Hero - Chapter 1
Hal Porter was just finishing up his shift for the day at the Santa Monica site, hauling tools back to the shed, when the building appeared out of nowhere.
It was in the lot adjacent to the construction site, in the patch of land which Hal would have sworn was empty just that morning. Granted, it was only his second day working on this site, but Gerry, the foreman, had stood glaring at it as he chain-smoked furiously less than an hour ago, grousing about how some “hippie weirdo” owned it and wouldn’t sell, how they had to work around that one damn lot and what a bitch it was going to be. The police had their eyes on it too, apparently. People kept turning up in it dead. They suspected it was gang related, but it was a long way to go to dump a body. Rape victims woke up here, too, for some reason. It was a weird, creepy place, and Gerry had advised Hal to avoid it, especially if the shift ran late. And yet, as Hal stood there, he was not looking at an empty patch of ground, nothing but weeds and sand. He was looking at a building, three stories tall, looking like it had been there for over a hundred years.
A woman was standing in front of it.
She stood beneath the awning, a sagging, battered green and white striped overhang and a dingy plastic sign that read, simply, “BAR.” The woman, however, was not dingy or saggy. She was sleek and expensive: small, dark-haired, decked in a pristine white dress and heels, and of all things, a thick fur coat. It was Los Angeles, and it was an eighty-eight degree day in July, and she was wearing a fur coat that would have kept her warm in Juno, Alaska.
The woman was looking at Hal, her dark eyes full of suspicion, but after a few minutes she turned away from him and towards the building, studying it carefully. She paced up and down the sidewalk in front of it, slowly, like a tiger, but aside from occasional glances at Hal, she didn’t take her eyes off it. Hungry, Hal thought, as he watched her. She looked hungry. It wasn’t a hunger for food, either. She was hungry for . . . something. Shielding his eyes from the afternoon sun with his free hand, Hal stopped and stared, his eyes shifting from the woman to the building and back again. There was something she wanted. Desperately. Something in that building.
Something, a voice whispered in the back of his mind, she’d wanted for a long, long time.
She turned towards Hal again, and this time their eyes met. She wasn’t glaring any longer, and in fact, she looked surprised. She took a step towards Hal, tentatively, and Hal waited, still watching. He began to feel strange, as if he were falling asleep with his eyes open. Or maybe, he thought, his head spinning, so light now that he had to hold back the urge to laugh, I’m just now coming awake. He didn’t laugh, but he did smile, and when the woman saw this, she smiled back.
Then she lifted her hand, and blew him a kiss.
Light flashed. It was a small flash, so subtle it could have been the flash of sun off a mirror, but it came from her hand, and when the light hit Hal’s eyes, he stepped forward. He dropped the tools he was holding and started towards the woman standing in front of the imaginary bar, the woman who was now beckoning for him. I’m coming, he thought, and started walking faster. The sites and sounds of the construction site faded away, becoming blurs and distant tink, tink, tinks as the world narrowed to that woman, that building, and the space between them. I’m coming.
I’ll go inside, he thought, his gaze shifting to the door of the bar. He could see it now, tall and dark, taller and darker than it had a right to be, but he knew, somehow, it didn’t matter. He would open the door. Nothing could stop him from opening that door. And when I’m inside, I’ll find it. I’ll find what she’s looking for. What I’m looking for, too.
I’ll find him. I’ll find him, and I’ll bring him home.
The shout jarred in Hal’s head, but it wasn’t until something jutted him hard in the elbow that he stopped. He turned, dizzy, and annoyed, then stifled a wince when he saw who it was. It was Todd, the shift manager. The other crew members had warned Hal about Todd—he didn’t do much work, they said, because he was too busy watching everyone else. Some thought he was some sort of spy for the investors. Whatever he was, he was strange. Todd was short and stocky and had the complexion of a toad, but he had oddly bright blond hair that he wore, for some inexplicable reason he wore in a pageboy bob. The bob was gleaming at him now, as Todd glared at him.
“What are you doing?” Todd demanded. “Aren’t you supposed to be working?”
Hal looked at him strangely. “They just called end of shift ten minutes ago,” Hal reminded him. You were the one shouting through the megaphone. Remember?
Todd glared and nodded at bar, making his gleaming hair dance again. “Then why are you heading back into the site?”
“I’m not,” Hal said, pointing to the bar. “I was just—” He stopped. Then he stared.
The woman was gone. The bar was gone. The lot was empty again.
“You were just what?” Todd demanded.
Hal ignored him. “I swear, I saw—” He leaned forward, squinting, as if somehow this would help. It didn’t. He stood up and ran a hand through his hair. “Nothing,” he said, trying to sound casual. “I thought I saw something, but I didn’t.” He shook his head, then bent to retrieve the tools he’d dropped. “Forget it. I’m just tired. I’m seeing things.”
“This heat will do it to you,” Todd said, conversationally. But he was watching Hal like a hawk. “You should go home. Get some sleep.”
“Or get drunk,” Hal murmured, then shouted and dropped the tools again when he looked up.
The bar was back, and so was the woman. She was looking at him with wide, angry eyes, and she was beckoning to him furiously.
“What is it now?” Todd demanded, but he didn’t sound impatient. He sounded wary.
Hal rubbed at his head, pretty sure there was something wrong with it. He glanced at the shift manager. “That lot over there, the empty one—you see anything in it?” The woman shook her head and began to motion to him more frantically. Hal added, carefully, “You see anybody standing there?”
Todd laughed. Nervously. “It’s bed for you,” he said. “Either that or you need to get laid.”
Hal turned to Todd, frowning at him. “What do you mean, I need to get laid?”
Todd drew back. He looked suddenly strained and held up his hands. “Hey, it’s you hallucinating women, buddy.”
Hal raised his eyebrows. “I never said it was a woman that I saw.”
Todd’s complexion went from ruddy to pale. “You did. I remember.” He took a few more hurried steps backwards. “Hey, look, I gotta—” He turned, abruptly, then waddled off towards the office trailer.
Hal watched him go, more confused than ever. So Todd had seen something. Hal wasn’t hallucinationg—or, at least, it wasn’t just him hallucinating. But Todd was upset by it. Why? And what did it all mean?
The woman, and the bar, were still there. She was gesturing to him again, no longer angry, just desperate. Hal felt the pull, the strange, surreal longing to go to her, to go inside, to seek. He took a few steps towards her, hesitant, and he watched the world fade away again. He saw, this time, even the bar fade away, and for a moment, he could see inside.
He saw a man, slight and slim and beautiful, reaching down to him from a glass castle in the clouds.
Hal drew in a sharp breath. No, he thought, and stepped back.
There was a loud crack, another flash of light, and then the building and the woman were gone. The lot was empty. The world was normal again.
For several minutes, Hal stood there, frowning, trying to figure it out. But nothing made sense, and in the end, he told himself he didn’t care. Whatever was going on was none of his business. He didn’t want to get in trouble, and if Todd wasn’t a spy, he was at the very least a little strange. And so was this mystery woman who appeared and disappeared at will with a bar at an empty lot. He ignored them all and went towards the bus stop, heading for home.
But he couldn’t shake the strange empty feeling in the pit of his stomach that whispered, urgently, that he had just made a very big mistake.
The nagging feeling faded by the time he made it back to Hollywood, because on the way he’d stopped at his post office box in Culver City and picked up his mail, which had included a package from his mother. It included, as it always did, a lengthy hand-written letter, a week’s worth of The Emporia Gazette, a dozen peanut butter cookies, and a copy of the latest Catholic Digest. He nibbled at a few cookies as he perused the papers on the bus, and he read the letter while he heated a can of soup for dinner. Once he’d done the dishes, he sat down on his sofa, put the Digest on the footlocker he used for a coffee table, went back for a few more cookies, then began, page by page, to leaf through the magazine.
He didn’t read a word, but occasionally he stopped turning pages and reached into the binding to withdraw the dollar bills his mother had hidden inside. Most were ones, but there were a few fives, and as he found a pair of twenties around an article about the sanctity of marriage, he frowned. When he came to the last page, he started at the beginning again, double-checking. Once he was convinced he’d gleaned them all, he counted the stack, then rose and crossed to the markerboard hanging by the door, picked up the dry erase marker that hung on a string beside it, and wrote, carefully, “$67 extra to Mom.”
Then he went back to the couch, pulled his cell phone out of his pocket, and dialed a number.
“Howard, I was just thinking of you,” his mother said, warmly, when she answered. “That nice Janice Holford was just here to drop of some Avon. She asked about you—how were you doing in the big city, and if you were coming home sometime this summer.” There was excitement in her voice as she added, “She’s still single, you know.”
“I just got your package,” Hal said, deflecting. “Thank you very much.”
“Did the cookies make it?” she asked. She always asked.
She also always cased them in enough bubble wrap to ship a raw egg. “Tasted like they just came out of the oven,” Hal assured her.
“Oh, good. I’ll send some more next week, so don’t be shy about eating them up. Has work been well?”
“A lot of overtime.” Hal leaned back into the couch. He thought about the hallucinations and thought to himself, Maybe too much. “I’m going to send you another check, Mom, and don’t put it all into your savings again. Go buy yourself something nice.” And stop putting money in the Catholic Digest.
“Sweetheart, you work too hard,” she scolded. “You need a vacation. When are you going to come back home?”
“When are you going to come to Los Angeles?” he countered.
“Oh, Howard! I could never.”
“You could,” he pointed out, “if you quit letting the airfare vouchers I send you expire. You’d like it here more than you think, Mom.”
This was not exactly true—she would hate Hollywood, which was where Hal currently lived. But he always had his eye out for decent housing in a better area, and he figured about the time he found some he could afford would be when his mom would actually get on a plane.
That would also be around the time he actually read the Catholic Digests.
“I just wish you’d come home,” his mother said, sadly. “All you do there is work. You could do that here. We still have construction in Kansas.”
“Better opportunity here,” he replied, but weakly, because anymore, it wasn’t exactly true. He’d come here hoping to get some good experience and work his way up the ladder, certain that the good old boy network that frustrated him in Kansas wouldn’t be as impervious in such a large city. But it turned out that the only thing different about Los Angeles and Emporia was that the town was bigger. If anything, the ceiling of success here was even thicker and higher above his head. And now there was Todd the company spy, messing with his head.
“You work too hard,” his mother said again. “And they don’t pay you enough. I googled that apartment complex you live in. It isn’t safe.”
Hal thought of the gunshots he’d heard the night before and had to agree, though he did so privately. “Soon, Mom,” he promised. “Things will break, soon.” He thought of the disappearing woman and bar and hoped that it wouldn’t be his mind that broke. He reached up to his neck, fingered the necklace that hung there, and sighed. “I’ll come home before the year is out,” he promised. “But once I do, then you have to come here.”
“I don’t like airplanes,” his mother said. “And I can’t drive in that place.”
“Then I’ll drive you,” Hal said, but that was an empty promise until he had a car that would make the 3000 mile trip there and back.
“I just want to see you happy,” his mom said, with a sad sigh. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted, Hal. And you’re not happy there, I can tell.”
“I wasn’t happy in Emporia,” he reminded her.
“You won’t be happy anywhere,” she said, “until you start believing in yourself. You can do anything you put your mind to, Howard. You’re a smart, capable, handsome man who would be an asset to any job and a good husband.”
Hal grimaced and stared down at the magazine lying open on the footlocker. It had turned itself to the marriage article again, where a wholesome, happy woman in white was sailing down the steps of a cathedral, cherub-like girls with flower crowns at her feet and a clean-shaven, handsome man in a black tuxedo looking fondly over her shoulder. You could almost see the suburban house and shiny SUV reflected in her eyes, and the board meeting in her husband’s. Hal glowered at them both and shut the magazine.
“How’s Aunt Lottie doing?” he asked.
“Oh you know her,” his mother said, bitterly, then launched into a recitation of all the wild and strange things his maiden aunt had done in the past seven days. Hal shut his eyes and leaned back in the cushions, letting the words wash over him. But he kept seeing the bride and her husband in his mind’s eye, and when he pushed them aside, he saw the vanishing woman from the lot again.
When he finally got off the phone, he flipped through the channels on the television, but nothing caught his interest. By nine he gave up, showered, then went to bed. He set his alarm on his phone and plugged it into the wall, laid out his clothes, pulled off his towel, and climbed into bed.
He lay there on the sheets for a long time, hands behind his neck as he stared up at the ceiling.
He couldn’t stop thinking about that bar, or the way he’d felt when he’d looked at it. The woman unsettled him, but the bar had been . . . hypnotizing. Every time he shut his eyes, he saw it, and in his state of half-sleep, half-waking, he kept seeing the figure inside. He kept waking himself up, so couldn’t make out who it was, but every time the shadow appeared, he ached for it. And if he slipped deep enough into the trance, he felt it coming closer.
Once he’d seen the eyes, and they burned into the back of his brain. And when he stared into them, other parts of his body burned, too.
At ten-thirty, Hal sat up. He turned on his bedside light and reached into a drawer, digging beneath the old Emporia Gazettes that had made their way between the editions of Time his mother sometimes sent, fumbling for the thin, brown paper bag at the bottom. He pulled out the magazine inside, rolling his eyes at himself for his flash of guilt as his eyes took in the sea of flesh. He flipped through the pages as carefully as he had the Catholic Digest, but with much more attention this time. There were no articles about marriage in this magazine, and nobody who looked like they were about to whisk off to suburbia.
There were no women, either.
By eleven he wasn’t feeling any guilt at all as he fumbled for the tube of lotion on his bedside. By eleven-fifteen he had a pile of dirty tissues in his garbage basket, and by eleven-thirty he was asleep.
He dreamed of the bar. But this time he saw a window above the sign, and someone was standing there, watching him, surrounded by mist. He still couldn’t see who it was, but he knew somehow that whoever he saw was beautiful, and very sensual. Hal felt himself grow warm, and then aroused, and with a soft cry, he reached out into the fog. He woke with a start, his hand outstretched towards the ceiling, his sheets sticky.
Shaking his head at himself, but smiling, Hal tossed the sheets into the washer, downed some toast and coffee as he dressed, then grabbed his backpack and headed out the door to catch his bus.
The site was already busy when he got there, more than usual, and when he came around the corner and saw the series of dark, expensive cars parked along the curb, he winced. The days when the investors showed up to poke around were the worst. Well, he thought, at least today maybe they’d find out of Todd really was a spy. Thinking of Todd made him remember his hallucinated bar again, and he glanced towards it to see if it was still there, but the lot was nothing but weeds and sand. Hal was trying to decide if he was relieved or disappointed when he felt someone tap him on the shoulder.
A tall, blond, and very chiseled man in a white suit was aiming a finger angrily at his face. “You,” he spat at Hal. “You, boy, will come with me.”
The man had a thick accent that sounded vaguely European, and he looked foreign, too: polished, chic, and slightly out of place, even for LA. The white suit didn’t help. The only other person Hal had seen wear a white suit was Boss Hogg in The Dukes of Hazzard, though admittedly Hogg hadn’t worn a delicate, exquisitely expensive purple silk paisley button-down beneath his. There was also nothing Roscoe P. Coltrane about either of the thick and angry-looking men that flanked him. Their skin was as dark as their suits, though every now and again when the light shifted Hal could have sworn their faces were red. Really red, like an angry tomato. And once he thought he saw horns.
Hal had his hard hat in his hands, and he flexed his grip against it as he frowned at the man in white. He glanced around as surreptitiously as he could, but there wasn’t anyone else for this guy to be addressing. The man had turned around now and was striding across the site towards the trailer, leaving Hal little choice but to follow. The dark-clothed escorts sniggered at Hal before falling in behind him, and this time he knew he didn’t imagine their faces turning briefly, brilliantly red. It didn’t make sense, and it made him even more uneasy than he already was.
Gerry was waiting inside the trailer, but he was moving agitatedly around the narrow office, and when he saw Hal enter, his mouth flattened into a grim line. “Hal,” Gerry said, then glanced at the man in white long enough to nod gruffly. “This is Mr. Eagan, the largest investor we have for this project.” Gerry pulled his hand over his chin, grimaced, then shook his head. “Hal, I’m going to have to let you go.”
Hal blinked. “What?”
Gerry kept his eyes on his desk, and his voice was gruff. “Mr. Eagan says a guy he hired to keep an eye on the site caught you stealing.”
Stealing? Stealing what? Hal looked at the man in white, but he was poking idly at his Blackberry and not paying any attention. This didn’t make any sense. He’d just gotten here. He’d hardly been anywhere—his whole first day had been spent here in the trailer. He’d only been out yesterday, and he’d been stuck on that damn wall for almost all of it, until finally he’d volunteered to put everything away, just to walk around.
Which was when he’d imagined the bar. And seen Todd, who’d acted strange.
A guy he hired. Hal replayed his encounter last night with the shift manager before he left, and thought, Fuck. Todd was a spy. But this was horseshit! Hal hadn’t taken anything—what was there to steal? Money? There was no money at the site! Why the hell would they keep money here? Concrete mix? Rebar? He hadn’t so much as lifted a pen, and he wouldn’t. Ever.
Todd had acted strange when he’d heard that Hal saw something on the empty lot. What, did they think he’d taken the missing building?
“I don’t understand” he said aloud.
Gerry looked at him, at last, with an expression that made it clear he didn’t, either. He glanced again at the man in white, opened his mouth, then shut it again, resigned. “I’m sorry, Hal.”
Hal didn’t know what to say. I didn’t steal anything itched at the back of his mouth, along with What the hell is going on, Gerry? He and the foreman weren’t close friends, but they’d worked together on a lot of sites, and he’d thought the man respected him, at the very least. Why else would he have picked him for this project? This doesn’t make any sense itched at his lips, too, but something in Gerry’s expression made him pause. The foreman kept staring at his desk, head down, not looking at Hal, and not at Eagan, either. Gerry, who liked to stand on top of the office trailer, surveying the site like God from the heavens. Gerry, who barked orders about this operation being “his ship” and how everything was “his call” and how anybody working on “his watch” wasn’t taking any pussy tea breaks. But now Gerry was still, and small, and almost bent, and it was the man in white and his pair of goons who were looming.
Hal turned to the stranger, still confused, still angry, but he felt himself fold up a little inside as he saw Eagan staring back at him. The man looked irritated, but in a bored way, as if he were willing to be patient for now, but not much longer. Languid, Hal thought. The man in white was like his mother’s cat that liked to lie across the back of the couch, tolerating Hal’s presence as he dared to sit on it until he was bored with the novelty of the invasion, and that was when he would lash out with his paw like a lightning strike and try to take out part of Hal’s cheek. I didn’t do anything to you, he wished he could say to the cat, and to the man in white now.
It was wrong. It was a mistake. It was really damn stupid. But it wasn’t something, Hal could see, that talking or arguing or having a fit over would change. He looked down at the hat in his hands, staring at the dark stains in the creases of his fingers from the grease gun he’d worked with the day before, at the grime still caked on the edges of the hat brim. Then he set the helmet down, carefully, onto the desk that Gerry was still staring at.
“I won’t keep you then,” he said, speaking slowly and deliberately to keep his pent-up emotion from leaking into his words, “because I know you’re pushing up against that deadline. But someday, if you get a chance—” His jaw tightened, and he couldn’t keep neutral as he added, “—I’d love to hear what it was I stole.”
Gerry looked up at him then, his round face ruddy with indignation, and Hal felt reassured, a little, because he could tell it wasn’t him the foreman was angry with. Then he cleared his throat and returned his focus to the desk. “Good luck, Hal.”
And that was that. Hal took care not to look at the man in white as he turned around, and he headed towards the door, not sure what he was doing now, but knowing he was damn well getting out of that office. But he hadn’t taken four steps before Eagan spoke.
“I want him escorted off the property,” he said.
“Look,” Gerry said, in a tone that could have sliced concrete block. “I did what you wanted, and I fired him—but like he said, this is a busy day. I don’t have time for this horseshit.” The man in white raised an eyebrow at him, and Gerry glowered as he added an acid addendum. “Sir.”
Eagan gave Gerry a thin, bemused smile. “I wouldn’t dream of troubling you, Mr. Harper. My men will see to his removal, but you will inform your crew not to allow him anywhere near the site.“
“I’ll take care of it,” Gerry said, then sat down and started shuffling through paper.
Eagan turned to Hal, his smile dying away entirely. “As for you—I don’t want to see you within so much as a mile of the site again. You will be escorted all the way to your vehicle, and we will inspect it for any further missing items before you leave.”
Hal bristled, but he managed to push his anger back down. “I don’t drive to work,” he pointed out. “I take the bus.” Which wouldn’t be by for an hour, God help him.
This did not please Eagan, and for a moment, he almost looked alarmed, but then his expression shifted back into a sneer. “It will be my pleasure to hire a taxi on your behalf, simply to see you off the site immediately.”
“Keep your money,” Hal said. “I’m taking the bus.” He nodded to the goons, then resumed his march for the door.
“If you are found anywhere near the site,” Eagan called after him, “anywhere, my men will take action against you.”
You couldn’t pay me to come back to this site, Hal thought, but said nothing, only kept heading for the door, down the stairs, towards the street, and freedom.
But the goons followed even as he crossed the street and walked down the block, keeping just behind him. They stayed with him all the way to the bus stop, and when he sat down on the bench, they stood at either end of it like sentries, and it was clear they weren’t going to move anytime soon.
Hal hunkered down on the bench and glared at the sidewalk. He wanted to pace, wanted to wander up and down the block, kicking and cursing under his breath while he tried to sort this out, to try and understand or at least to get rid of his anger, but he wasn’t going to do that with these idiots here, so he just sat, stewing, and hating. But after ten minutes even this got old, so he sat back, opened his backpack, and pulled out a book. He wasn’t sure how he was going to focus enough to read, but he might as well try.
But when he saw the cover of the paperback he pulled out, he stopped. He had put a new murder mystery in there, he’d been sure of it: something he’d picked up last week at the grocery store but hadn’t started yet. This book was not that book. It wasn’t a book he had ever seen before, and it certainly wasn’t something he’d ever buy. It didn’t have a title, just a picture: a white fox standing in front of flowering tree. The cover was golden and embossed with all sorts of symbols he didn’t know.
Hal glanced down at the backpack, worried that he’d picked up the wrong one somehow, but no, it was his—when he double-checked inside the flap, he saw the saftey pin wound with thread he kept there, just in case. Hal shut the flap, then looked up at the pair of goons uneasily as he tried to hide the book with his arm. Was this what they thought he’d stolen? But the goons only gave him stony stares, then went back to gazing straight ahead.
Hal looked down to frown at the book again, and when he saw it, he startled, and immediately dropped it. The strange fox book was gone, and his own paperback, Cold Case in Cleveland, tumbled over his knees and down into the gutter.
Shaking, Hal slid forward on the bench and reached down to pick it up. Something damn weird was going on, that was for sure. He grabbed the book, watching it carefully to see if it would change again, but it didn’t. He settled back onto the bench with tentative relief and glanced up the street in the vain hope that the bus had decided to come forty-five minutes early today.
The bus wasn’t there. But the bar was, standing innocently in the middle of the empty lot, as if it had never left. And the woman in the fur coat was standing in front of it again. She saw Hal, smiled, and waved.
Then she crossed the street and came towards him.