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Dead Endings: Book 2, Chapter 4

A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #041 back issue.

“Get that out of my face. Now.”

Cailen held her breath as seconds ticked by. Neither party moved.

“Just stop being a bitch for one second and listen,” Jan ground out around a clenched jaw.

“Like I want to with a freaking gun pointed at me!” Gabriella yelled back at him.

The gun wavered in Jan’s frustration.

Cailen followed the minute dips of the barrel with an anxious eye. She wasn’t super familiar with guns, but she couldn’t recall him thumbing the safety off, and surely he wouldn’t have put it in his pants with it engaged. Right…?

Beside her, she heard Everett swallow.

“We could spare a minute,” Cailen said carefully. “If you put the gun away,” she added as Gabriella continued to glare stubbornly at Jan. Her friend snorted but didn’t challenge the suggestion.

Jan relaxed a little, which was good because Indira suddenly appeared from a back office, startling them all.

“Jan Grabowski!” she cried, spying the gun. “How dare you bring that thing in here! With everything Ruben has done for you! Get out of my shop!”

“Indira, just give–”

“I said out! And if you ever want to come back here again, you’ll know better than to bring a gun!”

The two thugs looked to Jan for guidance, but he just closed his eyes and took a deep breath like a man at the end of his rope. Cailen noticed the dark rings under his eyes and wondered if that’s exactly what he was. It didn’t give her confidence that he wouldn’t accidentally shoot them.

“Let’s…take this outside,” she said tactfully as she made gentle shooing motions with her hands. It seemed to break the standoff.

Jan slowly lowered the gun, then stowed it somewhere in the recesses of his track pants. He turned without a word. He and the other two men made for the door under Indira’s scathing gaze. Cailen and company followed close behind.

“I’ll be seeing you soon, boy,” Indira called sweetly after Everett.

Once outside, Jan motioned for them to follow as he and his crew made for the slightly more discreet concrete porch of an adjacent building.

Cailen looked to Gabriella, who shrugged.

“Let’s just get this over with,” Gabriella grumbled.

“But what about the gun?” Everett hissed over her shoulder.

“He wouldn’t dare. Jan’s many things, but he’s not the type to just blow someone away.”

Cailen frowned at the trio ahead of them. “Then why’d he pull it?”

“Guess we’ll find out,” Gabriella said, and strode off after them.

Cailen and Everett followed, albeit more slowly.

Gabriella addressed the three men with hands on hips. “All right, Jan. Spit it out before I change my mind.”

Jan opened his mouth angrily, then closed it. He took a deep breath and tried again.

“I need you to take care of a ghost, and I need it done tonight.”

“And why should I wipe a ghost for you? Jan, we dislike each other. Intensely. Go ask Molina or something–she’d be happy to take a job for a bit of money.”

“You don’t think I tried her already?! Molina’s been in the hospital for weeks. She had a stroke.  Fuck, Benitez.”

Gabriella frowned. “Molina had a stroke?”

“You’d know if you were ever at The Laundry! I’ve had my guys there for over a week now waiting for your ass to show up.”

“Speaking of ‘your guys,’ what do you need me for? Your boy Antoni over there has some ability. Do it yourselves!” she growled back.

“He tried and he fucked up!” Jan yelled back at her. The taller of the two thugs beside Jan looked down at the pavement, his expression twisted and unhappy.

“Just…” Gabriella massaged the bridge of her nose. “Just explain it to me, then. What happened?”

“There’s this evil bitch of a duch, and it’s eating my cousin.”

There was silence as everyone digested this.

“Well,” Cailen said into the vacuum. “I didn’t feel like going home just yet, anyway.”

***

Despite the lack of a convenient subway route, the trip to Greenpoint didn’t take much time. Jan’s grandmother’s place–where his cousin had been moved, according to the gangster–was on the edge of the borough near Williamsburg. It was, as far as strolls down the rougher side of Bedford Avenue went, fairly uneventful thanks to their tough-looking escort. Cailen did wonder if people were more wary of the Polish crew or Gabriella, though. Her friend’s face as they listened to Jan’s account only grew darker and darker.

It had started two months earlier. Jan’s ten-year-old cousin had been at a wedding for a distant family relation from overseas. She’d been fine during the day, but that night she wet the bed and refused to sleep in her room. Her parents chalked it up to nightmares, but it happened again the next night. And the one after. Then she stopped eating at dinner. A doctor’s visit pinned it as psychological. Her parents started to suspect that was indeed the case, but in a different way.

The Grabowski family had a history of the spiritual touch. While her parents had no such sensitivity, there were others who did. Cue Jan and his grandmother. They’d confirmed something was there, but it was elusive–a “knocker,” as Jan called it. A spirit that, like naughty kids who’d knock on doors and run, would show a glimpse, then disappear. They’d barely been able to detect it, but at least it explained why his terrified cousin was slowly wasting away.

“She must be a sensitive, or her sense is developing,” Gabriella mused as they cut through McCarren Park. “Nasty way to start.”

“Is it ever not nasty?” Cailen scoffed.

Gabriella shrugged. “My first spirit was my great-grandmother. She was as gentle a woman in death as she was in life.”

“I think mine was the ice cream truck guy,” Everett said. “He always used to smell like soft serve.”

The wistful tone in his voice attracted four pairs of eyes and a bemused look from Gabriella.

“And after you guys pegged it?” Gabriella asked Jan. “You called Antoni in to move it on?”

Jan’s face twisted at the memory, but he just shook his head. “I’ll tell you inside. We’re almost there.” Jan turned into a tiny, fenced-off yard bordering a three-story building with yellow siding. At the sound of his knock, the door was opened by an old woman with impressively beefy arms. She motioned them all in.

“Babci, I brought some help for Marta,” Jan said without preamble.

The old woman looked over Cailen, Everett, and Gabriella. Her unblinking gaze lingered on Gabriella. She nodded and said, “I will make coffee.”

While the old woman puttered about somewhere in the back of the house, Jan collapsed heavily into the cushy depths of an armchair. Antoni and the as-of-yet unnamed third member of his crew sat almost primly on the edge of a beat-up sofa against the window. Antoni in particular looked like he’d rather be anywhere else.

“Can you feel it?” Jan asked tiredly.

The anger and venom had drained out of him as soon as they’d crossed the threshold. Cailen could empathize. She couldn’t detect anything supernatural at the moment, but the “feel” of the house was one of sickness, death.

Gabriella closed her eyes and walked slowly around the small living room. Cailen opened up her own senses and tried to feel for the telltale murmur of a spirit.

It was quiet.

She slid into a chair and closed her own eyes to focus, acutely aware that Jan was watching them both intensely.

Above her, she heard a sniff. She lifted an eyelid.

Everett was standing behind her chair, his hands clamped to the backrest. She had an excellent view up his flaring nostrils.

“It smells…like a hospital? Chemicals? Something rotting? It’s kind of sweet, though…”

Jan leaned forward. “The fuck does that mean? Are you insulting my babci’s house?”

Everett stepped back, hands up. “No, no! That’s just what it smells like.”

Jan’s glare sharpened.

“The ghost, I mean! The ghost!”

“His ability is scent-based, Jan,” Gabriella said, strolling back over to the group. “And it might actually be more acute than mine in some ways.”

She sat cross-legged on the floor, beside the long coffee table at the center of the room.

“It’s…subtle,” she explained after a moment. “There’s definitely something here, but I can’t get a bead on it.”

“Well, I don’t care what it ‘smells’ like,” Jan growled. “I just want you to smoke it.”

“I have to understand it before I can do anything,” Gabriella growled back.

There was a clatter as Jan’s grandmother set down a tray laden with cups and biscuits.

“Then talk,” she said, giving Jan a hard look. “Understand it. Get rid of it. My granddaughter is suffering.” The old woman distributed the cups. Antoni took his gingerly, as if he hadn’t expected to get one.

“You did nothing wrong,” she said to him. “You tried.”

Antoni hung his head. “I made it worse,” he mumbled.

The old woman gave him a biscuit and patted his shoulder. She murmured something to him in Polish that set his shoulders a bit straighter, then she left the room.

Jan stared into his cup. “What do you need to know?” he asked.

“For a start, tell me what happened when Antoni tried to move it on,” Gabriella said.

The gangster shrugged. “When we were finally able to pick up on the damn thing, I called in Antoni. Me and my babci can see them, but that’s about it, you know? Out of all my guys, Antoni here’s got a bit more leverage with that side of stuff. He chased one outta his mom’s new place in Crown Heights a couple years back, so I asked him to take care of this one. He tried, but I dunno what went wrong.”

Gabriella looked at Antoni. The thick-set man was still holding the biscuit, uneaten.

“It…fell apart,” he said carefully.

“Fell apart?” Gabriella repeated.

“Like wet tissue paper. It wasn’t like last time…”

Gabriella seemed to chew on the imagery a moment. “I don’t think we’ve really met before,” she said. “So I’m not sure of the extent of your abilities, exactly. Can you give me a rundown? That might help me get a clearer picture here.”

Antoni hesitated, then picked one of the pink paper serviettes off the table and held it on his palm. “When I see ’em, they’re, like, full-on shapes but light, yeah?”

Gabriella nodded.

“Well, they always move off a little when I get close, so when I saw one at my mom’s place, I followed it around tryin’ to get it to take a hike. The thing just kept changin’ rooms, though. I got so annoyed that I gave it a push. Like, with my gut.”

He blew the serviette off his hand, and it fluttered away.

“It didn’t come back after that.”

“But not this time,” Gabriella said.

Antoni shook his head. “First off, I could barely feel the thing. If Jan hadn’t told me, I dunno if I woulda even noticed. And when I did see it, it was only a glimpse–real fuzzy-like, too. It was a woman in the bathroom. At least, I think it was a woman. I just saw long hair as it moved past the door.”

Cailen shuddered. She wasn’t sure why, but she’d always found the here-there spirits more unsettling than full-on apparitions.

“Maybe an old spirit or just one on its way out…” Gabriella mused.

“Whatever it was, there wasn’t much for me to push,” Antoni said. “And when I did…”

He held up the uneaten biscuit, then crushed it in his meaty hand. Crumbs cascaded down from his clenched fist. He relaxed his hand and shook out the remains onto the table.

“Then it was everywhere,” Jan said wearily. “It was only little stuff, but it’d be in the kitchen, the mirrors, the goddamn sink. We tried moving Marta from her place to here, but it followed. It’s like pieces of it are all over her. She’s scared. She can’t sleep, she can’t eat… It’s been weeks. This fucking thing is just sucking her dry!”

“Why are we even talkin’ about this?” the other thug suddenly piped up. “What do you have ta understand? Jan said you could blast it, so blast it!”

Cailen looked at Gabriella. Her friend was staring into the contents of her mug.

Can you just blast it like you did Markle?” Cailen asked her.

Gabriella shook her head. “We only tagged him because you got him to sit still. It sounds like this ghost has been, um, ‘un-anchored,’ for lack of a better word. Ghosts usually have two things that attach them here: one, ties to a location or object that they associate with their life or death, and two, their form. Most ghosts fade out on their own and disappear. Others that we have to nudge,” she nodded at Antoni, “we just sever the location ties. The spirit here has neither now, though. It’d be like trying to fan smoke out of a room.”

Everett tapped a pen against his chin. He had his notebook out and several lines were already scrawled across the open page. When or where he’d gotten it, Cailen didn’t know.

“Can you, like, glue it back together, maybe?”

Gabriella blinked. “That’s…certainly a novel idea, but I’m not sure it’s possible to get all the pieces. I’m not even sure if I could ‘glue’ them together, anyway.”

“How about vacuuming it up?” he tried next.

“What the heck do you think I am? An appliance?”

“Then what can you do?” Jan spat. “You’re supposed to be some hotshot exorcist. You always sneered down at the rest of us, but you’re just all air in the end, Benitez.”

“For a guy who wants my help, you have a funny way of showing it,” Gabriella said, voice rising as she did from her place on the floor. “And like everything else, you think you can just force things to go the way you want. Well, look where it got you this time!”

“That’s rich coming from you, Benitez! You punch or throw anything that gets in your way!”

“Guys…” Cailen said.

“Like your sorry ass didn’t deserve it!”

“Just admit you’re a fucking hypocrite, Benitez! You act all holier than thou, but you’re no better than us!”

“Like heck I am! You lowlifes–”

“GUYS!”

They turned to Cailen. She pointed to the stairs.

Midway down, a small girl was sitting on the stairs, looking through the chipped balusters. She had short blond hair and very big eyes. Like Jan’s, they were ringed with shadows, and the wan color to her skin made her appear apparition-like herself.

“Marta…” Jan said soothingly. “What are you doing out of bed? C’mon…” He turned away from Gabriella and started for the stairs.

There was a heartbeat of otherworldly energy.

Jan froze. No one dared breathe. As everyone’s heads started swiveling this way and that, Cailen thought they all looked like dogs at a park trying to locate that ever-elusive squirrel enemy. It was a cheerier imagery than the “feel” of the thing warranted.

The spirit’s mark was definitely in the understated category of Cailen’s experience. It was also foul. She wondered if that was due to its actual life/death or its current state. As she pondered it, the feeling dissipated, leaving only a lingering sourness in the air and an urge to shiver.

Marta hugged her knees to her chest and curled even smaller. Jan glanced at Gabriella, then continued over to the stairs and gathered the little girl into his arms. He held her for a moment until, as if called, his grandmother emerged from the kitchen and took her from him. They disappeared upstairs.

Jan rubbed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Isn’t there anything…? I’m sor–”

Gabriella cut him off with a wave. She walked over and gripped his shoulder to steer him back up the staircase.

“Let’s go talk to Marta and see if we can’t figure this out.” They trudged up the stairs together, as solemn as a funeral procession.

“So…” Cailen said into vacuum following their departure. “How about that Mets game the other night?”

Proceed to Chapter 4, page 2–>

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