The Ghost Who Said Goodbye
A Myron Vale Investigation
I was seven years old when I first held a gun.
First day of school. First kiss. First time making love. There are a lot of firsts in life, and I have memories of all those things, but none of them are as vivid as the night I snuck into my father’s den—having recently discovered where he hid his desk key—to see if he really kept a revolver in the top drawer. I was doing it because of a kid named Kevin Blaine, a gap-toothed bully who always waited for me behind the big oak after school. I thought if I just held a gun once, if I could just feel its weight in my hand, its power, I could tell Kevin I knew what it was like—and that I could get to it if he ever laid his meaty hands on me again. When you had a gun, nobody could mess with you.
That’s what I thought at the time. It was only years later, after everything that happened to me, when I discovered there were evils in the world no bullet could ever stop.
Awake in my bed, I waited until the grandfather clock in the living room gonged a dozen times before I crept to the door. Barefoot, in pajama bottoms and a thin cotton T-shirt, I felt winter’s bite from all sides. It was cold in the house not just because the city outside was covered in a white blanket, but because Mom, who already preferred the thermostat be set to a balmy sixty-two degrees, turned off the heat completely when she climbed into bed. No reason to waste money on gas when we could all put on sweaters, she’d say. This, coming from a woman who wore sweaters even in the dog days of August. In winter, she often wore layers of them.
School had been canceled for two days because of the snow, but I knew my luck was running out on that front. Even Portland, Oregon, a city that was lucky to get a dusting every other year, eventually got chains on the buses, meaning there was a good chance I would not only have to face Kevin the next day, but he’d be armed with plenty of snowballs.
I waited with my ear pressed against the door for a long time to make sure I didn’t hear Johnny Carson. Mom often stayed up to watch him when Dad was working a night beat—or when he was out drinking, which he was doing that night. Which he’d been doing lots of nights lately, truth be told, a fact that Mom was none too happy about, considering how often I found Dad in the morning sleeping off the booze on the sofa.
With no sound at all coming from Mom’s room, I opened the door and tiptoed to the edge of the hall. From this vantage point, I saw not only the sleek darkness of the back of the couch but also the glow of the streetlights outlining the curtained bay window, giving me just enough light to realize that there were no boots hanging off either end of the couch.
My heart rabbity-tapping away, I made my way to the den.
It was not a big house, just a two-bedroom bungalow off I-84 in the Rose City Park area, but it still felt like hours to cross to the other side of the living room. The hardwood floor was so cold my toes curled, and each creak set my heart racing faster. The place still smelled like the lemon chicken we’d had for dinner, and, glancing into the kitchen, I saw that Mom hadn’t put away Dad’s untouched plate.
I probably would have stood outside the den for an hour, stifling the urge to pee, but the sudden bark of a neighbor’s dog so scared me that I bolted into the room.
It was even darker in his den. Leaning against the closed door, I tried to will my heart to slow down. The faint dark-chocolate scent of Dad’s favorite cigars hung in the air. I didn’t dare turn on a light, but I also didn’t dare touch a gun in such utter darkness, so I felt my way past the desk to the window, opening the curtains.
The fluorescent security bulb mounted on the side of the neighbor’s garage filled the den with plenty of light. The dust, catching this pale eerie glow, floated in the air. Icicles hung from the eaves outside like blue daggers. Swallowing away the lump in my throat, I found the book I was looking for, Mastering Golf, on the shelf in the corner, and opened it to the hidden compartment. There I found the key, as well as his passport and what was left of a rabbit foot I knew he’d had with him in Vietnam.
Dad hated golf. That’s why, a week earlier, I’d taken the book off the shelf in the first place. Baseball and basketball were his sports.
Placing the book on the old cherrywood desk, I settled into the swivel chair, the thin cushion like cold concrete. I held my breath and slipped the key into the top drawer’s lock. It took a bit of jiggling, but the key turned.
The drawer opened.
At first, I saw nothing but what you might expect to find in the top drawer of a man’s desk: a medley of ballpoint pens, rubber bands, and wrinkled maps, a deck of playing cards picturing pinup girls from the fifties, half-empty packs of gum, loose Tic Tacs … but something wasn’t quite right. The drawer didn’t open far enough. Then I found the levers in the back and, holding them down, slid the drawer open the rest of the way. There, in a compartment all to itself, was a black revolver on a folded white handkerchief, like a corpse in an open coffin laid out for a funeral viewing.
A Colt Python .357, I found out much later. When Dad went drinking, he never took it with him. I overheard him tell Mom that a cop who took his gun drinking was just asking for something stupid to happen—which was why I knew it would be in the drawer that night. Dad may have liked to drink, but he wasn’t stupid. Everybody said he was the smartest detective on the force.
It took me a few long, agonizing minutes before I summoned the courage to even touch it—on the walnut handle, lightly. I traced my finger over the chamber and along the barrel, resting it there for a long time as if taking the gun’s pulse. I shivered. Finally, I closed my fingers around the handle and lifted the gun, ever so slowly, out of the drawer. Did I feel its power? I have to say I did. I may not have decided I wanted to be a cop in that moment, but I did decide I wanted to own a gun.
I was pointing the revolver at the leather chair across from me, pretending to aim it at a bad guy skulking into our house to kill us, when I heard the rattle of our front door.
An icy dread shot through me. For just a second I thought it might really be a bad guy, and that would have been better, really, because I could almost imagine myself playing the part of the hero—swaggering out there with my gun like John Wayne, stopping the Terrible Burglar of Greater Portland from stealing Mom’s china. Later, of course, in all the congratulatory fervor, nobody would think to ask me why I had been in Dad’s office in the first place.
But the rattle of the front door was immediately followed by the murmur of voices, and even though I couldn’t make out the words, I would have known my father’s rough baritone anywhere, slurred as it was. And the other voice, slightly higher, slightly more clipped—I knew that one, too. His partner Sal.
My heart, which had finally slowed down, began to pound. There was still hope. If Dad crashed on the couch, there was a chance I could sneak past him once he was asleep.
Luck really must not have been on my side that night, because Dad was making some kind of fuss, and Sal was trying to shush him.
“Hank, quiet,” Sal said, “you’ll wake Eleanor and Myron.”
“I don’t care!” Dad said. “Listen to me. You should have let me take that guy.”
“Will you listen? One punch … I could have took him!”
“Shh! Hank … Hank, come on, pal. Okay, to your office. Let’s talk about this.”
“Come on, you want me to listen. I’ll listen. There you go. This way.”
And that’s when I knew, hearing their shuffling footsteps on the wooden floor, that it was over. I was going to be grounded until I was eighteen years old. The punishment for breaking Dad’s No. 1 rule—to never go into his office without permission—would be severe enough. What would happen when he caught me with his revolver was unimaginable.
I had only seconds. I put the gun back in the drawer and closed it. I put the key in Mastering Golf and slipped it back on the shelf. The doorknob to the den was turning; I could clearly see that in the silvery light. Where to go? Where to hide? There was only one place—I dived under the desk.
Just in time. I heard the swish of the door as I slid to my knees. The overhead light flicked on, blindingly bright, and I squinted at the chair I’d been sitting in seconds earlier. Was it still moving? It didn’t look like it.
“All right,” Sal said, “this chair here. Let’s have you take a load off, partner.”
“I want to sit—sit at my desk,” Dad protested, filling me with terror. While Sal was doing his best to talk in a whisper, Dad was practically belting out every word. “My desk—”
“This chair is fine,” Sal said, and I heard the click of the door closing.
I’d never heard Sal talk to Dad this way, like he was a misbehaving child, and I didn’t like it. Yet his stern tone must have worked, because the leather chair whooshed as Dad slumped into it. I heard footsteps and I tensed, but Sal didn’t go far. The wooden desk creaked above me. A bit of dust rained down, and I pinched my nose, praying I didn’t sneeze.
Dad mumbled something.
“What’s that, partner?” Sal said.
“I said I coulda—coulda taken that punk,” Dad replied.
Sal didn’t say anything, the silence stretching for an interminable moment. “Be straight with me,” he said finally. “This ain’t about some drunk football fan with an ax to grind, is it?”
Dad didn’t answer.
“What’s this really about?” Sal asked. Then, after a pause, he spoke in a whisper I had trouble hearing: “It’s about him, isn’t it?”
“No,” Dad said.
“Level with me. I’m your partner.”
“Fuck you, Sal. I just don’t like people insulting the Seahawks, okay?”
“Man, I didn’t realize you cared about the Seahawks so much.”
“Well, I do.”
“You even watched a whole football game since that Super Bowl party at Ted’s last year?”
“Fuck you, Sal.”
“That’s the second time you’ve said that to me. Making you feel better?”
“Fu … Whatever. I don’t care. I don’t care about anything. Just go home. It’s nothing. I’ll see you tomorrow. Just got to sleep this off, is all.”
Sal took a breath and blew the air through his lips. “Fine. Tried my best. Pick you up at a quarter to eight. And I’m not waiting this time, so make sure you’re ready.”
Again, I was surprised by Sal’s disrespectful tone. I’d always liked Sal—he usually had a pocket full peppermint candies he was more than willing to share—but I couldn’t stand him treating Dad this way. One foot planted on the floor, the back of a shiny black boot, then Dad spoke.
“Wait,” he said.
“I just … wait a second, will you?”
Sal waited. His boot slid up and out of view, the heel banging against the desk. In the stillness, I could hear Dad breathing through his nose, a deliberate and labored breathing. I did my best to make my own breathing match his, but quieter, hiding the sound. It was as if Sal wasn’t even there, just the two of us in that little room, Dad and me, breathing in unison. My bladder was like a water balloon stretched to the limit. I felt a twinge in my knees, growing into a painful ache, but I didn’t dare adjust my position. The slightest rustle of my pajamas might alert them.
Still, this silence went on for so long that I was seriously thinking of outing myself—when something must have changed.
“Oh shit,” Sal said.
“I’m sorry,” Dad said. His voice sounded strange, gurgled.
“Jesus, man. It’s okay.”
“I’m just tired.”
And then I knew, because Dad wasn’t even trying to muffle the sound now. He was crying. There was no other way to explain the sniffling, the shuddery breathing, the pitiful whimpering. Of all the things that happened that night, this was the biggest shock. Dad never cried. It just didn’t happen. I cried. Once in a blue moon, Mom cried. Even Kevin Blaine cried when Mrs. Rooker sent him to the principal’s office for shooting spitwads at the girls in our class. But Dad? No. He didn’t cry any more than a lion did. Or a bear. Or a mountain. I may not have known much at seven years old, but I knew this much.
I felt a lot of things in that moment, in addition to shock. The worst of them, the one I’d tried to forget as much as I could in the ensuing years, was shame.
For the first time in my life, I was ashamed of my father.
“Man, take it easy,” Sal said. “It’s all right. Just let it out. You can let it out.”
“It’s good to let it out. You can only keep it bottled up for so long.”
“No, I’m—I’m all right. I just … Oh, boy.”
“It’s okay. I’m okay. I’ve got it.”
Finally, mercifully, Dad stopped crying. He sniffled a few times, cleared his throat, and that was it. It was like one of Portland’s rare thunderstorms, here as fast as it was gone. He took a few deep breaths. I heard a rustle that might have been Dad wiping his face on his sleeve.
“Meds,” Sal said.
“What?” Dad said.
“You asked how I handle it.”
“You were about to. Meds. That’s how I handle all this crap. I’ve started taking some meds. Right after we saw him, I started. It was the only way to make things feel right, you know. To make the nightmares stop. Don’t tell anybody, okay? I don’t want it getting around the station.”
Dad was silent.
“You might want to think about taking some yourself,” Sal offered. “I can recommend a doctor—”
“I don’t need any pills.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought, but—”
“No pills, dammit!”
“All right, all right. It’s just a suggestion, that’s all. It helped me, okay? You don’t need to be an asshole about it.”
“Fine, whatever,” Sal said.
There was another uncomfortable silence, but thankfully there were no tears. The urge to pee was back, and this time it was so strong I had no choice but to cup my hand over my crotch.
“You have to let it go, Hank,” Sal said. “There hasn’t been a killing in months. The guy is gone.”
“We don’t know that.”
When Sal spoke again, his voice took on a strange, tremulous quality, as if somebody put hands around his windpipe. “When we saw him … When we saw him, it must have, I don’t know, spooked him. He must have realized how close we were getting. It was only a matter of time. He must have known that.”
“Seventeen murders. Seventeen in five years … and those kids. The kids of those first two victims. I still think about them, the way they looked at me. Their mothers were taken from them. And the one boy? I told you, he said he wanted to be a cop when he grows up.”
“I know. But I’m telling you, Hank. The Goodbye Killer is gone. We’ve got to get on with things.”
“There’s got to be clues—”
“All of them have been dead ends, you know that. No fingerprints. No DNA except the victims. The national news has moved on. Even Portland is finally turning the page. I haven’t seen a story on the front page of the Oregonian for over a week. Maybe he’ll show up again, but for now … there’s nothing to go on. And the only people who’ve even …” He trailed off.
“Who’ve even seen him are the two of us,” Dad finished.
“But what did we see, Sal?”
“What did we actually see?”
Even under the desk, I felt the mood in the room change, a subtle shift, a curtain of dread dropping over us. A wave of cold passed through me, and I felt something, a strange uneasiness that prickled the back of my neck. It was almost like there was something … there. When Sal finally replied, his voice was hoarse.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“That—that face—” Dad said.
“I don’t know what we saw.”
“I can’t describe it.”
“It wasn’t …”
Dad trailed off, his voice so anguished that for a moment, I was afraid he was going to cry again. Sal cleared his throat.
“Human,” he said.
“Yeah,” Dad said. “Human. It was like it wasn’t human. Inside that hood … Then, when he turned away …”
“A hallucination,” Sal said.
“It’s the only explanation. We were tired. Exhausted from a lack of sleep. It was late. Dark. The mind plays tricks. You know that, Hank. Think of all the crazy shit we’ve heard from drunks and crackheads over the years. You think any of that was real? It was in their minds. This was in our minds. Only explanation. Has to be.”
“But if both of us—”
“A hallucination,” Sal said firmly.
“He disappeared, Sal. He disappeared right in front of us.”
“We imagined it.”
“It has to be that way,” Sal insisted. “Don’t you see? It has to be. You have to convince yourself of it, Hank. If not with meds, then some other way. See a shrink. Drown it in Jim Beam if that’s what you have to do, but just don’t kill yourself. Clamp it down. It’s going to eat you up otherwise. We didn’t see that. We didn’t see anything, just like we told people. It was just like the others. He was gone by the time we got there.”
I heard Dad sigh. The desk creaked again, and the backs of Sal’s heels appeared in the crack. I heard him pat Dad’s jacket.
“I got to get home, pal,” Sal said. “I’m already on thin ice with Maria. I know things ain’t peachy with you and Eleanor either. Get some rest. In the morning, you’ll feel better.”
“Okay,” Dad said.
“Quarter to eight.”
The doorknob clicked and a tiny jet of air flitted under the desk.
“Sal?” Dad said.
“It was like he wasn’t even there. It was like he was a … a ghost.”
If Sal answered this, I didn’t hear it. There may have been a headshake, a frown, or some other unspoken communication, but all I heard were Sal’s footsteps, then the door closing.
For a long time, Dad did nothing but sit there. I didn’t hear him move. I didn’t hear him breathe. Even though I was sure I’d heard only Sal’s footsteps, I was tempted to lean down and peer through the crack to see if he really was gone, but I didn’t dare. The slightest sound would have been a dead giveaway.
I prayed that he would get up soon and head for the couch, because if he fell asleep in the chair, my chances of sneaking past him were slim. And that’s if my bladder could even hold for another five minutes. I was debating just peeing myself when the neighbor’s dog barked again, loudly enough to rouse Dad from his stillness. He made a sound, half groan and half cough. Oh please, I thought, please, please … Then there was the distinctive rustle of leather, the chair groaning as he rose out of it.
The door opened, he shuffled out, and the light clicked off. He closed the door behind him. I stayed under the desk for as long as I could, holding my crotch, rocking back and forth, praying for him to fall asleep fast. Maybe I’d even get lucky, and he would risk his life and go crawl in bed next to Mom. When I couldn’t wait any longer, I crept from under the desk to the door, first on my knees, then walking, forcing myself to take my time so the floor wouldn’t creak. I turned the knob slowly—not a sound. I opened it a crack and felt a stream of cool air against my nose.
His boots were at the edge of the couch, toes pointed to the ceiling. I could just make out his easy, regular breathing over the hum of the refrigerator and the ticking of the grandfather clock.
Tiptoeing with all the terror of a Marine traversing a minefield, I headed for the hall. The air, cooler in the living room, pressed my pajamas against my skin like a wet sheet. The cotton was damp, and I thought maybe I’d wet myself after all, but no, it was just sweat. Lots of sweat.
Halfway there. Almost. A little bit farther, and then I’d be to the bathroom door. If he woke then, he’d just think I was getting up to take a leak.
Then, like a ghost in the darkness, my father spoke to me in a voice that was not slurred at all.
“The next time you want to hold a gun,” he said, “make sure you ask first. I might even let you shoot it.”
If there was one thing I’d learned since becoming a private investigator, it was that when Elvis gives advice, you listen. It didn’t matter that he was holding a hot dog with a pair of metal tongs or that he was wearing an apron stained with enough grease that it could have been displayed in Portland’s Museum of Modern Art as an abstract painting. Or that he’d been dead for more than thirty years. The guy had an angle on wisdom that even the Dalai Lama couldn’t match.
Even if half the time, what he was saying didn’t make much sense at first. Or ever.
“Frozen yogurt,” he was saying to me. The smoke curling around his white chef’s hat was so real it was hard to believe I was probably the only living person on earth who could see it. “I’m telling ya, Myron. That’s the answer to all your problems. Frozen yogurt.”
“Frozen yogurt?” I said.
“Yep. Money in the bank.”
“I ask you how I can drum up more clients, and you tell me I should sell frozen yogurt?”
The expert way he rolled the franks on the grill, with such style, cooking them up to a nice golden brown, I could see the same echoes of flair and panache that had made him so famous in his music days. “You got it, pardner. Or coffee, I guess. But Starbucks has kind of got that one cornered. Frozen yogurt—that’s your ticket.”
I blinked at him through the haze. Was it some kind of Zen koan, or was he just messing with me? The smell of grilling meat, and the wonderful honey-mustard glaze that was his specialty, reminded me that I hadn’t eaten anything since coffee and toast that morning. Even the sting of the smoke in my eyes was real, which still made no sense even five and half years after the shooting that made me this way, but it was one of the strange rules I’d been forced to live by. If a ghost could see it, hear it, or smell it, that usually meant I could, too.
Only touch. That was all that separated us. If I reached for them, they weren’t there. I called it a hand check, and every now and then I was forced to use it just to keep what was left of my sanity.
It was not yet noon, but already the sun felt warm on my neck. We were still in early April, barely out of winter, and yet it was one of those bright, blue-sky days that were more common in Portland in June. My eyes felt heavy from all the pollen in the air, and no amount of Claritin or Allegra had done the trick. The Willamette Valley was ground zero for people with allergies. I didn’t have problems with my nose or throat—thank God—but this time of year my eyes always felt as if they’d been replaced with ball bearings.
A homeless woman wearing enough clothing to stock Target pushed a rattling shopping cart past us, giving me a strange look. Probably a living person like me, though it was hard to tell. I adjusted my copy of Willamette Week, doing my best to hide my mouth while I chatted with Elvis.
The sidewalks on Burnside bustled with pedestrians, normal for a Saturday—grunge types on skateboards stopping at the vinyl shop across the street, a Vietnamese man cleaning the window of the laundromat, a burly guy with tattooed arms tinkering on his Harley in front of the closed bar, yuppie lovebirds decked out in J.Crew and Birkenstocks out for a casual stroll, parents with their kids coming out of the diner, old people holding hands sitting on the bench, waiting for the bus. There were stranger ones, of course, two boy scouts wearing uniforms and wide-brimmed hats in a style thirty years past its prime, a woman with a big red perm roller-skating in the middle of the street, a bearded man leaning against a brick wall, giving me the cold eye, his gray Confederate uniform stained with dirt. Or blood. It was hard to tell. There was no doubt, though, that the bayonet at the end of his musket was deadly sharp.
The strange ones were probably ghosts, but then without a hand check, any of them could have been ghosts. I’d learned that the hard way more times than I could count.
I didn’t usually come to the office on a Saturday, but then I didn’t usually have $32.18 in my checking account. Or credit-card companies filling up my voice mail with gentle reminders that I was sixty days past due.
“Frozen yogurt,” I said again.
“Yep.” He used one of the tongs to hold up a hot dog. “Want one?”
“You know I can’t do that, Elvis.”
“Ah, right. Sorry, pardner. You just seem so much like us that I’m always forgetting.”
“I’ll try to take that as a compliment, I guess.”
“You should, you should. All my best pals are ghosts.”
“That’s because all of your best pals are dead.”
“Hey now. No need to be rude … Uh-oh. Don’t look now, but bad news coming your way.”
He was gazing east on Burnside when he said it, his brow furrowed with concern. I turned, newspaper in hand, and followed his gaze up the crowded street. There, inside a group of fit twenty-something women in sports tanks and spandex, who jogged past him without taking any notice of him at all, was a lanky old priest. His white hair on top of his flowing dark robes was like creamer on black coffee. In the bright sunlight, his obscenely large cross shone like a beacon. There was no doubt, judging by the way he was hastily heading in my direction, that he was coming to see me.
From my past experience with him, this was never good. The grumble of my empty stomach was suddenly replaced with queasiness.
“You don’t happen to know his name, do you?” I asked Elvis.
“Oh, I know much more than that.”
I looked at him, surprised, but Elvis merely returned his attention to his hot dogs. I waited for him to elaborate, but he didn’t.
“Really?” I said. “You won’t tell me anything more?”
“It’s not about won’t.”
By then, the priest had reached us. Right away, judging by his grave expression—even graver than usual—I saw that I’d underestimated how bad his news was going to be. His face, with all its pockmarks and deep gouges, and with its weathered, grayish quality, reminded me of an old wooden fence. The lines in his face, once deep and sharp but now faded, were like graffiti carved with a knife by a teenager long ago.
“I need to speak to you immediately, Myron,” he said, in his deep, James Earl Jones voice. He gave Elvis a perfunctory nod. “Hello, again. I trust you know better than to tell people I was here?”
Elvis, his attention fixed on rolling the hot dogs, replied with a grunt. The grill sizzled and spit out fumes of smoke, which plumed in the air.
“How do you know each other?” I asked.
“We’ve had … past dealings,” the priest said. “The rest is not relevant, except that I know that he can keep a secret. Can we go up to your office? We should speak about this in private.”
I turned the page in my newspaper, suddenly very interested in the article about rezoning part of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. “I’m actually pretty busy right now.”
“You don’t seem busy.”
“Just came out for some air. Got a lot on my plate.”
“Really? You haven’t had even a small case in over a month.”
“How do you know that?”
“Myron, please. This is quite serious, so let’s skip—”
“Are you a paying client?”
“If we could just go upstairs to your—”
“I didn’t think so.”
“This one has to be off the books, Myron. When you hear why—”
“I don’t need to hear why,” I said. “I don’t need to hear anything from you at all. Or the Department of Souls. Or whoever you actually work for. Whatever crap you’re mixed up with, I don’t want any part of it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to work.”
Folding my newspaper with a snap and tucking it under my arm, I turned to go. Myron Vale, exit stage left, with plenty of attitude—even if in reality all that was waiting for me upstairs was a half-finished game of Sudoku.
“Myron—” the priest called after me.
“Myron, please. There was a murder. A terrible one.”
“Not my problem.”
“We need your help. When you hear the details—”
I was almost to the door. I didn’t think there was much he could say to stop me, but of course I was wrong.
“It involves your father,” he said.
* * *
Upstairs, in a musty office no bigger than a solitary-confinement cell at the prison in Salem, I settled into the chair behind my metal desk and gestured for the priest to take one of the chairs across from me. He stood instead, peering at the picture on the wall over my computer, a gold circle with the letters MV in the center in a stylistic font, as if scratched on a medallion with a knife. It was a logo of sorts, my logo, with the city of Portland at night pictured around it, the glowing building windows reflected in the shimmering Willamette River.
“Interesting,” he said. “Billie painted that one, right? What do the living say when they see that you have a blank canvas hanging on your wall?”
I put my feet on the desk and clasped my hands. I didn’t want to talk about Billie with him. Really, I didn’t want to talk about anything with him, but I especially didn’t want to talk about my wife. Or ex-wife. I still wasn’t sure what our marital status was, since she’d left over six months earlier, and it hadn’t sounded as if she was planning on coming back. And of course she was dead. There was always that.
Since Billie had created the painting after she died, only the dead could see it. Except for me, of course.
“My father,” I reminded him.
“Right, right,” he said.
He began to pace, head bowed as if that massive gold cross were weighing down his neck. In the silence, I heard the Gregorian chants start up again down the hall—or not exactly Gregorian chants, but something that resembled Gregorian chants if the people doing the chanting were also doing jumping jacks. I never knew what to expect from the Higher Plane Church of Spiritual Transcendence, except that whatever they did would annoy me.
I was sitting there, waiting for the priest to get to the point, when I heard scratching on the window. Turning, I saw my furry partner sitting on the ledge—Patch, a black cat with a white starburst over his left eye. In the morning light, his fur appeared more charcoal than black, his body sleek and muscular. He tilted his head in that cocky way of his, as if I were nothing more than his doorman and I needed be snappy about doing my job.
When I opened the window, he stepped onto the windowsill inside the glass—and immediately hissed at the priest.
“Well now,” the priest said. “Your friend appears to have a gift. He can see people like me.”
“And the living,” I said. “We’re kindred spirits.”
“An interesting talent. I’ll have to mention this to SISAH. Have you heard of them? The Society for the Investigation of Strange Animal Happenings? There’s still plenty of debate whether animals have ghosts, since nobody can see them, and they’re always interested in—”
Patch hissed again.
“He doesn’t seem to like me very much,” the priest said.
“Well, he’s a pretty good judge of character.”
I petted Patch a few times, thinking he might purr, but he wasn’t in the mood. Leaving the window open, the cool breeze flitting past my neck and the sounds of the street drifting up to the room, I turned back to the priest. Raised my eyebrows.
“Right,” he said. “To the point.”
“To the point,” I agreed.
He swallowed. “You have to understand, this has all—this has me a bit rattled. Your father—Hank Vale. Do you remember a case he worked on when you were quite little? Seventeen—seventeen murders in Portland over five years. They called him the Goodbye Killer. Your father was one of the lead detectives on the case. You would have been, what—”
“Seven years old,” I said.
“Right. So you do remember?”
Of course I remembered. How could I forget? Even though Dad knew I’d been in the room, we’d never talked about it, not once in the decades since. And now? With the condition Dad was in, a conversation like that wouldn’t be possible.
“They never caught him,” I said.
“No. Not yet.”
“Not yet? That case has gone pretty cold.” Then, realizing that this wasn’t an academic conversation we were having, I leaned forward in my seat. “Something’s happened. What is it?”
The priest started to answer, then shook his head and started to pace again. “Where do I begin? It’s been so many years, and I never thought … well … you have to understand something, Myron. In my position, I have encountered evil in many different forms. And I have never … never felt what I felt the one time I was in the same room with this, this thing.”
“You saw him?”
“No,” he said, tugging at his collar. “No, it was too dark. I was just briefly in the same room with him. We—we had information that led us to believe he was hiding in an abandoned church in Sandy.”
“Yes, at the time I was part of the—” he began, then stopped and looked at me, as if catching himself. “A special group. A task force, if you will, whose purpose was to hunt down ghosts who had committed the most heinous crimes and transport them to Alcatraz.”
“Alcatraz? That place is a tourist attraction.”
“For the living,” the priest said. “For ghosts … well, let’s just say someone like you wouldn’t want to go there, Myron. It would seem very … crowded. We have our laws, too, as I’m sure you know. The Ghost Reaper may never have been locked up there, but we still put away plenty of bad ones over the years.”
“The Ghost Reaper?” I said. “That’s what you guys call him?”
“He’s had plenty of names, but that one stuck, mostly because of what he could do. Or seem to do. Nobody really knows, of course. And yet, by all appearances—”
“Just spit it out, for God’s sake.”
“He can kill ghosts, Myron.”
The priest made a face as if he’d swallowed some moldy Communion bread. “At least that’s the way it appears. I have always been one of the last holdouts, refusing to accept it, but the facts have became increasingly hard to dispute.”
“I didn’t think ghosts could be killed—if that’s even the right word,” I said. “I thought once you died, you walked the earth forever. Isn’t that the deal? Immortality, but no heavenly gates, no harps, no hellfire?”
“I wouldn’t quite describe it that way,” he replied, “but yes, something like that. Which is why someone like the Ghost Reaper can cause such panic among our kind. He … upsets the prevailing worldview, a worldview that might be the only thing keeping complete chaos from breaking out. Tell me, Myron, what do you actually know about him? The Goodbye Killer, as you call him.”
Patch had obviously had enough, because after a final glare at the priest, he leapt to the windowsill and walked along the ledge out of sight. I watched him go, keeping my back to the priest. Across the street, in the window of the apartment above the bar, an old black guy wearing a wifebeater sipped a cup of coffee. A twenty-something black woman dressed in a Navy uniform stood behind him, looking over his shoulder. I knew the guy, Bud Kamen—he owned the bar. I knew the woman, too. Her name was Angie and she was his daughter.
Looking at her, you would never know that she’d been killed in friendly fire in the war-torn alleys of Baghdad.
“Seventeen murders in five years,” I said. “This was the eighties, so before cable news, but it was a big enough story that Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather talked about it every night for nearly a year. Tons of pressure on the bureau. Like no pressure any cop had experienced, and Dad and his partner Sal were right in the middle of it. Dad never talked about it, but that’s what I heard from some of the older cops on the force. The victims were men and women of all ages, all nationalities, no pattern anyone could detect.”
“And?” the priest said.
“Yeah,” I said, “the weird stuff. No cause of death could be determined. It was like their hearts just … stopped. People thought maybe poison, but the autopsies could never prove it. In fact, nobody might have thought they were murders at all except for the notes.”
“He left goodbye notes. To the victims. Or not really notes, but that’s what people called them. They were written on whatever was … around. Dirty concrete. A dusty window. In the bark dust. On the snow. One time, that guy in the candy shop, jelly beans had been arranged on the floor. They didn’t say much: Goodbye, John. I will take you to a better place. The only things different were the names. Goodbye, Larry. Goodbye, Sally. Creepy stuff.”
“That’s putting it mildly. Clues?”
“Nothing. Nobody could understand how he could leave these notes and not leave any trace of … wait a minute.” I spun around and faced him. The long-ago case, brought into the perspective of my current life, made me see an angle I never would have believed when I was just another human blissfully unaware of the other world around us. “Wait, you’re telling me you think—”
“We don’t know what to think.”
“—he’s a ghost?”
“That’s one of the prevailing theories. If so, he has enormous gifts.”
“A funny word for it.”
“Gifts can be good or bad, depending on how they are used.”
“Are we back to riddles now?”
The priest sighed. “We’re back to the unknowns. Myron, we don’t know what he is. Or even if it’s a he. She might not even be a ghost. She might be something else altogether. Whatever he or she or it is, I was never in the presence of something so evil, so depraved, as I was in the basement of that church so many years ago. That’s the only way I know he was in the room. The feeling. So very cold. So very, very cold—not a physical sensation, but inside. In the soul.”
Before the shooting, before the bullet that lodged between the two lobes of my brain somehow gave me this gift, I would have scoffed at such mumbo-jumbo metaphysical nonsense. But not now, of course. Now I knew what the priest was talking about, because I had felt it a few times myself—not to that extent, maybe, but enough to know that there were ghosts in the world that were not like the others. Some were dark. Some were very dark, which wasn’t quite the right word, but there was no word for it. It was as if some ghosts, when they died, had a bit of mold about them, a whiff of sour milk or rotten meat, and like all things that turned bad, time only made it worse.
“But he got away?” I said.
“I hesitated,” the priest replied. “I was ahead of the others, walking down the steps, when I … when I felt it. I froze. It was only for a few seconds, but it was enough. A window shattered. There was … I don’t know, a whoosh of air, then he was gone.”
“A breaking window? Doesn’t sound like a ghost at all.”
“Could be. Or it could be that he simply wants us to believe he’s flesh and blood. As I said, we don’t know.”
“You don’t really know much, do you?”
He grimaced. “You say that as if you enjoy it.”
“I do. You’ve made me uncomfortable so many times, I like seeing the tables turned.”
“Fine,” the priest said, “but I wouldn’t be too smug. The news hasn’t gotten out yet in your world, but when it does … well, it will be like it was in the eighties all over again, but this time with the twenty-four-hour news cycle and the Internet to ratchet up the panic a few more degrees. The police should be finding the body any moment.”
“A young woman,” he said. “A college student at PSU named Jasmine Walker. Her mother found her in her dorm room this morning, dead.”
“If her mother found her, why didn’t she call—”
“Because she’s a ghost, Myron.”
“Right. Of course.”
“Her boyfriend is already worried, so it shouldn’t be long before he gets campus security to open her door. If he hasn’t already.”
“You mean you don’t know?”
He shook his head, not so much in answer to my question but in irritation. “You may find this hard to believe, but the organization that I work for doesn’t know everything. There are limits.”
“Well, that’s a relief.”
“When they see the goodbye message written on her mirror in lipstick, trust me, no one is going to be relieved.”
“It could be a copycat killer.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because sometimes,” he said, measuring his words, “sometimes, but not always, he leaves … traces of himself behind. It rubs off on people, like, I don’t know, like cigarette smoke. The girl’s mother certainly felt it. The feeling fades, but it was still there when I arrived on the scene a few hours ago.”
For a moment, I was again transported back to that seven-year-old boy hiding under his father’s desk. Hadn’t I felt something like that when Dad and Sal were talking? I’d tried to tell myself it was just nerves, the fear of being discovered combined with the creepy stuff they were talking about, and over time, I’d almost convinced myself, but there was always part of me that didn’t understand that weird moment when it felt as if someone else, or something else, was in the room.
“You know what I’m talking about,” the priest said, surprised.
“Maybe. I still don’t understand why you want me involved.”
“Come now,” he said. “I think you already know the answer to that question. Your … talent makes you uniquely qualified to help, since you can talk to both the living and the dead. Unless you know of another Ghost Detective?”
“Dear God, don’t call me that. I hate that that’s the name your people have given me.”
“God has nothing to do with the name people have given you. Or any of this. I wish he did, because he could certainly help.”
“God doesn’t exist,” I said.
“He would beg to differ.”
“Oh, you’ve talked to him?”
The priest, fiddling with his cross self-consciously, didn’t answer. As if filling the silence, the chanting from down the hall grew louder. I actually felt the floorboards vibrate. If it went on much longer, I was going to have to do something, and the something I was imagining would mean I wouldn’t be available to help the priest or anyone for quite a while. Twenty years at least, and that’s if I had a decent lawyer.
“Didn’t think so,” I said.
“Myron, dying doesn’t change that some of the biggest things in life require a leap of faith.”
“Oh, not this nonsense again.”
I got up and went to the door. The paper-thin sheetrock that separated my office from the hall hadn’t blocked the sound, but all that chanting still seemed much louder with it open, like the roar of a jet engine and a dozen jackhammers and some combination of Metallica and Yanni if they were both on acid.
I screamed some choice profanity down the hall. Like water on fire, the chanting sizzled to silence. I slammed the door.
“Obviously this has you rattled,” the priest said.
“Oh shut up.”
I started back to my desk, then thought better of it. I opened it and gestured for him to leave.
“We’re not done yet,” he said.
“Oh, yes we are.”
“There is another, even more important reason we need your help. Your father and his partner Sal Belleni were the people who came closest to catching the Ghost Reaper. More than that, your father got the very best look at the killer of anyone, living or dead. He might know something, something that could help us. It might be something small, but we have so little to go on that—”
“My father can’t help anyone.”
“When I’m with him, half the time he doesn’t even know it’s me.”
The priest sighed. “I know where your father is. I know what condition he is in. But you’re telling me, with all that’s at stake, you’d prefer not to even try?” He gestured impatiently around my shabby little office. “If nothing else, it’ll get you out of this place. Unless you have something more pressing to do?”
“Frozen yogurt,” I said.
“Never mind. Let me get this straight. You want me to help you hunt down one of the world’s most infamous serial killers, who, it turns out, is even more infamous in the world of the dead than he is in the world of the living, someone who can not only kill people but destroy the ghost within them, too—which means, what, he could kill me twice? And the second time would be a trip to oblivion? Plus, just to put the cherry on top, you can’t pay me for my services?”
He crossed his arms, looking at me. I shook my head.
“Do you really have to guess at my answer?” I said.
“Even in a situation like this, money is that important?”
“My landlord thinks it’s important. He doesn’t speak much English, but when I’m late with the rent, he demonstrates the full range of his vocabulary. Loudly.”
The way the priest glowered at me, it was like how Mom used to look at me when I begged her for ice cream after dinner, like she was so disappointed I could even ask for something so trivial. With a sigh, the priest stepped past me to the window, gazing at the street. The light shone on his black robe so vividly, catching every wrinkle and every piece of lint, that it was hard to believe he was a ghost.
“If I pay you,” he said, “it will draw a lot of attention from the Department. As you know, you have a fair amount of enemies. There are people in positions of power who are even more afraid of you than the Ghost Reaper. If they weren’t more afraid of what you might become if they killed you, you would have been dead a long time ago.”
“If I don’t get to eat,” I said, “they won’t have to kill me. I’ll be joining them soon enough.”
“Fine. Your compensation will have to come through indirect channels, but I can probably arrange it.”
“Indirect channels? What does that mean?”
“It means you’ll just have to trust me.”
“Ah, I see. Then no deal.”
“Any deal that requires trusting you is dead on arrival. Sorry. No pun intended. And it doesn’t matter anyway. I don’t care how broke I am, no amount of money is enough to get me mixed up with this.”
“So it’s fear that stops you?”
“Sure. As crappy as my life is, I’d still like to hang on to it for a while. That, and who would take care of Patch? He’s very particular about the way he likes his tuna.”
This whole time the priest had his back to me, meaning I saw no warning on his face when he shouted at the glass.
“You can be so infuriatingly difficult!” he cried.
A bit shocked at his lack of composure, I let his voice fade to silence. It may have been my surprise, or perhaps the stress, but standing there I suddenly felt the odd rush of blood to my head, the dizziness, the floor tilting like the deck of a ship—then the dull throbbing, of course, the terrible headache that started pulsing in the middle of my skull—where the .38 was still firmly embedded between the two lobes of my brain—and working its way outward until the ache and nausea spread to the tips of my fingers and the tips of my toes.
The migraines hadn’t been too frequent lately, but when they did hit, they were particularly bad. I steadied myself with a hand on the desk.
“I wish I could help,” I said.
“No, you don’t.”
“No, you’re right. I don’t. I was just being polite. You are a priest, after all, and I was always taught to be polite to a man of the cloth. Or is it just a costume? You never did show me your priest license.”
He sighed, and it was the sigh of man who had plenty of practice with sighs, imbued as it was with frustration and meaning and even a bit of style. A man could go far with a sigh like that, in life or in death. I made mental notes, figuring I could practice it. Then, unexpectedly, when he spoke again, his voice took on a slightly more upbeat quality.
“Well,” he said, “if you won’t get involved to help me, maybe you’ll get involved to help someone else.”
He glanced over his shoulder at me, raising his rather large, frosty eyebrows. With a sigh of my own—quite pathetic, really, by his standards—I braved the unsteady walk to the window, the headache mercifully already beginning to pass. There, parking at the curb in front of my building, was a blue Crown Victoria, an unmarked police cruiser judging by the lights I could see tucked just inside the windshield.
The doors opened and two people got out, a young redheaded guy in a suit a size too big even though he was quite tall, and, more importantly, a stunningly beautiful black woman in a suit that fit her all too perfectly. The guy I didn’t know, but the woman I did. Alesha Stintson. My former partner.
“It looks like the police found the body,” the priest said.