Hey-o, another dead story in honor of Halloween, and this one is even about the dead! It was a submit-as-I-go (versus a finish-a-whole-draft-and-then-polish) that got canned, so I didn’t have to waste a year of my life agonizing over this story.
1. Third Booth from the Back
I have become one with my favorite haunt. I am the smell of onions, the creak of vinyl, the gossamer film of grease that coats every surface no matter how much solvent and scrubbing are applied. I am the indigestion that keeps men awake at night.
I’ve had no reason to leave the diner since Charity Ormond’s killer faced his day of reckoning. Christmas decorations were in that awkward phase of half up, half down then. Judging by the amount of sweat people wear like the latest trendy accessory, the city must be in the grip of peak summer now. According to the news, people haven’t stopped killing each other to extend my vacation for so many months, so they must have been sloppy enough to get caught through normal channels.
I sit in the third booth from the back of the diner, my back to the wall and legs stretched along the bench. There are several advantages to being immune to the elements, but my favorite is that it’s never too hot for collar-to-toe black leather. I’ve been told the dominatrix-biker aesthetic suits me, so maintaining the look year round is on brand.
The TV mounted behind the counter shows the noon news. The lunch crowd clogs the entrance in parody of the cholesterol they’re about to consume. Most of the faces are familiar. Hobbs can’t break the habit of coming here every weekday at noon despite retiring from the nearby auto parts factory years ago. Brad and Colby, in all their teenage stoner glory, bicker behind him like an old married couple. They’re all used to the cough coming from Shep. He says it’s allergies, but he knows better. His affairs, modest though they may be, are in order. He’ll be missed at the diner, if nowhere else.
The two white women at the front of the line are out of place—forty-ish, each wearing a blouse worth a blue-collar week of pay, already looking around for a reason to speak to the manager.
The blonde girl who started waitressing here this morning realizes the trickle of breakfast patrons was the only job training she’s going to get. The strain shows in the dwindling supply of friendly banter for each customer she serves. She’s as jumpy as every other new hire who stops showing up after a week. The tips are good and the manager is a pushover, but something about the place drives them away, one after another.
Vera, a veteran of the waitressing wars, bustles past my booth in a wide arc, as if there’s a VIP rope separating me from the rabble. Her brown hand points and silently commands one man to move from the line to the counter.
The white ladies hiss to each other about the preferential treatment he receives. They ought to be used to coming in second place after middle-aged white men, but they clearly believe designer handbags deserve faster service than an off-the-rack suit.
John Drexler has aged more than a few months since I last saw him, but homicide detectives aren’t known for retaining their boyish good looks. The coffee he orders may be the only thing keeping him upright. He’s red-eyed, unshaven, and accompanied by a boy I’ve never seen before.
The waitress whose name I won’t bother to learn blocks my view of the kid. She brought Dolce and Gabbana to my booth.
Vera wedges her girth between the invaders and me. “I’m sorry, ladies, but this table is reserved.”
“We’ve been waiting forever.”
The velocity of the woman’s whine makes my eyes roll. “Lady, I’ve been waiting since 1974.”
Vera retains her civility like an old pro. “Another table should be free soon.”
The second woman’s eyes glitter like her birthday wish just came true. “I demand to speak to your manager.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Vera wields her words like knives dipped in honey. “Wait right over there, and he’ll be with you directly.”
The ladies flounce back to the head of the line to prepare for their next recreational confrontation.
Vera grabs the new waitress by the elbow before she can follow suit. “Never seat people here, Ashley.”
The younger woman twirls her hands to indicate the remainder of the diner. “There’s nowhere else to put them.”
“Then they wait.”
“Fine! Don’t blame the new girl when they leave a bad Yelp review.”
“It’ll be better than the one they leave if they sit here.” Vera crosses herself before pushing through the employees-only door to find the manager.
Even when a line of customers extends onto the sidewalk, this table is off limits. Some people say the owner keeps it reserved in anticipation of the return of a lost love. Others speculate the booth is haunted by the ghost of a diner who choked on one of the cook’s notoriously tough pork chops.
The rumors are entertaining, but even the closest to the truth is way off base.
I’ve been haunting this spot since there was nothing here but woods, and my death was far more violent than asphyxiation by overcooked pig.
A construction worker named Wallis Lovell found what was left of my body while clearing the lot to build a strip mall. The news went wild over the discovery for almost a whole week, but there were fresher murders with which to titillate their viewers. The Girl Without a Face was forgotten long before my bones went wherever unidentified, unclaimed remains go.
Mostly forgotten, anyway. Wallis showed up every so often to place one of those roadside memorials with fake flowers and a stuffed animal. I followed him around for a while because I had nothing better to do at the time, but I lost interest when it became clear he had no dirty secrets, little or otherwise. He eventually stopped leaving the shrines. I don’t know if he moved away or died or if the owners of the shopping center threatened to charge him with vandalism the next time he left junk on their property.
Maybe he finally lost interest in me, too.
Drexler brings his coffee to my table and slips onto the bench across from me. Ashley opens her mouth to object like a good booth guardian, but Vera silences her with another quiet lecture.
At this rate, the Help Wanted sign will be back in the window before the end of the day.
The boy hovers at the edge of my territory, more respectful of the boundary than the living. He’s about the right size for ten years old, straight black hair, dark eyes. He’s coated with so much dirt, I don’t hazard a guess about his skin color. He’s not obligated to look like his corpse, but he hasn’t had time to figure that out. His newness offends my sensibilities like a psychic perfume.
I could eat him in one bite, but I’m not a monster.
I fold my legs to clear a place for him. “Have a seat. I don’t bite.”
He perches on the bench next to the detective instead. Smart boy. Trusting strangers is no safer now than it was when he was alive.
Drexler shudders at the boy’s proximity and scoots closer to the wall.
“You look like hell,” I tell the man now seated directly across from me.
He shows no sign of offense, but not because my grudging affection softens the insult. He can’t hear or see the incorporeal manifestations of the dead, but some extrasensory receptor is open just enough that he knows when we’re near. Death is the detective’s business, yet he shivers when his customers cling to him like cobwebs — the nonliving version of complaining to management.
His awareness can’t be good for his blood pressure, but it gives him stronger motivation than most officers of the law to provide excellent service. A satisfied ghost never returns. An unhappy one… well. Let’s just say the dead have a lot of time on our hands and are attracted to drama even more than the living, since we can no longer manufacture our own.
Drexler reaches inside his blazer and pulls out a small notebook. A paperclip fastens a third of the pages to the cover. One flip of his thumb opens the book to his most recent notes. He lays the notebook on the table halfway between us.
Ashley leads the stoners to the booth behind me. Colby passes my bench, stops, and takes a step backwards. “Man, are you practicing for an eye exam?”
Drexler drums his fingers on the table, successfully drawing attention from the fact that the text is upside down as well as remote. “A little distance helps me think.”
“Ha ha!” The teen speaks the syllables like he’s typing them on his phone. “That’s my whole philosophy in life, bro.”
Drexler repels him with an emotionless stare. When he has grave dirt on his shoes, the man has absolutely no sense of humor.
He never comes to visit me with a shine on his Rockports, so I don’t know if he’s capable of laughter under better circumstances.
I bend over the table to read the notes written in his tidy architectural print. The night before last, a camper throwing dirt on the remnants of his fire unearthed a hand belonging to our filthy wraith. Unenthused about spending the night in the vicinity of a shallow grave, he backtracked in the dark to a convenience store and called the police. The camper wasn’t carrying a cell phone, in the interest of creating an authentic nature experience.
Those last three words are underscored with thick black lines that suggest Drexler has an uncharitable opinion he’s too diplomatic to voice.
I have no way to tell the detective I’ve finished reading the current page, so I test my own diplomacy on the boy. “They call me Raven. What’s your name?”
He compresses his lips until nothing remains but a slit the width of a dime.
Damn. The uncommunicative ones make my job unnecessarily difficult.
Drexler turns to the next page in the notebook. At first light yesterday, the camper led the police to the gravesite. Some kind of animal came across the uncovered hand during the night. The arm was partially excavated and chewed to the elbow.
The boy isn’t manifesting that insult to his flesh in his present form. He either doesn’t know about the gnawing or other priorities are inspiring his chosen self-expression.
An investigator from the medical examiner’s office evaluated the body at the scene. The official autopsy report won’t be available for months, but preliminary verbal assessment indicated a ten-year-old white male, no apparent wounds or ligature marks to suggest cause of death. Because rigor mortis had subsided and discoloration and bloat were minimal, time of death was estimated to be three to five days prior to exhumation.
No missing child reports filed within the past week match the boy’s description, which means either he’s been lost longer than that or the person who should be frantic about his disappearance put him in the ground.
A deeper search is underway at the station. On the bright side, they don’t have to delve more than a decade into the past due to the victim’s age.
On the side Drexler and I are more familiar with, the further they have to go back in time, the less resemblance the photos on file will bear to our boy and the harder it will be to obtain a positive ID.
The next page is blank. Drexler frowns at the paper as if willing more information to appear, but if wishful thinking solved murders, he wouldn’t be sitting at my booth.
Hell, neither would I.
The news segment changes. The chyron at the bottom of the screen insists the accompanying footage of average-looking trees is a “grisly murder scene.” The video cuts to the police chief providing less information than Drexler shared with me, concluding with an appeal to call the tip line with any information that might help identify the victim.
Ashley stares up toward the screen with wide hazel eyes, a plate full of food forgotten in each hand. “How could anyone do that to a little boy?”
“Some people are pure evil,” Vera states as matter-of-factly as she would report table two is out of ketchup. “That TV isn’t for our benefit, you know.”
Ashley flinches at the reprimand and scurries to deliver lunch to her customers.
Drexler hides the notebook inside his blazer once more, signaling our meeting is over.
My lungs are no more real than my boots, but for an instant, yearning suffocates me. A homicide detective can’t sit in the middle of a diner talking to himself without attracting career-ending attention, but after all these months of isolation, I’m starved for words, for acknowledgment, for a brush against life.
I keep my hands clasped in my lap while he slides across the bench. The kid hasn’t had time to lose his alive instincts and scoots out of the way.
I move at the speed of thought to stand at the boy’s side and clamp my fingers around his grimy wrist. “You’re staying with me.”
He lunges toward Drexler’s retreating form as if the detective is his only hope of salvation.
Ultimately, that may be true, but he brought the kid to me because he doesn’t have a single lead to follow. The law helps the dead who help themselves.
That’s where I come in.
The boy’s tenuous bond to Drexler stretches, frays, snaps. Resistance departs like a broken sigh. Solemn onyx eyes swivel to stare up at me.
I shift my grip to his hand, more like a friend than a jailer. It’s a lie, but until he transfers his obsession to me, he’s a flight risk. “The sooner you tell me your name, the easier it will be for Drexler to punish whoever did this to you.”
The coin slot of his mouth twitches, widens, stretches until I could fit my fist in the opening if not for the avalanche of dirt pouring out.
I haven’t seen this trick before, so he has my full attention.
The spill of spectral earth slows, then ceases, leaving his mouth agape in a silent scream. For a moment, I think the blackness within is the residue of grave vomit.
I see long before I comprehend, and I’m even slower to admit the truth.
The crypt of his mouth has been robbed of teeth and tongue.
© 2018 Ren Benton. Archived.