Just as I had never believed in ghosts, monsters or the bogeyman, neither had I ever believed in guardian angels. That was all the stuff of folktales for little children and old ladies. Ringo and me, we were men of the world—at least I aspired to his level of cosmopolitan brio. We had no time for fairy tales.
That said, when you don’t believe something exists, encountering that thing in a dark setting combined with a violent upheaval of wind and nature thrown into a whirl of chaos is overwhelming. Without the calm light of reason ready at hand, the mind is dealing with too much at once. One feels that he has lost the power to distinguish reality from fantasy. “How can there be a ghost when I don’t believe in ghosts?” This was my state as the Lurker approached in the tempestuous murk of the shadowy forest.
One other thing I don’t believe in is stories where the imperiled protagonist is miraculously rescued by some unexpected benevolent hero who swoops in and vanquishes the foe, the so-called deus ex machina event. And thankfully, that’s not what happened as Dimity and I cowered in fear, our legs somehow tangled in mire, screaming in terror before a specter impervious to bullets.
What happened was that a white ball of light suddenly flashed out of nowhere and stood between us and the Lurker. Old gloomy-britches halted and began to reel backward. The ball of light commanded the Lurker in a terrible voice, saying to “leave these alone,” and something about us being “favored ones.”
But my doubts about guardian angels and deus ex machina events were upheld. For what it’s worth, I was vindicated because the ball of light was soon identified as none other than Linda Lou, our friend from the house of ill-repute. And she had been watching us from the first moment we knocked on her door.
The dark beast vanished into the mist, reabsorbed into the forest. Linda Lou turned and started toward us. The harsh light of her appearance cooled to a comfortable blue aura. Her face and arms glowed like a halo and her garment was made of see-through bands of storm-cloud blue chiffon and organza. The neck was open and plunging down to her navel. Her hair was now a shimmering cape of azure and silver that bounced as if underwater. It hovered over her shoulders and down her back like a fog bank. A woven silver circlet crowned her head and an opaline moonstone was mounted at the forehead. Her legs were the last parts of her to come into view, clothed heavily in blue-gray mist. We could see that her bare feet came close but didn’t actually touch the ground.
None of us spoke. She looked at us with a mild smile that signaled a kind of maternal love. Somehow we both knew at that moment that she was indicating that we should proceed on our little outing but then meet her back at her house. In our minds, we agreed that we would. I thought to express some thankful gesture but in the same thought I knew it was given and received and altogether unnecessary anyway. She vanished and we were back, on our feet, standing beneath the high canopy of forest again in the half-light of the cloudy autumn morning.
We reached the road and walked on the gravel shoulder toward the intersection where Cougar Bob’s Outdoor and More resided. High grass made a barrier from the forest we’d just exited, and a chilly western breeze made the eye-level, almond-beige anthers sway as if peace reigned on earth. Only twice did we hear a vehicle coming on the road and each time we dove into the grassy bank until the car passed.
At Cougar Bob’s Dimity smiled at Bob and he offered her a butter croissant and chatted her up while I made a phone call. The operator put me through to my home. It rang for over a minute with no answer. That was strange. My little brother Enoch would always answer the phone if he could get to it before mom. The whole family must be gone.
I tried one other call.
“Good morning, Akron Police Department.”
“I’d like to report a missing family.”
“A missing family?”
“Yes, my family.”
“Mercette. Bo Mercette.” There was a strange hesitation in her voice.
I waited several minutes and a man came on the line, possibly the man in all the world I wished to avoid the most.
“Lieutenant MacAdoo speaking.”
“Hello sir, uh, I’m trying to call home and no one is answering. I’m getting worried.”
“Is this Boaz Mercette? Son of Harold and Janet Mercette?”
“Yes, sir, just Bo.”
“We have been trying to find you, young man.” He sighed with the shallow exhale of a barrel-chested man. “Bo, I’m sorry I have some terrible news. Your father is dead. Murdered by some very bad men. And your mother has also been injured; she is in critical condition at Akron General with a bullet wound to the abdomen.”
“I’m very sorry, son. I know this must come as a shock. It seems your uncle, a mister Reginald Mercette, is somehow mixed up with some pretty bad characters. It’s an Organized Crime Syndicate. Do you know what that means, son? The Mafia, like in those Jimmy Cagney movies. Only this is real, son. They returned that morning at your house after you and I made eye contact, you remember?”
“Morning? I’m not sure I remember…”
“I want you to come into the police station immediately, son. We are interested in the whereabouts of an illegal motor vehicle spotted traveling at ungodly high speeds around greater Akron, driven by someone matching your description. It’s the same car that the French Mafia is after, and they’re willing to kill for it.“
“They killed Dad to get to Ringo and the car?”
“I don’t care to speculate whether your running off that morning could have cost your father his life. But it is imperative that you come into the station.”
“Where are my brother and sister?”
“They are in protective custody. Temporary wards of the state. They’ll be well taken care of. But young man, you must bring yourself in. Tell me where you are, I’ll send a car. Dear God, son, think of your mother! She needs you at her bedside. I assure you, your involvement with the illegal car and your uncle’s entanglement with foreign mafia will not be—”
That’s when I hung up.
I had to sit outside on the steps for a few minutes and process what I’d learned. I was in mild shock, although it was like learning that the cop who had been living in your house all your life had died. We didn’t have an especially close relationship. Had I been the cause of his death? I was worried about my mom and siblings, but at least they were being taken care of. But there was a note of rage in my emotions that criminals had done this, not natural causes, not acts of God. All of this was constantly in the back of my mind through everything else that happened next.
Dimity gave me a butter croissant as we set out on foot to walk to Linda Lou’s. I forced my thoughts to our situation.
“We’re in a lot of trouble.”
She was silent as I explained what MacAdoo had said, how my family had been blown up. At the time, I just thought she was being courteous and not interrupting.
At Linda Lou’s, there was a long black car parked in the grass at the side of the house. Someone with money had apparently come in response to the house’s notorious reputation. We knocked on the door expecting that circumstances would require us to wait on the doorstep until the visitor left and she would be available to receive us. But the door opened immediately.
“Hi. Linda, it’s us. Thank God we’re here. We’ve got…”
She was herself again, as we had first seen her—well nearly. She wore the same elegant negligee but her breasts were covered now by chocolate-brown tresses that dangled luxuriously down her shoulders. We stepped in and were gobsmacked to find Ringo’s old nemesis Lorenzo sitting on the little couch in the parlor, a snifter of brandy in his hand, smiling at us still in his lilac fedora and greasy smile. Vito, his angular, Frankenstein-like thug, was standing beside him. Linda Lou was the first to break the tension.
“Perhaps it’s time I gave you my real name.”