Saturday, July 16, 2016

Brief Candle, Part Two

Dorian Parker had wire-rimmed glasses, high cheekbones, and long thin fingers. He sipped his latté as I sat down and handed him my card.
            He looked me over, then glanced at the card. I got the feeling I probably wouldn’t get the part of the tough P.I. in any production he was directing. “Tom Jurgen? What can I do for you?”
            I sat. “You directed a production of Macbeth in Wheaton two years ago—”
            “Correction.” He lifted a finger like a teacher at a blackboard. “I was fired.”
            “So what happened after that?”
            “I went home and got drunk for two days straight. I may have smashed a dish or two.” He shrugged. “The usual. Why are you here?”
            I showed him the program. “All the names that are crossed out are actors who have died under strange circumstances. James Forrest died last night.” I repressed a shudder at the memory.
            Dorian scanned the list. “Oh my god. Abigail—she was a fine actress. Jim Forrest? And those three girls?” He gulped from his cup. “What are you saying? Hey . . .” He backed his chair away from me. “What exactly are you asking me?”
            I knew what it was going to sound like. “Do you know anything about why these people died?”
            “You’re accusing me . . .” His hands trembled. “How did they die?”
            “Suicide, car accident, heart attack . . . one cast member has survived multiple, well, incidents.” I waited. Silence is usually the best way to entice someone to talk.
            Dorian laughed. “You think I’m some kind of wizard who can manipulate time and space?”
            That was one possibility. I just didn’t want to go there yet.
            He looked down at the program again. “Yeah, I got fired. I like to push the edge. Challenge actors and audiences. Try something different. If I went around wreaking bloody vengeance on every company that’s pushed me out, there wouldn’t be any actors left in Chicago. Besides . . .”
            He slid the program slowly back toward me. “Why would I wait two years to work my weird magic? I don’t care about that Macbeth anymore. I’m directing a new play by a fantastic young writer that’s going to burn up the stage.” He winked. “Maybe for real, depending on if we can get the effects right.”
            Dorian had a point. Two years was a long time. “Can you think of anyone else who might want to hurt the cast after all this time?”
            His eyes flickered for a moment, and then he shook his head. “I really don’t remember them all that well anymore. It was a few weeks two years ago. If this was a play, and you were the hero—” Dorian looked me up and down again. “Well, I might consider the possibility that this is vengeance beyond the grave.” He grinned. “Banquo’s ghost.”
            I wasn’t sure if he meant Rob Robinson, who’d played Banquo, or just one of the other cast members who were already dead. “Well, thanks for your time.” I stood up. “Good lu—I mean, break a leg with your new play.”
            Dorian chuckled. “I’ll send you tickets.”

Courtney Silvera lived in the Logan Square neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago. I picked up her groceries from a Jewel on the corner: bread, eggs, carrots, coffee, soda, and some other necessities. Two bags full.
            “Thank you!” She grabbed the bags as soon as I was inside. Courtney Silvera was in her late twenties—a little younger than Rachel—and she had short blonde hair and gray sweatpants. She wore a white T-shirt that looked like she’d slept in it for three days.
            I wondered at her willingness to let a man she’d talked to for ten minutes on the phone into her apartment. Maybe she was flighty. Or scared. Or just hungry.
            “Sit anywhere!” She ran to her kitchen to put supplies away. “I’ll make coffee. I need coffee, I ran out two days ago. Just push the clothes out of the way!”
            “Just some water, thanks.” A pile of dirty clothes sat on the couch in her small living room. I shoved them aside, trying to ignore a pair of zebra-striped underwear.
            “Thanks for coming.” Courtney brought me a Flintstones glass filled with ice and water. “I know I sound like a kook. I’ve just been so freaked out.” She perched on a footstool and rubbed her face. “I know, I have to do laundry. I’m just afraid the washing machine will try to drown me.”
            “As long as I’m here . . .” I pulled out the well-worn program again. “Do you know how to get in touch with any of these people?”
            Courtney looked at the names. “Oh, Jim Forrest—he was so nice. Sutton, well, he could be kind of a prick. Rob was everybody’s big brother. Abigail, well, Dorian was harassing her, so she was kind of prickly. The others—well, it was two years ago.Is this—hey, did they all die in this order? Because I’m all the way down here.” She pointed to the bottom of the list.
            “I don’t think so.” I had my laptop. I opened it up as Courtney sipped her coffee. In a few minutes I had the file.
            Sutton was at the top of the cast list as Macbeth. Abigail came second, although she’d died on June 21 and Sutton on the 23rd. Robinson was further down the list, after Banquo, but he’d died third, before Felipe Hidalgo just last week. And the three girls— “Wait a minute . . .”
            GIRL DIES FROM FIRE read the headline on a local news website from June 22. Two days after Sutton Marsh. But when I clicked to read the link, the brief story told me something different:

Marianne Moreta, age 17, died from injuries in a fire at home that killed two of her sisters and her mother in her Homewood house on May 30. Her two sisters and mother died from smoke inhalation, but Marianne Moreta remained in a coma for several weeks before being taken off life support by doctors at the request of family members. The fire was apparently caused by faulty wiring in the house, investigators say. Marianne will be interred with her sisters and her mother at . . .
Oh, no. I clicked links until I found contact information for the father: Gerald Moreta. “Damn it.”
            “What?” Courtney leaned close.
            I closed the laptop. “I have to talk to a father whose children and wife are dead.”           
I’m no Ghostbuster, but I’ve met a few ghosts. Most of them are fairly mellow. They lived their lives, did good and bad things, and they’re ready to move on. But some are angry.
            Especially the children.
            Think about it: You’re an adult, you’ve done stuff—then you die. For whatever reason. It’s unfair. But at least you made it. You had friends, you accomplished something, whether finishing high school or college or just surviving in a war zone. Maybe you found love right before dying of cancer. Maybe you wrote a book, or a poem. Whatever. You’re going toward that white light, and you see your friends and family, and everything’s fine.
            But kids aren’t rational. They get angry. Especially when their deaths are long and painful—like dying in a fire. So they run away from the light and end up back here. Where no one can see them, or talk to them. What can they do?
            Sometimes they fade away. But sometimes they fight back.
Gerald Moreta was living with his sister, two miles from his burned-down house. She answered the door with suspicion all over her face. Was I an ambulance chaser? A pretend psychic? An insurance adjuster determined to deny her brother’s claim? But she showed me to the living room, her body tense, where her brother waited, drinking a beer with the TV on.
            He wasn’t watching the show. His face was slack, his eyes unfocused. He blinked when his sister said, “That guy is here.”
            He stood up and looked around as if he didn’t remember where he was. We shook hands.
            Gerald was middle-aged, like his sister, with gray hair and a face that seemed to have lost all feeling. “I’m sorry to bother you, Mr. Moreta.” I sat down. “I’ll try to make this as quick as possible. This is going to sound strange, but I’m interested in a production of Macbeth that your daughters were involved in two years ago.”
            He looked around the room, uncertain. “The Shakespeare play?”
            “That’s right. There have been some—unexplained incidents involving the cast. I thought they may be related to what happened to your daughters.”
            His face clenched. “It was bad wiring. I’m suing the contractor.” He gulped some beer. “And that play—we all did our best to forget it.”
            I nodded. “Why is that?”
            Gerald’s neck turned red. “None of them helped. That man, that—director—he abused my children. And none of them did anything about it.”
            “Abused them?” I felt sick. “You mean—”
            “Not that like, goddamn it.” He slammed his beer on the end table, spilling some over a magazine. “But he yelled at them constantly. Nothing they did was right. He wanted them up there in their underwear. He harassed the other women in the show right in front of them. And they all just stood there and let it happen.”
            “They got him fired. Replaced—”
            “Too late.” He shook his head. “They got through the play, but they never wanted to do another one. Before that they loved being in plays. That was going to be their best one yet. And afterwards . . . they didn’t want to do anything. Sat in their room playing music. Hardly talked to anyone. Their grades went to hell, they didn’t want to see their friends anymore. That’s why they were home on a Friday night when kids are supposed to be out doing stuff. Why didn’t somebody do something?” He leaned at me as if I knew the answer. “Why?”
            “I don’t know.” I stood up. “Thanks for your time. I’m sorry for . . . your loss.” That always seemed like a stupid, awkward way to avoid the awful truth. But it was all I had.
            “Yeah.” He turned the TV back on. “Hope it helps.”

Back in my Honda, I called Courtney Silvera again. “Did Dorian treat the three girls badly?”
            “He treated everyone badly! He called Abigail a slut, he changed our blocking in every scene and then got mad when we forgot, he said I moved like a fat cow—no one got away from it.”
            “The father seems to think the cast could have something to stop it.”
            “What?” She gasped. “We got him fired, didn’t we? We put up with it as long as . . .” Then Courtney sighed. “Maybe he’s right. They were just kids.”
            I had a strong urge to find Dorian Parker and punch him. I didn’t even care if he punched me back. But that wouldn’t solve the immediate problem.
            Unfortunately, I didn’t know what would.

I stopped by the cemetery to visit their graves. A pile of flowers hid the tombstones. I didn’t sense anything, but that’s more Rachel’s thing. I tried calling her, but she didn’t pick up. I left a message.
            I got home tired and depressed as the sun was setting over the western side of the city. Googling “How to get rid of an angry ghost” didn’t get me anything more than a lot of links to The Grudge and The Ring, both the original Japanese films and the American versions. And their sequels. I opened a beer and thought about dinner.
            My phone buzzed. Rachel? But it was Courtney instead. Sounding nervous. “Could you—come over? I’m feeling weird.”
            I tensed. “Weird how?”
            “The doctor gave me some pills me to help me sleep. And there’s this one bottle of wine I was saving for a special occasion—”
            Oh, no. I pushed my beer aside. “Did you take any pills?”
            “No! I put them in the garbage. I just need . . . some help. I think.”
            “Okay. I’ll be right over.”

Twenty-five minutes later Courtney opened the door to my knock. “Thank you for coming!” She pulled me into the apartment and wrapped her arms around me.
            I let her hold me for a moment. Then I pushed her away as gently as I could. “Are you okay?”
            Courtney wore red shorts—tight red shorts—and a T-shirt that barely reached her hips. She was lovely, but I hadn’t noticed how, well, curvy she was before. She flipped her hair back and gazed at me, licking her upper lip slowly.
            “You’re cute.” She giggled. “I feel . . . funny.” She smiled up at my face. “Hey, do you have a girlfriend?”
            “Uh, yes.” Rachel doesn’t always admit to being my girlfriend, but I didn’t want to go into that now. “She gets very jealous.”
            “Oh, that’s too bad.” Courtney stroked my arm. “Where is she now?”
            “She’s out of town.” Okay, maybe it was the wrong thing to say. But I’m a guy. I clutched her hand. As much as I love Rachel—I think—and as much as she loves me—it’s complicated—I still had the usual male reaction to an attractive woman touching me.
            I shivered.
            “Oh, you’re all alone?” Courtney grabbed my shoulder and leaned close. “You don’t have to be lonely tonight. I’m feeling kind of wild.”
            “Actually, I—we—you don’t . . . wait a minute.” I backed away. “Courtney, listen to me. I think I know what’s going on.” 
            “Come on, it’s just us.” Courtney swayed in her bare feet. “I know the place is a mess, but we can—”
           Then she dropped backward onto the sofa, her chest heaving as she gasped for air. “Oh, god, I can’t breathe! I can’t . . .”
            Oh hell. I crouched down next to her. “Hang on,” I whispered. “Hang on.”
            Courtney looked up at me, desperate. Her throat pulsed as if she was choking. I grabbed her arm.
            “Hellllp . . .” She looked up at me. “P-please . . .”
            I couldn’t just sit here and watch her die. So I stood up and tried the only thing I could think of.
            “Marianne?” I looked around the room. “Marianne Moreta! Are you here?”
            Courtney shuddered on the couch. “Ohhh . . .”
            “Marianne!” I shouted loud enough for the neighbors to hear me, but I’d worry about that later. “Come here and talk to me! Come on!”
            Courtney sank down, moaning. “Mmm . . .”
            “Marianne!” My throat was dry. “You shouldn’t do this to her! Listen to me! Please!”
            Nothing. I grabbed Courtney’s hand. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. “Hang on. Just—”
            Suddenly the air in the middle of the room shimmered in a spiral shape, dark and shadowy, growing wider and wider as we watched.
           And then a young girl in black stepped through.
           “Oh, god. What is that?” Courtney blinked her eyes as if she was just waking up from a drunken sleep.
            Marianne’s body was a shadow, light flowing through her slim arms. She turned her face toward Courtney, then me, then to Courtney again, silent. Accusing.
            “Is that—” Courtney reached out. Her hand went through the girl’s shoulder. “Is it—but she’s—” She looked at me. “Do you see it too?”
            “I see her.” Could she see us? I tried to peer into Marianne’s eyes. They were dark, her lids almost shut. But her shoulders trembled. In fear or anger? I couldn’t tell.
            Courtney stared at me. “What do we do?”           
            I wanted to run out the door, down to my car, and drive away. But that wouldn’t look very heroic. So I looked at Courtney. “Tell her—tell her you’re sorry.”
            “What?” Courtney glared at me.
            It was all I could think of. “Tell her you’re sorry for not helping her during the play. Come on, tell her!”
            “But I didn’t . . .” She backed away from the ghost. “I didn’t do anything. I didn’t . . . do anything.”
            “That’s the problem.” My chest felt tight. “Or at least that’s what she thinks. What her father thinks. Nobody did anything to help her. She was a kid. Her sisters were kids. They were looking for someone to help. It’s not your fault, and it’s too late to change things, but she’s angry and hurt. Tell her.”
            Courtney gazed at Marianne. She sank down onto her couch, on top of a pile of clothes, and crossed her arms over her bare knees.
            “Okay, I’m sorry.” Courtney’s voice was a whisper. “Marianne? I’m sorry. I guess I should have done something. We all should have. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me. Us. Please forgive us.”
            Suddenly her shoulders shook. “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! I mean—damn it!” Was she sobbing? “Yeah, I should have helped you. And your sisters. I was scared. But . . .” She picked up a dirty gray T-shirt and wiped her face with it, then threw it on the floor. “Like I said. I’m just sorry.” She wiped her arm across her nose, sniffling as tears ran down her cheeks. “Oh-okay?”
            Marianne seemed to think about her words. Then she slowly turned her face toward me again.
            “She’s sorry.” My voice cracked, my throat dry as sandpaper. “They’re all sorry. You don’t have to hurt any more of them. They know. If they don’t, I’ll tell them.”
            Without breathing, Marianne seemed to sigh. Then she lifted her face and looked around the room, as if hoping to keep it as her last memory. Finally she nodded, lowering her head, letting her arms droop.
            The shadow faded, and Marianne was gone.
            “Oh, my god.” Courtney dropped onto the couch between two piles of clothes. “Did that really happen? Are you crazy, or me?”
            “I think she’s gone.” I hoped so. I might still have to spend a day or so calling the rest of the cast. Asking them to apologize to a ghost would be difficult to sell, but they’d all been in Macbeth at least once. They probably could tolerate the possibility of ghosts.
            Courtney looked down at her bare feet. “Oops. Did I—did we—? I should change clothes.”
            “You were fine.” I tried not to check out her legs one last time. “I should go.”
            “Okay, but—” She stood up and rushed toward me. She hugged me again, tighter this time, and kissed my cheek. “Thanks for coming.”
            I patted her head. “No problem.”

“I told you not to call me.” It was Rachel. Late that night.
            “It was an emergency.” I sipped my beer, still tired but feeling better. Especially with Rachel on the line. “I took care of it.”
            “Oh.” She seemed disappointed. “What kind of emergency?”
            “An angry ghost.” I paused. “And a cute young blonde tried to seduce me. But that wasn’t really the emergency, I guess.”
            “What?” Rachel wasn’t in the same room. Or the same state as far as I knew. But I still braced myself for a punch on the arm.
            “Okay." Rachel took a breath. "I’ll be back tomorrow. And you’d better tell me everything.”
            “What time? I’ll make dinner. Or breakfast.”
            “Good night, idiot.”
            “Good night.” I smiled. “I miss you too.”

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