Emma hugged her clipboard and breathed a mouthful of rush-hour exhaust wafting off the rumble of I-35. She eyed the stairs through the hazy morning sun. Three flights of steel-bound concrete steps. Insipid cornflower blue hand-rail. She’d seen a lot of places like this in her forty-eight years. Why anyone would want to spend eternity in one was their own lookout, and Johnson paid her well not to ask.
He liaised with the dead. She just traveled six days a week, decorating for them. Decorating was what she did.
The builder had painted the outside of the building (UNITS 120-126/220-226/320-326) the same crap blue with darker blue trim and lined the foundation with well-manicured boxwood and leggy pine trees. She craned her neck and zeroed in on the job. The place had a balcony. With an asphalt view, goddamn. One of the worst kinds of hell.
No amount of expertise could make that worse, not even hers.
She took the stairs two at a time, sneaker tread gripping.
She hated being in Denver. Sean had lived here once. He’d worked this town, heaven help all of them.
She tried to breathe deeper to offset the freezing effect the mile-high altitude had on her sea-level lungs. Her used-to-smoke-a-pack-a-day lungs. And she hated the way it winded her and the way she sweated through her white spaghetti strap tank and pink crochet poncho in the Dry HeatTM just like she would’ve at home in Houston. Also, she hated the stair landing. Was there any way it could possibly have had more than two whole sunbeams?
Shadows gathered dense and…slithery…in the corners around 326. And there was an across-the-way neighbor.
She clicked the end of her black ballpoint and wrote on the clipboard:
Potential for human contact (cribbage, bridge, poker, beer buddy). Not good.
Johnson should be concerned about this kind of thing. How many times had he emphasized it? Location, location, location.
She plucked the key from the pocket of her green poplin cargo capris and unlocked the door on a stench of Shakespearean proportions. Something rotten. No, rotting. She’d smelled enough dead people in her time, most of ‘em not in graves (she hated graves). Worse, the door swung open on dirty beige crew-cut carpet full of (oh my god) black cat hair.
One of those starving artist seascapes (EVERYTHING UNDER $29.99! EVERYTHING MUST GO!) hung on the close wall, the featured piece of art in the room. The TV stand in front of the only living room window had no TV, just a pack of Bicycle cards and an old-fashioned cream-colored rotary phone trimmed with faux-gold, not plugged into any outlet she could see.
The balcony door (an actual pine door, not sliding glass, better) swung open, letting in a little breeze (how did people exist without air conditioning?). She figured he’d come in. That he’d been expecting her. Mr. Michael Delacroix, Jr., whom she couldn’t see. But she didn’t say anything.
“Excuse me,” she heard, low as a man’s voice can go.
Balls. A ghost who thought he was Barry White?
Anyway, he was supposed to let her have a look around first at the brown plastic modular shelves with the horror books and the sticky bar, which no doubt she’d catch something from if she laid on a finger on it, with its horrible collection of empty Jack Black bottles. Oh, and The Maltese Falcon poster tacked to the wall.
God bless Bogey.
Beneath the cheap apartment chandelier in the dining room, someone had backed a glass-top coffee table against the wall and outfitted it with a bed pillow for a chair. The kitchen — well, forget the kitchen, where the stink crept in from.
The bathroom door was cracked. The tile she saw ought to have been cream. Not brown.
Oh. Not dirt; blood.
The bedroom had the same motif going on: plastic-wrapped newspapers avalanched in the far corner, pieces of black plastic (stereo, looked like) scattered on the floor, piece-de-resistance mattress without a box or frame, spattered (blood) and shattered (glass – oh, whiskey bottle).
“Excuse me?” That man again.
“Look, buster,” she said. “I need to get a feel for the place before we talk color swatches.” She started to shake her head, then stopped when the shudder pricked her spine. “Did you know the whole back of your dresser is clawed out?”
“Yeah. Matter of fact I did.”
Hard as it was to draw her attention away from the thing of beauty that was the walk-in closet no human-sized person could walk in (was that more blood?), she focused on the hairs on her arms, at the nape of her neck, on the slightest change in temperature that made them stand up like antennae or lay down like the fella in the fifth round on “Boxing is Life.”
She’d put her money on Señor Delacroix having wound ‘round the room to the left.
He spoke again from a reasonable facsimile of that general vicinity. “You notice you’re locked in?”
She hadn’t heard anything that would make her think that.
“I have a key.” Which opened the door from the outside. Stupid thing to say. Followed by the more intelligent walking to the front door to check things out.
Dead men didn’t lie. Not to her, anyway. What did they have to gain? Besides, she wasn’t worth it. Who wanted to piss off the decorator?
A quick glance at the balcony showed it closed off. The front door? Straight-up shut. Dead bolt turned to the locked position.
A sheet of torn-off school-rule had been Duck Taped to the inside. The tape would take off the paint when they peeled the whole mess away. Sure enough, a half-inch strip followed the paper when she grabbed hold. She couldn’t decide whether to be happy about that — apartment white? Abominable.
She read: You shouldn’t leave your door open like that. You never know who might come in.
P.S. Do you have a cat? Someone’s cat keeps pissing on my garbage.
“See?” If Delacroix had had breath, it would’ve steamed her cheek he was so close. All her hair stood on end. Like some scared shitless cartoon Emma.
Fresh sonofabitch. “You wanna quit reading over my shoulder?”
He backed off a couple feet. “You try the door?”
She hated it when people (or recently departed persons) answered a question with a question. “Did you lock it? Did you write this?”
Delacroix sighed. A bronchial rattle coursed through the walls. “This could go on a real long time if you don’t play.”
“I wasn’t aware this was a game,” she said. “Do you know who you’re messing with?”
“Exactly.” She folded her arms across her chest. “I think you have the pecking order screwed up, buster. You’re the damned one. You do what I say.”
“And you do what Johnson says.” Was that amusement she heard in his voice? Was he laughing at her?
She tapped her foot, running fast out of whatever passed for her patience. In her philosophy, patients were people in hospitals. “Explain yourself.”
“Just try the door, Emma,” he said.
Which left her wondering why she hadn’t just tried the door in the first place. She gripped the lock with her thumb and forefinger. It refused to budge.
It might be the first time, but she hated it when Delacroix turned out to be right. Also, she didn’t remember ever telling him her name. “Well?”
“You’re the third one this happened to. Don’t feel special.”
“Fuck you very much,” she said. “The third, huh? Who were the other two?”
Housekeeping. That explained the carpet. “They in the kitchen?”
“They didn’t play.”
“You don’t seem much worried,” Delacroix said.
“Why should I be?”
He waited an extra beat, so that the answer came after she’d expected it. So that it hit her like a physical blow to the chest. “Because of Sean.”
Her son, Sean. Dead and dead and dead. “What do you know about that?”
Delacroix laughed in a way about which she could make no mistake. The windows bowed in their seats. The walls sang. “How many people did he off?”
What kind of idiot question was that? “You already know, so why’re you asking?”
“I want to know,” he said. “How many you think he killed?”
She wished she could see a face, a pair of eyes. Something that would clue her in to some other why-he-asked than the one she figured. “Five. That he admitted to.”
“That’s off. It’s probably more than six.”
The way he said that — it couldn’t be true. Because she’d always wondered and forgot to wonder and buried the wondering under the weight of every hour of every day since then. She thought about Sean. The way he was.
She thinned her lips. “I take it (you think) you’re number six?”
She swallowed the urge to call him a liar. Bile came up, pooled in the back of her throat.
“Did you do this? Lock me in?”
“What do you want from me, Delacroix?”
“Payback,” he said. “Payback’s hell.”
Her feet hurt, standing on this crap carpet and god she didn’t want to sit here. Anywhere in here. No help for it. She turned her back to the door, leaned against it, and lowered herself to the floor. The wood felt cold and hard on her back. Bit into her shoulder blades. The carpet looked just as disgusting at two feet off the ground as it did at five and a half.
She’d never believed that bullshit about what you don’t know can’t hurt you. Sean had been her flesh and blood, her middle child, the bird flown. He took off for Denver fresh out of high school because he loved the mountains. Or so she’d thought.
God it was hot in here.
She gathered in her knees. “Where did you meet him?”
Delacroix hunkered next to her, against the wall on the other side of the door jam. “Bar on Colfax.”
“It’s not there. Not no more.”
No name? Then how’s it real? “And?”
“He bought me a drink.”
She raised a brow. “Why?”
“A pool drink. I won the game. He was hustling.”
That, Sean could do. He also did a passable B&E, a memorable felony assault, and a spectacular grift. He hated to see people put out, and he had a kind spot on his heart (she always saw it as a tumor of kindness, malignant to the malevolent). How’d it figure here?
“My car wouldn’t start,” Delacroix said. “He gave me a ride home.”
There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. She’d lay bets he never made it there. That whatever happened, it happened that night. “You’re not going to ask me why I didn’t do something to stop him, are you?”
“I want you to listen.”
“Yeah, yeah. It’s part of the game, right?”
Delacroix paused. “Need a cigarette?”
She turned toward the sound of his voice. “What kind of question is that? Don’t tell me you’re concerned about what I need.”
“Sean mentioned it, that you smoked. There’s a pack in the kitchen.”
“With what’s left of Manny and Bill? No fucking thanks.”
“I’ll get them for you.”
She banged her head on the door. “Just spill it. Whatever you have to say, just say it.” She didn’t want to watch a stale pack of smokes float through the air or wonder whose pocket they’d been in (Manny’s or Bill’s, or her son’s — though he’d been a corpse six months, and that after a ten year sojourn at Huntsville’s death row. Nobody killed ‘em like Texas.
A yellow box of American Spirits landed at her feet, along with a lighter low on fuel. She thumbed open the top and took a look. This could be a damned long conversation — it was still three quarters full, with a lucky cigarette turned filter up in the back corner, and the tobacco smelled fresh.
“I got ‘em from my neighbor,” Delacroix said.
She pulled one from the pack and picked up the lighter. “You kill him, too?”
“We’re not talkin’ about him.”
She lit the smoke, drawing deep enough to send a shudder across the back of her throat and down her arms, it had been so long. “What else you want me to hear?”
“How he knocked me out with a bottle of Jack Black in the cab of his pickup. How he drove me back here. How he dragged me up those stairs and put me on the bed and sat on me and waited for me to wake up. No fun killin’ unless the man you’re gutting knows you’re doin’ it. Dontcha think?”
Seemed logical. Beyond that, she didn’t want to go. She could see Sean doing it, too. Doing it all. Getting some lark just to see what it felt like, and Delacroix here the perfect victim of opportunity. His hands, short thick fingers with the coffee-and-cream nails, the ripple of muscle, tendon, bone all trained on one vision. Blue and green plaid work shirt, the way he always wore them. Unbuttoned and untucked. Tee-shirt underneath, gray or black and inside out because he always got ‘em free and hated wearing other people’s slogans. Faded blue jeans with holes in the knees. Black socks. Brown and green hiking boots with charcoal laces.
His face. Thin, aquiline nose. Freckled from working outdoors since he turned fifteen and went to summer camp. Extra weight in his cheeks and beneath his chin. Black, wavy hair. Thick sideburns.
Eyes, front and center. Never look back. Her baby’s eyes, doing those horrible things (edge of the blade parting skin and fat and muscle) for fun. Fun.
Her fingers more than trembled – they shook. Dumped an uneven trail of ash on the tongue of her shoe. “He gutted you?”
She nodded. Took another drag. “Let me tell you something about my son.”
Delacroix waited, his anticipation an indrawn breath. It shrank the apartment down to the three of them. Her, and him, and Sean.
She pulled another cigarette from the pack, lit it with the cherry of the last, stubbed out the used smoke on the carpet. The stink and fume of melting nylon burned her eyes. “When Sean was five, he made me a valentine card on wax paper, with crayons. It said, ‘I love you.’ When he was six, he went on a field trip to the zoo and forgot his lunch on the school bus. He was so afraid he’d miss something, that all the other kids and teachers would leave him, that after he got it he ran back to where they were, across the parking lot. He twisted his ankle in a pothole and skinned the shit out of his knee. The principal took him to the emergency room, and the best part of it? Principal Gordon carrying him in his arms.”
“You expect me to say how poignant all that is?”
She inhaled a little more smoke, breathed it out. Tendrils curled and twined around each other as they rose to the ceiling, where the air ate them. Offerings.
“I don’t care,” she said.
“Dead men don’t lie, right?”
“Not to me.”
“Not like the living do.”
Huh. “Nice. How do you think I got this job, Delacroix?”
He shrugged. The apartment undulated.
“I’m real fucking good at glossing over.”
“Like you’re doing now?”
“Buster, there’s a reason you’re the damned one.”
“You’re fooling yourself, Emma.”
“Maybe. So are you.” She stubbed out her smoke, this time on the bottom of her shoe. She held up the yellow box. “You want these?”
“No.” He sounded surprised she’d ask.
She pushed to her feet and pocketed the cigarettes. “You know something, Delacroix? My son died on a gurney with IV tubes pumping poison into his arms. Do you know what his last words were?”
“I love you, Mom?”
She chuffed, stifled a laugh. Her eyes welled. She wasn’t about to cry in front of this bastard whether Sean killed him or not. “He told some other man’s parents to fuck off. Some other man he killed like he killed you. He had no remorse.”
“Sorry,” Delacroix said.
“No, you’re not.” She narrowed her eyes, tried to see him. “You gonna let me out of here?”
The lock moved. The door snicked open.
She slammed it behind her on her way out and took the stairs one at a time, planting both feet before even looking at the next one until she felt sure of her balance. Half-way down, she remembered she’d left her clipboard.
Johnson. He had let this happen, and he could find someone else to do her job. This business about Delacroix kidnapping people into his own private hell had to end somewhere. It may as well end with her.
She had to clean out her own house first.
Suddenly worse than anything she missed home. Lush green everywhere. No zoning. Traffic and orange and white barrels and road rage. Chemical plants. Glittering glass and concrete. Mosquitoes the size of baseballs. The flavor of the air when the wind came southeasterly, brine off the Gulf. Air so thick you could wrap it around you like a shroud.
* * *
The evening sun slipped toward the horizon, a heatwave of orange fire with golden wings, raising shadows behind the willow and live oak and magnolia that stood sentry here on the side of Buffalo Bayou. The water flowed by in a shimmering ribbon, the reeds that grew up beside it shivering in the gusting breeze.
Walking here felt like pulling teeth. Just like every. Single. Sunday. Winding among headstones until she came to the place where her feet knew the exact feel of the soil, the exact angle the grass grew. Under the shade of a live oak, its branches curved toward the sky. Like it spent every hour of every day trying to get the hell away from the thing that lay at its feet.
Emma sat down cross-legged. The earth’s heat seeped through the seat of her poplin cargo shorts. She reached out to touch Sean’s headstone, to feel the rough concrete under her hands. The curve at the top, the straightness of the sides. She dragged her fingertips over the last of the inscription.
The rocks she’d arranged here last week remained undisturbed. Neither wind nor sleet nor driving rain …nor animals nor kids fucking around in the cemetery. There was a brown stone, smooth and worn in the center like a finger had rubbed it over and over. An yellow-orange agate she’d plucked from an Oregon beach. A hag stone from near her townhouse.
It was all so tasteful.
She swiped her hand across them and did what the world hadn’t bothered to do. She scattered them free and let them be.
Leslie Claire Walker hails from the lush bayous and concrete-and-steel canyons of the Texas Gulf Coast. She lives in Houston with assorted animal and plant companions, and two harps. Her short fiction has appeared in many wonderful magazines and anthologies, including Fantasy Magazine. She can be found on the web at www.leslieclairewalker.com.