Danse Macabre: Six – Ghost Dance
Alone With The Dead
by Andrea Speed
Six – Ghost Dance
“How do you know about him?” O’Leary asked when he could finally speak. It had taken him several tries to make his mouth work correctly. “Have you been investigating me?”
Gryphon scoffed, rubbing his forehead. His head was starting to hurt, but in a weird way that wasn’t entirely unpleasant. “Again, let me take you back to that point where you agreed that I wasn’t a screaming fraud. I’m not. I know about Jeff McCandless because he told me not to trust you. Now, do I hear your version of the story or not?”
“I told you to get offa my lawn,” the old dead guy croaked.
“We’re not on your lawn,” Gryphon snapped, casting an evil glance at him. “Now knock it off.”
“Who are you talking to?” O’Leary asked warily. “McCandless?”
“No. Some other ghost, who apparently haunts the lawns of this neighborhood.” He sighed, wishing for the billionth time that he could neither hear nor see the dead. “Now, Jeff.”
O’Leary looked around, as if appealing for help from an unseen force, but there was no one around interested in helping him. He made a vague gesture with his hands, and said, “We can’t talk about him here.”
“Because you’re here to look for Juliet Saltzman!”
He’s scared, Ruby said.
No shit, Ray replied.
“And yet, you’re dodging the question. I have no guarantee you’ll tell me the truth.”
“Yes, you do. I just wanna get this done. I’ll tell you whatever you want afterwards, okay?”
“Everybody’s always on my goddamn lawn,” the old man was muttering. “Always ignoring me, like they think I don’t matter. I do matter, lousy assholes -”
“No one is ignoring you,” Gryphon said, turning back towards the old ghost. “No one else can see or hear you. You get me? You’re dead. I’m sorry, deal with it.”
The old man glared at him, eyes swimming behind glass. “I’m not dead. What are you tryin’ to pull?”
He heaved a broken sigh. “Not another one. Look, friend, you’re dead; very, very dead. You’re what – eighty? This can’t be a shock.”
O’Leary took a step back. “You still talkin’ to that other ghost?”
Gryphon gave him a look that could have blistered paint – that was the extent of his answer. He gave the same look to the ghost, who didn’t seem to care. Or maybe Mr. Magoo just couldn’t see it. “There’s no need to get prickly about it, boy. I ain’t dead.”
“Yes you are. You’re so dead your shirt is out of style. “ Actually, he was wearing a polyester blend shirt, white with narrow green stripes, tucked into tan slacks that could very well have been Sansabelt. He wasn’t sure that was ever in style, or conversely out of style, as it was an “old guy” shirt, and those seemed to exist in a twilight area neither in style nor out. But that really wasn’t a debate to be having with a ghost who couldn’t give a shit about his fashion sense. “I’m sorry, but that’s how it is. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m talking to this guy now.” He turned back to O’Leary, only to find him giving him a look like he couldn’t believe what a freak he was talking to.
“Are you making this up just to freak me out?”
“I wish. You can answer some questions about you and Jeff for me as we walk the grounds. Okay? And you don’t get to say no.” Gryphon turned and stomped across the yard, not waiting for an answer. He assumed he followed, but didn’t care either way.
They walked the front yard, Gryphon not expecting anything at all, and being unsurprised by the lack of anything. He heard O’Leary tromping behind him, giving off a vague air of disgust. “Jeff was a cop,” Gryphon prompted, peering over the flimsy wooden fence that separated the front yard from the back. The back was overgrown and weedy, with the occasional mystery item tangled within the weeds, looking like the skeletal remains of some long lost robot.
“Yeah. He was an undercover narc,” he admitted reluctantly.
“Something went wrong,” Gryphon prompted.
“Everything went wrong,” he grumbled. “It was a sting, but somebody fucked up, and they knew we were comin’ in. We had to go in early guns blazing, as they’d already brought out their guns.” He paused, sighed heavily. “It was a fucking massacre. Five dead in all, seven wounded.”
“Jeff was among the dead.”
“Yeah. I think he was the first one shot.”
“Lying motherfucker,” Jeff said, suddenly reappearing off to one side. “He knows that’s not what happened.”
“I don’t think you’re being honest with me.”
He heard O’Leary stop walking behind him, and turned to face him. His face was starting to flush a violent red, which he was doing his best to hide. He swallowed hard, sweat starting to bead on his broad forehead. Gryphon felt obscurely bad for him – he was clearly tormented by his own guilt, and yet he couldn’t quite embrace the truth of what he’d done. He was uncomfortable in his own skin, with his own existence; he wore his own bulky flesh like an itchy sweater. “Have you found anything?”
“Besides the get offa my lawn guy? No.” He stepped up onto the porch, knocking on the white painted hollow metal door. “Although the lawn in back needs a good shaving, unless they’re planning to film the next Tomb Raider movie back there.”
Gryphon was suddenly overcome by a strange, familiar feeling, a cold wave down his spine that made him shiver convulsively as his fingertips went numb. O’Leary was saying something behind him, but his voice sounded frail and distant, noises from a hallway on the floor below. Standing beside him was an elderly woman, her hair a nimbus of blue rinsed curls, a small, frail body hidden beneath a loose pale blue dress and a tan cardigan held together by a chain clip in the front. She had on clear framed glasses that still seemed thick, riding on the end of her nose. Her eyes were almost colorless, her skin as thin as parchment and almost as pale, lines gathered in the corner of her mouth, at her eyes, under her eyes. Her lips were cracked and knuckles gnarled by arthritis. “I’d let you in if I could, but I don’t seem able to right now.”
Looking at her, he knew all he needed to. “You’re still inside, Hazel?”
“I think so. I’d thought one of my kids would have visited by now. Who are you?”
“No one; just an intermediary.”
That startled a laugh out of him. “God, I’d hope not. But it’ll be okay now. I’ll make sure you’re found.”
She nodded, her mouth curving downwards in a skeptical frown, but she really had no choice in the matter. Who else was she going to appeal to?
O’Leary grabbed his shoulder, and once again the connection was gone, reality suddenly roaring back in a wave of noise, light, and color that seemed momentarily overwhelming. He shook his head and closed his eyes, trying to gather his foundering wits, as O’Leary continued to rant, “ – fuck’s the matter with you? Do you have seizures or something? You’re always doing this -”
Gryphon spun around and backed up a step, almost falling off the porch. “Call your cop buddies, let them know there’s a dead body in the house, okay?”
O’Leary just stared at him. “You found her?”
“No, I found the current resident, Hazel White. She died last week, from a stroke I think, and no one’s found her yet. If you want to open the door you’ll probably smell it for yourself, but I really wouldn’t advise it.”
“Is this normal? Do you find dead bodies wherever you go?”
“Generally. It makes sense, since I’m apparently death and all, but I must admit that finding someone who died of natural causes is a refreshing change.”
He walked back to the truck, only aware that he’d left O’Leary there on the porch when he asked in a small, disbelieving, “oh-my-god-I’m-with-a-crazy-person” voice, “What d’ya mean you’re death?”
Gryphon stared at him, and wondered if he could handle the truth. Jeff McCandless was standing behind him, arms crossed over his chest, scowling as deeply as Human possible. This man, handle truth? He wasn’t even handling his own very well right now. “I was kidding,” he lied. “Where’s your sense of humor?” He didn’t wait for a reply, just got in the truck.
I like this even less than usual, Hugh said, as Gryphon noticed the lawn ghost still glaring at him from the corner of his eye. But at least he was outside the truck.
“I ain’t crazy about it either, but so far it’s been a harmless diversion.”
Diversion? Ruby replied angrily. There’s some freakazoid serial killer out there! We should be finding him, not fucking around, helping some washed up cop assuage his guilt.
Assuage! Ray said. Wow, I had no idea twenty dollar hookers could use ten dollar words.
Before Ruby could justifiably bite his head off, Sylvio exclaimed, Would you just shut the fuck up? How dare a white trash fuck up like you put anyone down anyways! You were killed in the commission of a felony, you dirt bag asshole! What delusion are you operating under that allows you to feel superior to anyone?
There was a long moment of silence before Ray responded. You got a crush on the hooker, boy?
Did you just call me boy? Sylvio replied in disbelieving anger. It didn’t matter so much when you were dead, but when he was alive, Sylvio was mixed race, half-black and half-white.
Ray, I will figure out a way to knock you out if you don’t zip it now, Hugh warned. And go ahead and make any gay slur you want, but all you’re doing is convincing me you’re in the closet. I know a self-loathing queen when I meet one.
I ain’t no fag!
They all say that, Hugh replied witheringly. At first.
Ray didn’t seem to realize he’d already lost control of the conversation, and kept digging himself in deeper. I ain’t no queer, damn it! I fucked women!
So did I, Hugh said casually. I was once hit with a paternity suit.
You got a kid? Ruby asked in shock.
Possibly, but not that one. The DNA didn’t match. She got around a bit, let’s just put it that way, and I was the only one of the group of suspects with steady employment and health insurance. I think she went with the best case scenario at first, but the reality was probably ugly. The father was probably an unemployable hobo whose brain was so soaked in alcohol it was officially pickled.
Why’d she sleep with someone like that anyways? Ruby asked. Did he pay her?
No, I’m afraid the answer is simply tequila shooters night. Bars should just hand out morning after pills and tetracycline with them and the Jello shots.
This had completely taken the wind out of Ray’s sails – maybe he realized there was nowhere he could go from here, and also, in his brief time on Earth, Hugh had had more (unpaid) sex than all of them combined (Ruby excluded, for obvious reasons) with both men and women – so he was quiet by the time O’Leary got in the truck. The cop shot him a sidelong glance as he got in, only this time it wasn’t evil, just curious and a little scared. “Were you talking to yourself?”
He shook his head. “To my people. They feel I’m wasting my time here.”
O’Leary sighed wearily. “Maybe we are. I know I’m just grasping at straws here, but when you run out of options …” He trailed off and laid his head against the steering wheel.
“Why is this important to you?”
He was silent for much longer than he should have been. “I’m sure Wax is still active, but I also know he’s smarter than your average trash; he knows how to play the angles. And I think he knows more about what happened to that girl than he’s ever said and ever will say. I need extra-legal means to get the truth out of him, and short of torture, there’s you. If you’re genuine … which I will admit you are, as far as I can tell. You certainly seem to know things you shouldn’t.” He let out a tiny snort of laughter. “Maybe you’re like that guy on that show, that guy who’s jut really observant but pretends to be psychic.”
“I won’t say it again: I am not, nor have I ever claimed to be psychic. And you know damn well I’m not, you’re just having a hard time accepting what I am. Are you also aware that you have condemned Wax to death? If he is guilty, my people will probably kill him.”
O’Leary sat back and nodded, looking tired but not surprised. “I could live with that. I’ve lived with worse.”
“Speaking of which, I haven’t heard the whole story about Jeff McCandless.”
He couldn’t work up indignance or defiance anymore; he was exhausted in both spirit and mind, beaten down by the horrible realities of his own guilt. “No, you haven’t. But I think I’ll need a few beers before I can tell you the rest of it.”
“Fair enough. Let’s go get some.”
O’Leary snapped his head around so fast he might have just given himself whiplash. “It’s not even noon.”
Gryphon shrugged. “So? Haven’t you ever heard of a liquid lunch?”
You’re such a fucking lush, Taneesha accused.
From the look on his face, O’Leary was thinking much the same thing. “Are you even old enough to drink?”
“Of course I am. I’m older than I look.”
Kid, I don’t think you’re of legal drinking age in this state, Hugh pointed out. And you’ve known and ignored this for quite some time. Your poor liver.
He’s with an ex-cop, Ruby pointed out. They’re not going to card him.
“Why do I think you’re lyin’ to me?”
“I have no idea. Do you think I’m lying when I say I need a drink?”
That made him scoff. “No. If you told me you needed a hit, I’d believe ya.”
Was that an insult? Taneesha asked.
I’m gonna guess yes, but only to the kid, Hugh said.
Yeah, well, he’d been called worse.
He leaned his head against the cool passenger window and closed his eyes, the uneven rocking of the truck cab on the rough road about the only thing keeping him awake. O’Leary was talking, but since he wasn’t saying anything of consequence he’d tuned him out. He wanted to believe the killer he was looking for was Wax, it would have made things easier, but his mind kept rejecting the name. His instincts knew something he didn’t, something he hadn’t formulated into words, something that hadn’t fully formed in his cerebral cortex yet. The killer he was looking for was no middle aged sex offender; he was looking for a younger, more methodical and even more deeply fucked up psychopath. Somebody slaughtering people like meat.
That made him wake up, open his eyes. Could it be that simple? No, it couldn’t possibly be. But this guy definitely had experience cutting large bodies into more bite sized portions. Gryphon also realized, with a convulsive shudder, that he honestly thought he was doing them a favor.
“You okay?” O’Leary asked.
“I dunno,” he admitted, rubbing his eyes. One of the victims, one of the ghosts left at the riverside, knew the killer better than they thought. He didn’t know why he believed that, but he did. He’d picked something up and hadn’t even realized it until now.
“Shit!” O’Leary exclaimed, slewing the truck around violently, and Gryphon only got to see the SUV swerve unsuccessfully away before it smashed into them, and the world dissolved in a hail of flying glass.