Halloween night, not a creature is stirring ... except for those on surveillance, telling ghost stories into the inky darkness. And for a latecomer to the group, the stories suddenly turn very personal. Kitt credits the urban legends told within to the Urban Legends Page.
It was not a bad neighborhood, it was not a good neighborhood.
It was not a neighborhood at all, not at this time of night, filled as it was with vacant, boxy buildings that stood empty and abandoned, ringed with cracked and shattered windows through which the late October wind howled like breath through a broken flute. No shops, no cars, no people, no life. And the only light the pale shining moon to guide Anita Van Buren on her way. Nightmares, dreams, oh! thought Anita absently, hiking up her scarf around her ears as she quick-stepped through the wasteland. It wasn't entirely appropriate a thought for the moment, but it would do. How does the rest of it go? she wondered, annoyed with herself. Lennie will know. Of course, that Detective Leonard Briscoe would remember the rest of a Langston Hughes poem because he used to quote them to bag chicks, while something that was part of her cultural heritage had slipped out of her mind, replaced by things like last week's arrest report -- that only annoyed her further.
How does that thing go?
She closed in on the last empty block and darted into a doorway just as another icy gust blasted from the river, and shivered, the little breeze a moist finger run unexpectedly down her back. More than a little frightened, still annoyed for reasons having nothing to do with Lennie's knowledge of Langston Hughes, she darted up the dark staircase to the third floor, gripping the railing to avoid a misstep, her eyes gradually growing accustomed to the dark.
She heard their voices before she saw them, even though they were trying to keep a lid on the volume. Surveillance. Made no sense at all this time around: sitting in an abandoned building looking at another abandoned building, waiting for something to happen. Wasting two of her best detectives -- well, one of her best detectives, the other borrowed until his permanent replacement arrived -- on crap duty like this boiled her.
"... And the next time the hay ride came around, there was this speech he was supposed to make -- but he didn't make it," Detective Mike Logan's voice came to her first, a low, even sound he was lacing with menace. "That's when they started to wonder."
"What, he hanged himself by accident?" Lennie. Nasal, gruff.
"The noose wasn't supposed to knot," Mike's voice spiraled up a bit with the irony. "But yeah, he managed to hang himself accidentally."
"Ah, yer makin' this stuff up," Lennie waved a hand.
"No shit, Len, happened in Detroit --" Mike turned his head. "You made it, Lieutenant."
Anita had paused at the top of the step, basking in the safety of familiar voices for two seconds before Mike was on to her. Good cop. Good detective. Ears like a dog's. For a brief moment she wished they still had him on permanent assignment at the two-seven, but he was down in Staten for good after his little IAD stunt that flushed out Profaci as on the take. She could've requested him back into her squad ... and might have, now that the reason for Mike's original departure had died down was gone -- Councilman Crossley had left politics, left the state, left the universe for all she knew, and the punch Mike landed on him was a vague echo in the city's memory -- but you turn tail on your former department and you are not invited back. That's just how it worked.
Fortunately, there was interdepartmental case-sharing, and surveillance. Lennie, Mike's old partner, and Mike still got along reasonably well, so putting them together again to watch the known hideout of an elusive killer made sense. She had Mike back for this case, and was surprisingly pleased about it; even though she and he had never shared a warm and fuzzy relationship, she respected his talents and abilities. Being recognized without saying a word less than ten seconds after arriving on a darkened, scraped-out story of an abandoned warehouse -- that was worth respecting.
"Hope the coffee's hot," she grumped, striding forward into the faint light. Mike and Lennie had parked their chairs strategically between the enormous picture windows that lined the entire floor, sitting in the dark except for a few fat candles casting strange, jumpy shadows.
"It's the only damn thing that is," Lennie raised his chin in greeting. "I been doin' this for a while, Lieutenant. No electricity and it's November and it's all night pretty much tops the list of all the shit jobs I hadda do."
"Could be worse," Mike murmured, training his binoculars on the windows across the street. "Could be outside."
Anita poured herself a cup of coffee from the pot on the hot plate and sipped carefully. Not hot. Not cold, either. Nothing in this neighborhood was one way or the other. "What happened to the space heater?"
"Batteries're low," Lennie grumbled, leaning back in his chair. The light flickered over his craggy features and he met Anita's gaze. "It's off. For now."
"You're getting overtime, Detectives. Let's keep it civil." Anita pulled up a spare chair and planted herself in it, out of sight of the windows. "And it's October, not November, Lennie. I oughtta know. I gave my kids one candy each from those huge pails they filled up tonight, and put 'em to bed, then hadda come out here. It's still October, a few hours more."
"Details, details..." Lennie raised his mouth in a lopsided grin. "Anyhow, more interesting with three of us here."
"Uh-huh," she waved a finger at him. "Don't count on me stickin' around. I am out of here as soon as we know what's going on. Logan, what is going on. Why did you call me?"
Mike lowered his binoculars and pulled away from the window. "Well, nothin' now. It's like Snuffleupagus is over there. We saw somethin --"
"-- you saw somethin,'" Lennie qualified.
"And it moved and now I can't see a freakin' thing."
"Do you know what it was?"
"Presumably human," Mike deadpanned in his best Fox Mulder voice. "But I dunno. The warrant says we can go in whenever we want, but we're not fucking this thing up on a guess, not after three days sittin' and waiting."
"Gimme," said Anita, snatching up the binoculars and aiming them across the street, into the third-floor window directly across from them. She could see almost nothing, but then her eyes adjusted to the green, grainy world the night-goggles presented her, and she could make out the edges of the window across the way, and some amorphous shapes inside the abandoned building, but nothing moved. She may as well have been looking at a refrigerator as a person. After a moment, she lowered the binoculars and tossed them back at Mike, who snatched them deftly. "Fine. I'll stick a little while, see if we see your Snuffleupagus again."
"I was for callin' it a Heffalump," noted Lennie. "I was voted down."
"Get with the program," Mike clucked at him mockingly. "Whaddya thank, Lieutenant?"
"I think Lennie's showing his age," Anita half-grinned behind her mug and took in some more coffee. "So what was I interrupting a few minutes ago --"
A door slam downstairs, quick footsteps ascending the staircase. Anita mentally took back the props she'd given Logan for knowing the minute she'd arrived; those steps made an awful echoing clamor. By the time Abbie Carmichael appeared at the top of the staircase a few seconds later, they were all sitting tensed, anticipatory.
"Howdy," Abbie waved broadly, her tall, lithe figure masked behind a thick woolen overcoat and dangling black scarf. "Jack says he'll be here soon as he can get away. He beeped me to check in first."
Anita shot a look at Mike, then Lennie. "We couldn't getcha on the phone," Lennie shrugged. "Not at first. So we called the DA's office."
"I was walkin' my kids around the block, Detectives. I can't believe I humped all the way out here and you'd already called in second string." Anita's cold fear and annoyance resurfaced and she aimed them right at the men, then turned to Abbie. "You don't have to stick around, Ms. Carmichael. I've got things under control."
Abbie shrugged and strolled in. "Fine by me. I'll just stick for Jack, so he knows I made it." Her drawling, husky tone cut through the darkness like the soft purr of an engine. "Got any coffee?"
With Abbie properly caffeinated and settled in a fourth chair, a silence fell over the floor, broken only by the soft soughing whistle of a draft, and Mike's lifting of the binoculars, craning forward, peeping out of the window. Once he'd sat back, though, the quiet turned cold, and the cold felt frozen. Anita didn't like it. She wasn't one to get creeped out easily, but this night, in this place, with a Heffalump across the street ... she felt her mind wandering and coughed a little, hoping to spur someone into talking.
Abbie took the cue, and Anita was immediately grateful. "Well," she said, the word almost bursting from her. "I'd heard of the excitement of all-night surveillance, and now I understand what they've been saying all this time. You fellas enjoying yourself?"
"Barrel of laughs," said Lennie. "You missed the good stuff."
Anita caught Mike and Lennie sharing a glance, the candlelight reflecting dark, wet holes where their eyes should be.
"Crazy shit," laughed Mike. "Just old cases. Kinda in the spirit of the holiday."
"When you walked in," Lennie pointed to Anita with his coffee cup, "he was wrappin' this one up about a sap on a Halloween hay ride who accidentally hung himself on one of the attractions."
"A thousand stupid ways to die?" Abbie wondered.
"Something like that," said Mike, and Anita tried to decipher his tone. She wouldn't have laid money on it, but he sounded almost as creeped out as she was -- and equally as unsure why -- which meant he was working extra hard to maintain a voice of cool steadiness. An hour ago, she'd come home from taking the boys around the neighborhood and returned the message her husband had taken, speaking to Mike directly. In a strangely quavery voice he said they'd spotted something across the street, but couldn't be sure what it was, and did she want to come check it herself. Not really, Anita had started to reply, then bit it off. This was the job. She had to make sure she had her thumb on her detectives, now that she was in Dutch with the entire NYPD over suing them for discrimination. The last thing she wanted was to get called up by the big cheese for slacking off. So she'd thrown on her coat and come uptown. Now, here, all she could think of was her nice warm spot in bed, next to her nice, warm husband, and her fingers felt itchy.
"I've heard that one before," Abbie shrugged it off, tucking some hair behind an ear, a shadow moving a darker shadow. She had a bravado Anita sometimes admired, sometimes found obnoxious, even if it did help get the job done. And right now, Anita was leaning to the side of obnoxious, because she could hear the challenge being laid down in the ADA's tone. "I've also heard worse."
"Oh, yeah?" Lennie leaned forward, towards the candlelight, resting his elbows on his legs.
Abbie mimicked his motions. "Yeah."
"Well ..." said Lennie. "I'm all ears."
In her third year as an undergrad, still down in Texas, Abbie took up with a senior named Jerry who worked nights as a security guard at the school library. Unfortunately, it wasn't her school library he was guarding, it was his school's library -- in a city an hour's drive away. In Texas space, that's just a hop and a jump from place to place, but it still meant they had to carefully arrange their time together. Every other weekend she'd drag herself in her creaky old 1983 Honda out there and spend the days with him; once a month he'd come stay with her. Jerry lived alone in an off-campus apartment with his dog Mojo, the presence of whom Abbie found comforting when Jerry would leave at midnight for his shift. He'd usually be back by eight or nine; Abbie would let him sleep in a few hours, then they'd have most of the rest of the day to spend together. They'd take Mojo out and throw the Frisbee, sometimes they went swimming at a lake a few minutes' drive away -- the usual carefree, un-thought-out amusements.
And then ... things started happening around campus. She visited one weekend and Jerry told her how students' dorms were being broken into; items were stolen, messages scrawled on the walls, small pet birds crushed underfoot. The worst part: All of the break-ins seemed to happen when the victims were at home, yet the victims never knew what was going on. Abbie learned that Jerry had installed a deadbolt and chain on his door, felt reassured, and never thought about it again. Weeks went by; the intruder was neither caught nor named, and after a while the visits seemed to die down and even vanish. She and Jerry went on as they always had, weekends spent together, nothing too serious, nothing too frivolous. She was still deciding if she even wanted to pursue law or not, and often spent many of the hours when Jerry was not around researching grad schools and programs, trying to make up her mind. The reading kept her awake even later than Jerry's midnight work call, and many nights she would fall into their shared bed and nod off even before Mojo could assume his usual place at the bedside, where he stood guard.
One night, she started awake. Gazing into the darkness the sudden jerk from dreams had left her feeling stiff and coated with an invisible, immobilizing layer of fear. Something had dragged her from sleep ... something was making her heart pound. For reassurance, she reached one hand over the side of the bed and gave Mojo a pat; the dog licked her hand warmly and that seemed to be enough. A few minutes later she tumbled back into sleep, and never gave it another thought.
Until the next morning. Jerry brusquely shook her awake, his eyes round, his face chalky. "Are you okay?" he demanded, and she assured him she certainly was. What was wrong? He grabbed on to her wrist and yanked her out of bed. "Didn't you hear it? Didn't you see?" he all but screamed at her, and her throat contracted a little, but she insisted she didn't know what he was talking about. At this, Jerry seemed to actually turn on her, angered, and dragged her into the bathroom. A heavy, moist odor assaulted her nose -- in later years she would know it was death from visiting crime scenes, but at that moment she only knew it as like hamburger that has gone off -- and she watched as Jerry tugged back the shower curtain. Mojo was strung up, his neck broken, hanging from the shower head. He'd obviously been there several hours. And on the vanity mirror, scrawled in Abbie's own lipstick were four words she'd never forget:
"Humans can lick, too."
The cold silence held a long moment, and Mike burst out laughing, a rough, ragged sound that was nonetheless genuine. "Oh, please, Carmichael! I heard that one at the Boo Radley bar years ago."
Abbie grinned. "But I had ya going for a few minutes, didn't I."
"I think I might be sick," said Anita, and loosened her scarf. "I didn't think I was comin' up here for spook tales."
"Why not?" Abbie gestured at the candle. "Cozy fire, appropo time of the year, a jug of coffee and y'all."
"Huh," said Lennie only.
"Huh, what?" Mike whipped around, grinning. "You didn't believe that, didja?"
Lennie took a beat and Mike could tell he had not only heard it before, but yes, he had believed it then. "You kidding? I may be gullible, but I'm not that hard up."
"Sure, Len, sure," said Mike, sitting up and stretching. "You're right, Carmichael, that does me one better. I never did do too hot with remembering ghost stories, anyway ... in my neighborhood, the adults scared the pants off of us with old folklore. Irish fairies, lemme tell you, they don't fuck around like those Grimm ones."
"Samhain," Anita murmured, and when everyone turned their gaze on her, she elaborated. "From the Celts." When the gazes turned disbelieving, she drew herself up in her chair and crossed one leg over the other primly. "Look, if Lennie over here can be the Langston Hughes expert, I'm allowed to know some Irish history."
"Work with enough Micks, get to know us well enough?" the candlelight in Mike's eyes danced.
"Something like that," Anita smiled slightly. "Which reminds me, Leonard."
"Leonard?" Lennie folded his arms.
"Yeah. How does the rest of that Hughes poem go ... the one with 'nightmares, dreams, oh!' in it."
Lennie took a deep breath. "Shit. You are testin' me tonight, Lieutenant. Gimme a minute or two."
Abbie took the lull to touch Anita's shoulder. "What ... what is Samhain, anyway, you're the expert?"
"Three-day festival," said Mike suddenly, the words flying unexpectedly from his mouth. "This is the day before, November 2 is the day after. It's like celebrating the split in the year, from when summer ends and winter starts. Time isn't measured, those three days, at least, that's how it used to be. Ancient times, like they'd say, it'd get real chaotic, people doing more or less whatever they liked, including letting kids running up to strangers' doors, asking for food."
"Trick or treaters," Abbie murmured.
"But that isn't the whole of it," Anita insisted. "Since it was considered between years, it also had all sorts of magical qualities. The separation between living and dead was very thin, and the dead sometimes went for walks among the living."
"And I thought I had the creepiest story," said Abbie.
"Doors are doors of paper," Lennie began in a softly-hushed voice, eyes closed. "Dust of dingy atoms blows a scratchy sound."
"Yes!" cried Anita, and took in a deep breath as she and Lennie continued together: "Amorphous Jack-o'-lanterns caper and the wind won't wait for midnight for fun to blow doors down."
Lennie opened his eyes. "That's it, Lieutenant. That's all I can remember."
"Sounds like he heard of Samhain, too," Mike murmured. The silence started to fall again as they began to absorb what that meant.
"I've got one," said Anita suddenly.
"And this one happened to you, too?" Lennie raised his eyebrows high.
Anita shook her head. "But I assure you ... it did happen."
The drives to Baltimore in her youth, going to see her Grandma, were some of the longest hours Anita had ever spent. Cooped up tight next to skinny Aunt Bette, who always smelled like stale vanilla, and who herself was quashed next to Anita's older brother Alfonse, in the back seat, in a car with no air conditioning, the wind from the thrown-open front window crashing against her face but never cooling her down, her Mom and Pops up in the front seat like as not arguing or sitting in post-argument silence ... it was a three-hour trip from Jersey, but it felt like three days to Anita. They stopped for bathroom, they stopped for soda, they stopped so Alfie could be sick in the ditch. Anita did her best to just close her eyes and pretend like she'd zonked out, so she could remove herself from reality. Soon, everybody figured Anita always "conked out," as Aunt Bette would say, the minute she was in a moving vehicle.
The good part about this playing possum was that if Al did it, too, sometimes the grownups would start talking. They'd think the kids weren't listening, and uncensor themselves. Anita heard more family gossip, tall tales, and dirty jokes this way. Mom would try shushing Pops and his sister Bette, but once you got them rolling, it was hard to quit. And one time, this was what Anita heard.
"Happened right here," Aunt Bette gestured with one gloved hand -- even in dead of summer she still wore gloves, like it was the 50s still -- on one particularly gloomy, humid afternoon, when they were about a half hour outside of Baltimore. Anita cracked one eye open and caught a glimpse of where the main road from New York -- Route One -- was crossed by another main highway. It was a particularly dangerous intersection, and while she wouldn't be driving for another eight years, she knew it was a deadly place. "They always said they's gonna build an underpass," Aunt Bette clucked to herself, "but they never do. Never do."
"What happened, Bette?" Anita's mother piped up, clearly hoping to jab her husband by doing so -- today was a post-argument silence day, and by talking to Bette, she could underscore that she wasn't talking to him.
Turned out that a bunch of years earlier, Bette and her current beau were driving into the city, planning to spend a night in the segregated part of town, where blacks could get a drink and whoop it up just like the whites, but always under the watchful eyes of whatever constabulary could be paid off that week. Sometimes the party moved downtown, sometimes it was just out of town, but there was always a joint to dive into, if you kept your ear to the ground. She and her beau, Big Bill, were planning on a long evening jumping and jiving and as they approached the dangerous intersection they slowed up. In those days, the intersection was even more dangerous than it was when Anita and her family drove through it -- it had no streetlamps then. As they slowed, however, Bette and Big Bill were shocked to see a striking young woman, caramel skin showing through an almost see-through gown, wave them down. Bill jammed on his brakes.
"Don't you eyeball her," Bette warned Bill with a pinch on his arm.
"'Could be in trouble," Bill muttered, and rolled down Bette's window, leaning across her. "Everythin' all right, miss?"
She shook her head sadly, but didn't speak.
"Well, we could give you a ride," he offered. "Goin' into Balmer."
"Please," the young woman spoke gently, and her voice had a high tinkly sound, like bells. She had no local accent, no drawl. "If you take me home, I'll explain there. The address is 18 North Charles Street. Is that out of your way?"
Bette looked at Bill. North Charles Street was definitely not their part of town, and it would look very strange to simply show up and drop this woman off. "We can't leave her," Bette murmured, speaking aloud, despite her reservations.
"Hop in," said Bill after a pause, and the young woman slid behind Bette, settling in a corner of the back seat. During the ride, they tried drawing her out, attempting to figure out just how she got so lost on that bad stretch of road, but she only answered vaguely, in that same tinkling voice, until their questions dried up. The rest of the ride to North Charles was silent, and Bill seemed to have an extra urgent need to get this transaction over with. They pulled up in front of 18 North Charles and he half-turned in his seat. "Here you are, Miss."
The seat was empty.
Bette shrieked, and jumped from the car. She felt cold and clammy all over.
Bill reached into the back seat and grabbed at something, then brought it out on to the sidewalk to show Bette. It was an antique silver bracelet with a simple, interweaving pattern on it. As they stopped and stared, shivering with what had just happened, the door at 18 North Charles opened, and an elderly white man stepped out.
"You have it," he stated.
Bill's eyes burned at Bette, and he turned on his Tom act. The last thing he wanted was to get accused of stealing in the middle of this neighborhood. "Yassir," he said. "Is it yours?"
"Keep it," said the man curtly. "Maybe it'll stay gone this time."
"Sir," Bette piped up when it seemed as if the man was going to turn into his house and not say another word. "Who was she?"
The old man's back stiffened, then relaxed, and he sighed. "My daughter. My best worst mistake."
And that was all they needed to hear to know it all. Bette kept the bracelet, for reasons she didn't understand for many years. And as she finished the story, she glanced over at Anita and set her fingers under her niece's chin. "And it's for you when you want it, little pitcher," she whispered, that stale vanilla scent making Anita's eyes fly open in surprise.
Again, the cold silence took over the room like air rushing into a vacuum when Anita stopped speaking, but this time, Abbie thought, it wasn't so outrageously cold, not so chillingly damp. Almost ... comforting. She stared hard into the candles, noticing how the side of a fat one had collapsed in the draft and wax had begun leaking across the floor, hardening in long fingers. "Even if it's not true, it's one of the saddest stories I've ever heard," she said after a moment or two.
"Yeah..." Mike trailed off. "But what, was he screwing his daughter or something? I don't get it."
"That's you, Mike," Anita chuckled softly, "always go for the cop reaction. You got all of the romantic bones in you calcified or what?"
"I am the last of the great romantics," Mike proclaimed heartily. "I just don't get it."
Anita and Abbie exchanged dark glances, unable to see each others' eyes for the darkness, but catching the turn of each others' chins. They said nothing.
"I think this is a 'if ya gotta ask, you'll never know' thing," Lennie barked, then softened his tone. "Hey, Lieutenant. You ever get that bracelet?"
Anita seemed to mull it over. "Never. But I got in a shitload of trouble for listening in."
Mike laughed, and turned around to the window with the binoculars again. His laughter trailed off into a sour sound after a second. "Anita," he hissed suddenly, and she was on her feet.
"Heffalump?" she whispered.
Anita crept towards the window and took the binoculars from Mike while Abbie and Lennie leaned forward in their chairs. Abbie suddenly felt her feet were made of concrete; something about Mike's voice caught at her heart and held it still. In the silence, she felt blood pounding in her ears. All well and good to tell ghost stories ... when the real ones grabbed at you, every cliche made sense. "Is it our guy?" she managed after a second.
"I don't see nothin'," said Lennie, who was sans binoculars.
"I do," said Anita softly. "But I don't know what."
"It moves," said Mike. "That's all I know. It's there. And it moves."
"But should we move," Abbie wondered.
Anita stared a long moment. "I don't see it any more."
"But you saw it," confirmed Mike.
She pulled the binoculars down and gave them back. "Maybe not. Mind just playin' tricks on me."
"Oh, come on, Lieutenant," Mike growled. "You did see something."
"I didn't," said Lennie.
And it sat there for a while. No one had anything to say, and the wind curled around their ears. Abbie felt the tips of her fingers start to numb, and she shifted in her seat. And then Lennie spoke up again.
"I was ten when I first heard about Bloody Mary," he said, his voice like a crumpled piece of newspaper, slowly unfolding. "It was one of those moronic games we played at parties, late night BS. The girls were off doin' that 'light as a feather, stiff as a board' nonsense ... but we were givin' each other some serious creeps other ways."
Supposedly, you could do it in any bathroom: Turn out the lights, walk up to the mirror, and say "Bloody Mary." Start turning around, and every time you pass the mirror, say it again.
At the thirteenth pass (some swore it took 7, some 13), however, you were supposed to stop hard, and stare at the mirror -- and Mary herself would appear.
At which point she would scratch your face off.
"So the point was," continued Lennie, "to find somebody either gullible enough, or credible enough, to believe in it enough to be scared. Then you'd dare him to do it. One kid I know, we sent him into his Pop's can and he got so scared he pissed on the floor. It was how you could turn a kid's own house against him. I dunno, maybe it was the spinning -- you got yourself dizzy, so you'd 'see things' -- or maybe there was something to it. It was scary, in your own house.
"But in the school can, on Halloween night -- that was for the kids with real balls."
When Lennie was 12, they broke in. It was him and some kids from the 'hood: Manny, Tommy Boy, Gary, and Nellie. Nellie was short for Nelson, and hated his nickname, but was too wimpy to scrap with anyone who used it, so the name stuck, and Nellie was stuck with a dickless name. They brought along the new kid on the block, Phil, who so far had proven to be an okay guy, but needed some more testing. His Pop wasn't around, and his Ma worked as a cocktail waitress. Nothin' wrong with that, but he needed some toughening up, or stories were gonna start circulating about what his Ma really did for a living. Later on, Lennie learned that Phil's Ma did exactly what he'd said she did -- served drinks on the 4 to 11 shift at a bar across town -- but nobody believed it at the time. They all figured she had to be tramping her way around town if that was the best excuse for a job Phil could come up with.
A school is a school, an industrialized, linoleum castle, almost unbreakable, almost indestructible. During the day, it's a prison keeping kids in; at night it's a sarcophagus, echoing, lifeless, terrifying. The kids broke in easy, through the service entrance in the alley, and strode confidently down the hallways, waving their one flashlight around like a small spotlight, making ghostly whispering noises. They paused before the main boy's room on the second floor. It never would have occurred to them to even check out the girls' -- that was not only a no-man's land.
"Go in," Manny gave Phil a little shove. "Go in and do it."
"Yer fulla shit," Phil told him. "I don't screw with no ghosts."
Lennie clucked his tongue. "Knew it. Knew it the whole time."
"Knew what," Phil challenged him menacingly.
"You were right," Nellie chimed in, a beat too late.
"No balls," Tommy Boy finished it off. And there it was. The wagons were circled. "Oooh, Philly believes in spooks."
Manny put on a Cowardly Lion voice, "I do believe in spooks, I do believe in spooks...."
"I ain't goin', and you can't make me," said Phil defiantly, but the spark was gone from his voice. Few small groups can turn on one another faster than young boys -- except for young girls.
"Ssst," Manny flipped off their one flashlight, giving the signal, and the boys tiptoed backwards, away from Phil, into the shadowy darkness of the hallway. It was one of a hundred codes they had for each other; this one, to go Indian-silent and disappear into the woodwork at a moment's notice, was preceded by a simple air-escaping-from-a-tire sound.
Phil realized he was alone immediately. "Hey, guys!"
No sound. They were perhaps five feet from him, but the darkness of the hallway was so entire without the flashlight that he could not see anything.
"Christ," Phil muttered. "Fine. I'll do it."
"I'm going in," he said.
No one replied, and no one moved until they heard the boy's room door swing open, and closed. At that moment, the rest of them clamored to the door and pressed their ears up against it. Manny held the doorknob tight, so there was no escaping. They listened in through the wood, hearing the humming of the building, as Phil muttered to himself a moment, then began reciting the words.
Lennie felt his stomach clench. This was bigtime. Nobody he knew had really ever accepted the challenge; they'd risk a beating or silent treatment rather than do it. He felt a little sick at imagining it being done, here of all places, and to Phil, who was apparently an all right guy. If he'd been alone, he'd have told Phil to forget it, come out, no harm done. Ollie ollie oxen free. But he wasn't about to pussy out in front of the other guys.
He'd forgotten to count, but it seemed as though Phil had said "Bloody Mary" for the last hour. And then, abruptly, in the middle of one recitation, he cut off.
A half-second later, a scream, also cut off. Vague gibberings. A draft from under the doorway tickled at their ankles. A crash. Then silence.
Later, Lennie would think that if Phil had just screamed his head off, they'd have given in and let him out. But the absence of terrifying cues left them speechless; they had no idea what was going on in there. And then -- a thud, hard against the door. Every boy leaning on it leapt back, swallowing their own screams. Nellie took off down the hallway and didn't stop until he got home. Tommy Boy and Manny muttered, "See ya later, Len," and ran off.
Which left Lennie, with no flashlight, alone. And God only knows what else on the other side of the door.
He knocked. "Philly." Harder. "Philly."
Suddenly, the door swung wide, and Phil stood there, dark and unreadable.
"You okay, Philly?"
"I want to go home," he stated, flat and emotionless.
So Lennie took him home, down their neighborhood streets, past familiar houses and cars, most of the windows dark by now, and neither one of them said a word. Then, just across the street from Phil's apartment, Lennie stopped, breathing hard, his heart still crashing in his chest. "Thanks, man," said Phil, still without any life in his tone, and clapped a hand on Lennie's shoulder. Then he jumped off the curb and walked deliberately across the street, not looking both ways, stiff and straight-shouldered, like a soldier.
It wasn't until he passed under a streetlamp that Lennie saw it: Phil's hair had gone stark white.
With a shaking hand, Lennie tried wiping off his shoulder, only to come away with something wet and sticky. Holding it up to the streetlight, he saw it was coated with something warm, thick and red.
The next day the boy's room was closed for repairs. All of the mirrors had broken. And Phil came in later that week with two perfectly-symmetrical, angular lines on his cheekbones, like the kind fingernails might make.
As he finished speaking, Lennie could still remember his heart pounding inside of him from that night. He knew he wouldn't be believed; after this night of tall and taller tales, this one was almost mild by comparison ... but damned if he couldn't remember it inch by inch, moment by moment. Phil. Whatever happened to Phil, who at 12 would have the white hair he'd carry through the rest of his life. Lennie didn't know, same as he didn't know where Manny, Tommy Boy or Nellie were any more, either. All ghosts, not real any more, just vague memories and visions.
"Now I know why we tell this shit on Halloween," he murmured, breaking the silence.
"Why, Len," Mike's voice, almost solicitous.
"'Cause it makes us think of our own ghosts, Mike," said Lennie. "I don't know where those kids are. I don't know where Phil is. They're like ghosts. Same as whatever came at Phil from the mirror."
"You really think some spirit jumped out of a mirror because some 12 year old summoned him?" Abbie's brash disbelief took them fully out of the reverie. "Ridiculous."
"What, like the licking intruder?" Mike raised his eyebrows.
"I confessed, that didn't happen," Abbie laughed. "I don't deny that."
"Well, don't deny this kid had white hair," Lennie growled at her. "It did happen."
Anita stood and stretched. "Okay, okay, calm down. We're getting punchy." She walked to the coffee maker and poured another lukewarm cup. "Ms. Carmichael, just where is Jack McCoy, anyway?"
Abbie shrugged. "He had a date, that's what he told me."
"The history professor," Mike murmured.
"Yeah, I guess," said Abbie, clearly wanting off the subject.
"The history professor that's as nonexistent as Lennie's Bloody Mary," Mike continued.
For a few seconds, silence, as if no one wanted to be the one to pick up the thread, even though curiosity crackled electrically. Finally, Anita coughed into her hand. "Um," she said, masking the word.
"Well, she is," Mike insisted, almost sounding 12 himself, petulant. "Carmichael, you remember I came by the other week for witness prep and he'd already left for the day. And you told me --"
"I told you I didn't know where he was."
"Bullshit," Mike spat, good-naturedly.
"I was there," said Lennie. "You said he was off having drinks with a history professor from Columbia."
"That's what he told me," said Abbie stubbornly, her drawl deepening. "That's what I know. I don't pry. So what if he's not. That's his damn business."
"I'm out of the loop here," Anita confessed. "Just what in the world are we gossiping about?"
"Ask Lennie," Mike pointed with his chin at his partner. "He knows."
"Lennie?" Anita prompted.
Lennie sat forward in his chair. "Ah, I dunno. Mike was supposed to do this witness prep, then meet me at Flaherty's later on for some pool."
"Flaherty's," echoed Anita.
"Yeah, there," Lennie continued awkwardly. "But he beeped me and said McCoy was out on a date with this history professor, and that opened up Mike's evening, so Mike said he was gonna see if he could look up a date of his own. Which left me flyin' solo. So I played a game or two, got bored, started walking home. And on the way, at this intersection -- not all that far from here, really, just a few blocks down -- I saw him."
Mike shook his head. "Lennie comes down the street and there's McCoy, leaning up against this bus stop, just staring at the pavement. Not waitin' for the bus. Just standin' there. Like he lost his best friend or something."
"He did," bit Abbie, angry at having to point it out. "You can't work in that office without knowing he did. Adam says he's better now, but --"
"Oh," said Anita. "That intersection."
"Yeah," said Lennie. "Not quite like your intersection, Lieutenant. But it's his own. The place where we had the accident. Just 'round the corner here. Not too far. I been seein' it the last three days, comin' in here, and it gets my heart pounding in my ears. You'd think I was standing outside that bathroom door again." After all, how could he forget? Wet night. He fell off the wagon. Claire coming to get the ex she'd been fighting with a lot lately, Jack. Jack not at Flaherty's -- but Lennie was. Drive home. Bright lights. An almost swerve. That bone-crunching smash into the driver's side of the car. Blood. Death. After who knew how many years off the bottle, Lennie was freaked out that night, needed some help, Claire was there to assist with the ride home. And though he'd been sober since that night, Lennie would wish for the rest of his life he'd been able to keep it together just a little longer. Maybe then Claire wouldn't have been driving down that intersection, in this no-man's land of vacated buildings. Where drivers thought they were alone, and hit forty, sometimes fifty miles an hour.
"Yeah," Mike punctuated softly, his tone more gentle now. "Okay. Fine. I guess we all gotta revisit history every once in a while."
"Helps keep the spirits at bay," Anita noted. "Doors are doors of paper."
They all felt it again, the loss of one of their own, mourned because not only did they know her, and not only because her death was senseless ... but because one of them, currently not present but one of their own had also loved her. And in a strange, queerly subconscious sense, that meant they all loved her. It was hard to decipher. Only Abbie was exempt; she hadn't been working in the offices when Claire died. Lennie wondered if Abbie felt left out because of it.
Suddenly, Mike piped up. "Enough with the funeral," he coughed into his fist. "My turn."
Mike was shacking up. It wasn't the first time, and it wouldn't be the last, but in terms his Pop would -- and did -- use, Mike was shacking up with a fellow cop, living together in sin, and he'd never had it better. Maggie had been tough to wear down; she had a temper as short as his own and a tongue just as sharp, but he'd met her when he was still walking a beat, and kept after her until she finally agreed to go on a date. By that time, he was a homicide detective, and she was truly suitably impressed by the improvement. After a long time dating, it made sense for them to get themselves together on a semi-permanent basis. Mike kept his own digs, of course, 'cause you never know, but for all intents and purposes, he had shacked up with Maggie, approximately two years after they'd met.
That didn't mean, of course, that Mike's radar went in for repairs. Maggie knew him pretty well, and knew his M.O. good enough to always be just on this side of jealousy. She'd kick him across the room if he cheated on her, however, even as she tolerated his wandering eye. Mike once said she oughta be the detective -- she'd certainly honed her skills tracking him down, making sure his alibis were solid, and kept track of every move he made. He didn't mind; he kind of liked her being proprietary, the same way he was with her, and this tightly-woven interdependence made them a pretty solid couple for a few years.
But after those few years, the magic was going, and Mike knew it. They didn't have the fun they used to. She was starting to harp on marriage, which was usually his cue to flee the jurisdiction and take his underwear at the same time. So when they got the costume party invitation from some friends of his family, neither one of them were too up for going. Mike had an obligation of sorts -- his Pop would be on him for the rest of the year if he begged off; this was Aunt Gilda and Uncle Matthew's big shindig at the Lower East Side Community Center, and everybody would be there. Without much enthusiasm, he rented his costume. Maggie finally gave in and rented her own separately, but left it in the box until that night, and claimed a headache.
"I can't go. You go," she insisted.
Mike knew that was his cue to fall at her feet and declare he'd have a shitty time without her, but he refused. That was how he knew things were really going south with them. "Fine," he said, shocking her. Inside, he was a little disappointed; something about masks and disguises leant a certain kinky air to the evening, and coming home was usually very erotic. But he grabbed his costume (a pirate, complete with fluffy-feathered hat, eye mask, beard and mustache) and stalked out, leaving Maggie to stew on her own.
What he heard later -- he heard much later. Second-hand. Way after the fact. And a damn good thing. Only in retrospect was it even remotely funny.
Apparently, Maggie's headache disappeared shortly after Mike left, and she cooked up a devilish plan: What better way to track down her always possibly errant significant other by wearing a costume he'd never seen, going to the party incognito, and observing from a distance? So off she went, in a gown to make Marie Antoinette swoon, with mask and fan. She spotted Mike immediately -- the tall, dark-haired pirate across the room who was flirting with about three women at once. It burned her up, seeing her imagination come to life, and she watched for a few minutes, then brazenly approached him, and pulled him out onto the dance floor with barely a word. She knew he had no idea who was behind her mask, and she reveled in the anonymity. They danced several rounds, until both were hot and sweaty and bothered, then dashed off to a quiet area behind the community center and had some pretty raw sex.
After which Maggie left the party like Cinderella, only leaving no glass slipper, and ran home, jumped into bed, and waited for Mike to come home. She sat up, reading, still tingling from earlier in the evening, fully prepared to jump on him once more before revealing her big surprise once he came home. Finally, around one Mike walked in and packed up the costume. Maggie asked him how the party went.
"Eh, it wasn't any fun without you," Mike told her honestly, then retold how he'd spent the evening. Since he could tell it was going to be a bust going solo, he gave his costume to this new rookie on the force, Tim, and spent the evening playing poker in a basement with a few other guys who'd escaped the fanfare.
But Tim had a pretty fabulous time, apparently.
"Oh, Logan, that is older than Lennie," Anita laughed into her gloves. "That is so old --"
"Hey!" Lennie broke in, good-naturedly. "Let's keep my age outta Mike's bad jokes."
"I swear!" Mike piped up, holding his hand in a Boy Scout salute. "Honest!"
"Please," Abbie grinned, her former good humor missing. "I haven't heard it before and even I know that's phonier than a three dollar bill."
"Hey, I gotta lighten things up a little," said Mike. "Is it just me, or is it getting colder in here?"
"Candle blew out," said Lennie, flicking a match and re-lighting a few of the bigger ones. "Should be time for shift change in another few hours, my guess."
"Well," said Abbie, "what do you recommend, Lieutenant? You've got the warrant. Do you do it now, or wait until morning?"
"I saw something," Mike insisted.
"I don't think I did," said Anita, but her tone wasn't sure.
"He's not there," came another voice, from over by the staircase, and startled every one of them. Abbie even reached up and clutched her chest. No one had heard the downstairs door open, or any feet scale those creaky steps; it was as if he had materialized from thin air. "They arrested him twenty minutes ago in a West Village bar." And Jack McCoy, hands stove deep in his pockets, face drawn and serious, took a few steps into the pale moonlight and regarded the group of them around the candles.
"So it's over," said Abbie with relief.
"We can go," Lennie echoed.
"Looks like it," said Jack.
Anita rose and folded her arms. "You came all the way down here to tell us that? You coulda called, Jack."
For a long, drawn-out moment, Jack stared out the window at the building across the street, his dark eyes seeming hollowed out. "I was in the area already."
Mike lifted his chin slightly at Anita.
"I'll call it in, then," she said stiffly. "We can get cleared outta here."
"Talk about your anti-climaxes," Mike muttered, but no one answered.
While she placed the cell phone call, Mike and Lennie packed up their chairs in a silence that resonated with resentment. Three nights spent in a cold empty warehouse, looking at another cold, empty warehouse -- and it turned out their man wasn't even there in the first place. Mike propped his chair up against the wall and turned off the hotplate, tossing it into a cardboard box with the space heater. He glanced over at Jack, who hadn't moved from his spot since making himself known, and caught Abbie lightly touching her boss's forearm.
"Need a ride?" she asked in a low drawl.
"I'm fine," he stretched his face into a smile that even in this bare candlelight Mike knew was as false as Abbie's three dollar bill.
"That's me, then," she announced, more loudly, and stepped away from Jack. "I'm gone."
Mike watched her, trying to figure out whether there was more to that exchange than he'd seen before, and honestly couldn't tell. It was the light, or lack of it -- nothing seemed the way it was supposed to. He'd even imagined things moving across the street. "Heffalumps," he grumped. "Fuckin' heffalumps. What is a heffalump, anyhow, Len?"
"Imaginary Pooh bear creature," Lennie shrugged. "Read it to my kids."
"Evil beast," Abbie echoed. "You saw one, Mike?"
"Thought he did," said Anita, closing up her cell phone. "Hauled me out here to see it."
While they muttered at one another, Jack took soft, careful steps towards the window and stared out it, into the building across the street. He set one palm on the glass window, then folded his arms thoughtfully. "Where," he turned to Mike. "Show me."
Mike handed him the binoculars. He'd never really understood Jack McCoy, even though he'd worked peripherally with him for years. The man was a workaholic, obsessive about his job and justice and the whole ball of wax. Mike knew he'd also managed to sleep around with whatever assistant he happened to be assigned at any given time, which meant Claire certainly had her turn. That burned him a little; Mike wondered why Claire never gave him much of an eye. When Claire had died, Mike was already in Staten, working domestics, hating life, and though he'd gone to her funeral he hadn't had much truck with Jack since then. As he stared at the older man, he realized the years were starting to show in the pull of his face, the southward bend of his mouth, the slight hunch of his shoulders. Yes, he looked older, but he also looked worn. Mike straightened unconsciously, watching as Jack raised the binoculars and focused in on the building across the street.
"I'm outta here," said Anita. "Len, you wanna see two helpless ladies to their cars?"
"Helpless ladies?" Lennie laughed. "Where?"
"I'll be helpless tonight," said Anita, a chill creeping into her tone. "I've had enough stories to make me a little weak in the knees."
"I'll come along for the walk," said Abbie absently, and Mike turned to see her shadowy figure pause, glancing back at the two of them by the window. "Show's over, boys."
"Yeah," said Mike. "See you."
"Heffalumps," said Jack suddenly, startling Mike, and dropped the binoculars. He jumped to life with a suddenness that froze everyone in their tracks, barreling to the noisy staircase, bounding down the steps three at a time, and out into the street.
"What the --" Lennie frowned deeply. "What'd you say, Logan?"
"Nothin'!" Mike barked at him. "Ah, he fuckin' broke the binoculars." He leaned over and picked up the equipment, the lenses shattered by the sudden impact of the drop. "I ain't paying for this, Anita."
"We can discuss it in the morning," she said vaguely, starting back towards the windows. "What did he say, Mike?"
Mike shrugged, throwing his hands up, and glanced over his shoulder. Jack had emerged on the street and stopped hard in the middle of the road, hands on his hips, staring upwards. "Hey," Mike hissed over his shoulder. "Come here."
At street level, Jack paused only a minute, then hurried inside the other building.
They watched, and waited. No one spoke.
Mike's voice: Frozen, terrified. "Holy Jesus."
His steps pounded hard up one floor, two floors, three floors, echoing, filling the empty space. The cold didn't even touch him any more, though his breath came in fast, hard puffs and the wind gusts up here were much stronger than they had been across the street. His heart raced, and he felt like reaching up to clutch at his chest and hold it in. Too much, all at once. He wasn't twenty any more. He wasn't even forty.
Jack arrived on the third floor and scanned the area, unbroken by walls, enormous thick pillars holding the fourth floor up, the only light diffuse pale moonglow, turning everything into black and white. He felt his eyes bulging with the effort of trying to see, trying to catch a glimpse --
-- of what he'd seen across the street. It had beckoned to him, it had wanted him to come. So here he was. Voices, a voice, her voice, looking up at him, beckoning.
"Come here," she'd said, and he heard it clear as day in his head, as if she hadn't ever left.
So he ran.
"I've come," he whispered now, his voice catching, echoing off of the walls. Heart thudding. Small hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. Starbursts in his eyes. His arms had no sensation, numb, dead weights.
She'd asked him to come, and here he was. No matter where she was, if she called, he would come. For the one time he wasn't there, for the time she failed to answer his call. Now, any such requests were honored. But there was nothing here, just the cold, and his body, rebelling. Was he seeing things? Was he that far gone, to make a fool out of himself in front of everyone, rush off across the street? What was he coming to, any more? Jack no longer could be sure. She had always been his best worst mistake; he had always been a little foolish around her. His lungs burned. He couldn't catch his breath; it was all wheezing in and out of him. For a moment he thought his heart would burst, the veins in his temples standing out. It was all happening too fast.
And then ... a draft, colder than anything he could remember, like a moist finger down his back shuddered through him and he saw it, a pale, ephemeral, impossible, image over by the window, that window he had just looked into a moment or two ago. It was her. She had come. There she was. Relief flooded warmly through his veins and he felt light-headed. For a split second he wondered: Is it relief I feel?
Or is it fear?
He no longer thought it mattered.
"I'm here, Jack," her voice was as tender as he remembered, unmistakable, like clear, tinkling bells. But that voice ... it made no echo when she spoke. "It's all right now. I'm here." And she raised her hand to him, beckoning.
A single tear rolled out from the corner of his eye.
And he went to her.