Danse Macabre: Three – In This Twilight
Alone With The Dead
by Andrea Speed
Three – In This Twilight
Gryphon faced the girl, aware of a slight white noise hum at the edge of his hearing and a distant feeling that indicated she was a ghost, not a poltergeist. Again, if he knew how these things were decided, he imagined he’d be a very rich man. Or at least one with fewer puzzles making his brain hurt. “Who are you?”
She eyed him quite dubiously. “Rita. Are you dead?”
“Only partly. Why are you here?”
She looked around, blinking at the surroundings as if she’d never quite seen them before. “I was killed, I guess. I don’t know where I am, though. I wasn’t here when … well, last I remember.”
“What do you remember?”
“I was punched in the head. Or it felt like a punch in the head. I was driving …” She looked around anew. “Where’s the car? Mom’s gonna be so mad at me.”
He tried to put that together into a coherent narrative, but wasn’t sure he could. There were too many pieces missing. “Were you in a car accident?” But why would she be so far off the road? And where was her car? He didn’t see how any car could have traveled so far within the trees.
She stared at him, as if he were the one not making sense. “I … I don’t know.”
She’s a vegetable, Ruby said. Let’s move on.
“Vegetable” was the term they used for people who didn’t remember their own deaths clearly; those who had passed into this shadow existence in an incomplete way. Either their death was too sudden for them to grasp, or too traumatic, or some combination of the two; it was a shock that it didn’t happen more often. He only encountered them at a rate of about one in sixty.
“You know you’re dead,” Gryphon prompted. “You can’t recall how you ended up that way?”
She shook her head, making her dark hair swing, and he thought she looked all of fifteen, not at all driving age. Maybe she was sixteen. “No. The others told me.”
That’s when Gryphon felt his stomach sink all the way down to his feet. Really, he could feel it dropping down, but lost all sensation of it once it was beyond his testicles. The rain was ice cold, chilling him to the marrow. “Others? What others?”
She looked around for a moment, again as if lost, and pointed roughly behind her. “They’re back here. I don’t even know why I came out here, I just felt I should. I haven’t heard anyone else in so long …” She turned and headed back into the thick brush, and he stumbled, following her, not wanting to but unable to stop himself.
She didn’t walk through trees more than they seemed to miraculously avoid her, while he bumbled into them even while doing his best to avoid them. Tree limbs slapped his face and hit his chest as if trying to push him away, and he could taste rain and pitch.
First he heard the noise, a familiar burbling that it took him a moment to recognize – running water; a creek, a river – and then the smell hit him. It was awful, a smell like rot with something else, something musky and nearly floral, something animal but also meaty and almost chemical. It was a hideous smell, not quite death. Skunk cabbage, Sylvio volunteered. They grow around every creek and river around here. Also there might have been actual skunk around here recently.
An excellent place to dump a body, Hugh noted. You couldn’t even smell the rot.
The terrain started to shift a bit under his feet too, the dirt becoming a slimy muck that wasn’t quite mud, the undergrowth finally thinning out and the trees growing farther apart, allowing him to move a bit easier. The water came into view as glimpse of silver between the trees, a moving inconstant light that could have been a hallucination. Rita seemed more solid and real than anything else, and yet he knew she wasn’t here at all, or at least not in a way that anyone else could perceive. Still, the interloper was him, and he didn’t forget it. How could he when he was walking the fringes of a world of the dead?
He slipped in the slimy dirt but managed to keep his balance as Rita stopped beneath a gnarled knotty pine that grew in a tiny muddy alcove beside the rushing stream (it seemed too narrow to be a river). She gestured out towards the silvery ribbon of water, and he saw another woman standing on the opposite bank.
And then he saw another woman. And then another. And another. Oh shit.
Another one, Ruby snarled. I hate these fuckers.
By “these” she meant serial killers, and since he looked to be facing five dead women, it was hard not to draw that conclusion. He turned towards the nearest one who wasn’t Rita, a hard faced bleach blonde with black roots, wearing a red halter top and a tight black skirt. “Did the same man kill all of you?”
She gave him a skeptical and somewhat derisive look, like he was the earwig she discovered in her corn flakes, but she finally said, “As far as we can tell. He gave us all different names – Henry, Frank, Chuck, Bill – but it sounds like the same guy. Except for the ditz here, we don’t know what her deal is.” The woman gestured at Rita, who didn’t seem to be offended; she hardly noticed.
“Somebody show me,” he urged. “I need to see his face.”
“And how do we do that?”
“I don’t know. Somehow being close to you guys I can usually pick up these kinds of things.”
The woman – Sheila? He got the impression her name was Sheila, although she rarely went by it – kept giving him a look that bordered on rude.
Tell that bitch to take a picture, Ruby snapped. It’ll last longer than she will.
Sheila walked towards him hesitantly, and then paused. “What do I do? Hold your hand or something?”
“Please don’t; they don’t make spectral rubber gloves.”
She glared at him. “Are you dead? ‘Cause I’ll kill you for free.”
He heard a faint noise, like some far off echo, and realized it was someone shouting “Ashmore”. Oh, right, he had a job here. “Are any of you Juliet Saltzman?” he asked, looking at all the women. All of their expressions were equally blank.
“Who?” Sheila asked.
Well, fuck. How could he find all these bodies and not find the one he was looking for?
Now he could hear O’Leary stumbling through the brush, as quiet and graceful as a horny, spastic water buffalo, and Rita looked beyond him, through him, to the tangled growth beyond. “Is he dead too?”
“Are you sure? He seems touched by death.”
But O’Leary had emerged and the slender, fragile line of communication severed as if it had been lopped with an axe. It also stopped raining suddenly, as if someone had flipped an off switch. He looked up to find infant stars starting to emerge in the dark blue sky. Where did the clouds go?
O’Leary finally came up to him, flashlight in his hand, panting as if he’d run a marathon. “What the fuck, kid? Don’t ya know you could get lost in these woods? “ He then looked at him, scanning him up and down with the flashlight, a look of genuine distress forming on his big, meaty cop face, which was florid with exertion. “Jesus fucking Christ, what’dya do, fall in the river? Why are you all wet?”
He was all wet. He’d been soaked by the rain, the rain which apparently hadn’t happened. What was that all about?
Maybe it was Rita, Hugh said. The fact that it was raining was one of the last certain things she remembered. So she thought it was, and you thought it was, but it wasn’t.
“But how did I get wet?” Gryphon asked. That still made no sense at all.
O’Leary was still giving him a funny look. “You don’t know?”
“No, I don’t.” He was shivering violently now, making his teeth chatter, and he wrapped his arms around himself to try and help himself warm up. It didn’t help at all. “Look, there are bodies all around here, up and down the river. Five of them, although not whole; pieces, I think, fragments.”
“Are you serious?”
“Sheila, Rita, Vanessa, Amber, Jessica,” he said, suddenly aware of all their names. He also had this image in his mind of a man with a face so incredibly oval it was almost egg shaped. It was also tan, verging on sunburnt, the pale eyes small and wide set, gleaming like rhinestones, a fringe of brown hair ringing his head like a laurel wreath. He was maybe forty or so, but he had one of those perfect middle aged faces, where he could have been slightly younger or a bit older than he actually was. He looked like a real estate agent or a cubicle farmer; he could have been anyone. He was a serial killer? He looked like someone’s slightly embarrassing middle aged dad. How was he supposed to find him? “But Rita may not have been killed by the same man. She wasn’t really clear on that.”
O’Leary was staring at him, shaking his head slightly, mouth slightly agape. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Juliet is not here, but these women are. They scattered all along the river.”
“You can’t be serious. It’s easy to find a body in the river. If -”
“Not if they’re chopped into pieces!” Gryphon exclaimed, and suddenly wondered why he said that. Was that true? Had they been dismembered? Was that why he thought there were only pieces here?
Suddenly he felt very dizzy and very cold, and he pressed the palms of his hands into his eyes. You need to go back to the truck, Hugh insisted. Now.
That was excellent advice. He needed to turn the heater on full blast.
“You’re serious? You’re genuinely serious about this?”
He glared at him. “Do you think I’d make this up? That I’d stand out here in the middle of nowhere and get rained on and claim there’s bodies that aren’t here, and aren’t the girl you’re looking for? You certainly are paying me a shitload for this, aren’t you? If you think I’m a fucking fraud, then why the fuck did you -” his sentence broke off in a deep, hearty cough that wracked his whole body and made him double over as he gagged, tasting something in the back of his throat that could have been blood or bile, or both.
O’Leary tentatively patted him on the back, and said, “Maybe you shouldn’t have gone for a dip.”
When Gryphon could breathe again, he straightened up and leaned against a nearby tree. He heard a fluttering of wings overhead, and figured he’d scared an owl. “I didn’t. Are you gonna call your cop buddies or not?” There was a tickle in the back of his throat, one that made him want to cough, but he forced down the urge. If he started up again, he might actually cough until he barfed. God, he was so fucking cold. He wanted to go home and soak in a warm bath until he didn’t feel the cold anymore.
Home. What a weird thought. He had a home again?
O’Leary continued to look really dubious. “And tell them what? Tell them a psychic placed body parts at the river?”
“What were you going to tell them if I found Juliet? Tell them that. And stop calling me a psychic.” He wandered back out into the woods, headed back for the truck. He wasn’t sure he knew the way, but O’Leary had left a big ass trail in his wake, so that was easy to follow. He stumbled and tripped on the way back, almost face planting a couple of times, but he managed to grab on to the encroaching trees. He felt really weird, like someone was pumping his head full of helium, and it wasn’t totally uncomfortable. It was almost kind of nice.
You need a doctor, Mr. Aronofsky insisted. It’s probably your meningitis again. You never got that properly treated.
“Just start the truck. I need heat.”
By the time he opened the passenger side door and stepped up into the cab, the engine coughed to life, and by the time he settled in the seat, leaning up against the window, heat was starting to pour out of the vents. “Thank you.”
You know, this is pretty cool, Ray noted. We can steal any damn car we want.
But we’re not going to, Mr. Aronofsky warned him. Ever.
Ray groaned. What if it’s an emergency?
Don’t go to sleep, Hugh told him sternly. You know what happens when you sleep after encountering a bunch of dead people.
“I know, but maybe it’ll help me figure out what the fuck is going on.”
What the fuck is going on? We found another fucking serial killer, that’s what, Ruby snapped. We need to find this dicktard. Once we do, leave him to me.
You’re turning into a serial killer, Ray said, not wisely.
Wanna see if I can kill the dead? She threatened.
“Would you two just knock it off?” He rubbed his forehead, although he didn’t know why. Their arguments were more psychically distressing than physically distressing.
Was it just coincidence or his shitty luck that O’Leary dragged him out to a place where multiple bodies laid in wait? And what did Rita mean by saying O’Leary was touched by death? Was there a reason he was so eager to nail Wax beyond the obvious?
Did it really take one killer to know another?