I usually didn’t charge my clients for meeting with them. In this case, I am glad that I did. Not only did my client have a lot of money, something seemed off about the job offer. When I entered the office building as most people left to go home, that feeling increased. Would this be another one of those times when my employer pulled a fast one? It didn’t happen all the time but when it did, the occasion was always memorable.
My instincts were dead on. The conference room with it rich woods and expensive video conferencing equipment was used for upper level meetings. You needed to be someone in the company just to reserve the room and that meant money. After I collected my modest fee, I got down to business. The other shoe dropped when I was handed a file with several photos inside of it.
I laid them out on the conference table to get a better look at them. I didn’t have to hear my host’s proposal or offer. I wasn’t about to take this job. Still, I waited for him to finish his pitch, hoping things weren’t as bad as I thought they were. In fact, it was worse, a lot worse. I couldn’t imagine a worse case scenario. When he was done, I didn’t know whether I should have laughed or cried. I was leaning towards laughing and getting the hell out of there.
“Well? Will you do it, Count?” the man asked.
I looked down at the pictures again, studying them. It gave me time to frame a proper answer that wouldn’t be too insulting. The pictures didn’t look any better. No matter how long I looked at them, they were as gruesome as they appeared to be. There was no way to put a good spin on a photo of a man crucified in the middle of corn field with corn cobs stuffed in his bloody eye sockets and open mouth. The fact that I recognized the man in the cornfield didn’t help matters.
“Not a chance,” I replied.
My host seemed surprised by my answer. He looked at me with an expression that reminded me of a child who just got smacked with a bag full of kittens.
“Excuse me?” he asked, giving voice to his confusion.
“Not just no but hell no.”
I didn’t raise my voice. My words and tone were enough to get my meaning across. Kara’s thoughts wafts into my mind from across the link. “You’re being a little blunt. What happened to not being insulting?”
My ever present guardian angel could have a point. “I’m sorry but words failed me. Fear does that to me.”
“There’s plenty to be worried about,” she said.
The man straightened his tie as he rose from his chair. He didn’t attack me or start casting a spell which relieved me. Instead, he spoke with all the emotion and intensity of someone who had somehow been wronged or misled him. “I don’t understand. I thought you helped people,” he said.
“I do but I don’t do suicide missions and this case sure is one.”
He didn’t get it. I could see it in his grey eyes. I admit to having a reputation for taking and solving difficult cases. Sometimes I get in a little over my head but that didn’t mean I took any case that people tossed my way. Some were far too dangerous. This was one of them.
“It’s not just the case. Something else is troubling you,” Kara said.
I nodded. That something else was in my host’s expression. I didn’t understand it until he looked away from me. It prompted me to take yet another look at the pictures as I explained matters to him.
“Try to look at this from my point of view. You want me to go out to the middle of nowhere to investigate this.” To emphasize my point, I tapped the picture of the poor bastard in the corn field. “Would you be in a rush to visit this place?”
“Obviously not,” Kara murmured. “If he were, he wouldn’t have tried to hire you.”
“Precisely,” I said in response more to Kara than to the man.
“But my nephew is there and he’s in danger.”
I’m not unsympathetic but I wasn’t about to lie to him or give the man false hope. No, it was better to hear the brutal truth from me otherwise he might do something stupid like investigate this insanity.
“If your nephew is anywhere near this madness, he’s probably already dead or worse.” I said, scooping up the pictures and sliding them back across the table to him. “I’m sorry but there isn’t anything I can do.”
“He still doesn’t get it,” Kara said.
“This reeks of cultist activity. Cults are very bad news and let me guess, there are no cities or towns nearby, just a small village.” He nodded vigorously confirming my suspicions. “Something like this can’t happen unless everyone in the village is in on it including the police.”
My words had a chilling effect as he thought matters through. Whatever he was thinking probably wasn’t worse than my own thoughts. After a moment, I continued “You only got these photos because they wanted you to. This is either a trap or a warning. Hell, it could be both.”
Kara asked “And you’re not curious?”
“I am but not enough to go waltzing into a giant roach motel. Paranormal investigators enter but they don’t come out.”
Kara nodded in agreement as I rose from my chair. Out loud I said, “And there is the fact that you’re lying to me.”
He seemed ready to protest, to argue, then he gave up. His expression and voice held just enough guilt to stop me from walking out of the room. “How did you know?”
“I didn’t know, not until I recognized the man in the cornfield.”
“You know him?”
“Only by reputation.” It was a white lie on my part. Me and Forester had bumped into each other on a few occasions. He was a treasure hunter and a skeptic. He didn’t believe in magic and the supernatural. Everything had a rational explanation. Luckily, he didn’t encounter magic often. When he did, he was usually got in way over his head. This time it caught up with him. “So what’s this all about?”
There was a brief pause that I looked for, the one that told me when someone was deciding how much to tell me. “I hired Forester to retrieve a book for me from the village’s hall. It’s proof that magic does exist and has been part of our world since the beginning.”
The words are enough to pique Kara’s interest. If Sol or Scott were here, they would be asking about all the details. I was curious about the book but not enough to risk life and limb for it.
“And these villagers refused to part with it so you sent Forester to steal it.”
“It should have been a simple job.”
Did he actually believe that? If the villagers were guarding a book with that kind of knowledge, they probably knew a lot about magic. Clearly, there was more about Clarksburg then met the eye. It might even warrant a visit but it would have to be for the right reasons and at the head of an invading army.
After a moment, the man added, “At first, I thought he had taken the money and ran then I got these photos.”
“I see. Did your nephew actually send them?”
I thought I knew the answer already but I needed to hear it from him. It would tell me how much trouble we might be in. Kara said, “I think we have some time,”
“No, Forester’s assistant gave them to me.”
I resisted the urge to slam my head into the table. We probably had less time than I thought, closer to minutes than hours or days. Kara agreed with my assessment.
“Forester doesn’t have an assistant. He works alone,” I said. I hoped that bit of information sank in. Forester might not have heeded any of the warnings. This man might. He wasn’t a skeptic. He believed. That meant he still had a chance. “You don’t need the book to learn about magic. Forget about it.”
“I can’t. Its secrets are beyond price. With the book, I could have proof.”
That wasn’t the only thing he was after. His expression hinted at other motives. I held up a hand to interrupt him before he could go any further. There wasn’t time for it. More importantly, his tone told me that he wasn’t going to drop this.
“We’re done here. Thanks for the kind offer to throw my life away.” I turned to leave, adding “It’s not too late to save yourself.”
Behind me, he vowed to press on and hire someone else. I didn’t stay any longer listen to his rantings. This would be all over soon and there would be very little I could do about it.
Outside, I looked for signs of impending disaster. There wasn’t anything visible. It’s more like a feeling, like the one animals get before an earthquake. For a moment, the city was still and quiet. The unnatural silence heralded whatever was going to happen twenty stories above me in that conference room.
“Count?” Kara asked, knowing I could sense the rest of her question without her needing to say it.
“I’m fine. I just wish he had listened to reason.”
A part of my wanted to stay and try to help him but it was useless. My words, like the warning the photos represented, had gone unheeded. It would have been useless to try to reason with anyone from Clarksburg. Anyone who sticks people in cornfields weren’t the type you wanted to enter into negotiations with.
“You can’t help everyone especially someone who doesn’t want to be helped.”
It might sound a little cliched but Kara was right. There was only so much I could do but maybe I could have done more. Maybe I would have if he had been truthful with me from the beginning.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said. “Nerva is waiting for us at the club.”
For once, Kara didn’t seem to mind. A night out with the vampire would distract me from the mysteries and dangers of Clarksburg.
Author Commentary: This Count Albritton short story takes place just prior to Hunter’s Moon. Some of my close friends might recognize a few things about the story and one of our oldest running jokes. Whenever one of us was thinking of doing something stupid or suicidal, someone would offer them some corn cobs for their eyes. Like most of the free short stories that appear on this blog, I haven’t had the story professionally edited. If I collect all of the Count Albritton short stories into one volume, that will change.