UGUST 1987 – LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
Carl Friedrich answered his cellphone without looking away from the pretty picture on the beach. He sat at the top of the dunes, out of sight of the unsuspecting people down below. Quiet as a serpent waiting to strike, he watched the family gathered near the water. The man and the older boy, an auburn-haired youngster with serious amber eyes who was a mirror image of his father, were playing in the waves. Carl, however, was watching the mother. The woman was building a sandcastle with her youngest son, who at nine years of age was four and a half years younger than his brother. He was a carbon copy of his mother, with his mop of unruly dark blonde hair and startling sky-blue eyes. Carl could not tear his eyes from the two of them. ‘Damn you Beth, you are so beautiful. If I were only that towel you’re sitting on, or those rays shooting off your hair and turning them to gold, so I could hold you all day long. But dreaming gets me nowhere... it never has.’
“What do you want?” he whispered hoarsely.
The irritation behind the throaty voice that came in reply lay thick in the air.
“Don’t tell me… you’re spying on her again. Damnit Carl can’t you stay away like I told you?! We have bigger fish to fry, she’s history…!”
“She’ll never be history to me… big brother.” Friedrich purposely grunted the last two words in a voice dripping with sarcasm. “Beth should’ve been mine. That little boy she’s playing with should’ve been my son, and if I want to sit staring at them it’s my choice.”
“Alright, alright, but you need to get your head straight. I’ve just been promoted and I’ve got all the power to put things into high gear. Our plans are falling into place and you have to get away from LA and back here. The meet’s been set up. Those Arabs, much as they disgust me, are waiting for delivery and we’re about to make a whole lot of money. Do your part and you might still get Beth one day… one thing at a time. I expect you home tomorrow morning. Don’t mess up Carl… don’t become another Marj.”
The phone died in Carl’s hand. He put it back in his pocket with his eagle-eyed gaze trained on the mother and son. The boy put the flag on the top of the sandcastle with a proud smile. His mother tossed her hair back and burst out laughing as she waved a hand towards where his dad and his brother were playing. The boy gave her a quick smack kiss on the cheek and tore for the ocean. Carl moved the binoculars, following the boy’s sprint past his father and his headlong dive into the waves. He got up after training the high-powered binoculars on the mother for a few last moments. As much as he would like to, he could not ignore that phone call. ‘Beth and Joe… you should’ve both been mine. That little boy is so much like you Beth, he’s so darn pretty he should’ve been a girl. But he’s wild… that wild blood of the McFaddens coming through just like in the others. Ah well one day, mark my words, one day you’ll come to me or make your choice to go to the grave with your darling husband. And little Joe will be mine. You should’ve known better Beth… you should never have chosen William above me.’
The stranger who hung up on Carl retreated deeper into the shadows when his own prey appeared. The disheveled six-year old child stumbled out the front door of the block of flats opposite the road. He could hardly keep himself up. Even from that distance it was clear he’d been hurt. His torn, bloodied t-shirt and bleeding nose bore stark testimony to what happened in the grimy bachelor flat he called home. As the child fled, he held his broken arm against his body. He staggered, almost falling over his own feet, towards the alley next to the block of flats.
The watcher stepped out of the shadows. He pulled the hat lower over his face and breezed over the road, his black coat flaying out behind him like the wings of a vengeful phantom. No one in the busy streets of the took notice of him, just like they’d taken no notice of the beaten-up sobbing child who stumbled into the alley like a frightened rabbit trying to outrun a jackal. The Shadowman floated into the alley, gliding towards where the boy lay shivering behind a dumpster.
Despite the fact that the child was constantly alert for movement or noise he had no idea he was being watched. He was lying down on his side on a stack of cardboards, clutching his arm and shivering. His dark-blonde fringe was caked in dried blood from a cut on his forehead, his baby-blue eyes filled with unshod, broken tears.
The watcher retreated to the shadows with a satisfied smile. ‘You shiver like the piece of garbage you are little Ren. Your step daddy’s doing a perfect job. I must remind myself to give him added incentive next month, to make your life even more of a hell than it already is. My plan is working out so well I can spit. Now if my crazy brother will just leave the Farrells alone and get on with the job everything will be perfect. Damn him and his obsession with Beth Farrell! I have nothing against them, yet, they are too far removed from the McFaddens. If Carl messes up however… I’ll keep an eye on things. William Farrell could become a problem. He’s too clever for his own good. You, in the meantime… living in a hell of my making. Perfect.’
Something willed the shaken-up child to move. He got up, still clutching his arm. He stumbled for the corner to clean himself up by the tap against the wall. The Shadowman watched the child for a while longer, watched as he cleaned his face with one hand and zipped up his jacket to hide the fresh tears in his t-shirt made by the man who had beaten him up. He nodded in satisfaction when he saw the boy heading in the direction of the nearest clinic. ‘Go get yourself seen to… that’s right… spin them the usual story of taking a dive off your bicycle, they’ll fall for it like they always do and they won’t ask about the bruises. They’re like everyone else in this city, too busy to give a damn. You’re on your own and I’ll make sure it stays that way.’
The only hint of the Shadowman’s identity came with a glint shooting off the diamond ring on his left hand where the fading light of the sun caught it. He stepped out of the alley and strode away in the opposite direction with his mind already on something else.
NOVEMBER 1987 – THE BRONX – 11h30 pm
Brad le Riche almost wet himself when the door of the flat opened and he saw the bald-headed man marching in with Ren out cold in his arms. The man’s six foot plus frame filled the doorway, his biceps rippled in the light, accentuating the lines of the colorful tattoo of a ninja warrior that covered his right arm from top to bottom. His cold brown eyes held no emotion; his thin lips were pulled into a grim, satisfied line underneath his black moustache and neatly trimmed beard. Brad shot to his feet.
Ren’s seventh birthday was a few days away. A month earlier, Ren had taken to the road. Every birthday in the past Ren had gotten a visit from the man in the shadows and his henchman, and Ren knew what was waiting for him. He did not want to endure that again, and then still have to face the wrath of Brad’s belt on Christmas day. He ran away, and Brad had been walking on eggshells ever since. He knew what would happen if Ren didn’t get found, if someone took pity on Ren and took him in. The Shadowman would not have been pleased and Brad’s life would’ve been brought to a very abrupt halt. At the sight of Ren, relief rushed Brad. His legs became rubber. He inched forward, hoping he’d have to endure nothing more than a good talking to. Just the thought of meeting the powerful fists of the big bearded German scared him out of his wits. Ren’s limp body hit the floor in front of the sofa and Brad dared to formulate a question. “Where did you find him?” he croaked, and the man replied while he marched to the bathroom. “Hiding in the Harlem sewers. You got lucky. You get to live.”
He switched the bathroom light on, his thick accent ringing in Brad’s ears while he walked to the light switch by the front door.
“If he went to a shelter and got to help... need I remind you what would have happened to you?”
The flat fell into darkness, the open bathroom door allowing enough light for Brad to see the figure striding in, black coat flowing out behind it, heading for the corner of the room near the mattress. This time, Brad did wet himself. He didn’t let on. The big stranger scared him, but never as much as the man in the shadows. Brad was whole-heartedly convinced that the Shadowman, as he called him, was Satan reincarnated, that he was all-powerful and knew everything. He wasn’t even sure the man was human, after all, he’d never seen his face. He opened his mouth to spit out an apology but didn’t get the chance. The hoarse, throaty voice of Shadowman filled the air while his henchman marched back to Ren.
“Ren’s been gone for almost a month... like Lothar said, you got lucky he never got to help. If you ever allow this to happen again, if he ever runs from you, I will have you killed. Believe me on that. You are expandable. As it stands, I will teach him a lesson. His birthday came a few days early this year and he has only himself to thank for it. Now get out of here.”
Lothar Gründlingh smiled in the direction of the corner, where his employer was hiding in the dark. He was the only person working for the man who knew his true identity. They’d gone through the same ritual every year, but this year the ritual would change. Ren’s attempt to escape the Shadowman’s hell had not worked; he was back where the man wanted him, and about to get taught a hard truth - don’t try to run, he would just get found and then he’d get hurt.
Lothar turned to Brad while he fished an envelope out of his pocket. He stuck it in Brad’s hand and repeated the order given by his employer. “Get out. You come back in an hour. Do not bother checking the envelope, this time you get no bonus you do not deserve it, you almost let him get away. If he runs again, you die.”
Brad almost fell over his own feet in his hurry to leave, shutting the door behind him, and Lothar cocked his head at Ren. Ren began stirring. The throaty voice hissed out the corner, “Get on with it. We will leave the rest up to Brad. After today, young Ren’s descent into hell will be complete.”
Lothar pulled the rope out of his pocket, humming an old tune. He never asked the reasons behind the man’s orders, behind the deadly vengeance stirring the man’s soul. He couldn’t care less to find out why his employer harbored such hatred towards a mere child. The man paid well. Money, to Lothar, that demanded unwavering loyalty on his part. He looked down when he heard Ren groaning, and saw that he was waking up.
Ren’s throbbing skull screamed at him when he came round, his hand flew to the back of his head. He felt wetness under his palm. Confused, he tried remembering what happened, how he’d gotten hurt. He moved his hand away. He looked, gasped; his hand came back covered in blood. Heavy breathing nearby snapped to his attention. Whispered words, menacing, above him, “Welcome home...” His eyes widened when he recognized the face in front of him, the cold brown eyes and the malicious grin. ‘Home. No. No, no, no! It’s him he found me he’s gonna...’
He screamed, one piercing scream of pure terror, and then he scrambled backwards trying desperately to get out of the grasp of the big man he knew intended to hurt him. A kick connected with his body. He began passing out but the big man he tried escaping from was on him. He got spun around onto his stomach and knew he couldn’t get away. He began begging, his begs getting louder when he felt his hands getting tied up behind his back. The next instant he thought he’d stop breathing because next to him he saw a shadow moving, heard the voice of the one man who scared him more than Brad ever could. Brad was crazy, but to Ren he was his dad and he had to have his reasons for acting the way he did. The Shadowman, however, he was a killer; Ren had seen the evidence of the man’s handiwork with his own eyes, heard the man’s menacing laugh in the background while he stood staring down at the mutilated corpse of the old woman who used to take care of him when he was a baby.
Ren’s breath shot back in a terrified gasp because a hand yanked him up by the hair. He looked up, into the cold gray eyes of the man in the shadows. Pure hatred gleamed through them, hatred aimed at him. Ren began sobbing through hard heaves for breath while the throaty voice of the Shadowman whispered in his ears.
“Looks like Reggie’s death didn’t teach you who’s in charge of your life. Well, this time you will not forget. Never try to run again boy. If you do, I will let Lothar kill you. To make sure you listen, Lothar will teach you a lesson. And here’s something else you will do well not to forget... I am always watching I see everything you do. There is no escaping me. You are in hell. You will stay in hell. Your life belongs to me.”
The man dropped him and Ren began sobbing. Through his terrified sobs he began begging.
“I... I’m sorry I’m sorry I won’t run again please, please don’t let him hurt me please I promise... please... please don’t I promise I’ll be good...”
Flashes began going off next to them, telling Lothar his employer had started taking photos. Ren burst out in tears, too scared to scream, too terrified to carry on begging. Lothar reached up, switched the TV on and turned the volume up to full. He pulled a plastic bag out of his pocket. Just before slipping it over Ren’s head he leant closer to Ren and whispered, “Du bist mein...”
11:55 PM - LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
Winter began creeping up on California, and the inhabitants of Los Angeles began feeling the chill. Beth and William sat chatting in the living room on that cool pre-winter evening towards the end of November. It was nearing midnight and the two boys were fast asleep in their own rooms, exhausted after a full day. William felt relaxed, not at all worn out. He’d taken a few days of the leave due to him, and being a Friday, he planned to spend every possible minute with his wife and sons. They had the television turned off, soft music playing in the background, and the lights turned down low. Both were in a romantic mood and William, catching the glint in Beth’s eye, decided to pour them each a nightcap before disappearing upstairs with her. He got up with all sorts of plans in his head, each of them involving Beth and their bedroom, but those plans got shot out the sky before they got the chance to bear fruition. As William reached the bar terrified screams “DAADYYY! DAADYYY!!” tore out of Joe’s bedroom.
Joe did not stop screaming. Not until the door flew open and the light snapped on. Eric beat both his parents into Joe’s room. The room flooded with light. Eric saw his little brother sitting up in bed with a look of pure terror on his face. As Eric rushed closer his heart threatened to fail on him. Joe seemed to have trouble breathing – he drew in hard gasps of air in short terrified bursts, but it didn’t seem to be helping. Eric dropped down on the bed and cupped Joe’s face in his hands. Joe’s dark-blonde locks were damp with sweat, his body tense and trembling, he hardly heard Eric speaking to him. “Joe? Breathe Joe... Joe what’s wrong?”
“D... da... daddy...” Joe managed to gasp out, his big frightened eyes fixed on Eric.
“Right here buddy... Joey, look at me. I’m right here...”
Joe’s gaze shifted to William’s face and the floodgates opened. He sucked in a deep breath of air and burst out in tears. William wrapped Joe up in an embrace. Eric rose. He turned to Beth. “I’ll get him some water...” he whispered before walking to the bathroom. Beth nodded as she sat down next to William and Joe. After a few minutes of crying Joe gathered himself and pulled out of William’s arms. He sat back, wiping his face with the sleeve of his pajama top.
“Sorry... I... I just got scared.”
“Scared? Why baby? Did you have a nightmare?”
Joe’s eyes widened at the mere thought of it. He yanked the glass out of Eric’s hand and sank the water down in a few big gulps before looking up at Beth. She hated what she saw behind those sky blues – terror that ran so deep she’d never be able to comprehend it. She caught William’s eye and nodded. She saw from the look on his face he’d taken the same guesses she had. Joe’s words confirmed it.
“I dreamed I was somewhere else in a small place like a flat... dirty... and there... there was...”
Joe hesitated, his eyes widening even more, and William put a steadying hand on his shoulder.
“It’s okay son... easy...”
Joe scrambled into William’s arms and spilt the rest out in a scared jumble.
“There was another boy in there he’s still small and someone was hurting him and taking photos of him...he got hurt real bad he couldn’t breathe because he had a plastic bag over his head he was crying so hard but I couldn’t do anything to help him then the bag got pulled off and he screamed and that’s... that’s when I... woke up.”
Joe looked up into his father’s eyes, searching for answers William didn’t have.
“What’s it mean daddy I don’t understand it felt like I was getting hurt and when he couldn’t breathe I couldn’t breathe and when that man kicked him I felt it why am I dreaming this it scares me so much but I’m not scared for me I’m scared for him and I don’t understand it?!”
“I don’t have the answers son...” William replied as he pulled Joe closer, “... I wish I did. Sometimes dreams just happen, and they don’t always have to mean something. I can promise you this though, if you ever have a bad dream I’ll be there, I’ll make it go away, like before.”
Joe snuggled a bit closer and whispered, “Can I... can I sleep by you and mom tonight? I don’t wanna sleep alone... please?”
“Of course baby...” Beth replied as she rubbed Joe’s back. “You don’t even have to ask.” She looked up at Eric. “Will you walk Joe to our room and stay with him until we get there? Dad and I just have to lock up the house.”
Eric caught on straight away. He nodded and took Joe’s hand. “Come on pal, it’ll be okay...” he said as he pulled Joe up. The brothers walked out, Joe clutching Eric’s hand as if letting go would kill him.
\William turned to Beth. “Another one of those... damnit I wish I knew what to say to him!”
“So do I honey. Whenever this happens he’s scared out of his wits for almost a week... where do these dreams come from?”
William kept quiet, knowing full well they had no simple answer to the mystery behind Joe’s nightmares. It didn’t happen often, as a matter of fact he’d only had five in the past three years, but each dream shook him and kept him jumpy and frightened for days. One particular dream, the one Joe had three years before, shot into William’s mind and he shook his head as he got up. “I just don’t know Beth. This one seems even more terrifying than the first one he had... the one where someone tried to throw a child of the roof of a block of flats... also a boy... there has to be something there but I’ll be blessed if I know what. I suppose all we can do is see Joey through it until the latest one fades... and wait it out for the next one.”
He walked out ahead of her, worried and shaken. She got up, her eyes dark with tumbling thoughts. ‘Dreams... like pa Antonio said ma used to have about people she felt close to. Maybe Joe’s like ma Joyce McFadden... some weird sixth sense, a connection with someone... but who? Pa used to say Joe took too much after the McFadden side of the family. I suppose it’ll stay a mystery... no easy answers. I hate seeing the fear in Joe’s eyes when he has one of these. At least I know that fear doesn’t belong to him. But whoever it belongs to, there’s a bond between that child and my son... one I cannot begin to explain, not to myself, least of all to Joe.’