Danse Macabre: Fourteen – The Suffering

Alone With The Dead
Danse Macabre
by Andrea Speed

Fourteen – The Suffering

dm7.jpgOn the way back home – well, his home for now – he stopped to get some fast food, mainly because he felt so tired he wasn’t sure he’d stay awake on the drive. It was kind of pathetic, but what could you do? Apparently threatening to kill someone wasn’t enough to keep him awake anymore.

But Gryphon was allowed one of those moments that he’d come to cherish, a moment when his Greek chorus of the damned fell mercifully silent. He got to hear the white noise hum inside his head, the emptiness where thoughts should be. Of course he had none; he felt hollowed out, flushed, wiped clean. The crowds of people who had shared space inside him had carved away pieces of himself until he had nothing stored up anymore. But again, that was okay. He found he preferred the silent nothingness, as he so very rarely had it.

Once he got home, he went straight to his room for a nap, and promptly had a dream.

He was sitting in a chair outside a changing room in a small clothing boutique that looked kind of familiar, although he couldn’t remember the last time he shopped for couture dresses. Soft music played in the background, and the air smelled vaguely of vanilla and linen. As he sat, waiting to see what happened, a kind of dowdy salesclerk walked by, hanging up dresses and slacks that women had decided not to purchase. He recognized her as Julie, and realized what was going on. “Something bothering you, Julie?” he wondered.

Again, this was not like her. She didn’t talk much; she kept to herself. She was the perfect backseat driver in that you often forgot she was there. She paused by the racks and seemed to look at him reluctantly, as if he was invading her sanctuary. “Why do people do this?” she asked.

What the hell ..? “Do what?”

She made vague gestures that meant absolutely nothing, then gave up with a sigh and let her arms collapse to her sides. “Hurt each other. All we seem to do is find people that hurt each other.” She paused briefly. “Men. Men who hurt women.”

“Sometimes they hurt other men too. And kids. And sometimes pets.” Her facial expression grew increasingly stark, suggesting this was the wrong tack to take. “Look, I don’t know what to tell you. Except occasionally we run into a woman who’s done something awful. They just have a tendency not to be serial killers – that’s more of a man hobby.”

Her eyes flashed briefly with pent up aggression. “Why?” This is what bothered him about Julie: he always got the sense she was a time bomb, an accident waiting to happen. And who would blame her? Beaten to death by a husband she had grown to hate. She was one of those people you could describe as “She was always so quiet” when the news crews came around to ask you if you knew your neighbor was going to go off and shoot up a mall. She was the perfect picture of a person pre psychotic break.

“I don’t know. One almost killed me too, you know. It’s just … there’s a lot of sick people in this world. I don’t need to tell you that.”

Julie turned away in disgust, fussing pointlessly with a rack of dresses. “But why?”

“I don’t know. If I knew, maybe I could prevent it somehow. As it is, all I can do is clean up the mess that they are. And, you know, if given a choice, I wouldn’t even do that. I always wanted to be a slacker.”

She didn’t appreciate his attempt at humor (or was it honesty? Being a slacker sounded great) as she turned away even more and went off to find something else to do. “I just want it to stop,” she said so quietly he could barely hear her. “I don’t know why I’m still here.”

Before he could answer her – well, no, before he could think of an answer for her – a phone rang, drawing his attention away. As soon as he realized there was no obvious phone within the boutique, the dream tore around him, fractioning like a pane of glass, and he woke up blinking into his pillow. The phone kept ringing, and cursing at it didn’t make it stop.

Finally he crawled out of bed and found the phone, and made a gravelly noise that could have been interpreted as “Hello”. “Are you okay?” Varner asked.

“Fine. I’m just tired,” he muttered, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

“I bet.” He said it in such a way that he implied he wasn’t sure how he ever got up. Or maybe he was reading too much into it.

“Look, I only called to let you know that you’re off the hook for today; I don’t think I’m going to need you. We’re still running the partial print, and we’re getting stick from the real estate place in charge of the store’s lot.”

“Stick? Why?” Gryphon remembered he went to sleep damp, which might explain why the sheets were clinging to him like cellophane. It felt like they were trying to hold him down, and he could barely move.

“Supposedly the boss of Sunshine Realty is away on vacation, and the sycophant who’s filling in for him isn’t sure he can release the records of everyone who might have had access to the property without his blessing. Can you believe that? People have been killed and chopped up on the property, and this fuck’s worried his boss’ll be mad if he gives us the information.” Varner snorted derisively, and he heard a faint thunk, like he’d just slammed something down on his desk. He imagined it was a coffee mug. “I told him this guy could kill in the meantime, he could flee the state, and this moron tells me it’s all “hypothetical”, and his job isn’t. I’m runnin’ this guy’s record – he’s gotta have a parking ticket or something I can harass him about.”

“Death is an abstract thing when it happens to strangers.”

Varner paused for a moment. “I don’t know if that’s philosophical or monstrously depressing.”

“Probably both.”

Varner grunted. “Probably.”

There wasn’t much else to their conversation, although Gryphon offered to pay him a visit and scare the shit out of him. Jason thanked him and turned him down … for the moment. He said he’d get back to him.

Gryphon didn’t feel like sleeping anymore, so he peeled himself out of the blankets and went to take a hot bath. He sat in the tub until he could feel the warmth in his bones, and then he dried off and found some warm clothes to wear. Since his chorus remained blissfully silent – maybe they were tired too – he decided to go downstairs and try the computer.

He didn’t do it a lot for obvious reasons, but when he got to, it was a fun time waster. Thanks to his passengers he knew of a lot of porn sites, but there was no way he could visit them with a crowd looking over his shoulder and commenting. It was just too weird.

Spirit Guides did have an email address accessible to them all, but Gryphon never liked to check it. After all, now that they were starting to get well known, people were starting to email him, wanting him to make contact with their dead son or grandmother, not understanding that wasn’t how his abilities worked at all, and he was not some comforting con man who asked a handful of leading questions and then told them what they wanted to hear. He was rarely the harbinger of good news. How could an angel of death ever be good news?

Tad dramatic there, sport, Hugh said.

Perhaps. But if he wasn’t an angel of death, what was he?

Out of curiosity, he entered Sunshine Realty into a search engine, and finally narrowed down the categories to Oregon (he hadn’t expected so many Sunshine Realties). He checked out the website of two that were closest in the area to the store, and they were very basic, unimpressive things. There were small pictures and descriptions of homes and apartments and other properties available in the area, from run down trailers to million dollar condos. (The latter of which always baffled him. If you had a million bucks to drop on a home, why the fuck would you do it on a condo?)

Eventually he skipped over to the realtors page, and saw that the Sunshine people wore ugly mustard yellow jackets and similar empty smiles, making them look like Stepford real estate agents. You might by a home from them, but only out of fear that they’d lay an egg in your chest if you didn’t.

His eyes glided over the eerie, insincere smiles (although the vaguely sincere smiles were honestly creepier), and then something made him stop scrolling down the page. It was a thumbnail sized photo of an agent named Harold Cook, who had an almost perfectly capsule shaped head, highlighted by the fact that he was one of those bald guys who shaved their wispy strands off in the hopes that people would think they were trying to be cool, not trying to hide a lack of follicles. He had a long chin, pointed, which added to the capsule look, and his eyes were almost lost beneath beetled brows that suggested his hair, when it existed, was a sort of blondish-brown.

He looked so bland, so ordinary, he blended in well with the page. Gryphon wasn’t sure why he’d stopped here, and then he realized it was the eyes. He’d seen those eyes looking at him through a visor worn over his face to protect him from the blood splatter. This was him; this was the river killer.

The screen fuzzed and jumped like a t.v. with poor reception, and Gryphon pushed himself away from Clay’s desk, the wheeled chair carrying him across the room until he slammed into the far wall. The computer looked okay, but who knew for how long?

Call Varner, Mr. Aronofsky insisted. Let him bring him in.

“That isn’t what they want,” Gryphon told him, returning to his room to grab his coat and car keys, and put some dry shoes on. “Besides, I found him first.”

He was in the phone book, and why not? It wasn’t like serial killers would get special private numbers. They were psychopaths with some concept of normalcy – they didn’t like it, but they knew they had to pretend to be like everyone else, to be anonymous, to hide their fixations to get away with it. If they blatantly flaunted their preoccupations, they’d be caught quickly. To keep killing, they had to pretend they were so average you’d never notice them. How awful that must have been for them, to hide in the closet like boogeymen, and pretend to feel things like everyone else. They probably would have made fabulous actors if killing people didn’t give them such a hard on.

He almost called his number, but when he picked up the handset, he heard static crackle like tin foil, and knew his power was building up. It was mainly Ruby, of course, seething just below the surface, but no one was too thrilled with the idea of a serial killer. They and the pedophiles just didn’t have a huge fan club.

Gryphon drove out to the address listed with his phone number in the book, as it was only a few miles away. He lived in a leafy suburb known as Deer Point, in a two story pre-fab house painted a delicate blue-grey, with a neatly trimmed lawn and sparkling clean driveway. Children’s toys were scattered about the lawn, and Gryphon stood in the driveway before becoming aware of the voices of children and a woman inside the house, along with the sound of a television.

He didn’t need to go up and knock on the door to know Harold wasn’t here. Somehow he sensed his target, the man he wanted, wasn’t within his range. He didn’t know how he knew this, except death recognized death; his ghosts would let him know where there were others. And Harold probably didn’t know it, but he was leading a ghost parade.

Gryphon drove out to the Sunshine Realty office that employed Harold, but he wasn’t there either. He sat in his car, frustrated, wondering where this fuck could be, when Ruby said, He’s hunting. You know where he likes to hunt. Go meet him there.

Of course. In retrospect, it was totally obvious.

He drove back to the bad side of town, where the store was, and even though the parking lot was still cordoned off with crime scene tape, he idled in the lot for a moment, until Anna appeared in the passenger seat, blood still running down the center of her face, dripping off her chin. “What’s up, chico?”

“Show me where he picked you up.”

She shrugged, looking out the passenger window before pointing down the street. “Go that way.”

He did. He followed her instructions, driving deeper into the sad part of town, the place where nobody came unless they absolutely had to, or was a psychopath hunting for an easy kill. Just beyond the corner where he picked up Anna was a very seedy looking bar, small and dark, set squat in a building that used to be a hotel and was now … well, who the hell knew, the signs were contradictory and unilluminating. The windows were dirty, beer bottle brown, and a lower pane in the chocolate bar shaped window had been smashed and “replaced” with plastic wrap taped in a thick layer on the inside.

Gryphon felt drawn to it, and knew what was waiting for him inside. “I see somethin’ funny,” Anna told him as he got out of the car. He never saw her get in, and he never saw her get out either; she was simply there once he was outside the car.

“What?”

“It’s … I dunno. Like a dark line.”

“It’s him,” he said, although he wasn’t sure how he knew that. “You can almost always find your killer. In a strange way, you’re bonded.”

“Ick.”

That summed it up pretty well.

Smoking had been banned from all bars, and yet as soon as he walked in, he was greeted by a smoky room, a layer of grey smoke curling around the dim yellowed lights like flocks of moths. Country music played somewhere, and the wood was so dark Gryphon felt like he was walking into a void.

Harold was easy to spot. He sat in the darkest corner, an untouched glass of beer in front of him, studying the hookers who were attempting to ply their trade with the sad sacks at the bar. As soon as Gryphon approached his table, he saw all the river ghosts – save for the deeply confused Rita – standing behind Harold. Anna remained beside him, though, as if afraid to join the entourage.

He pulled out an empty chair and sat down, staring across the cigarette burned table at Harold. “Hello. Remember me?”

Harold stared at him blankly, as if he was a hallucination from eating bad clams. “Who the fuck are you?”

“The end. Are you aware that the police are right now trying to get a list of people who have access to the store property? You must be on the list, Harry.”

He had a dead eyed stare, like a shark. “My name isn’t Harry.”

“It is whatever I say it is,” he told him. “I’m the last living person you’re ever going to talk to.”

He scowled at him, brow furrowing as his thick eyebrows dipped down towards his eyes. He was probably in his forties, a bit older than your usual serial killers. “You don’t wanna fuck with me, kid.”

“Oh, I know, you’re the big bad river killer. But I’m not a hooker or a junkie or a runaway, so I kinda fall outside the bounds of your usual victims.”

Now Harold had stopped looking through him and just glared at him hatefully. “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. But you better get up and leave me the fuck alone, or you will end up dead.”

Gryphon smirked, as Anna said, “He really is a dick, isn’t he?”

“You can’t kill me, Harry. You can’t even touch me. You have no control here.” To prove his point, Ruby went to work. Harold’s hand raised of its own volition, and he looked at it, startled, before he slapped himself hard across the face, the noise of flesh striking flesh filling the bar. He did it so hard he almost knocked himself off his chair.

“What the fuck -” he began, but then he slapped himself again, his wedding ring catching on his bottom lip and ripping it open. The beer in his glass was sloshing, and the lights overhead were flickering.

“You really should stop hitting yourself. You’re causing a scene.” Anna and the other ghosts were laughing themselves sick over this. But people were starting to look over at the crazy man hitting himself with such violence.

Harold now stared at him in open disbelief, all attempts at his tough guy façade – which was probably real, a hint of the true monster peeking through his thin veneer of normalcy -disappeared in the face of his complete shock. “What the fuck are you doing to me?” he demanded, although his voice had lowered to a hiss.

“Introducing you to victimhood. Not fun, is it?” Ruby slid his beer glass across the table, and let it crash to the floor, splattering more cheap beer on a surface that was pretty much warped from the constant spills.

He was trying to move his hands, his body, get up from the table, but Ruby held him where he was. Beads of sweat popped on his forehead, and veins started to bulge at his temples. He was fighting it, but it didn’t matter. Hugh had already proven that the dead could pretty much be as strong as they wanted to be, and against the indignant hatred of Ruby, he wouldn’t have had a chance even if he was strapped to a Sidewinder missile in the midst of launching.

The bartender came over. Here, he had to double as the bouncer, a thankless job, and he was a large dark skinned man with the build of a high school linebacker who was about four years past his glory days. His head was shaved bald too, but it looked better on him, and when he crossed his arms over his broad chest, his biceps bulged like rising dough. “What’s goin’ on here?” he asked. He had the faintest hint of a Southern accent.

“This … asshole’s … crazy,” Harold said, spitting out each word through clenched teeth, like he could barely speak the language. His throat muscles were starting to cord; it looked painful.

Gryphon looked up at the bartender and shrugged, twirling his finger beside his head in the universal gesture for “bugfuck”. “Harry didn’t take his medication today. I’m supposed to bring him home.”

“Bull … shit,” Harold hissed.

The bartender’s almond eyes darted over to Harold, appraised him, and instantly dismissed him, looking back at Gryphon with the smallest wince of sympathy. “You need help getting him outta here?”

“No,” Harold gasped. He was ignored, like most of the genuinely mentally ill were.

“No, I got it. He’s usually a good boy for me.” Gryphon looked across the table at the straining, failing, battling Harold, and said, with truly irritating condescension, “Aren’t you, Harry?”

“Fuck you!” Harold snapped, a single pearl of blood tinged spit flying from his lip to the center of the table.

The bartender dropped a big, meaty hand on Harold’s shoulder, and said, “Let’s get you home, buddy.”

He was trying to be kind, and Gryphon was honestly touched to find someone who wasn’t completely burned out by people in such a place. He supposed he should have left him a big tip, but he hadn’t brought any cash with him; he’d have to come back and give him some another time.

The bartender hauled Harold to his feet, and he seemed stiff, like his joints had frozen. He probably thought that Harold really was suffering some side effect from forgotten medication, that he was a deeply fucked up individual, when really he was just trying to escape from an invisible straight jacket. When Gryphon moved beside Harold and grabbed his arm, Harold seemed to shiver, an attempt to pull his arm away from him that had no hope of working. But he was trapped and he knew it. Harold was trying to send a request for help with his eyes, but it honestly just made him look crazier, and the way the bartender gave Gryphon a pat on the back, he knew that no one saw anything but a crazy man being helped out of a bar before he started hurting himself even worse. It was probably driving Harold apeshit.

Good.

Gryphon “helped” Harold outside, really just hauling him out, while Harold’s struggle to escape remained mainly internal. As soon as they were outside in the cold, damp air, which smelled of mildew and exhaust, Gryphon sighed, and said, “You ready to have some fun, Harry?”

“What the fuck are you?” Harold demanded, his voice still strained.

Gryphon eyed him coldly, and gave him a smile that felt like a snarl, and probably looked like it too. “I already told you – the last living person you’ll ever talk to. So tell me, Harry, how did you think you were gonna die?”

He glared at him sidelong, his eyes white and wild. “You don’t scare me.”

Gryphon knew he was lying, as his deodorant was starting to fail, but his lie just made Gryphon – and Ruby – chuckle. “Oh, I will. Trust me.”

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