Prologue: A heavy fog spilled around the tombs some time after nightfall, giving the lights from the nearby village a hazy glow. The oil lamps from the boat coming across the lake held a misty filter around their edges. The cool night air kept the fog low, blanketing everything in the dark shadows of the ancient graves.
He used THEIR power to feel the tombs and around the edges of the rocks where he could not see. He sensed only the swine herders on the next hillside, otherwise the beach reflected his feelings: deserted and isolated.
There would be no witnesses. He would attack the voyagers when they came ashore and THEY would be pleased.
THEY stirred within him, pressing forward in his thoughts with THEIR focus on the passengers of the boat… no, THEY were focused on only one passenger.
Why such concern?
THEY pressed forward more, taking control and pacing the shoreline. THEIR anxiety built to frenzy, pushing his heartbeat to a stampede in his chest and tightening his breath to near suffocation.
An alien emotion washed over him: fear, a foreign feeling since THEY became a part of him, now coursed through him with a vengeance. There was something bringing THEM to a point of terror… he was astonished.
Would this be his call to freedom?
He watched with wonder as the boat ran aground and the lake travelers overflowed onto the sand. He felt his muscles throughout his body tighten with THEIR iron grip, tension still building to a new extreme. A division formed within THEM, some wanting to flee and others wanting to attack, a separation of motive and intent tearing through him as if to physically rip him in half… THEIR powers were out of control.
One solidifying force caught THEM, compelling THEM toward the visitors in lurching steps. Apprehension seized him as THEY fought to escape, yet THEY were now a prisoner just as he had been THEIR prisoner for so many years.
He cried out through clenched teeth, falling at the feet of the travelers. THEY shouted from within him, an unbearable sound of agony and hatred. He heard THEIR cries and pleading as THEY spoke, though he did not understand THEIR words. THEIR rage devoured his will. Just as he started to sink into a void of unconsciousness, a hand caught his, drawing him out of the unfathomable blackness awaiting him.
He opened his eyes to find himself kneeling. THEY were gone… For the first time in many years, he was no longer a hostage in his own body, but embracing freedom. His captors were gone… but where did THEY go and how long would THEY be there?
He looked at the hand holding his, then to the smile.
Those questions no longer mattered.
Chapter One: John Dakota opened his eyes in a lazy Saturday morning way. He started to stretch, feeling the beginnings of a much-needed yawn when he caught himself.
He snapped his eyes shut.
The stench of a cheap cigar violated his senses, barely allowing him to stifle a cough. Pain ricocheted across the back of his head. Sudden panic seared through John, adrenaline rapid firing his heartbeat, though he remained frozen in place.
Where the hell was he?
He opened his eyes for a fraction of a second, taking a snapshot of his surroundings. He was slumped over in a hard, wooden chair, situated in the middle of what appeared to be a deserted warehouse office. Two men sat at desks off to John’s right, one reading a paper and chewing on a cigar while the other wrote in a ledger looking booklet. Trash and debris lined the floor. Three other men paced the floor to John’s left, their suit coats removed to reveal their shoulder holsters.
The picture was grim. The smell of the stinking cigar… the sparse warehouse office… the three men pacing the room… Jacob Winters had him.
John’s last thoughts were walking along the street toward the corner convenience store. Winters’ men must have got him from behind, explaining the painful throbbing in the back of his skull. Jacob Winters, Toledo’s largest racketeering and Mafia-styled leader since the prohibition rum-running gangs funneled bootleg liquor off the Great Lakes, was not a man to cross. John owed Winters money, and apparently Winters was going to extract some interest.
John’s heart pounded in his chest, his breath strangling him as he froze his movements and questions blitzed his thoughts.
Did they know he was awake? Did they see him stir? How long had he been out?
The sound of his heartbeat was almost deafening, giving John the crazy notion they would hear it and realize he was awake. His only hope was to get out of the room and away from Jacob Winters. The element of surprise would be key. He forced his breathing to continue in shallow gulps, but it did not work.
One of the men in the room called his bluff. “Hey… looks like the yelp is waking up.”
John’s thoughts ceased. Time seemed to slow down as his reflexes took over. He jumped from the chair into a run toward the corridor leading away from the office. Ducking sideways to avoid a tackle, he slammed into another man to knock him to the floor.
“I’ll get you,” one of them growled.
Terror replaced panic. He lunged forward, grabbing a chair and tossing it in the path of the nearest man. He reached a hallway, expecting any second to feel his jacket snagged from behind.
The sight of daylight filtering through an old, wooden screen door gave him a target, a focus point. John ran hard, hearing the commotion fall away behind him until a loud pop and whistling made the hair on the back of his neck crawl. They were shooting at him!
Winters’ barking seemed miles away. “Don’t shoot him! I want him alive!”
John slammed through the screen door with full force. The door cracked open in three pieces, surprising the four men in the alley next to the limousine. The sight of them hit John with a dead, sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. Their athletic build, the identical crew cut hairstyles, and the gold chains draped around their necks gave away their identity.
“Jacob’s Enforcers!” he mumbled.
The lead man stepped towards John with his hands out, as if to calm him. “Just slow down there, partner. You’re not going anywhere.”
John’s heart raced, pounding his pulse in his ears. The Enforcers had an infamous reputation. Stories of their exploits were shared in bars and on the streets for years, though John rarely put stock in their elaborate tales. One of the Enforcers liked to burn people with a blowtorch, another liked to pluck out eyelashes, and a third used vice-grip pliers on various body parts. What seemed like made-up horror stories meant to intimidate now became sudden truth as John stared at his fate stepping toward him.
A loud crash from inside the warehouse snapped John out of paralysis. He spun, charging down the alley with all four Enforcers chasing him. A single thought hammered through his mind as fast as his feet hammered the ground beneath him: Don’t look back!
John rounded the alley corner in full stride. A burst of red glared in the corner of his eye. By sheer reflex, he skidded to a stop and spun to embrace an attack. A prostitute stepped from the corner of the building, wearing a ruby satin blouse and a jet-black mini-skirt. “In a hurry, sugar?”
Leaping back into his sprint, John turned away as the first of the four men rounded the corner, barreling into the woman. He heard the two of them tumble over each other with curses and yelling.
He pressed forward, feeling the presence of the other three Enforcers closing on him. As he turned at the next corner, he heard music echoing between the buildings.
The rally! The faint drone of music could only be the weekly Friday festival at the downtown river park, breathing life to John’s hope. He would lose them in the crowd.
In a hurry, sugar? Ha!
He led his three pursuers through the center of downtown, leaving the warehouse district to find high-rise office buildings and crowded parking lots. John darted through the swarm of tired office workers, bumping and shoving people to gain distance ahead of the Enforcers. The music from the rally was louder, bolstering his confidence. He cut across a courtyard and jumped a row of landscaped bushes decorating the perimeter. Slipping around the port-a-johns set up for the rally, he dove into the crowd and disappeared.
Chapter Two: Angie Klingninski slipped the deadbolt shut on her apartment door, the day’s exhaustion weighing on every part of her body. She dropped the mail on the dining room table and let her purse slide to the floor as she kicked off her shoes. Wiggling her toes, she silently cursed the high heels she wore to the office.
She ran her fingers through her tightly curled, brown hair to relax the pull of the hair spray, reaching her hand upward to coax her muscles into a stretch. The tension melted some, though the office stress seemed to cling to her like a bad smell.
Tagging the play button on the telephone, Angie headed toward the kitchen. Her messages began with ten seconds of dial tone indicated there was a hang-up and no message was left.
“Good! I didn’t want to talk to you anyway!” Angie said, feeling the stress of her workday slip away with each word.
She fished around in the refrigerator as a beep announced the second message. After two clicks, the voice of her best friend greeted her. “Hey Ang, this is Linda. We gotta talk about this new guy I met. He is drop-dead gorgeous, and he’s got a friend. Let’s meet at the pub tonight for a couple of drinks, huh? Call me, okay? See ya!”
Angie snagged a bottle of wine from the rear of the fridge, smiling in spite of the message.
He’s got a friend? Angie rolled her eyes at the thought of another one of Linda’s blind dates.
She was slipping the corkscrew over the top of the bottle as the third message played. After two clicks, an unusual sound erupted from the machine, filling the room and stopping her hands on the bottle.
The noise began in quiet tones, sounding as if it was emanating from a large chamber or cave. The eerie, deep humming sound mixed with a faint whispered echo.
“What the hell?” she muttered to the empty room. “What’s going…”
Chills crawled along Angie’s spine, sending a shudder through her body. She froze in her steps, listening. She had received prank calls before, but this was different. This was no child playing around with the telephone. There was a serious nature with this call.
The sound was loud and the source seemed to change. At first it was coming from the answering machine, changing suddenly to the far side of the room. For a moment it was right next to Angie, a moment later it moved again.
The tone changed, the new sound stealing Angie’s breath with fear. Chanting whispers, like the cadence of praying monks added to the chorus. The whispers distorted, their strange sound gripping Angie in an icy, strangling hold.
She felt a new presence in the room… an evil presence. She felt a indefinable source of a menacing prowess stalking her… baiting her… toying with her the way a cat may toy with a mouse before pouncing.
The hairs on the back of her neck and arms stood straight. She jerked around when she caught movement out of the corner of her eye, but nothing was there. A shadow moved and she spun around again. Her heart raced in her chest.
“What’s going on?” she cried. The murmurs swallowed the sound of her voice.
The whispers filled the kitchen. The murmurs surrounded her, poking at her confidence and feeding the fear growing inside. As the sound of the whispers grew, she could make out of few of the echoed words.
“Starved… arve… arve…”
“Needing… ding… ing…”
“Hungry… gry… gry…”
In the undertones of the whisper, a muffled, but sinister laugh began to swell. The maniac’s laugh escalated Angie’s fear, creating a pit in the center of her stomach – a knot of fear gnawing at her from the inside. Her legs began to shake. The giggling matured, chanting a horrid laughter with mischievous enthusiasm as if feeding on her fear.
“No! No! Stop it!” Angie cried. “Leave me alone!”
The sound continued to build, filling the kitchen and dancing around Angie as she stood trapped in their midst. She turned, feeling the presence of evil in the room but not knowing exactly where. She was convinced there were a thousand eyes watching her, mocking her.
As quickly as the laughter and whispers had built to an intense crescendo, they abruptly stopped, leaving a ringing in Angie’s ears. Complete silence was like a slap, stunning her as she dropped to her knees.
Am I deaf?
She turned her head, listening between gasps of breath. The sounds of the apartment building filtered through her panic and lifted her fear, though not completely.
The kitchen was quiet around her still pounding heartbeat. Looking around the kitchen, everything seemed to be in its place and nothing had changed except a coating of sweat covering her from head to toe.
As her heartbeat slowed to normal, her rational mind started to deny the episode. She wondered if her imagination played tricks with her ears and created a state of anxiety. She had read about people imagining entire events to relieve stress and tension.
“Yeah, that’s it,” she said to the empty room. “I’m stressed over the stupid crap at work and now I’m freaking out.” The sound of her voice was a comfort to her, easing her feelings. Her voice did not echo in the room… her voice was normal.
She stood, set the wine bottle and corkscrew on the counter, and ignored the red lines imprinted in her palms from her grip on the corkscrew as she stepped toward the telephone. Rejecting the strength of the whispers and laughter, she wanted to test her memory and confirm her doubts.
She punched the play button and stepped backward, bracing herself to hear the message again. The telephone/answering machine announced in its expressionless tone, “No messages.”
“No way,” Angie said to the empty room. She stabbed the small button, refusing to believe the message was gone. The tedious, unchanging voice declared, “No messages.” All the messages were gone… the hang up, Linda’s, and the strange crank call were all erased.
Angie considered the fear she had felt, the piercing terror of unseen eyes watching her.
Could it have been imagined? Perhaps the whispers never happened?
Angie returned to the wine bottle on the counter, uncorked it, and grabbed a small wine glass from the cabinet. She held it for a moment, looking intensely at the small glass before exchanging it for a larger one. She poured the wine and made her way back to the bedroom to change her clothes.
She was back in the kitchen thirty minutes later, wearing jeans and a casual blouse. Angie glided across the kitchen with a comfortable stride, her thin frame seeming to float across the floor. She set the empty wine glass in the sink. With the memories of the whispers deadened, she grabbed the handset of the corded telephone to call Linda.
The dial tone clicked to a dead signal. She froze in her steps, her breath caught in her chest. The haunting cavernous sound of wind blowing in the distance played in the receiver. A breeze moved the air in Angie’s kitchen, cooling her skin and playing with the curls of her hair.
“Angie... gie... gie..., it... won’t... be... long... ong... ong....,” the voice echoed. The wind whistled in the belly of the whisper, searing the edges of her sanity and eroding the reality around her. Her pulse pounded in her ears, she felt the room shake under her feet… or was it vertigo?
The wind increased, blowing papers off the counter and flipping the pages of the telephone book on the table. The disturbing laughter began, hollow and menacing.
“No!” Angie screamed into the telephone. “Leave me alone!” She slammed the handset on the telephone, yanked the unit off the wall, and threw it to the floor. The laughter stopped. The wind disappeared. She fell to her knees, sobbing, hugging herself. Staring through tears at the telephone cast across the room, it became a blurry vision of an evil animal leashed to the wall with a powercord, the thin signal wire entwined around the leash like a tail.
Find out what happens next in “Suffering Madness”.
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