Chapter 2: The wicked invite
Nathaniel Runnels stood in the damp night perplexed by his current standing in life. His hair was a mess; his sunken eyes wore the strain of long nights and the painful hunger in his side was only slightly eased by a lukewarm pretzel alit with the decorative swirl of spicy brown mustard.
His coat had seen better days and so had his stomach. But on a writer-gone-reporter’s salary, he was content to at least be able to break bread with himself.
Raggedy cuffs and a dimple of mustard were clear signs that at least for tonight, giving a damn was not particularly high on his list. He sighed every so often as conspiracy theories banged within his brain; or were those withdrawal pangs from the caffeine addiction he’d been nurturing for several years now.
‘Hung over and exhausted… joy,’ he thought to himself. ‘I should have been a lawyer or a stock broker or some other profession that gives you high blood pressure from stress rather than the low blood sugar goodness that comes with a reporter’s lifestyle.’
He stank of cynicism, self loathing, brutal honesty and possibly too much gin. He recognized the life he’d given himself, fully knowing that the path he now walked was one he had chosen on his own.
He did not like the taste in his mouth as he remembered ingesting the false story of him only doing this as research for the characters in his book. A temporary job he’d convinced himself as he got ready to unleash the next great American novel, which for the past year and a half had grown to an amazing 26-page behemoth. In all honesty, he didn’t have direction and wrote out of sheer determination every month or so only to sacrifice most of what was written to the apathetic and luckily non critical fire place in his studio apartment.
‘Great job,’ he thought to himself as his shoulders hunched with every new thought that did its best to shatter his morale. He finished his far-from-exquisite meal and licked his subway hands. He didn’t care and it showed; it showed a lot. He mimed a tip of the hat to the street vendor and went on his way. At least he kept his manners.
Down the steps he went and his luck finally peaked. His teeth grit audibly as the subway made its way away from the platform. He knew he would have to wait an hour, enjoying the wonderful bouquet of urine, burnt rat droppings, and sewer water that would serve as aromatherapy during his wait.
He slumped down on the bench quickly noticing that there wasn’t anything else open so he could purchase a savory candy bar or some gummy something to serve as a delicatessen treat after his half star meal. (The half star had come from the mustard, that’s for sure.)
The deserted platform filled with his woeful voice. “Wonder how long I’ll have to stay on the Ramen diet. Not too long before I get a stroke now… or hypertension; then maybe I’ll be able to feast on hospital food. Mmm, mmm, mmm…. delicious hospital food. Jesus Christ, I’m a joke.”
The lonely silence droned on and after a while, the young man was actually starting to enjoy it. So naturally it couldn’t last. All of a sudden a violin weaved a terribly wicked tune that seemed to seep out from deep within the subway tunnels.
The young reporter stood up and looked both ways but was unable to find the source. His eyes fell to the floor and confusion set in. Abruptly, the rhythmic tapping of a boot began to accompany the morbid tune and upon turning to his left for a second time, Nathaniel saw an ankle peeking from a far off column. The boot bobbed forwards and backwards, clearly showing that the owner sat on the subway floor while leaning on the column. The ankle might have swayed lazily but the melody was anything but tranquil.
The frustrated young man sat back on the bench and faced the curious virtuoso that, as so many others he had seen, had chosen the subway corridors as his concert hall. On a dime, the song morphed into a gentle waltz that was just as magnificently morose as the preceding section.
“Do you like it?” slithered a voice into the young man’s ear. There was something terribly offbeat within the words he heard. He was still unsure whether he liked the voice… or the music. “I wrote it some time back, and from your reaction, I can at least guess you are intrigued.”
The young man did not respond, yet his attention was anything but absent. Unfortunately the wicked voice wasn’t about to stop. “Cat’s got your tongue? Pity, I rather fancied some conversation; even if it consisted of the rambling of a disgruntled writer playing at being a reporter.”
A knot within the young man’s throat was no larger than a grapefruit and no smaller than the same. His weak eyes leapt to life as he was not certain as to how a subway bum could know what he does for a living. A nagging sensation of danger drummed low in his gut.
“Oh my,” said the voice in mock concern. “I’ve alarmed you. Don’t worry though. I am no stalker but you do have a way of thinking aloud and I must confess it is quite entertaining.”
His remarks were seasoned with a touch of condescension and a healthy dose of ego. Nathaniel replied with a slight snarl. Getting away from this annoying lunatic, regardless of his talent, was quickly becoming a top priority.
“I truly wish you would continue to think aloud,” the voice said as it continued to jab at the young man as much as the bow struck the violin. “These walls hear far too much from me.”
The ankle continued to tap merrily while the tune grew darker and moodier still. The shrill notes were the kind that tickle your spine and the ever hunching shoulders of the young man clearly demonstrated how tension could also rise to a crescendo.
“What do you want?” Nathaniel said. “Spare change?”
“So, it does speak,” the violinist teased. “Progress at last.”
For some reason, Nathaniel decided to reply. “Look, I’ve had a long day. Could you simply play and let me enjoy your fine music instead of your insipid thought pattern?”
“And it has vocabulary too,” the violinist said while letting out a high whistle. “My, my… such big words. Please, do not cause yourself a migraine on my account”.
Nathaniel closed his eyes and sighed. He was well aware that he had just guaranteed himself that he would have to spend a fair amount of his precious energy verbally fencing instead of having just minded his business. Having a car would be worse though. It would mean yet another payment he could not make.
“How ‘bout eat me?” he finally spat out. “Is that simple enough for you? Please no talk. Play good. Pretty, pretty song, oh so nice.” The young man’s tone was harsh, disrespectful and clearly full of contempt, a reaction was more than due.
The ankle stopped bobbing and the music stopped on a dime immediately replaced by an evil rasp of a laugh. “I knew I liked you,” said the creepy voice. Silence then hung coldly accompanying the electric drone of the faulty subway rail.
The young man stared perplexed at his present scenario. A long crummy day with no leads, no inspiration, a pathetic meal and now harassed by some madcap that knew how to play the violin far too well for even the best subway musician.
He fixed his eyes on the now static boot that had been so cheerfully tapping mere seconds ago. He didn’t know if the guy had fallen asleep, died, or was simply waiting for the next comment that would never arrive. Since the ghoulish laughter, the absence of any noise was nerve-wracking, but finally it ceased to be quiet.
The young man’s eyes jumped open as the faint scrape of a boot was followed by leather rubbing and grating upwards on a tiled column. The violinist had pushed himself up until his body was upright and neatly out of sight.
“This cannot be good,” the reporter remarked listlessly. His pulse rate tripled. His muscles tensed and his imagination ran away with a series of potential headlines for when they found his body. ‘Now I get inspired,’ he thought to himself.
Silence reigned and he would much rather have the symphony of a crying baby, a Hare Krishna handing out the word of God while expecting a dollar in return, or even the old geezer that so often befouled one’s ears with the huffing and puffing of an old out-of-tune saxophone only to receive money from people begging him to stop playing.
Hope then shone bright with the faint rumbling of a distant train. He had forgotten there was an express train that sometimes stopped here. The bad part was that this stop was notorious for the questionable wiring that would falter every time there was an arrival. He stepped to the platform to make as speedy an escape as possible.
Then it began.
Lights started to screw up and along with the holy train heralding his escape, Nathaniel saw a gloved hand extend four pillars away over the train tracks. It waved gleefully until pausing to extend four fingers.
The lights flickered and the hand seemed to teleport a column closer and a finger lighter. Three.
“What the hell is going on?” Nathaniel said.
Again the lights failed. Another finger down and another column closer. Two.
The train had rushed in and after a few seconds finally stopped but the hand had come one column nearer and only the middle finger stood cheerfully extended before the hand waved once again. One.
Two brilliant flashes of emerald were the last thing Nathaniel saw before everything went black. The subway doors opened and closed and only one person was in the train.
Sipping his coffee, the driver sighed and prayed he could get home soon to kiss his wife goodnight as the train made its way down the tunnel and away from the stop.