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PREVIEW: Jack in the Box

September 13, 2018

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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

 

Rachel stirred in her bed, the heat of the summer night causing her to sweat through her night clothes and into her bedding. Throwing off her covers, she heaved a sigh and stood up from her bed and walked over to the window overlooking the plaza below her balcony. Opening the doors, she smiled as a warm wind filtered into the room, caressing her skin with a cool hand. Leaning against the railing, she pushed her long hair back behind her head, yawning, before looking down at the plaza.

 

A large stadium-sized half circle that led to a fountain, the plaza sat next to a road that was constantly jammed with traffic, even now so late at night. The plaza was made of heavy tile mortared together by the ancient people that living in this city centuries ago, with breaks in certain area where trees were allowed to grow high into the night sky, high enough for the second floor story residents to reach out and touch the edges of the tree limb, perhaps pick a heavy pear that was growing at the end of the branch.

 

Staring at the pear, she smiled and leaned her head on her arms as she stared out over the plaza. Several people walked far below, laughing amongst themselves from their night out on the town. Rachel smirked at her own memories of nights out on town with her friends. Looking down at some college boys wandering with their arms slung over each other shoulders Rachel blew some hair out of her face.

 

“I really need to call up my friends sometime soon,” she murmured, smiling as she ogled the men’s shapely forms as they passed underneath. “Get a girls night out planned. Hazel said she knew of a new bar in her last column online, maybe we could hit it up?”

 

Pushing herself up from the railing, Rachel caught sight of a man standing some fifty to sixty feet away. He looked homeless, with dirty smudges on his clothes that could be seen even beneath the moonlight and stars, all of which was covered by a yellow raincoat.

 

“Huh,” she said. It looked like he was staring right at her, though that would be fairly improbable. “Wonder what’s got him so interested?”

 

The man slowly raised his right arm, and as it began to rain, began to wave it back and forth. Rachel laughed and headed back inside to avoid the patter of rain drops, but she still watched the man in his long-sleeved yellow slicker waving at her. What did he want?

 

Turning, she walked past her desk and work and walked over to the kitchen, looking for something to give the man. Maybe one of the shitty bottles of wine Hazel always ended up getting her? Snatching one off the rack, she took a moment and tied off some twine to it and moved back to the window.

 

The man was still there, only closer now. He was perhaps thirty feet away, and even from here Rachel could see the open sores on the man’s neck and face, black slime leaking from them as water pounded down on him.

 

“Here,” she shouted, lowering the bottle of wine via the twine until it settled on the pavement. “The eaves underneath my bungalow here should be pretty dry, you just rest here for the night, alright?”

 

The man lowered his arm and slumped forward, moving as if his legs were boneless, heaving his body back and forth as he made his way to the bottle of wine. Rachel let go of the twine and allowed it all to fall to the plaza below. She heard glass break, forcing her to look over the edge of her balcony and gasp at what she saw.

 

The man hadn’t popped the cork like any normal man would do; he’d cracked the bottle of wine against the side of the building until it shattered and now drank from it greedily, the glass cutting into his bloodless face. He even chewed on a few errant pieces of glass that found their way into his mouth, revealing a black tongue that made him seem inhuman. Rachel backed up into her home and closed the balcony doors, locking them for good measure, before moving towards her bed. Looking once over at her work, where she was studying an ancient dagger that a colleague, well, more like rival, had sent her.

 

Dr. Nickels was a respected member of the archaeological community, with his only bad record being the number of graduate students that went missing on expeditions with him. He’d sent the dagger, along with a gift basket of fancy cheeses and meats, with a friendly note attached.

 

            Dear Rachel,

 

I know you must be surprised to hear from an old rogue like me, but I must confess that this dagger confounds me so. I know it is of Ubaid origin, and I recently acquired it from a dig near the Black Sea. I know what you’re going to say, they never reached that far north. What I believe to have found is evidence of a civilization that traded with the Ubaid, one that hasn’t made the textbooks yet. If you were to study this piece with me, I would gladly include you in the credits for the book I’m writing on it.

 

            Sincerely,

 

Dr. Davis Nickels.

 

She’d taken the standard measurements of the dagger, only to notice the hilt was hollow, with something inside it. As loathe as she was to crack open a four-thousand-year-old dagger, she was intrigued and had split a seam down the side of the hilt. What’d she’d found earlier this evening was a papyrus scroll, with three symbols on it, all spelling out one word.

 

“Nelfeshne,” she said in the darkness of her home, a peal of thunder crackling overhead. She’d never heard the word before, nor seen any references to it; she’d poured through the few books she had in her apartment, finding nothing and had made a note to go to the University in the morning to find what this elusive word meant.

 

Stepping back towards her bed, Rachel screamed as her balcony doors exploded inward, glass flying everywhere as the strange man stood there, his yellow jacket torn in several places, leaking a viscous fluid onto the carpet as rain billowed in after him. His unkempt features and foul smell were made all the more apparent by the cuts on his face, along with the shattered bottle of wine in his left hand. Looking around the room, his eyes locked on the dagger and he made three quick strides over to it, hand stretched out.

 

Rachel screamed and rushed at him, beating against his soft chest to get him to stop. His left hand lashed out, cutting her with the wine bottle deeply across her abdomen. Blood began to run thick, causing her to stumble back and fall against her bed. The man grabbed the dagger, wrapping his fingers around the hilt slowly so as to avoid the ancient leather from cracking further than it already had. Turning to her, the homeless man stared at her for a moment before speaking in a calm and even tone.

 

“Forget what you saw, forget what you read,” he said taking a step over broken glass to stare down at her. Kneeling, he pressed the broken bottle into her chest, turning the shattered glass slowly as if to emphasize his point. Rachel screamed even louder than before, her voice going hoarse, and she heard people banging on her door. The homeless man heard it too, looking up. He looked back down.

 

“Remember my warning…” He said before his yellow slicker seemed to pull him from the room and out into the streets of the city, the only evidence that he’d come was the broken wine bottle embedded in her chest, and the missing dagger lent to her by a rival attempting to mend fences.

 

 

Her front door was kicked in, flashlights shining over the darkened area as two police officers made their way in. Rachel only closed her eyes, allowing herself to drift off into the dreamless sleep that had eluded her that had started this night off.

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