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22 April 2012 @ 08:35 am
Go Outside [2/11]  


Chapter 02

2008

Returning to the present always left Dan discombobulated and half-starved, though this time Fate or God or whatever higher power was pulling his strings had been kind enough to leave him in an alley, alone. He shook his head, blinking the disorientation from his eyes as he stepped out onto the street, already looking around for landmarks.

Jefferson’s Deli caught his eye first, and he couldn’t help but grin. He was two blocks away from his job at the San Francisco Register. Sure, he still clutched a shopping basket of inadvertently shoplifted merchandise, but at least he knew where he was.

And that, he thought as he ditched everything but the cereal in the nearest dumpster (basket and all), is usually half the battle.

The milk-splashed shirt clung to him in places and he was on the receiving end of more than a few strange looks as he made the rest of the trip to the newspaper’s big offices through the early-spring crowds. It made more sense to go there and try and get a head-start on things, before he had to face Katie smelly, freaked out and high on forty-year-old adrenaline.

And I can’t even change.

His emergency stash of clothes at work was gone - an incident earlier in the month with a race-car had ended spectacularly bad, and he hadn’t replaced the oil-stained clothes yet - but he could at least get some of the research done.

He hurried up the stairs, through the door and down the hallway towards his desk with a single-minded purpose, uninterrupted by coworkers wanting to gossip about the latest layoff rumors. Honestly, if it hadn’t been for the Christmas scare – and his ending that scare thirty years before if began - he would have been convinced that the rumors were just the management playing mind-games.

And I don’t think even they would freak me out right now.

He could still see Jeremy’s familiar, smirking face when he let himself think, see the flash of the knife-blade in that dead-end alley. The implications it had for this particular journey…he shivered despite himself, trying not to go too far down that path just yet.

The clock on the corner of his desk proudly proclaimed that it was one p.m. when he flopped down, and he winced. He’d left the house at eight, as soon as they’d put Zack on the bus.

Guess we can add grocery shopping to the list of things I can’t do unsupervised.


Now that he was sitting down and waiting for the computer to boot up, now that his mind had idle time, he could allow himself to really think about how many ways this could possibly go wrong.

Almost forty years ago - the very summer Dan had just visited - Jeremy Kaplan had risen as San Francisco’s answer to Charles Manson or a precursor to Marshall Applewhite – or possibly both, with a side of Jim Jones thrown in for the fun of it. Charismatic and intelligent; manipulative and utterly insane, he’d done what any self-respecting lunatic in the 60’s did. He had started a cult: The Court of the Ninth Star King.

Of course, no one really knew what being a member of the Court entailed; there had never been a single document found, no rules or bylaws, and the few members arrested had never talked about their time spent in the compound north of the city; kept silent by fear or fervor, no one had never been able to tell which.

And it wasn’t really high on my bucket list, either.

His computer announced with a friendly chime that it was booted up, drawing him from his thoughts. He opened the folder with all his rough drafts, his interview transcripts, his first-impression notes and all the work that went in to his published articles. The subfolder he was looking for was one of the oldest; it hadn’t been touched since August of 2004.

Kaplan.

Just looking at the folder brought it all flooding back.

“Thinking of doing a follow-up story?”

Dan yelped, almost jumping out of his seat at the unexpected voice. Hugh Skillen stood there, hands raised in surrender.

“Woah, woah, just…asked a question.” The editor looked at Dan’s computer screen before smiling, tightly. “Guilty conscience?”

“Nah.” Dan spun his chair around, looking at the folder as he willed his heartbeat to return to its normal pace. “I was thinking about doing a follow-up. That was a pretty good story…”

Hugh snorted, leaning on the desk. “Yeah, sure, if you like learning about nutcases.”

“Hey, don’t knock it! Nutcases sell newspapers.” Maybe it was cynical, but there it was. “I mean, look at Charles Manson. How long has he been in jail? How often is he in the news? People love a good cult story.”

Hugh just fell silent, eying him balefully for a long moment before shaking his head. “Whatever.” Dan tried not to smirk in triumph. “So, talk to me. Why do you think it needs a follow-up?”

Dan looked at the screen again, opening some files and carefully avoiding others. The transcript of his interview flashed onscreen.

“I kind of…just want to talk to the guy, see if anything’s changed since…”

“Dan. He practically skinned a guy alive the night he was arrested. He’s spent thirty years behind bars. I don’t think things are going to have changed that dramatically in the last four.”

The Court had been under suspicion for everything from polygamy to tax evasion to murder, but the police hadn’t had anything concrete. They usually kept the compound under surveillance, waiting for any sign, any excuse to head in.

They hadn’t had any such excuse until June 20, 1974, when the surveillance teams and neighbors alike had reported screams – mad screams, barely human. Desperate.

The subsequent raid had not gone well. There had been four survivors from the Court, period – and the bodies in the back garden had been more than enough to keep those survivors in jail for life.

Rachel Kaplan had not been one of those survivors, and neither had the one who screamed – a Brian Fleming, one of Kaplan’s men; someone the task force had seen as something of a lieutenant. Someone Dan now recognized.

Brian had been the one Kaplan ordered to hold him back in the alley. 

He remembered Jeremy telling him about the killing in the interview, too; the words floating about halfway down the page: I think if he hadn’t screamed, it all would have been different somehow. He shivered at the memory.

“‘I guess,’” Hugh leaned over Dan’s shoulder to squint at the interview transcript, reading off the first line. “‘you don’t know me very well yet, do you?’ What the heck…you never told me that’s how he started off…”

“Because it wasn’t important!” Dan barked back, minimizing the file and glaring at his boss. “He was just…trying to fluster me. I think.”

At least, that’s what he had thought back then, sitting in the tiny room they’d arranged for the interview. Now, though, he was lying through his teeth. Kaplan had known him, recognized his face. The cultist had always been blessed with a nigh-photographic recall – analysts often thought that his talent had maybe had something to do with his success – so it stood to reason that he would remember Dan.

Hopefully, it’s just from the grocery store.

Somehow, though, Dan did not think that was the case. That wasn’t the way these things seemed to work. Four years ago, the old man had just looked at him the moment he was brought to the secure room – taken one look and grinned like a cat spying an unattended canary. Dan’s own words came into focus next on the page: No, Mr. Kaplan, that’s usually the point of an interview.

“Trying to fluster you…” Hugh repeated, one eyebrow raised, “And yet you…still want to talk to him.” He shook his head. “Sounds like delayed reaction Stockholm Syndrome, if you ask me.”

That was too close to Dan’s own thoughts and fears for comfort. “Look,” he said, trying to cover that fear, “if I come back talking about selling all my worldly possessions and worshipping the Ninth King, I’ll admit it was a bad idea. And I’ll buy your coffee for a week.”

“Yeah, uh, you manage to get another interview, you make sure to actually….y’know. Find out what in the world the Ninth King’s supposed to be, anyway,” Hugh grumbled as Dan pulled up Finder-Spyder. “Thought cults were supposed to spread the word and all that, not turn into a bunch of clams the second they got caught.” Dan didn’t respond, just staring at the search engine. Hugh hovered around his desk for a few minutes longer before he heaved a sigh, levered himself away from the side of the desk. “So…what’s got you curious in the old nut again?”

Dan shrugged. “Just…a feeling.”

“A feeling.” Hugh repeated, deadpan – and Dan, again, didn’t react, already hunching over the keyboard; just waiting for the other man to leave. “Alright, alright, I get the picture.” Hugh turned and headed back towards his office, calling back over his shoulder. “No Dylan McCleen wild-goose-chases this time!”

“…I’m never going to live that down, am I?” Dan muttered to the computer, already typing in Rachel Kaplan one handed, finally giving in to the urge and opening the box of cereal with the other. Hugh’s voice drifted back over the other desks, loud over the crunching.

“Nope!”

*

Katie didn’t even say hello when Dan finally returned home at three, the milk in his shirt dried crusty and the half-eaten box of cereal held out like a peace offering. She just raised an eyebrow when she looked up from the pile of dishes she was carrying to the sink.

 “So where did you go this time?”

Dan sighed; kicking the back door shut. “1969,” he said, setting the ignored cereal box onto the table and smelling his fingers before he made a face, shoved his hands into the sink and turned on the water. “Let me tell you, it’s not what it’s been cracked up to be.”

“Ah.” Katie’s voice was tense, almost forced when she continued, though she nudged him out of her way with her hip so she could squirt soap into the water. “Did you figure out who you’re tracking?”

Dan rubbed the back of his head with his still-soapy fingers, trying not to think back to the article, the interviews; Kaplan’s too familiar smirk. “It’s…not always that fast,” he confessed as Katie plunked the dishes into the sink. “But I think I figured out some potentials.”

“Potentials?” There was an air of disappointment in the word, and in the set of Katie’s slender shoulders. Dan felt a pang of guilt at that, taking up a dishtowel mostly as an excuse to have something for his hands to do.

“Yeah,” he said as Katie scrubbed like a woman possessed. “There were a lot of people there, I’m not sure who I’ll be following, but I’ve got a good idea.” He paused, and amended, “Or a couple good ideas.”

He’d looked up all the names he could remember from his interviews, all the pictures on file, even went as far as searching for the child Rachel had been pregnant with at the time. She’d had a little girl, Hannah, all curls and big grey eyes and toothy grins.

He kept hoping it was Rachel or her daughter; mostly thanks to his search results back at the Register. Rachel and her child had been among the first people killed when the police raid went wrong. His feelings seemed to point that way, but he’d been wrong before, with disastrous results.

Of course, it could also be Jeremy.

He tried not to shudder at the thought, watching Katie finish the dishes and move aimlessly around the kitchen, like she was looking for something else to do. The school bus would be here soon. The school year was winding down, slowly, and…what were they going to do with Zack, when Katie had to work and…he got yanked away again?

Katie finally beckoned for him to follow her into the bedroom, where she began making their still disheveled bad. Dan hesitated as he reached out for the other side of the blanket. The silence went on for too long before he finally blurted, “I saw Jeremy Kaplan.”

“Kaplan?” Katie froze, her knuckles white against the spread. “But he…wasn’t he that cult leader? The…ah.” She thought for a second. “Court of the Ninth Sun King, or something like that?”

“Yes. Well, Star King, but that’s close enough.”

“He’s the one you did that story on.” Dan glanced up just enough to see Katie’s eyes narrowing. He looked away, hurriedly, while she thought out loud. “The one where you came home from the interview and showered for an hour straight because you said he made you feel slimy.”

“…Yeah. That was, ah. The anniversary of his arrest.” Katie stopped, staring at the bed without really seeing it while Dan continued. “Which….it went…weird.” His conversation with Hugh kept floating through his head. “He always treated me like he knew me. The first thing he ever said to me was ‘You don’t know me yet, do you?’ I…never understood why.”

And he still didn’t like the implications. Not in the least.

Katie’s hands clenched on the blanket, but she didn’t move again. She looked almost nauseated – Dan didn’t really blame her. Not if she’d reached the same conclusions he had.

“Dan…didn’t they…I think….” Her voice was worried, almost haunted, and Dan couldn’t help but think of Aeden Bennett breaking in all those months ago: the fear he’d felt the whole time trapped in the past, not knowing what was happening in his present. Katie seemed to steel herself and he finally met her eyes; they were bright, brilliant blue. “Dan, they killed people, didn’t they? A lot of people?”

The thought of lying crossed Dan’s mind, briefly, until the look in Katie’s eyes really sank in. He nodded slowly, reluctantly, before he looked away again. “Yes. A lot of people.” Katie followed him around the bed as he took over her job, pulling the covers straight instead of looking at his wife. Bennett had left them both on edge, left Katie uncomfortable in her own home, to the point where they’d even considered putting the house up for sale.

“And it wasn’t…” Dan didn’t interrupt. He let her talk, let her run through the thoughts coursing through her head. “Dan…” She held his gaze for a long second before she bit her lip and looked away.  “It wasn’t ever clean.”

Grainy police evidence photos and police stories about nightmares danced through Dan’s mind and out again, taking the remnant of the brief idea of lying to Katie with them. He nodded again, still reluctantly.

“You’re…yeah, you’re right. It wasn’t.”

“They were tortured.”

Dan flopped down on the bed, rubbing at his eyes again. Yes. That would be the bit I didn’t want to remember. Didn’t want to think about. He couldn’t think of a way to respond, couldn’t think of a single word to say that would reassure her.

Or himself.

Katie broke the thick silence, slowly.

“I’m scared, Dan. If you’re with them…if you’re tracking them…” Dan scrubbed his hand through his hair, pointedly not looking at Katie, as if horribly fascinated by the pattern on their carpet. The next time Katie spoke, she was right next to him.

“Dan…if you’re tracking Kaplan…what comes next?”

Dan opened his mouth to say something, anything, to take away the worry, reaching out to gather Katie in his arms. She hugged his head to her stomach almost fiercely, and he could feel her trembling.

“I don’t know, Katie.” He finally said, softly. “I don’t know what to tell you.”

They stayed like that for what felt like a long time before Dan felt some of the tension fade, ebbing out of her slowly. He almost gave her a half-hearted smile when he heard her sniff in the dimness of the room.

“Dan?”

“Yeah?”

“Is that milk on your shirt?”

Dan looked down at his shirt, feeling some slight semblance of relief. “Uhm. Yes.”

“Then why is it glowing?”




:: One :: Two :: Three :: Four :: Five :: Six :: Seven :: Eight :: Nine :: Ten :: Epilogue ::
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