Danse Macabre: Five – Vicarious Atonement
Alone With The Dead
by Andrea Speed
Five – Vicarious Atonement
The morning was gray and gloomy, the storm had moved on but left suffocating humidity behind. The air seemed as thick and saturated as a wet sponge.Gryphon felt exhausted, like he hadn’t slept at all, but that happened a lot. It was like he used so much energy keeping all these people with him, he could never keep up his own energy levels. Either that, or they were draining power from him to feed their honestly formidable psychokinetic powers.
Clay had made pancakes and soy bacon for breakfast, which wasn’t as bad as it sounded. Clay made his pancakes with carbonated water, so they weren’t as heavy as some, and instead of syrup he poured loganberry jam on them. Again, not bad. And the soy bacon didn’t taste like bacon per se, but it didn’t taste bad.
Clay’s kitchen table was tiny – it could barely accommodate four chairs – and looked homemade from some kind of light colored wood. Still, he easily could have bought it; Clay had some good woodworking skills, and probably could have made furniture for a living if he hadn’t become obsessed early on with ghosts and the paranormal. Now he just did a day job to fund his passion – it had absolutely nothing to do with skill.
Hugh must have told him something about the thing with O’Leary last night, because Clay didn’t ask. Instead, he told him about a phone call that Spirit Guides had gotten last night. “It was from this couple that lives in Salem. They wondered if we did exorcisms.”
Gryphon took a sip of his coffee, and then decided to add about a half a cup of sugar to it. Clay liked his coffee strong enough to peel paint. “They have Linda Blair vomiting pea soup at them?”
A corner of Clay’s mouth quirked up in a smirk. “That’s what I wondered. But no, apparently they just bought this old house, and it has a violent poltergeist in it. They wondered if we could get rid of it.”
“The usual. Breaking things, cracking windows, exploding light bulbs, slamming doors until the jamb splinters.”
“I take it they haven’t moved in yet.”
Clay shrugged, spooning more loganberry jam on his pancakes. Today, the shirt du jour was red plaid, and made him look like the Brawny paper towel guy’s cousin. “I dunno, I didn’t ask, but you’d think it’d be difficult.”
Gryphon cut a chunk out of his pancake stack, wondering why Clay gave him so many. Was he trying to fatten him up? “You take the job? ‘Cause I could handle that.”
The fuck you can! Hugh exclaimed. That bastard sounds way unstable.
I’m with the pretty boy, Ruby agreed. You’ve got enough fucknuts as it is.
Was that aimed at me? Ray asked defensively. Ruby didn’t bother to answer him.
Clay looked at him skeptically, brow creasing in concern. “Are you sure? ‘Cause from what you told us, you attract them. I wasn’t sure it was such a good idea since this one was violent.”
He shrugged. “Poltergeists are by nature violent. This one is probably just frustrated that their messages aren’t being understood.”
And some are just violent schmucks, Mr. Aronofsky pointed out. Some of them – and forgive me for saying this – but some of them deserve to be dead and stay that way.
Gryphon knew that; he felt he knew that better than all of them. But he didn’t say it, as he didn’t want to hear the responses from his crew. As it was, Clay’s continued scrutiny was bad enough. His eyes were full of concern and conflict, probably because his burning passion for the supernatural and the constant need for money were clashing violently with his fear that this was a psycho ghost that might attach itself to him. “Gryph, don’t you think … you’re dealing with enough?”
He ate a forkful of pancakes, buying time, but also relishing the taste of the loganberries. It was probably preserves, not jam, but they brought to mind the wild loganberries he’d sometimes collect as a kid. When did he last do that, when he was ten? Certainly before they moved to Edmonds, where every square inch was paved, and you were lucky to find a dandelion growing wild in the cracks in the sidewalk. Finally, he looked at Clay, and caught his eyes, holding them intensely. “One violent ghost is nothing compared to an insane asylum full of them. Lead me to the suburban ghost, Clay; I can take ‘em down without breaking a sweat.”
Or so you hope, Mr. Aronofsky insisted. You can’t get cocky, Gryphon, not when dealing with the dead.
Yeah, haven’t you learned anything by now, you stupid cracker? Taneesha taunted.
Would you knock it off with the racial slurs? Sylvio snapped at her.
Clay seemed dubious, but since he wanted to believe, Gryphon knew he’d get his way. “Are you sure?”
Don’t listen to him! Hugh shouted, making Gryphon almost wince. There was an odd noise, and he realized his coffee cup was shaking, rattling on the tabletop and threatening to slosh liquid over its sides. He grabbed it to steady it as Clay raised an eyebrow at him. “Everything okay?”
“I’m just arguing with my passengers. Nothing new there.”
He stared at him for a long moment, dubious of that, but eventually nodded and gathered up his breakfast dishes, getting up to put them in the sink. “They don’t want to do it?” Clay asked casually.
“They do, they just want to do it without me.”
What are you all worried about? Ruby wondered. I’ll kick its punk ass.
Funnily enough, that was something they could all agree on.
Finally, he asked the question he’d been waiting to ask. “You don’t happen to know of any abandoned stores around here, do you?”
He briefly glanced over his shoulder at him. “Store? Like a department store or a grocery store?”
“Yeah, anything like that.”
That made Gryphon smirk. “Is there a haunted one around here?”
“Not to my knowledge. But I’m not sure if I know of any.” Clay thought about it for a little while longer, rinsing out his coffee cup, and in that space of time, he recalled two, although he wasn’t completely sure if they were torn down yet or not.
Didn’t matter to him. Everybody needed a place to start.
O’Leary showed up less than hour later, dressed in a black turtleneck, jeans, and a black jacket that had some kind of official lettering on the back. He had a grim look on his face, like he was about to tell him his whole family had died in a fiery car crash. “Problems?” Gryphon asked, just out of polite curiosity.
O’Leary eyed him with a sort of bruised anger, like he thought he was being a deliberate smart ass. “I might need to take you in to make a witness statement. The team found Human teeth on one of the banks; they’re still dragging the river now.”
Gryphon nodded. “You’re surprised.”
O’Leary shrugged a single shoulder and looked away. “Maybe a little. I really didn’t expect a hit.”
“Are we past the whole “I’m a screaming fraud” thing now?” Gryphon openly glared at him until the pressure of his gaze on the side of his face made O’Leary look back at him.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Good. Now let’s go to Wax’s place.” He didn’t wait for a reply, he just tromped down the driveway and got in O’Leary’s truck. There was a faint smell of fried wiring in the air, and Gryphon figured Ruby had toasted some last night. Possibly on accident, and possibly on purpose – it was a kind of fifty-fifty thing.
O’Leary got in the truck wordlessly, casting a caustic sidelong glance before he started the truck. Did he think his people were going to start it up for him?
They were silent for the entire drive, and Gryphon got the idea that O’Leary was brooding. Why? Because of what happened last night? Because parts were found at the river? Both of those things? Neither? Because he still hadn’t gotten over being asked about being “touched by death”? Gryphon decided not to ask. If there was one thing he’d learned from the occasional cop ghost, it was people often talked to fill the awkward silences, and when they ran out of small talk, they could say something damning. Of course O’Leary used to be a cop and probably knew this too, so it’d be a waiting game.
In his mind, he pictured Wax’s home either being a creepy old shack – the Hollywood version of where convicted sex offenders lived – or just a quaint but somewhat isolated house (a tad more realistic), but where O’Leary took him to was a sprawling suburban housing estate, where the homes were all single level prefabs of the same basic design, and all painted in light colors that weren’t exactly pastels, but close. The lawns were all square and sharply green, and the street was neat enough that it had probably been recently cleaned. Why do child and family killers always live in places like these? Hugh wondered.
That’s not true, Mr. Aronofsky countered.
Hell yeah it is, Ray replied. I grew up in a place like this. There wasn’t anything else to do, ‘cept huff in the garage and drink someone else’s dad’s beer while they were gone.
Huff? Mr. Aronofsky asked.
Don’t ask, Sylvio said.
O’Leary drove them down to a pale green house at the end of a cul-de-sac that was , for some reason, spaced differently than the rest of the houses so it seemed to have a bit more distance between its neighbors. The lawn was a bit longer than most but still savagely groomed, and even from here Gryphon could see a whimsical frog planter full of ivy close to the welcome mat in front of the door. Hardly seemed like a threatening place, the former abode of a pedophile. “Who lives here now?” he asked, unlatching his seatbelt. “Have you asked permission for me to go over the grounds?”
O’Leary squinted at him, like it was a funny question. “You don’t need to go in, do ya? Can’t you just do it walkin’ around outside?”
Gryphon scowled at him. “Do what? What is it you expect me to do here?”
He wouldn’t hold his gaze for long. He looked away out the windshield as he shrugged and reached for the door. “Tell me if you get an impression that someone died here.”
“Someone’s died everywhere. Do you know how many people have lived and died since the beginning of humanity? If he killed someone inside the house, I may not know from the outside. I may have to go in. Are you prepared for that?”
He got out of the truck and kept his back mostly to him as he shrugged in a defeated, annoyed matter. “If we gotta, we gotta. But why don’t you try this way first.”
Fuck you, Ruby snarled. Let me kick this pocket dictator down, kid.
But as Gryphon got out, mulling over whether he should let Hugh take control for a bit – he’d be less violent than Ruby, but he wouldn’t put up with any bullshit – he saw an old man glaring at him openly from the far edge of the lawn. He was stoop shouldered and balding, with what appeared to be age spots freckling his mostly naked scalp, his watery brown eyes peering at him owlishly from behind large black framed glasses. “Get offa my lawn,” he croaked in a raspy voice.
“I’m sorry,” Gryphon said, humoring the guy. He wasn’t on the lawn yet.
“Sorry for what?” O’Leary asked, still sounding crabby, like he’d caught someone pissing in his Corn Flakes.
“I was talking to the guy.”
He looked around as he popped a toothpick in his mouth, chewing it anxiously. “What guy?”
The old man was still staring at Gryphon from the corner of his eye, and he realized with the slightest chill that the ghost had somehow managed to blindside him. He turned towards O’Leary to tell him that when he froze, mouth open with an unspoken word.
There was a man standing right next to O’Leary, so close he could have shouldered the big retired cop to the ground. He was young, maybe early thirties, with brown skin the color of milk chocolate, and close cropped curly black hair that was little more than a shadow on his scalp. His dark eyes were piercing and almost angry. “You don’t trust him?” The younger ghost asked, nodding his head in O’Leary’s direction.
O’Leary remained oblivious to this, and was now looking at him with a scowl. “What the fuck’s with you?”
But the ghost beside O’Leary said, “You think he’s holding back? You think he’s lying? Good. You should.”
Suddenly time seemed to jump like a bad cut in a film, and O’Leary was shaking him hard by the shoulder. “Ashmore, hey, you there?”
Gryphon shrugged out his grasp as the supernatural circuit snapped, and frowned as he staggered back a step, putting some ground between them. “I’m fine, Jesus.”
“You seemed to space out there for a moment. You get a hit?”
“Kinda.” Gryphon knew he wouldn’t like it, but he had no choice; he felt almost compelled to say it. “Tell me about Jeff McCandless.”
O’Leary’s pale, rheumy eyes widened, and his face paled in shock. Some people just didn’t like visits from old friends, did they?