Had someone been in the room, he would have switched on a light just then, and I would have seen my fate in the muzzle of his gun.
Perhaps I had done more damage to Flashlight Guy than he had done to me, requiring him to visit a hospital emergency room for a few stitches in the scalp. The suturing would not have taken long, but the emergency-admissions clerk would have required him to fill out, read, and sign six pounds of paperwork, including ninety legal disclaimers and liability-release forms; thereafter, they might keep him an hour or two for observation. In any case, he would be home soon.
Counseling myself to be out of this house in five minutes or less, I switched on Annamaria’s flashlight, with which I had led the way from her apartment into the garage below it.
Narrowing the beam with two spread fingers, I sectioned the room—a kitchen—left to right. The blade of light, in the fourth slice, found the source of the whiskey smell.
A bottle of Jack Daniel’s and a glass stood on the dinette table. The cap was off the bottle, and the glass held bourbon that appeared to have been watered down, perhaps by melted ice.
Another glass lay on its side. A small puddle of spilled bourbon glistened on the table.
The evidence suggested Whittle had returned home after regaining consciousness, and had left again in too much of a hurry to clean up the spill.
Two chairs stood away from the table. Before leaving, the drinkers had not taken time to tuck the chairs where they belonged.
A pair of unlaced men’s shoes were under the table, one lying on its side. Whittle could have changed shoes before leaving. Or he might still be here.
Because vinyl blinds had been drawn down tight at every window, I stopped pinching the flashlight beam and let it flourish.
A narrow hallway led from the kitchen past a living room full of lifeless furniture, where the draperies were drawn shut and where no art adorned the walls.
I had been in the house approximately one minute.
Across the hall from the living room lay a study with a couch, a desk, a chair, bookshelves. Here, too, the blinds allowed no view of the night.
The desk top had been swept bare. The bookshelves were empty.
I suspected that this place had been rented furnished and that Sam Whittle had not lived here more than a few weeks, having made no plans to settle in long-term.
Nevertheless, I wanted to search the desk drawers, although not until I determined Whittle was not here, either awake or sleeping.
In the final room, the bedclothes were disheveled. A pillow had fallen to the floor.
On the carpet, a damaged earthworm slowly writhed. It must have been brought in on someone’s shoe or pants leg. If it had been there more than a little while, it would already have died.
Outside, a truck engine growled in the distance and swiftly approached. I switched off the flashlight, although the windows were covered.
The vehicle seemed to take forever to pass, but eventually the engine noise faded.
When I switched on the flashlight, the dying earthworm had nearly finished flexing.
Although the house was small, I felt that I was a long way from an outside door and a quick escape.
I clicked off the light again, drew open a set of draperies, and unlatched the double-hung window. Concerned that the wood might be swollen in the humid night, I was relieved when the bottom sash slid up with little noise.
I closed the window but did not lock it. I pulled the draperies across the window before switching on the flashlight again.
The sliding doors of the closet were shut. I disliked turning my back on them.
Yet intuition drew me toward the bathroom. The gap at the base of that door admitted no light from the other side; but I have not survived by ignoring intuition.
When I put my hand on the knob, a shiver of trepidation climbed my spine, from sacrum to topmost vertebrae, and it seemed like a worm wriggled in the very axis on which my head turned.
Without realizing what I was doing, I had raised my left hand to my chest. Through the sweatshirt and the T-shirt, I could feel the thimble-size bell that hung from the silver chain around my neck.
I turned the knob. The door opened inward. No one flung himself at me or struck out.
The flashlight played across the surfaces of a bathroom from the 1940s: a field of glossy white ceramic tiles on the floor, enhanced with inlays of small pastel-green tiles, the grout cracked with age and dirty; a reversal of that scheme on the walls, a pale-green field punctuated by white inlays.
From directly ahead came a silvery splash of flashlight flaring off a mirror, then my reflection uplighted by the beam bouncing off the floor.
To my left a shower stall featured a frosted-glass door in an aluminum frame crusted with white corrosion.
To my right lay a bathtub, and in the tub a dead man languished, he who had been Flashlight Guy.
The shock of such a discovery would provide the ideal moment for an assailant to strike. Glancing at myself in the mirror, I saw with relief that no one loomed in the bedroom behind me.
Sharing this small space with a corpse, I wanted more light than the flashlight could provide. A shutter covered the only window in the bathroom, so I risked switching on the overhead light.
Sam Whittle had died in a sitting position. He remained that way because his shirt collar was snared on the hot-water faucet. His head lolled to the left.
Duct tape sealed his mouth, and something—most likely a rag—bulged behind it. They had gagged him because they had not killed him quickly.
His wrists had been taped together in front of him, and his shoeless feet had been fettered at the ankles with tape, as well.
Bathed in blood, he apparently had been shot once in each leg, once in each arm, and—after writhing not unlike a dying worm—had finally been shot in the forehead.
In the cauldron tub, he was as fearsome as any witch’s brew.
A starburst hemorrhage obscured his left eye, but the right stared at me, wide in the expression of disbelief with which he must have regarded his murderer. He had not expected death to come in the form of whoever had killed him.
No matter how many dead bodies one has discovered—and I have found more of them than has the average fry cook—the sight instantly focuses the mind, draws the nerves taut, and puts a sharp point on instinct.
Almost three minutes.
When I glanced at the mirror again and saw a man behind me, I ducked and turned and punched.
THE PUNCH LANDED BUT HAD NO EFFECT, FOR the man behind me was Sam Whittle, who had been shot five times. His bullet-riddled body sat in the bathtub, and his lingering spirit implored rather than threatened me.
Although he had manifested without the bullet wounds, he stood before me in a state of high agitation. He exhibited none of the rage that is the mark of a potential poltergeist. The desperation that gripped him was so intense that he possessed no remaining emotional capacity for anger.
He grabbed at me, and I seemed to feel as solid to him as he felt to me, but he could not gather fistfuls of my shirt. His hand, when cupped around the back of my neck, could not pull my head toward him and compel my attention.
Although he could pass through walls and closed doors and all that had substance in this world, he could not pass through me, yet neither could he so much as muss my hair. By sight and touch, the form and substance of his spirit were real to me, as they would be real to no one else on the earth, but Sam Whittle could not have any physical effect on me.
When he realized his limitations, Whittle spoke urgently but produced no sound. Perhaps he heard himself and thought that I could hear him, because I had to speak up and tell him that his voice would never reach me regardless of the force with which he shouted.
I suspect that lingering spirits are restrained from speech because they know in fullness the true nature of death and at least something about what lies beyond this world. This is knowledge that might corrupt the living and misdirect us in one way or another if we were to receive it.
Denied speech, Whittle quickened into an even more frantic state of desperation, moving past me into the bathroom, to stand before his corpse. The spirit beat its fists against its chest, against its temples, as if to argue that it felt solid to itself and thus could not believe that it was in fact only a disembodied soul, that all life had bled out of its earthly shell.
Wild-eyed, Whittle surveyed the room, as though seeking a route of escape, a return door to life. Across his face writhed a series of expressions, each more despairing and more anguished than the one that preceded it.
Desperation is energized despair, and despair is the abandonment of hope. Without hope, he had no defense against fear, which quickly swelled into a purity of terror from which I had to look away.
Over the years I have had reason to believe that most of the lingering dead are those who are destined for a better world than this one, if only they will receive it. They resist moving on for a variety of reasons, none of them rational.
Elvis had loved his mother so profoundly and had lost her so early, that after his death he longed to leave this world and to be in her company once more. But because he felt that he had not lived his life in a manner that she would have approved, because he was loath to face her judgment of his drug use and his promiscuity and his general dissolution, he had lingered here until at last he became convinced that what waited for him was forgiveness that surpassed understanding.
Those whose lives had included insufficient acts of kindness and good will to outweigh the evil they had done, or who had done nothing but evil, did not often linger here after death. And those of their kind who did linger were not here for years, but usually for days or hours.
Because they never believed in hope while alive, I assumed their hopelessness stayed with them after death. Maybe they traveled into darkness eternal without protest because they lacked the imagination to envision anything else.
Another possibility was that, upon death, they had a debt to pay. I could envision a collector of those debts who had no patience for lingering debtors.
Whittle’s behavior suggested that he faced something worse than an easy passage into peaceful darkness. As he accepted mortality and could no longer deny the corpse in the bathtub, his terror escalated.
Perhaps half a minute or forty seconds had passed since he had first appeared in the bathroom doorway.
What happened next happened fast, and it was a center-stage moment worthy of Second Witch, she who had no other name in Macbeth.
Whittle moved around the bathroom with the frenzied urgency of a bird that, having flown in through an open window, could not detect the draught that would lead it back to freedom.
In the play, Second Witch had stood over a cauldron, squeezing drops of her blood into the brew: By the pricking of my thumbs…
Desperately circling the room, Whittle made no sound equivalent to the swoop-and-flutter of a bird, and in fact no sound whatsoever. Yet I half thought there were wings that I should hear if only I knew how to listen.
By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.
Enter a player more terrible than Macbeth.
The bathroom light dimmed as if a great machine had surged on elsewhere in town, drawing power from the grid.
In half-light halved again, shadows swelled and swooned, and I thought I felt the wings that I could not hear, the rhythmic pulses of pressure from air beaten by great pinions.
I cannot testify with certainty to what I saw, because it defied interpretation both by my five senses as well as by those perceptions of mine that might be called extrasensory. I had never seen anything like it before—and hoped never to see its like again.
The spirit of Sam Whittle might have thrown itself against the mirror above the sink, but I think not. What seems more true is that the mirror reached out to seize the spirit of Sam Whittle.
Further: that the mirror was for a moment more than a mirror, that it unfolded from the wall, that the glass unfurled like fabric, forming mercurial membranes full of dark reflections of both the bathroom and of some more fantastical place.
Also: that those undulant plumes were simultaneously as reflective as polished silver and yet dark with tarnish, that they embraced Whittle’s spirit and swept it up into the chaos of images that swarmed across their fluttering surfaces.
And finally: that his spirit was gathered into the membranes, that the membranes furled into the mirror, and that as the mirror quivered into stillness like a pond after swallowing a stone, there was for only an instant a face peering out at me, not Whittle’s face but another so hideous that I cried in alarm and reeled back.
The Presence appeared so briefly that I cannot remember the grisly details of it, so briefly that it was only my reflection at which I shouted, from which I stumbled backward.
I almost fell, reached for something to steady myself, and grabbed the handle of the shower door. The latch released. The door came open. I stood face to face with another corpse.
In the kitchen, the man’s shoes had been under that side of the table on which the glass of bourbon had been overturned. This woman must have been drinking from the other glass.
The killers had cinched a braided-leather belt around her neck and had hung her from the shower head. Her feet dangled two inches off the floor.
Ceramic tiles had cracked under the strain of her suspended weight. Ancient grout had crumbled to the floor of the shower stall. The water pipe had bent, but no leak had sprung.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to examine the victim to see how she had died. Her face was a ghastly portrait of strangulation. Perhaps her neck had broken, too.
In life, she must have been attractive. She might have been in her twenties; but in one brutal minute, she had aged a decade.
Like Whittle, she had been bound with duct tape at the ankles and the wrists, and also gagged.
The line of sight between the tub and the shower stall made it likely that Sam Whittle had been forced to watch them hang the woman.
I had seen enough, too much.
The irrational conviction arose that if I looked at the cadavers again, their eyes would roll in their sockets to fix on me, and they would smile and say, Welcome.
Above the sink, the streaked mirror appeared to be an ordinary looking-glass, but it had transformed once, so might transform again.
I was alive, not a lingering spirit, but I could not be sure that the collector who had taken Whittle lacked the power to take me.
Leaving the bathroom, I did not turn off the lights, but pulled the door tight shut.
For a few seconds I stood in the bedroom with the flashlight extinguished, less afraid of the dark than of the sights that light could show me.
They would not have killed Flashlight Guy merely because he had failed to subdue me on the beach when I had swum to shore from the inflatable dinghy. Whittle and the woman must have disagreed with the other conspirators about something, and must not have foreseen the ferocity with which their associates would settle a difference of opinion.