Danse Macabre: Thirteen – Gimme Shelter
Alone With The Dead
by Andrea Speed
Thirteen – Gimme Shelter
“Oh cry me a river, asshole,” Jeff said irritably, shaking his head in disgust.
O’Leary continued to do so, although he was struggling to get a hold of himself. He sobbed in a strangled sort of way, like he was trying to physically hold back the tears and failing miserably. He still was refusing to look at him.
Maybe a minute passed, the plopping sound of the rain in puddles an oddly appropriate counterpoint to his strange, squished sobs. “I didn’t mean … I panicked …”
“I was black, so you fucking shot me!” Jeff snapped, and Gryphon was pretty sure he saw the puddles around them waver in response. He was only a ghost, but that didn’t mean his anger lacked power.
“… shots were being fired, Jones went down … I shot the first person I saw …”
“First black person you saw,” Jeff insisted.
“ … I fucked up, okay? I know I did. I’m not proud of it.”
“Jeff seems to think there’s more to it,” Gryphon prompted.
“Fucking yeah there’s more to it,” Jeff said.
O’Leary looked up at him, tears streaking his broad cheeks, his entire face ruddy in a way that seemed unhealthy, although Hugh volunteered it was an “Irish thing”. (Of course Gryphon really didn’t want to know why he thought that or how he knew that – he knew enough about Hugh to fear information of this sort.) “What? I made a stupid fucking mistake. What more could there be?”
“He seems to think there’s a racial element.”
He looked genuinely puzzled. “What?”
Tell him you know he’s a fucking racist cracker asshole, Taneesha said.
You don’t know that, Mr. Aronofsky said. We have no idea what happened that night.
My gut instinct is to go with the dead guy, Taneesha replied.
O’Leary shook his head, but it seemed more mournful than anything. “I’d have shot the first thing I saw no matter what it was. Black, white, Mexican … house cat, probably. It was so fucking stupid … I just panicked. I’m a cop; we don’t panic.”
He’s apparently never been at a four alarm blaze when a cop thinks his partner’s still inside, Hugh said.
“Everybody panics at some time,” Gryphon said comfortingly, although he wasn’t sure that was true or not. Hugh and Ruby both seemed immune to panic; Ray would claim he was, but Gryphon knew that was simply self-delusion. Hugh had spent his life semi-detached from humanity and himself; panic was just too strong an emotion for him to muster up. Ruby had no time for panic, as that was a softer emotion for weaker people. “But you made things worse. You lied about it.”
He sighed like he’d just been hit in the stomach. “My job is my life. What else did I have?”
“So it was worth my life, is that it?” Jeff replied.
“It was wrong and you know it. Not just the lying, but letting his death be blamed on someone else. Sure, they were bad guys, but they didn’t kill him.”
O’Leary sniffed and wiped his eyes and nose with the back of his arm. “They killed others.”
“Maybe, but not him. Just like this was a witch hunt without a witch. There’s a serial killer out there right now preying on women, and I’m probably the only one who can stop him, so why don’t you admit your guilt and stop fucking bothering me?”
O’Leary looked at him in surprise, red and puffy eyes looking half shut. “What d’ya mean admit my guilt?”
“Apologize to Jeff. He’s right here.”
He looked around as if he actually expected to see him. Jeff waved his hand, and said, “Right here, fucko.” Not that that was any help to O’Leary.
“Why is he here?”
Gryphon sighed wearily. “Haven’t we been over this? He’s following you around. Ghosts sometimes do that.”
“You fucking killed me,” Jeff snarled.
“He’s really not letting this “you killed me” thing go,” Gryphon told O’Leary, since he couldn’t hear him.
O’Leary closed his eyes, and seemed to mentally count to ten. Gryphon just shivered, and wondered if he should wring his clothes out before tossing them in the dryer. At least he probably wasn’t dehydrated anymore. “Jeff, I’m sorry,” O’Leary said, almost hissing the words through his teeth. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. I didn’t become a cop to hurt people.” He wiped the rain off his face, or maybe it was tears; it was hard to say now. “If I could do that night over again, I would. I’ve lived with it all these years, and I’m tired of it. I wish I could take it back.”
Jeff was quiet for several seconds. “Can I kill him?”
“Would it change anything?” Gryphon asked.
O’Leary gave him a funny look, thinking he was talking to him. “Huh?”
He waved a hand dismissively. “Talking to Jeff.”
Jeff sighed and crossed his arms over his chest. “Guess not. Might make me feel better, though.”
Gryphon shrugged. “It might. But we’d have to do it, and I’m too tired right now.”
He huffed a noise of disappointment, and grumbled, “I’ll hafta think about it.”
“Good, he’s thinking about it. Let’s go.”
Gryphon didn’t wait for O’Leary’s reply, he simply sloshed over to the SUV, and walked around to the passenger side. He was inside the behemoth when O’Leary said something, and he had to scramble over to the vehicle to talk to him. He opened the driver’s side door and looked up at him, face dripping like it was melting. “What the fuck d’ya mean he’s thinking about it? Thinking about what?”
“You really don’t want to know. Just consider it good news.” He pulled a wet hank of hair up from his scalp and wrung it out, sending water dribbling down to O’Leary’s leather seats. “Can we go now?”
Gryphon knew that getting water all over his upholstery would upset him and make him move, and it did. He got in the SUV, reluctant macho sorrow turned to comfortable annoyance, and maybe he was worried just a little bit about what he refused to say.
The silence between them was tense and uncomfortable, and the SUV ran a bit rough, but it was probably lucky to run at all. When he dropped him off at Clay’s house, he said, “You know, you’re really freaky.”
Gryphon could only shrug. Thanks for the news flash, asshat, Ruby replied.
He went up to his room to dry off and get some dry clothes, and he asked Clay if he’d do a Google search for him. There were times when he could actually use a computer, and there were times when he could erase the hard drive just by being in close proximity. He felt he was more likely in the latter than the former, so he let Clay do the work for him. He told him one of the river ghosts he’d encountered had wanted him to give a message to someone, and that’s why he had to find him.
Once Clay tracked down the info he wanted, he offered to drive him, but Gryphon turned him down and pulled the tarp off his car, where it sat at the side of the driveway. He may have moved into a new home, but it was hard to let the old one go.
He drove out to Axel Beech’s place, blasting the heater to keep the chill away.
Axel lived in a trailer on a good sized piece of land, but the lawn didn’t exist; the ground all around was mostly mud, with small tufts of yellow grass here and there among the mud pits. There were trees, but so far away they could have been in another county – they certainly didn’t belong to his property. If a caption appeared in the bottom of his vision reading “After the apocalypse”, he wouldn’t have been surprised.
He slogged up the three little steps that made up the front porch, noting the silver glimmer of an old pony keg under the gap between the trailer and the ground, and as he knocked on the flimsy door, he marveled at how he alone could have ripped this thing off the hinges. Usually he needed his people and their awesome dead people power to help him, since he was as muscular as a ninety eight year old retired spinster with osteoporosis, but this door made him feel like the Hulk. He could rip it off and pound his chest with his fists, bellowing in triumph.
After a moment, the door rattled open, and he was face to face with a man in his early thirties, with a wispy thin mustache and thinning brown hair the color of faux wood paneling, wearing an old Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt and tighty whiteys. He was neither thin nor fat, but he had the soft build of someone who drank more than was medically wise, and offset any physical gains manual labor normally would have given him. (Was his underwear stained? Oh god, he wasn’t going to look …) The guy looked at him blearily, like he just got up, his eyes glazed and bloodshot in such a way that he was obviously hung over. “Who the fuck’re you?” he slurred.
He just eyed him like he was trying to focus. “Weird name for a dude.”
Wow, Hugh said. He’s a rocket scientist.
Maybe he was a bit sharper when he wasn’t hung over, but he wouldn’t have bet money on it. “I’m here to talk to you about Clifford Wax.”
It seemed to take a moment for the name to sink in, penetrate the fog of the lingering alcoholic haze, and then he didn’t respond, just tried to close the door on him. This one was easy to stop and shove back open – he didn’t even need to ask Hugh for help.
Axel stumbled back into his kitchenette – slash – living room as Gryphon came in the door, slamming it behind him. Which didn’t have the scary impact he’d hoped since it was like slamming a pet door shut, but he never claimed to be Mr. Butch ‘99. “You really should consider yourself lucky, Axel. That I’m not a cop; that you have received a hung jury.”
His thick dark eyebrows, messed up from sleeping on his face, drew down in obvious confusion. It seemed there was a four second delay between what was said to him and when he processed it. “I don’t know who the fuck you’re talking about. Get out of my house. I’ll call the cops.”
“Will you? Go ahead. I can’t wait to tell them how you killed Cliff and left his body at the bottom of the well he hired you to fill in. What was Sean’s last name? Cliff didn’t know.”
Axel stared at him like he could make him go away if he just stopped blinking. “What’re you, one of his butt buddies?”
“Butt buddies? Oh yes, all child molesters are gay in your world, huh? Trust me, they’re not – I’ve encountered loads of them, most even alive. Cliff was a damaged human being who liked little girls, which should have been clear on the website. Seriously, you kill a guy for being a pervert, and you don’t know what his perversion is? That’s just sloppy.”
Axel found his anger and launched towards him, fist raised to strike, but he’d barely covered half of the meager distance between them when someone – Ruby or Hugh; he didn’t know, didn’t much care either – threw him back hard against the kitchen counter, making the dirty dishes in the sink behind him clatter like skeleton teeth on stainless steel. The empties lined up on the other side of the counter started rattling like they were having a small earthquake, and the beer and whiskey bottles on his coffee table soon joined in as the energy started building in such an enclosed space. But it was hard to hear over the sound of raindrops reverberating through the tin can trailer.
Axel looked at him through wounded eyes, not comprehending what was happening here. “How’d you do that?”
“Do what? I did nothing. I’m just standing here.” The best part? That wasn’t even a lie.
He glanced at the rattling bottles, still not getting any of this. “Who the fuck are you?”
“I’m the speaker for the dead, and I’ve got to say, you’ve put them in a bad position. They don’t like murderers as a rule, but it was better than likely they would have killed Cliff themselves, so there’s some debate on whether you should die or not. That’s the hung jury I was referring to earlier.”
Axel didn’t look impressed. “You’re fucking nuts.”
“What you have to understand is that you can never do this again. You got lucky, Axel – the man you killed was honestly guilty of the crimes he’d been accused of. But that’s not always the case. Justice is blind, deaf, dumb, and as far as I can tell, limbless. Innocent people get sent away, and guilty people walk clean. It happens more than anyone actually knows. The only reason I know is because I encounter the victims, I share their lives, and I don’t have an evidence chain to follow or require a lawyer to save my ass. Did you know a third of murders are never solved? I think that’s the general number – it varies among racial and economic divides, as well as from state to state. That’s a no brainer, isn’t it? Either way, it’s more than most people know outside a cop shop. Forensic evidence is great, but it is not the miracle worker television would have you believe. Sometimes the only people who know who killed them is the victim, but not everybody can hear them. Or anybody.”
I don’t know who killed me, Taneesha said. Since she was the victim of what seemed to be a drive by shooting gone awry, she didn’t even see who shot her, and as far as he could tell from what he could dig up online, her case remained unsolved. It was gang territory, and witnesses willing to risk their lives and come forward were thin on the ground. Random murders, where there was no connection between the victim and the killer, were the hardest cases to solve.
Axel looked like he still wasn’t processing any of this. He grabbed one of the rattling bottles and made to either throw it or hit him with it, but it exploded in his hand, sending some fragments of alcohol tainted glass straight into his face. He yelped in pain and grabbed his face, dropping to his knees on the thin strip of peeling, yellowed linoleum that made up the kitchen floor.
“Attack me with glass?” Gryphon asked, shaking his head in disbelief. “Wow, that was so idiotic I’m just stunned. Why not try and use a taser on me? Now that’d be funny.”
Gryphon saw a bit of blood oozing out under his hands, down his cheek, but they must have been superficial cuts, because head and face wounds usually bled like a motherfucker even when they didn’t hit anything major. “What the fuck d’ya want from me?” Axel cried, anguished, but it seemed more from confusion than genuine pain. The yeasty smell of beer mixed with the scent of fresh blood in a way that was truly nauseating, although it was slightly better than the old beer and sweat sock smell that seemed to permeate the trailer. You couldn’t tell he was an alcoholic bachelor with sporadic hygiene, could you?
“Your word that you will never, ever kill anyone again. If you do, I will find out, and you won’t get off as lightly as you are now. In fact, if you ever see me again, you’re a dead man. One way or another.” He crouched down to be at his eye level, but since Axel wasn’t looking at him, it was a spectacularly wasted gesture. “In fact, one of my passengers brought up a good point on the way over. You know people who bash gays? They’re usually acting out in fear of themselves; they’re afraid there’s something gay in them and they just can’t stand it, but rather than take the violence out on themselves, they take it out on a complete stranger. It’s basic psychology. So what does that make a person who gets so riled up he kills a child molester he’s never seen before? A man who’s obviously single, has no children, lives far from the victim, and yet checks sex offender websites. Maybe runs one? A man obsessed with sex offenders? What does that say?” Axel started crying pathetically, still not looking at him, bringing his knees up to his chest and curling into a ball against the base of the counter. “There’s a couple different choices here really, Axel. You could be a former abuse victim, once upon a time, or you could know one. Or maybe there’s something in you that you recognized in Cliff or his crimes, and you couldn’t stand it.”
He hit close to the bone. Axel shouted, pained and panicked, “Get out of my fucking house!”
Gryphon grabbed him by the chin and forced him to look at him, through tears and snot and blood. Brown glass glistened in cuts above his eyebrow, underneath his eyelid, half way between his eye socket and ear. “Some friendly advice: get therapy. Don’t make me come back here and kill you too.”
He hiccupped a sob, and Gryphon knew he wanted to bluster, take up some macho posturing to prove he wasn’t scared of him, but he was and he couldn’t hide it. All he did was sniff and whimper and nod very faintly.
Gryphon let him go, and stood, someone opening the door for him. (Yeah, it did smell pretty ripe in here, and if you had a smell that could bother the dead, well then brother, you stank.) He almost expected Axel to get up and try and attack him while his back was turned, but he was too scared now to bother. It wasn’t the fact that he could attack him without moving; what scared him was he got under his skin somehow. He almost felt sorry for the pathetic sack of shit.
Maybe we should have killed him, Ruby said, once he got in the car.
Woulda, coulda, shoulda.