"...and when you decide which company will get the rights for 'The Mutilation Killings' you will have to assign-" Harald Übergrau was saying.
Glassy-eyed as he was becoming, Gabriel was actually starting to get used to the tedium of working with lawyers and agents for his best-selling works of fiction.
The Voodoo Murders had gotten as high as 7th on the New York Times fiction list, and his newest work had over 200,000 copies reserved in the first month of its announcement in the publishers' journals. The work was now being done to set up German distribution of the novel. There was a lot of interest in it due to the topicality of the subject. "Harry...slow down a sec."
Gabriel shook his head to clear it and then looked at Übergrau. Harry was extremely excited, and it took Gabriel back to the early days of the previous case. Harry had been so excited to be helping with the book, Gabriel almost felt like a celebrity.
"I know you mean well...but I'll be honest. You might as well be speaking German. I don't get all this legal jargon and I never will. I'll tell you what...you tell me your opinions and I'll say yes or no."
Gabriel smiled. "I trust you to take care of the Ritter interests - you did it for free when we couldn't pay you jack - and I trust you to take care of this."
Harry smiled, and Gabriel knew he had said the right things. For some reason (probably German efficiency, Gabriel mused), Harry seemed to have an inferiority complex when it came to working with Gabriel...very nervous and careful. Of course, Gabriel hadn't ever seen him with any of the other clients, so he had no way to compare. Still, Harry did a great job with everything and could definitely be trusted, and that's exactly what Gabriel wanted.
"Gut. Then we'll be in touch when we get some prospective distributors for Germany." Gabriel nodded his agreement and then got up to leave.
"Harry, I appreciate all you've done." He held his hand out to the sandy-haired man, and Harry smiled and accepted the handshake. "I'll talk to you later."
Gabriel took his leave of the man and made his way to the hallway leading to the lobby of the firm's office. As he approached the doorway to the lobby, he heard a familiar voice. Where had he heard it before? A smooth, German voice, purring but with just a bit of aggression seeping out of it...
Gabriel froze on the spot. He knew that voice. Damn, he thought. I guess I wasn't gonna go too long without having to run into one of these guys. Hell, they own half of Munich, probably... He steeled himself and walked through the doorway. There was a stylishly-dressed man with a medium build, close-cropped grey hair and goatee, small gold earring in his left ear, with a purring deep voice, talking to Übergrau's secretary, Frau Hoblund. She was buying the entire act.
"Herr Preiss?" Gabriel smiled his bravest smile, and walked forward with his hand extended. Preiss looked up, almost surprised, but his lawyer's face betrayed no such emotion. Instead, he gave Gabriel the somewhat disturbing smile that had so unnerved him all those months ago. "Hell, guess I should of expected to run into you around here sometime!"
Gabriel was fumbling for something to say to him, habitually falling into his good-ol-boy routine that so often worked to draw people off-guard.
"Herr Knight? What a pleasant surprise! I don't think I've seen you since...since the last hunt, the one where Von Zell disappeared and you were injured." He paused, his piercing eyes looking directly into Gabriel's. "What was it that happened to you? Von Aigner was the only one up when you and the Baron disappeared so suddenly. He said you were bleeding heavily."
Preiss's eyes were casting the same spell on Gabriel that they did during their only serious conversation months ago, during the Mutilation Killings investigation. Gabriel was feeling extremely nervous, but he stammered out a story - not altogether a lie but not a complete truth, either.
"It's kind of funny, Herr Preiss. I was talking to Friedrich - the Baron - and he mentioned that we would be riding horses to hunt. Well, we don't do much horseback hunting in the states, so I asked him to give me some pointers. We had gone out for a lesson, and wouldn't you know, I screwed up and fell off the horse. Fell right on a broken branch, too...kinda tore up my thigh. Friedrich took me in to the hospital and that's all I know." Gabriel's facial expression was remarkably calm, he thought, but he could feel his face and ears turning very red. "Kinda embarrassing, isn't it?" he stammered, hoping that Preiss would take that as the reason for his ruddy pallor.
Preiss looked deeply at Gabriel, who began to feel as if his soul was being taken apart. After a moment of this close scrutiny, Preiss frowned at him momentarily. Gabriel felt a wave of relief, and then felt something vibrating slightly around his neck. He fought the impulse to turn and look, wanting to seem very comfortable in front of Preiss.
Preiss smirked slightly. "I am intrigued, Herr Knight. More so than when we first met... I am intrigued." Preiss turned his gaze to Frau Hoblund and smiled almost imperceptibly, to which she blushed fully. He once again looked at Gabriel, nodded, and walked out of the office.
"Whew! That boy gives me the willies," Gabriel said out loud. Frau Hoblund didn't understand his words, but the meaning of the statement was clear to her. She smiled slightly while letting go a sigh, glanced at Gabriel, and returned to her work.
Gabriel quickly stepped outside the office and felt the back of his neck. "What was that vibrating...?" he mumbled to himself as his hand probed along the back of his neck. As he determined the source of the vibration, he pulled on the chain holding the Ritter Talisman in place around his neck, taking it off to examine it.
It was humming smoothly in his hand.
"I'm telling you, Gracie, it was HUMMING!" Gabriel had his cell phone out and was talking animatedly into it. The cell phone was one of Gabriel's concessions to Grace - after the last case she wanted to make sure she had a way to keep in the loop. "I could feel it while that creepy son-of-a- bitch was staring at me! It never did that when I was chasing Von Zell around the woods, or even when Tetelo was trying to attack us!"
"Gabriel, I believe you, but I've been entering all of your ancestors' journals into that new computer system my brother is programming and I'm telling you that so far there's no record of it ever humming!" Grace was getting a bit animated herself.
She had asked her brother to set up a database system to hold all the information from the Schattenjäger journals. Gabriel's natural dislike of machines put him against the idea at first, but Grace's practicality, as well as her argument that someone had better copy the documents before they totally disintegrated from age, won the day. And Gabriel was glad it had - once he had gotten over the sting of losing an argument to Grace, the common sense of her plan made sense to him. Not that he was ever going to tell Grace that, of course. And as long as he wasn't the one who had to use it...
"Hell, maybe this is one of those things that Wolfgang was supposed to tell me about...I mean, this thing didn't come with an instruction manual!" Gabriel was turning the Talisman over in his hand nervously. He was almost afraid to put it back on. "Maybe they never talked about it because they just accepted it as the way this thing works sometimes? I mean, I'm the first Schattenjäger who ever had to resort to on-the-job training, right?"
"I suppose that's a possibility, but you'd think it would have been mentioned at least once! I've gotten through a couple hundred years worth of Schattenjäger history and it hasn't been mentioned yet..."
Grace just wasn't going to give this one up, was she?
"Okay, so it's not mentioned in the journals. But aren't there a hell of a lot more books in the library than just my ancestors' journals?" Gabriel was getting exasperated. This was just another example of how he felt that he was dropped into a role for which he wasn't ready. Though he wanted more than anything to perform it admirably, he often felt as though his ancestors were making up for his grandfather's abandonment of the family calling by ganging up on him.
"I found all that stuff out about the Tetelo voodoo cult in there, and you used it to brush up on your Ludwig, so doesn't it stand to reason that somewhere in there is a scroll, a book, hell...even a damned middle ages sticky-note that tells us what the hell this means? You found that letter from Christian von Ritter to Ludwig that set you off on your tour of Bavaria, couldn't there be something in one of the journals somewhere like that?"
Gabriel was reaching now...but something about the feeling he got when talking to Preiss made him think that there was something more going on than just Preiss's capacity for creeping him out.
Grace sighed heavily, trying to calm herself down. Gabriel could be so annoying when he got like this. "Well, I'm trying to be as thorough as possible with this recording of your family's history, but it takes time! You have a big library here, Gabriel! Look at it this way...I'm bound to find something pertinent in one of the journals before 1693, when Gunter Ritter died. He was the one who lost it to Tetelo, and it makes sense that none of them are going to talk about how well it works after him, right?"
Gabriel's eyebrows perked up a bit. "Right...so Wolfgang might not have known anything about the Talisman, except for what it looks like! But he should still have known how it was meant to be used, shouldn't he? I mean, the tradition of ordaining and training a new Schattenjäger was pretty strict, from what I've been able to pick up." Not that I've been able to take advantage of any of that, thought Gabriel. "And in case the Talisman ever was recovered by one of them, they should sure know how to use it, right?"
"Hmmm...good point," Grace grudgingly accepted. "Okay, I'll keep my eyes open, and make sure my brother does, too."
"Thanks, Gracie. And thank your brother again for me, will you? Seeya."
Gabriel clicked the hang-up button on the cell phone and let it fall into his jacket pocket.
Gabriel saw himself riding down the sidewalk on a bike with training wheels...he remembered this sidewalk from his childhood. It was a very odd sensation, as if he was an eavesdropper on his own life. He was floating above his young self, a disembodied spirit unable to act, only able to observe. He was trying to remember what was going on but couldn't. It was as if he could only remember what was happening to him as it occurred to the child he was watching.
Except... there was a sense of great dread that was coursing through him, as if he wanted to reach out and stop young Gabriel from moving so that he wouldn't have to relive what was happening in front of him.
As the young Gabriel passed it, he recalled the big crack that once knocked him off his bike as he hit it, skinning his knee. How he had cried when it happened, until his mother came out and kissed it better. Now he was passing the brick-edged sidewalk leading up to the house with the wicker furniture on the front porch, where Gran's neighbors lived.
There was the crabapple tree that he used to climb when he was pretending to be King Kong, and there was the abandoned shed he used to hide in when he wanted to be alone with his reading.
Now he remembered this day...his daddy had promised that he would take the training wheels off Gabriel's bike when he got back from the art show with mommy. Gabriel was so excited...he wanted to drive a motorcycle when he got old enough.
He was tearing up and down the sidewalk in front of Gran's house and screaming "vroom-vroom" at the top of his lungs, wishing that daddy would come home. It may have annoyed the neighbors, but to Gran, Gabriel could do no wrong.
There was something else about this day...the adult Gabriel couldn't quite remember it. Something he didn't want to remember...a feeling nagging at the back of his mind.
"GABRIEL!" Gran was calling him. She stood on the porch of the old house, holding a glass of lemonade and shading her eyes to see where he'd flown off to. A smile crossed her face as she saw young Gabriel playing.
"Here, Gran!" young Gabriel yelled back. He spun around on the bike and careened down the sidewalk again toward Gran's front porch. A glass of lemonade made by Gran was such a treat! Gran made the best lemonade in New Orleans...
At that moment, a loud screeching sound was heard...it sounded like the sound effects they used in cartoons. Gran switched her gaze away from Gabriel and focused it down the street, toward the source of the sound. A sudden chill ran through the adult Gabriel's spine.
The horror...the horror...it's coming... Young Gabriel sped off on his bike toward the source of the sound. A growing feeling of overwhelming dread continued to wash over him, a feeling that his young body and soul wouldn't recognize, but that the older, more experienced psyche of a Schattenjäger would know instantly. No...stay away...don't want to see...
"Gabriel! Come back...wait for Gran..." Gran's voice faded off as Gabriel sped away toward the source of the sound...it was as if the youngster was beginning to feel the anguish that was pouring over the adult Gabriel. Tears were beginning to stream down young Gabriel's face as he leaned over the handlebars, willing his body forward faster than his young legs pumping at the pedals of his bicycle could take him. He glanced back briefly and saw Gran running after him, calling his name.
No...stay back...don't look...
The disembodied Gabriel could only observe with horror as his young self rounded the corner at the end of Gran's street and came to a screeching halt as his innocent eyes were forever changed. A green VW Beetle was crumpled against the stone wall of the house on the corner. Across the street, a young woman sat next to a ten-speed bicycle, frozen in fear. Young Gabriel threw his bike down and ran up to the window of the crumpled car. Of course, Gabriel recognized the car.
It was his parents' car.
He stared through his young self's eyes at the broken picture of his father behind the wheel. Blood was flowing freely from an open wound in the center of his father's forehead. The head itself was hanging at a sickening angle, the blue eyes still open and staring ahead blankly. His mother lay slumped across his father's lap limply, a similar wound in her head. Her blood flowed over his father's pant leg and onto the seat and floor. On the dashboard in front of them were bloodstains, indicating where they had struck it.
Gabriel's eyes wandered away from the image of his parents in the front seat to the back seat, where the painting his father had wanted to sell was sitting. It was undamaged. Through the broken window, Gabriel was able to push it back against the seat and see it - the grotesque image of a skull with snakes crawling through its eye sockets. Gabriel was unable to take his eyes off the painting. Somehow, even at this young age, the young Gabriel knew that the painting was a harbinger of sorts, warning him of the future...
Gran rounded the corner and screamed with agony at the site of her son and his young wife in the crumpled metal coffin. She fell to her knees, hands over her face with only her eyes showing bloodshot and tear-drenched, wailing into her hands. Gabriel heard her, but his eyes were fixed on the painting...
"Gabe?" Young Gabriel heard his name being called and looked toward the source of the voice. It wasn't Gran, she was still weeping loudly. Could it be...
"Gabe? I feel so far away...can't get to you. What's happening? I feel...trapped..." Gabriel couldn't hear his father's voice but he could feel it somehow, as if his father was talking right into his mind.
"What's going on, Daddy?" Gabriel was starting to weep now, tears rolling down his face.
"Gabe...you have to help...I don't understand what's happening...find the painting...you must find the painting...that'll have the answer..." His father's lips were not moving, but Gabriel knew that the voice was his father's.
Although it had been nearly 30 years since Gabriel's father died, he would never forget that voice. Philip Knight had a voice of implied confidence, though a wavering uncertainty would crop up now and again, as though he felt he should be doing something but didn't know what it was. It was a tormented voice, one looking for control in his life but not knowing how to achieve it, not knowing how control was lost in the first place.
"Daddy?" Young Gabriel's voice was quaking, tears pouring out now. "It's right back here..." Gabriel grasped the painting's frame and held it tightly through the car's broken window. "Daddy?" The boy sobbed quietly, wishing to hear his father's voice one more time.
Gabriel woke with a shout. His sheets were soaked and his heart was pounding a fierce staccato beat. He sat and breathed deeply for a minute, then got up and quickly made his way into the library. Gotta get this dream on paper before I forget it. These things have been too damned prophetic to ignore anymore.