THE ONE: A Novella: FOUR

Reads: 93  | Likes: 0  | Shelves: 0  | Comments: 0

More Details
Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
George leads Larry and Arianne into another set of mysterious happenings.

Submitted: March 19, 2016

A A A | A A A

Submitted: March 19, 2016

A A A

A A A


ONE GONE

A Short Story

Nicholas Cochran

Chapter Four

 

 

A cold driving rain was hammering a bleak Monday morning while swirls of fog obscured Alcatraz as well as the Fontana.

They had decided to take George’s car and all three sat wet and grumpy, but filled with the warmth of anticipation. No one spoke until they reached Java on Ocean, the best of the local coffee havens on Ocean Avenue.

When they arrived and parked around the corner, visibility was down to less than a block. Invisible gulls squawked their welcomes or perhaps they were telling the intrepid threesome to forget their clandestine operation and go home.

The first claimant, Mrs. Joyce Cramer lived on the street were they had parked and expected them—well, George, at nine-thirty.

“Still think this is a good idea?” George breathed warm coffee breath across the table at the married couple.

“I can hardly wait, George; perfect day for it,” and Arianne smiled through the mist of her Americano, “this is judgment day, George; maybe even your day of independence.”

George, sipping, “how so?” his tone was tentative as though someone had solved the encryption of his deepest security system and now every survival mechanism within his entire being was telling him to not only forget the mission but also to quit his job and return to Salt Lake City.

Larry gave a short laugh that contained a long length of confidence, certainly more than enough to share with his friend.

“George; hey, man, here we are; on the brink. Today is show time—and tell time as well. We still have a few minutes; we should go over our plans, okay?”

Arianne gave an un-hunh, but George was silent.

Larry leaned closer to George and tried to read his mood. Through the glasses, Larry saw naked fear.

George; you alright, man?”

Arianne leaned forward and put out a hand and shook George’s arm. Both verbal and physical actions had no affect on their friend.

“George!”

George drew back and stared dumbly at Arianne and Larry.

“Yeah; what?”

“You were somewhere else, George; snap out of it,” Larry’s tone was more one of command than request, “Hear us; this could be your salvation; we’ll know; we’ll know what’s needed to rid you of these black dogs of yours, “snap out of it and . . .”

“Do we have time for a doughnut, . . ?”

 “Snap out of it, George, and . . .”

“I’m scared, Larry; I really don’t like this at all, man; I think we should just go home—back to the office,” looking into Arianne’s eyes, “I should never have involved you in this, Arianne, I don’t think it’s safe,” and he ducked his head while Larry and Arianne looked at each other and tried to read some appropriate answer for George in each other’s eyes.

Arianne began, “George; George; look at me,” George reluctantly raised his head and peered at Arianne, “George, this is the only way we’re going to find out what it is that is tearing you up . . . "

“But it’s something different, Arianne; it’s not these interviews that are the problem; the problem is something abut the LDS; my family; me; or are, at least, them and me. Both of you needn’t be here; I think I should drive you back; right now.”

“Not going to happen George,” Larry’s tone was resolute,” we have to be at—you have to be at Mrs. Cramer’s in ten minutes.

"If you drive us back, you’ll be late; really late.

"Then she will call the office and you’re already up to your eyeballs in suspicious behavior in that place.  Fillagas and Piper will really turn up the heat on you to shape up; meaning, to them; tell us what’s going on. 

"And we don’t want that to happen until we have visible proof: Arianne and her video.”

The rise and fall of conversations drifted throughout the shop; some noises of slurping and cups hitting tables added to the toasty atmosphere in this refuge from the bite of January near the Pacific.

All three conspirators maintained their silence. Arianne spoke first.

“How about this, George; we’ll all go to see Mrs. Cramer and then you can drop us off; and we either call off your other appointments and go back to the office, or continue on; our—your next appointment. It isn’t until ten thirty; okay?”

She took her coffee and sat back, while she stared at George and sipped.

Larry could feel a change in George after Arianne sat back. Encouraged, he moved closer to George’s face.

“C’mon George; Arianne has the right move here; let’s go see Mrs. Cramer and  . . .”

“Okay.” George’s response was made without any animation of his face; or even his body, “okay.” His voice had a tinny sound; also a reedy quality, like half-sound; from some other place.

Neither Larry nor Arianne were sure that George’s lips had moved.

“Okay,” he repeated; this time in his regular voice. He smiled, “great coffee,  isn’t it; I come here every time I’m anywhere near Stonestown. Maybe we have time for a doughnut . . ?”looking from Arianne to Larry.

“I don’t think we have time, George,” Arianne said weakly, “we should be there in ten minutes; less now.”
“Right,” Larry chimed in, “and it’s probably raining again; I think we should drink up and go.”

They did.

Mrs. Cramer’s house—what was left of it—was only six driveways past George’s car. 

They stopped at the car and took out their briefcases, as well as Arianne’s camera equipment and lights.

As they approached the claimant’s house, the raw stench of wet ashes assaulted their noses; the fire that destroyed half of Mrs. Cramer’s house had occurred less than forty-eight hours ago. Charred pieces of furniture littered her otherwise perfectly groomed lawn.

Mrs. Cramer opened the main door while keeping the screen door locked.

She was very old and spoke like a sick sparrow.

“Oh,” she piped, “from the insurance company I bet . . .”

“That’s right Mrs. Cramer,” George answered with  great cheer and confidence, “we’re here to see the damage and ask you some questions; and today, as a special treat just for you, we have a young woman, who will be filming—videotaping—the proceedings as part of a training course. Larry—Lawrence Wade, is a colleague of mine at the four A insurance company out of Philadelphia, and . . . .”

“Well, do come in,” while Larry creased his brow and met Arianne’s eyes with a ‘what the hell was the ‘out of  Philadelphia’ thing about?

All three squished their way the into entrance hall, where the smell of the recent burning took on a nasty quality. 

Mrs. Cramer fussed about, helping them out of their raincoats which she hung up on an old wooden hook on an even-older coat and umbrella stand made of the finest mahogany.

Joyce Cramer was a widow. Her husband, Ralph, had died the previous year after fifty years of marriage. She had three daughters living in southern California.

Arianne smiled continually while she checked the light and her camera. Larry rustled papers and generally appeared to be fulfilling some untold function at this get-together. He gently waved a yellow legal pad that he had, with great ceremony, taken out of his case. He was now poised for action.

Mrs. Cramer’s claim centered on her claim that a manufacturer covered by her insurance had sold a faulty product. The product, a heating unit for her hot water heater, had exploded and burned down most of the Cramer residence before the firefighters arrived.

“Come along here; follow me,” and she led the way through the dining room to a side door. Just past the door, sat the ruins of two thirds of the Cramer dwelling. Blackened chunks of wood had fallen upon charred parts of sheetrock. Ends and fittings of destroyed furniture were strewn in a haphazard mess of burned, rank and reeking pieces.

Arianne thought Mrs. Cramer was close to tears.

“Where do you sleep, Mrs. Cramer?”

“Oh; I have a guest bedroom on what’s left of the second floor. I sleep there now. Because of our age, Harry and I had our main bedroom on the first floor; here,” and she motioned to the stinking black piles before them, “they offered to put me up in a hotel until all this is sorted out, but I’d rather stay here; and I have Ginny.”

“Ginny?”

“Yes, my tiny poodle; she’s had an awful time and a move would just unsettle her even more,” Mrs. Cramer sighed while she paused before continuing, “so; I’m so glad that you were able to come here so quickly; it was only just a day or so ago.”

She lowered her head and cried, softly, privately.

George immediately put one arm around her while he motioned to Arianne to begin filming.

Arianne darted back to her bag in the hall, took out her equipment and fairly ran back to find George enfolding Mrs. Cramer and patting her gently on her bending back. Arianne began to video with one hand and beckoned Larry with her other.

“Larry, give me that light, would you; thanks darli—Larry.”

The firefighters and others had erected a huge covering of thick clear plastic over the burned remains of the west wing.

Arianne tiptoed along a path that the firefighters had made to allow arson investigators to do their work.

The question of arson was the major factor in Keith telling George to get over there first thing Monday morning and check her out.

By the time George entered Mrs. Cramer’s house, Keith had already discovered that she was bankrupt and without any cash except for her Social Security.

George received this information on his iPhone and quickly and quietly huddled for a moment behind Mrs. Cramer’s back where George asked Larry to look for something specific; either Mrs. Cramer’s demeanor or something physical that would determine whether she was trying to rip off the company or was, as she seemed up to this point, the wonderful little old lady straight out of “The Ladykillers?”

Larry decided to slip back into the sitting room to look for anything out in the open that would speak to Mrs. Cramer’s honesty; or her venality.

He could hear George asking questions and the faint whispers that constituted the replies of the claimant. 

After a thorough search of the late fifties décor in the living room, and as he was passing back through the dining room to join the other three, a reflection off of something caught his eye. He immediately turned and saw a small polished object on the Welsh Dresser.

As Larry approached to inspect it, the brilliance of the object faded and by the time Larry reached the Welsh Dresser, it had vanished. He instantly felt tightness in his throat. He passed a large swallow and stepped back.

While he was desperately trying to recover his self-control, he discovered that he was soaking with sweat, as though he had been placed squarely in front of a blast furnace.

He began to walk toward the smoldering  ruins, but when he was halfway there, he stopped. A sinister silence filled the room. He slowly became aware that there were no voices coming from the main site of the fire. Something inside him told him to run. Instead, he stood, listening.

Nothing.

He quickly checked his watch and then hit the chrono setting followed by pressing the button to begin the stopwatch feature. He wanted to have some exact record of a period of time that he could then check later to see if the strange time effects were created during this visit as they had been with such emphasis during their time with Mrs. Soames. 

There were still no sounds coming from the large devastated area that lay some twenty feet along the hall and around the corner.

Larry loosened his tie. He was burning up. He decided to go slowly along the hall and turn the corner with caution. He had no idea what he expected to find.

As he edged to the corner of the wall, on his left, he noticed an unlighted, barely visible set of narrow stairs leading up to the next floor. Before he could stop himself, he had climbed the two short flights and found himself in a huge room that had been used at one time as a bedroom.

There was no bed; the only furnishings were three desks, one against the far wall to his left and two about fifteen feet in front of him. The entire area was littered with papers, files, writing materials, folders, file cases and some portable shelving. There were two computers; a PC and a laptop. Each one was on on a desk top. Both were on.

The atmosphere in the room was vile. The smell of burnt electrical wires and rubber mixed with the foul odor of an enclosed room and his own sweat. Suddenly, in the depths of his core, a surge of alarm told Larry to turn around and go back downstairs and join the others. Stubbornly, he pushed through those mental –and even subconscious—warnings and quickly strode to the PC.

On the large screen was a photo of George and beneath it was a full description and history of his life to date. Larry sprang to the laptop behind him; the same photo and information stared back at him from the screen of that one as well.

Although Larry now heard the alarm bells in his head, he reached and hit the space bar of the laptop. Nothing.

He tried in every way to move the present screen; or turn it off. When that also failed, he returned to the PC and his attempts to get any response were denied there as well.

He took a deep breath and continued to wade through all the paper and other detritus and tried to think of what he was looking for.

When he reached the desk against the far wall, he began speed-reading bills and figures, notices from banks and Credit Unions, a couple of stock brokerage reports. They all shouted that Mrs. Cramer had been hopelessly bankrupt as recently as last month.

He already had his iPhone out and snapped images of the most important papers after another quick last survey. It was patently clear that Joyce Cramer was in debt at the time of her husband’s death the year before. By FireTime, she was buried in debt; her only asset was—had been—her house.

Loaded with all this information and the frightening images on the screens of the two computers, Larry was poised to take the stairs two at a time, when he caught a reflection of light in his right eye. It came from the area of the two computers. He tried to remember if he had noticed anything shiny on either desk while he was looking at the computer screens, or while he was attempting to move George’s image and information; in effect, to unfreeze the devices. He remembered nothing.

 A numbing dread was beginning to drain Larry of any physical movement, but he barely managed to return close enough to see the brilliantly shining orb, a replica of the one that had disappeared from his view earlier on the Welsh Dresser—downstairs.

Despite his mounting confusion and the small needles of terror that were piercing his mental stability, he lifted his right hand that still held his iPhone, and took at least twelve pictures before he ran to the head of the stairs.

Grabbing the banister, he jumped down the steps, three at a time.

He zoomed to the first floor and turned the corner to the fire area. No one. Nor were there any sounds, no matter how faint, of anyone talking. Larry slowed to a tiptoe.

When he reached the outer perimeter of the fire destruction on the opposite side of the house, there was no one there either.

By now, Larry was in a place where he could feel his self-control being wrenched from within him; his will was evaporating; sheer panic was pushing up his throat.

He called out for George, and waited for the answer that never came.

He called again.

Silence.

A tight demoralizing band of surrender now enveloped his entire being.

He recalled that he had experienced similar emotions when he had been with George at Mrs. Soames’ and Mr. Harrison’s houses; and when he had approached the peculiar shining object, both in the dining room and upstairs.

Larry was almost choking when he heard a door open behind a wall to his right. He heard a voice. Only one. It sounded as though it was answering a list of questions. Larry instantly knew that the voice was neither George’s nor Arianne’s. And certainly not little old Mrs.Cramer’s. 

Larry thought he might faint, or at least throw up. The voice was coming closer. Larry became conscious of a cloud of invisible menace. He became totally numb.

Larry stared at the corner of the wall and waited.

The trio came around the corner, George and Arianne in front of him. They said nothing and were obviously unaware of Larry. They were walking in lockstep with their eyes empty and fixed. George’s lips were moving but Larry could hear no sound. Arianne’s camcorder was in her right hand but her hand hung by her side. Mrs. Cramer was answering questions from someone, somewhere. Her voice barely remained female, in a frighteningly-deep alto.

She was behind George and Arianne, and Larry discovered later that she had not seen him right away. But when her eyes met Larry’s, some thing, some invisible thing, moved past Larry as Mrs. Cramer greeted him in her high, thin eighty year-old voice.

“Oh, hello Larry,” with a warm fake sincerity, “I thought you were in the bathroom. We’ve been looking at another part of the house, one where the damage isn’t as bad as here.” and she waved  an old, thin, feeble arm at the ruins.

 

End of Chapter Four


© Copyright 2017 Nicholas Cochran. All rights reserved.

Add Your Comments:

More Literary Fiction Short Stories

Booksie 2017-2018 Short Story Contest

Booksie Popular Content

Other Content by Nicholas Cochran

FLYING DEAD

Short Story / Horror

FAT CHANCE

Short Story / Literary Fiction

TINY TROUBLES

Short Story / Literary Fiction

Popular Tags