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J. M. Taylor
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additup.jpg
Art by Noelle Richardson

Add it Up

by

J. M. Taylor

 

“Johann,” Tim called. “Add this to your rounds.” He held up a large envelope closed with a tie.

“Call me Chase.” Still, he took it and dropped it in his briefcase. “Where’s it going?”

Tim smirked. “Your name’s John. Anyhow, Martha called in sick today, but she needs the list of searches for tomorrow morning. The address is on the envelope.”

Chase looked. “Newbury Street?” he said. “That adds more than half an hour to my loop. What about lunch?”

Tim raised an eyebrow. “I think you’ll manage.” He turned to Ron at the next desk, who had just hung up the phone. “Johann’s worried about lunch ’cause he has to walk all the way to Martha’s place.”

Chase flushed with the injustice. Tim thought that because he wore a Brooks Brothers shirt and tie, he could treat people like puppets. Chase’s clothes weren’t from Brooks Brothers, but they looked the same: bold striped shirt with white collar and cuffs, a red power tie, suspenders. So they were the clip-ons, but who noticed tiny details like that?

Ron gleamed. “I’m sure you’ll have plenty to eat.” He and Tim fell into a Monty Python routine of wink-wink, nudge-nudge.

When they were finished, Tim said more seriously, “Get going. Commerce said they have a stack of reports, and I need them right after lunch. Elaine’s at the registry covering for Martha, so you’ll need to man the phone when you get back.” Then he leaned forward and said confidentially, “But I know Martha’s place is out of the way, so if you need to, ah, rest, no prob. Just make sure you’re back here by one. Got it?”

“Got it,” Chase said. He picked up his Walkman, made sure it was tuned to the right station. He clipped it on the waistband of his pants, near the suspender clip, and put the headphones on. He grabbed his briefcase, put on his straw hat that looked almost like a Panama, and set out into the late morning summer day.

Boston’s Washington Street hummed with business. He turned up the volume on his Walkman so Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero” cut through the noise. He joined the crowd, crossing by the Globe Corner bookstore, and walking straight up School Street, past the old mansard mansion that had been City Hall, and was now an expensive French restaurant, past the King’s Chapel church.

Across from the church, at the foot of Beacon Hill, One Boston Place loomed like the monolith in that weird Space Odyssey movie. He had two stops in there, one at a law office, the other at a finance corporation. Tina giving way to Phil Collins as the signal got lost in the lobby. He hung the headphones around his neck and took the elevator to the finance company. It was on a higher floor, so he’d save a minute or two stopping at the law office on the way down, instead of retracing floors.

In the silence of the elevator, Chase thought about what Tim and Ron had been snorting about. Martha had always been friendly to him, but she was much older, maybe forty. Had she told them she liked him? Was she really going to give him more than paperwork when he knocked on her door? She was good looking, he guessed, in a simple way. Not like the girls in a ZZ Top video. But he’d never seen one of those miniskirted models in real life, and he couldn’t imagine what he’d say to them - they never talked in the videos. Martha, though, always said hi to him, always asked about school. If she asked him for more, there in the middle of the day, yes, he would do it. But even as he thought it, a thrill of fear burst through him. He was starting to get hard, and he was almost at the first stop. Thank God no one else was on the elevator with him. He moved the briefcase in front of him, casually, and when the door opened, mercifully, the hard-on had subsided.

The office lobby was huge and bright, with a long, high counter like a fortress wall keeping people like him from getting too close. The receptionist smiled and pointed to a stack of gray envelopes — the firm had its own distinct design — and he slid them into his briefcase, replacing them with a pair of regular manila ones.

Ten floors down, Chase repeated the routine at the law office, feeling the weight of dark paneling and heavy oak furniture. This time he had to wait to get a signature for his delivery. The old woman who sat behind a green-shaded brass lamp ignored him. Knowing she was surreptitiously watching him, he rocked on his heels, trying not to fidget. He never saw anyone else fidget, but for him the impulse was unbearable. Finally, a man came through the heavy wooden door that separated the reception area from the offices, floating silently on the carpeted floor. Chase noticed his gold rimmed glasses, black shoes that shined like midnight, and the heavy Mont Blanc pen he drew out of his gray coat pocket like a pistol. He signed the form without a word and disappeared back into the recesses behind the door.

His route took him along Cambridge Street, ringing Beacon Hill, to one of the State Office Buildings. Then a long walk up Bowdoin Street, which would take him past the State House and over to the Common. Walkman back on, he strolled, hopefully with a sense of purpose, to the beat of Jack Parr’s “Man in Motion (St. Elmo’s Fire).” Martha’s place was about ten minutes from here, through the Common, then the Public Gardens. He found himself nearly running, and forced himself to slow down.

A bead of sweat worked its way off the plastic inner band of his hat. He pried the almost-Panama off his forehead and fanned himself. “Relax,” he said. By the time he had left the Gardens and crossed Arlington Street, he was breathing normally, though his heart still raced beneath his damp striped shirt. But still, what would it be like? Tangled in his imagination, he had to sit down and pretend to check his delivery list while his briefcase hid the bulge on his lap.

Her house was near the corner of Clarendon Street, three blocks down from the Public Gardens, before the swanky shops took over the sidewalks. One of a row of identical brick brownstones. Expensive. Why would Martha do piecework when she could afford to live in a place like this? Chase steeled himself as he mounted (mounted!) the trio of steps that led to her door. He took a breath, then knocked.

A languorous voice crooned, “Coming!” and before he could imagine the implications of her tone, she had opened the door.

Chase’s first feeling upon seeing Martha was shock. She wore a men’s button down shirt that was much too big for her. It was carelessly buttoned, the sleeves rolled up her arms, which, like her face, were streaked with assorted colors of paint. It covered about half of her gym shorts, and below that she was bare to her toes.

“Chase,” she said. “I wasn't expecting you yet.”

“I’m a bit early, I guess,” he huffed, trying not to look at the opening in her shirt, which was just wide enough to show she had nothing on under it.

“Well, come on in.” She turned and strode away from him, giving Chase a view of her from head to toe.

She led him down a narrow hall to a rear sitting room. The window was covered with a thin sheet with strange patterns on it, giving a speckled dim light to the room. An easel was set up in one corner, but only a swirled background appeared on the canvas. Martha waved him to a couch that faced the leather chair where she sat down. He took off his hat and put the Walkman in his briefcase.

“Do you want anything?” she asked. “I’ve got water, lemonade, beer, anything.”

“Um, I think I’ll skip the beer,” he said, and his laugh felt wrong coming out of his throat. “Tim would kill me if I drank on the job. And I’m only seventeen.”

She rolled her eyes. “And at seventeen you’ve never had a drink? I don’t believe it, Chase. You seem much older than that.” She leaned back, with her wrists hanging off the arms of the chair as if she were in a throne. She had a tattoo on her left hand, where a watch would normally cover it, the letters “S & C” in a circle. Chase blinked in the dimness and finally said, “I brought those papers.”

“In a minute,” Martha said. “You’ve been walking all morning. Take a rest. Tell me about school. Or your friends. Something. Do you have a girlfriend?”

Chase’s throat felt dry and he wished he had asked for something to drink. But it seemed that the moment had passed and he had to keep himself focused in the hot, oppressive room.

“I, uh, don’t have a girlfriend,” he said. “But school’s okay. I’m starting senior year in a couple of weeks.”

“Your parents must be proud.” She shifted her legs, putting one knee up, and Chase had a view, if he chose, up the leg of her shorts.

“Um, my mom is. My father, he, uh, he isn’t around.”

Martha nodded sympathetically. “That can be hard. My mom left when I was a girl, too, you know. Here, let me get you that drink.”

She stood up so quickly Chase thought he’d get whiplash watching her. While she was gone, he looked around the disordered room. He couldn’t tell if she lived here alone or not. There were no pictures, just a couple of unfinished canvases and a row of liquor bottles and a TV covered with a cloth as if she never watched it. An expensive VCR was on the table next to it, but he didn’t see any movies lying around.

She came back with a pair of lemonades and sat down next to him on the couch. He smiled and she watched him as they both drank, like he'd seen in movies. He had no idea how long he’d been there. Five minutes? An hour? Martha put her glass down on a narrow table that rose behind the couch and put her hand on his knee. The weight of it was frank, certain. He willed himself not to get hard, but there was nothing he could do.

“I like you,” Martha said. “I’ve watched you in the office. You’re so… dependable. And, I think” —her hand moved up his leg a bit—“Just a tad ambitious?”

Chase’s heart was pounding. How far was she going to go? Would he say yes? Could he say no? She was definitely looking to sleep with him, and he didn’t even have a girlfriend that he could avoid cheating on. Martha leaned closer, but not close enough to kiss him. Would he be able to? What if he was sloppy?

“I want you to do something for me,” she said, from far away. He could see her nipples under the shirt, and his hand trembled, clutching the glass. She took it from him and put it on the table, then undid the top button of her shirt. Chase stopped breathing as she took his hand and put it on her breast.

“I like you,” she breathed, but he didn’t hear it. His hand felt like immovable lead on her soft skin. “I’d like you to be my friend. Will you?”

“Yes.”

“Good,” she said, and kissed him, lightly, on the cheek. He was terrified he was would come then and there, in his pants, and ruin it all. But then she sat back, leaving his hand in the air. With a thin smile and a wink, she buttoned her shirt. “It’s getting late,” she said. “But you can come back again sometime, can’t you?” He nodded.

Her voice took on a businesslike tone, but it was still demure enough not to wake him from his spell. “There’s still that matter of you doing me a favor. Then maybe I can do something for you? It’s just a little thing.”

“What?” he finally said.

She produced an envelope, but he couldn’t have said from where. “Just add this to your afternoon deliveries. It’s an extra building, I know, but it’s not far off your route, and I’ll make it worth your while.” She handed it to him. “Wait for an answer. It will be yes or no. Then call me from the office.”

“That’s all?”

“That’s all. But if it works out, there’ll be more. And more afternoon visits here. Okay?”

“Okay,” he said.

“And now I need to get back to work.” She stood up and pushed back the sheet, letting daylight in and waking him from whatever stupor he’d been in. What had just happened?

Martha led him to the door. “Hurry now,” she said. “If you cut across Copley Square, you can be at his office in no time. Don’t forget to wait.”

Chase rejoined the afternoon foot traffic. He’d walked a block before he realized that he wasn’t listening to his Walkman, and had forgotten his hat in Martha’s house. He decided he didn’t need it. He made one of his scheduled stops before making his way to the building where he made the delivery for Martha. It was in one of the older buildings in a neighborhood that hadn’t been modernized yet, with an elevator the size of a coffin. It moved in sudden jerks, and Chase regretted not taking the stairs to the fourth floor.

When the door finally shuddered open, he stepped into an airless hall lined with pebbled glass doors. He found the one listed on the envelope, and stepped in.

The office was a cramped, crowded space, littered with mismatched furniture and rows of old file cabinets that split the room in half. A half dozen battered gray desks stood in rows, three to a side, and desperate looking men were all talking quickly into telephones or pecking at electric typewriters. No one looked up when he walked down the left side, looking at the nameplates. The third one matched. He sat on the metal chair next to the desk and waited to be noticed.

The man, a sweaty, balding man with yellowed teeth finally looked at him. “Whattaya want, kid?”

“A message,” he said, handing over the envelope. “I’m supposed to wait for an answer.”

The man grabbed the envelope from his hand and tore it open with a knife. He took out a folded letter and began to read it with an air of frustration. But as he read on, his expression changed, until it was suspicious and pale. He looked around the room, to make sure that no one was paying them any attention. But the typewriters continued to clack and the voices jabbered into the phones and the man leaned closely to Chase. When he spoke, his breath hovered over Chase like a poison cloud.

“Tell her I said yes. And don’t you ever fucking come into this building again, or I’ll slice your throat with this letter opener, got it?”

Chase nodded. But he stood up firmly, keeping his eyes steady on the pathetic little man. He didn’t know what the letter had said, but he knew he had the man in his power nonetheless.

Now he understood Martha’s hours of looking through registry records. She probably had other ways of getting blackmail material, too.

And now Chase was part of it.

When he got back to the office, Chase didn’t care that he’d missed lunch, or that Tim and Ron jeered him for not admitting to whatever Martha had done to him. “You lost your hat,” Ron said.

“Left it on her bedpost,” laughed Tim.

It simply didn’t matter. Instead, he went to his desk and called her.

“His answer was yes,” Chase told her.

“Hmm,” Martha purred. “I thought so. Did you look in the outside pocket of your briefcase?”

He hung up, and reached for his bag. Inside was a plain white envelope. Keeping it down behind the desk and out of view to Tim or Ron, he opened it. Inside, he found a hundred dollar bill and a stiff piece of paper. A gift certificate to Louis of Boston. Two hundred and fifty dollars. His mind reeled with visions of tailored shirts and silk ties.

Heading home to the shitty apartment he shared with his mother and little brother, he fished out his Walkman, and was careful to zip the precious envelope deep inside his bag. David Lee Roth was whining about girls. He turned the dial until he heard the aggressive guitar and bass of the Violent Femmes’ “Add it Up.” That was it— he’d love to get himself a gun, too.

For the first time, his eyes didn’t wander, didn’t compare him to other passengers. Instead, he watched the city fly by through the window of the elevated train and wondered what other secrets those many buildings held for him.



rubies.jpg
Art by John Lunar Richie 2016

Rubies n Ice

by

J. M. Taylor

 

I found the stones in the freezer, of course, hidden in the ice trays. The ruby looked like a drop of blood suspended in the ice, and the emerald shone in the beam of the flashlight like a winking eye. The diamonds, though, they were invisible. I didnt want to carry a pocketful of water, but if I started banging the tray on the counter, someone was liable to hear. It was still early for people to get home from work, and I didnt see any neighborhood lights on in the late winter afternoon, but it didnt do to go looking for trouble. Jake said thered only be three big rocks, plus the ruby and emerald: five in all. In the end, I stuck the whole tray in the microwave for two minutes.

          Jake told me this would be our biggest score. The dealer had just taken an off-the-books delivery from a legitimate contact in Amsterdam, and was moving them again the next day. So while he sat behind a counter at some mall store, hawking Princess Cut engagement rings to kids too young to vote, he was making his real deals after hours.

          Jake got his intel from a kid who worked at the store, learning the trade himself. The kid could tell the difference between stones as far apart as three grades of clarity and color. Jake knew him from back in high school, when they used to sell each other weed. Now the kid was trying to move up the ladder, and this fat boss of his wasnt getting out of the way. But before things went sour, the old man let him in on the secret that the best place to hide diamonds wasnt in the safe. Thats for your marriage license, and other stuff you dont care gets swiped, he said. For the real valuables, the fridge is the best you got, especially short term. So when the guy came back from Am with a smile on his face, the kid knew it was time to put the guy to the test.

          But Jake isnt a porch-climber. Thats my area of expertise. He dropped me off a few blocks away, and I walked a slow meandering route as the sun went down. It was a neighborhood of quiet streets and small houses close together. It was cold, but I didnt notice. I was watching for cars, flickering TVs. There werent many kids in this neighborhood, and everybody worked. As far as I could tell, I was all alone.

          When I got close to the house, I slipped into the backyards and hopped a couple of fences. A lonely dog eyed me from a window, but didnt say a thing as I slipped past and into the bosss yard.

          Youd never know it was a diamond merchants house. Just one of a hundred little boxes with flowers in the front and a shed in the back to hold the mower. There was a small wooden deck built over an old patio, and a sliding glass door. He was smart enough to put a bar in the track. I was smart enough never to bother with a door anyhow. Instead, after checking out the windows for any sign of an alarm, I wiggled in through the bathroom to the left of the sliding door, using the sink as a step down into the house.

          Inside, it was a bit nicer than the exterior would suggest. None of the cheesy Old World ceramics and oil paintings I always imagined for these little cottages. Instead, there was sleek furniture, a huge flat screen mounted on the wall, top-end appliances in the kitchen. I didnt waste time looking for a safe, hadnt even brought my tools. I just went to the freezer, moved aside a half a bag of peas, grabbed the ice, and started to zap it. Two minutes later, I fished the stones out, and put the tray back. With any luck, he wouldnt notice anything had been moved until he went for the stones himself. After a quick look around, I was back out the bathroom window.

          Thats when I heard the sirens, and no question they were getting closer. Son of a bitch had some kind of silent alarm. Nice, playing both sides of the law. How was he going to explain that Id relieved him of illegal rocks? Not that hed have to. I had no intention of getting caught.

          The neighborhood had come to life while I was inside. A few lights had come on, and I saw faces in the windows, wondering what the cops were coming for. I got the idea this was an area that didnt see a lot of police activity. I kept my face hidden and moved along the sidewalk. Maybe Id be taken for someone heading home from work.

          I turned a corner and saw the flashing blue lights of an approaching cruiser. Jake knew to beat it if this happened, so I was on my own. I watched the cop pass me, as though I were any old curious citizen, but not so curious that I wanted to stick around to see what was up. I quickened my pace, heading for Center Street where I hoped I could catch a bus. In a pinch, a taxi would serve.

          In the end, thats what it was. When I got to the main drag, there were two police cars at either end of the block, just sitting, but their lights were on. No time to wait for a bus, especially if theyd noticed me stepping out of the residential section where a break-in just occurred. So I waved down the first taxi I saw and hopped in.

          It was a broken down car, filthy and held together by duct tape. I told him to take me to Dylan Thomas Pub, my favorite little hole in the wall, where the music was too loud and the lights were too low for anyone to care what you were up to. I didnt like the hack eying me like he was. I wondered if there had been some kind of alert. So I got on the phone and started talking.

          Hey, sweetheart, I crooned. What do you say to a drink? Meet me at Dylans, in about fifteen minutes No, I cant take you to my place, my cars in the shop, and Im in a taxiNo, not a limo. I mean, jeez, theres tape on the seatsTell you what, your place is in walking distance, so after that drink…” Then I started to get graphic, and when the driver got too interested, Im stared him down. He looked away, but he didnt have the decency to look embarrassed.

          We drove out of danger, but his eyes kept flicking to me in the rear view mirror. The stones were pressing against me, and I started to think he was taking me for a different ride than Id intended. We were cutting through a wooded section of the city. Pull over, I said.

          Here? he said, clearly nervous himself. Was he getting a reward for bringing me in?

          I gotta take a leak, I said. Look, Ill leave my coat as collateral. I wormed my way out of it as he pulled onto the shoulder. Then I dashed into the woods, moving from tree to tree, tripping once on a root, until the taxi was barely visible. I really did do my business, then dashed back to the car. I was freezing without my coat, but I felt a lot better about the gems, now that I had them in a safe place.

          We made it to Dylans without any more worries. He dropped me off across the street, and before I could pay and get out, someone else was trying to get in, some scrawny dude with a mop of curly hair and a couple of shopping bags. I played Frogger with the traffic, and made it into the bar safe and sound.

          Dylans was tiny, with a bar that ran down one side about twenty feet, and a few tall chairs against the other wall, with nothing but a shelf wide enough for a glass or two. The stereo was blasting Still Around by Robert Cray, loud and nasty. The after-work crowd had packed the place to the gills, and I had to fight my way to a space at the end. I ordered a beer and a shot of tequila, and waited for my date.

          I didnt wait long. Id downed the shot and was about half way through the beer when the door opened and in walked a pair of Bostons finest. I drank slow and steady. They had nothing to do with meId been here all night, and Liam behind the bar would show anyone who asked my extensive tab for the evenings adventures in alcohol. He always kept one on hand.

          Despite Liams giving them a tab that started a good half hour before the robbery across town, they took me in anyhow. For the second time that night, I was riding in the back of a car, like I was some richie with a chauffeur. They took me back to the woods, where a unit had set up a bank of lights. Show us where you hid them, one of the cops told me. He was tall, with an old style crew cut. His partner was shorter, with curly red hair.

          Hid what?

          You were here tonight, this very spot. Taxi driver told us. I hoped that loser got enough to cover the fares hed missed ratting me out.

          Yeah, I was here tonight. Took a whiz in there.

          We found that, one of the other cops said to me. Tree was still steaming when we got here. What we want to know is where you hid the jewels.

          I dont know what youre talking about.

          We found you in a bar, where you bothered to set up an alibi that fell apart real quick. You admit you were in a cab two miles away. Whats that about?

          I chewed my lip. Rather not say, I said quietly.

          I think maybe youd better, said the first cop.

          I hesitated a bit more, then said, If the cabbie was listening to me on the phone, he woulda heard me setting up a date.

          Yeah, go on, the crew-cut cop said.

          Well, I was getting something on the side, kind of a warm up, yknow?

          The red head cop shook his head. What about the jewels? he said.

          I smiled and said, Still got my jewels, and grabbed my crotch. Dont have any others.  I could see they wanted to swat me, but from what the cabbie told them, I couldnt have gone much farther into the woods, and they couldnt find any dug up earth. No one would be stupid enough to fling the rocks into the dark, and nothing was found in the cab itself. They had to let me go.

          Can I get a ride back to Dylans? I said. Its a long walk from here, and that other girl still might show up. Like the taxi ride, it passed in silence.

          When I walked into Dylans for the second time that night, the crowd had thinned out. Liam was still hard at work, though. When he saw me coming, he pulled a fresh beer to replace the one I hadnt got to finish an hour or so before. No girl ever showed up.

          But around midnight, scrawny old Jake walked in, his mop of curly hair as bedraggled as ever. Hed dropped off his groceries, I guess, after that taxi ride. And from the shit-eating grin he wore, Id say he found the stones under the duct tape, just where Id left them.








hunting2.jpg
Art by Noelle Richardson 2017

Hunting Ghosts

 

by

 

JM Taylor

 

Shari checked the equipment in her satchel: camera, notebook, pen. She had a hand mirror, too, and a compass. Tape. Aluminum foil. An array of make-up brushes. It was just after eleven when she hopped the low cemetery wall. No one saw her.

          It was the perfect time for hunting ghosts.

          The ground was uneven, and ancient trees thrust their roots upwards, so she had to be careful. This graveyard had no paths, no paved roads. Just tufts of unmown grass and row after row of slate and marble jutting out of the dirt. She relished the meditative quiet, even half a decade after she’d left the detention center where she’d spent her teens.

          She roamed the grounds in the late morning sun, taking note of names, dates, anything she could find on the stones. She found the usual family plots, single stones with multiple names, nothing from after 1888. Here and there a small stone marked a baby, some not even named: “Infant daughter,” “Baby MacIsaac.”

          Once, someone had cared enough to choose a peaceful site for his or her loved one, had hired a mason to chisel in a name and date. Maybe an epitaph, too, if there was money for extra letters: “Forever in Our Memory.” But a generation or two later, “forever” dropped into oblivion.

          In the back corner of the cemetery, a tree had engulfed a stone so that it stuck out like a tooth. She knelt in front of the grave and peered closely. Not wanting to touch the decaying stone, her first attempt was to use the mirror to angle a sunbeam to raise some shadows among the letters, but it was no good. She put the mirror away, and took out the aluminum foil.

          She held one end of the foil to the back of the stone and unrolled it around the front. Pulling it tight, she taped the ends together, careful not to touch the stone. Not that anyone would complain—she’d already checked at the Town Hall and the DPW, and no one gave the place more than rudimentary care. The teenage girl at the Maintenance desk didn’t even know the place existed. “Sounds creepy,” she said.

          Once the foil was secure, Shari took a brush and gently pressed it against the engraving. Eventually, some disjointed lines and curves resolved into letters, then a name: Augustin Levesque. Another half hour of careful work brought to light the dates: Born Aug. 6, 1802. Died December 30, 1886. A good long life. She brushed over the whole stone, finding barely perceptible willow branches across the top. Nothing else. She entered the details into her notebook. It was enough for her to do some research in the archives. Augustin Levesque would find life again on her blog once she got back to her tent.

          She stowed her gear and stood up on stiff knees. The rest of his life, with any luck, she’d get in the library, which was still open for a few hours. Then it would be a lonely night in her tent. She wished she could afford a hotel, even one of those old “motor courts,” but tuition and air fare were expensive. She’d be lucky to avoid the rental agency’s gas penalty.

          She meandered back to the car. Before Shari climbed the wall, she noticed a scrap of paper on the ground, like a page torn from a notebook. She glanced at the writing, and found several names and a list of bank account numbers. The first name she saw was Michael Whitby. Like the ache of a phantom limb, the old temptations crept back, but she pushed them into the cell she’d built in her mind. She was a different person now. Mr. Whitby probably wouldn’t want that fluttering around, so she stuffed it in her pocket. “Leave a place better than you found it,” she thought, one of the daily aphorisms that kept her at peace. Then she got in the car and headed towards the library.

          It was a sleepy little place, opened only twice a week. It had a lovingly-dusted card catalogue, a massive dictionary on its own stand, and a globe that still showed the Soviet Union. Not a computer in sight. And when Shari opened her laptop, she got no WiFi signal, either. At least there was an electric outlet, which was more than she could say about her camp site.

          Working through lunch, Shari set to mining the old directories and town records. By cross-referencing old maps, newspapers bound in giant folios, and birth and death records, she learned that M. Levesque was a stone mason himself, and had seen two sons die in the Civil War. His daughter, Camille, had married her father’s assistant, who had carved the stone. Working through the list of names she’d collected, Shari also uncovered the town doctor, who ironically died of an abscess. A murderer had been hanged the same day Lincoln had been shot. She couldn’t be sure, but it seemed to Shari that his family had buried him surreptitiously on the edge of the forest, not quite in the cemetery, and years later had snuck a stone there, too. She liked their style.

          She didn’t realize until her belly started growling that she’d stayed more than hour past closing time. When Shari emerged from the Reference room, she found the librarian snoozing in her chair. “Thank you,” she said gently.

          The old woman’s eyes snapped open. Without missing a beat, she said, “You’re quite welcome. See you the day after tomorrow?”

          Maybe,” Shari told her. “We’ll see how things go tomorrow. Bye now.”

          She ordered a lobster roll and onion rings at a roadside lobster shack. When she went to pay, she found the scrap of paper with the names and numbers. While she ate, she considered what to do. The boy at the counter had never heard of a phone book, so she spread her map on the picnic table, and called information. She threw five guesses at the computer voice before she found a Michael Whitby. She agreed to the dial fee, and counted ten rings before it disconnected without an answer or voice mail.

          She could have stopped there. After all, it was just an account number, and if she threw it away with the ketchup-smeared remains of her dinner, no one would ever know. But this was a chance to help living people, something she hadn’t done much of since pre-school. So she studied the list again, and found that one of the numbers started with the local area code. “Maybe,” she muttered, and dialed.

          She was mildly surprised to hear ringing on the other end, more so when a voice said suspiciously, “Hello?”

          Shari put on her most charming voice, the one she had once used to wheedle free meals out of unsuspecting waitresses, the one she used now to wrestle records out the hands of over-protective archivists. “Hi,” she said. “I’m looking for Michael Whitby?”

          Who?”

          Or maybe Frank Travers. Is this him?”

          Uh, yeah. Why?”

          Oh, good,” she said. “Were you at the cemetery on Old Farm Road recently? I found something that might be yours.”

          Yes,” Travers said, seeming to calm a little. “My, uh, parents are buried there. Did you find that piece of paper? I’ve been looking for it all morning.”

          Exactly!” Shari said. “Can we meet somewhere, and I’ll give it to you?”

          That would be very helpful,” Travers said. “But I don’t get around much. If you came here, I’d make it worth your while.” He gave her his address and directions, then added, “Is anyone with you?”

          Just me.”

          Travers said it would only take twenty minutes from where she was, but it was more like forty-five. She was worrying about the gas needle by the time she had navigated the landmarks Travers had given her in lieu of signs. His house turned out to be a propane-heated trailer on a lot that had more dirt than grass. Debris had piled up around the wheels, and the metal supports by the hitch had the sad look of permanence. Two of the three windows had air conditioners in them, and both were running full blast.

          Shielding her eyes against the setting sun, she knocked on the door. Almost immediately, it opened a crack, and she met a red-faced man who could have been anywhere from forty to sixty. He was in dirty jeans and a threadbare black T-shirt. A blast of cold air hit her and raised goosebumps on her arms.

          You the girl with the paper?” he asked. He looked her up and down. “You’re younger than I thought. What are you, twenty?”

          Shari stepped back from his breath, but kept her smile on. “Here it is, Mr. Travers.”

          He narrowed his eyes, and thrust out his hand to take the paper. She handed it over, and he made to close the door. Hoping to remind him of his promise of a reward, Shari tried to keep the conversation going. “Who were you visiting?” she asked.

          What’s that?”

          At the cemetery. I don’t remember seeing any stones marked Travers.”

          What are you, the census?”

          No, I’m an historian. My graduate project has me looking up the histories behind old gravestones.”

          That’s a stupid waste of time.” He started to close the door again.

          I only ask,” Shari said to the narrowing opening, “because I thought you might be able to tell me a little about whoever it is you know there. I’ll put it on my blog.”

          Travers stopped. “You do computer work? Like research and shit?”

          Shari bobbed her head. “I can find just about anything.” She looked beyond him and saw a bank of computers crammed onto a small table. That explained the need for two air conditioners. “You looking for something?”

          Don’t go poking your nose into trouble, little girl.” A line she’d ignored most of her life.

          I’m guessing you’re not Mr. Travers. Those aren’t your account numbers, either, are they?”

          Suddenly the man, whatever his name was, grabbed her by the wrist and wrenched her inside the trailer. Shari stumbled as she fell through the door. He twisted her arm against her back. She heard a clump, and saw that he was leaning on a crutch instead of his right leg. She tried to kick it out from under him, but he was too strong for her.

          Bent over as she was, she saw half a dozen monitors running in the close space of the living area. Where there wasn’t computer equipment, there were bags of chips, crumbled beer and soda cans, notebooks with lists of names and numbers. A box held a bunch of cheap phones. The cold air did nothing to cover the stench of cigarettes.

          This is not your lucky day,” he said. He squeezed her wrist even harder. “You tried to do something nice, and now I can’t let you leave.” With his other hand, he slid her phone and keys out of her back pocket, putting them in his own. She flailed at him with her free arm, but despite the crutch, he danced out of range.

          Every horror movie she’d ever seen flitted through her head. Of course he’d have a shotgun somewhere, and a set of knives for gutting deer or moose. If she could just break free of him, it wasn’t like he could follow her in the car. But he was too strong for that. Then she remembered the reward, and thought maybe she could make a buck. What the hell, she had the experience. She stopped struggling.“What do you need?” she said through gritted teeth. “This is your phishing cabin, isn’t it?”

          And it’s all alone. So when you disappear, no one’s gonna know.”

          Shari noted the edge in his voice, but decided to play it out. “What about my car?”

          That’s easy to get rid of. Little girl, this’ll teach you not to do any more good deeds.” He frog-marched her deeper into the trailer, towards the sleeping area. Her fingers found the walls, the edge of the table, but nothing she could get a purchase on. A bottle of rum stood in front of the computers, just out of reach of her free arm. She tried to pull them both toward it, but he stood firm and just laughed.

          I can help you,” she gasped. “What’s the set-up here?”

          You’re not for real, are you, little girl?” He cocked his head, trying to figure her game. His breath was a hot blast on her neck.

          I told you, I’m really good at getting information. And I need the money. You said there’d be a reward. And… and… the lady at the hotel does know I’m here.”

          I know that ain’t true,” he said. “I seen you got a camp-site number hanging from your mirror.” But he let off some of the pressure on her arm.          

          Let me guess,” she said. She ticked off some of the scams she’d heard of, posing as an official at a bank or credit card company, checking on security breaches.

          That’s right,” he said proudly. “I just ask to confirm their information and write it down. I got a network of crews who pay big bucks for that kind of intel.”

          Even from her cramped position, she rolled her eyes at his self-importance. He couldn’t possibly be bringing in that much, if he chose to live here. Judging from the huge, old-fashioned CPUs, she guessed his “network” was a bunch of kids out to score a TV or a new set of snow tires. Strictly small time.

          Listen,” she said. “I mean it, I could help. Let me go, and I’ll show you. You can hold on to my phone and keys. Just promise you’ll actually pay.”

          He didn’t let go, but he said thoughtfully, “I like your voice. You sound older than you look, and you’re friendly. I bet you could get someone to trust you in no time flat.”

          Well, it’s not working on you. Let me go.”

          He hesitated a few seconds, but then he released her. He sighed with the exertion, and leaned against the wall. He still blocked the door, and it was too cramped for her to rush him.

          Panting, Shari shuffled forward, nodded at him, and sat down on the bench that surrounded the table. “What’s your name?” she asked, taking a phone from the box. She tied to sound natural, but knew she was failing.

          Might as well stick to Travers,” he said. “What’s yours?”

          Belinda,” she said automatically. She had been Belinda once or twice, in another time.

          You from around here?” Travers asked.

          No, just on break from school.”

          An’ you spent it at the graveyard? Tell ya the truth, that paper flew out the taxi window coming back from the store.”

          She laughed. “I should’ve known. Anyhow, the graveyard thing is part of my graduate work. I find out the names and stories of forgotten people. I call it ghost hunting.” She opened a notebook and skimmed the names and numbers. She picked one with an unfamiliar area code and dialed. A woman, maybe in her fifties, answered.

          Hello, may I speak to Ms. Hillary Galbraith?” she said in a bored voice. She continued, “Ma’am, I’m calling about your credit card. It seems there’s been some unusual purchases lately. We just wanted to check that you’re the only one using your account…Well, for example, is that you, who spent $49.72 at Exxxtasy Lingerie? That’s with three x’s, ma’am…And $267.50 at Banger’s Rims and Wheels?…What about $1389.15 at Crazy J’s Electronics Emporium?” Ms. Galbraith was spluttering. Shari added, “Ma’am, are you in possession of your card, or have you recently lost it?”

          She put her hand over the phone and whispered to Travers, “She’s going to check.” He struggled to stifle his laughter. Then she turned back to the phone. “Oh good, you do have it. Well, in that case, I’d say someone has definitely hacked your account. And they seem to be escalating their purchases. I know, what’s this world coming to, right? It’s terrible. So, what we’re going to do is put a hold on your account. Could you just read me the card number and expiration date to confirm it?”

          Frightened, the woman read it all out, and even gave her security code before Shari could ask for it. “Thank you, Ms. Galbraith. We’re going to start an investigation right away… No, you won’t be held liable for any of the unauthorized purchases. We’ll send you the paperwork to make a claim. Can you just confirm your address, including the ZIP code, please, and we’ll send it right out.” When she’d collected everything, Shari said, “Don’t you worry, Ms. Galbraith, we’ll take care of everything. Don’t try to use the card until we send you a replacement. Is there anything else I can do for you tonight? Ok, thank you.” She hung up.

          What the hell!” Travers said through his giggles. “You just thought all that up as you went! How’d you do that shit?”

          I deal with a lot of bureaucrats,” she said, oddly proud of her work. “You learn their mannerisms pretty quick. Want me to try another?”

          She made five more calls, three of them yielding usable account information.

          I have to go now,” she said after the last one. She stood up and stretched. “It’s getting late. I can come back tomorrow, if you want.”

          What makes you think you can leave?” he asked.

          The fact that I just made too much money for you to want it be a one-time deal. But you do need to pay me. We never fixed on a price, but I’m thinking I made you at least ten grand from that first call alone. Thirty percent seems reasonable.”

          Tell you what,” he said, taking a credit card from a plastic folder. He used it to point to a small swipe machine attached to computer. “I’ll clone the first woman’s card for you. Like you said, it’s might be close to ten grand.”

          Shari waved him off. “No, I’m strictly a cash and carry girl. You must have some cash squirreled away here.”

          Travers hesitated. “I really think you should go with a card, max it out, and shred it. It’s a better deal than the alternative.”

          Shari knew she was getting into dangerous waters. And Travers was right, she was alone in a strange place, and no one knew she was here. Still, she stuck to her guns. In a flirty voice, she said, “Just a couple thousand. We can work out something better tomorrow. But if you don’t make good, I don’t come back.”

          Travers chewed his lip. She could smell his indecision, mixed with his need for a shower.

          I’m waiting,” she said, with more courage than she felt.

          His shoulders slumped. “Fine,” he muttered. Travers hopped across the room, and sat in a bench built into the wall. He slid open a door beneath it and pulled out a lock box. Unlocking it with a key on a chain around his neck, he tossed her a small stack. “That’s all twenties,” he said. “Two grand.”

          Judging by the size of the box, she thought it held at least another dozen such bundles. “You can afford a bit more,” she said.

          Travers dropped the box on the cushion next to him. The question is, can you afford to get out of here?” He pulled himself up, standing between Shari and the door. Slipping the crutch into place, he moved his hand to the back of his belt. When it reappeared, he showed her a nasty-looking knife. It snapped open. “Every step you take towards the door will cost you. I judge you could do it in three or four. Let’s call it five hundred a step. If you’re willing to try.”

          Don’t be stupid, Mr. Travers. I did you a favor, and I earned that money. Just give me my phone and keys, and I promise I’ll be back tomorrow.”

          Bullshit. You’d be on the phone to the police in ten seconds flat.”

          You are stupid, Travers. I just made a bunch of fraudulent calls on what I bet are stolen cell phones. I’d be in trouble, too.”

          He waved the knife like the conductor of an orchestra. “Well, in that case, maybe you can earn it all over again. What are you willing to do?” He let his tongue loll over his lip.

          Not that, I can promise you. Put down the knife, and we’ll think it over.”

          I’d really like to, ma’am, but I don’t think that’s possible, given the current situation.” His smile almost looked friendly. “See, I can sound sincere, too.”

          Shari eyed the door, but there was no getting past him and his knife. She thought maybe she could use a cushion as a shield, but they were all sewn on to the seats. The closest thing to a weapon was the box of phones. She edged toward it.

          That’s one step,” he said. “You owe me five hundred. And too bad for you, it wasn’t in the direction of the door.”

          Before she had a chance to do anything else, he leapt forward, grabbing her around the waist. The crutch fell to the floor. He sat heavily, pulling her into his lap. The knife was at her side. It reminded her of a particularly nasty fight she’d witnessed in the youth detention center mess hall. Reflexively, she threw up her elbow into his chin. His teeth clicked shut, and a spurt of blood covered his lips. He yelped and the knife fell to the floor. Shari was wedged against the unmoving table, and they both scrabbled at each other. The bottle of rum fell over, and amidst the shouting, she heard the sizzle of a keyboard shorting out.

          In the confusion, she reached for the lock box. He batted at her arms, but she had better leverage. She twisted, and brought the box against the side of his head. It wasn’t enough to knock him out, but it did raise a huge bloody lump on his temple.

          Enraged, Travers flung his hands to her neck. But he’d made the mistake of moving in beneath her arms, and so she was able to lift the box up. This time she brought it down with enough force to shock his hands from her throat. Blood pumped out of the top of his head, but he caught her shirt at the collar and tried to tear it off. She pulled away, arching her back until she was lying on the sliver of table not holding computers. Her right fist flew out and found his throat. He gurgled once, then collapsed into the chair, too still to be foxing. She extricated herself from his lap, heaving with fear and exultation.

          His body slumped against the window. Would he call the cops if he woke up? He just might be stupid enough to try to explain that he was just some computer enthusiast. But from his awkward position, and his silence, Shari realized it would never be an issue. The suddenness of how she’d become a killer shocked her, but she didn’t have time to waste on regret.

          Luckily, he had fallen in such a way that she could retrieve her keys and phone from his pocket. She picked up the burner phone, too, and wiped off her prints with her shirt. But she’d also touched the keyboard, the table, everything. She couldn’t erase it all. She decided to make sure prints didn’t matter.

          Careful not to lock it, she pulled the lock box from under Travers’s body and put it aside. Then she sat him up, and lit one of his cigarettes. She put it between his yellowed fingers, then found an ashtray and positioned it near his hand. The spilled bottle of rum had some liquor left in it, so she tipped the rest into the ashtray. Making sure the lit cigarette was close enough to the puddle, she scooped up the cash box and ran to her car.

          It was dark outside, and when Shari got behind the wheel, she could already see the flickering light of the rum catching fire. She turned around, and in her rear view mirror, saw the flames suddenly grow brighter. Everything else was pitch dark: not even a streetlight to guide her back to the road. There wasn’t another house nearby. No one would hear the propane tank blow.

          None of the day had gone the way she planned. After all, she’d only wanted to get some guy his account information. But at least poor Ms. Galbraith wouldn’t have any scandalous charges on her card, and maybe Shari’s scam would be a wake-up call for her.

          As for the real Mr. Travers, and Michael Whitby, and the other names on the paper, they’d be saved from identity theft, too. So, it wasn’t all that bad when you got down to it.

          It just bothered her that she’d become the most influential person in the life and death of whoever she’d met tonight, but he was still a ghost to her. Someone would know him, his “network,” whoever they were. Certainly, the cops would have a record, at least enough to put a name to his body. But no one would ever suspect her. Like him, Shari had become a ghost, one whose name would never be carved over the dead man’s grave.





J. M. Taylor lives in Boston with his wife and son. Under his real name, he has appeared in Crime Factory, Dark Valentine, and Morpheus Tales, among others. His novel, Night of the Furies, was listed by Spinetingler as one of the best crime novels of 2013. His second novel, Dark Heat, will appear in 2017. You can find him on Twitter at @taylorjm7.

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