The diner was quiet except for some low chatter from other customers, scratchy sounds of bowls being stacked, and tinkling of glasses being handled. It was the sound of 2 A.M. Gabriel had come to know what that sounded like the past year or so. Ever since the Incident.
He let the hot steam soothe with the tired muscles of his face for a moment before he took a long sip of his black cup of coffee. He didn't used to like it black; before it could never take enough cream and sugar. Now he liked it wonderfully bitter, kind of like how his life had been lately.
Gabriel was living the way some people only dream of. Always traveling, seeing new places, meeting new people. That was the wonderful part. But the bitterness, the tragedy of his purpose, was a thing of nightmares.
"Sizza sad and tragic thing," Gabriel said, almost mumbling to himself in his gravelly voice, but loud enough to where the greasy, middle-aged man wiping the counter could hear.
"Hm?" the counter guy said.
"That family," Gabriel said.
"Oh, where the wife blew up the house, almost killed her entire family?" counter guy replied.
"Yeah," Gabriel said. "Where'd you say that was, exactly?"
"I didn't," the counter guy said, "but that house was on State street. I don't know the exact address, but it shouldn't be hard to spot if you want to go be a lookee-loo. Just look for the blowed up house."
Gabriel quietly scoffed. Those small town folk and their grammar sometimes.
The man sniffed a few times. He wrinkled his nose. He looked at Gabriel, probably trying to decide if the foul odor he was encountering was coming from Gabriel. If he did decide that, then he would be correct. He hoped that the counter guy would be polite and not say anything. The odor that Gabriel had to wear about him like a foul scarf was just one more thing on a long list of things he didn't like about his current occupation.
"Gimme a warm up, please," Gabriel said, sliding his cup away from him. The man grabbed a steaming pot of coffee and filled him up. Fortunately he didn't ask about the odor. Gabriel hated having to explain it, either by lying, or even saying something close to the truth. The truth tended to freak people out more than any lie he could come up with.
"They say that the family, they was pretty happy and all," the counter guy said, still sniffing around, as he returned the pot to its warmer, "and one day a few weeks ago the woman, Mrs. Tarkington, it was like she was a different person."
Gabriel sipped the hot, bitter coffee thoughtfully. That was what he was looking for. He slipped his hand into the side pocket of his frayed and tired jacket and pulled out his phone.
"That's quite a phone," the counter guy said, nodding at it. Gabriel realized that, with his unkempt hair, tattered hat and old jacket, the phone looked like it didn't quite belong. It was one of those with the full keyboard, stylus, and all the latest features. It's true that he would have never owned one of those if it hadn't been given to him. His last phone was beat up little silver one he'd gotten for free in 2002.
Gabriel just shrugged at the man. "I'm gonna go to the john." He got up. The conversation he was about to have couldn't take place near this nosey guy. He picked up his precious brown briefcase from the side of his stool and left.
Once in the empty bathroom, Gabriel placed a call. A dark-skinned face appeared on the screen of his fully video-capable phone. "What do you know, mon?" he said in his familiar Jamaican accent.
"I have a location and a pretty good idea that we're on the right track, Shaman," Gabriel said. "This woman, name's Tarkington, she became a different person before the incident."
"Sounds like one of mine was there," Bastiaan said.
"Do you..." Gabriel hesitated. He sighed and swallowed. "Do you think it could be Michelle?"
"Could be I suppose," Bastiaan said, "since it was a woman that was possessed. But odds are it's not your dead wife. It would be awfully lucky to be running into her so soon, mon."
Gabriel sighed again. There was nothing lucky about his life lately. "If only I'd gotten there in time."
"We'll get her next time, Gabriel," Bastiaan said, "now that we've perfected the system. We prevented that tragedy in Chicago with time to spare. And speaking of time. You have four hours to get to the site of this one if you want to stop it from happening."
"Why can't you use your Shaman magic to actually get me there before the event happens?" Gabriel asked. "This time travel stuff, I don't like it. You think jet lag is bad..."
"The short answer is it doesn't work that way," Bastiaan replied. "And jet lag affects your body, I don't send your body back. That would be impossible. Now, time is short. If twenty-four hours pass after..."
"Yeah, I know, I know," Gabriel cut him off, "if you send me back further than that my soul will get lost or something."
"No, it's just that I cannot guarantee that I can bring you back," Bastiaan said. "Now go. Call me when you're ready."
Then the Shaman's face disappeared from the screen. Gabriel sighed and put the phone back in his jacket pocket. He picked up his briefcase, left the bathroom, and returned to his barstool.
"What's the quickest way to State Street?" Gabriel asked the counter guy.
"Oh well, if ya wanna get there quick, even if ya might have to double back a tad, I'd go right out there back to the interstate and head west and get off on the State Street exit and go right, or east. I believe that house was east of that exit. Might cut a few minutes off the normal way, which would be to take Bell Street down to Hawkins, go left, and head on down that road a few miles..."
"Thanks," Gabriel interrupted, "the interstate sounds fine."
"What's your business there, if I might ask? I mean, that place is still yellow-taped and swarmin' with them cops and reporters..."
"No offense, but it's none of yours," Gabriel said. He dropped some crumpled money on the counter to pay for his coffee and a tip and he left.
It indeed was not difficult to find the place. Gabriel slowly pulled into a parking space a block away, the engine of his 1978 Dodge Charger deeply purring as it slowed down. The scene was not as swarmed as he'd expected. Maybe things were slow because of the time of night. Or maybe most of the media mob hadn't arrived yet because it had only been about four hours since it broke that it wasn't an ordinary house explosion, that it was intentional. Either way, Gabriel felt confident that he could sneak past a half-dozen investigators and two news crews.
Gabriel snuck around the back of the house next door (which had incurred some minor damage itself) and found his way into the back yard, or what was left of it. He stood amidst some of the debris, clutched a golden watch that hung around his neck with one hand, and called Bastiaan with his other. "It's time." The Shaman began chanting in his native language, which Gabriel didn't know a word of, and that uncomfortable began, that feeling of being pulled out of his body like a cork out of a wine bottle.
Within seconds he was standing outside of himself, facing himself. If he had a body he would have shivered, looking into his own eyes, with their blank, eerie stare. Thankfully that moment didn't last long, as the scene began to go backwards, like it was a movie being rewound. At high speed, Gabriel's body left. Other people flashed in and out. The sun rose again. And then, the most bizarre rewind of them all: the explosion imploding, the house coming back together, the pieces being sucked back into it until it was normal again.
When it all began to slow down Gabriel knew he had gone back actually less than 24 hours ago, as the sun was just rising. It was time to get to work.
"They're all sinners," Shannon Tarkington mumbled as she thumbed the pilot lights out on the gas stove, "sinners who should burn. Who will burn. Should burn. Yes. They're all dirty, filthy sinners." The orange light from the sunrise filtering through the window intensified the fiery color of her short hair. At the moment, that color seemed appropriate.
"What'cha doin' mommy?" said six-year-old Trenton, who had walked up next to her. He was still in his red pajamas, the kiddy ones with feet.
"Fixing the stove honey," Shannon said in a trembling voice.
"I'm gonna go outside and play," he said.
"Come back in a few minutes, honey!" Shannon said in almost a growl. She let him go outside in his pajamas?
"...and I heard that Madison totally likes Brent," said Faye as she walked by, from the kitchen into the living room. She was on her cell phone. She, too, had red hair, but it wasn't as intensely-colored as her mother's.
"So that's how her son survived," thought Gabriel as he stood in the house, observing what was happening. Everybody died in the explosion - Shannon, her husband Doug and teenage daughter Faye - except her son.
Faye suddenly put her phone down and looked into the kitchen. "Mom, what the hell are you doing? Did you just put the pilot lights out?"
"I'm just trying something," Shannon said, an evil grin spreading across her face.
"What is wrong with you lately? You're acting all weird and stuff."
Gabriel approached Shannon. Nobody could see him. At least not yet. But that was about to change.
Shannon suddenly looked up as if she'd heard an odd noise. She turned and looked straight at Gabriel.
"Who the fuck are you?!" she yelled.
"Mom, there's nobody there!" Faye said. She turned to the stairs. "Dad, come down here! Mom's talking to invisible people!"
"GET OUT!" Shannon yelled at Gabriel.
"I would say the same thing to you," he said.
Shannon grabbed a kitchen knife from the wooden knife holder nearby and flung it at him. It flew right through him, naturally, but stuck into Faye's right shoulder.
"Oooowwwww!!" screamed Faye as she grabbed at it.
"Crap," said Gabriel. Then he thought: "Mental note: next time, don't stop to crack wise first, just do it!"
So without further hesitation, he lunged for the woman. For a brief instant both his soul and the intruder soul were inside Shannon Tarkington's body. Shannon's soul was missing but he didn't stop to ponder that, as he used all his energy to grab the intruder and drag it out.
When they were both out, on the floor next to Shannon, he realized the troubled soul was indeed female (but unfortunately not his wife). Nine out of ten times the intruder was the same gender as the host. The woman's soul looked thirtyish, long brown hair, wearing a feminine business suit of some sort, but detail was hard to make out, though; she was fuzzy, as if he were looking at a photograph slightly out of focus. She must have been dead for years as she was already experiencing some degradation of her self image.
She lunged to return to Shannon's body but Gabriel cut her off. He grabbed her and tackled her to the floor as he heard Shannon - the real Shannon - yelling something. The thought occurred to him, as the troubled female soul struggled against his grip, that for the moment he'd stopped her from igniting the gas somehow, but it was still leaking from the stove. He had to bring her back to the present but at the same time do what he could to prevent something else from igniting the gas accidentally.
With one hand, Gabriel tried hanging onto the woman’s hair – which was a little slippery because of her self-image degradation – and with the other he tried reaching for the stove. He tried to hold onto the woman as she writhed while trying to turn off the burners at the same time; her screams were so high-pitched that he was sure that if he had ears they’d be hurting. "Shut the fuck up!" he yelled at her.
She continued screaming.
"Dammit!" Gabriel said as his hands swished through the burner knobs on his first few attempts to grab them. The woman’s struggling and screaming was breaking his concentration. For a fleeting second he considered abandoning this effort and hoping for the best, but he was committed, and giving up wasn’t usually in his vocabulary.
He growled as he tried again with all the concentration he could muster and he successfully turned one off. "Three…. to go," he grunted. It wasn’t long before somehow he’d turned them all off. Then he turned his attention back to the woman. He pulled her in for a bear hug. This only made her go more crazy.
"Bastiaan!" Gabriel yelled. "Let’s GO!"
He heard the Shaman’s ethereal voice chanting something in his native tongue. Suddenly the world began to fast forward around him and his very unhappy “friend.” He was glad to see that the zooming events didn’t include any explosions.
"I’ll destroy you!" the woman said, actually yelling real words for once.
"Whatever!" Gabriel said as they returned to the present. Wasting no time, he let go of the woman and lunged back into his body. Once he was settled, he grabbed his briefcase and yanked it open as quickly as he could. A brilliant blue crystal was inside. It was almost knife-shaped - bigger at its top than its pointed bottom - and it was mounted inside, cleanly and snugly in an indentation formed just for its shape. When the case was open it bathed the backyard of the house in its blue light.
For the brief time in between him getting back into his body and opening the case, he could not hear nor see the woman, just like any other person. However, when the crystal began sucking her into it, he could see her writhing body and hear her blood-curdling screams once again. In a few seconds, though, she was gone, trapped inside the Shaman’s special crystal. It ceased glowing and Gabriel snapped the case shut.
"Another one in the bag," he thought as he caught his breath. He felt like he’d just run a mile, even though his physical body hadn’t been exerted at all. He sat down on the ground to rest.
His phone rang. It was Bastiaan.
"Got her," Gabriel said. "I have no idea who she is; not my wife unfortunately."
"Good," Bastiaan said. "That makes five since your last dropoff. You're full. Please return to New Orleans now for a new crystal."
"Like changing vacuum cleaner bags," thought Gabriel. Then he told Bastiaan that he'd be heading home as soon as he got some breakfast. He was stomach-grumble hungry, as he usually was after soul-retrieving. He felt like waffles, which was odd since that was a breakfast item he usually didn't crave. He frowned as he pondered that.
He slowly - and discreetly - made his way back to his Charger, noticing how dead the street was (no blown up house, police tape, reporters, etc). He felt a little satisfied as he opened the old, squeaky, heavy door of his car, crawled into the driver's seat, and shut the door. For a few seconds he rested his head on the steering wheel. He was exhausted. He hadn't slept for fourteen hours and was worn out from the struggle.
After a few moments he started the engine and headed for the interstate, back to the diner.
While scarfing down a plate of waffles, he thought about his wife. He began going over and over in his head, as he often did, what happened with her and the thousands of ways it could have gone down differently if he'd done different things. The little voice in the back of his head that tried to remind him not to blame himself was drowned out by his terrible grief. What if he'd prevented her from ever going to see Bastiaan? Or maybe if he'd been more attentive to her, treated her better perhaps, she'd never even had the need to go to him?
Between those questions, one other kept coming back to him: how the hell much longer was he going to have to do this?
To be continued...
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