Danse Macabre: Nine – Deer Lodge

Alone With The Dead
Danse Macabre
by Andrea Speed

Nine – Deer Lodge

dm3.jpgIt took a while for him to sort through the files, even though he didn’t read them. Gryphon just looked at the photos and waited for the spark of recognition. All the photos fell into one of two categories: casual ones, ones from high school or birthday parties or family gatherings, or mug shots. It was like the yin and yang of life, the up and the down, the people who were victims of random chance and the people who were victims of circumstances.

The first one he identified was Sheila, Shelia Colleen Maitland, who was one of the mug shot ones. She was younger, her hair was different, but it was her. Then he identified poor Rita, Margarita Helene Schillenger, caught at someone’s birthday party. The photo was a little overexposed, a little too close, but she was smiling and happy. It was heartbreaking. But then again, Sheila’s hard faced mug shot photo was heartbreaking too, simply because they were alive when these photos were taken, and now they weren’t. He also managed to identify Jessica, Jessica Lee Pothier, from a mug shot where she looked so wasted he had no idea how she was standing for the camera.

Clay had come into the kitchen to check on them at one point, and then offered them drinks, but Varner declined. Gryphon did too, but only because he thought his kidneys were about to burst from the sheer amount of tea he had in him.

As soon as he pulled out Rita’s file and handed it to Varner, he told him, “I’m not sure she’s like the other river victims. Her last recollection is driving alone in her car and being punched in the head.”

Varner raised a pale eyebrow at that. They were so perfectly arched, you’d think he had them plucked. “Punched while driving alone?”

“I know it doesn’t make sense, but sometimes victims get … scrambled. They’re not sure how they died, usually if it’s sudden or involves a head injury.”

“She’s sure there was no one in the car?”

“As she could be. She didn’t think she crashed either.”

Varner frowned and pondered that as he glanced at their files. As soon as he added Jessica to the pile – and she was the last one; he’d only identified the three of them – Varner said, “I came up from California. I used to work East L.A., and people who got shot but didn’t realize it – which was baffling to me as a rookie, but now I know better – sometimes described that they felt like they were punched or shoved. Could Rita Schillenger have been shot?”

East L.A.? Ray snorted. He don’t look like no chollo to me.

Gryphon hated to admit it, but as soon as he said that, he realized that felt right. After all, he’d been shot several times – well, okay, former passengers of his had been – and he knew how it felt. Sometimes it was a pain beyond describing, sometimes it was a numbness followed by odd type of paralysis or refusal of parts of your body to move, and sometimes it was more like a blunt pain, a punch or a kick.

Hey, I was shot in the fucking face! Ray exclaimed. I don’t remember nothin’! One second I was talkin’ to that fucker, and then – blammo! It was light, and then nada.

And sometimes it was absolutely nothing.

“Yes, I think that’s it,” he told the deputy chief. “I think she was shot in the head while driving. That would explain why she can’t remember a damn thing.” But as he shoved over the files of the women he didn’t identify, he added, “But that doesn’t fit the M.O. of the river killer. I mean, he did shoot them, but never from a distance. He shot them up close, where he could watch and control the environment.”

Varner’s hands froze on the file folders as he gathered them up. Gryphon noticed he was wearing a gold band with a small ruby on it, but it wasn’t a wedding ring, as he wasn’t wearing it on the right finger. He looked up to find Varner staring at him in a strange way. “Why do you say that, Gryphon? What do you mean he shoots them?”

“Because he does. He shoots them, and then he carves up their bodies in an abandoned store.”

That hollow eyed stare kept up for several more seconds, then he slumped in his chair with a sigh, like he was deflating. He quickly sat up straight again, though. “How much do you know? You need to tell me all of it, and you need to tell me now.”

So Gryphon told him of his “memory” (well, it wasn’t exactly a dream), of the white van and the gunshot, the shell casing rolling down the parking lot, the abandoned store where he had set up tarps to catch the blood. “He’s not a butcher – well, not right now, at any rate – but he knows how to cut up bodies. He knows what he’s doing.”

“But you don’t know what he looks like?” Varner prompted.

“Not yet. But I’d know him if I saw him. Hell, he probably has several ghosts with him that he doesn’t even know about – they’d point him out.”

Varner went into his messenger bag again, and pulled out a piece of paper. He showed it to him. “It isn’t him, is it?”

He looked at the two side by side mug shots of a rather non-descript middle aged man with a significant bald spot, his eyes looking at the viewer as though from the bottom of a well. Gryphon shook his head. “No, not him.”

“I thought not,” Varner admitted, putting the picture back in the bag. He added the files as well.

“Who is it?”

“Clifford Wax.”

“Ah, O’Leary’s obsession.” He paused a moment, and then felt like an idiot, as it all fell together in his head. “You told him about me, didn’t you? O’Leary.”

Varner grimaced as he zipped up the bag, avoiding his gaze. “Yeah, well … sorry about that. I didn’t think he’d actually seek you out.”

“So you are friends?”

“Fuck no. I mean, he’s a decent cop, an okay guy, we just don’t get along so well. Basically, he’s an old fashioned cop, and he thinks I’m too much of a new fashioned one.”

Old fashioned cop? Sylvio repeated skeptically. Is that some kind of euphemism for a cop who beats up on black guys whenever he gets the chance?

I think new fashioned cop is code for fag, Ray said.

“He doesn’t know you’re here.”

Varner snickered. “Why would he? He’s retired; we don’t work together anymore.”

“Why did he retire?”

Varner sighed explosively before he stood up, slinging his bag over his shoulder. “You should probably ask him.”

“I’d rather hear it from someone who won’t lie to me.”

That made the cop pause, hand on the back of his chair. Gryphon watched a muscle in Varner’s jaw twitch as his eyes roamed the sparse kitchen, looking for an escape. Finally, he said, “I think he was burned out. It happens a lot.”

“It had nothing to do with Jeff McCandless?”

Varner stiffened as if he’d just received a cattle prod to the ass, and he looked at him like he had done it, more surprised than wounded. “How do you – did he tell you about that?”

“Not really. He told me a story that wasn’t completely true. Jeff told me not to trust him.”

He seemed nonplussed. “You’ve talked to Jeff?”

“He appears periodically beside O’Leary. He doesn’t know, but I have a sense he wants Cal to admit something; he wants me to get him to confess.”

“To what?”

“Honestly? I don’t know. But my guess is Cal’s lying about how he died.”

Varner swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing almost spasmodically in his throat. “I … there were some questions about that raid that have never been resolved.”

“Do you think he was lying about what happened?”

For a moment, Varner avoided his gaze completely. But finally his dark eyes met his, and he nodded faintly. “I think the entire strike team was lying. They fucked up royal, but they held together so no one took a fall for it. The blue code. The inquest was a waste of time and money, but that’s okay, no one cared. A bunch of junkies get shot up – who gives a fuck? Dead cops happen.”

Bitter much? Hugh noted.

“Once I get the truth, I’ll let you know.”

He nodded, but didn’t seem completely mollified. Maybe because the truth didn’t matter anymore – there was nothing to be done. No one much cared anymore, besides the dead.

Gryphon stood, feeling like the kitchen chair had made his ass permanently numb, and asked, “Do you know of any abandoned stores around here?”

He snorted somewhat derisively. “Are you kidding? Ever since Wal-Mart moved into the state, there’s been a ton of them. Shut down, boarded up, burned down for insurance money.”

“Would you have time to take me out to some of them tonight?”

Kid, what are you doing? Ruby asked.

Varner looked just as surprised as most of his passengers felt. “Sure, yeah. Are you up for that? You look a little pale.”

“I’m fine, just tired. I just need to hit the head, then I’ll be ready to go.”

“Sure. I’ll be in my car.”

Gryphon went up to his bathroom – he could have used Clay’s downstairs one, but he felt funny about it – and after he drained his poor, taxed bladder, Hugh asked, What the fuck do you think you’re doing? And don’t you dare tell me washing your hands.

Gryphon looked at himself in the mirror over the sink. It seemed to him like his own eyes were sinking deep into the back of his head, but that could have simply been his imagination. “This guy is still out there killing. If I can find the spot where he cuts up the bodies, there might be enough forensic evidence there for the cops to find this guy and close the case. Women will stop dying, and I’ll be happy. Maybe I won’t dream of creepy things like that anymore.”

You already put an angry ghost kid to bed today, Hugh said. Not to mention found yourself in a car accident. Take a break. If you’re itching to get out of here, just call Lilly.

He dried his hands on the first towel he grabbed from the rack, and wondered if he should wash them sometime. Clay seemed to do all the laundry around here, and that was unfair. “Who’s Lilly?”

The paramedic. You know, we got her number?

Gryphon wanted to laugh, but couldn’t quite. He searched his coat pocket and found some caffeinated gum, a piece of which he popped into his mouth. Eventually the taste of peppermint would give way to the bitter, disgusting taste of caffeine, but he could use the jolt. “You got her number, Hugh. It never would have occurred to me to hit on a woman while she was doing her job.”

She was cute, Hugh said, as if that explained everything.

The Asian girls are usually cute, Ray said.

Shut up, you fucking pig, Ruby snapped.

It was probably a good thing for Ray that his passengers couldn’t vote fellow passengers out of him, or Ray would have been booted out of him a long time ago.

He told Clay he was going out with Varner to look at some abandoned stores, and Clay was giving him that look, that look that seemed to suggest he was a crazy person with a loaded semi-automatic handgun and a ticking time bomb. He told him he’d be fine, that he felt he had to do this, but he didn’t know if Clay actually believed him or not.

He went out and got into the passenger seat of Varner’s car, secretly hoping that he was a better driver than O’Leary, even though the accident really hadn’t been his fault. The car interior was neat, with almond colored leather interior and a fruit scented Yankee Candle air freshener making things smell like a farmer’s market. At least it was better than those damn pine trees; the smell of those made him sick.

Varner was happy to be silent, so Gryphon just closed his eyes and leaned back in the soft seat, resting his eyes, until they came to the first location. It was a closed down drugstore, with plywood over the windows, but it was absolutely not what he had seen.

The same was true of the next two locations, although one was a grocery store that almost looked promising in its general shape, but the parking lot was wrong. It was starting to get late, late enough that Varner had to stifle a yawn, and Gryphon was going to tell him it was okay, this could wait, until he saw the hulking shadow of a building on a run down street.

There was the dive bar, the one he’d been sitting in front of when he heard the shooting in the van. It too was shut down, but that didn’t really matter.

“This is it,” Gryphon said, pointing towards the silhouette of the store. There were streetlights in the parking lot, but all but one of them had been broken out, and the one that was working flickered constantly, like it had a short.

Varner swung the car into the cracked, sloping lot, and drove very carefully, as there was a lot of trash and various detritus scattered about the lot. Broken glass glittered like diamonds, and char marks from fireworks and impromptu bonfires made the asphalt look diseased. “This is the old Packer’s,” he said. “It’s been closed down since the parent company went bankrupt three years ago. I was always kinda surprised it didn’t get accidentally burned down.”

“They can’t sell the land?”

He grunted in a smothered, sarcastic laugh. “They can’t sell shit down here besides eight balls and ass. Everything from West 224th to Aspen Boulevard has been bled pretty much dry. It’s not so much a depressed area as a bludgeoned one.”

“So there wouldn’t be any witnesses willing to report anything suspicious,” Gryphon said, thinking aloud.

“Oh sure, the guy buying a vial of crack is gonna report a gunshot,” Varner agreed bleakly. He reached across to the glove compartment, where he took out a heavy LED flashlight, and a smaller MagLite, which he offered to him. Gryphon initially shook his head, but Varner continued holding it out, so he reluctantly took it. As soon as he got out of the car, he spit out his gum on the blacktop, because it was starting to taste disgusting and it wasn’t going to dirty up the parking lot much more than it already was.

Varner turned on his flashlight and started to sweep the surprisingly bright blue-white beam along the ground. “You said in your vision you saw a shell casing roll down?”

“It wasn’t a vision,” he argued, but in all honesty he had no idea what the fuck it had been; vision was as good a word for it as any. “But yeah.”

He joined Varner at the bottom of the sloped parking lot, where litter had gathered in rather large amounts. There were lots of fast food detritus, mostly from McDonalds, and roaches scurried as they kicked the trash and shone lights on it. There were the shattered remains of beer bottles and crushed cans, giving the trash a yeasty scent, shattered crack vials and pipes, used condoms, used syringes tinged with blood, even the remains of an exploded sports drink bottle. But after a minute, Varner muttered, “Son of a bitch.”

Gryphon joined him as he crouched down and pulled a pen out of his pocket, sifting through litter until Gryphon saw the glint of metal. Using the pen, Varner expertly picked up a hollow shell casing. They exchanged a look of surprise, as Gryphon didn’t honestly think the casing would still be at the scene. Of course it could be a different casing entirely, but that would be for the cops to figure out.

Varner gently put the casing back down and once he stood up, kicked a Big Mac wrapper over it to hide it. “You definitely need to work for us,” he said, turning towards the store.

“Somehow I don’t see any police department wanting to justify the expense of me,” Gryphon replied, following him up the lot towards the abandoned store.

“Yeah, well, maybe I can find a way to sneak you on the payroll. I honestly think you’ve just broken this case, Gryph.”

“Don’t count your eggs yet, or whatever the fuck that expression is. That could be anybody’s shell casing.”

“But this is the store, right?”

‘Yes, it is.” Even the bloated letters from the gang tag graffiti on the plywood nailed over the broken main window was precisely the same as he saw it in his “vision“. They approached a front entrance that was not only chained with heavy cables but boarded up, and Gryphon surprised himself by blurting out, “He goes in a back way, so nobody driving by on the street can see him.” Since when did he know that?

But Varner just nodded and started around the side, Gryphon following him like an obedient dog. Somewhere in the middle distance, a car alarm was whooping and hollering into an indifferent night, and Gryphon couldn’t quite shake the scent of stale beer out of his nose.

The back lit up in trails, caused by Varner’s super bright flashlight beam. It struck him that he would have known he was a cop simply by that flashlight – cops always wanted to see what was going on, and it was a weapon as much as it was a tool of illumination. He could blind someone with the light, or simply clip them on the head with the butt end, but either way it gave him an immediate advantage.

There was a loading access door, wide enough to unload palettes of goods into, but because it was a metal door it wasn’t boarded up; there was simply a very heavy industrial padlock and chain on the door. But oddly enough, the chain and lock looked newer than anything else here.

Varner grabbed the chain and tested it by pulling, but it was solid. “Think he picks the lock?”

“He has a key,” a woman’s voice said, and Gryphon turned to see a young Hispanic woman standing on the loading riser with them. She was wearing a half shirt and miniskirt, inappropriate for this time of night, but then Gryphon noticed the neat hole in the middle of her forehead and the blood trickling down to bifurcate her face. Her ink black eyes settled on him, and told him crossly, “It was about time you pendejos got here.”

Yes, it probably was.

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