* * *
Since it was so dim, a small window letting in a sparse rectangle of light told me it was now night. Can’t believe they had the audacity to get me in plain view of day. Can’t believe I got kidnapped by them, by chimps. By my own artwork, as if I shouldn’t have anticipated this.
The door on the other side of the room that I was brought through opened. Isabelle looked in, her eyes flashing.
“I know what I’m going to do with you, Toonwolde.”
My lips tightened. I remained where I was, not that I had much of a choice. Would it have been a little less than dignified if I tried to slither away with wrists and ankles bound?
She smiled. “I’m going to let you go.”
“Really,” I drawled, quirking an eyebrow to hide my amazement. I thought she had a little more complicated an end for me than this.
I found myself outside of a run-down motel. The parking lot was empty and I had no ride. I knew that whatever I did next would tip her hand and make her do whatever it was she planned to do. Maybe she didn’t know. I sure didn’t.
I supposed I could return home, but that was more than likely already being watched. For that matter, I would surely be tailed wherever I went from here on. Really, a quandary, but I’ve always been good at solving problems. I just needed time to think.
First thing, lose the tail.
I looked around. The parking lot I was in not only belonged to a run-down Holiday Inn, but it was empty, of people and cars. The parking lot wasn’t wide so as much as it was long, spanning the backside of the hotel, around corners I couldn’t see. An overflowing dumpster rested straight across the lot from me.
Maybe instead of running, I’d get something to eat first. I already knew there was a main road on the other side of the Inn, so I went around. Bingo. There was a Starbucks just across the street, lucky me. Isabel sure wasn’t inventive when she told those apes to bring me here. I waited for the intersection light on the other side of the street to turn green, then jogged across. How anticlimactic events had become after being set free by my runaway comic.
I opened the door and let myself in, found a wall clock. It was only just past eight thirty. I was even sure it was still Tuesday, though I imagined I looked more than a bit dishelved. I made for the bathroom.
As I stepped out of the stall, I looked in the mirror as I washed my hands.
The man in the mirror reflected the tell-tale signs of age, straight salt-and-pepper hair, lines at the corners of his dark green eyes and thinning lips. I’m not incredibly tall, only five-feet-eight, but I had taken care with my weight. I washed my face, of cool water running into my short beard. I needed to shave.
I checked my wallet. Good for me, they didn’t take it all. My spare ten was still in the second sleeve behind my Staples card. I went to the front counter and ordered my favorite drink, frozen turtle latte, then found the most reclusive booth in the place.
I almost immediately noticed that I wasn’t alone. Some woman about five booths away was looking at me above her newspaper. How translucent a cover could a person get? She wasn’t even trying. Unsurprised, she glided on over when I gave her a tentative wave.
She was fairly tall and wore tight, dark blue jeans. Boots protruded from the bottom of her jeans, and under a long, black leather coat, she had on a Pink Floyd tee and a silver ankh. The Dark Side of the Moon, my ass. I finally recognized her. She was a coworker from the comic agency I used to work for, the punk copy editor. I hadn’t seen her in a couple months, but we’d been fast friends during the time I was there.
“Hey, Toons. Fancy seein’ you here.”
Shaula had left behind her paper. It hadn’t kept me from seeing her, not that she tried hard to hide. Her eyes were blue, her brown hair fairly unremarkable, draping past her round face. She was a couple inches taller than me. Now, she glared at me past a pair of fashionable, wire-rim glasses.
“Stop staring, dammit.”
“Well, ah… I have to say, it’s good to see you.” I cleared my throat.
Shaula laughed heartily. Her smile had always been generous, with straight, white teeth. “Thankies, Toons. I always knew you were a flirt.”
“Can’t say I’d describe myself as such.”
“So what are you gonna’ do?”
I looked back at her across the table. My tea was long empty and it was two forty-five in the a.m. We’d taken more than a few hours catching up. It had been wonderful.
“I have absolutely no clue. All I know is that they’re after me, and that I have to find the damn pen. That chimp at my house took it from me. And my sandwich.” I frowned.
“Well, let me buy ya’ a new sammich, Toons.”
“Nah, I’ve had more than enough tea to make up for it. I just need to figure out a game plan.”
“A game plan. How about avoiding the whack-jobs until you get a handle on things?”
“Can’t. I have to hit them hard and fast, in the root of all this.”
“You be meaning to face Izzy?”
“Not directly, no. But yes.”
“How’r you gonna’ get close to her if she’s havin’ you watched and knows your every move?”
“Consider this. The pen was taken from me, but Izzy—I mean, Isabelle—can’t find the Book—”
“Sorry, thought I already told you.”
“Well, ya’ didn’t.” Shaula stuck out her bottom lip.
“The Book is a comic conglomeration I made up in DarQ—”
“Dark—with a big ‘Q’ on the end instead of a ‘k’—is a comic I made up with a very pretty…” Cough. “It has chimps—no. It’s a chimp mafia, to be blunt. The Mafia answers to Slick, a squat man in rain clothes. Little does he know, however, his Mistress—”
“—Yeah, Isabelle—is about to double-cross Slick for the power he seeks.”
“Now, how would she do that if he has the pen?”
“I never said he has the pen.”
“You did say that th’ Mafia answers to th’ Slick-man.”
My mouth forms a brief “o” shape. “You may be onto something, Shaula.”
“Of course I am.”