CHAPTER THREE: SMOKE (4/4)

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In a flash, the stranger's empty sleeves whipped from their pockets and started wrapping themselves about Sol's hands and arms like a pair of ferocious snakes. Sol released his pipe as he tried to pull himself free, but the sleeves had already tied a thick knot about his wrists and rendered him powerless. The length of the coat, meanwhile, flipped up and over Sol's head and started wrapping itself around his body from behind, binding him like a straitjacket. While Sol fought to escape, the man's hat suddenly threw itself at his face.

Blinded, Sol screamed and thrashed, but the harder he fought, the tighter the coat's hold on him became.

"Stop fighting," said the man from close by.

"Leggo of me!" Sol shouted, unsure exactly who he was shouting at. Suddenly, the hat pulled free of his face, revealing a man standing in front of him in a sharply-pressed suit. He placed the hat calmly on his head, and it was only then that Sol was finally able to see his captor's face.

He was Chinese and half a foot shorter than Sol, but for every inch that Sol was taller, the man looked a year older. He had bright blue eyes, too—something Sol didn't recall ever seeing in a Chinese man before.

"Who are you...?" Sol muttered.

"My name's Arthur Goone. I just want to ask you a few questions, then I'll let you go, I promise."

Sol didn't know what to say or even think, so he just gave a small nod.

"Good. Now tell me what happened at the park."

"I... I was just passing through when I heard a noise behind me. When I turned around, there was a man standing under the Arch... H-he was covered in blood. I didn't do anything to him, I swear!"

"I believe you. Did he say anything to you?"

Sol thought for a moment then nodded. "A name. Wendy."

Goone frowned. "Wendy? You're sure?"

Sol nodded. "And he gave me something. I didn't want it but he made me take it."

"Made you take what...?"

"A ring."

Goone stepped back like he'd just been shot, his eyes open wide.

"He gave you his ring?! We have to leave—now!"

"You said you'd let me go!"

"Things have changed."

Suddenly, the invisible force that was holding Sol hostage started pulling him across the roof, his toes dangling an inch above the floor. He started accelerating towards the edge of the roof.

"STOP!" he screamed, but it was no use. He was lifted over the shallow wall into the air, and then suddenly he was falling.

Sol screamed as he plummeted six stories to the ground. The pavement soared up to meet him, and just as Sol thought he was about to meet his end, he slowed to a smooth stop and landed gently on his feet. Goone landed beside him like a cat that had jumped from a fence.

"We just fell off the roof," Sol said.

"Quicker than taking the stairs," said Goone. In that moment, a black car pulled up to the curb and its doors flung open. Sol looked at the driver's seat and was shocked to see there was nobody in it.

"What's going on?" he whispered.

"We're going for a ride," said Goone, and Sol was suddenly thrust into the back of the car and draped across the back seat. Goone, meanwhile, climbed into the front and tapped on the dashboard. "Let's go," he said, and the doors immediately pulled closed as the car pulled away from the curb.

"Let me out of here!" Sol screamed.

"Shut up," said Goone. "I'm trying to think—and you're giving me a headache."

"I'll give you worse than a headache once I get out of this thing!"

"Then that doesn't give me much incentive to let you go, does it?"

Sol roared his frustration. He looked out of the passenger window but was unable to see anything but the blurred passing of buildings. He was still waiting to wake up, but this time his nightmare seemed to have him well-and-truly trapped.

Fortunately, the journey didn't last long. Barely a minute had passed when Sol felt the car slow and he looked out of the window again to see the buildings were gone, replaced by a tree. It looked somehow familiar.

The car stopped and Goone stepped out, and seconds later, the rear door opened again and Sol was dragged back out into the world. By the time he was dropped back on his feet, however, he knew exactly where he was.

The Hanging Tree overlooking the Washington Square Arch had never looked more foreboding. Sol's eyes went immediately to the monument's base where he was sure he'd find a gathering of police about a body—but there was nothing to see.

The body was gone.

Not only that, but the place where the Indian man had fallen was covered by a blanket of virgin snow, as if nothing had happened there at all.

Goone tapped on the roof of the car and the doors closed as the car drove off by itself, passing under the Arch and disappearing at speed up Fifth Avenue.

When Sol looked back at Goone, he noticed he was now holding a large gold coin, twice the size of a quarter. No sooner had he seen it than Goone had tossed with his thumb it into the air, sending it spinning high into the night. It soared and fell towards the Arch where it passed directly beneath it and vanished in mid-air.

Sol watched with wide eyes as the hollow space under the Arch started to shimmer. There was suddenly a silver sheen to the space, like a thin curtain of sparkling light.

"Come on," said Goone as he started forwards, and an awestruck Sol had no choice but to go with him. As they passed under the Arch, the curtain shimmered and touched Sol's skin like a warm breeze.

The curtain faded, after which neither Sol nor Goone were anywhere to be seen.

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Thanks for reading! If you're enjoying the story so far, please do tap the little VOTE button from time to time and maybe leave a comment letting me know what you think. I welcome criticism in all its forms, so if there's anything you like or don't like, let me know so I can write the best story I possibly can for you.

Mike

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