EDDY WILSON looked back at the hunter green,1998 Chrysler van and waved to the driver. He checked his watch: just past three. He’d have to return to this corner by four or miss the ride out of town.
The nineteen-year-old reached into the right, slash pocket of the navy windbreaker he’d found at the Salvation Army and fished out a half-empty pack of Lucky Strikes. In one smooth, practiceed motion, Wilson removed a well-packed cylinder, lit it with his Dad’s old Zippo, and inhaled deeply.
“Damn, I needed that,” he said out loud. “Another podunk day in another podunk town. Sheesh, what a gawdawful job.”
After taking a moment to gather his bearings, Wilson pointed his Nike trainers west toward what appeared to be an ‘old money’ section of today’s target town: Caleb’s Crossing, Indiana. Jackpot. Fancy homes like these inevitably provided big returns for scams such as Eddy’s. Lonely old ladies in bunny slippers and bathrobes usually answered these doors, often confusing him with some kid from the neighborhood. Eddy always knew just which line to employ to relieve these society dames of a bit of their savings, often with a sandwich and beer thrown into the bargain.
A northerly wind cut across his ears as Eddy approached the first corner of the picturesque neighborhood. It looked like something out of an old Jimmy Stewart movie.
Smack down the center of the broad avenue lay what looked like a park. Towering poplar trees formed a line of skeletal soldiers along the promenade, their fallen leaves cast upon the green grass like a thick carpet of yellow. Wrought iron park benches squatted beneath many of the trees, and Eddy could see what looked like a family of squirrels chasing each other up one massive trunk.
Two blocks further down, near the center of this lush park, Wilson could see a magnificent stone and marble fountain, bordered by a roundabout and crossed by a street called Wolf Park Avenue. The Nike trainers stopped, and Eddy took a final puff on the spent Lucky. He’d reached what looked like a very tall, slender pyramid. It reminded Wilson of something he’d seen in a movie—Cleopatra perhaps.
“Dang if it’s not an obelisk,” he muttered, feeling the smooth stone with his gloved hand. “Cool. Real cool.”
He walked to the other side, admiring the stone marker’s precise lines. Not granite, he thought. His father had managed a granite quarry back in North Carolina. Eddy knew granite, and this wasn’t it. Funny, it feels sort of creepy.
WOLF PARK . ESTABLISHED BY JACOB STEINHERZ, 1849. WOE TO ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.
What the hell kind of sign is that?
“Hey there!” a man’s voice called from Eddy’s right, causing the teenager to nearly jump out of his skin. “Too cold a day for sightseeing!”
The old man stood on the top step of a dozen that led up to a wide brick and stucco porch. The three-story house dominated the street like an aging dragon; a remarkable feat among such a collection of quirky mansions. Eddy scanned the odd home—it may look like the Addams family, but it surely meant big money. A lawyer maybe. Or local politican. Maybe a rich old writer. After six months going door to door in nearly every state in the union, Ed Wilson had learned to size up a pigeon in seconds.
“Boy, you got that right,” he said, stubbing out the Lucky with the toe of his shoe. “But a guy’s gotta make a living.”
The old gentleman nodded, slowly descended to the bottom step. “I got hot coffee, if you need it. What line of work you in, son?”
Boy, it doesn’t get any easier than this!, Wilson thought, imagining the bonus he’d get for landing a fat check in exchange for flimsy promises. “Magazines,” he called back, looking both ways before crossing the street. “Not many cars around today. Is it a holiday or something?”
“Not officially,” the man answered cryptically. “Come on up here, son. What kind?”
“Excuse me?” the kid called back, moving closer to the monstrous mansion. A quartet of stucco turrets rose above a central brick manor house, connected by a widow’s walk of wrought iron. A curious series of weathervanes crouched atop the slate roof’s peak. Eddy couldn’t make out the shapes exactly, but it looked like the Amish silhouettes he’d so often seen throughout small Indiana towns. “Kind?”
“Kind,” the man repeated. “What kind of magazines do you sell?”
Laughing, Wilson pulled up his thin collar. “All kinds,” he lied. Though he’d ‘sold’ thousands of subscriptions, he knew not one customer had ever received even one issue. It’s all about you, his trainer had told him back in June. If they like you, then they’ll buy anything. Sight unseen. Most people will just think of it as offering you a helping hand. Look clean but poor. That’s the killer look. And be polite. Old folks love polite kids.
“Perfect,” the man replied. “You like cream in your coffee?”
Eddy paused at the foot of the steps, gauging the feel of the elaborate home. “Quite a place you got,” he said, remembering lesson number 12: Lead with a compliment.
The elderly gentleman smiled, obviously pleased. “It’s been around for many years. Built back in 1845 by Jacob Steinherz, a present for his bride. Old Jacob worked day and night laying brick with his own hands. Course he had help, but I’m told he did the bulk of the work. I suppose that’s why it’s not one of those cookie cutter places. It has soul, you might say. Cream?”
“Oh—yeah, thanks. And sugar, if that’s all right.” Eddy put his right foot on the bottom step. “So did his bride like it?”
The man stood at the door, holding it open wide in invitation. “I’d like to say she did, but truth is she never saw it. Poor Beatrice disappeared the night before their marriage. Tragic tale. Come on in!”
Eddy stepped up closer, noting how slick the spalled concrete steps felt beneath his feet. It was like his shoes refused to enter, even though his feet insisted upon it. His arms felt like ice. He gave his feet a mental nudge, and rushed toward the open door.
“Thanks,” he said, passing over the threshold and stepping into the foyer. “Nice,” he said. “Very nice.”
“Many thanks,” his host answered, closing the door behind them. “I’ve kept it just the same for all these years. It’s rather pretentious, and it can take a whole day just dusting. I don’t know—maybe I should change with the times—have one of those high-priced interior decorators over for lunch. I’ll get your coffee. Feel free to look around.”
He walked ahead of Eddy, his gait faltering now and then as he crossed the vast, marble tiled foyer before disappearing behind a nine-foot high, swinging door.
The impressive entryway bisected the home, opening in the four cardinal directions: north to what must be the kitchen, east toward a sitting room dominated by a stone fireplace that spanned one entire wall, west into what old folks would call a music room, and south out the enormous, mahogany and oiled bronze front door. Man, there’s money here. I can smell it.
Eddy wandered to his right, choosing to warm himself by the roaring fire. A pair of tiger oak pillars flanked his passage, and the Nike trainers squeaked as his tread left the marble of the foyer for the softer carpet—no doubt, this is some Persian rug or something—inset into an octagon of black and white Italian tiles. Gee, what a crazy room, Wilson thought. Don’t care—so long as I get a beauty of a bonus. Man, this oughta make me van captain.
“Be there in a minute!” the man called from somewhere to the back of the house. “Sit by the fire, Eddy. Take off your jacket!”
Wilson drew near the fireplace and slowly removed his windbreaker. “Thanks!” he called back, suddenly aware that his strange host had called him by name. Did I tell him my name? Bad move. I gotta be more careful. Use the fake name. Rule number six. Sheesh!
The ceiling rose easily twelve feet overhead, and an ornate metal—gold?—and crystal chandelier hung from a centrally placed, hand-painted medallion. Oddly, the mural decorating the medallion lacked color—painted solely in shades of black and gray. Come to think of it, a lot of this place is black and gray, Eddy realized. Even the paintings on the wall, most likely ancestors long dead, appeared otherworldly and drab. Varying in size and shape, each looked more like a precise but lifeless cutout than 19th century portraiture. Perhaps the man’s children had painted them—otherwise, someone had wasted his money.
“There,” his host declared upon returning to greet Eddy. “I have brought coffee with cream and sugar—as requested. And I have even embellished our tray with fresh danish pastries, made by two dear sisters who run a local bed and breakfast. Perhaps, you will be able to visit them as well—or not,” he said, setting a sterling silver tray on a highly polished table nearest the fire. “Sit down, Eddy. Mustn’t let the coffee get cold. Oh, let me take that jacket. You won’t be needing it.”
Edward Thomas Wilson, named for his grandfather and his father, blinked. “Say what? I mean, uh, I don’t understand, sir. Did I introduce myself earlier?”
His host’s face grew wide with an unabashed grin. “Do forgive me, Eddy. I should explain. I’m a bit, well, psychic. That’s how I knew your name. It was presumptuous, perhaps even prahlerisch of me to use it. Please forgive me.”
The man’s gray eyes twinkled merrily. “Oh, I am forgetting! I meant that I was being boastful, you know. Sometimes, I forget. I don’t often have such nice visitors. Have one of the danish, they’re very good. The sisters use an old family recipe.”
“Huh? Oh, sure,” Eddy said, taking one of the sweet treats. Wilson hadn’t eaten since dinner the previous night—typical for a scam trip. How many nights did he go to sleep hungry? Most, all? The buttery pastry melted in his mouth, and he soon took a second, and then a third. “Gee, I’m sorry,” he mouthed around sugary bites. “It’s just…”
“It’s just that you’re hungry!” the man said, finishing Eddy’s thought. “Of course you are! Drink the coffee now. You wouldn’t want the pastry to stick in your throat. Now, did you bring a brochure?”
Eddy gulped down the coffee. He’d never tasted such aromatic flavors in his life! Where had coffee like this been? Maybe this is the fancy stuff that sells for fifty dollars a pound. Man, I’ll live like this someday. High on the hog and not giving a dog’s butt for what the world thinks!
Did he just ask about a brochure? “You mean for the magazines?” Wilson asked, suddenly a bit woozy.
“Natürlich! The magazines. I would love to see what you offer. Do you have any periodicals about ancient peoples?”
Eddy’s brain hurt. Sugar rush, he thought dreamily. I’m eating too much at once. “Like—uh—what’s that rag called—oh yeah!—National Geographic?”
The man shook his head, a raven lock falling into his steely eyes.
Wasn’t that dude’s haircolor gray when I got here?
“Not exactly,” he explained. “Oh, I shouldn’t expect you to know of such materials, Eddy. They’re lost on today’s generation. But the world is far older than you might think. And infinitely more diverse.”
The boy’s head shifted to one side as he tried to keep his vision clear. “Don’t move so much,” he complained. “Old world? Yeah, I guess. If you’re old. Me? I’m young. I got plans. As soon as I rack up enough bonus points for a plane trip back home, I’m gonna show my old man just how tough I am.”
“I know you will,” his host assured him. “Oh, you’ve eaten all the danish. Perhaps, I can persuade my dear neighbors to send over more. Do we need more, Mr. Wilson?”
“Huh? Dang, mister! Sorry. Look, I got a headache. Maybe I’ll go. But—you should buy some magazines first. Anything. I don’t care. Just give me all your money. Ok?”
To his surprise, the man nodded and produced a black leather checkbook. “Of course! It’s the very reason I invited you inside, dear boy! I’ll take one each of every magazine you represent. How much would that be? A thousand? Two thousand? Five?”
Wilson’s brain screamed, and tiny lights danced against his retinas. “Five? Are you crazy, old man? Sure! Write me out a check for a million bucks!” he screamed, jumping to his feet. The trainers gripped the woolen carpet, effectively nailing the teen’s feet to the floor. “What the…?”
The man wrote out a check and handed it to Eddy. “I’m afraid you’ll find you can’t move,” he explained. “I should have warned you, but then you seemed so eager to come inside and offer me your magazines. I suppose there are no real periodicals, are there? Can’t talk? Das ist shade. Too bad. But, you came inside of your own free will, and that is all the law requires of me.”
“Wh—wha?” the boy mouthed. His face had grown ashen and his hands pale. His clothing, a light yellow sweater and faded denim jeans, looked as if they had aged a century. His tongue felt thick, and his mind empty. My name? What’s my name?
“What law? Is that what you wish to know? Well you might ask, young man. Since you are a bit of a trickster, I’m sure you’ll appreciate my own brand of, well, deception. It’s the way of the world, you know—at least the way of the old world. The original world. We have to have your permission to deceive you. You might call me a bit of a reverse vampire. I don’t come to you. You must come to me. And it must be willingly. Well, Mr. Wilson, I invited you inside, and in you came. Right into my special house. Soon you’ll forget all about your world, and all your experiences, your hopes, your dreams, and your precious youth!—all will become mine. I will once again be able to walk among the living outside these walls—for one year—that is the rule, you know. And you, well, you dear Mr. Wilson, will join the Shattenleute. The Shadow People. I leave you that much. Just a shadow. Just a tiny impression of the man who once wore those ridiculous shoes. Oh, dear. You’re turning, Eddy. Tell me quickly, do you prefer hanging on the wall of this room or would you perhaps enjoy a bit of outdoors? I can mount you as a weathervane, if you like. Nod if you would enjoy being a weathervane.”
Eddy nodded, drooling as his face darkened into a black silhouette. His limbs froze into place, lifted as if in prayer. His shoes solidified into black boots, giving him an old-fashioned, Amish appearance.
“That’s nice,” the man said with a satisfied grin. “Of course, I’ll be keeping my check. You won’t need it where you’re going. And I suppose I’ll find some use for this jacket.” He searched the pockets and found the cigarette pack and Zippo lighter.
“Lucky Strikes,” the man mused. “How appropriate!” he said, removing a white-wrapped cylinder and placing it in his mouth.
A moment later, he stepped outside and happily hopped down the stairs, two at a time. He watched as a 1998 van drove up and down the street. Finally, the vehicle stopped at the house, the driver leaning out of the window. “You seen a kid in Nikes and a jacket—well, sort of like yours—seen him?”
The man, looking just twenty or so, flicked a bit of ash onto a pile of frozen polar leaves. “Can’t say I have. Do you like my weathervane?” he asked, pointing to the roof where a black silhouette of a lanky man perched among a dozen other, similar shadows.
“Sure,” the driver said. “Look, if you see the kid, his name’s Ed. Tell him he’s got until five, and then I’m leavin’ town.”
The man nodded and took a deep drag on the cigarette. “I’ll be sure to do that,” he promised, enjoying the warm sunlight that bathed his newly re-born skin. “But I wouldn’t wait. Most people who visit Caleb’s Crossing find it so inviting, they simply don’t want to leave.”
“Yeah, I guess,” the driver muttered, shifting the van into gear and heading east.
The mysterious man waved to the disappearing van. He pondered the youthful eyes and limbs of the six teenagers crammed into the seats. Suddenly, as if inspired, he ran after the van, shouting.
“Mind if I hitch a ride?” he asked, noting the boys’ hungry faces. “I can pay.”
The driver thought for a moment. “Sure. You pick up the next tank of gas and supper, and we’ll take you as far as the gas will hold. What’s your name, bud?”
“Jacob,” he replied, thinking of all the Shadow People hanging in the house he’d built with his own hands. And of his bride—the very first to give her life so that the ancient German vampire could live a little while longer. “Jacob Steinherz. I guess this must be my lucky day.”