A Myron Vale Investigation
The first time I met Karen Thorne, I’d just clicked yes on two tickets to Honolulu for the holidays. Non-refundable, of course.
In the throes of one of her periodic funks, Billie had stepped out for a walk—the rain always made her extra restless—and I was alone in the musty closet my landlord had advertised as office space so he could charge me office rates. As the dreary Portland afternoon slipped into a dreary Portland night, I’d forgotten to turn on the desk lamp, so the pale glow of my monitor was the only thing warding off the growing darkness.
When she opened the door, the glare of the exposed bulb in the hall made me squint. She was visible only as a silhouette—and a hell of a silhouette it was. I caught a hint of blond in the shadowy curls of her hair.
“Are you Myron Vale?” she said. A husky voice. Right. Why wouldn’t it be? The voice had to go with the bombshell figure.
Faintly, from down the hall, came the off-key singing of people without any musical ability whatsoever attempting to belt out hymns. Their door was probably open again, but it wouldn’t have mattered even if shut; our worthless doors were no better than cardboard. I just kept hoping the Higher Plane Church of Spiritual Transcendence would finally gather up enough gullible sheep that they’d be able to upgrade to a different location.
Either that or they’d give up all their nonsense and accept the truth that I knew better than anyone: Dead or alive, none of us were going anywhere.
“Whatever you want, I can’t help you,” I said.
“You’re Myron Vale?”
“I’m leaving on vacation.”
“Myron Vale, the ghost detective?”
“Please don’t call me that.”
“I want to hire you,” she said. “My name is Karen Thorne. It’s very important.”
“It’s Hawaii,” I added.
“I can pay you.”
“Did I mention it’s Hawaii?”
“I can pay you a lot. I’m—I’m very rich, Mister Vale. I wouldn’t even be here, but they tell me—they tell me you’re the person to come to for . . . for my situation.”
So much for the husky confidence. She’d started to come off like a little girl who’d lost her lollipop.
The rain, picking up its pace, pinged like marbles on the metal roof. The red neon glow from the bar across the street pulsed on my cracked window, rivulets of water dribbling down the glass like red wine. Inside my office it was quite dark, but outside the sky contained the last gasps of dusk, lavender clouds over a gray horizon. I took one last longing look at my monitor—a happy couple holding hands on the beach, bodies tan and glistening, two margaritas on the bamboo table—then rose with a sigh from my swivel chair.
A little too fast, like usual. There was the familiar wooziness as the blood rushed to my head—and then, faintly, that dull throbbing at the front of my skull, white and bleak, a discomfort on the edge of nausea, in that sacred place where the .38 was lodged in my brain. I’d never had dizzy spells until the shooting. Of course, lots of things changed after the shooting. Everything, really.
“Are you all right?” the woman asked.
“I’m fine,” I lied, steadying myself with a hand on my desk. The world was still tilting, but I wobbled through the darkness toward her anyway. Male pride could motivate a man to do many things.
On my way, I flicked on my desk lamp.
The woman in my doorway more than fulfilled the details my imagination had furnished to her silhouette. She was tall, taller than Billie, at least in her white heels, and she had the kind of curvy, womanly figure that was once the ideal before the runway popsicle sticks got plastered all over the fashion magazines. Her skin was slightly on the pale side, which made her sultry red lips look all the brighter. There was a pair of oversized white sunglasses in her hair, a lacey white shawl over her shoulders, and white pearls around her neck. Her dress was a sleeveless lavender number that matched the handbag she was clutching against her ample bosom. Her very ample bosom.
Sexuality oozed out of her every pore. When she blinked at me, her eyes a liquid green, I could almost feel her long eyelashes brushing against my face. Easy, Myron. You’re a married man.
“You’re—you’re not what I imagined,” she said.
“You were expecting someone taller?” I replied.
She flicked her hair over her shoulders, so much hair, so golden and curly, a single subconscious act probably capable of bringing armies of single men to their knees. “No . . . Just, I don’t know, more Yoda-like, I guess. Wizard of Oz. Something like that. You’ve got quite a reputation.” She smiled weakly and fidgeted with her handbag. “Mister Vale, I’ve—I’ve come a long way. I need you to find someone. I’ll pay whatever you want. Double your rates. Triple even. This man, he’s—”
Before she could finish, I put my hand on her chest.
Her face reacted in the predictable way—a flinch, eyes flaring wide, those big red lips forming an even bigger O. Her chest, however, didn’t react to my touch at all. In fact, my hand passed right through her, feeling only the slightest tingling chill as it disappeared into her body and came back out again.
“Now we can talk,” I said.
A blush spread up her chest and neck to her cheeks, a bright pink wildfire raging across all that pale skin. She touched her chest, her own hand solid to herself, of course, and took a few quick breaths. I thought she might pass out, but she only wobbled a little, swallowing hard, glaring at me. Outside, an eighteen wheeler rumbled by on Burnside, splashing through the puddles.
“Are you always this forward when you meet a woman for the first time?” she asked.
“Only the dead ones,” I said. When her face crinkled—most ghosts hated to be reminded that they were no longer among the living, especially the recently deceased—I quickly added: “Sorry. I just had to be sure. You did open the door, you know, rather than walk through it. Not many ghosts can do that.”
“Oh,” she said, her face softening, more sympathy there now than shock. “I just thought, you know, opening the door would make you more comfortable. Since you’re, well, you know . . . .You mean you can’t tell by looking?”
I shook my head.
“Oh. That must be—um, hard. In your line of work.”
“And what line of work would that be?”
“You know. For a ghost detective.”
“Again, I’d rather you not call me that. I’m just a detective. A licensed private investigator, actually.”
“But you do work for ghosts?”
“I work for all kinds of unsavory types.” When she stared blankly, I sighed. It was no use. “Yes, I sometimes work for ghosts. It pays the bills. And yeah, not being able to tell the difference makes it challenging. Now what can I do for you Mrs. Thorne?”
She still hadn’t quite recovered from my otherworldly feel-up, biting down on her lower lip, kneading the beads on her handbag, whatever was left of her confidence having evaporated when I’d confirmed her non-corporeal status. I felt bad that I’d done it, but it wasn’t like I had a choice. When Billie wasn’t around, I had to take matters into my own hands. Literally. It was either that or lose everything.
“Do you want to sit down?” I asked.
“Um, all right.”
I directed her to one of the two padded office chairs across from my desk. Rather than return to my desk chair, a more imposing position, I took the seat next to her. She perched with her legs pressed close together, handbag in her lap, our knees nearly touching. I was still just humoring her. I had no intention of taking up the case, but she probably deserved more than a casual brush-off.
“You said you wanted me to find someone?” I prodded.
She cleared her throat. “Yes. As I said, Mr. Vale—can I call you Myron?”
“It’s either that or Vincent, I guess.”
“It’s my middle name.”
“Oh, well, if you would prefer I call you Vincent—”
“I wouldn’t. Not unless you’re my mother back from a pretty incredible facelift, because I have to say, you don’t look anything like her.”
“And I only let her do that because she used to call me Vinnie,” I said. “Drove me bonkers, but I never said anything about it until she passed. Always figured she wouldn’t live forever, so why make waves, right? She’d always wanted my first name to be Vincent just so she could call me Vinnie, who knows why, but Dad had insisted on Myron after some friend of his who died in ‘Nam. Of course, then things changed for me—and when I realized that she was going to go on calling me Vinnie for eternity, well, I put my foot down. Told her to call me Myron like everyone else.” I knew I was rambling, but it seemed to be putting her at ease.
“But you said she still calls you Vincent?”
“Right. That was a compromise. There’s only so much my mother will listen to reason, especially now that she’s dead.”
She laughed, and it was a good one. Genuine. She wasn’t putting on airs, which was the sense I got from her the rest of the time. She laughed with her whole body, head thrown back, a bone-rattling kind of laugh that would have woken up the dead if there was anybody left to wake.
“You’re a funny man, Myron,” she said.
“Tell that to my mother. All right, out with it, who’s this guy you’re looking for?”
That sobered her in a hurry. The little banker’s lamp on my desk cast a warm yellow glow in my otherwise sterile office, but it was a weak light, weak enough that I could still detect hints of neon red on her cheeks from the bar sign. Another truck rumbled past in search of more pot holes, and when it passed, shifting the light and the shadows in the room for just a moment, no more than a split second surely, the color of her hair changed. It was still blond, a vibrant yellow, no more transparent than it was before, really, but there was a different tint to it, a certain quality that set it apart, that gave it a more ghostly shade of gold.
Every now and then, if the light was just so, if the mood was right, if the stars aligned, whatever it was, I could tell. I could see, just for a second, the difference between the living and the dead. It gave me hope that one day all this madness would end.
“His name is Anthony Neuman,” she said. “Or Tony. I always called him Tony.” She looked like she was going to tear up.
“Husband?” I said.
“Living or dead?” I asked.
“Living,” she said. “At least I think so.”
“You think? When was the last time you saw him?”
“Three months ago,” she said, and then she did tear up. The blurring line of her mascara strained to hold back the waterworks, and I thought oh no, it’s all over but the crying, but then she battened down the hatches and shot me an angry look as if I’d insulted her somehow. “Actually it was three months, six days, and four hours ago, to be exact. I saw him ten minutes before I was murdered.”
That got me to sit up a little straighter. While it wasn’t the first time a client had uttered the word murder in my office, it was still rare. Of course, Vale Investigations had only been open for three years, but still. Finding a murderer was a hell of a lot more interesting than finding someone’s estranged son or a dead army buddy who had fallen out of contact.
Still, I wasn’t planning on taking the case. Blue skies and warm sand still beckoned.
“Murder, you say?”
“That’s right,” she said.
“Do you know who killed you?”
She hesitated. “I think it was Tony, but I don’t know for sure. That’s why I want you to find him.”
“Really? And you want to find him for, what, revenge?”
“I said I don’t know if it was him. I’m hoping it wasn’t. That’s why I want you to find him.”
“Why would he want to kill you?”
She swallowed. “For money, I guess. He didn’t get any.” When I raised an eyebrow to this, she went on: “I started to suspect, you know, that he might try something. I had this funny feeling. We’d only been married a few months and he was acting strange.”
“Moodier. Edgy. I don’t know, it was just a feeling. It was so vague that I didn’t even tell anyone, but I—well, I changed my will. Made sure all the money went to my sisters instead of him. My plan was to tell him I’d done this, really for my own peace of mind. I figured if he knew, and if he stayed, well, then he really loved me.” She choked on the words, swallowed and pressed on. “I really thought he loved me, Myron. In fact, I still do. I think he must have been in trouble. I don’t know. Maybe somebody else killed me as revenge for something he did and he’s in hiding.”
“How was it done?” I asked.
“Yeah. The method. Bullets, poison, what?”
She reacted as if she’d swallowed something sour. “You know, this is my life we’re talking about here.”
“Sorry. Just used to cutting to the chase. Comes from the old days when I was a cop.”
She nodded. Down the hall, the singers were starting into another hymn. I felt my anxiety swelling. Billie was right. If I didn’t take a vacation soon, I was going to become a murderer myself one of these days.
“Car crash,” she said. “Somebody messed with my brakes.”
“You sure it wasn’t an accident—you know, car trouble?”
She glared at me. “Do you think I’d be here if I thought it was an accident?”
“I was there. Everybody may think the reason I ran into that brick wall was because I’d had too much to drink, but I know what happened. I know how the car just started going faster. For no reason. And it was a Bentley! Brand new!”
“A Bentley? What kind of money did you come from anyway?”
“Come from? What, a girl like me can’t just earn it on her own?”
I didn’t say anything.
“I could have earned it, you know,” she said. “I did graduate from Yale. Daddy may have helped me get in, but he certainly didn’t earn those grades. I earned them all on my own.”
“All right, easy. So you earned the money on your own, then. Fine.”
“I said could, Myron. I didn’t say did. I didn’t ask to be born into this family. It’s just my life.”
“What family are we talking about here?”
She simmered silently, as if she was debating about whether to take offense to my comment, then shrugged and said, “You ever heard of Thorne Pharmaceuticals?”
“Oh. You’re that Thorne family.”
She nodded, kneading her handbag. Thorne Pharmaceuticals—I didn’t know how big they were exactly, but judging by how often their commercials about male erectile dysfunction played just during the few hours when I watched late night TV trying to kill my insomnia, I assumed they had to be big.
“My father is one of Morgan Thorne’s seven grandsons,” she explained. “The way my great grandfather set it up, all the descendants have a certain percentage of company shares. Mine’s a pretty small slice of the pie, but still, it adds up.”
“I’ll bet,” I said.
“So there’s no problem with me paying you whatever you want.”
“Uh huh. And now that you’re no longer, um, able to sign checks, how do you propose to do that?”
“I figured you’d ask that. My father will pay you.”
“He’s a Sensitive?”
“I mean, he can see you?” It was the second thing she’d said that made my spine straighten. I was a pretty rare breed. Extremely rare, in fact. As far as I knew, there was nobody else like me on the planet, somebody who could see all the ghosts all the time. Still, there were occasional flesh and blood humans who could see specific ghosts, sometimes briefly, sometimes for quite a long time. Mediums, psychics, clairvoyants, people with the second sight—there are lots of words for these folks, though in my experience the vast majority were phonies, charlatans, and con artists. In the ghost world, the real ones were known as Sensitives, though it wasn’t surprising that Karen, as a new arrival, hadn’t yet heard the term.
Her eyes took on a distant cast as she contemplated my question. “I don’t know,” she said. “He’s very distraught about my death. Sometimes, when he’s very sad, and not too drunk, I’ll whisper to him how much I love him, and I think, maybe . . . ” She shook her head. “I don’t know. Probably just wishful thinking on my part. But he will pay you. There’s some things that only he and I know. If I tell you them, he’ll believe your story.”
“Mmm,” I said, trying not to show my skepticism. Billie always claimed I was too soft on the payment side of things. I’d been stiffed too many times, to use a very apt word.
“I really, really need your help,” she said.
“Yes, you’ve said that.”
“I have to know if he killed me, Myron—and if he did, then why. I can’t rest in peace until I know.”
“Well, who rests in peace anyway? That’s one of the first things I learned about you folks—there isn’t a whole lot of resting going on.”
“It’s just a figure of speech. I—I even brought his picture. So are you going to help me?”
Her voice had grown tense. I couldn’t blame her. I was being pretty obtuse, even by my standards. The thing was, I knew full well the real reason she wanted to hire me, and it wasn’t to find out why he’d killed her. The real reason was to find out if he’d really loved her. That was the burning question on her mind, and why she needed me rather than a detective from her own kind. She needed somebody to talk to him, somebody he could talk to, and that wasn’t going to happen with my transparent counterparts.
Love is a messy business. If I’ve learned anything, before and after I became the freak show I am, it’s that questions of the heart can never be fully answered to someone’s satisfaction. I knew that better than anyone.
“I already bought the tickets,” I said.
“I told you, I’ll reimburse you for any—”
“I really wish I could help.”
I said it with enough finality that it cut short the argument. She nodded sadly. Outside, the rain had mercifully stopped, as had my off-key singers down the hall. Thank God for small miracles. Well, thank somebody for small miracles. Nobody knew if the Big Guy really existed—on either side of the great divide.
That was the bitch about dying. You still didn’t get all the answers.
“Well, thank you for your time,” she said, rising abruptly.
I rose along with her. “I really do wish you all the best of luck.”
She turned away without comment. I thought that was it, I’d never see her again, but then I did something stupid. Before she made it to the door, my curiosity got the best of me.
“You have his picture, huh?” I said.
She looked at me. “Yes,” she said, a hint of hope in her voice. “Do you want to see it?”
A thousand voices inside me screamed to say no. I’d already made my decision, so it would have been the prudent thing to do. Of course, being too prudent was one of the chief reasons my life had ended up the way it had. Sometimes, I’d learned, it was better to be impulsive and follow your instincts.
I shrugged, and she snapped open her purse. I still thought it odd that ghosts carried on as if their world was as physical and real as ours was, when I figured they could imagine just about any kind of world they wanted, but old habits probably died hard—or didn’t die at all, to be more literal. She pulled out a 3 by 5, one of those glossy head shots that were more the province of actors than business people, and held it out as if she wanted me to take it. But of course I couldn’t take it. It may have been real to her, but it was no more substantial to me than she was. Ghosts were always forgetting this.
Instead, I merely leaned in, smiling, arms behind my back, with the kind of polite display of attentiveness that a person engages in when inspecting some new piece of jewelry a friend is particularly proud of—which may have been why the man’s picture, when I finally saw it, hit me so hard.
There may have been some small part of me that knew there was at least a tiny chance I’d recognize the person in the picture, but I never in a million years expected this.
It was the man who’d shot me.
~ continued ~