A body lies beside an overflowing dumpster behind a crack-house-would-be-a-step-up bar. Male, early thirties, African-American. Blood from his fractured skull spreads across the fresh snow like Thunderbird draining from a broken bottle. No pulse. From my rear, gravel-filled voice says, "Yo, copper."
I spin around. A pale specter, barely visible despite the nearby streetlight, hovers above the body. My left hand twitches from nightstick to revolver; my eyes jump between the ghost and the vic. Same shallow cheeks and squat nose, yet one face is caked in blood, the other fresh yet see-through. One black, the other gray. I rub my eyes, but both are still there. No more drinking before work.
"Who the hell are you?" I ask.
"You know who I am," the ghost says.
I snake a wallet from the deceased's jeans.
"Okay, Lamont, why are you ...here?"
I toss him the wallet. It sails through his thin torso and lands on scavenged bag of garbage. The bag moves. I jump back, reaching for my pistol. A rat the size of beagle scurries out, dragging a well-gnawed ham hock. The garbage stinks, like rotten fish and dead roses. Everything smells of dead roses these days. Lamont looks at me, head cocked. I try again.
"Well? Why the fuck are you here?"
"Got no earthly idea. Never been murdered before."
"Murdered, or did you have it coming?"
I've met all manner of lowlifes while walking the midnight beat through the dilapidated alleyways of downtown Spokane. Most have it coming.
"Never offed anyone, if that's what you mean. Ask better questions."
Haskin is translucent, like the aged plastic that covers the window of my basement flat.
"Ever shoot a beautiful fifty-five-year-old Vietnamese woman behind the clock tower in Riverfront Park?" I ask. "Two eyewitnesses described the assailant as a scrawny black dude."
"Hey, I'm the victim here. Lose the brass knuckles, Buddy."
"Officer Simmons to you, shithead. Answer the question." No one calls me Buddy, except for Thùy. And she's dead.
"No." He folds his skinny arms across his chest. He's taller than me but half the girth. "I'm dead. I don't need to lie to you."
I look him in the eye and wait. He has a point, but I'm not ready to concede jack. The last scrawny black dude who failed to answer my questions ended up in the ER with five broken ribs. Which is the reason I'm back on foot patrol, seeing as how said black dude was lecturing at Gonzaga University -according to twenty-seven students - the evening my wife Thùy was murdered.
Lamont stares back at me, unblinking.
"Fine," I say.
"Aren't you going to call this in?" He points at my radio and then at his corpse, the blood-drenched slush slowly refreezing beneath it.
"Was fixing to when you did your spook-ass thing."
"Good. I wouldn't want my killer walking around with bloodstains on his jacket."
"Did you see who murdered you?" I ask Lamont after I make the call, trying not to sound conversational.
"Some old geezer. So the police gonna interview me?"
"Sure," I say, stretching out the word, buying myself a few seconds to think.
His gray eyes brighten a shade. "Great."
"Come round the precinct house Monday." A law enforcement first - interviewing a murder victim.
Lamont glides through a graffiti-covered brick wall as sirens approach. Hands on knees, I take two deep breaths. The icy air cauterizes my lungs. His shaved head reappears momentarily.
"Have a nice weekend." Like that'll happen.
* * *
I wait for Lamont most of Monday, the pack of Pall Malls I bought that morning lying half-empty on my desk. Thùy had asthma, so for thirty years I've chewed the filters until they melt into spitballs. A smoker's equivalent of coitus interruptus, just as unsatisfying. In the florescent lighting of the squad room, I'm not sure what I will do with Lamont if he shows. Can't exactly book an interrogation room: Gee Captain, I've got this ghost to interview. Got any thumbscrews that work on the undead? Besides, the captain is too busy genuflecting to Internal Affairs. Lamont walks through the front door, literally.
"Go ahead," he says, as he perches on my metal desk, his butt superimposed on my untouched ramen and an empty bud vase. "Interview me."
A dozen cops are typing shift-end reports. The two IA goons in the captain's office keep looking my way.
"Out back," I say into my hand, feigning cough.
"You worried they'll question your mental state?" Lamont shrugs a boney shoulder toward the captain's office.
I've seen the department's shrink more times than I've shaved over the past year; my mental state is impeccably documented. My eyes flit around the room, but nobody is paying us - me - any attention. I head for the loading dock, shuddering as he puts an ethereal arm over my shoulder. Gray clouds, low yet thin, veil the sun. The leftover snow is equally drab, tinged yellow here and there with urine.
"You don't look so great, Buddy. Not enough sleep the past few nights?" Lamont asks.
Not enough sleep the past year, but I'm not going to tell him that. I light cigarette. "Who's interviewing whom? Did you see your assailant?"
"A glimpse, y'know, peripheral vision." His translucent eyebrows furrow. "White guy."
"Naw, older, twenty pounds overweight."
"That limits it to fifty thousand suspects in eastern Washington. Hell, there are four guys inside who fit that description." I wave toward the precinct house, sucking in my gut.
"You fit that description, Buddy."
My nightstick is instantly in hand, raised to strike, but I can't exactly bludgeon a ghost. A dozen expletives race through my mind, but the UPS guy pulls up, also a black dude, although far from scrawny. I take a deep dragon the cigarette. It tastes like crap, but I keep at it until the driver departs.
"Anything else you can remember about the perp?" I ask Lamont.
"Tattoo on his forearm."
"It was snowing. He must have worn a jacket." I shiver involuntarily: mines at the cleaners.
"His sleeve sagged as he brought the pipe down. The jacket was baggy, like maybe he'd lost weight." Lamont stares at me, his gray eyes hollow and deep. "Ramen and no sleep will do that to a fellow."
"What kind of tat?"
I nod, pretending to take notes.
"Do you have a tattoo?"
"Go fuck yourself," I say, instantly regretting it.
"Buddy . . ."
I pull up my right sleeve, my arm bare save for a shrapnel scar. Laos.
"The guy was a lefty."
I slowly roll up my left sleeve, revealing a tattoo of a helicopter. "Guess you're mistaken."
"Huey Cobra attack helicopter, Vietnam era," he says. "Granddad flew one."
I drop the butt and grind it into the compacted snow with my heel. "And why would I have killed you?"
"Cause I look like the guy who offed your wife. 'Scrawny black dude,' your words." He flexes his meager bicep.
"So I hit you on the head twice with a pipe." I try to sound sarcastic, but it comes out lame.
"I never said 'twice'. But yeah. Tap, tap dead."
"Tap, tap dead," I echo, trying to make it sound dumb instead of dreadful.
"Talking to yourself isn't a good sign, Simmons." A deep voice, from the doorway behind me. The captain. "Twice on the head with a pipe, is that how you killed the asshole?"
I refuse to turn around, my hand creeping instead toward my throwaway pistol. Most every cop has one. I hadn't, until after Thùy was murdered.
"Lamont isn't an asshole."
"So he's Lamont now? You on a first name basis with your vic? Premeditation will get you another ten."
I keep my back to the captain, listening, the snow crunching ever so slightly beneath two more sets of footsteps. These clumsy idiots wouldn't have lasted a month in Nam.
"You've been an honest cop for thirty years," Lamont says.
He's looking at me with those hollow eyes, perhaps a little brownish now, like Thùy's. I have been honest, at least between Saigon and Riverfront Park. My hand hovers over the unregistered Glock in my waistband. Lamont's visage wanes as the sun peeks through a fissure in the clouds.
"What would Thùy want you to do?" he asks.
"How do you know her name?" I whisper. I know what she would want me to do.
"Did. You. Kill. Him?" the captain asks, each word punctuated in turn like spent shells ejecting from a twelve-gauge.
"No," I say, half lying. I whirl to face the captain, my Glock clutched two-handed. The IA goons are almost as quick, icy muzzles inches from each of my temples. "Yes."
"Death by cop, so that's how this goes down?" The captain squints into the low sun, his body as rigid as a range silhouette. Crisp shadows on the pavement point at either side of my skull. The shadow to my left quivers for a moment, then steadies.
My eyes search for Lamont, but his ghost is gone. I listen for Thùy, imagining she has just cut a rose from her tiny garden, but her voice is silent. I can't smell the roses anymore, either.
"Forgive me," I whisper to them both, as I jerk my gun up and away, pulling the trigger. "Please."
Two gunshots reply.
x x x
I almost rejected this story out-of-hand. C.J. "Chuck" Hodges either didn't know or didn't care that modern word processing programs don't require carriage returns at the end of each line. Entering those carriage returns as you would with a typewriter places a paragraph mark at the end of every line of text in an electronic document.
To format this for Anotherealm meant removing each unnecessary paragraph mark and guessing where the necessary paragraph marks were supposed to go.
I've received other stories like this in the past - far too many of them - and usually simply consign them to the slush pile.
But I started reading this one and found I could not stop. Mr. Hodges may be technologically challenged, but he's told a heck of a story. I only hope I got the paragraphing the way he wanted it. Comment in our Forum if you think I got it right. -GM