bill prime and the zero ring men – chapter seven

SERIES OVERVIEW and PREVIOUS CHAPTERS

-7-

You Don’t Breathe Because the Air is On Fire

Bill and Lucy sat on the floor in the living room, their backs against the wall, as the heavyset man limped in, helped by Lepere and the wound-mouth man (who looked worse than he did ten minutes before).  Mancini came next, through the wide door into the living room, examining himself.  His suit was torn and there was a scrape on his cheek.  The Icelander stood with his sunglasses on in front of the fireplace, holding Bill’s pistol down at his side.  Even in his working man’s coat, he looked like a Secret Service agent, stone-faced and statue-still.  Yet, to Bill Prime, he looked like a man pantomiming a Secret Service agent, being still because something had instructed him to, standing upright on two legs because this was how you did it here in this particular realm of being.

Where he comes from, Bill thought, unable to keep his reeling mind in check, you don’t even breathe.  You don’t breathe because the air is on fire. 

The idea struck another chord in him, resonating with a part of him that wasn’t preoccupied by his terrible pains, his draining blood, or the fact that Lucy was now sharing his plight.  The idea of fire made him glance down at Lucy’s hand, the one with the burn between the fingers.  He saw that the blemishes were still there.  Bill closed his eyes.

He opened them.

The Icelander had taken the maul from Lepere at some point.  He swung it in an arc now, first with his hands choked up toward the iron, then, as he swung it, letting his grip slide over the wood toward the end.  The maul came smashing down, splitting-end first, biting into the wet, stained, threadbare carpet and the wooden floor beneath.  The Icelander continued to hack away in this fashion, splinters and chunks of floor flying, hitting Bill and Lucy, and raining down throughout the room.  Whack.  Crack.  Whack.  Crack.  The heavyset man, Bill noticed, was gone.

“Big business in C-sections,” said Lucy next to Bill.  “It’s a whole c-section generation.  Designer births.  Women used to squat down along the trail, now they’re making appointments and checking into hotel hospitale.”

Bill looked at her.  “Luce?”  Sometimes Lucy babbled like this, non sequiturs, tangents from nowhere.  Sometimes it was just because Lucy was someone who talked about random things.  Sometimes it was her way of concentrating on something else entirely.  She glanced at him.  “I’m fine,” she said.

They watched the Icelander tear up the floor with the maul, Bill and Lucy flinching from darts of wood, the man protected by his sunglasses.  There’s a reason for everything, he thought.

He said to Lucy, “Why the note and tape if they just want us gone?”

Lucy shook her head, No.  She squinted as some detritus flew her way, and spit out a piece of curly carpet fiber.  “No, no,” she said, “that’s not entirely true.”

“What do you mean?”  They spoke in practiced whispers, but Bill could have sworn the Icelander was listening in as the maul rose and fell, rose and fell.  Was he going to hack up the entire living room floor?

“I mean, not everybody is coordinated, not everybody is on the same page all the time, even in business.  Someone wants us here, Billy, and you know it.”

He did know it.  She didn’t even have to call him Billy.  He had been wondering, he had to admit, what sense it made, what with Lepere dropping him the tape – and then it struck him, sure as the maul struck more of the ancient floorboards:  He’d been the one to discover the sphere.  He’d been following directions, sure enough, but there was a vast difference between the person who gave the directions and the one that actually followed the route.  And the witch, too.  Bill realized he’d become expendable only after these two things – these ‘elements’ – had been witnessed by the rest of the men.  Then, it was out the front door with him.

In the back, in the kitchen, someone had come through the mudroom door.  There was a loud clatter; what sounded like lumber, like boards, knocking and vibrating as they landed in a heap.

“What about the fourth?”  Bill was looking at the Icelander, who had hacked up nearly a third of the living room floor and had stopped now, wiping sweat like a road construction worker standing in the hot day.  “There’s one more element,” said Bill, not liking the pleading he heard creep into his voice.  “It’s not finished yet.  You need us for that.”

He felt Lucy put a hand on his forearm, and at the same time, the Icelander looked over at him.  Bill felt the dark, rectangled lenses on him, and the distinct sensation that there probably wasn’t, after all, anything beneath the glass aimed at him, nothing but mush in the sockets hidden behind them.  Then, again like a man who’d learned American culture from watching Clint Eastwood movies in a faraway land, the Icelander turned his head to the side and spat into the floor, littered with floor bits around the ragged hole, covered in a patina of wood bits and skindust.

Bill looked down at Lucy’s hand, the one with the burn marks between the fingers.  He looked up and saw something in Lucy for the first time – Lucy looked afraid.

“When the New Native American discovers himself,” she said, “the Earth will begin to renew itself.”

“Luce,” said Bill.  His voice cracked on her name.

“Get in.”  It was Mancini, standing in the doorway between the kitchen and living rooms.  Behind him, Lepere and the wound-mouth man were carrying boards.  Bill wondered for a second where they’d gotten them from.  Lepere had said something before about the foaling shed, that there might have once been other hardware inside.  Why did Margaret Stender still have lumber and any sort of tools lying around the place?  Bill supposed it wasn’t uncommon.  Perhaps there had been plans to fix up the large shed.  Or form an addition on the house.  Before the economy’s traffic signal had turned from yellow to red.

Lucy asked, “Beg pardon?”

“Get in the hole,” said Mancini.  His voice was toneless.  His eyes – it could have been a trick of the light, but Bill didn’t think so – were lightening from their muddled brown and turning a yellow-grey.  Behind him, in the doorway, the heavyset man reappeared once more, limping his way in, carrying a battery-powered screwgun.

In Bill’s mind a song began to play.  He must’ve heard it on the radio sometime over the last couple of days.  Neil Young was singing Comes a Time.

The wound-mouth man (looking worse for the wear than ever, Bill noticed, an infection of some kind in one of the man’s swollen, red ears) hooked a hand under Lucy’s armpit and hoisted her up.  He grunted with the effort.  “Jesus, lady,” he gurgled, “have a salad.”

“Get up,” Mancini said to Bill.

Bill pressed against the wall and slid himself upwards.  His mind raced, trying to come up with something, some reasoning, some plea.  How had it come to this?  Who were these men – if they were men?  They acted like the preparatory crew before a presidential rally, cordoning off an area, checking for assassins.  Only these men seemed more like the assassins themselves.

Oh-ho, sang Neil in Bill’s chattering mind, this ol’ world keeps spinnin’ round…

“Move it,” said Mancini, indicating the ragged hole in the living room floor.  Carpet tatters lay around it, jagged and splintered chunks of wood.

Bill stepped forward, toeing the edge.  It was perhaps two and a half feet deep.  The bottom of the hole was concrete slab.  There was no basement foundation to the rambling country home, only slab.  An air gap to accommodate the slope of the earth (in the kitchen, Bill figured, there would be maybe six inches at best, as the land’s declivity was towards the front of the house, the backyard four or five feet elevated over the front).

Bill stepped in.

“Lay down,” said Mancini, and at the same time the wound-mouth man ushered Lucy into the excavation next to Bill.  She moved willingly enough.

Bill sat, then reclined, the back of his head touching down on the concrete.  Lucy did the same.  They were side by side, and the impromptu construction crew of eyeless men started laying the lumber down on top of them.  Heavyset appeared, and pressed the trigger on the screwgun.  It whined to life, the chuck spinning the Phillips head bit into a blurring whirl.

It’s a wonder tall trees ain’t layin’ down, sang Neil, and the darkness formed around Bill and Lucy as the boards were lain.

**

Stay tuned! –Next week– Chapter Eight: Buried Alive and The Demon Comes (10.19.11)

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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bill prime and the zero ring men – chapter six

SERIES OVERVIEW and PREVIOUS CHAPTERS

-6-

Unbound

“Are you gonna wear your sunglasses in the house?”  Bill didn’t want to sound peevish – he hated the question seconds after he said it, but they’d seen through his thin scrim of authority and come barging in, and he was feeling underminded.

The man who was a little heavy, maybe 200, maybe 210 pounds, turned around and tipped his sunglasses up for Bill’s viewing, exposing the corneas hidden beneath them.  The man’s eyes were yellow.  Bill took a step back.

“The light hurts my eyes.”

Bill backed to the point where his rear thighs bumped into the edge of the bay window, almost sitting himself on the bench seat there, with its molding, faded cushions.  He didn’t know what to say, but Bill, foolishly, felt he had to say something.  Talking sometimes was a way of dispelling nervousness, though it often seemed to get him into hot water.  Like with Gary, Francine’s man cock of the house, the guy who’d slugged him in the face after Bill laid into Francine about her smoking around Troy, the son they shared.

Bill remained silent, taking heed – hadn’t Lucy let him know a time or two, too?  It didn’t matter.  Bill asked, “You got some problem with your eyes?”

The man dropped his sunglasses back in place and turned and followed the other men, who were heading into the back kitchen.  “Yeah,” he said.  “They’re falling out.”

**

She was there, Bill figured, as if she’d been waiting for their arrival before appearing.  The third element.  The hetch.

Off the kitchen was the back door into the mudroom and tool shed attached to the rear of the house.  They’d first stood around under the hood over the kitchen stove, Lepere explaining to them about the leftover, about the bird, smiling and looking at Bill as he relayed to the men how Bill and Lucy had handled the extraction with salad tongs and a canvas potato sack.  Bill expected next that they would go up the stairs and likewise stand around and discuss the sphere, like doctors doing rounds, making notes on clipboards and nodding solemnly.  They didn’t.  What happened instead was Jean Lepere had looked out of the kitchen window and into the backyard and said, “She’s here.”

Bill followed the men out into the backyard.  His blood was thrumming in his ears.

They formed ranks in front of him, and rather than take a position at either end, Bill stood behind the short Mancini and could see over the man’s head.  It was clear this was something these men were accustomed to, to some extent, and he wasn’t prepared to join their phalanx.  Call it professional courtesy, lack of proper sleep – call it brimming terror, Bill was happy at their backs.

She stood in the spring-like morning, barefoot in the melting snow.  Behind her, water dripped from the branches of birch and hemlock.  Droplets sparkled like jewels.  The backwoods was south of the house, and the sun was low there as it started its mellow arc over the treetops, backlighting the forest, backlighting and partially obscuring the woman standing there naked.

“Jesus,” said Bill.  He hadn’t meant to speak, and put a hand over his mouth.  Now was the time not to worry about their special little group, of showing them courtesy, of touring their strange little world of curiously robotic moves and disintegrating eyes.  All of that vanished for Bill and he started around Mancini.  This was a naked girl in the backyard of an old country house.

Bill’s cop-self kicked in.  She was someone in trouble.  He’d seen kids on heroin, in these very parts, using their naked chests as surfboards in the snow, numb to everything, cracking into the ice of frozen ponds to join the scag-network’s version of the polar bear club.  Kids that’d freezer-burned their nipples off.  Kids that’d drowned in the icy shallows after their legs had ceased to hold them up in the gelid water.  Babysitters high out of their gourds who don’t see trucks coming at them, don’t realize what’s in the backseat of the family’s car they’re driving, behind the little baby’s head…

Bill pushed the thought away as he walked around Mancini, headed for the girl, mouth opened to call out.

A hand hit his chest and Mancini, short but fiercely powerful said, “Don’t.”

Bill looked briefly at the hairy hand holding him back and then at the naked girl again.  Though her features were hard to make out with the corona of rising sun sparkling almost exactly behind her, he put her age at about eighteen.  Prime dope-using age, he thought, realizing dimly the pun made from his own name.  It’d happened before, indeed.

He said to Mancini, in not quite a speaking voice, but not entirely a whisper, “She’s in trouble.  It’s not that cold, but she could have been out all night.”

“She hasn’t,” he said.  “She just got here.”

“How do you know?”

Kimblak,” one of the other men called out so suddenly it made Bill jump around the shoulders, wincing as if about to be hit by a falling object. “ZeemenKimblak.”  The way this one of the men spoke it sounded as though he had sinus congestion.  Bill looked and saw that it was the heavyset man who’d revealed his yellow eyes.  Quite an infection, Bill thought.  He quickly returned his attention to the naked girl to see what, if any, reaction she had.

He couldn’t have been prepared for it.

What looked like smoke, sulfuric in its yellow hue, started to coalesce around her and rise, coming from out of thin air.  Her arms drifted up to her sides.

A voice filled Bill Prime’s head.  It was a soft, sensual voice, without echo, as if recorded in a sound-proof room and then rebroadcast to him over a headset.  “Emblak,” said the voice, said the naked girl, if it was her.  “Emblak care-wapon. Care-inseeya.

Bill had only that moment to wonder if she was speaking some sort of Native American language when it changed to English, as if being translated for him – the tonality of the voice changed with the translation.  It sounded, come to think of it, like the voice on the tape.

“I’m unbound,” said the soft, luminous voice.  “I’m free and unbound.  You could be, too.”

The heavyset man spoke again, this time sounding more like a normal man, one without a bad cold, and this time in English as well.   “We thank you,” he said, “we have great plans for you, and bid that you stay around a little while longer.”

With that, the heavyset man with the yellow eyes hidden beneath his sunglasses (the same color yellow, Bill realized, as that smoke curling around her, lifting her up off of the ground, rising with her) stepped out of the group and took a few steps toward her.  He had a hand in his pants pocket.  He pulled his hand out in a fist and stopped only a few feet from her.  Bill strained to see what he carried in that fist, but Mancini held him back with an arm like a two-by-four.  Bill couldn’t see, but then the heavyset man in what might have been a Pierre Cardin suit (something you bought at Simms or K-mart, and not had tailor-made on Wall Street) reached into his open hand, and with the fingers of the other, lifted a coin from his palm.  It was the color of pewter – or maybe it was silver and the backlight darkened it.

The heavyset man in the suit bent to one knee and placed the coin in the snow, and then another, and then another.  Three coins in the snow.  Each about the size of a fifty-cent piece.  To Bill, it felt like watching something from a forgotten dream. 

He turned his attention from this action to the end of the line of men, where the one in the Carhartt coat stood, the Icelander.  Bill was compelled to see what he was doing, how he was reacting to all of this.  As he looked over, Bill felt his cell phone vibrating from his inner breast pocket, and ignored it.

The Icelander was watching the rising girl, expressionless.

**

Back in the house, Bill noticed something about the man that’d first gotten out of the pick-up truck’s passenger side who had been previously unremarkable.  Up close, in the kitchen, the four men standing in formation again, like a group of gunfighters instead of businessmen, this man had a distinct feature.  His mouth was like a wound, festered and scabbed.  The lips were beyond dry – they were nearly puckered.  The man’s eyes too had yellowed around the irises, the kind of tint a lifetime smoker might develop.  The irises were a colorless grey.  He snuffed, like he had a bad cold.  When the heavyset man had spoken to the girl in the backyard (the witch, Bill, the witch, for chrissakes she was floating) using that other language, he’d sounded congested too.  They’ve all got the fucking flu, Bill thought. I’m going to get sick.  Part of him knew he was focusing on these things because he couldn’t – or didn’t want to – see the whole picture.  The real deal.

“Okay, Mr. Prime,” said Mancini.

Lepere had taken a different position now that these men were here – he sat on the kitchen counter where his legs dangled like a child.

“Okay, what?”

“We thank you for your all your help.  Now we ask you to leave.”

“I can’t leave,” said Bill.  “I told you, this-”

He heard the cock of the firearm and wasn’t surprised when the heavyset man with the hidden yellow eyes leveled a pistol at him.

“We’re telling you,” the heavyset man said.

The girl, the hetch, was still in the backyard, hovering.  The backyard was visible from the road that passed out in front, but only for a short distance. Once a car cleared the trees aligning the road and drove along side the beginning of Margaret Stender’s land, the tramped-down grass, bunched and knotted beneath the melting snow, there was a period of perhaps three seconds, driving at sixty (which most people did, though the posted limit was 40 through Ridgeview), when most of the yard behind the country house was visible.

It was a Sunday, the first of March, and there would be few travelers.  Still, wouldn’t a driver be drawn to that ethereal light in the back of the house – more, the girl who was floating in its protean smoke?

“You won’t be left alone here,” Bill said, “whatever you’re doing.  Whatever séance or ritual you think you’re going to hold.  It’s quiet out here, but people see and hear everything.  You’ll draw attention before long.”

“Walk out the front door, Primofski,” said Lepere from the counter.  “We’ll take care of the house.”

“And whoever comes knocking,” said the heavyset man.  The other man, the one with the wound-mouth, smiled.  His teeth were the color of ash – and there were, Bill observed, far too many of them.

**

They paraded Bill through the house and out onto the front porch.  As they walked, Bill pulled his cell phone out of his inner pocket.  From behind him, the wound-mouth man grabbed Bill by the shoulder and jerked him around.  Bill held up his hands, the cell phone in one.  “Just a phone, just a phone.  These things tend to go haywire at a time like this and not work.”  The wound-mouth man let him go.  In fact, the cell had been working.  Sort of.  There was a text from Lucy.

Round 2 @ ten?

It was their follow up.  24 hours after the gig, Lucy and Bill would return to the site, no crews this time.  Another part of the tradition.  Bill looked at the time on the face of the phone.  It was 9:52.  Having not gotten a response from him, Lucy was likely to come anyway.  She was like that.  Bill snapped the cell phone shut as they walked out the front door.

“I can’t let you guys stay here,” Bill tried again.

“Snuff it, Primofski,” said Lepere from somewhere toward the back of their line.

Bill thought of Lucy arriving and, tenacious like she was, giving these boys what for.  He imagined they would make quick work of her, and pudgy, short-haired little Lucy would become another upstate statistic, one more domestic mishap in a century of domestic mishaps.  Maybe they would take her upstairs, where the sphere hung in the air, immovable, and make her look like a suicide.  Dress her up like a crazy lady who’d done herself in – with Lucy, it wouldn’t take much.  And with these men, as Bill’s feeling went, they wouldn’t give doing her a second thought.  Like they were probably going to do him, right here in broad daylight.  Bill could sometimes be slow to catch on, but he wasn’t stupid.  He wasn’t being led to his car to go peacefully on his way.  This little caravan of men marching in their Pierre Cardin suits – half of them wearing sunglasses to conceal their yellow eyes – this was a march to his execution.  They would put him in his car and kill him there.  Less work – no need to drag the body out to the Subaru when they could kill him inside of it, easy-peasy, and have one of them drive it off somewhere, maybe into the woods.

The man leading the parade was the heavyset one, the one who’d spoken to the witch in that guttural language.  (Guttural coming from him – sonorous and hypnotic from her.)  He stepped down from the lip of the porch and onto the first step and Bill’s heart was beating now, his mind drawing a blank.  Wasn’t a person supposed to enter into a kind of mental hyperspeed in times of survival?  Shouldn’t he be rifling through various plans of escape?  Nothing was coming to him, nothing at all.  Only the dim sense that he was out-of-body, that he was helplessly watching this march unfold, floating above and beyond it, hovering like the naked girl in the backyard, aloft in a sour yellow light that had made Bill think of vicious perspiration.

There was a cracking noise, and a shout, and Bill watched as the heavyset man lurched forward with one leg, the other splayed back and straight.  Not so deft after all, Bill thought.  The heavy man’s foot had gone through the hole in the porch stairtread, and was caught there.

The man directly in front of Bill, between him and the heavyset, was Mancini, and Bill wasted no time.  Bill shoved Mancini forward, and the short boss-man tumbled into him.  Heavyset howled as Mancini hit him and bounced away, falling the rest of the distance to the slimy-iced front walk where he landed, instantly soaked.  At the same time, Bill darted left, running the length of the porch in the direction and vaulting over the railing.  At least, this last was part of the plan that’d finally formed at last.  The wooden railing, weakened by years of weather and disrepair, gave way beneath his weight, splintering and dropping out beneath his arms.  He fell the rest of the way to the ground at the end of the porch and landed in a heap.

Luckily, nothing felt broken or sprained.  He was up a half a second later, mind finally sprinting ahead, having already determined that he was going to run to the back of the house, floating naked girl or not, and disappear into the woods.  As he rose he heard the first shot crack off, and felt a burst of wind as the bullet slapped a groove by his ear.

He ducked and ran, like a man from a helicopter, waving his hands over his head as if to warn off a swarm of black flies.

The Icelander will double-back through the house, came the lightning thought.  Lepere too, probably.  Wound-mouth man will follow me around the house.  I’ll be trapped in the middle.  Still, he sprinted, hoping to outrun Workcoat and Lepere as they clamored back through the house.  They had doorways to go through, after all, corners to turn – Bill had a straight shot to the woods, and had the jump start on them.  But, then, there was the naked girl to consider, after all.

She floated higher than before, two man-lengths in the air, her arms straight out at her sides, her toes pointed down and feet overlapping.  Bill could run right beneath her, there was plenty of room, but he opted to jag right, to go around her.  As he did he heard a bang from the kitchen, as a cabinet or counter edge was slammed into by an overextended pursuer.  Good, he thought.  Bastards.

He neared the levitating witch-girl at his top speed, thankful to not have twisted anything in his fall from the porch, mindful of the odor of old cinnamon – like moldering leaves in October – as he approached her.  He looked straight into the woods but could see, helpless, peripherally, as the floating woman looked down at his approach, her head tilting to the side, her chin dropping to her shoulder.  Kimblak, he thought, Kimblak. 

Something glimmered beneath her feet, resting in the snow.  Her oblation; a trio of jewels sparkling.  The coins.

He passed by them, passed by her.  Nothing shot from her eyes.  Nothing snaked out from her and coiled around him.  No spell froze him in his run.  He was beyond her and nearing the woods when the next bullet bit hot into the back of his leg, just above the knee, causing him to cry out, to stumble, to fall.

On the ground, he watched as Lucy approached in her silver Chevy Caprice.  He didn’t know why, but Bill found himself noting the brown clumps of road gunk clinging to the underside of the chassis – he could see Lucy’s cat in the passenger seat, stretched up to see out the window.  Bill felt the vibration of footfalls coming fast toward him over the backyard, the crunch of wingtips in crystalline, melting snow.

Get up, Primofski.

He pushed himself up with his arms, fingers digging into wet snow and hard long grass beneath.  He shoved and got to his knees, and groaned and brought his unshod leg up under him, and was about to stand when he was punched in the shoulder – that was how it felt – by the next bullet, knocking him down onto his side.

He was a couple of yards from the woods.  From the safety of the trees, the bracken of the forest floor, the sanctity of the bluish-grey erratic rocks.  He could have run.  He could have run to Canada, for that matter.  But, Lucy.

Bill bent his neck to look at the driveway just as she pulled in and the first man to reach him – Lepere, not the workcoat man; Bill didn’t see him – dove on top of him.  The blow of the man’s weight knocked the air out of Bill.  Awwwufff he wheezed, and Lepere started hitting him, hitting him in the head and shoulder, punching the gunshot wound.

As Bill began to blackout from the pain he imagined the floating girl, the witch hovering amid those laces of turgid smoke, her head still tilted to look down at him, a look of sorrow on her face, like Christ on the cross.

**

Stay tuned! –Next week– Chapter Seven: You Don’t Breathe Because The Air is On Fire (10.12.11)

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

bill prime and the zero ring men – chapter one

CLICK HERE FOR A SERIES OVERVIEW  Or, just get started below!

*

-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.”

***

***

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