The Stepping Stone Cycle

It’s been nearly two years since forensic psychologist Dr. Jack Carter’s wife, Sarah, disappeared along with his memory of the event. In that time, his friend and fellow psychologist Dr. Martin Dyer has treated the amnesia as Jack investigated Sarah’s disappearance. Recently, Jack has discovered that Martin knows much more about the supernatural occurrences Jack has experienced during the investigation. Before Martin can be questioned, he sends Jack to diagnose an elderly gentleman's mental state, sending Jack to a house in disrepair. Rather than an senile invalid, Jack finds a spry senior who serves tea that sends Jack into hallucinations before losing consciousness. When he wakes, he finds himself transported back over 100 years into the body of a grieving widower with a penchant for investigating strange serial murders that bear a striking resemblance to the murders Jack’s been investigating in his present. Set against the politically-charged New York City mayoral race of 1886, Jack and his host must solve the murder of a wealthy socialite’s wife before the anti-immigrant tensions of the campaign boil over into violent chaos.

Chapter 1

His eyes opened slowly to reveal a darkened room, sweat pouring from him, soaking the sheets despite the chill that permeated the air. A curious dislocation sank into him and he gripped the covers of the bed as if to keep from sinking through its surface like a drowning man plunging beneath the ocean’s obsidian waves. Tendrils of fear and despair seemed to drag him downwards as if gripping at his very soul. The first light of the early morning was creeping around the edges of the picture window to his right, but in some deep recess of animal instinct within, he feared that a look around the room would reveal not just darkness, but the vastness of a star-filled sky stretching outward into infinity. And yet even on the edges of that infinity, he could sense immense inky eyes staring down at him, through him, holding him in fascinated contempt and aloof disdain. Fear threatened to engulf him, and he could not gather his thoughts. His breath came in ragged gasps.

With great effort, Jack Carter fought these fears and sat up. The clock next to his bed read 6:00 a.m. The dream, if dream it had been, evaporated like a fog and gradually his panic receded as he got his bearings. It had been two days since the Walter Cosgrove case had been settled, a week since he and Martin had escaped from the ritual chamber underneath the basement on Hog Island. Jack had completed his report on the case and sent it on to Agent Bill West yesterday, so his schedule was wide open. A new ripple of fear shuddered through him. Jack had come to hate the days without the prospect of work’s welcome distraction. He had nothing to think about but his missing wife Sarah, nothing to think about but what a failure he’d been, having found nothing concrete about her disappearance in the entire time he’d returned from his fugue state. All he had found had been mysteries and inexplicable creatures whose existence caused him to doubt his sanity. He’d found no evidence to alleviate the suspicion that he’d been responsible for her disappearance. And now his friend and psychologist, Dr. Martin Dyer, who had supposedly been helping him regain his lost memories, had revealed that he knew something about those supernatural mysteries.

In the chamber under Hog Island, he’d had what he could only call a vision, an out-of-body experience where he spoke to himself in the past through another person’s voice. Martin admitted that he knew more about the creatures called servitors, and more about Jack’s memory loss than he’d previously revealed but there had been on time to elaborate.

Jack went downstairs and had breakfast, two eggs and toast with black coffee. He sat down in his downstairs office to think, and in thinking he brooded. An hour into his reflections, his cell phone vibrated noisily on the desk, forcing Jack out of his meditations. He had been staring out the window with his hands steepled underneath his chin, his thoughts cast back to that buried chamber under Hog Island. The beatifically calm faces on the children Martin had called servitors haunted him. What did Martin know? Why did he seem unconcerned with those children? Owing to the inquest into Evan Dudley’s assault, Martin had been unavailable for the first few days after Agent Bill West had rescued them from Walter Cosgrove’s makeshift prison. When Jack had tried to contact Martin after returning home, the calls to Martin’s personal number went straight to voicemail. His secretary would only say that Martin was unavailable with no explanation.

Seeing Martin’s number appear on the screen of his smartphone as it vibrated on his desk made him leap at the device, answering it on the second ring. His normally calm demeanor evaporated. “Martin! Where have you been? I’ve been trying to reach you.”

“I got your messages, Jack.”

“Then why haven’t you returned my calls? You owe me a very lengthy explanation.”

“I know that I do, Jack. And I will give you one, but not over the phone.”

“Let’s meet then.”

“We will, Jack. Tonight. We can have dinner.” Jack could hear hesitation in Martin’s voice, as if he did not want to speak the next words. “Jack, I need you to do something for me.”

Jack was taken completely aback. “I… are you kidding me? After all that’s gone on, you want to ask me for a favor?”

“It’s very important that you do this, Jack. I need you to do a consult in my place.”

“A consult? On what? You’ll forgive me if I think nothing is more important than what you have to tell me.”

“It’s for a friend. Well, the family of a friend. I need you to interview an elderly gentleman, a Benjamin Taub in the burbs out north. He has been house bound for a few years now. He gets a nurse to come by, bring meals, check his health and the like. His family would like to determine if he’s mentally capable of making decisions about his safety and well-being. The man is practically ancient, so diminished faculties are not out of the question. I just need you to give me an opinion on whether he is capable of living on his own or is a danger to himself or others. I warn you, he can be a bit feisty.”

“How is this more important than what you’ve been hiding from me?”

“That’s a matter of perspective, Jack.”

“Cryptic but unhelpful. Why can’t you do this? You’ve clearly placed more importance on this man than on me.”

“This man could well be in more imminent danger mentally than you are, Jack. I wouldn’t ask if there were any other way.”

“And you promise me we’ll meet to discuss my thing afterwards?”

“Yes, Jack. I promise. We will meet, and I will tell you all I know.”

Jack clenched his teeth, resisting the urge to tell Martin where he could shove this consult. His hand gripped the phone with a white-knuckle strength. Jack closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and sighed. If there truly were a senior in trouble, Jack couldn’t just abandon his duty because of his own issues. Martin’s secrets had kept for an entire week. A few hours more couldn’t hurt.

“All right, Martin, I’ll do it. But ONLY if you agree to tell me everything after.”

“I promise, Jack.”

“What’s the address?”

Chapter 2

The address was in the Brandywine Village section of Wilmington, in the northwest corner of the city. As Jack drove through the lines of single-family houses, he began to remember a few of them. He had toured a few of them with Sarah while they shopped for their first big home. The places had all been on quiet streets, just suburban enough to be peaceful but close enough to the city to make the commutes to their jobs manageable. They had talked so hopefully then, bubbly with the idea of an unrealized happy future together, 2.3 future kids playing on safe streets while their doting parents watched from the comfort of their upper middle class living. Without even realizing it, Jack began to feel the heaviness in his eyes that signified an impending torrent of tears, and he dabbed at his eyes. As he saw the beginnings of a tear on his finger, he suddenly realized this might be the first honest, unbidden display of emotion he’d felt since he woke from his fugue state.

How had it taken him this long to feel… something? Jack had undeniably felt a loss, a yawning void in his life that was only eclipsed by the void in his memories. The distinct lack of emotions, though, that had been more disturbing. With all the suspicions surrounding his involvement in her disappearance, his utter lack of emotional response had not helped to quell those suspicions. His dearth of feelings had disturbed him, making him suspect himself as much if not more than others. The revelation that Martin might be able to shed some light on Sarah’s disappearance, Jack’s memory loss or the supernatural creatures he kept encountering seemed to have opened the floodgates of feeling he’d been suppressing. Composing himself, he turned onto Concord Avenue and began the search for his destination.

On a quiet street full of houses of various architectural designs, Jack found the house of Benjamin Taub. Jack had to look twice to make sure the address was correct. Every other house on the street had well-maintained yards, shrubbery cut neatly, trees all trimmed to avoid power lines and overhang. The Taub house was a veritable jungle, a forest of overgrown, vine-ridden trees that seemed to loom over the street with intent if not to harm, at the very least to intimidate. Not only were the trees unkempt, the yard itself had grass that stood knee-high, at least in the spots that were not choked with vines and weeds.

The house itself was in a similar state of disrepair. Whereas most of the other homes were of somewhat modern design, the Taub house was a two-story Tudor plan, built in the ‘40’s, with few modern touches added since. The white paint on the facing had faded to a dingy gray in the places where it had not peeled completely away from the walls, the dark wood frame mottled and weather-stained. An upstairs window was broken, a fist-sized hole letting the weather enter as it pleased. Stacks of moldy books were piled up against another of the upstairs windows. One entire corner of the house was buried under a carpet of vines. The front door stood mute sentry to a porch covered in a bright green AstroTurf carpet, which had been rent in multiple places. To the side of the porch, a small garden was enclosed by a wrought iron fence where a dog was kept. A lawn chair with rusted metal framework sat alone on the porch next to a wooden rocking chair that looked ready to fall apart at the merest glance.

Jack parked his car on the street and stood, stretching his legs as he surveyed the house. Whoever lived there had long since given up any stewardship of the exterior. He walked from one end of the yard to the other on the street, and as he did so, a man walking a large white dog stopped.

“Can I help you?” he said, struggling to restrain his animal. “Calm down, dog. Be nice.” The dog seemed to pay attention only grudgingly, straining at its leash with a panting smile.

“Will he bite?” Jack asked, extending a hand.

“No, she’s fine.” Jack patted the dog’s head and she sat on her haunches, panting contentedly now that some attention had been paid.

“Good girl,” Jack said bending down so that his face was level with the animal. For his kindness, he got a giant tongue wetly slapped against his cheek. “Thank you!”

“Now, now, don’t give the man a bath!” The dog’s owner pulled her back with some effort.

As Jack stood, he said, “It’s fine. What do you know about the person who lives here?”

“Not much,” the man replied. “I only moved here a few months ago and all I know is what my real estate agent told me. Some old guy lives there. I think I saw him on the porch once. Think he has a dog, like a big German shepherd or something. For the first month, I wasn’t even sure there was a house back there behind all that crap.”

Jack chuckled. “Yeah, it’s not easy to see.”

“Anyway, the old guy probably can’t take care of himself and his family doesn’t seem to give a shit. I think they came in and grabbed some stuff last month, left some of that other trash on the lawn. I hope my kids don’t treat me like that if I ever get to that stage, God forbid.”

“I see. So, you haven’t spoken with the owner?”

“Nah, don’t even know what he looks like. I heard he’s a widower, war vet or something. Korean or WWII, not sure. What’s your interest?”

“I’m a forensic psychologist. I’ve been hired to assess his mental state, see if he’s able to survive on his own.”

“Oh well, ok. I hope someone gets him some help, if for no other reason than to get them to clean up the yard before the city condemns the place. It’d be a shame to tear down such a beautiful old house, even in the state it’s in.”

“I agree with that,” Jack replied.

“Well, good luck!” The man gave Jack a wave and continued pulling his dog along despite the canine’s clear intent to stay with the friendly man.

Jack took a deep breath and walked towards the door.

Dried leaves and dead grass crunched underfoot as Jack stepped onto the porch. He could feel the cushion of the Astroturf even through the soles of his shoes. The house was still, no movement evident through windows caked with grime. Jack tried to see further into the room to the right of the doorway but all he could see was the silhouettes of furniture and a ray of sunlight beaming into the room from the back of the house. Jack reached up to the screen door and opened it with a loud creak, its rusted hinges shrieking in protest. The inner door was the same deep brown wood as on the bottom exterior of the house, and it was equally weather-beaten. Though there were panes of glass on the door, they were so stained with dirt that he could see nothing but darkness through them. He reached towards the doorbell.

Just as his finger touched the button, a dog’s head appeared in the door. The German shepherd barked meanly at the intruder on its doorstep and its sudden appearance caused Jack to jump. The dog continued barking incessantly as Jack steeled himself and rang the bell. The animal continued its verbal assault, and no one came to answer the door or quiet it. Jack tried the door, but jiggling the lock only served to make the dog’s barks more desperate.

Jack leaned over the fenced in area to the left of the door, trying to peer into the windows to see if there was movement anywhere. He could see what looked like a kitchen. The dog, meanwhile, moved his focus from the door to the window in response. Jack tried the other windows but still saw no one. He surveyed the front of the house and decided to try the back.

The sides of the house were in similar dire straits to the front, with vines hanging from the eaves in alarmingly large bunches. Moss was growing out of the gutters. Another broken window on the top floor sat above a window air conditioning unit that seemed to be leaking into a puddle on the ground. Jack could hear its hum going full blast despite the late winter temperatures. He managed to make it to the back yard only to see an even more overgrown area. Trees shaded the back yard and the grass was so high that Jack was fearful of what might be lurking in it. Unlike the front, which had a concrete walk that led to the door, the back yard had no such path. Jack had to trample down grasses and weeds, tripping over more vines and getting scratched by low-hanging branches. The back door sat in the center of the house, forming a straight path to the front door, a relic of the house’s original construction that relied on air flowing through the center of the house prior to the introduction of central air conditioning. Though he seemed like an intruder by entering from the back, Jack had legitimate business in the house. He knocked, but when no one answered, and the dog did not waver from his post at the front door, Jack tried the knob. It turned, unlocked.

Jack opened the door cautiously, expecting to be barreled over by the canine any moment. “Hello? No one answered at the front.” Jack took a cautious step over the threshold onto a carpet so thick and brown it looked like dirt. The smell assaulted him immediately, a kind of musty combination of mold, rotting food, body odor and dog excrement. Though there was bright sun outside, it only penetrated the interior in muddy rays, leaving the rest of the house dim. The air had a stale, oppressive silence to it and every footfall seemed muted.

“Only the truly determined will bother going to the back when no one answers at the front,” said a gravelly voice. Jack jumped at the sound, so clear in the smothering silence of the house. The dog had stopped barking and began pacing in the front hallway. Despite the clear path it had to rush Jack if it wished, it did not seem to mind that he had come around to the rear. “So, you either want money, or you actually think you have a reason to be here.”

Jack got a look at the owner of the voice, who stood in the kitchen doorway which sat underneath the staircase directly beside the back door. Jack realized he had jumped to put his back against the wall opposite this door. To his left was the large entrance to the dining room, which overlooked the back yard. Beyond the dining room was the living room, with its window facing the street. Standing in the kitchen was a tiny, bent man, his age undecipherable with any certainty beyond what he would call ancient. Deep lines furrowed the sallow yellowed skin that seemed to hang off his bones like rotting leather. Eyebrows so thick they hung down in front of his eyes had the color of silver shot through with a bluish gray. His brow itself was so heavy that Jack found it impossible to see the whites of the man’s eyes especially with his stooping posture. He had no walker or cane yet seemed to be held up by his hands which were placed in front of him as he walked. Walking was overstating it – his gait was more like a shuffle of feet with almost no distance between each step. A days-old growth of stubble in various shades of salt and pepper dotted the man’s face.

“Mr. Taub?”

“Taub? Sure, why not. That’s as good a name as any.” Taub shuffled across the hallway in front of Jack and into the dining room. He pointed a finger at the dog as he did so. “Sit,” was all he said. The dog seemed to nod its head and strode silently into the living room, panting contentedly as if proud of the job he had done. “Tea’s in the living room if you’d like some. It’s quite good.”

Flabbergasted, Jack just watched the elder’s stooped back as he shuffled through the dining room and into the living room. Jack covered his mouth as a tiny bubble of gas emerged from his stomach, the queasiness from the house’s smell getting to him. With a deep breath, he followed the man into the living room.

Lying before the front window was a massive couch, its back high enough to obscure a quarter of the window. What Jack could see of the couch made him afraid of sitting on it. Wads of dog hair stuck to the ratty fabric, and holes in various places had the look of a bored canine’s work. Taub shuffled his way to a high-backed chair nearest the dining room and sat with an exhausted grunt. The muted sunlight pouring in from the western windows on the back side of the house highlighted the chair’s ruined upholstery, a series of claw marks from the chair’s crest to its seat showing the stuffing beneath. Dust rose in drifting clouds as Taub settled in to the seat. An identical chair sat directly across from Taub and between the two was a small circular table with a marble top. On this table rested a stained china tea set, steam pouring from the pot. Taub picked up a tea towel and gripped the pot’s handle, lifting it with a shaking hand. Jack tried to reach across the man to rescue the pot, but Taub ignored his attempts and poured a trembling cup for himself, spilling drops all around the cup before leaning across and doing the same for Jack’s cup. “Sit, Dr. Carter,” Taub said. Jack did as he was commanded almost unconsciously, still somewhat dazed.

As he settled into the chair with an odor-filled, gagging cloud of dust settling around him, Jack finally realized he’d been called by name. “Wait, you know my name?”

“Oh, Dr. Carter, of course we do. You think you are a forensic psychologist here to determine my mental capability to care for myself, when what you really are is a lost soul wandering through time and space, unable to settle upon a body to inhabit.”

The air seemed to dim further as if a cloud had covered the sun. “Dr. Martin Dyer sent me.”

Taub placed the tea pot on the table, looked up at Jack and smiled. “Yes, he did. I see that his concerns were not unfounded.” The man’s eyes were dark. Perhaps it was the lack of light in the house, perhaps it was just Jack’s surprise, but it seemed like he had no iris, only the giant, dilated darkness of the pupil threatening to swallow all light.

“Yes, he seemed very concerned that you could not take care of yourself and I see by the state of the house that he may be correct. Do you have anyone to help you maintain this place?”

“My wife, she died many ages ago, she would do her damnedest to keep this place straight. I’m afraid it has fallen into disrepair since, but it still serves its function. The outside stays on the outside and the inside is warm enough even in the worst of storms. Drink your tea, Dr. Carter. It will help ward off the chill.”

Upon entering, the interior of the house had been oppressively hot, almost muggy. Now, Jack felt a chill unlike anything he’d ever experienced, a bone-freezing cold that seemed to have no external source. The sun still shone outside though it looked more like late afternoon than just prior to lunchtime. Jack looked down and saw the steam rising from the tea and took a drink despite not being thirsty. It did immediately warm his bones and he felt a calmness emanate from that growing radiance in his stomach. A tiredness, a lethargy began to creep into his limbs then and he sat back in the chair despite its dirtiness.

“Why do I feel so tired?”

“Why indeed? It has been a long year has it not?”

“Yes, yes it has.” Something occurred to Jack then, but he couldn’t quite grasp its reality. “Did you drug me?”

“Yes, in a manner of speaking. The Natives here used to brew this tea out of the distilled dreams of their children. It’s quite intoxicating if you’ve never had it before. I went with the Earl Grey myself but then I’ve no need to travel.”

Jack’s concentration drifted, and he started to feel a languid heaviness in his limbs. Taub sipped his tea so loudly it seemed to dominate the environment so that all he could hear was the old man’s ragged breathing. A phlegmy rattle made Jack’s ear drums ache. A headache began to develop in the center of his forehead and Jack reached up to rub the pain away. Rather than dry skin, Jack felt a wetness on his forehead and his eyes began to water as if he’d poked at them with his fingers. His vision swam. The house swirled around him and disappeared, its walls melting to reveal not the early morning sun but the dark sackcloth of the night sky. Blinking, he shook his head to regather himself but the dizziness that accompanied the motion made his lids that much heavier. All around he could feel the sensation of being watched, of being the center of attention of something outside of himself, something that surrounded the edges of his perception at immeasurable distances and falling backwards into some universal pool of perception. Jack closed his eyes and let one last breath exhale, a sighing sound that vibrated through his entire being.

Jack woke with a start to the sound of a tinny clang. The tea set had been removed from the table between them and Taub had slammed an unidentifiable metal device in its place loudly. “You probably don’t remember this device.” Jack tried in vain to get a grasp of what it was. It seemed an indiscriminate collection of gears and levers and angles all mashed together with nothing but imagination. Some of its tinier gears had already begun whirring with barely audible tinks. “It’s not fully charged, not like the one you would have seen but it’s been fed enough for our purposes today.”

Jack felt the ground move underneath him and he gripped the arms of the chair with white knuckled desperation. “What’s happening?”

“Not much, just the house moving. Preparing itself as it were. Everything is fine, this is perfectly normal.” Taub adjusted some sort of switch on his side, running his finger along the edge of a gear to send it spinning. “Dr. Carter, I’m not sure where this will send you, but you must understand, wherever it is, whenever it is, that place is where you are supposed to be. You are needed there for something.”

“Am I going somewhere?”

“Something like that.”

Jack looked around drunkenly, his head lolling on his shoulders and growing heavier with every turn. The sunlight was gone, each of the windows he saw completely dark. No, not completely. Against the darkness twinkled tiny stars as if the house itself floated in its own sea of cosmic byways. A nebula drifted by. Jack began to panic. “What’s happening to me?” he shouted. Jack struggled to his feet, trying in vain to shake off the dizziness and fatigue. He ran for the back door, slamming into and off the walls as he did so. Finally, his hand gripped the knob and he turned it, wrenching the door open so hard he thought it might be pulled from its hinges. The backyard was gone. In its place, the house floated in inky space, comets and galaxies and clusters of stars up, down, left, right and every other direction Jack looked.

“You are a soul floating through time and space without a body, Dr. Jack Carter,” Taub said ominously as he shuffled up behind Jack and put a hand on his shoulder. “Time you found one.”

With that, Taub shoved Jack into the void.