John gone, p.26
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       John Gone, p.26

           Michael Kayatta
 

  Chapter 20

  “You, with us,” the bald man commanded, pointing at John with a fat and dirty finger. His thick Russian accent heavily muddled the English that he spoke. The six imposing guards behind him filled the cell’s sole doorway with their diagonally-held guns and trunk-like bodies.

  “How do you know my name?” John asked loudly, backing himself against the wall farthest from the bald man.

  “It was told to me,” the man responded bluntly. “I know what you are doing here, and you are caught doing it.”

  “Spirits, they can hear you!” the blinded prisoner exclaimed. The Slavic-sounding man turned and nodded at one of the six guards standing vigilantly behind him. One stepped forward and approached the raving man in the corner. Without so much as a blink, he broke the man’s nose with the butt plate of his assault rifle. The prisoner silently collapsed to the floor, bleeding from his face where the gun had struck him. The guard returned coldly to the door alongside the other five, his expression unchanged.

  The bald man smiled widely, his teeth showing yellow and rot. “Are you coming or am I retrieving you?” he asked, spitting in spray as he spoke.

  John looked down at the half-blind man, face-down and bleeding on the filthy prison floor. The warden held out his hand. John looked at him, confused, until the man moved his eyes sharply to John’s messenger bag. John sighed and handed his messenger bag to him.

  Like a serpent, the six armed guards moved in a line around John, circling to enclose him from behind, blockading against any misplaced thought of retreat. One of them lightly nudged the small of John’s back with the butt of his rifle, urging him forward. John complied and left the cell, following the lead of the short, bald man now waddling in front of him with John’s bag held firmly under his heavy arm.

  “Who are you people?” John asked. None replied. As they walked down the corridor, he spied entrances to other cells. Each was made from thick rusted steel and supported by hinges the size of bread loaves. He wondered if the men held behind them were monsters or innocents. Both seemed equally possible.

  “You need to tell me how you know my name,” John said. The guards stopped in tandem with the bald man at their lead. The man turned and walked at John, the edge of his large gut pressing against him, bouncing him into the cold, stone wall of the hallway. John’s back slammed against it.

  “I am the warden here, the god,” the man said. “I need to do nothing.”

  John watched fearfully as the warden drew a worn revolver from a military holster strapped to his side. He raised the gun to John’s throat, laying the cold iron barrel flat against his windpipe. He pushed it hard into John, allowing its hammer to jut into the soft skin of his neck. The pressure was beginning to choke him.

  “I don’t like people sneaking into my prison for information from my prisoners,” the warden growled.

  “I, what? No,” John sputtered.

  The warden jerked his sidearm from John’s neck and holstered it. “I am delivering you back to your government. They have come for you. They’ve paid me just enough to forgive this intrusion. Just enough!” he yelled, the thick phlegm in the back of his throat rattling against his windpipe.

  “My government?” John asked. “They’re here?” They must have picked up the signal from the watch, he thought.

  The warden turned from the wall and continued his walk down the prison hall. His six guards continued in a semi-circle behind, their march bumping John’s body forward before them.

  The party stopped a few minutes later at a shiny door, much newer-looking than the rest they’d passed along the wall. A small rectangular keypad was mounted where a handle might be. John was surprised to see such technology present in the damp, degrading facility to which he’d just been introduced. Somehow, he’d expected a rounded keyhole and long-stemmed brass key dangling from a large ring on the warden’s belt to match it.

  The warden stepped forward to the door and punched a six-digit combination into its face. The red light at the top of the keypad turned green, and a mechanism buried inside of the door clicked. The warden shoved it open with his belly and walked inside the room.

  John followed him closely through the door and was walked by the six guards at his back to a metal folding-chair at the room’s center. He sat, and the men retreated to an area behind him, unseen. The door closed. A hard-shining light draped in a circle around the chair while the rest of the room remained shrouded in a deep, concerning blackness. John heard the sound of a cocking gun behind him.

  “Move and he shoots,” came the sound of the warden’s familiar gruff voice. “It’s that or cuffs.”

  “I think I’d prefer the cuffs,” John said. He could see nothing in the room but himself and the chair he sat upon. The light encasing him was so harsh and direct that John opted to close his eyes rather than continue his ineffective squinting a moment longer. Another gun cocked behind him. “Got it, no moving,” he said.

  “He’s yours, gentlemen,” John heard the warden say from the other side of the room.

  “We’ll be fine, Warden. Thank you for your help,” a voice replied.

  “Do you need the guards?”

  “No. We’ll be fine.”

  “He had this on him.”

  “Thank you.”

  The warden’s voice said something in a language John didn’t understand. Footsteps filled the darkened room again. John opened his eyes briefly and was barely able to make out the figures of the warden and his guards just before they left the room.

  “Hello, John,” the voice said from somewhere ahead of him.

  “Who are you?” John asked.

  “I’d like to talk to you about that watch on your arm.”

  “What do you know about it?”

  “Only a little. I’d like you to tell me how you got it.”

  “I found it.”

  “How did you learn to use it?”

  “I didn’t.”

  A loud cough broke the silence behind John. The voice ahead of him continued to speak. “What were you planning? Canada, France, Africa? Where are you going, John? What are you hoping to accomplish?”

  “Who did you say you were?”

  John heard the sound of more footsteps followed by a light plastic click. The light above him dimmed into darkness. John opened his eyes. Another click, and a different, more mellow and even light illuminated the room. A man with dark hair in a light grey suit stood before him. John turned his head frantically toward the exit. A blond-haired man stood blocking it, holding a large brown leather circle the size of a bike tire with a round black bead pinching its center.

  “Advocates,” John whispered reactively. The dark-haired man furrowed his brow quizzically at the word. He shook the thought and nodded to the man past John.

  The blond-haired man approached and wrestled the leather circle over John’s head and around his throat. He slid the black bead past its center and up to the back of John’s neck, tightening the leather into a collar.

  “The ring slides one way,” the dark-haired man explained. “You pull too much and it chokes you.” The blond-haired man took the other end of the circle and dragged John by the neck from his chair to the room’s exit.

  “Wait,” the dark-haired man commanded. His partner halted. The dark-haired man walked to John and looked him over. He opened one of the sides of his worn, grey jacket and revealed a small switchblade knife hanging from the breast pocket. “Let’s be thorough.”

  The blade triggered with the flick of a button on its handle. John closed his eyes and winced, struggling against the band tightening around his neck. Not feeling the cut he expected, John opened his eyes. The dark-haired man was using the newly exposed blade to slice open the back of John’s messenger bag.

  “What are you doing?” John exclaimed.

  The man shook out John’s bag, spilling its contents to the ground: sunglasses, a book, the small blanket and extra shirt that John had packed the last time he’d seen his
mother, a flashlight, some notebooks, a pen, and two halves of a broken branch. The Advocate patted down the limp bag and found nothing else of interest. He discarded it to the ground. “Alright, let’s go.”

  The blond-haired man kicked at the back of John’s knee, breaking his stance and forcing him forward. The leather band around his neck was tight, and despite his efforts, John was neither able to remove it nor fight where it moved him. Collared, shoved, and pulled, John accompanied the Advocates out of the room and into the dark, stone hallway outside of it.

  “Guys, stop, wait,” John said. “I didn’t steal it, okay? It’s stuck. I want to give it back, I do.” There was no response.

  They continued to move down the corridor, unimpeded by any of the guards stationed throughout the facility. A few times, John called out to them, insulting their morality and humanity when they ignored him. His mind continued to race for an idea, anything that could get him out of his current predicament. He looked around at his surroundings: walls, doors, stone, uncaring guards who probably didn’t speak English. There was nothing to help him, nothing and no one.

  This is it, John thought. After everything I survived, this is where I die. I should have gone to the lab days ago when I first heard about it. Kala would have seen the sun. Mom would still be alive and, after today, I might have been, too.

  The blond-haired man pulled sharply on the leather circle around John’s neck. John stumbled for a moment, but deftly regained his footing as they turned past a door into another room of the prison.

  John thought about Ronika and those silly fox ears she wore on her head. He thought about how much he’d enjoyed his time with her in person and chided himself for not doing it sooner.

  At least she got out of this okay, he thought. She’s the only one who did. That’s fair. She had the least to do with this anyway. I wish I could see her again, though, just one last time before the end.

  John and the Advocates soon arrived at what appeared to be the prison’s galley, a large and filthy room stuffed wall to wall with shoddily made metal shelving, now rusted red and brown. Most were filled with various pots and tureens while the others were stacked with unlabeled metal food cans. The sinks below them were crammed with dirty dishes and silverware and, judging by the amount of mold and flies surrounding them, it seemed to John as if they’d likely been there for months.

  A tall man in a crooked white paper cap stood in one corner by the counter slicing a fat, oddly shaped root with a large butcher knife. He wore a dirty, once-white apron and turned toward John and the Advocates as they entered his kitchen.

  “Out,” the dark-haired man yelled at the cook, pointing at the door they’d just entered. The cook looked at John, clawing at a thick leather collar and trying to force his fingers between it and his throat. The cook stuck his knife point-down into his cutting board and ran through the galley’s exit.

  “That is no way to treat a knife,” the dark-haired man said as he walked to the counter and lifted the cook’s butcher knife from the board. He examined its edge. “Dull as a fork’s,” he said. “Unsurprising.”

  The blond-haired man dragged John to an island cooking range at the center of the kitchen and pointed to one of the four metal barstools positioned around it. John sat, as instructed, and the blond-haired man sat across from him, his hand still firmly on the leather circle. Its end was now swiveled to John’s front.

  The dark-haired man walked to John, knife in hand, and sat on the stool beside him. He pulled a small, red, vinyl bag from his chest pack and placed it on the island’s counter in front of them. He set the butcher knife next to it.

  “You called us Advocates before,” the dark-haired man said. He grabbed onto John’s face by the jaw and forced it toward him. He looked past John’s eyes. “Where did you hear that word?”

  John sat silent, staring back at the man with an equal, unflinching intensity. His captor’s green eyes were lifeless. They conveyed no emotion and betrayed no thought behind them. They simply stared, unmoving and fixed upon nothing.

  “It doesn’t much matter,” the man said a few moments later. “You don’t have to tell me.” He opened his red bag, revealing three rods, four thin stones, and a small bottle of a yellow, oily substance. He dripped some of the oil onto the butcher knife’s edge and began to work it between one of the rods and stones. The blond-haired man began to drum the fingernails of his free hand against the inside of a massive black iron skillet positioned in front of him on the range.

  “You killed my mom,” John said.

  “I know,” the dark-haired man replied.

  “Why? She had nothing to do with anything.”

  “Sure she did,” the Advocate answered. “She knows you, right?” The man paused a moment before adding flippantly, “Well, she did, anyway.”

  “You son of a bitch!” John yelled, jumping from his seat. With amazing speed, the blond-haired man jerked on the leather band, slamming John’s head down into the countertop.

  “We didn’t go there for her,” the man explained. “We went there for you, John.”

  “How did you find her and the house?”

  “The same way we were able to follow you to all of those other awful places we met. I’m not a science nerd, but bear with me and I’ll try to explain it to you.” The man swapped out the stone he was using on the knife with another. His partner continued to drum his fingers, slowly quickening pace. “That watch on your arm spits out a signal when you teleport. We’ve had access to that since you stole the device.”

  “I didn’t steal it,” John interjected.

  “There’s a different piece of data that contains where you go back to, I guess.” The man continued to work the stone and rod up and down the length of the butcher knife’s edge. “Until recently, we didn’t have it.”

  “Then how did you get it?” John asked sharply.

  “Actually,” the man said, “and I’ll be honest with you here, John; I have no idea. We were just given the data from our boss. If you want to know where he got it, you’d have to ask him. Though, that’s impossible, of course. That data led us to a warehouse. A small bit of snooping led us to a police report on an incident that took place there recently. That led us to their suspect list, and that led us to your address. We met your mother there and asked her politely to tell us about you and where you might be. She wasn’t very cooperative.” John noticed the blond-haired man smile at that. The dark-haired man continued his story.

  “We were going to head back toward the warehouse when we got another call. It seems that knowing the location of your starting position allowed the science boys to determine exactly where you’d appear next. And what a convenient ‘next’ it was.” The man switched out the stone and rod for a third set before squeezing a few more drops of oil onto the butcher knife’s blade.

  “You’re both cowards catching me like this. What about honor or the thrill of the hunt or something?” John tried.

  The dark-haired man laughed. “Who do you think we are, John? Our job was to catch you. There’s nothing beyond that. Did you think that just because I can run fast, I like to?”

  “Why are we even having this conversation?” John asked, exasperated.

  “Why am I telling you all of this? Because I can, and because we may as well talk about something while I sharpen this knife. It’s the same reason I’ll tell you my name. It’s Cornelius. Currently, you’re the third person alive who knows that. One is my boss, and the other is my partner here. Yes, you’re the third person alive to know, but interestingly enough, I’ve told hundreds of people before you. Imagine that.”

  “Your name is Cornelius?” John asked. “That’s a dumb name.”

  “Cornelius Black,” the man replied.

  “If you’re just going to kill me, then why the theatrics?” John said, snapping at his assailant. “Just do it already.”

  Black grabbed John’s shirtsleeve and used it to wipe the oil from his blade before placing the butcher knife
down on the countertop in front of him. John’s eyes followed the knife’s handle as Black dropped it just a few feet away from him on the range.

  Black stood from his stool and brought his nose an inch away from John’s. “We can always speed things up if you’re getting impatient,” he said. The blond-haired man began to cough violently. Black continued speaking over his partner’s hacking. “But the reason we’re even sitting here at all is because you’ve inexplicably evaded us for the last three days. It makes us look bad, like my partner and I aren’t able to finish the job. You’ve now had two days more than you should have, and those days aren’t free.” Without removing his eyes from John’s he reached into the pack strapped to his chest and removed a grey cylinder.

  “Hold this,” Black said, placing the cylinder into John’s hand.

  “It’s heavy.”

  “Yes,” Black replied. “It should be. It’s a weight.” Black took back the cylinder and lifted a small latch on its side. The weight folded open in half lengthwise. He picked up the butcher knife and clamped the cylinder onto its back, opposite its edge. With the thin grey weight now clamped to the knife, Black swung it up and down.

  “It’s sort of like holding a roll of pennies when you punch someone,” Black explained. He placed the knife back down, one foot closer to John than before.

  “I never stole anything,” John said, keeping his eyes on the knife’s position. “Okay? I just found it. I put it on my wrist and it won’t come off. I never wanted any of this. If I could give it to you, I would. Come on! Please!”

  “At first, the idea was for my partner to give you his watch, then I would take you back to HQ. Now, the company’s a bit skeptical about risking it. They mentioned something about your health,” Black said. “But you know what, John? I don’t care much for your health. They told me they wanted the watch still attached to your body, so I’m coming up with a compromise. I don’t want to lug your corpse back there, so I think I’ll just take the hand.”

  “What? No! My health is fine; just give me the other watch. I’ll jump back with you,” John protested.

  “I think not,” Black answered.

  Amidst the noise of conversation above, Mouse stood from the floor and latched to the fabric of John’s pant leg. None of them, not even John, had noticed the small black robot following them as they’d left the interrogation room, rolling on its back across the ground silently as they’d moved down the corridor.

  Mouse started to climb John’s leg, still unsure of what to do or how to help. It hadn’t been able to see much from its vantage near John’s foot, but had heard everything, including the chilling fear in John’s cries. Mouse reached only John’s lap before it happened.

  In a final act of desperation, John moved quickly for the butcher knife, shooting his right hand outward from the table’s edge across the cooking range. With his fingertips just inches from the weapon’s handle, he watched the blond-haired man lift the iron skillet he’d been drumming on in a blur of motion. With astounding reflex, he slammed it back down onto John’s outstretched hand, crushing the bones as it connected.

  John screamed in pain with such intensity that Black used his free arm to cover John’s mouth. The shake of John’s body knocked Mouse to its side across his thighs.

  “It’s what I love and hate about you, kid,” Black said, “that God damn never-quit attitude. Alright, enough games. Let’s get this done.”

  The blond-haired man placed the skillet down and lifted the butcher knife into his hand. “Right through the carpals,” Black told him. “You’re going to have to shoot a bit lower than you normally might; we don’t want to risk damaging the device. This job has had enough problems and Castler’s already going to be up our ass about bringing it back this way.” The blond-haired man nodded.

  John continued to scream into Black’s arm, inhaling through his nose to power his voice. The arm of the Advocate’s jacket smelled like ash and blood. Black pulled John’s left arm to the table as John recoiled his damaged hand against his chest.

  “Maybe try diagonally,” Black suggested to his partner, making a diagonal chopping gesture with his hand. “I know it’ll be harder to put the knife through his ulna and radius in one shot, so you might have to take a few whacks at it. Don’t worry if the cut’s not clean.” The blond-haired man lifted the knife.

  John closed his eyes, almost unconscious from pain. I’m sorry, everyone.

  As the weighted knife fell, a small black robot leapt from John’s shoulder between the knife’s sharpened edge and John’s arm. The blade struck down, catching the inside of Mouse’s back instead of John’s wrist.

  “I’m here John, hang on!” the robot yelled, its metallic voice breaking apart through damaged speakers.

  “Ronika, is that you?” John said.

  Kala’s hologram appeared suddenly, its image broken and skewed by the presence of Mouse’s body. “And I, Mr. Popielarski! I’m about to remotely increase the watch’s energy output--Ronika, do it now!”

  Mouse opened its metal clamps and forced them between the watch’s face and John’s skin, causing a loud pop to sound from the device. Black’s partner looked down in shock as a faint blue glow enveloped both his knife and the robot it was suddenly stuck in. The glow brightened, its energy clinging to the blade’s edge, holding the knife just centimeters above John’s skin inside of Mouse’s halving body.

  The blond-haired man started coughing uncontrollably as he pushed down on the hilt of the butcher knife, standing tall and forcing his weight on top of it, unwilling to withdraw the cut. As he increased pressure, the blade of his knife began to ring out, louder and shriller with each passing second. Blackened burnt scars crawled from the blade’s edge toward its spine.

  “John,” Mouse called out, its voice cracking in static, “I--“

  Mouse’s body shattered apart like a grenade as the edge of the butcher knife dropped through it to the watch’s face.

  “Stop it! Just let it go!” Black yelled over the ringing metal.

  As his partner looked to him, the burn marks across the blade began to smoke. Cornelius Black ducked. A moment later, the knife was apart, shattered and firing pieces of its blade across the galley. The sound of metal striking metal clanged loudly throughout the kitchen.

  Without lifting his head, John opened his eyes again. A few feet away, what was left of the butcher knife was lying next to him on the countertop. Its handle was fully intact, but only a small jagged shard of the metal from its former blade remained still attached.

  Suddenly, the blond-haired man’s head thumped down onto the counter between John and the knife. John noticed a large section of fissured butcher knife shrapnel lodged deeply in the Advocate’s neck before the man slid from the island and collapsed to the ground, dead.

  Black looked at John’s left arm as he stood. The watch was glowing pale blue, spewing small arcs of jumping electricity that leapt out across the teen’s skin. Soon, the arm began to spasm and flail wildly until its uncontrollable movement knocked John’s entire body to the ground. Black backed away from his captive slowly, his eyes glued fixed to the seizure.

  John raised his arm into the air, coiling his fingers into a tight, seditious fist. A primal scream escaped his lungs at the pain as the space around him filled with the same blue light as the watch. Cornelius Black fell unconscious beside the kitchen’s exit.

  John looked into the watch’s face and saw the small wires that ran beneath the glass begin to quake uncontrollably. One snapped apart. He read the hands: 5:01 P.M. John disappeared.

 
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