...... The blade of the knife came scything toward my face as I threw up my left arm for a block. I twisted my body around, trying to clamp my right hand down on the arm that held the blade when I suddenly got jerked back and down, slamming into the ground flat on my back. Before I knew it, I felt the knife slash along my throat. I was dead. Again.
...... And I would have been, too, if the knife hadn't been a hard rubber practice blade. As I lay on the workout mat, trying to catch my breath, I reminded myself that the reason I was being subjected to this torturous workout now was because just over a month ago I'd been badly cut by a real edged weapon. And according to my boss, getting stabbed was simply not acceptable. Okay, Junior, I heard, get up. We ain't done yet.
...... With effort, I raised my head and looked around. It was bad enough to get thrown around like a rag doll, but to have an audience like this made it infinitely worse. I was the object of scrutiny by seven eyes: The first two were bright blue and belonged to Timothy O'Toole, my chief torturer at the moment, who for the last three hours had been beating the living daylights out of me under the guise of testing my fitness in the arena of unarmed combat. I was disgusted to see that there wasn't a drop of sweat to be found anywhere on his barrel-chested, muscular fifty-something year old body. The second set were the dark Asian eyes of James Bui, who examined my every move with clinical scrutiny. He'd already put me through my paces this morning at the cold and foggy outdoor firearms range where I had to demonstrate my shooting ability ad nauseam.
...... But it was to the last three eyes that I looked to in the hope being able to call an end to my current torment. How about it, Boss? I managed to croak. Have I had enough?
...... Victoria Wilder, the silver haired, steely-eyed owner of the Midnight Investigations Agency, regarded me with cool, dispassionate regard. She was the woman who not only gave me employment, but birth as well. Sitting next to her was the owner of the odd eye of the group -- Beowulf, a former River City Police canine who had lost his other eye in the line of duty. He just looked at me and yawned, indifferent to my plight. Without taking her eyes off me, Mom said, Gentlemen?
...... Jim Bui shrugged. The boy did okay this morning. But I'd like it better if he'd trade in that damn antique revolver and start carrying something more efficient.
...... And he's as soggy as a bag of wet potato chips, Tim O'Toole added. He needs to get his butt back in shape. But other than that, he's okay.
...... Very well, Mom said airily. Turning her attention to me, she said, Congratulations, Kiddo. You're now officially back in the working world. And do get up off your back, Jason. It's undignified.
...... Your wish is my command, I groaned. It took me a couple of tries, but I managed to pull myself to my feet. O'Toole held the rubber practice knife out to me. One last thing, he said. Let's go through the Universal Knife Defense maneuver.
...... Oh, hell no, I groaned. I know that one. You just want to slam me on the mat again. Forget it. I got your point already, so to speak.
...... The man I'd known all my life as 'Uncle Timmy' smiled. Really? And that point was?
...... That you should never, ever, ever get up close against a guy with a knife. I got it. Can I go home now? I've got a date tonight and I rather not spend my evening in the Emergency Room.
...... Again, Jim Bui added softly. I shot 'Uncle Jimmy' a sour look. I'd had enough of hospitals to last a lifetime. Actually, Jimmy continued, the point O'Toole was trying to drive home, was that you should always bring a gun to a knife fight.
...... I nodded in agreement. I'd lost count of how many times I'd been 'killed' this afternoon. And my recent encounter with a sharp object left me with a skin-crawling feeling whenever I thought about it.
...... Okay, boys, that's it for today, Mom announced. Jason, I'll expect you back here bright and early tomorrow. So try to not exert yourself tonight.
...... Uncle Timmy looked at me with interest. You've got a date? With a girl and everything?
...... Two, in fact, I replied. A tall brunette and a short blonde.
...... From the corner of me eye, I saw Her Majesty Victoria smile with royal approval. Good, she proclaimed. It's about time you grew out of your 'Bimbo du Jour' stage. She then gave me a quick wink and ascended the stairs, Beowulf trailing obediently behind. Timmy and Jimmy followed, with Uncle Tim saying, Well, I should head to the gym. I didn't get much of a workout today.
...... I waited until I heard the door leading to our basement-armory-storage-torture chamber shut, then I finally allowed myself to double over and press my hand to my right side, just over the spot where I'd been cut open. There were times during my recovery when I'd have sworn that the doctors stitched me shut while taking a couple of inches of skin in, like a tailor shortening up a pair of pants. Before I submitted myself to the day's marathon of activity, I thought I was pretty much healed up, but off and on all day it felt like nerves in my side were being pulled apart and snapped like strings. I didn't dare show any signs of pain for fear that I'd be put back on light duty, which in my case meant being tied to the front desk and being the company receptionist. I'd done that gig for the last two weeks, allowing Paul Merino, our usual front man, to take an unscheduled vacation. And at this point, I was on the verge of going plain stir crazy.
...... I drew in a breath and straightened up, slowly. After a full day of strenuous abuse, I'd collected a lot of other sore areas of my body to keep the pain in my side company. I then noticed that I'd been left the chores of rolling up the padded floor mat and putting the practice weapons away. As usual. At least I'd already cleaned my handgun during the lunch break. Then all I had in front of me was the job of making myself presentable for the evening. Which at this stage could take some doing, I thought ruefully.
...... Unfortunately, I took a little too long cleaning up the basement. As I reached the back offices and got my jacket, I heard the front doorbell announce a visitor. It was well after five in the evening, the time when most normal businesses close. But then again, the Midnight Investigations Agency has never been what you'd call normal.
...... I had been left alone; the office was deserted long before. I was sorely tempted, along with being just plain sore, to not answer the door. But I'd been raised and trained to never turn away a visitor. At least until I found out who they were and what they wanted. I sighed, ran my hands through my still sweat soaked hair, and went to check the back room security monitors. I turned on the screen and saw a single visitor at the front door; a man, dressed all in black with a long white hair and beard. His face was shrouded by the brim of a dark hat and a pair of dark glasses, which struck me as unusual seeing how it was already dark out this early December evening. I keyed the intercom switch. May I help you?
...... The man seemed to start. Ah. Hello. I wasn't sure anyone was in. Are you still open?
...... I tried to keep a disappointed tone out of my voice as I asked, Are you here on business, sir?
...... Yes. I was told to come here. The police suggested it.
...... The police?
...... Yes. They said that you were the only ones who could help me.
...... Now I was suspicious. It was a pure and simple fact that the River City Police department had no acknowledged use for the Midnight Agency. Which no doubt stemmed from the fact that we were a hell of a lot better at our jobs than the police were at theirs. Not surprising, really, as my mother, Jimmy and Timmy used to be Detectives on the force, along with my father. It was Dad's death that caused Mom and my surrogate uncles to quit the department and start up their own private investigations shop. Since then, the Midnight Agency has become known far and wide as the best P.I. outfit around.
...... And it certainly didn't help my suspicions any considering that our little detective agency had recently made the regular police look like a bunch of incompetents when we managed not only to solve a homicide and clear an innocent person, but we also cracked a case that had been unsolved for over twenty years. After those recent escapades, the only thing I'd expect to come from the River City Police would be a ticking package on out doorstep.
...... But be all that as it may, I was still left with an unbidden guest, and Her Majesty Victoria had very strict rules in regard to company. Just a moment, sir, I said through the intercom. I'll be right there.
...... As I walked through the first floor offices, I was hoping I could at least see what this gentleman's problem was and still be in time for my date. I unlocked the heavy outer door and greeted my guest. Good evening, sir. My name is Jason Wilder. How may I help you?
...... My guest smiled, revealing a set of bright, perfect teeth. From the wide brim of his hat to his long coat, worn over his shoulders like a cape, to every other piece of apparently expensive clothing, he was dressed entirely in black, in stark contrast with his long hair and beard, both the color of snow. The only variation in his personal color scheme was a large and ornate looking gold ring on his left hand. If he took any notice of me in my jeans, sweatshirt and Eau De Gunpowder cologne, he gave no sign. He removed his dark glasses while offering me a long, slender hand. His eyes, now revealed, were dark orbs beneath white brows. Ah. Mr. Wilder. Thank you for seeing me.
...... As he took my hand, his grip suddenly increased in pressure, then released. Ah. Ah, yes, he said, almost in an undertone.
...... I stepped aside and ushered him in. Right this way sir. I led him through the reception area to the place we call the Throne Room, the dark wood paneled, richly appointed office where Queen Victoria holds court. I gestured for my guest to have a seat in one of the two high back, leather chairs while I did a quick turn around the massive mahogany desk and eased into Mom's chair. He spent a moment looking around the office, from the Grandfather clock to the gilt framed painted portrait of my father above the fireplace mantle. I noticed that he was slightly taller then my own height of not quite six feet, and slender. As he seated himself, I asked, Now, how can I help you, Mr. . .?
...... I'm sorry, the man said with his rich baritone. You've experienced some tragedy, I see.
...... The statement threw me off, while at the same time sent an electric chill up my spine. Tragedy is the family business, I said in response. And speaking of which, what brings you here?
...... The man gave me a thin smile. I'm sorry. I was sidetracked. And again, thank you for seeing me. My name is Elijah Messenger. Perhaps you've heard of me?
...... Sorry. Can't say that I have.
...... He looked disappointed. Ah. I see. Well, Mr. Wilder, as I said before, the police suggested I come to your company.
...... Well, Mr. Messenger, if you need investigation work done, we are the best place in town. What exactly do you need, sir?
...... Mr. Wilder, I believe someone is going to kill me.
...... He said it with the same lack of expression as you'd say, 'it's probably going to rain today'. You mean, I said, that you think someone is going to try to kill you?
...... He shook his head slowly as he said, No sir. I mean that someone is going to kill me. And soon. Very soon.
...... I got that tingly feeling up my spine, the kind you get when you just know something isn't right. Mr. Messenger, tell me; how is it you know someone is going to kill you?
...... Mr. Wilder, please tell me first. He leaned forward and looked straight into my eyes. Do you believe that there are those in this world who can see beyond the veil, so to speak? Those who are gifted with senses denied to normal men, those who can see into the realm beyond?
...... No, I wanted to answer, but I did believe I was now in the presence of a total whack job. So that was it, that feeling I had. It was my internal radar trying to tell me that I was close to someone inflicted with insanity. It certainly wasn't the first time this sort of thing has happened. People who are cursed with psychosis frequently seek out organizations like the police, or the F.B.I., and try to get their help with whatever demons are afflicting them. But it was clear to me now that Mr. Messenger had already spun his tale with the local police, who then decided to send him on his way and off in our direction.
...... And at the moment, I'd have loved to find out who the comedian with a badge was, but I decided to settle for just getting rid of my unwanted visitor. Mr. Messenger, unless you can tell me who it is that wants to kill you, I don't see where my company can help. I mean, has anyone threatened you? Anyone real? I thought.
...... Messenger's dark, expressive eyes searched my own, as if he were looking for something on a far-off horizon. Finally, he looked down and said softly, Ah. Of course. I see. With a sigh, Elijah Messenger rose from the chair. It's not your fault, he said quietly. There are so few who can really see, you know?
...... And suddenly, I felt sorry for him. As he stood to leave, I asked, Mr. Messenger? Is there anyone you'd like me to call for you?
...... He stopped, turned and smiled, though sadly. No, he said as he shook his head. There's nothing anyone can do for me, I'm afraid. I, of all people, should know that some things are fated to be.
...... I escorted him to the front door and watched as he walked off into the amber lit street. When he disappeared from view, I shook my head. River City is full of reality challenged people, I thought. Poor Elijah Messenger was just much better dressed than most.
...... I closed the door, certain I'd seen the last of him.