From her second floor apartment, she could hear only an indistinct, mumbled response, but she thought it came from little Paul Hernandez, who lived next door. A momentary silence ensued, and then she heard, “Are you going with your parents?”
Claire couldn’t help but shudder at the dry, coarse quality of the voice. The speaker sounded like an elderly man, but the intentional distortion of his speech impressed her as vaguely sinister. Little Paul must have answered in the affirmative, for the speaker continued, “You look so cute. How would you like to go with me to myyy church?”
Alarm flashed in Claire’s mind; that voice did not assert even a pretense of innocence. She threw back her bedclothes, leaned toward the window, and lifted the Venetian blinds. She couldn’t see anyone on the sidewalk below, but from around the corner of her building, to the left, a tall shadow crept across the pavement like a wavering gray ghost. It bent forward and lifted a long, crooked appendage toward the unseen child.
“You’re sooo cute!” the voice cooed. The shadow suddenly lunged forward, twisted itself into a hunched shape that somehow looked inhuman, then quickly slipped beyond the range of her vision. A half-second later, she heard a low, abruptly-stifled “uulp!” that could only have come from little Paul.
“God!” she whispered, grabbing her bathrobe from the bedpost and hurriedly pulling it on. Heart cranking into high gear, she hurried through the living room, out her apartment door, and down the creaky, nattily-carpeted stairs to the foyer. Throwing open the door to the early Chicago morning, she endured a sudden gust of frigid, smoke-tinged air before stepping out to the small covered porch that overlooked Kenmore Avenue. Scattered pedestrians moved up and down the street in both directions, but she saw no one close by. To her left, a narrow alley separated her building from the next; judging by the angle of the shadow she’d seen, whoever had cast it must have been standing at the entrance.
She took a few cautious steps forward, listening for the sound of voices. Nothing but the low rumble of traffic and the whisper of winter breeze. Had someone really hurt little Paul...?
But surely, her fears were premature. The speaker had merely been an elderly resident of the neighborhood, paying the lad a compliment, and in her groggy state, she had mistaken benign praise for ominously veiled innuendo.
But if I had bothered to think first, those years ago, Sean would be here now.
She took another step forward and craned her neck to peer down the alley. Suddenly, a dark figure whisked around the corner and collided roughly with her, sending her reeling backward. But a cold, strong hand quickly grabbed her wrist and kept her from falling.
“I’m so sorry,” a raspy voice said. “I didn’t see you there.”
“No, no, my fault,” she said, almost automatically. It took her a moment to absorb the sight of the man looming over her, his hand lingering on her arm as if for fear she might yet drop to the pavement.
He stood at least six-five and wore a black tunic with a white clerical collar, and a rather ludicrous-looking, wide-brimmed black hat that fell low over his forehead. Pale aqua eyes stared at her from a gaunt face; his head perched on a shrunken, vulture-thin neck. Coarse, stringy tufts of gray hair sprouted from around the edges of the hat, grotesquely resembling the fibers of some kind of mold. His bony fingers felt so cold that Claire almost jerked her arm away. Instead, she managed to extract it gently.
“Were you talking to—” she began, but he shook his head quickly.
“Forgive me, I was in such a hurry. I’m afraid I’m running late, so I cut through the alley to reach my church. Are you sure you’re all right?” His deep-set, pale eyes blazed with kindness.
“I’m fine,” she said. Looking past him, she saw the door to the neighboring building open, and Paul’s parents stepped out, both dressed in their Sunday best. Mrs. Hernandez, a short, squat, forty-ish woman, peered up and down the sidewalk with concerned eyes.
“Weren’t you just outside my window?” Claire asked, but the old clergyman was already turning away. He gave her a last apologetic smile, then strode up the sidewalk at a relaxed but rapid pace. Within moments, he had crossed the next block, some fifty yards further on.
Curious, she thought, staring after him. He’d acted perfectly kind and polite, the way a pastor was supposed to; but that cold grip on her arm had insinuated something altogether different. It had been too strong and insistent for such a frail-looking old gentleman.
The alley beside her building appeared vacant, except for a few piles of refuse and an overturned metal garbage can. Nowhere for a small child to hide, unless he’d crawled inside the can. But its open mouth faced her, and she could see that it lay empty. The morning sun peeked over the rooftops at the far end, firing a cold, cheerless beam into her sleepy eyes.
“Where is that boy?” she heard Mrs. Hernandez say. “Paul, where are you?”
“I told him not to run off,” grumbled his father. He scowled at Claire, as if her disheveled appearance were a personal affront. “Have you seen Paul?”
She shook her head. “I thought I heard him a few minutes ago. There was a man talking to a child....”
“You didn’t see Paul?” his mother asked.
“No, but I think he was talking to that man.” She pointed after the old priest, her eyes seeking his tall figure. But he was nowhere to be seen.
Dammit! She thought. He must have turned down Barry Street at surprisingly high speed.
“He better not have gone with any strange man!” Mrs. Hernandez said fearfully.
“No. The man was alone...he was a priest.”
“Christ, we’d better look for him,” Mr. Hernandez muttered.
“I’ll get dressed and help you,” Claire said, turning back toward her front door. As she did, she caught a glimpse of something shiny on the pavement near her feet. Leaning down, she saw that it was a multicolored, crystalline cube about the size of a playing die; in her bare fingers, it felt as cold as ice. Inside it, bright, rainbow-hued fibers wavered slowly back and forth like the tendrils of underwater plants. Holding it up, she found that she could not see through it; rather, more and more layers of color seemed to extend beyond its walls, into infinity. After a moment, she felt Mr. Hernandez’s eyes on her. She dropped the object into her bathrobe pocket and hurried back inside, the frigid air having cut through her almost to the bone.
Had the stranger dropped the little cube when they’d collided? she wondered, blessing the warmth of the old building’s interior as she climbed the stairs. Such an odd little trinket! Something of value, perhaps? If so, he might come back looking for it. But as she reflected on his coarse, raspy voice, she felt sure he had been the one talking to Paul. And he’d hurried off at a pace that suggested he preferred not to answer her questions.
She pulled on a pair of blue jeans and a white, ribbed cotton turtleneck, still shaken by anxiety, praying that Mr. and Mrs. Hernandez would find Paul. She could scarcely bear the thought of something happening to him—especially on a cold winter day like today, so much like the one two years ago that she tried to forget but never could....
How would you like to go with me to myyy church?
* * * * * *