Hoppy Halloween! This overshoots my 10,000-word limit by a couple thou, but since Part 6 never got finished because the project was killed, might as well give you all of what I’ve got.
5. Miss Taken Identity
Ashley takes a bathroom break and calls the detective from the single stall in the ladies’ room. In order to convince him she isn’t merely a fan of Jason Gantry’s TV performances, I have her recap the detective’s morning activities and confirm the class photo his ex-wife gave him matches the ghost boy.
A poke from Tony reminds me to mention Luis Morales worked three jobs. A second run at the nosy neighbor might offer a lead there, or a peek at contact numbers in Tony’s school file if Drexler dares risk his ex-wife’s wrath again. As long as the kid’s not speaking to me, I can’t help in the search for former employers.
Ashley covers the mouthpiece of the phone as if my side of the conversation is a secret from the man on the other end. “He wants to know why you’re interested in the camper.”
What he wants to know is whether I have information he can write in his case file. To Drexler, anything other than evidence that will get a conviction is a waste of his time.
The only way to find out if there’s evidence at the end of a hunch, though, is to follow it. For lack of an explanation that will satisfy the cop, I say, “I don’t like the guy’s beard.”
Judging by the emphasis upon the camper’s “authentic nature experience” in Drexler’s field notes, I’m not the only one who thinks he reeks. Unlike the detective, however, I can’t get a citation for harassment if I follow Gantry around without a better reason than beard scorn.
The reason is good enough to make Drexler provide the address.
Ashley, ghost secretary extraordinaire, thanks him and tells him to have a nice day before ending the call. She presses her cell phone to her chest as if to slow a racing heart. “Do you need a ride?”
“If you go on a road trip somewhere fun, I’m happy to be a passenger, but I can get around town faster myself.” I don’t mention the danger of spying on bad guys because that makes it sound exciting to the squishy, vulnerable living more often than it discourages them. “Besides, your break is over.”
She grimaces. “I still have to pee.”
I cover Tony’s eyes with my hand and push him toward the door. “I’ll just take the kid outside.”
A whine comes from the stall. “Oh god, do I have to worry about ghosts watching me on the toilet now?”
“Not while I’m around, but I’m leaving, so you’re on your own with vagrant pervert specters.”
Outside the bathroom, Tony grasps both my hands.
“Want to go growl at that creep in person?”
A violent shake of his head is followed by the speak-hear-see no evil mime, and he quickly grabs my hands again.
This would be so much easier if he would talk. I strive for the simplest yes or no question to help me understand what he’s failing to say. “Do you want me to stay away from the camper?”
A crisp nod.
“Did he kill you?”
Another head shake.
“Does he know who killed you?”
His face twists into a pained expression that I’ve come to recognize as It’s complicated.
“Does he know more than I do about your death?”
Answers will be easier to obtain by stalking the guy who flexes for news cameras.
Tony wants to hold me here, but I’ve had decades to develop my slipperiness versus his days practicing an incorporeal grip. I send myself from the diner without the ghost clinging to my hands.
I’ve never been inside Jason Gantry’s apartment building, but I know the neighborhood. Most of it was constructed during the prior century’s local industrial boom to house low-income factory workers. Gentrification marches inward from the edges. Gantry’s building is next in line to be sold to a developer who will drive out the current tenants with rent hikes, convert the units to luxury condos, and lease the ground floor to an artisanal popcorn shoppe and the street’s third yoga studio.
Until the renovation takes place, however, the exterior doggedly maintains the architectural charm of a prison. Since there are no guards inside to supervise the inmates, the corridors are poorly illuminated and more narrow than a correctional facility would permit.
Gantry lives on the third floor. Since it’s unlikely he’s chosen this very moment to monologue about his nefarious scheme, I explore the rest of the building to add to my mental map collection.
The basement is a series of claustrophobic rooms connected by a skinny hallway of brown brick and rough mortar. The first room is full of electrical and phone wiring, the second a hub for plumbing maintenance. In the third, half a dozen tenants pay extra for padlocked cages to store belongings that won’t fit inside their apartments. The final chamber is a communal laundry room with one flickering fluorescent light. A film of dust covers the machines, as if there are no volunteers to help the space realize its potential as a crime scene.
My second impression of the ground floor is nearly cheerful in comparison to the catacombs below. The paint is grimy and the high-traffic carpet worn through to the backing in a stripe down the center of the corridor, but at least all the light bulbs work. A few televisions compete for dominance through thin walls, but it’s otherwise peaceful.
The second floor hallway looks less exhausted by its thoroughfare duties but reeks like a dumpster on a hot day. I drift through a couple of empty apartments in search of a rotting corpse before coming across ground zero. A force field of stench surrounds a stain on the hall carpet. I can’t imagine any rent-paying resident continuing to write checks under these conditions. Maybe the building takeover has already begun, and the malignant odor is the first strike to drive out the current tenants.
The smell pushes me up another stairwell to the third floor. This one is comparatively clean, as if few are willing to climb two flights of steps, leading residents to enshrine themselves in their apartments and deliveries to be left downstairs to rot, unclaimed.
Perhaps the olfactory assault on the second floor is the result of abandoned takeout.
Gantry’s apartment is halfway down the hall on the left side. Nothing distinguishes it from the neighbors except the number on the door. I push my hand through the doorbell and follow with the rest of my body. “Ding dong, Mr. Gantry.”
The man lounging on the battered sofa scrambles to his feet with a muffled curse. “I wasn’t expecting you.”
I’m delighted to hear he doesn’t typically receive callers while wearing only boxer shorts, but I’m more concerned that he’s aware of me and not nearly as alarmed as he should be in response to a stranger barging into his home.
The silence stretches to an awkward extent, and a flush blooms above and below his beard. “I’ll get dressed.”
He scuttles toward an open door opposite the sofa and closes himself inside, leaving me alone in the living room. The only other piece of “furniture” is a television parked on the floor. The window lacks any kind of covering, relying on the building next door to keep daylight to a minimum. Spartan décor is common when paychecks are lean, but there are always other signs of life. Laundry. Mail. A plastic cup to maintain hydration while hypnotized by a talk show marathon. Gantry has none of that.
This apartment feels like a waiting room.
The door opens. Gantry emerges, wearing khakis and a polo shirt better suited to his salon beard than a camo hat. Beyond him, an inflatable mattress lies on the bedroom floor.
“I would have never guessed you were into leather kink.” He watches me from the corner of his eye while a few steps move him into the kitchenette. “Can I get you a drink?”
Either he doesn’t know ghosts aren’t equipped to accept liquid hospitality or he can’t tell the difference between a warm body and a specter. His preconceived notions about how I should be dressed suggest he thinks I’m somebody else.
Prolonged staring doesn’t clear up his confusion. “Look, if you’re mad about the news interview, it’s not my fault.” His voice wavers as his volume increases. “They ambushed me!”
I worry speaking will give away my accidental impersonation, but I won’t have to feign the disapproval he seems to anticipate. The news crew hadn’t rung the doorbell and caught the liar in his underwear. “They were lying in wait in the woods?”
“I was looking for the kid.”
Gantry and I have one kid in common, but what if there are other little bodies in the ground, waiting to be “discovered”?
What if, somewhere, there are little bodies still alive?
Asking him outright obviously isn’t an option. I look to the ceiling as if praying to be spared from imbecilic henchmen. “Let’s review what you were supposed to be doing instead of running your mouth to reporters.”
“I was supposed to wait here in case the cops want to talk to me again, but—” He cuts himself off like a man who’s been reprimanded for making excuses in the past.
Ordinarily, I’d approve of a hard stop before trying to weasel out of accountability for his actions, but I’m willing to set back his training to get the information I need. “Go on. You must have had a good reason to deviate from the plan. I breathlessly await an explanation.”
“When they dug up the kid, I thought he attached to that cop, so he’d be easy to find when you’re ready for him.”
Most mediums know disturbing a body awakens a ghost. Few have been on hand for the procedure because they don’t know where those bodies are buried. It sounds like no accident Gantry went directly to Tony’s grave and made sure he rose from it.
But why would anyone want a ghost?
“Except I saw the cop leaving the police station last night, and no kid.” Gantry’s forehead gleams with sweat. “You know how sometimes ghosts bond with a place instead? Well, I thought maybe he was still hanging around in the woods, so I went to look, and that’s when the news crew got me. All I said was I’ve been losing sleep and came back looking for closure.”
I lift one shoulder. “Sounds better than returning to the scene of the crime, I suppose.”
A bead of perspiration sneaks down his temple and hides in his beard. “It’s not like I killed the kid.”
Whoever he thinks I am presumably knows whether that denial is true. He seems close to wetting his pants from fear, so I doubt he’d dare lie to me. I need him to tell me more of the truth, though. “How do you plan to convince the police you’re blameless when your little stunt brings you to their attention again?”
“I won’t say anything, I swear.”
“You don’t think refusing to answer questions will arouse suspicion?”
“I mean I won’t tell them about the ministry.”
There’s my cult connection. His silence won’t last long when Drexler asks specifically about the ministry. “What will you tell them about Luis and Elena Morales?”
His eyes bounce around the room, searching for the correct words to spit out of his open mouth. “I thought they were prepared to do their part.”
They were involved, then. I hoped, for Tony’s sake, his parents were hostages, forced to act against their will. If they’re free and continuing to play a role in the scheme that killed their son, they’ll go to prison with everyone else involved. “They are. Are you?”
“My life is yours.” Shiny eyes echo the feverish devotion of the words.
Those four syllables are the most corrupted thing I’ve ever heard. Wrongness squirms through me, leaving poison trails in its wake.
His zealotry doesn’t unsettle me as much as my conviction that someone else should be speaking those words to me and it’s an offense for this repulsive creature to utter them. If I could, I would cut his unworthy tongue from his mouth.
The need to escape tugs at me, but Gantry will catch on to my deception if I leave the way I came in. I never want to see him again, but the investigation necessitates leaving my options open. “We’re done for now. Show some manners and get the door this time.”
He runs across the small space to obey the command and begins twisting locks. “I must have nodded off earlier. Good thing I left it unlocked so you could get in.”
I can’t stop looking at that offensive pink tongue flopping around in his mouth.
He pauses with his hand on the knob. “What about the boy?”
I still don’t know what they want with Tony, but he’s mine now and they can’t have him. “Stop looking. I know where to find him.”
“Oh, sure. I’ll just… stay here and wait.” He fumbles with knob and opens the door to reveal another visitor.
Across the threshold, I meet the cold blue eyes of the woman whose face I borrowed.
© Ren Benton. Archived.