August 13, 1990
Micki Foster sat at the kitchen table, feeling the sweat roll down her forehead as Jack Marshak and Johnny Ventura struggled with an ancient air conditioner. They were trying to push it through one of the open kitchen windows and get it level, and were not having much luck; Johnny was standing on the roof outside and Jack was kneeling on the small bunk by the windows. After several minutes filled with muttered curses and sweat the metal box slid into place and Johnny crawled in through the other window, throwing himself into a chair as Jack plugged in the cord. "Cross your fingers," he said, flipping the control dial to cool.
For a moment nothing happened, then frigid air began to pour from the vents... but within moments a putrid odor filled the kitchen, causing all three to grimace as Jack hurriedly switched it off. "Dammit, Johnny, I thought you said this thing was in perfect condition," he said, throwing open the other window to let the stench out and the heat back in.
"I thought it was. There must have been some mold in the vents, or something..." Johnny wiped the sweat from his eyes and sat back, cursing his buddy Rudy, the guy who had offered him such a sweet deal. I'm gonna kill him the next time I see him, he thought. The middle of the worst heat wave to hit the Midwest in years, and no air conditioning for the store. Curious Goods, like much of Chicago, was an oven and had been so for almost two weeks, ever since the heat wave had begun.It was so bad that even the normally cool basement was unbearably hot, driving the trio to purchase what must have been the last air conditioner in the city. "I'll pull it open, clean out the vents. Should be as good as new by tomorrow."
"Doesn't help us today, does it?" Jack muttered sourly, shooting a withering glance at the machine.
"Come on, fellas. Just try and think of it as a character-building experience," Micki said, forcing a smile. "Besides, Jack, you told me you want to tell us some good news. We might as well do that somewhere more comfortable."
"Good idea," Jack said as he realized that he had forgotten all about the news he wanted to share. "All right, we're off... hopefully somewhere with working air conditioning." He grabbed his floppy hat and stalked downstairs, followed closely by Micki and Johnny, and flipped the sign from Open to Closed; then he locked the door and piled into the Mercedes. The car sped off, leaving the store to bake in the August sun, finally silent.
Deep underground, a tremor began running its way through the earth, shaking the century-old bricks of sewer mains and ancient clay pipes. The force knocked chunks of stone from the walls, caused the waters to ripple as they flowed throught the narrow passages... until the tremor came to a certain place hidden beneath the basement of Curious Goods.
It passed through the columns and walls, travelled through the floor until it reached the large concrete slab that covered a hole almost as large... and then stopped, leaving everything quiet again for a moment. Then the concrete split open with a hideous cracking sound, a tear three feet long appearing in the center. Fragments of cement were blown all over the room, burying the floor in rubble as pale white mist escaped the opening and crawled up the stairs to the Vault. A deep, evil laugh rattled the walls and shelves... and then all was silent again.
"Jack, do you think we'll ever get everything back?"
Jack turned and looked at Micki as she raised another spoonful of chocolate ice cream to her mouth. The three of them were sitting around a table at an ice cream parlor several blocks from Curious Goods, basking in the air-conditioned atmosphere as they wolfed down the frozen treats. "I certainly hope so. We've done pretty well so far, considering what we're up against."
Johnny took another bite and asked, "So what's the good news? Is the store finally operating in the black?"
Jack allowed a smile to surface. "It just so happens that we've recovered fifty-one percent of the objects listed in the Manifest, one hundred and twenty-nine, to be precise. Not bad for three years' work, given the stakes." He licked his spoon and sat back in his chair, comfortable for the first time in days. "On top of that, we've recovered almost everything that was sold by Micki and Ryan before they knew about the curse. I would have suggested a party, but the last time that happened... it didn't turn out well." Jack shared a look with Micki, and Johnny knew better than to pry.
"The least we can do is get that air conditioner working... and maybe get some work done on those shelves down in the Temple," Johnny said, referring to the chamber underneath the Vault that they had discovered almost a year before. Jack had been pressuring him to start building enough shelves around the walls to hold the many antiques they had recovered, being as he was the only one with any type of handyman experience. Johnny had put it off for as long as he could (the Vault creeped him out, although he would never admit it), but the Vault was overflowing with items and they desperately needed the space. The floor of the Temple was covered with wooden planks and tools, along with a few half-finished shelves that were already almost full.
Jack shook his head. "Don't worry about the shelves today, Johnny. Too damn hot to work, even down in the basement."
Curious Goods was quiet again as the time crept up on midnight. Micki was soundly asleep, enjoying the comfort of the newly-cleaned air conditioner, while Jack occasionally muttered and turned in his sleep, maybe dreaming, maybe in the clutches of a mild nightmare. Neither one noticed when the white mist began seeping through the tiny space between the Vault doors and began creeping up the rickety wooden steps that led to the main part of the store. It curled around shelves and boxes, crawled over the couch and desk until it reached the stairs that led to the second floor. The mist moved faster now, sliding up the steps in a thick sheet and turning the corner to the second flight of stairs that led to the kitchen.
The mist slowed and gathered by the glass doors that led to Micki's bedroom, which were open to let the cool air in from the kitchen. It seemed as if the mist were pondering its next move... and then it began to pile up, forming a mass that stood almost six feet tall and looked vaguely like a man. It flowed into the bedroom silently, slowly taking on details as it moved toward the bed and its sleeping form; a white shirt, dark trousers, pale skin covering a balding head... and evil eyes looking at his niece. The spectral form of Lewis Vendredi grinned and moved even closer, leaning over the bed as Micki remained locked in slumber. "It's been far too long, child. But your time is over now."
Micki's eyes flew open as the apparition turned back into mist, flowing into her mouth an nose, muffling her attempts at screaming and shrouding her mind in a fog she could not break free of. Her struggling limbs gradually came to rest as the last tendrils of mist flowed between her lips, and for just a moment everything was calm again.
Then she sat up and threw the covers to one side, the crimson glow in her eyes already starting to fade. She looked around the room, taking in the masses of clothes and the cool taste of the air, reveling in the sensory experience that had been so long denied. "There will be time enough for this later," she muttered, a slight Southern tinge in her voice, and she stood up.
In the kitchen was a long butcher knife that glinted in the light of the first flash of lightning. "Perfect," she grinned, and walked down the steps after a moment.
The incessantly ringing phone brought Johnny back to consciousness. He fumbled around for a moment in the darkness before he found the receiver; stifling a yawn, he said, "Hello?"
"Johnny? It's Micki. Listen, could you get over here right away? It's very important." Micki's voice was calm, but sounded as if she were forcing it to stay that way.
"Uh... sure. I'll be right over," he replied, and hung up. On the other end, Micki smiled... and pulled the cord out of the wall, just as she had with the upstairs phone. Wandering toward the basement stairs, Micki gazed at the dusty store in the darkness and wondered what it would be like to be alive again after so long in torment. The store had not changed much, and it would take very little effort before it was once again part of the Master's scheme. A soft laugh escaped her lips, but was quickly stifled; there was no time for this.
Micki carefully crept down the steps and unplugged the telephone on Jack's bedside table before walking over to the power box and removing the fuses within. The boom of thunder was faintly audible as Micki sat down on the edge of Jack's bed, watching his bearded face twitch in the throes of some dream. "Jack," she said. "Wake up."
Jack's eyes opened as she shook his shoulder. "Oh. Micki. What... what's the matter?"
"The power's out; I think the storm must have done it." Another boom of thunder could be heard, as well as the far-off sound of water running through storm drains. "Looks like the heat wave is finally over."
Jack sat up and looked at his partner, barely visible in the glow that fell down the steps. "I'm sure it will be all right. Micki, are you okay?"
"I... I'm not sure, Jack. I mean, I just wonder sometimes why we're bothering to do all of this. Do we really have any chance against the evil we're up against?"
Jack looked into her eyes, which were brimming with tears. "Of course we do. Good always has a chance... but evil is always more tempting, which is what makes it so hard to fight. Even good people can succumb to it; we've seen enough of that over the years." He enclosed her hand in his own and held it tightly. "All we can do is keep trying."
Johnny threw the front door open and thanked God that he was out of the downpour that covered the city. Driving over in the dark at one in the morning was bad enough without dealing with a deluge of what seemed like biblical proportions, especially when there were problems at the store. He stumbled up the steps and hit the lightswitch... but nothing happened. Damn. "Micki? Jack?"
Downstairs, Jack heard Johnny's voice and pulled back from Micki. "What the hell is -"
Before he could react, Micki had pulled the butcher knife from her sleeve and pressed it to his throat; the force she applied convinced Jack that she was deadly serious. "Down here, Johnny!" Micki yelled, hauling Jack to his feet. The tip of the blade dug into his throat, drawing a drop of blood.
Johnny raced down the steps but stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Micki and Jack in a flash of lightning, the gleaming blade poised to enter the older man's throat. "Micki, what are you doing?" he cried.
"Reclaiming my proper place in the Master's scheme," she said, the voice low and dangerous and not sounding at all like the person that Jack and Johnny had come to know. "And you provided me the way to accomplish it, Jack."
A chill ran through Jack's body. "Lewis?" he muttered.
"Indeed, old friend. And this must be the new helper I've heard so much about from all the souls who have come to Hell because of him. The screw-up." Micki smiled, her breath hot against Jack's neck. "There's a young girl down there because of you, along with four young men that you allowed to die."
"Jack, what the hell is going on?" Johnny asked, looking for an opening to get in between the knife and Jack's throat.
"It's not Micki, it's Lewis. He's possessed her somehow, he's making her do his bidding -" The blade dug a little deeper, making him wince.
"She accepted me, Jack. She accepted me with her own doubts... just like you will, both of you. And then it won't matter." She nodded toward the Vault. "Get inside, boy."
Johnny hesitated only a moment before walking over and turning the brick that opened the massive iron doors. As they swung open, the lightning flashed again and revealed the fallen antiques and split shelves that littered the chamber. Micki shoved Jack through the doors which immediately began to close, sealing themselves with a flash of red energy even as both men began pushing against them.
"Goodbye for now, Jack," Micki said as she laid her head against the metal. "I've got to be going, but I'll be back very soon. You see, I've been going about this the wrong way all along; I don't have to kill anybody... but she does. And the blood of an innocent shall set me free." She laughed and pulled away. "The blood of Ryan Dallion, Jack. Poetic, don't you think?" Then she walked up the steps, leaving the basement in darkness.
"Oh my God," Jack whispered as the weight of those words sunk in. He desperately swung the lever that opened the Vault from inside, but - predictably - nothing happened. "We're sealed in here. Dammit, we've got to get out and stop her."
"Why the hell is she doing this? How did Lewis possess her, anyway? Isn't he in Hell now?" Johnny pushed against the doors, bracing his shoulder against the seam in the middle and accomplishing nothing but bruising his muscles.
Jack shook his head. "I don't know, Johnny. He's tried to escape before, three times. But I don't know how he did it this time." He looked around desperately, trying to figure out a way to open the doors. "But we've got to get out of here soon. It'll be over before dawn."
"What will be over?"
"I think... I think that Lewis is going to kill Ryan... and then possess his body, just as Satan tried to do a year ago. But he'll only have until dawn; after that, he goes right back to Hell."
Johnny threw his coat to the floor and looked around, already sweating from the stifling heat of the Vault. The crimson glow that surrounded the edges of the doors provided barely enough light to see, but there was probably nothing that could force the doors open. "Shit," he said, looking at the thin bars of illumination that peeked through the boards above and glinted off of Jack's balding head.
"I've got an idea," he said as he sprinted down the steps, returning with an armful of tools - hammers, saws, screwdrivers - which he threw to the floor at Jack's feet. "Jack, there's a split in the slab down there that must be three feet long."
"He came in through the Temple? My God, the power he must have had to summon up would be incredible. To break through the protection spells..." Jack paused, lost in thought at the power that the men were facing until the realization came to him. "It's the storm, Johnny. The thunderstorm isn't natural, it's his source of energy!"
"How the hell do we stop a thunderstorm?"
"We've got to get out of here first. What's your plan?"
Johnny inserted the claw end of a hammer in the space between two boards and pulled downward. "We break through the ceiling and get back into the store. Then we stop whatever Lewis is doing... before it's too late. All we gotta do is delay him, right?"
"I don't know if it's that simple, Johnny, but it's out only chance." Jack picked up a hammer and went over to a dusty footlocker in one corner. "We might need these," he said, levering the ancient padlock open with a groan of strained metal. He lifted the lid and removed an ancient revolver and submachine gun along with a cloth pouch of shells, relics of his experiences during the Second World War. He was very careful not to disturb the circular gray amulet tucked into one corner of the footlocker.
Johnny said nothing as Jack broke open the Webley revolver and slid six short, fat shells into the cylinder. "Here," Jack said, shoving the revolver into Johnny's hands as he started loading the rectangular magazine for the Sten gun.
"Jack, do you really think we'll need these?"
"We can't let Lewis come back, no matter what it takes. I hope we won't have to use these... but if it comes down to that, we'll have to."
Realization surfaced in Johnny's mind. "You mean, kill Micki."
"Only if there's no other choice. I know that she would want us to, if it was the only way to stop him." Jack set the gun down and picked up the hammer again. "Now let's get the hell out of here."
The Mercedes ran better than it ever had while he was alive, Lewis realized as his stolen body drove it at breakneck speeds through the rain. This Johnny character must be quite the grease monkey. The huge car raced through the suburbs, unnoticed by the police (who were convinced that anyone on the road in this mess was totally insane) as it turned onto a side street and came to a stop in front of a modest two-story house. Barely visible on the mailbox was the name Dallion in plain black letters.
It had been easy to pick the information form his niece's mind, just as it had been easy to take control of her body. His transformed nephew and the boy's mother lived here, barely a half-hour away from Curious Goods, where they had started a new life together. "How disgustingly sweet," he muttered, watching the rain come down in sheets. Then he threw up the hood on the rain slicker his niece wore and stepped out into the downpour, carefully moving toward the darkened house.
The old spells came back quickly, especially in a body so attuned to mystical forces as this one. With a few words and gestures, Lewis felt Mrs. Dallion slip into an almost coma-like slumber that she would not wake from for many hours; more than enough time to complete his task. With a few more words the front door swung wide open and Lewis walked into the house. He could sense his nephew's presence upstairs, sleeping deeply despite the storm. He crept up the steps and into Ryan's room, gently sitting on the edge of the bed.
The boy stirred and opened his eyes. "Micki?" he asked sleepily, but before he could say anything more Lewis waved a hand over his eyes and Ryan passed back into his slumber. Seconds later the bed was empty and the Mercedes was driving east, back toward Chicago.
Back toward resurrection.
The boards groaned and creaked above their heads but stubbornly refused to come loose. Johnny was standing on top of the footlocker, pulling down with all his might on the hammer he had wedged between two of the boards. "Dammit, Jack, it's not working."
"Here, let me try." Jack gripped the hammer and lifted his feet off the floor, all of his substantial weight pulling down on the wood.
With a groan the first board above them popped loose.
Ryan had remained asleep the entire way back to the store, even as Lewis had thrown the boy to the floor. Now he was deep in concentration as he drew the circles and pentacle that would surround the altar he had made out of the desk. The white chalk easily marked the wooden floor, and the almost-constant lightning made it easy to see.
The candles were quickly lit, and the boy was soon lying on the desk. Lewis removed the butcher knife from his robe and lifted it over the boy's body, beginning to chant the incantations that would return him to life.
Lightning flashed again and thunder rattled the windows as another board was pushed up and out of the way, revealing a large hole in the floor. Johnny poked his head through the space and said, "We're not in the store."
"The Vault is under Fiorno's store. We must have come up under his back storeroom."
Johnny dropped back down and said, "I'll give you a boost." He threaded his fingers together as Jack gopt on top of the footlocker and grabbed the edges of the hole. With a groan, Johnny pushed Jack's foot upward, propelling the older man through the hole and onto the dusty floor of the storeroom above. Jack turned back and grabbed the Sten gun that Johnny offered him, then reached down and helped him up. "Now what?" Johnny panted, hands resting on his knees.
"Get back into the store through the back door and stop him." Jack unlocked the hardware store's back door and trotted to the alley entrance of Curious Goods, peering through the dirty window. "Damn, I can't see a thing." He carefully tried the knob; locked.
Johnny pulled his keyring from his pocket and thumbed through it until he found the right one, inserting it into the lock and carefully turning it. "Get inside and wait; I'll go around front and try to distract him. Then you grab Ryan and get the hell out of here." He took his car keys off the ring and pressed them into Jack's hand. "Get him somewhere safe."
Jack almost asked What about you?... but then realized that Johnny was ready to sacrifice himself if it would buy the time to let Jack and Ryan get away and prevent Lewis from returning to life. He nodded and pulled the bolt back on the Sten gun to chamber a round, then rested his hand on the doorknob. "Good luck," he said.
"Yeah, you too. Just get him outta here." Johnny raced down the alley and around the side of the building, almost slipping several times on the soaked sidewalk as Jack slowly turned the knob and pushed the door open. He slid inside and nudged the door closed again, barely able to see Micki standing in the dim light of several candles she had lit around the desk. Moving only when the thunder would cover any sound he made, Jack began working his way closer to the desk where Ryan was lying motionless. As he crept forward he could hear the reverse Latin of satanic incantations, and saw the gleam of the butcher knife in her right hand. He raised the weapon to his shoulder, ready to fire if she began to drop the blade... and waited.
Johnny watched from the front door as Micki raised the knife. Grasping the handle, he almost sighed with relief when the door unlatched. He gripped the pistol in his right hand, steeled himself for what he might have to do... and threw the door open with his left, levelling the revolver at Micki's chest. "Back away from the boy, Lewis."
Micki slowly lowered the blade and looked up at Johnny. "Ah, the prodigal son returns. Do you really think you can stop me?"
"It's been done before," Johnny replied as he caught sight of Jack in a flash of lightning.
"Where is my old friend, anyway? The one who sent me to Hell so many times before." In a flash Micki had pulled Ryan off of the desk and whirled around, holding the boy in front of her like a shield and looking directly at Jack. "Hello. Come to watch the festivities?" She peered over her shoulder at Johnny and pressed the knife to Ryan's throat. "Either one of you moves and the boy dies. I'll still come back."
"But we'll be ready," Jack said as he inched closer. "You can't fight both of us off, not in the boy's body."
"It won't matter, Jack. Do you really think that I'd let either of you this close if I wasn't prepared?" With that Micki began chanting again, and both weapons began glowing red with heat. Jack cried out in pain and dropped the gun, watching as it burned into the floorboards, and Micki laughed at the man's agony. Johnny managed to keep hold of the pistol through sheer force of will and brought it down on the rope that held up the crystal chandelier. In one fluid motion the rope split, sending the fixture crashing down onto Micki's head as Jack leapt over the couch and grabbed Ryan, shoving him toward Johnny.
"GO!" he shouted as Micki grabbed his leg. Johnny threw Ryan over his shoulder and raced toward the front door, not daring to look back. Jack kicked at Micki as she clawed deep gouges into his calf, finally breaking free of her grasp and scurrying toward the back of the store, hoping to draw her away from Ryan and Johnny.
But Micki didn't follow him; she just turned around and looked at the front door, where she could sense Johnny and Ryan inside the Mercedes. The car refused to start (a simple task for an experienced spellcaster), and Micki was walking toward the door even as Johnny saw her and had gotten out, standing between her and the boy on the passenger seat. "You'll have to go through me, Lewis," he said, but as the words left his mouth an invisible hand slammed into his chest, sending him sprawling into the street and knocking the wind out of him. Lightning crashed as Micki made another gesture; the passenger door opened and Ryan began walking toward the front door.
She smiled at Johnny, the crimson glow burning in her eyes. "You can't win, boy," she said as Johnny struggled to his knees. "You'll never -"
Micki never saw it coming. She pitched forward into the rain as Jack's shoulder struck the center of her back, and both of them fell to the slick concrete outside. An unearthly scream ripped from her throat as the rain coursed over her body, the red glow fading from her eyes as white mist began pouring from her mouth, her nose, even her eyes and ears, dispersing in the wind and rain as a trickle of blood seeped from her nostrils.
Johnny laid the still-unconscious Ryan down on the floor inside and then crawled over to Jack, who was cradling Micki's head in his hands. As the last wisps of whiteness faded into the rain, Micki beckoned Jack closer. Leaning close to her, only he heard the words she spoke: "I know what's in your heart, Jack. You're more like me than you remember." Then her eyes rolled back, the normal brown tint returning.
August 14, 1990
It was well after dawn by the time Micki awoke. In the intervening hours, Jack had returned Ryan to his home; the spells Lewis had put on him and his mother would wear off naturally, and hopefully neither would ever know what had taken place on this night. Johnny had replaced the boards in Fiorno's storeroom and locked his door, and the candles and chalk symbols had all been removed when the first rays of sunlight penetrated the thinning clouds. There was still the matter of repairing and cleaning up the Vault and Temple, but both men figured that it could wait a little while.
Jack and Johnny were sitting at the kitchen table, sipping at cups of hot tea as the sunlight crawled in through the kitchen windows, not speaking as they felt the aches in their bones slowly fade away. There was no sound but the tick of the clock and the gentle rush of water flowing through the rain gutters.
Then Micki sat straight up in her bed and started to scream. She didn't stop for three hours.
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This page was created on February 20, 2000.
Last modified on February 10, 2005.