Saturday, June 22, 2019

Message from Beyond

Vanessa Scott was murdered years ago by a serial murderer known as the Left Foot Killer. So why is she sending messages from beyond the grave to her ex-boyfriend? Tom and Rachel hunt for the answers—and confront a serial killer.

Message from Beyond, Part One

Justin Cornell, sitting next to me in the coffee shop booth, opened his laptop and went to his Facebook profile.
            “That’s her.” He pointed to a private message, then clicked the link. “Vanessa Scott.” Her profile pic showed a young, pretty blond woman in a yellow blouse. The messages were pretty mundane:
Vanessa:Hi Justin! What have you been up to?
Justin:Who is this?
Vanessa:It’s Vanessa. Remember me?
“Okay.” This didn’t seem like anything you’d hire a private detective for. Stalking, maybe? “What’s the problem?”
            Cornell sighed. “She’s dead.”

I sipped my coffee. “Someone probably hijacked her account.”
            Cornell, in his 30s, had short black hair and wire-rimmed eyeglasses. His eyes looked nervous behind thin lenses. “She knows stuff about me no one else knows.”
            I shrugged. “Girlfriends share.”
            He shook his head. “It’s something else. She died two years ago. She was murdered.”
            That was different. But not too different, considering the number of various undead creatures I’ve dealt with in my career. I’m a private detective, doing background checks mostly and tailing cheating spouses, but some of my cases tend to be—offbeat. “Who killed her?”
            His hand trembled as he lifted his latté for a sip. “I don’t know. It was a serial killer, and he never got caught.”
            Great. I’ve tangled with vampires, werewolves, and the occasional demon from Hell. They were bad enough—but humans can be a lot more vicious.
But a job was a job, and it kept the cable bill paid. I nodded. “I’ll see what I can find out. But I’ll need access to your profile.”
            That made him more uncomfortable. Understandably. “I—I guess I can give you my password. But I’ll want to change it after you’ve looked at everything.”
            “Of course. Give me until—five today?” I tried for a reassuring nod. “Don’t worry. I have to deal with lots of confidential information. Unless I find something criminal on there—”
            “No, no.” Cornell shook his head again. “Nothing like that. I called you because people said you were—you handle strange cases like this.”
            “Yeah.” Like I said, I’m not like most private detectives.
            He wrote me a check, then picked up his latté. I watched him walk away. He limped on his left foot.

Back home I headed for my office, powered up my computer, and went to Zuckerberg-land.
            “Checking your profile?” Rachel, my girlfriend, leaned in behind me, a hand on my shoulder. She’s got red hair, hazelnut eyes, and slightly psychic powers. All nice things. Plus, we live together, which has its benefits. 
            I only keep a bare profile on Facebook for the sake of having access to social media. Not even a picture. “It’s a case. Dead girl sending messages from beyond. The usual thing.” I typed in Cornell’s password.
            She snorted. “It’s one of her girlfriends getting back at him for being an asshole.”
            “Probably.” I found the beginning of Cornell’s thread with Vanessa:

Vanessa:Hi Justin! What have you been up to? 
Cornell:Who is this?
Vanessa:It’s Vanessa. Remember me?
Cornell:She’s dead. 
Vanessa:I had to go away. It hurt a lot. But yeah, I’m dead.
Cornell:This isn’t funny, whoever you are.
Vanessa:It’s me. Don’t you remember our first time? My place, and the purple candles, and . . .

I skimmed. Whoever was writing did seem to know a lot about Cornell’s, uh, preferences. I reminded myself that I’m a professional, with lots of experience following and occasionally spying on cheating spouses of all sexes and inclinations. At least Cornell and Vanessa weren’t into anything too kinky.
            Cornell got down to it in a later thread:

Cornell:What happened? Who killed you?
Vanessa:Don’t know. It was dark. He broke my ankle. It was wet. Bag over my head.
Cornell:Why are you talking to me now? How?
Vanessa:Find him. Find him. Findhimfindhimfindhim

I sat back, staring at the screen.
            Several questions came quickly: Was this really Vanessa? On a vengeance quest from beyond the grave to find her killer? Why hadn’t Cornell led with that when we met? I used to be a reporter—that would have been my lead.
            Which led to the obvious question: Was Cornell the killer?
            On the one hand, it didn’t make sense. Why would he hire me to find out what was going on? On the other hand, if he didn’t really believe Vanessa’s ghost was talking to him, he might want to find out who was really sending him messages so he could protect himself. 
            I checked the time. We’d met at noon, and it was 1:45 right now. I had a few hours before he changed his password.
            So I sent a message to Vanessa as Cornell:

Me:Hi, Vanessa. What happened that night?

I waited, not sure how quickly she’d reply. So I started researching her murder in another window. But after two minutes seconds, she came back:

Vanessa:Don’t remember. Going out with friends. Then—nothing. 

Traumatic experiences can erase memories. Being murdered certainly fit. I replied:

Me:What friends?
Vanessa:Traci, Meredith, Robyn and I don’t remember anyone else.

The names were hyperlinked to other profiles. I made notes. Then:

Me:Have you messaged anyone else?
Vanessa:Just you.
Me:Why me?
Vanessa:I remember you.

Great. What did that mean? “Gotta go,” I typed, then closed out of the account. 
            Now what? I started searching the internet furiously.
            “What’s going on?” Rachel turned in her chair. We share an office. Maybe she heard my fingers slapping the keys, or maybe her psychic powers picked up something.
            “I’m researching a serial killer. Hang on.”
            “Oh, for god’s sake.” If she was close, she would have slugged me. Hard. “Vampires and contagious fungus and ancient Greek Furies aren’t enough for you? Now we have to track down monsters from the real world?”
            “I’m not trying to track him down. I just need to know—oh, hell.”
            A dozen articles on Vanessa Scott’s murder popped up on my screen. And lots more, because she was one of a half-dozen victims of a serial murderer dubbed “The Left Foot Killer.”
            I remembered the headlines. Over the course of a year and a half, seven women had been kidnapped, beaten, killed, and left in alleys and parks around Chicago. One common denominator—they’d all been found with their left feet or ankles or legs broken. 
            Just like Vanessa had said.
            “Give me a few minutes.” I leaned forward, gulped some water, and started reading as fast as I could.
            Most serial killers target women on the fringe—prostitutes, the homeless, people who won’t be missed. I knew that from Mindhunterand other TV shows, plus my own crime reporting. If they were reasonably careful, it could take a long time for anyone to make a connection, because the victims usually didn’t have a lot of people to care about them.
Not this guy. His victims were young professional women, and the left foot thing caught everyone’s attention. After the second or third murder, people were demanding answers and action—family members, politicians, and even some reporters I knew from when I worked at the Chicago Tribune. Because the victims were all young, most of them white, and generally attractive, the murders attracted a lot more publicity than the usual crop. 
It wasn’t fair, obviously. But that didn’t matter, because they never caught the guy.
The victims hadn’t been sexually assaulted. Which was unusual in itself. Just beaten, their broken bodies left just out of sight.
My stomach churned. I’d reported on dozens of cases like these as a journalist. I’d had to learn to be objective and dispassionate when writing up the story. But like most reporters and cops I knew, I’d never learned to accept it. 
            Vampires weren’t the only monsters stalking the world.
            I rubbed my eyes and then picked up my phone. I wished for Dudovich, the cop I’d sparred with for years. We’d never really become friends, but over the years we developed a kind of trust—even though she thought I was crazy for seeing vampires, zombies, and other supernatural terrors. She’d come to see the same things, but she remained skeptical when I reported anything paranormal to her or her colleagues.
But she’d been killed in the vampire wars years ago. She used to abuse me, but after a while I kind of liked it. I still miss her.
            “Who are you calling?” Rachel walked across the office.
            “Who do you think?” Fortunately I had other—friends? Allies? Contacts? People who would at least talk to me before hanging up?—on the CPD. The phone buzzed. Twice. 
Then detective Anita Sharpe picked up. “Jurgen? I was having a nice quiet day here without vamps or demons or anything supernatural. Just the usual drive-by shooting this morning and now a husband-and-wife murder/suicide thing, although I don’t who killed who first at this point. This better be good.”
            Sharpe was part of the CPD’s unofficial Vampire Squad. It had been set up during the vampire wars, but in the last few years or so vamp activity had simmered down around the city. Now she was mostly back at her regular job, investigating trouble and doing her best to keep the mean streets safe.
            I heard traffic around her. “Okay, I guess you’re not at your desk. It’s about the Left Foot Killer.”
            “Leftie?” Sharpe groaned. “That was years ago. I don’t have time for this right now. What do you want?”
            I hesitated. I couldn’t just give up my client based on speculation involving a Facebook ghost. “Did you ever catch him?” 
            “It would have been in the papers, right?” She shouted at someone—“Hey! Don’t touch that!” Then she came back. “Okay, sometimes we get a perp on something else, but we can’t link him to an open case. So he goes to jail and we count that a win. But I never told you that, okay? Anyway, I don’t know about Leftie right now. Maybe—just maybe—I can look it up later. You going to tell me what this is about?”
            “Not yet.” I bit my lip. I needed more information before I could think about turning over my client. The cops wouldn’t care, of course. I only hoped Sharpe could wait.
            “Let me know. I’ll be back at the office soon.” She hung up.

Message from Beyond, Part Two

Cornell called me at 5:05 p.m. “I’m changing my password. Did you get what you need?”
            “For now. But I have to ask you a few more questions.”
            I heard him swallow. “Go ahead.”
            “The night she was killed, Vanessa was going out with three women— Traci, Meredith, and Robyn. Do you know them?”
            “Sort of. We hung out together a few times. What are you getting at?”
            “Do you think any of them could be impersonating Vanessa online?”
            He thought for a moment. “I don’t really know. Meredith, maybe. They were pretty close. But I still don’t think she would have told her—I mean, you read everything, right?”
            “Don’t worry, I’ve seen almost everything, and I can keep my mouth shut about it all. Can I contact these women?”
            “Uh, I guess . . . what are you going to say?”
            “Just some general questions about that night. And maybe about you.”
            Long pause. “What about me?”
            “If they’ve been in contact with you. I still think it’s more likely that someone is playing ‘Let’s Pretend.’ If that’s what’s going on, a straight question might shake loose an answer.” It had worked for me before. Most people aren’t great at lying, unless they’re complete sociopaths. And years as a reporter and a P.I. had made me reasonably good at picking up on inconsistencies, even if I wasn’t psychic like Rachel.
            “I just don’t think that’s what’s going on. It just—sounds like Vanessa.” He took a deep breath. “But okay, sure. Go ahead. Just—be careful, all right?”
            “Absolutely.” I looked at Rachel. She was sitting next to me, listening. “One more question?” I felt like Lieutenant Columbo.
            “When I met you today, you were limping on your left foot. How did that happen?”
            “Wh-what?” He was silent for a moment, and then he laughed. “I sprained my ankle playing softball last week. It’s getting better.”
            I still wondered why he hadn’t mentioned that his girlfriend had been murdered by Leftie—as Sharpe called him. But this wasn’t the right time to push. “Okay, thanks. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
            We hung up. I looked at Rachel. “Well?”
            She slugged my shoulder. “You know I can’t pick up anything over the phone! Facetime, maybe, but . . .” She scooted her chair away. “Maybe he’s telling the truth. People get hurt all the time, and with only two legs, it’s 50-50 that he’d injure the foot that this guy seemed to like breaking.”
            “Yeah.” I wondered why the killer fixated on that. But better minds that mine had probably probed that. Sharpe might know their theories, but she wouldn’t be happy if I called her now. I hoped she was home fixing dinner—or at least at her desk typing out reports.
            Speaking of dinner—“Let me send a few emails, and then I’ll start the pasta.”

My phone buzzed at 2:37 a.m. Rachel kicked me as I rolled over. “Let it go to voice mail.”
            I blinked, trying to focus my eyes. Sharpe. “Just a—” I clicked the button. “Hi, detective! I was just dreaming about you.”
            “Shut up.” Her voice was deadly. “There’s another Leftie murder.”
            Hell. I rolled over and planted my feet on the floor. “Who—what—where?” My feet searched for their slippers.
            “It’s an ongoing crime scene. Don’t come down here—not that I’m telling you where it is. But you’re going to get a call tomorrow morning. Better wake up early.” She hung up.
            “What?” Rachel sat up. “Who were you dreaming about? It better not be—”
            “That was a joke.” I staggered from the bed. “Another Left Foot murder.” 
            “Wait, huh?” She threw the covers off. “The last one was, what, two years ago?”
            Yeah. “And now, right after Vanessa Scott comes back from the dead to talk to her ex-boyfriend . . .” I shuddered. “Why can’t serial killers keep normal business hours? It’s not like they’re vampires. Okay, that makes no sense, but still . . .”
            I splashed some cold water over my face in the kitchen, grabbed a Coke, and headed for my computer. 
            The early news reports were sparse. No screaming headlines, just a few brief items about the murder of a body found next to a dumpster. Left ankle broken. #leftiereturns was already trending on Twitter.
            Damn it. I swigged my Coke. Then I went onto Facebook.
            Cornell had changed his password. I didn’t blame him. But I’d sent Vanessa a friend request.
            And she’d accepted. Whoever she was.
            I sent a message: “Who are you?” I didn’t expect a fast response, but I waited, tapping my foot on the floor.
            But two minutes later: “I’m Vanessa. Who are you?”
Me:Tom Jurgen. You accepted my friend request.
            Vanessa:Why are you talking to me?
            Me:I’m a private detective. Justin Cornell hired me.
Me:Because Vanessa Scott died two years ago. You can’t be her.
Vanessa:It hurt.
Me:Who killed you?
Vanessa:I don’t know.
Me:Vanessa was murdered by the Left-Foot Killer. And there’s been another murder tonight.

I waited ten minutes. No more responses. I sent my phone number. Maybe Traci would see it and contact me.
            Rachel came into the office in a T-shirt and panties. “Should I just make coffee?”
            “No.” I couldn’t think of anything to do right now. “I’m going back to bed.”

Message from Beyond, Part Three

I didn’t sleep much, but at seven o’clock or so I stumbled into the shower, then got dressed and made my way to the office.
            The new Left Foot Killer murder was the top local story online. A young woman, name withheld, had been found dead by a dumpster in an alley on the north side. Her left ankle—or left foot-depending on the story—had been snapped, and she’d been strangled. 
            Why now? After two years? The cops weren’t commenting on that question. 
            Rachel staggered into the office in a T-shirt and panties. “Anything?”
            “Not yet. Maybe not ever.” I went back to Facebook. “I made coffee.”
            “I saw. I’m going to take a shower.” She turned, then looked back. “No checking out my butt.”
            “Who, me?” I grinned. Then I turned back to my computer
But before I could hit any keys, my phone buzzed. A Chicago Police number. “Tom Jurgen speaking.”
            “Mr. Jurgen? This is detective Naomi Diaz from the Chicago Police Department. I’d like to talk to you about a murder committed last night.”
            The call Sharpe had predicted. “Certainly, detective Diaz. Should I come down to the station?” It pays to be polite with cops. I might run into her again.
            “Not just now. I’m calling because detective Sharpe told me you’ve expressed in an interest in the Left Foot Killer case.”
            I took a deep breath. “I did ask her about that.” Then I explained why—without naming my client just yet.
            She listened. Then: “So someone is impersonating a victim on Facebook? Why?”
            I hesitated. “Uh, did detective Sharpe tell you anything about me?”
            Diaz snorted. “That I wouldn’t believe anything you said. I know about the vampires, but everything else makes me wonder what kind of drugs people are taking.”
            “I’m clean, aside from too much caffeine. How about this? It’s really Vanessa Scott, communicating from the great beyond.”
            Now she groaned. “You don’t really believe a ghost is using Facebook, do you?”
            “I’ve learned to believe a lot of crazy things. Detective Sharpe has too. You might ask her.”
            “Whatever.” She was skeptical. “Anyway, I need to talk with your client.”
            Nuts. Sam Spade would have told her to go to hell. But this was real life, not a Dashiell Hammett novel. I sighed silently. “Justin Cornell. I’ll have him call you.”
            “No. Just give me his number.”
            She was right. The cops wouldn’t want him to have any warning, even if he wasn’t the Left Foot Killer. I hated to do it, but I gave Diaz the number. She thanked me and hung up.
            I got more coffee. My phone buzzed again as I sat down to the computer. Unknown number. For once I truly hoped for a telemarketer offering me a great new rate on life insurance, my electric bill, or air-duct cleaning. “Tom Jurgen speaking—”
            “Mr. Jurgen? It’s Traci Bueller. You left your number.” She sounded half-frantic. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
            Me neither. “How can I help you?”
            “I just got up. My laptop was on, and I always turn it off when I go to bed. But it was open to Vanessa’s page, and I saw what you wrote to her.”
            “Okay. What can you tell me?”
            “I don’t know! This is crazy! I think . . . I think . . .” She gasped. “Wait a minute . . . Ohh . . . Wait . . .”
            I wondered if I should call 911 to her apartment. But after a second she came back. Her voice was—different.
            “Tom? This is Vanessa Scott.”
            Definitely Traci’s voice, but low-pitched—almost a whisper. “Hello, Vanessa.”
            “I don’t have much time. It’s hard to stay . . . here.”
            I had a dozen questions. Maybe more. Where were you before? What’s it like? Did you see God?Or Satan?
But I tried to stay focused. If she didn’t have much time, I was going to ask as many questions as I could. “So why are you here? Now? Why did you contact Justin Cornell? Why take over Traci?” 
            “He’s going to do it again. He did it again. Justin is—was my friend. So is Traci.”
            “Who is it? Who killed you?”
            “I didn’t see—him. It was outside. I didn’t see . . .” She fell silent.
            Traci came back a moment later. “Oh god. It was—her, wasn’t it? Vanessa?”
            How much was she aware of? “Yeah. It was your friend.”
            “I could hear her—me. Talking to you. From far away. I don’t get this!” Her throat sounded hoarse. “It doesn’t make sense.”
            “These things never do.” I waited a moment. “Can I ask you a few questions?”
            “I—I guess.” Her voice trembled. “What?”
“What happened the night Vanessa was killed?” 
            “I was—she was . . .” Traci swallowed. “We went out for drinks. And dinner. And drinks again. I told the cops all about it. I left, and Meredith and Vanessa were still there. Then I got a call the next morning . . .” She started to sob.
            My phone buzzed with another call. Cornell. Of course. Damn it. “Listen, I have another call. Can we meet?”
            “S-sure. I guess.” She sniffed. “I’ll text you my address.”
            “Thank you. —Hello, this is—”
            “Jurgen! Goddamn it!” Cornell’s voice trembled. “The police just called me! This isn’t why I hired you! What’s going on?”
            “There’s been another murder.” I tried to keep my voice calm. “I was doing research into Vanessa’s death before it happened. I talked to some police contacts, and—”
            “I was in the hospital all night! With my father. He’s sick. I don’t understand how you could—”
            I was tired too, but I didn’t expect him to be sympathetic. “I’m sorry, Mr. Cornell, but I’m not a lawyer or a doctor or a priest. I don’t have any legal protection here. There’s been a murder. My advice is to call your own lawyer before saying anything to the police.”
            “I don’t have a lawyer! Not for this, anyway.”
            “Then tell the police you won’t answer any questions without a lawyer present. They can’t arrest you, and that’s when everything gets complicated.” I took a breath. “I’m sorry, Mr. Cornell. I’m still looking into this.”
            “Have you found anything? Jesus Christ—”
             I leaned back in my chair and gazed at the ceiling. How to make this sound rational? “Your girlfriend Vanessa apparently possessed her friend Traci Bueller from, uh, beyond the grave?” Oh yeah, this sounded insane. “She sent you those Facebook messages. I’ve talked to her—them. Both.” I paused. “I know it sounds insane.”
            “So Vanessa is still—alive?”
            “No.” Not a ghost but—“Somehow she’s reaching out. She knew the killer was going to strike again. And he did. That’s the problem, now.”
            “Oh god.” Cornell sounded as if he was fighting tears. “I just—we weren’t going to get married or anything, at least not yet. But it was so hard . . .”
            I let him cry. Sometimes being a P.I. is like being a psychologist. 
            After a minute I heard him blow his nose. “All right. I guess I have to go talk to the police now.  Let me know if—you find out anything. If you hear from her. Tell her—Say I’m sorry.”
            What did that mean? I still wasn’t convinced that Cornell wasn’t the killer, even if he did have a solid alibi for last night. But he was still my client. “Sure thing.”

Message from Beyond, Part Four

Rachel insisted on coming with me to meet Traci Bueller. Partly because she was worried about me investigating anything around a serial killer, but mostly because she’d taken a look at Traci’s profile. Blond hair, blue eyes, and at least two bikini photos. “I’m not letting you alone with her.”
            “It’s nice that you still get jealous.” I drove my new Honda Acura. It was a hybrid, and I was still getting used to starting it with a button instead of jamming a key into the ignition, and I could barely work the radio, let alone all the electronics on the dashboard.
            She punched my shoulder—gently, so I wouldn’t run off the street. “I just don’t trust you and ghosts. Remember that last time?”
            “That was years ago. Anyway . . .” I spotted the address. “Here we are.”
            “Hi.” Traci Bueller opened the second-floor door. She walked on crutches, a brace around her left leg. “Thanks for coming. I don’t get out much lately.” 
She slumped into a chair next to her computer. “If you need anything, my kitchen’s over there. Feel free.”
            “We’re fine.” Rachel looked around the apartment. It was small, with plants everywhere and windows looking out on the street. “I’m Rachel, by the way. I work with Tom.”
            Traci nodded. “Nice to meet you.”
            “Can I ask what happened?” Rachel sat on the sofa. I perched next to her.
            “Hit by a car. Eight months ago. Still doing rehab.” She sighed. 
            “I’m so sorry.” I hesitated. “I’m sorry to bring up another traumatic incident, but—”
            “The murder?” She sighed. “I have more nightmares about getting hit by the car.” She picked up a pack of cigarettes sitting next to the computer. “It was two years ago, but I remember everything—mostly because I had to tell the cops over and over.”
She flared a lighter and lit a cigarette. “Okay. We went out for dinner. Drinks first, me and Meredith and Vanessa and Robyn. First at Dancy’s, I don’t think it’s there anymore. Two guys tried to pick us up. I think the cops found them, but they weren’t involved. Then we went to dinner—Applebees. Then we went to another bar called Killjoys. It’s still there.”
            She puffed on her cigarette, enjoying the smoke as it calmed her nerves. “Everything was fine. The bartender was nice. His name’s Will. Nobody tried to hit on us. Meredith and I left first. Robyn said they left together a half hour later, but she got into a taxi first. That’s—it.”
            Traci shook her head. “I don’t know what happened after that. I got home, everyone texted each other, except for Vanessa, but I didn’t much about it until the next day, when . . .”
            She looked at the floor. “I should have—I know. I should have called. But it was late, and I was a little drunk. And then the next morning . . .”
            She stabbed her cigarette out and lit another. “She was dead.”
            I nodded. “So when did Vanessa start taking over?”
            She stiffened. “I don’t—I don’t know, exactly. I started having dreams maybe a week or so ago. I was in an alley somewhere, with a bag over my head, and someone was stomping on my foot.” She winced, and her left leg twitched. “And like I said, I woke up in front of my computer one day. I just figured I was sleepwalking or something.”
            I’d woken up in my office at three in the morning a dozen times with my computer on. Sometimes work, sometimes—okay, porn. I’m a guy. “But today? You found your computer open to her Facebook profile. And you saw her messages. And then you—”
            “Hang on.” Rachel stood up. “Like I said, I work with Tom. I’m sort of—well, psychic. Does that sound crazy?”
            Traci shook her head. “Not right now.”
            “Can I—hold your hand for a moment?” 
            Traci glanced at me, nervous. Then she sat back and held out a hand. “I guess.”
            Rachel sat down next to her. They held hands. 
            “It’s all right.” Rachel smiled. “It’s not like the Vulcan mind meld or anything. Just . . . relax for a moment.”
            Traci nodded. Rachel closed her eyes.
            Watching Rachel do this stuff always made me nervous. She’d been possessed by demons once or twice. I waited, ready to pull their hands apart and slap their faces, or—whatever.
            Rachel’s head jerked. Her eyes closed, then sprung open again, blinking rapidly. She looked around the apartment, peering at the windows and the plants as if trying to figure out where she was. Her hazelnut eyes zeroed in on me—as if she didn’t recognize me at all.
            Then she slumped on the couch. 
“Traci?” Her voice was lower, almost a whisper. “Is that you?”
            Traci kept her eyes closed. “Van—Vanessa?”
            She nodded. “Yeah.” She stretched her neck and shoulders, breathing deep. “Who is—who am—where am I?”
            Traci exhaled. “You’re inside—her name’s Rachel. She’s—she works with that guy. Where are you?”
            “I’m here. With you.”
            I leaned forward. “Why are you here? Now?” I wasn’t even sure Vanessa could hear me.
            “I can—feel him.” Rachel’s arms shuddered. “He’s close. He came back.”
“Who is it?” I didn’t think I could convince the police to listen to anything a ghost told me, but it might give them something to go on. 
“It’s—it’s him. I didn’t see him, but I can feel him.” Rachel looked up and down, as if a bat was flying across the ceiling. Then she jerked back and looked at the door.
It opened. Someone obviously had a key. “Hello? Traci?”
Rachel yanked her hands away. Traci dropped her arms, her body sagging against the back of the sofa.
The guy walked forward. “Who the hell are you?”
I stood up quickly. “Tom Jurgen. I’m a private detective. This is Rachel. Traci is helping me on a case.”
I knew how it sounded, so I kept my distance before he could hit me. Then Traci sat up. “Will? It’s okay. What are you doing here?”
“I don’t have to be at work for a few hours. I just thought I’d—” He glared at me. Then shifted his eyes to check out Rachel. “Okay. Who are you people?”
Rachel smiled. “Hey, Will. Long time no see.” 
He frowned. “Do I know you?”
Good question. I’d never seen this guy before. But—wait a minute . . .
The bartender was nice. His name’s Will.
“Wait.” I looked at Traci. “Was he the bartender at, what, Killjoys? The night Vanessa was murdered?”
“He was . . .” She lowered her head. “It took me forever to go back there. And then he was he was just there, a few nights ago. Like nothing ever happened.”
I looked at Will. “So where were you?” 
Will stepped forward. “I don’t have to answer anything from you. Get out.”
It seemed like a good idea. He was big and muscular, with thick shoulders and long arms. Fictional P.I.’s laugh in the face of danger. I usually try to run away. I held out a hand to Rachel. “Come on, Rach. Let’s go.”
“It’s okay.” Rachel staggered to her feet and shook her head, as if to clear the last vestiges of Vanessa away. She gazed at me and smiled. “Tom, right? She likes you.”
All right. I looked at Traci. “I’m sorry.”
Will glared at me.
Rachel rubbed her eyes, then grabbed my wrist. “It’s fine. Let’s go home.”

Rachel was silent in the car, pulling herself together. “It’s him.”
            Oh hell. “Does Traci know?”
            “No. Vanessa does.”
            “But she didn’t see—”
“She felt him! Like a smell. When he came into the room.” Rachel pounded the dashboard. “It’s why she came back to Traci. She knew—she knew . . .”
She started to cry. Rachel never cries. I held her shoulder until she blew her nose.
“Sorry.” She tossed the handkerchief on the floor as I reached for the key—then remembered and hit the power button.
“No problem.” It didn’t make sense. “Does she like him? Traci, I mean?”
“She likes him okay. I got a sense of relief when he came in the door. Like she was grateful for him coming over to check on her.”
“Her foot’s broken.”
She shook her head. “Will didn’t do that.”
“Maybe he has some kind of foot fetish.”
She punched my arm. “Let’s just go home.”

Message from Beyond, Part Five

Back home I called Anita Sharpe. “What did you tell detective Diaz about me?”
            She laughed. “That you’re crazy. What did you think? But yeah, sometimes you’re right.”
            That was possibly the second-nicest thing she’d ever said to me. “What if I told her I know who the Left Foot Killer is, but all the evidence is, well, psychic?”
            “She—hell.” Sharpe groaned. “Okay, she might actually listen to you. Anyone here would give their own left foot to find that guy. It’d be worth a promotion, a book deal, and maybe a spot on Oprah.”
            All right. “Thanks. I’ll call her.”
            I left a message. Then I noticed that I had a message from my client. I called back.
            Cornell sounded exhausted, as if he’d been up all night. “Okay, the cops believe I didn’t kill Kristy Long—or anyone else. It helps that my dad and a whole lot of nurses saw me in the hospital all night. Are you getting anywhere?”
            Kristy Long was the name of the latest victim. We’d heard it on the radio driving back. “It’s what I told you. Vanessa is using Traci to speak. I think I know who the killer is, but it’s nothing I can prove. I’m going to stay on this, but I think I’ve done what you hired me for, so you’re off the hook. I’ll send you my report.” And my invoice.
            “Okay.” He sighed. “Thank you. Sorry for getting mad.”
            “No problem.”
            “And let me know what—happens? Okay?”
            “Sure thing.”
            Rachel brought me coffee. “Another happy customer?”
            “Under the circumstances. Thanks.” I sipped.
            “Not going to be a habit. Next cup’s on you.”
            My phone buzzed. Diaz. “Hang on—yes, detective! How’s your day going?”
            “Peachy. What have you got?”
            “Take a look at a bartender named Will at a bar called Killjoys. I don’t know his last name, but find out where he’s been for the last two years.” Since the murder before Kristy Long’s. 
            “Why the hell should I do that?” She sounded impatient. Most cops do.
            “Vanessa Scott feels he’s the killer.”
            “The ghost?” I could hear a snort of contempt. 
            “It’s not like you’re going to call her at the trial, okay? Just check the guy out.”
            “Fine. But if your next clue comes from a Ouija board, don’t bother calling me.” She hung up. 
            I sat back in my chair. “Our public servants are grateful for our assistance.”
            Rachel snorted at her desk. 

My phone buzzed in the middle of dinner—ravioli and salad. It was a text message. From Traci:
            Damn it. I showed it to Rachel. “Come on. Sorry about dinner—”
            She punched me. “There’s a serial killer on the loose!” Then she laughed. “I feel like I’m on TV.” 
            In the office I logged onto my profile. I had a private message from Vanessa:

Vanessa:He’s going to do it again. Tonight.

What the hell? I tried to imagine calling Diaz about this. So instead I sent a reply:

Me:How do you know?
Vanessa:He spent all day here. He just left. Traci’s asleep.
Me:He just killed someone last night. If it’s really him.
Vanessa:It’s him. I could finally see inside. When they were—doing it.
Me:Does Traci know?
Vanessa:No. Maybe. I don’t know.

Hell. I wouldn’t have believed this scenario if I’d seen it in a movie. And I’ve seen The Sixth Sense. Also Ghost. But movies don’t have to make sense. People do.

Me:Wake her up. Have her call me.

            No response. Rachel was leaning over my shoulder. “Now what? Dinner’s getting cold. But I don’t think I have an appetite.”
            “Me neither.” I sat back and crossed my arms. “Let’s see.”
            She pulled her chair over and sat down. Two minutes. Five. Then—
            “Mr. Jurgen?” Traci. “I just woke up from this dream. It was Vanessa, telling me to call you.”
            I made sure the phone was on speaker so Rachel could listen. “She was just on Facebook with me.”
            “Yeah . . . my laptop’s open on the bed. What’s going on?”
            What to say without spooking her—or making her hang up on me? “Where’s Will right now?”
            “He—he had to go to work. He’s there until 10. Why?”
            I glanced at Rachel. She nodded.
            “Vanessa thinks he’s the Left Foot Killer. The guy who murdered her.”
            “What? That’s crazy! I can’t . . .” Then she gasped. She was silent for a long time, and then we heard her coughing, hacking—throwing up. 
            “Oh my god.” Her voice was raspy. “I just—Vanessa—she told me. Just now. When she saw him today—oh my god . . .”
            “Traci, it’s Rachel.” She leaned in. “I felt it too. Once he came in. It’s not your fault.”
            “Oh god, oh god, oh god.” Traci managed a deep breath. “I just—walked into Killjoys a few weeks ago. After the accident. And Will was there, and I remembered he was nice. It was the first time since—since Vanessa, and I don’t think he remembered me, but I recognized him. And he was so nice about my foot. My—left foot.”
            “Okay.” I tried to sound reassuring. “We’ve already talked to the police about him. They’re checking into his background—and where he’s been for two years—”
            “He said he was in California, but he was always vague about where and what he was doing. I think—I don’t know. I don’t think I know anything right now.” She started to cry.
            He could have been out of the country—or in jail on some other charge. Back in Chicago at his old job, he might be making up for lost time.
            “Traci, it’s okay.” Rachel kept her voice calm and soothing. “Just relax. Try to rest. Don’t let Will in. Stay safe.”
            “Rachel’s right.” I looked at her. “We’ll take care of this. By the way, what’s Will’s last name?”

Message from Beyond, Part Six

Rachel and I stood outside Killjoys on North Lincoln Avenue at 9:30. Vanessa Scott’s body had been found just a few blocks away. Kristy Long had been found a mile south.
            “What are we doing here again?” Rachel peered through the window in the door.
            “It’s called surveillance. You know, detective stuff.”
            “Ooh, you sound so professional.” She elbowed my arm. “Did you take a correspondence course?”
            I held the door for her. I’m a gentleman, always.
            I’d called Diaz. I’d told her that there might be another Left Foot murder tonight. She seemed skeptical—not a surprise. But she’d checked into Will’s background. His full name was Will Scheer. He’d done 20 months in Indiana for dealing marijuana, dating from a month or so after the last Leftie murder until yesterday. 
            She promised to check him out personally. But I wanted to do the same thing.
            So we walked into Killjoys.
            It seemed like a typical neighborhood bar on a weekday evening. Not crowded, not too noisy, just folks perched at the bar and groups and couples sitting at tables clustered around the room. Music on the jukebox, and a baseball game on TV.
            I picked out a table in a corner where we could watch the bar, the door, and the game. The White Sox were down 2-1. Will was working alone.
            I headed up to the bar. Will started to smile as I approached, then frowned. “What are you doing here?”
            “We’re always looking for a nice bar.” I checked the beer taps. “Two Heinekens?”
            He obviously didn’t believe me, and for a moment I thought he’d tell me he didn’t want my business. Then a blond woman at the end of the bar waved a hand and pointed a finger at her glass.
            He poured some Chablis for her, then yanked the Heineken tap. “We’re just friends.”
            “You have a key to her apartment.”
            Will shrugged. “We’re just dating. It’s nothing serious.”
            They’d slept together this afternoon. But maybe that didn’t count as “serious” these days? Or maybe I’m just an old-fashioned guy in his mid-forties. “How long?”
            His gaze hardened. “None of your business.” He filled two glasses. “How about you drink your beers and leave. Twelve dollars.”
            I gave him fifteen. It seemed rude not to tip, even if he was a serial killer.
            I carried the beers over to our table. “Anything?”
            Rachel shook her head. “Not from here. Want me to go hold his hand? Maybe limp a little bit?”
            I shuddered. “He’d probably like that too much.”
            We nursed our beers. At 10:15 Will’s relief showed up, just as the White Sox were going for a relief pitcher themselves. Will wiped his hands on a towel and they shook hands.
            The woman drinking Chablis closed out her tab, and Will added her tip to his bag. Then he headed to the back room.
            The woman made a call on her phone, then stood up and headed for the door.
            “Well, this date has been a bust.” Rachel finished her beer. “At least the Cubs are winning.”
            “That’s the White Sox.” Did this place have a back door? Or would Will leave through the front? But Rachel was right. “Yeah, not much of a date. Do I have any chance of getting lucky?”
            She smirked. “Maybe. The night is young.”
            Out on the street, the blond woman lifted a hand for a cab. Then Will came through the door behind us. He wore heavy boots with steel toes. 
            “Oh god.” Rachel grabbed my hand. “Let’s get out of here.”
            Half a block away, we stopped in front of an all-night convenience store.  Will and the blonde were chatting in front of a taxi. He tried to hold her hand, but she pulled her arm away, laughing. Then drop down and slid back, closing the door.
            The cab pulled a U-turn on the street. Will watched it go, then spun on his heels and sauntered away.
            I clutched her wrist. “Come on.”
            “Isn’t this stalking?” Rachel giggled.
            “Only if we get caught.” 
            At the next corner Will stopped, looked in all four directions, then turned right and crossed against the light. We dodged cars to get across the street, and barely spotted him in the distance under the streetlights. 
            “What are we going to do if we catch him?” Rachel was breathing steadily, while I was panting. “Citizen’s arrest?”
            “You’ve got your stun gun, right?” My feet hurt. 
            She patted her jacket. “Always. Especially on dates with you.”
            Will stopped for a cigarette. Rachel and I huddled in front of a dark furniture store.
            Then a voice startled us: “What the hell are you doing here?”
            I jumped. A little. Rachel swung around, reaching into her jacket.
            It was the blond woman from the bar. “Uh, just taking a walk?”
            “Tom Jurgen.” She glared at me, then flicked her eyes at Rachel. “And Rachel Dunn. The psychic girlfriend.”
            “I’m a lot more than a girlfriend.” Her hazelnut eyes blazed. “But I am psychic. You’re a cop.”      “Diaz. We talked on the phone. Come on, get going!” She pushed my elbow.     
            Will dropped his cigarette on the pavement. I smirked. “At least we’ve got him for littering.”
            “Shut up.” Diaz darted ahead of us. “Stay back.” She tapped her ear and muttered into her phone.
            A cab crawled down the street beside us. The same one Diaz had boarded. 
            “I’m thinking they’re on top of this.” I huffed and puffed as we trailed Will and Diaz. She was already half a block ahead of us. I had to start working out more.
            “Maybe we can go home now, old man?” She pulled on my arm.
            I tried to catch my breath. “Some days I don’t know what you see in me.” 
            Rachel laughed quietly. “Fishing for compliments, jerk?”
            “No, just—wait . . .”  
            Will found a bus stop. A young African American woman sat on the bench, staring at her phone as she waited for a bus. 
            The street was silent and empty. Diaz hid in the shadows of an awning over the entrance to a Mexican restaurant across the street. Her cab sat at the corner.
            Rachel and I leaned against the door to an apartment building, next to a looming dark alley.
            “Next time, just take me to a concert or something.” She leaned against my shoulder. “Surveillance just isn’t very sexy.”
            I got that. “Pick the band. U2, Bruce Springsteen, Jeff Scott, S.J. Tucker, anything but—” I stopped. 
            The woman stood up and looked down the street, as if searching for a taxi. 
Then Will lunged forward and wrapped an arm around her throat. 
            She struggled. Kicked a heel at his crotch. But Will dragged her back—hauling her straight toward the alley next to us. Maybe he didn’t see us, intent on his victim. 
            Will hurled the woman down on the hard pavement next to the building, shadows looming over them. He stomped a boot on her ankle. “Take that, bitch! You won’t walk, you won’t do anything!” 
He leaned down, grabbing for her throat as she squirmed on the ground. “Don’t talk. Don’t do anything. It’s okay. It’ll all be over soon—"
            Rachel jammed her stun gun into his leg. 
“AHHH!” Will roared, rolling over, his body twitching. Rachel hit the stud again, sending a second jolt of juiceinto his body. 
            “Back off!” It was Diaz, with another cop behind her. Both holding very large handguns. “Stand away! You—don’t move! You . . .” She glared at me. “Stay away. Both of you.”
            Will collapsed. Rachel dropped her stun gun and backed away, lifting her hands. 
The victim rolled over, groaning, then kicked at his ribs. “Asshole! Bastard! Take that—” 
Diaz kept her eyes and her weapon on Will as the other cop pulled the victim away, but she flicked a glare at me. “We’ll want to talk to you. On the record. —I said, don’t move, asshole!”
            Will’s eyes burned at me as the taxi cop pulled his arms behind his back for handcuffs. Diaz kept her handgun trained on him until he was secure. Then she slipped it under her jacket.
            “Okay, you two.” She shook her head. “Like I said, I’m going to need a statement downtown.”
            “Sure.” I glanced at Will. “Now do you believe me?”
Diaz smiled. “Nobody like an ‘I-told-you-so.’”

I made my statement downtown, and Rachel gave hers, with all the details. Including everything about Vanessa Scott communicating from beyond the grave via Facebook. The cops could think I was crazy or not, but I always figure telling them the truth is safer than trying to keep any lies straight.
            We got home by 11:30, had a few beers, watched some TV, and collapsed into bed. No, I didn’t get lucky. But I got a good night’s sleep.
            Will’s arrest was online the next morning. “POLICE CLAIM CATCHING LEFT FOOT KILLER.” Our names weren’t mentioned, which was fine with me. 
Rachel and I were in the office when my phone buzzed at 9:30. Sharpe. I put it on speaker for Rachel to hear. “Good morning, detective—”
“Shut up.” But Sharpe laughed. “I had a very fun chat with Diaz this morning.”
“Are they lining her up for Oprah yet?” I sipped my coffee with a grin.
“She’s already talking to agents about a book deal. But I don’t know if she’s going to mention you and Rachel. Diaz says for your girlfriend to stay out of playing police with her stunner.”
            Right. “You know as well as I do that I can’t control her. How’s the perp? Is that the right word?”
She snorted. “Lawyered up. There was no sexual assault in any of the murders, but there’s still plenty of DNA evidence to match. It should hold up. We did find one interesting thing.” She paused.
“What? Are you eating lunch or just building up suspense?”
“His mother had a club foot. She never got it taken care of, for—religious reasons, I guess. So she had it all her life. Guess which foot?”
Eeny, meanie, miney, moe . . . “The left one?”
“Not sure what it means, but—”
“Sounds pretty Freudian.” Rachel leaned behind me, a hand on my shoulder. “Will I get my stun gun back? They’re expensive.”
“Talk to Diaz. Right now it’s evidence. You guys might have to testify. But I doubt if the D.A. will want you to talk about Facebook messages from ghosts, so who knows?”
Rachel rolled her eyes. “Fine.”
After that I called my client. Cornell had read the papers too. “Does this mean Vanessa will stop messaging me?”
“I don’t know. Maybe, if that’s what she came here for.”
“I hope so. It kind of freaked me out.”
“Me too.”
Rachel and I went back to work. She was designing a website, and I had background checks to do.
After lunch my phone buzzed again. Traci’s number. But it wasn’t Traci.
“This is . . . Vanessa.” Her voice was a hoarse whisper. “Traci’s asleep.” 
“Uh, hi.” Phone calls from beyond the grave? No stranger than Facebook messages from the land of the dead, I guess. “I think we’ve caught your killer.”
“I know. Traci’s half-hysterical. I can’t talk to her directly, but maybe you could tell her—I’m sorry?”
“Sure thing.”
“And Justin too. I won’t be back. Already it feels like I’m fading. But it’s all right this time. Now I think I can sleep.”
My reporter’s instincts surged. I had to ask: “What’s it like?”
“Death?” Vanessa hesitated. “It’s like a long, long dream. You don’t know if you’re ever going to wake up. But you don’t care.”
It sounded better than eternal hellfire—or camping out on clouds with the saints forever, for that matter. “Thank you.”
“Thank you. Goodbye.”
She hung up.
“So what is death like?” Rachel had only heard my half of the conversation. “Not that I want to find out soon.”
I shrugged. “Starbucks. Only with cheaper espresso.” 
She hurled a pencil at me. I ducked, grinned, and went back to work.