See Jack Hunt – First 100 Pages

ebook300dpiPrologue

Their plot to destroy the foundations of Religion, hatched in secret in the year 325 AD, it had not succeeded . . . not yet. But like all such conspiracies of debauchery and chaos, this story is not over. Often, what seems like chance and fate, are merely well thought out conspiracies.

For what none but a privileged few knew, was that the 23 evils souls had escaped the Land of Sorrows, exactly as planned. Through their persistence and diabolical dedication, they had crossed back from the land of darkness and shadows, to the Earth, exactly as it had been prophesied.

And this dark plot, born the exact same time as our religion was born, it is only just beginning. The days until the End are numbered. Steadily approaching. And these 23 evil beings, who chose to go against the will of God, they are walking the Earth. And they are not on a mission of peace. Unstopped, they may bring about the beginning of the end.

And only the Pagan can stop them . . .

 

Addison Circle, Dallas, Texas.
July 10th . . .

My name is Jack Pagan . . . and I am six months and seventeen days old.

I can tell you one thing for certain. One exquisite promise. The truth of truths. And that is that things do go bump in the night. The things you don’t want to see . . . they are watching you. When people talk about ghosts and goblins, they might be joking with you, but I’m not.

All of that stuff that no right-minded person beyond the age of 12 would believe in . . . it’s really there. Not that I’m an expert on this stuff. Hell, you could probably get better information by watching the Sci-Fi channel late at night. You know, right after Lake Placid 7, or some deadly giant Anaconda movie. That’s when you might get to learn something about the dark world beyond ours.

Me, I’m just the biggest dupe in the universe. The most numb-skulled half-wit to ever walk among the dead. But then, I guess that makes me kind of qualified for this. I see things crawling around that most people don’t.

Some people, like my friend Ms. Josephine, she can hear them. Voices from another place. Echoes of the dead and what not. She calls it, communin’ wit da dead. She’s kind of creepy most of the time, but she knows things we can’t know. Hears things that none of us can hear.

I don’t have any idea how she sleeps at night. I have a hard enough time closing my eyes when I know the world could disappear at any moment. But at least I can close out the monsters, if only for a brief while. Ms. Josephine, she hears them whenever they want to talk.

My friend Ricky, he says that we are gifted—Ms. Josephine and I. I lean more towards cursed, but that’s a semantic argument. Ricky says that arguments like that are absurd, and just to accept our new roles in this world.

Our new jobs as trackers.

Skip tracers of the darkness.

As hunters of evil.

I’m not really sure what we are, anymore. I’m still learning how to be a functional member of society. And you can’t talk about monsters with normal people. Sure, they’ll smile and nod their head. You know, trade a story or two about something a friend of a friend of a friend told them. But the second your gone, they laugh to themselves, and you go right on the nutbag crazy list.

Instead of people saying, “Hey, there’s Jack,” they say things like, “Here comes that lunatic that believes in ghosts.”

“ . . . that moron that hallucinates.”

“ . . . that dickhead that believes in monsters.”

So, Ms. Josephine and Ricky and I, we basically keep our secrets. No need to spook the neighbors. And that is really difficult not to do. Especially when I’m glancing out across the balcony at a guy a few apartments over who is surrounded by these small, shadowy creatures that I call, spooks.

He’s just standing there in a pair of shorts and loose shirt, probably thinking about his taxes, or his girlfriend, or his sports car. Maybe he’s happy. Maybe he’s sad. I’ll never know. The wind is barely moving, just enough to make it comfortable this morning.

In his left hand is a magazine or journal or something. I can’t tell if there’s a picture of a yacht on the cover, or if it’s a big house. Something expensive, I’m sure. So this guy, this guy I don’t even know other than passing him near the elevator a few times, he’s just relaxing. Doing pretty good for himself if he lives in this place.

The loft apartments here are super expensive. If Ricky wasn’t ugly rich, then I wouldn’t be living here, for sure. So I watch this successful guy ponder the fabric of the universe. And even though I don’t know anything about him, other than that he lives two floors below me, and four apartments to the right, I know that he’s not long for this world.

There are spooks all over the place. They are short and thick, hobbling around, black as the darkest parts of cold space. They’re just climbing, bouncing around. They’re hanging on his balcony wall, coming in and out of his loft, studying him like he’s already dead.

Part of me wants to yell down to this guy; warn him. But it wouldn’t make a difference. If the spooks are around, he won’t be much longer.

This guy I don’t know at all, he’s marked for death by the surest thing in the universe: the dark little creatures that work for the other side. Ticket salesmen for the Land of Sorrows. Otherwise known as Deadside.

And they’re really excited today. Like they get a bonus for this guy’s soul or something.

These are some of the things I get to see during a typical day.

This unsuspecting successful guy, down and to the right of me, he glances around, just enjoying the smell of the different flowers that have blossomed their new life and color this morning.

Crape myrtles, and roses, and morning glories, and plums.

There’s even the slightest hint of jasmine in the air. At places like this, they spend a lot of money on landscaping. Pretty colors and smells to cover the dirt, and concrete, and jagged metal.

Lots of secrets are buried like that.

This guy, he looks up at me and waves. And it’s not one of those jerk-off waves. He takes his magazine and just kind of points it out to the world as if to say, look at how good we live.

I wave back, knowing that I probably won’t be seeing this guy in the hall too many more times. Judging by the spook activity that’s exploding all around him, he’ll be cold as Christmas by the time the sun goes down.

I’ll be reheating cold pizza, and this guy will be getting ripped apart by things more horrifying than anything he could ever imagine.

Chapter 1

Luigi’s Pizza, Addison Circle.
Tuesday afternoon . . .
I’m sitting here eating my second slice of pepperoni and mushroom pizza, nursing a Diet Dr. Pepper. I come here to this place whenever I need to think about things. I also come here when I’m hungry. So, really, I’m here most times. It’s conveniently located six floors beneath me, and the pizza is always hot.

I’m wearing a pair of faded blue jeans and a green t-shirt, and I think I need to back up a bit.

The guys that work here, they know me as the nice rich guy who lives in the Penthouse with his younger brother. Ricky said it would be a good idea to tell people that we were related so that they don’t start thinking we’re gay. Not that we’re scared of homosexuals or anything. Just that Ricky says that there is some prime tail in this neighborhood, and he wants to make the best of it.

We don’t really look alike. Ricky is tall and thin, with big curious eyes that make him look like he knows more than the rest of us do. Which, I think he might. Me, I’m shorter, with a stockier build. I’m actually in pretty good shape, and I thank the me that I’ve forgotten for that.

Ricky helped me get back on my feet when I woke up in the hospital. He was an orderly at R.H. Dedmen Memorial Hospital in Dallas. He was one of the few people I could talk to that didn’t look at me like some circus freak. He would come down and talk to me, explaining what all the doctor-speak really meant.

See, Ricky went to med-school and got all the way to his last semester, and then he burnt out. He has a taste for the ganga, and it may be partially to blame. He says that he quit school because it wasn’t what he thought it would be. So basically, he’s like the smartest guy I know.   He is my only friend, and by default, that makes him my best friend. Although, he’d probably be my best friend anyway.

He knows all of the things my brain injury took from me. Oh, yeah, I had an accident that I should probably mention. About six months and seventeen days ago, Christmas Eve, I suffered massive trauma to the base of my skull which caused,

“ . . . localized bilateral lesions in the limbic system, notably in the hippocampus and medial side of the temporal lobe, as well as parts of the thalamus, and their associated connections.

I was dead, they say, for 67 minutes.

Apparently, during that hour and seven minutes, the doctors and the monsters played tug-of-war with my soul. Fortunately—or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it—modern human science and technology prevailed and I lived.

Now, for reasons that were very complex and frustrating to understand, I lost all of my longterm memories. I lost everything that was me. I have no idea who I was, what I did for a living, who I associated with, or what kind of person I was.

Strangely, I did remember some things. I still knew basic things like math, English, and my insatiable hunger for pepperoni and mushroom pizza. I’ll keep eating until it hurts. Seriously.

Anyway, the doctors made it very clear that I will never recover my longterm memories. What made matters worse was that when they checked my fingerprints with all the police agencies, nothing came up. My DNA was a deadend, too. What I gather from this is that either I was not a criminal, or that I was an extremely talented and cunning one.

When the state has cases like me, we get referred to the Neurology Department where all kinds of doctors and shrinks perform all manner of tests on us. You live at a county support service—be it a Manor, or a House—where you are looked after until such time as you can prove to them that you can become a productive member of society without going raving mad and machine-gunning people down at the post office.

They call these places “tard-farms.”

Anyway, while recovering I started seeing the spooks. At first it was just when I was falling asleep, or waking up in the wee hours of the morning. They’d creep around and basically scare the shit out of me. But I chalked them up to hallucinations. Just neuronal nonsense. You know, wires crossing in places that are still throbbing in my broken head.

But I kept seeing the spooks. And now it wasn’t just in the dark, anymore. I started seeing them when it was quiet, and when I got a little tired.   Then I’d see them in the daytime.

It got so bad I started seeing them around other people. I thought, hey, I’ve probably got some degenerative brain disease. Hoped, anyway.

See, disease is something I can understand. I can cope with a sound, grounded answer to my pathology. A diagnosis I can live with, even if it’s killing me.

Give me my advanced schizophrenia.

Find me a tumor developing in my parietal lobes.

A double shot of brain swelling, even.

But what I absolutely didn’t want to hear was that everything was fine. That I was healthy. Fit as a fiddle. Because, if my brain is fine like they say, that meant that I was actually seeing the spooks.

Well, Ricky advised me to go and see a woman named Ms. Josephine. She has a tarot card shop and mystical book store located in Deep Ellum, near downtown Dallas. Ricky knew of this place because there is a head shop located next door. Did I tell you he likes to smoke weed?

So I visit Ms. Josephine at her dark, candle-lit shop. She’s short and chubby, like you’d expect a voodoo priestess to be. She has dark honey-brown skin, and the most incredible eyes you’ve ever seen.

And she says she hears things.

Well, she hands me this book, called the Book of Sighs. Supposedly, she’d been waiting for me for several months, and this book would make sense to me. And since not much of anything made any sense to me, I figured what the hell.

So I take the book, open it to the first page, and it’s nothing but nonsense. All squiggles and dashes and dots and stuff. She tells me that eventually I’ll be able to read it. I shrug, and then haul ass back to my apartment in the tard-farm, before the spooks come back.

Ricky and I hit the Dallas Public Library and meet a librarian named Rupert. He helps us research the book, and we find out that it is very rare . . . and valuable. A mixture of Voodoo and Christianity. It was written at the same time as the bible, in 325 AD, by the same people who wrote the bible, at the Council of Nicaea. So the book is important.

So important, in fact, that people are taking great measures to procure it. Even now.

Turns out that the Book of Sighs was written by St. John the Divine, and is the other parts of the bible. The parts that we’re not all supposed to hear about. The scarier stuff that isn’t discussed in church.

Just whispers and secrets about the Land of Sorrows. That’s where the souls go when they’re not wanted by God or Lucifer. Imagine it like a second Purgatory . . . for lost souls. A waiting ground for the damned.

As the time goes by I see more and more spooks.   Then I start to get haunted by this girl that looks oddly familiar. Discounting the fact that she’s obviously dead, she was, well, attractive. I know that makes me a sicko, but it’s true. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. And I was certain that I knew her from my past.

Anyway, I see her several times in my apartment, and eventually we start to communicate. She convinces me that she needs my help. That nobody had ever gone to heaven, and that they’re all trapped in this Land of Sorrows. Something about a gate that should have been opened long ago. You know how aloof ghosts are.

She tells me that this place is stacked right on top of our world, separated by the space of one tiny little electron. Just enough where we can’t see them, and they can’t see us.

But me, since I was dead for so long, I’m able to walk on both sides. Deadside, and the Earth plane. So, not knowing any better, and finally able to make sense of the Book of Sighs, I agree to help.

Ms. Josephine, Ricky and I, we perform an experiment where I crossover to the Deadside by facing my worst fear—drowning. Then I crawl out of my own body, through my chest, and see this dark, twisted place. It’s just like our world, only melted and distorted. Bent and warped, with all of the color drained away. Everything is just different shades of gray and black. The people that live there, their only color is in their eyes.

And it’s cold.

Really cold.

And the longer I stay on Deadside, the closer my body gets to dying over there. See, my body temperature drops dramatically while I’m on the other side. It’s all Ricky and Ms. Josephine can do to keep my body alive while I’m gallivanting around. Coincidentally, I have only 67 minutes in the Land of Sorrows before I go into complete hypothermia and end up a permanent resident.

Oh, yeah, and there are monsters that rule the sky, just waiting for an excuse to come down and shred you to bits. So, basically, this is the most horrifying place you could possibly imagine spending eternity. And this girl, Kristen, she wanted me to save all of the souls that have ever lived on earth, ever.

She told me I was the reincarnate of St. John the Divine. That I was a savior. And . . . that she and I were in love in my forgotten past life. And I believed her. I wanted to save her. I would have done anything just for her. The fact that I was going to save all of us from our horrible fate, that was a bonus.

So we all loaded up into Ricky’s father’s private jet, and headed for Damascus. I used the book as a key, inserted it into a dusty old wall, and opened a large invisible door. All of it while being technically dead. The whole crossing over thing is something that you just don’t get used to.

Anyway, as this door opened, flooding the Land of Sorrows with color and life, I noticed that only a few people wanted to leave. In fact, it was only 23—Kristen, my dead librarian friend Rupert, and 21 other souls that I had seen here and there. Nobody else wanted to get anywhere near the doorway.

As you might imagine this was rather alarming. I had figured that there would be a mass exodus through the door since they had been couped up in that awful place for millions of years.

Then, the love of my forgotten life—Kristen—she dropped a bit of a bombshell on me. She said that we were in love, but that I killed her in our past. Apparently she still held a bit of a grudge for that. I tried to apologize, but she wasn’t hearing any of it.

Some people just can’t forgive some things.

Then she heads off into the colorful world beyond the doorway with her 22 other friends, and I am suddenly surrounded by flying monsters and a bunch of big mean guys who turn out to be angels. On the plus side I now believe in Angels. So that’s neat.

This one Angel—Uriel—he explains to me how I’m pretty much the biggest idiot in the entire history of time. How I’ve been played from the start by this girl, and how I just basically spit in God’s face by opening that door. Turns out there were missing pages to the Book of Sighs that I hadn’t read.

Those pages explain, in very clear language, that the book is never to be used to open this gateway back to earth, from the Deadside. Those pages tell anyone who has passed the first grade that they should not be messing with things they have no business messing with. But see, I didn’t read any of those pages.

Uriel tells me that I’ve just let 23 evil souls escape back to earth where they will do all sorts of unpredictable, horrible things . . . and it’s all my fault. All because I had the hots for a dead chick that I apparently offed in my former forgotten life. So, I’m a douche-bag of epic proportions.

Uriel very bluntly explains to me that I’ve made a huge mistake, and that I will be damned if I don’t go back to earth and hunt down each and every one of those 23 escaped “Evils,” he calls them.

To win back my salvation I must track down these 23 evil souls. This is my only chance at an afterlife. I work for the other side now. I’m a dead-tracker. Think of me as a bounty-hunter, or a skip tracer, or a detective . . . or even an agent. An Agent of the Dead.

Oh yeah, and he doesn’t give me a choice in the matter. He just says to basically go back to the Earth plane and wait for him. One of those don’t call us, we’ll call you kind of deals. And now that’s what I’m doing, as I shovel in pizza like there might not be a tomorrow.

Because, really, there might not be.

Nothing is certain, right now.

And I feel this uneasiness in the air. A kind of negative electricity. Ms. Josephine warns me to pay close attention to those little tingly feelings I get. She’s always reminding Ricky and I that those strange feelings—the ones we live our whole lives trying to ignore—those are defensive systems that our bodies developed over millions of years of evolution.

Those cold shivers, and half breaths, and apprehensive glances—all of that is to let you know that the monsters are coming.

And all of those nuanced alarms that I just mentioned . . . I’ve got them all going off. If this pizza wasn’t so damn good, I’d probably be in a full-blown freak-out right now.

Chapter 2

The Omni Business Park, Dallas.
2:42 pm . . .

“We need legitimacy, dude,” Ricky says as we ride the elevator upwards. He’s dressed all businessy, wearing dark grey slacks and a blue sweater. So out of character. Normally he’s sporting baggy jeans and a shirt with some silk-screened drug symbol on it. He’s purchased a new office location for us in a very nice business park in North Dallas, so I guess he’s focused on making good impressions.

If it’s any representation of the rest of this building, the inside of this elevator is awesome. Dark-tinted mirrors run from the floor to the ceiling, the floor numbers are illuminated in blue and green on this hi-tech screen, and there appears to be granite tiles on the floor. Fancy in a way I can’t even imagine.

“A place like this,” he explains, “it makes people feel like you’ve been vetted. Instant accreditation.”

His theory is that a place like this is so expensive to office in, that people would just assume we were a legitimate, revenue producing company. He has been selling me on the idea of opening up our own place for several weeks, and I finally caved in.

Ricky, I guess he got his business sense from his parents—who are probably rich enough to loan Donald Trump money. He’s decided to succeed at our new venture.

“Raw materials, for a finished product, for profit,” he says. “ . . . it’s the American dream.”

That seems a little simplistic, I say. What are our raw materials? What is our product? How do we make a profit?

He scoffs at my silly musings, as if I’m some child trying to understand particle physics. Simpleton me, I’m just not seeing where we rake in the dough.

“Dude,” he says as the elevator door slides silently open, “you and Ms. Josephine and me, we’re the raw materials.”

I would scratch my head if I didn’t think it would be too cliché. We walk across this super soft, grossly expensive grey carpet on our way to probably the nicest office on the 7th floor. I’m still wondering how the three of us somehow equal profit. But then, I never took fancy economics courses in college. At least, not that I can remember.

We walk past a large reception desk with a girl who looks like she came right off the cover of Sport Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue. She’s got shoulder length black hair, dark exotic skin, and piercing green eyes. Ricky struts on by and nods, while I try and keep the bottom of my jaw from dragging along the carpet.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Chamberlain,” she says. Even her voice is sexy.

“Hi, Sara,” Ricky says.

And you don’t have to be clairvoyant to know that he’s already got designs on her.

“This is Mr. Pagan,” Ricky introduces as we slow to a stroll. “He’s one of the associates at A-L-G.”

And I’m just going with the flow at this point. Being around pretty girls is still fairly difficult at this state of my life. I don’t know if six and a half months of social awareness is enough to prepare you for close interaction with attractive females.

“Hi, Mr. Pagan, I’m Sara,” she says, extending her hand. Of course, it’s perfectly manicured. Why wouldn’t it be.

I just kind of nod and shake her hand gently. I hope it wasn’t too gently. Ricky’s always telling me that you want to make a good first impression. That people read you in the first six seconds they come into contact with you. Like a book. And you only have that first six seconds to make a statement about yourself. If you mess it up, it takes like infinity to fix it. And I don’t have that much time, I don’t think.

Luckily, before I have time to say anything monumentally retarded, Ricky asks her, “Did they install the routers yet?”

Sara finished shaking my hand, very thoughtfully, and then turned to Ricky as she checked an appointment register in front of her. Her wonderful eyes lifted, “The guys from Cisco left about an hour ago. They said they’d be back in the morning to do the testing on the equipment.”

Ricky smiled, looking at me, “How perfect is she?”

Very, I said.

Then we headed toward our new office. I’m sure Ricky and Sara were both trying to decide how long would be the appropriate amount of time before asking each other out. We made our way to the last office in the corridor. And on the doors, in big professional gold metal plates, were the letters ‘ALG’.

A-L-G, I said to myself. And I’m curiously chewing on my bottom lip.

Ricky is just about beaming with excitement. Like he might explode into a bunch of tiny balls of glitter and light, with like happiness goo or something.

He slides a card across this black box on the side of the wall near the door handle, and a green light flashes a couple of times. Without speaking he hands me one of these magical cards, and for real, I feel like I’m James-freakin’-Bond.

This is space alien technology, I tell him, staring at my new magnetic card like a caveman holding a Zippo lighter.

“This,” he says, pausing for effect, “ . . . is the offices of the After Life Group.”

And then he opens the door.

And as I walk in and take a look around all kinds of questions and ideas are bouncing around in my head. But the only words I can think to say are, Holy shit!

Chapter 3

Omni Business Park (ALG Office), Dallas.
13 seconds later . . .

“What is all of this stuff?” I say, my eyes trying to figure it out. There are all kinds of large screens, computers, scanners, monitors, and gadgetry I can’t even figure out. The walls are pristine white. Spaceship white. There is stuff here that I will never understand no matter how long I have to learn.

This is like being inside some secret nuclear lab.

Some discrete military project.

“Money was not an object when I had my dad’s contractor do the designs,” Ricky said as he led me to a large floor-to-ceiling window that faced down into the interior of the building. Several floors below us was a garden, and several restaurants where people could relax during their lunch break, or on their way in and out of the bank on the first floor.

On the different screens on the walls there were all sorts of things floating by. CNN here, MSNBC there. We even had Al-Jazeera—you know, that middle-eastern news station that shows westerners getting their heads chopped off and stuff.

There were screens scrolling words in languages I’d never seen before. It was like the whole world was streaming by us, in real time.

I turned to Ricky, What is this place?

“This is our H-Q. Our headquarters.” He walked in pointing to several computer terminals that were covered in plastic. “These babies here aren’t even available to the public. My dad knows this dude over at Apple,” he shrugged.

What’s so special about them?

“They’re the fastest computers on the planet earth.”

I laughed, but Ricky didn’t. He nodded, his eyebrows raising. “No, seriously, Jack. This technology is at least three or four years from being made public. It’s all stuff they were working on for the military, and some budgeting bullshit put the project on hold.”

So, I said, it’s better for surfing the web?

Ricky sighed like I’m the dumbest dumbass that has ever walked the planet. “This gives us a competitive advantage.”

Over who?

“Over the monsters we’re hunting for.”

Ricky really is a cunning bastard some times. I smiled, looking at the dormant computers as if they might be the first step in us saving the world. Technology will be on our side, this time.

“We’re going to need to be able to do research on a global level, as fast as possible. These Evils, or whatever, they probably won’t be making too much noise. But they have to leave footprints somewhere. We find out what their footprints look like . . . ”

He clapped his hands together suddenly, “Bam! We got their asses.”

For the next couple of minutes I just walked around looking at the different screens and interesting devices. There were large unopened cardboard boxes from Best Buy and Circuit City, and near them were smaller, plastic bags and containers that had electronic components and gadgetry that could probably be used to develop a nuclear fission program.

How much did all of this cost?

“Lots,” Ricky said as he knelt down and played with some electrical box that had several flashing lights on it.

Who paid for it all?

It’s all investor money, he tells me as he stands up and walks toward the west-facing wall, which is the giant window that goes from carpet to ceiling. And Ricky’s glancing upwards at something.

Investor money? Who are the investors?

Ricky’s looking down, then up, then down again, staring at something I obviously can’t see. “Oh, uh . . . my parents. They’re the investors. They own fifty-one percent. You, me, and Ms. Josephine, we own the other forty-nine.”

But I never put up any money, I told him. I don’t even have any money. Seriously, I only get like five-hundred and twenty-nine dollars a month from County Services. That barely keeps me in pizza.

“Our money is Sweat Equity,” Ricky says as he touches some button near the window and it suddenly turns black. Like pure magic. One second you can see through it, the next, it might as well be a black mirror. He looks back at me with a devilish grin, “Liquid crystal.”

I don’t understand about sweat equity. I don’t even understand much about equity.

“Don’t stress, dude. Our investment is our time and effort. Thus, sweat.” He touches another button and the giant black mirror becomes a window again. Somebody should get Ricky a television series.

“This is our new business. We are the After Life Group. A-L-G.”

So . . . what do we actually do to turn a profit, again?

Ricky walks back to me, placing his hands on my shoulders. “We are going to rid people of unwelcome supernatural forces and negative spiritual entities.”

Like Ghostbusters? I ask, kind of warming up to it. I just saw Ghostbusters 2 the other night, so I’m kind of experienced in this field.

His eyes rolled, “No, Jack. Not like Ghostbusters. This will be for real. We are going to investigate hauntings, and possessions, and anything phantasmic that comes our way. This will be our excuse to ask the kinds of questions we will eventually have to ask in order to find the twenty-three Evils. You get it?”

I have to admit, Ricky is way smarter than me on lots of things. “So,” I say nodding, “ . . . this is just our cover.”

He smiles, nothing but pearly white teeth.

What happens when we actually get jobs? I ask him kind of nervously. What do we do then?

He shrugs, “We’ll just have to wing it. Heck, most of them will probably be swamp gas and old plumbing. And if we do come across a bonafide haunting, well . . . you and Ms. Josephine can figure it out.”

I ask him, Do our other ‘investors‘ know what we’re up to?

His lips seem to lower over his teeth as his eyes dart around a bit. “Thing is, it’s hard to convince people that we have a mission assigned to us from the land of the dead. The whole, you die, and wake-up, and die again thing . . . it’s hard for people to wrap their minds around.”

Fair enough, I said. But I hope nobody expects us to turn a profit.

“You’d be surprised,” he said, walking across the room to a small table with a bunch of paperwork on it. As he’s thumbing through some technical stuff he says, “We need to get more oranges. We’re out of oranges.”

“I didn’t eat the last one,” I explain. “I left it for you.”

He nods to himself, “Well, we need to go shopping, anyway.”

I figure now is as good a time as any to tell him about the guy in our building. I tell him, “Hey, you know that kind of young guy that we see on the way into the elevator every now and then? The one who lives below us a couple of floors, I think he’s single?”

Ricky looks up, considers my question, then nods, “Yeah, the attorney guy.”

Right, well, he’s on his way out. His apartment will probably be on the market soon.

Ricky stops shuffling through his papers and turns his head slightly, “I doubt it, Jack. That guy runs marathons and stuff. He was voted as one of Dallas’s most eligible bachelors last year.”

Well, I say, as many spooks as I saw around him, he’s probably going to stay a bachelor.

Ricky turns towards me, “Shit. That sucks. I was going to try and put that guy on retainer for us. Supposedly he’s some badass attorney.”

I fold my arms, “Unless he’s going to represent us from the Land of Sorrows, I’d say we need to keep shopping.”

I shrug.

He shrugs.

And then we hear a knock at the door.

Chapter 4

Dallas Tollway, North.
Tuesday evening . . .

As Ricky coasts in and out of traffic, playing what feels like a game of Leap Frog with our lives, I’m trying to study the Texas Drivers Handbook. This is the one that is dirty yellow, with large red, yellow, and green dots on the cover. I have to learn all of this stuff if I ever want a chance at getting a driver’s license.

Even though Ricky says he doesn’t mind taxiing me around, I have to get my license for personal reasons. I need to have my freedom. I want to be able to drive to the grocery store on my own, without risking going to jail. All kinds of horrible things happen in county jails. Not to mention that the place is probably crawling with spooks and gatherers.

Anyway, I need to get something other than my hospital ID card so that I don’t look like a damn mental patient when I try to cash a check. It’s all part of me becoming a functioning member of society . . . at least until I find and kill the 23 Evils that escaped the Land of Sorrows when I thought I was the savior of all mankind. Once that’s done, I dont really care what people say.

I’m on page 5-6, reading the section on WARNING SIGNS. All of these little signs are yellow with a black border. Inside are a variety of arrows and squiggly lines and skidding cars to alert the driver to, “ . . . conditions which lie immediately ahead and tell them what to look for.”

When I read this to Ricky he starts laughing. Actually, it’s more of a cackle. Like a coyote or a hyena. “You’ll never see half of that shit. You just have to memorize it for the test.”

But what happens in an emergency?

“In an emergency you’re going to probably flip-out, anyway. No sign is going to keep you from doing that. You need to just get behind the wheel and learn it in the streets.”

I don’t know if that’s a good idea, I say. What if I get into a wreck, learning how to drive?

“No, Jack. We’ll head out to some old parking lot and let you drive around. Practice parking. Skidding. J-turns. Bat-turns—”

“Hold on,” I say, flipping through the manual, and I can’t find any section on Bat-turns. J-turns, either.

“Jack,” he says turning his head sadly, “you have so much to learn.”

As we near Addison Circle, where our penthouse loft is located, we stop, waiting to make a left across the tollway. I turn to the section on making left-hand turns in different scenarios.

We are turning left from a two lane, one-way, onto a four lane, two-way. There are several steps that need to be followed and as far as I can tell, Ricky is violating each and every one of them.

I think he sees me grading him, and he says, “What?”

I close the book, reaching to make sure my seatbelt is firm across my chest so that when we have a collision I might make it out alive.

He laughs and we somehow make it across the Tollway, and find ourselves at our parking garage. Three minutes later we’re riding the elevator upwards, waiting for our floor.

As the doors open we are bathed in cool, freon-charged air as we walk across white, marbled tile on the way to our loft. We live in 6-A. It’s big—about 4,200 square feet. And it’s lavish. Ricky’s parents had the oak floors redone, even though they were brand new.

The loft is spacious, with the first floor being composed of a large dining area, a large living room with an entertainment center that rivals the movie theaters. In the center, just behind the staircase is a decked-out kitchen with every kind of appliance and cooking utensil known to man. We have a giant Sub-zero refrigerator and freezer combo that looks like it could hold a full cow, un-cut.

This penthouse, it has a balcony that runs around three of the four sides, since we’re out on the corner of the building. And really, it’s so nice that I feel like I’m breaking the law by living here. I almost feel guilty, except that Ricky says his parents like the idea of him getting me back together as a person.

As weird as this seems to me, I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t wealthy in my past life. The furniture is all white leather. The tables, thick glass—so thick that it has a blue hue to it. The lights are “moody,” Ricky says. “The perfect place to entertain.”

He’s also been pressing me to start talking to women. This is another one of those things that I haven’t been able to ‘get’ yet. I’m ordering every kind of romantic comedy that there is from NetFlix.   But you know, they make it look so easy. I definitely wasn’t a Casanova in my forgotten past.

Ricky and I unload the bags of groceries near the mammoth refrigerator and then sit at the bar. I’ve got my Drivers Handbook. He’s got a small notepad.

I read, A flashing red light . . .

He says, “Give it a glance and then haul ass.”

A flashing yellow light . . .

“Slow your roll to around forty-five or fifty, glance, then haul ass.”

A flashing red light, with a flashing left-hand green arrow . . .

His eyes narrow, “Glance in all directions, then perform a late-apex, controlled slide to the left. Try not to let the ass-end come around.”

I’m in real trouble. I ask him, “How is it you’re still alive?”

Ignoring my question he scribbles something down on his notepad, chewing on the back of his pen between thoughts.

“Jack?”

“These twenty-three Evils . . . will they be coming after us?”

I’m looking at the standard colors of road signs. “I’m not certain,” I answer. “ . . . maybe.”

Red: Stop or prohibition.

Green: Indicated movements permitted, direction guidance.

“If the Evils take a proactive approach, wouldn’t it behoove them to just come and kill us?” Ricky suggests.

It’s something I had considered, I say. I just don’t think they’d risk it. They’re on the run, and we’re like, INTERPOL or something. Mostly, I figure, they’ll try and stay hidden.

Blue: Motorist services guidance.

Yellow: General warning.

“But if they did come after us, they would certainly have an easier time finding us, than us finding them,” Ricky says as he writes something down. Then he taps on the page a few times, “We’re easy to find. Too easy.”

Black: Regulation.

White: Regulation

“And we haven’t even considered the art dealers and collectors that still want the Book of Sighs,” he adds. Just making sure I am totally and completely unable to ever sleep again. That’s a headache I don’t even want to think about. So I’m just reading colors.

Orange: Construction and maintenance warning.

Brown: Public recreation and scenic guidance.

I sigh, closing my ugly yellow little book, folding my hands on top. “What should we do about it? What can we do about it? Run and hide? Rich eccentric collectors will always find a way to get to us. They may even try to use your family.”

Chewing on the cap of his pen, Ricky says, “Maybe the more public recognition we get the better. Our exposure could be our safety net.”

Will that work? I ask him.

And even though he says, “Sure,” I don’t think he’s so sure about it.

Then something comes to my mind. “You know,” I tell him, “I don’t know if the Evils know that we’re on their trail. They all took off before the Angels gave me the third-degree. So, there’s a good chance they have no idea what we’re up to.”

Ricky nodded to himself, and went back to scribbling.

And even though I’m reading about pavement markings, all I can think about is Kristen. That one moment when I saw her in full color, on the other side of the door I wasn’t supposed to open. She was the most magnificently beautiful woman I had ever seen.

Of course, I was dying at the time, so my perspective might have been a bit skewed.

But that moment, seeing all her perfect and wonderful beauty, I felt like we had eternity to spend together getting to know each other. Falling in love again. And then, in that instant, her face turned cold and haunting. And there was suffering and contempt in her menacing eyes. And she told me,

“ . . . you killed me . . . you killed me when I was so young. I had my whole life in front of me. You robbed me of that. You stole my life away from me, Jack. And then I was sent to the Land of Sorrows. Why? Because my faith was not strong enough?! I was twenty-three years old!”

And right at that moment my stomach churns and I feel like the most horrible scumbag that has ever existed. Even though I know I would never have killed her . . . I know that I did. The fact that it was in my vile invisible past is no excuse.

I’m a monster that forgot his teeth.

The devil that misplaced his horns.

I killed the only person that I can remember loving. And the real stink of it is, now I have to do it again. To this girl that I loved enough to drown myself in the most exotic and terrifying ways, I have to do the one thing I could never do, but must have done. This delicate creature that I gladly walked among the dead for, I have to look her in the eyes and snatch the life right out of her.

And the thing about it is, I know when the time comes, that even though I can’t possibly do it . . . I will. I’ll do it because God and the Angels have ordered it. I’ll do it because she represents true evil in this place.

And I’ll do it because I’m a killer. Somewhere in my programming, hiding in my neurons, buried in my DNA, is the coded sequence for murderer.

I hate the me I used to be.

The me that I, biologically, still am.

“Jack?” Ricky says, startling me from my morose thoughts.

I look up, “What?”

Delicately he asks, “You want to talk about . . . her?”

No.

I flip over to Vehicle Registration, and he goes back to scribbling. He’s avoiding me avoiding myself. We’re just one-upping each other with emotional procrastination.

It’s getting to be that darkening, aqua blue when the sun has run west for cover, and the sky looks like a thousand miles of deep ocean. The French say that this time of the evening—dusk—is the time between dogs and wolves.

For me, it’s just when the shadows start walking.

Chapter 5

The loft, Addison Circle.
Wednesday morning, 2:12 am . . .

You know that feeling, at like o-dark-thirty, when you have to take a piss so bad that you don’t know if you’re going to make it to the bathroom? Well, I’m running the gauntlet right now, trying to avoid smashing my toes on all of our expensive furniture. Because if that happens, I’ll be on the floor, curled-up in the fetal position, hurt and pissing all over myself.

As I’m running, I see things vibrating all around me. Lamps are blurry they’re shaking so much. End tables look smudged. Chairs look like humming birds’ wings they’re oscillating so quickly. The only thing that seems solid is the cold tile floor beneath my bare feet.

I know what’s happening, but I’ve got to pee so bad that I can’t stop to watch the world melt all around me.

At this point I’m just hoping that our toilet isn’t bouncing around. Because if it is all excited, like everything else, I’m going to make a real mess. One of those unexplainable messes that ends up in me tapping my thumbs together while Ricky scowls.

I high-step my way into the bathroom and luckily the shaking and vibrating of everything starts to subside. Of course, everything is now bent and warped. Mirrors that were rectangular are now oddly stretched trapezoids. Paintings are hanging at impossible angles. The toilet is twisted—quite to my advantage—into something that resembles a long urinal.

Everything is wrong-shaped and demented.

And all the colors of our world have been replaced by shades of grey.

Tones of melancholy.

Cold, lifeless color.

Like what deep space is probably like on an average day.

This is the place between dogs and wolves. Somewhere between the Land of Sorrows, and the place I used to think of as just earth. And as good as it feels to relieve myself in our mangled toilet-urinal, I know that something creepy is about to happen.

The last time I was stuck in this half-alive, half-dead middle-ground I was communicating with the girl I thought I was deeply in love with while she conned me into usurping God’s will. In the six or so months that I can remember of my life, that was one of the more thick-headed things I’ve done.

I walk slowly out of the bathroom, ducking because the ceiling is lower and bent at one end. Glancing back and forth, I expect to see spooks using our loft as a playground. But to my surprise . . . they’re curiously absent. And while this should comfort me, it doesn’t. It only means there could be some more complicated, or nightmarish reason I’m seeing this.

Like that old joke: What’s worse, the monster you can see, or the one you can’t? So, I’m taking short cautious steps toward the staircase, peeking slowly around each corner. I should see something unnerving any second.

I peer down our staircase trying to pick out the shadows from the furniture, and even that’s quite difficult. It’s all just jumbled weird shapes down there. And as bothered by this place as I am; as frightened as I know I’m probably going to end up being . . . I hope it’s her.

Even though I know she would only be stopping in to kill me, putting an end to the monster I used to be, I still would risk it to see her. Put aside, for a moment, that she’s physically dead, or was. Forget that she duped me into letting pure evil walk the earth, thereby guaranteeing that my soul was forever lost and I had no chance for salvation. Take all of that leading-me-into-the-Deadside stuff and what you’re left with is that . . . I was in love with her.

And I can’t even explain why I felt this way.

I didn’t even know her for more than a couple of weeks. But I know that some part of me really cared about her. I’m glad I don’t remember killing Kristen. And I’m probably better off without the memories of my erased life. No amount of hugs, and self-help books, and psycho-pharmaceuticals would be able to clean that up.

Ignorance may not be bliss, but it’s a lot better than eternal guilt.

I tiptoe down the steps, shifting my weight slowly from toe to heel, just like in Ninja Warrior 4—you know, where the white ninja sneaks up on two hundred yellow ninjas and takes them out one by one, only to find out later that they were all his cousins. Anyway, I’m all stealth mode, now.

When I get to the bottom I kneel down for a moment, just letting my peripheral vision grab things that my brain can sort out. If this is an Evil ambush, I want to have a fighting chance at hauling ass. Ricky’s advice is to apply liberal amounts of head butts and knees to the balls, but I’m not sure if that would do any good against the 23 Evils. Might just make them want to toy with me before they do me in.

I don’t even know if the undead have balls.

As I sit there I wonder if this is all an elaborate dream my mind is weaving for me. I wonder if I’ve just wet the bed, and am waiting to awaken? I guess I’d rather be embarrassed than dead. But a 30-something-year-old guy soaking his sheets is a pretty horrible concept to grapple with.

Perhaps this is one of those fuguestates that my doctors were telling me to expect? That’s a condition where an individual wanders away from his home or place of work for extended periods of hours, days, or even months. Psychiatrists see it as a symbolic escape from conflicting events or emotional indecision. And I’ve definitely got all of those going on.

I pinch myself, and it hurts. I’m not sleeping, I guess. I count my fingers, and move each and every one, reciting my name silently four times like I was taught.

Jack Pagan.

Jack Pagan.

Jack Pagan.

Jack . . . whatever. I’m awake. Good news is I didn’t wet the bed. Bad news, I’m halfway to hell, waiting for something unpleasant to happen.

And then I hear it.

 

Chapter 6

The loft.
Moments later . . .

“Jack . . . .”

Somebody is out on the gnarled, uneven balcony, and he’s big. He looks to be dressed in a black cloak. Kind of like what I imagine the grim reaper wears to parties and social gatherings. He looks in my direction, his face hidden under the hood of this cloak and he says my name again.

“Jack, we need to talk.”

My heart is racing, and my hands start to sweat. Man up, or back down. That would be Detective Todd Steele’s advice. Although, the cunning detective Steele didn’t see the things I see. Nevertheless, I take a deep breath and head towards the balcony.

The door that during normal earthly hours is in a nice rectangular shape, it’s now skewed where the right side is curved and angled towards the ground. I grab the knob, hoping that the frame has been warped proportionate to the door. It would be rather embarrassing if I couldn’t open my own door. You know, the grim reaper is out there, tapping his toe impatiently, maybe chewing on his fingernails . . .

But the door opens easy enough and within a few steps out, I am suddenly panicked. The guardrail that goes around ¾of our loft, it’s all mangled and bent, and if you aren’t paying good attention, you might fall ass-over-elbows right off the damn thing. That is dangerous!

“You have nothing to fear, Jack,” the slightly familiar voice says.

And then I realize where I know this voice from.

“Uriel?” I ask delicately. “Is that . . . you?”

Like he’s practiced it a hundred times, he turns his head slightly and the hood falls down to his shoulders. And there he is, the only Angel I have on my Friends and Family calling plan.

His face is like, perfect. Smooth, symmetrical. Angelic. He looks like a monk, with his shaved head. His eyes are brilliant blue-green, with golden specs—like glitter, almost. And . . . he has color in his skin. He looks like a perfected human.

The mold.

More human than I, in this place.

“It’s been a while,” I tell him, my eyes nervously glancing back and forth between the edge of the balcony and Uriel.

“ . . . just over four of your weeks,” he says, being factually correct.

Yeah, I say, but you know how it is . . . time takes forever. I’m trying to be clever and disarming at the same time. From his expression it would seem that I’ve accomplished neither.

“This,” he says, walking right up to the very edge of the balcony, just flirting with death, “ . . . is a very nice place you and your friend have, here.” He turns his head back, motioning to the impossibly expensive loft that the Chamberlain family fortune pays for.

Wondering if he’s going to fall or not, I say, “Well, we’re just doing the best we can with what little means we have.”

Uriel almost smiles when I say that. I don’t even know if Angels have the necessary muscles to make a smile. He has that almost smile that statues have—the same smile that characteristically appears on the faces of Greek statues of the Archaic period (c. 650–480 BC), especially those from the second quarter of the 6th century BC. I’ve got a lot of spare time.

“You and your friend—”

Ricky, I correct him. Ricky.

He eyes me, almost half-scolding, “ . . . yes. You and Ricky, you need to start looking at strange deaths in recent weeks.”

Strange deaths? I don’t follow.

“Deaths that have occurred on this earth, in this plane, since you released the twenty-three evil spirits,” he clarified. “You need to pay special attention to any oddity, no matter how minuscule. It may lead to finding them.”

We started a company, I tell him.

“What kind of company, pray tell?”

Oh, it’s uh, you know, one of those kind of companies that deals with the, you know, the hauntings and stuff.

“So what does your company actually accomplish to better mankind?” he asked, kind of setting himself up for a huge fall.

I shrug, We deal with ghosts and paranormal things. We un-haunt people’s houses.

“Like Ghostbusters?” he asked as he shook his head curiously.

No, not really. I mean, maybe. Honestly, I think it’s just a cover for our research . . . looking for the twenty-three Evils. Hey, you’ve seen Ghostbusters?

He leaned his angelic head back, looking down his chiseled face at me. In a word I’d have to call his look suspicious.

I dared a peek over the edge of my useless balcony guardrail, my heart jumping a bit. It felt like there was a frog in my throat—and he was apparently as scared of heights as I was. Then I wondered something. Something serious.

“Mr. Uriel,” I said, real respectful like. “Where is this place that we’re in, right now? I don’t understand. I didn’t crossover, so . . . ”

“It’s a border town, so to speak. Not quite in the Land of Sorrows, but not in the Earth plane, either.” He stared up into the dark sky above us.

No stars.

No light.

Nothing at all.

He folded his hands in front of his cloak and sighed, “In this place you and I can communicate with each other. You are connected to the Land of Sorrows through your experiences. And I am, well . . . I’m an Angel.”

Why can’t you just come and visit without melting everything? I asked carefully.

He took a step towards me, his face softening a bit. “Things are the way they are, regardless of whether they make sense to us or not. For you, I suppose it’s the only way we are allowed to communicate, without risking your death. Your time in the Land of Sorrows is quite limited, as you may recall.”

I shiver just thinking about it.

“ . . . for me, it is the will of God. I am not the kind of Angel that sits over baby cradles and helps old people across the street. We each have our lot in life. Mine is to walk between the darker parts of the afterlife. I see things,” he paused, closing his eyes briefly, “ . . . differently.”

And by the way he said it, I can tell, for sure, that I don’t want to know what differently means.

Alright, I say as I summon up my courage. Tell me what we have to do to fix what I did.

“If you need to contact me, wait until the dark hours of the morning, and concentrate on my image. If that doesn’t work, start saying my name. One way or another, I’ll find you. In this border town.”

Okay, I say. What else?

“Look for the signs. Certain things will repeat themselves. They must sustain themselves. And they are creatures of habit. That means patterns will eventually appear. I will try and pass along information as we acquire it, but I cannot guarantee that my information will be timely enough to use. We’ll do what we can from the other side.”

We? There are others hunting the twenty-three Evils?

“Oh, yes. This is potentially earth-changing. We’ve got plenty of energy poured into this. You have support, just not on earth. We are bound to this side.”

“How will we know if we’ve found the right souls?” I ask. I don’t even want to consider the part whereby I have to kill them and somehow cart them back to Deadside.

“The universe is consistent on certain things. Like the principles of Thermodynamics, there is a balance to all matter, souls included. These Evils, they may have greater than human abilities or talents . . . ”

“But they will have deficits, too. For every strength they possess, they will have a weakness. An Achilles heel, so to speak. Remember the principles of physics.”

I can’t remember six months ago. Physics may be a bit of a stretch.

“Think of it like this: Positive and negative are necessarily bound together. Ying and Yang. Ebb and flow—”

Tango and Cash?

He smiled. “You hide your insecurity in your wit. That’s good. It will help you.” Then he paused for a moment, considering something.

What? I can take it. What is it?

“ . . . she doesn’t love you, Jack.”

She did.

“You killed her.”

Obviously, I say, that’s something we’re going to have to work through.

“She will kill you without hesitation,” he said firmly, the blue-green of his eyes turning icy and hollow. “ . . . rip you limb from limb, stretching your body in a thousand directions. Kristen will not flinch, not for a second. Because she knows that she is facing a whole new kind of damnation. One that none of us can predict. All twenty-three of them are eternally damned to a place that will make Lucifer’s domain seem like your Disney World.

I looked down at my feet, realizing that I have not been paying this situation the seriousness it deserves. My soul is on the line, and I’m still thinking about the crush I had on a dead con artist.

He placed his hands on my shoulders, and they felt heavy. “Jack,” he said slowly, “once they know you’re coming, they’ll stop at nothing to escape, or rid the earth of your presence.”

“But I’m just some schlep who lost his marbles. Why would they be afraid of me?”

He took a step back, his hands falling to his sides, appraising me. “You have no idea what you will eventually achieve.”

I don’t understand.

“You are . . . not one of them, anymore.”

When you say, them, who do you mean?

“Humans, Jack. Humans.”

Oh, shit.

“The creatures you see stalking to and from the shadows, they aren’t your tormentors . . . they are your allies. You, like it or not, are a new breed. The rules have changed. You are something different. In time you will figure this all out.”

When might that be? I wonder aloud. Because I could really use a guidebook or something.

“Go back to bed, Jack. Get your rest. There’s evil to catch.”

He says it like it’s a cold virus.

Like you’re infected with it.

A disease I have to search out and contract. Actively pursue.

And with that I back my way to the window turning towards the funny-shaped door. As I open it Uriel says, “And Jack . . . good luck with the Ghost busting.”

“It’s not like that,” I say glancing back.

But he’s gone. And already I have to pee again.

 

Chapter 7

The Loft.
Wednesday, 9:47 am . . .

We’re all sitting around on our white leather furniture, talking about what Uriel had told me last night. We’re trying to figure out where our new business fits in with the whole ‘save the world from evil’ thing.

“Like I said before,” Ricky explained to us, “it’s our cover. It lets us snoop around at things that would normally send up flags and alarms. But if people see us as paranormalinvestigators, detectives even, then we’ll just be those idiot ghost hunters. People will laugh at us. We’ll be a novelty. But we’ll have autonomy, too.”

Ms. Josephine, up to this point, has been relatively quiet on the subject of ALG. She and Ricky have discussed it before, but never have the three of us been together. “We could do some good for da living and da dead.”

I need to back-up a bit. Ms. Josephine, for the last several weeks, has been giving Ricky everything she can find for him to read on the ways of medicine. And by ways I mean, her ways.

Voodoo.

The Zande people of the Congo.

The indigenous Mapuche people of Chile.

Tsau among the West African, Tiv and itonga among the East African Safwa.

He’s learning all of it. The epitome of illegitimate antisocial activity, as well as the righteous wrath of established authority, employed to curse wrongdoers and shaman alike. And he’s picking it up, too. Ricky seems to have a knack for all things medicine. Like he understands bodies better than the rest of us.

So, Ms. Josephine is teaching him in the ways she was taught. She thinks he had an aptitude for spiritual medicine. So he’s got that going for him. It’s not anything you’d put on a resume, but it’s good to have in your back pocket when you’re hunting the most evil 23 people on earth.

Anyway, this business, the After Life Group, it seems like an idea that sits well with all of us. Ricky’s using it for a cover to do our research. Ms. Josephine’s hoping we can help some spirits get across to the other side, or whatever.

And me, I’m just hoping I figure all of this out before spooks start bouncing around me. Whether they work with me or not, the little bastards still give me the heebie-jeebies.

And the gatherers, well, they’re just another part of the equation I’d rather not think about. There’s just something about having long armed monsters wielding sharp knives, digging into your chest and extricating your soul that leaves me wishing I’d kept my eyes shut.

“It would be cool to find some real ghosts, though,” Ricky says taking a sip of soda. I think he’s on his fourth or fifth Dr. Pepper, and it’s not even ten, yet. He may have a problem.

“Dere’s real ghosts everywhere,” Ms. Josephine said as she sat forward. “Dey’re like souls dat flutter back and forth. Not knowing where dey should be. ‘oldin’ on to somethin’ dat’s long gone. And we can ‘elp dem.” She’s wearing a thin summer dress that’s dark green, covered in different colored blue and silver dots. Like something Jackson Pollock did—20th century Abstract Expressionism clashing with our white furniture.

“This furniture didn’t look like this last night,” I tell them. I’m changing the subject because I don’t believe in ghosts. Sure, I’ve seen them. Talked to them. Even kissed one. But that’s different. Regular ghosts, like in the movies, that’s all a load. I’m more like Ricky in my cynicism.

Swamp gas and bad plumbing, that about sums it up.

“What do you mean?” Ricky asked, looking down to make sure there weren’t any marks on the leather.

I took a deep breath, my cheeks puffing out like a trumpet player. “Well,” I say, “they looked like that house in the movie Bettlejuice. Messed-up to the point where insurance wouldn’t cover it.”

“I’m glad it’s you seeing that shit and not me,” Ricky said, instantly realizing that Ms. Josephine was boring a hole in him with her eyes. He lowered his head, “Sorry, Ms. Josephine. That stuff, I mean.”

Ms. Josephine, she’s like our second mom. And since I don’t remember my parents, for me, she’s like my only mom. She does everything. She makes sure the refrigerator is full, and that we have food other than Dr. Pepper and pizza. She makes us wash our clothes, reminding us that it’s important to do some things yourself, even if you can afford to have others do them.

She grew up in extreme poverty, and she doesn’t want us turning in to colossal dicks because we have money to spend. I poisoned the earth with evil, so I’m probably stuck, no matter how many times I move my laundry from the washer to the dryer.

“Well,” I say, nodding, “I guess—”

And then we hear the ambulance approaching, right out front, near the entrance to the building. Ricky and Ms. Josephine get up and walk to the kitchen, and out onto the balcony to look, but I already know what’s going on.

Ricky’s outside looking down, and then he turns and looks through the glass at me and I shrug. I decide that it would be in poor taste to bring up the five-dollar bet that we made yesterday about the attorney. The fact that I can see the spooks fitting people for their death suits gives me an obviously unfair advantage. Especially when gambling.

They walk back in and stare at me.

“Sorry,” I say. “It was his time.”

Ricky hisses to himself and heads towards the stairs. He’s still just wearing his board shorts, and we have an appointment. Ms. Josephine is going to the ALG office to rid it of evil spirits or something. And Ricky and I are heading out to meet one of his buddies at a tattoo parlor off of Beltline.

Since I’m going to be traveling back and forth among the living and dead, and every time I need to paint my chest and arms with protective runes and symbols and markings, Ricky suggested, and Ms. Josephine agreed, that I should get them put permanently on my skin.

As in, tattoo.

As in, forever.

This idea didn’t sit too well with me. I argued, What happens when I go for some job interview and people see the tattoos? They’ll think I’m some ex-con who just hit the street after years of hardcore prison violence and gang activity. You know what they do to each other in prison.

They literally laughed at me when I said that. And then Ricky said, “Jack, don’t be ridiculous about this. These tattoos will save your life. Quit being a whinny little nancy, and get the work done. Man up,” he said, quoting Detective Todd Steele.

The bastard knows just where to hit me. Appeal to my manliness by alluding to my fictional hero. He’s good, that Ricky.

And that’s basically that. Some time after 11-o’clock we have an appointment at Cat Tattoo.

“Just think,” Ricky says as he comes down the stairs two-at-a-time, “ . . . in a few hours, you will have spiritual badass tattooed all over your body.” He shrugged, “I might even get a few myself.”

I haven’t told them, yet, about what Uriel was saying about my being different than human. It’s one of those things I’ll get around to sooner or later.

 

Chapter 8

South on Beltway Drive, Addison.
Wednesday, mid-morning . . .

We’re driving towards a place full of people who want to jab me about a billion times with needles they sterilize in a microwave.

“That’s a narrow view of tattoo parlors,” Ricky said as he performed yet another illegal right lane change.

He didn’t wait for a safe and appropriate time to signal for a lane change. He didn’t check his blind spot twice. Far as I can tell, he never even looked at all. And he can see me glancing down at my DMV book, shaking my head.

As we zip through traffic, people are either drafting us, or dodging us. There’s no middle ground. Lead, follow, or get out of the way, that’s Ricky’s take on it.

“This vehicle is an extension of my body,” he says, explaining his recklessness on the road. “I feel it as if it were another limb.”

Well, I say, you’ve got your limbs all over the road.

We come up to make a right turn, and I already know I’m going to be disgusted. I decide to dare him to do it correctly by reading the rules one by one.

“Alright, Ricky, first you signal for a lane change well ahead of the turning point, and when it’s safe, move the vehicle to the far right lane.”

He steadies his arms on the steering wheel, giving me the you’re on glance. His hands rest at 10 and 2 o’clock on the wheel, just like the manual suggests. I nod.

He puts on his signal.

I nod.

He slowly moves over to the rightmost lane.

I nod.

“Now, step number two,” I say, “Begin right turn signal, and start slowing down at least one-hundred feet from the corner.”

Ricky laughs under his breath, slowing the black Porsche Cayenne down to a speed that he clearly thinks is unreasonable.

I nod.

“Very nice, Ricky. Very nice. Now, look both ways before starting to turn,” I instruct him as I read. “It’s all about safety now.”

His eyes become two little slits, too small to insert dimes into, even. He takes a deliberate glance to the left, then to the right, and then looks at me, wondering if it’s alright to proceed.

“Keep as close as possible to the right edge of the road. Turn using both hands on the wheel.”

He swallows, as if he’s trying to keep the bile down. I nod. He makes the turn. I nod, again. And then, just when I think there is some hope for him, he floors it, screeching the tires as we’re both pinned to our seats. Everything that’s flying by us, it’s all blurred and vibrating, just like the border town between earth and Deadside. But I know it’s just our ridiculous amount of speed, and not a call from the dead.

I couldn’t nod if I wanted to. And Ricky, he’s smiling like some maniacal circus clown who just escaped the insane asylum. As we’re doing this, the book falls open to the section on dealing with multiple vehicle accidents. How appropriate.

“That stuff’s for idiots, Jack,” he says as he brings the SUV down to a reasonable speed. “That’s based on old vehicle technology, and poor driving habits. If you really want to learn how to drive, you watch Formula-One racing. That’s driving. That right there,” he says pointing at my yellow DMV book, “ . . . that’s for retards.”

I tell him, If I ever get Cerebral Arteriosclerosis, I hope I forget all of the times like this.

“Yeah, yeah. Talk your trash, but whenever we need to pull a getaway, I’ll be the one you hope is driving.”

I shrug, and put the book in my pants pocket.

Ricky makes a quick left, and then another right, and we’re here. As we park he shuts down the engine and looks at me, “Dude, don’t be squeamish about this. I’ve got a reputation, you know. So don’t sit there cryin’ and acting like a bitch when they start doing the outlines.”

I’ve been dead before, Ricky. I’m pretty sure I can handle a little poke with some tiny little needles.

He nods, grabs the keys, and we head inside.

 

Chapter 9

Cat Tattoo, Addison.
11:17 am . . .

This guy with no hair, and metal horns is drawing on my chest and arms and back with a pen. His name is Chuck, and supposedly he is wicked, with sick ink skills. His arms have so much ink on them he looks like he’s wearing a long-sleeved shirt. And did I mention the horns. Not just one or two of them, no . . . six. Like one of those mean guys on Star Wars: Episode 3.

Did those hurt? I ask him, taking note of how clean and sanitary this place actually is. Not at all what I had expected.

“No, man. I mean, I guess, yeah . . . a little. Especially at first. Because they have to make the incisions and set all the grommets. See, they’re actually threaded into my head, with titanium.”

I want to ask him why a guy would want to put permanent horns on his head, but I think better of it. I don’t want him tattooing me angry. Somehow though, he senses my curiosity.

He smiles as he’s making his final touches with the pen, “It’s about expression, man. It’s like . . . imagine you could say things to the whole world without having to actually say anything. It’s like, once you see me, all those bullshit questions have already been answered. Enough said, you know. Expression.”

Geez. That’s a lot of expression.

“Well, I have a lot to get off my chest. And besides, we live in one of those societies where it’s only now beginning to be socially accepted to express yourself. Everybody is a closet something, hiding behind their clothes, and their clever words, and their jobs and shit. You know . . . just peeping out, judging everyone else, while secretly being the same. You, you’re taking a huge step with this art. You’re making a profound statement.”

“Oh, no,” I tell him. “This is not a statement. It’s work related.”

He snorts, “What, you work at a carnival?”

“No, not like that. I’m not an exhibitionist or anything. I’m doing it for . . . ” and then I realize that any explanation will compromise his perception of my sanity.

“It’s religious in nature,” Ricky says, yelling from across the tattoo parlor, where he and a bunch of other twenty-somethings with way too many piercings are playing X-Box 360.

Chuck nods a few times, squinting at something on my stomach, “That’s cool. Hey, you know you got a little scar there. What’s that from?”

I pin my chin to my chest looking down at my stomach. There is a small circular scar, about the size of a penny. I look at it, then up at him, my shoulders lifting, “Don’t remember.”

“I’d remember that, man.” And then he went back to putting on his finishing touches. A minute later he seems satisfied. “I think we’re ready to ink these puppies.”

And I don’t know why, maybe to quell my nervousness. but I ask him, “So what’s the history of tattooing?”

As he’s preparing the tattoo gun, the ink, and a second set of surgical gloves, he says, “Glad you asked.” Then he pushed my head forward a bit, steadying himself behind me as I partially swiveled on a black vinyl stool. “This may hurt a bit.”

As he began to chop my skin into hamburger meat he told me how humans, since about 3,300 BC have been using tattoos to mark a person’s rank or status among groups. People believed that the wearer of a tattoo had some magical protection against sickness or misfortune.

It feels like a bee is stinging me a thousand times a second.

“Tattoos have been found on Egyptian and Nubian mummies dating from about 2000 BC.   Their use mentioned by classical authors in relation to the Thracians, Gauls, Germans, Britons, and Romans.”

“In fact,” he said as he glided across my shoulder blades, “the Romans tattooed criminals and slaves.”

My whole body is vibrating, and I feel like he’s just using a hot knife, or a soldering iron to make the outlines.

“After the advent of Christianity, tattooing was forbidden in Europe, but it persisted in the Middle East as well as other parts of the world. In America, Indian tribes customarily tattooed their bodies and faces. The technique was simple pricking, but some other tribes, like in California, introduced color into scratches.”

Every time he moves to a different area, I can feel blood and pain burning where he was. Like hot little footprints I’ll never be able to see directly.

“This is going to be intense,” he said as he continued my history lesson. “Arctic and Subarctic Eskimos, and some people of eastern Siberia made needle punctures through which a thread, coated with pigment—usually soot—was drawn underneath the skin.”

Just when my body starts to get numb to the pain, he up and starts somewhere else. He’s getting my shoulders and arms. My back and chest. Ink mixed with blood is beading up, starting to run down my back. I can feel sweat intermingling with my blood.

This is unpleasant.

I hope my Cerebral Arteriosclerosis wipes these memories out, too.

“ . . . in Polynesia, Micronesia, and parts of Malaysia, pigment was pricked into the skin by tapping on an implement shaped like a miniature rake.”

My head hurts from my teeth chattering.

Ricky barks, “Your pass coverage is uglier than your girlfriend.” The crowd around him is in a near state of frenzy.

“ . . . in New Zealand, shallow colored grooves in complex curving designs were produced on the face by striking a small bone adze into the skin. That probably hurts something aweful.”

My lower back is aching due to me having to stay still, and try not to flinch.

Some guy playing beside Ricky chides, “Three and out!

Ricky laughs to himself, “You fags don’t even know what you’re looking at. My game far exceeds your ability to comprehend it. Bring me your finest meats and cheeses.”

Chuck giggles as he continues, “ . . . in Japan, needles set in a wooden handle are used to tattoo very elaborate multicolored designs that cover much of the body.”

I don’t think it would be too much to say, searing pain. I’m holding my breath most of the time, gritting my teeth to fight back the discomfort. I’m glad that the other people here are consumed with playing Madden ’09, so they don’t watch me nearly whimpering.

Ricky screams out, “Eat my ass, bitches! You come down to Pittsburgh and we’ll sort your ass out.” He stands, his arms extended outwards, a controller cord dangling from his left hand. “You dicks are sitting in the shadow of greatness. Pay homage to your lord and savior.”

Ricky can be a bit outrageous at times. And he loves to win, and let you know he won.

Chuck has come around to my chest, now, doing some touch-ups.

“ . . . in Burma tattooing is done with a brass pen-like tool that has a slit point and a weight on the upper end. Sometimes pigment is rubbed into knife slashes, like in Tunisia, and among the Ainu of Japan, or the Igbo of Nigeria.”

He takes stock of his work. “Outlines are done. The coloring goes much quicker.”

Now he has to go back and fill in all of the symbols and markings that are supposed to ward off evil. Truth be told, I don’t know how much these things are going to help me, other than to guarantee that everyone thinks I’m some kind of psycho Indian, or aggravated felon.

Chuck fixes his gun, changing needles from an outline needle, to one that is a bundle of needles. More holes is more surface area colored. That means more needles. More pain. More sweating.

 

1:55 pm . . .

An hour later, or two hours later, I’ve lost track of time. My entire body is numb and aching at the same time. Ricky has laid the smack down on just about everybody over the age of 12, and called them all kinds of bitches and hoes and queers and sallies. His mouth rivals his driving skills in the dirty department.

I don’t really like to curse too much because I read that intelligent people don’t rely on such vulgarities. I’d like to think of myself as intelligent. I tell Ricky this.

“Where’d you read that, The Ambiguously Gay Times?” he says as a few guys laugh. “Dude, profanity is as American as apple pie. Besides, I’ve got a hundred sixty-seven I.Q, and I cuss like a sailor.”

He has a point.

It’s a personal choice, I tell him.

Chuck giggles, “Man, being a vegetarian, that’s a personal choice. Dating strippers, that’s a personal choice. Not cursing . . . that’s just being anal.”

He goes back to work coloring in my pain. And about fifteen minutes later he is giving me the final touches, moving the gun in little circles where he sees inconsistencies.

“ . . . the Pima Indians of Arizona puncture the skin with thorns and add ink to the wounds.” And then he stands back, Ricky beside him. They both seem pleased with the work.

Ricky is looking at several pages of sketches of the symbols that Ms. Josephine did for him. Apparently, it isn’t just the markings, but the order and placement as well.

“Spin him,” Ricky says to Darth Chuck as I’m twisted around on my stool.

“Nice, very nice.”

And then I feel this cool mist covering my back and arms. Chuck is spraying disinfectant, giving me the safety instructions, “Don’t expose the work to sunlight for at least two days. Try and keep lotion or Bacitracin on your skin. And under no circumstances should you scratch. Because it will itch, man. Give it a little slap. But no scratching.”

“What do I owe you, Chuck?” Ricky asked.

Chuck crossed his arms, “Nothin’ Ricky. You helped my brother out, man. I still owe you.”

They shook hands and gave each other a kind of tough-guy hug, and I wondered what they were talking about; how guys like this knew each other. Again, some things are better unasked.

“Jack,” Chuck said, “you ever need anything, man, you just find me. Any brother of Ricky’s is a brother of mine.”

Thanks, I said. And good luck fighting against the Jedi knights.

“What?” he said, and then seemed to get it, grinning, “ . . . ooh, yeah. Right. Thanks, man.”

“Let’s get something to eat, Jack,” Ricky said. “I’m feeling like a Somali hooker.”

 

Chapter 10

Barnes & Noble, North Dallas.
Wednesday evening . . .

I’m wearing a black t-shirt, cruising the self-help section of the book store that Ricky always goes to for coffee. He likes the Mochas, and I like the smell of coffee mixed with books. Why I’m wearing a black t-shirt is because the blood from my tattoos would surely stain anything else.   Black is salvageable.

Why I’m at the self-help section is because I am in one of those self-improvement moods. I cleaned my room, and rearranged the refrigerator at the loft. My shoes are lined-up in neat parallel rows under my bed. The sink is spotless clean, and my aromatherapy soaps are clean and free of dried bubbles and whatnot.

I need to make myself better. To become what Uriel thinks I am. There is a big deficit between peoples’ expectations of me, and what I can deliver. And I know that this will be my undoing eventually. So I want to read the kinds of things that might make me a better . . . whatever it is I am.

Right now I’m looking at the sixth version of Tomato Soup for the Soul. As I thumb through it I notice somebody kind of beside and behind me. I figure it’s Ricky so I say something he’ll respond too, “This is a book written by fags, for fags.”

And this girl laughs behind me.

Whoops.

“It’s not that bad,” this girl says as I turn to see her. She’s wearing a green polo shirt, with a name tag that says, Angela. “It’s just that these kind of themes are geared towards people who need a softer, less brazen approach to spiritual improvement. Injured people, you know.”

She’s got big brown curious eyes, and light brown skin. Her hair is black, with little bits of red at the tips. She is thin like a model, or a college student with unpaid loans living off of dry noodles and bubble gum. And she is shorter than me by a couple of inches.

Oh, and she is fairly attractive. She’s that bridled, secret, librarian attractive. The kind of girl you could introduce your parents to, if you knew who they were.

“Are you searching for a specific topic?” she said, her voice as smooth and soft as silk. She sounds like a girl. Like a girl is supposed to sound. And there’s no pretense to the way she’s looking at me. She’s not looking at me like I’m a lunatic. Or at least, she’s good at concealing it.

I put the tomato book back on the shelf. “I don’t know where to start.”

“What’s your problem?” she asked politely, but getting right to the point as if she’s my shrink. She smiles, realizing that what she said might have seemed crass. “What I mean is, what kind of issues are you trying to resolve?”

If we had all day and all night I couldn’t answer that question to satisfaction. I look at her, trying to figure out if she sees I’m some kind of different human. “I want to be better than I am.”

“Better how?” she says, cocking her head to the side a bit, as if she really wants to know what I’m talking about. Sensing my hesitation she adds, “I work here part time, but I’m studying psychology at the University of Dallas. That’s why this is my section. I mean, I help out with this section,” she said, her eyes looking around as she fumbles for words. “You know what I mean.”

Then she extended her hand, “I’m . . . ” she pointed to the name tag, “Angela.”

Gently I shook her hand. Her palm and fingers were small and warm, and it felt good to touch her. Not that giving Ricky high-fives isn’t cool. Just that, it’s different being around a girl. Good different.

I’m Jack, I say.

She smiled, “Okay, Jack. What can we do to help you be better than you are?”

I’m broken.

“You don’t look broken.”

I find myself wanting to smile, but not wanting to look like some goon. My eyes dart from her to the books so that I don’t stare. She’s more than just a little pretty. I know she’s just being socially nice to me.

Ricky told me all about chicks that work at bars and restaurants and book stores. He said they’ll seem like they’re coming on to you when they aren’t. And then you’ll say something monumentally stupid, and she’ll file a restraining order. And I don’t want that to happen because I like this store.

I clear my throat, “I have problems with my past. You know, my history?”

She blinked a few times, and kind of squinted her eyes at me, “Alright.” She kneeled down, looking for some book that must have been at shin level.

And just for a split fraction of a second I glanced down at her. She’s wearing these khaki pants that are tight enough to let you know she is in great shape. She must be in her early or mid-twenties.

She pulled out a book with green and white words on the jacket. “This is about dealing with our parents, and the baggage they’ve left us.”

“Oh, no,” I stop her. “Not that kind of history.” This is complicated enough without having to beat around the bushes. “I mean, like . . . my past . . . transgressions.” That’s a good word. A 10-dollar word.

She puts the book under her arm and stares at me again. And now, it’s like she’s really studying me. And I know this sounds stupid, but I think she’s really looking at me. Not as a customer. Not as a guy in the self-help section. But as a person.

But even though she’s a part-time clerk at a book store, and I’m living in a five-thousand dollar a month loft, I know that she’s way out of my league.

“You have innocent eyes,” she says.

My heart is thumping more than when Ricky almost gets us killed every time we drive.

“Unique,” she says. “What is your ethnicity, if you don’t mind me asking?”

I shrug. I tell her, “I’m not sure. I don’t know a lot about myself. That’s why I’m here talking to you, Angela.”

She looks like she’s considering something. “You’re different.”

Oh, shit. Can everyone in the universe see something I can’t? Do I have a sign on my head that says, Wacko who walks among the dead?

And just as she’s about to say something, Ricky interrupts our comfortable silence.

“What’s up, Jack? You find anything worth keeping?”

Yes, I answer. And both her and I know I’m not talking about books. But neither of us say anything. She just hands me the book, and almost smiles at me.

Ricky notices us kind of looking at each other, and I think he thinks a restraining order with a 200-meter boundary is just moments away. “We gotta go, brother.”

I nod. “Thanks, Angela,” I say. “It was very nice to meet you. Thanks for the,” I look down and read the title, “Dealing with Your Parents Laundry.” I realize that I have said thanks twice, and that I look like a complete goober, so I make my way uncomfortably out of the isle, with Ricky in tow.

As I turn towards the registers I notice Ricky stop and turn back to her. He’s probably apologizing for me, making sure I’m not hauled in tonight by the local police. He looks out for me on stuff like that.

After I pay for the book, Ricky and I head to his Porsche SUV—which, itself, is a rolling contradiction—and he slides the keys into the ignition, looking over at me.

What? I say, putting on my seatbelt.

He grins, his lips closed and flat.

What?

“You were flirting with that girl.”

No, I wasn’t. She was helping me with a book. She was doing her job as a sales representative, helping a customer find what he was looking for. She’s probably like that with everyone.

“She’s cute,” he said as his eyebrows danced up and down a few times.

I smiled, “Well, sure, but . . . “

“But nothing, dude. That chick was flirting with you, too. She was looking at you, for real.”

“No she wasn’t. That was just professional courtesy. You’re reading too much into it,” I say, and even as the words to the contrary pour out of my mouth, I’m hoping he’s right.

“For a guy who can see the dead, you sure are blind.”

We pulled out into evening traffic, heading to the ALG office.

A few minutes later I ask, “Do you really think she was hitting on me?”

Ricky smiled, “My man, Jack, has a crush. That’s cute.”

I sigh, wondering why I even asked him.

“Who knows, dude, maybe you’ll see her again.”

If it’s in the cards.

 

Chapter 11

Beltline Drive.
2 minutes later . . .

Trailers, semi-trailers, and pole-trailers with a gross weight of 4,500 pounds or less are exempt from brake requirements.

I’m reading about brake requirements in my yellow book, page 15-12.

Ricky’s got this half smirk on his face, probably thinking about that girl who sold me the book I don’t need.

Trailers, semi-trailers, and pole-trailers with a gross weight in excess of 4,500 pounds and which do not exceed 15,000 pounds and operated at speeds of 30 miles per hour, or less, are not required to be equipped with brakes.

I look up from my book, “Hey, can this Porsche haul a trailer?”

“I have a removable hitch,” he answers, glancing up at the rearview mirror.

The idea of a Porsche hauling a trailer leaves me conflicted. It doesn’t fit. I tell him, I thought Porsches were sports cars. Like Mercedes, or Lamborghini.

His eyes looking in the rearview, and then to the road ahead, Ricky says, “The S-U-V is the sports car of the new millennium. In the future there will only be SUVs because the roads will be in such a state of disrepair that you’ll need a truck just to get to the grocery store.”

Like in Mad Max?

Ricky nods as he glances at the rearview mirror again. We’re not going as fast as normal, and for whatever reason we’ve taken a strange course to the ALG office. Right now we’re actually heading in the wrong direction.

Under all conditions, the combination of vehicles must be capable of complying with the performance requirements. Generally, if the trailer and the combination is 3,000 pounds or less, the combination must be able to stop within 40 feet when traveling 20 miles per hour.

I look up, trying to picture the Porsche hauling a semi-trailer full of dead bodies. I’m not sure why my imaginary trailer would be filled to the brim with dead bodies, but that’s just how my mind works, lately. Walking around and communicating with the dead really messes with your neurons.

Ricky is still focused on something.

What is it? I ask.

“Oh, it’s just . . . ” he checks the side mirrors, his first, then mine. “I think we’re being followed?”

Is it a professional tail?

He looks at me, his eyes narrow and skeptical, “What would you know about tails?”

All the spy shows I watch say that there are different types of sleuth following techniques. If they sit back and just watch, most likely they’re just tailing us as a part of their job. You know, government types, cops, that kind of thing.

The really good tails, I explain, you don’t ever see them. You don’t have conversations about them because they’re seamless with the rest of the traffic. Usually done in groups of five or six cars in all different positions so that you never see the same car for too long. There’s lots of techniques.

Maybe they want us to see them? I suggest.

“Where are you getting your information, again?”

Never mind all that, I say. We need to lose him! Let’s do some hot-laps.

“Hot laps?” he asks, his face wrinkled near his eyes.

Three or four consecutive U-turns to see if they stay on us. They do that on Burn Notice.

“I’ve got a better idea,” Ricky says, tightening his grip on the steering wheel. “Hold on,” he advises, and before I can react I find myself pinned to the seat as he accelerates.

All the red and green and white lights of the evening that used to be dots and square-shaped, now they’re streaks of color. I feel like I’m in a spaceship traveling at near-light speeds. This is an SUV on steroids. A sports car on growth hormone.

And now I’m just waiting for the sound of either sirens or gunfire. One or the other must be the logical progression of this.

At the speeds we’re going, cutting in and out of traffic, getting flashes of peoples’ panicked expressions, I figure we’ll slow down to find ourselves 10 or 15 years into the future.

We make a right turn, and I get dragged toward the center console, my DMV book sliding across the dash towards Ricky. I tried to reach for it, but Einstein’s Equivalence Principle won’t allow it.

We make a hard left turn, and I’m jammed against the door, watching as my yellow book comes sliding back towards me. Einstein said that the laws of motion in an accelerated frame are equal to those in a non-accelerated frame.

Ricky glances at all the mirrors, left, right, rearview, left again. “I think we lost them.”

On a straight-away I reach for my book, and then Ricky hits the brakes without warning, hooking us onto a small through street on the right. Had I not been wearing my seatbelt I would have brained myself on the dash. Luckily all I did was taste part of my dinner again as the seatbelt pressed on my stomach and chest.

Taco Bell is not good the second time.

He pulls us into a parking lot, and we park behind a large semi-truck. He immediately kills the engine and cuts off the lights. I’m kind of nervous from the chase, but oddly, all I can think about is what kind of brakes the trailer next to us has.

That’s probably way over 15,000 pounds, I whisper.

Ricky is silent, looking around for approaching vehicles. We sit there for several minutes.

I ask him if we should call the cops or something proactive like that.

“No, Jack. No cops.” He looks around and lets out a quick sigh. “I think they were just keeping tabs on us. Would Detective Steele call the police?”

Hell no, he wouldn’t. He’d use their tactics against them.

“We’ll do that, then,” Ricky says. And I can see things being calculated behind his eyes. See, my young partner, he’s very clever. He just acts immature and silly because he’s young and uncertain about his place in life. But you can’t mistake his goofiness for lack of intelligence.

You have a plan? I ask.

“Not yet, but it’s brewing.”

We should probably assume we’re always being watched, now.

“That’s a fair assumption,” Ricky said, pulling out his cell phone, keeping it close to his chest so it doesn’t illuminate his face.

He presses the screen a few times, and I think that’s just the coolest thing ever. You just touch the screen, and stuff starts happening. Waking up in the modern era is a real shocker.

Who are you calling? I ask, reaching for my DMV book.

I know he’s got something devilishly sinister planned. Something so brilliant that even James Bond himself would have to bow to it’s ingeniousness. An idea that’s going to give us the upper hand on our anonymous pursuers.

And then Ricky slides the phone to his ear and says, “ . . . yeah, hey, I need two medium, thin crusts with pepperonis and mushrooms on each.”

Like I said, the man is gifted.

 

Chapter 12

ALG office.
Thursday morning . . .

It’s early, and we’ve decided to put in a good days work at the new office. We’re removing plastic sheets, and pulling expensive things out of Styrofoam. There’s lots of stuff here that looks oatmeal-colored and deadly. Like, these computer bits and pieces could be used to make a nuclear weapon.

Ms. Josephine is on her way over so that we can make the final furniture arrangements. You see, Ricky had a ‘quiet room’ put in our office. Let me explain. We have a lot of space in this office. Several thousand square feet. So Ricky has this idea to put in one of those rooms where you can lock yourself in and nobody on earth can hear what you’re discussing.

Not the CIA.

Not the KGB.

Not satellites, nor Google.

Not ex-girlfriends, nor space aliens.

Nobody will be able to hear what we’re talking about. And that’s actually pretty reassuring if you consider that we have to eventually hunt down and murder 23 people. Sure, they’re pure evil, but the local authorities in the areas we will be doing our little missions might not see it like that.

Prosecutors and Judges don’t respect the God defense these days. So if you’re making plans to hunt and kill people, even evil incarnate, you have to be careful. And this quiet-room is our one place we can say anything we please without worrying about repercussions.

It’s basically a plastic box, big enough for about five or six of us to sit down at a small table. It’s surrounded by a combination of fiberglass sheets, with layers of some kinds of goo. I don’t know what kind, and the contractors were rather shy about divulging their process. Basically, the room is suspended by liquid and fiberglass layers.

It has it’s own oxygen supply, and there are no electricity lines running in or out. You can’t even use a cell phone in here. Everything is useless. It’s like a dead zone or something. And it even has some white-noise emitters that are fitted to the outer shell so that government hacks can’t use their gadgetry to pull vibrations off of the outer surface.

When I asked how much it cost, Ricky gave me a little whistle between his teeth, which means that it was expensive. Probably a level of expensive I can’t imagine.

Our research on ‘strange deaths’ will ensue once all of our computers are brought on-line. We’ll have the power of four supercomputers, all working together, searching for the footprints of evil. Ricky says we have enough computing power to run a space mission to Mars. And I don’t really know if that’s accurate, but it sounds good.

This office, our home away from Evil, it’s taking shape.

Ricky walks up to me, “Billtruck is coming.”

Who? I ask, handing him an off-white box that looks like you put small torpedoes in it. I have no freaking idea what this is.

He takes it, “Bill ‘the Truck‘ Blackledge. My buddy from school. I hired him.”

You call him, the truck?

Ricky smiled, “He’s big, dude. Like a truck. He was going to play football but he messed up and got a thirteen-ninety on his SAT, so his dad bribed him to go to Med-school. He’s into forensic examination.”

And he’s going to work with us? At ALG?

“Yup. He was working for some fancy-pants hospital on the east coast, but he got bored. I offered him some excitement.”

What did you tell him? I ask, delivering a chrome machine from it’s bubble-wrap plastic womb. This thing has all sorts of ports and inputs all around it, and is even more perplexing than the last box.

“He knows we’re doing research, and that we may dabble into the paranormal.”

I look at Ricky, my shoulders slumping, “Dabble into the paranormal? He’s going to be doing more than dabbling, don’t you think? He’s going to think we’re a bunch of psychos the minute he catches wind of what we’re up to.”

“Relax, Jack,” Ricky assured me, “I got this. Billtruck is my man. He’s going to be an asset. You’ll see. And besides, skeptic or not, with the money I offered him he’ll help us hunt leprechauns if we ask him to.”

Just before I could say something clever Ms. Josephine ambled in. She’s wearing a dress with red and orange butterflies on it. In this office of sterile white and high-technology equipment, she looks out of place. Out of her element. But then, so do Ricky and I, so it’s par for the course.

She walks across the front of the large space and approaches us. She smiles and I immediately feel warmer, as if she added life to our place. She hands a old brown book to Ricky and he nods, studying the cover. It’s probably more of his witch doctor stuff. It’s all he reads anymore.

“Now,” she says as she gives us each a hug, “when is our new friend comin’ by?”

And like she can see the future, we hear a knock at the office door. Due to the whole, magnetic key-card entry system, Ricky jogs to the door, leaping over two large flat-screen monitors, and a black box he’s been referring to as the Organism.

The door opens and this huge guy, with short-cropped black hair and arms big enough to be confused for trees, walks in. They are about the same height, but Billtruck probably has about 150 pounds on Ricky.

Billtruck looks around, squinting his eyes at the equipment. He walks right past us, not being rude or anything, but as if he’s so consumed by the gear that he doesn’t notice us. As he’s pacing back and forth, checking out boxes and stickers on the different pieces of equipment, Ms. Josephine and I just smile curiously at each other.

Ricky winks at us and then says, “Well, Billtruck, what do you think?”

The large genius joins us in the middle of the room, “This all new?”

Ricky nods, Yes.

Billtruck crosses his arms in front of his bulging chest, “And uh . . . it’s all what it says it is?”

More nodding.

The big guy scratches his chin as his eyes scan the large expanse. “So, what are we, like Ghostbusters?”

“No!” I say quickly. “Not like Ghostbusters. Paranormal investigators. We search for phenomenon, and try to solve or explain it.”

Ricky adds, “We look for rational explanations for seemingly supernatural events. And you’re going to run our Intelligence branch.”

“Right,” Billtruck says, studying all of us suspiciously.

There’s a long uncomfortable pause where nobody speaks. Just eyes glancing here and there.

Then his face softens and he laughs to himself. “Whatever, bro. You say it’s not like Ghostbusters . . . fine. That’s cool. But really, with the equipment you’ve purchased, we could probably find Atlantis, or whatever the hell else you might want.”

Ms. Josephine gives Billtruck the scolding eye, and he apologizes, “Oh, sorry.” He then extends his giant hand, “I’m Doctor Bill Blackledge, but everyone calls me Billtruck.”

I can’t imagine why, I said as he seemed to shatter all of the small bones in my right hand as we shook. He lets go and I try not to wince at the pain. He’s got retard strength.

He turns to Ms. Josephine, “And you must be the young lady who keeps us all in line.”

They shake hands and Ms. Josephine slowly turns his hand over and studies it like a mathematical equation. “You ‘ave a good ‘eart,” she says slowly, her fingers tracing his lifeline.

“I eat healthy,” Billtruck replies.

Looking at another wrinkle she says, “ . . . but you ‘ave bad luck wit women. Married women.”

Half embarrassed, he shrugs, “The girls I like are usually . . . occupied.”

Ricky laughs, “Some things don’t change.”

Billtruck is the most unlikely addition to our team. A humongous, skeptical, intellectual who probably smashes beer cans on his forehead.

He’s perfect.

We took him back and showed him the quiet room, and then Ricky took him on a tour of the computer equipment. We spent the next two hours moving boxes back and forth. Monitors against that wall. Computer towers under there, routers on the rack near the servers. Flat-screens with their workstations.

I feel like we’re powering up the Enterprise or something. I can feel electrons bouncing around looking for somewhere to land. There is a silent hum to this office.

ALG’s heartbeat.

I’m sitting back, on a rolling black leather chair, just watching as Ricky and Billtruck connect plugs and communicate in some kind of foreign computer language they teach to smart people. I look over at Ms. Josephine and she’s delicately feeling part of the wall, as if it might be hot to the touch.

Sensing me as she always does, she turns and smiles. She makes me feel safe. This place, it’s ours. She belongs here just as much as the equipment. I wave for her to come over, which she does.

As Billtruck and Ricky are discussing something about a “ . . . ten-gig LAN . . . ” Ms. Josephine sits down in a chair beside me.

“What’s next, Jack?”

We wait for our first client, I guess.

“No,” she says. “I mean, in our quest for da Evils. What’s our next move?”

And right before I can answer there is this ringing sound that echoes throughout the entire office. All of us stop what we’re doing and turn towards the only phone in the place, and it can’t have been hooked-up for more than five minutes. Of course, it’s red, like something the President might have laying beside his bed at night. You know, the one used for ending the world.

It keeps ringing. We keep staring. Ringing. Staring.

Ms. Josephine heads towards the phone, and Ricky says, “I put an add in the Yellow Pages, but I didn’t think they’d have it printed this quick.”

Billtruck slaps Ricky in the shoulder, “The Internet, bro.”

“Oh, yeah.”

Ms. Josephine looks at us, her hand on the receiver, as if to ask if she should answer it.

I Shake my head, No.

Billtruck shrugs, Whatever.

Ricky smiles, Sure.

“After Life Group,” Ms. Josephine says politely, “ . . . ‘ow can I ‘elp you?” And then she starts saying, “ . . . yes.

. . . alright.

. . . yes.

. . . and for ‘ow long?

. . . I understand.

. . . give me dat address, please.”

She scribbles something down on a clean pad of note paper and then says, “We’ll come by tomorrow and see if we can ‘elp.” She nods a couple of times and then says, “Very well den, goodbye.”

Putting down the phone, we’re all waiting with baited breath. You could cut the anticipation with a knife. A big knife. One of those big mean knives that Rambo uses.

“Well?” Ricky says, his mouth hanging open.

“We got our first client,” she says with a grin.

And I hear Billtruck quietly whistling the theme music from Ghostbusters.

Chapter 13

The loft.
Thursday evening . . .

We’re all sitting at our dining room table, having dinner like proper adults. Ms. Josephine cooked us up a traditional dish from her home in Haiti. It’s terribly spicy, but with all kinds of cinnamon and other sweet smelling ingredients. We have these potatoes that are cooked with green and red peppers, fried bananas, and strips of chicken.

Billtruck and Ricky are on one side of the large glass table, and Ms. Josephine and I are on the other side, and we’ve been telling silly stories for awhile. Ricky told us about how he and Billtruck first met, chasing after the same girl in college. Ricky contends that it wasn’t fair because Billtruck was much bigger and more masculine.

Billtruck countered that Ricky was much more quick-witted, so it evened out.

It was just a nice evening. So calm and easygoing that I almost forgot what lay ahead of us. This is basically what a normal life would be like. Take out the spooks and monsters, angels and Evil beings, and what you’re left with is a group of individuals all cooperating on a common vision.

We all have our reasons for being right here, right now.

Ricky was trying to find his raison d’etre. His point in life.

Billtruck was bored with a normal life.

I was trying to figure out who I am, since my brain forgot who I was.

Ms. Josephine was keeping us all together.

But here we are. Together.

Billtruck took a sip of Cabernet and said, “Ms. Josephine, by your accent I’d say you were from the islands. Whereabouts, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“I’m from the Republic of Haiti. Actually, I was born in Tortuga, but my parents took me to Port-au-Prince when I was just a baby.”

“What was it like,” Ricky asked, “growing up there?”

Ms. Josephine leaned back in her chair, thinking about the place she used to call, home. “We were descended almost entirely from African slaves. We won our independence from France in eighteen-oh-four. We were da second country in the Americas to free ourselves from colonial rule. Da first being the United States.

“ . . . dat being said, centuries of economic, social, and political problems ‘ave done us badly. Haiti is da poorest nation in da Western ’emisphere. It was not like ‘ere. Being a child in an environment like dat is difficult . . . scary.”

I leaned towards her, “Scary, how?”

“Dere’s a lot of energy on da island. Da ground is always rumblin’, like it’s angry at somethin’ we done. We got underground rivers, limestone caves, and dark places where people don’t need to be. Dere’s a lot of magic on da island.”

She looked over at Billtruck, “You don’t believe in magic, do you?”

He finished chewing a huge piece of chicken and raised his fork, “I mean, I’m an objective scientist. And there’s just not that much room for magic in the math. I’d like to think there’s something mystical to the world.” He sighed, “Just haven’t seen any proof.”

Ricky and I glanced at each other briefly.

“Dere’s da magic you can see, and da magic you can’t,” Ms. Josephine said softly. “When I was a child, I couldn’t see. I was blind.”

“ . . . I was born dat way,” she said. “Dat’s why my eyes look da way they do.”

And I remembered how her eyes looked when I saw her, both from this side, and the Land of Sorrows. She had these glassy, glowing eyes, like a blind person might.

She closed her eyes, “I ‘eard tings, you know. Nothin’ special, mind you. Just people talkin’ and whatnot. And when you’re a child, well . . . you don’t know no better. I didn’t know who was talkin’ to me ‘alf da time, but I was never alone.”

“No, dere was always somebody sayin’ somethin’ to me. And since I couldn’t see who it was, I didn’t know no better. My mother used to sing to me, in French and Creole, little rhymes and tings to keep me quiet. She was catholic, very religious. My father, whenever ‘e was around, well . . . ‘e was into other tings. Darker tings.”

“Can you drink the water in Haiti?” Billtruck asked, holding his glass of wine up, sloshing it around the sides.

“You can,” Ms. Josephine said, “ . . . but you’ll probably get sick if you ain’t used to it. Lots of tings on the island can be dangerous. We have other problems, much worse dan bad drinkin’ water.”

I’ve never seen this side of Ms. Josephine. The human side. Ever since I met her I figured she was just one of those strange characters you meet. No background. No past. Just a strange gift that appears in your life. But she’s real. Her past, it’s just surreal to most people because they grew up in the cushy comforts of America.

Since I can’t remember my past, I find it fascinating to hear about someone else’s. Plus, it’s taking my mind off of my itching tattoos.

“ . . . in Haiti dere is a certain percentage of da population who have a taste for . . . long pork.”

Long pork?” Billtruck said as he took another bite of chicken.

Ricky and me, we looked uneasily at each other. I’m kind of just touching the table with the tips of my fingers, wondering how far this is going to go.

“Dat’s human flesh, Mr. Billtruck,” She explained. “It’s one of dose less publicized ‘abits dat we brought from Africa. And my father . . . ” she said, letting the words trial off as if she was walking on eggshells.

None of us said anything. We didn’t move.

Didn’t even breathe.

Billtruck’s still got half-chewed jerk chicken in his mouth. Ricky’s staring at his fork. Me, I’m still wondering how to cook long pork. When I was in the cooking class offered by County Support Services, I learned about thoroughly cooking meats to remove bacteria and microbes that can cause illness to humans.

To get all the nasty little bugs out of chicken you need to cook it until there’s no more red or pink in the meat. You don’t want salmonella.

For most fish, you grill or bake it until it’s golden brown.

“My father was into da darker side of da occult. Unlike my mother,” she said slowly, a slight smile briefly passing across her face, “ . . . ‘e didn’t follow da tenets of Catholicism. ‘is religion was much closer to Africa. To da earth. And dere was always a power struggle between my mother and father over which way I should be raised.”

If you’re frying fish, you know it’s safe when it floats in the grease.

Looking at her plate, Ms. Josephine smiles and kind of laughs to herself, “My mother thought my blindness was ‘er punishment for ‘aving a child out of marriage with my father. And you couldn’t say nothin’ to convince ‘er otherwise.”

For red meats like beef and buffalo, you cook it until it visibly stops bleeding, and make sure the center is pink instead of red. Although, I can’t actually imagine eating a buffalo. That’s something pioneers and Indians eat.

“ . . . my father, ‘e . . . ‘e believed dat I was special. Gifted. And every chance ‘e got ‘e took me into da jungle. I ‘eard da priests, and medicine men, and all da strange sounds of da world of Voodoo.”

She considered her words, as if she might be doing injustice to say too much, “And, although I didn’t know it when I was a young child, dere were more voices talking to me, dan dere were actually people. My mother started to fear dat my father was filling me wit evil and black magic. Not to mention ‘e ‘ad developed quite a ‘unger for long pork.”

That chicken on Billtruck’s plate, it could be human flesh the way he’s staring at it.

The wine might as well be blood.

My potatoes, they just might be cooked cartilage.

The fried bananas, skin chips.

“ . . . dey’re careful not to eat white people. See, people ask questions about missing tourists and white men. But villagers who stray off course late in da night,” she shrugged. “I’m not sayin’ it’s right . . . ”

Generally, with pork, you need to cook all the pink out of it until it’s closer to grey. If not, you could get a disease called trichinosis—where a bunch of tiny worms mate in your small intestine, after which the fertilized female trichinae burrow into your intestinal wall and release their larvae. Those larvae are then transported by the bloodstream to all parts of the body. The worm grows within muscle tissue, requiring around 16 days to mature. A cyst develops around the larva’s body.   And this horrible cycle continues. So cook your pork.

“ . . . and den, when I’m almost ten years old, I wake up one night and I can see. No warning, no nothing. One day I’m blind. Den I can see.” She took a deep breath, her hands touching her chest. Her eyes, they really sparkle when she’s animated like this. She has a blind person’s eyes, but she sees everything. More than everything.

She nodded, “Dat’s when I knew I was ‘earin’ voices from somewhere else.”

“Ms. Josephine,” Ricky said, asking the question that was on all of our minds, “ . . . did you ever eat long pork?”

She picked up her napkin, dabbing her lips and stood slowly, “’elp me clear dese dishes and make room for some dessert.”

We’re all basically paralysed, waiting for an answer. And no answer, that’s as good as an answer. That’s like having her say, Yes.

She seems to sense this and smiles, “Do you really tink I could eat a person?”

And then we all laugh it off as she takes a stack of several plates into the kitchen. Billtruck and Ricky start talking about their computer stuff. I’m helping with the dishes. And what’s on my mind, the thing that keeps repeating itself is . . .

. . . she still didn’t say, No.

I hand her two plates with what could be Caribbean cuisine, or could be the missing neighbors, and Ms. Josephine is just giggling to herself. She’s probably reading my mind or something, having a grand old time.

And as I turn towards the dining table I have a sudden flash in my left eye that stops me dead in my tracks. It only lasts a fraction of a second.

But I’m frozen.

Chapter 14

I-35 North.
Friday 13th, 10:26 am . . .

It’s really a perfect day to visit a supposedly haunted house. Ricky, Ms. Josephine and I, we’re driving out to a semi-new housing development in Flower Mound where they have those billboards that say, ‘Homes starting from the mid-300s and up.’ So, they’re pretty nice.

We’re on our way out for our initial consultation which, from what Ricky has explained, is a lot like calling a plumber. We’re going to walk around, listen to this guy’s fanciful story of horror and late night terror, then quote him a price on phantasm relocation and removal.

I like that because it sounds like we’re going to gather up all the wandering spiritual entities and move them to a different place. We’re like those people from the bank that slap eviction notices on the door, only for ghosts.

You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.

His plumbing analogy is fairlly accurate because about 99% of these hauntings are probably going to turn out to be faulty wiring and noisy plumbing. At night, even normal, sensible people can be turned into panicking children by completely rational things.

Since Ricky doesn’t see the dead, he’d sure like to find some poltergeists floating around leaving ectoplasm.

Ms. Josephine hears the dead speak to her, so she’s probably hoping for a little quiet.

Me, I see the dead, commune with an angel, fell in love with a dead chick, and work with creepy little monsters. So, I’m not expecting much out of all this. After what I’ve been through in the last month, I’m not sure a living room wall that bleeds at 2 am., red eyes in the garden, or babies screaming in the attic would give me much of a rise.

Ms. Josephine brought her big purse full of creepy, crawly curiosities. I try not to stare at it, but I can’t help it. I’m always waiting for hairy critters with way too many legs to start a mass exodus and disappear in the seat cushions.

I’m a bit phobic about bugs right now.

See, the last time I was in Deadside, when I was undoing everything God had designed and intended, my body started to give up on me. I was deteriorating into the final stages of hypothermia. And the way back was to find my shell of a body and climb back in my open chest cavity. But I couldn’t make it all the way back to where I’d left myself.

That only left my safety button. Ms. Josephine gave me a necklace with a pouch on it. She said that if I ever got lost, or stuck, or found myself freezing to death, that I should empty the contents into my mouth and swallow.   Well, the contents were all varieties of spiders and centipedes and they seemed to come right back to life once I poured them into my mouth.

I’m talking about all kinds of red hour glasses, and brown fiddles, and green dots—the bugs they warn you about in camping magazines—are stinging and biting the inside of my throat and mouth, and I started to choke. My throat swelled completely shut and I pretty much was drowning without actually being in the water.

And drowning is my worst, most horrible, can’t imagine anything else more awful kind of dying. See, with drowning, you’re dead way before you actually die.

Stuck in Deadside, I had to die just to get back to my earthly body, which itself was freezing to death.

Long story short, I’m a bit nervous around insects with lots of legs. And I know that Ms. Josephine probably has her purse full of them. Something about utilizing their life-force and whatnot. I just get a full body quiver when I think about it.

Billtruck is set-up at the ALG office, putting the finishing touches on the computer system. We hope to go online tomorrow and then the research for strange death footprints begins.

There’s this kind of excited energy among us as we approach the house. It’s like we’re all kind of hoping we find something here. And as we pull into the driveway, Ricky looks at me in the rearview, “You know that billboard that said, mid-three hundreds and up?

“Well, this is the and up they were talking about. This is a half-mil, easy.”

This place is huge, and it looks brand new. The driveway is paved with flat grey stones. Spiraling Junipers flank the driveway, leading to a large eggshell and white, two-story house with dark red Spanish tiles on the roof. It’s like something that you might see in Europe, or Latin America. Like a drug dealer’s house.

As we pull around and stop near the large front doors, an athletic looking guy comes out wearing a white t-shirt, blue jeans, and flip-flops. He’s waving at us, a big smile on his sun-burnt face. He’s got curly blond hair and a stubby nose that looks like it might have seen the inside of a boxing ring.

When we get out he introduces himself, “I’m Travis, thanks for coming out so quickly.” Then he glances nervously around and lowers his voice. “Things don’t start getting dodgy until the sun goes down. Follow me.”

 

Chapter 15

114 West Briargrove, Flower Mound.
10:51 am . . .

“So, how does this work?” Travis said as he led us into the living room.

“First thing we’re going to do is try and debunk you,” Ricky says as we walk past a giant gilded mirror.

This house is large and intimidating. It may have been built recently, but they gave everything that old rustic look as if we were on the outskirts of some wealthy place where Zorro is rumored to be raising an army in the hills. I half expect guys with those sharp little mustaches to walk in.

And I get this feeling that something is going on here. Just can’t nail it down yet.

The floors are dark tile, the furniture a deep brown leather and stained to either look authentic and antique, or it actually is the real deal.

“Debunk me?” Travis said indignantly.

“Sure,” Ricky said as he leaned forward, his hands posting on the edge of a giant couch. “We’re going to look for a rational, scientific explanation for whatever you’re experiencing here. And if it turns out there are paranormal events taking place,” he turned to Ms. Josephine and I, “ . . . they’ll sort it out, relocating any negative energy so that you can go on about your life in peace.”

Travis is looking at the three of us, maybe a little less confident and comfortable than he’d like to be. We’re a motley crue, Ms. Josephine, Ricky and I. “I didn’t think they actually had companies like . . . your’s.”

“There are no other companies like ALG,” Ricky said as he walked slowly around the living room. “We’re the real thing.”

Travis nods, probably hoping that we’re not a group of house burglars using ALG as a ploy to case-out nice homes for future heists, “ . . . right.”

Ms. Josephine can sense his uneasiness, “Mr. Travis, I’m Ms. Josephine. I been dealin’ wit dese kinds of situations for many years. If dere’s a problem wit your house, we’re goin’ fix it for you.”

He seems to warm up to her, especially with her creole accent. She has a way of making people feel comfortable. She’s the embodiment of a black-magic woman. A spiritual Aunt Jemima.

She turns to me, her hand reaching for my forearm, “This is Jack, and he has experience in this field, too.”

“So, what, you guys are like, Ghostbusters?”

And right about the time the n-sound is forming at the top of my mouth, Ricky says, “Think of us as paranormal specialists. We don’t have backpacks and laser guns. But we’re intimately familiar with situation of the afterlife. Ergo, After Life Group.”

That Ricky, he’s good. I can see why his family is so successful. He’s got salesman DNA. He could rent ice to eskimos.

“Mr. Travis, what exactly is going on wit your beautiful ‘ome?” Ms. Josephine asks as she walks slowly towards him.

He crossee his arms, his head tilting to the side, “Well, I’m a contractor by trade. In fact, I laid the foundation for this house.”

Ricky’s got out his little notepad, “Was this property built on an old cemetery, or historic site?”

“No,” Travis said, kind of bothered by the idea. Maybe he had never asked.

“Did anyone ever die during the construction of the house?”

Travis looked shocked, “No! God no. Nothing like that.”

Ricky nods, marking something down in his pad. He can tell that Travis is rattled. “Relax, sir. These are just routine questions. I have to ask them.”

“Right,” Travis says, walking past us and leading us towards a large stair case that takes us to a lavish second floor. “At night, we hear things up here, and doors . . . they open and close and rattle on their own.”

We’re walking, we’re walking.

Ricky puts his hand on one of the door handles and delicately jiggles it, checking for any play. Ms. Josephine is leaning over the wooden guardrail, looking down on the living room where we just were.

The ceiling in this house is enormously high. It’s vaulted, with a huge fresco that looks like a knock-off of the Sistine Ceiling. It’s illuminated by several wall sconces and lights that look like torch fixtures.

I’m just looking at all the darker parts of the hallway, and under furniture, seeing if the shadows are really just shadows, or if they’re guardians of the Deadside. Everything seems fine on the surface, but I still have this eerie feeling that something is untoward.

“I know the carpenter who hung these doors and set the thresholds, and he’s good. There’s no reason the doors should be rattling all of the sudden.” He looks bothered by this. As if a natural explanation would be a black mark against his craftsmanship.

Then he looks up at the ceiling in the hallway, “And up there, that’s where the noises come from.”

“Noises . . . ” Ricky repeats as he makes the proper notations. He doesn’t even look up from the pad, “And what kinds of noises do you observe, if you can describe them?”

Travis rubs his forehead, obviously bothered by all of this, “Hissing, kind of. But, like . . . grunting, too.”

“Hissing,” Ricky says, still scribbling, “ . . . grun-ting . . . ” and then he glances up, scratching his chin with the back of his pen, “You have an attic?”

Travis nods, “Yes. But it’s empty. I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to fire safety, and I don’t have anything up there that could present a fire hazard.”

“We’re going to need to get up there,” Ricky says, almost to gauge Travis’s reaction.

The troubled homeowner points to an access panel cut into the ceiling farther down the hallway. “It’s got a sectional set of stairs that pulls down.”

Ricky then asks when the noises and door rattling display usually begin.

Travis says, “Right after sunset, most evenings.”

Ricky asks if they happen in unison, the noises and the rattling doors.

Some nights the hissing, other nights there’s rattling. Sometimes both. Sometimes neither.

Ricky asks if this happens every night.

Two or three times a week. More when there’s a full moon coming.

Ms. Josephine looks over at me and shrugs as if she doesn’t hear anything otherworldly that would cause her to be concerned.

I cross my arms and shake my head, and then something touches my leg.

 

Chapter 16

114 West Briargrove, Flower Mound.
10:58 am . . .

This jet black little creature races by, starling me.

“Oh, don’t mind Steele,” Travis says as a smile softens his face, “that’s my cat. He’s been a bit nutty ever since this all started.”

Steele? I say.

“Yeah,” he replies, as he kneels down to pet the energetic little feline. “I named him after that detective in those novels.”

Todd Steele is like my favorite fictional detective ever, I tell him.

“You read Chemical Sundown, yet?” he asks me.

Just started it.

Travis blows on the cat’s ears as he plays with it. “It’s a roller-coaster, for sure.”

Ricky nods at me. I’m accidentally establishing rapport. Maybe I was a car salesman in my forgotten past life.

“So,” he says as he continues to pet Steele one too many times, the cat squirming and racing away in a flash, “what happens now?”

“Well,” Ricky said as he put his notepad away, “we need to go and get our equipment and dig in for the night. We’ll stay as long as it takes to observe the occurrences, or you tell us enough is enough.”

“How much is this going to cost me?”

Without skipping a beat, Ricky answers, “Twelve-hundred dollars a day.” And he says it so easily you’d think he was selling bubble gum. As if the price was a wooden nickel.

“How long do you believe this will take?” Travis said, adding numbers in his head.

And I’m starting to think the guy’s serious because normally the prospect of paying three strangers 1,200 dollars a night to hang out and eat pizza in your house would send the average paranoid consumer running. But not this guy. Whatever is going on in this house, he sure thinks it’s the real deal.

“Twelve-hundred bucks a day,” he folds his hands behind his head. “That’s expensive.” He even did that whistling through the teeth thing people do when they’re at the edge of their price range.

“Travis,” Ricky said matter-of-factly, “we’re not talking about spraying for termites here, or getting rid of a mouse problem. You may have a legitimate paranormal event taking place at your residence. It’s affecting your sleep, and your feelings of safety and comfort. So, who’s house is this? Yours . . . or the unyielding entities from the dark abyss?

“Now, you can either take that twelve-hundred dollars a day and spend it on psychiatrists and family counseling, or you can rid this beautiful house of its evil. Your choice.”   And then Ricky glanced at his watch like we have somewhere better to be . . . which we don’t.

Travis considers what he’s heard. Takes a deep breath and then sighs through his nose, nodding to himself, “Alright, let’s do it.”

Ricky narrows his eyes, pondering something, “Travis, you said ‘we’ hear the noises. Who is we?”

“Oh,” he smiled, “my wife Sophia and our son, Paulino. But don’t worry, they’ll stay out of your way.”

Ricky took one more look around the hallway and then shook Travis’s hand. “We need to gather up our equipment. We’ll be back in a couple of hours, and then we’ll figure all this out.”

And we’re walking, we’re walking.

13 minutes later . . .

We’re heading up the access road to I-35 South, heading towards Dallas. I have some theories about Travis’s house, but I kind of like the idea of doing a real live steakout, so I’ll wait until tonight to voice my opinion

I look at Ms. Josephine in the front passenger seat. Somehow she seems to know I’m looking at her and she says, “What’s on your mind, Jack?”

Ricky glances at me in the rearview mirror.

I ask, Did that guy, Travis, did he seem spooked to you guys?

“Somethin’ scare dat man,” Ms. Josephine said, staring out the window at the traffic that looks like it’s parked on the highway. Ricky’s not driving his usual hyper-speed, but he’s still technically ‘hauling ass.’

“I think it’s his wife and kid that are scared,” Ricky said, “not so much him. That’s why he hesitated on the money at first. He’s obviously loaded, so a couple thousand dollars shouldn’t make the guy bat an eye. I think it’s his wife and kid who can’t sleep at night.”

I’m so hungry right now that I could chew off my own fingers. I could eat my own long pork, raw, I’m so starved.

Ricky pulls out his cell phone and dials, sliding it to his ear. Moments later he’s saying, “Billtruck, it’s Ricky. We’ve got ourselves a client . . . yeah. And it looks like it might be a Class-one disturbance . . . ”

Ms. Josephine and I glance at each other. We’re both wondering if either of us knows what he’s talking about. She just smiles. I didn’t even know we had a rating system for the paranormal. I’m going to have to learn a whole new vocabulary.

“ . . . we’re going to need all the gear, and see if you can get some information on the house, it’s one-fourteen, West Briargrove, in Flower Mound.”

Ricky is really getting into all of this.

“ . . . and we’re going to roll by McDonald’s on the way to the office, so do you just want the usual?”

About twenty minutes later I find out that ‘the usual’ is eight Double-Quarter-Pounders with cheese.

I ordered three Quarter-Pounders just so I wouldn’t look like a wimp. Plus, Ricky says I need to start massing-up if I want to go to war with the forces of evil. Apparently, a good bench-press should turn the tides in our favor.

When we drive past the multi-colored, plastic playground, I see a few spooks making their way towards a table where this woman was laughing with her kids.

By tomorrow, those innocent little kids, they’ll be motherless.

Ms. Josephine, sifting through her brown paper bag, the smell of Chicken Caesar Salad permeating the SUV, she turns her head halfway towards me, “Dyin’ is much worse when you see it comin’.”

“I wonder if we can use that as our slogan?” Ricky said, but instantly saw our reactions and realized it would be in poor taste. “Right,” he apologized, “ . . . maybe that’s a hair too morose.”

The gift I have, it’s like watching other people drowning. They’re dead way before they actually die. And when I see the spooks hobbling around, now, I look past them to the people that are knocking on the door to the Land of Sorrows.

For whatever reason, neither God nor Lucifer can find any use for that woman’s soul. So she will go to the dark place that I half-dwell in, and she will wait in the cold darkness for her judgement.

I can’t see anything about her that looks unsalvageable. But then, who the hell am I to judge? I’m just as lost as her. I’m dead way before I’m actually going to die.

These shadowy creatures are forecasters of death. Much more accurate than the weatherman. My stumpy, scary little allies are one of the few things I can actually count on.

As we drive off I notice a few of the spooks looking in my direction. I turn back around and shove fries into my mouth, realizing that I have more friends that are dead than alive.

 

Chapter 17

ALG office, Dallas.
1:16 pm . . .

When we arrived at the office, Billtruck already had our gear and equipment packed into three large black duffel bags. He handed Ricky a manila folder and said, “Everything I could get on the house is in there. Construction, Zoning, the home builders that developed that street, tax rolls, everything.”

In trade we handed him bags full of hamburgers.

“Anything weird?” Ricky asked as he struggled to get the biggest duffel bag strung across his shoulder.

Shaking his head, Billtruck said, “Nothing came up. Street wasn’t built on any religious or ceremonial land. Nobody died tragically that lives within three blocks of the place. It’s a fairly new housing development. Quiet area. You know, Nouveau riche.

Then he pulled a small grey plastic box out of his pocket. It wasn’t much bigger than a cigarette lighter. He handed it to Ricky, “Hide this somewhere in your Porsche. Somewhere obscure.”

What is it? I ask, the other two bags tugging at both my shoulders like heavy boat anchors. This can’t be good for my new tattoos.

“Tracking device I’m messing with,” Billtruck said as he leaned over one of the workstations and typed something impossibly rapid on one of the keyboards, “did my own little surgery last night.”

“What’s the range?” Ricky asked as he headed towards the door.

“The planet earth.”

“Accuracy?”

Billtruck tilted his head back, a sinister grin forming at just the sides of his mouth, “Five feet, maybe less. I’m borrowing some space on an old Cold War spy satellite. A Keyhole.”

Ricky nodded and headed out the door saying, “You should have worked for the CIA.”

Billtruck snorted, “Who says I’m not?”

I followed Ricky, waddling behind, and as I passed Billtruck he gave me a good slap on the shoulder with his bowling ball sized hand, saying, “Go find us some ghosts to bust, Jack.”

Oh, if he only knew.

1:38 pm . . .

We met Ms. Josephine at the Cayenne and she greeted our bags of paranormal sensing equipment with roughly the same amount of skepticism that most of us attribute to psychics and tarot card readers. I find it humorous how the scientists scoff at the psychics, and the psychics laugh at the crudity of modern science.

We’re all going to the same place, just from different directions. Nobody is completely right, nor completely wrong.

Dat’s goin’ ‘elp us find da spirits?” she asked, clearly unconvinced.

Ricky shrugged as he got in behind the wheel. “It’s all the state of the art equipment that you can buy for tracking extra-sensory and supernatural occurrences. Top of the line, really.”

But, I remind him, nobody has ever filmed a real ghost . . . ever. Not one single accurate entity captured on tape or film that any reasonable panel of experts would agree on.

“Just cause you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there,” Ricky returned as he hammered the small grey tracking device deep into the guts of the SUV, somewhere near the threshold between the console and the interior carpet. Satisfied, he sat up and started the engine. “Let’s go hunt invisible evil.”

We headed back up the Dallas Norty Tollway, going north towards the George Bush Tollway. And we’re all kind of quiet, lost in our own thoughts. My theory, which I haven’t discussed with them yet was sufficient to explain both uber-normal events that Travis seems to be experiencing.

Event one: The rattling of doors on the second floor, despite expert craftsmanship.

My theory: A draft created by air pressure changes on the first floor, creating the seemingly scary, but quite innocuous, rattling and shaking of the upstairs doors.

I watch Myth-Busters all the time, and I’m getting pretty good at figuring things out like this.

Event two: Hissing and grunting from above, in the empty attic.

My theory: That energetic little cat—Steele—he’s probably got a girlfriend in the neighborhood. Cats like to have a lot of sex. I saw it on Animal Planet. They make all sorts of terrifying noises when they make sweet love.

Bad plumbing and swamp gas.

And now that I consider it more, if the cat has a cat door, that would cause the draft. The cat door would have probably been a later addition to the house, so any time pre-kitty would be without haunting. Geez, I’m glad they didn’t blame Steele, and send him to the big litter box in the sky.

And right about the time I decide to enlighten my business partners I feel myself suddenly pinned to the back seat. It’s Einstein’s Equivalence Principle, again.

Ricky is accelerating.

I look up and Ricky’s eyes are glancing at mirrors as he weaves in and out of traffic. He doesn’t need to tell me . . . we’re being followed.

“They may be less experienced than the last batch,” he says as he tries to squeeze in ahead of an old Suburban, “ . . . but they seem much more ambitious. They’re really trying this time.” Lots of tire squealing and breath holding ensues.

And then he warns us, “Hold on, Team!”

The way he’s driving now, none of that is in my DMV book. He’s in full-on Formula-one mode. I’ve got my feet firmly pressed against the carpeted floor for support, not that it would make any difference at these near-light speeds.

“Who do you tink dat is, followin’ us?” Ms. Josephine asks, oddly calm for the predicament we find ourselves in.

Rare book collectors, or pure evil, I answer. Take your pick.

Ricky lowered his head, really getting into the zone, “This is my playground.” And then he performed some feats of driving that I’m having real trouble working out in my mind. Tricks that could have only been learned on the X-Box and Playstation.

We’re on the road, on the shoulder, slowing down, speeding up, taking an exit ramp, back on the entrance ramp, turning away at the last second to race off across the grass after jumping two different sets of curbs. Ricky is the kind of driver that Insurance companies cringe to imagine.

The kind of driver that screws up the actuarial tables.

“Number-one rule in racing,” he says between clenched teeth, his knuckles as white as bleached ice, “ . . . keep the rubber side down!”

And then he gets us into a full-on, pissing in your pants, 4-wheel slide at over 60 miles per hour. And I guess I’m the only one scared here because Ms. Josephine seems as relaxed and quiet as a church mouse.

She could be a mental patient on ten bottles of valium.

I’m just a crazed mental patient.

She’s like a statue.

I’m a crumbling mess.

Five minutes, four back roads, three hot-laps, two burnt stop lights, and one almost burped-up Double-Quarter-Pounder with cheese later, we’re back on I-35 going north toward Flower Mound.

“They’re gone, for now,” he said, catching his breath. “But this could be a problem. We can’t keep having high-speed chases.”

My heart is beating about a hundred miles an hour.

“Never a dull moment wit you two,” Ms. Josephine said as if we’d just left the museum.

And then I felt my stomach kind of turn upside down, like when you’re on a swing set and you’re just at the very top before you come back down to earth. And it was just the tiniest little flash in my left eye. Maybe it only lasted about half a second, but it was enough to send a shiver down my spine.

And for that brief moment, I felt the cold, again.

I might be losing me.

 

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