Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Half an Exorcism

Tom Jurgen races to save a teenaged boy possessed by a demon, searching for the pastor who ran away halfway through an exorcism. 

Half An Exorcism, Part One

The teenage boy squirmed on sheets soaked with sweat. A bicycle chain held by a small padlock held one ankle to the foot of the bed. 
            “Get out of here!” His voice was a howl. “Let me go! Let me go!”
            A lamp shook next to his bed. A ceiling fan swung in wide circles overhead beneath a broad light fixture.
            His mother lurched forward. “It’s okay, Chris. He’s here to help. His name is Tom.”
            Chris glared at me. His eyes were red—filled with blood. “Screw you, Tom! Get away from my mother! Don’t you touch her! I know what you want to do with her! Motherf—”
            She pushed me back and slammed the door as Chis kept yelling: “Don’t you fucking touch my mother! She’s mine! Only I get to do that! Stay away from her! Stay away . . .”
We headed back down the hall into the kitchen. Gini Jertz poured a mug of coffee. “I’m—sorry. For all that. It’s just so—obscene.” She grabbed a napkin to wipe her nose. “I don’t know what to do.”
Yeah. I sat down. “So how can I help you?”
She tossed the napkin at a wastebasket. Missed. Then picked up another one. “Chris—he’s 16. He was always fine. A little rebellious. Like most teenagers? After Roger . . . left me a while ago for some little . . .” She sighed. “Anyway, one day I found Chris ripping out the pages in his Bible. The one he got when he was confirmed at church.” She groaned. “I thought it was drugs. I took him to doctors. They put him through tests. They couldn’t find anything.”
            She scooped some sugar into her cup. “So I went to my pastor for guidance. He’s from our church. Two blocks away. We used to go there every Sunday, me and Chris, and—well, Roger. My ex-husband.”
            Gini Jertz paused. “That doesn’t matter. But I tried to keep it up. It was fine, until a few days ago. But Chris kept getting worse. So I talked to Pastor Ames, and he came here and talked to Chris. He said he was . . . possessed.”
            “Okay.” I’ve dealt with demonic possession more than once. For some reason, demons and vampires and other supernatural phenomena seem to find me, ever since I was a reporter and now that I’m a private detective.
            Tom Jurgen. That’s me. Most of my business comes from the usual wandering spouses and workers comp claims, but some of it—maybe too much—leads me toward the paranormal. 
            What can I say? It’s a niche.
            “So then what?” I sipped my coffee. 
“I didn’t believe him, but Chris got worse. So he came here today, and started things. He was the one who locked the chain to keep Chris in the bed. Chris, he fought him like a dog, but he finally he got the chain tight and lock shut—and then he started reading from his book. And then—he—he ran away . . .”
            Wait, what? I leaned forward. “He just left? Before he was done?”
            “Yes.” She dropped her head. “He ran. And he left Chris—there in the bed . . . like you saw him just now.”
            I had to ask—and not just for marketing purposes. “How did you find me?”
            “What?” She looked up. “I went on the internet. I mean—it all sounds crazy, but you sounded like someone who understood, uh, stuff like this.” 
            Yeah. I sometimes wish I didn’t.
            “Can you help Chris?” She picked up her cup and stared at me across the edge, her eyes tight. “I mean—find Pastor Ames? So he can finish it off?”
            “I can try.” I hid a sigh. “I’ll need some information.”

I called Rachel as I walked down the street toward the church. “I won’t be home for lunch.” It was 2:30. Good thing I’d eaten a hearty bowl of Cheerios this morning.
            “You’d better be home for dinner, jerk. It’s your turn to cook. What’s going on?”
“Well . . .” I looked up at the sharp spire at the top. “It’s an exorcism. Half an exorcism.”
“What the hell? Are you getting into trouble again?”
“I hope not. If I do, I’m counting on you to get me out of it.” 
She snorted. “Yeah, right. Don’t do anything stupid. I mean, stupider than usual. I’ll make a salad.” She hung up.
            Rachel’s my girlfriend. She’s got short red hair, deep hazelnut eyes, and vague psychic powers. Plus, she makes a great salad. Why wouldn’t I love her?
            I opened the church door. A young African American man sat working a crossword puzzle at a desk inside.
            “Hi!” I smiled. “I’m looking for Pastor Ames?”
            He shook his head. “Not here. You can talk to the assistant pastor. Andrew Catret.” He pointed a pen over his shoulder. “Second door left. He might have someone inside.”
            “Thanks. I can wait.” I headed down a short hall. Second door—a tall elderly woman hobbled through, walking precariously on a four-pronged metal cane. She glanced up at me with a grunt. I swerved to one side to give her room. Then I knocked on the door.
            “Come in!”
            Andrew Catret was younger than me—early 30s, maybe—with thick black hair and a round nose. He sat in a wheelchair behind a small desk, a laptop open and a cup of Starbucks close to his hand. “Yes? How can I help you?”
            I dropped my business card on the table. “Tom Jurgen. I’m working for Gini Jertz, down the street? I’m trying to find Pastor Ames.”
            Catret peered forward. “Pastor Ames is—he’s not available right now.”
            “So where is he?” I sank down on a chair.
            “I don’t know.” He he rolled his chair back. “He went for an appointment. He hasn’t come back. What’s your business here?”
            “I’m a private detective.” I pointed at my card. “Gini Jertz’s 16-year-old son is apparently possessed by a demon. Pastor Ames came to her house earlier today to perform an exorcism, but then he ran away. Ms. Jertz’s son is still fighting a demon, and she needs Pastor Ames to come and finish.” I waited.
            If exorcisms were unusual in his church, Catret didn’t show it. “All right. Yes, Francis—Pastor Ames—told me he was going to Ms. Jertz’s house to help her son. He didn’t say it was an exorcism, but he said it would probably take all day. I haven’t heard from him.”
            “Maybe you could call him?”
            He blinked. “I suppose—I suppose I should.” He pulled a cell phone from his pocket, scrolled his contacts, and put the phone on speaker.
            One buzz. Two, three four—“Hello, this is Pastor Francis Ames, I can’t take your call right now, so please leave a message and I’ll respond as soon as possible. Peace and prayers.” Beep.
            “Frank—uh, Pastor Ames? It’s Andy. I’ve got, uh . . .” Carter glanced at my card. “A man named Tom Jurgen here in my office looking for you. Something about that, uh, procedure you were conducting. If you could call me back—”
            I leaned forward. “Or please call me directly, Pastor Ames. This is Tom Jurgen. Ms. Jertz is very concerned about her son.” I gave my number.
            Catret looked irritated as he hung up. “I don’t think there’s anything more I can do for you. I’ll be touch. You can show yourself out.”
            I stayed put. “Was that his cell phone? What about his house?”
            He shook his head. “I don’t want to upset his wife. She’s not in good health.”
            “You don’t have to upset her. Maybe he’s there. If not, you could just ask her to call me.”
            He bit his lip. “Fine. Don’t interrupt this time.” He punched a second entry for Ames. 
            The phone buzzed. Twice. “H-hello?” A woman’s voice quivered a little. Maybe she was waking from a nap. 
            “Mrs. Ames? It’s Andy Catret. Is Francis there by any chance?”
            “Oh, Andy? No. I thought he was at work. Is something wrong?”
            “No, no.” Catret shook his head impatiently. “It’s just that he went out to, uh, counsel a member and he’s not back yet. I thought maybe he, uh, might have stopped home for an early lunch with you.”
            “No. I haven’t heard from him.” She cleared her throat. “I’m sorry.”
            Catret held up a hand, warning me not to speak. “Well, could you ask me to call me if you hear from him? There’s nothing wrong, we’re just curious.”
            “I will.” She hung up without anything else.
            Catret sat back and crossed his arms. “Again, I don’t think there’s anything else I can do for you, Mr. Jurgen. Is that all?”
            Not yet. “Has Pastor Ames conducted a lot of exorcisms?” 
            He frowned. “It’s not like what you see in the movies.”
            I nodded. “I’ve witnessed a few myself.” I’d even conducted one, though he probably wouldn’t believe me. 
            Catret gripped the wheels on his chair. “Then you know it’s a tough process. Maybe Pastor Ames just needed a break.”
            He’d run away without explanation, according to Gini Jertz. That sounded like more than quick trip to Starbucks. “Where does Pastor Ames live?”
            Catret shook his head. “I’m not telling you that. I don’t want you bothering Barbara.”
            I stood up. “I understand. Thanks for your time.”
            Catret nodded. “God bless.”

Half An Exorcism, Part Two

I walked back to my car near Gini Jertz’s house. Inside I called her.
            “No, I haven’t heard from him.” Her voice was ragged. “Chris is asleep. For now. I tried to give him some soup, but he threw it in my face. At least it wasn’t hot.”
            “I visited the church. The assistant pastor, Andrew Catret—”
            “Andy.” She grunted. “He’s not—I don’t like him. I’ve heard stories about . . . women.”
            At least it wasn’t young boys. “He was a little help. I’ve got a few ideas. I’ll be in touch.”
            I actually had one idea. But maybe it would lead to something else. 
            A few minutes—well, more than a few—searching Chicago real estate records using my smartphone found me Pastor Ames’ home address. It’s not that hard if you know how to do it.
            I called Rachel to tell her where I was going. I always do that—usually—because I never know what I might run into and I want someone to know where to start looking for my body. “I might be late for dinner at this point.” It was 3:20, and the late November sky was starting to get dark.
            “Good thing salad can’t get cold. Or burn. You’re doing the dishes.”
            I grinned. “Love you.”
            She snorted. “I’m punching you in my mind.”
            I made one more call to a friend who knew more about exorcism than I did, and made an appointment to meet him later. Then I started the car.
            I found the Ames house and parked down the street. I remembered what Catret had told me about Barbara Ames being in poor health. I took several deep breaths as I walked back up the street and up three steps to the porch.
            I rang the bell. Waited.
            A woman in her fifties, in jeans and a blue sweatshirt, pulled the door open and peered at me through the screen. “Yes?”
            I held my card up. “Mrs. Ames? I’m Tom Jurgen. I was with Andrew Catret when he called you earlier, looking for your husband? Could we talk for a moment?”
            She leaned forward to check out the card. “Just a moment.” The door shut in my face.
            Three minutes later it opened again, and she pushed at the screen door. “Andy says he didn’t give you this address.”
            “I found it online.” I stepped inside. “I’m sorry to bother you, Mrs. Ames—”
            “I’m starting to get worried.” She led me into a small living room. “He hasn’t called. He didn’t call Andy either. Can I get you some coffee, or . . .”
            I’d have enough coffee for the day, and I didn’t want to have more and then ask to use her bathroom. “Maybe some water?”
            She disappeared into another room and came back with a crystal glass filled with water and ice, and a mug of steaming hot tea. “Thank you.”
            I couldn’t see any obvious disabilities, but that didn’t mean anything. “Health problems” could cover any range of illnesses, and for right now that was none of my business. “I’m sorry to bother you. It’s just that—well, your husband went out today—”
“For an exorcism.” She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, he told me before he left for the church. I believe—I mean, we’ve been married for 37 years, and I’ve seen and heard lots of weird stuff.”
Well, this saved time. “Like what?”
“Casting out demons. Grappling with Satan. That sort of stuff.” Her arm trembled as she sipped her tea. “I mean, I know sometimes it’s just people with mental health issues. Or epilepsy. A—procedure can make them feel better. For a while.”
I nodded. “The young man I saw today? It looks like a real possession. I’ve seen them.”
She nodded back. “He told me a little. He knows it’s dangerous. But he always feels like he has to do something.” She tapped a nervous foot on the floor.
“So where would he go? If he didn’t come . . . here?”
She closed her eyes. 
I waited.
“Her.” Her eyes opened. “He keeps saying it’s over. Sometimes I believe him. But I know it’s still going on.”
Barbara Ames sighed and looked at a framed photo hanging on the wall. A man in his fifties, balding, with thin glasses and a trim goatee. “I could never have children. There was—a condition, and I got treated, but after that . . .” She shrugged. “But Frank—he loved—loves me—but after a few years . . .”
As a P.I., I hear lots of confessions. It’s never easy.
She grabbed a tissue from a box on the table. “This is one of my good days. Some days I can’t even get out of bed. Frank takes care of me. He won’t even talk about getting a nurse. But he—there’s someone else. And a daughter. He . . . spends time with them. He swears there isn’t anything more, but you know?” She shook her head. “You can tell.”
Damn it. But I had to ask. “Do who she is? Where she is?”
Mrs. Ames wept. I sipped my water. 
She blew her nose. “Her name is Karen Routh. They named the girl—Jenna. I don’t know where they live.”
“All right.” I stood up. “I’m really sorry to bother you like this, Mrs. Ames—”
“Just tell him to come home.” She picked up her teacup and gazed at it as if she wanted to mash it to pieces. She finished her tea and set it down. “I need him. After all this time, I still need him here.”
“I understand.” I’ve met lots of couples with complicated relationships, and a P.I. learns to never judge. “Thanks for your help.”

I met Neal Simmons in a bar called Revelations. The busty redhead behind poured me a Heineken and winked at me. “Good to see you again, Tom.”
            “Hi, Charli. Where’s Luther?” I took a sip. The cold beer felt good running down my throat.
            “Oh, he’s at some retreat in Florida. I’m in charge now! Yippee!”
            I dropped some money on the bar. “I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
            Neal sat at a table in the back. We shook hands.
            Neal Simmons was a retired Catholic priest, African American, and a close friend of the ex-priest who owned this place. “How you doing?”
            “Fine. Not fine.” I perched on a bar stool. “It’s a case. Exorcism.”
            “Ah.” He sipped his scotch. “Do tell.”
            I laid it out as if I was writing a client report. “I can try tracking down the girlfriend, or the daughter. I’m just not sure how much time I have. The kid is getting worse.” I’d called Gini Jertz again after parking down the street, and heard Chris moaning and cursing in the background.
            “So here’s the thing.” I sipped my beer. “Do I really need to get Pastor Ames back to finish the exorcism? Or can anyone do it?”
            “Hmm.” Neal closed his eyes for a moment. “Well, in the church, exorcisms are only to be performed with approval from higher up. An archbishop, and sometimes a council. Of course, theologically, anyone can cast a demon out, but in the practical sense, it’s very difficult. The demon will attack you, say anything it can to make you question your faith. It sounds like your pastor has reasons to doubt his own faith.”
            “Yeah.” Like I said, I’d managed one exorcism. But it hadn’t gone well. “What about our mutual friend?”
            Neal chuckled. “He’s on a retreat in Florida.”
            “Yeah, Charli told me.”
            “He’s probably lying on the beach and drinking Mai-Tais.” He shrugged. “Be fair. He deserves it.”
            Yeah. “He won’t be back soon, though. Right?”
            “Charli’s running the bar. Kristoff is her assistant manager. So far . . .” He glanced over my shoulder. The bar was crowded, the jukebox was playing Steely Dan, and everyone seemed happy. “She’s doing a good job.”
            Okay. I was rapidly running out of ideas. And Chris was getting worse. “Do you have any experience with . . . ?”
            “Oh, no.” Neal raised both his hands. “I’m out of the game. Even if I did try it—without authorization—I’ve never done one, never even assisted at one. My faith is, well, pretty secure, even after everything I’ve seen, even after all that Luther has told me about. But I’m not equipped. I’d do more harm than good.”
            I sighed. “Fair enough. Can I pay for your drink?”
            He smiled. “I already paid Charli. But thanks for the offer.”
            My phone buzzed as I slid off the stool. Unknown number. Telemarketer? “Hello, Tom Jurgen speaking—”
            “Jurgen!” A hoarse voice, angry. “Stop bothering my wife!”
            Huh. “Pastor Ames?”
            “You heard me! Don’t come near my wife again or—”
            “Wait a minute.” I leaned against the table. “You left Gini Jertz’s house in the middle of an exorcism. Where the hell are you?”
            A young blond woman next to my shoulder looked over at the word “exorcism.” She was cute. I winked and turned away from her. “Pastor Ames? Are you there?”
            “You just can’t . . .” Ames gasped. “Oh God. Oh my God.”
            I hoped he wasn’t having a heart attack. “Pastor Ames. Please. Chris needs your help. His mother needs your help. Where are you?”
            He groaned. “Okay. Okay. There’s—here’s the address.”

I called Rachel. Again. “Now what?”
            “I’m visiting the exorcist pastor and his girlfriend.” I’d just parked next to her apartment building. “Maybe I’ll just pick up a sandwich on the way home.” If I ever got home.
            “Oh, for Pete’s sake, we’ve got plenty of sandwich stuff here. Just get home today, all right?”
            “I’ll try.”
            In the vestibule I found the name “K. Routh” next to a buzzer. I pressed it and gave my name. Karen Routh buzzed me in.
            Her apartment was on the fourth floor of a six-story building. Karen Routh had black eyes and long black hair in a ponytail, and she was dressed in a red plaid shirt like a lumberjack. Early 40s. “Hi.” Her voice was shy. Embarrassed. “He’s right here.”
            Pastor Ames sat on a couch, his thin glasses next to a glass of red wine on a coffee table stacked with magazine likes Christianity Today and Today’s Evangelical. He wore a white shirt buttoned at the collar and a loose necktie. “You’re Tom Jurgen?”
            “That’s right.” I handed him a card. “What happened at Gini Jertz’s house?”
            He shuddered and picked up his wine. “I met with the boy. I started the ritual. It takes time for the demon to assert itself. It tries to hide. Finally it came out. That’s when. . .”
            He lowered his head. “I remembered him. I recognized him. I—I knew him. It. The demon. It killed a woman before. Years ago.” He rubbed his forehead. “I couldn’t save her.”
I glanced at Karen Routh. “Is your daughter—”
            “She’s with her—my ex-husband.” She slumped down next to Ames on the couch. “Why don’t you sit down? Would you like some wine?”
            Relationships can be complicated. As a P.I., I know that better than most. “I’m fine. Why don’t you tell me about it?”
            Ames put his glasses on. “It was 15 or 16 years ago. She was just a kid. Maybe 25? Her parents brought her in. Libby. Anyway . . .” He sighed. 
“She was on drugs, but that wasn’t the problem. I mean, yeah, it was a problem, but it was pretty clear that she was possessed. Violent, cursing, speaking Latin—it sounded like Latin. So we took her home, restrained her on her bed so she wouldn’t hurt herself—or us—and I started.”
            Karen stroked his arm as he sipped some wine. “It was . . . hours. Most of a day. She struggled, she cursed, she spit at me, she . . . soiled her bed. Sometimes she slept, for a few minutes at a time. By the end I was exhausted, but the demon was still strong. Then, just when I thought I was getting it out, right when it seemed to be weakening, she leaned back her head and it told me its name—a scream . . . Belphegor.” His voice was a whisper. 
            I’d have to ask Neal later. If there was a later. “Then?”
            “Then—she died.” He took off his glasses again and rubbed his eyes. “Her heart gave out. The drugs . . . and the demon. The parents didn’t blame me. The police and the paramedics didn’t believe anything I told them. The restraints—they asked questions about those, but after the exam, and then the autopsy, they just decided that her heart had given out from long-term drug abuse. They didn’t blame me.” He put his glasses back on and stared into nowhere. “But I did.”
            Now I wanted a glass of wine, but I didn’t dare ask for it. “That must have been . . .” Horrible? Traumatic? I let my voice trail off, not wanting to say the wrong thing.
            Sometimes my job is more like a psychologist than a detective or a reporter. Those times could be the worst.
            “This morning, at Gini Jertz’s house, when I started . . .” He shook his head. “It was after an hour or so in, and Chris was cursing me, swearing so viciously—and I felt him. It. Belphegor. And I—I ran.” He finished his wine. “I’m sorry. I’m just . . .”
            He dropped his glasses on the floor and buried his face in his hands, crying.
            Karen stroked his shoulder. She looked up at me, her eyes angry. “I don’t really know who you are or why you’re here, but Frank has been through enough. He’s been here all day, like this. He slept most of the afternoon. You can’t—please don’t ask him to do anything more.”
            I took a breath. “You’re right, ma’am. Pastor Ames, I can’t force you to do anything.”
            Ames looked up and pulled a long red handkerchief from a back pocket to blow his nose. “I understand.”
            “It’s just . . .” I spread my hands. “Chris is still there. And Mrs. Jertz is still frightened. And I don’t know anyone else who can perform an exorcism. I know people, I tried.” I didn’t want to bring up the one I’d performed myself. Not the same situation. I’d try it again if I had to, but—
            “I said I understand.” Ames lurched up. “Where’s my coat? I think I left my books in the car.”
            “You shouldn’t drive.” Karen rose to her feet. “Not after—”
            “Fine. You drive.” He glared at me. “Let’s get going.”
            “Wait—” She grabbed his shoulder. “You don’t have to—”
            Ames kissed her. “Yes. I kind of do.”  

We fetched the books from his Nissan, and I drove in my Prius. Night. Clouds. No moon or stars.
            “She told you, didn’t she?” Ames sat with his arms folded. “Barbara.”
            “It is how I found you. Sort of.” I hadn’t really “found” Ames. Sometimes you just ask enough questions that someone calls you with what you’re looking for.      
            “Karen is a great, strong woman. Jenna is a lovely girl. Her ex-husband is actually a good father to her. And Barbara is a good wife. And me . . .” He groaned softly. “I’m a pastor. I’m supposed to be a spiritual leader, a man of god.” He shook his head. “I try to keep my faith, but sometimes it doesn’t make any sense.”
            Welcome to my world. But I kept my mouth shut as I made my way back to Gini Jertz’s house. Ames prayed the rest of the way.

Half An Exorcism, Part Three

“Pastor Ames?” Gini Jertz’s eyes were almost as raw and bloodshot as her son this morning. “Are you all right? What happened?”
            “I’m fine.” Ames shrugged out of his long coat and hugged his books to his chest. “I’m—sorry for running away this morning. I had a . . . a crisis of faith. But I’m ready again. How is Chris?”
            “I had to tie him down more.” I saw a bruise across her cheek. “It wasn’t easy. He slept a little. I managed to make him eat some cold soup, but then he threw it up.”
            We heard a sudden roar from the bedroom. “Is it him? Is he back? Come on in, pastor anus! I’m ready for you!”
            Pastor anus? This demon had a 12th-grader’s sense of humor.
            Ames sighed. “Some water, please?”
            Gini Jertz scampered to the kitchen.
            I took my own jacket off. “Can I help?”
            “No.” His voice, shaky before, was firm now. “Stay out there. I have to do this myself.”
            I held a hand out. “Be careful.”
            “I have my faith. For now, at least.” We shook.
            Gini Jertz came out carrying a bottle of water. “Here you are.”
            “Thank you.” He turned toward the hall. Then hesitated. “Whatever Chris says, don’t come into the room unless I tell you. No matter what he says, it’s not Chris. It’s the demon talking. Promise me.”
            Gini nodded. “I promise. God bless you.”
            “Me too.”
            “Thank you.” Ames started down the hall.

We waited.
            Chris screamed. Gini paced in circles, biting her lip. Sometimes she cried. She turned on the TV once, then turned it off two minutes later.
            I called Rachel with an update. I asked to use the bathroom. Gini offered me water and something to eat, and I finally had a sandwich. Sliced ham and Velveeta cheese. What? I’d missed lunch. 
            By 11:30 I was dozing on the couch. Gini had a late-night talk show on, the volume down close to silence. For an hour Chris’s room had been almost quiet. A few loud grunts, and handful of prayers loud enough to hear down the hall, but less than the first hour or so, filled with shrieks and swearing. I only hoped the neighbors didn’t call the police.
            I sat up and rubbed my eyes. Gini was snoring softly. Was it over? 
            Gini sat up. “Should we—”
            I held up a hand. “No. Wait.”
            Then a scream like a rabid banshee shook the walls.
            “Jurgen!” It was Ames. “Get in here!”
            I jumped up, staggering as I darted down the hall to Chris’s bedroom. Gini was right behind me.
            Inside Ames stood next to the bed, his white shirt unbuttoned and his sleeves rolled up, dripping with sweat. The lamp next to Chris’s headboard had been knocked over, the lightbulb smashed, but the light overhead cast a dim gaze down on the room, shadows flickering as the overhead fan swung in a wide endless circle. 
            Chris lay on the sheets, his head drooping to one side, drool sliding down his cheek. He looked unconscious, but his chest rose up and down. Still breathing.
            “Get him out of here.” Ames’s voice was raspy. “Right now!”
            Gini had tied his arms to the bedposts with extension cords. She reached into her pocket for the key to the bicycle lock, and I managed to unsnap it as she struggled to loosen the cords. 
            Ames trembled on his feet, as if fighting some force inside his skull. 
            Gini put an arm under her son’s shoulders. I pushed his legs in her direction, then raced around the bed to help her hoist him up. She did most of the lifting, and the carrying, as we ferried him out of the bedroom. She was his mother, after all.
            We dropped him on the couch. Chris groaned and blinked. “M-mom?”
            “Chris?” She knelt and wrapped her arms around him. “Are you all right?”
            “God, I’m so hungry.” He closed his eyes. 
            She smiled.
            I turned and headed back toward the bedroom.
            Ames rocked on his feet, the eyes behind his glasses rolling back into their sockets. I grabbed his shoulder. “Pastor Ames! Are you all right?”
            His eyes came back. His glasses gleamed with hatred. 
            His voice was hoarse and angry. “I am Belphegor.”
            Damn it. 
            I don’t know as much about exorcisms as Neal Simmons—or his friend Luther—but I knew that once a demon is cast out of a person, it usually looks for the nearest possible host to possess. Okay, I got that from the movies, but it looked true now. Belphegor was inside him.
            Which meant I had to do this again. Rachel was going to kill me.
            “Pastor Ames!” I grabbed both his arms. “Remember Barbara! Remember Karen! Remember Jenna!”
            Ames laughed. “Barbara is weak,” he said in the demon’s hollow voice. “Diseased. Worthless. Jenna hates you—she wants her father—the one who raised her. Karen? Karen is a whore. Her ex-husband divorced her because she was with other men, sometimes more than one, sometimes—”
            I slapped his face. “Shut up! Don’t listen to him, Francis! Demon—you’re done here! Go back to Hell!”
            Ames’s body stiffened. His eyes shot wide. 
            “You.” He smiled, as if he knew me.
            Maybe it did. I’ve confronted more than anybody’s share of demons. I even visited Hell once.
I stepped back. I could run. But what about Ames? And Gini and Chris, and Barbara and Karen and Jenna, and—
            What about Rachel?
            That had screwed me up last time. A demon had told me things about Rachel I didn’t want to know. It almost destroyed our relationship. 
            That’s what demons do. They try to destroy your faith.
            I leaned forward. “Pastor Ames! Help me! Help me!”
            Ames blinked. “What . . .” He seemed to struggle to focus his eyes behind his glasses. “Jurgen?”
            “Please help me!” I held onto his arms. “We can do this! Send it back to Hell! But I can’t do it on my own!”
            Cold wind whipped through the room, even though the window was closed. Ames gripped my hand. He shook his head, as if trying to clear cobwebs from his brain.
            Then he smiled.
            Ames leaned back, until I was afraid he was going to fall over. He lifted his head. And shouted.
            “Begone, Belphegor!” His voice shook. “You have no dominion here! Back to Hell, you weak and pathetic excuse for a demon! Get out!”
            I grabbed his shoulders again. His knees collapsed. He toppled on the carpet, his body shaking, and I fell too, sprawling next to him.
            The wind whirled over us, icy and hard. I wrapped an arm around Ames to protect him. But he pushed my hand away and laughed.
            The wind died away. I rolled over. The fan swung lazily in the ceiling. The air was quiet. My heart was pounding.
            Ames patted my chest. “Thank you, Tom.” He sat up. “I think we’re done here.”
            Belphegor was gone. Back to Hell, I hoped.
“Where the hell have you been?” Rachel looked ready to strangle me, and for a moment I would rather have been facing Belphegor again.
            “Finishing the exorcism.” I hung my jacket up. “Victim’s okay. Exorcist is okay. I’m okay. Just another day at the office.”
            “Jerk.” She punched me. Then she kissed me. She was in blue sweatpants and a black T-shirt, and for a moment I forgot about demons and all the rest.
            Then she got me a beer and demanded the story. I told her everything, of course.
            “Gini Jertz was feeding Chris everything in sight when I left. After putting him in a shower and changing the bedsheets.” I gulped my beer. “I followed Pastor Ames home—I mean, back home to his wife.” I’d watched him go up the door, then drove away. His relationships were his own business. “Yeah, Gini Jertz made me a sandwich. Did I mention I sent a demon back to Hell?”
            “You want another sandwich? Doritos? Pizza?” 
            I was hungry. But also tired. “I just want to go to bed. What time is it? Did you watch The Mandalorian without me?”
            “Of course.” She kissed the top of my head. “Sleep late tomorrow, you idiot. If you’re lucky, I might make you breakfast.”
            I grabbed her hand. “Thanks.”
            We went to bed. And after a while I feel asleep.
            Belphegor haunted my dreams.

# # #

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

I won an award!

"Dead Man Stalking," first posted here in May 2016, has won first place in the 2019 ISFiC awards, given out at the Windycon science fiction convention every year. Yay! Check out the cool trophy—and read the story again. 

Dead Man Stalking

Unlike most detectives in books and on TV, I don’t have an office—or a secretary. They’re expensive. So I usually meet my clients in coffee shops or their workplaces. Sometimes at their homes. Like today.
            I met Becky Osher and her husband Ryan in their small house north of Chicago. Their 8-year-old son was at school.
            “We need to show you something.” Becky led me through the house to the living room. She was short and plump, with brown hair tied back in a ponytail. “Ryan! It’s Tom Jurgen. The detective.”
            Ryan came out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on a dishcloth. He shook my hand warily. “Thanks for coming. Coffee?”
            I let him bring me a big mug from the kitchen and sat down as Becky hooked a laptop into their TV. Ryan picked up the remote. He was thick and husky, with a thin beard, but he looked like he wanted someone else to take control of things. He pressed a button. “Okay. Yeah. This is it.”
            In a big sunny park, Becky threw a Frisbee with a small red-haired child. He wore loose shorts and a Chicago Cubs cap two sizes too big for his head. He jumped up for the big blue disk sailing through the air.
            “That’s Stevie.” Becky plopped down next to Ryan on the couch. “This was last Saturday.”
            “Catch it, mommy, catch it!” Stevie laughed. The Frisbee hit the ground. Becky ran up and snatched it off the grass, and then she grabbed Stevie up in a hug and whirled around, laughing.
            “There.” Ryan paused the video. “Next to that tree.”
            A red-haired man in jeans and a dirty sweatshirt, peering around the thick tree trunk. His face wasn’t very clear, but I saw a bony jaw and wide ears.
            “That’s Kirk Hess.” Becky’s voice was tight. “He’s Stevie’s father.”
            I stared at the plasma screen. “You’re sure? The picture’s not very clear.”
            “She’s positive.” Ryan turned off the video.
            “Stevie doesn’t know yet. I’m afraid . . .” She shivered. “I don’t want him in my life.”
            Child custody . . . absent father . . . stalking . . . I thought about the angles. “So he hasn’t tried to contact you?”
            “No.” She shook her head. “That’s the first time I’ve seen him in nine years.”
            I nodded. “Okay. I can probably locate him. You’ll want a lawyer to handle the rest, but I’ll need—”
            “Here.” Becky picked up a manila folder from the table in front of her. “This has everything I know. His last job, his mother’s address—he moved back in with her when we broke up. And . . .” She dropped the folder on my legs. “I’ve got pictures. A few. If you need them. I can email them to you.”
            “You still have pictures?” Ryan rocked back on the couch. “Geez. I thought—”
             “I couldn’t just burn everything!” She closed her eyes, fighting tears. “Stevie might want them. Someday.” 
            “Yeah. Of course.” He patted her arm. “It’s all right.”
            I felt like I should go wait in another room. But after a moment, Ryan looked up at me.
            “It was at Leafview Park,” he said. “A few blocks from here.”
            “I appreciate your being organized.” I picked up the folder and stood up. “I’ll get right to work.”
            “Oh, and here’s a check.” Becky wiped her eyes and managed a smile. We’d discussed fees on the phone.
            “Thank you.” I wrote out a receipt. “I should be able to get back to you in a few days. Like I said, you should have a lawyer ready.”
            Child custody cases are messy. But I’ve had worse. Vampires, homicidal shapeshifters, demons . . . I was almost happy to have a normal human case for once.
* * *
Becky Osher called two days later, out of breath and scared. “I just saw him again.”
            “Okay . . .” I gulped my coffee. “What happened?”
            “This morning. I was driving Stevie to school. He was two blocks away from our house! Have you found anything?”
            I was in my apartment, my laptop on the dining room table as I doublechecked the information I’d gotten. Looking for some hole. But there wasn’t one. “There’s a problem.”
            “Oh, God. What?”
            “Kirk’s dead.”
            A short pause. Then: “What the hell?”
            I clicked on a brief newspaper article on a local news website. “It was a car accident, seven months ago. Did Kirk have any brothers, or a cousin—”
            “Just a sister. And I know it was him! I lived with him almost two years. Damn it! Are you sure?”
            I had PDFs of the obituary, the police report, and the death certificate. Everything lined up with the information Becky had given me. 
Which meant this wasn’t a simple stalking case. Damn it.
            “I’m going to check out a few . . . alternatives.” No point in freaking her out yet. “In the meantime, be careful.”
            “Oh, for Christ’s sake!” I heard her pound something with her fist. “What are you talking about?”
            I leaned back in my chair. “Well, is it possible he faked his death for some reason?”
            Becky snorted. “Oh, please. He’s not that smart.”
            “Then . . .” I had to say it. “Listen, I’m not a kook, but I’ve had some experience dealing with, uh, supernatural stuff. If Kirk is really dead—”
            “Are you serious?” Becky’s voice rose. “I mean . . .” Then she seemed to absorb the idea. “Okay. He’s dead. A ghost, a zombie, whatever. What do I do?”
            I used to be a reporter. I’m used to editors, cops, and lawyers telling me I’m crazy. But once people accept impossible things, they sometimes listen. “Like I said, you need to be careful. I just need to check out some possibilities. Don’t get close to Kirk if you see him again.”
            “Okay.” She took a deep breath. “Okay. Just—please call me when you know something.”
            “I will.” 
            “This is a nightmare.” She hung up.
            I’ve been called tenacious. Also a stubborn asshole. But part of being a good reporter—or a detective—is knowing who to call when you need help.
            So I called my friend Rachel. “Are you home? Can I come up?”
            “What?” She yawned theatrically. “Sure. Just let me just get this handsome, muscular sailor out of my bed and on his way. Go away, you! Scat! Back to your boat!” 
            Joking. I hoped. “I’ll be right up.”
            Rachel’s a graphic designer. She lives in the apartment upstairs in my building.
Red hair and hazelnut eyes, she’s psychic, at least a little. She knows magic—a little. And she’s my girlfriend—at least a little.
            It’s a complicated relationship. 
            I knocked. Rachel opened the door right away. “Hi, Tom. What’s going on?”
            She was in cargo shorts and a camouflage sweatshirt, her feet bare. I tried to remember the case I was working on. I’m a professional. “I need some help.”
            She smirked. “You got another weird case?”
            “You know me too well.”
            “Okay, come on in. I’ve got coffee.”
            Inside she poured me a cup of coffee and then sat down on the floor, crossing her feet in some kind of yoga position. “So? What’s the deal?”
            The coffee was strong and hot. I sat on a chair and next to the table and tried not to stare at her legs. “It could be just an insurance scam, but there are other possibilities.”
            She shifted around on her oriental rug. “Do tell.”
            I hesitated. “Do you know anything about necromancy?”
            Rachel giggled. “You get me hot when you use big words.”
            “I’m talking about bringing people back from the dead.”
            “I know.” She sat forward, serious for the moment. “It’s bad magic. Hard to control. Are you talking about zombies, or what?”
            “I’m not sure yet.” I still wanted to hope this was all just an insurance scam. “There’s a guy stalking my client. He’s supposed to be dead. I’ve got a few leads, but I want to hit all the bases.”
            “Uh-huh.” Rachel patted my leg. “And you want me to do what?”
            I’d been thinking about this for the last few hours, ever since I’d realized that Kirk Hess was supposed to be dead. “How could he come back? And what do I have to do to send him away?”
            “Huh.” Rachel picked up her cell phone. “It’s not exactly my area of expertise, you know? I guess I can talk to a few friends.”
            Rachel has friends with even weirder lives than mine. I slurped the last of my coffee and set the cup down. “Thanks. I have to go make a visit.”
            She paused in mid-scroll. “Right now?”
            “I’ll buy you dinner later.”
            “It better not be pizza again.” She gazed at her contacts list. “Okay, this one might help. Hey, where are you going, anyway? A graveyard?”
            “Scarier.” I stood up. “The dead guy’s mother.”
* * *
Lulu Hess’s small west side house was surrounded by a narrow lawn thick with dandelions and weeds. A small battered Subaru sat in a driveway next to the side door. I walked up two steps onto the porch and rang the doorbell. And waited.
            Two more rings. Maybe the doorbell was broken. I knocked. 
            The door opened right away.
            Tall and skinny, in jeans and a gray T-shirt, Kirk’s mother looked me over with a grimace on her face. “You’re Tom Jurgen?”
            I’d called ahead. “Yes, ma’am. Thanks for seeing me.”
            Her living room was filled with candles. Also photos of her son. I recognized Kirk from the handful of photos Becky had emailed to me, but the room was filled with framed images of him.
            One red candle burned in front of a large photo of Kirk in the corner, like a shrine, surrounded by some personal items: a belt buckle, a pocket knife, and a silver ring.
            Lulu sank down onto a couch. She had short stringy gray hair and teeth stained with nicotine. A long coffee table held a stack of true crime paperbacks, a pack of cigarettes next to a full ashtray, a half-empty jug of red wine, and an empty glass. “Oh, I’m sorry. Drink?”
            I’d learned a long time ago, working as a reporter, never to turn down a cup of coffee, a glass of water, or anything else that a potential source was willing to offer. It helped build rapport. I perched on the edge of a chair. “Whatever you’ve got.” 
            “Just a second.” She hopped up and darted into the kitchen. A moment later, she returned with a tiny juice glass. “This is clean.”
            “Thanks.” I sipped the wine cautiously and restrained my gag impulse. “Nice.”
            “Nice and cheap.” Lulu poured herself a drink and sat back. “What can I do for you, Tom Jurgen?”
            “Like I said, it’s about your son.” I wanted to phrase this carefully. “There have been some questions about his death.”
            “I hope they’re going after those asshole friends of his.” She lit a cigarette. “They’re why he got killed.”
            “What friends?”
            “Martin. And Pablo.” She exhaled smoke. “Not a ‘gang’ gang, I guess, just a couple of punks. I told Kirk not to get in with them, but he started up with them when he was sixteen or seventeen. Breaking into houses, stealing liquor, all that stuff. At least he never got caught. His sister Lori was a lot worse. Hanging out with, you know . . .” She leaned forward, her voice a raspy whisper. “Those black kids.”
            I kept my face neutral. I wanted Lulu to talk to me, and an argument wouldn’t get me anywhere. “Is she here? Kirk’s sister?”
            “She’s down in Florida. With some weird friends.” Lulu poured some more red wine into her glass. “Look, I don’t mean anything. I’m not a racist or anything like that. It’s just . . .” 
            She hung her head down. “Their father—he ran off. I’m on my own here. I did the best I could. It wasn’t easy, you know? You know?” She gulped the wine down. “What’s this all about, anyway?”
            I gazed at the burning red candle in the corner. “Can you tell me about Kirk’s accident?”
            “Well, he was out doing something with those morons.” She shook her head. “You got kids?”
            I shrugged. “No.”
            “Well, you know what they’re like. Even when they’re grown up. They never listen.” She stabbed her cigarette out. “You want to find out how he died? You go talk to Martin. Martin Castille. He’s the crap friend. You want drugs? He’s the guy to go see. Pot, meth, all that stuff. I tried to keep my boy clean. Lori too. She’s okay now. She calls me mostly every Sunday, and she comes home for Christmas and Easter. Some years.” 
            I looked around the room. Lots of images of Kirk, but none of a sister. 
            Lulu lit a new cigarette and looked up at the ceiling. “Kids. You do your best. At least I still got my Lori.” She sat up and stared at a big photo of Kirk on the TV. He looked sort of handsome, with thicker dark hair than I’d seen in any of Becky’s pictures, and dark eyes like an owl in the night. “I just want him back.”
            The smoke was making me nauseous. I stood up. “I’m sorry about all this. And I appreciate your time.”
            She took a big swallow of wine. “No problem. Hope it’s a help. You need anything else?” 
            She looked ready to fall asleep, or maybe just pass out. She didn’t want more company, and I’d learned all I could from her. Except . . . “Can you tell me where I could find Martin Castille?”
* * *
“There are all different ways of bringing people back from the dead.” Rachel was on my phone as I sat in my Honda, parked in the small parking lot in front of the convenience store where Martin Castille worked, about five miles from the Osher household. “That’s what my friend Carrie says, anyway. Are we talking about ghosts or actual bodies?”
            Clouds littered the mid-afternoon sky. I rubbed my eyes. “This one was picked up on video. Does that make a difference?”
            “Maybe. It used to be you couldn’t get pictures of vampires because of the mirrors, but digital cameras changed that. Are you getting anywhere?”
            “I don’t know.” I could see Martin at the cash register—or at least, a man who matched Lulu’s description. Tall guy with a gold earring and the thick arms of a bodybuilder in a tight T-shirt. But he seemed cheerful as he rang up customers with cases of beer or big bags of Doritos. Watching them made me hungry. “I’m following a lead.”
            “Dead people don’t have anything to lose.” Rachel’s stereo played Black Sabbath in the background. “You be careful, all right? I want you back here sometime. Don’t be stupid.”
            “Me? Never.” 
            I didn’t know how long Castille’s shift was. The store was open 24 hours. He could be here all day. I took a deep breath and checked the Taser in my windbreaker.
I pushed the car door open. Maybe I could just saunter into the store and buy some Doritos. And a six-pack of beer. And ask Martin how long he’d worked there, and what else he did in his spare time, and if he knew a guy named—
            Kirk Hess. 
            He was standing next to a garbage container at the side of the shop. Red hair, jeans, and a dirty sweatshirt. Just like in the video. 
            Okay. Ghost or zombie? A ghost couldn’t hurt me, right? And a Taser would shock a zombie—I hoped—if that’s what he was. 
            I crossed the parking lot, my feet feeling like heavy wood. “Kirk?”
            His head jerked toward me. His eyes were gray and blank, as if he didn’t really see me. I had Becky’s pictures on my phone. Kirk was younger in them—smiling, laughing, scowling. Now he looked gaunt, like a scarecrow. Confused. But the same guy.
            “I’m a friend of Becky.” I peered at his eyes, looking for some flicker of recognition. “You remember her? Becky?”
            He blinked. Just once. “B-b-beck . . .”
            I stayed back, ready to zap him with my Taser and run. But I had to at least try talking. “Why are you here?”
            He leaned back. “You—you . . .”
            Me? He didn’t know me, so that didn’t make any sense. Until I started to turn around, and a fist hit the back of my head. 
            I staggered forward, red stars swimming in my eyes. “Uh, what . . .” The big glass window in front of the door was slick, but I managed to stay on my feet and turn around, grunting as I tried to keep my stomach from lurching upward. “Hey, I’m trying—”
            It was Castille. “What the hell is . . .”
            Then he looked past me. “Kirk?”
            Kirk stared back. Still no sign that he recognized his friend. Or even really saw anything.
            “Martin!” A man ran up behind him. He wore a leather jacket and a black baseball cap. “Who’s this guy?” He shot me a glare that said he’d had no problem mashing my face into compost.
            “M-Martin.” Kirk’s lips curled in a grisly smile. “Mar-tin?”
            “Oh, holy . . .” The leather jacket guy reared back. “Is that—”
            Castile ignored him. “Yeah, Kirk, it’s me.” He took one step forward. 
            I tensed, hoping to run for my car. But Castille stopped. “Okay, Kirk.” He backed away, as if he’d suddenly decided diplomacy might be smarter than fighting. “Just tell me where it is.” He lifted a hand. “Come on, Kirk, tell me!”
            I looked between the two of them. “Hey, Martin?” My voice shook. “You know, uh, he’s—”        
            “Shut up!” Castille lurched around me and grabbed Kirk’s sweatshirt. Kirk looked confused, but Castille clung to the collar, his arm shaking. “Come on, you son of a—”
            Kirk moved faster than any of us expected, slamming his big left fist against Castille’s jaw.
            Castille yelped and tumbled against me, knocking me against the glass. Kirk wheeled around, almost falling over, and then he lumbered around the corner of the store, his feet clomping on the concrete like a rampaging bull.
            “Goddamn it!” The leather jacket guy chased him. 
            “Son of a bitch.” Castille spit on the concrete. “Get him! Get . . .” Then he remembered me. “Who the hell are you?”
            Lots of answers flooded my mind, but I didn’t think he’d listen to any of them. So I said the only thing I could think of that might make him slow down before he took out his frustration on my face. “You know Kirk is dead, don’t you?”
            Castille rubbed his hand across his cheek. A bruise was already darkening. “Of course I do. Pablo?”
            The leather jacket guy—Kirk’s friend Pablo, apparently—returned from the behind the store. “He’s gone. Again.”
            “Goddamn it.” He wiped a hand on his jeans. “Get this guy out of here. I still got to finish my shift.”
            “Come on, asshole.” Pablo yanked on my windbreaker.
            I let him pull me across the parking lot as Castille went back inside the store. “Wait a minute.  Can we just talk?”
            “About what? Who the hell are you, anyway?” He shoved me against a random car. “You ought to just get out of here now if you’re smart.”
            Courage is not my middle name, and nobody’s ever accused me of being smart. Stubborn, yeah, according to any number of editors and cops. And Rachel too, for that matter. Although I like to think it turns her on.
            “I’m a private detective.” I held my hands up. “Tom Jurgen, I’m trying to find out what’s going on with Kirk Hess.”
            “Kirk’s dead.” He glared at the corner of the building. “You just said that. I told you to get out of here.” He lifted his fist.
            “Wait! Let me ask you one question.” Sometimes that worked. Sources would hesitate before throwing me out—or hitting me—if they thought I was ready to leave them alone. 
            Pablo lowered his arm. “What?”
            “Why was Kirk here? What’s Martin talking about? And why is he stalking his old girlfriend?”  That was three questions, but still . . .
            Pablo blinked. “He has a girlfriend?”
            That was one question too many. “A long time ago. What does Martin want from him? Why is he back?”
            Pablo shoved my chest. “Get out.”
            I may be stubborn, but I’m not stupid. I climbed into the Honda and left.
* * *
So what did Castille want from Kirk? And did it have anything to do with Becky? 
            Back home I went to my laptop and checked Martin Castille on the internet. His name popped up in a few articles. Arrested in connection with running a meth lab, charges dropped for lack of evidence. Questioned in a marijuana bust but apparently never charged. Scored a winning touchdown on his high school football team 11 years ago. Probably not relevant.
            Rachel knocked on my door, carrying her own laptop. “How’s the ghost hunting?”
            “I saw him for real. So did two of his friends.” 
            “Well, there are a couple of possibilities.” She sat down and opened her laptop. “If he’s a zombie, somebody brought him back. He doesn’t have a lot of free will, but he might have some memories, and if the zombie-maker doesn’t have a tight leash on him, he could get loose and start looking for reminders of his past life.”
            That sort of fit, but I wanted to listen to everything. “What else? Do you want a beer?”
            “Of course. Well, if he’s a ghost, he could have been called by a medium, or else he’s stuck here looking for something specific before he goes on to the next world. His ability to interact with this world would be limited—thanks.” She sipped the Heineken. 
            I thought about the bruise on Castille’s jaw. “Probably not a ghost.”
            “Ancient necromancers brought back the dead using big fancy rituals with talismans and spells and that sort of stuff. I got this mostly from Wikipedia.” She clicked a page on her laptop. “They’d keep stuff from the dead guy, sometimes his clothes or body parts. Generally they’d do it with someone who’s just dead. After about a year they’d try bringing back a spirit instead of a body.”
            “Charming.” I sipped my own beer. “How do you get rid of it?”
            “Find the person who brought it back, make him stop the spell. Or if it’s a zombie, a shot to the head, if George Romero had it right.” She chewed her lower lip for a second, looking almost worried. “What’s going on, Tom?”
            I started to explain when my cell phone buzzed. Becky. Or actually her husband.
            “Mr. Jurgen?” Ryan sounded rattled. “We haven’t seen Kirk today, but now there’s a car outside our house. There’s a guy with an earring who looks like he took too many steroids, and another guy in a leather jacket.”
            Damn it. This was my fault. I’d told Pablo about Kirk having a girlfriend. 
            Ryan was a client. I had to be honest. “They’re friends of Kirk’s. He came after them a few hours ago, and I was with them, and I told them—”
            “Wait, wait!” He cut in before I could finish confessing my stupidity. “That means Kirk’s not just looking for Stevie, right?” Relief came through his voice.
            “Maybe not.” Okay, I’d explain later. “Where are Stevie and Becky now?”
            “She’s got him downstairs, watching videos. We can keep him inside all night, his bedtime’s in an hour. Are these guys dangerous?”
            Castille had hit me from behind. And Pablo didn’t seem like any kind of a pacifist. “Just keep an eye on them. You can call the police anytime and tell them they’re watching you, and they’ll come out and get rid of them. His name’s Martin Castille.” 
            “Martin—Castille. Got it.”
            I couldn’t just sit here, though. I looked at the clock on my wall. “I’ll be out there in half an hour, and I’ll talk to them. Call me if anything happens.” I hesitated. “And definitely call the police if they come up to the house.”
            “Oh, God.” His voice shook. “What the hell is going on? I’ve got a gun upstairs, should I—”
            “I wouldn’t do that,” I said quickly. A weapon could make the problem worse, fast. “But—do whatever you need to do. Just be careful and stay out of their way if you can.”
            “All right. Thank you.” He hung up.
            Thank you? He wouldn’t be saying that tomorrow morning. I’d be lucky if they let me keep the retainer.
            “I’ve got to go.” I handed Rachel what was left of my beer.
            “What is it?” She stood up. “Do you want me to come? Where are we going?”
            I held up a hand. “No. Really. I’ll be all right, but if I have to worry about too many people it’ll just get too complicated.”
            She crossed her arms, and for a moment I was sure she was going to argue with me. Or just slug me. Rachel doesn’t like people trying to protect her—and most of the time she didn’t need it. She could probably handle a ghost or a zombie.
            But meth dealers, possibly armed? I didn’t want to find out.
            So she dropped her arms, gave me the finger, and then leaned in to kiss my cheek. “Don’t get hurt. Jerk.”
            “Number one on my mission statement.” I grabbed my jacket, checked my Taser, and left while I could still feel her kiss on my face.
* * *
I parked in the Oshers’ driveway to make sure Castille saw me. Then I called Ryan from my car.
            “I’m going to go talk to them.” I was proud of how my voice didn’t shake. “If they’re still here after ten minutes, call the cops. If I wave, call the cops. If they get out of the car, call the cops.” I swallowed. “Basically, if they don’t leave—”
            “Call the cops. I got it.” He almost laughed. “Be careful.”
            I got out of the Honda. I was sure the entire block could hear my heart pounding as I walked down the driveway toward Castille’s car. 
            They watched me walking across the lawn. When I got close, Pablo rolled down his window. “What are you doing here, man?”
            “You need to get out of here.” Again, my voice didn’t flinch. Maybe I was getting good at bravery. Or faking it. “The family in there is going to call the cops.”
            “We’re waiting for Kirk,” Castille barked, keeping his eyes on the street. “You said—”
            “Please forget what I said.” I jammed my hands in my jacket so they wouldn’t see my fingers shaking. “These people don’t have anything to do with your business.”
            “You don’t know anything about our business.” He drummed his fingers on the wheel. “We won’t bother anyone. We just need to talk to Kirk for a few minutes.”
            “Even though he’s dead?” 
            Castille jerked his head toward me. “I don’t care about dead or alive. If he can tell me what I want to know—”
            “Martin?” Pablo pointed a finger. “Over there.”
            Oh, hell. I stepped back from the car and looked down the street.
            Kirk stood in the middle of the road, in the same clothes, the same blank eyes staring straight ahead.
            Castille pushed his door open.
            I waved my hand toward the house. Call the copsRight now!
            Many things happened at once. 
            Pablo got out of the car. He glanced at Kirk, then he looked at me. “What is this?”
            Castille marched down the street. He had a pistol in his hand. “Kirk! Where is it?”
            Then the door of the house opened. I expected Ryan with his own handgun, but instead it was Becky. Her face was pale, but her shoulders were high and straight, as if she was tired of being afraid as she stepped down onto her lawn.
            Kirk saw her. He took a halting step forward.
            “Come on, man!” Castille waved his pistol. “Just tell me where it is!”
            “Kirk!” Becky screamed. “We broke up! Go away!”
            Kirk lifted his head, ignoring Castille. “B-b-beck . . .”
            Castille cursed and whirled around, waving his weapon at Becky. “Give me what I want, Kirk, or else—”
            The gun went off.
Of course he missed her. He was twenty yards away, and even the best shot on the police force can’t hit a target at that range firing with one hand. Plus, he might not even have meant to pull the trigger. 
            Becky dropped to the ground, covering her head. Ryan ran out of the house, but at least he didn’t have his own gun. He just skidded to a stop next to his wife and shielded her with his body.
            And then Kirk was running. Like before, faster than I figured any undead thing could move. But he was down the street and on top of Castille before I could think about grabbing for my Taser. 
            “Kirk! What—” Then Castille was flat on his back on the trunk of his car, shrieking like a dog being mauled by a lion. Kirk hit him over and over again, groaning with each punch.
            I took a step forward. Maybe my Taser would stop him, or at least slow him down. But Pablo grabbed my arm. “What the hell is that?”
            “It’s your friend.” I pulled my arm free. “What’s Martin looking for?”
            “He had fifty thousand dollars in cash!” Pablo stared at the scene. “Then he got hit by a car! It belonged to us! It’s ours—”
            Right. Money. I lifted my Taser. “So you can drive away right now, but they’re going to get you pretty soon anyway. Or you can stay here and argue with your pal after he’s done with Martin.”
            I felt like Clint Eastwood. Except he probably never worried about soiling his underwear when confronting a bad guy. Pablo backed away from me.
            Castille’s face was bloody, but at least Kirk wasn’t ripping out his throat. He just kept hitting him, like a metronome, one-two-three . . . 
I raised the Taser. “Kirk! Stop it! Kirk—”
            Stevie. An 8-year-old red-haired boy in pajama bottoms and a Snoopy T-shirt, running across the front yard toward Ryan, his arms flailing. “Daddy! I’m scared!”
            Becky reared up. “No, Stevie! Get back in the house!”
            “Mommy!” Stevie jumped between them, his hands searching for their arms. “Mommy!”
            Kirk stopped. He stood up, blood on his fists, and stared at the little boy, his eyes alive for the first time.
            He lurched forward. Stopped. Took another step.
            Stevie was crying. “Mommy, mommy . . .”
            Becky stood up. Ryan tried to pull her back down, but she pushed his hand away. “Kirk!” Her voice was a scream. And a threat.
            I gripped my Taser with both hands. Castille’s pistol sat on the street. Pablo was—I glanced back. He was running away down the street. Good for him.
            But Becky was walking toward the dead man, her shoulders stiff. “For Christ’s sake!” She shouted loud enough for all the neighbors to hear. “It’s over, Kirk. We’re done! Go away!”
            He cocked his head, as if he didn’t understand. But he took a step back. “B-beck?” He clenched his teeth. “Beck—Becky?”
            “Go away, Kirk.” She stopped, one knee trembling. “It’s over. Just leave me alone. Okay?”
            He groaned. “Stevie . . . Stevie?”
            “He’s fine!” She whipped a glance at me, and I headed close to her, ready to shoot Taser darts into Kirk’s chest. Would that even stop him? But she held a hand up, and I waited. 
            She forced a smile at him. “Stevie is okay. He’s beautiful. You can see that. I’ll tell him everything. But Kirk . . . you need to go.”
            Kirk nodded. “Y-yeah.” Another step back, and he looked down at Castille. For a moment I thought he’d stomp his head, but instead he just leaned down, opened his mouth, and unloaded a stream of spit on Castille’s head.
            Castille rolled over. “Urrgh . . .”
            Kirk lifted a hand. A wave. Then he swung around and ran. At the end of the block, he was gone.

* * *
“Thank you.” Becky shoved a mug of coffee at me. “I don’t know what we would have done.”
            The cops were gone. Castille was locked up, and Pablo was—somewhere else. Possibly in Wisconsin by now. And Stevie was asleep.
            I rubbed my eyes. “I’m sorry.” The coffee tasted good, and I needed it, but I had another stop to make. And a phone call. I stood up. 
            “Wait.” Ryan came out of Stevie’s bedroom. “You’re not going, are you?”
            “Ryan, Becky . . .” I had to be honest. “I screwed up. I told Castille that Kirk was looking for you. Not by name, but, well . . .” I shrugged. “He wouldn’t have shown up here if I’d kept my mouth shut. I am—very sorry. If you want your check back . . .” 
            I might have trouble with the rent this month, but maybe Rachel would let me sleep on her couch in exchange for washing dishes. 
            Becky followed me to the door. “But—he’s really gone?”
            I hoped so. “I don’t think he’ll come back.”
            She forced a smile. “At least I got to tell him off one last time. And I got to—oh, shit.” She turned away from me. “At least I got to see him—one last time. I thought . . .”
            Ryan looked at me, then he was next to her, and I could only lean against the door as she sobbed. 
            “I’m sorry, Ryan, I’m so sorry!” Becky cried. “It’s just—he doesn’t mean anything, he’s only this one guy, this one stupid, stupid guy . . .”
            Ryan kissed the top of her head. “I know, babe. I know. It’s all right.” He stroked her shoulders. “I’m right here.”
            I reached for the doorknob. Ryan nodded to me. “Thanks, Tom.”
            Becky whispered something. Ryan laughed and patted her head. “Yeah. Be sure to send us an invoice.”
            “Right.” I opened the door. “Good night.”
* * *
I pulled up in front of Lulu Hess’s house twenty minutes later. The sun was setting, casting long shadows over the street. Rachel was already there in her dusty Prius.
            “You think it’s her?” She slammed her door.
            “It makes the most sense.” Castille and Pablo hadn’t seemed to really know what was going on. They only wanted to know where the money was.
 That might be a good motive for bringing Kirk back from the dead, but they wouldn’t know how to do that. And they’d seemed completely oblivious, not caring how Kirk had come back as long as they could somehow get their cash.
But Kirk’s mother obviously had a stronger reason for bringing him back from the grave. 
We walked up the tangled lawn to the porch. I knocked on the door.
            Lulu pulled the door open right away. Her head swayed from side to side as if she’d just woken from a long drunken nap. “Yeah? Oh. It’s you again. It’s late.”
            “I’m sorry to bother you, ma’am. It’s Tom Jurgen. I was here earlier today? This is my associate Rachel.” 
“Hi.” Rachel smiled.
            Lulu pushed on the screen door to let us in.
            The candles around the room were burning bright. Either she liked the atmosphere, or she hadn’t paid her electric bill in a few months. Another big bottle of red wine sat on the table. 
            Lulu sank down on her couch and poured herself a full glass. “What’s this about?”
            I looked through the shadows. The red candle in the corner still burned, throwing soft flickering light over the photo of Kirk and his possessions around it. I pointed. “Over there. Take a look.”
            Rachel took a step forward. “I can feel it. Oh, yeah.”
            “Don’t get too close!” Lulu reared up, spilling wine on her jeans. “That belongs to me!”
            “Right!” Rachel backed away slowly. “I get it.”
            Lulu dropped back down on the couch. “You can’t just come in here. This is my home. You just get out!” She drained her glass and pounded the table with her fist. “Now!”
            “I’d like to ask you a few questions about Kirk.” I used my best voice, low and nonjudgmental, the one I used to use on reluctant sources as a reporter.
            “What about him?” She snatched her glass up. “He’s my boy! What do you know about him? Do you have any kids?”
            She’d asked that before. I shook my head. “No.”
            “Then you don’t know what it’s like.” She leaned back on the couch. “To lose one of them. Years and years and . . . all that. You try. You’re bringing them up, and they don’t listen, but you try and you keep trying, and then . . . then someone hits them in a car, and all of that . . . it’s like none of it ever happened.” 
            “But you can change that.” Rachel was standing behind me. “Right?”
            “I got some books.” She waved a hand at a bookcase. “My girl Lori gave them to me. She’s got some weird friends down in Florida. Deep in the swamps, you know?”
            Most of the shelves held pictures of Kirk, but a few books lay stacked on the bottom. Rachel knelt down and began pulling volumes out onto the floor. 
True Secrets of Voodoo?“  She laughed. “Trash. The Serpent and the Rainbow—yeah, not bad. This one—I can’t read Latin. Necromancy for Dummies? No. Book of the Dead . . .” She dropped it on the stained carpet. “This one is dangerous.”
            “Lulu.” I looked over at the candle. “I’m sorry about Kirk. Really. But I saw him today. Twice. And he’s—lost.”
            “How can you say that?” Lulu’s eye burned in the candlelight. “He’s here, isn’t he? I was asleep. Sometimes when I’m asleep he goes out, but that’s the way it is with kids. They go where they want, they don’t listen, but they’re . . . here. That’s what matters.” 
            I thought about the Oshers and Stevie. “Yeah. I guess I get that. But—”
            Then a new shadow fell into the living room.
            “M-mom?” It was Kirk.
            Rachel stiffened her back. Lulu twisted around on the couch, and then she pushed herself up and staggered around, her arms out.     
            “You came home!” The smile on her face looked like a sloppy cartoon. “Where did you go? I told you not to go too far away!”
            “Mom.” Kirk’s arms hung at his sides as Lulu embraced him. “Mom.”
            Rachel and I looked at each other. 
            “Go sit down in the kitchen.” Lulu let Kirk go and turned around. “You two, leave.”
            Rachel rubbed my arm and then took a step away. I nodded.
            “Kirk.” I held up a hand, wondering if he remembered me. Or if he even heard me. “Stevie’s fine. Becky is fine. But you need to go.”
            One of Kirk’s legs collapsed like a flat tire, and he grabbed for the edge of the couch. Lulu caught his arm. “It’s okay, baby,” she whispered. “You’ll get better tomorrow. I’ll take care of you—”
            Kirk pounded a fist on the couch. “No. No!”
            Lulu jumped away. “It’ll be all right, Kirk. I’m here. You can . . . you can . . .”
            Kirk groaned.
            Rachel nudged my shoulder. “Should I?”
            I sighed. “I’ll do it.”
            “What?” Lulu whirled around. “No! You can’t! He’s my son!”
            Kirk lurched up on his good leg. “Mom . . . mom . . .”
            “Stop!” Lulu screamed.
            I stood in front of the red candle. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. 
            Then I blew it out.
            Kirk disappeared. No flash of light or puff of smoke. Just gone, as if he’d never been there.
            I expected Lulu to scream, or attack us with a burning candlestick. Instead she just sank down to the floor on her knees in silence, as if she was praying. I heard her breathing softly, not crying or cursing. When I walked around to check her, her eyes were closed and her lips were tight.
            Without looking at me, Lulu whispered, “Go.” It was fiercer than any curse.
            I nodded to Rachel. She picked up The Book of the Dead and held it away from her body as we went to the door.
* * *
“This is why I never want to have children.” Rachel and I walked across the dark yard. “Just so you know. Plants are better. Goldfish.”             
            “Maybe.” I thought about the Oshers and Stevie. “I hear some people like kids.”
            She punched my arm. “Don’t get any ideas.”            
            “Never.” I opened my door. “Dinner?”
            She leaned against the Honda’s hood. “I don’t feel like dinner. Maybe a beer. Or two.”
            I nodded and slipped into my car. “Follow me.” 

# # #