The search so far

Well it’s been a very long and sleepless couple week. It took a whole lotta work, but I think I’m close. Yet I don’t like what I’ve discovered.

I spent the day after my meeting with the Lanky Man chewing over everything we’d discussed. Inside, I was a wreck. Forces of equal strength writhed around as they fought. I had to fish any coherent thought out of the turmoil. I was curious, dead curious, to learn more about the Lanky Man and his “organization”. Doing what he wanted seemed a good way to get close to him. I knew the man was a ghost: only a little digging told me that. I’d have an easier time flying to the moon than figuring out who my mysterious sponsor was.

At the same time, a voice inside me screamed in warning. None of this was right. I knew that of course. None of this was normal. If the Lanky Man was a decent guy, he would’ve told me more. Criminals and the like have things to hide, and he was hiding a lot.

Eventually I’d sat around long enough and simply decided to do something—anything. So I did what the Lanky Man had told me to do.

I went to Ed Slezawski.

Ed was busy tracing neat strokes with his pen on an article draft when I walked in. He looked up; his face fell.

“Ah, Madsen, it’s you. What do you want?”

I sat down opposite from him without being invited.

“I want the Wicker Man story.”

Ed blinked once, twice, then said, “You can’t have it. I’ve already given it to Katie.”

“Well, take it away from her. She can’t be too far in writing it, the theft is too recent.”

Ed set the stack of papers he had been editing on the table. I read the title upside down.

“Ah,” I said, not sure what else I could say. I pushed my brain into full-gear, “Well … Send it back to her and give the story to me.”

Ed leaned back in his chair and looked at me for a long time through his glasses, “No, I’m not going to do that,” he held up a hand to cut of what I was about to say. “She has the story, the draft has been written, and it’s good. There is no plausible reason I’d throw her story out and give it to you instead. Now if that’s what you barged in to say, please leave.”

“I don’t think I will,” I said, crossing one leg over the other and leaning back into the chair.

“Sit there then,” Ed said and went back to his editing.

Several minutes passed. I never took my eyes from Ed. I reached out and began rearranging Ed’s pens. When he told me to stop, I switched to tapping my fingers loudly on the arms of the chair.

Finally Ed slapped the papers on the desk and stared at me with his cold gaze.

I thought of something and blurted it out, “How about I write an article and you see which one you like better. The winner gets published.”

Ed inclined his head so he could look at me over the rims of his glasses, “You really must love missing art pieces. You want the story this badly?”

I nodded my head.

“Even though I’m almost certainly going to publish Katie’s, you still want to write your own article?” He picked up and shook the stack of papers.

I nodded again.

Ed let out a long sigh, “Alright, Ray, go on and do it. It’s a waste of time though: I’ll pick Katie’s. But please, by all means waste your time. See if I care.”

That was all fine by me. I didn’t need my article to get published, I just needed a cover to talk with the police and get inside the museum. After making some calls, I went next to the Gordon and Mariam Chesterfield Museum. The detective working the case met me outside.

He was smoking a cigarette and when he spoke, he had that characteristically coarse South Boston accent.

“You the newspapah guy that cawlled?” He asked.

“I am,” I showed him my journalists’s ID. “Raymond Madsen, Boston Crier. I—”

“Yeah, yeah, Detective Flaherty. Come inside, pal. I’ll show you the place.”

Detective Flaherty flung his cigarette into the bushes and led me inside.Even though the museum was closed to the public, inside it was a-buzz with activity. The museum was installing all new, high-tech security systems after the theft. Flaherty led me up to the third floor. It was quieter up there. We ducked under the yellow tape and came to the spot.

Flaherty pointed unnecessarily at the dark rectangle of wallpaper where the painting clearly had hung, “That’s whe’ it used to be, you know.”

“Thanks,” I said as I snapped some pictures. The Wicker Man‘s plaque was still there.

Detective Flaherty then ran me through everything he knew, which wasn’t much. That shocked me a little. I mean, yeah I know, it’s a caper and all. still, this quickly appeared to be no ordinary theft.

“You haven’t found any fingerprints?” I asked in disbelief.

“None, pal. No prints, no hehs, no bits o’ clothing. Nu’ittn. None of the windows we’ opened, eithe’. All the doors we’ locked too.”

I paused in my note-taking, “You mean the building was locked tight the night of the robbery?”

“Dat’s what I said, pal. No one knows who done it o’ how. You know what I says? Houdini done it,” Flaherty chuckled, then continued. “The’ ain’t much moah we can do. We spent days lookin’ ove’ the place, but found nu’ittn.”

“But there were cameras in here. Surely they saw something?”

Flaherty shook his head, “Naw, cameras crapped out for five seconds,” Flaherty held up as many fingers, “One minute painting the’, then some static, and boom! it’s gawn. Security gawds saw nu’ittn either.”

After exhausting what little information Flaherty knew, I thanked him and asked him to keep me apprised of the investigation. He promised he would and led me back outside.

I have to say, this isn’t what I expected. Either the Wicker Man was stolen by legendary art thieves—in which case, Boston’s finest may be a little outclassed—or there is something very strange going on. And all over a silly painting—I mean, yeah, it’s alright. I’ve seen it before. But it’s not exactly the Mona Lisa we’re talking about.

I spent the last week investigating. But as Flaherty said, there ain’t much. I talked with the museum management, the watchmen the night of the theft, and I spoke with half a dozen experts on the painting and on art thievery. I called Flaherty two times asking for updates. He had none, and was a little more terse each time.

I was going nowhere fast and I knew it. But just last night, after pouring over all my notes and photos for the hundredth time and pouring myself several drinks, I dozed off. It must have only been for a few minutes, but that’s all it took.

I had a dream—or it might have been a flashback. I saw that familiar, dusty corridor. It felt real though, too real to be a dream this time. I was carrying something. Something fragile, delicate. I walked to the end of the corridor and opened the door. That’s when my vision got blurry, but hovering before my eyes was the Wicker Man painting, as I had seen it five years ago.

When I woke up I knew what I had to do, I just didn’t want to do it.

The painting was at the address 341 Newcastle Street. The only problem was that a fear—a nameless, sourceless yet biting fear—told me not to go there.

But what could I do? I had to go and look.

Hunting the “Lanky Man”, part 2

Just got back from my second meeting with the “Lanky Man”. It was as weird as I was expecting.

Getting to McAffrey’s Place was as thrilling as usual. After riding the T as close as I could, I took a cab. The driver let me out by the dilapidated brick warehouse. The only remaining part of the old advertisement on the side of the warehouse was the single word “McAffrey”. Because of the late hours, the place was dotted with shadows and dark alleyways. It looked like a rat’s warren.

Walking fast, hands tucked in pockets, I rushed down the sidewalk, keeping my eyes alert for the sign for Wither’s bar. Once a thriving center of Boston’s sea trade, McAffrey’s Place had fallen into ruin over the 20th century. Rotting warehouses and the skeletons of once prosperous hotels now housed grimy nightclubs, bars, crack dens, illegal casinos, human traffickers, and who knew what else. The Boston mob had planted roots in McAffrey’s Place a decade ago and had been using it as a haven for their illicit activities.

A gang of three teenage guys emerged from an alley, crossed the street, and started following me down the sidewalk. With every step, they got a little closer. If they were going to mug me, they could’ve gone ahead and done it: no one who was watching would have cared. But they didn’t. They just stalked me for more than a block. When they had gotten close enough I was sure they would attack me, I saw the battered, old sign for Wither’s up ahead. I dashed inside. The boys didn’t follow me.

Inside the bar was pretty much what I expected. Dim lighting and blaring music. Groups of lonely souls huddled in booths or at the bar. TVs showed a baseball game in Fenway Park.

I felt terribly out of place. People watched me as I approached the bar. I put my hands on the bar and leaned on it uneasily.

The barman said over the music, “You look lost, pal.”

“I’m looking for someone—”

“Doubt any you’d know end up here,” he sneered, his ugly face wrinkling.

I sensed rather than heard someone walk up behind me. Fearing the worst, I spun around. The Lanky Man, in all his narrow height, stood behind me. He smiled pleasantly at me then looked at the bartender.

“This is the man I was expecting, Charlie. Be a good host and fix him whatever drink he wants.”

Barman Charlie’s face changed immediately when he saw the Lanky Man. He nodded his head and looked attentively at me. I was glad for the drink: I needed something to ease my nerves.

With my White Russian in hand, I followed the Lanky Man to a private backroom. We both sank into leather chairs. The room, while lit only by one incandescent bulb, was much nicer than the rest of the bar. And quieter too.

“Well, Raymond, you said you had questions for me. Here I am. Ask whatever you want, but I cannot guarantee an answer to everything—not yet.”

“What do you mean not yet? When will you answer me, if not now?”

The Lanky Man grinned and said nothing. I muttered swears to myself but tried not to let my mood show.

“Alright, how about I start?” he said. “I represent a private organization that is very, very interested in you.”

“What for? My writing?”

“No, Raymond, for you—the person of Raymond Madsen. You are much more than a journalist, shackled to the whims of editors and critics. You’ve begun a journey; one which you’ll need a guide. We want to be your guide, Raymond.”

“Ok, well ‘guide’ me this: what the hell was that box you gave me? It made me black out for a whole fucking week? This seems to me like some sick … prank, I guess.”

“If I were to explain to you everything concerning the chest, you would not understand. Suffice to say, you had a strong reaction: stronger than we thought. But everything is alright. That was your first tentative step. Now time for the next one. I have a job for you: one that will put your investigative skills to the test. You like a mystery don’t you, Raymond?”

“I suppose,” I grumbled as I swirled my drink. I felt like I was being jerked around, which I  was. But I had to learn everything about this guy and his organization.

“We want you to find the missing painting, the Wicker Man. I suppose you saw the news?”

I peered at the Lanky Man. Did he know I was connected to that? Not that I myself was sure, I just had a strong feeling I was. His face was completely unreadable, betraying none of the thoughts that moved behind it. It was the face of a marble statue.

“I did,” I said.

“Good. Find the painting. Once you have it, contact me and I will retrieve it. In return, I promise you more answers and more knowledge. Not just of the events that are moving like invisible gears around you, but of the inner workings of your own mind. You are a key, Raymond. This job is as much for your own benefit as ours.”

I downed the last my drink as I though it over, “How will I even begin investigating? I know nothing about the theft, except that it happened.”

“You’re a smart man, Raymond. Convince your editor to give you the story. Therefore, under the guise of writing an article about the theft, you can talk to the museum and the police. Get whatever details you can. Piece the mystery together. I believe you can do this.”

He made it sound doable. I wasn’t wholly convinced, but I felt I had no choice. He was offering me an opportunity to get closer to him and his organization. The art theft isn’t going to be the only thing I’ll investigate.

“What is this organization? Why are they interested in helping me—if that’s what they call fucking up my life?”

The Lanky Man smiled and said nothing. That habit of his was getting highly annoying.

“Alright, I’ll do it,” I said in frustration. I wanted to get back the safety of my home as quick as possible. And I was afraid to discover what would happen if I said no to the Lanky Man.

I continued, “But only because I’m in the mood for some field work. And this could actually turn into a nice story to add to my portfolio.”

When our meeting ended, the Lanky Man rose and escorted me personally out of McAffrey’s Place. No hooligan teens even showed their faces. If Bostoners were afraid of McAffrey’s, then McAffrey’s was afraid of my narrow-shouldered  mystery guide.

So, now back in my apartment, I’m gathering myself for the task ahead. I need to find a priceless painting that’s gone missing and which I believe I stole while sleepwalking.

This is going to be a really weird month.

I think I’m being watched

It’s been an odd couple of days while I’ve waited for the meeting with Lanky Man. I haven’t slept well. I wasn’t sleeping well before, what with all the mysteries and weirdness in my life, and the break-in. But ever since waking up in the alley, I haven’t slept well at all.

I feel raw. I’m always tense and my mind just won’t stop churning over thought after thought. As an investigative journalist, I want to … well, investigate this mystery and solve it. But I don’t know where to begin. The Lanky Man is my only lead.

And now these past few days have shot my nerves even more.

It started innocuously enough. While I was walking down the hall to my apartment this Sunday, I bumped into my new neighbor. She was as pretty as I remembered.

She greeted me with a big smile, “Raymond! How are you? You are well, I hope?”

“I’m alright,” I said casually, sticking my hands in my pockets. “Busy with work. Can’t complain.”

“I am glad to hear this! You were gone for awhile. I heard the workers in postal room talking about your overflowing box. I assumed you were out working on a story.”

Ah, yes, a story,” I scratched the tip of my nose. “I was out of state in, uh … New York.”

Her visible eye, so enchantingly blue, widened, “Oh, New York! How nice. Well, I am glad to see you again. I hope you have very nice day!”

“Um, yeah, you too.”

“Thank you again for the charger!”

“No problem; glad I could help.”

She beamed at me, her eye winked, and she walked down the hall away from me. I turned and watched her until she went around a corner. She was so friendly with me; I thought maybe even flirty. Of course, she might just come across that way but not mean it. I wanted to believe she was flirting with me. Though, I did wonder—not too deeply—why she was.

The next thing to happen was far less flattering. I was walking home from the Harvard Avenue station. I was halfway to my apartment building when I noticed a man following me. He was on the sidewalk across the street. I only noticed because there were few people around at the time. Whenever I crossed the street, so did he; whenever I turned down a street, so did he, though always at a distance.

I wasn’t sure, but I thought he might have been on the subway too.

Paranoia gripped me. I started sweating. My feet walked faster, without me having to tell them. The guy wore a long coat: at first I thought he was the Lanky Man. After a glance back, I realized he wasn’t. I’d never seen him before. His face was bland, expressionless. One of those faces you forget once it’s not in front of your eyes. He wasn’t looking directly at me, only in my general direction.

He wasn’t bothered at all that I was looking at him. In fact, it seemed he wanted me to notice him.

When my building came into view, I sprinted up to the front entrance. I mashed my keycard onto the lock. I didn’t dare look back; I was too afraid my shaking hand would drop the card. Slow, heavy footsteps crossed the street, stepped up on the curb.

I spat curses as I mashed the card harder against the lock. My other hand rubbed sweat away from my eyes.

When the door unlocked, I flung it open and dashed inside. I spun back around: the guy wasn’t there. I pressed my face to the glass and peered down both sides of the street. He was gone.

I ran up to my apartment, heart pounding in my chest. I dove inside and slammed and locked the door. I leaned against the door, hyperventilating.

After several minutes—and after I’d checked my apartment for intruders—I started to calm down. I began to think I was just imagining it all. To calm myself down, I decided to watch some TV.

In retrospect, that was the wrong move.

The third channel I flicked over to was a local news channel. I wasn’t really listening to their report at first, but several key words drew me in. I leaned forward. Horror dawned on me slowly.

The news report talked about a painting—the Wicker Man by Alonso de Fitella—which was stolen from the Gordon and Mariam Chesterfield Museum. After that, the report switched to a reporter in South Boston. He was on the wharfs, amidst an ongoing police investigation. A car had been driven into the bay earlier this week, but had only been dredged up the night before. No bodies or any identification of any kind had been found in the car.

I began to tremble. Sweat stained my clothes. The theft and the car brought up memories—vague, dream-like memories—from my lost week. I remembered the lobby and being on the docks in South Boston. I didn’t want to know how, but I knew I was connected to these two events. They had both happened while I had lost awareness.

Oh God, what happened to me? This is the Lanky Man’s fault and he’s going to pay for it.

Hunting the “Lanky Man”, part 1

I’m going to meet him again, the Lanky Man.

That’s what I’ve started calling the guy from the cafe. There was nothing else distinguishing about him expect his height and narrow build. Guy’s like a parking meter.

I wrote him an email. Here’s how it went.

– –

It’s Raymond.

We need to talk. Now. I have questions and I want answers.

I opened that box you gave me. What the hell was in it? And what did it do to me?

Let’s meet at the Milk Street Cafe. Tomorrow at noon.

– –

I think it’s appropriately angry. While I was waiting for a response, I did some investigating. I wanted to know as much as I could about this guy before I saw him again. Who was he; what was his agenda.

I started with Milk Street Cafe. I spoke with the waitresses, knowing it was a long shot. Sure enough, they didn’t remember him. His email gave me nothing at first. But I gave the email address to a computer geek friend of mine, Gus. We’ve worked together before on stories that required some computer work.

All Gus could tell me was that the email address was a fake one, used to hide the real source of the email. Through some means of wizardry Gus was able to find that the email linked back to a computer in Algeria.

I’d reached a dead-end and had nothing to show for it. So I waited. Several sleepless days passed. Then, this morning, an email appeared in my inbox.

It was from the Lanky Man. Here’s how it went:

– –

Meet next Friday at Wither’s, tavern. 3 PM.

– –

Ha! So here was my chance to finally wring some answers from the guy. Though I have to wait almost another week until I get the chance. Weirdest of all, Wither’s is in none other than McAffrey’s Place. That’s not a good place. I would know: remember my unpublished article? But at this point I’ll venture into McAffrey’s if it means answers.

… What happened?

What the hell happened?

It has been over a week since I opened the package. I blacked out immediately on opening it. I don’t what happened, where I went, or why. I … I can’t think straight.

Ok, let me start from the beginning of what I remember. That might help things seem clearer.

So, I decided to open the package Friday the 15th. Underneath the paper wrapping was a wooden box about the size of a shoe box. The box was plain, unmarked. There was no indication to what it held inside, except maybe the most troublesome pair of shoes ever. I undid the latch and opened the lid.

That was when I blacked out. I never even saw what was inside. Though, I had the strong impression that there was something.

The next thing I remember clearly was waking up in a gutter in South Boston. I was wearing the same clothes as I had worn a week ago—though they were far dirtier now. I wiped spit from off the side of my face. I looked around blearily. I was in an alley, surrounded by a brick wall on one side and concrete on the other. Both were covered in graffiti. Construction drills filled the air.

I felt like I had been drugged, or had drunk too much the night before. And at first I thought it had been just a night, but then I saw the date at Andrew Station.

A week had passed.

Already delirious and totally confused, that freaked me out. I had no idea what happened. How had a week passed? I rode the subway in a daze back to my apartment.

As I swayed back and forth on the train, slack fingers wrapped around the handle, memories came back. They were like memories of a dream, triggered by a place or image similar to the dream. I recalled only brief snapshots of places. A wharf at night; a lit-up space—a lobby maybe; there were several of me wandering down alleys and backroads; and mixed in there, I seemed to remember walking down that familiar, dusty, corridor.

That made me think these really were dreams I was remembering. Somehow, that didn’t make me feel better. True, it meant I hadn’t been sleepwalking for a week, but it left me no closer to solving the mystery of what in the hell happened to me.

When I stumbled into the safe haven of my apartment, I found no trace of the box. I poured myself a glass of whiskey. And now here I am.

I’m scared. I hate to admit, but I am. I only hope admitting it will help me feel better (so far, it’s not working).

I just can’t understand any of this. What made me black out? Was there gas in the box? No that’s stupid, why did I type that? Did I walk to that alley or did someone carry me?

You know, I don’t know if this is the whiskey talking, but I’m getting real tired of being jerked around by … by somebody. I’m an investigative journalist type. It’s time to do some investigating! I’m going to find that guy from the cafe and demand an explanation!

First I need to finish this whiskey and then take a nap. Blacking out for a whole week leaves you more tired than you’d think.

 

It’s back

The package—it’s back!

It’s fucking back and I don’t know how.

I moved back into my apartment today after the police couldn’t find anything. They told me, with a tone telling me the opposite of their words, to call if I noticed anything strange.

I walked in and there it was, sitting on top of my coffee table as if it had always been there. I didn’t know what to think. At first I thought the cops had left it. But as I got closer, I recognized the shape and size, and the unmarked paper-wrapping.

So I can’t be rid of this thing, apparently. I threw it away in a dumpster for crying out loud! I fucking watched the garbage truck empty the dumpster. The package should be in a landfill right now. But, here it is.

I’m sick of this. I have to know now what this is all about. I’m going to open the damn thing. Hopefully, once I see what’s inside, I’ll be able to end this odd chapter of my life.

I’ve spent the last five minutes working up the courage to open it. I thought writing this blog post would help me think through it, as well help me vent some of my frustration.

Well, it’s not going to open itself. Here I go. I just hope there’s not a bomb or anthrax in it.

I’m opening the package now.

Ugh…

The title says it all. I fell like crap.

Ugh…

You ever have those days where you just can’t do anything? Where it just feels like everything you do is worthless.

Nothing’s been working out. Not since that goddamned package.

I’m still shaken up. My home has never been broken into before. I just feel so angry that someone was in my apartment. Who the hell were they and what were they looking for?

I’ve been trying to write more “Doom Truth” but the words just haven’t been flowing. Every new sentence sounds stupid when I read it aloud. The plot, characters, it’s all uncertain. I feel like I need to just start over from the beginning.

And to top it all off, the big piece I’ve been working on for nearly a month was rejected by my editor.

I went in this morning to talk with Ed Slizawski, my editor for the Boston Crier. I had gone in sure my article would do well. Again, I’d sunk a whole lotta time and love into it. I titled it “Den of Thieves: The Rise of Boston’s Most Notorious Crime District”. It was on the increasing levels of crime in McAffrey’s Place. I’d even gone there to do research! I was sure I was going to be robbed like six times.

But when I walked into Ed’s office, Ed had a grim face. Nothing unusual there. It was when he said, “Please sit down, Raymond,” that I knew something was wrong. Ed only says ‘please’ when he’s got bad news.

I sat down. The leather squeaked underneath me.

Ed stared at me over clasped hands. His narrow eyes were framed by the fat, black rims of his glasses.

“I read your article,” Ed said.

“…And, what’d you think?”

Ed puckered his lips and let out a long puff of air in my face. His breath smelled of mint, “Well I certainly liked parts of it. But, as it is, I don’t think I can publish it.”

“What the hell? Why not?”

Ed’s eyes turned into two, dark lines, “Well for starters, what was the point of it? What are our readers supposed to get out of it after they read it?”

“That there’s bad shit happening at McAffrey’s Place and the city government’s not doing much about it!”

Ed clicked his tongue, “See, I don’t know why you wrote that. We can’t go pointing fingers at the mayor and the city. Besides, it’s been shown that recent government programs have been reducing poverty and organized crime. You seem to think the opposite.”

“Because I went to McAffrey’s. I know what I saw there. And I did my research.”

“I’m sure you did,” Ed looked down and now busied himself with straightening the already straightened pens on his desk. I knew by that he was done with this conversation. But I pressed on.

“C’mon, Ed, you can’t stop the article just over that. If there were actual criticisms I could rewrite parts—”

Ed glanced up, “I do have actual criticism. I am not going to allow you to accuse the city government wrongly. You could always remove those sections, but I know how stubborn you can get. Particularly with me.”

“Gee, I wonder why,” I muttered.

“If you won’t change the article, then I will not allow it to be printed.”

“Fine,” I jumped to my feet, “I guess we’re done here.”

“I’m sorry, Ray, but that’s the way it’s got to be.”

I grunted. As I walked out the door, I pushed one of Ed’s hanging photographs so it hung crooked. I could almost hear him twitch behind me. That gave me some satisfaction.