The strange case of Lindsey O’Hara

[This is the beginning of an idea for a crime novel I’m thinking of writing. Any feedback is welcomed.]

She had come in yesterday, just as Mike Shannon had been getting ready to leave for the day. A short, slender woman, her back as straight as a reed. She had the coal black hair of someone with am Armada survivor in her ancestry, but skin so pale it might have been paper. Her request was simple: she wanted to hire Mike to investigate the murder of Lindsey O’Hara, late of Tuam. She was willing to pay his rates, plus any extra expenses he might incur. Given the lack of cases Mike had had of recent, he’d ready to be dickered down, but if the customer wanted to pay him full rates, he’d not object.

So Mike climbed the stairs to his office over Flynn’s Pub intent on researching the crime, But his search soon made one stunning fact clear: Lindsey O’Hara was his most recent client. The face that stared out of the photo with her obituary was the same face he’d seen the night before. Further digging brought up more stories about the crime. Lindsey had been the only surviving child of Rory O’Hara, and the last living member of his family.

Rory had expanded his Tuam-based contracting and real estate development business into the Dublin market just before the Irish economic bubble had popped. Mike remembered his end well, having been part of the team investigating it. Exhibiting singularly poor business judgment, Rory had decided it would be better to get in bed with the Kinahan crime family than to go bankrupt. When his company went under anyway, his underworld ‘friends’ had taken him to an isolated farm on the outskirts of Dublin and put a bullet in his skull. Linsey had followed her father in dying a violent death. She’d been shot three times in what was described as a failed robbery of her home. After their usual bluster, the local garda had failed to bring anyone to trial for the crime. Eventually, the story had faded from from the headlines.

How he’d forgotten the shooting, Mike couldn’t fathom. He leaned back, his old office chair protesting at the sudden motion. “Well fuck me, how about that? I’m working for a dead woman. But how am I to get paid by a dead lady?”

The screen on his mobile lite up, and a tinny instrumental version of “Happy Days Are Here Again” began blaring away. He only used that ring tone for one person: Liam Pleshen, an old acquaintance and current a senior manager at the AIB branch where Mike did what banking he had. Liam had gotten in trouble with a couple of bookies over a bet on the Grand National. He’d won on a long shot, and suspecting Liam of possessing inside information, they’d not only refused to pay up, they’d threatened to go to the garda. Mike had managed to mediate an agreement by drawing on his former colleagues in the Dublin branch to lean on the bookies. Since then, Liam had been a vital source of information where banking was concerned.

Mike tapped the phone. “Well, Liam, how are things for the idle wealthy?”

“Yeah, hello and fuck you too, Mike. I called because there’s been some odd activity in your bank account. To be precise, five thousand euros were deposited in it overnight. The only way I can see you getting that much money is either you finally solved a case, or you’ve quit pretending to be ethical and have started blackmailing your ex-clients.”

Five thousand euros? That would cover what Mike charged for a couple week’s worth of investigation, maybe more.”Can you find out where the money came from?”

“Half a sec…” Liam’s fingers clattered on a keyboard was the only sound, then a muted “Fuck me!” before he spoke to Mike again. “The money came out of an account registered to Galway United Development, but isn’t that….”

Mike drew in a sharp breath. Galway United Development had been the shell company Rory O’Hara ran his other companies through, and the only one that had escaped liquidation after his death. As his sole heir, Lindsey would have had control of it. “Yes, it’s the last business holding of the O’Hara family. Is there any record of who authorized the transfer?”

“Mike, I’m just your friend the neighborhood banker, not a forensic accountant with the grada. They’re the only ones who could find something like that out. You should call your old pals in Dublin, maybe they can find that out who’d be sending you money from a dead man’s accounts. Then again, maybe they’ll be asking you why you’re getting money from a source like that. Why are you getting money from them, Mike?”

No way Mike was telling someone he’d been hired by a dead woman to investigate her own murder. “I don’t know, Liam, but I’ll find out. Thanks for the call. Maybe you should stop by Flynn’s and I’ll stand you a couple of pints as thanks for letting me know I’m flush again.”

“What, and drink on a dead man’s tab? Thanks, no.” and broke the connection, leaving Mike to sort out what he knew so far. He’d grown up in America, so he wasn’t one to believe in banshees or spirits. That meant either someone posing as Lindsey O’Hara was orchestrating an outside investigation of her death, or someone with the funds to hire an impostor was pulling the strings. But why?

“Well, Liam, I might just have to follow your advice for once.” Mike opened a screen, then accessed his ‘Doomsday’ file. It had all the names and contact information for every member of the garda who might be willing to help him as a friend…or whom he had dirt on to use to extract a favor.

Olivier Dzba was one of the former. The two of them had been in the same class at the Garda Training College, and with them both being outsiders, they’d become friends. Olivier had been six when he’d come to Ireland with his parents to escape a nasty civil conflict in the Congo. So unlike Mike, he’d come up through the Irish school system, and spoke Irish like a native. Watching the reactions of some of his Irish classmates as a stream of Galway Irish poured from the huge black man had given Mike many a laugh their first year. Mike tapped in the phone number he had for his old friend, and smiled as he heard that deep baritone coming from his mobile.

Ceanncheathrú Bhaile Átha Cliath, Garda Siochana, Bleachtaire Dzba ag labhairt.

“Olivier, you know my Irish isn’t worth shite, so could you speak in a language I can understand?”

“Mike? Jaysus, lad, where’ve you been hiding? It’s been ages since I heard your voice.”

“Athlone. Not the Middle of Nowhere…but I can see it from here on a clear day.”

That got him a laugh. “Ah, you always were one to love Dublin, weren’t you? For myself, I can’t wait for the next bank holiday…I’ve a spot already reserved on the Corrib. Three days salmon fishing, and not a case to be solved.”

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For those who wander the deep

[An homage to one of my favorite authors, Patrick O’Brian.]

HMS Adder took a sudden, lurching roll that almost threw her commander across the low-ceilings space that was technically his great cabin. Lieutenant Howard Penvesal, Commander only because he commanded the tiny old sixteen gun brig, had been in the midst of fair copying his rough log into the official one when it happened, and even without being on deck, he knew the cause. Adder was beating her way through another in a string of late winter gales the inshore squadron blockading Lorient had endured, trying to find the rest of the Royal Navy. A vicious storm two nights before had blown in just at the end of the last dog watch, dropping visibility so much the bowsprit was invisible to those manning the wheel. When it had cleared, not a light from of the other ships, not even the massive stern lantern of HMS Ajax, command ship of the squadron, was visible. It had been over a week since the clouds had thinned enough for Penseval to attempt to make an observation of even the Sun, and between the cross-grained seas and in-shore currents, his best guess of his location was just that, a guess.

So Adder scudded along under a minimum of storm canvas, her tops filled with man who’s eyes watched for the first sign of rocks that might send her and them to the bottom. They were relieved at each bell, but how long could they, and the ship they manned, feel her way through this ugly weather before their luck ran out? Howard pushed such dark speculation aside as he moved the log back to the center of the shelf he used as a writing desk. “At least the bloody ink didn’t over set.” he muttered to himself as he took up his pen and looked at what he’d written so far.

3 March, 1810, strong gales ENE, seas heavy. Ship working heavy, speed five knots, course three points W of NW. People again employed mending storm damage.”

Should he write about the thing that had taken him on deck at first light? And if he did, what could he say that made any sense?

#

Dawn, if the gradual fading of a pitch-black night into something approaching a dim gray rain swept reality could be called that, came two hours after Howard had cast himself into his hammock. In a small ship like Adder, even the commanding officer stood watch, and with the dirty weather they’d been fighting, Howard had taken the graveyard watch. The night before, Masters Mate Lucas Simmons, his second in command, had taken the same watch, so named because it stretched from midnight to four in the morning. Howard’s exhaustion was so profound he had no memory of throwing off his tarpaulin jacket, nor of climbing into his hammock, but the shout of “Ship off the larbiard bow!” had awoken him as surely as a bucket of cold Atlantic water dumped over his face. He rolled out of his swinging bed, grabbed his telescope from the rack by the door, and charged onto deck.

What he found there was not the motion of a crew moving to either intercept a prize, nor to flee a superior French ship (and nearly every ship the French might send out was superior to the Adder), but a crew staring in dumb amazement to larboard. Simmons stood by the lee rail, eyes fixed ahead and mouth gaping, as if he’d been turned to stone. Howard rushed across the quarterdeck to get clear of foot of the mizzen sail that blocked his view…and found the source of his crews consternation.

It would not have been visible if not for the white bow wave its knife-like bow threw off. The gray shape, easily longer than Ajax, blended almost seamlessly with the sea and clouds. How it moved, Howard had no clue, for not one sail was visible, nor any masts. Yet move it did, with a terrible speed, far faster than even the smugglers Adder often intercepted. Staring at it, Howard realized it was not just moving with great speed, it was moving against the wind. But the thing that froze his heart was the ensign streaming from its stern: the French tricolor.

How could the French have built and launched such a ship with nary a hint of its existence? No gun ports broke its sides, but the fact that the French possessed a ship like this meant it was only a matter of time before they gave it cannons. But how did it move? It clearly was not a clanking steam-powered paddle-wheeler like the one Howard had heard now operated in the Clyde, so what drove it through the waters with such rapidity? The unknown ship and Adder were angling towards each other, and he currently possessed the weather gauge, so Howard decided to see if he could intercept the stranger and find out how it operated.

“Make sail, all hands make sail! Main and topsail! Course five points North of NW. Let’s see if we can take Admiral Cartwright a fine prize to make up for our absence.”

The bellowed command was followed by a moment of silence, as if the crew could not believe he proposed to set about the gigantic French ship, then Simmons took up the cry. “All hand make sail! Top men lay aloft!” The bosun’s brass voice took up the call, his whistle shrilling out its command, and the men sprang to action. The ratlines were soon dark with men, while others gathered to sheet home the lines as the sails came free. Adder was no crack ship, Howard never having seen the need to whip sails out in seconds, but the crew did her justice, casting gaskets off and bringing the lines home to set her sails taught and drawing to their peak.

The old ship responded to the sudden increase in thrust. She heeled slowly over and began to pick up speed, her rigging moaning as the extra strain came on it. But she breasted the waves and took to her task like the stolid old war horse she was. Howard turned his attention back to the Frenchman. He slid through the water, and from the lack of any crew moving about, he was seemingly oblivious to the existence of Adder. Were his lookouts blind, or did he just not regard the ancient brig as a threat? Time to show him the Adder had teeth. “Gun crews, larboard side!”

Howard wasn’t rich enough to buy his own powder like some officers, so his crew had only fired the six-pounders they now swarmed about a handful of times. But he had conducted regular gun drills, running the unwieldy monsters in and out in to memorize the actions needed to service them. Now, though, they ran their pieces in with deadly intent, the gun captain drawing the tompons as others raised the gun port or took up their assigned place. The master gunner moved down the line, placing a lite tub of slow match beside each gun, ready for the moment when the order to fire came. He came to the last gun, then looked across the narrowing line of water.

“Sir, where should the guns be pointed? She ain’t got no riggin’ to shoot away, and if we hull’er, how’ll we prove to the Admiral we done sunk somethin’ like that?”

It was a question Howard hadn’t thought of, but as he glanced at the approaching French ship, he could only think of one place to aim the guns. “Whether we can prove we sank a French man-of-war or not isn’t important. Gun crews, aim for the waterline! A hole between wind and water’s a better argument to surrender than anything else I know of.” Down on the gun deck, men cheered and plied their crows, shifting their aim downward to hammer the French hull where it would do the most damage. Howard watched the last barrel shift and looked at his target. They were close now, well within the range of even the Adder’s meager guns. But they wouldn’t enjoy that position for long. The speed of their opponent was drawing it ahead. Already, its bow was beyond the forwardmost reach of his bow gun. Howard drew in a breath, ready to shout out his order to fire, but a voice like God speaking from the heavens themselves rang out from the French ship, interrupting him.

Navire inconnu, identifiez-vous. »

Howard knew no French, but the challenging tone of the voice made it clear this was no friendly greeting. Time to act. “From the bows, fire as you bear!” The bow gun roared out, and the mist hanging in the air hazing as the ball passed through it, leaving a trail a blind man could follow. He watched as the ball hit, but did not hear the sound of its impact as the the next gun in line fired. Each gun, down the line, discharged its deadly content, and all of them but the Number 9 gun stuck home at or slightly above the French waterline. Number 9 fired as Adder took a freak wave on her bow, pitching the ball high so it struck what looked like a boat stowed on the Frenchman’s deck. That was the only visible damage, the other balls bouncing off with no trace that they had struck beyond a slight depression in the French hull. Could this giant ship be made of metal? The thought flew through Howard’s mind, but he had no time to reflect upon it. They were approaching the stern of the French ship, and even if she were made of metal, a raking fire down the length of her hull would do just as much damage to her as to any other ship. The gun crews were working their pieces, swabbing, loading and ramming. Number One, the bow gun called Old Tom by its crew, was already run out for another shot, and Howard shouted for their attention. “Hold until she presents her stern to us, then kick her in the ass men!”

That drew another cheer from his crew, but their actions had also drawn the attention of the French ship. Men, dressed in strange, bright orange clothing ran exposed across the other ships deck, making Howard wish he could draw his guns and load with grape. No time for that now. The stern of the French ship approached, and the last of Adder’s guns were out and ready to fire. “Helmsman, lay us as close across her stern as you can.”

Again, the mighty, inhuman voice echoed from the French ship. “Cesser vos actes hostiles, ou vous serez tiré sur! »

Howard saw the Frenchman’s wake, a turbulent stream of white water far more churned up than any wake he had ever seen from a ship, then in dark letters, a name appeared as the stern came fully into view: “Prairial”. Adder began her turn, and as she did, Howard saw something move on the French ship. A single man moved it, a long, thin barrel like some immense swivel gun, and it tracked the Adder like a line connected the two ships. Howard was aware of his own forward gun crew, heaving on their piece to bring it to bear, and wondered how a single man could think his puny gun could match eight six pounders. Again, the disembodied voice rang across the water “Armes libres, feu à volonté!”. The gun Howard had been watching bloomed fire, and a steady “Boom! Boom! Boom!”, far faster than any fire he had ever heard, came to him as it did. And with each report, an explosion shook the Adder. He felt her timbers shudder and knew Adder could not take much more of this punishment. “Starboard your helm, hard over! House your guns, man your sheets!” Adder was no racing yacht, but under the urging of her commander and crew, she managed to spin nearly in her own wake. Whether because the sudden maneuver threw their aim off, or they simply didn’t care to press their advantage, the French stopped firing Howard had one final glimpse of the French colors, then a squall swept down, drawing a veil between the two ships.

That chance event saved the Adder. They had managed to plug the ugly holes blown in her side, and splice the shredded rigging. But how could he explain it all in the log? Perhaps the best explanation was the least. Inking his pen, Howard wrote “Encountered and exchanged fire with unidentified French vessel in heavy squall.” It wasn’t a lie, and none of his crew would contradict him, so Howard sanded the page before closing the log on his account of the strange event with a clear conscious.

#

As the frégate de surveillance Prairial sliced through another squall on her way to a major refit at Brest, Capitaine de frégate Pierre Fosse leaned back and contemplate his computer. He had been updating his ship’s log, and had reached the point where he and his ship had had their strange encounter. Their surface radar had been functioning properly, at least as far as any of his crew could tell, but it hadn’t picked up the strange vessel until it was nearly on top of them. And even when it had been reported, the lookout manning the camera had hesitated to report what he saw. Pierre understood his reluctance to speak as soon as he saw the image on the monitor. He remembered once seeing the ship used in filming “Master and Commander” and marveling at the detail that had gone into it. But that was nothing compared to what their surveillance camera had shown them. Filth drooled down what he could only guess were the heads. Men rushing about in rough tarpaulin jackets to haul on ropes. And the cannons, stubby little brutes that would have been comical if not for their jerking tracking motions. Pierre had warned them over the loud hailer, but could not believe the crew of the other ship would be insane enough to actually fire on him. Then, they did, and became a deadly earnest threat.

The Prairial still pumped, her outer hull cracked in several spots where cannon balls had struck, but by luck, none of his crew had been injured. He had viewed the video from the F.2’s gun camera, seen the holes blasted in the mysterious vessel’s side, men sent flying by the impact of large pieces of wood, and had wondered if she’d survived. But the same video also contained an image of the ship’s stern, where her name was clear to read: Adder. The Royal Navy was not as free with its current military information now as it had been before opting out of the EU, but their archives were just a satellite link away. Adder was there, listed as a ‘sloop of war’, but also listed as ‘Sold out of service, broken up.’ in 1815. So what he had seen could not have been a two hundred plus year old ship lovingly restored. Nor could it have been an illusion, a figment of his imagination. He looked in the corner, where a smooth iron ball rested in a cradle of sandbags. It had been recovered from the wreckage of the #1 launch, and that was why Pierre could not simply gloss over the incident.

He had not seen fit to contact headquarters and report the encounter, hoping perhaps to come up with some way to explain what had happened by the time they arrived in Brest. But what could he say that would not make him look insane? What entry could he make in the ship’s log that would not read like fiction? His crew still spoke of the strange event, and Pierre knew they would be calling their families to relay their own take on the bizarre fight as soon as they were in range of shore-based cell service. There was no other way than to report what had happened. Pierre leaned forward and began to type.

“0635, radar reports unidentified contact 900 meters bearing 095. Surveillance camera revealed contact to be unidentified sailing vessel, rigged as a brig and possessing 16 gun ports. Vessel warned to identify itself by loud hailer. Vessel deployed cannons and took frégate de surveillance Prairial under fire. Seven balls struck hull causing minor damage, one ball struck #1 launch, destroying it. Ordered crew to action stations surface and warned unidentified vessel to cease hostile actions. Vessel observed preparing to fire on Prairial again, permission was given to return fire with #2 F.2 cannon. Multiple hits observed, extent of damage unknown due to vessel breaking off attack and fleeing into storm where radar could not maintain accurate fix. Based on markings observed on hull, hostile vessel is believed to have been HMS Adder, a Royal Navy sloop of war reported broken up in 1815.”

Pierre read the entry, then saved it to the onboard server. His chronometer said it was nearly lunch time, so with a final click, he secured the computer, stood and stretched. With a final shake of his head, he left his cabin.

I have given them the facts. Now it is for those higher up the chain of command to figure out what happened.”

The face in the mirror

I don’t remember the first time I had the dream. That’s odd, because I have many memories of my early childhood. My first distinct memory is of chaotically tumbling while all around me, people scream. When I described it to my parents, they were shocked. They wondered how I could remember something that had happened to me when I was barely three years old. Father told me that a tire had blown on a slick road, and he had caused the car to roll over while trying to counter the effects.

But for all that, I have no clear memory of the first time I awoke from that same eerie dream. I am standing in front of a mirror, looking at my reflection. What I see is the me of that moment. As a young boy, I saw a young boy. Now, as an adult, I see my adult self in the mirror. But as I stare at the mirror, I see another face appear.

It is ghostly at first, like the beginnings of a sketch. But as the dream progresses, my face disappears, replaced by a face like mine, but different. It was a young girl when I was a young boy. Now, it is a grown woman. Her hair is midnight black like mine. Like me, her nose is long and thin. Her lips are fuller than mine, but it is her eyes that are the most striking. Like mine, they are brown, but they lack any warmth, which I find find disconcerting. And always, always, she looks out of the mirror, smiles…and I know. I know she knows I can see her.

Who she is, I don’t know. I asked my parents about her, even going so far as to accusing them of concealing a twin, for that is how she appears to me. They denied it, denied that I was ever anything but their only child. I could see the truth in their eyes, but my heart still wonders who that strange yet familiar face in my dream was.

The dreams began to come more frequently. From a once-a-month occurrence, they became weekly. Then they visited me every night. And for the first time, the dream changed. The image in the mirror still morphed from my face into that of a woman very much like me. But now, rather than smile knowingly at me, she spoke. And her words were chilling.

“I am here, and I will not be ignored any longer.”

Now, instead of awakening with a start, I bolted awake screaming, her ominous words still echoing in my mind. I began to dread the night, to fear sleep that offered not rest, but terror. I began staying awake, sometimes all night. My work began to suffer, my friends started noticing my listlessness. But I couldn’t tell them what kept me from the sleep I needed. Nor could I tell them that those times I did sleep offered no rest.

Then I got sick.

It started as stomach aches, annoying but something I could ignore. As time passed, my pain grew. From discomfort, it became more and more debilitating. My doctor was baffled, as where the specialists he sent me to. Tests found none of the tell-tale cells that would indicate I had cancer. Finally, an MRI finally found something, what the doctor less than helpfully described as an ‘undefined mass’ in my stomach. He wanted to do a finer scan, but the machine would not be free again for a week. They gave me ‘pain management’ medication, and told me to return.

The medicine, huge pills that looked like something for a horse, did what the doctors said they’d do. Within an hour of taking the first one, the pain was little more than a nagging twinge at the edge of perception. But the pills also brought something else, a very unwelcome guest. They brought sleep, sleep that would not be denied. No matter how I fought, my eyes kept sagging shut. My last memory was sitting in my favorite chair, struggling to stay awake; the next, I was in the dream.

This dream soon turns different. Instead of overlaying my face, the woman’s face slowly materialized next to mine, like she were standing behind me looking over my shoulder. I see a hand rise, descend, and felt a touch on my shoulder. My mind tells me it is impossible. I know nothing can touch me, can harm me, not in a dream.

But it is real. I can feel the pressure of each of those fingers on my shoulder. I feel warmth were they rest upon me. I scream, but I do not wake up. Behind me, the woman waits. She neither smiles nor frowns, her face a blank mask except for her eyes. In them, I see amusement, and the willingness to wait until I stop screaming, to wait as if she has all the time in the world. I master the fear that always strangles me when I saw that face and stop screaming. She nods, once, a motion much like my own. Then, she speaks.

“So, this time you can’t escape? Now, I can finally confront you, murderer.”

“Are you crazy? I’ve never hurt anyone, let alone murdered anyone.”

Her eyes harden. “Liar! You are a murderer, and I will exact revenge from you!”

I want to turn around, to face her instead of arguing with a reflection, but my feet, my whole body, are frozen in place. I can’t even turn my head. Only my eyes and lips are at my command. I feel panic rising and try to force it down. “Fine, if I’m a murderer, who did I kill? When am I supposed to have killed them?”

Her eyes narrow, and her grip on my shoulder tightens. “Don’t play the innocent! You know who you killed, and you know when you killed them too!” Her grip tightens until I feel her fingernails dig into my flesh. Her lips thin, exposing her teeth as they stretch into a fierce smile. “So, you can get away? Only for a while, murderer, only for a short while.” Her presence begins to fade, and in that final moment, I hear the thing I fear the most. “I’ll be waiting for you, and when you come back, I’ll make you pay!”

I wake up on the floor, arms wrapped around my legs, knees pulled as tight as I can pull them to my chest. My throat is raw like I have screamed all night, and my shirt clings to me, soaked in a stinking fear-sweat. I force myself upright and look at the clock. It’s 6:30 in the morning, and the patch of sky visible through the window is growing light. I wonder if this is how the rest of my nights will be? And if it is, will my sanity survive the week?

The pain in my midsection begins to reassert itself. But take another pain pill, and possibly face that angry presence? No. I pull out a favorite book to try to distract myself, but it is no use. Every minute, every second, the pain increases. It increases, becomes like a wild animal trying to claw its way out of my belly, and I give in. Time passes, the pain recedes, and I feel my eyes sagging again. They are starting to close for what I fear will be the last time before sleep claims me when my cell chirps at me. I know the voice on the other end of the call, my internal medicine specialist, but it seems to be coming from a million miles away.

“Mr. Sanchez, it’s Doctor Linden. We’ve had a patient cancel their MRI appointment. If you can get to the clinic in the next hour, we can get your scans done and, hopefully, get a handle on what’s going on.”

I mutter something that doesn’t make sense even to me, and the voice on the other end picks up on my state. “Sir, are you having a reaction to your pain medications? Sir?” I can’t even work up the energy to answer, my body wants to do is sleep. I hear a distant voice shouting. It wants my attention, but I can’t make myself bother to try. “Help is on the way, Mr. Sanchez. Just hang on, sir, help is on the way.” The voice sounds concerned, and I know I should stay awake, but my eyes shut. Sleep takes me.

There is no mirror in my dream this time. Now, I am in a vast space, a dark plain that extends beyond sight. And I am alone. She, who ever she is, is not here. In a way, this complete emptiness is more frightening than she ever was.

“Are you afraid, murderer?”

Her voice is soft, hardly a whisper, but the words are spoken so close to my ear I feel the warm breath that makes them. I jerk away from the unexpected closeness, and unlike every previous dream, I move. Free of my imprisonment, I turn to face her. She is shorter than me, but only slightly, and her rounded body reminds me of my mother. Her face, so like mine, is lined, her features drawn together in an angry scowl.

“Why do you keep calling me a murderer? I don’t remember ever seeing you, and I’ve never hurt anyone in my life. So how can I be a murderer?”

She steps close to me, close enough that I feel uncomfortable. Her voice, when she speaks, is filled with a cold, contained anger. “But you are a murderer. You killed me, in cold blood. You snuffed out my life without a thought.”

Her statement makes no sense. “But if I killed you, why can’t I remember killing you? Are you saying I’ve somehow repressed the memory of murdering you?”

“Oh, you remember killing me…if you didn’t, how could I be talking to you?”

“You could be…I don’t know, a figment of my imagination, or a manifestation of my wish that I hadn’t been an only child.”

“You wanted a sister?”

The anger drops from her face like a curtain falling, replaced by an intent gaze like she’s trying to catch me in a lie.

“It might sound selfish, but a sister, a brother, hell, even a dozen siblings. My parents heaped all their hopes and dreams on me. I hated the expectations, the pressure to succeed. If I’d had brothers and sisters, I’d have been happier, and maybe they’d have been happier too.”

Her face changes. The suspicion, the doubt, the anger, all of it drops away, leaving a stunned stare. Then I see something I had never thought to see on that cold, cynical, face. Tears well in her eyes, run down her face. When she speaks, her voice is a hollow echo of what it has been before. “You wanted me? You didn’t kill me because you hated me?”

I open my mouth to tell her that I didn’t know her, so I couldn’t have hated her, but her scream stops the words in my throat. A broad red slash appears on her left arm, and when her eyes fix on mine, I see the hate, the anger renewed a thousand times over. She charges me, and her hands go to my throat. Her fingers, surprisingly strong, sink into my flesh and I find myself gasping for breath. As she strangles me, she screams in my face.

“Liar! You kept me talking so you could kill me again! I won’t go, not without you!”

I try to free myself, but my body refuses to respond. The blood thunders in my temples, my vision darken, but even knowing death is close at hand, I can do nothing. My sight dims to nothingness, and the last thing I see is not my attacker, but my Mother. She smiles, and as she always did, she looks sad as she does it. I hear voice one final time.

“It’ll be all right, Paulie, it’ll be all right.”

It is my nose that tells me I am not dead. It brings me the smell of a hospital room, so familiar from my vigil over Father. I am surrounded by the harsh chemical scent filled with a background of human filth that I associate with a hospital room. My body comes back to me next. It tells me I am lying on my back with something stuck to both of my arms. There is a steadily beeping, the noise far too loud for my comfort, and my brain tells me it is a heart monitor. My eyes are reluctant to open, but I force them to obey, and I see off-white ceiling tiles set in a white metal framework. It’s a hospital ceiling, if ever I saw one.

Something is pressing against my left hand, and I shift my head to see what it is. A white cord, ending in an oblong box studded with buttons…the same sort of control and communications pendant my Father had at his bedside. I fumble with the box, stabbing the big button with the nurse’s head outlined on it until a young woman comes in.

“It’s good to see you awake, Mr. Sanchez, I hear you gave the doctors quite a scare. Do you need help, maybe something to drink?”

She says drink, and I realize my mouth is dry, so dry my tongue feels like sandpaper. I try to speak, manage a croak, and purse my lips like I’m sucking on a straw. She nods, grabs a foam cup, and places the straw sticking out of it in my mouth. I suck on it and cold water floods my mouth. I keep sucking on the straw until I’m sucking air, open my mouth, and let her put the cup down. I try to speak again, and I’m happy to hear even the rough echo of my voice that comes out.

“What happened? I remember being at home, and the doctor calling…then, I’m here.”

I notice her name tag. “Brandy” shrugs as she answers me. “I don’t know the details, but you’ve only been on the floor for a couple of hours. Before that, you were in ICU for three days. The doctors haven’t made their rounds yet this morning, so you should be able to find out what happens when they come around. Until then, would you like something to eat? Breakfast was served about the time you were being brought in, and lunch won’t be for another two hours, but I can get you something from the ready fridge. Maybe some ice cream?”

Ice cream, even three of the small tubs they serve out, does little more than take the edge off my hunger. Five minutes is all it takes for me to know there is nothing on the TV besides inane daytime programming, so I turn it off and wait.

Some time during that wait, I fall asleep. I know I was asleep because I have memories of the sunlight slanting low through the window, then the light is shining down from a much higher angle. An older woman with skin as dark as mine and a stethoscope is standing by my bed, her finger pressed against the inside of my wrist.

“Good, you’re awake, Mr. Sanchez. I’m Doctor Bajaj, your attending physician. How are you feeling?”

“Honestly, I feel confused. Do you know what happened to me?”

She picks up a tablet I hadn’t noticed on my bedside table and begins tapping the screen. A few swipes, and her eyes begin to scan the screen. “I wasn’t part of the team that operated on you, but according to the admission notes, you were brought in unconscious and rushed into the ER.” A pause as she reads, then her eyes widen, and she flicks the tablet’s surface again. Her hesitation is beginning to worry me. What could she be reading that would cause her to stop so suddenly? Her eyes meet mine, then shift away… and I know what she says isn’t entirely true. “All the details of what was done aren’t here, but it does say you underwent emergency surgery, and that you suffered a cardiac incident caused by acute blood loss. This lead to you being placed in our ICU until your surgical team was satisfied with you condition. Your surgical team should visit you sometime this afternoon, so you can get the details from them. Now, I’d like to listen to your heart and lungs….”

I’d seen what happened next done to my Father and Mother, but being on the receiving end of it helped me understood why they frowned through their examinations. Doctor Bajaj was perfectly civil to me, yet so detached that I felt more like an animated piece of meat than a human being. Finished, she tapped the tablet, I guess making notes, then addressed me.

“Your heart and lungs sound good, but your blood pressure is still low. I’m going to recommend that you remain in the hospital for at least another day, and I’ll be ordering another unit of saline to help build your blood volume. I’ll be back this afternoon…” and that was it. She walks out without giving me any information, leaving me feeling as if I’d ceased to exist the moment she made her decision on my treatment.

I was in a room by myself, and staring at the walls soon got boring. I was spared having to resort to watching TV doctors pretend to treat pretend patients by a cheerful young man who brought me a newspaper, then handed me the day’s menu.

“I’ll be back later to get your order, or you can call the kitchen and they’ll put your lunch order on the cart. The doctors don’t have you on a special diet, so you can order anything you want.”

I hadn’t noticed how close to noon it was. My stomach growled, letting me know it was looking forward to me eating something. “Thanks. If you’ll tell me how to call the kitchen, you won’t have to come back.”

He points to a number printed across the bottom of the page, “Just call that number, sir.” leaving me feeling like an idiot. I thank him and he goes about his business. Lunch, I soon find, is not going to be a five-star affair. I pick what’s described as an ‘open-faced sandwich’ and coffee, call it in, and open the paper to occupy my mind. Ten minutes later, I’ve read everything of interest.

Lunch, when it arrives, could generously be described as ‘inoffensive’. It has no real taste, not even a scent to match its description. The coffee is hot, bitter and completely lacking in stimulation. I eat and drink all of it knowing that ordering something else will not improve the situation. The server returns, clears the dishes away without comment, and I am left with my boredom.

Sleep come to me, but I don’t realize I’ve slept. What woke me up isn’t hard to figure out. The familiar Dr. Bajaj stands beside my bed with an older man and a woman who looks like she should still be in college. They are discussing me in the cold, abstract terms doctors use, but the medical jargon is thick enough that I can’t understand whether I am living or dying. I shift my position and they realize I am awake. The man approaches me, pitching his voice to give the impression he wishes to engage me and failing.

“”Mr Sanchez, I’m Doctor Werten, the doctor who operated on you. How are you feeling? How is the pain you were experiencing?”

Until he asked, I hadn’t noticed the absence of pain. How could I miss something that had so been the focus of my life? “It’s…gone, doctor. Do you know what was causing it?”

His eyes, which had been fixed on me, shift away. “Yes, I do. Your spine was under pressure from a foreign mass. That was triggering your pain episodes. The mass was also partially wrapped around your aorta, and putting pressure on it which lowered the blood flow to your lower body. That is why you became unconscious, the pain medication wasn’t being equally absorbed by your body.” He paused, his eyes fixing on mine for the first time. “I was unable to reawaken you and operated immediately. Unfortunately, the scans didn’t show was that there were several small blood vessels running through the mass that connected to your aorta. I’m sorry to admit it, but I severed one of those, and you nearly bled out before I could close it off. After that, I kept an eye out for more vessels and managed to seal the rest off without further incident. Once your blood volume has returned to normal, you’ll be free leave and go back to your normal routine.”

I heard the words ‘foreign mass’ and the rest of it became minor details. “What do you mean when you say you removed a ‘foreign mass’? Was it cancer?”

Dr. Werten’s eyes begin shifting around, like he’s looking for something, anything, to look at but me. “Mr. Sanchez, do you know what a vanishing twin is?” I shake my head, and he continues. “In about ten percent of pregnancies where more than one embryo is formed, one of the embryos will absorb the other one. It’s not something that causes problems…or I should say it’s not normally something that causes problems. Usually, if there’s anything left of the absorbed twin, it’s fragments. The most common form it exhibits in the surviving twin is stray teeth, hair and other fragments in a benign cyst. But in your case,” He pauses, and a chill sweep over me. What did he find inside me? I don’t have to wonder. “In your case, we found significant development. Teeth, hair, even a partial skeleton. We also found…well, we found what we think were undeveloped brain cells. But the important thing is that the growth has been removed, and you should be free of pain from this point forward.”

Now, the chill I feel is like I’ve been submerged in an ice-covered pond. I don’t want to know, but I ask. “Dr. Werten…could you tell if the twin was female?”

His eyes meet mine, and I see he is shocked by the question. “We’d have to do a DNA test to find out. If you don’t mind he asking, why do you ask?”

She’d said I had killed her. I even heard her screams as they’d removed her. Had she been alive inside me all this time? Was that why I’d always had the dream? How could I explain that to him? I can’t.

“Oh, no reason, no reason at all.”

Death goes home

Since he’d died, George had done any number of things he’d never imagined doing. He’d killed the creature that killed him. He’d come face-to-face with a bona fide serial killer. Hell, he’d even freed a town from an undead killer that targeted its children. But none of that had been as hard, or as nerve-wracking, as sneaking into his old home town. Or figuring how to get into his old high school without being seen.

Everyone in either of those locations knew he was dead. He couldn’t just hop off the bus and stroll down the street. Nor could he walk through the front door of his old high school and not have people notice.

But Anne Coulett was dead.

George had wondered about the wisdom of trying to keep track of his old friends after he’d died and come back, but the temptation had been far too great. An anonymous email account in a fake name and his pay-as-you-go smartphone were all it took to access all the social media sites he’d been on. After that, most of his old friends had accepted his ‘Friend’ request without asking who he was, or how he knew them.

Knowing his friends were still in the world was nice, but keeping in touch with Anne was different. For all his father’s strictness, George’s family had been close, even loving in its own way. Anne’s was another matter. She’d never known her father, and her mother had been a walking disaster. Anne came to school hiding bruises more times than George could remember. His earliest memory of her was of her limping into the kindergarten classroom. She had a limp because her mother taking a belt to soles of Anne’s feet. Foster care hadn’t been any kinder, and Anne’s mother always got her act together enough to return and drag her daughter back into hell with her.

But for all the ugliness she endured, Anne had a kind soul. She had been George’s first real friend, and from the posts she’d made after his death, one of the few to really mourn his passing. Over the past month, her posts had become increasingly despondent, as if losing him had cut her last tie to happiness. Then her profile had changed from ‘Active’ to ‘Memorial’ status, and from another friend’s posts, George learned that Anne had taken her life. She’d hung herself in the girl’s locker room at the high school. George had felt rage, disgust and even fear since he’d died and returned, but never the profound sense of sadness he felt when he learned his best friend had committed suicide.

Then the rumors sprouted up. Stories of a cold presence, like a dead hand placed on a shoulder. Then more menacing things began to occur. An unexplained shove at the top of the stairs, a slip in a shower that sent a girl sprawling painfully on the floor. George, worried that Anne might have come back. Coming to school in ragged old clothing, having everyone regard her mother as the town slut, made her a prime target for bullying by other girls. George had seen and heard it a few times, but knew Anne had endured far worse. Could her desire for vengeance have caused her to remain on the mortal plane? The fear she had led him to go home.

Getting there was both easy and hard. He’d had a good run panhandling in Baton Rouge, so money wasn’t a problem. George caught a bus that took him to Ottumwa, and managed to catch a ride to the next town over from his. But from there, it had been a series of long, slow night time walks through the Iowa countryside His phones GPS kept him on track as he navigated the gravel back roads. But doing everything he could to avoid bumping into the living meant he was off the road well before the sky began to lighten with approaching dawn. Most days, he hunkered down corn fields, surrounded by the sound of the wind stirring the foliage. The days he could find an isolated barn, or better, a derelict farm house, were a blessing.

George had plotted his walk to bring him around his old home town, allowing him to approach the high school for a direction that left only a short walk through the town streets. The gap in the chain link fencing that had existed since he’d entered high school still hadn’t been repaired. It gave him access to the grounds, and with that, a way to get to the grounds keepers storage shed. Like the gap in the fence, every kid in school knew the latch on the storage shed could be ‘jiggered’ with just the right combination of shaking and pressure. Smokers, dopers and the occasional lucky stiff getting laid by his girl friend had used the trick to get some privacy for longer than anyone could remember,

There was a spot, up in the rafters, that none of those privacy seekers knew of. George had noticed it by accident one late spring afternoon when he’d been disgusted with running track in PE. George had ducked into the shade offered by the buildings open door and looking up, had noted a darker shadow under the roof. A series of odd length 2X4’s had been nailed to the blank wall studs to form a rough ladder. He climbed it and found some past ground keeper, perhaps planning to convert the space above the rafters into more storage, had scrounged up a couple of sheets of plywood and started building a floor. All of it was crusted with untold ages of dust and accumulated crud. George had taken a first, tentative step onto the wood, and finding it unmoving, had ventured to explore this new space. A broom borrowed from below cleaned the improvised floor enough that George could sit on it without getting filthy. It had become his private retreat, a place to go when things went as badly as they usually did for a skinny half-Asian kid in small-town Iowa.

A patina of filth had begun to build up again. At some point since he’d died, a bird had taken a liking to the top rung of the ladder. White streaks of bird shit formed fans down the ladder, and George found himself reluctant to touch them. Then the absurdity of it all hit him. “Hell, you’re dead! Nothing that bird might have is going to bother you.” It was a whisper to himself, but it echoed like a shout in the quiet building. George mounted the ladder and stretched out on the dusty wood to wait for his moment.

The light grew, and with it, the noise outside. The rumbling growl of the diesel engines in the school buses, someone driving a ‘muscle car’ gunned their pride and joy before turning it off, the muffled voices of kids entering the school. Then the silence began to return as the first bell of the day shrilled out over school grounds. A squeal of tires and the sound of running feet spoke of someone late for class. Then there was nothing but the occasional muffled announcement from the school’s PA system. Still, George waited. He knew when his time to slip into the school would come.

The phone vibrated, notifying him that his moment was close at hand. George had spent enough time in the shed to know that some things were universal. He silenced the phone, and as he slid it into his pocket, the sound of someone opening the main door filled the building.

“Fuckin’ kids have been at this place again. Damn little brats. I wish the school board would let me deal with’em. Gettin’ in here and messing my stuff up. After a bit of my ‘discipline’, they’d think twice about breaking into school property, that’s for sure!”

Old Mr. Schmidt had been head grounds keeper forever. George’s mother spoke of him having the same job when she had been a student at this same school, and he’d been a terror for kids through all that time. George knew that he was also a creature of habit. Every school day at precisely 9:30, he opened the storage shed, and he always complained about the students. George stayed as still as he could, having learned from experience that the floor he rested on creaked, and Mr. Schmidt, for all his faults, was not deaf. Today must be one of the days when Schmidt felt the lawns needed mowing, because there was with a growl that filled the building, the big gang mower started. George waited, listening to the way the sounds shifted, letting them paint the picture of what was going on below him. The mower backed out, then the roar of its engine dropped as the door slid shut. A final pause, probably so Schmidt could erect the umbrella he loved to have over him on sunny days, and then with a final rev, it drove off. Now, it was time to leave his hiding spot.

Back down the ladder, and a shove at the sliding door gave him a crack to spy through. A little more, and he could stick his head out. Nothing. George slipped through the opening and closed the door behind him. There were few windows in the school that faced this direction, and even if someone were watching from one of them, all they’d see was a student slipping out of the storage shed and back into school. It happened often enough in a school day that no one should even notice.

Also like usual, Mr. Schmidt had propped open the door to the boiler room. He was supposed to lock it after himself, a security policy that had been in place even when George was still alive. But Schmidt was also naturally lazy, and hated to take the time to let himself in and out of the main building. A hunk of 2X4, battered from years of use, blocked the door from closing.

George pressed his ear against the door, but heard nothing besides the roar of the boilers. He pulled the door open, took a quick peek inside, and seeing no one, entered. As a final nod to Mr. Schmidt, and all the trouble he’d gotten into when Schmidt had caught him hiding in the shed, George kicked the 2X4 outside and let the door close behind him.

Now that he was inside, the danger of someone seeing him jumped off the scale. George’s only hope was to find one of the many nooks and crannies that existed in the rabbit-warren of a building his school had become. Every freshman entering Carswell’s Corner High School had to learn their way around the confusing and often illogical layout of the building. The central building was a hulking brick object three stories high that had been built to replace an earlier, wood-framed building on the same site. That had been in 1897, a date proudly carved into the masonry arch over the former main entrance. The New Deal had brought a gymnasium, a blocky, cast-concrete monstrosity that also housed the school cafeteria in its basement. The Baby Boom brought a brick addition that wrapped around two sides of the original school, a place filled with classrooms so identical in appearance that students needed to keep count of which doors they’d passed, and from which entrance, to know which room they needed to enter. Sometime in the early 1960’s, in a final, fitful effort to keep the companies that had started to desert Carswell’s Corner from leaving, a new wing dedicated to teaching different trades like welding, metal-working and wood-working had gone up. They’d been built on the cheap, just metal frames with low brick walls at the base of walls made of sheet metal. Everyone hated the biting cold of shop class in the winter, but by then the school district didn’t have the money to retrofit better insulation to the addition. The confusion came from the fact that all these different additions were built to different scales, with floors in one addition several feet above or below the ones on the building next to it. Openings in walls, with stairs that suddenly rose or fell to lead to other parts of the building, were everywhere. At one spot, perhaps in an example of a lucky near-miss, the second floor of the ‘new’ addition (the one built post WWII) opened onto the same floor of the ‘old’ building, only to miss lining up by an awkward step-and-a-half gap. It was infamous as the ‘Tripping Point’ because anyone, even seniors, could miss their step if their attention was elsewhere.

In all that, this was the last place George wanted to try to hide. The boiler room, being out of the way, was a favorite place for those who wanted to skip class but not leave the building. So it was subject to frequent patrols by off-duty teachers and staff hoping to find someone hoping for a little free time.

He moved to the door into the main part of the building, but trying to listen for someone beyond the door would be impossible with the roaring boilers close behind him. A slow turn of the knob, followed by a moments pause, and George eased the door open to reveal a sliver of the hall beyond it. Nothing. Opening the door enough to stick his head out, George ventured a hurried glance around. No one in the sight, he checked his phone. Classes would end in ten minutes, and the halls would fill with students. No one should be in the halls this close to the end of class, but did he want to risk the chance of being seen? A roared curse behind him made up his mind. Schmidt had stopped mowing early for some reason, and he was not amused at George’s bit of vengeance.

“Who the fuck closed the door on me! I catch the bastard, and I’ll kick their fuckin’ ass up around their ears!”

George bolted into the hall, heedless of the noise he made. There was a spot he might use, one that shouldn’t be in use this early in the day, and he made for it as fast as he could walk. Up the Fish Hook, a stair that looped back on itself to join the first floor of the new and old buildings, then a sharp right brought him to a door set in a blank wall. George felt over the broad door jam and found the spare key where it always was. He unlocked the door, stepping in and flipping on the light with the surety of someone who’d done it many times before. Some people speculated that it had been intended as a janitor’s closet, others insisted it had once been a fire exit in the old building that had been walled off once the new building blocked it.

However it had come into being, it was a claustrophobic space barely six feet wide by less than twelve feet long. Like the rest of the old building, the floors here were hardwood, polished and worn down by generations of students. It was the home of the high school’s amateur radio club. A trio of mis-matched tables formed an improvised L-shaped counter covered with equipment that the club had acquired over seventy years of existence. Cable dangled from a hole in the back corner, connecting the different radios to antennas strung across the roof of the old building. Dominating the back wall was a huge tube receiver supposedly salvaged from a World War 2 cruiser. The transmitter that matched it had resided under the same table when George had first entered the room, a dead, archaic relic that had he’d helped two friends haul out for disposal. From that introduction, George’s interest had grown. He’d been thinking of taking the exam to get his license, but his death had put an end to that.

George engaged the inside lock, sure that with only three or four members in the radio club, he was unlikely to be disturbed. The club members didn’t have a fixed time or day when they used the radios, but George knew they rarely came here during classes. So the room should be safe, and with one of only two keys to the door in his pocket, he knew that anyone who did want to get in would have to walk to the principle’s office to get the spare. All he could hope was that anyone trying to get in would make enough noise to warn him it was time to vacate his hiding place.

George knew the most comfortable seat in the room was the old office chair in front of the ancient receiver. He drew it out, sat down, and out of habit, reached out to switch the old radio on. Touching the switch, George felt another presence in the room…no, it was a presence in the radio itself. He felt the other spirit, a man not much older than he’d been when he’d died. He too had sat before this radio, but he’d been sitting before it when he’d died. George heard the screaming noise of the incoming bomb, felt the blast wave tear through the other man’s body. That man had been on the radio, doing his duty, sending urgent calls for help when his life had ended. George witnessed the final moment of the other man’s life as he relived it again and again. The watched as the bulkhead in front of him bulged, twisted, and finally shattered like it had happened in slow motion. A shard of that twisted metal skimmed across the receiver to slam into the dead man’s chest, which explained the mysterious deep scratch that ran from front to back on the radios top. George felt no malevolence in the spirit, it held no regrets beyond the the regret of the life it would never experience. Perhaps that was why every person who’d ever entered this room was drawn to this old radio. They felt the welcome of that dead spirit, happy to know that he had died to keep generations to come safe.

The presence faded. George powered the radio up, and as it’s tubes went from dark shadows to shapes glowing in varied shades of orange, he plugged in the headphones that always lay on the table before it. One ear covered, the other bare to hear his surroundings, George leaned forward and began to tune across the airwaves. A few loud stations stood out, mostly the ones who’s sole purpose seemed to be reciting endless strings of enigmatic numbers. A change in frequencies brought more signals. The BBC’s “World Service” coming in strong, George leaned back and listened to the world news from the English perspective.

The ringing of the hourly bells, the muted sounds of kids flooding through in the hall outside, offered a counter-point to the stream of news from the other side of the world. No longer needing food or a bathroom, George found, was a blessing. But in time, boredom set in. The longer ring that signaled lunch caught him by surprise, and he turned down the radio before moving to switch off the room lights. In their rush to get from one class to another, he’d been confident that no one would notice the light shining under the door. Now, with students wandering around, looking for something to do during their lunch, having the lights on almost invited someone to investigate who was in the room.

The hour passed quietly. No one tried the door, and outside of a couple debating whether or not they should ‘do it’ later on or not, no one came close to the door. The second long bell sounded the end of lunch, and with a final rush of feet, the halls emptied. George waited a few minutes, heard a final, hurried set of footsteps sprinting past the door, and turned the lights back on. Changing time brought changing propagation. The BBC signal had faded, so George tuned around. The sharp, fast-paced sound of a Morse code signal rattled out of the headphone, tempting George to try his rudimentary code skills. Whoever was sending set a pace far beyond his meager skills, so he tuned on. He kept looking until the next period bell rang before giving up. He felt the dead sailor again as he turned the radio off. “Thank you for serving. Rest in peace.” he whispered to that long-dead soul, and hoped it heard him.

The bells rang, the periods passed, and the hour grew close for school to be dismissed. George moved to the door, flipped off the lights, and opened ever so slightly. No one was in sight. Wider, and he heard footsteps climbing the Fish Hook. He’d thrown the lock already, so a quick shove presented whomever it was with a locked door. He heard the footsteps stop outside, then the sound of someone fumbling for the key before a familiar voice struck his heart.

“Damn it, who the hell didn’t remember to put the key back where it belongs?”

John Landdeker had been George’s friend for years. He’d been one of the guys who’d talked him into lugging that heavy old transmitter out of this very room. And no matter how much George would like to see his old friend one more time, he was the last person who should see George. John’s hands scrabbled along the top of the jamb, perhaps hoping someone had just put the key in a different spot. Then, with a final, mute “Fuck it!”, he heard his friend walk away. His phone said it would only be ten more minutes before classes ended, and George knew that his friend would be back with the spare room key. With no more time to waste, George let himself out. John was near the end of the hall, headed down the stair at that end that led directly to the principle’s office. George took the chance he wouldn’t look back, closed the door behind him, and put the key where it should be. John might be confused, even embarrassed to find it was where it should be, but George couldn’t let it go missing. He sprinted down the Fish Hook, nearly falling when his feet hit the floor below, and ran with everything he had to the boiler room door. Kids usually hid there during classes, so he hoped no one would search the room in the few minutes before classes were dismissed. Inside, he made for a space between one of the boilers and the outside wall. Kids tended to avoid it because there was no way into or out of the narrow space without getting smeared with dirt. It would do for a hiding place until the school emptied.

The muted roar of the boilers couldn’t mask the ringing of the final bell of the day. George remembered the chaos that ruled the halls at the end of classes. Meeting friends, seeing enemies eye him, teachers far too busy with their own concerns to care if words were exchanged, or even the odd shove administered. As long as the students got out of the building without a knock-down, drag-out fight breaking out, they could care less. All that and more he knew was happening throughout the school, an ever-repeating cycle as predictable as the Sun rising. Twice he heard the doors open, but whomever entered, whether to check something or simply to pass through, neither came to his hiding spot. George checked his phone again, saw it was almost a quarter after five, and heard the door open one more time. Another long period of relative silence followed, then with a loud “Clank” the overhead lights went out. A final time the door opened, letting a flood of light into the room, then it closed, leaving the faint glow of the emergency exit signs to illuminate the entire space.

Hand on the wall, George made his way out of hiding. It was still too early to chance the halls, but he thought it safe enough to be out of the stiflingly warm space where he’d been. But how long should he wait? He’d never heard of any club or sports team staying beyond seven, but how far beyond that should he remain in hiding? George no longer needed to eat and drink to stay alive, but there were some things even the undead could not escape. Boredom, he had long ago learned, was the most irksome things that did not end with death. He played tetris, solitaire, and every other game his phone held that interested him until his battery red-lined. It only took him until 9:30, and he’d planned to wait at least until 10 before beginning his search. “Time to get on with it.” he muttered as he stood up and headed out the door.

What George wasn’t sure of was where he should look first. Just wandering the maze of halls would take hours, time he didn’t have. Some of the incidents had occurred in the girl’s locker room, and while he was tempting to see the holy-of-hollies of his now-gone youth, he also knew that security cameras had been installed at both entrances to keep peeping toms at bay. One of his old friends had been ‘busted’ trying to sneak a peek, a fact he’d complained about on social media. George wasn’t invisible, so if Anne inhabited the place she’d died, he’d have to come back another day with some sort of disguise to keep his identity as one of the undead secret. But where else could she be? The memory came to him, the only other place an attack had taken place, and George knew where he’d look first. “So it’s off to Newgrange I go.”

Who had named the upper of two huge arched window on the East end of the ‘old’ building ‘Newgrange’ nobody knew. It was one of two pair that illuminated the stairs rising from floor to floor. The brick rectangle ran East-West, the long sides facing North and South. The later additions had been tacked onto the North and West faces, the latter covering over the matching pair of windows. Whether by plan or some freak coincidence, on the Winter Solstice, the Sun rose dead-center in the bottom of the upper window, something far too many kids had seen due to Iowa’s short Winter days. George hadn’t known the connection between that event and a similar occurrence at the ancient tomb in Ireland until Mrs. O’Sullivan, his world history teacher, had told him and every other student in his class about it.

Easing out of the boiler room, cautious of any remaining staff, George made his way through the echoing halls. This part, the newest portion of the school, presented nothing but quiet spaces George’s memory filled with scenes of swirling massive of students rushing from class to class. But as he entered the old building, there were several spots where he felt a presence. None of these manifested as ghosts, and as long as they didn’t try to impede George, he had no argument with whatever spirits resided in the dark recesses of the school. Ahead, the stairs rose, a marble-paved switchback climbing from floor to floor. The full Moon shone through both windows, a cold beacon in the dark and deserted space. George’s first step upon those stairs woke an echo in the towering space that was far louder than he’d expected. It woke something else.

“Who’s there?”

Those two simple words froze George in his tracks. It was Anne’s voice, a voice as memorable to him as his father’s or mother’s. He raised his head to scan the railings of the floors directly above him. Nothing. Would she appear if he called her?

“Anne, it’s me, George, George Ishkowa.”

A long moment’s silence, then, “You can’t be George. I went to his funeral, I stood by his grave when they lowered the casket into it. You can’t be George.”

Anne didn’t appear, but even with the sound reflecting around the stairwell, he could tell she was far above him, at the very top of the stairs. George climbed to the first landing, then turned himself full to the space above him.

“If you don’t believe it’s me, Anne, just take a look. I’m right here.”

Another silent moment, and she appeared. Anne didn’t walk to the railing, she just appeared. Her form took shape in the moonlight air. George saw her simple pony tail, the ratty Iowa State sweatshirt she always favored even though it was too big for her. If he hadn’t been able to see the railing through her hands, he might have believed Anne was there in the flesh. Her face turned down towards him, and he saw her frown.

“How are you here, George? I saw your parents at your funeral, I watched your Dad cry. That man never cries. He couldn’t have been faking it, so you must be dead George.” The frown faded, became a smile, but no smile George had ever seen in Anne’s face. It was the smile he’d seen on the face of far too many bullies who’d decided a skinny Asian kid would be a convenient target. “Are you like me, George? Did you come back to make the people who tormented you pay? We can do it together! We’ll make them sorry for all the hell they put us through, won’t we?”

He couldn’t see how he could tell her the truth, but George knew he couldn’t lie to his dearest friend. Straight out, that’s how you tell her. George felt his throat try to constrict, and forced himself to speak past it. “No, Anne, I didn’t come back to make the assholes here suffer. I came back to kill the…thing that killed me. It was the spirit of someone trapped in this world by their regrets, by the anger they felt at the world for how they died. I killed it, but doing that didn’t set me free. So I decided to save others from terrible deaths like I’d suffered.” George started climbing the stairs again, doing his best to keep his eyes fixed on Anne’s ghostly form. “I’ve stopped a lot of spirits from harming the living. I try to talk them into letting go of the things that keep them tethered to this world, and sometimes they listen…but when they won’t, I kill them.” George had reached the bottom of the final flight of stairs, but when he put his foot on the first, Anne’s form began to fade. “Anne, don’t go! I don’t want to kill you, you were my best friend. But you have to let go of your hate, your anger. You have to be willing to move on.”

There was little more of Anne’s form than a shadow, almost an outline of her form. But her voice filled the space. “How can I let go, George? Do you know what it was like for me?” She became solid again, even more solid then shed’ been before. “They were always on me, from the first day at school. Freak. Whore’s daughter. Stupid slut. It never let up, but when you were here, at least I had someone to talk to. Then you left! And they had something new to hound me about. ‘Oh, poor Anne, lost the only guy hard up enough to talk to her.’ ‘Did George get killed, Anne, or did he kill himself to get away from you?’ And that became ‘Maybe you should kill yourself so you can be with him, stupid bitch.’ So I did, just to be free of them.”

Her voice rose as she spoke, ending in a shout that rolled through the empty halls. George climbed the stairs as she spoke, his foot touching the top of the final flight as she ended. Now, at the were same level as Anne, George could see tears streaming down Anne’s face to disappear into nothingness as they dropped away. “Anne, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to leave you, I didn’t choose to leave you. If I’d been smarter, if I’d been less worried about what everyone thought of me, I wouldn’t have gone into the old Parson’s mansion. I wouldn’t have died, and you wouldn’t have had to face all that shit. I truly am sorry.” George took a step, reached out and put a hand on Anne’s shoulder. It felt as solid as when he’d done it while they were both alive. “If you need someone to hate, Anne, hate me. Those girls were just being the small-minded assholes they’ve always been, and probably always will be. I’m the one who deserted you. So hate me if you need someone to hate…but please, please don’t let your hate hold you down. Don’t let them keep you prisoner here.”

Anne stared at him while he spoke, her face blank, giving away no hint what she felt or thought of his words. It wasn’t until she spoke that he knew what effect he’d had. “George, if I let go, do you know what’s next?”

“No, Anne, I don’t. Remember, I didn’t leave this world. I don’t know what’s next. All I know is that it can’t be worse than staying here, tormenting the children of your tormentors. Is that what you want, to become a bully like them?”

For the first time since he’d laid eyes on her that night, Anne smiled, and even that wry smile was better than watching her cry. “Hell no, I don’t want to be a bully. I just wanted them to feel a little of what I felt from them.” The smile changed, some of the fierceness that had carried her through life showed through. “And I think I gave them a taste of what I went through. It’s enough. I think you’re right, George, I should leave.” The smile faded as her eyes locked on his. “But what about you? Will you ever be able to leave all this behind?”

George shrugged. “I really don’t know. Maybe this is what I was meant to do. Dad always wanted me to be like him and join the Marines, but I think even he knew I’d never pass the physical. So maybe if I can’t be ‘First to fight’, at least I can defend people from the things even Marines can’t stop.”

Anne did the one thing George hadn’t expect, she threw her arms around him. “You were always my hero, George. Thanks for being my friend, for caring when nobody else did.” George had been hugged by Anne before. She’d cried on his shoulder while telling him the latest horror her mother had invoked on her. But this was different, and rather than just hold Anne to let to let her know she wasn’t alone, George held her tight. He knew it would be the last time he held her, and even if it were just a phantom after-image of her, George wanted to remember everything about the moment.

Even as he thought that, the moment was over. Anne was gone, gone like she’d never been in his arms. He stood with his arms out, still poised like he was embracing her, then let them fall. He raised his eyes, took in the sight of the Moon in the star-filled sky, and wondered what had happened to Anne. Family lore said the first Ishkowa had fled Japan because he’d been a ‘lay preacher’ bent on converting all Japanese to Christianity, an attitude that hadn’t made him popular. George had hated going to church, and his first act of rebellion against his father had been to refuse to go. Now, looking up at the dark emptiness, George didn’t feel the least bit hypocritical as he closed his eye and spoke.

“I don’t know if you’re listening or not, but if you are, please take care of my friend Anne Coulett. She was the best person I ever knew, someone who lived through hell here on Earth and never stopped caring for others. So if there really is a heaven, I hope you’ll let her in.” Though he felt nothing in response to it, George hoped that one pray would be answered. He opened his eyes, and let the tears run down his face. Anne was gone, and he had no hope he’d ever see her again. But he knew he’d never forget her.

The Prophesy Tree

I’d been on this trail for over two decades, but now, I had hope my search would be over.

The start of my voyage had been a line in my great-grandmother’s diary. She’d been a Highlands girl who’d gone to London to work in the war effort, the First World War that is. It had been just a single, cryptic line: “Just like the Tree said I would, I met Justin at Paddington Station.” Justin had been great-grans one true love, and he had died at the Battle of St. Quentin Canal. My grandfather had been born in November 1918, just short of a month after his father had died. With a child and the war effort winding down, great-gran had taken employment with a rich American family living in London. When they went home, they took their maid/governess with them. That’s how I came to be an American.

Now, I was back in the land that had given birth to my great-grandmother, sitting in a pub not far from where she’d been born. The King’s Head felt like a place that had existed since time began. There was dirt ground into every crack in the worn-smooth half-timbers sticking out of the plastered walls. No one smoked, but generations of smokers had flooded the fiber of the place with their fumes, leaving the air still smelling faintly of them. One who had added to that nicotine stench sat across from me.

Jamie Smith’s withered hand occasionally twitched towards his shirt pocket before pulling away, like he was reaching for a pack of ‘fags’, as he’d called them when he first sat down to talk to me. According to him, he’d quit smoking decades ago, but the habitual motions were still there as he sat, trying to answer my question without actually saying anything.

“Och, aye, everyone’s heard of Annag MacRae and how she went over to America. Banavie’s sent many a young lad and lass out into the world, and she was one of many who left the Highlands duing the Great War. But the last of her family died, oh, twenty years ago. I could show ye her father’s stone, and the rest of the family, at the church, but that’s all there is to see here Yank.”

I wasn’t about to let him avoid my question. “But why did she leave Banavie? You say everyone’s heard of her leaving, so why is it that one young woman leaving a small town like this is remembered?”

Jamie’s eyes, which had darted everywhere while he was talking to me, became even more determined not to look my way. “Ah, well, old stories like that get handed down….”

“But why? What was so special about my great-grandmother?”

That did it. Jamie started sliding towards the end of the bench he was sitting on opposite me, sliding away so he could get out of the small booth we shared. “I’m sorry, but I’ve to be going now. It’s good to see someone who’s family came from here return, but…”

I’d seen Jamie’s eyes following every tray full of drinks that passed us, so I decided to play my trump card. “I’m sorry, my manners are slipping. I haven’t offered to ‘stand you a pint’. I think that’s how you say offer to buy someone a drink over here, isn’t it?”

It worked. Jamie stopped trying to get out of the booth and moved back in front of me. “Well, if you’re willing to buy me a drink, I’d be happy to have it. But I’d much rather a wee drop a’ whiskey than a pint, if that’s all right with you.”

If it got the old man to open up, I’d have bought him a case of whiskey. “Of course, and you being the local expert, I’ll let you pick a good whiskey for both of us.”

#

Jamie upended the whiskey bottle, the last few drops making tiny rings on the surface of the amber liquid that filled his glass to the brim. He sat it down with exaggerated care, slowly took up his glass, and cocked it ever so slightly towards me. “Ta yer health, sir!” he said, as he had at the beginning of every glass before. Now, his words were badly slurred and his accent more pronounced. That he was still upright amazed me. I was nursing my second glass of Ben Nevis Blue Label, and my head was starting to spin. The rest of the bottle, plus a pair of ‘tots’ he’d drunk before I ordered the bottle, were all inside Jamie. But he raised the glass to his lips with hands as steady as mine, and drank a third of the glass in one slow swallow. When he lowered it, I made one final try at getting him to talk.

“So, Jamie, you were going to tell me about my great-grandmother…”
Bleary eyes fixed mine. “I was not! Why would I tell a Yank about the…” Jamie stopped, blushing and clearly flustered that he’d nearly said something he wasn’t supposed to. I decided to press my luck and see if I could bluff him.

“You were going to tell me about The Tree, the one that told my great-grandmother about the man she’d marry. So why don’t you start?”

Those blood-shot eyes widened, then narrowed. “Och, you’re jokin’. No outsider knows about The Tree.”

“But I do! My great-grandmother wrote about it in her diary, about how it told her she would meet the love of her life in London, at Paddington Station. All I’m asking for is a chance to go there, see The Tree, and maybe offer thanks for setting my ancestor on the right path. Is that wrong?”

Jamie’s eyes narrowed to thin strips, and I began to suspect he might have seen through my bluff. Then he shook his head and took another, deeper drink of whiskey before answering me. “Tha’ silly chit, writin’ somethin’ like tha’ down. No one outside of Banavie is ever supposed ta know ’bout the Prophesy Tree.”

So my guess was right. But he still hadn’t told me anything about the actual tree. Time to press it to the limit. “Well, she did, and I know about the Prophesy Tree. Would you be willing to take me there, so I can pay respects for my dead great-grandmother?”

That got a reaction from Jamie, not the one I’d expected. His eyes widened, and he recoiled like I’d just pulled a gun on him. “No, not in a million years!” He relaxed slightly and leaned forward to close the distance between us. I did the same, and he muttered. “”Sides, I dinna know where th’ tree is. Only ol’ MacGilleain knows where tis, an’ I don’ think ye kin get ‘im to tell ye.”

Jamie leaned back, glass in hand again, and drained its contents in a gulp. He placed it on the table like it were made of spun smoke, then with a drunken grin, pitched forward, unconscious before his face hit the wood between us. None of the other patrons seemed surprised by this, so I settled my tab, asked the bartender to arrange for Jamie to be taken home, and adjourned to my bed and breakfast.

How was I going to find someone based on their last name, even in a small town like this? My smart phone, when I queried it, came back with several people who had that name, but none of them lived in Banavie. One, though, did live nearby, and when I asked for directions to his house, I found it located in a small valley not far from the base of Ben Nevis. The map showed a road leading up to it, but based on the driving I’d done to date, that tiny, crooked yellow ribbon couldn’t be much more than a pave goat path. “Not something you should be tackling half drunk.” I told myself as I kicked off my shoes and lay down.

I’d planned to get undressed and take a shower before going to bed the night before. The rising late Summer Sun, slanting through my window, woke me. My head felt like a group of tiny men with huge hammers were inside it, trying desperately to beat their way out. The taste in my mouth was indescribable, like what I imagine having a herd of Highland cattle driven across your tongue might taste like. About the only plus was that my stomach showed no signs of rebelling, one of things I liked least about getting drunk.

Last nights clothing off, I got under the shower head and didn’t mind the time it took the water to warm. The initial icy downpour helped wake me the rest of the way up, and brought back what I’d learned the night before. Now, I had to find out of the MacGilleain my phone had found was the same one Jamie had hinted at. I scrubbed myself down, letting my mouth fill with water from the shower a couple of times to help rinse some of the foulness out of it. “Time I got ready to face the next stage of my search.”

#

The road that climbed away from the A82 was almost as bad as I’d imagined it to be. It wasn’t a paved goat path, but a single lane road, a narrow strip of pavement that followed a tortuous path through the bleakly beautiful Scottish hills. Here was not a place to take your eyes off the road to consult a phone for directions, so I was reduced to listening to the annoying voice telling me what to do.

“In fifty meter, turn left. In ten meters, turn right.”

No roads lead off the one I followed, making all those directions redundant. “To borrow the English line, would you sod off!” I growl at the senseless hunk of electronics. It ignores me, so I do what I can to tune it out. The road begins to climb, its back and forth rambling giving way a series of sweeping climbs up steep rocky hillsides, each one ending in a hair-pin turn. The sky begins to change as well. When I’d left Banavie, nothing beyond a scattering of clouds marred an otherwise perfect day. Now, with the mountains growing around me, the clouds joined into an uninterrupted deck of dark gray. Another turn, and the first raindrop spatters down on my windshield. It soon has plenty of company. The rain grows in intensity, becoming an unbroken sheet of that blocks out everything beyond a few hundred feet ahead. And still the road climbs.

I’m in the middle of nowhere, driving on what to me is the wrong side of the road with increasingly bad visibility. Is there another car coming down this narrow path? A moment’s break in the rain, and I find myself hoping there isn’t. Below me, just inches from the door, I have a view down the hill. I can see the road I’ve been climbing, a light snakelike path among the streaming rocks, and there is nothing to stop me from going over the edge. Opposite that terrifying view is a rough rock wall, a vertical slab of stone where the hillside has been carved away to make the road, and it is not much farther away than the drop. The rain closes about me, bringing both comfort and fear, and I continue my drive.

The rock wall grows lower, then drops away as I make a final turn onto a level space that stretches out of sight in the downpour. The road arrows into the center of that space, and I follow it, glad that I have encountered no other traffic. But now, my phone has gone silent, its annoying verbal barrage is no more. I slow to a stop and pick it up. It couldn’t be the battery, not with it plugged into the car. The screen shows the winding path I had come up, but according to it, I had yet to finish the climb. I tap the screen, and nothing happens. Closing the app, then opening it again brings the voice back, but now all it says is “Updating GPS, please wait.” over and over.

Outside, there is a final torrential rush of rain before it fades to drizzle. The road has climbed high enough that clouds surround me, leaving me as blind to my surroundings as when the rain poured down. My phone still complains that it can’t update its GPS system, and I decide to continue without it. I keep my speed low, for while there is no deadly drop-off, stout dry stone walls now outline the road, leaving little room to dodge oncoming traffic. The ground seems flat, but my inner ear insists I am driving up a slope. And the road continues on, with no diversions or branches.

A shape, indistinct, appears out of the mist, and I slow in hope of a house, of some sign of other humans. What I see was a house, but is no more. Rough stone walls rise from rank weeds. No trace of a roof remains. Empty holes, where once windows stood, flank a doorway that, incongruously, still holds a dark red door. I roll past the gap in the stone wall before that door and continue on, glad to put the desolate scene behind me.

The drizzle stops, and while the fog remains thick, I catch an occasional hint of what is around me. Steep, rocky slopes rise on either hand to disappear into the clouds. A swift stream rushes down, swirling below the road as it passes over a stone bridge with a weathered stone plaque bearing the date of 1823. A group of dirty white shapes stand in the grass beyond the wall, sheep grazing in this damp and dismal place, but no sheppard accompanies them. And the road continues on.

My mind begins to wander. My great-grandmother had written many times of her homeland. She had described the mist-shrouded mountains, but her words had made them feel like home. For me, who had grown up on the flat plains of the Midwest, they were an alien landscape, almost a scene from a nightmare. She had longed to see her native Highlands again, while I wanted nothing more than to find what I was looking for and get away from them.

The opening in the stone wall appeared and disappeared as I drove past it like the wall blinked. I step on the brakes, and the car skids, slewing to the left before coming to a stop. Reversing, I come before it. A pair of rough upright stones frame an opening hardly more than the width of the subcompact I’m in. Beyond it is a rutted path thick with weeds. There is no house visible, just the trail that disappears into the mist, but I know this is the path I must follow. How I know this I can’t say, but my heart tells me this is the path I must follow. I work the car around, line up, and drive through those gateposts with fractions to spare.

“Well, I was wondering when I’d end up on a paved goat path. Now, I’m on an unpaved one.” Telling myself that, with the weeds scrap the undercarriage, does nothing to improve my confidence that I’ll make it to where ever this road leads. At least there are no walls hemming me in, giving me hope that if I meet someone coming down this rutted excuse for a road, I’ll be able to get out of their way, A dark shape ahead resolves itself into a boulder the size of a garden shed, and the road jogs left to avoid it. It doesn’t go back in its original direction, but continues up an increasingly steep slope. The road becomes rougher, the ruts deeper. I hear a louder scrap from the underside of the car and know it’s not weeds hitting. No, it’s the central crown of the road, rising to the point where I’m barely clearing it, and ahead, things are worse.

I stop and get out to examine the ground around the road. Uphill, it feels solid, but downhill, my foot tries to sink in as soon as I put my weight on it. “Oh well, at least there’s enough room for me to get turned around on the solid side of the road.” I walk ahead and find my suspicions are correct. There are places where the crown of the road rises above the path by a distance that’s halfway to my knees. So I can get turned around and go back, but I can’t go forward, at least not in the car. But I still feel the impulse to follow this road, and rather than listen to reason, I decide to listen to my heart. The car humps across the crown as I crank the steering wheel all the way around and give it some gas. Three back-and-forth cuts and I’ve got it parked on the grassy shoulder facing downhill. I kill the engine, put the parking brake and emergency blinkers on before lock up.

The air is chilly, and seems to close around me like only a really dense fog does. I make my way to the road, my shoes soaking through from the dew on the grass. Down the hill, the weeds in the center of the road are sheered off inches from the ground. Uphill, beyond where they are beaten down by my turning around, they rise to my waist. No vehicle could come this way, not even a military Hummer, without leaving some sign of its passing. Yet I know without question that what I seek is at the end of this road. So I walk, through the fog that swirls around me, climbing ever higher, and wondering how far I will go before reaching my destination.

Long before I see it, I hear the rush and gurgle of water grow on my right. In the stark, silence-shrouded landscape, the sound of the normal world is welcome. Another dark shape grows before me, revealing itself to be a rock abutment, a bare heel of the surrounding hill that rises before me like a head-high cliff. Before it, the road bends again, a right turn far beyond a right angle. Now, the water does not rush, it roars. The rock fades into the mist, then returns. Before me, close beside the road, it rises in a vertical wall that disappears into the fog. A stream, strong with the recent rain, pours down, making a gray curtain that half covers the road. No way around it, not with the ground dropping away on the downhill side at an angle near vertical. All my surety that I was right were for this?

“So, this is what I came to find? A fucking gray rainbow on the side of a fucking Scottish hill?”

My words come back at me, a muffled echo from the rock before me, and I feel ashamed of myself. Great-grandmother walked this very road, and I have yet to complete the journey she succeeded in making. I walk towards the falling water and find the road continues beyond. I also see that provisions for those afoot have been made. A line of mossy, flat-topped stones rise from the stream feet from the drop-off, spaced to make a dry-footed crossing possible. I take them, one careful step at a time, feeling my feet shift with every movement. The fall is beside me, spray for it sprinkling, then running, down my neck.

A final step, and I’m across. The rock face the stream runs down drops back, a narrow beak of stone thrust from the hill behind it. Here the grass on the uphill slope ends at a stand of trees, huge shapes that peek through the fog and look as though they have stood since the hill arose. Is this what I seek? Does the tree my great-grandmother mentioned stand before me? No, I feel the same pull that has drawn me up this road. It is ahead of me, the thing I am looking for.

The road is no more, now it is nothing but a rough path through the grass and heather. Below me, the hill drops away less steeply, and my path no longer rises. The darkness begins to fade, and detail grow clearer, the fog begins to thin. I see a low structure ahead, but this is no rotting shell of a house. Whitewashed stone walls rise to a thick thatched roof. Windows, one with a candle burning behind it, fill their allotted openings. Smoke drifts towards me from the chimney, and I catch a whiff of earthiness born on the breeze. The door is black, an unadorned surface that might as well be a portal unto eternal night. It opens, allowing a thin stream of light to illuminate the flagstone walk leading to it, and through it steps a man. He is tall, stooping to pass through the low door, and while he carries a heavy wooden cane, his steps are firm and sure. His white hair is long and done in a single ponytail, the beard that hides most of his lower face is cropped short. None of that would be out of place in any of the Scottish towns I have passed through, but what would is his dress. He looks like someone fresh from central casting, a Highlander of ages past. A tartan cape, one I mistake for all black but as he comes closer I see is actually shot through with fine lines of yellow and green, covers his shoulders. He wears a loosely ruffled shirt over a kilt of the same dark tartan pattern, and white socks, or hose, rise to his knees from heavy square-toed shoes. Our eyes are the same height, and as his fix on me, and I feel as though he is looking inside me, not at me. He smiles, holds out his hand, and addresses me.

Beannachdan, coigreach, agus fàilte.”

I take his hand, and find his grip firm. Umm, I’m sorry, but I don’t understand you. Do you speak English?”

I feel like an idiot even as I speak, but the smile never fades. “Och, I can, but I ha’ hopes ye might know the Scottish. Ah well, I won’t ask what brings ye here. You were drawn here, weren’t ye?”

“No, I came here because of something I read in a diary.”

His eyes narrow slightly, and I know he can see I’m not telling the whole truth. “Oh, tha’s wha set you on the road, but tha’s not wha drew you here, is it? I’ll wager you didn’t read how to get here in tha’ diary, nor did it keep ye going when it looked like ye’d walked inta th’ middle of nowhere. Am I wrong?”

“No, you’re not. But how…”

The man gives me a sly wink. “You were touched by th’ Tree, weren’t you? Not you, precisely, but someone in your past.”

I nod, suddenly unsure of what I’ve walked into. He lets go of my hand and turns towards the house. “Well, come inside so ye can tell me the story in the dry. Fog like this only thins out when th rain’s about to come pouring down. So let’s sit someplace warm while ye tell me everything.”

I follow him up the walk, lowering my head as does to avoid the low door sill. Up close, the door is not plain. Upon it is an ornate knocker in the shape of a tree. Made of dull iron, the leafy boughs form an anchor plate, tapering down to a pair arms that are split above their joining with the trunk by hinges. The trunk hangs down to end in a spread of roots that serves as the handle. No rust defaces the mechanism, but the impression is of great age, as though it has hung here as long as the giant trees I glimpsed earlier. The inside of the house is warm and welcoming after my walk, and there is no sign of modern technology anywhere. The sole source of warmth is the fireplace, and it gives off no more than a dull light. A pair of candles flank a high-backed chair, a small pool of illumination in a room filled with shadows. It is into that chair that my host settles. He waves towards a small table.

Bring a chair, an’ sit yerself down by th fire. There’s more peat in th basket, feel free to throw nother sod on th fire if ye‘re feeling th chill.”

The chairs about the table are straight-backed, their wood grown dark with age, made smooth by use. I draw one to the fireside, see wickerwork basket sized for a large family filled with shaggy brown bricks, and pick one up. It is surprisingly light, and as it crumbles in my hand, the scent from the smoke outside rises to greet me. I lay it atop others already on the grate and settle myself facing the old man. He watches me, waiting, it seems, for me to speak. So I oblige him.

“You said the tree draws those who have been touched by it to them. What did you mean?”

He leans towards me, eyes locked on me. “Aye, a good first question. Those th tree favors with vision are forever linked to it, as are those who’s lives spring from that connection.” He tilts his head, first to one side, then the other, before nodding. “Ye‘re Annag MacRae child, aren’t you?” I kin see her in your eyes, and the shape of yer nose.

How would this man know what my great-grandmother looked like? There’s not a single photo of her in our whole family. “No, I’m her great-grand child. Annie is the name she’s remembered by, and she’s been dead nearly a hundred years now.”

The old man leans back, shaking his head. “A hundred years? Och, has it been so long in th world outside? But no mind. The Tree’s drawn you back, as it does everone.”

Wait, wait, are you trying to tell me you knew Annie? That’s impossible! You might be old, but there’s no way you’re that old.”

But the old man smiles at me as he nods. “Aye, you’re right…I wa a hundred years old a’fore Annag’s fathers-father wa even a hope in his father’s heart. Ive been here been far beyond all their lives, and until time itself stops, I will remain here.”

Are you telling me you’re immortal?”

The smile grows sly. “Ah, not ‘immortal’, at least not at first. I was a young man when I first touched The Tree and it granted me my sole vision. It showed me this house, this wee glen, and it showed me myself as I am now. I knew the moment I had the vision that I would see this place, and that here I would live far beyond the span of mortal men.”

Now I was confused. “You said the Tree ‘showed’ you this place…but isn’t the Tree here?”

“Oh, it is, yes, right here, not far from us at all.”

“Then how could it have shown you this place if it’s already here?”

The old man threw his head back and let out a laugh that shook the candle flames on either side of him. He continued, until with a slap to his knobby bare knee, he wiped his eyes and spoke to me again. “The Tree’s here because I brought it here, ye young fool. De I have ta spell it out for ya?”

But it’s not here! I saw the only trees, yet the feeling that drew me here drew me beyond them. So where is this mystical Tree?”

The old man rolls up first one sleeve, then the other. The arms under them are pocked with white scars, ranging from snowy freckles near his wrist to larger, ugly circles and lines farther up. “I earned each o’ these, at me own forge. I wa’ considered th’ best smith in all the glens, and one night I wa’ woke by a sound like thunder, but there wa’ never a drop o’ rain. Th’ next day, my laird came round. He had a black rock th’ size o’ me head, an’ said it’d felled a yew tree a’fore his house. He thought it were iron, and he wanted me to make it into a sword. He thought anything tha could cleave a yew could do th’ same to a man.” He shakes his head, eyes unfocused. “The MacLoed he wa’, an’ he wa’ a man o’ blood. I knew before I touched it tha’ MacLoed would use th sword I made ta start a feud wi’ one a’ the neighborin’ clans. He were ne’er happy wi’ just the few glens he ruled. His father wa’ wi’ The Bruce, an’ MacLoed always thought his father should’a been given more when The Bruce came to th’ throne. Then he laid it in me hands, an’ I saw it. My future. Bu’ I knew I could’na just walk away from the like of MacLoed. So I promised him a sword, an’ I made one too…just not fra’ his precious rock. He took’t ta raidin’, an’ one o’ th’ Campbell clan cut him down like a stalk o’ rye.”

The pieces dropped into place, and I looked towards the front door of the cottage. “So the Tree is…”

“Aye, it’s me knocker. I thought it fittin’ ta turn it inta a tree, wha’ wi’ it havin’ felled one. Those as ha’ the courage ha’ come here since, to speak ta me, thinkin’ I know where th’ tree is. Th’ Tree decides, or maybe Fate, who’re blessed with a vision. If they’re ta ha’ a vision, they use th’ knocker; if not, they beat on the door ’til I tell’em ta sod off.”

It made an almost cruel sort of sense, but I was left with a singular question. “But that doesn’t explain how you’ve lived all this time. My great-grandmother lived a long life for her time, but she barely passed the biblical ‘three-score-and-ten’. What’s kept you alive all this time?”

I dinna know. I think time runs a bit different in this glen. Ta me, it feels like Annag wa’ here just a few days ago. I know th’ trees near ne’er drop their leaves, bu’ when I came here ta build me cot, they acted like normal trees. Maybe me Tree does som’thin’ ta time.” He stops, looks me over again. “Ye’ve ne’er asked ta touch it, I see. Why is tha’, I wonder.”

Now that the puzzle was solved, now that I knew what had taken my ancestor away from here native land, I found myself uneasy. Not just with the idea that a piece of meteorite might have the power to grant a person a vision of their future, but with this entire house and everything about it. Especially the ancient man in front of me. He continues to watch me, waiting in silence for what I will say, what I will do, next. And all I want to do is run. I want away from this place, from this timeless man and this piece of Scotland that feels frozen in time.

I…just wanted to find out why my ancestor ended up in America, what drove her to leave her home. And I have.” I stand far quicker than I’d intended, the panic in the back of my mind taking hold, driving my impulse to fly from this cottage. I fight down the urge to run for the door. “Thank you for your help, and for your hospitality, but I’ve taken enough of your time. Good day, Mr. MacGilleain.” I don’t offer him my hand, I walk to the door as swiftly as I can without breaking into a run.

Outside, the sky is clear and the Sun has set. Both the flags and grass are dry, the latter with that dusty coating that speaks of a long period of dry weather. But it had all been damp when I’d entered the cottage. I strike the path down the hill, only to find that the waterfall is now little more than a trickle over the upper rock face. Below it, the stream bed shows fresh growth, as though the surrounding vegetation has taken sudden advantage of the lack of flowing water to expand into the stream bed. A single, none-too-long step carries me across the stream without the need for the stepping stone, and I let myself break into a trot, hoping to escape this place.

In the fading light, the weeds in the middle of the road look wilted, as though they have endured a long drought. I make the turn that carries the road downhill, but when I reach the spot where I am sure I left the car, I find nothing. I keep going, sure I will find it eventually, but I don’t. As the last light is leaving the midnight blue sky, I come to the road. It is strange, not the tarmac I remember driving, but an absolutely smooth surface like a continuous sheet of gray plastic. It’s miles to the A82, so far I’m not sure I could cover the distance if I pushed myself through the night. I’m tempted to sit down and wait for a passing car, but waiting for a ride on this deserted stretch of road seems like the definition of a forlorn hope. And more than anything, I want away from here. So I begin walking down the middle of the road, sure that I’ll see, or at least hear, any vehicle before it become a hazard. The Moon begins to rise, casting a pale light over the scenery around me. Then I hear something. I whistling sound unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. It seems to be behind me, but what it is, I can’t tell. It grows stronger, like it were approaching, but I see no lights, not a sign of a vehicle approaching. Then, I catch a glint of moonlight reflecting off something. Another, closer, and as my mind begins to realize something is coming down the road at me, a dark shape appears. I have a moment to marvel at how fast, and how silently, it is moving, then I feel it hit me. There is a moment’s pain, then it disappears and I am left to marvel at how the starry sky seems to wheel over me before I hit the ground, and all sense leaves me.

#

Ian knew he should have had his pod’s onboard sensors fixed, but the malfunctioning ones were only for night-time use, and he rarely drove after dark. So here he was, stopped in the dark, sitting in the middle of the glide-road between Banavie and Torcastle because he’d run late leaving Torcastle. Without the radar and other navigation sensors, the pod hadn’t detected…whatever the hell it was Ian had hit. But did he really want to get out and see what he’d run into. Modern paint carried taggers, so the farmer who’d lost a sheep would know who’s pod had killed it. And because he’d left the scene of an accident involving destruction of property, Ian would face charges. Worse, his pod would be inspected, and when it was found he’d been operating it without all the safety equipment working, his problems would get exponentially worse.

Open access port.” he commanded, and the pod obeyed, letting in the cool outside air. There was a torch under the seat, and he withdrew it before examining the front. Ian blessed his luck that there weren’t any pieces of sheep or any other animal smeared across the leading edge, then began retracing the pod’s path. Maglev vehicles could stop quickly, and Ian had gone only a few steps before he saw the shoe. It was an old-fashioned one, something he remembered his father favoring known as a ‘trainer’. It was in the middle of the road, and Ian’s blood ran cold. Had he struck a person? Pods were supposed to be designed to cue in on humans and do everything possible to keep from hitting them. But what if more than just his radar and front lights were malfunctioning?

Ian swept his torch beam around, hoping against hope that he would see nothing. What he did see, when the beam of light played across it, looked like a bundle of old clothing thrown against the dry stone wall beside the road. Then he saw the blood, and his stomach betrayed him. Doubling over, he heaved, then again, and supper came spewing out his mouth. Another clinch of muscles, and more of his stomach’s contents splattered on the guideway. A third time, and all that came out was a thin stream of foul-tasting liquid. Ian spit, trying to get the taste out of his mouth, then raised his wrist to his mouth. “Call the police, emergency number.” The phone/browser/tracker sputtered, ticeshen replied. “Calling emergency services.” The double-chirp of the phone ringing came clear in the still night air, then the too polite female voice of an automated system answered. “This is Torcastle Emergency Services, how may I help you?”

I need to speak to an officer.”

Did you say need to speak to an officer?”
Ian fought the desire to scream at the phone. “Yes, I need to speak to an officer. I’ve had an accident on the Banavie-Torcastle secondary guideway…I think I might have struck a pedestrian.”

There was a silence, then a loud click followed by a bored voice. “This is Constable Owens. Did you say you’d struck a pedestrian?”

Yes, officer, I did…and I think he might killed them.”

The voice, when it replied, had not a trace of boredom in it. “I have your location and your identity entered, so if you attempt to flee, you’ll be regarded as a wanted fugitive in a felony criminal act. I’ve dispatched one of our patrol pods, it should be there momentarily. While we wait, I need you to answer a few questions.”

The questions were what Ian had expected: What had he been doing at the time of the accident? Had he overridden the pod’s safety protocols? Had he been aware that operating a pod with faulty sensors was a punishable offense? Constable Owens was telling him the time he faced for the charges hed already admitted to when Ian spotted the flashing blue lights of the patrol pod boring through the night. Like all other emergency service vehicles, the patrol pod wasn’t bound by the speed limits other vehicles were. Ian felt the pressure wave it generated buffet him as the craft came to a stop a scant two meters from him. Its access panel opened, and a young woman climbed out, adjusting the archaic but still regulation hat on her head as she approached him.

I’m Patrol Officer Morris. I take it you’re Ian Ivers?”

Yes, Officer. The man I struck is over there. I haven’t approached him, but I haven’t heard him move. Is he dead?”

I don’t know, but for now, I’m placing you under arrest for vehicular manslaughter. Please turn away from me and put your hands behind your back.”

Ian did as he was told and felt the cold metal of the restraints close around his wrists. “By law, I must warn you that if you attempt to flee, the restraints will deliver a shock strong enough to disable you if you exceed five meters distance from me. I must also warn you that I can activate the shock system if I feel you are acting in a threatening manner. Do you understand these warnings?”

Yes, officer, but if I’d intended to flee, why would I have called emergency services?”

I can’t speculate as to your actions or motives, sir, I’m just here to gather facts.” Her tracker had a small torch in it, and she shone this towards where Ian knew the body lay. When she found it, she extinguished the light and spoke into her tracker. “This is Officer Theresa Morris, ID 772, requesting the dispatch of a crime scene unit to my GPS location. Vehicular manslaughter, one victim.” She tapped the face of the tracker, then did it again. “Victim either does not have a tracker, or the unit was damaged in the accident. I shall make a preliminary examination to try to get an ID, so tell the technicians they’ll have to screen for my DNA on the victim. Stand by, Central.”

Ian watched the officer as she turned her light back on and approached the still form. In the quiet night air, he could hear everything she said to her listening colleagues. “Victim does not appear to be wearing a tracker, and there is no evidence of one near the body.” He saw her reach out and pull the body over, then saw her let it fall back. “Face is too badly damaged to use for recognition purposes. I will search the body for any identifying marks or distinctive items.”

The silence stretched longer this time as the officer searched the body. She stopped at a bulge in the rear trouser pocket. “Central, the victim is carrying an old-fashioned wallet.” She opened it and began rifling through its contents. “Victim has paper money, old-fashioned English pound notes! There’s an ID of some sort here, give me a second to extract it.”

Ian could understand the surprise. Scotland had declared independence from England twenty years ago, and even in England, nobody used physical money anymore. Where had this man come from? He got part of his answer as the officer read the ID she’d found.

The victim has what looks like an old-fashioned American state drivers license, dated as issued in 2019. It was issued by the state of Iowa, in the name of Paul Armando Sanchez, who resided at 328 South Central Street, in the city of Carswells Corner.”

For the first time, the tracker squawked out a reply. “Repeat, did you say your victim was carrying the identification of Paul Armando Sanchez?”

Yes sir, and while his face is a bit too much of a mess to make an ID from the photo, the description on the license matches the body. Why do you ask?”

Because, Officer Morris, you may have solved a missing person case that’s been on the books for over 60 years. Mr. Sanchez was reported missing in 2019, and his rental car was found less than a kilometer from your current coordinates. I wonder where the old boy’s been hiding all these years…and how a man that old could have stumbled into a guideway in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.”

Ian had gotten a good enough look at the body to know the dead man wasn’t much older than he was. Officer Morris clearly felt the same way.

Central, I don’t know who this is, but it can’t possibly be a man who’d be, what, at least 98 years old. The victim appears to be a man in his early thirties, if dressed a bit oddly.”

What do you mean? Describe how the victim is dressed.”

The light played over Sanchez’s still form. “White, I think they called them polo shirts, blue jeans that look as though they’re less than a year old and black laced cloth shoes…didn’t they used to call them ‘trainers’?”

The voice from Central did not respond immediately, but when it did, Ian could hear the anger in it. “Officer Morris, have you been reading the case file on this disappearance?”

No,sir, I haven’t!”

There was a sigh from the tracker. “Then maybe you can explain how your description is a words-for-word match to the description given by the last person to see Mr. Sanchez alive. Never mind. Just stay there, guard your prisoner, and hope the lab techs can sort out how a man can be missing all this time and not age a day.”

Echoes of the past

“…and so, honored mother, I hope you will know that I keep you always in my thoughts and prayers. I hope I remain always in your heart and prayers as well. Your son, Julius Maximius Gabinius”

Claudia Upton looked up from reading the translation to scrutinize the man who had picking it from the mud-soaked, decaying original text. Paul Sanchez had a face that could have been lifted from a Roman mosaic. Dark hair over an unlined, olive-colored face with none of the Mesoamerican features that so often marked those of Hispanic background. Well, the Romans were in Spain and the Iberian for centuries. Perhaps he’s a genetic fluke, a reversion to an ancestral appearance. Those dark, almost black eyes watched her, and she sensed he was waiting for her comments on his translation.

“It’s an excellent translation, Mr. Sanchez. You clearly have a good grasp of Latin. Could I ask you where you studied?”

A smile began to appear on the otherwise impassive face before her. Then it vanished, replaced by the same mask-like appearance that Sanchez always wore when he was around her. “Oh, I studied at home. My father and mother both knew Latin, and they insisted I should be at least slightly fluent in it.”

Claudia knew a snow job when she was being subjected to one, but this wasn’t the time to confront Sanchez about his surprising fluency in a dead language. She was just glad to have someone who could make sense of the badly-decomposed messages Claudia had recovered from a German bog over a decade ago. “Well, you definitely surpassed their expectations. I can read Latin without translating in my head, and even I couldn’t make anything of my find.”

Paullus Lucius Decimus looked across the desk at the young scholar. Needing some extra cash, he’d seen the online ad looking for someone to translate Latin text and been glad for the chance to make money reading his native language. What had caught him off-guard was what he was translating: messages he had written himself over two thousand years ago. As one of the more literate members of his cohort, Paullus had often been asked to write letters home for others. He even remembered the messenger who had been charged with taking the letters home to Rome…and wasn’t surprised to find that they’d been thrown in a bog. Atticus Erucius had been a slippery little shit, more inclined to informing on his fellows than fighting in the ranks. Paullus had never figured out who’s ass he’d kissed to be assignment to carry mail to Rome, but if not for that bit of foresighted butt worship, he’d have been slaughtered like the rest of Legio XIX by the Germans.

Paullus still had nightmares of that time, and they’d gotten worse since he’d taken the translation job. Just the night before, he’d bolted awake from a dream of those dark, stinking bogs so vivid he could have sworn he smelled them in his small apartment. Just reflecting on that moment brought other memories forward, things that made remembering a bog filled with screaming, dying legionnaires seem pleasant.

Are you all right, Mr. Sanchez?”

She was watching him, staring as if she could see the images of death and suffering that hung in front of him. His father had been of the Stoic school, and had enforced his ideas of a proper, impassive visage on his son with a well-wielded switch. To know that he had let himself slip more than embarrassed Paullus, it angered him deeply.

Claudia, watching the man sitting across from her, saw the mask drop away. Sanchez’s face went from its natural darkness to a gray pallor like someone an inch from death. Lines that hadn’t been apparent before became pronounced, giving him the appearance of an ancient. Then, his color returned, but not with a healthy evenness. No, this was the blotchy flush of someone deeply embarrassed…or very angry. Oh, very angry indeed, but why? The eyes that had given away nothing of the inner man were now narrow, hard openings into another person, one that frightened Claudia. Then, like a man forcing a door to another side of his soul closed, Sanchez’s face resumed its calm appearance. Claudia wasn’t fooled by the change, she knew that Paul Sanchez was not someone she would want angry at her.

“I’m fine, Ms. Upton. If I might ask, where did you find the text I translated?”

“I pulled them out of a former bog in Germany. A hiker saw some corroded metal beside a trail and thought it might be part of a bomb intended for Hannover. The German Army EOD team that came to investigate recognized it was too old to be from WWII and contacted the local university. I was studying there at the time and ended up being part of the team that went out to study the find. Turned out to be part of a Roman helmet, and my clump of peat-soaked messages was found nearby.”

Maybe Sanchez sensed her unease, because his body relaxed visibly as he spoke. “So you found a helmet with your mail. Kind of odd to find a single piece of armor, isn’t it?”

“Oh no, we found the remnants of an entire suit of Roman armor…and the person who’d been wearing it too. My German colleagues thought he might have lost his way trying to find his way through the bog. However he came to be there, these messages give us an insight into what life was like for soldiers serving on Rome’s farthest frontier.”

“’And we will know them by the things they leave behind.’ Is that what you’re saying?”

Claudia didn’t recognize the quote, but it was quite apt. “Precisely. After all, until some mad physicist invents a time machine, that’s all we have. I mean it’s not like I can sit a legionnaire down and interview them, can I?” She started searching her desk, digging through the piles of papers and folder before finding what she was searching for. She pulled the battered folder out and extended it to Sanchez. “Now that you’ve shown you can make sense of one of my messages, I want you to tackle this. It’s the prize of my messages, the one I really want translated.”

Paullus took the thin folder of reproductions and flipped it open. He understood her not trusting a stranger with the originals, and he wasn’t sure how he’d react if he had the original documents in front of him. Would they carry the same stink of cold rot he remember so vividly from the bogs? So you weren’t the coward I imagined you were, Atticus? I’ll remember you in my prayers to Mars tonight, and hope the War God grants your spirit rest.

Aloud, he spoke in a different voice, in a language far removed from the plebeian Latin that was his mother tongue. “No, you can’t talk to a legionnaire, can you?” Then his voice caught in his throat. He recognized the scrawled Latin script before him, even if he’d only read it once before. It was the handwriting of Publius Quinctilius Varus, the political hack who’d sent so many of Paullus’ fellow legionnaires to their deaths. Willing his voice to be as calm as his as his face, Paullus continued. “It might take me a little longer than the first letter. I don’t know who wrote this, but their penmanship is terrible.”

“I know! But look at the next page…this is a letter home from Varus, the man who commanded the legions the Germans beat at Teutoburg. I was able to pick that much of it out, but with these eyes,” she gestures at the thick glasses that magnified to huge proportions, “that’s all I can make of it.” She smiled. “I’m willing to pay extra…call it ‘hazard pay’ for dealing with his terrible handwriting.”

Did Paullus want to read the inner thoughts of the man who’s incompetence led to the death of three whole legions, over 16,000 men? Paullus flipped to folder shut. He’d spent over two thousand years wishing Varus resided in the hottest fires in the Christian Hell, but he still needed money. “Well, as a poor, itinerant Latin scholar, I feel I should take you up on your offer of extra pay. Now, how much

extra are we talking about?”

Paullus enjoyed the dickering that followed. In a way, it was comforting that no matter the age, humans always sought the best deal. Now, alone in his rooms, he found himself hesitating. Almost every legionnaire had known Arminius was not to be trusted. The German auxiliaries that had stayed loyal tried to warn Varus of treachery, but neither he, nor any of the other commanders, had listened. What would Varus have to say? Had he been as clueless as Paullus always thought? There was no way to know but to begin reading. The desk he sat at, like every other item in his apartment, as someone else’s cast off. Some bored child had crudely carved “Billie, age 12, 1949” in the upper left corner, but it did the job. He toggled the switch on the magnifier, and its circular florescence bulb flickered to life, bringing the text beneath it into sharp relief. Paullus leaned over it, focusing on the first line and began to read.

“My Dear Wife…”

#

Paullus leaned back, stretched, and scrubbed his eyes. Immortality had saved him from death more times than he could remember, but it didn’t stop his body from aching after spending hours hunched over a piece of paper. Now, after twenty days struggling to understand what was written on those pages, he knew what Varus had meant to communicate. And what he had learned opened his eyes in ways nothing had before. He picked up his notes, the Latin script as neat now as it had been all those centuries before, and ran through Varus’ final message.

“My Dear Wife,

I write you because I know that if we ever see each other again, it will be in Elysium. I wish I could see you again, to hold you and our children one final time, but that is not to be. In my folly, I trusted Arminius, and he has betrayed that trust. I have learned that he intends to attack my legions, hoping he can rally enough warriors to his cause to overwhelm us. He has the advantage of knowing the land, and its people, while all I have is my confidence in the courage and training of my legionnaires. I know that I have no chance to prevailing, but if I were to run, what would become of me, of our family? So I will stay, and fight, to give what honor I can to you and our children.

Know that while I will die looking forward to our reunion, I hope that happy event is many years away. So live, my beloved wife, and keep my memory alive in our children’s hearts. I will not ask you to keep it alive in your heart, because I know it will never die there. Until we meet again, may Jupiter, Minerva and all the gods keep you always in their care.

Your husband,

Publius Quinctilius Varus”

It all made sense now. By dying rather than running, Varus saved his family from the humiliation of cowardice in the face of the enemy. But even knowing why he had done it did nothing to quell Paullus’ anger. No, it made that anger worse. No man’s honor was worth so many lives. But he had the letter copied, and once he’d translated it, he’d be paid…and getting paid was what it was all about. He glanced at the clock, and to his surprised, found it was 3AM.

“Sleep, I think, before translation. Tomorrow will be soon enough to finish. Now, to bed.”

#

Claudia ran her hand across her eyes, wiping tears she hadn’t expected away. Sanchez’s notes, his detailed interpretation of what different words might be, were as good as anything she had seen . What those guesses and interpretations put together was heartbreaking, and the implications of Varus’ letter rewrote one of the most shocking defeats in history. She looked across her desk and found Sanchez watching her. The bland mask was in full force today, not even his eyes revealed what passed through his mind.

“Do you accept my translation, Ms. Upton? I’ll admit some of it’s guesswork, but put together, it all makes sense. Don’t you agree?”

I do. It’s also quite a story, which is why I wonder if anyone will take your translation seriously.” Claudia saw the eyes narrow and held up her hand. “Believe me when I tell you I don’t doubt you’ve done an excellent job translating the letter. I’m just saying that historians are not immune from fearing change, and this letter changes the whole narrative of Teutoburg.” She saw the man’s tension lessen, then with a smile, caught her by surprise.

“Fear of change has always been mankind’s greatest enemy. Perhaps if Rome hadn’t been so focused on victory, if they’d been willing to accept a fighting retreat, Varus might have found a way to bring his troops home instead of leading them to the slaughter.” Sanchez shook his head. “But all humans hate change, don’t they? Well, if you’re satisfied with my work, there is the vulgar matter of my fee…”

Claudia suppressed a chuckle at the old movie reference and opened the central drawer on her desk. She didn’t understand why Sanchez always demanded payment in cash, but she was happy to pay for this sort of quality. She pulled out the fat envelope holding his fee and passed it to him. “As agreed, sir. I’d like to offer you something more to express my thanks for your work. Would you mind if I listed you as a co-author when I submit the paper I intend to write based on this? I’m sure it would bring you more work, if you need more money.”

Sanchez was folding the envelope, and stuffed it into the front pocket of his khakis before responding. “Thank you for your kind offer, but no. I’ve been thinking of doing some traveling, and now I’ve enough money to actually do it. Perhaps after I return…”

“Oh, it’ll take me a couple months just to write the paper, then several more before any journal can do their peer-review before publishing. It might be as much as a year before it hits the in-boxes of anyone who would want to hire you.”

“In that case, I hope you’ll remember my services on the off chance that one of your peers asks for your translation recommendations.” Sanchez gave her a slight bow, not unlike some of her Japanese colleagues sometime would. Then, almost as if he were catching himself in something he shouldn’t do, he straightened and held out his hand. She took it, finding the hand that closed around hers hard, the grip strong. It had nothing of most men’s handshake, that attempted to convey strength without being obvious. No, the fingers that enclosed hers could just as easily close around her throat, or snap her neck, and Sanchez made no effort to hide the fact.

“I’d be happy to recommend you to anyone who needs your services, sir, and I hope you enjoy your vacation.”

Sanchez left, and Claudia began going over his notes, taking in the details of his deductive process. Yes, he’s got an exceptionally detail-oriented mind. Maybe a mild case of ADHD? She picked up another laser-printed block to text, and found something unexpected beneath it. It was a page covered in handwritten notes…notes not in English, but in the so-called rustic Latin. They had none of the hesitation of a person trying to copy a style, no, this was the flowing script of someone who wrote in the language. She saw a letter, then another one, and knew she’d seen them before. That same shape, the way the bar was formed on the “f”, but where? It couldn’t be…. Claudia dug into her notes, found the copies of the first text she’d had Sanchez translate. She rooted in her desk, found the magnifying glass she used these days, and examined the copy. The “f” was the same, right down to that odd little flick on the end of the bar. She examined the rest of the copy, going back and forth between it and Sanchez’s notes, finding more and more similarities with each examination.

Claudia leaned back, letting herself smile even as a chill of pure terror ran through her body. “I guess I could have interviewed a legionnaire…if he didn’t decide to kill me afterwards to keep his secret.” She stared at the door to her office, wondering if Sanchez might have seen the legions march away from Rome to their doom. Did the echoes of that long ago tragedy explain some of what she’d seen?

And what of Sanchez? Would Claudia find him already gone if she went to the address he’d given? No, Sanchez, or whatever his real name was, had lived a long life. She had no doubt that the vacation he’d spoken of was some way to disappear. “Good luck to you, whomever you are. The world must be becoming a much more hostile place for a man like you.”

Amazing stories

Rain roared down on the roof of the police cruiser as Delgado ‘Del’ Salazar rolled to a stop outside Sweet Young Things. He’d driven past the ‘gentlemen’s club’ outside the tiny burg of Myers, Texas more times than he could remember, but this would be the first time he’d entered the place. The single squad car owned by the Myers PD sat in front of the entrance, flanked by the county EMT vehicle and the car driven by Paul Obert, the other county sheriff on duty tonight. The rest of the gravel parking lot was packed with the cars and trucks of the customers who were inside, leaving Del to no option but to park on the grass strip between the lot and Texas Route 23.

“Figures. It’s pouring rain, and the nearest parking spot is a good hundred feet away.”

The rain slicker kept him dry almost to his knees, the the ‘smokey bear’ hat he usually hated stopped the rain from spotting his glasses, but his feet were squelching in soaked shoes before he got to the front door. Inside, the rush of the rain was drown out by the thumping beat of music so loud it set Del’s teeth on edge before he’d even left the entrance hall.

The hall opened onto a dark room centered around a raised oval stage surrounded by a low rail. Flashing light illuminated a pair of polished brass poles that stood at either end of the stage, and a bar stretched along the entire length of the wall opposite of where Del stood. It was packed solid with men in work clothing whom were doing their best to pretend they didn’t exist. Mixed with them were a handful of women a mix of bikinis and an odd assortment of costumes.

The bar was the only island of regular light in the room. Just short of it was a second pool of light. This one came from the Maglites of two police officers, and it revealed a disturbing scene. Two men in EMT uniforms knelt beside a dead body. Del didn’t have to be any closer to know the young man lying between the EMT’s was dead. Nobody alive could twist their head nearly 180 degrees from its normal orientation, nor would a living man’s eyes have that blank stare to them. It wasn’t the first dead body Del had seen, not after two tours in Iraq and another in Afghanistan.

As a deputy sheriff, Del had authority over the local police officer. As the senior officer on the scene, he also had authority over Paul. “Time to get this show on the road.” he muttered to himself as he approached the tableau.

Neither officer noticed his approach, and Del’s shout of “What’s going on?” caused both officers to jump. The Myers PD officer, a young woman with “A. Renald” on her name tag, tried to answer. Del only caught a few odd words of her reply. He turned towards the bar, took a deep breath, and in his best parade-ground voice, shouted. “Could you please turn the damned music off?” It has the effect Del hoped for. A young black man in a muscle tee and tattered jeans pushed away from the bar and almost ran to a small platform in the corner. He twisted knobs on a control panel and the music mercifully died. In the stunned silence that followed, the only noise was the relentless hiss of the rain on the buildings roof. Del aimed a “Thank you.” at the man, then turned his attention to the problem at hand.

“So, what happened here?”

Renald took up her earlier efforts to explain. “911 got a call of shots fired at this location. I was on the scene first, followed by your officer. I found the subject already dead, and a 9MM auto lying beside him.” She pointed towards the gun in question, Del suspected it was a Ruger from what he could make out of it, but kept his opinions to himself. “Witnesses say the deceased, Oberto Soto, entered the bar and got into a confrontation with one of the dancers. Club security approached Soto and requested he leave. He did, but re-entered the club a short time later brandishing his gun. Security here is only armed with hand tasers, so they backed off. Soto then pointed his gun at the dancer and threatened to kill her.” Renald had been turning her head and pointing out the different parties she had been speaking to , but now she stopped and focused her gaze on Del. “That’s when it gets, well, strange. Everyone I’ve spoken to says some kid was over in the corner at a table. They all agree he got up, walked over to Soto, and told him to leave. Soto turned his gun on the kid and threatened to shoot him…and the kid told him to go ahead.” Renald looked away, pointed towards the floor, and Del saw three spent shell casings. “Soto fired three rounds into the kid at almost point-blank range.” She pointed towards a section of wall that framed the entrance to the main room, and Del saw for the first time the three clean holes in it. “Everyone saw the shots fired, and they all agree there was no way Soto could have missed. But the kid just stood there like it was nothing. Then he grabbed Soto’s head, twisted it, and broke his neck. He must have killed him instantly, at least that would be my guess.”

Del looked at the EMT, who was looking up at him. “Yeah, she’s right, but the force it would take to do this….no way a kid could do it. I’m not sure I could do it.” He pointed towards a pair of red marks on the side of Soto’s face. “That’s a hand print. I once read about how they train Marines to silently kill someone by breaking their necks. They wrap their arm around the victim’s head and use leverage to give them the mechanical advantage to snap the spine. From what I can tell, this kid literally put his hands on either side of this guy’s head and twisted it like it was bottle cap.”

Renald took up her narration. “But that’s not the strange part. Look at the floor, at the wall…no blood! Not a drop, anywhere. How the hell does someone get shot three times, and not only manage to kill a man with their bare hands, but not bleed a drop?”

“I don’t know, but we’ll worry about that later. Right now, we’ve got a bunch of people here we need to take statements from. I need to contact the county medical examiner to come out to collect the body and collect any forensic evidence he can. You and my man Paul get started on that. Be sure to get as much of a description of this mysterious kid as you can. Do you know who’s in charge of this place?”

Renald pointed towards an older man standing at the gap in the bar which allowed access to the rear. “Okay, you two get started on the witnesses, and I’ll see if all these security cameras are real or just for show.”

Del approached the manager and waved at the three camera pods he could see. “Any of these working? And if they are, we’re going to need a copy of any video they captured tonight.”

The manager shook his head. “Sorry, but most of them are just there to keep the customers from getting too ‘friendly’ with the dancers. Only one that’s working is the one pointed at the cash register, but it’s got no sound pick-up, so I’m not sure how much good it’ll do you.”

“So, no images of this vigilant kid? By the way, how did a kid end up in this place? Doesn’t your license require you to card people and make sure they’re 21 before you let them in?”

“Hey, the kid walked in, soaked to the skin and looking like death warmed over. All he asked for was a place he could sit out the storm. I figured he was hitching and I didn’t want to just shove him back out in this downpour. Does that make me a bad guy?”

Del waved the excuse away. “We can talk about what a Good Samaritan you are some other time. Where you out here when all this happened?”

“No, I was in the back, in my office, doing the books. I heard the shots, but by the time I got out here, the kid was gone. My security guys said he walked out like nothing had happened. How the hell does someone do that?”

“Damned if I know. Why don’t you go where ever you have your security camera recorder and get me a copy of the footage for tonight while I go call the county forensics people.”

The manager disappeared through a doorway set in an alcove behind the bar, and Del moved to the exit. Outside, under the awning protecting the entrance, he stopped and drew a deep breath. What he’d told everyone wasn’t the truth. A few week ago, he’d seen a report out of Nevada of a group of people who’d been rescued from human traffickers. It had been passed onto Del by an old friend who worked in law enforcement out there who knew of Del’s fascination with strange, amazing stories of crime. The human traffickers weren’t all that amazing, nor was their forcing a group of people to work an illegal uranium mine. What was strange was how they’d escaped: all of them agreed that a young man, a teenager , had managed to overpower not one, but several of the guards. Even stranger, at least one of the people who’d been rescued reported that the teenager had been shot several times, by automatic weapons fire no less, and had kept on going.

A rumble of thunder rolled across Del, then another came, this one close enough to illuminate the parking lot and everything around it. In that moment of light, Del saw a slight young man, a teenager, standing across the highway from the club. Then the vision disappeared into the pouring rain. Another flash, further away, gave a dimmer light to the scene, but the young man was gone. Did he really want to go into the downpour, into the darkness, to find a out who he was? He shook his head. “No, I don’t need to go looking for an avenging angel.” He squeezed the mic of his handheld. “Dispatch, this is Deputy Sheriff Salazar. Wake Doc Hastert up and tell him we’ve got a crime scene for him to examine, a homicide. EMT’s are already here, so he doesn’t need to roll his meat wagon. Just tell him to get his tail down to Sweet Young Things. Knowing that old coot, he probably doesn’t need direction.”

“Rodger that, Del. I’ll pass the word. You want I should wake up the chief?”

Sheriff Don Alperts was a stickler for proper procedure. If anyone would demand Del mount a manhunt for this phantom protector, it was Alperts. “No, Hettie, let the boss get his beauty sleep. God knows he could use it.”

The snort of laughter that got through told Del his joke was appreciated. “10-4. I’ll get the Doc on the way to you as soon as I can, Del.”

“Thanks, Hettie. You stay dry there, hear?”

“You too, Del. Dispatch out.”

#

George watched the cop go back into the strip club. How could he have been so stupid? He was dead, so the rain was little more than an inconvenience. He could have sat down in this drainage ditch and let the thunderstorm hammer down on him without taking any harm. Hell, he could probably have taken a lightening strike without noticing it. But no, he’d begged shelter in the club, then he’d been cocky enough to confront that angry clown when he’d threatened the only woman who’d talked to George. His undead form took no damage from the gunshots, but then he’d been dumb enough to react and kill the man.

George gave a final look at the club before rising from behind the road and walking away. “I gotta be more careful, or somebody’s going to catch on to me.” he told himself as the night and rain swallowed him.