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Dead Endings: Chapter 7

A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #012 back issue.

Cailen was not thrilled about hoofing it back to the Upper East Side on a chilly night after an already long day. She changed out of her blood-speckled dress and into a gray ballet top and skinny jeans, complete with black suspenders and fur-trimmed black boots. The suspenders were more a concession to a nervous tic rather than a stylistic choice. On the train ride to the address Elizabeth had given her, she snapped the bands as she thought.

He told me, Elizabeth had said.

So Christopher had done something more useful than puncture a mirror with Cailen’s fist. She flexed her bandaged hand. It hurt.

Markle was maybe nothing more than a spiritual smudge at that point, but if he managed to pass a clue along to Elizabeth, then they might have a chance at cracking the whole mess wide open. They certainly needed something right then. What good was it to have the nutjob’s motive if they didn’t know how to prevent the next murder?

You better appreciate this, Gabriella, she thought. Charging off was more Gabriella’s or even Everett’s style, but the uneasy feeling in Cailen’s gut when she thought of Markle’s memories was only part of what pulled her onward. She knew, she had felt, the ‘cinnamon’ presence’s mania firsthand. That persistent spirit was not going to stop until it got what it wanted, and this second brush with the thing had only impressed upon her an overwhelming feeling of rising excitement for a goal in sight. The memory of it curdled in her stomach.

The bland, reinforced walls of the tunnel connecting the subway line to the island blurred past the windows as she stared sightlessly ahead. A flicker of movement across the way caught her attention. She looked up, and her eyes traced the clear, white lettering of a RUSH t-shirt in the reflection of the glass. The figure in the shirt shifted impatiently.

She closed her eyes. When she opened them, the figure was gone. She hummed a few notes of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” under her breath as the doors whooshed open and admitted a crush of new people.

Cailen flipped open her ancient phone and stared morosely at the “no signal” message on the screen. Not that she expected a response from Gabriella while passing under the river. Her sturdy little phone had weathered years of neglect and abuse, but it wasn’t a wizard.

“Be a wizard,” she muttered under her breath.

A grizzled man reading a newspaper across from her raised an eyebrow. She smiled at him, but it only seemed to make him more uncomfortable. She sighed and shrugged further down into her coat.

After a little while longer and a lucky transfer to a Bronx-bound 6 train, Cailen emerged at 68th and Lexington to a cacophony of horns. The air bit viciously at her ears, but she welcomed the feeling after the stale, vaguely pee-scented subway air. She consulted the address again and backtracked a few blocks to 64th.

The glass walls and green awning that greeted her at her destination filled her with a mixture of joy and fear. “1166 1st Ave at 64th,” it seemed, was a wine bar, and way out of her budget by the looks of things.

Fuck it, she thought, studying the dimly lit interior with plush, leather seating. After her hard day, she deserved a glass of fine wine. If the last week had taught her anything, it was that life was too short to measure trivial things by their price tags.

Once inside, with no Elizabeth in sight, a waiter showed Cailen to a tucked-away corner in the back of the bar. Bulbous, copper-sheathed glass fixtures overhead cast muted shadows across an array of dark red and green bottles lining the walls. It looked like a boozy library. She approved of this immensely. Her hands trembled as she read the pricing on the embossed menu, but she ordered a glass of red with an air of defiance.

Only a sip or two later, Elizabeth finally appeared. Backlit by the glass door, her head was an unmistakable halo of curls. After a brief survey of the bar, she located Cailen and joined her.

“Sorry to make you wait,” she said breathlessly.

Cailen gestured with her glass in a sort of sloshy shrug and studied the other woman under the glow of the lamps.

While she certainly sounded more composed than she had on the phone, Elizabeth looked even worse than she had at the cemetery. The dim, gentle lighting cut unusually stark lines across her cheeks and eyes. Taken aback, but tactful, Cailen said nothing. Elizabeth sat and settled back into her chair.

“You okay?” Cailen ventured.

The conversation lulled while Elizabeth gathered her long curly hair over her shoulder. “No,” she said at length. “I haven’t been okay for a long time.”

Cailen pressed on. “Umm… How so? You said on the phone that you knew something. That…you knew how Christopher had died.”

“Christopher… I… I think we’re going to need a bottle for this.” Elizabeth signaled the waiter, who retrieved a bottle from the back along with two glasses.

Cailen dutifully downed her first glass and accepted another of whatever mysterious selection Elizabeth had made. It tasted velvety on her tongue, with faint hints of leather and ripe, dark plums.

“Alex told me about you. You and Gabriella,” Elizabeth said.

“Oh?” Cailen swirled the contents of her glass furiously. She could only imagine what Alex might have said. She was a little fuzzy on the details after they’d left, but the destruction in the bedroom probably prompted several comments, none of them flattering.

Elizabeth continued. “After I met you two at the cemetery, I got a call from him later. He wanted to know who you both were. How you knew Christopher.”

“Old friends,” Cailen said smoothly, using Gabriella’s lie from earlier. “Not very close, I guess, but when we heard, well…”

“Old friends…” Elizabeth repeated with a sad smile. “Christopher was killed by an old ‘friend.’”

Cailen choked on her sip. “What?! Who?!”

“Someone he trusted. He told me.”

“You’re saying Christopher spoke to you? As a spirit? You could hear him?”

“Can you hear them?” Elizabeth countered abruptly.

Cailen blinked in surprise. “No,” she said slowly. “I can only see them.”

“Is that all?” Elizabeth stared down into her glass. “Your friend Gabriella can do more, I’m told.”

“You could say that. Alex told you that she handled him, I’m guessing.”

“He said she was surrounded by a white light. That she ‘took care’ of Christopher.”

A waiter paused by their table and refilled their glasses. Cailen waited until he was out of earshot before she said, “Gabriella helped him move on. Christopher won’t be coming back. You can relax on that account.”

Elizabeth drew her patterned scarf tighter around her shoulders and nodded. “Thank you,” she said softly. Before Cailen could speak, she added, “Is that what you two do? Deal with spirits?”

This week, maybe, Cailen thought sourly. She’d rather they dealt with themselves, but in this case, at least, she could give Elizabeth a little closure.

“You saw her card,” Cailen said with a shrug. “It’s more Gabriella’s thing. I’m actually not much use in the ‘dealing with’ part.”

“But you can see them. I wish I could see them,” Elizabeth said.

Cailen shook her head. “It might be nice to see a friend or family member one last time, but you can’t just turn it off after that. Believe me, you don’t want to see them.”

“Alex said he saw Christopher, too. He said he saw him two times. Once in the apartment…and once in you.”

Cailen started. This conversation was getting way off track.

A ghostly, ticklish sensation gathered at her abdomen at the words. Muscles in her stomach that weren’t hers parted and ethereal warmth spilled down her front and pooled in her lap. She shifted uneasily and dismissed Markle’s memories with a mental snap.

“I can see them,” Cailen said flatly, “and they can…possess me sometimes, but that’s not important right now. You said Christopher told you who killed him. Let’s get back to that.”

Elizabeth’s dark eyes glittered. “Yes. Yes. He…whispered to me.”

Cailen stared hard at her. Was Elizabeth a sensitive? Gabriella could usually perceive that sort of thing and hadn’t said anything, so probably not. Markle had been strong enough to trash a house and appear to his cousin, though. Cailen couldn’t hear the dead to save her life, but something like Markle might have been able to broach all barriers.

“What did he say?” she asked.

Elizabeth took what looked like a fortifying sip. “He said…‘Alex.’”

Cailen frowned.  “…Shit,” she muttered, before she could help herself.

Elizabeth pressed a hand to her face. “It was the day before the funeral. I stopped by the apartment to…I don’t know. I just stood outside the door. And then I heard…the whispers. ‘Alex,’ ‘Alex,’ ‘Alex’…”

“You’re sure it was Christopher?”

“I said so, didn’t I?!” Elizabeth slammed the glass down with a solid clunk. A few heads turned in their direction.

Cailen held out her hands in supplication. “Whoa, whoa, I believe you. Sorry.”

“He just kept whispering,” Elizabeth said, not even looking at her. “Over and over again. Even when I left.” When she did look up and met Cailen’s eyes, her own were a little wild around the edges.

“Easy, easy,” Cailen said, hyperaware of the stares of the other patrons. “It’s over. He won’t bother you anymore, I promise.”

Elizabeth’s hand trembled as she pulled it away from the glass. A helpful (or exceedingly nosey) waiter appeared to refill it.

She took a few more sips and seemed to calm down. In a steadier voice, she said, “And then I met you and your friend at the cemetery.”

Cailen mulled it over. No wonder she hadn’t laughed in their faces at the idea of a ‘spiritualist’ and wanted one of Gabriella’s cards. Cailen also recalled her words from earlier. Elizabeth hadn’t attended the service because she was avoiding people. Or someone. Was Alex really a killer? THE killer?

“And then he called you after we left,” Cailen murmured into her glass. Had he been fishing for more info because he suspected that they had learned something from Markle? Oh man, oh man–Gabriella needed to hear this.

Elizabeth leaned forward. “You believe me.”

It wasn’t a question. Cailen thought about the prospect of more slammed glassware and nodded. “Yeah. I believe you. Thanks for the info. I think we can do something with this… Something for Christopher.”

“You’ll take care of it?”

Cailen leaned back heavily in her chair and saluted the other woman wryly with her bandaged hand. “Gabriella will, at least. All I’m good for is playing ‘meat puppet,’ it seems.” She laughed at her little joke. Elizabeth just stared at her.

“Anyway, uh, if you’ll excuse me for a sec, I’ve gotta use the bathroom,” Cailen announced and pushed back from the table. And call in the big guns, she added mentally.

She made her way to the toilets, weaving pleasantly, snapping her suspenders as she thought back over their talk. The idea of a wet noodle like Alex killing someone was so absurd it might actually be true. Gods knew the whole situation had left normal territory ages ago. As she chewed on this novel concept, she almost didn’t notice the shape in the bathroom mirror when she went to wash her hands.

Smaller blown-glass light fixtures illuminated the gloomy, copper-furnished bathroom. The golden metal tones seemed to glow warmly under the sparse light. Even in the relative darkness, the pale blue hand on the sink next to her own was sharp and clear under a radiant, otherworldly sheen.

Her breath caught in her throat as she studied the reflection. She hadn’t sensed anything spirit-related in the place, so the presence caught her with sharp surprise. Then she saw the wet blood glistening on the long, masculine fingers and relaxed.

“Tricky, tricky,” she said to herself, glad that no one else was using the toilets. Markle’s presence, though it remained only in her mind at that point, was being very persistent.

“Keep your guts inside and your hands to yourself,” she growled and spun to face the spot where the hand had been resting on the lip of the sink. No one was there, of course.

Was her subconscious excited, now that she could pin a name to the murderer? Well, the supposed murderer, anyway. Elizabeth seemed distraught enough that maybe she was mistaken (or delusional?), but at that point, any lead was worth pursuing. Gabriella would sort it out.

Cailen sniffed and pulled her battered cell phone from her back pocket. Still no calls or messages.

Of all the times to be MIA, she thought, annoyed. What good was having the biggest news of the year when she couldn’t tell anyone?

Mindful of the strict 160 character limit and sticky “3” key, Cailen tacked out: “U SUCK. MIITING WITH CRYING CHICK OVIR. BIG NIWS. KNOW WHO BAG GUY IS.”

That’ll serve you, she thought. Now get your butt over here, Gabriella.

As an afterthought, she also texted Everett. His message consisted only of a brief, “U SUCK.”

Satisfied, she returned to the table to see that everything had been cleared and only their two glasses remained. The incredibly strong odor of what could only be described as ‘barnyard’ from the beverages informed her they had probably ventured into Bandol wine territory.

“One for the road,” Elizabeth offered with a wan smile.

“Uh, thanks,” Cailen said. The pungent, earthy aroma of manure made it a hard sell to her nose, but her brain knew it would taste good. Probably. “The bill…?” Cailen added, after an experimental sip. Wet leaves, old soil and the faintest hint of something decaying lingered on her tongue.

Fancy complexity be damned, she thought with a grimace. She’d probably stick with more conventional flavor profiles on her own dime.

“My treat,” the other woman said. “I’m so glad you came. I think I made the right decision asking you here in the end. It feels like I can actually be free of this with your help.”

Cailen choked down more of the wine. If it tasted this weird, it had to be expensive. Best that she just grin and bear it. She smiled mechanically in response and wondered if her teeth were stained purple.

“Happy to help,” she managed, and with what she thought was an incredible display of manners, she finished off the glass. Elizabeth sipped demurely at hers, but seemed to sense the conclusion of their meeting and the glass emptied quickly. Cailen’s stomach churned as she caught one final whiff of the wine.

With a farewell wave to their server, they gathered their coats and swept out into the night air. It was getting pretty late and Cailen was very eager to be off.

“Will you walk with me to my car?” Elizabeth asked. “It’s on the way to the express stop,” she added, seeing Cailen’s face.

“Sure…”

Elizabeth walked quickly, to Cailen’s relief. She didn’t talk, either, which Cailen found both surprising and welcoming. And at any rate, Cailen appreciated safety in numbers when walking at night, especially when tipsy. Or drunk.

As much as she hated to admit it, Cailen knew she was four sheets to the wind. She didn’t think of herself as this much of a lightweight, but if she added the scotch back at the apartment to the spiritual trauma of the night’s activities, then she had a fair excuse, she supposed. She could easily blame Markle for the wobble in her step and her unerring diagonal progression that kept her edging into the road from the sidewalk.

Elizabeth looked back at her once, and a hot flash of embarrassment sobered Cailen up enough to maintain a straight, if slightly mechanical-looking walk. By the time they reached 59th, though, her second wind had faded.

Elizabeth unlocked the front of a sleek, silver 4-door and tossed her purse inside. Cailen rocked on her heels and contemplated the lone star she could see twinkling overhead through the smog. Or maybe it was a plane. She heard the car door shut with a click, and then suddenly Elizabeth was leaning over her. Long, dark curls tickled her nose.

“Are you all right?” Elizabeth asked.

Cailen found herself sitting on the pavement.

“You probably shouldn’t drive,” Cailen told her with some authority. “You’ve had too much wine.”

Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. “I’m not the one sitting on the ground.”

“That’s a fair point,” Cailen conceded. She yawned widely and tried to stand. Her sloppy, ineffective movement landed her back on the ground instead. Her eyelids felt like they were coated in glue.

“Would you like a ride home?”

She struggled back into a sitting position and tried to think. She wasn’t doing a good job of it, so she just said, “Yes.”

She didn’t remember Elizabeth helping her to her feet or getting into the car, but she heard the familiar click of a door shutting, and then they were moving.

Proceed to Chapter 7, page 2–>