A "Luminations" Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
New Hampshire (Seven Hours Ago)
The house sat in a cul de sac in one of those new developments that are replacing the woods and farmlands all over southern New Hampshire. Crescent driveway with a shiny new truck-sized SUV parked behind a little two-door BMW. If Melissa had been there to see it I might have joked that these were my favorite kind of clients: The rich kind. It would have been a lie. Mr. and Mrs. Barrington were in their mid sixties, comfortably retired. They didn't look particularly impressed, the wife especially, and I hadn't given them much reason to be. I had a sinking feeling that they'd called every P.I. within an hour's drive and I was the only one still answering his phone at six in the evening.
I'd given them my business card at the door. Katy designed it. She's the high school kid who runs my office. She wanted one of those Sherlock Holmes hats on the logo. I told her to forget about it, but she ended up with a cute design of an eye staring out from a hand lens. The card says "Chester Hall, Licensed Private Investigator" and underneath it says "Lumination Agency". That's my company, consisting at the moment of myself, Katy the high school wiz kid, and a whole shitload of debt.
It was late June, and it had been raining on and off all day. The air was warm and sticky outside, and I found myself shivering in the central air conditioning that the Barringtons had going full blast.
"We appreciate you coming on such short notice." John Barrington took charge while his wife made coffee. I'd come over to discuss a missing person case: Their daughter, Emily Barrington.
"Before I get started, let me make one thing clear. This may be something best handled by the police."
"They are handling it." John said. "I gave a statement a couple of hours ago, but you must know the kind of hassles you have to put up with to get anything done in a situation like this. They want us to wait and see if she contacts us. They say they've got no reason to believe that the situation should be investigated as a kidnapping."
"We just want our daughter home safe," Samantha Barrington chimed in as she brought the tray of coffee over. She was clearly upset, but she was forcing herself to remain steady.
I got out a notebook and a digital voice recorder, and took as complete a statement as I could get. Emily Barrington was thirty-three years old. She lived with her parents and was employed at a greeting card shop in Nashua. She had last been seen in the company of an ex-boyfriend named Carl Sims. This guy had apparently known Emily since high school, and apparently there was a history of problems. The parents thought he and Emily were not on speaking terms, that they hadn't been for years. Then, this morning, Mrs. Barrington had come home from the grocery store and recognized Sims pulling away from her house with Emily in the car beside him.
"If I hadn't realized that I'd forgotten my coupons halfway to the store and turned around, I would never have seen him."
John Barrington had been out playing a round of golf when all of this happened. Samantha had called him at the club and he'd come home and called the police.
I asked to see her room. The décor went beyond girly and well into the realm of childish. Lots of stuffed animals and pastel tones. It was well-kept, with a small table covered with scrapbooking supplies and photo albums, and desk with a computer, bed and dresser. On the left was a bookshelf. I headed there first. Neil Gaiman, Charles deLint, Amber and Changeling roleplaying books.
"Your daughter's a gamer?"
"Oh, I don't think she plays that stuff anymore." Mrs. Barrington answered. " She hasn't had her friends over for those games in years."
The pages of notes folded inside the books looked recent, though. She was probably doing her gaming online. I wondered what else her parents didn't know about her. There were no signs of any kind of a struggle anywhere in the house. Everything pointed toward the conclusion that Emily had just taken off with this old friend, most likely to escape from the overprotective parents.
Mr. Barrington handed me a list of contact information for Emily's friends, something I'd requested when we spoke on the phone. I figured I'd start making calls and see if anything turned up. I spotted a Nashua High yearbook on a shelf near the computer. I already had recent pictures of Emily. I looked up Carl Sims. In 1990, Carl Sims had looked like the poster child for the skate-punk crowd. The senior class had a convenient list of activities and awards. Carl only had one: Drama club. On a hunch I flipped to the drama club page. Sure enough, there was Emily. Even better, there was one of the names on the list I'd been given: Nancy Matteo, currently residing in Worcester, Massachusetts.
I took out my cell and dialed the number. Voice mail. I hung up, thanked the parents for their help, and told them I was gonna call the rest of these leads while I followed up on Nancy Matteo. We had a very brief discussion about money as I headed out the door. Basically, John Barrington was willing to pay whatever it took. I couldn't complain about that, especially after that job in Buffalo had ended up costing me when I couldn't deliver the goods.
I got in my car, plugged in the charger and the headset to my cell phone, entered Nancy Matteo's address on the GPS, drove out to the highway and headed south.
I dialed Katy's cell. My luck was holding. She picked up.
"Hey, you home? You wanna earn some overtime tonight? Okay, make yourself some strong tea 'cause we may be pulling an all-nighter."
I gave her the basic details and told her to start digging online. Meanwhile I called Melissa and explained why I wouldn't be having dinner. She was pretty understanding. She knew I needed the money. She volunteered to help out if there was anything she could do on her end.
Still no answer at Nancy Matteo's place, so I pulled into a gas station near the Massachusetts line and bought a package of donuts and a two-liter of Mountain Dew. It was gonna be one of those nights.
Massachusetts (Five Hours Ago)
"Are you a cop?"
Nancy Matteo was heavyset with long, greasy hair, a face that would probably be pretty if she smiled and didn't have a nose ring.
"Private investigator, Ma'am." I handed her a business card.
"Wow, they work fast. Come in."
Nancy Matteo lived in the upper apartment of a three family house that you might call a "fixer-upper" if you were trying to sell it. It sat in a neighborhood that wasn't exactly urban blight, but it was the kind of area where someone, a woman especially, might think twice about walking around after dark. The sturdy deadbolts on Nancy's doors (both the door to the outside and the one at the top of the stairs that led to her apartment) showed that she'd at least given some thought to the relative safety of her surroundings. I was pretty sure she'd installed them herself. It didn't look like the landlord put much effort into keeping the place up.
"You said they work fast," I remarked as we walked into the apartment. "Who did you mean?"
Nancy led me into her living room and offered a chair. The place was piled with books, shelved on the walls and stacked on the floor. A pretty wide range of subjects too; classical drama, psychology and sociology, some fantasy and science fiction stuff, and a lot of art books. I've got a pretty extensive library at my place, but nothing on this scale.
"Emily's parents. I've been expecting something like this ever since Emily and Carl were here."
"They were here? When?"
"They left a few hours ago."
"Where were they heading?"
Nancy laughed hard and loud. I gave her a look, unable to see the humor.
"The Other World."
"Other world?" I asked, waiting for the details.
"Never mind. Look, they were here this afternoon, they spent a couple of hours. All we did was talk. Emily looked okay. She was with him of her own free will. I told her she should call home. She said she'd think about it. They left around four or so in Carl's car, didn't say where they were going. Do you need to write this down?"
I took the voice recorder out of my jacket pocket and let her see it.
"Would you mind if I took a look around, Ms. Matteo? Just to be sure they aren't tied up in the closet or something?"
She looked annoyed, but motioned for me to go ahead.
A minute later I emerged from her bedroom holding a copy of Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber.
"This is pretty interesting stuff. One of the original stories about parallel worlds, or at least one of the first ones to really get it right. You ever tried the roleplaying version? That was innovative too. First game of its type that didn't rely on dice rolls."
"Listen, I don't know what you're after…"
"Just the rest of the story. Look, Ms. Matteo. The police aren't gonna understand. I might. Give it a shot."
She sank back on her couch and it was a minute or two before she collected her thoughts.
"Four of us made a promise to each other back when we were in high school. We were real close. You know how it goes, the geeks banding together and trying to find some meaning to replace all the high school bullshit."
I nodded. That was something I did understand pretty well.
She continued, "We ran stage crew for the drama club, wrote stories and poetry, played D&D and then Amber, hung around together all the time. Then, all of a sudden, we were graduating. Carl was going down to Virginia. Nathan got accepted to Cal Tech. I ended up here. Emily went to UNH. Her parents didn't want her moving far from home. They were always totally controlling, treating her like she was a little kid."
"What about this promise you made?"
"Well, we were always talking about finding a way out of all the banality. You know, the mundane drudgery and all that. Surrounded by muggles, well, before we had that word, of course."
"Nice of Ms. Rowling to put a name to something that had been bothering so many people."
Nancy smiled. I'd been right. She did have a pretty smile.
"We promised to look for the way to the Other World. You know, the one in our dreams. Back then, it was like we could all feel it calling to us, and it seemed so much… Not more real… No, but so much more alive than anything we had to look forward to. School was tedium and ridicule; our parents were distant or else they were trying to direct every aspect of our lives. And whenever anyone talked to us about the future it was all about work, make money. Oh, and get married and have kids, at least for me and Emily. So anyway, one night someone, maybe it was Nathan, got this idea and we all promised to look for the way to the other world. You know, like a gateway?"
"And we promised that whoever found it would get the others. Well, that's what's going on. Carl found it. He's taking Emily to the gateway."
"He offered to take you?"
Nancy nodded and sniffed a little, holding back tears.
"You didn't believe him."
"I just didn't have the guts. I'm working for a bookstore chain. They give me an hour or two short of full time each week so they don't have to pay health insurance, and my boss is a dickhead who probably hasn't read a book since high school. But I've been selling used books on Ebay, and I'm building up a stock to open my own store. I know I'm years away, and I know it doesn't have much of a chance to succeed, but I feel like I'm on a path. Like there's a reason for me to be here."
"And you didn't believe him."
She'd stopped trying to hold back the tears.
"No," she said softly, "I'm not eighteen anymore."
Connecticut (Four Hours Ago)
I drove down I-84 toward Hartford, talking back and forth with Katy while I worked on making sense of what was going on. I didn't like where this was headed. It was headed toward something very ugly, and the head start they had was gonna be too much. I drank down Mountain Dew and kept driving.
Nancy Matteo had filled me in on a few more details before I left Worcester. Of the four in their original group, only the three remained. Nathan McGrath had died in a collision with a drunk driver six years ago. So once Nancy had given her answer, Carl and Emily were clear to do whatever it was they were planning.
Nancy was also pretty sure they were heading south. Emily had made a few references to the New Jersey Turnpike. Apparently the group of them had driven down that way to some conventions during the summers they had been in college, and they shared a few of the same kind of running jokes that damn near everyone makes about Jersey.
I'd been on the phone for at least the last hour. First, I called Emily's parents. Nothing new there. I told them as much as I thought would help, but I left some of the details vague. Then, I contacted the Nashua police department and the state police in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. I tried to talk them into treating the case as attempted suicide, which was starting to look more and more like a possibility. I knew that Mr. Barrington would be talking to the police too. I got a lot of assurances that they'd put word out, but I wasn't gonna plan on getting lucky with them being stopped for speeding or something.
Next up I checked in with Katy.
"Hi Chess. Good and bad news, mostly bad" she said, "Turns out our man Carl Sims keeps a blog. Bad news is it's friends-locked. I can't access it."
I gave her Nancy Matteo's number and told her to keep trying until she got through. Nancy might be able to provide access. Nancy had an old computer with a dialup connection and she'd been online trying to email some of Emily's friends ever since Carl and Emily left her apartment. That was why I hadn't been able to get through to her. She'd agreed to get offline regularly for the rest of the night just in case I needed to call her back.
Katy also had some background on Carl Sims. He was a youth counselor, working mostly through a staffing service that provided leaders for camps, retreats, and wilderness programs for troubled youth. All of this probably added up to the guy being an expert outdoorsman, which was just one more thing to worry about. Carl Sims could very easily have ways of making himself disappear that went way beyond what he could do just by getting in his car and driving.
Hartford passed in a blur of lights and interchanges, and I pulled into a drive-thru right off the highway for a burger and a large Coke. It was after eleven and I hadn't gotten close to a full eight hours of sleep the night before. My eyes were starting to feel the strain from the endless stream of headlights across the highway.
Somewhere around Danbury I pulled over in a rest area checked in with Katy.
"I got into the blog, but I'm not finding much. Everything is pretty routine. Stories and photos from canoe and backpacking trips with various youth groups. A disclaimer that all the names have been changed. His last entry is a little odd, but it doesn't give anything to go on."
"What does it say?"
"Yeah. One word."
"Bloody hell. Okay, I'm gonna give you a list of police contacts to call. Tell them that you're following up on my information and tell them that Carl Sims left an online suicide note. You got that?"
"Isn't that just one possible interpretation…"
"Yep. It's the one that's most likely to get results. Now let me give you the names and then I want you to call me back in exactly twenty minutes."
She hung up and I slid back in the seat and shut my eyes.
New York (Two Hours Ago)
The Sawmill River Parkway snaked its way through the midnight blackness where the shadows seemed very thick and substantive. Finally away from the highway, it became a lot easier to accept things like gates to other worlds. In some ways, it felt like I'd already driven through one.
The phone rang. I'd told Katy to run a check on all the travel destinations mentioned in Carl Sims' blog. Something somewhere had convinced him that the stars were aligned correctly or whatever.
I picked up without thinking.
"Yeah Katy? Whatcha got?"
"This is not necessary."
It wasn't Katy. I took an educated guess.
"You're quick. Not nearly quick enough. Listen, Mr. Hall, Emily is safe. We're both safe. We've prepared for this for a long time, and we understand what we're doing. Now before I left, I buried a box with just about all the money I have in this world. I can give you the location of that box. I know there was at least ten thousand in there. I just need you to turn around and go back to New Hampshire."
I checked the phone. I had his number on caller ID. The police might be able to track him.
"Could I speak to Emily, please?"
"That isn't necessary either. You're just wasting your time chasing after us, Mr. Hall."
Except I figured the jerk wouldn't be calling to negotiate if he really thought I was wasting my time. He'd gotten delayed somewhere and he was scared. I was closer than I'd thought.
I tried to keep him talking, "How did you know to call me?"
"Oh, word gets around. Besides, there are only so many P.I.'s who Emily's father could hire. I need to go now. Please consider my offer."
"Wait! Look, I'm not about to drop this for some money. Please have Emily call her parents, okay? At least that."
"Won't be possible, Mr. Hall. I'm throwing my cell phone out the window now. There isn't any coverage where we're going. Safe trip home, Mr. Hall."
"Damn!" I screamed as a blast of static hit my ear just as the darkness in the road in front of me took shape into something that stared with two points of light fixed on my eyes. I slammed the break and pulled the wheel and the car started to spin. Something bumped off the passenger side door and the edge of the woods glided into view. Shapes bounced past in the darkness as the car came to a stop on the shoulder of the road. In the headlight I finally recognized the form of a deer disappearing into the woods down the road.
It felt like it took ten minutes for me to stop shaking enough to get the seatbelt undone, but when I checked the car, the damage was minimal. A dent in the passenger side front door. The deer were gone, including the one I had hit. It must have just glanced off.
I was still shaking a little, but the adrenaline rush had left me more awake than I'd been in hours. I figured I'd better try to make some time. I got back into the car and started driving. I thought about calling Melissa, but I figured I'd just make her worried.
The adrenaline rush took me as far as the Tappan Zee Bridge. Then Katy called with the last bit of information I needed, and that took me the rest of the way. I was almost there in time.
New Jersey (Now)
The last trip Carl Sims had been on had been to New Jersey. He'd attended a training retreat for youth guides at a private campsite in North Jersey, close to the Pennsylvania border. Katy had called the number listed on the website, and she'd woken up the owner of the place. He had told Katy about the cave.
It wasn't technically on the camp's property, and it was strictly off limits. Apparently, it had been deemed unsafe years back, possibly after some incident; the camp director wasn't sure. What he was sure of was that Carl Sims had hiked out to the cave and that he'd come back with a lot of questions. Something out there had definitely gotten his attention.
That was all I needed to get the local police moving. They found Sims' car parked by the side of the road half a mile from the camp entrance, and by the time I got there it was nearly two in the morning and there was a full scale rescue operation underway.
The air was bad. They had to go in with breathing apparatus on, and that cost them time. I watched the firefighters haul Carl and Emily out of that black hole in the ground, and I stuck around to try to talk to some people and make sense of it. Carl had written a note, and one of the EMTs let me get a look at it.
...one of the possibilities that we have considered is that the transfer to the Other World may be spiritual, rather than physical in nature. In such a case in may be inevitable that the physical vessels of the spirit remain behind. We regret the pain that may be caused by such circumstances, and can only trust in the faith of those who know how we have prepared for this journey to be mindful that we are, in fact, alive and well and exploring all of the wonders of this place that we shall call home until the end of our days.
I could hear Katy start to cry as I hung up the phone. I hoped she'd be able to get some sleep. The kid had hung tough to the end, and she'd earned every dime of the overtime check she had coming to her. I let the police make the call to the Barringtons. I expected I'd see them at the hospital the next day.
Finally, I called Melissa and told her how it had finally ended. Carl had been dead on arrival. Emily… They weren't sure of the extent of the brain damage. They'd know more in the morning.
"Oh God, the poor family. What'll they do?" Melissa asked the question without expecting an answer, but I gave her one.
"What they've always done. They'll take care of their daughter."
Story and Photo by Rick Silva, Copyright 2006