I was out getting a cup of coffee when my cell went off. It had been set to vibrate so it wouldn’t disturb any of the other patrons. I sat my book down on the small round table, pulled the phone out of my jeans pocket, answered it.
“Hey Jack, how’s it going?” A guy said on the other end. The voice sounded tinny and distant, but familiar. There was a slight echo following each word as he spoke.
“Mike?” I said.
“Hey. Not much. What are you up to?”
A few seconds passed without a response. He started to speak again, but a strange static interrupted the sentence and garbled his voice.
“Sorry, I didn’t get that,” I said. “Getting some interference over here.”
“I said: Are you at home right now?” Mike said.
“No, just out getting a cup of coffee. I planned on heading out soon, though. Why?”
“I need to talk to someone that has their head on straight… It’s starting to get crazy here…”
“What? What do you mean?”
But he didn’t give me a direct answer.
“When do you think you’re going to be back to your place?” Mike said. There it was again, that faint echo behind his voice.
I glanced down at my watch, estimated how long it would take me to drive across town. “Oh… I don’t know, I should be back there in about twenty minutes.”
“Cool. See you there.” Mike said. Another round of static followed, this time so loud that I had to pull the phone away from my ear until it subsided. When I put it back there was only silence on the other end.
“Hello?” I said. Then, looking down at the small screen on the phone I saw “Call Ended” flashing. I closed the cell and put it back in my pocket. What the hell was that all about? It was time to go home.
* * * * *
When I parked and walked up to the front porch I saw that Mike was already there, waiting. He had taken a seat on one of the chairs I had sitting on the porch and was nervously smoking a cigarette. When he saw me coming up the front steps he rose up out of the chair and walked over.
“What’s going on, Mike? Everything okay?” I said. I already had my key out and was just going to unlock the front door when he stepped up real close and whispered to me.
“Do you see them over there by the corner? The big white van with the tinted windows?” He said.
I started to turn my head in that direction but he reached out and grabbed my wrist.
“No,” He said. “Don’t look over right now, wait until we’re inside.”
A slight chill ran up my spine. White van with tinted windows? I unlocked the door and stepped inside. Mike followed behind me and promptly closed and locked the door.
“Mike, listen–” I said.
“Wait, just wait a second. Don’t turn that light on yet.” He walked over to the west side of the living room and carefully peeked out through the edge of the blinds. “Yep, suckers are still sitting there. Come check it out.”
I walked over to the window. He stepped away and now it was my turn to peek out past the blinds. There was a white van parked near the corner and the windows did appear to be tinted black. While I was watching the brake lights flashed red and the van drove off down the street. I turned away from the window.
“Alright. So there was a van parked over there and now it‘s gone. So what?” I said.
“You don’t understand, man. That van has been following me for over a week now, wherever I go.”
“Aw, come on…” I said. I reached out and clicked the nearest lamp on so we weren’t standing in the dark.
“No, I’m serious.” He paused to look around the place. “Is Charlotte home?”
“She’s still at work.” I said.
“Good, don’t want to freak her out.”
“Well, you’re freaking me out! Now, I have to ask you, and don’t take this the wrong way- But are you on something?”
Mike laughed. “I was about to ask you for a beer, but no, to answer your question, I’m not on anything.”
“There’s beer in the fridge. Sorry man, had to ask.” I said. But I had known the answer already. I had known Mike a long time and had never known him to be one to use any intoxicants other than alcohol.
I sat down on the couch and watched as he walked into the kitchen and returned with two bottles of beer. He handed me one and then opened his.
“I really don’t know where to start. It would take days to explain it all…” He trailed off and took a seat on a nearby chair.
“Well, who’s in the white van?” I said.
Mike shook his head. “I don’t know.”
I leaned back into the couch and let out a long, frustrated sigh.
“Look,” He said. “I’ve been doing a lot of research these last few months.”
“Politics, geopolitics, history, religion, more… Most of it on the internet, some books.”
I frowned. “Nothing strange about that, I guess. You are going to college right now.”
“Yeah, right, but I starting figuring things out- I think. I starting playing “connect the dots,” if you know what I mean.”
I shook my head. “Not sure that I follow.”
He stood up and paced back and forth while talking and drinking his beer. “Does not matter! It does not matter! A couple of weeks ago I was getting drunk and playing pool at Jake’s bar downtown. Played a few rounds with a couple of guys. You know how talkative I get when I’m drunk… I was excited about some of the stuff I had been researching and was talking to them about it, and, well, things have been strange ever since.”
“Who were these guys?” I said.
“Again, I don’t know. Thought they were just a couple of jocks, but now I’m wondering if they were military, or something else.”
“What exactly were you saying to them?”
“It would take too long to explain, don’t have time to get into that tonight. What I’m trying to say is that everything changed after that night. The next morning Kelly fired me at work for no apparent reason. Two years there and she didn’t even give me a reason. Then my phone started acting up– Echoes and static and blank phone calls that don’t register on the caller id. Then the white van started following me everywhere I went. And now, just over these last couple of days, the man in the shadows has appeared.”
I laughed out loud, I couldn’t help it.
“The man in the shadows? Did I just hear you correctly?” I said.
“That’s what I’ve been calling him, at least.” Mike said. “I’ve started noticing him loitering around whenever I’m in public. It’s the same guy every time– Who knows how long he was following me before I started noticing!”
“What does this guy look like?” I said.
Mike smiled. “I managed to get a picture of the punk last night outside of a bar while I was smoking. I guess he just felt compelled to come out there and stand in the cold with everybody, since he was not having a cigarette.” Mike rummaged about in his pocket and produced his phone. He concentrated on hitting a few buttons, then walked over and handed it to me.
I took the phone and gazed down at the photograph on the screen. It had been taken outside at night, so the lighting wasn’t great. I could make out a guy wearing a gray baseball cap with a winter coat zipped up to his neck, some lights in the background, a blur of movement or something in the foreground. His face was fairly unremarkable and featureless.
“Hmmmm.” I said. I reached out and was handing the phone back to him when it started to ring. Mike’s eyes widened to the size of saucers upon hearing the ring tone, and I think his hand was shaking just a bit as he answered it.
“Hello?” A pause. “Hello!” He turned the phone off.
“Who was it?”
“Another blank call.” Mike said. He gulped audibly, then walked over and peered out of the front window. I was still sitting on the couch trying to make sense out of everything he had just shared with me.
“Hey…” Mike said.
“What?” I turned to look toward where he was standing, frozen in place.
“I want you stand up slowly and come see this for yourself.” Mike said. His voice sounded strained, full of fear, barely above a whisper.
And there it was again– That same chill running up my spine. I stood and walked to the window. Again he moved out of the way. I looked outside and my blood instantly went cold. There he was, the same guy he had just shown me on the phone, the man in the shadows, standing stock-still on the sidewalk in front of my house! I allowed the blinds to fall back into place and slowly backed away from the window. Mike was pacing frantically around the room.
“You have to be kidding me!” I said. “What exactly is going on here?”
“I’ve got to go!” Mike said. “Sorry, man, I should not have come over here…” He turned and sprinted through the kitchen.
“Mike, wait–” I said. He had already disappeared from view and then I heard the backdoor opening, closing. By the time I got there he was already gone. I returned to the front window and looked outside once again, but there was no longer anything to be seen.
* * * * *
The next morning I tried to call Mike and found his phone to be disconnected. The day after that I tried stopping by his apartment on the north side of town. No one answered the door and when I looked in through one of the windows I was shocked to find the room to be totally cleaned out and empty. Over the next few weeks I attempted to track him down through some of his friends and even went so far as to stop by his dad’s place– But no one had any more information on Mike’s whereabouts than I did.
Of course by this point [Now that a year has gone by without anyone hearing from or seeing Mike], there are many different theories on what happened to him / where he went, etc. I have heard them all and I always sit there nodding at the person telling their version of the tale– But in my heart I know what really happened: The man in the shadows made Mike disappear.
[Original writing & artwork by J. E. Lattimer]
© 2012, 2013 J. E. Lattimer all rights reserved