Danse Macabre: One – Fall To Place
Alone With The Dead
by Andrea Speed
One – Fall to Place
It was kind of hard to say why, but of all the strange things he had done in his life, this was perhaps the strangest.
What? Seriously? Hugh said in his head. Okay, kid, either you haven’t been paying attention, or you’ve lived the most sheltered life in existence, pre-us.
I’m votin’ for sheltered, Taneesha said.
Me too, Ray agreed.
“Would you all stop dog piling on me?” Gryphon snapped, looking out the window at his view. Now there was another concept that would take some getting used to.
The whole “ghost hunting” thing with Shane and Clay had been working out surprisingly well. They got some local publicity for the thing they did for the Oregon Historical Society, and there was some attempt to do some filming of them, first for local news and then some occult show on one of the public channels decided to follow Spirit Guides as they worked. Gryph warned them he couldn’t be filmed and that some of their cameras might burst into flame around him, but they seemed to think he was just being a drama queen. Until the tattooed, pierced camera guy’s DVR camera started smoking. Then they kept their distance.
He wasn’t sure about any of this, but Clay and Shane had been good to him – hell, he was living in the room over Clay’s garage, which had been set up as a kind of loft, with its own bathroom and outer staircase, so he could come and go as he pleased. He hadn’t lived in a single place for a while now, and it was still weird to him. It was like a motel room he didn’t have to pay for. (Clay owned the house, an inheritance from some dead family member or another. He wasn’t asking for rent. Hugh insisted Clay was closeted gay – or possibly asexual – and crushing on him big time, but Gryphon was of the opinion Hugh was projecting. Clay was just a true believer, and was endlessly fascinated by his ability to talk to the dead.)
“Were you just talking to them?” Seth asked warily.
Gryphon nodded. “Sorry. I’m used to talking back to them. I forget other people can’t hear them.”
“What did they say?”
“Nothing worth printing.” He turned back to face the slight man sitting in the room’s sole armchair, a tattered tan velvet thing that looked like it had come with the dead relative’s house. The man was slightly less tattered, but not for lack of trying – it seemed he hadn’t gotten the notice that grunge was dead. He had long brown hair, apparently meant to be worn in a faux-hawk because the sides of his head were shaved, and he wore a laundry worn Rise Against t-shirt and khaki board shorts that were frayed at the ends, dangling over bony knees. He wore black and white Vans whose heels were starting to wear through. He also had several visible tattoos on his arms and legs and a piercing through his lip, eyebrow, and nose.
This was Seth Weller, a college journalism student who also worked with that local occult show. They wanted Gryphon’s story, but they could neither film nor tape it, so Seth had come down here on a slow Sunday afternoon to transcribe it. He scribbled notes on a legal p ad in a scrawl that must have been some kind of personal shorthand, as they didn’t exactly look like words. Seth and the rest of the “culties” (as he, Clay, and Shane had taken to calling them behind their backs) knew Gryphon only by his first name, and he wanted to keep it that way so they could never track down his family. This visibly disappointed Seth, who wanted a scoop. Gryphon sat down on the edge of the bed, and asked, “Where were we?”
“Um, you were gonna tell me about your, uh, “passengers”.”
He nodded, rubbing his forehead, and looking for where he put his soda. He really didn’t want to do this interview, but Clay and Shane had been good to him, so he didn’t see why he couldn’t just talk to this guy. It still seemed very weird. “Ruby’s been with me the longest now; she was a prostitute murdered by a serial killer. Then there’s Ben, a man killed in a violent car crash. And Hugh, a firefighter killed while fighting a fire. Taneesha, a girl accidentally killed in a drive by shooting. Ray, a bank robber killed by his fellow robbers. Sylvio, a college student killed in a hit and run. And Julie, a battered wife murdered by her husband.”
Does anyone else ever feel like we’re on the Mickey Mouse Club? Mr. Aronofsky – Ben – wondered.
What’s the Mickey Mouse Club? Taneesha asked.
It was that thing Britney Spears was on, Sylvio said dismissively.
There had been others – Omar, Molly, Julio – but they almost seemed to be in an extra hurry to leave after meeting his group. It was like they didn’t want to take part in this McLaughlin Group of the damned if at all possible. He couldn’t blame them. He wouldn’t be here if he had any alternative. Seth looked at him warily. “They’re all poltergeists?”
“Of one sort or another, yes.”
“How did you … meet them? I mean, have you always been able to talk to the dead?”
“I don’t talk to the dead, they talk to me. And no, I haven’t. I wasn’t quite eighteen yet when some freak tried to kill me. I was bleeding to death in a cemetery, and it just sorta … happened.”
Seth sat forward in the chair, as if this was the truly interesting bit. “What?”
He shrugged, taking a swig of his warm cherry Dr Pepper. This story actually bored him now, how he almost died, how his life slid sideways and ended in one form, and began anew in another strange form that he couldn’t quite identify as life. “The dead started talking to me. They were previous victims of the killer, and they wanted revenge. They were my first passengers, although they weren’t with me for long.” There was that whole thing with a leftover ritual by would be Goths or witches or whatever that may have caused all this madness in the first place, but he didn’t know for sure, and the culties really didn’t need to know it anyways.
“They got what they wanted.”
Seth’s face clouded over as he looked confused. “What?”
“They got their revenge. Don’t ask me for details, I’ll have to take the Fifth.” He leaned down to put the can of soda back on the floor, and just that slight bend forward made him start to cough. He’d had a cough lately, along with an almost constant low level fever. He was pretty sure the meningitis was gone, but he didn’t go back to the hospital because it wasn’t like they could tell him much he didn’t know. Being a conduit for the dead was killing him? If they were going to rob him of a hundred bucks, they could at least tell him something he didn’t know.
See a fucking doctor, would ya? Ruby snapped. Clay said he knew one – take him up on it. You might need antibiotics or something.
I’m tired of your lightheadedness, Hugh agreed. I swear I can feel it.
You can feel it ‘cause you’ve always been an airhead, Ruby shot back.
Hugh just made a kissy noise at her, and Ray complained, Do you two ever just shut the fuck up?
Seth was giving him a wary look again. He had eyes like a fawn just before a semi hits it. “Are you okay?”
He waved his hand dismissively. “Fine. Bit of a cold.”
Cold my ass, Taneesha snapped.
Seth glanced anxiously down at his notes, and took a moment to gather his courage. “Um, about the guy …”
“I can’t talk about it. In fact, I won’t. So just leave it.”
That unsettled him, as he figured it might. “Are, um … are you saying that most of the dead you … who talk to you want revenge?”
“Many do, or they want justice, which is almost the same thing when you’ve been killed. It’s all kind of nebulous.”
“Death is nebulous?”
“It must be. Why else do I have passengers?”
You know, that almost made sense, Hugh commented.
From the look on Seth’s face, he agreed with him. He scribbled it down, and then came at it from another angle. “Is there an afterlife?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Where do your passengers go when they move on?”
“I don’t know. They’re just gone, They could get lifted to heaven on pearly white wings, or simply cease to exist. I don’t know, as I’ve never really died and saw for myself.”
“But they’re here in ghost form. Doesn’t that suggest an afterlife?”
He shrugged again. “It only suggests that there might be something to all that soul nonsense. It’s not mutually exclusive with an afterlife.”
I love the way you split hairs, Mr. Aronofsky said. You missed your calling as a lawyer.
He does have a point, Hugh argued. The only bright light I saw while dying was my suit burning up.
I didn’t see shit, Taneesha said. One second I was alive, and then I wasn’t. It sucked donkey dicks.
Yeah, that was my experience too, Ray commented, oddly subdued.
I’m still not sure I’m dead, Sylvio said. Maybe I’m in a coma and this is all a dream or something.
I’m nobody’s fucking hallucination, Ruby replied archly.
Seth scribbled it down, the corner of his mouth tugging up briefly in a sort of pained grimace. “You didn’t like my answer,” Gryphon noted, finding it kind of funny. The true believers were always funny. They thought the “spirits of the departed” were wise beyond measure, or hinted at some sort of divinity, when they were just people – unhappy dead people. “What did you expect?”
He shook his head, but his denial was on the weak side. “I didn’t …” He sighed heavily and looked up from his notebook. “I just thought that maybe they … had some words for us.”
I got some words for you, Taneesha chimed in. Fuck you, asshat. Get a decent haircut.
It’s like a mullet gone horribly wrong, Hugh said.
I’m wondering how he gets through airport detectors with all that metal in his face, Mr. Aronofsky commented.
“Not words you would like,” Gryphon told him, trying not to smile. He would never guess his crew was more bitchy than the guys on Queer Eye For The Straight Guy. “What I can tell you is all those zombie films did get one thing right: you don’t ever want to piss off the dead. The dead are ruthless; they have no mercy and nothing to lose. Killing you is only the first thing they‘ll do to you.”
Seth just stared at him a moment, not writing, pen frozen on the notepad. Twenty bucks says he just shit himself, Ray cracked.
You are in a particularly scary mood today, Hugh agreed. What’s up, Gryph?
He’s being passive aggressive, Sylvio said. He hates being interviewed, so he’s just freaking the interviewer out.
There was a knock on the door, which made Seth jump and almost lose his notebook, which made Gryphon smirk. Yeah, he had freaked him out. But it was the truth, as well as fair warning. “Yeah, come in.”
Clay peeked inside the barely open door before proceeding. He was still a man of incredible personal intensity, a natural ball of energy that just might explode if ever exposed to cocaine. He still had a strange affinity for plaid shirts, and combined with his odd mustache – which Hugh insisted was a ‘70’s porn star ‘stache (and proof he was gay) – made him look a bit like a lost little lumberjack. “Uh, sorry to interrupt, but you’ve got a visitor, Gryph. He said he couldn’t wait.”
Gryphon eyed him suspiciously. “Since when do I have visitors?”
Of the non-dead variety, Hugh added.
Clay knew better than to let a cultie or some sad looking seeker wanting to talk to her dead grandmother even know he lived here, so this was automatically weird. He looked a bit uncomfortable too, so that wasn’t a good sign. “It’s kinda important,” Clay said, stepping into the room, hands shoved nervously in the front pockets of his jeans. Today’s choice of shirt was blue plaid.
Behind him, a man of late middle age stepped in. He had a big Irish head – why he thought it was Irish he had no idea, except Hugh and Ruby both thought it was, Hugh having worked with Irish firefighters, and Ruby being from a big Irish family – with a lantern jaw and a broad forehead, his black hair combed back and revealing grey at the temples. His eyes had a watery, rheumy quality to them, eyes so pale blue they were almost not a color at all, his nose showing the telltale bump of a past break and the broken blood vessel flush of a heavy drinker. He was neither handsome nor ugly, but he did cut a striking figure, six feet tall with broad shoulders and the rest of his body thick but in a solid – not flabby – way. He may have been nearing sixty, but he looked like he could still take as well as throw a punch. If he’d been wearing a fedora and an overcoat, he could have been a heavy stepped out of the frame from any film noir.
I smell bacon, Ruby snapped.
“Sorry to bother you,” the man said. “I’ll try not to take up too much of your time.” His voice rumbled like a semi-truck’s engine.
Seth stood and looked between them nervously, but Clay gestured to him. “C’mon, you can wait downstairs.”
“Yeah, okay,” Seth said, with an almost absurd amount of gratitude. True believer or not, Gryphon had unsettled him.
The man waited until they left and shut the door before introducing himself. “I’m Calvin O’Leary, a recently retired detective from the Portland PD.”
What did I tell you? Ruby bragged.
He held out his hand, a big meaty paw that looked like it could cover more than half of Gryphon’s face, and with great reluctance, he shook it. O’Leary tried hard not to crush his engulfed hand, but it was clear he could have at any time. “Am I in trouble?” he asked, the merest tinge of humor in the question. It was unlikely they’d send a retired cop to arrest him, but after what happened in the police station when they brought him in over the Stanhope thing, maybe they wanted to try a new approach.
He stepped back, looking desperately uncomfortable, his gaze sliding over the austere room and noting all the objects in it, or he should say lack of same. If he was looking for some clue about him, he was looking in the wrong place. “I want you to know that I really don’t believe in this shit,” he said, with no preamble. “This psychic shit, talking to dead people shit.”
“I’ve never claimed to be psychic,” he pointed out.
O’Leary grunted, and Gryphon would have told him to take a seat, but he looked like he didn’t want one. “But I know what happened with the Stanhope case, and afterwards. That shit at the police station, stuff breaking around you, your voice changing. They call you Carrie.”
“I was afraid of that. But I didn’t do it.”
Oh sure, blame me, Ruby complained.
Only ‘cause you did it, Hugh countered.
“What can I do for you, Detective?”
He scratched the side of his jaw nervously, his mouth growing tight in distaste, as if what he had to say sickened him. Maybe it did. But he finally met his eyes, and said, “I want you to find a dead person for me.”