adrenaline flowing freely.  Cognizant of his environment yet totally unable to interact with it…it was a maddening paralysis and Chad could feel his sanity quietly making its exit out the back door.  His sphere was all but fucked at this point.

He felt like an animal caught in a trap…except the trap was his own non-responsive body.  Once his wildly darting eyes finally settled a bit and made their way back to Kimberly’s face, he noticed a change in it that captivated his whole attention and momentarily took his mind off the futility of his situation.  It was Kimberly’s eyes…her pupils specifically, as they had slid back down from the place they’d been hiding deep in her skull.  Rather than the hazel eyes that her mother loved so much, however, there were two solid black circles.  Wide and deep, they held the endless abyss of an ancient entity and Chad found himself locked into their gaze…unable to look away at all; his vision now just as trapped as the rest of him was.  The blackness of her pupils slowly began to grow in size, first filling her eye sockets and then moving on from there.  It grew past her cheeks…then her face…then her entire frame.  Before Chad knew what was happening, it had consumed him fully.

The panic of standing in the complete absence of light, was alleviated to a degree when he discovered that he was once again in control of his muscular system, but there was still an intense claustrophobic sensation brought about by the oppressive darkness that almost seemed tangible.  If he hadn’t felt the floor beneath his feet and the pull of gravity keeping them connected, Chad might have convinced himself that he were swimming in it.  It wasn’t a pleasant feeling.  It wasn’t as bad as the mind-breaking barrage of blasphemies that had gang-raped his thoughts just a few moments ago…but it wasn’t a spot he’d pick for a vacation.  Astonished that he had the ability to remember it in the first place, he was grateful to find the IPhone still in his back pocket and thrilled to find it in working condition after having been fallen on twice already.  And Vicky tried to talk him out of the shatter-guard.                  The feeling, much like every time he allowed himself one iota of optimism, was short-lived.  Chad wasn’t sure where he expected to find himself.  There hadn’t been much time to cultivate any theories on the subject, but his quick guess was that he was still in the circular room.  Creating the current environment would have been as simple as extinguishing some torches.  It was also likely that he may have blacked-out for a moment or even been placed in a hypnotic state again, which would have given them the time they’d need to turn the lights out.  The IPhone’s illumination quickly dispelled that notion and Chad was forced to pinch his right arm…hard.  It hurt.  This had to be real…this place he was in.  He just had no idea where on Earth it was.  Was it even on Earth?  It looked nothing he’d ever seen before…online or in person.

At first he thought that the light was doing nothing at all to battle the darkness…but that wasn’t the case.  The room of an indeterminable size and possibly everything in it were made from large, solid masses of onyx.  Smooth, crystalline and black, there was the floor…then a wall…then a pillar.  His footsteps echoed back to him as he walked…the room sounded enormous.  Occasionally he’d stumble across a colossal, six-foot by six-foot black cube just sitting in the open…as cold and uninviting as the rest of the place.  It seemed endless and Chad had no clue if he was even going in the right direction.  Did this place even have a ‘right direction’?   He tried to get some idea of how long he’d been walking from the IPhone but the device was trying to tell him that it was two in the afternoon…and he knew that wasn’t right.  The bright idea of setting the stop-watch to monitor his progress came next but when he turned it on it just kept bouncing back and forth between one and ten seconds, trapped in a temporal loop; or it was just time for a new cellphone.

Frustrated by the hopelessness this new hell he’d been dropped into was invoking and still exhausted physically, Chad fell to his knees on the cold, black ground.  He was going to cry…just really let himself go; he had earned that much at least and that was the new plan.  Except he never got to release his first sob.  A noise…other than his own panting…caught his attention first.  It was the first thing he’d heard since he’d been here and it was…familiar.  Whispers…thousands of whispers…maybe millions…and hissing snakes; oh shit…you’ve got to be kidding me.  He did know that noise.  It had come during that premonition that turned out not to be a premonition…that might actually have been a premonition after all.  It was all those damned eyes…six hundred and sixty-six to be exact…and he didn’t even know how the hell he even knew that.  Please God…don’t let this be real.

The creature he had seen earlier had been more horrifying than any Hollywood creation put to screen and that had only been in his mind.  If he were truly about to see the physical manifestation of that…thing, then…he was ready for the check.  It was a twisted entity as biologically opposed to everything that makes us human as was possible…and even now, as he relived its memory, it left a wave of nausea in its wake.  If he were forced to see that thing with his own eyes, smell it with his own nose and…oh please no…feel it with his own skin, it would almost certainly mean the end of Chad Parker…at least the one currently existing in his body.

The whispery, hissing grew louder and, before too long, carried with it the ‘clickity-clack’ of hooved footsteps.  Chad turned off the flashlight on his malfunctioning cellphone…he didn’t want to see what was coming.  The volume of the demon’s footfalls, which began to sound like hammers being smacked against glass, grew until he was sure the ‘real’ Alzaze was mere feet away where they finally came to a stop.  He could hear the deep gasping of the thing breathing through its gaping face-mouth and he could smell the sickening odor it carried with it: a mix of decaying flesh and cooking excrement.  Chad covered his nose and mouth with his shirt to keep from gagging again and prayed that, if he stayed quiet enough, he might remain hidden in the dark.  He wasn’t foolish enough to believe it would be answered though.

Trembling with a fear he’d never thought possible before, Chad squeezed his eyelids tightly shut.  There may have been no available light to see by…but he wasn’t taking any chances. Demons existed…just as the wild-eyed preacher with the sign would tell anyone in Central Park who would listen.  The frazzled, old man may still have been crazy…but the demons he railed about were very real; and now Chad was holding court in The Cathedral of Pain with one of the worst.  The Cathedral of Pain…where did that come from?  The name had just popped into his head, much as a lot of things have been prone to do this evening, and Chad had the feeling it had been placed there.  If Alzaze planned on another cerebral intervention…well, maybe that was better than dealing with that thing physically.  Just knowing that it was looming over him in the dark was traumatic enough.  When his IPhone’s ringer ripped through the silence, the sudden noise combined with the vibration in his hand was just the push his bladder needed to unload its contents down the back of his kneeling thighs and calves.  Chad hadn’t pissed himself since he was five years old and under normal circumstances there would probably have been some degree of shame involved but, as it was, he barely noticed that it happened.  His entire existence had but one focus and it was the essence of evil hovering before him…taunting him with its stillness.

When it rang a second time…the realization of what it actually was penetrated Chad’s coherence and slowly, as if in a dream, he looked at the caller identification.  An unrecognized number was a fair expectation, an ‘unknown caller’ ID was an even more probable scenario…but reading that the call was from “Alzaze”, as though he had programmed the name into the cell himself, was not the type of surprise he was hoping for.  He was even more opposed to answering the call, but knowing that the brutal beast was standing before him and could twist Chad’s head from his body just as easily as ringing the phone…it didn’t seem wise not to answer.  He pressed the green phone symbol and timidly uttered, “Hello?”

“It took you long enough to get here.”  The voice was deep, gurgling and raspy at the same time, as though it had bubbled up from a tar-pit only to be filtered back through a bucket of dirty coal. Were it not recognizable as the English language, it may not have even qualified as a ‘voice’.  It was clearly biological in nature, but it sounded like nothing he’d ever heard from human lips…or any Earthly biology for that matter, coming through on a frequency which triggered a physical revulsion when Chad heard it…even through the cellphone’s tiny speaker.  It was a small relief to not be hearing it in person…until it occurred to him to wonder how Alzaze was audibly producing the sickening, and unfortunately comprehensible, sounds through the phone line only.  It was but one more example of the type of power the ancient being held, and but one more reason he was woefully unprepared for their interaction.  He was an ant staring up at the treads on the bottom of a giant shoe and wondering if it was even possible to slip between them when it fell.  That was about the extent of the obstacle he offered up and the notion that he’d even considered battling it earlier was laughable.  Not that he could be fully blamed; that was, of course, before he had any indications that he’d be facing the devil himself.

“Who…”  Chad muttered, not really knowing what to say.  “Who is this?”  The question was met with inhuman growl, not from the IPhone, but rather from the dark space just a few feet away from his currently kneeling position.  If there had been anything left in Chad’s bladder, it would have emptied again.  The low rumble lasted for only a few seconds but it was enough to bring tears to his eyes and a fresh layer of slick sweat on every inch of his being.  His filthy clothes, soaked with perspiration and urine, clung uncomfortably to his frame.

“I would recommend,” Alzaze continued through the cell once the snarl came to an end; “that you refrain from any games right now.  You don’t want to upset me.”  Chad nodded his head in agreement, despite the blackness.  “Do not ask questions you know the answers to.  You know who I am; I have given my name to you.  You know what I am; I have shown my form to you.  You also, Chad Parker of Iowa, know where you are…in my domain: The Cathedral of Pain.”  Chad’s uncontrolled shuddering was beginning to reach a crescendo and he could barely keep the phone in his wet hands.  “I will ask you a question.  Bear in mind that I already know the answer.  Attempting to lie to me will only extend your suffering.  Do you understand?”  Chad nodded again, well beyond the presumption that Alzaze, with its unholy number of red eyes, could see him with a lot more clarity than his brown one’s provided.

“Good,” Alzaze continued.  Apparently he was right.  “Then tell me this Oh Pathetic Beast of Inferior Design…and remember…DON’T LIE TO ME!”  The increased volume of the demon’s scream delivered stabbing pangs into Chad’s gut and he doubled over, his forehead smacking against the unforgiving onyx floor.  A small stream of blood began to trickle from the wound and his reaction earned what he could only assume to be a small chuckle of satisfaction from Alzaze.  Although an assumption was all it was because the sound was unlike anything one would normally associate with laughter.  Either way, they both knew that Chad wouldn’t be lying to the monster.

“Why…” it paused for a moment, either to allow Chad to recollect himself enough to really hear the question or out of some perverse sense of the dramatic, before posing its query.  “…are you here?”  Why was he here?  Was that a trick question?  He was here because that vile son-of-a-bitch had brought him there!

“That’s not what I mean, and you know that.”  Alzaze responded verbally to Chad’s thoughts.  How could it have done that?  How…did…it…oh shit…the bastard was in his head!  “Close…” Alzaze responded through the IPhone speaker; “but not quite.  I already told you, Chad Parker who desires fame above all else, this is my domain…you are in my head.  Not the other way around.”  Alzaze snickered again jamming tiny needles back into Chad’s stomach and keeping him close to the ground.  The cruel fiend’s snide remark about his desire for fame was oddly assuring, however.  If Alzaze truly believed that about him then it didn’t know Chad as well as it let on.  It definitely wasn’t much, but at this point…it was something.

“But let’s get back to my inquiry, shall we?  Tell me why you came here and test my patience at your own peril!”  The constant whispering of the hundreds of eyes blinking through their scrutiny of his quivering form was nothing short of unhinging and Chad struggled to figure out the answer being sought from him.  Thing was…as smart as he liked to think he was…Chad was always horrible with tests.  He could have the entire text-book memorized, cover to cover, and the moment a sheet was laid before him and a professor said, “You may begin…now,” his brain just kind-of locked up.  The reaction happened almost every time and, while he was sure there was some logical explanation…probably based in some childhood trauma, it still killed his GPA come finals.

Here…why did he come here?  But not ‘here’, The Cathedral of Pain, but ‘here’…where?  He really hoped Alzaze was going to show some tolerance with his cognitive stumbling.   Where else would ‘here’ be?  If this black temple wasn’t a ‘real’ place…if it were really part of Alzaze’s mind…then, as tangible as it all felt around him, this wasn’t a physical locationOkay…then where was he before this?  It seemed nearly impossible to remember, almost like he’d been here forever; there was nothing else but this place.  But that couldn’t be right…he still felt the residue of having been searching for something…something that he thought he might have found.

“Let me help,” Alzaze offered from the Apple device and all of a sudden a window appeared in Chad’s mind.  It was dirty and nailed shut but the mental representation of himself was able to clear away enough to peer through to the other side.  He could see himself on the subway platform when three bums walked by, then in a tunnel, then another, then the mole-people, then large cave, then a smaller, much scarier one.  Each scene was familiar without triggering the memories outright…like Déjà vu.  It wasn’t until he was shown the graphic nature of the trophy room again that the floodgates were unlocked and the curse of the exam-taking brain-lock was broken.  Each painful memories came rushing back, culminating in the fact that he was a murderer; but he knew the answer the demon was seeking.

“Kimberly Masters.”  His voice was hoarse and his throat was dry, but he was able to get out the words he hoped…probably foolishly…might save his life.  “I was trying to find Kimberly Masters.”  Alzaze began to laugh again and each bubbling guffaw made Chad’s stomach lurch.  It wasn’t as reassuring a reply as one would have wished for.

“Yes,” it finally responded before offering up an obscenely stretched version child’s name, greasy verbal tentacles caressing the word as it passed from its…well…wherever it was coming from; “Kiiimmmbbbeeerrrlllyyy”.  The creature sucked all the beauty out of the name and left it as nothing more than a sinister shell, a mocking reminder of what it once had been.  “That’s correct, Chad Parker thief and liar, you came here for the child.  So very noble…really…I mean it.”  Despite the alien qualities to the abusive demon’s voice, its thick sarcasm bled through easily.  “I have another question for you, Chad Parker eater of flesh, but I would like to tell you something first.”  Chad lifted his head back off the ground and the effort it took to do so was staggering; had he not already been there, it would have brought him to his knees.  Was it even possible to be this tired and not be dead?

“You’re feeling that way because I’ve been feeding off your life-force.” Alzaze explained, seemingly unwilling to allow him any cerebral privacy.  “I wouldn’t pay it too much attention.  There’s nothing you can do about it.  That being said…I believe it’s important that you know some things about your new worshipful master.”  Not in a million years, Chad thought to himself, would he ever worship such a thing.  “If it takes a million years,” Alzaze continued; “that’s fine.  The temporal constraints that dictate the reality of your dimension do not exist in this one.  When time does not occur at all…you have all the time in the world; the words ‘forever’ and ‘now’ will come to mean the same thing for you.  But go ahead and stand your ground as long as you can.  It’s an amusing change of pace.”  The futility and utter hopelessness Chad felt were benchmarks in his life, eclipsing records that had held since he was six-years-old.

His family’s farm, as well as the whole community at large, had been ravaged by a series of tornadoes over a twelve-hour period of devastating carnage, which took the insurance companies nearly twelve years to fully rectify.  With hair much blonder than the sandy brown it ended up, braces on his teeth and ostensibly endless number of freckles on his cheeks and forehead that vanished while he was in high school, the version of Chad that was just a bit younger than Kimberly was now huddled with his parents in the root-cellar beneath their farmhouse.  Those twelve hours which felt more like a week passed with white-knuckled anxiety as the unending storms wreaked a path of unabated destruction above them.  The memory never left him.  He could remember the sound of the freight-train rumbling through their kitchen and living room; he could remember the looks of fear and worry on his parents’ faces…which did nothing to alleviate his own concerns; and finally…he could remember the feeling: the certainty that the house would be ripped away at any moment and the tornado would reach its hands down into the crater his family would be recoiling in and pluck them all away…one by one.  Now, in this moment, he would’ve gone back to that day in the cellar with his mother and father a hundred times over…if it meant leaving this place.

“Yessss,” the demon gave confirmation to his grief.  “Savor those moments of pain.  They are delicious indeed.  I won’t object you going there at all.  Even though they might be the only thing sustaining your imminence.”  ‘Sustaining your imminence’…what was that supposed to mean?  “It means,” the IPhone answered his thought; “that I cannot fully possess a body already blackened by too much pain or sin.  Until the Great Seal is unlocked, the great Alzaze is unable to traverse your dimension outside of an impure vessel.  As disgusting as it is to inhabit the primitive sacks of meat and skin you call ‘bodies’, it does become necessary from time to time…and that’s when I instruct my followers to bring me an innocent.”  The realization of exactly what Alzaze’s words meant slapped him like a hand across his face.

“The children!”  Chad blurted out in disgusted disbelief.  The prehistoric piece-of-shit wasn’t just taking children for some sick ritual…it was using them as vehicles for its interdimensional jaunts about town.  “You…you’ve been murdering children just to use their bodies?”  The foul words felt like vomit coming out of his mouth.  “How could you kill the innocent?”  There were plenty of injustices in the world that Chad had come to terms with in his lifetime, plenty of unexplained evils that he was willing to chalk up to “God’s Plan”; but this…this was not so easily written off.  How could the Lord allow a creature of the purest evil to take the life of its polar opposite: a guiltless child?  It was irreconcilable with his conscience and his belief in God Himself was shaken to the core.  Except…if this demon clearly existed then God should too…right?

“It doesn’t matter if your God is real or not; He cannot see you in this place.” The cellphone’s narration continued; “You are correct about one thing however: I am unable to take the lives of the children…only their bodies.”  Given their current spider/fly relationship, Chad couldn’t see a reason why Alzaze would lie to him…but what did that mean?  Was Kimberly still alive somewhere…were the rest of them?  “Well if that isn’t the perfect segue into my question, I don’t know what is.”  Alzaze was enjoying the derisive teasing.  “The children…each and every one…were simply relocated when they sacrificed their vessels.  There are more than enough meat-sacks lying about the streets of your cities…unused, unmissed and free of purity.”  The homeless; Alzaze was putting the girls into the homeless people.  Chad tried to imagine which of the poor souls he’d seen were actually little girls trapped in scary, foreign bodies.  Despite their sickened condition and gibberish infused vocabulary, he found himself hoping they were in the mole-people and not the mangled worshipers.

“So my question is this, Chad Parker murderer of children: why did you kill Kimberly Masters?  What did that poor creature ever do to you?”  The gurgling laughter that followed forced Chad closer to the ground again as his mind resisted understanding the beast’s words.  He hadn’t killed a child.  He would never do anything like that.  Chad Parker helped children.  He had never killed anyone…except…that wasn’t true, was it?  It had been an accident when he put the layered bum down as hard as he did.  He was trying to help Kimberly…that couldn’t have been…oh God…please God no…say it’s not true.  That bearded man, easily in his sixties, couldn’t have been Kimberly…could it?  Alzaze’s laughter grew louder and deeper and the pain it caused was nothing compared to the anguish Chad was feeling over his part in the child’s death.  The only thing remotely close to comfort he could find was the idea that the little girl may have been so unhappy trapped in her new body that death was possibly a relief.  It was minimal at best.

Little more than a violently sobbing ball on the ground, Chad felt broken.  He tried to grasp at the threads of his life that made it worth living, the good things: Victoria, his art-career taking off, the ensuing boost in his finances, a loving family and good people in his life that he considered ‘real’ friends.  None of it was providing the incentive he was searching for, however, and the notion that he could carry on after this and live any semblance of a normal life was the real joke Alzaze should’ve been laughing at.

“Just kill me already!” Chad finally screamed from his fetal position.  “Just do it!”  It didn’t bring the beast down onto him as he’d yearned, but it did put an end to the piercing demonic laughter.  Alzaze was quiet for a moment, other than the flittering hiss of its eyes, and Chad could only hope that it was considering his request.  Finally, the cellphone lying on the ground next to him broke the silence with the brute’s reply.

“No…I don’t think so.  As it happens…I have an opening in my organization.  My previous Collector had a change of heart and decided he no longer wished to fulfill his destiny.  I gave him what he asked for and now…he seems happier in his Death Row prison cell.  I still visit him from time to time…and he served a final purpose of taking the blame for the acquisition of many of my vessels.  Of course, I will be there when the lethal injections enter his veins to make sure that it doesn’t take his life…not the first time at least.”  Chad could barely fixate on Alzaze’s recitation, still lost in the grief of killing Kimberly, and all he could really gather was that…this hell was clearly nowhere close to being over.

“Therefore you’ve earned the position for yourself.  You’ll be able to travel top-side for a while without standing out as much as most of my congregation which will be a benefit.  Plus…since you were the one who ended the life-line connection of my current vessel, it’s your responsibility to bring me a new one.  The one that belonged to your beloved Kimberly will begin to deteriorate exponentially now due to your indiscretional need to take life.”  Alzaze had a remarkable ability to reignite the anger within him and Chad scrambled back to his knees defiantly.  If this fiendish being thought that he was going to continue to abduct little girls for it…it was as delusional at it was malevolent.

“Delusional?” the demon asked and Chad was instantly aware that the voice came not from the cellphone this time, but from the air…right in front of him.  Its voice had an even sharper edge to it…were that even possible.  “You are the one, Chad Parker newest disciple of Alzaze the First…the Bright and Shining Star, who need not hold dear to any ‘delusions’!  You seek to deny me…to subvert my will?  Let me show you what future that path will hold for you.  Stand now!”  The terrifying tone of the command was enough to push him to his feet, even though he barely had the strength to do so.  He wobbled for a second or two and when he finally felt confident he could stay upright Alzaze continued; “You are either in my service…or you are a permanent fixture in the Cathedral.  The choice is yours…but first…you must SEE!”

Simultaneous to the utterance of the word “see” the Cathedral of Pain was filled with a bright, red light which flooded the massive expanse from one side to the other like a wave of radiant blood.  When the contents of the building were revealed Chad knew that hell was real; he had found himself in the eighth circle that not even Dante had been privy to.  Besides the pillars and cubes that stretched as far as the eye could see…and were disturbing enough in their own right…the truly distressing decorum were the people.  Strung from the ceiling, walls and pillars on hooks and chains, there were more bodies than stars in the night sky, all in varying states of twisted suffering.  The darkness had somehow kept their cries and moans at bay, but now that they were revealed…their tortured screams were as well.

The nightmare-scape around him was more than enough to drive him back to his knees and when he allowed his gaze to lower itself to the spot where he knew the demon to be waiting…he wished he hadn’t.  Just like the one in his mind’s eye, the beast had the furry brown legs of a goat, a tarry black torso and arms with all those red eyeballs and the horned face…that wasn’t even a face, just a gaping hole with flat teeth that somehow came together in a smile.  When Chad felt the tunnel-vision coming, he’d never been so grateful to pass out; and he fully embraced the blackness that enveloped him.

When he found himself hand in hand with Victoria, walking through Central Park just after dusk, he was overcome with the joy of getting to see her again.  Tears began to pool and she wanted to know why.  It was their ‘date-night’ and they had just come from their favorite restaurant “Le Vine Bistro” where too much food and too much wine combined with the cool night air to dictate the necessity of the stroll.  She was as beautiful as she had ever been and Chad told her not to concern himself with what were actually tears of joy; he was just happy to be with her.  She smiled her brilliant smile, kissed him on the cheek and they continued walking.

Their portion of the park was unusually deserted and before too long he had the sensation that they were being followed.  She said he was crazy but allowed him to pick up the pace regardless.  The “clickety-clack” of the thing behind them did as well.  Chad knew that noise.  With Vicky’s hand in tow, he broke into a sprint…not that it did much good.  Victoria kept up while laughing at his spontaneously irrational behavior, showing no concern for their safety despite his panic-stricken demeanor.  Even when Alzaze’s grotesque form could be seen in the path’s lamp-lights, skipping without a care and still gaining considerable ground with each playful hop, she didn’t seem to find it forbidding and scary.  Quite the opposite actually.

Pulling free from Chad’s grasp, she changed directions and began walking back to the demon, a huge smile on her face.  He tripped over his own feet trying bring himself to a stop and by the time he had scrambled back up and returned to her…it was upon them.  Chad tried to pull her away but she was unnaturally strong and resisted without the slightest budge.  Vicky held her hand out towards Alzaze for a customary ‘how do you do’ handshake and the obscene visage met it with large, square teeth…each the size of a pack of cigarettes.  The mouth consumed her forearm while the jaws brought its snapping teeth down on her elbow with the power of a bear-trap.  Bones and tendons were reduced to fragments and Vicky squealed with an intensity that ripped Chad’s heart from his chest.  It was a sound he would have given his life many times over to never have to hear again.

He had hold of her other arm but pulling at her any only increased her torment.  There was nothing he could do to help her.  Finally, he screamed, “Please!  I’ll do whatever you want!  Just don’t hurt her anymore.”  Victoria’s anguished bellow died immediately on her lips, and she turned her head to face him…her arm still half-way down Alzaze’s gullet.  The expression of agony had been replaced by a blank slate of indifference…except for the sly upturn at the corners of her mouth.  When she started moving her lips again…it was the demon speaking, using her as its communications device much like it had done with the cellphone earlier, except it was using a ‘secure connection’ this time rather than Wi-Fi.

“Then bring your master a child…a girl before her mortal age of ten is ideal.”  Chad nodded in silent agreement.  He would do anything to keep Alzaze away from Victoria.  “You have thirteen hours before I mangle your precious one into something you’d find less attractive,” the Vicky-phone continued.  “Trying to find help is pointless and will only slow you down…so I’d recommend that you don’t.  Not if you value this woman’s life.”  Chad nodded once again and, without warning, Vicky’s free hand shot out, jamming her fist into his temple with power that should have come from Mike Tyson and not her tiny frame.  The impact was lightening in his skull and suddenly the world was becoming horizontal while he was becoming vertical.  It was the kind of one-hit knockout he’d seen on YouTube under a heading with something about “Karma” in the title and he was once again familiarizing himself with the world of unconsciousness.

Only he wasn’t unconscious…at least he didn’t think he was; it was all starting to blur.  To the best of his recall, this was what felt most like reality as he remembered it; the hazy edges refined to clean lines of periphery.  He was lying in a darkened tunnel…surprise, surprise…with his back against the rungs of an iron ladder.  There had only been one to come across his path so he had a fair guess as to where he was.  It wasn’t necessary to guess, however, as a flurry of flashlights came upon him from both directions.  It was the police…and he’d never been happier to see the boys in blue.

“Sir…are you alright?”  Two of them kneeled down beside him and Chad didn’t know how to respond.  A vivid recollection of everything he had experienced had hunkered down inside him like a bowling ball, but given his location here at the bottom of the ladder…could he have fallen down and taken a bad spill?  Was it possible he had just dreamt it all?  Head trauma could produce abnormal thought patterns and his head did hurt like a mother.

“Please,” Chad whispered through his dry throat; “please help me.”  The two officers turned to share a confused look with each other before shaking their heads with pity.  One of the cops behind the two at his side, depressed his radio and began speaking into it.

“Capiro…Detective Capiro…this is Johnson with seven-one-seven.  Do you copy?”  There was a moment of silence and the same officer commented to his comrades; “These damn things haven’t been worth shit down here,” while they waited for the response they weren’t sure was even coming.  Finally, it crackled to life just as he was about to try again.

“Go ahead Johnson…please tell me you’ve found something.”

“Well…we found something…but I don’t think he’s gonna help us any.  It’s another one of those crazies.”

“Like the others?” Ricardo asked from his location.

“Yea…unfortunately.  He don’t look as bad as those guys did…but he’s spouting that same damn idiot-speak.”

“What’s he saying?”

“Ah shit Detective…I don’t know.  ‘Pappy, pappy, happy mappy’ I think.” After recounting the quote, he verified it with one of the other cops present.  “That sound right to you?”  A plainclothes officer nodded in agreement and Chad thought he was going to be sick.

“You can’t understand me?” he asked, louder this time…almost demanding.  It was met with a group chuckle.

“You catch that?” the radio operator asked Detective Capiro who had still been listening.

“Yea.  ‘Yappy cappy uappy mappy’.  It’s very catchy.  Just round him up with the rest of them and we’ll see if we can’t get the Social Department down here to help…exploit a little of that federal aid.  Anything sign of the girl at all…or the guy that made that call…Chad Parker?”

“That’s a negative.  I’m really sorry; this looks like another dead end.”

“Roger that.  I’ll see you guys topside for the debrief.”  Chad reached for the wallet normally kept in his back pocket thinking that he could show them his ID but they didn’t respond well and three of them drew their firearms.  Not that it mattered.  His wallet, phone and everything else were long gone.  He should have known that Alzaze wouldn’t have let him keep those things.

“Okay buddy,” the cop closest to him said in a calming voice; “just keep your hands where we can see them.  I think we need to pat you down.”  After helping him to his feet, two sets of hands gave him a thorough searching and only when they were satisfied that he wasn’t a threat did they holster their weapons again.  From that point forward Chad remained as agreeable as he could while they helped him back up the ladder, down the maintenance tunnel and onto the 179th Street platform.  Much as he had anticipated, it was packed with morning commuters, police and a small group of mole-people cowering in a corner under orange NYPD blankets.  It was that moment of confusion and random activity that he used to slip away from the police who had way too much going on to keep up with him.  He didn’t have time to deal with them…especially now that he knew how useless they would be.  Chad Parker had become focused on a singular goal…and it consumed his entire being.  He had to keep his Victoria safe and there was only one way to do that.  He had to find a child for his master…a little girl.

Rating: 7.4. From 159 votes.
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