Danse Macabre: Eleven – Exit Does Not Exist

Alone With The Dead
Danse Macabre
by Andrea Speed

Eleven – Exit Does Not Exist

dm21.jpgOne of the cops got into the patrol car, an almost ludicrously small woman with her blonde hair pulled back in a short ponytail, and she glanced back at him through the shatterproof divider as she turned in the front seat. “Were you talking to yourself?”

“Yes,” Gryphon replied, not even bothering to be defensive. Either way they thought he was nuts: either he was talking to himself or talking to a ghost, or thinking he was talking to a ghost while talking to himself. There was no way to win.

She gave him a funny look, but eventually turned away and got on the radio, which she originally intended to do, ignoring him completely. He liked it that way.

He slept again, until Varner shook him awake. “Gryph, you wanna go home?”

“That’d be nice,” he admitted, still not fully awake yet. He got out of the car, and the cold, damp night air woke him up a little, at least enough to make him stop yawning. But Varner’s car was more comfortable than the squad car, which was a problem.

Still, on the way back, Varner told him that they found lots of evidence that they were sure would help identify victims and just maybe the killer. They were looking into who might have a key to the padlock on the back door, but since making a “dupe” (duplicate key) wasn’t that difficult, they didn’t think that would get anywhere. He asked if they found a finger, and told him it belonged to Anna Alvarez. Varner gave him a new species of funny look, and gave it to him for a long time, but eventually looked away and went back to chattering hyperactively. Had he been gulping coffee? He must have been. They probably didn’t allow Red Bull at crime scenes.

The lights were off in the house, save for the solar lights lining the drive and the porch light, so he tried to quietly sneak in and didn’t know how successful he was. But he didn’t hear anything as he got undressed and collapsed into bed, exhausted from speaking to the dead for too long. Who knew that would take it out of you?

Inevitably he found himself back inside the store, lit only be a Coleman lantern, as the killer butchered someone, cutting them up into component parts. But as Gryphon stood there, watching him perform his grisly task, he suddenly stopped, his shoulders tensing. He turned his head slowly, looking over his shoulder, his face hidden behind a mask that kept the blood off of him. Gryphon could see nothing of him but his blue eyes, regarding him like some kind of ghost, which was ironically appropriate.

This must have been a dream – there’s no way this could have been happening. And yet, he got the curious sensation of being in a room with another person. He wasn’t alone, and it wasn’t just his passengers keeping him company. This was weird, and it made his skin crawl a bit … but on the other hand, he got a sense that the man looking at him was just as freaked out, maybe even a little more.

“You better hope the cops find you first,” he said, hoping that he was somehow sharing space with the man. Although there was no way he could be. (Right?) The man just stared at him, his eyes cloudy behind the mask, but Gryphon sensed the turn of his anxiety, the clenching of his stomach. Somebody was talking to him; somebody was threatening him. A ghost.

He was being threatened by a ghost.

Gryphon was woken up by the pervasive smell of strong coffee and a rhythmic pounding over his head and against the glass. It wasn’t raining; it was pissing down with a drunkard’s intensity. It was a true Oregon rain, something violent and nasty and undoubtedly cold. The light was grey, like it was being filtered through dirty cotton, and it struck him as a tremendous day to sleep in.

Get up you lazy ass, Taneesha cracked.

Okay, so, maybe not.

He eventually stumbled downstairs to find Clay sitting at the rustic kitchen table, holding a coffee mug with autumn leaves stenciled on the side, staring off into space. Gryphon checked the clock on the microwave, and just as he thought, it was pretty late. Clay should have been at work at his day job by now.

“Something wrong?” he wondered, grabbing a cup off the mug tree beside the sink and gravitating towards the coffee maker.

It took him a moment to respond, his tired eyes sliding towards him. “Oh, yeah. My back was acting up again this morning, so I decided to take the day off.” Clay had hurt his back installing an air conditioning duct a week or so ago. Just a pulled muscle, but those hurt, especially when you did a lot of bending and lifting. His doctor had given him heavy duty painkillers, but he didn’t like to take them – which baffled Gryphon, as he’d happily take them now, and he didn’t have a bad back.

“Oh. If there’s anything I can do to help -”

Clay snickered, which made Gryphon give him a funny look. “What’s so funny?” He found the sugar and started dumping teaspoons full of it into the strong black coffee Clay usually made.

You ever heard of diabetes? Mr. Aronofsky said. You’re not indestructible.

Actually we don’t know that, Hugh said. He could be.

Don’t encourage him, Mr. Aronofsky scolded.

“You’ve done enough for us, Gryph,” Clay said, after taking a sip of his coffee. From the way he winced and set it down, it was still too hot to drink.

That gave him a suddenly bad feeling. “Did I get you guys in trouble?”

Now his snicker from before became a chortle, and he wasn’t sure how to take that, so instead of sitting at the kitchen table he leaned against the counter, out of hitting distance. “Far from it. We heard from Mrs. Bledsoe, the woman who hired us to exorcize Phillip Chapman from the house in Salem. She’s giving us a five hundred dollar bonus. She said you could feel the difference just walking in the house. There was no sense you were being watched, no slamming doors, no inexplicable cold breezes. She seemed stunned, like she expected us to be frauds.”

“They all treat us that way.”

“I know. But I think they must know they hafta stop now.” He shoved his mug across the tabletop with his fingertips, and then shoved it back towards him, the liquid equivalent of playing with his food. “We gotta call this morning from a guy down in Los Angeles. He offered to pay us to fly down there. There’s a mansion down there where a family was killed, and supposedly it’s a hot spot of ghost activity. And we heard from someone who works for the Fortean Times. They want to interview all of us.”

“The Fortean Times?” That sounded vaguely familiar, but not in an useful way.

“It’s a British magazine that deals with strange phenomena, but it’s not a tabloid rag. It’s actually very respected, a big deal.” His eyes darted towards him, almost bashfully. “Although the guy said he wanted to talk to us, I know he really wants to talk to you.”

“I’m horrible in interviews,” Gryphon said, shaking his head. “They want to talk about me, and I’m not about to expose what’s left of my family to this … stuff.”

You mean admit to them what you’re actually doing, Mr. Aronofsky said.

“And I can’t go into great deal about what I do. I mean, I don’t control this, I don’t understand this, I’m just a poltergeist “agent” whose best friends are all dead people.”

I ain’t your friend, Taneesha snapped.

Clay studied him for a moment, his expression unreadable, and Gryphon just knew he was going to ask him a question he had no desire to answer. Finally he did. “Why don’t you ever tell the complete story of how you became an agent? You start and then you stop.”

“Because I have to.”

“Why?”

“’Cause if I told anyone everything that happened that night, they might be legally liable, an accessory after the fact.”

Clay’s eyebrows lifted slight, and Gryphon grimaced at him. “C’mon, what do you think my passengers really want? To do things they never got a chance to do, or live one more day? They’re poltergeists, Clay – they’re dead as hell and they’re not gonna take it anymore.”

You stole that from Buffy, Taneesha accused.

Yeah, but it’s still amazingly apt, Hugh said.

Clay must have gotten his meaning, as his eyes widened slightly and he paled faintly, blood draining out of his face. “You’re – you’ve said they’re not all violent.”

“They’re not. But most of my passengers are murder victims. What do you think they want? Sending someone to rot in prison doesn’t feel like justice to most of them.”

Fuck no, Ray agreed.

I want to strangle Doherty to death with his own fucking intestines, Ruby added.

I wanna shove a sawed off shotgun up Dave’s ass and blow the top of his head off, Ray continued, as if trying to top her in a gruesome death competition. Ruby still had the edge, mainly because it was easy to imagine her plunging her hands in Doherty’s stomach and ripping out his intestines to throttle him. Ray was angry but had the unfocused nature of a follower requiring a leader – Ruby seemed more like the Terminator. She didn’t need a leader, just a target.

“Believe me, if you could hear them talk, you’d shit your pants.”

Clay looked like he wanted to say a thousand things, but had lost the ability to talk. Gryphon sipped his coffee while he waited for him to regain his speech. He felt bad for Clay and Shane, when it came down to it. They were true believers, guys who honestly hoped ghosts existed and went about trying to prove it. Now they had their proof, and it was so much more fucking scary than they ever credited it for. The dead were not a happy people – what a shock.

Finally, Clay asked, “Did Louis Stanhope really disappear?” His Adam’s apple bobbed wildly in his throat, enough so that it was almost hypnotizing to watch.

“Do you really want to know?” He sighed, and told him, “He’s missing. He will never be found. Leave it there and be glad you don’t know the details.” Actually he’d already been found, but since his body was burned beyond all recognition, it was just assumed he was a homeless man who accidentally set his squat on fire, and was dumped anonymously in a potter’s field. He would never be found, as he was already buried as a John Doe. For the purposes of the world, he was so gone he was barely even a memory.

Clay stared at him with his storm cloud eyes, wanting to ask more but not daring, and jumped about a foot when there was a knock at the door.

We didn’t do that, Hugh claimed, as others chuckled.

“That’s either Varner or O’Leary,” Gryphon guessed, wandering out of the kitchen to the living room.

Opening the door revealed O’Leary standing on the porch, looking sullen and miserable huddled beneath a yellow rain slicker that he had probably ripped from the back of the Gorton’s fisherman. He glared at him like the downpour was somehow his fault. “You ready to head out to Wax’s house?”

Wax’s house? Wasn’t that a horror movie with Vincent Price? Rather than lob out that bon mot – surely O’Leary wouldn’t appreciate it – he said, “Give me a minute to get changed.” Which probably should have been obvious since he was wearing blue velvet Old Navy “lounge” (pajama) pants with a little cloud and crescent moon pattern all over it (and they were about a size and a half too big for him, which just added to the general comedy), and a pale olive tank top that was also a size too big for him, which was doubly odd since it was a cast off from Clay, who had a similar bird like build to him.

These probably looked like a sleeping outfit to Clay and O’Leary, but it was all a ruse. He had slept in his underwear. He only put these on to go downstairs, so no one could see his ribs standing out in relief on his chest, or see the unexplained, oblong bruises that dotted his scrawny legs like the harbinger of the plague. It actually bothered him to spy himself semi or totally naked, which was probably a bad sign overall.

He left O’Leary dripping in the small foyer as he went back upstairs and changed into some more weather appropriate clothes, which was basically a heavy fisherman’s sweater that made him look like he was being swallowed by a rather large piece of a wool/acrylic polyblend, and heavy jeans that would weigh approximately a thousand pounds when they did get soaked, but would take a long time to soak through. He had a coat with a hood, but it was a dorky brown jacket with black fleece surrounding the hood – it couldn’t have made him feel sillier. But it was waterproof, so he couldn’t complain.

He went back downstairs to silent but troublesome tension, indicating that O’Leary and Clay had had a brief but awkward conversation that had left both of them feeling unsatisfied, although they weren’t about to spring the details on him. O’Leary was a big wet glowering yellow thing that he followed out into the deluge, and he had a new car today. No, not a car – a tank. Some kind of black SUV that he had to climb into carefully, lest he fall and break his neck while scaling Mount Vehicle.

Inside, the front seat – cockpit? – seemed vast, with a huge dashboard full of all sorts of displays and thingamabobs that he could only guess at, and the seats seemed to be made of black leather that squeaked under their wet asses. He began to think of A Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, but he wasn’t sure why. Rain pounded hollowly on the roof, sheeting down the enormous windshield, making him feel like he was in a deep water submersible.

O’Leary was quiet until he started the leviathan and pulled out of the gravel drive, but Gryphon got a sense that he wanted to tell him something, so he simply waited. When they were on the road, the whole SUV humming like he imagined a tank with great shock absorbers would, O’Leary finally said, “So … I heard you found that store for Varner.”

“Yeah.”

Thick, awkward pause. “Did he, uh … did he say anything about me?”

What the fuck was this? Was he a kid of divorced parents, having his dad grill him about his mom’s new boyfriend? Just when he thought his life couldn’t get more bizarre, it went ahead and did just that. “Not really, no. I figured out that he recommended me to you.”

“Yeah.” O’Leary studied him out of the corner of his eye, and did so for a long time. Gryphon tried to ignore him, figuring he wasn’t going to play this game. Did he want to know if he told him about the raid? If he told him that, in his opinion, that the entire strike team lied in their version of the story? He wasn’t about to say. Let him twist in the wind.

They drove out into the rural countryside, the green fields a pleasant contrast to the gunmetal grey sky, and Gryphon actually saw a wet, miserable looking cow. When was the last time he’d seen a cow? He suddenly felt like a kid on a driving holiday. Maybe weekend dad would take him to a petting zoo.

He turned down an unpaved, rutted road where holes had become surprisingly deep mud puddles, and slowly on the left side of the horizon a rather sad looking clapboard house started to come into view. It looked like it was starting to lean slightly to one side, and the roof seemed to stick out over the side in an ill fitting manner, like it had been removed as one whole piece and then slammed back down in disgust. It had probably once been white, but was now sort of a dirty snow color, the trim nude wood that had bled through the paint that had once been there. It was the perfect serial killer house, complete with an overgrown yard, weeds twisting around the body of an Oldsmobile that may or may not have had tires.

“This is Wax’s place?” Gryphon asked, a bit surprised. “He’s really let it go.”

“I don’t think child molesters are known for their gardening skills.”

“You’d actually be surprised,” he replied, knowing from sad experience that many were quite neat and tidy. Also religious, but that was another can of worms.

O’Leary gave him another funny look, but had to shift his focus to the dirt road as a deep pothole nearly sent them airborne.

It was then that Gryphon noticed a man standing at the edge of the yard, watching them drive up. He was deep into middle age, with a sizable paunch and a few wisps of meager hair covering a scalp with a waxy sheen. Oddly enough, he seemed untouched by the rain, and O’Leary drove so close to him he nearly hit him, but he didn’t move, and O’Leary didn’t react at all.

Didn’t he look familiar? Yes. It was Clifford Wax, with about twenty five pounds and several lines added to his mug shot. And oh yes, he was dead.

“Prepare to be disappointed,” Gryphon warned the ex-cop.

If he had been counting on a good old fashioned pistol whipping, he was gonna be so bummed out.

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