A Luminations Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
You like her.
No. I respect her. The same way I respect a shark or a rattlesnake.
But you're attracted to strong women.
And you're quick to jump to conclusions, Mattie. I admire women with confidence and courage. That isn't the same as strength. Christina Kenney is strong, but she's a bully. That's not something I admire. Respect from a safe distance, but not admire.
Then why the fascination?
Because I can't figure her out. And that's the other thing that I'm attracted to. Just like any good detective. I can't resist a mystery.
I was sitting in the back seat of a black Escalade, traveling on cruise control at a mile below the speed limit. We were heading north on I-95, passing the two or three exits for New Hampshire's somewhat embarrassing ten or so miles of coastline, the smallest amount of any state that has some. Maine was looming ahead, a big state with lots of places to hide a body, although I wasn't quite to the point of worrying about that specific outcome. I had time to notice things like the unwavering number 64 on the digital speedometer because the two Russian Mob types who sat a bit too cozy on either side of me had so far been less than conversational. Not a problem. I enjoyed the scenery, speculated on the methods (one mile below the speed limit; clearly these guys wanted to avoid any Imperial entanglements), and conversed with the voice in my head.
You seem rather calm considering the circumstances.
Resigned was more like it. I figured I had it coming. You make enough enemies, and sooner or later someone sends a black SUV loaded with goons to grab you off the street. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's the nature of the business, because I've been a private investigator for a decent number of years now and this was my first time getting abducted. But it wasn't completely unexpected either.
So far, they'd been nothing if not professional. It helped that I wasn't armed at the time of the abduction. I don't carry a concealed weapon on a regular basis. I take statistics pretty seriously, and I figure it's gonna cause more problems than it'll solve. This time would have been no exception. Four of them. Bad odds. They had it planned out pretty well. No place to run. No point in resisting. I didn't even bother with the pepper spray on my keychain, and they found it when they searched me.
So I sat there wondering what Christina Kenney wanted to see me about. And why now?
I was pretty sure this was her doing. The Russians were for show. Cheap hired muscle. They probably had jobs as bouncers in Revere or Peabody. Or maybe they worked in the construction industry. Christina's been known to have a hand in some nasty business involving the occasional cement mixer.
Mattie had gone quiet. I guess she figured me for some kind of expert when it came to being kidnapped. I was fine with that. Mattie would be a problem when it came time to talk to Christina. To be fair, Christina had participated in Mattie's murder. That kind of thing does tend to raise a certain emotional response in the disembodied (or, in this case co-embodied) spirit of the murder victim, particularly when said spirit seems to require revenge against all participants in her untimely death in order to move on to whatever plane of existence her soul is eventually headed to.
We crossed into Maine and continued north past the vacation towns of York and Biddeford before heading west on a little country road. By now I'd completely stopped worrying that they planned to kill me. They'd already passed too many convenient places to do the job. And they were silent. Not a peep. They'd been very carefully and very specifically instructed to keep their mouths shut, and furthermore, they were expecting I'd still be around after the job was done. If they were taking me out to the woods to shoot me in the head, they'd probably be chatting away about whatever would keep their minds off the messy details of the job. No, these guys were transporting me to a meeting, not arranging for my disappearance.
So I enjoyed the scenery. We were passing through swampy meadows now. June had been wet, and the roads still had puddles of standing water in all the low places, probably swarming with mosquito larvae. Come evening a person out here would be a walking banquet for the bugs. It was muggy out, with the sun filtered through a haze that had persisted into the late morning and we were getting away from the sea breezes that might provide a bit of relief when the heat turned oppressive in the afternoon. The Russians were dealing with this preemptively by cranking the Escalade's air conditioners up to full power and I had the odd sensation of shivering while I watched the outside begin to swelter.
I kept looking out into those marshes hoping to see a moose. I've lived most of my life in New Hampshire, but I've never seen one. No such luck. I settled for a pair of great blue herons, and then suddenly we'd arrived at our destination.
It was a little roadside motel in bad need of a paint job, laid out in the traditional New England L-shape (as opposed to the U-shaped Route 66 variant).
The driver came around and opened the door, and the goon to my left stepped out. I followed, moving slowly and deliberately to keep the Russians from getting nervous.
"Room fourteen," The driver said - his first words since "In the car, asshole!" back at the beginning of this mess.
I nodded, scanned the room numbers on the doors, and started walking. The place was definitely not in business. Christina Kenney probably owned the place. Real estate investment was a hobby of hers, something she did in her spare time, when she wasn't trapping and consuming the souls of writers and artists.
I knocked. No answer. I tried the door. It was open.
Christina had rearranged the room into a makeshift office. The bed was turned sideways, allowing her room to sit behind a desk that faced the door. It wasn't the hotel room desk. That one was still in its normal place against the wall. It was a solid metal model, the kind that gets purchased in bulk to furnish cubicles. The desk looked like it has seen better days, and I figured she'd probably picked it up at some secondhand office furniture shop in Portland or Concord. They must have had to take the door off the hinges to bring it in here. I wondered if they'd gone to that effort for my benefit or if Christina was in the habit of entertaining clients here.
She was sitting behind the desk in one of the motel chairs, looking an awful lot like the first time I'd seen her. She wore dark blue, a loose-fitting dress that looked comfortable even in the heat, and her dark curls had gone a bit frizzy from the humidity. She smiled, and everything about her was deceptive, casual softness until you got to her eyes, which were grey and all business. She remained seated. Christina had decided to play good cop, with the implied threat of the four goons just outside. I wasn't sure who she was trying to fool. Christina is six feet two, strong, solid, and vicious. She doesn't need the goons and she knows it.
But she wanted to play games. It wasn't like I had anything better to do. I played along.
Because you love a mystery.
Stay out of this. It's not the right time or the right place. I'm only warning you once.
"Gonna sit down?" Christina gestured to the chair in front of the desk.
I sat. She waited.
Fine. I wasn't going to get uptight over her games.
"Why am I here, Christina?" I asked.
"Because you can't resist an invitation from me." She smiled, enjoying that line.
"Not when you send four armed thugs to do the inviting," I said. "Look, I'd tell you I don't have time to screw around, but I'd be lying. I actually have nothing better to do today, and I'm well aware that I'm pretty dependent on you for my ride home, so I'll admit that you could keep me here all day if you want. But I'm hoping we could dispense with the preliminaries. So I say again, why am I here?"
"Actually, Chess, I brought you here in the hopes for a new start. You worked for me once."
"That was before I knew you."
Not to mention before you broke every bone in the face of one dear friend, and damn near turned another one into a homicidal maniac. Not that anyone is keeping score.
She was one of the ones who killed me.
Yeah. That too. Now shut up.
But I almost missed something in that exchange. A new start? Working for her? Something had changed for Christina. She never really needed me for anything, even that first job. Anyone could have done that. But now she was acting like she needed me.
"I brought you here to provide a gesture of good faith." She slipped a manila folder out of one of the desk drawers and laid it down on the desk. I resisted the urge to reach for it.
"Problems with your friends?" I was guessing, but it seemed a safe bet. Something had her worried enough that she suddenly wanted to cut a deal. She's not afraid of me. She's not afraid of Katy. Maybe Mattie, but she wasn't acting like Mattie was the problem. And my old friend Antonio and his crew were probably still licking their wounds from the last few clashes.
"Friends are a convenience, Chess."
"With that kind of attitude, you're not going to have any. Or the ones you have are going to turn on you. When it's convenient," I said.
She pushed the folder toward me. I looked this time. Read the name that was printed neatly on the tab.
"Joe Tuckerman has decided I'm a liability. He is eliminating my..."
"Your food sources? The captive souls you subsist on?"
She looked away. She wasn't playing anymore. She didn't want to deal with this.
"Tuckerman will find that location in the next twenty-four hours if he hasn't already. I'm losing this one. I just thought that you or your friends might have an interest in getting to him first. As I said, I'm not looking for anything in return. Take the information and use it as you will."
She wasn't fooling me. But it didn't matter. She knew full well what I was going to do.
"Bullshit," I said. "You're hoping Tuckerman does this in person and I take him out for you. Or he takes me out, and then you don't have Mattie to worry about. Look, Christina, personally I hope Tuckerman makes you the star of his next podcast. You'd probably scream for quite a while and at this point I don't think it would bother me a bit."
She smiled. I should have known she'd like hearing that.
"But you're going after him. Tell my men. They'll drop you off wherever you want."
The meeting was over. I didn't bother saying goodbye.
The driver handed me a paper bag containing my keys, wallet, and cell phone when I stepped out into the heat.
"Where?" Guy didn't waste words.
I opened up the phone and started dialing as soon as we were on the road.
We were going to need backup.
I played it cautious and had the Russians drop me off at the downtown Worcester bus station and then waited until they were well out of sight before walking the six blocks over to Gaslight Books, the business funded with the money Mattie had acquired from Richard Harrington.
Gaslight Books was the dream of Nancy Mateo, a young woman I'd met working on a case a couple of years back. She'd helped me out quite a bit keeping tabs on things at home when I was traveling around the country for two years tying up some of Mattie's loose ends. She'd also gotten mixed up in a fight against Christina's crew that went very badly wrong. It cost her the man she loved, the father of her baby girl. It also cost her a couple of her friends.
One of those friends was Isabelle Napali. Her death is still under investigation somewhere, and if the New Hampshire State Police really do keep a "weird cases" file, then that's where it's currently collecting dust.
The second friend was Nathan Fuller, who apparently went over to the dark side. Last seen trying unsuccessfully to convince Nancy to embrace her own inner demons.
Nathan Fuller's name was on the folder Christina gave me.
"Chess!" Nancy came around her counter and hugged me tight. Her friend and business partner Em was putting some gear into a duffel bag at the back of the shop.
The shop was impressive. Not huge, but every bit of space was used, crammed with books floor to ceiling. Not messy, just loaded with knowledge, dreams, and secrets. It was the kind of place a nerd could lose himself in for hours.
I didn't have hours.
"You approve?" Nancy asked.
"Oh, yes. I'll need to come back and browse. But business first. Were you able to do anything with the photos I sent you?"
Most of the contents of the folder were plans and photos of a run-down motel, not too different from the one in Maine where Christina had brought me for our meeting. Christina, apparently, owned more motels than a Monopoly champion.
Nancy motioned for Em to join us and flipped the shop's sign to "closed". She brought her laptop over to the back table when Em had finished her packing.
She had the hotel of Google Maps and Street View. It was located in the Berkshires, a little over an hour's drive to the west.
"I've got directions, and some better images of the layout. Did the usual searches. Place is up for sale. Craig Putnam's involved. No big surprise there. Nothing notable in the history that I could find. Seems to have been out of business since Putnam purchased it for Christina." Nancy handed me a stack of pages she'd printed out.
I showed Nancy the folder. Inside were the documents and photos that identified the motel. I'd taken pictures on my phone and sent them over to Nancy so she could get going on some research. Taped to the back of the folder were two keys, one a master key and one to a specific room, number six.
I laid out the plan, such as there was. "Em, you're driving. Nancy will coordinate from here. I'll do the actual extracting of the target."
"Works for me. Don't need to hire a babysitter this way." Nancy looked over toward the register and my eyes followed, and I noticed the baby for the first time. She'd been sleeping in her transforming car-seat/stroller the whole time.
Nancy grinned. I think she liked seeing the private investigator overlook something like that.
"Yeah... Baby... Sorry, I guess I never got a chance to congratulate you, Nancy. She's adorable. And quiet."
At which point the kid woke up and cried pretty much nonstop for the rest of the meeting.
"We're going in light," I said, more for my own benefit than for anyone else's. "Could use one more person on the scene to watch our backs."
"Already thought of that," Nancy said over her shoulder as she tried to get Darla to settle down.
And Katy McCormick walked into the shop as if on cue.
I feel like we should be singing 'The Gang's All Here' or something.
Yeah, or something.
Katy and I had what amounted to a bit of a stare down, and then we both decided that it was neither the time nor the place to dig up old issues.
"Fill me in," she said finally.
And I did. I'd just said we could use more help. Katy was here, she was going to help. Worry about the other stuff later.
Besides, she's got all that courage and confidence you claim to like.
"So, what the hell is up with Christina?" Katy was asking.
"She's using us against Tuckerman." That was the easiest answer I could come up with.
"They had a falling out, probably over what happened at UNH," Nancy said. "What they tried with you was different from their usual approach. A lot more people might have gotten killed if it had gone differently."
Katy nodded soberly. "Yeah. I know."
"And it failed," I added. "They had to be desperate to try something that insane, and they screwed up. Specifically, Christina screwed up. Tuckerman probably blames her. So they split, but Christina's playing it pretty clever. She's putting us in Tuckerman's path with Nancy's old friend Nathan as bait."
"And what about Nate is worth saving?" Em asked it, but she didn't mean it. No one bothered answering. We were too far along in the preparations. The decision had already been made.
It was Katy who asked the more important question: "Okay, what are we gonna do with Nate once we've got him? Chess, you rescued one of these victims once before and that didn't turn out so well. Christina could just be doing this to plant Nate close to us. How do we know he's out of her control?"
"Just bring him here. Consecrated sanctuary," Nancy said. "This place will keep her influence out."
There is protection here. I can sense it.
I wasn't so sure, but wards and spells weren't my area of expertise. I deferred to the experts and hoped they were expert enough.
I filled Katy in on the plan of action and we were on the road fifteen minutes later.
I had a pepper spray can clenched in one fist, and Katy was holding her weapon of choice, a runed baseball bat.
Petroglyphs, not runes.
The floorplan said that each of the rooms had a back window that was big enough to meet code standards as a fire escape.
The motel was another L-shaped job, but this one looked like it had been left to rot for a couple of years. There was a dirt road that went around back to where the dumpster was, and Em was waiting there in her Jeep Cherokee, out of sight from the parking lot. The place was empty when we arrived, and I'd crept back around to the front with Katy and we'd made our way down to Room 6.
She stayed quiet, waiting on my signal, and glancing occasionally to the road while she kept the bat between herself and the wall, hopefully out of sight. She was as good at this as I could have hoped for.
She had a good teacher.
We'll see. I texted Em to let her know we were going in, and I slipped the master key into the lock. I felt it give, turned it slowly, then nodded to Katy. She took a breath and adjusted her grip on the bat.
I swung the door open smoothly, and stepped in, making room for Katy.
Then we both stopped and stared.
Christina had done a little bit of rearranging on the motel room she'd used for this morning's meeting, but this room had been completely remodeled. There was one desk against the wall with a mini-fridge, a laptop, and a microwave. There was a bed and a small card table. The rest of the furniture was gone, and every bit of wall space had shelving installed.
The shelving contained what had to be one of the most impressive toy collections I'd ever seen.
Robots. Hundreds of them in plastic and die-cast metal. Transformers and Gundam machines and other Japanese stuff that I was pretty sure you couldn't even get in the US outside of the bigger anime cons.
There was a skinny guy with a scruffy beard sitting on the bed manipulating a couple of the robots on the card table in front of him. Nathan Fuller was recognizable, but just barely. He looked fucking anorexic. We just stood there for a second, which was definitely not part of the plan, but which didn't matter because Nathan seemed barely aware of our presence.
"Check the laptop. Disable the webcam." I moved to sit next to Nathan, hoping this could be handled without a fight.
Nathan, the former toy store assistant manager who worked a shitty job because he loved the employee discount, just kept playing with his toys. He was fast. Bending and twisting from truck to robot and back in a blur, like one of those guys who gets really good at solving the Rubik's Cube. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Katy sticking electrical tape over the laptop camera.
"See. More than meets the eye." Nathan suddenly looked excited to be showing off his collection.
"Yeah. I know." I slowly reached for a robot and fiddled with it, watching for signs he'd object. Nathan just seemed to want to help.
"He's pretty far gone," Katy said. "According to Nancy, last time she met him he was acting like a total dick, trying to talk her into going over to their side. He on drugs or what?"
"Maybe, but I think most of it is just Christina screwing with his head. That running anything else active? Otherwise shut it down and we'll take it with us."
Katy clicked the mouse. "Firefox. And a bunch of Word docs."
She took a moment.
"You've gotta be kidding me!" Katy was almost laughing.
"Fanfiction dot net. And a bunch of what looks like... Chess, this stuff looks really awful."
I snickered. "Transformers fanfiction. Makes sense. Sorta. Christina feeds on creative energy. She usually picks artist types. Nathan's no artist. He's a collector. But she needed him before because he was useful for getting to Nancy."
Katy looked over to where I was sitting. "Great. Hey, are we done? Or do you want me to read to you about how Nathan helped stop the secret Decepticon invasion?"
I stood up. "Yeah, we're... Wait a minute. You said his stories are in Word docs?"
"You're kidding, right?"
I wasn't. Christina said she wanted this to be a gesture of good faith. So here was the way to free Nathan. Christina needed to isolate her victims and their creativity. Shout it out to the world and she loses her power over them.
Katy was muttering to herself. Apparently unleashing more bad fanfic on the world violated her moral code in ways that hitting people with baseball bats didn't.
I got up and went to the window. The connection was slow. The upload took six minutes.
Trouble arrived with 45 seconds to go.
"Shit. Katy, watch the door."
I took Nathan by the hand and pulled. He stood.
"We've gotta go, Nate."
Katy was watching the red convertible that had just pulled into the parking lot and she was texting Em.
"Three guys, Chess. Gangbanger types."
Great. More hired thugs.
Nathan was picking toys off of shelves.
"Shit! Nate, there's no time."
"Window?" Katy asked.
"No. That way." There were connecting doors between the rooms. I threw Katy the master key. The upload had finished and she yanked the laptop up and headed for the door while I tried to pull Nathan in that direction. He started to resist and we could hear voices speaking Spanish outside.
Katy turned back to us, holding a toy. "Here, Nate. Take Optimus. He's the leader."
It worked. We slipped into Room Seven and shut the door just as the bad guys were kicking in the front door of Room Six.
It got easier after that. Apparently at least one of the thugs used to love those toys when he was a kid, and the ensuing discussion held up their mission long enough for us to slip out the window of Room 12 before they had a clue something was up.
Em had the engine running and gunned it as we pulled Nate into the Jeep. She took the turn hard, showering the bushes with dust as we skidded onto the motel parking lot.
"You ever taken a defensive driving course?" I asked.
I could see Em smiling in the mirror. "Yeah, but defense isn't exactly what I was thinking. Hold on!"
She floored it and rammed the little sports car in the back quarter, sending it spinning up onto the motel sidewalk and the thugs came running out screaming and cursing. We were long gone before they got their car on the road, if they ever did.
Halfway back to Worcester on the Mass Pike, Nathan looked around like someone who had just woken up with one hell of a hangover.
"Where are we going?" he asked.
Em answered from the driver's seat. "Sanctuary."
Image and story by Rick Silva, Copyright 2009