Eddie killed his beer and wondered, not for the first time, whether he was an alcoholic. He decided to think about it.
Over another beer.
He’d managed to lay off the drugs since he got out of the joint. The years between his brother’s death and Eddie’s incarceration had been a confused blur of booze, broads, and bongs.
But the last year had been good. He’d bounced around but now he’d found a quiet little place, a decent job, and was scraping money together. In a few months, he’d have a safety net again and could go back to school.
He put the empty on the bar and signaled for another.
George, the bartender, darted his eyes toward the entrance and pretended not to understand Eddie was asking for another. George had a wicked comb-over that defied gravity.
“All set?” George asked.
George had been anxious for Eddie to leave after the previous night’s tiff with Marty Kindler. Eddie didn’t care much for Kindler, but townies treated his family like royalty. The Kindlers had founded the town way back and more recently the Mill, which at one point had been the town’s largest employer. The Mill had fallen on hard times of late and had laid off three-quarters of its employees over the last couple of years.
Normally that level of job loss would piss people off, but Kindler had the ready-made excuse of the worst downturn in the economy since the Great Depression.
So the townies still treated Kindler with deference even though Eddie had it on good authority that the man’s incompetence was to blame for the Mill’s troubles.
Eddie almost pushed the issue and asked for another brew but thought better of it. “Take it easy, George. I’m rolling.”
George did his best not to look relieved. “Nothing against you, Eddie. This is a small town and I can’t afford to piss off the wrong people.”
Small was an understatement. The city limits were about a nine-iron apart.
Eddie stood up. The townies should have run Kindler out on a rail. Instead they walked on eggshells around him.
“You shouldn’t worry about a jerkoff like Kindler. Guy like that feeds off it.”
“Easy for you to say.” George folded his arms. “Case you didn’t notice, business ain’t exactly booming. And you’ve got nothing to lose.”
Last night, Kindler had come into the bar with five athletic-looking strangers all wearing expensive suits. After a blitzkrieg of Tequila shooters, Kindler set his sights on Lenny Brisbane, a harmless local drunk who had had his fill of cheap whiskey and was half-laying on the bar blubbering about the inanity of the two-party political system and how the Irish lived in France before the French till Caesar subjugated Gaul.
Kindler decided it would be amusing if he shoved some ice cubes down the back of Lenny the Drunk’s shirt.
The cold was enough to reach Lenny through his drunken stupor. Lenny’s body jerked upright like he’d been shot with adrenalin. He fell off his stool and landed in a heap on the floor.
Eddie owed Lenny nothing. Lenny the Drunk could in fact be annoying at times, spouting off all this useless knowledge of questionable veracity that he’d never used to any benefit.
All the same, Eddie didn’t care to see the guy get run over by an entitled asshole like Kindler.
“Why don’t you leave the guy alone?” Eddie said.
“Why don’t you mind your own business, Drifter?” Kindler called him that because he’d been in town for three weeks and, truth be told, looked the part.
“Speaking of business, I heard yours was flushed down the shitter by some idiot who didn’t know his ass from page eight.”
Still on the floor, Lenny the Drunk went apoplectic with laughter.
But the rest of the bar went quieter than a high-school kegger just broken up by the cops. For a standing eight-count, the only sound in the bar came from the TV tuned to the Sixers game.
Then Kindler pushed away from the bar.
Eddie slipped off the seat and faced Kindler. He balled his fists and fought the butterflies and girded himself for the main event of the evening.
One of the suits cuffed Kindler’s arm.
“We can’t be involved in …” The guy lowered his voice and spun Kindler around and tried to herd him toward the front door. Eddie didn’t hear the guy’s next words, but Kindler was distracted enough to give George time to act. The bartender hurdled the bar and forced Eddie out the back door before the shit hit the blender.
Now as he headed for the door, Eddie realized he still hadn’t thanked George for last night. He should have. The bartender had most likely saved Eddie from a serious ass-whooping. Eddie was okay with his hands but he wasn’t Bruce Lee good. Against Kindler and his crew, he would have come out looking worse than last week’s garbage.
Eddie felt the bartender’s eyes on him. He stopped next to the old Donkey Kong cabinet and looked back at George.
“Don’t worry, George, if it happens again, I’ll take it outside. And thanks.” Behind him, the front door creaked open and the cold December wind raced inside.
George shot him a skeptical look. “You’re wel—”
“What’re you going to take outside, Eddie?”
Eddie’s stomach dropped. He turned.
Marty Kindler filled the doorway.
Kindler wasn’t tall, but he was thick. Not fat. He didn’t look like Mr. Universe but the strongest guys don’t. The strongest guys look like refrigerators with fire hydrants for appendages. Kindler was the kind of guy you had to hurt to defeat.
Eddie waited a second for his stomach to climb back into its correct position. “Well if it isn’t the great white dope. Beat up any drunks lately?”
Eddie had learned in the joint that you never back up. You always move forward or you’ll be shorn.
Kindler stepped inside. This was it.
“You threatening Mr. Kindler, Eddie?” said another voice.
Lieutenant Whitmore, in charge of the local donut-eaters, sauntered in.
The cold wind slammed the door behind him.
Eddie shifted gears. Kindler had brought the law with him. And that wasn’t good for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was Eddie being a convicted felon.
Eddie was a drifter and nobody liked drifters. Not even drifters. The townies looked at him like he was sporting fangs and casting no reflections even though he’d been gainfully employed for the last three weeks. But what was three weeks compared to the families who’d lived here more than a hundred years? To them he was just a guy from someplace else who would be better off elsewhere. Eddie liked being alone, in fact he loved and craved solitude.
But why had Kindler brought the law? Eddie couldn’t be locked up without cause. Or could he?
Of course he could.
This was after all a small town and he’d seriously pissed off one of the landed gentry. But why had Whitmore brought no backup? The law could make life miserable for him if they chose.
Whitmore didn’t look like he was ready to brace Eddie. The cop’s hand wasn’t riding his holster. His neutral stance and general attitude were not aggressive, just coldly authoritarian. For all Whitmore knew, Eddie could be armed and dangerous, an unknown element. But the cop made no moves. And if he’d come here to arrest Eddie, some drifter he didn’t know, he should have taken the shock and awe approach. It wouldn’t be like arresting some local-yokel he’d known for twenty-plus years, some guy he could have asked nicely and eased off the bar stool. He didn’t know Eddie from Adam. If he was here to make an arrest, he should have come with one other guy at least. And he should have had another covering the back door in case Eddie tried to pull a Usain Bolt.
Whitmore wore one of those abbreviated cowboy hats that looked good on nobody. As if realizing this, the cop removed the hat and stared impassively at Eddie.
Eddie looked at Kindler. The man wasn’t exactly dressed for a fracas. Cashmere topcoat over a blue blazer, pink button-down shirt, grey flannel slacks and penny loafers.
Despite their laid-back attitude, Eddie didn’t relax.
Maybe they were just stupid. In fact, he knew Kindler was stupid. He couldn’t put it past Whitmore. The Bubblefuck, Pennsylvania Chief of Police didn’t hire astronauts exactly.
Kindler stepped toward him and Eddie instinctively assumed his ready-stance. Left side to opponent, hands loose, weight on the back foot.
But he was totally unprepared for what happened next.
Kindler said, “We seem to have gotten off on the wrong foot and I want to make it up to you.”
This reeked of a set-up.
Kindler closed on him and snaked an arm around Eddie’s shoulder and continued talking like he’d just ingested a kilo of speed.
“Crazy cold, huh? Maybe the Mayans were right, maybe 2012 is the end, huh? You know, Nostradamus predicted it. So did Aramis. Or Dumas. Or that other frog … Hugo? I don’t know.” Kindler let go of Eddie. “End of the world, or a new age, or both. Nobody knows. Nobody knows. Buy you a drink? You thirsty?”
Whitmore watched this whole display stoically. He didn’t roll his eyes but his left eyebrow arched due north. His cold gaze never left Eddie.
Eddie was still suffering from acute awkwardness but managed to blurt, “I’ll have a drink.”
Kindler gave George the nod, and the bartender went to work.
“Let’s grab a booth. More privacy. We can talk.” Kindler looked around like the place was crowded. But other than them, only Lenny the Drunk was patronizing the bar, and he was busy checking his eyelids for holes.
Kindler led the way to the last booth and sat with his back to the wall so he could watch the bar. Eddie didn’t want his back to the door, but Kindler didn’t move over for him so he sat opposite. The booths were designed for one person a side, so when Lieutenant Whitmore nudged Eddie over he felt trapped.
Nobody said anything.
Kindler’s lips smiled but his eyes declined to join the fun so Eddie just stared at him, perplexed.
Whitmore made a big production of peeling his gloves off one finger at a time.
George brought a tray of drinks. He deposited a shot and a beer in front of Kindler, a pint of lager in front of Eddie.
George had another beer on the tray, but Whitmore held out a palm like he was directing traffic. “On duty, George. No thanks.”
George put the last beer in front of Kindler too. Before he left he managed to look disapprovingly at Eddie.
Eddie laughed. He didn’t know how else to react to the bizarre situation.
Startled, Kindler almost tromboned the shot of Canadian Club but managed to keep it down which of course only made Eddie laugh more. Even Whitmore cracked a smile in spite of his earnest Dirty Harry demeanor.
“I’ll cut to it,” Kindler said. “Something I want to ask you.”
Eddie assumed they were about to go First Blood on him so he might as well have a good time before he got his head bashed in or before he was run out of town. “I didn’t kill Kennedy.”
Whitmore frowned at Eddie’s joke. Kindler didn’t seem to get it.
“Look, Kindler, I know you’d like nothing better than for me to leave your little fiefdom, but I like it here so I’m going to stick around for awhile.”
Eddie swigged his beer and looked from Kindler to Whitmore. Nobody said anything.
Eddie put his beer down. “Last night, you and the manbots were about to do the Mexican hat dance on my face and now you’re buying me a beer?”
“Forget last night. I was just playing, wanted to see if you had any bottle. All in good fun.”
“I get it. You want me out. But I won’t go willingly.”
Kindler frowned. “Eddie, that’s the last thing I want.”
Eddie didn’t know what to say so he sipped some more beer. Whitmore made a big show of looking away as if he didn’t approve of this conversation.
Kindler’s frown flipped to a smile. “I want you to stay.”
Eddie couldn’t square the Marty Kindler sitting across from him with the guy who, less than twenty four hours ago, had been ready to use him as a punching bag.
Eddie had broken one of the unwritten rules of this town: never talk back to Marty Kindler. The Kindler family had opened the Mill sixty years ago and for fifty-nine of those years had provided good jobs to the locals. At least, that was how some of the people saw it. Others feared him for the same reason they loathed him, because he had money. Many in the town just thought of him as a dangerous but incompetent twit, somebody who couldn’t figure out where to put his dick even after watching a porno.
“You’re thinking about last night.” Kindler waved a hand in front of his face as if to suggest the details were meaningless. “Forget it. I was just seeing what kind of soul you had. Two kinds in this world.”
“Yeah. The living and the dead ones,” Eddie said.
Whitmore groaned like he had kidney stones and rolled his eyes. Kindler did a double-take as if Eddie had just laid some profound truth on him.
“Exactly right. Exactly. But we’ll get to the dead ones later. I was only talking about the living ones. You know, two kinds of living ones.”
Eddie looked to Whitmore again. So far, the cop hadn’t given him the MIranda or otherwise invoked his authority.
Whitmore patted down his unpat-downable buzz cut. “We’re just here to have a word.”
“You’re not here to arrest me?” Eddie said, heavy on the skepticism.
Whitmore stiffened. “You done something worthy of arrest?”
“Not unless you want legal trouble.”
Whitmore’s shoulders relaxed a fraction. “I don’t have much of a sense of humor about arresting someone.”
“I’d say you don’t have much of a sense of humor about anything.”
It was an incredibly dumb thing to say. But Eddie said it anyway. He didn’t like being boxed in, didn’t like cops trying to push him around when he hadn’t done anything.
Kindler reached across the table and patted Whitmore’s shoulder. “Ease up, Lieutenant.” Kindler looked at Eddie. “Eddie, cops are a necessary evil. They’re just part of the simulation.”
Eddie had no idea what Kindler was on about and Whitmore might as well have been a cigar store Indian the way he was sitting there. Eddie decided to listen and suck down as many free brewskis as Kindler was willing to buy.
Kindler said, “George, my man’s dry over here!”
Over the last year, Eddie had almost gotten used to the questions.
He waited for Kindler to start the interrogation, deciding he would be truthful up to a point. He was prepared for the usual bullshit:
Where do you come from?
Why are you here?
How long are you staying?
From Jersey, South Jersey.
I don’t know how long I plan to stay.
I have a job.
Eddie had found this town on a map through a quick Google search. Small town. Hit hard by the devastating one-two combination of the economic recession and the impending closure of the Mill. Before arriving, he’d called around, gotten a few non-committal answers about employment, had landed on a conditional yes from a local grocer. The guy wasn’t old enough to be a real hippie, but he was trying hard. His name was Victor and he answered the phone by saying, “Think Global, Buy Local.” Victor had told Eddie that he could probably give him a job but he’d have to interview face-to-face first.
Victor had asked him one question. “You going to work hard for me?”
Eddie told him yes, which was true, and was grateful Victor hadn’t run a background check.
Eddie started working on his fresh beer while he eyeballed Kindler. He had a round, puffy face that looked shot up with collagen and unstylishly long hair. He had really bad breath. Really bad. He also had the unfortunate habit of leaning forward when he talked which compounded the breath thing.
Kindler leaned in close like they were a couple Greeks drinking ouzo.
Kindler said, “I really believe in a higher power. Somebody’s up there watching. Fate. Things happen for a reason. You’re here, I’m here, this bar was put here, George is the …” indler’s voice dropped off and he shook his head as if that would clear his jumbled thoughts.
“What I’m saying is, the timing is key. We’ve reached critical mass and here you are.”
Eddie said nothing.
Kindler started up again suddenly, like an old lawn mower. “The Mill is, unfortunately, going to close. Nothing we can do about it. That’s how it is. You know? And you’re here now. Just when things are heating up.”
Eddie took a long drink from the beer.
“Not to strike a discordant note, Kindler, but I’ve got no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.”
Kindler gave Eddie the stiff one eye then shook it off. “I know who you are, Eddie McCloskey.”
This caught Eddie off-guard. He tensed and wondered if that explained Deputy Dog’s presence. He hadn’t done anything illegal.
Kindler leaned ever closer. His pupils were dilated. Guy was probably on something and the booze was amping up the effects.
Kindler killed his Canadian Club and chased it with the beer. “I know who you are and I could use your help.”
“I don’t know what you want but I promise I can’t help.”
Eddie tried to stand up. There wasn’t enough room in the booth, and the table butted against his thighs. Whitmore again didn’t move and his eyes went from neutral to hostile without stopping at interested.
“You’ll hear Mr. Kindler out,” Whitmore said. “Or there’ll be trouble. Just like us folks, I’m sure the good people of New Jersey take a dim view of parole violators.”
Kindler grabbed Eddie’s wrist. “Please. Just hear me out.”
Eddie broke Kindler’s hold of his wrist by executing an elbow flick he’d learned in tae kwon do as a kid.
“The hell are you talking about, parole violation?”
“Pot’s illegal in this state, McCloskey.”
“What’s that got to do with me?” Eddie said.
“We both know what I’m talking about.” Whitmore’s eyes narrowed to venetian blinds.
Eddie could see the meanness behind those eyes now. Whitmore was enjoying himself. He was waiting for Eddie to do something stupid. He would show the drifter who the man was. He was Hitler, without the charm.
Drifting was proving to be problematic. Third town this year, since he’d left the joint.
And he was starting to like this little town. Nice library, couple of passable bars, some willing women both single and married, though nowadays he shied away from the married ones. He’d been on the receiving end of one too many cuckolded fists. There was nothing as disconcerting as a wronged husband armed with an assault rifle.
Whitmore’s accusation surprised Eddie, but he knew the source of the problem. His co-worker, Ana, had thrown an impromptu get-together two weeks ago. He had no business hanging out with a bunch of twenty-year-olds, but he had nothing better to do and he liked Ana. Then someone broke out the ganga and passed around a community joint. It had been so long that Eddie was tempted. He looked at the joint for a moment, knowing that one drag was harmless, but all the same drugs had landed him in prison and he wasn’t going back.
He’d passed the joint along, not taking a hit.
“I haven’t smoked any pot, Lieutenant.”
“Let’s not get excited.” Kindler was trying to smooth things over. “We’re all reasonable men. Rational animals. Homo sapiens.”
Eddie ignored him. “Charge me. I know a good lawyer.”
“All the trouble you’ve been in, I’ll bet you do,” Whitmore said.
An iceberg slid down Eddie’s spine. These guys had done their homework. They knew about his past. They had him and everybody knew it. He was cornered. Fear and anger washed over him. He had to listen to this Kindler clown now and make like he was interested in what he had to say. First chance he got he’d be tail lights and find another little town, maybe head down south.
Eddie sat back down.
“There’s money in it, Eddie,” Kindler said. “A man should be paid for his work.”
With this, Whitmore rose and went to the bar, apparently disgusted that he wouldn’t be making an arrest.
Eddie knew what Kindler wanted from him. He had heard the rumors. Ana had mentioned to him that she and her friends were already investigating the strange goings-on.
“This town is haunted,” Kindler said.
“Call the Ghostbusters,” Eddie said.
Kindler guffawed. Ordered two more beers, which Eddie did not object to.
“I’m serious, Eddie, something big is going down and this town is the epicenter.”
Epicenter? Eddie looked over at Whitmore. “Why are you here, Lieutenant? Don’t tell me you’re buying into this bullshit.”
Whitmore faced Eddie. “Just for the record, hot shot, I’m here to warn you.”
“About Casper the friendly ghost and his buddies?”
Whitmore smiled in spite of himself. Then he went for the kill. “We all know how your last investigation turned out. One child butchered, your brother gutted, almost two more dead.”
Eddie almost burst out of the booth and strangled Whitmore. But that was exactly what the cop wanted. He was seeing red but forced himself to stay seated.
“What’s your stake in this, Whitmore? Police Chief, the next go around?”
Once again, Eddie had gone too far. Whitmore approached him, violence in his eyes.
“I don’t care if you take or leave this job. I’m not going to force you to do anything. But your criminal history is a matter of record. You’re on parole. A drug charge right now would throw your sorry ass right back in the hoosegow where you’ll have to worry about dropping the soap. I’d also be in my rights to let your employer know about your checkered past. It’s your choice.”
The timing couldn’t have been worse. Eddie had yet to receive his first check from the store. Victor, his boss, seemed a good egg but you never knew about people. Once they knew you were an ex-con they looked at you differently, like they couldn’t trust you and more often than not they were right.
He’d split the life insurance proceeds with his dead brother’s fiancee. At the time, it had seemed liked a lot of money. He’d thought he’d invest some, maybe buy some real estate. His investing skills proved to be less than exceptional and … then there were the lawyer’s costs. He’d racked up legal fees like they were bar tabs. The best laid plans ...
“Now, now Lieutenant, let’s all calm down,” Kindler said.
Whitmore’s mouth twitched and he gave Kindler a look that could freeze the sun. “Marty, you want this vagrant to help you, that’s your deal. I don’t have to like it though.” Whitmore returned to the bar and gave them his back.
Kindler watched the cop for a moment before facing Eddie again. He lowered his voice. “Listen, Eddie, I know what happened all those years ago wasn’t your fault. If anything, I’d say you saved two lives out there on that terrible day.”
Eddie grimaced. One of those he’d saved was Sean McKenna, but McKenna didn’t see things that way. He blamed Eddie for the death of his son and wanted Eddie dead. In fact, Eddie was reasonably certain McKenna had already tried to have him killed once.
Kindler’s voice rose to full volume again. “Eddie, what’s happening here is far past exciting, it’s life-changing. You can be a big part of this, with your experience and knowledge. It’s why you came here of all the places you could have gone. You were drawn here.”
“I picked the name of this town off Wikipedia. It was the third name on the list. I like the number three.”
“Don’t you see, Eddie? Three, the number three, the trinity. All things holy. I’m telling you Eddie it’s as plain as the nose on your face.”
“What about Ana? What has she done?” Eddie asked.
Kindler leaned in conspiratorially. “Ana! Ana, Ana, Bo-bana. Good-looking little philly and I bet she’s hell in the sack.”
Kindler had a way of saying things that would creep out Jeffrey Dahmer. Not that Eddie hadn’t had some impure thoughts himself about the nubile Ana. But she was young and innocent and nice. Eddie did not want to be the one that tainted her.
“Nice girl,” Eddie said.
Kindler touched the side of his nose and pointed at Eddie like they were in on some joke together.
“She gets all her info about this sort of thing from movies and idiotic TV shows where these frauds are stumbling around in the dark with flashlights. Don’t get me wrong--she’s motivated and wants to do a good job, but she doesn’t have the tools. Hasn’t come up with anything solid.” Kindler had said this last part more to his beer than to Eddie.
“Maybe because there’s nothing solid to come up with. Ockham’s Razor.” Eddie was just talking to talk. He was really trying to figure out an exit strategy.
“Or more like the razor’s edge.” Kindler mumbled to his beer.
The guy wasn’t making sense again but Eddie let it go.
Kindler finally looked up at him. “Lots of people have seen things. Wondrous things. Things that will make your hair stand on end. This is all prologue to something huge. Mark my words. Something truly amazing is happening.”
Kindler had the eyes of a zealot but the sales skills of a user car peddler. If the phenomena were as prevalent as he was claiming, a professional team would have already ransacked the town. Each event would have been painstakingly researched, recorded, and reviewed. The three Rs.
Kindler leaned in. “I know what you’re thinking.”
Christ, I hope not, Eddie thought as he enjoyed more beer.
“I can read you like a book, Eddie. You’re wondering why no one else has come and looked into this yet, aren’t you?”
“The thought did occur to me.”
Kindler smiled. “You’ve got something to prove. You’re bruised. You need this to be true, even more than me. This is your chance, Eddie. Climb out of that hole you’ve dug for yourself.”
Maybe Kindler was smarter than Eddie gave him credit for.
“Three days work, Eddie. You’ll be handsomely compensated. Can you afford not to take this on?”
Eddie pretended to think about it. “If I do this, Kindler, I’m the Honcho. I don’t want anybody second-guessing what I do.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Kindler celebrated like he’d just become a father.
Eddie slid out of the booth and headed for the door. Time to get out of Dodge.
As he approached the front door it opened and Ana breezed in. She was so tiny, two of her could have fit through the doorway. Seeing Eddie she stopped short and nervously fidgeted.
“Eddie … I’m glad I caught you … can we talk for a minute?” She gave him a nervous smile and puppy-dog eyes.
She looked apologetic, which meant Eddie’s suspicions were correct: Ana had somehow gotten wind of Eddie’s past and tipped Kindler off. But how? He hadn’t told anybody. There was only way she could have known.
Before he could formulate a response, he felt Kindler’s hand on his shoulder.
“She just wants to have a word, Ed.” Kindler the diplomat.
Eddie shrugged off Kindler’s hand and headed for the door just as Lenny the Drunk came to and nearly fell out of his seat.
“Eddie, hold up.”
Lenny the Drunk wobbled over and grabbed Eddie’s shoulder.
“I’m indebted to you, sir.” Lenny let out a burp that almost caught fire. “I wanted to thank you for sticking up for an old fool last night.”
Eddie waved him off. “It was nothing.”
“It was to me, Edward. I won’t forget it.”
“Forget it, Lenny.”
Eddie exited the bar and stepped into the cold and heard Ana hot on his trail. He was half-drunk and full-angry. Never mind she’d didn’t realize how much trouble he was in.
He noticed Whitmore had exited the bar and was staring at him through the windshield of his patrol car. The last thing Eddie needed was a Dewey. His only alternative was to ask Ana to drive him home. He didn’t really want to talk to her but reason trumped anger so he turned to her.
“Ana, I’m more than a little pissed at you right now but I need a ride.”
She approached him tentatively, like she didn’t trust him and that tugged at his heart. She was so young, adorable really. She had no idea the trouble she’d caused him.
“You read the book, didn’t you?”
“Come on, give me a lift.”
* * * *
Her car was, like her, petite. Unlike her it was old and rust adorned it like acne. She had a death grip on the steering wheel and drove cautiously like she was trying to pass her driver’s test. All the while stealing sidelong glances at him.
She could no longer stay quiet. “I came to say I was sorry. I was so caught up in the excitement of this thing, and then I find out the person working next to me is an expert in all this paranormal stuff …”
“Why didn’t you just come to me? Why go to Kindler?”
It took her a long time to get it out. “I’m just a little yokel and you’re this mysterious guy who’s been places and done and seen things I could only dream of. I was intimidated by you. I’m sorry, Ed.”
“Call me Eddie, alright? Only my brother called me Ed.”
At the mention of his brother, her mouth sagged into a pitying frown. She had read the book so she knew about Tim’s murder. The mere mention of his brother darkened him, made him extremely sad and murderously furious at the same time.
A couple bends in the road later, she said, “Okay, I’m not stalking you but I know where you live. It’s a small town and everybody knows everybody’s business.”
Eddie nodded as he did the math in his head. Ten minutes to the house. Five minutes to talk to his boss, Victor. Fifteen minutes to pack. Another fifteen to get back to his car, hopefully via Ana. With luck, Whitmore wouldn’t be skulking in the shadows and he’d be tail lights, off to another wondrous adventure someplace else that didn’t involve the past or the paranormal.
Ana turned the music down .“Eddie, this is Kindler’s thing. This is his town. He’s the guy with the juice. Once I found out who you were, I had to tell him.”
“Ana, you can’t investigate while constantly looking over your shoulder for approval. Your results will be skewed.”
“I know, I just got ahead of myself …”
She slowed and pulled into the short drive of the house he was staying in. He occupied the second floor, which had a kitchen and a bathroom that wouldn’t have fit on an airplane.
Fortunately the owner of the house was an absentee landlord, so Eddie didn’t have anybody in his business.
She parked and they got out.
“Can I come in? I feel real bad about this,” Ana said.
“Yeah. You’re going to drive me back to the bar anyway.”
Inside Ana peeled off her jacket, revealing a hodgepodge of thrift store clothing: a mustard colored t-shirt with the Think Global Buy Local slogan Victor the boss always parroted on the phone; a thermal under the t-shirt; grey stretch pants that hugged all the right places; knee-high striped socks; and worn, unlaced sneakers that threatened to trip her every step.
Eddie didn’t usually go for the hipster look because it always seemed so affected. But it worked for Ana.
She tossed her purse and keys on the living room table like she lived there. Eddie couldn’t help checking her out while she wore a hole in the carpet by pacing.
“Eddie, you gotta believe me, I had no idea Mr. Kindler would involve the police in this …”
“Victor still at the store?” Eddie asked.
“He left when I did.”
“Got his phone number?”
“I’ve got his cell.” Ana bent and pulled her phone out of her sock. Of course she kept it there. She read off Victor’s number.
Eddie interrupted her. “I don’t have a phone. Mind if I use yours?”
“You don’t have a phone?”
“No, Ana. I don’t have a phone. Can I use yours?”
She rolled her eyes and thrust a defiant hip forward. “I’ve said sorry several times now. If you were a gentleman, you’d accept my apology. I don’t see what the big deal is, Eddie.”
“I’m no gentleman. And you have no idea how much shit I’m in.”
She tapped her hip impatiently.
“Okay, apology accepted. Now can I use your phone, please?”
She tossed him the phone. “His number’s highlighted.”
Victor answered on the fourth ring. “Hey, Ana.”
“Victor, it’s me, Eddie.”
“Oh ... hey. Is everything alright?”
Eddie watched Ana tiptoe toward his sleeping bag and stoop to examine his pile of books.
Eddie knew to keep the lie simple. “Something’s come up. My …”
He stopped himself. That was the old Eddie about to lie.
“Vic, look, there’s something I never told you.”
“You’re an ex-con.”
Vic hadn’t asked for his background information to do a screening when he’d come on. “How did you …”
“I did my checking, just didn’t let you know.”
“And you took me on anyway?”
“Somebody had to give Jean Valjean a second chance, or there’d be no story.”
“Vic, I don’t know what to say.”
“What’s the problem?”
“Marty Kindler. He’s squeezing me to help him. I don’t want to.”
“I have to leave town, that’s the only way.”
Victor hesitated and his voice flattened. “Look, Eddie, I can get you two weeks’ pay.”
“This was my third week—”
“And I don’t know if you’re telling me the whole truth. I like you, I gave you a second chance, and I may be an old hippie but this isn’t my first rodeo.”
Eddie bit his tongue. “I appreciate that, Vic.”
Ana crept up behind him and whispered. “What are you doing?”
The smell of her distracted him. So clean that smell, faint and flowery. Probably her shampoo. He shot her a mind-your-biz look.
To Victor, he said, “Could I come by and get it? I want to get moving as soon as possible.”
Victor gave Eddie his address and they hung up. He was so close to getting out.
Eddie tried handing the phone back to Ana, but she crossed her arms and wouldn’t take it.
“What are you doing? Why did you lie to Marty and say you were going to do this?”
She looked so cute when she was angry.
“I’ve gotta hit the old dusty trail, Ana. Thanks for the phone.”
He offered her the phone again but she wouldn’t accept it so he laid it on the table next to her purse and went about gathering up his possessions. He could pack faster than a homesick freshman.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “You could help us.”
Eddie said nothing and started packing his books. He had more books than clothing.
The whole time he felt Ana’s eyes burning a hole in his back. The second duffle bag he stuffed to the gills with his books. When finished, he left both bags on the floor and went into the tiny bathroom to retrieve his toothbrush and shaving gear.
“I said I was sorry,” she called after him.
He came out of the bathroom holding his toiletry kit and packed that away. Then he grabbed the last book off the kitchen counter. It was the one that had started this chain of events. Eddie held it up, cover forward, so she could see it.
“When’d you realize?” he asked. How long were the odds she’d have read the book and made the connection to him?
“Yesterday. I read it cover to cover on my day off. You were in some of the pictures in the middle of the book.”
Eddie frowned. Long odds. Very long. He looked at the cover of the book again. The dust jacket was getting a little ratty, the spine cracked. He’d always thought the title heavy-handed:
Five years ago, Eddie and his brother Tim had investigated a cluster of paranormal events happening in a house in their home town. The investigation had turned up a lot of good finds, though Eddie and Tim had butted heads repeatedly throughout. Then … things had gone horribly wrong. Something they could have never anticipated happened, ending in the murder of two: a teenaged boy and Eddie’s own brother.
Eddie shook his head at the nightmarish memories. A local author, Evan Ronan, had gone to work on the non-fiction account of their investigation and its aftermath. The result was the book Eddie now held in his hands.
He packed the book. There was nothing else to collect. He cinched the sack and hefted it over his shoulder. “What made you buy this book?”
Ana’s shoulders tensed. “I saw you reading it. I got interested.”
“You’re always reading. At the register, or on break. But one day I saw you reading that book in your car. I wondered why. You always brought your books inside, but not that one.”
Eddie nodded. It had been stupid to bring the book to work, even if he’d only read it in the car. He wouldn’t repeat that mistake ever again.
“Give me a lift back to the bar.”
She opened her mouth but didn’t say anything. The words died somewhere in her tiny throat.
Eddie scanned the room one more time to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything. He’d never be coming back. This was sayonara.
He slung his bags into the back of her VW then got in. Ana started the engine and put it in gear.
“Can I ask why you’re leaving?” The engine hummed, but she kept her foot on the brake.
There was no point in lying to her. She’d read the book. “I’ll tell you if you tell me something first.”
Her head went sideways but her eyes stayed on him. “Okay.”
“Who brought the weed to the party?”
Her eyebrows molded together. “Why?”
He gave her a look. “Was it your boyfriend, what’s-his-name?”
She shook her head. “It wasn’t Jimbo. It was his friend, Tony. He’s the guy that always brings.”
He nodded and filed that way just in case. “I’m leaving because they’re about to slap a bullshit parole violation on me. I’m leaving because I don’t like cops pushing me around. I’m leaving because Kindler’s claims sound like bullshit. And I’m leaving because if I do this it might get noticed by a man that wants to kill me.”
She did a double-take. Then, slowly put it together. “Sean McKenna? That kid’s father?”
Eddie gave her a grim smile. “He’s already tried to kill me, at least once.”
He took his eyes off her and put them on the thin strip of road ahead. “Ana, I have to leave. I’ve still gotta stop at Victor’s.”
She stared at his profile a full ten seconds before she took her foot off the brake. She made a left and backtracked to the bar. They rode in silence the whole way, though Eddie could almost hear all the questions bouncing around in her head.
She pulled into the bar’s gravel lot. Eddie didn’t see Whitmore’s cruiser anywhere. The lights in the bar were still on. George was being optimistic if he thought he’d get any more business tonight.
Eddie opened his door. The cold night seeped through his pea coat.
Ana watched him with sad eyes. “Are you sure you don’t want to stay? This could be big.”
“I’m sure.” He hit the lever so the passenger seat tipped forward then reached into the back for his bags.
“Don’t you believe in fate?” she asked.
He pulled the first bag out.
“You read the damned book, so you know why I don’t want any part of this, Ana.”
She turned away from him and put her hands at ten and two on the wheel again. Eddie pulled the second bag out.
He was about to walk away without saying anything. He should have. But out of the corner of his eye he saw Ana swipe the back of her hand across her cheek.
The passenger seat popped back into place. Eddie had his hand on the door. He should have just closed it. But then Ana sniffled and he knew she was crying.
He took a deep breath to calm himself.
“I’m sorry, Ana. I wish I could help you but I’ve got my own problems. Good luck and work hard. If something’s there, you’ll find it.”
They were all meaningless platitudes.
Ana buried her face in her hands for a moment. She wiped under her eyes and looked back up. Why was she so upset? She hardly knew him, so it wasn’t about Eddie leaving.
It had to be about the paranormal activity. But why would she take it this personally?
Then she turned to face him and put on a brave smile.
“I think she’s trying to tell me something,” Ana said. “That’s why I’m so excited.”
Eddie was lost. “Who’s trying to tell you something?”
The name didn’t register, but he figured she was referring to the girl who’d died years ago. It was the preferred theory of the locals, that Tessa was the one causing all this activity. That old cliche of the vengeful spirit wreaking havoc against those who wronged her.
Eddie was starting to doubt Ana’s sanity. Why would Tessa try to communicate with Ana specifically? And why would she—
“She was your sister.”