You’re into the Time Slip
Lights on lamp poles illuminate the parking lot in small halos every twenty-five feet or thereabouts, leaving splotches of gloom everywhere else. The quarter moon overhead gives off only a feeble sheen which barely serves to outline the tops of the taller trees against the night sky. Past the parking lot, the only other light comes from the gift shop. Although locked up tight, the building has security lighting at the front door.
At this late hour, the gardens are totally vacant, not a soul in sight. Jensen parks in the tour bus area because it’s closest to the entrance. There’s no point in secrecy. He has an appointment, after all.
Misha isn’t in the car with him. He’d dropped his partner off about a mile away and waited the twenty minutes it should take for Misha to covertly reach his pre-planned position, a spot close to where they’ve decided the rendezvous will most likely take place. From his vantage point, he’ll be able to see the entrance and a portion of the parking lot.
Jensen has changed into jeans and a flannel shirt, but he still has his FBI issued Glock in a side holster. The firearm is concealed by his jacket which he also wore to protect him against the not-quite-springlike temperatures experienced by Kentucky in March after the sun goes down. In his jacket pocket is a flashlight which he doesn’t expect to need. Better safe than sorry though.
Before getting out of the car, Jensen scans the area. A steady breeze ripples the leaves and branches of the plants nearby. Other than that, there’s no movement. The garden looks deserted. This may be a bust, mysterious note writer a no show. Or he/she may just be an overly cautious, paranoid individual who trusts no one, as the cryptic message suggests, and is hiding until sure Jensen came alone.
Noting the time as exactly midnight, Jensen exits his vehicle and walks up the cobblestone path, all five senses on high alert. A deep breath in brings only the fresh scents of rich soil and pine. The only sounds he hears are the rustling of branches and the sighing of wind through the many trees, bushes, and flowers in the garden proper. His eyesight is compromised by the darkness. Peering intently into the tree-lined spaces around the gift shop discloses little, certainly nothing that looks like a skulking person.
The back of his neck prickles. The unmistakable feeling of being watched makes his fingers itch for his gun. Whether the sensation comes from Misha in his stake-out post or from the person he’s here to meet, Jensen can’t tell. In any case, it’s in his job description to outwardly remain cool and calm no matter the situation. He performs his job now, hands relaxed by his sides, face a mask of confidence as he skirts around the ticket booth and approaches the gift shop from the side, unwilling to ruin his limited night vision by looking directly at the lights above the front door. There’s no one crouching in the bushes there so Jensen continues toward the back of the building and then on to the other side. No one there either.
Disappointment spreads through him like wet cement, stiffening his limbs. If this turns into a big, fat nothing, he might as well wave bye-bye to his sanity right here and now. Might as well fly right over the cuckoo’s nest because he’s done. Done trying to keep the voice from infiltrating his mind and done with the nightmares and done with the never-ending, soul-crushing anxiety. Just goddamn, mother-fucking done.
He looks down the path that leads into the main garden, bringing up the mental map of the layout he committed to memory earlier. He’s not giving up until he’s searched behind every plant and tree in there, looked under every rock. Not even the pitch darkness or the gnawing sense of foreboding will stop him from finding his quarry or at least a clue that may have been left behind. Something that will give him a direction to go in from here. Stubbornness has always been one of his defining characteristics; why should now be any different?
He just hopes Misha will figure out a way to follow while remaining undetected.
As he walks into the garden, he’s grateful admission seems to be on the honor system. There’s no fence to jump over, no gate to unlock. Past the dim glow of the gift shop lights, it’s dark, like really, really dark. The only way he knows he’s still on the path is the feel and scrape of paving stones under his feet. He’s about to pull out his flashlight (to hell with trying to preserve his nonexistent night vision) when he hears it - a crackling snap that can only be a branch crunched underfoot.
He pivots toward the sound at the same time as a feeble beam of light appears, originating from a man-shaped blob standing amidst several tall, stalk-like plants. “Jensen, I presume,” says a man’s cultured voice. It isn’t one Jensen recognizes. “I’m glad you came.”
“Who are you? How do you know who I am?” Jensen demands, squinting at the figure. The light, which seems to be coming from a cell phone - possibly a flashlight app - isn’t particularly strong. The man’s face is so obscured that it’s difficult to pick out any identifying features. Jensen can tell he’s tall, approximately the same height and slightly stockier than himself, and clean shaven. That’s about all.
The man makes a show of shining the light in a large arc around him and asks, “You weren’t followed, were you?”
“No,” Jensen snaps, exasperation surpassing relief at finding his secret admirer. “Now answer my question, who the hell are you?”
Exhaling loudly, Mister Cloak and Dagger takes a few steps closer and holds his cell so that it illuminates his own face as though he’s getting ready to tell a spooky story around a campfire. “I’m sorry about all the theatrics. Truly, I am. It’s just...there are a lot of people who would be extremely angry if they knew I was talking to you.”
By the improved lighting, Jensen can see dark brown hair parted on the side and a grey sweater-vest. The guy looks like a cross between Mr. Rogers and a college professor. He’s about the least threatening person Jensen could have imagined meeting during a stealthy midnight rendezvous.
Despite all that, Jensen’s not feeling at his most patient. The eerie lighting coupled with the constant rustling of leaves all around them is putting him on edge, not to mention the jittery, crawling need he feels just beneath the surface of his skin to find out what this man knows. Now. His jaw aches with how hard it’s clenched. “Your name,” he manages to say through gritted teeth.
“Oh, right, yes. My name is David. David Haydn-Jones.” This last part he says quickly, running the name together like if he says it fast enough, Jensen won’t remember it. Fat chance of that, Jensen never forgets a name or a face.
“Okay, why did you want to meet me? And why here? And who would be angry we were talking?” There are more questions. So many more questions. It takes an act of massive willpower not to just grab the guy and start shaking him until the answers spill out. Instead, he takes a breath and consciously unclenches his jaw. The ache in his cheeks recedes as the muscles relax.
David shifts from foot to foot, eyes roving the surrounding gloom. “I have the information you’ve been searching for about Alistair. My colleagues at the institute have devoted their whole lives to this research. I believe they would go to any lengths to keep it secret.”
Jensen doesn’t dare let hope flicker to life yet. The aftermath of hope has only ever been devastation. “Who is Alistair? It’s the monster, isn’t it?”
“Alistair isn’t a monster, not really. It’s a denizen from an alternate reality. From what we can tell, it is drawn to sadness. But you already know that, don’t you?”
It rankles that this man has him at such a disadvantage. “How do you know so much about me?”
“I’m sorry. Let me start from the beginning. Your friend AJ is one of my colleagues at the Men of Letters, a group of physicists who have made it their life’s work to prove the existence of alternate realities, dimensions other than our own. Mark Pellegrino was our founder and he brought on a few select others, including AJ and myself.” David pauses, eyes staring past Jensen. “We were so idealistic back then.”
The idea that AJ, one of his most trusted friends, one of the people he lives with and thinks of as family, is somehow mixed up in his nightmare turns Jensen’s stomach inside out. “What does all this have to do with me?”
“Well, we were successful. No, we were beyond successful. Not only did we prove the existence of another dimension, we actually created a doorway between the two worlds, and Alistair, the monster as you call it, was able to pass through. At first, we didn’t know what havoc we had wrought. We believed we had it contained, that we could learn from it and then send it back. Unfortunately, it escaped and killed your parents.”
Jensen inhales sharply and chokes on nothing at all. Through the coughing fit that ensues, he rasps, “Why? Why my parents?”
David puts a hand out like he wants to pound Jensen on the back, but then lowers it, apparently smart enough to know that touching him at this point would be a very bad idea. Once Jensen has stopped hacking, David says, “Our research suggests that Alistair can sense emotions. Strong emotions are like a beacon to it. Some people are naturally more expressive, more...effervescent, if you will. They shine more brightly. Have you ever heard the term ‘he wears his heart on his sleeve’?”
Unable to talk, Jensen nods. His mother’s laughter, her sparkling eyes, the way she lit up a room just by walking into it. She fit that description to the letter.
“Alistair can’t resist those types of people, especially when the emotion they are feeling strongest is grief. Once it senses them, it is able to teleport directly to them. Its abilities are quite remarkable. By touching them, it leaches away their life essence, usually through their mouths. To a medical examination, it appears as though death was caused by asphyxiation.”
Jensen closes his eyes and takes a steadying breath. “It couldn’t kill me though. It tried. But something stopped it.”
“Yes, you repelled it. We were never able to figure out how. AJ wanted to study you more closely to see if he could find out. It was his idea to befriend you. He thought he might be able to discover your secret and use it to better control Alistair. We’ve been researching ways to control it ever since it turned on Pellegrino and killed him. Its time in our world is limited to only an hour each time we summon it or it breaks through the seals we’ve put on the doorway between our worlds. Research is difficult under those limited conditions. Plus, there’s the fact that it keeps escaping and killing people. Our funding is based on finding a way to control it, but-”
Anger has been building throughout David’s monologue until Jensen is fairly shaking with it. “Forget trying to control it. How can we kill it?”
“Easier to show you than to tell you.” David taps at his phone until, satisfied with the result, he holds the device out for Jensen to see.
A video is playing on the screen. Jensen can’t make it out from a distance, the screen is too small. He’s about to get closer when he smells it - an odor like decaying flesh, acrid and vinegary. His nostrils flare.
Behind him, a familiar voice says, “Now you’ve done it David. His death is on your hands, not mine. You’ve signed his death warrant by contacting him. I’ve been closely monitoring his movements for over a year now, privy to any discoveries he might make about our friend here. I could have kept him running in circles forever if you’d left well enough alone.”
Heart pounding, Jensen spins and pulls his gun at the same time. As though they’d just finished a leisurely nighttime stroll and were headed back toward the entrance, two dark figures stand on the path about a dozen yards further into the garden. From the voice, Jensen knows one of them is his housemate, AJ. The other hulking shape is the beast from his nightmares. Face to face with the horror that has tormented him since he was fifteen years old, Jensen feels like his insides are liquefying, muscles slack and useless. A chill sweeps through his body from head to toe.
Never get tired of you...my pet...my bright one...have you at last
Jensen squeezes the trigger, one, two, three, four times. The bullets find their mark...and go straight through the Shadow’s torso where a heart would be in a human. It writhes in seeming discomfort, but otherwise stays stationary by AJ’s side. Jensen’s blood turns to ice in his veins.
David puts his hands up in a placating manner, speaking to AJ like the gun in Jensen’s hand is of no consequence whatsoever, no threat to anyone. “The deaths, AJ. Too many deaths. It’s time to put a stop to it.”
“I’ve found a way to stop the deaths, just as I told you I would. Can’t you see that I control it? I told you I was close to discovering a way and now I have. Alistair does my bidding.” AJ’s voice has a mad ring to it. He sounds like the AJ Jensen has known for the past year and also not, tone gone slightly off kilter. “I can summon it from the void and send it back. It won’t find a way to slip the leash again.”
The longer that thing - the Shadow, Alistair, whatever - stands there looking at him, yellow eyes shining in the darkness, the harder it is for Jensen to breathe. It feels like his throat is closing up, airflow a mere trickle. He needs to take charge, put an end to this freakish standoff. “AJ, if you don’t destroy that monster, I will.” He projects as much authority as he’s capable of under the circumstances and hopes it’s enough.
“I’m sorry about this Jensen, I really am. I liked you. It’s nothing personal.” The regret in AJ’s tone turns cold with his next words as his silhouette faces the monster. “You can have him. He’s yours.”
The Shadow roars, a joyful, victorious, terrifying sound, and surges forward. Jensen stands his ground, crazily thinking happy thoughts like some kind of bizarro-world Peter Pan. It’s the only defense he knows, the only thing he can do other than turn and run and he’s definitely not running away. There’s no time to put together anything that even remotely resembles a plan. As the hideous monster slams into him, Jensen drops his gun and wraps his hands around its neck. His fingers sink into the doughy clay-like flesh, gaining no purchase, nothing to strangle or squeeze.
The pain is instantaneous and absolute, an electric shock that courses through him, torching every nerve ending and rendering him as limp as a rag doll. His consciousness flickers. He hears shouting and gunshots. There’s a flying sensation, an impact that sends bolts of agony through his head and shoulder, and then nothing.
Awareness is elusive. It comes in fits and starts. The first thing of which Jensen becomes aware, even before he tries to move, is that everything hurts. It’s a dull, ethereal soreness that expands and grows the more alert he becomes until it encapsulates his whole world.
“Jense? Can you hear me?”
The words penetrate the fog in his brain. He tries to answer, but his response turns to mush in his mouth and all he’s able to produce is a weak groan.
“Okay easy, take it easy. Can you open your eyes?”
Opening his eyes takes a few attempts and, once he accomplishes the feat, he has a fleeting thought that he’s gone blind because all he sees is mottled grey and black.
“That’s it. You’re doing good. Don’t try to move yet. You’ve been out of it for a while. I think you have a concussion and it looks like your shoulder is dislocated.”
Concussion. That might explain his blurry vision. Jensen turns his head, ignoring the knife that seems to be wedged in his skull. The fuzzy, indistinct faces that keep sliding in and out of focus eventually resolve into one face, Misha’s face. He starts putting things together. 1) He’s not blind, it’s dark. 2) He’s lying on the ground outside. 3) Misha is hovering over him. Fuck. What the hell happened?
“What happened?” he asks.
“What do you remember?” Misha asks, picking up Jensen’s hand and encircling his wrist with the fingers of his other hand. It takes Jensen’s muddled brain a few uncomfortable seconds to realize his partner is checking his pulse, not holding his hand.
Thinking hurts. Jensen does it anyway, tries to remember what he was doing outside in the middle of the night. He comes up empty. “I got nothing,” he rasps. “Can I buy a vowel, Vanna?”
Misha’s mouth turns down in a worried little frown. “You don’t remember coming here to meet with the person who wrote that note? You don’t remember getting thrown into a tree?”
At mention of the monster, the night’s events come flooding back like a bad dream. The phantom blade twists viciously inside his skull and he jackknifes into a sitting position, his only working hand grasping at his head as though trying to stop his brain matter from oozing out.
“Hey! Hey, careful. Lie back down,” Misha soothes, pushing gently on his chest to get him to comply. “We don’t know what other injuries you have. I already called 911, the ambulance should be here soon.”
“What? No! No ambulance, Misha. Where’s the Shadow? Did it get away? What about AJ? Tell me what happened.” Batting Misha’s restraining hand away, Jensen stumbles to his feet, groggy and unsteady, left arm hanging uselessly at his side, but at least he’s vertical. He’ll take what he can get. Yeah, he feels like roadkill, but this is too important. He’s already lost more time than he can afford.
Misha heaves a long-suffering sigh and gives up on getting Jensen to take it easy. “I saw you head into the garden, but I held back since I didn’t want to blow my cover and scare our mystery man away.”
“David, his name was David,” Jensen supplies.
“David. I didn’t want to scare David away. By the time I found a spot to observe the meeting where I would not be seen, you had your gun drawn and were firing shots into the dark, at who or what, I could not tell. It was too dark. I didn’t see it until it was upon you.” Misha hesitates. “Dear God above, Jensen. What was that thing?”
“That was the Shadow,” Jensen says, voice gone husky.
“That was the Shadow,” Misha repeats as though it’s only now sinking in that the monster isn’t in fact a fantasy cooked up by a deeply troubled kid. Jensen wonders how truthful Misha has been all these years when he assured him that he believed. Maybe he was only being a supportive friend. And really, can Jensen blame him?
“What happened next?” He needs to know what went down so he can decide where to go from here. A wave of vertigo nearly topples him, only a nearby tree saves him from going down. And wouldn’t that just convince Misha that he doesn’t need a hospital.
“I came to your assistance, fired at it. I think I got a head shot. Didn’t kill it, but it was visibly distressed. It threw you into that tree and disappeared.” Misha indicates the tree Jensen is currently leaning against.
“That’s good to know. My shots to the chest had no affect other than to make it squirm a little, almost like they tickled. Apparently, it doesn’t have a heart, not in its chest at any rate.”
Misha makes a noise of agreement. “AJ and David fled in opposite directions. You’ll have to tell me later what your housemate was doing here. Anyway, you weren’t moving, and I didn’t want to leave you to pursue them.” If Jensen didn’t know his partner better, he’d say Misha sounds the tiniest bit defensive. “Your hands were coated in that black residue. I cleaned you up as best I could and tended your wounds.”
Jensen’s chest tightens. Without AJ or David he’s got no way of knowing how to stop the Shadow. He’s back to ground zero with nothing to show for the night’s activities other than a headache and a bum arm.
A soft glow on the ground where David had been standing during their too-short meeting catches his attention. Shuffling over, he bends down, narrowly avoiding yet another impromptu meeting between face and ground. Jeez, he needs to get this dizziness under control, pronto.
The glowing object is David’s cell, lying upside down in the dirt.
The video is still playing.
Link to Chapter 10
Link to the Master Post