The woman looked like she was going to hit him.
Eddie’s clients, married couple last name of Chin, sat across from him in their cramped living room. The place smelled of fried food and incense. The Chins would have a tough time meeting the height requirements at Disney World.
But short as she was, Mrs. Chin cut an imposing figure. Upon hearing that all the paranormal activity in their home was most likely perpetrated by number one son, she shot off the sofa like a firecracker and thrust a finger in Eddie’s face.
“My boy no liar. My boy is good boy. He do well in school! He have girlfriend!”
Eddie put on his poker face.
“You call my boy liar! Why would he have beautiful girlfriend if he liar? You get out of here!”
Mr. Chin got off the couch and put his tiny hands on his wife’s tiny shoulders and spoke in a tiny voice full of the kind of patience and wisdom that comes from suffering, hard work and perseverance.
“Let me handle this. I will discuss with Mr. Closkey.”
They tried to get his name but they kept leaving the Mick out of it. He didn’t take it too hard. Their English was infinitely better than his Cantonese.
Mrs. Chin cursed in her native tongue but her husband stared her down and she stormed out of the living room and proceeded to make loud noises in the kitchen about the no-good swindler Irishman who was probably a drunk sitting in her living room.
Mr. Chin started to apologize but Eddie cut him off.
“I know how hard this can be.”
The two men sat in relative calm for a moment, but then Mrs. Chin burst through the door. “Ask the guh-why-low about the feet! What about the feet in snow? You can’t unprove that!”
The woman held a frying pan. Deja vu. It wouldn’t be the first time someone had brained him with cookery if she hit him.
“Ma’am, your son said the footprints in the snow were at the end of November last year. I checked the weather reports. No snowfall was reported.”
She called Eddie a wangbadan. He figured it wasn’t a compliment.
Mr. Chin intervened again. “I will handle this.”
Tiger Mom looked ready to pounce but she retreated once more, loudly, into the kitchen. Several bangs and crashes followed like a poltergeist had set up shop.
Eddie smiled at the man. “I’m sorry, Mr. Chin.”
“Children’s job is to make their parents worry, right?”
Eddie’s parents had passed when he was only ten, but if they’d lived they would have done a lot of worrying over Eddie.
He took in the living room again. The TV had been state of the art, back when color was a luxury. Ratty old sofa that had been through at least two yard sales. Five children still in the house, three of them over seventeen. Two more adults in residence, one of them pushing ninety. And ninety was pushing back harder.
Mr. Chin looking older than his fifty years, which was saying something because he was Asian. Usually they aged better than tortoises. Eddie knew the man worked in a drycleaners that he didn’t own and drove a thirty-year-old American charity case he’d saved from the junkyard.
Mr. Chin was the proud sort, though. Already he was reaching for his wallet. “You said your fee was negotiable and there could be payment plan.”
Eddie could use the money. He could always use the money. The going rate for a paranormal job was better than minimum wage. But not much better. The bills were piling up. He’d have to take a part-time gig to make ends meet if this trend continued.
But he felt for these people. Maybe not Mrs. Chin so much, but he felt for dear old dad. They’d come over from the Motherland a few years back and they were hard-working and trying to chase down the American dream while supporting an extended family.
Before Eddie could say anything, Mrs. Chin’s voice boomed upstairs.
“We pay for school and you do bad and you liar about the ghosts! You no work and you no go to school and you spend all money on this stupid girl …” And then Mrs. Chin switched to Cantonese and Eddie knew the kid was really in for it.
Mr. Chin acted like he didn’t hear his wife’s tirade. His lips formed a thin polite smile.
Eddie could really use the money. And yet he found himself saying, “There is no fee, Mr. Chin.”
Already Mr. Chin was out of his seat. “Oh, no, no you must take something. You insult us—”
“You can pay me back by giving me a client testimonial for my website.”
“Yes, yes. I will do that! I will do that right away!” The grateful man shook Eddie’s hand and Eddie felt good but wondered if he’d been swindled.
The Chins’ son Eric came racing down the stairs, Tiger Mom in hot pursuit. She had a hair dryer in her hand and looked ready to bludgeon her son. Eric zipped past Eddie and burst out the front door. Mrs. Chin stuck her head out and yelled after him but if he had half a brain he wasn’t coming back till the Chinese New Year.
Mrs. Chin came back inside. “I’m sorry, Eddie. My boy is good boy. He just act up sometimes. I’m sorry.”
“It’s no problem.”
Mrs. Chin approached him. “I get you drink? You like beer? You ‘Rish like beer, right? We have best Chinese beer, Tsingtao—”
“No, thanks,” Eddie said. “I’ll be leaving now.”
The Chins thanked him profusely, their gratitude genuine.
Eddie walked back to his car. It was a neighborhood of row homes in South Philly.
Small, concrete yards fronted small units. Cars double-parked on both sides of the street. A deli and catty-corner to it an Asian place offering Japanese and Chinese. Two pubs nearby. Everything you needed only two blocks away. He could smell the nail salons.
This area was changing from Italian to Asian. He could tell by the flags in the windows. The Itals proudly displayed il Tricolore. The Asians proudly displayed their American flags. They’d been here less time but their decorations were more patriotic.
Halfway down the block, he spotted Eric watching him from the doorway of another row home. The kid gave him the middle finger. Eddie was surprised--he thought that gesture had gone out of style ten years ago.
Now that Eddie was no longer Mr. McCloskey, Paranormal Investigator, sitting in the clients’ living room, he didn’t have to be professional anymore.
So he flipped Eric the bird right back.
The kid was not expecting this. It took a moment for the full import to register. Yes, that thirty-something white man who got me in trouble with my parents just signed Fuck You. Eric came out of the row home and four wannabe-Triads swimming in oversized basketball jerseys and sagging gym shorts followed him.
It was about to turn into a bad kung-fu movie.
Eric approached with hands and arms flailing away while cursing Eddie in a mix of Chinese and English, desperately trying to channel an R-rated Bruce Lee. Eddie met the kid halfway. You had to keep moving. If you stopped, the other guy owned you. Eric’s friends crowded behind him to watch the big show.
When they were a yard apart, Eric said, “Do that again, bitch.”
Eddie smirked, gave him the finger again.
Eric’s friends laughed. Eric did not. He gave them all a sharp look that was about as effective as a wet match. Eddie knew immediately that Eric lined up dead last in the group’s pecking order.
The kid had lost face and his boys were laughing at him. He had no choice but to get loud. Eddie wasn’t scared of the kid. A stiff breeze could knock Eric over.
After Sean McKenna had tried to kill him seventh months ago, Eddie had taken up krav maga. The ultimate self-defense system in the world, designed by the Israelis. It’s unique among the martial arts because there are no katas, no forms, no bullshit traditions. It’s all about the practical and ruthless application of necessary, sometimes deadly, force.
One of Eddie’s instructors liked to quip that it was sometimes harder to roll with an untrained fighter. When you sparred in class you got used to mixing it up with trained men who moved in patterns and used only techniques you expected. Whereas the fella off the street was unpredictable and did idiotic things you weren’t defending against because they were stupid.
That was why beginners were so often lucky.
Eric screwed up his face into a grimace. It didn’t work. He looked like he was in pain. “Bitch, I’m gonna fuck you up.”
“Okay, sure. Now I’m gonna do you a favor and give you a pass because you’re just a kid and you’ve got your friends to impress and your parents are my clients. And you aren’t going to take any advice from me because you think at the tender age of seventeen you’ve got it all figured out, but I’ll give it to you anyway: never pick a fight with a man who doesn’t give a shit.”
Eddie might as well have been speaking Greek for all the effect his words had on the kid.
Eddie saw the punch coming before Eric had even made up his mind to throw it.
Eddie slipped the jab and switched from defense to offense in one motion, striking the kid in the gut as painlessly as possible and putting him down. Eric was more surprised than hurt, so Eddie put his foot on the kid’s back to hold him in place and looked up at the not-so-fantastic four.
Eric’s friends were in stitches. One was taking pictures with his cell phone.
No wonder the kid was trouble at home. Among his friends, he was the runt of the litter. Eddie almost felt bad for him.
But not quite enough to take his foot off the kid’s back. “I’m leaving now. Remember I could have done a lot worse to you.”
* * * *
Eddie walked into his apartment a couple hours later. He turned the TV on and made a salad for dinner and poured a glass of water. He sat on the couch and faced the TV.
Gracie Barbitok, ex-psychic and current fraud-buster, was on speaking to a live studio audience about an investigation. Eddie recognized the segment immediately because he’d seen it live several months ago and then had watched it on DVR several times. So this was a rerun, which meant one of the major channels had syndicated her program.
She was fifty but the plastic surgery made her look forty. She had long blond hair and wore a well-tailored suit that showed off her endowments but was still modest, and she pranced around on heels on stage, microphone in hand.
“They are out there,” she was saying. “They are out there.”
The audience cheered and clapped and whooped and Gracie let them, basking in the adulation. She smiled and luxuriated in their praise.
“Here we go,” Eddie said.
He wanted to change the channel but some perverse part of him wouldn’t. Gracie got off the stage and started walking the aisles, touching shoulders and shaking hands as she walked, looking like a politician.
“The world is full of charlatans and quacks and ne’er-do-wells. I know, because I was one of them, earning all my money through fraud and deceit and emotional manipulation. But I changed. Mended my ways. And today I’m here to expose these people so they can never prey on the unwitting again.”
Eddie mouthed the words as she spoke them. He’d watched her show a few too many times.
Gracie ran down the last aisle and hopped onto the stage and with great ceremony did a big sweep with her arms and pointed at the screen backing the stage.
“Today’s fraud is exposed. Giles Tyson!”
Eddie knew what was coming but he still cringed.
Giles Tyson used to work with Eddie and his older brother, Tim, years ago from time to time. Giles had big ideas and a bigger personality, and he and Tim had clashed on investigational protocol. Giles always tried to push the envelope and eventually Tim had told him he couldn’t work on the team anymore. Eddie had last seen the guy six or seven years ago.
A blown-up, unflattering photo of Giles filled the screen behind Gracie. In the picture, his usually coiffed hair was disheveled, he wore two days of stubble, and he was coming out of a nudie bar. Gracie’s team of vultures must have paid top dollar to get such a wonderfully damaging snapshot.
The audience booed and hissed. The regular chant began, “Fraud! Fraud! Fraud!”
Giles had already been proven guilty in their eyes.
Gracie Barbitok took her seat on the far right of the stage and turned to watch the broadcast of her own sting operation. She had the hard-charging style and good looks of Nancy Grace with none of the mainstream criticisms because she went after soft targets: psychics, mediums, paranormal hunters, makers of homeopathic wonder drugs, life coaches, soothsayers …
The footage cut to a long, angled shot of Giles meeting with the young homeowner in her living room about her complaints and fears of the paranormal activity in her house. She was a good actress, sounded just like the dozens of people Eddie had interviewed over the years. She even scared up some misty eyes and tears, prompting Giles to break the first rule of professional conduct:
Never touch the client.
He invaded her personal space and put a hand on her shoulder and in his affected, overblown voice said, “We’re going to get you answers tonight. You can rest assured.”
The live studio audience hissed and booed again. More chants of fraud.
Eddie shook his head. “Giles, as much as I love you, you always were a pompous windbag.”
The footage from Gracie’s sting switched to a montage of Giles running around the house, making outrageous claims, and invading the client’s personal space several more times. Eddie watched in horror. Giles was completely oblivious to his impending demise, about to be hoisted by his own oversized petard.
Throughout the montage, Giles made one ridiculous claim after another. A noise in the basement was the former owner yelling at his wife to keep it down during the ball game. The mysterious orbs of light captured on a photo were the essence of the neighbor’s teenaged daughter who’d “probably always liked the color gold.” The fuzzy, electrical feeling the missus got standing near the washing machine had nothing to do with the fuse box that was only ten feet away—this was the work of “some perhaps malevolent force, trying to make her uncomfortable.”
Giles went on. And on. He offered little proof. It was conjecture without qualification. All style without the CYA boilerplate. At one point, he told the woman that the spirits might be trying to activate the homeowner’s heretofore latent medium-abilities.
Eddie shook his head. Without anyone like Tim to keep the guy in check, Giles broke just about every rule of investigation. And he probably would have hit on the client if he’d gotten the opportunity.
“Giles, Giles, Giles …”
Eddie would have done everything differently. And yet, until this doomed voyage, Giles had enjoyed success and had somehow fostered a good reputation. He was well-known and well-liked by the national paranormal community, and he did a business.
When Giles finally stopped talking, the lights came on in the dark house and Gracie Barbitok was there, mike in hand and camera crew already filming.
Giles had the look of an animal that knows it’s just been trapped.
Gracie Barbitok revealed to the unusually quiet Giles that it was all a set-up and he’d been filmed the entire time. With a dramatic pause, she let that sink in. Her studio audience cheered.
Then Gracie motioned toward the front door. “You can leave now, Mr. Tyson. No one’s forcing you to stay. Or you can sit down and talk to me. Tell us your side of the story.”
Giles looked at the empty chair in the living room, then at the front door. He was forked. If he ran, he was a fraud. If he told the truth, he was a fraud.
Giles faced Gracie, straightened his tie and re-messed his stylish hair, and walked like Charles II on his way to the guillotine. Chin up, proud, stubborn.
And Gracie ruined him.
It was a hatchet job. Sure, Giles had exaggerated but he’d been set-up from the start. All of Gracie’s tricks were good enough that a cursory investigation wouldn’t expose them. Giles had no time to look at wiring or find hidden speakers or do any one of a million things. Not that he necessarily would have, but still.
And, even worse, Giles didn’t help himself during the interview.
“Clients call me for many reasons. But they all want the same thing, Ms. Barbitok. They want to feel special. They want to think wondrous things are happening in their otherwise quotidian existence. They want me to say yes. They want to believe. I give them what they want.”
“So you lie to them and take their money?”
“Lie is too strong a word. We know so little of our universe. We don’t know what happens beyond death. My job is to open their minds to the possibilities.”
Eddie said, “Giles, buddy, you always did speak in italics too much.”
After the episode had originally aired, Eddie had sent Giles a heartfelt email long on condolences and short on criticisms. The guy had helped Eddie out of a jam before, so Eddie figured it was the least he could do to repay the old debt.
Giles had never responded.
Alice Ketcher could still hear her husband upstairs. She was waiting for him to pass out before she turned in. It had been three months since he’d been drunk but you never knew with men. Anson had a mean streak. They’d been in couples counseling at church for the last year. She’d thought that Anson had shown genuine remorse and a desire to change, but here he was back on the bottle.
No matter how much she prayed and tried to forgive him, she couldn’t forget the times he’d scared her. He’d put his hands on her twice. Never hit her, just grabbed her shoulders to shake some sense into her. Murder in his eyes.
The last time had been over a year ago but you didn’t forget a thing like that. He’d been boozed up that night. Alcohol and her husband were a dangerous mix.
Not to mention they hadn’t spoken more than five words to each other in the last two weeks.
“ … seen … shirt?” he yelled from upstairs.
Alice pretended not to hear him. She went into the laundry room. The washer was running and making a lot of noise. She could always lie and say she hadn’t heard him over the sound of the washer.
She jumped at the sound of his voice. He’d poked his head into the doorway. Looking at him, you’d never know about his mean streak. He had a kind, soft face and sympathetic eyes.
“I …” Anson took a deep breath. “I know my drinking makes you uncomfortable. I’m sorry.”
She kept her distance. “That’s okay.”
The cycle was predictable. Falling down drunk followed by scenes of absolute terror then remorse and pathetic, weeping apologies. It was way past getting old.
Anson stepped into the tiny laundry room, blocking the door. She felt how very alone they were in this house. Nearest neighbor was half a mile away. It was times like these she grew furious with the church and her God for frowning on divorce. For pressuring her into staying with a man who frightened her.
Anson studied her, his kind eyes searching for something. She hoped it was for forgiveness. She fought herself not to look past his shoulder and give away how uncomfortable she was. That could send him into a rage.
“No really.” He shook his head. “I just … there’s no excuse.”
She realized he was crying. She closed the distance between them and wrapped her arms around his neck. Suddenly, not scared of him at all.
Had he turned the corner finally?
He spoke into her shoulder. “I want to keep with the counseling. I don’t think we should stop.”
“Okay, Anson. Okay.”
She rubbed his back till he collected himself. “I’m trying, hon.”
“I know.” She just wondered if people were actually capable of change. The fairy tales all said they did. But life was no fairy tale. “I just want this thing gone. I’m not comfortable in this house …”
“I know, baby. I want it gone too. Why don’t we ask Giles to come back out?”
“I don’t trust him.”
“Because he’s my friend, right?”
His eyes changed. The soft sadness vanished and a hardness took its place.
“Anson, he’s a fraud. That lady proved it on national TV.”
Anson just stared at her. It was like he was deciding how to react. She wondered what the options were.
“It’s actually gotten worse since he came out,” she said.
Anson frowned. Not believing her.
“It’s more … aggressive now. Before it just used to visit.”
Anger filling his eyes. “You’re just saying that.”
“I’m not a liar, Anson.”
Then she felt it.
The shift in the air pressure. A tingly current of electricity that bubbled over her body. It was here.
“What?” Anson asked.
Alice was a strong woman who had endured a lot in her short thirty years. Still the hackles on her neck rose every time this happened.
He looked up. “It’s here?”
Alice instinctively reached for the cross that nested in the hollow of her neck. “Yeah.”
Since they’d moved in six months ago, they’d received increasingly frequent visits from something. Alice still didn’t know what to call it. She just wanted it to go away.
“Where?” Anson asked.
“It was here, but not anymore.”
“Kitchen,” Anson said.
“I want to get out of here.”
“Come on, it’ll be okay.”
“I mean it. It’s getting worse.”
“No, it’s not. It just feels that way because it’s around more often.”
“Anson, yesterday it started moving the furniture.”
“I left the dining room for a moment. When I came back, two of the seats were moved out.”
Anson shook his head. “You probably moved them and forgot about it.”
“I was home alone. Why would I have moved two chairs?”
“Just come on. You need to face this.”
“I face it every day. I want the night off.”
“Come on.” He grabbed her wrist.
Reluctantly, she followed him into the kitchen. It was the spirit’s most frequent haunt.
Anson disconnected the camcorder from its charger, then made a face. “Did you forget to plug this thing in?”
She ignored him. She could just feel something … right there on the edge of her senses.
Anson was fussing with the camcorder. “Damnit, this thing’s dead.”
She closed her eyes. Felt. Tried to place the ghost.
The sound of her husband’s breathing, made heavy by drink. The hum of the dishwasher.
“Alice, are you sure it was here?” Anson right next to her.
“Anson, let’s just leave.”
“We need answers.”
“I don’t care what they might be anymore.”
Alice looked into his eyes and saw he wasn’t going to drop this. She wanted to leave. Run away. She could stay with her father. Or her cousin, Billy. She could just go. She wouldn’t miss Anson much.
But she couldn’t leave. She wasn’t supposed to. She was supposed to stay and make the best of things and pray.
Fuck it. It wasn’t often that Alice cursed.
She closed her eyes. She’d never channeled in front of him before. But now she wanted him to see how far this ghost had pushed her. What lengths she was prepared to go to.
Alice folded in on herself. Tried to shut down and open up. Like closing doors but opening windows at the same time.
“Alice, what’re you doing?”
Anson huffed and she ignored him, reached out as far as she could …
“It’s close,” Alice said.
Anson cursed his luck. The first time in a couple weeks--not three months like Alice thought—he’d decided to bark at the moon with the fellas at the watering hole and the spirit had decided to drop by tonight of all nights. Disinhibited by the booze, he’d reached out to Alice and she’d responded. Maybe she still did care for him. But then the ghost. Its visits had been driving them apart, Alice terrified and questioning her own sanity.
“Where is it, Alice?”
But Alice was off in Wonderland. He had no idea what she was doing. Her eyes were squeezed shut. Her body tensed. Hands fisted. At first he thought she was praying but then he took a second look at her.
“Alice, honey …”
Her mouth moved but no words came out.
“What the hell are you doing?”
He put his hand on her shoulder. Through the shirt, her skin was icy. The cold made him jump.
Alice’s eyelids opened and revealed only milky whiteness.
Anson grabbed her, afraid she was going to faint, but Alice stayed vertical. Her body was as hard and cold as a block of ice. He shook her because he didn’t know what else to do.
Suddenly her eyes rolled back down like sevens on a slot machine and her knees buckled. She collapsed against him, still icy cold like she’d spent ten minutes locked in a freezer.
“Anson …” Her voice was groggy, faraway. “She’s here.”
Anson got a better grip on his wife and propped her up. “You okay, honey?”
Anson didn’t like the way his wife looked. Her skin was flushed, she looked about to lose consciousness, and she was unnaturally cold. Was it possible to get spontaneous hypothermia? Anson didn’t think so but he was no doctor.
“Okay, honey, we need to call the ambu—”
Something pushed him from behind. Anson toppled forward and he lost hold of his wife. She spilled onto the floor, almost as lifeless as a corpse.
Anson fell into the kitchen counter, sent the dishes flying. They hit the floor and shattered.
Anson wheeled around, fists ready. Somebody had pushed him. He didn’t know who, and he didn’t know how, but whoever it was the son of a bitch was going to get it.
But there was no one there.
Anson checked the floor where he’d been standing but it was clear. He hadn’t tripped on anything.
On the floor, Alice started moving. He kneeled, gripped her arm. “Slow down, honey. Just stay like that a moment.”
Her eyes were clenched shut and she gripped her stomach like she was about to vomit and she moaned.
Something knocked into Anson’s shoulder and he fell away from his wife. Okay, this time he knew he’d been pushed.
But there was no one or no thing in the room with them.
A chill ran down Anson’s spine. There was nobody else in the house. But that left one explanation, and that explanation terrified him.
The spirit had pushed him.
Alice was right. It was becoming more aggressive.
His wife opened her eyes and the color returned to her face. “I’m going to throw up.”
“Honey, I think it’s—”
Another shove. Anson slipped, kept his balance, then got pushed again. His ass hit the handle on the cupboard.
Another shove, this time from the side. He almost cartwheeled into the kitchen table. His wife screaming. Him yelling.
He was flung off the kitchen table through the threshold. Landed in the living room. The blows weren’t that powerful. If he could see where they were coming from he could have easily braced for them but he was fighting blind.
Then the invisible hand got stronger.
It forced him backwards. The back of his legs hit the couch and he flipped. His feet crashed into the coffee table as he fell off the couch.
His wife hurrying into the room. Despite how lousy he’d been to her, she was rushing to help him. Her love shamed him. He didn’t deserve it. Like all the men she’d ever given herself to, he’d been a no-good son of a bitch.
But that would stop. From now on, he’d be the man she deserved. No more drinking. No more anger. No more intimidating her. He could be better than all that. He could listen. He could provide. He could be a better man. He just had to try.
“Anson, are you okay?”
“Honey, I love you. I’m sorry.”
“I know.” She closed her eyes. “Hold on.”
“What are you doing?”
Alice didn’t answer. Her mouth started flapping again. Her eyes became white slits. Her skin translucent.
Anson felt a pressure on his arm, like the spirit was trying to pick him up. He readied for the next blow but it never came. The pressure on his arm suddenly gone. He looked to his wife.
Alice’s eyes fluttered, like they were trying to unroll. Her arm was cold to the touch again but he held fast.
“Alice, honey, I love you. Alice …”
Her eyes unrolled and she looked at him like she didn’t know him.
He cupped her shoulders.
“Honey, are you okay?”
Alice’s mouth slid open and issued an unintelligible, inhuman sound.
When she spoke it was with a voice not her own. “It’s. Not. Me.”
Anson felt a chilly breath on the nape of his neck and he didn’t know if it was the spirit or his own body working against him. His wife rose on unsteady legs and swayed back and forth.
Anson pushed off the couch and got to his feet.
“Not me,” his wife said.
Alice screamed like a banshee and flung herself away from him. She stutter-stepped back into the sliding door. The glass spider-webbed.
She doubled over and gasped like someone had slammed her in the stomach and knocked the wind out of her.
Anson ran to his wife, but he was stopped by a shot to his jaw. The blow rang his bell but he managed to stay on his feet.
“Anson, I think it’s—” she started to say.
Alice was thrown violently and knocked the flat screen TV over. She got to her feet and screamed at him to run and was tripped by some invisible foot. She face-planted in the carpet and then her head snapped up like someone had grabbed her by the hair.
Anson raced to his wife, but then the invisible hand thumped him in the chest and he went down. But it was distraction enough for Alice. She got up and took off for the front door.
Anson didn’t know what else to do. He had his cell phone in his pocket. The reception in his house was awful. He prayed the cell would work as he frantically dialed 911.
Before he could say anything, the phone was knocked out of his hand and went under the sofa.
Greg Tolliff had been working the 911 dispatch for three months. In his short time riding the line, the most bizarre call he’d gotten was from a man who’d accidentally driven a nail through his nuts, and the most terrifying call had been from a mother, sick with worry, about her seven-year-old who’d just ingested half a bottle of sleeping medication.
But the call he took that night was more bizarre and terrifying than those two combined.
“9-1-1 Dispatch. What is the nature of your emergency?”
“... help … stop, stop ...”
The woman wasn’t near the phone but Tolliff heard the raw fear in her voice. He perked up in his seat. This one sounded interesting.
“Ma’am, what is your name and phone number?”
The enhanced 911 system provided Tolliff with a phone number, name, and corresponding address, but Tolliff was following SOP in independently verifying this information. Though glitches were rare, sending EMS and local LE to the wrong place helped no one. LE especially didn’t like walking into a scene they didn’t understand. Some nutters were just waiting for the cops to show up so they could suicide-by-police.
“Ma’am, are you there? Ma’am?”
“Anson … noooo!”
“Ma’am? Are you there?”
The line was still active, but there was no answer. In the background, Tolliff heard a crash and more screaming.
Tolliff connected to EMS and LE. “Unknown possible medical emergency. 225 Watoga, Cumberland. The nearest intersection is one mile away at Browning Road and Rural Route 57. Repeat, unknown medical emergency. 225 Watoga …”
Dispatch contacted LE. The general call went out to all available units. Officer Billy Towson was on-duty that night, sitting in his cruiser only a mile down the road in his favorite bear trap in front of the local farming collective’s cornfield, passing the time waiting for speeders or drunks.
“225 Watoga, repeat, 225 Watoga. Unknown medical emergency.”
Towson’s eyes went wide. “Officer Towson. I’m a click away.”
Towson put the car in DRIVE and stepped on it. Not all his tires grabbed and the cruiser started spinning. He cut the wheel and got the tires to grab and he rocketed forward.
An oncoming vehicle took the bend in the road too wide and crossed the center line. It looked like a new model station wagon. Towson hadn’t seen too many of those in these parts, where everybody drove a pickup or SUV.
Towson slammed the brakes and swerved right. The wagon missed him by inches. Heart in his throat, Towson heard the screech of brakes from the other vehicle and righted his cruiser. He hit the gas and through the rearview saw the wagon had nearly gone off the road too, but was now under control and had kept going.
“Fucking drunk.” Towson activated his siren and lights and gunned it. Then he had a thought. “This is Towson. Anybody sees a station wagon near Watoga, make a routine stop. Could be related to the Ketcher call.” He doubted the two were related, but being a good policeman meant being thorough.
And someone else could handle the asshole driver. He was more worried about the people residing at 225 Watoga. Especially the woman, Alice.
She was his cousin.
Towson knew from the call that this was an unknown medical emergency. A vague, almost useless classification that could apply to any number of ominous or harmless things and that 911 dispatchers used to cover all bases … and their asses.
Towson had to shout into the CB over the blaring of his siren. “You gotta give me more than an UME, Gary.”
“Possible home invasion.”
Home invasion? Towson hadn’t been expecting that. His first thought was that Anson Ketcher was up to no good again, wailing on his wife. Towson respected their pastor, but the guy was wrong to advise Alice against divorce. God might have frowned on that but Towson was pretty sure God would frown on sweet Alice being some drunk’s punching bag.
“Who called it in?” Towson asked.
“Hold on, the Chief wants to talk to you.”
The Chief was Towson’s father. He waited for his dad to come on the line.
“Son, we don’t know who called it in but we could hear screaming.”
Towson almost broke the steering wheel, he was gripping it so hard. “I’m going to kill the motherfucker if—”
“Billy! That’s enough. We don’t know what’s happened.”
“You’re going to be first on-scene. Two more units on the way, couple of minutes behind you. I don’t know what the hell’s going on there but make sure Alice is safe above all else. I don’t give a shit about Anson and nobody here is gonna blame you for having to choose between the two of them if this is a domestic dispute turning deadly. Understood?”
Towson had already thought of that. “Roger that, Dad.”
“Get her safe, wait for back-up, keep your lid on. If Anson’s somehow involved in this … we can’t afford any fuck-ups. Understood?”
Towson knew exactly what his father meant. No fuck-ups meant following the letter of the law carefully so there were no due process violations.
“I love you, son. Be careful.”
“Love you too, Dad.”
Towson shared his father’s worry. His cousin Alice was the sweetheart of their extended family. A nice girl, with the worst luck. At nine, she’d been diagnosed with epilepsy. At eighteen, she’d been in a horrible car accident that had nearly claimed her life. Some drag-racing punk had plowed into her head-on. At twenty, she’d been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that had nearly taken her as well. She’d lost forty pounds she didn’t have and sat on death’s doorstep for a month until somehow her body rallied. She’d been a bright student and shown much promise but her medical conditions always kept her from maintaining her studies for any continuous stretch.
And she had the bad habit of falling in love with the wrong guy. In high school, that was the star running back on the football team, who tested positive for steroids one time and later developed a nasty cocaine habit. He was serving five to seven for armed robbery currently. Then there was the man accused of running a low-level internet Ponzi scheme who’d fled the state before he could stand trial. He’d taken some of Alice’s money, and most of her heart.
And finally, there was Anson.
Alice and her husband had a bumpy, on-again, off-again history going back to high school, and their marriage was well-known to the local police department and had been the subject of endless local gossip. More than once, Alice had reported domestic abuse, only to later recant and retract her complaints.
So when Towson had gotten the call, he’d assumed Anson had crossed the line again.
Everybody in the family felt for Alice. She’d endured so much and managed to survive cancer. If all that had been in vain, to come to an end at the hands of a loser like Anson Ketcher ...
Towson and his father had been looking for a reason to bust Anson so Alice would be out of his reach long enough to come to her senses and leave him.
But if dispatch was correct, this wasn’t a domestic quarrel. It was a home invasion.
An unexpected visitor at this hour would have been strange, so the home invader probably hadn’t bothered with a disguise and cover story. Daytime home invaders usually pretended to be mail carriers or repairmen. It was an easy way to gain trust and push in. This guy had probably entered at some weak point in the house like the sliding glass door in the back, his weapon already drawn.
A knot formed in Towson’s stomach as he thought about it more. A home invasion was plausible. The Ketchers lived in a large, well-furnished, home that shouted money. The money came from Alice’s father, Towson’s uncle, who was a local, good old boy politician with a lot of clout and even more capital. That made Alice and her husband prime targets for burglars.
Towson had Alice’s cell phone number programmed into his. He called it, hoping to get lucky. The reception out here was shit though and the call wouldn’t connect.
A quarter mile out, Towson could see the Ketcher house. The sprawling home sat alone far off the road and was surrounded by a lot of acreage.
There was a mile of woods behind the home and a bevy of intersecting creeks. Somebody could disappear back there if they couldn’t use the road to get away.
Towson pulled into the mouth of the Ketcher’s long driveway and stood on the gas pedal. He braked to a stop in front of the garage, grabbed his shotgun, and jumped out of the car.
Towson didn’t see any unknown vehicles. Alice’s old Beamer was parked in front of the garage next to Anson’s old pickup truck.
The garage doors were closed. The invader hadn’t come in that way.
Towson rounded to the front of the house and peered through the windows as he raced to the front door. The lights downstairs were on. The front door was shut. The windows along the face of the house all looked intact.
Civilians think burglaries and home invasions are synonymous, but they’re not. Burglars don’t want homeowners to be around during a robbery. They know what they’re after, so they want to get in and out undetected.
Home invaders, on the other hand, want homeowners present so they can be shown where the expensive items are and so the safes can be opened. In a home invasion, robbers come prepared to administer violence.
The front door was open.
Towson bounded up the steps and angled his shotgun at the doorway. He didn’t hear anything.
“Alice? You in there?”
He went in.
Towson swept his shotgun 180 degrees and back again to clear the corners of the room. No one in the foyer.
“Alice? Anson? This is Billy!”
He smelled the metallic odor of blood on the air. His heart slipped into fourth gear.
Towson pushed through the foyer, saw nobody and heard nothing except for the whirring of the dishwasher.
Towson left the foyer and made a right into the kitchen. Spotted the shattered dishes on the floor. He rounded the island to make sure nobody was hiding then went to the den.
The couch was out of place. He could tell by the exposed indents in the rug. The entertainment center was missing its flat screen TV. The sliding glass door was cracked.
Shotgun aimed in front of him, Towson moved forward. The room was wrecked, but nobody was there.
He turned left and took the long hallway. Checked the bathroom. Empty. Kept going to the family room where Alice worked on her landscapes and portraits.
Her easel was on its side, one of her paintings face-down on the drop cloth. Next to that, Alice herself lying on her stomach.
Her head was twisted at a grotesque angle. Towson knew without even touching her that her neck had been broken.
He knelt beside his cousin, went through the routine of checking her vitals even though he knew there was no point. She was dead. One eye half-open, the other swollen shut.
If it weren’t for his training, Billy would have crumbled right there. But he knew he had to clear the house and find Anson, so he went cold, professional. Went room-to-room downstairs then checked the second floor. Then doubled back down to the basement. Nobody home.
He heard the sirens in the distance and got on the walkie.
“Officer Towson on scene. Alice Ketcher is dead. Husband is not here. You’d better stop anybody driving in this area.”
He didn’t know what had happened but it sure looked like a home invasion gone bad. Maybe they’d grabbed Anson to use as leverage in case they got cornered.
He recognized Hank Grimm’s voice on the line. “I’m here, Hank.” His own voice sounded alien to him, like it was somebody else speaking.
“Billy, we picked Anson up. Coming to you.”
“What’s he saying?”
“You’re never going to believe this.”