Camera Obscura

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Chapter Thirteen

The hotel room looked just the same as it had when they left it that morning, except that the bed had been made. They entered as if it were a sanctuary and they had faced many foes to reach it. After several hours at the hospital and several more with the police, both Larry and Jill were exhausted.

“Why don’t you go on to bed? I’m going to stay up for a while.” Larry said. “I need to think; to get my head straight.”

“You ought to get some rest.” Jill looked at him with concern.

“I will. Don’t worry.”

She kissed him lightly and went into the bathroom. She ran a tub with water as hot as she could stand it. Lightly testing it with one tentative toe, she slipped in and lay back. She needed to think too.

Things weren’t going the way they were supposed to. This wasn’t what she had signed on for. She had been told to watch him, to make sure he didn’t hurt himself. What a crock! Over the past two days they had driven all over San Francisco, chased “bad guys,” made beautiful love, and almost been killed…twice. Everything had changed. She was beginning to care for him and she wanted to make sure that NO ONE hurt him, least of all he himself.

In a low-rent motel room on the other side of the Bay, Vladimir Wulf sat back in a chair with his feet on bed, his cold blue eyes watching an old Charlie Chan movie on the antiquated television set, alternately sipping Glenfiddich single malt and cleaning his Glock 31. One must never take his weapon for granted. When he was satisfied with it, he checked the 15 round magazine to assure himself that it was full and placed it within reach beside him on the cheap bed table.

The room was shabby but fairly clean. Even more important to Wulf was the fact that it was located in an older part of town, inhabited by pimps, whores, assorted homeless, and one dilapidated rescue mission. Half the buildings were boarded up, awaiting a future renovation that was not even a glint in some developer’s imagination yet. It was unlikely that anyone would think of looking for him here.

As he sipped, he thought of the past few hours, and he chided himself for his mistakes; the race through the City in the early morning hours had cost him a valued lackey. Dennis Ritchie had not been overly clever, but his loyalty and willingness to do anything Wulf asked of him had never been questioned. And the fiasco at the morgue left him feeling frustrated. He was not used to failure.

He picked up the phone and, using a prepaid phone card, dialed a number. After two rings a voice answered.

“It’s me,” Wulf said.

“Well, what about the girl?” The voice asked abruptly.

“Which one?”

“The one you hired.”

Wulf smiled to himself, “She won’t be a problem.”

“You killed her? You fool!” The voice had an audible tremor, whether from anger or fear, Wulf didn’t know. “What about the body? If the police find it, Wheeler’s statement will. . .”

“I said it won’t be a problem,” Wulf interrupted, steel in his voice.

“The other one, then? The nurse?”

“I missed her,” Wulf stated without preamble. “Wheeler pushed her out of the way and I tagged his friend’s lover instead.”

“Idiot! If she says the wrong thing, it could trigger real memories, ones we would rather not have surface. Must I remind you that if Wheeler recalls anything, anything at all, I’m ruined! We’re ruined!,” the voice on the other end barked. Then the voice mellowed into the rich warm tones that were familiar to millions of people, “Part of the blame is mine. We should never have involved her. I knew it was foolish, to say the least, to have someone from the clinic remain close to him, but the doctor assured me.”

“It was a logical precaution. We needed to know if he started remembering. However, that should not occur, not after the. . .treatments.

“I knew we should have killed him when we had him, but I foolishly let others dissuade me.”

“Letting him go was a risk, but,” Wulf answered coldly.

“We can always kill him later.”

“Hmmm. Yes. Hopefully with more ease than Miss Thornton.” There was a pause on the other end as the voice turned to someone else in the room. “George, I’ll have another brandy, if you don’t mind.” After a pause, the voice returned to the phone and continued, ““Have you found the photographs?”

“No. I searched the friend’s home. The ones you want weren’t there.”

“They have to be somewhere!” The voice grew harsh again with controlled rage. “You checked his home in Los Angeles?”

“Of course,” Wulf snarled. “He said he mailed them. We’ve checked all his known associates.”

The man sitting in his study on the other side of the country drummed his fingers on the arms of his very expensive chair, his familiar face with the well-known bushy eyebrows and jutting chin dark with anger. “This friend in San Francisco, I understand they’re close, known each other since college. Yes? Have a talk with him. He may be more. . .cooperative.”

“Not possible. He interrupted me when I was searching the house.” Wulf’s voice was cool, free of emotion, merely reporting the fact.

There was a long pause as the other man struggled to regain his composure. Wulf said nothing. Conversation was not something he did casually and he never offered excuses. The silence grew as the man on the other end pondered the situation. Finally, his voice returned, calmer than before. “It’s unfortunate about the friend. I’m afraid his death may trigger what we were hoping to avoid.”

“Stop worrying. He won’t remember anything. The treatment was thorough. No one would believe him, in any case. As far as the authorities are concerned, he’s a deranged psychotic, who reported something that never happened.”

“I sincerely hope you’re right.”

“You want me to kill him now instead of waiting?”

The other man sighed as if explaining to a child, “At this juncture, it’s much too risky. One friend perishes during an apparent robbery while another is the victim of a hit and run. Well, surely you see the problem. If someone should connect the dots, two incidents could possibly, hopefully, be seen as purely coincidental, but a third? I doubt it seriously. No, we may still hope that he will lead us, subconsciously of course, to what we’re seeking.”

“And the girl?”

Wulf heard another deep sigh. Resignation? Decision? “The girl is a wild card, but we can’t kill her for the same reason. Remove her from the picture. Discreetly.”

“Don’t worry. I have everything under control.”

“You have nothing under control,” the voice growled, his voice laced with scorn. “Take care of her tomorrow. And Wulf,. . .keep me informed.”

The hotel room was dark. Larry had been a long time coming to bed. His form in the chair by the round table had been almost invisible in the shadows. Jill thought she remembered the glow from the neon lights on an all-night liquor store streaming in the window, but there was no glow now. The moon in its waning dark phase gave little light to the room. Only near the window was the inky cloud of darkness pushed away, retreating to the recesses of the room where it settled over the bed like a soft ebony blanket. Larry had finally crawled under the covers, kissed her sweetly on the cheek, and rolled over with his back to her. In mere seconds it seemed, his breathing slowed and became deeper with a slight “puuuh” with each exhalation.

Even with the hot bath, Jill couldn’t relax. She wanted Larry’s arms around her, but she wouldn’t wake him. He needed the rest. She couldn’t get comfortable; the bed seemed lumpier than she remembered from the night before. One large coil pushed into her side as she lay unmoving beside Larry. If only she could fall asleep, if only the bed didn’t have rocks in it, if only. . .

Her eyes flew open. Something in the room had disturbed her, had made her feel its presence. The room was now completely dark, She wanted to turn to Larry, but she was frozen in fear. She moved her eyes this way and that, trying to see what it was that was making her nerves hum like electric wires. She was lying in a pool of light, but the rest of the room was in shadow. Where did the light come from?

“Who are you? How did you get in here?” she wanted to scream, but the sound died in her throat, and then her eyes made out the form of a man. She strained to see him, but he remained in the shadows.

“You should have told them about me when you had the chance, Jill,” the voice came from all around her. It had a familiar ring to it but with a hollowness she couldn’t explain.

“Do I know you?” she tried to ask.

The form stepped closer. When she could make out his features, it was as he looked the last time she saw him, naked, a pale, bloated, drowning victim, except that now water streamed from his eyes, his nose, his mouth. Dennis Ritchie, her former lover. Her eyes were wide with disbelief.

“You’re not real,” she tried to say.

“They’re going to kill him,” the specter continued, “And now you know too much. They have to kill you too.”

The figure reached for her. She tossed her head back and forth and opened her mouth to scream in terror, but no sound came out.

“Jill! Jill, wake up!” Larry said as he gently shook her. She gave no sign that she heard him. She stared wide-eyed at the corner of the room and only a tiny whimper came from deep in her throat. She was in the throes of a nightmare that wouldn’t release her.

He shook her harder and, with his hand under her chin, he forced her to look at him, but her eyes were unfocused, staring at some terrifying vision in her mind. She was still asleep. “It’s just a dream, honey. Wake up!” He repeated these words over and over, holding her and rocking her like a child until her eyes finally focused and she began shaking like a leaf and sobbing deep, racking sobs.

“Shhhhh. It was just a dream,” he whispered, rubbing her back like a child to sooth and quiet her. “Go back to sleep.”

“I’m afraid,” she moaned.

“It’s okay. I’m here.”

“Don’t let me go. Please.”

He nodded and folded her into his arms. He lay back on the bed with her clinging to him and he held her until the whimpering slowed and she fell into a deeper, quieter sleep.

“What was that all about?” he wondered. Rising from the bed, he went to the table and poured himself a drink from a bottle he had brought in that evening. He sat at the table, sipping the alcohol and watching her. She slept on her back with her hands folded over her breast, as if she were in a coffin. The rising of her chest was hardly detectable and except for an occasional soft sob, people would have believed her dead.

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