Danse Macabre: Four – The Outsider
Alone With The Dead
by Andrea Speed
Four – The Outsider
Gryphon found himself sitting on a curb, legs splayed out before him on the edge of a city street. He notice stubbed cigarettes in the gutter, crumpled beer cans, a used condom, all the hallmarks of a bad neighborhood or the area in front of a seedy bar. Across the street was the sad sight of a closed down store – what was left of its windows were smashed out; indecipherable graffiti was scrawled on the plywood beneath the frames – but it had a huge cracked parking lot, where discarded fast food wrappers scraped across the asphalt like tumbleweeds. There was a white van in the lot, parked across what had once been one of the traffic lanes, although there was no one else around to complain. The van was old and dirty white, but beyond that, Gryphon couldn’t begin to classify it, and parked the way it was, he couldn’t see a license plate.
He wasn’t sure why he was looking at it, but then there was a loud noise as the door was slammed, but on the opposite side, so again he couldn’t see. The van rocked briefly, and there was a noise, delicate and soft, of metal hitting the parking lot. He saw something small roll beneath the van and across the lot, reflecting sunshine in brief bursts. What was that, a shell casing? It was hard to tell from here. Was that door slam actually a shot?
He stood up, preparing to go across the strangely empty street and see for himself, when –
The truck cab’s door slammed, and O’Leary glared at him fiercely. “You hot wired my truck?”
Gryphon rubbed his eyes and found the transition from the dream state back to reality difficult. “I didn’t. My passengers did.”
He checked under the dashboard on the driver’s side, and didn’t find what he was looking for, which was probably exposed wires. He looked at him again with great skepticism. “How?”
He felt logy, like you always did when you didn’t get enough sleep. “I dunno. Poltergeists are energy, raw and unfocused. They can channel it, make it work for them. I don’t know the specifics of it.”
Neither do we, Hugh admitted.
O’Leary not only looked unconvinced, but stared at him like he was sure he was shitting him and having a good laugh about it. “You know you sound nuts, right? You don’t believe all that stuff, do ya?”
Gryphon just glared back at him and decided to ignore the questions. “Are the police coming?”
He grimaced and looked away, pulling out his keys automatically and then pocketing them in embarrassment. “I told ‘em you said you spotted a body in the river. The dive team will be out in the morning. If this is a buncha bullshit, I’ll bill you for county time.”
“You stop with the bullshit,” he snapped back, too tired to care. “You either want my help or you don’t, but I’m not going to put up with this skepticism shit. Either accept what I tell you, or leave me the fuck alone.”
You tell him, Ruby concurred.
He got an evil scowl for that, but at this point he couldn’t honestly give a fuck. He was tired. O’Leary put his hands on the steering wheel, but seemed in no hurry to do anything else. “Should I take you back?” he said finally. “You’re pretty sopped.”
“I can change my clothes and you can take me to Wax’s old place.”
Fuck you, Hugh said. Call it for the night. You’ve encountered enough dead people.
As if he heard Hugh, O’Leary shook his head. “We’ve had enough fun for tonight. Let’s start again tomorrow.”
Gryphon just shrugged. “Fine. The guys are being followed around by the t.v. show; I’ve got nothing to do.”
“They’re not following you?”
“They can’t. I make their cameras malfunction.”
He grunted and took the truck back on the road. From the noise the engine was making, it was running a little hot – too much spirit exposure, Gryphon supposed. “Just like you hotwire trucks, huh?”
Ask this fucker, Ruby insisted. I don’t trust him.
Gryphon suddenly felt sweat oozing from his forehead and wiped the back of his hand across his forehead. Funny how he was cold for so long. Ruby was getting upset, and the temperature in the cab was raising accordingly. O’Leary looked at him askance. “You really don’t look well, kid. You gonna puke?”
“No. Ruby isn’t sure she likes you.”
“And Ruby is ..?”
“One of my passengers.”
“Ah.” He smiled briefly, faintly, a quicksilver flash of expression. “So I’m charmin’ the dead ladies too, huh?”
“I know you’re trying to be funny, but this is no joking matter. She’s the one who trashed the interrogation room.”
He raised his eyebrows in surprise, but otherwise kept his eyes on the road. “So she’s a strong gal, huh?”
Let me kick his ass, she insisted.
“When you’re dead, gender is irrelevant. You could say death was the great equalizer, as everybody is brought down to the same level. The strength of a poltergeist is based solely on how angry it is … and Ruby is easily the most angry person I’ve ever met.”
O’Leary chuckled faintly. “You really have this spooky thing down pat.”
Fuck this noise, Ruby snapped.
The dashboard radio suddenly exploded to life, the volume all the way up to eleven, with Maynard Keenan shouting, “Go ahead and play dead” in one speaker and screaming “Wake up” from the other. Although the noise was almost deafening, only O’Leary jumped in his seat and let out a small, strangled yelp, as Gryphon was too used to this sort of thing. In fact it was sometimes fun to stand near the jukeboxes in bars and make them suddenly turn on, especially if they were broken or unplugged. That really freaked people out.
As soon as O’Leary recovered from the initial shock, he reached over to turn off the radio, and technically did, but the music was still blasting from it.
“He gets the idea, Ruby!” Gryphon shouted over the din.
The music died almost instantly, and the truck engine sputtered, almost dying. Ask him while he’s shaken up, she said.
A glance at O’Leary showed his eyes were wide and white, nearly falling out of his head, while his skin was flushing again. “What the fuck was that?”
“A Perfect Circle.”
There was the briefest of pauses while he worked that out. “Not the song! The whole fucking thing! What did you do to my radio?!”
“Nothing. You just pissed her off.”
He sucked in a hard breath and seemed ready to go off again, but stopped himself before he did. He was starting to realize what a disadvantage he had here. “I’m sorry,” he said stiffly. “That wasn’t my intention.”
Gryphon let a moment pass before he asked, “If I said the phrase “touched by death”, would that mean anything to you?”
He should have just had a befuddled expression crayoned on his face. Gryphon belatedly hoped he didn’t have a heart condition, as he would hate to add him to his collection. “What? Is that a joke?”
“No. Does it mean something to you?”
The truck rolled up Clay’s gravel driveway, the stones crunching beneath the tires like hollow bones. “No. Should it? I don’t even know what it means.”
Kid … Hugh began.
I see it, he thought at him. O’Leary’s hands shook briefly before they tightly gripped the leather steering wheel cover, and his Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat as he swallowed hard. What he had just asked him had unnerved him more than anything else. Why? Considering all that had happened, that was odd. So he did have something to hide. Was guilt driving him now? It could be a great motivator in some people.
As Gryphon opened the passenger door, he asked, “See you tomorrow?”
O’Leary nodded somewhat spastically, checking the radio to make sure it still worked. He clicked it on and some sports talk radio program came out of the tinny speakers. Wow – it hadn’t even been on FM. He wondered how Ruby had managed that, but how had she managed to do anything? It was all a mystery.
He shut the door and walked up the drive, the cold night air biting at him once more. There was a pale blue glow in the closed curtains of the living room window, assuring him that Clay was watching television, and hopefully wouldn’t bug him.
Gryphon went up the back stairs to avoid company, and stripped off his damp clothes as he headed to the bathroom and started filling the bathtub with steaming hot water. He used to have some shame when it came to stripping or going to the bathroom in front of all his passengers, but there was no help for it, and why was he shy about it? He knew everything about all these people, every single embarrassing detail of their lives and deaths. By comparison, he had little to share.
He sunk into the tub, briefly shocked by the heat of the water, but then it seemed nice as he slid down until his chin was submerged. He was baking very nicely; he’d probably be completely poached in a couple of hours. He closed his eyes and just enjoyed the warmth and silence and empty darkness.
Don’t fall asleep, Hugh warned.
“Just keep me from drowning,” he said, aware that saying that was probably redundant. Like they’d let him die.
There was some grumbling, but it was easy to block it out and drift away.
Soon he was in a darkness of a different kind. It had more of a restrictive shape, and smelled musty enough that he wanted to sneeze. His eyes adjusted to the darkness, and he saw that the floor was uneven because it was covered in debris. Broken wood mostly – shattered remains of shelves, split planks, chunks of random wood and scattered sawdust. Save for the debris, the place looked both remarkably dark and empty. Something made Gryphon turn, and he saw boarded up windows behind him, shattered glass glistening on the floor like spilled ice. Was this the inside of the empty store front he’d seen earlier? It must have been.
He was trying to figure out why he was here when he heard a noise deep within the building. He couldn’t describe the noise, but it was weird, and he knew that he wasn’t alone.
If this had been a horror movie, the wise thing would have been to turn to one of those windows and get the fuck out of here rather than investigate the strange noise in the dark and creepy place, but this wasn’t a movie. It was a message that someone was trying to send him, although in a deliberately oblique way. Gryphon stepped over rubble and made his way deeper into the empty store, trying not to trip on the leftover detritus and the occasional mouse that scurried from one piece of cover to another. He eventually saw a dim glow of light, and followed it to a corner where painter’s tarps lined the floor and walls. He saw the back of a person – a man; the shoulders were a bit too broad to be anything but a man – wearing what looked like a cleaner’s grey coverall and possibly a breathing mask of some sort. The light came from a Coleman lantern hung on a hook, and he raised his arms and brought them down suddenly, followed quickly by a dull, wet noise. Gryphon looked for blood, but only found a few lazy droplets crawling down the tarps, and starting to puddle near his worn tan work boots.
Sure, yeah, that would make sense. Blood generally only spurted in spectacular ways from live bodies. Dead ones still bled, but it was more of an oozing, gravity forcing the liquid out as opposed to a pumping circulatory system. He killed them elsewhere – out in the van? – and brought the bodies in here for dismemberment. He had much more room to work here, and yet retained his privacy. Of course that begged the question of how the hell he got in here, or even knew about his store. Where was it anyways?
He stepped closer, trying to get a look at the mystery dismemberer, but the breathing mask hid his face. That probably wasn’t a coincidence. The coverall gave no hints or clues as to the identity of its wearer. He decided to take a chance and reached for the mask, intending to rip it off –
– and was woken up by a rumble that seemed to shake his bed. His first thought was “earthquake”, but it faded away almost as soon as he regained consciousness, the grumbling fading in increments. Rain was now lashing the windows – real rain, as opposed to phantom rain – and a brief flash of white light painted the back wall in a vivid slash before dying away. Thunder and lightning then, not an earthquake.
It took Gryphon a moment, but he suddenly wondered why he was in bed. Wasn’t he in the bathtub last he remembered? You’re welcome, Hugh said. Oh, and Clay wants to talk to you before he heads out tomorrow.
“You talked to Clay?”
He didn’t seem to know I wasn’t you, so I just played along.
“And that’s all you did?”
Do you look like you’ve been clubbing?
Gryphon lifted his blanket and looked at himself, searching for a nightclub stamp or a tattoo of some sort. He was wearing nothing but boxer shorts with novelty flaming skulls on them, but nothing else, save for a couple of bruises and scratches from his woods adventure. There were no visible hickeys either, which was always a relief. Not that he minded getting some action, but he would have preferred to have been conscious for it. Well, in most cases – sometimes he supposed unconsciousness was a mercy, considering Hugh’s omnisexual nature.
“I guess not. And as it is anyways, I need to talk to Clay too.”
He needed to find out if he knew where there were some abandoned storefronts around here. Gryphon was sure he’d know the right one as soon as he saw it. Even if the killer had done a good job cleaning up the blood.