This is a short story featuring one of our, supporting characters, Lucius Johnson, from The Body Hunters. In this story he’s 16 years old and not quite the uptight g-man he is in the book. Enjoy!
“Lucian Tepes, the headmaster will see you now.” The pretty blonde secretary sitting politely at her desk is waving me into his office. I know I’m in trouble, I have once again pissed off the headmaster and now I’m apprehensively walking into his office where my uncle Miroslav waits.
He goes by Mike now since living in America. I am surprised to see him and I know that I must be in real trouble for him to fly all the way to England. He is pissed. I have broken curfew and disappeared for 3 days. I’m not telling them I was on a bender in Paris. My parents are dead and it falls to Uncle Mike to look after me. He has wasted no time squirreling me away to boarding schools all over Europe. Every time I get kicked out of one school he puts me in another. He has the money to do so having made his fortune in paper products in America. I don’t care about him or his money. He really doesn’t want me around and I don’t want to be around him.
A few minutes later and I am packing my things under the watchful eye of the headmaster and Uncle Mike. Kicked out of yet another boarding school. I must be setting some type of world record. With my shoulder bag and suitcase I am led out the door to the waiting oversized Black English taxi. This is not going to be a fun ride to Heathrow.
Uncle Mike is staring me down, he starts to yell in Romanian at me, I yell back at him to speak English; I refuse to speak my native language. He gives me a stern look “OK.” he says. “If you want English then we will speak English, but you boy, will listen and listen well if you know what is good for you.”
The cabbie seems to be snickering at my predicament. I nod my agreement to my uncle and wait to hear what heavy handed sentence he plans to lay down on me this time. Another boarding school? Perhaps Switzerland this time? Maybe Germany? I have been to one in Italy and two in England already. Why doesn’t he just take me to the States? I am sure he is afraid I will really act out like the American teenagers he sees on television. My uncle is glaring at me, daring me to say something stupid. “You are going to get your wish.” He says to me. “I’m taking you to the U.S.” I am ecstatic. Finally!
“Military school?” I yell out and the whole plane turns to look at me. Uncle Mike is hushing me. “You can’t be serious!” I ignore his hushing and yell. In my imagination of what my American life will be, military school was not in the picture.
“You need the discipline.” Uncle Mike says ignoring his own voice level. The female flight attendant sidles up to our chairs and squats down asking us to please lower our voices. I see several people staring at us. Her smile is false and she is giving us a tone reserved for unruly children. I look away from her. Uncle Mike reassures her we will be quiet and she leaves us alone. He doesn’t speak to me much after that and when he does, it’s in Romanian. I put the headphones into the armrest jack and listen to music to ignore him. It’s going to be a long flight.
We arrive at LaGuardia, where my Aunt Helen and their young seven year old daughter Susan are waiting for us. Auntie as I call her is far happier to see me as she kisses me hello and hugs me tightly. Susan eyes me warily as if I have antennas on my head as she hides behind her mother trying not to make eye contact with me. Auntie does most of the talking on the way to their home in upstate New York. They live in a gated community surrounded by wooded lands. I’m secretly planning my escape till I see my uncle reading my mind. He mentions something about my visa and something called the I.N.S. I see it’s not going to be as easy as I thought. My little cousin is in the back seat with me playing with some of her dolls she calls Barbie. Her sweet blue eyes look at me suddenly as she asks “Are you going to be my new brother?” My uncle practically runs the car off the road.
I smile sweetly at her and take hold of her hand. “We are cousins.” I tell her. “Would you like me to be your big brother?” She nods yes and fingers the ring on my right hand.
“I know this ring. Daddy has one just like it, but he doesn’t wear it.” Her little fingers are running over the small ruby eyes of the dragon head in the ring.
“Yes, I know, I got this from my father, your Uncle Josef. Do you know what the dragon means?” I am talking really low to her, but not low enough it seems.
“That will be enough!” Uncle Mike barks out.
“She will find out eventually.” I snap back. My Auntie gives me a pleading look as my Uncle glares at me from the rear view mirror.
“She may find out later, but not by you and not today! Do you understand?”
Susan has a confused look across her face. I tell her it’s just a dragon and that’s all. My uncle is satisfied with my answer and my Auntie breathes a sigh of relief. I pat little Susan on the cheek and she continues playing with her dolls.
We reach the gated community and pull into the drive. The two story house overpowers my sight as I try to take in its enormity. We enter into the great hall and my Auntie ushers me into a room she has set up for me. I am surprised to see how little furniture there is in such a big room; just a dresser and a single bed. She shows me the closet that could almost sleep a few more people and she puts my shoulder bag in it. She sits at the edge of the bed and pats her hand on the mattress beckoning me to sit next to her.
“Lucian, please while you are here, try not to anger your uncle.” She pleads. “He is not a patient man, you know this.”
“He hates me.” I say dryly. “And I really don’t know why.”
My auntie takes my hand. “Lucian, you know your father and he didn’t get along and with all that mess in Romania, he just never expected to have to take care of you. He blames your father for not looking out for his family and leaving when he had the opportunity, choosing instead to ignore his duties as a father and husband. He pushed his limits for what he felt was his own righteous indignation with no thought to you or your mother. He sees in you the defiance your father had. You just haven’t learned to channel it into something productive.” Her eyes look weary and tired. “Please Lucian I can’t fight for you if you will not meet me half way.”
“He is sending me away again isn’t he?”
“Yes, he is, I tried to stop it. I begged him to just be a father to you. He says it will end with you two killing each other. I’m not so sure he is wrong.” She is now patting the back of my head. “You need a haircut.” She laughs as she tugs at my locks. “Dinner will be soon, you may want to freshen up. Lucian?”
“Please remove that ring while you are here.” She touches my dragon ring.
“Why, is he ashamed of our family history?” I voice out angrily.
“Lucian, please for me.” I can’t say no to her kind eyes. I take it off and put it in my jeans pocket.
“Thank you.” She kisses me on the forehead before leaving my room.
After dinner Uncle Mike and I are in the living room by ourselves. On the coffee table he has placed three brochures of military schools. “Pick one.” He says. “I don’t care which one, just pick one.”
“What if I don’t choose?” I am pushing my luck and I know it. “What then?”
“I will pick for you, no matter what your aunt tells you, you are going to one of them. If you straighten out then maybe we will reevaluate your situation, but you are sixteen Lucian. You need to learn discipline and to be a man.”
“I am a man!” I scream out.
He is screaming back. “You think you are a man, running away to Paris with some girl and being on a drunk for a few days?”
I am totally stunned. How could he have possibly known? I ask myself. “What if I run away?” I try to ask more calmly.
“You only have a student visa. I will have it revoked and I will see to it you are deported. So the choice is up to you.” His threat works. “You can take the brochures to your room and give me your answer in the morning. Go now!” He waves me off with his hand and I decide I am too tired to fight with him.
I am trying to let this new reality sink in as I walk past my little cousin’s room on the way to mine. The difference is stark. Hers is all pink and purples, with stuffed animals everywhere. She is seated at a small child’s table pouring imaginary tea into small cups talking to an empty chair next to her. She catches my eye and invites me in.
“Lucian!” She joyfully leads me by the hand to the table. “Come meet Mr. Vandermarliere, he lets me call him Mr. Van for short.”
I am staring at air. “Susan there is no one here. Is he your imaginary friend?” A tea cup flies off the table and lands against the wall, luckily it was plastic.
“You’ve made him mad Lucian.” She gets up and stamps her foot at me. “He is getting angry.”
I feel a chilling breeze pass by me. “I’m sorry, Susan, tell Mr. Van I meant no disrespect.”
She is talking to her friend and then looks back at me. “He says he wants to know why you can’t see him; he knows you have a gift. What gift? I didn’t see you bring in a present!” Susan is very confused now.
“It’s not that kind of gift.” I explain to her. “It’s like the same gift you have to be able to see him and I don’t. Do your mom and dad know he is here?”
“No.” She says sheepishly as she looks at her feet. “You’re not going to tell are you? Daddy would be mad and send me away like you!”
I reassure her that no, I will not tell and they are not going to send her away. Another tea cup smashes against the wall. “Please tell Mr. Van to stop throwing things or your parents will come up here and find out what’s going on.”
“He says he wants to talk to you and you know how to do it.” She playfully dances around my chair.
“He is right Susan, and if he promises to stop throwing things I will try. Can you describe him to me?”
“He is older than daddy and he wears a black suit with a black hat, he calls it a fedora. That’s a funny name!” She sounds out the word. “feh door a.” She giggles as she continues “He has blood down the side of his face.” I am taken aback by this. I have been taught that children can sometimes see spirits where adults can’t. I wonder if my little cousin will end up with the same gift I have.
“Tell Mr. Van I need something of his, did he live here at one time?”
“He did.” She tells me and runs to a knee wall in her room, she slides open the little door and brings me what I presume is Mr. Vandermarliere’s fedora. “Thank you Susan. Tell Mr. Van that I will try in my room. You must stay here, do you understand?” She nods yes and I leave her.
Back in my stark room, I close the door as I make sure no one else is in earshot of me. I lie on the bed and hold Mr. Van’s fedora on my chest. I’ve done this a few times now and I never know what is going to happen, but I know enough to be alone.
Lights shimmer around me as I start to get pictures, snapshots of Mr. Van. The images are in black and white at first. I am confused by this, but slowly they turn to color. They are spinning faster like on a movie reel until I am in his presence and he is motioning to me follow him. I follow in earnest as I see we are in a dark alley, the smell of garbage and old liquor bottles mixed in with urine assault my nostrils. He points to a body and I kneel on one knee next to it.
“Is it you?” I ask and he mutters what sounds like a yes. He points to the fedora and motions me to remove it. I do. One gunshot to the head and half his skull is gone. I start to feel a little sick and walk over to the dumpster and puke. The maggots have already invaded his head. He is standing next to me and is pointing to the name on the dumpster. Salvatore Rubbish Removal. He is insistent I pay attention to this name. He is now pointing to a balled up piece of newspaper and I go to pick it up. The date shows January 7th 1962. This murder is over 30 yrs old. I feel overwhelmed as I have had only three other experiences and they were nothing like this or even this old. “I’ll see what I can do. I don’t have a lot of time you know that, you know I am being sent away soon.” I explain to my dead companion. He nods yes and puts his hand on my shoulder. I look back at the body and see a card sticking out of the jacket pocket. Van’s Barbershop it reads and the address is visible. I walk to the end of the alley and onto the sidewalk. We are directly across from the barbershop. I look up and my companion is now dressed in all white suit complete with an all white fedora, there is an otherworldly glow about him and he is smiling as he disappears. The scene spins in front of me and I wake up with a start. My head pounding and there is a little blood trail running from my nose.
“Buna dimineata, Lucian. Te-ai dormit bine?” My auntie Helen asks in Romanian.
“Good morning auntie and yes I did sleep well. Thank you.” I give her a kiss on the cheek as I head over to little Susan who is eating her eggs. I kneel down and whisper to her. “Did you see Mr. Van again this morning?” She nods yes and whispers back to me.
“He says thank you.” She kisses me on my nose and I give her a little laugh. My uncle has entered the kitchen and sits at what I presume is his usual seat at the table. He eyes me suspiciously as I get up from my knee and away from little Susan. My auntie places a plate of eggs and sausage in front of him and motions for me to sit opposite her as she puts a plate in front of me as well. It smells delicious but the image of Mr. Van and the maggots is staying with me and I am a bit put off by it.
“Did you decide?” he asks dryly and my aunt holds her breath. I decide to look him straight in the face.
“Yes.” I sit silent. My uncle is staring at me for a few seconds before throwing his hands up in the air.
“Would you like to share your decision with me?” He is getting irritated and my auntie kicks me under the table. For her sake I decide not to continue poking the bear.
“The one in New Mexico.” I say no more to him. I picked that one because according to the map of the United States, it would be the farthest away from him.
“Good, I will call and make the arrangements. In the mean time you will be going to work for me and I will hear no argument about it.” He picks up his news paper and hides behind it. The conversation is over.
I am in the study after breakfast with the phone book. I look up Salvatore Rubbish Removal. It’s unbelievable as I see they are still in business. The yellow pages ad says family owned since 1948. Dean Salvatore proprietor and owner. I must sneak out to use a payphone. It’s a Saturday and uncle is home from his business, but he leaves to run errands. My auntie is busy cleaning. I press little Susan into helping me escape for a little while undetected.
She shows me the basement and the large windows that I can climb out of in the back of the house and I do. I have no idea where I am but Susan tells me there is a payphone a few blocks away at a little supermarket she remembered seeing when she goes there with her mother. She says she will pretend she is playing hide and seek with me if her dad returns before I get back. I am beginning to feel real love for this child now. I scramble out the window and run like mad reaching the party store out of breath. I only have minutes and I have re-gain my composure. Drawing a deep breath I dial the 911 number and am patched through to a police detective. I give him the information I know on Mr. Vandermarliere and Dean Salvatore. I refuse to give him my name. I hang up and run back to the basement window as my uncle is pulling into the drive. I am sweating like mad. My sweet little cousin is waiting for me in the basement and leads me up the stairs and to a back staircase in this large house, it empties into the second floor rooms. I hear Uncle Mike talking to my aunt as I quickly dip off into my room and lay on the bed wiping sweat away from my forehead with the sheets. Uncle Mike is at my door.
“Get up off that bed boy! What now you are lazy? I have work for you to do.”
A few weeks later and we are at our usual breakfast seating arrangements, my arms are sore but getting stronger as my uncle now has me loading rolls of paper onto trucks for delivery all over the U.S. I am eating my breakfast as my uncle unfolds his daily newspaper to hide behind and I see the secondary headline. Thirty year old murder solved. Dean Salvatore charged in mob style killing.
Apparently Mr. Salvatore was a mobster before going legit and was demanding protection money from small businesses in the New York neighborhood where Mr. Van’s barbershop was. Mr. Vandermarliere, a Dutch immigrant refused to pay and paid the ultimate price for not cooperating. The mob made an example out of him. The article said the murder investigation was given new life when detectives received an anonymous phone call. I can’t help but smile.