Hey-o, installment 4, in which Raven gains a new ally. I mostly miss writing this because while doing so, I had a window open for Sexy Scary Man’s visual inspiration, and now I don’t have a good reason to do so. My desktop may never forgive me for dropping this one.
4. Puppet Show
The boy survives the night. He’s not speaking to me, but since he never has, there’s no way of knowing whether he’s holding a grudge for my uncivilized behavior or merely maintaining the status quo.
Much to my amazement, the new waitress returns for day two. She nearly polished the finish off the table after Tall, Dark, and Cryptic left last night, so maybe she hopes he’s a regular customer who will grace her with his presence and fifty-dollar tips for doing nothing on a daily basis.
I hope he disappoints her. One encounter was enough to wear out his welcome with me. He took “controlling” way beyond daytime talk show levels by immobilizing me. Some women find that exciting.
Someone murdered me, sawed the face off my skull, and dumped my body in the woods to be bulldozed a decade later. My standards for companionship have evolved accordingly.
Ashley includes my table in her morning salt shaker refilling, though no one sits here to deplete the supply. Barely moving her lips, she murmurs,“If I’m not losing my mind, say something.”
I look at the booth behind to find out which customer came in when I wasn’t paying attention. There’s no one there.
If she’s talking to the salt, I share her concern about a psychiatric crisis.
Across the table, Tony makes a beak of his hand and chomps it at me.
My eyes widen. With the exception of my “friend” from last night, the last person who spoke to me in this diner was five-year-old Kelvin Deschain.
A mental breakdown is more plausible, but that’s easy enough to rule out. “Are you talking to me?”
A nervous giggle bubbles up from her chest, and she fumbles the lid off the salt. The metal dome spins on the table until she slaps her hand over it. She whispers, “What are you?”
“Dead.” That’s old news. I’m more interested in new revelations. “You can hear me but not see me?”
She feigns pouring salt into the full shaker. “Is that weird?”
“I’ve never come across it, but I don’t spend a lot of time blabbering when I think no one’s listening to test the theory.”
Most of the living are completely insensitive to ghosts. One in ten or twenty has a shudder response like Drexler. Genuine sight-sound communicators are a rare find worth maintaining long-term relationships with. I’ve never given much thought to the range in between, but now that I’m forced to, the existence of sensitives whose receptors are open to varying degrees is a reasonable assumption.
Ashley takes her time screwing the lid onto the shaker. “You were pretty talkative yesterday.”
The frustration of my one-sided conversations is compounded by random overhearers thinking I’m babbling to myself. I aim a smile thin enough to slice tomatoes at Tony. “You’ll have to take my word for it that I recently started hanging out with a mute ghost.”
“The one you were going to… eat?”
Mr. Cryptic is good for corroborating otherwise unsupportable claims, if not helping me make a great first impression. “That’s a long story, and Vera’s about to ask you if there’s a reason you have so much to say to that salt.”
She glances over her shoulder to verify the other woman’s scrutiny and quickly drops the shaker back into the condiment caddy. “Doesn’t she know?”
“I can say with one hundred percent certainty that if Vera knew about me, she’d tell me to move because this booth is reserved.”
A huff of laughter propels Ashley to the table behind mine.
The bell over the door pings with the entrance of Drexler. He approaches the counter and orders his coffee in a to-go cup.
Ashley whispers, “Who’s that guy?”
“Homicide detective.” One who comes to the diner only when he wants my services, and if he’s not sticking around, that’s my invitation to join him.
“Are you working together to solve your murder?”
“My case is older than he is.” Drexler heads out the door. I pause before following him to his car. “I’m leaving with him. I’ll let you know when I get back.”
“Thanks for letting me know not to keep talking to myself.” She flashes a cheery smile at Vera and mutters through her teeth, “Even if everybody thinks that’s what I’m doing already.”
After last night, seizing Tony seems in poor taste, so I crook a finger to summon him and hope he doesn’t get lost. I pop into the back seat of Drexler’s car.
A tense second later, the boy joins me.
It’s a short drive to a different trailer park than the one we visited yesterday. Tony cranes his neck to take in the scenery, as if holding it up to a memory for comparison.
“Is this where you used to live?”
He points to the right, and Drexler turns in that direction at the next corner. He must have pulled some strings and gotten a property trace on the Newberry trailer overnight.
He parks at the edge of a vacant lot overgrown with weeds and gets out of the car. A nosy face appears in a neighbor’s window and provides a target for interrogation.
An elderly white man with a bald scalp and bristly black eyebrows answers the door.
Drexler flashes his badge. “I’m trying to track down the previous owner of a trailer that used to be parked next door.”
“Good luck with that. They hightailed it out of here a couple years ago before the debt collectors caught up with them.”
Tony shakes his head.
I don’t trust an eight-year-old’s assessment of the family finances. “Do you have a better explanation for taking off?”
He opens his mouth wide, and black earth pours out.
I’ve already seen this show once. I’m not interested in an encore. “That’s not as informative as you think it is.”
Drexler coaxes more information from the old man. “Do you remember their names?”
“Morales. I didn’t see him much, but Elena used to bring me casseroles.”
“He wasn’t around?”
“Probably had a second family.”
Tony growls at the old man.
I suggest a less inflammatory alternative. “Two jobs?”
Three grimy fingers stab into the air.
Three sets of bosses and coworkers that might have a clue what became of the Morales family. “I’ll make sure Drexler gets the memo.”
The detective fishes for more clues. “Did they have kids?”
“Just the boy. Andrew? Anthony? Something like that.”
Prickly little feet of recognition march across my forehead. “Tony.”
The boy raises his eyebrows as if to say he told me so.
“You’ve told me nothing, Iron Man.”
Drexler thanks the neighbor for his help and returns to the car. The next logical move is searching for information about Elena Morales and birth records for her son. I’m not needed for that, but I have nothing better to do than ride along.
The reward for my perseverance comes in the form of a familiar elementary school parking lot. I can’t contain a laugh. “Oh, no. Say it ain’t so. This was your school?”
Tony manages only a partial nod before I tell him I’ll be waiting in the principal’s office. I’ve been here before, so my trip is instantaneous.
The placard on the desk identifies the freckled redhead sitting behind it as Rebecca Hollister, Principal. She reclaimed her maiden name when she stopped being Mrs. John Drexler.
The divorce wasn’t notably contentious, but she didn’t leave because she felt warmly toward him. I expect she’ll be less free with information than the ghost accompanying the detective to the front desk. On cue, her expression shutters when the phone buzzes to announce his arrival.
She’s cool and composed when he steps across her threshold. “I hope this is a social call, Detective.”
“I need to know if one of my victims was a student here.”
“And I need a court order. You know the law, John.”
“The same person who murdered this little boy and cut out his tongue could flirt with you in line at the grocery store tomorrow, Bex. Or with the mother of the next kid he’s going to kill.”
I want justice for Tony, but first, I’d like to watch someone make Drexler jump through a few hoops instead of letting him manipulate them into doing his bidding.
Rebecca’s weary sigh suggests their marriage was filled with such battles, and they left her exhausted. “Close the door.” When eavesdroppers are cut off, she puts her fingers on the keyboard with obvious reluctance. “Name?”
“Morales. Possibly Andrew or Anthony. Mother’s name was Elena.” Drexler throws in their last known address to narrow the search.
She studies the computer screen. “I have an Antonio Morales, mother Elena, matching address. He attended kindergarten through third grade here.”
“I need to talk to his teachers.”
I raise my hand in a one-sided high five. “Makin’ me proud, Bex.”
“Off the record,” Drexler counters. “I have to find out what happened with this kid. I’ll come back with a subpoena to cover you and your school against privacy lawsuits, but this guy needs to be stopped now.”
She looks like she’s aged since he entered her office. This meeting will probably serve as a reminder to send a fruit basket to her divorce lawyer later, but for now, Drexler wins again. “I expect that subpoena to come blazing onto my desk long before I get a complaint.”
“It will. Do you have a class picture?”
“You’re overstepping, John.”
“People who saw him alive are more likely to recognize a school photo than the picture of his corpse I’m carrying.”
Face drawn with defeat, she pulls a yearbook from a shelf behind her desk, riffles through the pages, and runs the book through a desktop copy machine. She uses a scissors to chop the surrounding pictures from the enlarged image and hands Drexler what’s left. “Does that match your victim?”
I examine the grayscale photo along with the detective. I don’t know how much “minimal discoloration and bloat” affect the morgue image he mentioned, but other than the absence of dirt and slightly shorter hair, this class picture of Antonio Morales matches my tight-lipped ghost exactly.
Rebecca provides directions to find Tony’s third grade teacher and sends him on his way.
A young black woman with a crown of natural curls stops him in the hall with a smile. “Can I help you?”
Drexler shows his badge. “I’m looking for information about a former student here, Antonio Morales.”
Her eyes brighten with recognition. “Tony was one of my second graders.”
“You remember him well?”
“He was a standout. Quick to learn, quick to help, better at conflict resolution than most adults I’ve met. There’s one every year you know could change the world if nobody got in their way.”
This conversation will leave a permanent scar on her optimism. I stand close behind the detective. He won’t hear me, but the discomfort of my nearness might convey enough warning. “Drexler, don’t break this lady’s heart today.”
He refrains from sharing the bad news. “How were his parents?”
“Great. Elena did a lot of volunteering for the class, chaperoning field trips, making costumes for plays, stuff like that.”
“You don’t mention his father.”
“I didn’t see him much, but you rarely do with the dads. He seemed really proud of his son when I talked to him at awards assemblies.” Her expression dims with the realization cops don’t ask questions for nice reasons. “What happened?”
“I’m trying to find that out myself, ma’am. I understand Tony was here for third grade, too. Can you point me toward his teacher?”
Tony pats the young teacher’s hand as we move on, but the spectral gesture isn’t enough to put the cheer back in her eyes.
Drexler knocks on a door at the end of the hall. The woman inside the room commands her class to be silent and steps out into the hall. Her hair and eyes are the color of gunmetal and just as rigid. “How may I help you?”
Drexler introduces himself and drops Rebecca’s name as a reference. “Do you remember a student named Antonio Morales?”
“He was in my class, but only for a few months. He didn’t come back after Thanksgiving break.” Lemon-sucking lips suggest lingering bitterness about being dumped without warning.
“What kind of student was he?”
I’d get straight to what happened to the kid at Thanksgiving, but I’ve been around Drexler long enough to know he’s not merely wasting time. Some memories need to be pulled out of cold storage and thawed before they’re ready to be served to company. A question about Tony’s academic performance is a warming light to melt the frost from the woman’s recollection.
She searches the ceiling for a mental image of one student out of the hundreds who’ve passed through her classroom. I doubt it’s ever occurred to her any of them could change the world. “Quick to raise his hand with an answer on the rare occasions he could resist blurting it out.”
I squint at the kid. “You picked a hell of a time to change your ways.”
With both hands, he covers his mouth, then his ears, then his eyes. He separates his fingers and peers at me through the gap.
I catch the backwards see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil allusion, but as with Kelvin’s comic book waving, it means nothing to me without context.
Drexler prompts, “Do you remember his parents?”
If I had a spinal cord, the abrupt reversal from helpful mama and proud papa would have given me whiplash.
Drexler’s next question is delayed by a second while he makes his own mental adjustment. “How so?”
“They were the kind of people who blame everything on god’s will and refuse to let anything interfere with it. I bet you’re asking because they let that kid die from something penicillin would have cured in a week.”
Unless this woman is mistaken about which family is being discussed, Tony’s parents underwent a personality transplant during the summer between second grade and third. That’s too quick and too extreme for a religious conversion. It’s more consistent with indoctrination into a cult.
The only strong people in a cult are the leaders who know it’s a sham. They recruit vulnerable underlings with promises to solve all their problems.
The Morales family lived in that little trailer for years. Poverty didn’t stop them from being friendly with neighbors or involved with their son’s school. Something happened to make them desperate for a solution only a charlatan could offer. “Did you get sick, Tony? Something a doctor couldn’t fix?”
He searches the ceiling, too, but finds no answers he can share. Frustration makes his eyes glisten.
Whatever’s motivating his silence doesn’t stop him from nodding or shaking his head to answer a question. Yes or no may oversimplify to the point of being misleading, the crucial portion of the truth locked within words he can’t or won’t say.
I think, for a fraction of a second, there’s a possibility he died of some illness and was dumped in the woods so his parents wouldn’t have to answer charges of medical neglect, as if that’s vastly more benign than being murdered.
Then I remember his missing teeth and tongue.
Drexler has a court order to obtain, and I need to give some thought to a way to present the cult theory that gives him something to investigate. If he wants me to tag along somewhere else, he’ll notice I’m not making his skin crawl and find me. “I’m going back to the diner.”
Tony takes my hand as if he doesn’t want to be left behind again.
We’re home in time for the noon news. The TV behind the counter pans another stretch of average-looking trees and cuts to a guy wearing a camouflage-print cap at odds with his crisp-edged beard and toothpaste ad smile. The chyron at the bottom of the screen identifies him as Jason Gantry, the camper who found the body.
Tony growls at the screen, a deeper and more prolonged expression of hostility than he gave the rude former neighbor.
I’d be miffed at the guy who left my hand exposed to be chewed by wildlife, too. Aside from that, the guy has an extremely punchable face. He seems inordinately pleased about finding a dead kid in the woods, like getting on the news is a great opportunity to impress women or get his own reality TV show.
I guarantee he’s involved in something shady. Whether it’s criminal or merely despicable, I want to know what it is.
I make good on my promise to check in with the staff. “Ashley, are you interested in an unpaid position as an occasional liaison between the living and the dead?”
She hurries past me with a tray of drinks and her best attempt at stiff-lipped ventriloquism. “Are you going to possess me?”
That would streamline communication a great deal, but it’s not my style. “I might ask you to make a phone call once in a while. No body snatching involved.”
She makes another pass to grab the coffee pot. “Can you do that?”
“I never have, I wouldn’t know how, and I wouldn’t experiment on anyone useful even with permission for fear it would turn their brain to gravy.”
She fills her customers’ cups and comes back to slide the pot onto the hotplate. “In the interest of making myself useful and avoiding gravy brain, sure, I can play ghost secretary.”
Even my reassurances come across as threats. Kelvin may have a point about my conversational skills or lack thereof, but something that’s worked for half a century doesn’t need to be fixed. “Great. When you get a chance, call Detective Drexler and tell him I want Jason Gantry’s address.”
© Ren Benton. Archived.