Billy dug through his pockets and muttered under his breath. “Ah crap, I think my keys were in the bag they took.” He stood at the door to his basement apartment.
“That figures,” said Geoff, “up until now things were looking too easy.”
Billy looked at him then back at the door. Geoff was shifting from foot to foot at the top of the stairs and rubbing his hands together to keep them warm. He was looking across the backyard beyond the scrub of the dried garden and through the trees whose golden foliage was just beginning to turn brown. Wind shook dry leaves from the trees and they fell, whispering in the breeze. The house shared a border with the playground of an elementary school and they could hear children playing on the other side of the fence that divided the properties.
“Geoff.” Billy said.
“Huh, uh what?” Geoff looked from the playground to Billy, at the base of the stairs.
Billy gestured towards the door. “I’m going to kick it down, you keep a lookout.”
“Why?” asked Geoff.
“Why kick the door down?”
There were three cars crowding the driveway, Geoff’s black Trans Am with the Smokey and Bandit paint job, Beth’s hatchback and a third car he didn’t recognize.
Geoff points at the final car. “I think your landlords are home, they probably have a spare key.”
“Oh.” Billy walked up a couple steps and looked at the car. “Yeah, that’s them. One of them, anyway.” He glanced back at the door. “Good thinking.”
Billy joined Geoff at the top of the steps and they walked down the driveway and followed a paving stone path that cut across the front lawn. They walked up the front stairs onto a wide veranda that was painted mauve and adorned with heavy wooden patio furniture. The house was a massive tan and mauve-trimmed Victorian. It’d been a personal restoration project for Billy’s landlords, an early thirty-something married couple named Seth and Jenni DeJong. They lived on the main floor and split the basement and upstairs into rental units.
The house was in the heart of the historic district where the blocks were lined with oaks, elms and asymmetrical Victorian homes with trim painted in a spectrum of candy pastels. Therewas an implicit understanding between homeowners that no two homes could share a color scheme. Most of the homes are painted in muted, complimentary hues but these are punctuated by the occasional lime or purple house that was a diabetic assault on the visual cortex. The mid century homes are ornate, with complicated, decorative trims, and in varying states of repair.
The district was wedged between a student ghetto to the south and low-income, single story homes to the north. Pedestrians were sparse collection of yuppies, bohemians, students, and blue collar workers with the occasional street dealer.
Geoff didn't deal downtown or in the ghetto. His territory was relative safety of the campus dorms, bars, fraternities and sororities.
Billy knocked on the front door while Geoff stood back a polite distance and lit a cigarette. Within moments they heard footsteps, creaking floorboards and someone fussing with the lock. Jenni DeJong, Billy’s landlord, opened the door. Her long blond hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she was wearing denim overalls with a pink singlet. She was barefoot and her toes were painted in alternating colors - blue, green, blue, green, blue.
“Well, hey there, Billy.” She wiped her hands on a towel that looked like it’d been used for everything from shining shoes to cleaning up paint spills. She glanced at Geoff’s cigarette and frowned but didn’t say anything. He got the message and wandered down the steps, back towards his car to finish his smoke. Looking back at Billy she asked, “What’s going on?”
Billy paused, “Uh, hey Jenni, I’m locked out of the apartment and was wondering if you had a spare key.”
She smiled, “Yeah, no problem. Give me a sec and I’ll be right back.” She closed the door, leaving him alone on the veranda. He looked back at Geoff who lifts his hands, palms up and looked a question at him. Billy gave him a thumbs up and gestured for Geoff to wait. A moment later, the front door opened and Jenni stepped out wearing flip flops and a sweater, a set of keys jingling in her hand. Billy followed her back the way they came, listening to the soft slap of her flip flops against her heels. Geoff ground out his cigarette in the driveway and tagged along, a few paces behind.
“Jeez, it's cold today. So what’s up, Billy?” she asks, “Beth lost her keys as well or is she working today?”
“Sorry?” Billy hesitated. “She’s, uh, gone. And I left this morning without my keys.” Out of the corner of his eye Billy could see Geoff wince.
“Oh, sorry to hear that.” Jenni looked sideways at him. “You made a good couple.” They walked a few paces and she added, “Maybe you’ll work it out. ”
Billy slowed down and looked at her. He starting thinking coming home wasn’t such a great idea.
Geoff stepped in, “They’re trying. Beth just went to stay with her folks to get some space.”
They were at the apartment door and Jenni stared at Geoff, who smiled and help out his hand, “I’m Geoff...their friend.” He nodded at her feet, “I like your pedicure.”
Jenni ignored the offered hand and looked at Billy and Geoff, then turned to the door and began fishing through her keys. She tried several before one settled into the tumbler with a click and the door swung open. Billy watched her survey the living room. It’s walls were covered in dark wood paneling, the only windows were up near the ceiling so the afternoon sun spilled in at an angle, high and dusty. The futon, the green hand-me-down reclining chair, the stacks of books, the yard sale furniture and the plants, potted and hanging, creeping and prickly. The clothes on a coat hanger, dangling on the bathroom door. The shelves of glassworks, the failed experiments and glowing successes, virtually indistinguishable from one another. It was an alchemist's cabin on an old pirate schooner. It was home and Billy was quick to scoot her out of the door.
“Thanks for the help, Jenni.” He guided her up the stairs. “Sorry to bother you.”
She nodded and smiled, “No problem.” For a moment it looked like she was going to leave then she turned back and touched his arm. “Billy, if you guys need anything just let us know. You’ve been good tenants and, well, you’re good people. Remember, whatever happens, it's not the end of the world.”
Billy watched her walk up the stairs and listened to the slap of her flip flops as she turned the corner and walked back down the driveway. At the school next door recess had ended and the playground is silent. There was a light breeze, cool and refreshing pushing leaves around the backyard. When he heard her footsteps creaking in the apartment above he slowly closed the door.
“Okay Billy, what’re we doing here?” Geoff was sitting on the futon, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. There’s already a bag of weed on the cushion beside him and he peeled out a rolling paper.
“I’m going to check Beth’s email to see if I can get Don Raul’s full name,” Billy hung his jacket on a hook next to the door. “I figure that’s the first step. Then we call around to see where they rented their car. That shouldn’t take too long, there are only what, five or six big rental companies and all their offices are connected, right?”
“I don’t think just share that kind of info,” said Geoff. He places a large book across his lap, lays the paper on the book and begins crumbling weed onto the paper, picking out seeds and broken bits of stem. The rich, marshy smell of marijuana creeps into the room.
“Yeah, I know,” Billy said, “I was thinking we could call and report the car stolen. Most rental cars have an internal GPS so the company can track them down, right?”
Geoff laughed, “I like that. If Beth is with them in the car the police might even find her.” He paused the preparation of his joint. “But if she’s not with them the police won’t even know to ask about her. The cops’ll figure out pretty quickly they didn’t steal the car and let them go.”
“Yeah,” Billy frowned. “We could use his name to track down his hotel. Same deal, we’ll just call around and see if we can get the front desk to confirm that someone with that name is staying there.” He walked across the living room to a small dining table set against the wall. There was a slim, silver laptop sitting closed on the table. He pulled out a chair, say down and flipped the computer open.
Geoff sat back and considers the suggestion. “How you do know they’re staying in a hotel?”
Billy pecked at the laptop keyboard with two fingers. “Beth said something about it. They booked a few ceremonies in the area and were doing a little tour. Apparently Don Raul only does these things in pairs.”
“Like, couples?” asked Geoff.
“Yeah,” Billy answered, “I think so.”
“Huh,” Geoff was smoothly rolling the joint between his thumbs and forefingers, “that would make it easier to pull something like this. As opposed to groups, I mean. One person is used as leverage against the other.”
“Right.” And, Billy thought, if I’d had my act together we wouldn’t have been there in the first place. “But one thing still doesn’t make sense.”
“Only one thing?”
He shot Geoff a dirty look.
“Right. What’s that?”
“What the hell is this?” Billy tapped the stone. “There weren’t instructions and there was no word of Beth being held as leverage.”
Geoff licked the paper edge of his joint and smoothed it with his thumbs. It was a perfect, white missile with tapered ends. “In the movies this kind of shit just clicks into place but I don’t think we’ll figure out what’s going on until we have a talk with this guy, Don Raul. So, where do we start? There’s probably a hundred hotels around here. Any idea how to narrow down the list?”
“Give me a minute, I’m checking her email,” said Billy.
“Cool,” Geoff held up the joint, “do you mind?”
Billy’s face was scrunched up in concentration as a scrolled through Beth’s emails. He looked up briefly at Geoff, shook his head, and looked back down at the computer.
The living room and the kitchen were separated by a counter and Geoff got up, walked into the kitchen and pulled a coffee cup from the sink. He rinsed the mug, set it on the counter, lit the joint and took a slow, steady drag. The joint burned bright, a sniper's red dot in the gloom of the apartment. He leaned with his elbows on the counter and exhaled slowly.
On the counter was a box from a local printer. Someone had written “Beth Dwyer, Vedge” on the box lid with a fat, black Sharpie. Geoff slid the box over and opened it. Inside were menus for the restaurant she had just opened with her business partner. Beth was the acting General Manager and her partner, Hope, handled the kitchen cooking vegetarian pies that were served in wedges. The name, Vedge, was Billy’s idea. They sold savory pies, sweet pies, shepherd's pies, and pot pies filled with vegetables, fruits, tofu, soy and meat substitutes. The grand opening had been two months previous, in mid-August so they could be running smoothly by the time the students arrived for Fall semester and they were already on their sixth iteration of the menu. He picked one up. The seasonal pies were featuring squash and pumpkin with Autumn spices and they had a special for a pumpkin beer from a local brewery. He had taken three hits, tapping ash in the mug, when Billy leaned back, slapped the table and said, “Bingo!”
“Yeah?” Geoff folded the menu and placed it back in the box.
“Yeah.” Billy grinned. He did a little drum roll on the table edge, pushed back from the table and walked into the kitchen, squeezing past Geoff and opening the refrigerator. “Beth was emailing with Cesar, the shaman’s assistant, and his full name is Cesar Domingo. The shaman’s name is Don Raul Vega,”
He stood and was holding a plate of leftovers from Vedge. The slices of pie were covered in cling wrap. “I found some links in her browser history. He’s from Peru, someplace called Shipibo-Conibo, and he’s been based in Santa Fe for the past few years.” He used his heel to swing the refrigerator door closed and shooed Geoff to the other side of the counter to make space for the plate. He peeled off the cling wrap, picked up a slice and began eating, using his other hand as a plate.
“Help yourself,” he said using his slice of pie to gesture towards the plate. “It’s soy chorizo and egg.”
Geoff helped himself.
Billy continued, “I don’t know what hotel they’re staying at but I found an email from Cesar saying they’re staying on Portage Road, near I-94. There’s what, four or five hotels right there by the highway? That narrows it down.”
Billy stuffed some pie into his mouth and spoke around the mouthful of food, “Holy crap, I am hungry.” He wiped his chin with his hand. “They took my phone so I’m hoping you can give me a hand by calling hotels and car rental, uh, places.”
“Agencies. Yeah, I’m on it, “ said Geoff.
“Thanks.” Billy waved at the fog of pot smoke that had solidified and hung at eye level in the room.
He was light-headed from secondhand smoke and he felt the tickle of shadows unfolding in the back of his mind. Touching him with oily, black fingers. He was back in the cave from his hallucination but his apartment was just beyond the cave walls, seen through a thin black haze. Distantly Billy was aware of Geoff speaking. The shadows had wrapped around his limbs, pulling him tight against the wall. In the middle of the room a black obelisk rose from the mist, low and flat like a table. Billy strained against the shadow’s grip and screamed until his throat was raw but the shadows were steady and their pull was inhumanly strong. They held him, helpless, as something on the far side of the room shifted in the darkness. There were no eyes but he was aware that the thing was watching him, calculating his mass and his will to live. The thing settled, low to the floor, and began rolling towards him, a heavy black bubble of shining stone and gristle.
“Are you okay?” asked Geoff.
“Huh?” Billy opened his eyes, he hadn’t realised they’d been shut, and Geoff was staring at him. “Uh, yeah, I was just remembering something from my hallucination last night and it was...dark.” He shivered and shook out his hands.
Geoff was frowning. “You looked pretty far out. Why don’t you come to my place and take it easy while I make those calls?”
“No, thanks. I’ll be fine. I’m gonna head to the studio.” He looked under the counter for sandwich bags but didn’t see any so he wrapped a large chunk of chorizo vedge in paper towel.
“Okay,” Geoff looked doubtful. He placed the remains of his joint in the small plastic box he used to stash his weed.
Billy leaned over the sink, turned on the faucet, and splashed water onto his face. He grabbed a hand towel from where it hung on the oven handle and dried himself. As he hung the towel he looked at Geoff and grabbed his packed lunch.
“It’s time to go to work.”