Friday, August 27, 2010

Ghosts

In his dream, he hears the sound of the shotgun blast, which he at first mistakes for the backfire of a car, and then he hears the squealing of the tires as the car races away. It is the squealing of the tires, the urgency, the need for a car to be racing away, that causes the surge of panic in his veins. Richard Davis, who is standing in line at the Seven Eleven at the corner, purchasing a pack of cigarettes for the girl he has left back in the motel room, realizes with a sickening, repetitive dread, that he has forgotten the future again, that he has left her to die again, that she is now lying on the motel bed with her face seared off by the blast; and it is this red, skinless face with the bone and muscle and sinew exposed that will be seared forever into his brain when he bursts through the shattered door of the motel, seared so deep and so intently that it will haunt his dreams for twenty-five years.

Richard Davis wakes up in the future with sweat on his brow and sweat on his sheets and a sharp but familiar pain in his chest, and wonders for a moment if his time has come, if perhaps now he can die in peace and end the dream.

But he doesn't die. The dream doesn't end.

Instead, he remembers. Again.

It had happened twenty-five years ago when he was in college. He had been working in an insurance company as an office assistant to a Claims Investigator. He enjoyed the job; he liked filing the paperwork and updating the databases on the primitive dBase system. He enjoyed reading through the cases. Having grown up on Hardy Boys and Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigator mystery stories, he viewed it as the next-best thing to detective work.

Most of their work was mundane: interviewing clients, researching background data, cross-checking facts. But every once in a while, an interesting case would come along, like the case where the husband murdered the wife for the insurance money, or the case where the businessman pushed his partner out of the office window, then tried to write a fake suicide note, hoping to get full control of the company so that his embezzlement could be hidden.

The image that haunted Richard Davis was associated with one of the interesting cases. It was the last case, in fact, that Richard had ever worked on.

He had been all alone in the office late on a Friday night, sitting at Mr. O'Brien's desk, reading through the latest copy of Playboy (which Mr. O'Brien left in his bottom right drawer), when the telephone rang. He answered it. It was a woman. She sounded terrified.

“Danny, you gotta help me,” she said. “I got no place else to go. It’s Bill. He’s gone off the deep end. He’s gonna kill me!”

Danny. That was Mr. O'Brien. Danny O'Brien.

“I’m sorry, Mr. O’Brien isn’t here,” Richard said. “This is Rich… um, Mr. Davis. Can I help you?” He didn't bother to mention he was just the assistant.

“Who? Mr. Davis? You a friend of Danny’s?”

“I work with Mr. O’Brien.”

“Oh. OK. Look, I gotta get out of town. Bill’s looking for me, and he’s gonna kill me if he finds me. I need to talk to Danny. I don’t have his home number. I always call him at the office. He don't want me calling at his house, on accounta his wife. But I gotta talk to him. Do you have his number?”

He was forming a mental picture of the lady. Blonde, deep red lips, smartly dressed, hair partly mussed. Like one of those femme fatales from the movies. Standing in a phone booth with the rain pouring down, eyes furtively glancing all around, trembling from fear. He could almost hear the musical soundtrack in the background.

“I’m sorry, but Mr. O’Brien has gone out of town for the weekend. I don’t have a phone number for him, but he’ll be back on Monday. I can give him a message if you’d like.”

“Monday’s no good. I gotta get out now!”

“I’m sorry. Is there anything I can do, Miss –?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what to do! If Bill finds me -!”

His mind was flying through several scenarios, all of them taken from late-night movie plots. “Where are you? I can come get you.”

A pause. “What was your name again? You say you’re a friend of Danny’s?” A hint of suspicion in her voice.

He tried to play it cool. “Yes, ma’am. I’m Mr. Davis. I work with Mr. O’Brien – Danny – here at the office. We work together. I’m at his desk right now.”

“OK. It’s just – I’m a little nervous, you understand. I gotta make sure.”

“Of course, I understand. Why don’t I come get you, and we can talk?”

“I don’t need to talk. I just need money.” She sounded tense, and then a note of bright hope entered her voice. “You got any money you could bring me? Enough to get me outta town?”

“I’ve got some. It might be enough to get you to Chicago or Memphis.” He actually didn’t have any, but he knew where the petty cash was kept, and he knew that Mr. O’Brien kept a stash in his drawer for emergencies. He figured the boss wouldn’t mind, since it was for a client.

“Well, that ain’t much, but it’s a start.”

“Where are you at?”

“I got a room at the Buzz Inn motel out at the airport. Room 124. I wanna get out on the next flight.”

“OK. I can be there in about half an hour. Will that be all right?”

“Yeah. OK. Half an hour.”

“All right. I’ll see you then.” Richard moved to hang up the phone.

“Wait!”

Richard put the phone back to his ear again. “Yes?”

“When you get here, knock four times. Like this. Ta-ta, ta-ta. OK? So I know it’s you.”

“Four times. Got it. OK. Good-bye.”

Richard sat back in the boss’s desk and smiled. He felt just like a character in a movie. A real detective case!

--

It only took twenty minutes to get to the motel. Richard drove carefully but quickly. He was a combination of nervous and excited. He slid to a stop in the gravel parking lot, braking just a little too hard. His heart was racing. He was going to meet the mystery woman! For the third or fourth time, he checked the stash of bills in his coat pocket. It was all still there. He got out of the car and looked at the single-story stucco building which had once been white. Room 124 was just a few doors down. He walked over to it and knocked four times. Ta-ta, ta-ta. And he waited.

He sensed her through the door, peering through the peephole. She didn’t immediately open it. He resisted the urge to look around, figuring it would make him appear nervous. Which he was. He could feel sweat forming on his forehead.

The doorknob turned and the door opened just a crack. He could see the chain was still engaged.

“How much did you bring?” she whispered harshly. He could smell cigarette smoke.

He leaned toward the door. “Two fifty,” he whispered back. The door shut in his face. He could hear the chain rattling. Then the door opened, just enough for him to walk through. “Get in! Quick!” He slipped through the gap. The door was immediately shut behind him, the deadbolt thrown, the chain re-hung.

The air was filled with smoke. The girl was holding a cigarette between her fingers, and the ashtrays in the room were filled with butts. Richard coughed. It was hard to breathe. He wasn’t used to cigarette smoke.

“Where’s the money?” she said, and now her voice was normal. He took a good look at her through the smoke, and realized that she really was a girl, just a girl. Sixteen, maybe seventeen. A little thing, no more than five feet tall. Her hair was blonde, with brownish roots. Colored, probably. Heavy eye shadow, badly applied – or smeared from crying. Thin body. She was wearing skin-tight yellow leotards with a purple skirt, and a yellow halter top.

He pulled the money out of his coat pocket in a wad and handed it to her. She took it without even looking at it and stuffed it into an orange fringed purse that was lying on the bed. Then she turned and sat down next to it. The covers were all rumpled. The television was on but the volume was turned off. Evidently she had been watching it while waiting for him.

She sighed loudly. “I called the airport,” she said, looking at the ground. “They got a flight to Charleston that leaves in an hour. You mind dropping me off?”

“Not at all.”

“It’s just that I don’t want to walk over. Too open. Somebody might see me. Besides, I wanna get there right before they start boarding. They might have guys casing the joint, and I don’t wanna sit around in there.”

She put the cigarette in her mouth and sucked on it as though it was the last cigarette on earth. He had a million questions for her, questions about who she was and what was going on, but wasn’t sure how to begin. His curiosity overwhelmed his mind. He was insanely curious, but didn’t want to be too nosey. Before he had the chance, though, she breathed out a long stream of smoke and shivered. Her shoulders dropped, relaxing.

She started talking.

“I was hoping for Chicago or Memphis, but those flights are all booked. I can get to Charleston, though. That should be far enough, for a start. Then I can catch a flight down to Florida, or New Orleans. Somewhere away from here. Someplace where they can’t find me. Some town big enough, so many people, they won’t think it’s worth looking for me anymore. I’ve always wanted to go to New York, but that’s too big, too dangerous. I’m not ready for that kind of town.”

“Who are you running from?”

He hadn’t meant to interrupt, but his mouth finally engaged with his brain.

She looked at him for a moment. “Danny didn’t tell you nothin? About me?”

He shook his head. She laughed short and humorlessly. “Figures. He keeps things pretty tight. Probably planning on busting the whole thing up himself. A hero. Always gotta be a hero.”

“Busting what whole thing?”

She took another long drag on her cigarette, stubbed it out in an ashtray, then looked up at him as the smoke rolled from her mouth. “You don’t wanna know, mister. You really don’t wanna know. Your best bet is to just drop me off and then forget you ever seen me. Don’t even tell Danny you helped me out.”

He was going to have to tell Danny. He had to explain about the money. But she didn’t need to know that.

“You don’t look too old,” she observed, now looking at him very carefully. “How long’ve you known Danny?”

“Couple years.”

Something seemed to click in her head. “You’re one of those college boys, ain’t ya? One of Danny’s ‘go-fers’?” She shook her head, with a fatalistic laugh. “Figures I’d get one of you guys. My luck.”

Richard bristled. “Mr. O’Brien trusts me to handle a lot of the legwork and research on his cases.”

“Yeah, yeah, great. Look, mister, can you do me a big favor before we go?” She was pawing her purse open. “I’m outta smokes. Can you run over to the corner store and pick me up some?”

“Uh – sure.”

“Marlboro.”

“OK.” He reached over and unlocked the door, dropping the chain latch. He turned the knob and opened the door. “I’ll be right back.” He stepped outside and shut the door behind him. He heard the bolt and the chain as she relocked it.

Right. Back.