Authors: Matthew Storm
He looked up at the sneering woman. “I
don’t think so,” he said.
Sally cocked her head at him. “You’ve
got some balls,” she said. “I can respect…” but she was cut off as Oliver
suddenly launched his body at her midsection. “Hey!” she yelled as he wrapped
his arms around her, forcing her backwards. “Get off me!”
Oliver had only intended to knock Sally
off balance so he could get past her and to the door, but his momentum had
carried him too far and they fell to the floor together in a tangle of arms and
legs. Sally managed to free one of her arms and fired an elbow into the side of
Oliver’s head. His vision filled with stars.
“Hey! Hey!” Tyler shouted. He put his
arms around Oliver’s torso and tried to separate the two of them. “Stop it!
Break it up!” He pulled Oliver backwards away from the furious woman.
Sally scrambled to her knees and aimed a
punch at Oliver’s crotch. She missed, catching him instead on the inside of his
thigh. Oliver felt a dull pain at the impact and his leg went numb.
Tyler managed to get between them and
held them apart at arm’s length. “Stop it now!” he said. “This is over!”
Oliver wanted nothing more than for it
to be over, but Sally had retrieved her pistol and leveled it at Oliver’s head.
“Ssh,” she said, her eyes fiery. He knew she was going to shoot him this time.
“Enough,” a new voice commanded. The
three of them looked to the door. A girl of about ten years old stood there.
She had long blond hair reaching down to her waist with bangs that nearly
covered her icy blue eyes. Oliver noted with some surprise that she was wearing
a brown Girl Scout uniform, which seemed bizarrely out of place given the
Sally didn’t lower her gun. “He hit me,”
she told the girl. “This bastard
“You hit him first,” the little girl
“Put the gun down now, Sally.” The
child’s face was expressionless, but her eyes were hard. There was something
profoundly disturbing about her, Oliver thought. She was like one of those
creepy kids in a horror movie that turns out to be the real monster at the end.
Sally lowered the weapon. Oliver stared
at her in surprise. So the child was their boss? Who the hell were these
people? Some kind of cult? Did they think the kid was their messiah? Oh, that
would just be perfect. God only knew what they wanted him for. Some bizarre
“Good,” the little girl said primly.
“Sally, go outside and take a walk. Don’t come back until you’ve calmed down.”
Sally glared at her, then at Oliver,
and then turned on her heel and left the room. Oliver could hear her footsteps
going down a flight of wooden stairs. A moment later a door opened and then
The little girl glanced at Tyler. “I
believe I said something about keeping her under control?”
“I’m sorry,” Tyler said glumly. “I’ve
been trying, but it’s…”
“No, it’s my fault,” she interrupted. “I
should have sent her to the island, but I thought keeping busy might help her
work through her grief.” She shook her head. “Clearly I was wrong.”
“She needs time,” Tyler said. “That’s
“Time is a luxury we rarely have in this
business,” the girl noted.
Oliver was eyeing the door speculatively
when the girl turned to him. “Mr. Jones, I apologize for my employee’s
indiscretion. Please come downstairs now. You will not be harmed again. At
least, not by anyone here. I give you my word on that.”
Oliver wasn’t sure what the word of a
ten-year-old was worth, but it was better than nothing. And he’d have had to
admit he was a little curious about these people now. At least he’d have more
information to give to the police later. “Who are you?”
“My name is Artemis,” the girl said.
“And please believe me when I say that without our help, you will be dead by
this time tomorrow. Will you please come downstairs and listen to me?”
Oliver decided he didn’t have anything
to lose by agreeing, and getting downstairs would put him one step closer to
the front door. “I’ll come,” he said.
“Thank you,” Artemis said. “Tyler made a
batch of muffins earlier. Perhaps you will have one.”
Oliver blinked. “A muffin?”
“They’re good,” Tyler said. “My mother’s
They were definitely a cult, Oliver
Artemis led Oliver
downstairs and showed him to a chair in the house’s living room. The rest of
the house seemed to be sparsely furnished with only the most basic necessities.
Oliver didn’t see a single photograph or family memento. There were no
children’s toys on the floor or paintings of long-gone relatives hanging over
the mantle. There didn’t seem to be a single thing in the house that could be
used to identify the people that lived there.
Oliver wondered if anyone actually lived
here at all. It looked more like a model home that would be shown to
prospective homebuyers, except that much of the furniture seemed to belong to
another time period. Like the elegant Edwardian chairs he and Artemis were
sitting in now. Oliver had seen chairs like this before, but that had been on a
PBS antiques show. They certainly hadn’t come from one of the local furniture
stores. Given their pristine condition, they must have cost a small fortune.
Tyler went into the kitchen and returned
a minute later with half a dozen blueberry muffins arranged on a silver tray.
He sat them on a nearby table along with a stack of small plates for serving
and a dish of butter. He’d also brewed a pot of tea. Oliver didn’t intend to
touch any of it. The strange little girl that had been giving the orders had
promised that he would be safe, but he didn’t see the need to take any chances.
Oliver had taken note of the front
door’s location as soon as they’d reached the living room. He couldn’t see
whether the deadbolt was engaged, but he was encouraged to see the path to the
door was both unguarded and unobstructed. He expected that he could get past
the child easily enough, and Tyler had never seemed inclined to hurt him. Sally
would be another matter, and she still had that gun in her jacket. If he was
going to make a move, he would need to do it before she came back.
Artemis munched thoughtfully on a
muffin, holding a small plate delicately beneath it to catch any crumbs that
might fall. A steaming cup of tea sat on a small table next to her. She hadn’t
said a word to Oliver since they had come downstairs. She’d just stared at him,
the way one might look at a curious work of art in a museum, or maybe a goat
with two heads. Finally she sighed and put her muffin down. “Well, Mr. Jones, I
“I’m sorry?” he asked. “You give up?”
What was she talking about now?
“I’ve been thinking about this for some
small while now and I can’t come up with anything, so I will simply ask you
outright. What exactly are you?”
Oliver frowned. There was a question
nobody had ever asked him before. “Pardon me?”
“What are you?” she repeated.
Oliver thought about it. “I’m a stock
analyst?” he offered, unsure as to what she wanted.
“No,” she sighed, as if she were trying
to explain algebra to a puppy. “That is what you
. The question is
. You do see the difference, I hope?”
“I’m a man?”
She thought about it. “I’m not entirely
sure that is true.”
Oliver suppressed a tired chuckle. That
cinched it. There was no point in trying to reason with these people. They were
nuts. How long would it take him to get to the door? Ten seconds? He should
wait until Tyler went back into the kitchen to be on the safe side. Maybe if
he asked for a soda he could get the man out of the room.
“Something very odd is going on here,”
Artemis continued. “You have managed to make a very powerful enemy, but I have
no idea how. I was hoping you could enlighten me.”
“I have no idea what is going on,”
Oliver said. “This day has been one crazy thing after another. First I kept
running into him,” he nodded at Tyler, who was standing quietly just behind
Artemis with his hands clasped together in front of him.
“Yes. I saw him twice this morning,
first on the train and then at lunch.”
“I sent him to keep an eye on you.”
“Okay, fine. Then the other guy shows up
at my office…”
“Yeah. He hit me with a Taser or
something, and was going to inject me with…poison…I guess.” Oliver paused,
suddenly curious about something. “Is his name really Hilary Teasdale?”
Tyler smirked but Artemis’s face
remained impassive. “It is what he calls himself. It is certainly not his real
name, but to be honest I’m not sure he ever had a name in the first place.”
“Do you have any idea why he was after
“No. He told me he was with the SEC, but
that obviously wasn’t true.”
“It was not. Had you ever seen him
“I don’t think so.”
“Take a moment to think about it.
Perhaps you saw him at the grocery? Or outside your house?”
Oliver thought it over, but he was sure
he’d remember someone like Mr. Teasdale. He’d found the man unsettling even
before the assassin had tried to kill him, and then somehow recovered from a
bullet wound in the head. “No, I’m sure I never saw him before.”
“Hmm,” Artemis mused. “That is odd.”
Oliver glanced at the door. It had only
been a longshot that one of them might have some insight, but this didn’t seem
to be going anywhere. He had no idea how long Sally’s “walk” would last, and as
much as he had questions he wanted answers to, he’d probably wasted enough time
here. “So, thank you,” he said, “but I’m going to go now.” Oliver stood up,
watching Tyler carefully for any reaction. The other man didn’t move. “I don’t
want to hurt either of you, so please don’t try to stop me.”
“Very well,” Artemis said. “Goodbye, Mr.
Oliver stared at her. That was it?
“You’re letting me go?”
“Yes.” She took a sip of her tea. “Oh,
that is quite good,” she said. “Thank you, Tyler,” she nodded at him. Oliver
saw the other man beaming.
“You’re serious? I can go? Just like
that?” This had to be some kind of trick, Oliver thought.
“Just like that.”
Oliver looked at Tyler again, but the
man only nodded toward the door. “Tyler will not stand in your way,” Artemis
Oliver took a step toward the door, then
stopped. Nobody moved. He took another, but neither of them seemed to care if
he left. If this had been a kidnapping, it was the worst one in history. They
hadn’t made any ransom demands. Instead they’d offered him muffins and tea. And
now they were letting him go.
Nobody at work was ever going to believe
this. The police would never believe this. How on earth was he going to keep
from getting fired?
“Well, goodbye,” Oliver said when he
reached the door. He tried the doorknob and was surprised to find it unlocked.
“Goodbye,” Artemis said.
Still wondering if someone new was about
to appear and tackle him to the ground, Oliver hesitantly stepped through the
Oliver closed the door
gently behind him. He listened at the door for a moment, but could hear no
sounds coming from inside. There were no raised voices. No commotion as someone
raced for the door. Nobody seemed to be coming after him at all.
He stepped away from the door and headed
down the stone walkway toward the street. At first he didn’t notice anything
amiss. This was definitely Russian Hill, he thought; he recognized the
neighborhood. There was a little hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurant he
liked not far from here. Not far from
was Van Ness, a major
thoroughfare that ran through San Francisco. It would be easy enough to hail a
cab once he got there. He could be at a police station fifteen minutes from
now. He’d be safe there while this mess got sorted out.
It was then that he noticed the cars.
There were several of them in the street, just as he would have expected there
to be on any day of the week, but at the moment none of them were moving. That
was definitely odd for this time of day. He looked to the left and the right,
but couldn’t see a reason why the cars would have stopped. There were no
obstacles in the street, no detours or construction that he could see, and
there weren’t nearly enough cars for there to be any kind of congestion.
Oliver hesitated for a moment, then
carefully stepped into the street. He approached the nearest car and bent down
to peek inside. He could see the driver inside talking on his cell phone, his
mouth open wide in laughter. But the man’s mouth wasn’t moving. No part of him
was moving, for that matter. The man was frozen in place.