bill prime and the zero ring men – chapter one

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-1-

Lucy’s Perfect Pitch

Bill Prime sat in his office.  His eyes were closed, his chin rested on his chest.  He had his feet up.  The double-pedestaled desk was flesh-toned, with chrome molding around top.  It was a teacher’s desk from a high school.  A cup of bitter coffee rested on his lap, held in both of his hands.  The phone in front of him was made for multiple lines, black, with a front panel and a card to write in the different extensions.  Bill only had one extension.

The phone rang.

“Bill?”

“Mhhph.  Yeah?  Yes.”

“It’s Francine.”

“I know.”  Bill took his feet down.  The chair squeaked as he sat forward.  “How is he?”

“He’s fine, Bill.  He’s a five year-old.  They bounce back.”

“I know.  I miss him.  I can’t wait to see him.”

“Well, Bill…”

“What?”

“Did you get a lawyer yet?  I don’t think so.  Not on what you make.  Not with that job.  You need to get a real job, Bill, stop hiding from the world.  Ghost hunting?  It’s embarassing.  People think you’re crazy.”

“What people?  I’m a cold case private detective.  I’ve got a job today.  This house has been sitting on the market for years.  Property manager says there’s been-”

“Whatever.  Do you want your son to think you’re crazy?”

“No.”  Bill closed his eyes.  Francine was silent for a moment.

“What do you want, Bill?”

“I can see him.  I can pick him up in two days, like we said.  Right?”

She sighed.  “You can’t drag him around to work with you.  And if anything ever happens like before…”

“I won’t.  It won’t.  Thank you, Frannie.”

“Don’t call me that.”

She hung up.

A half an hour later Bill was at the country farm house in Ridgeview.  The snow was melting and the temperatures were up in the high thirties.  It was a February thaw when it had supposed to be a January thaw.  The tails of February, really – tomorrow would be March 1st.

Lucy was standing on the warped front porch, singing softly to herself.  The boards in the floor bowed and had sprung several nails.  She held onto one of the two pillars at the head of the three stairs.  One stair tread had long ago lost a chunk and there was a ragged, splintered hole there, just enough to swallow a foot, to snap an ankle.

“Be careful of those steps,” he said to her, walking up.  She made no move as if she were going to descend from the porch to greet him, but stopped singing.  Maybe he was talking to himself.  After all, consider who she was.

She had thin curls of hair underneath a red embroidered handkerchief.  If she had leukemia or cancer or female pattern baldness, she’d never admitted to it.  As he neared the porch he heard the chirping of his cell phone from his inner breast pocket.  He reached into his blazer and took it out.  It wasn’t an incoming call.  The battered phone was acting as though it were dying of battery, when it had held a full charge only that morning.  He gently hit at it with the heel of his palm, yawning while he did.

“You’ll have that,” said Lucy.  Bill stopped at the bottom of the three steps and looked up at her.  She was heavyset, but not entirely fat.  When she spoke he would see the missing teeth in her mouth, the gap between the front two.  “Phones,” she said, “gadgets; whatever you have, it won’t work.  Might be screwy for a couple of days.  Even your home computer will likely wonk out on you for a little while.”

He saw in his mind the giant dinosaur Dell in the corner of his office, vastly underused except for his spreadsheet database and a few CAD drawings of houses like these.

He smiled at her, as was appropriate for the small talk.  She hadn’t been looking at him, but over his shoulder, behind him, at his car, at the sky.  Now her eyes found him when he smiled.  She tilted her head and frowned.  Bill thought that maybe, a woman as homely as this, with the squarish face, the three corkscrew hairs from the chin, the missing teeth, maybe a woman like this would have eyes like emeralds, but she didn’t.  Her eyes were the color of dried mud.  The scowl lingered on her face.

“What is it?”  He swallowed and winced like a boy caught masturbating.

“It’s your smile,” she said.  He waited for more, but that was it.  She often told him what he already knew – that electronic devices often wigged out when they cleansed a house – and she would offer little cryptic phrases, like about his smile, and not explain them.  This was the great Lucy.  He had known her for two years.

She took her eyes off of him and turned towards the front door.  The door there was white with peeling paint and two single panes of glass, side by side.  The glass rattled as she opened it, the doorknob squeaked in its turn.  He followed her into the house.

**

Inside, he smelled the mildew of old wet carpet.  He looked up and saw the water stains in the hallway ceiling, like smears of feces.  In front of him the hallway, just a dogtrot, really, fed into a back kitchen.  A set of stairs with missing spindles in the railing led to the bedrooms.  She turned left inside the door into the living room.  He followed.  A fireplace in this room, massive stones, a slab granite mantle with an s-curve wane.  There was no furniture in the room, but brighter spots in the mottled green carpet where furniture used to rest.  Cobwebs festooned the corners where cracked crown molding met the ceiling.  A window looking out to the porch, multipaned with pieces of glass missing or fissured.  She continued on to the wide doorway on the far backside of the room.  They walked into the dining room, where an elegant table remained with six antique chairs, all coated with thick layers of dust.  The legs of the table formed the furled paws of an animal with casters on the bottom of each.

To the right was the next doorway into the kitchen.  As Lucy walked in front of him Bill saw her hands were open at her sides, palms down, the arms a few inches out from her barrel torso.  She wore a brown shawl around her shoulders.  Some kind of ragged sweater.  Grey pants, slacks or corduroys he couldn’t tell; they were worn and baggy.  On her feet a pair of dingy white sneakers, like a nurse might wear.  This was how Lucy usually looked.

In the kitchen that was once probably yellow and orange, now a uniform sepia tone.  A stainless steel ladle rested on a molding woodblock.  The sink was full of ceramic dishes, many of them broken.  Food congealed over years encrusted around the edges of plate pieces and petrified inside bowls.  The place smelled like hard, rusted water and rotted meat.  Bill put a hand over his mouth and nose.  He looked at the back of Lucy’s head and took his hand away.  If she didn’t mind, he shouldn’t mind.  He felt like gagging.  “I’m going to open a window,” he said.

She didn’t respond.  Lucy had walked to the far end of the kitchen where there was a hood above the gas stove.  Bill thought he could detect the smell of gas beneath the sour milk, rotten meat and sulfurized water.  He wondered if the pilot was still lit.  It shouldn’t be, but maybe it was.  Lucy stood by the hood and remained still.  No, Bill thought, she seemed to hover.  He checked her feet to see if she was levitating.  The grubby white shoes were still on the ground.  Yellow stick-’em tiles covered the floor. The corners of several were missing, revealing the sodden plywood below.  It wouldn’t take much to bust through that floor, Bill thought, suddenly concerned that he or Lucy might find a soft spot and break through.  He bent for a closer examination.  There was a gap between one exposed sheet of plywood and the next.  Along the edge of the plywood, chipped particles looked like hangnails on a finger.  Bill wondered what was down there, beneath the wood, in the crawl space.

The camera crew would be arriving at noon.  It was now 10:15.  This was how Lucy worked.  This was how she and Bill had arranged things for some time now.  First, the two of them gave a false start time to the video team.  Then they came two hours beforehand, just the two of them, and she went to work.  When the camera and sound and gawking producers arrived, she would repeat what she had originally done in private.  It was a bit fraudulent, maybe, but Lucy was a purist when it came to the real work.  She’d explained to Bill on their first gig that while outside influences didn’t render her ineffective, exactly, they worked on her something like the Observation Principle in science.  It was impossible to tell how much the presence of the cameras and the other people skewed her findings.  Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t.  It was safer, better, more accurate, she’d told him, to go it alone on a first pass.  Then Lucy, to her credit, was a good show woman.  She could reenact her own course of action without hammy antics, with total believability.  Often, she’d told Bill, she encountered things she hadn’t on the first pass, more pieces to the puzzle, a greater fleshing out of hazy ideas.

She didn’t close her eyes.  Vision was important, she’d told him on one of their first gigs.  It wasn’t just about feeling, like a lot of the phonies claimed.  Feelings, anyway, were linked with smell and sight and touch.  What good would it do to wear nose plugs?  Put mittens over your hands?  For Lucy, the senses were the tools for feeling – for the information – as she, to Bill’s thinking, quite clinically put it once.  Did she see things?  Did things take shape in the air in front of her, protean auguries, ghostly flashbacks?  He’d always wanted to ask her, but never had.  What did she smell?  Did she scent what he did?  The decay of hidden food and old copper plumbing?  Or did she get other odors, alien smells, whiffs of the netherworld?  He’d never asked her this, either.  He’d never questioned Lucy as to any of her process.  For one thing, that was just what everyone else did.  Whether he was a skeptic himself or not, Bill didn’t feel the need to be part of the naysayers.  Professional respect?  Maybe that, too.  Just because you didn’t know what a mechanic did under the hood, or what a bacteriologist did in a lab, didn’t mean you disbelieved in their work.  A person had to take some things on faith.  Even when a person claimed to believe in facts, facts were ephemeral over the eras of time.  What was once a heliocentric model of the earth became geocentric.  What were powers belonging to only gods became the fire tamed by humans.  What was the business of protecting and serving people became a fruitless endeavor.  Didn’t it?  Entropy was the underlying law of everything.  The tendency towards chaos and sameness.  What Bill knew was that everything before its understanding evoked skepticism and doubt, and revolutions began in secret.

Take the brain, for instance, long considered to be hardwired after five or six years of development.  Now it was believed to retain a plasticity capable of reforming even in late years.  Once, Plenum was the basic stuff of all life.  Centuries later it was Strings.  M-theory.  Relativity parlayed into theoretical physics.  Theory became accepted as scientific truth.  Two-time physics and parallel dimensions. There was no reason to question Lucy Dean’s methods of communicating with the past, the future.  There was sense of the curious, yes.  But, the fact of it was, Bill just didn’t care.  Whether it was something, whether it was nothing.  It was work.  Even in such a lackluster economy, they got their contracts.  Nothing much else mattered.  Not even Bill’s last day as a cop.  Not that.  Not anymore.

Bill Prime had become a private investigator.  A person could call him a “cold case” investigator.  Rather than snap digital pictures of wives in bed with other lovers, or unearth corporate fraudulences, Bill worked those cases that’d become moldered and discarded by everyone but those most intimately involved or affected.  This put Bill at the back of the line, or the furthermost ring in the co-centric circles of the criminal investigation solar system.  This put Bill in a small office with a clanging radiator and busted overhead florescent light in one of the shittiest little towns in Upstate New York.  In between the long tracts of blunted corn, aching barns with split rafters, behind the church where tiny children spilled from afternoon school with guppy eyes and mustard-stained mouths was Bill’s office.  And this was fine with Bill, this was good.  Cold cases couldn’t hurt anybody.  Emotionally, sometimes, maybe.  But who cared about that?  If they paid, they asked for it.  No one died before their time in a cold case investigation.  Even with Lucy Dean at the helm.

Lucy’s mouth opened.  Bill stood a few feet from her, his arms hanging at his sides, the black bag in his right hand, one side of his shirt collar sticking up out from his blazer.  He watched her dried, paintless lips, a wiry hair that sprouted from her pitted chin and quivered.  “Hhhaaaa,” she said.

“In here?”

She closed her mouth, licked her lips and nodded two short nods.  “Uh-huh.  In here.”

Bill set the bag down on the round kitchen table.  As the bag hit the table it displaced dust and grime in a cloud.  Bill coughed.  “Tuner?”

“Tuner,” Lucy said.  Bill could see she was breathing shallowly.  He thought he might even detect her heart beating in her chest, the shawl vibrating with it, the filigree woolen hairs of the shawl trembling beneath her chin.  Bill pulled out the “Tuner” from the bag.  The Tuner was a guitar tuner.  The kind that, when you plucked the E string, if it was out of tune, high or low, the needle would register to one side or the other.  In tune and it stuck straight up.  He walked over to Lucy and held it out to her.

Lucy had perfect pitch.  She hummed a G.

Bill strained on his tiptoes to see the tuner over her shoulder, where she held it at her bosom.  He could see the flash of the red needle, but at the last minute Lucy shifted so that he couldn’t see where it landed.

He whispered, “On, or over?”

“Shhh.”

Lucy shifted her position again, getting closer to the stove, so that her spare tire belly bumped into the edge of it.  She bent slightly at the waist and hummed the G again.  Her voice was a beauty to behold.  It bloomed like a flower in ash.

Bill strained again to see, but it was no use.  She let fly with the G one more time, and Bill thought it sounded as though, for the first time, he could hear a tremor in her voice.  She fell silent, and stood looking at the tuner, even though the needle would now have returned to rest.

“Lucy.”

She didn’t look at him.

Lucy.”  He said.  He took a step towards her.  She turned on him quickly and held up her hand, palm out.  “Don’t,” she said.

Bill stayed where he was told.  He asked again, “On, Lucy, or over?”  By now he was sure that they had an over, that they had something here.

She looked at him with her dirt colored eyes.  For a moment he thought she wouldn’t answer.  Then she said, “Under.”

Under, Bill thought.  They hadn’t had an under yet in two years.  They hadn’t had an under in over twenty sites, twenty gigs.

“Are you sure?”

Her left eyebrow went up, her forehead furrowed.

“Okay, okay.” He patted the air, looking at the ground, looking at the walls.  “Uncontested.”  Then he looked at her.  He felt cold and damp.  “What do we do?”

“The same thing we always do.”

“But.  If it’s under-”

“If it’s under, it’s under.  That don’t change what’s next.”  The lines smoothed in her doughy forehead and she turned back to the stove.  She set the tuner down on the stove and pointed up into the hood.

“So,” she said.  “It’s up in there.”  She stretched and leaned forward on her tippy toes so that the top of her head started to disappear under the hood.  When she spoke, she sounded like someone inside a rusted garbage can.  “Yup,” she said, making Bill think of a plumber.  There’s your problem right there, ma’am.  Hair clog.  Bill watched her pressing on the stove with her fingertips until they turned white.  She said, “There it is.  It’s one of the flying ones.”

***

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Stay tuned! –Next week– Chapter Two: The Audio Tape  (9.7.11)

CHAPTER ONE: Lucy’s Perfect Pitch

CHAPTER TWO:  The Audio Tape

CHAPTER THREE:  Up The Stairs

CHAPTER FOUR:  The Tall Man and the Four Elements

CHAPTER FIVE:  The Zero Ring Men

CHAPTER SIX:  Unbound

CHAPTER SEVEN:  You Don’t Breathe Because The Air is On Fire

CHAPTER EIGHT:  Buried Alive and The Demon Comes

CHAPTER NINE:  The Dream

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