Saturday, December 31, 2011

Homesdead - Part 29. Maryanne Wells.

This is Part 29 of a serial story.  The story began here.

The meeting with Father Blackman left me in a foul mood. I strode into my hotel room and threw my purse on the bed.

“Anthony,” I shouted; “Get your spectral butt in here.”

He materialized reluctantly, with his face turned away from me. “I don't know why you want me here,” he said petulantly.

“Tomorrow is the date set to remove Hank's ghost from the house. You're going to help.”

Anthony turned slowly. “I can't help you. I'm not corporeal, remember.”

“So you can't hold incense or pick up holy water. That doesn't matter. The one thing I need you to hold is as insubstantial as you.” I strode towards him, determined to make him face me. “You're going to grab Hank Johnson when the rites are complete, and drag him out of the mortal realm. It's your job to make sure he leaves and stays gone.”

Anthony's eyes went wide and his form shivered. “I can't. You know I can't. If I'm close by when the rites occur, they may affect me. I could drag him out of the mortal realm and...” he stopped, frightened.

But I wasn't going to let him stop. He would face what he had done, what he had become. “What's the matter, Anthony? Are you afraid to leave the mortal realm? Scared that your maker will be waiting, waiting to make you confront your sins?

“Your spirit was left behind when your body died for some purpose. It was a second chance to do something right. I don't know what you were meant to do, but I believed you would and could do it. That is, I did believe in you. Right up until the moment you betrayed the Undead Bar Association. Anthony, the undead traitor,” I ground out.

Anthony cried out and floated back, through the bed. “You know,” he gasped.

“Yes. The last piece fell into place when I was in Paris. I knew we'd been betrayed, and it didn't take much to figure out who did it. You put me on the Johnson case to get me out of Amarillo. You encouraged me to go to Paris when everyone else was against it, because it would get me even further away from what you were trying to hide.”

“You don't understand, Maryanne. I didn't have a choice. These people, the powers that they have...the things they can do...” Anthony swallowed hard. I watched the phantom Adam's apple jump in his throat. “They said they would bring back Ginny's spirit. They would bring back my girl, and torture her.”

I shook my head. “And you believed them.”

“You haven't seen what they can do,” Anthony screamed.

“The hell I haven't. I saw plenty in Paris. They're not infallible. They can be stopped. It takes a lot of effort and sacrifice, but they can be stopped.” I glared at Anthony and said with disgust, “I can't believe you trusted them. You should have trusted me, and the rest of the Undead Bar Association.”

“I was scared.”

“You were a coward. I expected better from you.”

Anthony bowed his head.

“You're going to appear at the Johnson house tomorrow and do what needs to be done. No arguments,” I said.

“Why should I?”

“Because one day your spirit will be called out of the mortal realm, and you should have at least one good deed to your name. I'm giving you a chance. It may be your last.”

Anthony lifted his head slowly. He sneered. “You giving me a shot at redemption? That's a joke. You're the right hand of the devil.”

“That's no concern of yours. I know the punishment that's waiting for me, and I'll get it in due time. But I'll have some accounting of good for all the mistakes I've made. Will you?”

We glared at each other in silence. After a long moment Anthony sighed.

“You're a tough one, baby,” he muttered. He nodded once then faded away.

I sure hoped that meant “Yes.”

Homesdead - Part 28. Maryanne Wells

This is Part 28 of a serial story.  The story began here.

I scheduled two meetings for the next day. The purpose of both meetings was recruiting assistance for removing Hank from the Johnson house. That was the sole purpose of each meetings.

Things rarely go as planned.

Father Blackman listened calmly as I described what I needed him to do. “I tried all of this before, of course,” he said when I finished. “You'll find that Hank's ghost is stronger than the normal specter or poltergeist. Pushing him to leave the moral realm won't be enough.”

“Don't worry. Someone will be pulling from the next realm at the same time you're pushing for this one. Just make sure the moment Hank crosses over, you seal him in.” The meeting over, I stood up. “I'll see you at the house, Father Blackman.”

He didn't rise. He just sat there, looking at me.

“What is it?” I said at last.

“I wondered if there was anything else you wanted to discuss with me.”

“No.”

Father Blackman pressed his fingertips together. I looked at his hands, and fought back the urge to recite the words to the old game I'd learned as a child. Here is the church, and here is the steeple. Open it up, and...

“How long do you intend to go on fighting alone?” Father Blackman asked.

I blinked. “I don't understand the question.”

“You're carrying a weight on your shoulders, one you seem unwilling to share.”

“I have friends,” I said stiffly.

Father Blackman looked at me sympathetically. “But are these 'friends' people you trust?”

A few weeks ago I would have replied unequivocally yes. But after learning about the traitor in the Undead Bar Association, I wasn't sure who I could trust. I said nothing.

Father Blackman stood up and leaned across his desk. “I don't want to pry, Ms. Wells. But the pain in your eyes in undeniable.”

“If I have a pain, its a private one. Back off.”

Father Blackman shook his head. He stood up and walked over to a small, decorative heart hanging on the wall. A square mirror rested in the center of the heart. “Are you familiar with the licitar of Croatia?” he asked, gesturing to the heart.

“Never heard of them.”

“It's a traditional cookie, decorated with a mirror in the center. It is said the maker of the cookie puts the mirror there in anticipation of the recipient looking at the gift.. The maker is thinking of the recipient as the gift is being made.”

Unless he intended to help me prep me for a game show, the conversation was going no where. “What does any of this have to do with the Johnson case?”

“It has to do with all your cases.” He turned away from the mirror and looked at me. “I preached for a time in Croatia, in a place called Marija Bistrica. It was there I acquired my practical knowledge in dealing with the undead. I also learned a lot about local folklore and customs. The more I learned, the more I saw the mirrors of the licitar cookies as a symbol of the culture.

“After I left Croatia, I realized the licitar is a representation of life. You see, Maryanne, we cannot make a thing or do an act for another without putting in something of ourselves. The mirror in the licitar is intended to reflect the recipient, but it will first reflect the maker. Every thing that you say or do reflects a piece of you.

“I know you only intend good. The nature of your choices proves that. But there is great suffering buried in your eyes. Whatever you're suffering from, will eventually contaminate what you do. You need help.”

I glared at the priest. “And you think you're the one to save me from myself?”

“You're disgusted with organized religion. I understand that. Examples set by people like Pastor Ted don't help. But you need help from someone. Ultimately, you need help from above.” He reached into his desk and pulled out a small black box. “I want you to have this,” he said.

I took the box and opened it. I almost dropped it on the floor. My fingers recoiled from the thing, and the vampire brand near my heart began to throb. “A rosary?” I spat out. “What am I supposed to do with this? Hang it on my rear-view mirror for decoration? You'd have done better to give me an air freshener.”

The quiet fervor in Father Blackman's eyes cooled. “You're a cold person, Ms. Wells. I'm sorry to learn that. But keep the rosary, and know I will pray for your soul.”

I dropped the box with the rosary into my purse and sprang for the door. “You might as well pray for the wind,” I snapped. I ran out of the church.

Homesdead - Part 27. Maryanne Wells.

This is Part 27 of a serial story.  The story began here.

Two hours later, Steve and I were still waiting for his phone to ring.

“They're not going for it,” Steve said irritably. “So much for phase two.”

I looked over at the Johnson house. “Neither of them have come out. I bet they're tearing up the basement.”

“I can't stand sitting here any longer.” Steve jumped out of the truck bed. “Are you coming?” he asked.

“Where are we going?”

“Nora mentioned to me once that Hank had a dog. Never got over it, when the little thing died. Hank wouldn't let Nora change anything; the pet door stayed in the back door off the dining room, with the leash hanging on a wall peg.”

“If there's a pet door and it's unlocked, we can push it open and hear what's going on,” I surmised.

“Exactly.”

We ran over to the Johnson property. I jumped over the little fence; Steve, with his long legs, stepped across. “Back door,” Steve reminded me, and led the way.

It was the first time I'd seen the back of the house. The property was uneven, so the first floor kitchen was actually above ground level. A short flight of steps led up to the kitchen. In the fading light, I could just see the pet door.

“There's a light on somewhere inside,” Steve whispered.

I looked around, and spotted a bit of yellow light shining through an odd shaped window at ground level. “Basement,” I whispered. Steve nodded.

Suddenly, the basement light went out. Christian and his lawyer must be leaving the basement. I gestured to the door. Steve led the way up the back stairs, moving slowly and quietly. Just as we reached the door, a light went on in the kitchen. We ducked down next to the pet door.

Steve reached out a hand and pushed on the flap cut in the door. Please, I thought, please don't be latched. Steve looked at me and grinned. He pushed harder, and the pet door opened. We both crouched low and pushed our ears to the opening.

“It's not there, Christian,” Seren said irritably. “Your father moved the money. Just accept it.”

“No,” shouted Christian. His outburst was followed by a metallic clang. Poor rich boy must have dropped his shovel. “He told me it was buried in the basement. We have to keep looking.”

“I'm billing you at my standard hourly rates.”

“You're on retainer,” Christian snapped.

Seren laughed. “You're going to have to replenish that retainer soon. Very soon, if you keep me around to dig holes in a house.”

“That's not the only reason you're here. You're supposed to be dealing with my step-mother's lawyers. Why didn't you throw Wells out of the house the instant she appeared?”

“Now, wait a minute, Christian. Maryanne Wells is sharp. You don't throw someone like that out. You try to figure out why they've shown up. She said there was nothing in the basement but dirt. Maybe she knows something you don't. You should have asked her.”

Christian said bitterly, “She knows nothing. She's an idiot. Look at the offer she made you, to get rid of the 'ghost'. Stupid, ignorant woman. I guess they'll give a law license to anyone these days.”

Steve turned and looked at me. I know he was expecting some kind of reaction. After all, I'd been insulted. But in that moment I didn't care what Christian Johnson said. I was distracted by something I saw on the floor.

The narrow slit open at the bottom of the pet door gave me a view of a few centimeters of floor. And in that space I saw a crumb. A solitary, lonely crumb. It must have come from the food Christian and Seren brought into the house. I straightened up and looked around the little landing where Steve and I crouched. More crumbs. They must have brought the food out here to finish eating.

This was bad. If Christian found a way to eat without the ghost haunting him, I couldn't scare him into giving up the house.

Think, Maryanne. Think.

Steve poked me with his elbow. He leaned close and whispered in my ear, “I think we should go. Wind started blowing. They might feel it through the open pet door.”

Wind. That's it!

I shoved Steve aside and caught the pet door with my hand. Putting my mouth near the opening, I started to blow. The crumb trembled.

“Did it just get colder?” Seren asked.

“Don't be stupid,” muttered Christian.

I blew again. The crumb rolled over. Something flew off the table and crashed on the floor.

“Roger, what did you do,” Christian demanded.

“Nothing! That plate flew off the counter by itself!”

Blowing harder, I got the crumb up to a roll.

“SMALLER BITES,” screamed Hank.

“We're not eating! There's no food in the house!”

I leaned over and whispered to the Steve, “Wait here. I've got a new idea.” I crawled back down the stairs, feet first. The instant I touched solid ground I turned and ran across the yard to the neighbors. The box of cheese-crackers sat in the truck bed, waiting. I snagged it, and ran on to Alfredo's house. The front door was unlocked. I yanked it open and sped through the living room.

Alfredo's family looked up as I ran into the kitchen. They had just sat down to dinner.

“Good to see you, Maryanne,” said Alfredo's mother. “I'll get you a plate. Is Steve coming too?”

“No, ma'am. And I didn't come for dinner. I came for Roberto.”

The young boy looked up. “You want me?” he said.


“I'm great at it,” Roberto boasted.

“Good. Follow me.”

I ran out the back door, Roberto on my heels. Scraping chairs and stomping feet behind us told me at least a portion of his family followed. We scrambled over the fence and onto the Johnson property, Roberto grabbing my hand.

“Are we going inside?” he asked excitedly.

“No. And keep your voice down,” I whispered. I looked behind us, and spotted Alfredo and his Dad. I signalled with my hands for them to keep their voices down.

Steve looked around, and spotted us. He stepped quietly down the stairs. “They're arguing now about whether or not to take the deal,” he whispered. “Christian's wavering on whether or not he's scared of the ghost. The lawyer is convinced there is a ghost, and you're the only one that get rid of it.”

“So we've almost won.”

He nodded. “Christian's convinced the money is still in the basement. If he thinks the ghost will interfere with his finding the money, he'll take the deal. We need to show him what a threat the ghost can be.”

I knelt down in front of Roberto. Opening the box of cheese-crackers, I said, “We need you to throw these through the pet door. Each cracker needs to go through the kitchen and hit the wall on the far side. We don't want the men in the kitchen to see the crackers. We want them to think the ghost is going crazy without an reason. I'll tell you when to throw. Okay?”

Roberto reached into the box and grabbed a handful of crackers. “Let's do this.”

Steve, Roberto, and I climbed up the stairs. Steve pushed the pet door open just a crack. I crouched down and looked inside. Roberto would have a really hard shot to make. I begin to question bringing him into the whole mess. At the least, I should have tested his skills first.

But Roberto had no doubts. He nudged me out of the way and looked through the crack under the pet door. “Say when,” he whispered.

Aw, what the heck. We had to try. “Go,” I whispered.

Roberto balanced a cracker on his forefinger, held his hand up to the pet door, and flicked the cracker inside.

“SMALLER BITES!”

“Aaah!” Christian screamed inside the kitchen.

“Again,” I whispered. Roberto aimed another cracker and flicked.

“SMALLER BITES! SMALLER BITES!” Dishes crashed and shattered. It sounded as though they were breaking inside the cabinets.

“We have to get out of here,” Seren said. “We're not even eating and the thing is still screaming.”

“Why? Why is this happening?” Christian wailed.

I tapped Roberto on the shoulder. “One more time,” I whispered in his ear.

The boy lined up his shot with care. He adjusted the cracker with his free hand, checked his aim again, and fired.

“SMALLER BITES!” The kitchen shook. We felt the vibrations through the door. The lights inside flickered.

“The support beams are cracking,” Seren shouted. “I'm getting out of here.”

“Wait for me,” screeched Christian.

I pushed my hand against the pet door, opening it all the way. There was no sign of the men. “They must have fled out the front door,” I said.

“Did I do good?” Roberto asked.

I mused his hair affectionately with my free hand. “You were great.”

He grinned. “What now?”

“Now we wait.”

Steve's smartphone rang. He pulled it out of his pocket and looked at the caller id. “The waiting's over,” he said gladly.

Phase three complete. Only phase four remained – ridding the house of the ghost. I frowned. Based on what I'd just seen, Hank was a lot stronger than I expected. Phase four wouldn't be pretty.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Homesdead - Part 26. Maryanne Wells.

This is Part 26 of a serial story.  The story began here.

I unlocked the front door with Nora's key. Slowly, cautiously, I pulled the door open. I stuck one ear inside and listened.

“You should have pushed harder in the beginning,” I heard Christian Johnson say. “I wasted all that money on court costs and your fees, just to have Nora cave at the end.”

“Can't you just be happy that you won?” Roger Seren asked with disgust.

“I'll be happy when that money is out of the basement and sitting in my back account.”

The voices retreated into the distance. It sounded like they were entering the kitchen. I pulled the front door open a bit more and slipped inside. Carefully, I closed the door behind me. It just with barely a whisper. Steve's work oiling the hinges the night before paid off.

As quietly as possible, I crept through the living room. There were no sounds coming from the kitchen. I began to wonder if the men intended to eat at all.

“SMALLER BITES!” Hank shouted.

“Aaaahhh!” Christian screamed. “What the hell was that?”

“What do you think?” Seren cried out. “I told you the old lady wasn't crazy.”

Silence descended on the house. I pictured the two men cowering in their chairs at the kitchen table, fearing to breathe.

“We should leave,” Seren whispered.

“Never,” Christian declared.

“SMALLER BITES! SMALLER BITES!”

Glassware inside the kitchen shattered.

“For God's sake, stop eating,” Seren yelled.

Good a time as any to make an entrance. I walked into the kitchen and leaned back against the wall. “Looks like yew fellas got yerselfs a ghost probalem,” I said in my best hick accent. “Gosh, I hope yews can learn to live wi 'it.” I took another long drag of my milkshake, slurping cheerfully. Sure enough, the ghost kept quiet.

The men glared at me and then ignored me. Seren looked at Christian and said, “You'll never be able to sell this house. Not with that voice ringing in everyone's ears when they try to eat.”

“Yews gonna sell it? Well, now. And here I done thunk y'all wanted it for sentsimentals. Or fer diggin' in. Ain't ya'll gone an started a garden in the baseament?” I took another long, loud, slurp of my strawberry milkshake. Very hard to ignore.

Seren stood up slowly and straightened his tie. “I suppose you're going to tell us that you had nothing to do with this....” he trailed off, unable to speak the word.

“Haunting,” I offered, dropping the accent. “Spectral manifestation. Ghost.”

“My father is not haunting me,” said Christian. “He loved me.” His eyes narrowed to slits and he added, “You better not be roaming around in the basement. This is my house now. You keep out.”

“Your father is haunting the house, love's got nothing to do with it, and the basement floor is full of nothing but dirt and more dirt.” I strode across the room and picked up Christian's burger. “Don't believe me about the ghost? Here. Take another bite.”

Reluctantly, he accepted the food. “He's not haunting me,” Christian repeated. He muttered something else about the basement and hick lawyers under his breath. Christian raised the sandwich to his lips and took a bite.

“SMALLER BITES,” screamed Hank. A plate flew off the table and shattered against the wall. Seren and Christian ducked.

I stood my ground and finished my milkshake. After the last bit was gone I kept slurping, letting the sound of suctioned strawberry-air fill the room. “You can get around this, Christian. Just tell prospective buyers to live off these.” I waved my empty cup at him.

Fury was building in Christian's eyes. Suddenly, he sprang at me. “Get out,” he screamed in my face. “This is my house. Get out, get out, get out!”

Wow. The temper apple doesn't fall far from the ghostly tree. “Don't you want to know why I came in the first place?” I asked with a charming smile.

“No,” shouted Christian.

“Yes,” countered Seren. He stood up and brushed some dust from his pant legs. “Why are you here, Ms. Wells?”

I leaned back against the table and spread my arms. “To offer my services. You want the ghost gone. I can make it happen.”

“As I understand it, the local priest already tried that.”

“I haven't tried.”

Seren looked me over. “I've heard things about you,” he said slowly. “I didn't believe half of them. But I didn't believe in ghosts before this case. Maybe you can make the ghost disappear.”

Christian pushed his way past the lawyer. “There is no ghost,” he claimed; “She's doing this. All of it.” He pointed an accusing finger in my face.

I shook my head. “Hank's ghost is real.”

“My father is not haunting me,” Christian shouted.

Seren gestured for me to join him in the living room. We shut the door behind us, ignoring Christian's screams.

“How much,” Seren asked.

“Two hundred fifty thousand.”

He laughed. “You're crazy. That's more than twice the value of the house.”

“Let me finish. One hundred fifty thousand to me, in cash. The rest of the payment is to be given to charities chosen by the local Catholic church. Your charming client gets the benefit of tax write-offs for the portion going to charity.”

“He could use the tax benefit,” Seren admitted. “And you guarantee success?”

“One hundred percent.”

“You're going to give your share to the old woman, of course.”

I shrugged. He was right, but it wasn't any of his business. “If your client agrees, Steve will draw up the papers. My offer's open until midnight.” I opened the living room door and walked through the front hallway.

“Wait,” called Seren. “How do I contact you?”

“Call Steve.”

Homesdead - Part 25. Maryanne Wells.

This is Part 25 of a serial story.  The story began here.

I'll spare you a long description of what happened at the courthouse the next day. Suffice to say that Christian Johnson was gleeful. He smirked, and openly mocked his step-mother. It took every bit of strength I had to hold Steve back.

“We'll get him later,” I promised, pulling Steve out of the courthouse.

“But that no good, crooked, son-of-a -” Steve shouted.

“Later,” I snapped. I led Steve over to his truck. “Are you driving, or am I?”

He pounded his fist on the hood a couple of times. Then he took a deep breath and got control of himself. “I'll drive. Get in.”

We headed for the Johnson house, or more precisely, the house next door. Alfredo's family was letting us use their driveway to park the car, and their living room as a base of operations should we require it. I had promised them I would get rid of the ghost. Glad as they were, I think they were just as pleased that Steve and I were determined to help their neighbor.

Steve pulled his truck into the driveway and shut off the engine.

“Are we getting out?” I asked, wondering at his hesitance.

“In a minute. There's something I want to say to you.” Steve drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “I'm sorry,” he said abruptly.

Now, things were getting interesting. “Sorry for what?”

“The whole not believing in the undead thing.”

“You can believe whatever you want, Steve. What upset me was your insults about my family.”

“Yeah. I'm sorry about that too.”

We sat there, enjoying a rare spell of companionable silence.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Sure. Hey, uh...maybe we can be friends again.”

I looked at him and asked, “What will your parents say about that?”

“Aw, heck. They don't have to know.”

I laughed and said, “They'll never learn it from me.”

We climbed out of the truck cab and walked around to the bed. “You want to go inside or wait out here?” I asked.

“Here's fine. It's not too cold out. Besides, I don't think we'll have long to wait.”

I clambered into the bed of the truck. Steve followed. We spread out a blanket and sat down.

“Hungry?” I asked.

“I could eat.”

My backpack was tucked behind the wheel-well. I unzipped it and pulled out a box of cheese-crackers. “I've started associating Pampa with little orange cheese-flavored squares,” I said.

Steve held out his hands and I poured a generous serving of crackers. “Thanks for pulling me away at the courthouse,” Steve said. He tossed the crackers into his mouth and munched loudly.

“No problem. Hey, why don't you let me do phase two of the plan, too? You can wait out here.”

He considered it. “Okay. But if Christian Johnson makes a nuisance of himself, you yell for me out the front door.”

“Agreed.”

We didn't have long to wait. Christian and his lawyer pulled up in front of the Johnson house in a black BMW. They got out carrying bags of fastfood.

I laughed out loud. “They're asking for trouble,” I said.

Steve grinned. “Dang it, now I want to be in on phase two. It could be fun.”

“You get phase three,” I promised. I slipped out of the truck bed. Opening the truck door, I reached in and grabbed my milkshake out of the cup-holder. “I won't be long.”

“Is the milkshake really necessasary?”

“Yes, it is. Because it's annoying.”

“You don't know that a milkshake will work.”

“It will.” I walked confidently towards the Johnson house.

Steve called after me, “How do you know?”

“Hank can't tell you to take smaller bites when you're taking no bites at all.”

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Homesdead - Part 24. Maryanne Wells.

This is Part 24 of a serial story.  The story began here.


When I entered the lobby of the hotel I discovered a group of people waiting for me. Nora, Steve, Father Blackman, and Pastor Ted sat in a cluster of chairs around the gas fire. All four of them looked up as I walked in.

“You sure cut it close,” Steve said.

I glared at him and strode over to the check-in desk. “Hi,” I said to the clerk at the counter.

“Welcome back, Ms. Wells. You're all checked in. Mr. Mackenzie took care of everything.” He handed me a key card and smiled.

“Thanks,” I said ungraciously. I walked over to Steve, shedding my luggage behind a chair.

“Take some time to get settled,” Steve offered.

I threw myself down on an ottoman and said, “Ah, what's the point. Ya'll have obviously been waiting.”

“We don't want to press you,” Father Blackman said kindly.

“Oh, go on.”

Steve grinned. “There's the Mackenzie spirit. I knew you had it in you somewhere.”

“Stop being so danged annoying, Steve,” I snapped. “Just tell me why you're all hear.” Realizing, belatedly, that I was being unprofessional in front of a client, I sighed. “Please forgive me, Mrs. Johnson. I'm a little bit jet-lagged.”

The sweet old lady smiled. “That's all right dear. I'm just glad to see you again.”

“You're looking well. Have you been able to eat?”

She nodded. “Yes. My neighbors are very good to me.” She looked down at her hands. Softly, she asked, “Have you thought of anything we can do? About the house?”

I shook my head. “It doesn't look good, ma'am. I guess Steve has explained that to you.”

“He mentionned that it doesn't look good from a legal perspective,” said Father Blackwood. “But surely some hope remains. Nora said the judge acted quite favorably towards you, during the last conference in the courthouse.”

“She did. And sometimes being the local attorney is enough to get a win from a small town judge. But not this time. Judge Brockade is a true judge. No matter which attorney she likes best, she will decide the case on the law. And there's just no law that helps us.”

“Not in Texas,” Steve agreed. “There's no precedent for ruling a house unihabitable due to haunting.”

“What about arguing that Nora never intended to abandon the house?” pressed Father Blackwood.

Steve looked at Nora. “We might have a chance on that issue, but there's a problem.”

Nora looked up pathetically. “I don't want to live there anymore,” she said. “I haven't wanted to live there for a long time. They think I intended to abandon the place, and I want to. But I don't have anywhere else to go.”

“Well, don't tell the judge that,” interrupted Pastor Ted. “The less she knows about how you feel, the better.”

I leaned forward sharply, drawing the pastor's attention. “Don't you dare tell my client to lie,” I hissed.

“Bu..but I...wasn't,” he stammered. “I just don't think Nora should offer that kind of information.”

“Shutup.”

“But...”

“Shut. Up. Telling Nora to withhold in the truth is no different than telling her to lie. I won't have it.”

I sat back and looked around, daring someone to argue with me. Pastor Ted stared at his shoes, thoroughly cowed. Nora pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes. Steve and Father Blackman smiled.

“You're right, of course,” Nora said softly; “But what should I do? What hope do I have?” She looked at me, and waited for my answer.

I wanted hope to die. If hope died, I wouldn't have to try anymore. The last spark that warmed me would burn out and I could quietly turn to stone.

But Nora kept staring at me with pleading eyes. She still believed I could fix everything. Even if I willed my hope away I couldn't kill hers.

“Please, tell me what you think,” she whispered; “Tell me. If you think I should stop fighting, tell me that.”

I shook my head. “You have to decide what to do, Nora. It's your life. You can't base your decision on what I say.”

“But I want your opinion. Please,” Nora said pathetically.

She began to cry. Father Blackman patted her hand comfortingly. Pastor Ted looked from me to Nora and back again. He stood up suddenly and walked over to the fireplace.

Seeing Nora's tears, something in me hardened. Call it resolve, call it obstinence, call it pig-headedness. Call it whatever you like. I simply decided to fight for my client, on to the bitter end. Suddenly, I had an idea.

“We'll have to do something bold. Something crazy bold,” I muttered.

Steve looked at me and asked hopefully, “Do you have a plan?”

Dang it, not him too. “What if I don't,” I countered.

“Right now I'm open to even a crazy, half-baked notion.”

“Okay. That I can deliver.”

We stared silently at each other. “Well, what is it?” Steve asked at last.

“Let Christian have the house. Concede.”

Nora gasped. Steve grabbed my arm.

“Have you gone crazy,” he demanded roughly.

“Crazy, bold, and half-baked,” I confirmed. “Steve, we're not going to win this in court or over a conference table.”

“Then we lose.”

I shook my head and dislodged Steve's hand from my arm. “There are other battle grounds, like inside the house itself. By moving the fight there we'll be able to use Hank as a weapon.”

“How do you plan on getting the ghost to go along with that plan?”

“I'm not going to ask him to go along with anything. I'm just going to make it happen.” Turning to Father Blackman I asked, “Where's the best place in town for milkshakes?”

Homesdead - Part 23. Maryanne Wells.

This is Part 23 of a serial story.  The story began here.

I went to Paris. Some will argue that good came of it, but not me. I count it as one of the worst mistakes of my life.

But that's a story for another time.

I returned to Texas just in time for the Johnson court date. When I say just in time, I mean it. My plane got into Amarillo the day before the court case. I picked up my car from long-term parking and headed directly from Pampa.

The Johnson case weighed heavily on my heart and mind. Steve had emailed me while I was in Paris, passing on the latest developments. Nora was living in the house, but taking all her meals next door with Alfredo and his family. Christian Johnson argued that if his step-mother didn't eat in the house, she wasn't really living in the house. Then he said it didn't matter if she ate there or not, because she'd already abandoned the homestead. It was clear to him that Nora had only re-entered the house on the advise of her “hick” lawyers. Based on the tone of Steve 's email, the “hick” comment rankled. But the thing bothering me was the case. It was clear, so clear, that we were going to lose. The law simply wasn't on our side. I thought about it over and over as I drove, weighing the options. Every path ended the same way: Nora Johnson lost her home.

A tumbleweed cartwheeled across the highway. It's yellow form, so clear against the pavement, faded against the dead grass when it reached the other side. I drove past and considered its fate. It would continue to bounce and roll across the plains until its travels were arrested by a wire fence. Caught, it would tremble and wrestle against its bonds until the wind beat it to a soulless skeleton. Then the wind would attack again, and again, until only dust remained. The tumbleweed would be freed bydestruction and death. We all will be, in the end.

I sighed, disgusted with my own attitude. Events in Paris had really gotten to me. I even wondered what the point was in returning to Pampa. Nora was so damaged that even ridding her of Hank's ghost wouldn't salvage the sad remnants of her existence. And what did any of it matter in the grand scheme of things? Ridding Pampa, Texas of one little ghost wouldn't change the world. Evil would still be winning.

By the time I reached White Deer, South of Pampa, I'd had enough. I pulled off the road into the parking lot of the town's small grocery store.

There was no reason to go on to Pampa. None. I should turn the car around right now. But I didn't. I just sat there, foot on the brake and hands of the wheel. Waiting for a sign.

Once upon a time, I believed in the grace and goodness of a higher power. Life showed me what crap that was. But I couldn't let go of hope; I don't know why. I sat there, staring at the quiet buildings of the tiny town.

“I'm not praying,” I said out loud. “I don't pray. I'm just talking. All I'm saying is, if I'm meant to drive on to Pampa...if there's a reason for me to go, I'll do it. But someone needs to shed some light on this mess. I won't drive on just to find more darkness. I've seen enough of the night.”

A light flashed in my rear view mirror. I turned around to look for the source.

White Deer, Texas, has as it's town symbol a white deer. It's kind of a big deal. The town even uses special light-up Christmas wreaths, with a white deer in the center of each. The wreaths had all been dark as I drove into the town, but now the southern most wreath was glowing. It was the wreath closest to Amarillo.

I stared at it for a moment then faced forward. “So I go back to Amarillo,” I said. I turned around one more time, just to be sure. As I looked at the wreath, it blinked off. The light didn't come on again.

More confused than ever, I turned slowly in my seat. Suddenly, the wreath closest to me began to shine. The next wreath came on, and then another, and another. The wreaths marking the road north to Pampa lit up and shimmered, like the lights marking a runway.

I sneaked a last look behind me. Every wreath to the south of me was dark. I looked north again, and saw the lights.

So I flipped my turn signal on and merged onto the road, heading north. “I'm still not praying,” I said out loud; “but...thanks.”

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Homesdead - Part 22. Maryanne Wells.

This is Part 22 of a serial story.  The story began here.

Contacting a ghost is only as complicated as the character of the specter you're dealing with. For a complex creature with deep bowels and a twisted mind, you need a séance. For a ghost seething anger, like Hank, you have to perform the act that triggers its fury. For a sex-crazed bell-bottom wearing, smack-talking ghost like Anthony, you need only yell.

“I know you've been watching the case, Anthony. Get in here now,” I shouted.

He materialized slowly, reluctanly, it seemed to me. “Hey, baby. Like that shirt on you. Good color,” he said smoothly.

I snorted a laugh. “You like it because it's form-fitting.”

He laughed and nodded. “Sure, gorgeous. Any man would.”

“Have you been monitoring the Johnson case?”

Anthony's smile faded. “Yeah. From the other side.”

I frowned and turned away from Anthony. I stared out the hotel window at the bleak landscape. With little effort, the colors faded in my mind and left only degrees of shadows. With every day it became easier and easier to believe in a colorless world. Life, death, and something drifting in between...but no color. No joy. “What's it like on the other side?” I asked quietly.

“Unsettling. But so is this side, for me. 'Cause I'm unsettled.” Anthony forced a laugh.

I shook my head. “That's not helpful, Anthony. I want to know what its really like over there. Can you see other ghosts?”

“You mean, can I see Hank?”

“Yes.”

Anthony drifted across the room. He settled into a standing pose next to me. “What's that thing made of clay, that comes to life if you put a spell on it? The old Jewish legend.”

“A golum.”

“That's it baby, that's it. See, some spirits on the other side stand like golums. They put so much emotional energy into what they do on this side that they've got nothing left on the other side but a shell. Hank just stands there, all stiff. He speaks sometimes, too, in a monotone. He talks about whats going on with the rest of his spirit, on this side.”

“A macarbre play-by-play.”

Anthony nodded. “He's got a lot of hate in him, Hank does. Hearing him talk about hate and pain in an emotionless, quiet voice, it's just creepy.”

That made me smile a little bit. Imagine a ghost finding another ghost creepy.

“You're on the right track,” Anthony said suddenly.

“What do you mean?”

He reached out a hand to my face, but drew away when he remembered the futility of trying to touch. “Today, when you spoke with Pastor Ted, Hank sensed that you cared. He said you felt sympathy for him.”

“Then I can reach out to him. Maybe I can persuade him to leave,” I said gladly.

“No. It's more likely he'll hate you more than he hates the rest of the living, once you sympathy has time to really sink in. He doesn't think he deserves sympathy, or forgiveness, or peace. He won't tolerate you offering them for long.”

“He hates himself that much?”

“He does.”

We stood together, silently, looking out at the view.

I sighed and said, “I don't know what to do. Hank's the first ghost I've ever faced that is completely uncooperative and has no exploitable weakness.”

“The only way to get him out of the house is by brute force,” Anthony suggested.

As I feared. The priest and I could try to push Hank into the aftelife, but he might be too strong for us. What then?

Anthony floated over to the little table in the corner of the room. “What's all this?” he asked, looking at the papers spread across the table surface. “This doesn't look like the Johnson case.”

“It's not. They're e-mails and documents from Absola. Have you talked to Charlotte recently?”

He turned away from me and leaned over the papers for a closer look.

“Anthony? Did you hear me?”

“Sure, baby. I hear ya. I saw Charlotte yesterday at your apartment. Dropped in for a little visit. Don't worry; I didn't pop in on her in the bathroom.”

“Did Charlotte brief you on the e-mails from Absola?”

“Uh, yeah. Yeah, she did. Crazy stuff.”

I joined Anthony at the table. A print-out of Absola's latest e-mail was on top. I re-read it and frowned. “I'm worried,” I admitted. “Absola's taking a big risk. If the situation is as bad as she described, one small wrong move could land her in a heap of trouble.”

“True. But what can you do about it?”

I hadn't mentionned my plans to anyone in the Undead Bar Association because I knew they'd try to talk me out of it. But dang it, I had to tell someone. “I could fly to Paris and help her,” I said aloud.

Anthony stared at me for a long moment. Then he turned away again, pivoting as he floated in place. I could see the back of his head and the wall beyond him, but I couldn't see his eyes. It was like having x-ray specs that revealed everything but his thoughts. I suddenly wished that I could see his eyes.

“You should do it,” he said.

“What?”

Anthony pivoted back a quarter turn, enough for me to see his expression. But I still couldn't see his eyes. “You should go to Paris and help Absola. Things here are at a stalemate. If you leave now, it won't hurt the Johnson case. So go.”

I stood up and walked around his floating form until we were face to face. “I didn't expect this.
Everyone else is going to try and talk me out of it. And they won't be wrong in trying; there are a hundred reasons why my going would be a bad idea.”

“You should go.”

He turned away again. Dang it, why wouldn't he look at me? “Do you really think my going to Paris is the best thing I could do?” I demanded.

“Yes, Maryanne.”

“Okay,” I said simply. “I'll go.”

Homesdead - Part 21. Maryanne Wells

This is Part 21 of a serial story.  The story began here

Outside, I leaned against my car and waited for Steve. The case was sickening. The more distance I could put between myself and the various parties involved, the better. Hell, Steve could have the damn case.

You know, there was a moment in the house, in the basement, when I felt sorry for Hank Johnson. Assuming Pastor Ted told the truth, Hank genuinely struggled over doing the right thing. And then that minister had given him crappy advice. Yes, the decisions were ultimately up to Hank. And yes, he alone had to live with the consequences of his actions. But the man had gone to a religious leader seeking advice and encouragement, only to come away with a tainted soul.

When an honest man goes into a church seeking advice and comes away with the keys to a personal hell, religion becomes an enemy. I had been raised to see the church as the keeper of hope and salvation. But churches are run by mere mortals. Lowly humans that we are, we corrupt and lie. All of us.

I wanted to think my cynicism was the product of my own sins. The brand burned into the skin over my heart marked me as the servant of an undead fiend. I was damned; there was no redemption for me. So why should I believe in better things for anyone else? But I wanted to, needed to. Slivers of hope were the food that carried me through each day.

The Johnson case sickened me. I had to get out of Pampa. Let Steve handle the case. He didn't want me around anyway. Besides, I'd discovered enough about the haunting to aid anyone seeking to banish the spirit from the house. There was no reason for me to stay.

I pulled out my smartphone and checked my e-mail, hoping to kill some time until Steve came outside. Another e-mail from Absola, in Paris. I read it and frowned. Absy was getting in over her head. Maybe I should...no. I'd be crazy to fly out to Paris. There were a million reasons I shouldn't go. Several of those reasons had fangs and an insatiable blood lust. But the further I read the more concerned I became.

Steve finally came out of the house, the holy men following close behind him. They looked around, and Steve gestured for me to join them on the porch. I shook my head and pointed at the smartphone. I didn't care if they thought I was being rude. As a matter of fact, I was being rude.

The priest and pastor left the porch and crossed to the street to a small car. They climbed in, the priest pausing once to look back at me. I ignored him. They drove away and Steve crossed the street.

“What's your problem now?” he demanded as he drew close.

“Did Pastor Ted share his story with you?”

“Yes. So what?”

“So what? So what?” I stood up tall and glared at Steve. “Hank Johnson is remembered in this town as a hero for saving co-workers from the fire at the Celanese plant. Your own family remembers him that way, because he saved your father's life. But Hank could never see himself as a hero. He knew about the safety violations that culminated in the plant explosion. He accepted money to destroy evidence and keep quiet. Part of him didn't want to take the money. He even turned to his own pastor for advice. And the advice he received and followed corrupted his soul.

“Hank Johnson bought the house across the street with blood money. He grew to despise it. He rushed through his meals, anxious to be free of those walls. His hatred himself, and that hatred corrupted every relationship he had. Desperate to free himself from the sickness in his soul, he turned again to religious counsel. And what was he told? Give the church your blood money, and you'll feel better. But he didn't. How could he? Passing on money doesn't absolve guilt. So he sat there in church, staring up at the pastor who lied and misled him, hating the man and everyone else in the room.

“The communion platter came to him. Maybe he was so busy hating, he took too big a piece of bread from the platter. Perhaps he took a large chunk on purpose, seeking in the symbolic body of his savior forgiveness and peace. The bigger the bread, the greater the forgiveness. Whatever happened with the bread, Hank Johnson took his last communion that day. He died in a church overseen by a pastor who led him astray.”

Steve looked hard at me. “A lot of people made mistakes. You can't pin it all on Pastor Ted.”

“I'm not. I'm just letting you know what I've learned. Tell it to Father Blackman, and ask him to have another try at removing the ghost. I'm done here.” I turned away from Steve and unlocked the car door.

As I opened the door, Steve reached around me and gently shut it. “You can't walk away from Nora. I watched the two of you talking in the courthouse. She believes in you, trusts you. You can't abandon her.”

“There's nothing in this case that you can't handle.”

Steve dragged his fingers through his hair. “I'm not so sure of that,” he confessed.

It was a big concession on his part, and it almost swayed me. I looked at him for a moment then shook my head. “I have a friend who needs my help. I need to go to her.”

“Fine, but promise me that you'll come back.” Steve produced his own smartphone. Consulting it, he said, “The judge set a court date for early next month, assuming the settlement negotiations fell through. Which they have. Here, I'm e-mailing you the court date.” He looked at me again. “Promise me you'll be back then,” he said anxiously.

What could I do? He was family. I told myself that was the reason I acquiesced. “Fine. I'll be back in time for court.”

Steve nodded. “Give me a ride back to my hotel?”

“Sure. It's that or make you walk.”

We climbed into the car. As we drove away, a handful of faces peeked out of various windows in Alfredo's house. I waved, and a flurry of hands waved back.

“You should come and see the Nutcracker in December,” Steve suggested. “By now you know a good portion of the cast.”

“Maybe I will,” I said absently.

He looked over at me. “Who are you thinking about? Your friend, or our client?”

“Both. When I get back to the hotel I'm going to get in touch with someone who specializes in undead cases.”

“What's the nature of the person's specialty?”

“He's a ghost.”

Steve turned away. “I need to stop asking you questions,” he muttered.

“You'd better, if you don't like the answers.”

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Homesdead - Part 20. Maryanne Wells.

This is Part 20 of a serial story.  The story began here.

The four of us stood around a rectangular hole dug in the basement floor. No one said anything. The silence stretched on, and on, until I wanted to scream and force the moment to end.

Father Blackman cleared his throat. “Well,” he said softly; “That is unusual. It looks like...”

“A shallow grave?” I offered.

He sighed. “Yes.”

“That's what I thought, too. But then I spotted these,” said Steve. He pointed the beam of the flashlight into a dark corner where the light of the bare bulb overhead couldn't reach.

I looked, and saw two more holes. “What's that stuff up against the wall, near the holes?” I asked.

“A shovel and a metal detector.” Steve walked over and picked up the latter object. “Here's the best part,” he said, shining the beam of the flashlight on the metal detector's handle.

I walked over and looked. There was a silver, plastic, rectangle affixed to the handle. On it were the initials C. A. J.

“Does anyone know Christian Johnson's middle name?” I asked aloud.

“I think it's Andrew, after his grandfather,” offered Pastor Ted.

So the plaintiff suing for the house was already digging around in it. “Why would he be digging around in the basement?”

Steve set the metal detector back in place. “Isn't it obvious? He was setting up special effects to make people think the house was haunted, just like you said.”

“I said that to piss off Christian. I never believed it. And why would he need a metal detector if he was planting devices? Face it, Steve; Christian was looking for something.”

“How did he get in?” asked Father Blackman.

Good question. We spread out around the basement, looking for an outside door or open window. All except Pastor Ted. He stood silent, staring at the tips of his shoes.

I slipped over next to the Presbyterian leader. “You know what Christian was looking for, don't you?” I said quietly.

“He's looking for something that doesn't exist,” Pastor Ted replied.

“How much does he think it's worth?”

Pastor Ted looked at me, wide-eyed.

“He wouldn't be digging if he didn't think there was something valuable. What is it? How much is it worth?”

The pastor swallowed hard. “I had nothing to do with it,” he said quickly.

Which meant that he did have something to do with it. Great. “I'm sure you didn't,” I said politely. “Please tell me about it.”

“Found it,” Steve called from the other side of the basement. “The latch is broken on the door of the storm cellar.”

“Good work,” I called back. “Take some photos for the case file.” I turned back to the nervous pastor. “Tell me quickly,” I ordered.

He sighed and nodded. “Hank knew too much about the fire at the Celanese plant decades ago. The owners offered to pay him off, if he kept his mouth shut and destroyed evidence. He came to me, wondering what he should do.”

“Hush money.”

“Yes. But Hank called it blood money.”

“And what did you tell him?”

The pastor's eyes filled up with tears. “I told him that if he refused, they'd fire him and make life hell for his family. I suggested it would be better to keep quiet and use the money to help his loved ones.”

“What about the court cases, the lawsuits that followed. Did he come forward then with the truth?”

“No. Never.”

Yeah, you probably advised him not too, I thought. Mix pragmatism with weak doctrine and you get a religion that worships safety at the price of truth. “What did he do with the blood money?”

“He bought this house,” Pastor Ted said quickly. Too quickly. He was still hiding something.

“That's not all he did, is it?” I prompted.

“He told me he was going to bury the rest in the basement.”

So that's what Christian Johnson was after. And if he could get his step-mother kicked out of the house permanently, he'd have free range to look for the money. “Do you have any idea where in the basement the money is buried?”

“Oh, the money isn't here.”

I shook my head. I was getting very annoyed. “Where's the rest of the money, Pastor?”

“Hank felt so guilty. So many families were impacted by what happened that day. The whole town. Hank felt like he profited off other's pain. The money buried in the basement weighed on his conscience. He suffered for years.” He paused.

I looked into his rheumatic eyes and read the truth. “You suggested he donate the money to the Presbyterian church, didn't you?”

“Yes. Yes, I did.” Pastor Ted pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at his eyes. “He gave me the money, for the church. And the next Sunday I blessed the bread, we all took communion, and Hank Johnson choked to death.” He began to blubber, fat tears rolling down his cheeks. “We tried to give him the Heimlich. I rushed down the aisle to give him aid. Others ran to his side. But he pushed us all back. He was choking, turning purple, but he still found strength to push us away. He pushed me away. He'd rather die than accept help from me.”

Steve and Pastor Blackman walked up behind us. “What's going on, Maryanne?” Steve asked.

I turned away from Pastor Ted and looked to Father Blackman. “You deal with him,” I said shortly. “I'm too disgusted.” I walked up the basement stairs, through the house, and out the door.

Homesdead - Part 19. Maryanne Wells.

This is Part 19 of a serial story.  The story began here.

Father Blackman agreed to meet us inside the Johnson house. He promised to bring Pastor Ted from the Presbyterian church with him. Steve voiced a preference for waiting outside the Johnson house, but I refused.

“Unless you're planning on eating in there, you'll be fine,” I told him. “But if you're really worried about annoying the ghost, borrow a lint brush from Alfredo and make sure there are no crumbs on your clothes before we go in.”

To my great amusement, he did just that. Steve had gone from a non-believer to paranormally paranoid.

“This proves nothing,” he snapped when he saw I was watching him brush off his clothes.

“Sure, Steve. Whatever you say.”

Inside the Johnson house, we stood in silence. Steve peered around me cautiously. “I don't see anything unusual,” he remarked.

“No. I don't sense anything, either. Hank must have retreated into the kitchen.”

“Good. Let's keep out of the kitchen.”

I looked up at him, amused. “Are you scared, Steve?”

“What? No. I'm just...cautious. That's all. And...and looking for Hank isn't that important. If we're going to be in the house, we should inspect it top to bottom. That way we'll have a feel for whether or not the appraisal was accurate. That's what we should do while we wait.”

“Inspect the house from top to bottom.”

“Yes.”

“Every room.”

“Exactly.”

“Including the kitchen.”

Steve glared at me. “We should start in the basement,” he growled.

“Fine.” I reached under my jacket and grabbed the small flashlight off my utility belt. I handed it to Steve and said, “You inspect the basement. I'll take the kitchen.”

He swore loudly. I grinned and walked into the kitchen alone.

The moment I entered the kitchen I felt a sharp change in temperature. The room was icy cold. I jammed my hands into my pockets and walked around.

“I know you're here, Hank,” I called out. No answer.

Thinking I might find some food to bait the ghost, I opened the refrigerator door. Empty. So was the pantry, and every cupboard. There wasn't even a crumb hiding under the oven.

Dang it, I needed food. I checked all my pockets. In the inside pocket of my jacket I found a couple of loose cheese crackers. Perfect.

I pulled out a cracker and held it high. The temperature dropped instantly. I could see my breath, a milky-blue cloud.

“Are you going to come out and speak civilly, or are we going to do things the hard way?” I asked.

No response.

I held the cracker between my thumb and forefinger. I pressed my fingers together and felt the layers of cracker snap and shatter.

“SMALLER BITES,” a voice screamed in my ear.

Startled, I took a step back and stumbled. Someone put a firm hand on my back and steadied me.

“Thank you,” I said. I turned around, expecting to see Steve. Instead I saw two men, one in the black uniform of a priest and the other in a gray suit.

There are two types of holy men in this world, and the categorization has nothing to do with religious denomination. The first kind has poor color and drooping skin. They're the ones who live secret lives of sin. They can hide it for a while, but excess eventually takes its toll. The other kind of holy man looks almost too healthy. The exude health, physical and spiritual. The Presbyterian in the gray suit fell into the first category; the catholic priest into the second.

“Not a hospitable place,” the priest said mildly.

I nodded. “Father Blackman?”

“Yes. And this is Pastor Ted.”

We shook hands all around, murmuring the usual banal pleasantries one expects in such meetings. I felt Hank's presence behind me, cold and disapproving. The holy men felt it too. I know, because I noticed them trying to ignore it.

“Is the other attorney with you?” asked Father Ted.

“He's in the basement,” I said.

“Oh? Is there a reason to be in the basement?”

Before I could explain, Steve appeared in the kitchen doorway. There was dirt on his pants, and a streak of the same on one of his cheeks.

“I think you had better see this,” he said, pointing in the direction of the basement stairs.