by Anthony R. Karnowski
Phil looked at the classified ad for the thousandth time.
“Looking for a new job filled with excitement and eye-opening experiences?” it asked. “Come to 1329 Home Ave. at 3:00 pm on Monday for open interviews.”
Ordinarily, Phil wouldn’t have answered something so vague, but he was reaching the point of desperation. There were bills that needed to be paid and food that needed to be bought. If there had been anything else in the paper that seemed even remotely promising, he wouldn’t have gone.
But there hadn’t been, so he found himself parked in front of 1329 Home Ave. at a few minutes past 3:00 wearing a shirt and tie he’d bought over the weekend. He’d even polished his shoes that afternoon in order to make a good impression. As he looked out his windshield at the front of the building, though, he wondered why he’d bothered.
When Phil thought about what a business was supposed to look like, many things came to mind. Shop fronts, offices filled with cubicles, and even restaurants. In his mind they all had exteriors that, if not new, were at least professional looking. This place did not qualify.
He was parked in the gravel driveway of the building. The gravel driveway that was also an alley. The cracked, brick sides of the two neighboring structures loomed over him, blanketing everything in shadow. At the far end of the alley was an old, monkey-shit brown Buick. It was parked at the foot of a metal staircase that, like the Buick, was spotted with the reddish tint of rust. The stairs were connected to a deck that overlooked the alley, but he couldn’t see anything past that. All in all, though, he didn’t have a good feeling about this interview.
“What am I doing?” he asked the air. “Do I really need a job this bad?”
Yes, he thought. I do.
He climbed the staircase, taking each step with hesitant caution. The metal groaned, bowing with his weight. When he finally reached the top, he breathed a sigh of relief. As he looked around, he wondered again why he’d bothered. There were piles of junk strewn across the weathered deck, and Phil couldn’t help thinking he’d walked into a particularly frightening episode of Sanford and Son. There were chairs with no seats, a tired-looking old oven, and several hunks of metal he couldn’t identify. The more he looked around, the more he suspected the ad had been a misprint.
I’m here, he thought. I might as well talk to someone. If it ‘s the wrong place, it’s the wrong place, right? What’s the worst that can happen?
He’d heard a story once about a serial killer that used classified ads to trick people into coming to his home. Images of being bound and gagged by a greasy-shirted maniac flashed through his mind, but he squashed them. He really needed money.
There was a door a few feet away from the top of the stairs, and Phil made his way to it through the piles of junk. The screen door opened with a startling screech, and he knocked on the door. He waited. A minute went by. He knocked again.
“Oh, fuck this,” he said.
As he turned to leave, the door swung in, causing Phil to jump. Looking out from the darkened doorway was a very angry man.
“What the fuck do you want?”
The man looked as though he’d just woken up. His eyes were red and there was a red mark along the left side of his face. He wore a white t-shirt and a pair of faded camouflage pants, both of which were beyond wrinkled. His head was shaved, but there was a good deal of stubble covering his face and scalp, suggesting it had been a few days since either had seen a razor. It was difficult to tell, but Phil thought the man was in his mid-forties.
“I… uh… I mean…” Phil stammered, trying to find the words to explain himself.
“I said what the fuck do you want? You better have a good excuse for waking a man up so early.”
Phil looked at his watch again. It was now 3:15.
“Sorry, I think I have the wrong place. I was answering an ad I found in the paper.”
The man looked him up and down, letting his eyes linger on Phil’s tie before saying: “You’re here about the ad?”
“Yeah, about the job. Like I said, I think I have the wrong place. Sorry to have bothered you.” Phil turned to leave, but the man stopped him.
“No. You’ve got the right place,” he said.
Confused, but strangely interested, Phil decided to stick around for a minute. He looked around at the piles of junk again. There was what looked like the remains of a blender on the mound next to him.
“So, uh, what exactly is it you do?”
“Follow me,” the man said. “I’ll explain inside.”
The man turned and walked into the dark apartment. Phil moved to follow him, but slowly. The situation had started to feel a little more than weird. As he stepped across the threshold, he saw the man sit on a stained couch and light a cigarette.
“Close the door behind you,” he said, exhaling.
Phil checked the room for anyone that might be waiting to jump out and attack him. When he was sure there was no one else there, he shut the door and moved toward the cluttered living room.
Empty pizza boxes were stacked around the cramped apartment. Phil wasn’t sure, but he thought they might be the cause of the strange odor. Then he saw the trashcan. It was overflowing with beer cans, pizza crusts, and what looked like chicken bones. He tried not to disturb the precarious pile, wondering how a person could live in such filth.
“So,” the man said when Phil sat down. “I guess I should ask you a few questions.”
“That’s usually how these things work.” Phil knew sarcasm wasn’t the best tool with which to procure employment, but it was all he had to keep from running out of the room.
“First, what’s your name?”
“Phillip Martin. You can call me Phil.”
“All right, Phil. You religious?”
“What? I didn’t think you could ask that sort of thing in an interview.”
“Yeah, well, this isn’t a normal job. Besides, it won’t affect whether you get the job or not. I’m just trying to find out what kind of person you are.”
“All right then, no. I’m not particularly religious.”
“Good. What about education?”
“I finished high school in the top ten percent of my class, and I have some college experience. I didn’t finish, though.”
“That’s all right, you don’t need a degree. Out of curiosity, though, what did you study?”
“Philosophy, mainly. I did take a few classes on mythology and religious studies, though.”
“I thought you weren’t religious?”
“I’m not, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t interest me.”
“That’s good. Curiosity is good in this line of work. The mythology might help out, too. When would you be able to start?”
“Immediately, I guess. Do you mind if I smoke?”
“Thanks.” Phil took a cigarette from the pack in his pocket and lit it. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”
“Not at all.”
“I guess it’s just one question, really. I mean, I still don’t know anything about this job. The ad was pretty vague. What exactly would I be doing?”
“It’s a difficult job to explain,” the man said, taking another drag from his cigarette. “It’s easier to show than to tell. Know what I mean?”
“I think so. It would be nice if you could give me some sort of idea, though.”
“Well, if you get the job, you’ll be working with me as a sort of Park Ranger, but for everywhere.”
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe Animal Control would be a better comparison. We’ll patrol the area and make sure there’s nothing running loose that shouldn’t be.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“Like I said, man, it’s easier to just show you. I’ll tell you what,” the man looked at his watch. “It’s almost four now. I was going to leave for patrol tonight at sundown, which should be around seven or so. If you want, why don’t you come back this evening and ride out with me? That’ll give you a hands-on feel for it, and you can decide if you like it or not.”
“I don’t know, man.” Phil stood to leave.
“Wait, I know I’m being pretty vague, but like I said it’s hard to explain. If you ride out with me tonight, though, you’ll know exactly what the job will be like. I’ll pay you ten dollars an hour, too. If you get out there and decide you don’t like it, I’ll bring you back to your car and still pay you for the night.”
“I don’t know. I have to think about it.”
“That’s all I can ask. Like I said, I’m leaving at around seven. If you’re not here by fifteen after, I’ll know you’re not coming.”
The man stood and offered his hand. Phil took it tentatively and then headed for the door. When he was halfway out, he stopped.
“Wait, I never got your name, man.”
“Oh, sorry. Name’s Hal. Hal Jorgenson.”
* * * * *
Phil pulled back into the alley that served as Hal’s driveway at five minutes till seven. He parked beside the Buick and wondered what the hell he was thinking.
I have to be crazy, he thought. Either that or dead fucking broke. As he killed the engine of his truck, he decided it had to be a bit of both. It can’t be that bad. I’ll ride around with him for a few hours tonight, and at the end I’ll at least have enough money to buy a few groceries.
Still, as Hal appeared at the bottom of the stairs dressed in almost the same thing he’d been wearing earlier with two over-stuffed backpacks, Phil wondered again what he was doing. He waved to Hal as he got out of his truck.
“I’m surprised you came back,” Hal said as he threw the backpacks into the Buick’s back seat.
“I am, too,” Phil said, trying to smile.
“I’m glad to see you changed,” Hal said. “That tie wouldn’t’ve worked very well where we’re going.”
“Where, exactly, is that?”
“Millennium Park. I’ve been tracking one for the past few nights. That’s where the trail ends.”
“Tracking one what?”
“I’ll explain on the way. You ready?”
In answer, Phil opened the passenger door and climbed into the old Buick. When they were on the road a few minutes later, Hal lit a cigarette and turned the radio down.
“You believe in ghosts?”
Phil looked away from the window, a little surprised at the question.
“I guess, yeah.”
“Ever seen one?”
“No. At least, I don’t think so. I’ve seen some weird shit in my life, but never a ghost.”
“What have you seen?”
“You wouldn’t believe me.”
“All right. When I was, I don’t know, twelve, maybe, I was riding in the backseat of my mom’s car on the way to school. It was about three in the morning, but I was in the band, and we were taking a ‘band-trip’ to King’s Island. What a theme park had to do with the band I don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter anyway. On the way there, I was looking out the window and I happened to see a… well, I don’t know what it was. It was sort of man-like, but it was big. And white. I remember that like it was yesterday. It seemed like it was glowing as it went through the street lights. Anyway, it was moving in the opposite direction as us, and it was using its arms to run, sort of like a gorilla or something. I tried to get my mom to look, but by the time she did it had already run over the hill and out of sight. I still don’t know what it was. Could’ve been a dog or something, I guess. It still sort of freaks me out to think about.”
“Do you remember if there was a full moon?”
Phil laughed. “What? You think it was a werewolf or something?”
“Maybe. Never heard of them being white before, but I’ve seen stranger things. Could’ve been an albino.”
I’m in the car with a crazy person.
“You believe in werewolves?” Phil asked, lighting a cigarette. He cracked his window to let the smoke escape.
“Not since I was a kid, man. Ghosts are one thing. I can see how someone could leave an imprint of themselves in a place or something when they die, but werewolves? That’s like believing in vampires.”
Hal took a drag off his cigarette, but said nothing. After a few minutes of riding in silence, Phil turned the radio back up. “Gallows Pole” by Led Zeppelin was playing. Phil tried not to think about the strange man next to him, hoping that the night would hurry and be over so he could get his money and go home, but Hal turned the radio back down.
“Look,” he said. “I’ve had a couple of other people ride out with me before. They didn’t work out. I think I told some of them too much at the outset, others just couldn’t hack it. I have a good feeling about you, though, so I want to be up front. There’re things in this world that people have convinced themselves aren’t real. Like ghosts and werewolves for example. But just because we don’t believe in them doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”
“Wait a minute…”
“Let me finish. If it turns out that you aren’t into this job, fine. But I don’t want you making up your mind before you know the truth. These creatures, entities, whatever, that our society has decided aren’t real; they’re all around us, all the time. Humans are damn good at tricking themselves, though. Even if met head on by one of these things, most people will swear they didn’t see it or that they saw something else entirely. For the sake of most people’s sanity, this is probably a good thing. But in this line of work, you have to have an open mind. All I’m asking of you right now is that you keep an open mind. Can you do that?”
“How much are you paying me again?”
Hal smiled sardonically. “Ten an hour.”
“Well then, if all you’re paying me for is to keep an open mind, I guess the least I can do is give it my best shot.”
“I guess that’s good enough.”
Hal turned the radio back up. “Swinging on the gallows pole; swinging on the gallows po-oh-ole.” Robert Plant’s wail carried them through the next few minutes until Hal pulled to the side of the road.
“Here we are,” he said, turning off the car.
“I thought the park entrance was up further?”
“It is. We’re not going through the entrance, though. This is where I found the trail, and I’m going to follow it. Here,” Hal handed a sheathed knife to Phil. It was the length of his forearm. “Hang on to this. You might need it.”
Phil was about to say something, but Hal was out of the car and lugging the bags out of the backseat before he could. Shaking his head, Phil undid his belt and ran it through the sheath’s belt loop. He didn’t know why he would need a knife, especially such a large one, but at least he was armed. If Hal was really crazy and wanted to hurt him, at least he’d have something to defend himself with. He couldn’t think why a man that wanted to hurt him would give him a weapon, though.
Phil pulled one of the backpacks on and watched while Hal pulled a large, black case out of the trunk.
“What is all this stuff?”
“Tools,” Hal said. “We probably won’t need all of it, but it’s better to be prepared.”
“A regular boy scout, huh?”
“Something like that.”
They jumped the ditch and made their way into the trees. The ground was thick with leaves, and Phil had a hard time keeping up with Hal’s pace. He moved through the trees like someone that had spent more of his life out in nature than inside, barely making any noise. Phil, on the other hand, was making enough noise to more than make up for Hal’s silence.
After close to half an hour of trudging through the forest, a howl in the not far distance caused Hal to stop. He looked around for a moment, as though trying to determine the direction from which it came, and then set off again. Phil, trying not to lose him in the darkness, caught his foot on a hidden root and fell face first onto the ground. He pulled himself back up, cussing, but Hal was gone.
As he turned around, looking for his companion, Phil became aware of how quiet it was. There were no birds chirping; not even the wind made a sound.
“Hal?” he called, his voice jarring in the silence. “Where are you?”
A hand gripped his shoulder from behind, and he whirled around. Hal held his finger before his mouth, signaling for Phil to be quiet.
“It’s not far,” he whispered. “Try to stay quiet.”
Hal turned, leading them deeper into the trees. Phil followed, making as little sound as possible. After several minutes, Hal stopped and pulled his backpack from his shoulders. He set it on the ground and opened it, rummaging until he found what he was looking for. “Here,” he whispered, holding something out.
The object was heavier than its size would suggest. Phil realized after a moment that it was a set of binoculars.
“Those are night vision and very expensive,” Hal said. “Be careful.”
“What am I supposed to do with them?”
“Look through them. Over there,” he pointed toward what looked to be a clearing a few hundred yards down the hill. “Tell me what you see.”
Phil looked through the binoculars, not sure what he was supposed to be looking for. He scanned back and forth a few times, but there was nothing.
“I don’t see anything,” he said. “Wait. Is that… I think I see a dog.”
“What kind of dog?”
“I don’t know. A rottweiler; maybe a mastiff. Shit, I don’t know. It’s big.”
“I bet it is. Look at its legs. See anything weird?”
“Not really. It’s just scratching its back against a tree.”
The dog reared back its head and howled. A shiver ran up Phil’s spine.
“What about its legs?” Hal asked. “The legs always give them away.”
“What are you talking about?”
Phil lowered the binoculars. A new wave of fright coursed through him. Hal was holding a rifle. Before Phil could say anything, Hal turned and pointed it toward the dog.
“What are you doing, man?”
“Are you sure you don’t see what I’m talking about?”
Phil raised the binoculars to his eyes again, but all he saw was a large dog. It was rolling around on the ground now. Its legs did seem a bit longer than normal, but he couldn’t see anything particularly odd about them.
“Watch,” Hal said.
“You can’t fire that thing in the park,” Phil said. “And I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to kill an animal, too. You can’t just…”
Hal pulled the trigger; the shot echoed through the trees. A second later, Phil heard a growl followed by a high-pitched wail. Hal fired again; the dog fell silent.
“There,” Hal said. “I got it.”
“You’re fucking crazy man. What the hell are you thinking? I can’t believe you just…”
“Shut up and come with me. I’ll show you.”
“I don’t want to see a dead dog, man. I can’t believe…”
Hal grabbed Phil by the shoulders. “Calm down. Just walk over here with me. I told you it’s easier to see for yourself than to have someone tell you, didn’t I?”
Still in shock, but somewhat afraid Hal would shoot him if he didn’t, Phil followed him down to the clearing. As they got closer, Phil could hear a whimpering, but it didn’t sound like a dog anymore. The closer they got, the more Phil thought the whining sounded human.
“What’s going on,” he asked, but Hal ignored him.
They entered the clearing, but the dog was gone. In the exact same place where Phil had seen it rolling around before, though, was a man. He was naked and bleeding.
“See what I was telling you now?”
“What the fuck have we done?”
Phil followed Hal over to the body, overcome with panic. The dying man looked up at them, blood covering his face. Phil couldn’t believe his eyes. The man was smiling.
“Thank you,” the man said, coughing up blood. “Thank you so much. I… I…” he coughed again. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he died.
“So,” Hal said, turning away from the dead man. “You want the job or not?”