January 11th (Mid-morning): Figures
It was nearly half past eight when I woke up. The pillow was soaked from my late-night/early-morning shower, the smell of shampoo wrapped around my head like a thick envelope. As I tugged myself upright, I felt as if my head stayed down.
"What is it you said your mother called you on days like this? Mr. Mugwort?"
"Muggins. It was Mr. Muggins." I rubbed my eyes and then stared at Joseph's empty bed. He was in here, he'd just spoken. Why couldn't I see him? "I was five, I think
I turned towards the sound, but the only thing I could see was the wall. This was starting to get
well, scary, if it must be said. "Where are you?"
He snorted, or at least I thought he had. "What? Can't see me?"
"No, I can't. Stop hiding." He had to be hiding. I'd been seeing ghosts since I was six years old, I was not going to stop seeing them now that it was important. "I know you are."
"Not hiding," he said, "I am on the lookout, if you must know."
That was almost a relief, but he still hadn't come out. "Why?"
"Call me crazy, but I think I'm going to help you with your bug-eyed plan." He sighed. Things like that marked him out against the other, longer-dead ghosts. I wondered if he cared. "Eventually. But for now, I'm helping the higher-ups."
I yawned, waiting for him to explain. Where was my toothbrush?
"That means I'm keeping watch at the bathroom window, genius. You were right, there's only one day guard, and he's a livie."
This time I snorted. "Who made that decision?"
"Someone with less brains than half a phone directory. Are you awake now?"
Abney was a ghost, and a killer. They knew he'd targeted me, and they had one living person at the window. Someone had a busted neuron. "I think I might be
"Your toothbrush is on the sink."
I got up and staggered into the bathroom, trailing my blanket until I managed to untangle my legs.. My head felt thick as a bar of chocolate stored in the freezer. The bathroom door was stuck again, and yanking it open helped to wake me up a bit.
My toothbrush was indeed on the sink, as was the toothpaste. I blinked at them, wondering how I could have been in a state of mind organized enough to put them in such an ordinary place. The medicine cabinet was one thing, but in plain sight and in a rational place? Not a common occurrence for someone who had once left the thing marking page fifty-seven of Sleepy Hollow.
While I brushed my teeth, Joseph filled me in on what I'd missed after I'd collapsed into bed. "If it makes you feel any better, you didn't take a very long shower. I dunno if you noticed."
I spat in the sink.
"They changed the guard at half past five, and he is not the chatty sort. I tried to ask him when the guard would change again, hopefully to include a ghost, but he just said that he was doing his job and would I kindly leave him to it." Joseph made a face and a rude gesture in the general direction of the window.
After a moment's thought, I set the toothbrush back where I'd found it. I couldn't remember the last time I'd done that. Then I washed my face.
"Anyway. It doesn't look like you can get past this one."
There weren't any towels at hand
"I can find another way out."
"Or you can't. You know, I could stop you again."
For a few moments, I just stood there with my soapy head over the sink, the only sound in the room coming from the faucet. Then I just splashed my face one last time, turned the knob, and took off my shirt to use it as a towel. "If you try it, I'll go anyway. See how quickly I can contract pneumonia. Or frostbite."
Guilt, or bitterness, tainted what he said next. "Are you ever reasonable?"
"I used to be. It was your job to be the unreasonable one." I almost said that I was filling a gap, but my voice left me before I could. He was still here, but it wasn't the same, and never would be.
But he was right, I wasn't going to be able to get through that window with a guard like that. I wandered back into our room to get dressed. Most of my things were where they belonged in the dresser, but my coat and shoes had been kicked into the middle of the room. I picked up my coat and tried to tug out the wrinkles. Pity. I only had one.
"Would it break your heart to get a shirt on?"
"No." I started looking for one. "Sorry, am I offending your delicate sensibilities?"
There was a long pause. "Look, Hollowmark, it's bad enough being dead. That's failure enough for one guy, don't you find?"
I opened the closet door, then stopped short. "What are you talking about?"
He sighed again. "Now who's the brainless prat?"
"Me, apparently. Tell me what you meant."
He pointed at my shoulder. "That's my fault. It'd help if you didn't feel you have to throw it in my face at every opportunity."
Oh. I grabbed the first shirt I could see, then pulled it on and glanced over the buttons as quickly as I could. "I'm sorry, I-I'd forgot." It didn't hurt, and I did have other scars that were my own fault. I didn't really think about any of them very much.
"You shouldn't blame yourself"
"Yes, I should." He had his hands in his pockets, just like he used to when he was trying not to punch a wall.
There probably wasn't anything I could say, so I kept my mouth shut as I put on my shoes. Whatever else, I did have to get back to that house, for answers at least. I could try to help the ghosts, it was my job. Even if their problems were a bit outside my sphere of experience. To be honest, Abney had been and still was even farther outside of it.
On a mad impulse, I decided to go up to talk to Caitlyn. A man expecting to die could afford to be brave, after all. I locked the dorm room and started for the elevator.
"Er, thank you."
"Don't mention it
" Whenever Joseph admitted to some awkwardness, I couldn't help feeling the same. Perhaps because I was more inclined toward it than he ever had been. "Who's at the Desk in the mornings?"
"You mean today? Christine Larson."
I bit my tongue. I hadn't meant to say that out loud. "N-nothing. No, it's good, she'll let me out."
"Will she?" Joseph leaned his head in front of mine, and I couldn't walk past, around, or through him. "That's a good thing, isn't it?"
"Yes. Stop doing that."
"Doing what? Catching you out?"
He did pull his face away, but he didn't stop talking, even as the hum of the elevator started up. "I bet I know what you were thinking." Then he mimicked my accent, and probably mimed a few of my habits as well. "Pity it's Christine at the Desk, she's a nice old lady, but she isn't Caitlyn Davis. Ah, yes," he stopped mimicking me, but he was still making fun. "I've seen you moon over her. Like a fifteen-year-old boy."
"I know. Next you're gonna say how you've been married, as if that means anything."
The elevator doors swished open, and I stepped out into the hall. "I have, and it does!"
"Not what you think it does."
"Only if you'll admit that you wrote her poetry."
I stopped walking so I could glare at him properly. "I haven't." On that score, at least, I was secure in my safety. I really hadn't.
He looked back into my eyes, and I let him search for whatever it was he thought he needed to find. Git. Finally he started down the hall again. "Okay, so you haven't. That doesn't mean you don't want to."
I ran after him, wishing he had legs so I could at least try to kick the backs of his feet. "I don't!"
"You don't what, dear?"
The reception room was closer to the elevators than I'd realized. Christine was looking up at us with a curious smile. She was a nice old lady, exactly like someone's favorite grandmother. Her blonde hair was going gray at her temples, and she dressed her part, to put it simply.
"He was saying he doesn't smoke, ma'am," Joseph 'explained' before I could come up with a less honest lie.
"Oh, I see." She turned back to her papers. "Why were you shouting about a think like that, Mr. Hollowmark?"
The right words didn't come. I just stood there like an idiot.
"Because I caught him at it," Joseph said, helpfully. "And I was telling him to just admit he couldn't totally kick the habit."
I bit my lip so I wouldn't correct him. There was something going on that I was too slow to pick up on, and it probably would not be a good idea to explain that I had actually quit smoking years ago.
"A nasty habit it is, too." Christine looked disapprovingly at the dog-end in Joseph's hand.
He grinned sheepishly, but didn't get rid of it. "A topic for another day. For now, I'm just pushing him to go out, buy a pack and worry about quitting tomorrow."
She eyeballed him. It was the perfect word for the look she gave him. I didn't move.
"After all, he can't quit if he won't even admit he does it."
I held my breath. After a year-ful of seconds, Christine nodded.
In a daze, I followed Joseph out the front door. I'd call it 'bold as brass', but I did flinch when the automatic door beeped, so I had to knock points off for that. It wasn't until we were halfway out of the public car park that I found my voice again. "How did you do that?"
"Use what you have on hand, m'laddo," he said, so cheerful I found myself waiting for him to start whistling. "I figured no one would tell anyone at the Desk to keep you in the building."
I left it at that. I'd thought as much myself, but if anyone had stopped to ask what I'd planned, I just might have answered with a long drawn-out "um
" or less. After a moment's thought, of course. So much for being the thinker. "I don't have my car keys."
"Big deal. We'll take a bus."
I grimaced. I'd always hated buses. As a career latch-key kid, I'd been introduced to the city bus route by the time I move up to high school. It was not a recommendable acquaintance for someone who saw ghosts and didn't know why, and I still didn't like it even now. Bus ghosts were creepy.
"Don't whine, we'll stay away from number 45." Joseph was ahead of me again, probably so he wouldn't see me catching him at being nice. I was amazed that he remembered.
I thanked him inaudibly, then took a roundabout path out onto the sidewalk so we wouldn't be seen by the window guard. "How far is the bus stop from here? I don't even know where it is."
"Five minutes, if you run. Which you should dowe need to catch the 9:15 to the Umbrella Avenue stop."
He pointed, and I ran. As the bus bearing a nearly burnt-out number 17 came into view, I sped up from merely running to legging it. Unfortunately, that made it hard to stop. I nearly crashed into an obviously university student. He gave me a dirty look, then glanced over my shoulder.
I heard Joseph swear, but I couldn't even make out the words as the throng of people waiting for the bus inexorably became passengers on it. It made me feel a bit like orange juice pulp going from the glass to the garbage disposal.
When it had calmed down a bit, I wasn't exactly shocked to find I was among the standing. However, I did not expect to find the university student standing next to me. He had a wooden, grandfather sort of cane, and an evidently heavy backpack covered in zippers. The fact that he was wearing mostly black combined with his overall dark features made me wonder if he wanted to be noticed or to fade into some kind of background.
In deference mostly to the fact that I had nearly run him over before, I moved aside so he could take the empty seat near me. I noticed that the crazy bag lady's spirit moved as well. Polite of her. She winked at me, and I smiled. I'd have to mark this as one of the good buses.
The university student stared at me blankly for a moment, then smirked and guided an elderly woman into the now truly vacant seat. She beamed at both of us and pulled out a bag of knitting.
"Careful," Joseph whispered in my ear. I pretended not to notice. Something wasn't right. I could feel plenty of ghosts around us, at least five, not counting Joseph, but I couldn't see any of them. Were they hiding?
Meanwhile, the university student was staring a hole through my forehead. He had surprisingly big eyes that made his nose look smaller than I assumed it actually was, and they gave the rest of his face a hungry, sunken look. A very thin scar wound down his face from his left temple to his earif the morning sun hadn't been so strong, I might not have seen it at all.
"My name's Hancuff."
"Oh my, is it really?"
Apparently this was funny. "Yeah. Family name, of course. My mother tried to make up for it, but there's not much redemption in 'Dannon'.
My first name."
"Oh." I couldn't think of anything else to say, and that seemed safe enough.
He shrugged. "C'est la vie. Who are you?"
For a moment I just watched him. This usually worked when I wanted someone to leave me alone and nothing else would deter them. He just looked me in the eye, unblinking. My eyes might have started to water if I hadn't remembered that I was not eleven years old and staring contests had an age limit. "Why on earth do you want to know?"
"That's kinda rude, innit? I just told you my name."
"I never asked."
It was a good thing Joseph wasn't anywhere in my line of sight. I wanted his advice, though. "I suppose
My name is Johnathan Hollowmark."
"And you thought my name's odd. Yours sounds half made up."
The bus lurched, but the young man didn't move. It was like watching a sailor on a wave-rocked dinghy. I couldn't help a tiny flare of grudging admiration. There was something unsettling about Dannon Hancuff that wasn't entirely to do with his sharp smirk or oddly resigned way of standing.
He flattened himself against the crowd to let an old man wearing a Dodgers cap go past. "You came from that weird research building," he said. It probably should have been a question, but his tone remained flat, neutral.
"Yes," I said. Curious that Joseph didn't have something to say about this boy. By now I would have thought he'd come up with something clever and insulting.
"What do you do there?"
Warning lights went off in my brain. "Research."
I expected a fight for a more detailed answer, but he just nodded. "You can call me Dannon, by the way."
"How fortunate for me."
This was meant to be funny, but the weak laugh was still a little disturbing. It wasn't at all loud, but it somehow made the rest of the world seem quieter in comparison. "And I suppose I can only call you Hollowmark."
"Most people do."
"At that weird building, you mean."
The bus hit a pothole and I nearly careened into a tall pregnant-looking man who smelled of curry and old sugar. Irritated by the near-collision and the odor, I held tighter to the bar and growled, "Listen, I'm not really in a position that invites idle chatting."
"I'll say. You're haunted."
"What?" I felt as if Joseph had just walked through me again. This persistent little horror with spiky, badly cut hair and fifth-hand clothing could see Joseph. I shook my head, then stared hard at him.
I expected to receive a smarmy grin, but he just looked calmly back at me. "You know it too, don't you?"
If there was a God, it was a higher power with disgustingly poor timing. The brakes screeched as we came to the Umbrella Avenue stop, and then the doors hissed open. I brushed past Dannon and stepped out onto the sidewalk.
He followed me. Of all the unmitigated gall, he actually hopped off the bus right behind me. There was no one for Joseph to hide in or behind now.
Except me. The chill of it made me shiver, but there was snow on the ground. I could write it off to that.
"Lots of people come out of that building with someone following them." Dannon leaned on his cane and adjusted his backpack. I hoped it had lots of ten-pound textbooks in it.
I almost started to explain, but an icy finger poked me in the back. "We are not recruiters," Joseph whispered. "Don't."
There wasn't anything else I could do, though. "Yes, I'm haunted," I said finally, wincing at the victorious smirk. "But it's none of your business."
"I can help get rid of him, though."
A strong wind could have knocked me down. I didn't know whether to laugh or be exasperated. "You're a freelancer?"
"Oh, never mind." I pinched the bridge of my nose and wished I really had started up smoking again. "I don't have time for this. Dannon, this is Joseph, and I do not want him to leave me alone. I wouldn't know what to do with myself if he did."
"You'd die in a week without me to keep you from doing even stupider things than this." A feeling like snow down my shirt went up my leg. I didn't look to see what had caused it.
Rather than prolong what had already gone completely pants, I turned on my heel and walked briskly in the right direction.
Somehow, Dannon kept up with me. I could hear three alternating footsteps turning out an odd beat as he started to catch up. "Most people"
"Are not me, what an astute observation."
"Come on, at least say why! This is how I pay for textbooks, it's my business."
Snow was beginning to come down in fat white flakes. I jerked to a stop, then turned so sharply my ankle twinged. "No, it is my business. If you want it to be yours, then you can go to the 'research building' and ask at the Desk. Tell them Hollowmark sent you."
That should have done it. That should have sent the boy packing, straight for the Desk and Christine. But he shook his head. "I'll go later. Right now, I want to know why you're so set on going this way. It's bad news."
"Is it." I knew it was, but if he knew, then maybe
Joseph swung around, circling both of us. "Simon Abney," he said, his voice dark, heavy, and sharp, like an obsidian cleaver.
If the air hadn't already been crisp enough to shame an industrial meat locker, it would have found a way to get colder just then. Dannon tapped snow off one of his shoes, for the first time refusing to meet my gaze.
I wanted an explanation, but demanding one wouldn't speed it up. Feigning patience, I kept my eyes on Dannon.
"Dying is supposed to stop people like that, I thought," he said, finally looking as sure of himself as he actually had a right to. "I read about that guy in the paper. Mad as a Danish sausage."
"Well, now he's as powerful as the smell of a wormy, rotting sausage," I said, perhaps a bit tetchily. "So you'd do best to go home, at the very least."
"How do you know I don't live around here?" The smirk was back at immeasurably high levels of smarm, I couldn't even remember Joseph looking that confidently smug. It was maddening, but also undeniably impressive.
However, Joseph himself seemed decidedly underwhelmed. He blew a few smoke rings at Dannon, who disappointed me by dodging. Then, in much the same substandard fashion, Joseph started down the street.
I didn't experience the same sort of pseudo-gravitational pull towards Joseph that anchored him to me, but I did have the remainder of a similar one constructed during his life. As he glided down the street, I brought up the rear, dutiful as anything.
Dannon must have either made a quick pull of his own or took 'aimless' wandering entirely the wrong way. "I can help," he insisted.
"Ha!" Joseph was still the only person I knew who could pronounce a sneer. "Your voice still cracks!"
It hadn't yet, but by luck, or Dannon's lack thereof, it did when he protested. He pretended not to have noticed, but Joseph laughed like a drunk who'd just won at table tennis.
The weight of knowing my own death was an unknown yet short distance away took away any of the fun I could personally have had over this. I wrinkled my nose and tried to think. This was difficult, too. Another person who could see the right things would be helpful, but he was self-educated, which was almost as bad as not knowing anything. Not to mention, I could be leading him to his death.
But something told me that willingly accepting Dannon's help would be about that same as failing to stop him tagging along without anyone's permission. Armed with this, I said, "He'll learn the hard things fastest, Lovelace." While he stared at me in dumbfounded annoyance, I turned to Dannon. "Come on then, Hancuff. We go by surnames in this business, it makes it easier to pretend we're serious." I realized too late that Joseph was going to be very very angry indeed. That was pretty much what he had said to me when we'd first met. Odd that I even remembered it.
Dannon practically glowed, and although he didn't cheer or jump up and down, I was certain he wanted to. "Right," he said. "That way, is it?"
Only Joseph Q. Lovelace could interrupt a nod. "He's just a baby! If the higher-ups don't hang you for this, his parents will."
"Haven't got any," Dannon said, grinning. "Problem solved."
I started walking. At the rate they were headed, if I didn't get us all moving, we'd be standing in front of the ugly pink split-level for the rest of the day. They could argue while we walked.
And they did. After Joseph called Dannon a flippant dandelion of a pansy's bastard, I stopped paying attention. He was amusing when he got really flustered, but I was not in a mood to laugh. I also wasn't in a mood to compound offenses. If I did end up dead soon, I'd be in a position where he could actually hit me.
There were children in front of that house again. It was on the other side of the street, but the slower pace of walking allowed me to see what exactly they were doing. The smallest two, a girl and a boy, were alternately making snow angels and digging holes. Two slightly taller and probably older girls ran around throwing snow balls at one another and missing ninety percent of the time.
Someone tapped my shoulder, and I nearly shouted. I spun around so that I would have fallen if I'd made more than a ninety-degree rotation. "Yes, what?" It should have been a point of pride that I didn't sound snappish, but just then I wanted to, so I declared it a failure.
"You looked lost for a second. I just wondered if you forgot"
"I didn't." That time I did sound snappish. I gave myself three points for doing it without any vulgarity.
Unfortunately, Dannon wrested away five points for smiling self-effacingly and settling back on our mutual way without further comment.
For his part, Joseph was sulking. He kept well away from Dannon, and even a marked distance from me. Every now and then, he opened his mouth to say something, but he would always clap his mouth shut with an audible clacking sound, then turn away again.
We stopped on the corner that began Sanchez Street. The house with the unsightly lawn ornaments was dimmer now, a sure sign that Abney had definitely gone some time ago. Closer to us, the house we'd found the little girl in was unchanged, and the others
I didn't want to think about them yet.
"What happened here?" Dannon sounded like someone who had just been unceremoniously dumped into a war zone. His voice was hushed and constricted with awe. "This is where he struck last
or-or first, right?"
"There's a lot goes on that doesn't reach the papers," Joseph muttered, dryer than bone meal. "Last chance to turn around, kiddo."
Dannon glared at him. "I'm not leaving for love, money, or hell's high water."
The badly mixed metaphors made me wince, but I was through fighting over this. It'd be better for the boy if he were to leave now, but if he did, it would not put him in good standing with most of the other mediators. A kid like this would need the organization sooner or later
No parents, good grief. That was an old story. It was everyone's story, wasn't it?
While Joseph turned up his nose in that singularly irritating way I always hoped he would lose, I put an arm around Dannon's shoulders and started walking again. "It will come to any number of unpleasant things," I said, affecting a grandfatherly manner. It was almost fun.
"Have you ever seen the inside of a human head?"
"Yeah, as a matter of fact."
Yet again, he'd managed to impress me, damned if I'd let it tell on me, though. "In pieces?"
This time he paused before saying, "Well, yes, but they were organized pieces. I'm in medical school."
I sighed. And he wanted to throw his life away over a ghost he'd run into on the city bus. Tragedy truly was everywhere. "This would be rather different."
"I can imagine."
"I'm not so certain. If everything goes pear-shaped, than the head in question will be mine."
That got his attention. The boy recoiled, then turned it into an excuse to find a steadier stance. "Why yours?"
Explanations would take too long, and we had work to do. I waved away the question and shook my head. "We're going in this house."
"Someone's waiting for us."
The bottom tip of the cane was not sharp, not the way a knife was. However, it was rather like being stepped on by an insistent, heavy finger. Dannon was going to be an asset for getting into places with living guards, I could tell already. "Who's waiting?"
"A little girl, and a baby, at least," Joseph answered for me. "So can we just go?" He was sulking again, and I didn't blame him. We both knew policies. I wasn't a recruiter, and I'd more or less conscripted the boy. Under duress, but still. Changes were not looked upon kindly by the higher-ups, or by anyone else in the organization, not really. Not so for people like Petersen, sometimes, but they were odd. We'd found the kid, he was ours now.