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Chasing the Headhunter
© by Gary L Morton
3000 words
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Russ Jameson looked across the city from the steps of the reference library. It was late spring and the heart of New Toronto rose up from a vibrant green landscape. Domes and the cubes and rectangles of high-rises followed a soft angle down to the lake. The sight was as nice as the fresh air. Russ preferred his hometown to all other atmospheres, even though he was a well-traveled person.

Reaching the bottom of the steps, he flipped his red spring jacket over his shoulder and strolled down the fused-glass footpath, feeling quite carefree as he unconsciously followed one of his shortcuts across the lush green-belt center of the city. He felt carefree because this was the first day of his spring break, although it wasn't an official break since he was living off a grant and advance he'd received to research and write a scholarly book. The work wouldn't make him wealthy so soon he'd have to decide whether to return to teaching or propose another book -- preferably a book that would involve some travel.

The walk added a rosy hue to Russ's face; he stopped and looked up at a corporate tower. A thick-lipped smile betrayed his wandering thoughts. He knew little about the real world of business and labor, and for all of his travels he knew little about the modern world. Most of his intellectual life and best thoughts belonged to the dusty pages of the past. He lived in two worlds and the one he walked in was certainly an uglier ball of confusion than he understood it to be. The greening of the city over the last decade and the ultra-modern beauty of its unique designs were all it took to convince him that things were on track.

He approached Bain Meadows inhaling fragrances that seemed to be the sweetness of life itself. A feeling of exhilaration swept over him and he broke into a run, following a path that snaked through a wooded area of the park before cutting a long curve across the wide meadow. Russ felt wonderful, like he was on top of the world with a second wind, drawn on to the future by a silver cord of power. He watched his feet race through pools of light and shadow on the hard earth path, then he raised his arms as though crossing a finish line victorious, looked up and let the leafy boughs of the trees sweep his mind like a fast motion picture.

One of the shadows unexpectedly turned to mud, he slid and tumbled on the path, and before he could rise, he heard a piercing scream

Jumping to his feet, he turned to the sound. A grassy dune rose up out of some tangled underbrush and two blurry forms were struggling in the sunlight at the crest. Russ had given his head a bad knock. He squinted, trying to see a bit better. The smaller person, a young woman with long dark hair, had fallen to the grass. Twinklings of bright light like those from a signal mirror were rotating in a circular pattern around the aggressor. Russ's head cleared some and he saw that the reflections were from a polished knife a tall man was swinging round and round. Splinters of silver jabbed at his eyes repeatedly as the man arced the blade and viciously struck the woman.

It was too late to save her but Russ still stumbled through the brush and up the side of the dune, ready to grapple with the killer. His eyesight returned, but a hot flash came with it and he fell to his knees. He got a momentary look at the killer's face and an object swinging on his belt, and then he saw spots of liquid silver as his thoughts fell away into the darkness.

Russ's eyes opened, he was on his back staring up at an enormous dark cloud. He recalled what had happened and jumped up. He looked around quickly, fearing he would be jumped by the killer. But no one was around. He figured that he must've surprised him and scared him off. The body of the girl was sprawled in the grass at the top of the dune. He didn't have to examine her to know she was dead. She'd been mutilated. Stepping closer he noted that she was wearing an open brown sweater and a halter dress. She'd been very beautiful and her death made him sad. He turned his gaze away and shook his head; he couldn't bear to look at her any longer. The knife was beside her in some weeds; a fancy hunting knife with a marbled hilt.

Sitting down in the grass, he thought things over, finding thinking difficult when his mind was overloaded from work and shock. If the body and knife weren't in front of him, he would've believed it all to be a stroke and accompanying hallucinations. It occurred to him that it wouldn't look good if he went to the police with a hazy description of a killer about his own size, age and height. They'd note the scrapes from his fall and think he was guilty.

He could show them the knife. It would have prints on it and prove his innocence - unless? Unless, and a scary thought dawned in Russ's mind. Unless the killer had wiped it clean and left it there to frame him. After all, he could've killed him while he was unconscious. Maybe he had left him alive so he could take the rap.

The more he thought it over the more he was sure that was it, and it meant his only option was to take the knife and track the killer on his own. A gut feeling told him there was no other way.

The whole thing had him spooked and more than a little frightened. He made his way out of the area cautiously, keeping off the path and in the bushes to make sure he wasn't seen. Reaching the meadow, he peeked from the underbrush and saw a sprinkling of people strolling in the field, enjoying the last days of what had been a poet's spring.

Keeping to the southern edge, he paced through a carpet of grass and wildflowers that hummed and chirped with life. It was a short walk to the university grounds and he got there without encountering anyone. He was sure he hadn't been noticed. Stopping beneath a maple tree, he shuffled from heel to heel and studied the ivied buildings. Finally, he decided to phone in a tip on the whereabouts of the body and go home. He had no real strategy and something seemed amiss.

Still dazed and haunted by thoughts of the body, Russ gazed out the front window of his house on Bedford Road. Orange light and cirrus clouds brush stroked the evening sky. On the sill, a framed photograph of his ex-wife, Marla, sat next to a miniature replica of a dinosaur skeleton. Musty odors of homemade for false security, his thoughts drifted away to better memories and then returned with a clearer view of the killing. The butcher rose up from a dark grave and loomed over him, seeming as near as the shadows on the wall. Russ became quite sure that this murderer resembled another member of the university teaching staff. “Paleontologist?” he thought as he stared at the skeleton. “No . . . anthropologist, that's it. He works in the anthropology building and I think his first name is Sheldon.” Russ took his thoughts back to a time when he'd been in the anthropology building for a meeting of the staff association. Sheldon had been there and had come across as a well-mannered, handsome fellow who was doing some work on African tribal societies. Sheldon could be the murderer, he wasn't certain. What he needed was a closer look. He decided to check it out in the morning.

Russ was furious, he'd slept in and it was now one p.m. His sleep had been dreamless, so he'd floated through the morning like a log, without waking. The radio was on and as he made a coffee, the news station began a fresh hour with the details of the killing. It was the first of its kind in the area and the victim was a student named Angela Wandsley. Speculation was that the killer was a strong male, young and with a high testosterone level and previous history of violence.

Splashing cold water on his face, Russ tossed on casual clothes, and then he phoned university information. His man turned out to be Sheldon Jameson by name and he still had an office in the anthropology building. Jameson was his own last name, and the thought that the killer could be a distant relative was chilling. It gave him a real case of the creeps.

He hurried out, slamming the door, and he looked like a man on a mission as he paced toward the university grounds. The streets were moist and spattered with mud from a strong rain. It was windy and everything that could blow in the wind was blowing in the wind. Once on the grounds he followed a snaking path to the anthropology building, hearing a bell toll three times as he reached the Plexiglas doors at the front. He knew the building fairly well, it was four stories high and shaped as a half-circle. A garden and patio were enclosed at the rear.

Stepping inside Russ checked the info terminal and read Sheldon's office as number 113. The odd numbers ran along the west side of the corridor and that placed the office at the rear of the building. He decided to pop around back and see if he could look in from the garden.

The wind and wet had kept the back garden clear of people. Russ slipped soundlessly over the interlocking stones of the patio. Vaulting a sculpted bench, he looked through a hedge and into Sheldon's window. The curtains were richly embroidered and open and he was drawn forward. Keeping to the side of the window, he leaned over for a good look. He didn't spot Sheldon at first, but the rest of what he saw startled him. The office was set up like a weird bachelor pad with colorful pillows and throw rugs scattered over the floor. The walls were hung with tapestries, devilish masks, shrunken heads, decorative hunting knives and bookshelves.

He was wide-eyed at what he saw and he jumped when he suddenly spotted Sheldon. The office was a bit below ground level and Sheldon was sitting cross-legged on a rug, right below the window. He was nodding his head slowly and he held a black shrunken head in his palms.

Russ stayed by the window, held there by morbid fascination. Sheldon's tangled curls shook as he spoke to the head. The window was ajar so Russ heard him clearly.

“You've got to come to terms with it,” Sheldon said, sending a chill up Russ' spine. “Then you'll realize that I'm the headhunter and you're the prize.”

Russ's memory returned like a cloudy sky and he relived the killing. What had been a blur was now a shrunken head swinging from the killer's belt. He leaned away from the window. His head was swirling with dark thoughts. The world, even his existence in it, seemed uncertain.

A door banged shut and Russ peeked back in the window. Sheldon was gone and he wondered what to do. Then the answer came to him, a voice in his head. You must chase the headhunter, until it ends.”

Jumping the garden fence Russ dashed through the bushes and flowers and around the side of the building. He stopped dead in his tracks by some sumac bushes and watched for Sheldon leaving by way of the front walk.

Sheldon's tall, slim figure appeared on the walk. He was striding along confidently, the fringes of his thigh-length jacket and high moccasins streamed in the wind. Outwardly, he looked like a handsome young teacher; inwardly his heart had to be as black as coal. Russ stayed by the bushes; he was riveted to the spot. A strong feeling of deja vu was sweeping through him with the wind, and he knew that when he put a foot forward to follow Sheldon he'd be repeating acts he'd carried out many times, so many times they were the pattern of the ritual he had become. A calm feeling entered him; it was like the calm that possesses a wounded animal when it surrenders itself to the fact it is being devoured.

A ways ahead Sheldon turned sharply and strode on into the strengthening wind, heading down a narrow path toward a stand of poplar trees and a mountain range of dark slate clouds that had risen on the horizon.

Russ' calm mood slowly faded, a strong gust of wind pushed him from behind and he raced off over the field in pursuit of Sheldon. The day had grown very dim and the trees were leaning in the wind, their leaves rushing in a wave of sound. Running with the gusts, he felt like an eagle, pulled on by an unseen updraft from the wings of the sky. Drawn to his fate by an evil power no man could resist.

Sheldon had gone out of sight in the distance, but Russ homed in on him without seeing him. Before long, he reappeared, and he was sprinting as fast as he could, halfway up one of the grassy hills that ran between the north downtown area and the summer fair grounds.

Sheldon made it to the top of the hill in almost no time. Digging in hard and lowering his head, Russ picked up speed, hoping he could get to him before he disappeared in the grounds. Reaching the bottom of the hill, Russ glanced up and stopped to catch his breath. Sheldon stood at the top in wind-ruffled ragweed. His arms were outstretched to the dark slate sky. In one hand, he held a shrunken head, and in the other, he held a long piece of fluted bone.

Russ was winded, his lungs burned as he sucked in air and the scene before him became more and more hallucinatory. The effect was hypnotic; he was drawn slowly up the hillside. At the halfway point, he stopped and waited.

Sheldon lowered his arms and looked down; his eyes were shimmering gold behind blowing curls and a pale face. His deep voice traveled on the wind. “Russ, dear brother! I took your head in Africa, to gain the power of your soul only! Now how can I work with your ghost always interfering! We are leaving this city! Your wretched spirit is too strong here at home! So come along Russ, it's time you came to terms with death!”

Sheldon lifted the piece of bone to his lips and blew. A deep, distant, hollow sound filled Russ' being and grew in strength like an earthquake. All he could see was the shrunken head, which was his own head, and stormy darkness. Then the bone began tapping against the head.

Russ knew it now, he was a ghost, he was incomplete in every way, and he wished to be either whole or dead. The latter wish was the only one really left, so he didn't resist as he was pulled to the top of the hill, the shrunken head, and what was sure to be an evil end.

The head grew before him, large as a balloon, begging to be touched. Without knowing why, he began to tap a finger on its desiccated cheek, and the result was black magic -- its mouth opened, the jaws of a monster, ready to devour him whole. He could only cower as it inhaled to suck him down.

Then he heard the voice again, telling him to chase the headhunter until the end. It was his own voice and it filled him with strength. Throwing his body into motion, he forced the jaws open wide and leapt like a tiger, straight down the throat of the beast.

Brilliant daylight arrived with the force of an exploding star. Russ stood at the top of the hill with Sheldon, and he felt whole once again. A blazing shield of sun shone in the southeast, and under the sun like a mirage were the steamy jungles of deepest Africa.

“Until it ends,” Russ said, and Sheldon seemed to understand. His mouth was agape as he watched the head crumble in his hands

“You're only flesh and blood, Sheldon. You can't fight a ghost.”

But Sheldon was determined to try. He drew his hunting knife and struck a blow to Russ's heart and it cut into nothing.

Still holding the knife, Sheldon fell to his knees and ran the blade across his palm, like he couldn't believe it hadn't worked. Blood welled in the cut, causing Russ to laugh for a moment before he opened his palm and revealed his own weapon. It was a weapon that Sheldon had heard of but had never seen. It was the deadliest weapon of all.

Sheldon's cries rang out on the hill, and traveled like frightened ghosts on the wind … a haunted howling that could only be the voice of a dying headhunter.

It was over and Russ Jameson was running, a shimmering ghost in the field. He raised his arms to freedom and victory. Behind him on the hilltop, a wisp of smoke lifted from a shriveled doll in the weeds.


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