Excerpt: “Smoke and Ink”

I describe the black smoke that had bubbled from between the buttons of my shirt, and Reema sits patiently, waiting for her turn to speak.

“I think you need to get out of here,” she says.

“Reema, you know I wouldn’t lie about something like that.”

“And that’s the scary part,” she says. “I know you’re telling the truth about what you think you saw, but I’m not sure why you think you saw it at all. Maybe you should take a drug test or something.”

“I’m clean,” I say, crossing my arms. I wasn’t expecting her to bring that up. Reema, of all people, knew how hard I had worked to get beyond that dark spot in my past.

“You think you’re clean,” she says. “Who knows what those psychos you’ve been covering would do to get someone to believe them. You said you had coffee with them: They could have slipped you something or –”

She has a point, and I uncross my arms to show that I’m willing to acknowledge it. As I draw my hands away from my chest, my jacket pulls back a bit and I see Reema’s expression change into one of surprise and horror. Looking down, I pull the lapels away.

I’ve left my gel pen uncapped in my pocket, and black ink has soaked into my shirt.

“Or maybe that’s it,” she says, grimace turning into a half-smile that’s half sweet, half mischievous. “I still think you should take a drug test, though. Hallucinations take more than a visual trigger.”

Then I hear it: eight piano keys crashing in a single chord and filling every corner of my head with noise. I look for the culprit, but there’s not a piano in the room. Not a stereo, speaker, radio or even windchime. But the sound — a chord struck just barely off from the rest of the song, continues, and it snaps the string of words in my head so they go skittering off like plastic beads across tile.

“Yeah,” I feel like I’m shouting over the din. The only words or Reema’s response that break through are “wait in your office” and “get the building medic.”

I inch down the stairs, each step muffled by the endless piano chord reverberating in my head. Once in my office, I close the door behind me and remove the pen from my pocket. I whip it at the wall so hard that it cracks completely in half and bleeds a matching stain into the rug.

Advertisements

“Omaha” Excerpt: Chapter One

There’s a broken body in my arms.

Despite the falling snow and frigid air, I rip away my goggles, hood and scarf to get a better look at the milky face staring lifeless up at me. The Elevated Trains pass each other on the tracks above us, but their screams do little to drown out her death rattle.

Two more coughs, and the woman in my arms is dead.

A small voice in my ear fizzles in.

“Status request, Omaha,” it says. “Omaha, do you copy?”

I don’t want to let go of her. Even though her face is covered in blood and her cropped hair is matted against her forehead, it’s like I’m seeing her clearly for the first time. Green eyes stare lifeless as marbles. Snow catches on the sandy eyelashes and eyebrows framing them, unable to melt against a body that’s quickly going cold.

“Omaha, do you copy?” asks the voice again, quiet against the roar that’s now my own blood pumping in my ears. I roll my shoulder up to my ear to push the voice out of my head. Instead it pushes it deeper in so it’s louder.

“Omaha, do you copy?”

Now I dig my finger into my ear, trying to pry out the piece that’s talking to me. But there’s nothing there to remove. I pull my finger out and run it along the outside of my ear. The skin is smooth, untouched.

“Omaha, do you—”

Just as my fingers graze the bump where my jawbone begins, the voice goes silent, as if I’ve hit a mute button. Something in my brain remembers that the bone I’m touching is called the temporomandibular joint. I don’t know the name of the dead woman, but I do know that.

Another train is coming, but it’s as empty as the first one was when it arrived. It’s surreal, thinking that even though everyone — almost everyone — fled the city, the trains still run. That’s the beauty of a solar powered system: As long as the sun is shining, the system works, even if the passengers are long gone. In some ways, it’s like the trains are just waiting for people to come back. Or maybe they’re celebrating a lighter load.

Or maybe they don’t give a shit because they’re trains. Machines don’t think or feel.

The woman is still in my arms, and I don’t know how to move forward from here. Do I leave her on the pavement to be buried in snow and the city’s dust? Do I try to take her somewhere? What was her name? Who was she?

Who am I?

I recognize that every question I ask about the dead woman I’m asking about myself, too. I may have muted the voice in my head, but that’s now left me with no one to talk to — just a passing train and falling snow. My questions pile up in their own drifts.

My name is Omaha. I know that much. Or do I?

A sharp wind tears down the street, kicking up snow and grit. I lift my scarf back over my mouth and nose to avoid breathing in the dust of a dead city. The growing blood pool at my knees collects some of it. A shard of plastic wrapper sticks to her blood-encrusted eye like a patch.

I pick it off and squint against the wind at it. It’s red and white, and something in the same section of my brain as “temporomandibular joint” reminds me of chewy fruit candy pills — Skittles, I think.

With no clear direction, I continue to sit in the street as the body cools, which doesn’t take long in the freezing climate. Another train comes by, and with it come flashes of how I got here. We had been running from something — or at something. There had been another person, and that person had gotten on top of one of the trains above with her while I stayed below. But why the chase?

My fingers play with my ear, contemplating pressing the button to get the voice back. I could ask it what’s going on, who I am and what to do next. But something in me is weary of it. Innate curiosity pushes me to find my own answers and not trust what some implanted personality in my ear might tell me.

I move the woman off my lap. She’s bigger than me, but somehow I’m able to hoist her over my shoulder. The Skittles wrapper crunches under my boot as I start walking down the road labeled Lake Street, heading east away from the winter sun glowering in a cloudless sky. Ahead is a building like a landed spaceship, its walls curving like an intergalactic teacup on a concrete saucer. I carry the body around the perimeter lined with rust-red pillars dimpled by bullet holes and occasionally gouged away by more significant artillery. There’s little rubble on the ground, as if someone had tried to clean up after the battle but didn’t go as far as to patch up the more permanent damage.

Rounding the building, I come into a courtyard. What looks to be white tombstones are scattered among rolling trash cans and a rack of abandoned city-sanctioned bicycles missing their tires. As I get closer I recognize the stone graves were actually leftovers of a sculpture that once stood 20 feet high. Along with temporomandibular joint and Skittles is the name “Dubuffet.” This was once one of his pieces, I think, before the savage city made its mark.

I prop the body against one of the slabs. Her head slumps down. The wind catches my shoulder, and I can feel the fabric is wet, probably from blood. In this cold temperature, shedding my jacket isn’t an option, so I wait for half of it to freeze.

I lean against a fallen stone pillar adjacent from her. The snow is still falling, but I’m not sure if I’m squinting against it, the wind or the vibrant winter sky. The wind howls through the streets, but not loud enough to mask the sound of four boots identical to mine crunching their way across the courtyard.

Unable to decide whether to stay in the sculpture’s shelter or emerge to greet the newcomers, I stick my head out from behind the stone. The white sun’s glare disappears as the two figures come to stand over me. Both are dressed in the same hood, coat, pants and boots as me, but with automatic rifles, not a body, slung over their shoulders.

“We’ve been trying to connect with you for the last twenty minutes,” says the taller of the two as the shorter pulls me to my feet. I feel fingers graze my jawbone, and a white-noise hum returns.

“That would explain it,” says the shorter, drawing a hand away from my jaw and clapping me on the back. I hear the voice both in front of me and within my ear. “Your ice was shut off. Must have bumped it during the chase.”

I want to ask what they mean by “ice,” but instead am faced with a question myself.

“What happened to Keystone?” A nod tells me this is the dead woman’s name.

“Fell,” I say, knowing only that for sure.

“It was a hot pursuit,” says the taller. “Bound to be at least one casualty. Shame it wasn’t the target.”

The wind howls even louder, tugging at my hood. Instinctively I whip it back over my head. The two newcomers turn and scowl at the gale, then eye the sculpture.

“Wind blast estimated at sixty-point-zero-seven miles per hour detected,” says a voice in my ear, and from the way the shorter one ducks down, I know my new companions have heard it, too. “Seek shelter immediately.”

Across the courtyard, the spaceship building taunts us with glass doors barred by rusting security gates. The taller one sees me eying it.

“Nah, it’ll take too long to get over there. This sculpture thing should break the breeze well enough.”

Before I know it, the two have crawled into the cave formed by the broken sculpture. I stay outside, watching as an almost visible wind comes down the street, lifting dirt and broken glass off the abandoned street surface. At one point I think I see a piece of the metal slatting that once covered a bus enclosure flying magically down the road.

The gale tears at my coat, pushing my hood back again and numbing my face. There’s something else tugging at me, too, and I look down to see that the taller newcomer is gripping my pantsleg to get me inside.

A trashcan comes rolling at me, pushed by the wind, and I duck down as it bounces over where I stood and explodes against one of the dimpled red pillars. As I slide into the sculpture’s shelter, I pull Keystone’s body with me. I’m not sure whether I do it out of sentimentality or so we have a makeshift door between us and the mile-a-minute wind.

Once the voice in our ears give us the all-clear, we emerge from the sculpture, starting with me pushing Keystone out of the way and back onto the courtyard, where little has changed. I check her left side—the part that had been most exposed to the wind—for damage. Then I realize how silly that is, as she’s dead.

“We should head back,” says the taller. “It’s about a ten minute walk to the station, and there’s probably another wind coming this way.”

“Or worse,” says the shorter.

“Nah, nothing worse than wind,” says the taller. “Can’t kill the wind.”

“What about Keystone?” I ask. Now that I know her name, I want to use it as much as possible.

“What about her?” the shorter turns to look at me. Even though I can’t see the face under the scarf and goggles, I know there’s a look of incredulity accompanying the statement. “She’s rabbit food, now.”

Those must be some vicious bunnies, I think before a sudden fizzle comes into my ear.

“Attention mode initiated,” says the placid digital voice.

My two new companions almost comically snap into a straight-backed military stance. Like a reflex, I find myself imitating them, arms wrapped behind my back.

“MacArthur needs Keystone’s body to be brought back to headquarters immediately for diagnostics and data recovery,” says a different voice, this one far more human. “Do you copy, Omaha?”

“Uh, yes, sir,” I say, though the words come out far less sure than the mechanical responses given by the newcomers.

“Mission mode initiated,” says the digital voice again.

I bend down and hook one of Keystone’s arms around my neck. The shorter takes Keystone’s other side.

“What do they mean, ‘diagnostics and data recovery?’” I ask.

My question must be so appallingly ignorant that despite the sub-zero temperatures and increasingly strong wind, the taller of the two pulls the scarf and goggles away to answer me. The coverings reveal a young, angular male face blank as freshly poured concrete.

“Mission mode initiated,” he says. “Questioning inadvisable at this time.”

“What?”

“Mission mode initiated,” he repeats. “Questioning inadvisable at this time.”

“Is he usually like this?” I ask as the shorter and I start walking with Keystone’s arms around each of our shoulders and her feet dragging on the ground.

“Mission mode initiated,” says the shorter’s muffled voice. “Questioning inadvisable at this time.”

Excerpt: “Caravan”

They left Agatha in the car to fume. She might have just gotten back from the Philippines after Typhoon Huanan, but storm destruction was child’s play compared to what could be lurking in the Midwestern home on Cherry Drive.

Agatha, of course, was not happy. She continued arguing with them, then with the empty front seats, after they parked their Ford crossover on the street. Only a distant thunder rumble and leaves rustling in a pre-storm gust answered her back.

On the porch stood the homeowner, a pedestrian-looking woman in a Disney World sweatshirt and jeans. She watched her guests walk up the pathway, arms crossed and a scowl of both impatience and relief on her face.

“You’re not exactly what I expected,” she said when they made it to the porch. “But Lindsey says you’re the best option for our area, and maybe she’s right.”

“We’ll do our best,” said the man, slate eyes matching the color of the dark clouds roiling above. “I’m Handel Onderzoeker, and this is Maeve.”

Next to her attractive but unmemorable husband, Maeve looked like a character in a fantasy novel. Her hair was cropped short to her head with tufts of deep purple breaking up black-brown sleekness. The faint lines around her mouth hinted to a wicked smile, and her dark eyes reflected the streetlights lit early because of the darkening October skies.

“I’m Judy Turner,” the homeowner said absently, distracted by her survey of Maeve. “Let me show you the piano.”

She turned to lead them into the house, talking behind her the entire way.

“It just started playing in the middle of the night. We just moved here, and before we signed the papers a few of the neighbors warned us that this place had a tendency to change hands over and over. Then Jerry Gomez down the road said he wouldn’t be surprised if it was haunted, and everyone at the D’Angelo’s cookout started talking about things they had heard about. LaVonte Simmons next door — smart man, and a specialized pediatric surgeon at Memorial Children’s — said he had once heard someone wailing in the backyard, even though he didn’t see anyone when he looked over the fence, and I just can’t forget that. Of course, I don’t put a lot of stock in that haunted stuff, but when a doctor even says he’s seen something, I just couldn’t ignore it. And then last night? At first I thought it was a neighbor kid trying to give us a scare — you know how Halloween time gets kids hopped up on sugar and acting stupid — but when I came down, it was just going by itself like someone was sitting there, playing it.”

She led Handel and Maeve into the parlor. The wallpaper had been changed and the carpet replaced many times over the decades, but the crown molding and high ceiling of a bygone era remained. An faded upright piano in the corner sat innocently, the bench tucked in neatly and a stack of well-loved practice books nestled into a basket on the floor beside it. Its keys were yellowed with tobacco and age, like an old man’s teeth.

“There’s definitely a presence here,” Maeve said, drawing closer to the piano. “Was there a particular song that the piano played? Anything you recognized?”

“It could have been playing ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ and I wouldn’t have known,” Judy said. “I couldn’t think straight, and it stopped just a few seconds after I got down here. There’s probably a pretty solid explanation, but Lindsey said to call you. My sister is the most superstitious woman I’ve ever met, always has been. When we were little she came home from a sleepover in tears because her friends had forced her to play Bloody Mary. Said she actually saw something in the dark bathroom mirror, if you can believe it. I just told her it was her own reflection, but that didn’t matter to her.”

“No, Bloody Mary is real,” Maeve muttered to herself as she moved around the dowdy woman to the side of the piano.

“You’re sure it’s not a player piano?” asked Handel. He played the skeptic in the two-hunter team, while Maeve was the mystic — their rendition of good cop, bad cop. “We’ve worked with people who own player pianos and don’t realize it until it starts going one night because of a loose gear or something.”

“Positive,” the woman said. “It came with the house. The last owner said he didn’t want to pay to move it out of here, but I think he just didn’t want to deal with getting it through these narrow doors. I hardly know how they got it in here eighty years ago let alone how they would get it out now. I’ll get you his number so you can talk to him.”

She turned to leave the room but caught sight of Maeve. The ghost hunter had closed her eyes and rested her head and hands on the top of the piano, smiling serenely.

“I think it wants to play again,” she crooned, more to it than to the two people in the room.

The homeowner looked at Handel with a raised eyebrow. He shrugged as if to say, “She always does this.”

“There’s someone here who wants to play it. A man? Maybe the original owner. He bought the piano for his daughter, who ran away from home three weeks later with the chauffeur.” Then Maeve lifted her head and gazed at where the invisible player’s eyes would be. “If you want to play, play.”

Handel crossed his arms, waiting for the music to start. Maeve had a way of talking to spirits, and they had a way of listening to her. The middle-C key pressed down, then up again, then down in a typical tuning exercise.

Judy gaped at the keys now starting to pick up a melody. For the first time since their arrival, she was speechless.

“I think you need to get out of the house,” Handel said to her quietly. “We don’t know if this is an angry spirit, and if he’s upset at you for buying the home, then you might be in danger.”

Judy sputtered that she would be in the backyard and left the room quicker than Handel had ever seen a client run. Once Handel saw her standing on the edge — the absolute edge — of the yard through the large parlor windows, he nodded at Maeve.

“Time to call it off?” he asked.

“Not yet,” Maeve said, turning from the piano. “It’s playing our song.” Handel could hear it now; the piano had started playing a soft version of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” that mellowed the original’s exotic jazz beat into a hypnotic lullaby.

Handel took his wife by the waist and started dancing with her to the music, the soft carpet muffling their steps as they turned and swayed to the spectral playing. The parlor dropped away, and the ghost kept playing.

~

They were back three years to their wedding night, before Maeve knew of Handel’s dark past and Handel knew of Maeve’s even darker secret. Before they started calming domestic hauntings. Before they realized just how much they would end up needing each other.

“Thank you,” he whispered into her ear as her veil tickled his nose.

“For what?”

“For making me feel normal.”

When he was with her, his father wasn’t a convicted serial killer. When she was with him, her terrifying childhood didn’t exist. But neither knew that about each other at that moment. They wouldn’t confess either of their respective unsavory histories until early the next morning when they would awake in the honeymoon suite to the curtains on fire and a spectral laugh emanating from every corner of the room.

~

The upright piano stopped playing, but Maeve and Handel still stood in each other’s arms in the middle of the parlor, both of them remembering their last night of normalcy with each other three years before.

Then a tapping on the window — Judy was impatient again.

“You’re two sick people,” she said after Handel had retrieved her from the back door. “I have a haunted piano in my house, and you find time to slow dance. If you think I’m paying you for —”

“You won’t hear him play anymore, Mrs. Turner,” Maeve spoke in her airy voice, the one she put on for the clients. It was a tone of voice that always incurred the most mysterious of reactions from homeowners — wonder and annoyance, but mostly respect.

Maeve, carrying out her Ghost-Huntress persona, explained what she had heard when she put her hands on the piano. The man who bought the piano had done so for his daughter’s wedding to his boss’ son, a prominent community figure who had money and would eventually inherit the streetcar factory. It was going to be the marriage of the year in the small Midwest town that thrived because of the betrothed’s company, and the father had wanted to play the couple’s first dance to bring a sense of intimacy to the event that would surely be a magnet for every social vulture in the county.

The daughter, however, ran away from home with a newspaperman a week before the wedding. Her father died shortly after — some said of embarrassment, but really it was from tuberculosis — and he had never gotten the chance to play for the married couple. Every time his spirit returned to play the piano, he was met with screams and fear from the home’s new owner rather than dancing and joy. Judy, who was clearly a recent divorcee from the tan line around her left ring finger, was the last person he wanted in his house.

But they hadn’t. So Maeve and Handel did, and now he was able to cross over to the afterlife, his goal fulfilled.

Whether Judy believed it or not, Handel couldn’t tell. She signed the papers and gave them the hundred dollars in cash, as per their policy. The rules of the contract they made every client sign stated that they would come in for a small fee, assess the issue and fix it if they could. If a week had passed and the haunting had stopped, the homeowner would pay the rest of the $2,000 bill. It had worked so far; they were raking in six figures every year, with a 95 percent success rate.

The sky outside had started to sizzle with a fall mist as they walked out of the house. Agatha was still in the back of their crossover, staring glumly out the window. As they approached the vehicle, Handel slowed to a stop and looked at his wife.

“Ran away with a newspaperman?” he asked. Maeve shrugged, a mischevious smile blowing across her face with the breeze before it was gone again. Handel shook his head: “You realize that’s part of the plot from It Happened One Night, right?”

“I only borrow from the best,” she said, her voice returned to its normal tone, before taking his hand and leading him back to the car.

“If I’m going to write about you, I’m going to need to shadow you,” Agatha said as they got in the car.

“There wasn’t much to see here,” Handel said. He knew Agatha trusted him more than she did Maeve, so he was the one to make their excuses. “Just a haunted piano that played on its own. The next house will be more interesting, I promise.”

“And you’ll let me come in with you?” Agatha pressed.

“Yes,” he said. “But you might regret that later.”

“Why?”

“Our next client says his guest bedroom has a tendency of swallowing unwanted visitors.”

“If that doesn’t hook a few readers, I quit journalism,” Agatha said, nestling back with satisfaction. Her editor was going to love her.

 

This piece was the kickoff for a bigger project I’m working on. The idea came to me when listening to Rachel Portman’s arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” heard in the film Chocolat.