The interloper said back, “I am glad you don’t believe in ghosts because I am not. The exact terminology would be Phantom, which would explain why I exist in a solid state.” I said back, “You exist in a solid state because you are pulling a gag. Who sent you? Everyone knows that I have spent my career trying to track down the circumstance of your vanishing act, I mean J.J’s.” “I know and if you get past your prejudice I will enlighten you Cousin Reeth.” he said back quietly. “How do you know J.J. is my cousin? I have never told anyone that, because I am not. Not really. He is my cousin several times removed.” “I know. My mother is your great aunt.” I thought about that for a long time then said, “I have also been investigating the disappearance of your parents, with no success unfortunately,” beginning to think that strange things happen in the world that our mundane brains cannot fathom. “I have answers for you. Not all the answers but enough to put some content in your investigation. In the end you may even begin to believe I am who I claim.” “Why now?” I interrogated. The Phantom shrugged its shoulders and removed its soggy brown Panama hat revealing the youthful face of J.J. Brown, exactly the same face that hung on my office wall in a gold frame, except the Phantom J.J. was in living colour. The Phantom reached out and offered a handshake. I accepted. The hand was solid but not as warm as you might expect on the summer solstice. I said, “Sit.” Pointing at a straight back wooden chair in front of my desk. The Phantom complied and laid his Panama on the desk. Then he reached into the pocket of his gray, worn trench coat, and pulled out a pack of smokes and a lighter. "Those things' ll kill you." I said. J.J. said back, "I'm already dead," with a grin. He took out two, lit them both and offered me one. I shrugged my shoulders and took it. I took a drag then extricated a bottle of bourbon and two glasses from the bottom left hand drawer of the desk. I poured two and gave the Phantom one. He accepted saying, “Mother was left handed though in those days it was not a good thing. She trained herself to work with her right hand rather than be thought of as a devil’s spawn.” I laughed. I put a flash drive voice recorder on the desk and said. “OK cuz. Tell me your story. Make me a believer.
I am old, very old, a hundred and twenty years of age yet not a day over 16, which was my age when I ran away from home and got caught up in a bad situation. I didn’t see seventeen. I was gunned down before that birthday because, well, this is what happened, start to finish.
It was a sad thing that the shadows and dark elements of the city seemed less dangerous than what home crushed my spirit with. So I thought.
It was the summer solstice of nineteen sixteen, my birthday. I suppose at sixteen in those decades leading up to and including world war one leaving home was not considered running away, especially if you ran directly to the recruiting office to join up with the army. But In my case that didn’t happen. The recruiting sergeant took one look at me and said, “Commendable kid, but you are too young,” seeing through my lie about how old I was. “Go home kid. Come back when you really are eighteen. We’ll gladly take you in.”
That’s how I ended up on the streets not even remotely considering returning to the treacheries waiting for me under the rule of a man who had to be the nastiest uncle ever. I never learned the fate of my parents. They simply went away when I was nine and never returned, leaving me with my mother’s brother whose story is in itself a tragic thing which falls back into my life some years later.
My very first night out on the street I got hungry and tried to steal some food and got caught for my efforts. I found myself running madly with the gang I had tried to rob hard on my heels but losing the race rapidly. Just as I was turning a corner I heard a crack and felt something hit me in the back.
I ran down and alley way, a blind alley with a wall too high to jump and too smooth climb. I could hear the gang still coming after me.
There have been tales about dying people seeing a light which beckons them to walk into it. I experienced that but at the same time I had shadowy things with long hooked fingers grabbing at me. Not even my uncle had ever scared me that bad.
I tried to run into the light but a shadow had its fingers wrapped around my right ankle. The best I could do was hold myself from being dragged into the darkness. I remembering wondering how long it would be before I was too tired to fight.
Then I saw the members of the gang creeping toward me. I saw one of them with a gun and realized what the crack sound was and that it was a bullet that had hit me in the back.
I was just about to give up when I heard a whispering. It came from the wall that made up the back of the blind alley. I couldn’t really hear what it was saying but I sensed it was beckoning me.
The gang was nearly upon me. They did not seem to see or hear what I did. With my last spark of strength I pulled myself out of the grip of the shadow’s fingers and flung myself toward the whispering voice.
I got to my feet appalled to find myself completely naked and there at my feet was my body, my dead self, but not in the flesh. It was my skeletal remains which I recognized only by a necklace still attached to my neck. My mother’s locket she gave me the night she and father vanished. I had never opened it to see what was inside. I still haven’t and probably never will. For some reason I had it in my mind that if I never looked inside maybe they would come back.
I reached down and picked the locket off my corpse and put around my neck, having no pocket to put it in.
I started toward the street at end of the alley. It was still an alley but different, with concrete walls instead of slimy red brick. Near the adit I saw someone curled up on a pile of cardboard, covered in newspapers. I reached down to touch it. It was dead, just starting to go stiff. As rude and cruel as it may sound I took its clothes, which were not the rags of a derelict but not new either.
I could smell alcohol.
I got dressed and exploring the pockets of the trench coat and pants found a roll of money, not like what we had here but stuff that was like film. I also found a gun but no ID. Just the money and the gun.
I stepped out of the alley. It was night. I expected to find New York. It was a city, but far greater than new York, with strange looking cars and cars that were flying dozens of feet above the street.
I went back into the alleyway and picked up the newspaper the dead man had covered himself in. I found the cover page. The banner read, The Illusia Chronicle. The headline read, Murder Macabre In Hightown. At the time it didn’t strike me that the murder had anything to do with me. I was a sixteen year old kid shoved rather harshly into what I could only think of being as madness. It wasn’t long though that I found myself wrapped up in the intricacies of the city and the Hightown murder. But before all that happened I set out to try and figure what the hell happened. I use the term hell in relative conjunction with the situation. It felt like what I thought might be a kind of hell though there was no fore and brimstone and in fact there wasn’t even the smell of exhaust fumes from the new automobiles or the stench of horse manure from the carriages.
At first I kept the gun hidden then I spotted a fellow walking around with a low slung side holster into which was shoved what looked like automatic pistols. I had seen pictures in catalogues of them. The guy looked like he should have been riding the range in the old west. There were a lot of strange things that my mind could not understand but I wasn’t frightened, I was intrigued.
As I stepped away from the alleyway it occurred to me, in a rather sickly rush that my first act in this strange world had been to rob a dead guy. At the same time something about me made me realize that where or what this Illusia place was survival felt like a main concern.
I did something that could have been stupid but turned out to be ok, though I wouldn’t say good. The best way to explain it is, it didn’t get me killed. I walked up to the man with the low slung holster and said, “Excuse me sir, but I seem to have lost my way. Could you help me?”
The guy looked me over, head to foot then said, “Sure. Where are you going?”
I said back, “That’s the problem. I don’t know where I am going. I don’t even know where I came from that would make any sense. All I can say that does make sense is I was shot and when I woke up I was here. I stepped out of that alleyway,” I pointed, “About five minutes ago. My name is J.J. Brown.
The guy studied me for a minute then said, “That sounds too weird to be a fabrication. Maybe you fell when you got shot and knocked your head. Where did you get shot?”
“In the back.” I answered.
The guy said back, “Well. Shooting a guy face to face in a fair fight ain’t an indictable offense, just a slap on the wrist, but shooting a guy in the back will get you hung. Let me see where you were shot.”
I showed him.
He said, “You got plugged with a thirty eight. Let’s look at the front.” I lifted my stolen shirt and this time I could see the wound. It was fairly large.
The guy said, “How the hell are you still walking around? You should be a corpse, and why ain’t there a hole in the shirt and coat?”
“I took these clothes from a dead man in the alley way.” I explained cautiously.
The guy grinned and asked, “What did you do with yer old clothes?”
I answered, “That’s another mystery. When I woke up I was naked.” Then I showed him the gun and roll of cash.
“Ok kid. If you didn’t mug the guy and make him a corpse then you lucked out an scored big. Show me the body.”
I showed the guy the body. He examined it then said, “Looks like he died from the booze. I’ll call it in. He’ll be charged with manslaughter and dumped in a mass grave. We don’t like folks who kill themselves around here.”
“Alcohol poisoning is considered suicide?!” I said.
“No. Suicide is different.” The guy answered. Then he asked, “How old are you kid?”
“Sixteen.” I answered.
“You got a job…well maybe you don’t know if you do since you don’t even know where you came from. But you know you’re name so that’s good. Still, you’ll need a job and maybe I can get you one.” The guy offered. “My name’s Jack Trajik. I’m a cop, a street cop up in Hightown, and I need an assistant. I was just down this way looking for a mugger. The corpse in there might be him. You can keep the cash but I suggest we ditch the gun. I’ll get you a real gun, like mine.”
He drew the weapon. It wasn’t a gun like I would have recognized. It was shaped a lot like an automatic. It even had a magazine in the butt, but the magazine was a laser charger.
“Ten shot charge mag. It’ll bring down anything that walks, even a hybrid.” He described.
“What’s a hybrid?” I asked.
“You did get a whack on the head. Hybrids are half human and half animal.” Jack Trajik answered.
“Wow.” Was all I could get out. Then I managed to say, “I’ll take your offer. Being a cop sounds better than being a mugger.”
“Come with me then. I’ll clear it with the brass then take you for a training session.” Jack instructed.
“Sounds pretty quick.” I replied.
“I’ll give you the best training. On the job.”
I felt like I had stepped into the old west in a future world with all the same old issues that hold humanity hostage.
I suppose I’ll have to become a quick draw.” I said in an amused tone.
“Nah. We cops don’t do that, well usually. That stuff is done by the lawyer and the courts. The judges decide what course of justice suits a situation. Sometimes when someone kills another someone the reason is hard to determine and so is deciding who is actually the guilty party. After that it gets complicated and cops don’t need to figure it out.”
I listened in awe and wondered what role cops played but I decided the best way to find out was to learn from Jack, Homicide Detective.
I asked at last, “Are you investigating the murder up in Hightown?” “Yup. I got stuck with that ball of wax. Its going to get mean and messy. It already cost me my assistant.” Jack replied.
“It got him killed.” I replied anxiously.
Jack grinned, “Nah, he went yellowbelly on me and quit. But I’ll warn you it could get us both killed if we don’t pay real close attention. I’ll get you a real gun and a real shield. You can keep the clothes. They suit you.”
I laughed. Maybe a little louder and nervously than I had intended.
Next week: Chapter 2