A Ghostly Christmas Present
A Clarke Lantham Mystery
by J. Daniel Sawyer
It’s a special sound to hear on Christmas Eve morning, more distinctive than any Salvation Army bell. Immediately before you hear it, some gruff guard is liable to bellow out an “all clear,” but I wouldn’t count on it. Like cops, prison guards are two kinds of people: the compassionate ones that want to make the world a better place, and the abused kids that grow up to be bullies. Cops—well, cops in well-run departments—tend to tilt toward the former. Prison guards tend to tilt the other way, and if your hand gets crushed when the gate closes, it’s more entertainment for them.
They sure as hell didn’t know what to do with me. They kept looking at me and saying “you don’t belong here,” even during the strip search.
Of course, in this podunk Twin Peaks wannabe town, the sheriff’s deputy that threw me in here claimed they didn’t have any room left in the holding tank because of too many drunks. I used to be a cop, I’d be fine in lockup, right?
Naturally, they stuck me with the big mean-looking dude who would’ve been called “Bubba” in any prison movie. That he introduced himself as “Manny” (and had about a third grade education) gave the enterprise just enough pathetic to keep me fighting back my menacing laughter.
“You an’ me’s cellies now, boy.” On anyone else, that squeaky voice would be a dead indicator that his balls were just starting to drop, except this guy was easily twenty five and, judging by the swastika on his shaved head and the Black Power tattoo on his left shoulder, a confused victim of identity politics. Hearing him schlep up behind me like he expected me to beg his favor wasn’t one of the more companionable roommate experiences I’ve ever had, and I went to school at U.C. Santa Cruz
“You’s gonna be my good boy and I’ll make sure life is real purdy for ya.”
I heard a draw fly buttons pop open behind me—you have to work to make untying a drawstring audible, this guy knew what he was up to. In jail for fifteen minutes, and I already got an overgrown third grader trying to play doctor with me. Joy to the world, my cell-mate wants to come.
I stepped back from the bars until I bumped into him and said, in my best quavery scared-as-hell coward voice, “You promise? Thanks, man.” I reached back ’til I found his hip, snaked my hand down to his balls, and got a good handful. Then, I gave them a nice squeeze and a slow twist.
“Ooh, that’s right boy, jes…ow! What the…” I clamped down so hard he couldn’t do anything but grab the bunk and try to stay upright so I didn’t take his nuts off if he fell backward.
Another really good twist, and a little more pressure, I turned around to make sure I had his undivided attention. “Oh come on now, Immanuel.” Yeah, I was in that kind of mood. Endless Christmas music in hotel lobbies does that to me. “I’m not your captive.”
He squeezed out a “Huh?” between groans and failed attempts to scream.
“Here’s the deal. We’re gonna be pals. You and me, all the way. But I ain’t your catcher, or I’ll take these,” I gave his jewels another twist, “and make ‘em into a necklace. You got me?”
Staring down a guy four inches taller and a couple hundred pounds heavier than you isn’t exactly a trick you learn in kindergarten, but you learn a few tricks as a beat cop.
He gritted his teeth. Sweat beads coming up on his head now. Face red as Rudolph’s nose. Kept him in too much pain for the adrenaline to do him any good. Good thing too—he could’ve made a smoothie out of me without trying. But after this much pain, and given that there weren’t going to be any scheduled activities for a couple hours yet, I was banking that he’d need to sleep off the testicle torsion before he got his revenge.
And he wasn’t answering my question.
“I said,” I scooted close enough that he tried to retreat. Coach, we have a first down. “Do you got me?”
He still didn’t say anything.
“Look, if you don’t answer me, I might just have to blow you. And I haven’t had breakfast yet today.” I squeezed a little harder. Much harder and I might actually break something. “So, you got me?”
“Yeah, yeah, goddammit, I got ya,” he squeaked.
“Good man.” I let go all at once and gave him a gentle push. He collapsed on the bed with his hands cradling his genitals, and curled into a fetal position with his ass hanging out of his drawers.
Well, there was gonna be a full moon tonight. Might as well start early.
I turned my attention back to the view out the bars and ran over my less-than-dignified Christmas Eve.
Count on the idiot named “Clarke Lantham” to provoke a cop just because the cop was a prick. Count on him to do it in another state where his lawyer wasn’t a member of the bar, and the only person he could call was the brother whom he’d deliberately avoided telling he was in town. And then, count on that same self-professed idiot to do it all when he was trying to get home by rental car to see to a business emergency.
Yeah, there’s some things only the ass-end of a set of prison bars can teach you. Chief among them being: “Don’t try to find a way out of Sea-Tac through the suburbs when a snowstorm closes the airport.”
Granted, it ain’t the kind of fortune-cookie proverb that’s likely to come in handy every day, but if the waitress at the Hilton had been kind enough to scribble it on my receipt this morning, I’d be at least a whole mile south of the airport by now, without having the extra helping of testicles before lunch.
If I’m gonna be honest, though—and, when you’re standing in a prison cell with a four-hundred-pound six-foot-five cellie snoring like a polar bear with flu, there isn’t much sense in creative self-deception—my assistant Rachel pegged my first mistake during our phone meeting yesterday. Her typically genteel appraisal of my situation ran something along the lines of “Jesus Christ, Lantham, only you would go to an insurance convention in Seattle in the middle of inheritance season and not check the weather report. How the hell did you stay in business before you hired me?”
She was gonna crap fresh grapefruits when she heard about my current predicament. Top of my agenda was not letting her find out yet—last thing I needed this morning was guff from my twenty-year-old underpaid gothy employee. Particularly when she was right about it.
Now I just had to wait for my brother-who-wishes-he-wasn’t to show up, and ponder the meaning of Christmas—which was ostensibly coming tomorrow, though the weather seemed to have different ideas.
I can sum up the meaning of Christmas in one word: Crunch.
Otherwise known as “the sound you don’t want to hear when you’re in a car.”
For me, the holiday season is full of little surprises from Santa like that one. December in Oakland is a miserable thing. In bad years we’ll get ten inches of rain, and the thermometer will drop to forty degrees during the day, and sometimes we’ll get some frost overnight. It’s a horror show for traffic—the interstates can get so bad that it might take an hour and a bit to make the fifty miles from Oakland to Los Gatos.
The thing about winter is that, when you live around the Bay, you forget what the thing about winter is. You think about the rain and the minor bump in traffic. You think about what a pain in the ass it is to have to remember gloves if you’re going out after dark and intend to spend any amount of time outside (and really, who goes outside in winter after sunset for any reason other than to get from the car to a club?).
So now that you know what piss-ant conditions I consider “bad weather,” you probably think the reason that the side of my car was mushroomed in from a broadside in the Seattle snow was that I blew through a signal at ten miles an hour on slick ice, right?
Yeah, you’d think that. It hurts when reality doesn’t cooperate with prejudice, isn’t it? I run into that all the time.
Sorry for the surly mood. It’s been a hell of a few days. But rest assured, I keep my cold-weather knives sharp with twice-annual refresher courses at Infineon. Have to. My PI license means I can operate anywhere in California, and you never know when someone’s going to call you up to Dodge Ridge or Tahoe to find their missing cat.
So yeah, I am spoiled rotten, but I also live in California, and I’d have an excuse if I drove like crap in the snow—even though I don’t. The mooks up in Washington, though, who get snow at least once a year, act like they’ve never seen the stuff. White flakes start falling from the sky and they all rush out to the store at sixty miles-an-hour to buy God a fresh bottle of Head and Shoulders.
Of all the sounds that can tickle your ears when you’re in the car, “crunch” is right up there with “boom” for ones you don’t want to hear. But it’s reallynot a sound you want to hear when you’re sitting at a stop-light on a road in suboptimal driving conditions, or when it’s accompanied by the sound of a honking horn and a pair of high-beams embedding themselves in your driver-side window frame three inches from your head. About the only good thing that can come out of a sound like that is the relief when you realize the truck hadn’t been going fast enough to actually push you out of the driver’s seat.
But the local cops don’t see it that way when they get a look at your out-of-state license, which is why they had me leaning against their car while they took my statement, debating whether they should charge me with reckless endangerment.
“You know that it’s against the law to drive so fast that you put other people in danger, don’t you?” Officer Bellman said. He was easily the more senior of the two, in his mid forties and none-too-happy to be out on a day like this. Up here, they called places like Vancouver and Tacoma “cities,” and this guy had the big-fish/small-pond thing going behind the coffee-stained breath that he insisted on sharing with me.
“What part of ‘He lost control and damn near killed me’ doesn’t compute?”
He hitched his belt up, spread his legs a little apart, and swaggered up so he was close enough to kiss me. I resisted making the obvious joke. “I’ve got you on misdemeanor endangerment, buster, this ain’t the time to go pissing me off.”
“Look,” I put my hands between my butt and the car so I wouldn’t be tempted to shove him off me, “I don’t actually think you’re an idiot. But it’s cold out, and your breath says you’ve only had one pot of coffee today. I’m just saying you need more antifreeze if you’re going to expect your brain to work out in this weather.”
“That’s it. Turn around and spread ‘em.”
I shrugged and did what he said. Yeah, I know it’s dumb to antagonize the cops, but at that point I didn’t give a damn. At that point, I was getting a kick out of the fantasy of suing this joker for false arrest just so I could be the cherry on top of his Sunday the same way he was currently dolloping whipped turds on top of mine.
So, there I was in the klink, waiting for my kid brother Sam—who should have been called Smeagol—to show up and post for me. Then I’d have to stay in over the holiday until the arraignment on Tuesday. Christmas with this branch of the family? Even Dante never thought of that one.
I ground my teeth together. It should have been a nice day of getting slowly sodomized by the gods of Seattle traffic. Rachael had called this morning to tell that there was a problem with Southland, and it was no good going into it on the phone because they wouldn’t settle for dealing with my assistant, no matter what. No, they wouldn’t talk on the phone. Yes, it had to be in person. No, she didn’t have any other details.
Which meant I couldn’t wait for the airport to open back up, so I’d rented a subcompact and tried heading south on my own. A thirteen hour drive in good weather, so I’d probably get home about the time the weather broke and I could fly down in two hours, but at least I wouldn’t be sitting around the bloody Airport Hilton cooling my heels. I’d comforted myself with the knowledge that at least the conference netted me a handful of leads for regular insurance gigs. Steady work is the unicorn of the self-employed, and there ain’t a one of us who’s virginal in any sense.
Sam showed up before Manny could find his way back to the land of the wakeful. Just as well—I didn’t fancy trying to convince him he needed to buy me flowers before we got serious about our enforced cohabitation.
But Sam I hadn’t seen in twelve years, and I can’t say they sat well on him. He was standing in the waiting area past the checkpoint in the front office. An inch taller than me at six three, thin like a toothpick that hadn’t been eating properly. He was three years younger than me at about thirty two, and he had smoker’s lines starting to come in around his eyes and jawline. Last time I saw him was before his wedding when he was twenty. Now he looked like someone who spent a good part of his time playing chewing tobacco to Lady Luck.
“Clarke.” He nodded, but barely. Didn’t stick out a hand, but he did carry one of my bags. It was more sociable than I expected.
“Sam.” I returned the nod.
A banker in the day time for one of those little independent banks that customers run to when the big banks fail, his Bentley said money almost as much as his house did—a house that took us an hour and a half to find in the ice and snow-covered hill maze.
No chauffeur, which half-surprised me. He set the bags in the back seat and flipped an effete hand to the passenger door, then shambled around to his side, crouching, on the edge of a flinch, like someone used to being hunted. Not the same guy who’d thrown me out of his life once upon a time—on the upside, at least he came and bailed me out.
We didn’t slip-slide all over the road—snow tires. Said he kept a spare set in the garage for days like this. He seemed to know which roads to drive to avoid the idiots.
“You still with Oakland?”
He was still on speaking terms with our parents, so he should have known better. Cheap jab. I played it straight. “No. Private now.”
“Hmph. Interesting work?”
“Keeps me busy.”
“Hmph.” Aside from a little bit of the perfunctory tour-guide routine, he didn’t say anything much for the rest of the drive. Then again, we’d said all there was to say twelve years ago.
“Well, here we are.” He squeezed it out of a tight throat, like he was constipated and trying to get things moving. “Built in the twenties. Three governors lived here after they retired.”
The house was Gothic Revival—high pitched roofs, big lawn, hill, winding drive, nasty-looking wrought-iron gates. The kind of place you might seen in a costume drama, or a Rocky Horror remake, all buried in white.
The reception inside the house was slightly less chilly. I guess upper class manners demand a hell of a hospitality act.
He had me set my things in the foyer, then showed me personally to the dining room where the family seemed to just be finishing up with dinner.
“Clarke!” Samantha—yes, Sam’s wife was also called Sam; my brother came up short in a lot of areas, but height and narcissism were two in which he measured up well enough to make a try for the record books—welcomed me with a just-barely-too-warm hug that, along with her parents sitting indifferently at the other end of the long table, made it painfully easy to remember why I hadn’t been invited to the wedding. She broke the hug and held on to my arms for a minute, looking at me as if she were trying to see whether I’d changed at all, and in what direction.
Her face was all smiles, but her eyes had a hint of the same hunted look I saw on my brother.
She turned to the rest of the table. “Mom, Dad, you remember Clarke.”
Her father grunted a perfunctory greeting. Her mother showed a tad more hospitality, but only as far as etiquette demanded. There are some people who serve as the perfect moral barometer: if they approve of you, it’s time to do some serious soul searching.
“Tom. Edith. Good to see you’re doing well.” I nodded to each of them and smiled a bit, not insincerely. If they were still alive, it went a long way to explaining Sam’s bearing.
I turned my attention to the three kids—twin fourteen-year-old boys, the product of Samantha’s youthful rebellion against the silver handcuffs she’d been born into, and a younger girl, nine or ten if memory served. Even if the trademark pokey ears didn’t mark her out as a Lantham, the way she fidgeted under the burden of formality certainly did. “Let’s see if I remember.” I made a show of squinting hard to remember, “Jimmy, who hates chocolate, Albert, who loves peas, and…Sarah,” I looked at her plate, “Who can’t stand potatoes.”
The boys weren’t very impressed, but Sarah seemed to appreciate that someone noticed her. That figured. Sam might be aging fast, but he hadn’t changed much otherwise.
“Who are you?” she asked, all narrow eyes and suspicion like she was having trouble placing me on the friend/foe graph.
“This is your uncle Clarke from San Francisco,” Samantha said.
I managed not to mutter “Oakland.” In this part of the world, it was a meaningless distinction—one city, you were a fag, in the other, you were a gangbanger. All things considered, and despite my adventure in prison earlier today, I’d rather be thought light in the loafers than fast on the trigger—not that I expected these kids to have picked up that much fine-grained prejudice yet.
Jimmy said “hi” with a tone of relief that only comes from having endured too much attention from micro-managing grandparents. Albert, already jockeying to be the pack alpha, stood, sized me up, then walked over and offered a hand, which I shook.
“So what do you do in San Francisco?”
“I’m a private detective.”
His eyes did a convincing impersonation of saucers. “Like The Maltese Falcon?”
“Something like that.”
“Caught any serial killers?”
“Honey,” Samantha interposed herself between us, “Your uncle Clarke’s had a long day, and needs to eat something before you…”
“No, no, that’s fine.” Damn the fact that it wasn’t my house, I’ve got a thing about kids that are forced into good behavior. “Ask me anything you like, but dinner sounds good.”
“You like pheasant?”
“At this point I’d eat a raw rhinoceros.”
“Cynthia!” Samantha clapped her hands like she was calling a dog. A maid, probably a grad student and wearing the most genuine smile I’d seen all evening, and followed by the sound of bawdy laughter, poked her head through what turned out to be the kitchen door.
Bring a plate for our guest?”
“Certainly, ma’am.” She disappeared again.
The dining room was a cherry-wood finished affair with a long, formal table set without a tablecloth. No centerpiece to prevent the diners from seeing each other—judging by the seating arrangements, this was probably so that the kids wouldn’t have anything to hide behind while being scrutinized by the adults on the other side of the table. The head was empty, and I was tired enough that my inhibitions were riding pretty thin, so I didn’t quite manage to squelch a very childish impulse.
“I wonder if I…no, never mind.”
“What?” Samantha asked.
“Well…no, never mind, really, it’s stupid.”
“We haven’t seen you in more than ten years. There aren’t any stupid questions.” She seemed to mean it, despite the huffs of derision from both her parents and from her husband, still standing in the doorway behind me.
“There’s just always something I’ve wanted to do…”
Without asking permission, mostly because I couldn’t have stomached even more politeness, I swept up to the head of the table and sat down at the cleared space that my brother would normally have >occupied. I perched my elbows on the table and tented my hands, drumming my fingertips against each other. “Thank you all for joining me,” I said in my best Boris Karloff, “There has been…a murder.”
Childish, yeah. But I couldn’t help myself. I stood up again before anyone could say anything, and took a seat down at the ass end of the table in a blank spot next to the kids.
“Wha…” Sam started.
“Nothing. I’ve just always wanted to do that.”
“Whatever.” He left the room rather than take his own seat for some dinner.
Once I’d taken the first bite of my asparagus, Albert considered the interrogation officially open, and in between swallows of a very nice Pinot Grigio and nibbles from the unfortunate bird on my plate, he started grilling me about my glamorous life as a private eye. When I didn’t make him shut up, the other kids joined in post haste.
You get used to that kind of thing in my job, if not with this level of enthusiasm, so I gave them a Bowdlerized version of last year’s New Year’s Eve party—enough action and intrigue to get my niece and two nephews excited, hopefully not enough to give them nightmares or spank material. My sister-in-law seemed to approve, and invited me along to help bed the kids down in the family room. Clustered around the hearth, their annual “sleep under the tree and try to catch Santa Claus” tradition. They kept me telling stories for a couple hours before I finally managed to beg off and go back to my room to check my email.
Seemed like a big house for a family of five, even with the parents-in-law and the house staff—three of them, near as I could figure. The guest room where they stuck me was big enough to hold my whole office suite and a small coffee stand. Sam had done alright for himself, and though I found his paranoid tics unsettling, I couldn’t bring myself to feel sorry for him. On anyone else it would’ve looked pitiful. On him, it felt like justice.
Not that I’m one to hold a grudge.
Or get to sleep early. I toodled around emailing contacts from the convention ’til about ten, then opened up the inbox on my email client. The avalanche of emails from Rachel started pouring in. Looked like she’d given up on text messages when I told her I was going on the road—probably didn’t want to distract me when I was driving over the ice.
“This is Lantham 911, what’s your emergency?” I muttered to myself as I opened the first one. It read:
Situation escalating. Southland Corp. account, five stores. Inventory losses. Still no joy with earlier problem. Need to revive stakeout, not enough of me to go around. Need referral to separate agency. Advise ASAP.
Short, irritable, and to the point. She was at least dependable.
The second email:
Southland’s getting squirrelly. Demand round-the-clock surv. or referral to subcontractor, or they threaten contract break. Someone over there is rattled. Got bead on a couple off-duty cops who could use the extra work.
The following emails were all updates—resumes and contact info for the off-duty cops. Looked like she managed to get it all together over the course of the day.
I dashed off a quick reply:
Car wreck and legal troubles have me stuck here ’til Tuesday—hoping for weather break Tues afternoon. Everything under control. Southland plan sounds good—will fax auth in the morning. Email forms so we can keep everything nice and legal. Phone charged, I’m in range, call if you need anything. Good work.
That killed about a half an hour.
I shut the computer and went to bed, tossed around for about an hour, then gave up and pulled the laptop back up to do a bit of mindless web-surfing.
Only another four hours until I hit my normal bed time.
The little pendulum clock in my room dinged one with a little pixie chime. A few seconds later I heard some light footfalls in the hallway. Someone coming to my room by the sound of it. I clicked out of the porn site I wasn’t interested in anyway—listlessness is the world’s number one cure for eroticism, as any housewife will tell you.
Tap tap tap.
A light knock.
I closed the lid on my laptop and shrugged into a bath robe.
My niece, about four foot nine in her stocking feet, opened the door and slipped in. “Uncle Clarke?” Her voice was quavering, and she was shaking. It wasn’t cold in the house—typical of people in cold climates, they kept it almost too warm for clothes in here.
“Yeah, honey, what’s wrong?”
She looked left and right, like she was afraid the walls would hear, then gave me a pathetic helpless face.
There was a chaise next to the desk. I flipped my hand at it. “Have a seat. Tell me what’s wrong.”
This is probably not the opportune time to point out that I’m not all that great with kids. My memories of being one don’t seem to square up with how they react to things, or how their parents treat them like poorly-constructed Fabergé eggs. I do my best, and then my best to get out of the situation ASAP.
She shuffled over to the seat, I settled down in the desk chair where I’d been a few moments before. Once she was sitting, she tried once or twice to speak, then she curled up in a ball in a corner. Terrified.
I leaned forward and gave her hair a little tousle. “Sarah, you came in here to tell me something. What is it?”
“The house,” she whispered, “it’s haunted.”
“Haunted? Like with a ghost?”
Poor kid was having nightmares, and she came to me rather than her parents. Odd. But then, one of her parents was my brother, who was about as warm and fuzzy as a crocodile. “Honey, ghosts can’t hurt you. They’re like dreams. They look scary, but as soon as the lights are on, they go away.”
“No. They’re here all the time.”
“How do you mean?”
“I hear them in the walls. I see them when I go to the bathroom, out the window in the yard. Walking through the halls.”
“What do they do?”
“They…they…” She clammed up for a second, but her eyes were wide and didn’t blink, staring past me into the middle-distance, “they whisper. And they walk, outside in the yard.”
“You can hear them?”
“Now this is very important, Sarah. What do they whisper about?”
She hesitated, and then said a word with almost no breath behind it. “Daddy.”
“What do they say about him?”
“They say he’s in trouble. They say he’s going to die.”
If she was having dreams like this, it probably wasn’t the opportune time to introduce this kid to the notion of universal mortality. “Why didn’t you tell your parents?”
“Because the ghosts…they’ll kidnap me if I do.”
There’s a wrinkle. Very lucid dreams. “What did they say, exactly?”
She made her voice grated and harsh like that kid from The Shining, “If she finds out, I’ll take care of it.”
Yup, should have stayed at the Airport Hilton. Dammit. “It’s okay, sweetie, it’s okay.” I mimicked Samantha’s soothing voice as best I could. “Nobody’s gonna hurt you. Here, lie down. They won’t know to look for you here.”
I retrieved a spare pillow from my bed, and a blanket from the chest at the foot of it, then bundled her up on the chaise and, at her insistence, told her a story—trouble was the only one I had on tap with the weather outside was a Robert Service poem involving death, cremation, and communication from beyond the grave, none of which I realized until I was in the thick of it, so I found myself scrambling to play up the comic elements over the dark, and then finished it with a short moral. “Ghosts can’t hurt you. Worst they can do is scare you, ’cause they only exist in your dreams. When you’re sleepy your mind can make you hear things, and that’s okay. It can’t do anything bad to you, okay?”
She looked dubious. The fact that I was bullshitting as fast as my tongue could trip probably showed on my face, but it didn’t seem fair to give her a lecture on proper critical thinking when she came to me for help in the middle of the night—particularly when something about her story had me chilled down to my slipper-socks for entirely different reasons.
“You’re making that up.”
I shrugged. “Okay, I’m making it up. I’ve never run into a ghost before.”
“You’re good at figuring things out, right?”
“That’s my job.”
“If I hired you, would you find the ghosts and make them go away?”
I made a show of considering it. “Do you have a quarter?”
“No.” She dug around in the pockets of her PJ pants and produced a five spot, “All I got’s this.”
“Okay, you got yourself a detective.” I stood and went to my overnight bag and got her four-seventy-five in change, then returned to squat next to the chaise. “Here’s your change. I’m yours ’til Tuesday. If I don’t find anything out, you’ll get a full refund. Deal?”
She nodded her head sternly once, and took my proffered hand, shaking it with as much determination as a ten-year-old girl can manage (which is to say, more than most adults I’d run into). “Deal.”
“Okay. You go to sleep. I’ll keep my eyes out for ghosts.”
She yawned, then settled down against her pillow. She mumbled “Okay,” but only got halfway through before she was well and firmly in the grip of a new dream.
Other than the hourly sound of the chimes, and Sarah’s soft breathing, and the periodic dull rumble of the furnace, there wasn’t a lot of noise in the house. No computer fans reached me, no ambient chatter or street noise.
Eerie quiet. Like someone was watching. Breathing, but too quiet to hear. The hairs on the back of my neck stood straight out.
It was the kind of environment where four light chimes and a single creak were enough to roust me.
There. Another creak. It came on and tailed off slow and low rather than sharp—someone was spending a lot of time on each step, definitely not interested in being heard.
I slipped out of bed, pulled on my robe over the Kendo pants I’d worn to bed in deference to Sarah’s presence, tucked my toes into the slipper-socks , and light-footed it to my door. On the way I grabbed my phone off the desk, out of habit more than anything.
Sarah didn’t stir. The door was well-oiled—it hadn’t squeaked the last few times anyone had been through it, and it didn’t squeak now.
The hall, wide enough to be a living room in my corner of the world, had walls populated periodically by the kind of print-on-canvas reproductions of impressionist paintings that pretended to be genteel while screaming “conspicuous consumption” at volume eleven.
Okay, I know, class warfare is just disguised self-pity most of the time: about as sexy as watching a pig piss. You know what else is that sexy? Showy taste. I might have found the place inviting if it felt like something the people here loved, but I knew my brother well enough to know he didn’t give two shits about any of this stuff beyond the thrill of people oohing and ahhing at the wealth on display.
No one in the hall. The late-night prowler had already slipped into whatever room they were off to.
I stuck well on one side of the hall, on the assumption that the floorboards would be most worn and prone to creak under the throw rug that ran down the middle. The dark-stained hardwood floor wasn’t cold, and in my socks it neither complained under my weight nor slapped back against my feet.
Two rooms down I ran into the first obstacle on what would prove to be quite the course. This was the kind of place where people kept their doors cracked open at night—not a lot of hide-the-pickle going on in this corner of the world. Pity.
Peering into the crack in the first door, I didn’t see anything but a lump in the bed. No way to tell who, but whoever it was snored just a little bit. Ragged, but steady, the kind of snore that’s hard to fake—not that anyone here should be acting like a subject of one of my normal snoops, but you get mental habits in a job like mine that keep you alive. And alone, but that’s another story.
I crept along—the next room was empty. Judging by the state of the bed, whoever slept in there didn’t sleep well. Probably the person I’d heard creaking earlier, by why the sneaking? It would help if I knew who slept where, but at four in the morning I wasn’t likely to find anyone who could give me a map.
“…problem, okay?” Someone who sounded suspiciously like Sam raised their voice somewhere else in the house. It came more from in front of me than behind me, so I quickened my pace as best I could.
Garbles of another voice I didn’t recognize filtered through to me. Maybe one coming through a speaker, followed by more of Sam’s voice. I couldn’t grab many words, but I knew that tone from days gone by: frantically protesting his innocence in the way that he only did when he was clearly guilty as hell.
I hung a right at the end of the hall and started down the stairs. Sam’s voice reverberated up through the stairwell, close now, probably just off the annex at the bottom.
“No,” he said, “We’re good.”
“If you’re lying to me…” The voice was definitely coming from a speaker phone. Someone at his office? Maybe.
“I took care of everything.”
“Everything. Even if it goes south, we’ll be covered. Now, do me a favor and get things…” The stairs under me creaked. Sam stopped mid-sentence. “Hold on a second.”
The door to his study opened, the light threw his shadow out into the hallway. I froze, but I could see his feet from where I was. All he had to do was look up. I started mentally compiling a plausible story when he interrupted me: “Cynthia! You still here?”
The maid’s voice came from almost right under me. “Mrs. Lantham asked me to stay over the holiday for the…”
“Right, right, fine. I’m on a business call, get lost, will you?”
“Uh…sure.” Rattled, hurried. She’d been eavesdropping too?
I heard some water run in a sink, then she hurried across my field of view and toward the dining room.
The door to Sam’s office closed, Sam groused a little more to the voice on the other end of the line, then the door opened and clicked closed again. Heading off to bed at four thirty in the morning—and I thought I was a night owl.
Too bad his bedroom was somewhere in the hall behind me.
His foot hit the stairs at the bottom of the switchback well below me. I keyed up the biggest sleepy-faced yawn I’d used since the days when I used to beg off church on the grounds that I would snore in the service.
“Clarke.” He grumbled as we passed each other. Too wrapped up in his own anxiety to hassle me.
“Sam.” I matched his greeting, chased it with a yawn, and finished my stumble down the stairs managing to appear more or less like I was looking for the bathroom but hadn’t yet figured out what house I was in.
Turned out Sam had spotted Cynthia in a little water closet under the stairs. I ducked in and waited, counting Sam’s footfalls upstairs.
About halfway down, the steps stops and a door closed. That would put him in the room with the tousled sheets—and no other people in the room, so he and Samantha weren’t sharing a bed. Not exactly the day’s most shocking news—in the few hours I’d spent talking with the family, I hadn’t seen them so much as make eye contact.
For hallway ghost candidates, I had Sam, Cynthia, and parties unknown. Sam’s bedroom was between me and my room, so he wouldn’t have crossed my door on his way in. Cynthia would have had to negotiate the creaky stairs, but she was a light-framed woman who (I presumed) knew the house intimately, so she might have been able to slip down undetected.
It’s niggling puzzles like this that get me standing in a bathroom in the house of relatives I don’t like in the suburbs of a city I hate during a snowstorm on the night before Christmas. Wild geese and me, right?
Once I was sure Sam wasn’t coming out again, I slunk across the hardwood and turned the office door handle. But I didn’t turn it far. He’d locked the thing, dammit.
There was a goodly amount of light to see by—subdued, but enough to examine the lock. Looked like a garden-variety Schlage like you’d find at any home and garden center—pretty new, too. Judging by the lack of wear on the top of the handle and the lack of scratches around the keyhole, and assuming he used this room every day, it was less than a year old. Something recently upped his need for security.
Prurient interest. In the words of Rachael, I can haz.
I checked left to find Cynthia in a silk wrap and bunny slippers, leaning against the wall.
Like a kid caught spying on Santa Claus. I waited a beat for her to follow up the grunt. She didn’t. She merely crossed her arms to emphasize her authority—but her eyes weren’t as piqued as she wanted me to think she was.
“I…uh…a mosquito crawled in.”
The moment stretched for another short space of eternity. My lower back starts complaining if I squat or bend too much—hazards of living life too close to forty—so it was the ultimate arbiter of our standoff.
Besides, I didn’t have my lock picks with me. I listened to my sciatica, and gave. “Got any hairpins?”
She pursed her lips and raised an eyebrow at me. “I’ve got tea.”
“I suppose I could settle for…”
A scream shrill enough to scrape the brains off the inside of my skull raced through the house. I didn’t realize I was already running until six steps down the hall.
I had a mental map of maybe ten percent of the house, and none of it was of this end, so I followed my ears. Down the hall, past a jog in the hall, over ground I was going to have to retrace under non life-and-death circumstances, I found Samantha in the living room, pressed with her back against a wall, breathing fast and trying like hell to get herself under control. The aggressive fire in the fireplace and the insane pace of blinking Christmas tree lights lit the room like a bad carnival ride.
“Sam?” I thrust myself into her field of view and grabbed her shoulders. “Sam!”
She jolted, her focus shifted to me. Shock, relief, regret, the shadow of shared moments, and about six other emotions flickered across her face like pages in a flipbook before she seemed to remember herself. She took a breath, looked me in the eye, and said: “There.”
A finger with guitar-string calluses stretched from under the cuff of her loose caftan-style shirt. The fact that she’d kept up with her axe lent me an uncomfortable sort of reassurance—good thing, too. At the other end of her sightline, a bay window opening onto the front of the house let in the subzero night air.
No snow tonight. Just wind. And it was making my testicles crawl back up into my abdomen.
“What happened?” In a normal house, two strides would have taken me across a living room. Here it took six.
No glass on the ground. The window broke out.
“I was watching the fire,” she was stammering, but with my leg hairs growing inward to hide from the cold I figured it was more from the temperature than the fright, “and…you’re gonna think I’m crazy, but I swear to God, he was in this room.”
“Who?” I tossed it over my shoulder while I leaned over the broken glass and looked at the ground outside. Nothing but glass shards.
“I don’t know?” I kid you not, I could hear the question mark.
“That was a question?”
“It…I don’t know what it was. A man, maybe, but…God, you’re gonna think I’m crazy, but he wasn’t here.”
Cynthia’s voice made me whip around. She was pulling a blanket from a chest-basket at the end of the sofa, taking it to Samantha. “Ghost.”
Samantha pulled the blanket tight around her and nodded. “Things have been happening. Little flashes in the corner of my eye. The kids have been having nightmares. I figured it was just holiday jitters, I mean, you know my parents…just…”
“How did the window break?”
“Oh. That.” She hung her head a bit. “I…uh…threw a vase.”
I took another gander at the dark ground outside the window. It all looked like glass to me, and the hole in the window was pretty damn impressive. It was an old house though, old enough that the glass in the mini-panes around the frame was warped and runny. A vase right through the middle could have shattered the whole center pane.
“Never let it be said that you take shit from anyone.” I retreated from the window. “Let’s get somewhere warmer. Cynthia, you said something about tea?”
“Yes. I’ll get the kettle on.” She disappeared from the room, back in functionary mode.
I moved to the door and checked the hall. Old cop programming—saved my life more than once. But in my brother’s house, despite the fact that it is Sam we’re talking about, it felt ridiculous. Or, it would have, if my hackles weren’t crawling up the back of my neck like a centipede.
It wasn’t the cold. There was something wrong in that room. I didn’t know what it was, but every minute I stayed in there, I got surer that someone was about to step out of thin air and shiv me in the back.
I looked at Samantha and jerked my head into the hall. She stood and jogged out past me. I pulled the pocket doors shut across the doorway.
As soon as they were closed, the hackles started to relax. A little.
“Tell me about the ghost.” I barked my order at the door. I didn’t really want to talk to her—last thing this trip needed was more complications.
Samantha sucked her breath in, so loud I almost jumped. The hackles came back out to play, and this time they brought friends. There were always stories. They didn’t say anything when we bought the house, but you hear things, you know? Like there was a murder here during Prohibition. Well, a lot of murders.” She started walking, just a saunter, one foot in front of the other, like she was using charm school as a calming meditation.
“Hmph. Hauntings. You sure this isn’t England?”
She laughed. Some very young part of me that never grew up still missed that laugh. “Oh, it’s way worse. This is Seattle, realm of the enthusiastically morbid.”
You should make the brochures say that. You’d get a lot more tourists.” We made the jog around the end of the hall. Now back on more familiar ground, heading toward Sam’s office. “So, you bought a haunted house…”
“And it wasn’t a problem. And then, a few weeks ago…” she trailed off, seemed to chew over her words for a few steps. “No, that’s not fair. He’s…it’s not his fault.”
She nodded. “A little after school started, the kids all had nightmares. I didn’t think…but now…”
She sighed. “They all said they were hearing things. Then, seeing ghosts. I thought they were crazy ’til…”
“’Til you saw it, too. How long ago?”
“Halloween. When the first snow fell.” Her arms, long since crossed over her chest, tightened, like she was trying to hug herself. “You know me. You remember I’m not superstitious, right?” She fingered the crystal at her collar bone.
“No,” she said, “They don’t. They just stop being able to hide. When the snow came, at night the house got…creepy. Like there’s always someone watching. Right in the corner of your eye. A shadow in the background.”
“Like Peter Pan’s scary cousin.”
“Yeah. There were so many murders here, Clarke. So many. They brought informers here to kill them, and now it’s like someone woke them up…”
“The ghost?” My brother’s voice, behind us. When I turned to check, I noticed how close we were walking. Old habits’ll bite you on the ass when you’re not looking. More whipped cream on top of this peachy vacation, goddammit.
Sam stepped down from the stairwell across from his office. “It stalks the halls at night? It came from beyond the grave!” He raised his arms and shook them like a bogeyman from a B-movie.
Samantha said nothing. She didn’t need to. Her posture said everything.
“You always could make anyone believe anything. Now, if you’ll excuse me,” he said, putting his hand on Samantha’s shoulder, “We should be getting to bed before we wake any of the children. So should…”
My pocket interrupted with the most annoying part of the 1812 overture. I chose that ring tone just for Rachael, who couldn’t bring herself to phone unless there was some kind of the-world’s-gonna-end emergency. “Sorry, bro, I gotta take this.”
I pulled the phone out of my pocket, wandered down the hallway a few steps. After I’d checked to see that Gomez and Morticia had retreated up the stairs, I answered with all the put-upon yawniness I could muster on short notice.
“Rachel, it’s butt-fuck-thirty in the morning.”
“Cut it out, I know you don’t sleep when you’re not on a case.”
“Fine. What’s up?”
“Your pet primate is sleeping in the hallway outside the office.”
“I came in from the stakeout to offload my notes, and she’s sleeping in front of the office door.”
“She?” Pet primate? “You mean Nya Thales? From…”
“No, I mean Koko the Gorilla—of course it’s Nya Thales.”
“What the hell is she doing there?” I reached the end of ten paces, turned on heel, and headed back to toe Annex.
“She’s been calling the office for two weeks.”
Rachael was filtering my messages. Lovely. “You know that thing about you working for me?”
“So fire me when you get home.”
“Fine. What’s she want?”
“I don’t know what she wants. Her phone messages kept asking for you.”
“So why didn’t you forward them…”
“When someone throws poisoned meat at a dog, you don’t let the dog get it.”
“A dog.” I drew even with the office door and squatted down. I plucked a hair off my head and licked it, then ran it over the seam between the door jamb and the door, below the handle.
“Duh. Conspiracy? People trying to kill you? Last thing you need is another woman in distress.”
“Oh, trust me, I’ve had my fill.” I stole a peek at the empty staircase.
“Yeah, well anyway, you want I should tell her to get lost?”
“Have you found out what she wants yet?”
“Is she a customer? No, didn’t think so.”
“Maybe she wants to hire us. Find out what’s up, and email me. I can’t talk much here.”
“Here? What’s going…”
“I gotta go.” I hung up and checked the clock on the phone’s face. Four forty-five. Only a couple hours left ’til sun-up.
Good thing: after today, I was just about ready to call up my sanity and dump it like a ditzy girlfriend. For the sake of the well-being of the universe, the night needed to end before another Lantham wrote reality off like bad debt.
End of sample
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