Devlin

EXTRACT FOR
Devlin's Hollow

(Terence West)


Devlin's Hollow

Chapter One

 

Static assaulted my ears.

Tapping the volume key, a cacophony of white noise spilled into my headphones and encased me within the folds of its undulating, jagged interior. My eyes danced across the peaks and valleys of a green digital waveform on the display before me as each aural texture was given shape. Hitting the space bar with my thumb, I stopped playback, relishing a moment of silence. Once I raised my hand, I massaged my tired neck. A nasty stress headache was beginning to slither up my spine and settle in my skull.

Furrowing my brow, I moved the cursor back roughly ten seconds and continued the track. What started as a hobby had evolved. Some would call it an obsession, but I was secretly hopeful it hadn’t gone that far. Focusing on cutting through the digital sizzle, I pressed the phones tighter to my ears listening for anything buried in the sonic palette that shouldn’t be there. I wasn’t listening to the hiss, but rather the space between.

Rubbing the bridge of my nose with my fingers, I exhaled slowly. This wasn’t helping. Maybe I was becoming obsessed. Spending all of my spare time listening to blank recordings and chasing after stories, myths, and legends was beginning to wear on me. I was searching for…hell, I didn’t even know anymore. Answers? Proof? Or was it something more? Of course I already knew the answer to my own question, I simply didn’t want to acknowledge it. To do so would make it more tangible, more real somehow, and I wasn’t ready to accept that. Would that prove I was obsessed, or crazy? I was a man charging into the darkness with a flashlight and a tape recorder, in the pursuit of what could be nothing more than an idea.

I had gone mad…

…I just missed her so much.

Leaning my head back, I watched the picturesque suburban landscape of Union scroll outside my window. A little more than an hour from New York, this sleepy suburb seemed more like a different world than somehow part of the Big Apple. Cozy little houses enclosed by picket fences paraded past in unison as if marching to celebrate mediocrity. Trees reached perpetually toward the solid gray sky from snow-covered lawns, while children created an entire population of snowpeople locked in frozen poses. A myriad of cars passed in the opposite direction most likely headed home for a hug and a kiss from their loved ones as they basked in the glow of Christmas tree lights. It was all so…

Ordinary.

But very familiar…

Like an extraterrestrial trying to comprehend this bizarre form of life, I observed with awe. Their existence seemed somehow foreign to me. It was something I’d heard spoken of in whispers, but had never experienced myself. My vocation forced me to distance myself from humanity in order to effectively learn their behavior and mannerisms. I surveiled and recorded in some vain effort to unlock the mysteries of the human brain. I felt like a spy, the snake in the garden, desperately wanting to be part of the hive.

My eyes fell to the light gray carpeting of the taxi’s interior as the audio file continued to play in my headphones. Recorded in my home office, I had nearly nine hours to review. Having spent most of the plane trip analyzing it, I was about halfway through. I heard the familiar creaks, pops, and groans of the house settling, the wind howling outside, and a tree branch scraping against the windowpane, but little else. No signs, no voices, no phenomenon that could not be explained. There was nothing. Absolutely nothing.

The taxi driver’s waving hand caught my attention. Unsure if he was signaling me or gesturing to another driver, I paused the recording. Sliding the big, black headphones down to my neck, I looked inquisitively at the cabbie.

“Just heard over the radio,” the heavyset man motioned to the CB installed in his dash, “that Elmore is closed because of an accident. Some jackass t-boned a bus.”

“What does that mean to us?”

“We have to go ’round,” the big man reported in his Brooklyn accent. “Shouldn’t take too long, just wanted to make sure that was all right wit’ you.”

“Yeah, yeah.” I waved dismissively. “No worries. Do what you have to do.”

Silence fell over the cab again. I considered pulling my headphones back on and continuing, but I couldn’t seem to summon the will. Sliding my fingertips across the keyboard, I saved my progress and quit the program. I placed the laptop in hibernate and snapped the lid shut. Checking my wristwatch, I hoped the new route wouldn’t delay us too long. I had scheduled my appointment weeks ago, and was already cutting it close.

The cabbie looked at me in his rearview mirror. “Sinatra?”

I took a moment to process the question, perplexed. “Pardon?”

“Sinatra,” the portly man repeated through his bushy, gray mustache. “I bet you’re listening to Sinatra.”

I tried to force a smile. “You would have lost that bet, my friend.”

The cabbie snapped his fingers and shrugged. “I only like the big band stuff. The Rat Pack, Sinatra, Sammy, Martin.” He shrugged. “That’s amore, you know?”

“I know the Rat Pack,” I confirmed.

I glanced down at the driver’s fact sheet attached to the back of his seat. His name was Ralph Chandler, a native of New York—as if I couldn’t already tell. The picture in the upper left featured Ralph sporting a huge, shit-eating grin that looked as if he had just told the photographer the dirtiest joke he knew. I imagined him living in a tiny, rundown apartment with his wife Alice, and slightly crazy neighbor named Norton who always seemed to get into trouble. I smirked…don’t ask me why. I was a bit of a pop culture junkie.

“That’s some great friggin’ music,” Ralph added. “Classics!” He paused. “So what were you listening to?” He sized me up in the rearview mirror. “None of that new age, I-want-to-share-my-feelings, weepy, fairy music…right?”

I laughed despite myself. “No.” I tried to stop laughing for fear I would snort. “No weepy, fairy music. EVPs,” I admitted as if that would mean something to the cabbie.

As I suspected, he cocked an eyebrow. “Say what?”

“EVPs,” I repeated, “Electronic Voice Phenomenon. Basically, they’re sounds captured by a recording device not detected by the human ear. Some claim they’re proof of paranormal activity.” I paused and considered the idea. “While others insist they’re nothing more than delusions and audio glitches.”

“Oh yeah?” Ralph replied with more than a hint of sarcasm. “Messages from ghosts on your TV, home stereo, or one of those friggin’ iPods all those snotty kids seem to have attached to their heads?”

“That’s basically it,” I summarized.

“Bunch of bullshit that is.” Ralph snorted. “You know what you said about delusions?”

I nodded, waiting for the driver’s inevitable conclusion.

“I’m gonna go with that.” Ralph steered the taxi around a corner foregoing the use of the breaks. Not paying attention to the squealing tires, he locked eyes with me in the mirror. “What do you think, buddy?”

I wasn’t convinced either way, but it had been something that captured my imagination. For better or worse. “Not sure.”

“I’ll tell you what I think,” he stated as if I had a choice in the matter. “Buncha whacko, nut jobs with too much time on their hands making this stupid shit up. Probably writers with overactive imaginations.” He paused just long enough to swerve manically through traffic. “So, what do you do, buddy?”

I laughed. “I’m one of those writers with overactive imaginations.”

“No shit?” As Ralph swerved through the street, he placed his arm on the back of the seat and peered over his shoulder at me. “What’s your name?”

“Jack Devlin,” I said, emphatically pointing toward the windshield as it rapidly filled with red lights.

“I’ll be damned,” the cabbie answered and returned his eyes forward. Slamming on the breaks, he brought the taxi to a screeching halt. Without missing a beat, he turned back to me. “I read Five ’Til Midnight. Helluva good book.”

I tried to respond, but my tongue was still firmly lodged in my throat and I was certain I was as white as a ghost.

“Hey, tell me something,” Ralph said as the car started to creep forward. “I heard you were investigated by the FBI because you wrote about assassinating the President. Is that true?”

Finally able to draw breath, I loosened my tongue from the roof of my mouth. “Actually,” I said, then swallowed, “it is. Because of 9/11, the FBI treated my assassination scenario very seriously. I was questioned, but fortunately, nothing really ever came of it.”

Ralph smiled and pulled back into traffic as the light changed to green. “Do any of the Feds you met look like those two from that show about aliens?”

“Aliens?” I searched my brain’s databanks for FBI plus aliens. “Oh, you mean Agents Mulder and Scully from The X-Files?”

Ralph snapped his fingers. “That’s them. Did you meet a looker like that Scully girl?”

“’Fraid not,” I answered sadly. “Just run-of-the-mill government agents.”

“That’s too bad.” Ralph laughed hoarsely as if he had just smoked three packs straight. “She’s a Betty. I’d let her investigate me anytime, if you know what I mean.” He laughed again and slapped the steering wheel.

I shook my head trying to understand how our conversation had wound from EVPs, to my books, and now crude sexual innuendo about Gillian Anderson.

The heavyset cabbie coughed as he tried to catch his breath. Rubbing a bit of spittle off his bottom lip, he created a sound I was sure was a screaming slug being crushed in his windpipe. Patting his chest with a solid thump, he returned his attention to the rearview mirror. “Is it true your wife killed herself?”

I felt a quick stab of pain in my chest, then the inevitable pang of nausea. Reeling in my seat, a floodgate of emotions was unleashed. An instant, powerful depression hit me as her face appeared in my memory, then anger as I saw blood…it was everywhere. I turned and looked helplessly out the cab’s window. “I’d rather not talk about it.”

“Oh,” the insensitive clod exhaled, realizing he had unintentionally wounded me. “Say no more. Shouldn’t have brought it up.”

That was more of an apology than I got from most people who broached the subject. “Don’t worry about it,” I said after a moment, finally able to gain control of my emotions. “You didn’t know.”

“Thanks,” the heavyset man answered. He glanced up at a street corner sign. “Almost there. You can see The Hollow now.” He lifted a finger from the steering wheel and pointed.

I lifted my gaze to the front windshield.

Amidst a cave of trees, the dark-gray home rose like a phantom beyond the horizon. Two stories with a huge attic, the house was tall and slender. The first floor spread out like wings at the base and a heavy, iron fence encased and protected it. White-framed windows were spread across the façade, while the jet-black front door stood over a large, rounded staircase that looked like the house’s bottom lip. Barren of leaves, massive, gnarled trees in the front yard reached up with bony fingers, appearing like skeletal disciples worshipping the beast. The snow and ice that clung to the dark roof only made it seem more foreboding.

I fought against the urge to tell Ralph to stop and turn around. As I stared at The Hollow, dread started to ball and sat like a rock in my belly. “Are you sure that’s the right place?”

Ralph nodded. “Sure as rain.”

Sure as rain? Wasn’t the expression “right as rain”? And what the hell does that colorful little euphemism even mean? It sounds so…dumb.

I started to stow my laptop nervously as we approached. I had to do something to keep my eyes away from the house.

“I’ll have you there in a second,” Ralph reported from the captain’s chair. “Hey,” he added sheepishly, “is there any way I can get you to autograph a novel for me?”

I took a breath in through my nose and considered the request. “Yeah, sure. Let me have it,” I said, digging a pen out of my laptop bag.

“I don’t actually have one,” Ralph said a bit embarrassed.

Turning the wheel slowly, the cabbie maneuvered the car off the road and onto the front drive. Passing through the open iron gates, the house loomed above us.

“Then what am I supposed to sign?” I held up my hands so he wouldn’t even attempt to answer. I already understood. Digging into my laptop bag on the seat next to me, I found a copy of my latest novel, Jessie’s Warning. Flipping open the cover, I held my pen to the page. “Who do I make this out to?”

Ralph stared at me for a moment as he brought the car to a halt in front of The Hollow. “Um, eBay?”

Would anyone miss him if I reached over the seat and strangled him?