Life (and After)

by Mel Walker

I juggled my groceries while unlocking my door — the door that says, “Jack Coates, Private Investigator” on the glass. When I walked in, I saw a ghost standing in my desk.

When I say, “in my desk,” I don't mean she was standing on top of, or next to, my desk, I mean she stood right in the center and didn’t even leave a hole.

“I need your help,” she said. Maybe all ghosts sounded that desperate — It was my first time meeting one.

“Huh,” I said. I put my groceries away in my small fridge.

“I said, I need your help,” she told me again. My strategy of ignoring her wasn’t working.

“So,” I said as I poured myself a shot, “you are standing… in… my desk.”

She looked down. Did ghosts get embarrassed? “I’m not sure how I got here. You are a detective, right? I need help.”

“So you said.” I sat down at my desk. Just because she was a ghost didn’t mean I shouldn’t be professional.

I studied her. Average height. Brunette. Caucasian, judging by her features, as her skin was white as a... well, you know. She was wearing sensible shoes with a comfortable dress. Other than being able to see my door through her body, the only thing out of the ordinary was a bloody hole in her head. I looked closer.

“I know you, don’t I?”

“I… worked, I guess, at Guthrie’s Dry Cleaners,” she said.

I pulled open my desk drawer, and right on top was the claim tag for my shirts. I went to Guthrie’s because they were cheap and only ripped one shirt once. “Did one of my shirts kill you?”

She tilted her head to the side. “We send the cleaning out.”

That wasn’t helpful. “Why are you here?”

“I was murdered. I want you to get the man who killed me.”

“You’re a ghost,” I said. “I don’t know much about how ghosts do whatever you do, you had no trouble being here. Just find the guy who put that hole in your head and scare him to death.”

“I don’t know who he was,” she said. “He came in and wanted a coat back.”

“And you didn’t have it, because you send them out,” I said.

She nodded. “About an hour before.”

I sat back. It was always here when things got awkward.

“Here’s the big question,” I said. “How does a ghost pay me?”

“Pay?” she asked.

I was very tempted to roll my eyes, but I rarely even did that to the living.

“Yes, pay,” I said. “I get paid for my time, plus expenses. How does a ghost pay me?”

“I guess I don’t,” she said.

I sighed. “Well, that’s a problem.”

“Please,” she said. She ran forward and tried to grab me, but she fell right through me and out the window. I leaped to my feet and looked outside.

“Sorry,” came her voice from behind me. I spun around to find her standing (again!) in the middle of my desk. “I guess I’m stuck here with you.”

“And me with you,” I said. I sighed. “I can at least ask a couple of questions. What’s your name?”

“Cindy Green,” she said. She bit her lip. “I’m 32 years old. I live on the South side.”

Thirty-two. This was the kind of thing that made me hate being a cop and, sometimes, this job, too.

“I’m not working a case right now,” I told her. “I suppose I can at least ask a couple of questions.” I stood up. “Wait here. I’ll run down to your former employer.”

She looked like she might cry. “Thank you,” she said. “If there’s anything I can do….”

I cut her off. “There’s not,” I said, and left the office and my unearthly visitor behind.

I was halfway down the block when she appeared next to me. “What did I say about staying behind?”

“I can’t,” she said. “I tried, but I keep coming back to you.”

“That’s just great,” I said. I stopped and poked my finger at her. “I don’t need a ghost to follow me around. How am I going to ask questions if people are freaking out?”

A woman walked past me, staring wide-eyed the whole time. Cindy looked at her.

“I don’t think anyone sees me but you,” she said.

“And you’d think that would make me feel lucky,” I said and started walking again, trying to look normal.

I turned the corner and saw Guthrie’s. “Huh,” I said.

“What? What’s wrong?” Cindy asked.

“The cops are there,” I said. “That’s bad, because they don’t really like me since I left the force.” I thought for a moment, then said, “but that’s also good, because it means you weren’t murdered years ago.”

“I think I would know when I was murdered,” she said.

“You don’t even know how you got to my office,” I said. “Be quiet.”

I took a deep breath, then walked inside the building.

“Who is… Oh, it’s you, Jack.”

Captain Alberto Hernandez saw me walk in. Now my day was complete.

“Captain Hernandez,” I said. “Congratulations on the promotion.”

“What are you doing here, Jack?” the captain responded. He was a rude sonovabitch sometimes, usually when I was around.

I decided to try the truth. “I have some questions about the murder of Cindy Green.”

Hernandez looked me up and down, and his eyes narrowed.

“We haven’t released the name yet,” he said.

“So when does CSI arrive?” Yeah, I was mocking him. “Do you have any leads? Witnesses? Security feeds?”

“Don’t be an ass,” Hernandez said. He looked like a man making a decision he didn’t like, then said, “Follow me, Jack.”

I shrugged, and followed.

The shop was neat and clean. Nothing looked out of place, except for the chalk outline on the floor. A “uniform” took a statement from an older Chinese man.

“That’s the owner,” Cindy whispered to me.

I said, “That’s ‘Guthrie’?”

Hernandez said, “When Mr. Zau bought the shop he didn’t change the name. New signs are expensive.”

I pointed at the chalk outline. “Cindy, I presume.”

“Yes,” said Hernandez. Cindy nodded, but didn’t say anything. Could ghosts even get choked up?

The owner came over. “She was good worker,” he said, in heavily accented English. “No complaints.”

“About her, or from her?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered.

Hooray. “Captain,” I said, “did the security footage show anything?”

“No security,” said the owner.

I pointed at a camera up in the corner.

Hernandez said, “Not hooked up. It’s all left over from the last owner. Mr. Zau didn’t want to pay for the service.”

“What?” said Cindy. She yelled at her boss. “You told me it was in your locked office! You told me never to even think of stealing because of it! You… you… you….”

Apparently ghosts could sputter.

I said to the owner, “But you told everyone it worked so your employees wouldn’t steal, am I right?”

“Employees not steal,” he said, nodding.

Hernandez said, “We already checked. The system wasn’t working. The old owner took it with him.”

I nodded, and waved up at the camera. “Somebody knew,” I said. “This isn’t a robbery — nothing is missing. My guess is that someone came in for something they left in their pants but the clothing was already gone to the actual cleaners, so they shot Cindy to cover it up.”

“That’s enough!” Hernandez said, and marched me out of the shop.

“I had more questions,” I said.

“You asked enough,” he said. “It wasn’t a mob hit.”

“But nothing was stolen,” I said.

“How would you know?” he asked.

Instead of answering, I asked, “Where do they ship the clothing to?”

“We’re already there,” he said. “If anything turns up, I’ll call.”

I raised my eyebrow at him. He nodded. “I’ll call, Jack, if only to keep you gone. Now, get lost.” One more push and I was out the door.

Cindy’s questions became demands by the time I reached my office. I ignored her and poured myself another drink. I sat down at my desk, put the glass in front of me, and stared at it.

That finally seemed to shut her up. She sat down across from me (why she could sit on a chair but stand in the center of my desk was not something I was going to ever ask!) and stared at me as intently as I stared at my bourbon. For the next quarter hour, the only sound was the cars driving by on the street below us.

I picked up the glass. “You’re still here,” I said, then downed it in one swallow. Even after all these years, it still warmed my throat a little.

“You haven’t solved my murder,” Cindy said. “I’m not leaving until you do.”

“Not? or can’t?”

Her eyes narrowed as she stared me down. “I don’t know and I don’t care.”

My eyebrows rose at that but, before I could say anything, my cell rang. I set the glass down and pulled the phone out of my pocket.

“Jack Coates, Private Investigator,” I answered.

“Jack.” It was Hernandez, being nice to me again.

“Captain,” I said, “please tell me you found something.”

“We came up empty,” he said. “Nothing in the pockets of any article of clothing,” he said, “and nothing that fell out of the laundry bags.”

“Thank you, Captain," I said. “I mean it,” I said.

“Stay out of this, Jack,” the captain said. “And I mean that.”

“Thanks for the advice, Captain.” I hung up the phone.

I gulped down another two fingers of bourbon. Cindy waited. I’d say she was on the edge of her seat, except I don’t understand how she’s in that seat at all.

“Nothing,” I said. “They found nothing.” I shrugged. “Maybe it was a robbery.”

“You said it wasn’t,” she spit out.

“I said that to get those cops to talk,” I told her. “Nothing looked stolen, but maybe something was and your boss doesn’t know it. You don’t know and you don’t remember anything. Unless you start being more helpful….”

“I’M TRYING!” she yelled. She stepped forward and stood in the center of my desk again. She leaned forward and slapped her hands on the blotter. “FIGURE IT OUT!”

I looked at her hands. “How do you manage to go through some objects and not others?” I asked. I picked up my empty glass.

She growled at me and slapped the glass out of my hand. It hit the wall and broke into shards.

I glared at my unwanted client. “That’s coming out of expenses,” I said. I got to my feet, making look up at a me. It’s an old dominance trick, and I hoped it worked on ghosts, too.

“I’ve got nothing,” I said. “Unless you come up with something, you may as well head toward a light. I’ll turn on the desk lamp if you need help.”

She continued to glare at me. It seemed the trick either didn’t work on ghosts, or didn’t work on her. I suspected the latter.

Suddenly, the door opened. Cindy turned around and gasped at one of my favorite people.

“Don’t stand on ceremony, Danny,” I said. “Take a seat.”

“I’m not stayin’,” he growled. “Heard you’se lookin’ at da laundry.”

“Well, Danny boy, diction aside, I just asked a couple of questions,” I said. “What’s it to you?”

“Nothin’ ta me,” he said, “but the, uh, boss would na be happy ‘bout you pokin’ around.”

I tried for a cocky smile, and I thought I nailed it. I glanced over at Cindy, and almost lost the smile. Her hands covered her mouth, and she was leaning half into the wall. She looked like she had seen a ghost, if you’ll forgive the expression.

“Danny, Danny, Danny,” I said, trying to annoy him further, “does Dermody even know that you shot up one of his protection rackets?”

Narrowed eyes, pursed lips, his left hand balled into a fist. “Whadya talkin’ ‘bout,” he said.

“Come on, Danny boy, level with your old friend Jack. What did you leave behind? Why did you shoot her?”

He frowned. “Dat ain’t my coat,” he said.

“Dropping off for someone else,” I said. “Very magnanimous of you. What was in the coat, Danny?”

“Nothin’,” he said, swallowing the end of the word.

I flicked a piece of dirt off my shoe. “Danny,” I said, without looking up, “I can get it back. Tell me what it was and it’s yours.”

His eyes were so narrow I’m sure he couldn’t see out of them.

“Why?”

I smiled. “Because you’re my favorite enforcer, Danny boy,” I said. “And to stay in Dermody’s good graces. Besides….”

I stood up, and walked around the desk so I could get another look at Cindy. She pointed at him, and nodded. I nodded back, and got right up in Danny’s face.

“Besides,” I continued, “you know how the cops treat me now. My dad was on the force. My grandfather was a cop. I was a good cop until the idiots on the donut patrol decided they didn’t want the trouble I was in. So screw ‘em, I say.”

“Yeah,” he said.

I nodded. “So what was it?”

“Medal,” he said. “You know, like in the arm… boy scouts. Nothin’ much. A heart thing.”

“I think I can find it,” I said. “Give me a few hours. I’ll give you a call.”

He leaned in close. “Give it to just me. The, uh, boss’l be happy.”

He was trying to intimidate me. I shrunk back a little; let him think he succeeded. He nodded again, and walked out.

Cindy said, “That was him. I remember!”

“I figured that,” I said. “Is the laundry closed now?”

She blinked, and looked at the clock. “Yes, about half an hour ago. What are you going to do?”

“Break in,” I said, “if your boss has gone home.”

“He killed me!” she said. “Why are you helping him?”

I gave her the single most condescending look I could give. It’s not that great of a look.

“You mean, why did I tell him I would help him?” I said.

“You lied to him?” She sounded miffed at the suggestion.

“I apologize if lying is an offensive thing to do in the afterlife,” I said. “Let’s get this done.”

We were halfway to the laundry when a black car pulled up. A voice from inside said, “Get in, Jack, won’t you?”

I shrugged at Cindy, and got inside. The car pulled away.

“Mr. Dermody,” I said, “how nice to see you. I just had a visit from your employee.”

Cindy appeared sitting next to me. A guy can’t even talk to an Irish mob boss by himself. Her eyes widened when she him, but she quickly turned her head.

“I am aware,” said Dermody. “Indeed, Daniel Irons was, until recently, in my employ.”

“‘Danny’ to his friends,” I said.

“He has no friends,” said Dermody.

“When you’re right, you’re right,” I said. “You say you fired him?”

“He left,” Dermody half-snarled.

This was starting to come into focus. “Lemme guess. Wanted more? Jumped ship, maybe to those new guys from south of the border?”

Dermody frowned, and muttered an obscenity. Cindy shifted in her seat. I glanced over at her. I was trying to work here. What was her problem?

“I don’t understand,” I said. “People have tried to leave before. Some saw their error, and some,” I shrugged, “…didn’t.”

Dermody said, “He’s been with me a long time and knows how my business is run. I… didn’t appreciate him leaving.”

“To protect himself, he’s blackmailing you,” I said. “He has the medal, and you want it back.”

Dermody became very still. My spine abruptly froze like a Chicago winter, but now was no time to stop.

I said, “You can’t get it back if you kill him and he doesn’t have it.”

“Kill him? Ha ha ha ha ha!” Yes, Dermody’s fake laugh was actually five ha’s.

“Nobody wants him dead!” Dermody finished.

“I do,” said Cindy. She was staring at Dermody, and biting her lip. This was getting weird, says the guy with the ghost as a client.

Dermody said, “I just want to... make him a better offer.”

“You’re a hell of a boss,” I said. “Tell you what… I’m supposed to meet Danny later. I’ll call you first so you can talk to him.”

Dermody’s smile never seemed to reach his eyes. “It’s important to me,” he said.

I didn’t bother to smile. “I know. I’ll get it back. I am strongly motivated.”

The car slowed to a stop. I opened the door but, before I could get out, Dermody said, “I am strongly motivated, as well.”

I nodded, and got out. Cindy followed me. She wiped her hand across her eyes as Dermody sped away.

I shook my head. “What was that all about? What’s with you and Dermody?”

She looked away. It was obvious she wasn’t going to talk.

I sighed. “We’ve got a walk ahead of us. Let’s not waste any more time.”

We reached our destination and I nonchalantly turned to the back alley behind Guthrie’s. The metal door was locked with police caution tape everywhere.

"Is there a hidden key?" I asked.

She shook her head. "I never had a key. He didn't trust anyone.”

I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out my favorite lock-picks. The lock was a little stiff, but since the camera wasn’t recording anyway, I took my time. The door responded. I went inside and quickly closed the door behind me. She followed me through the steel.

“That was mature,” she scolded, “shut the dead woman out.”

My lips twisted up a bit at the corners, which only served to make her more angry. But we were inside, and it was time to put our cards on the table, as more famous detectives sometimes said.

“Okay,” I said. “Where is it?”

Cindy put her hands on her hips and glared ghostly daggers at me. “Where is what?”

“The medal,” I said. “Dermody’s son was a Marine. He died overseas two years ago. Rumors are that his death crushed Dermody. His wife left him and he didn’t chase her, and for a controlling sonovabitch like Dermody, that’s something. Dermody kept his son’s Purple Heart in his office. Danny said it was a medal ‘like a heart thing.’ So where is it?”

Cindy wasn’t glaring anymore, but she wasn’t talking, so I continued.

“I don’t know why it was in the pocket of the jacket Danny dropped off. Maybe he was being followed. Maybe he’s just that stupid. I know which one I’d pick. But Danny dropped it here, and it stayed here, which means you had it.”

“The lost and found,” she said.

“It wasn’t lost,” I said. “You knew what it was and who it belonged to.”

Cindy walked to the garment conveyer that filled the interior of the shop. “I know what a Purple Heart is. I would’ve put it in the lost and found.”

“But you knew this particular one,” I said. “You saw it before.”

She looked away.

“It hung on the wall of his office,” I said. “Everyone knows it. He pinned it to his son’s uniform name tag, and mounted it on the wall. When you removed it from the pocket you saw the name ‘Dermody’ on it. You knew.”

“No!” she said.

I walked over and stood in front of her. “You knew, because you’ve been in his office many times.”

She couldn’t meet my eyes. “I… he… was lonely. He’d lost his son… his wife….”

I don’t know if ghosts just sound more sorrowful than living people, but she really felt something for that murderous mobster.

“You were lovers,” I said. “God! You loved him! He’s a monster! He has people killed. He’s had people I know killed. You were sleeping with him? You feel sorry for him? For him?!”

“He was alone!” she cried. “His son died!”

“Dermody deserved it,” I said. “How many people’s sons has he killed? How many fathers?”

Ghosts cry translucent tears, did you know that? It was, perhaps, the first truly spooky thing I’d seen her do.

“Where is it?” I pressed.

“I don’t remember,” she said. She looked at everything in the shop, at every place I knew it wasn’t.

I nodded. “Of course. You didn’t put it your purse. Someone might look there. Your dress doesn’t have pockets. The cops would’ve seen a purple heart lying on a shelf. That leaves only one place.”

I pressed the red button, engaging the conveyor, and the clothes moved on the rack.

“Those clothes are clean,” she said.

I kept quiet until some dresses like Cindy’s appeared. Cindy looked tense as they came closer. A bag was looped over the hangers, like the white plastic bags supermarkets no longer use.

“No,” Cindy whispered.

I reached into the bag and pulled out the official government recognition of a young man’s bravery. For a grieving father and a murderous monster, it was all that was left of his son. A Purple Heart, pinned to a piece of green cloth that read ‘Dermody’ in block script.

Someone cocked a gun.

Cindy gasped. I dropped the Heart into my overcoat and turned around. Of course it was Danny.

“You were supposed to wait for my call, Danny boy.” I smiled. “You saved me time.”

Now the gun was pointed directly at me. “You’se gonna give it to me now, or I’s takin’ it off ya corpse.”

Of course “corpse” would be the word he can pronounce perfectly.

“He’ll kill you,” I said. “You keep it and stay in town, if you stay in the country, Dermody will kill you. Let me take it to him. I’ll stall him, and you can get out of town. You screwed up, Danny, but I’ll still save your life.”

“Give it!” he said.

“Fine.” I reached into my pocket, grabbed my wallet, and threw it. When it left my hand, I ran through the clothing and up the conveyor ramp, shoving suits out of my way.

“JACK!” Danny yelled. Nobody said he was… well, yes, actually, everyone said he was stupid, but even a stupid man won’t confuse a wallet with a Purple Heart.

Shots rang out and bullets tore through the clothing. I made it up the ramp and into the small area above the office. I pinned myself in the corner, drew my gun in my right hand and my phone in my left. I had a text ready, and sent that quickly. Then I hit quick dial, but before it connected I heard Danny climbing up to where I was. I set the phone down, and fired a couple of shots in Danny’s general direction.

“Help!” I yelled.

“Youse ain’t gettin’ help!” yelled Danny.

Cindy materialized from the dresses. “He’s almost up here,” she said.

I saw the clothing move, but her help was better. “Tell me when.”

The clothing kept moving. She shouted, “Now, Jack! Now!”

I shot four times. He grunted, so I knew I’d hit him, but he didn’t fall. I aimed lower, and fired again.

“Godammit!” His yell was muffled by the clothing, but I could hear him slip down the ramp.

He fired more shots which missed, but the clothing around me spontaneously developed holes. I crawled to a vent, kicked it, and it crashed down. I looked for my phone. Nothing. Either a bullet had hit it, or it had slid off the platform.

Danny had reloaded, and one of his shots hit my leg before I could roll out of the way. Right then, the ceiling decided it had had enough. I fell into the office and on top of Danny.

My gun took the opportunity to fly away into the shadows by the back door.

I forced my leg to move. Danny was trying to stand. I knew I would not find my gun before I ended up joining Cindy in the afterlife. I ran back to the front of the store then dove over the counter. I couldn’t escape that way — the windows had metal doors.

Cindy faded in. “You didn’t kill him!”

“I know,” I said. “I lost my gun.”

“I want him dead!” she screamed.

“Then kill him yourself!” I screamed back.

I heard a crash as Danny pushed out from under the wreckage.

I whispered, “I’m out of ideas.” She vanished.

“Yooo-hooo!” Danny cried in a weird accent. He was probably trying to emulate a movie.

Suddenly the conveyor started. Danny fired in that direction. I stood up, hoping to tackle him.

I didn’t have the chance. A gun spat and bullets tore into Danny until the gun clicked. Danny fell down, dead. Cindy took her hand off the button, and cried, “Look out!”

Dermody was standing in the doorway. He held my attention and my gun.

“You got my text,” I said.

“I did,” he said. He handed my gun back. “Thank you for the loan. It will prevent awkward questions.”

Cindy suddenly shouted. “I did it! I got you!” Her yelling included Danny’s name.

I decided to ignore that weirdness. At least I could only see one of the ghosts involved.

Dermody looked at the body. “You have no idea what he did.”

“I have an inkling,” I said. Suddenly there was silence. Cindy had vanished again.

Dermody gasped. “Cindy?” He swallowed hard. “Is that… Cindy?”

I looked, but I couldn’t see her anywhere.

Dermody closed his eyes tight. “No!” he said. He shook his head. “Stop it! You’re dead!”

Even a monster could be in for a rough ride. “She is dead. Danny killed her. She recognized the Purple Heart, and held on to it. It got her killed.” I pulled the medal from my pocket. It was his, after all. “I don’t know if her death means anything to you. She tried to help you.”

“She…,” he began.

“Even dead, she has bad taste in men,” I said. “She came to me because of this.” I nodded to the empty air.

“I called the police,” I continued. “They weren’t having me tailed like you were, but they’re coming.”

He didn’t leave. He gestured at empty space. “Is this… real?”

“I’ve been dealing with it all night,” I said. “Your turn.”

He nodded, but at the door, he stopped like he was listening. He held up the Heart. “Thank you,” he said. “I won’t forget.” He paused. “She says thank you, too.”

Then he was gone.

While I waited for the police, I said, “Dermody got the girl, but Danny, I tried to save your life. I guess that will have to do.”

I listened for a response, but heard nothing except the approaching sirens.