An outline is crucial when you write submit-as-you-go because once you’ve sent it out, you don’t get to go back and change things. I don’t like naming places or characters and tend to save that until the last of the last of the revisions, but under these circumstances, I got to put it off only for the outline, throughout which the cryptic stranger in this chapter is identified as Sexy Scary Man.
3. Walking Into Spider Webs
My intention to leave my anxious medium in peace is thwarted from two sides. Ghost boy’s wistful gaze lingers on a stack of comic books, and Kelvin welcomes a fellow geek to his private clubhouse.
Since our presence isn’t required elsewhere, I don’t drag the kid away. I finger-comb the cat while a member of the living once again helps the dead read. The process is far more efficient when the page turner can see the reader’s signals to advance.
My job would be so much easier if “ability to see ghosts” was a job requirement for homicide detectives.
A heap of loose ginger fur joins the cat on top of the dresser before Kelvin includes me in the conversation again. “I have an idea what to call our friend, if he has no objection.” He holds up the comic book to show me the cover.
“I’m not calling him Iron Man.”
“I mean Tony.” My lack of comprehension prompts him to add, “As in Stark? You need more exposure to pop culture.”
“I’ve been through enough plots jumping the rails and love triangles gone stupidly wrong to put me off popular media forever.”
“But you miss so many references.”
“That could be easily remedied by skipping the reference and getting to the point. I don’t need backstory unless he gives you his real name to pass on to Drexler.”
Kelvin turns his head and mutters to the kid, “She’s been a dazzling conversationalist as long as I’ve known her. Are you okay with being called Tony for now?”
A thumbs-up settles that dilemma.
The phone rings. Kelvin flinches away from the sound, then lunges toward the receiver before his nerves are assaulted again. “Hello? She’s still here. I’ll tell her.” He ends the call and shakes his hands to discharge the latest batch of tension. “Drexler’s going to that address now if you want to tag along.”
The boy — Tony — shakes his head again.
His tight-lipped silence is less than helpful, but a jerk of his chin if an interview subject lies to the detective is better than nothing. “You have to be there. You’re the only one who knows who’s telling the truth.”
His persistent negativity leads me to believe I’ll have to force him to go, but when I take his hand, his will to go to the trailer is as strong as mine.
The young guy has been joined by an equally young woman who now holds the baby in her arms. While we wait for Drexler to arrive, Tony wanders back to the growth chart. I sit on the stove and eavesdrop on the couple’s dinner plans and her complaints about work.
If I had their phone number, I’d have Kelvin leave an anonymous tip about an upcoming employment opportunity at the diner.
The guy responds to a brisk knock on the door. Drexler uses his badge to introduce himself and gets their names: Stacy and Rob Newberry. “I’m looking for information about a boy, about ten years old, black hair, brown eyes.”
“I haven’t seen any kids like that around here.”
It’s a rare trailer park that lacks dark-haired boys, but an even rarer resident who’s willing to sell out a neighbor to the police.
Stacy cuddles the baby in her protective embrace. “Is this about the little boy that camper found?”
Drexler peers around the man blocking the door. “What do you know about him?”
“Just what’s been on the news.”
Rob likes cops harassing his wife even less. “We didn’t have anything to do with that.”
“Then you won’t mind if I look around.”
“Got a warrant?”
The detective regards Rob with fresh interest. Asking a cop for a warrant might as well be a suggestion to obtain one. Only innocent citizens and dumb criminals don’t know that.
Drexler errs on the side of innocence for the time being. “I don’t want to search through your drawers, son. I heard the victim might have lived here at some point in the past and need to confirm a piece of information in that report checks out so I know how credible the rest of it is.”
“Let him look, Rob.”
Rob closes the door in Drexler’s face and makes a quiet, reasonable argument to his wife against waiving their civil rights.
Stacy still believes law enforcement exists to protect nice people like her. “Do we have something to hide that I don’t know about?”
She yanks open the door. “Excuse my husband’s manners, detective. Go ahead and look.”
The trailer rocks as Drexler steps inside, a warning of maximum occupancy. His visual sweep of the kitchenette skates right past me. Since I didn’t give him any information other than the address, this search is arbitrary. “When did you move in?”
“Right before Daisy was born,” Stacy answers dutifully. “About nine months ago?”
“Where were you before then?”
Rob volunteers minimal information. “Florida.”
Stacy spoils his effort to maintain a semblance of privacy. “Gainesville.”
Drexler wanders down the hall and looks around the bedroom. “Any priors?”
Rob’s posture stiffens. “Juvie. For pot. That’s it.”
Drexler exits the bedroom. I stretch my arms across the narrow hallway. He recoils from my presence and sidesteps into the bathroom on the pretense of giving it a once-over.
I consider jumping across town to tell Kelvin to call about the growth chart, but Drexler won’t answer his phone while he’s inside the trailer. I didn’t think the artifact of Tony’s time here was significant enough to mention earlier, but if Drexler misses it and concludes I sent him on a wild goose chase, there’s no chance these people will welcome a followup interrogation after I get a chance to set him straight.
I block the bathroom door. Drexler takes the hint that I don’t want him to leave yet. His hand slips inside his blazer and emerges holding a penlight. Starting in the far corner, he illuminates each surface until he reaches the door. The circle of light lands on the frame and moves down, then up, spotlighting each mark obviously made for a child other than the baby currently in residence.
Drexler extinguishes the light. “I’d appreciate your landlord’s name and number.”
Satisfied he’ll follow through now, I move out of his personal space.
Rob isn’t as pleased with the request. “We haven’t done anything wrong.”
“I’m looking for a previous tenant. Your names won’t be mentioned.”
Stacy copies a name and number onto the flap of an envelope and tears it off for Drexler. “I hope it helps.”
“Every bit of cooperation helps. You have a nice evening.”
I arch my brows at Tony. “Hear that? Cooperation. It helps.”
Without a word, the boy follows Drexler from the trailer.
I beat both of them to the detective’s nondescript sedan. Tony pops into the back seat next to me. Drexler gets behind the wheel. His shoulders hunch in response to the ghostly presence behind him, but he doesn’t otherwise acknowledge us.
Someone inside the trailer peeps through the mini blinds. Rather than drive away and leave the family in peace, Drexler dials the landlord’s number while parked in front of their house and conspicuously raises the phone to his ear.
Today might be the day Stacy learns the police aren’t here to help nice people like her. She’s nothing but a resource. Sooner or later, Drexler will have a reason to visit this trailer park again, and this will be his first stop. How’ve you been, Stacy? My, how Daisy’s grown. She must be almost two years old now. Keeping in touch with your friends in Gainesville? He never forgets a detail. I’ve watched countless people sweat through the reunion, wondering what mistake they made when last they met. Relief makes them exquisitely helpful upon learning he wants someone else’s dirty laundry.
A man answers the call. Drexler makes sure he has the right person and identifies himself. “I’m looking for one of your previous tenants.”
From where I sit, the landlord’s words are tinny but audible. “I haven’t had any. I bought the trailer last year at a foreclosure auction.”
“Did it come with the lot?”
“Nah. The bank sold a bunch of repossessions at the fairground. Buyers had to find their own place to put them.”
Tony turns his head toward the mailbox, then me, and slowly twists his neck from side to side.
If he wants credit for telling me this nugget of information first, I have bad news for him. “That little head jiggle doesn’t even come close to communicating ‘I used to live in this trailer, but its been moved to a different address.’ Now they have to trace the title to find out who had it before this guy and the bank. Do you have any idea how slowly the government moves?”
The vacant look he gives me is probably typical of any ten-year-old quizzed about his experience with bureaucratic inefficiency. Unproductive though his methods may be, at least the attempt proves his memory is intact, not devoured by some arcane horror that preys on the mental souvenirs of the dead.
The thought plucks a strand of the sticky web of dread I walked through earlier, tautening the premonition of doom that attached itself to me along with this oddly behaved child.
The landlord is out of town without access to his records today, but he tells Drexler what he remembers about the title transfer and promises to bring copies to the police station before noon tomorrow.
I know that brings this branch of the investigation to a temporary halt, but I want Drexler to say it. I want him to admit he’s not alone in this car and he couldn’t have found this lead without my help and he needs me. I lean closer to the back of his head. My nostrils flare and my lips part to inhale my due.
Dirty fingernails pierce my shoulder, and the back seat of the car gives way to my booth at the diner.
Like a starving dog, I snap my teeth at the hand that snatched food from my mouth.
The tender morsel of new ghost darts to the other side of the table. I leap on top to prove it’s no barrier.
He flees to perch on the counter the new waitress is wiping. I crouch on the table, balanced on the balls of my feet. A physical pounce is unnecessary to catch my prey, but the predatory stance sharpens my focus.
The ding of the bell above the door distracts the boy. He tears his wide eyes away from me in a futile search for rescue.
The air throbs once with stifling energy that binds me in psychic chains. I can neither move the parts of my phantom body nor will myself to another place.
A growl rises in my throat, and I turn the full force of my rage on the interloper.
A man, tall and lean, glides along the aisle between the counter and the booths with a ghost’s unhurried disregard for time and space. Everything about him is artistically elongated — his midnight hair, his narrow nose, his black coat unsuited for the season.
Dark brown eyes with folded lids suggesting East Asian ancestry look into mine as he claims the bench a few dangerous inches from my vibrating wrath.
The waitress whirls to correct him. “That booth is reserved, sir.”
The fact that she can see him makes my growl falter. Not in a million years would I have categorized him as among the living.
His words emerge in silky, rich, melodiously accented English. “What’s your name?”
Her cheeks color in response to the barest trace of a smile on his lips. “Ashley.”
“Ashley, I’m going to sit here and talk to myself for just a bit. When I go, I’ll leave you ten dollars for every minute you look the other way.”
She casts an apprehensive look toward the employees-only door, as if sensing a trap orchestrated to get her fired.
The strange man gently advises her, “Vera would tell you to take the tip.”
Reassured of his trustworthiness by something as inconsequential as invoking the other woman’s name, Ashley smiles, turns her back on him, and resumes scrubbing the counter near the ghost boy’s feet.
The stranger returns his gaze to me. I bare my teeth in a snarl to make clear my plans to kill him the instant this paralysis breaks.
He appears more weary than frightened. “Little blackbird, this adventure you’re on does not have a happy ending.”
“Not for you,” I vow.
“I’m never happy when you’re in pain.”
It sounds like a line from the end of a sappy romantic movie, and it’s out of proportion to our relationship. “Who the hell are you?”
“An old friend.”
“I’ve never seen you before.”
His lips tilt in a one-sided smile. “Then you have no reason to believe I’m an enemy.”
I strain against my invisible restraints. “Oh, I can think of a reason.”
“You want to save the young one, not eat him.”
I do, but the uncooperative little brat is making it so damn hard. I have a sudden, fierce urge to whine to this stranger about the difficulty of babysitting an obstinately mute ghost. I imagine his sympathy served with hot tea and a sturdy shoulder to rest my head upon.
But I won’t taste the liquid in my cup or feel the support of that shoulder. The living can see him when I’m invisible to them. I don’t know what he is, but he’s not my kind, and nothing with the power to bind me can be good. “Release me.”
“Promise the boy you won’t hurt him.”
Bravado is the only thing I can flex at the moment. “It’s not his safety you should be worried about.”
He pushes up one sleeve of his coat and offers his bare wrist to my mouth. “Feed if it pleases you.”
There’s far more power in him than in Drexler and the boy combined. I could feast on him until this gnawing hunger is sated for a hundred years and he won’t notice the loss.
Those weightless, inescapable threads tighten around my head, squeezing out a warning. A fiend who holds me captive can’t be trusted. I can’t even be sure my temptation is my own while he controls me.
The danger lies not in the offer of poison but in the thirst for it.
My lips move stiffly, as if stitched together. “Never.”
“As you wish.” He bows his head and concentrates on restoring his cuff to order as if it is a task of infinite complexity. “Your intentions toward the boy remain a subject of concern.”
“Why do you care?”
Brown eyes collide with mine. I can almost read in them the answers he considers and discards. Finally, he says, “Your punishment will continue for all of time.”
Threats of eternal damnation don’t move me even when delivered by priests, but I’ve lost my appetite and the fury that fueled it. I make eye contact with Tony, who remains wary but no longer seems poised to flee in terror. “I promise I won’t hurt you.”
I mean it, but the sooner justice is served and his peaceful rest assured, the less likely he’ll be a victim of a lapse into cannibalism.
The stranger’s hold on me evaporates. I tip forward onto my knees. I stare with open disbelief as he rises from his seat. “You believe me?”
“You never break a promise.” He drops five ten-dollar bills on the table. “The same can’t be said of everyone, but if she offers you the opportunity to lose gracefully, I beg you to take it anyway.”
For someone who claims to be an old friend, he doesn’t know me very well. “I’ll take that under consideration. Who is ‘she’?”
He turns toward the door and walks away. “Definitely not your friend.”
© Ren Benton. Archived.