Sunday, 24 April 2011

"Little Death" Extract 6: Haunted (continued)

"Your coffee, sir."
"Thanks," Zach takes the proffered cup with one hand and digs a folded, Xeroxed photo out of his jeans with the other.  "I don't suppose you've seen this girl around, have you?"
The teenager behind the counter squints at the photo for a couple of seconds, then shrugs.
"Don't recognise her.  But we get tons of people in here."
"Alright, well thanks anyway."
The sheer logistics of the task before him begin to dawn on Zach.  How many people will he have to flash this picture to before he can say in good conscience that Georgina isn't in Bellevue?  When he'd first accepted this peculiar job, he had planned to check into the hotel room that the Forresters had booked on his behalf and spend a couple of days drinking the local liquor before reporting back that there was, well, nothing to report.  It wasn't like he owed Quentin and Eleanor anything.  But his own morbid curiosity had reared its head, and first thing this morning he had located the phonebooth from which the Forresters' mystery calls had been made.  To his misfortune, the culprit had not been loitering nearby with a placard that said "It Was Me", and so Zach had taken to canvassing.  If he found no trace of Georgina after a few days, he told himself, he would return to Florida, cash his cheque and hop on a plane to Jamaica.
“So you’re saying you don’t believe in ghosts?”  The urgent, almost shrill nature of the question makes Zach falter on his way to the door, unsure if it is intended for him.
“Not necessarily,” a second, lower voice says.  “I just don’t think places are haunted in the way that you think.”  The speaker is a pretty young blonde.  Her companion is a swan-necked redhead with a pixie cut.  Zach backtracks and sits as inconspicuously as he can at the table next to theirs, facing the front of the cafe so that their conversation takes place in his peripheral vision.
“What do you mean?”  Asks Thin Red.
“I just imagine that if the dead were going to hang around, it wouldn’t be places they were drawn to,” says Honey Blonde.  “It would be people, don’t you think?”
“Not places, but people...  People are haunted...”  Thin Red says, seemingly rolling the concept around on her tongue.  “I like it.”
“But either way, to answer your original question – no.  Truthfully, I do not think there is anything wrong with our place, or with you, that couldn’t be cured by a couple of sleeping pills and a glass of whiskey.”
The trace of impatience in her voice makes Zach smirk.  This girl speaks sense, and he gets the impression from their brief exchange that she is often talking this girl down.  He is taken off guard by a sharp, unexpected pang; how long has it been since he had this kind of casual, throwaway conversation?  Out of nowhere, he is filled with longing for Jacksonville, for dinner with friends, for drinks and human company in general.  He’d withdrawn from everyone and everything after William died, and one by one his friends had stopped trying to reach him.  Not that there were many of them at all; he and Will had always been something of a closed club.  Except, of course, for when it came to Georgina.
“Well either way, that dreamcatcher didn’t work one bit.  You might as well return it, get your money back.”
Honey Blonde hums noncommittally, and drains the contents of her cup before picking up her bag and standing.
“Are you working tonight?”  Thin Red asks, following her out of the booth.
“Yeah, the new girl quit so I’m stepping in.  Although I’m not sure it counts as quitting when she only showed up for a handful of her shifts.”
“Excuse me,” Zach says to the two girls, and they both pause, turning to him in unison.  “Sorry for interrupting.  I was just wondering if...”  He fishes the folded picture out of his pocket yet again.  “...If either of you has seen this girl?”
They both give the photo their full attention, more than the cretin behind the counter had done.  The redhead squints in such a way that suggests she would be better off wearing glasses, but is prevented from doing so by vanity.
“No, sorry,” she says, and the blonde shakes her head.
“Nevermind,” he says.  “Thanks anyway.”  These words already feel carved onto his tongue after just one morning. 
“Are you alright?”  The blonde asks as he turns away.
“Peachy,” he says, with a smile that isn’t convincing enough for either of them.
The rest of the day is spent at the police station.  He is told by the desk clerk that somebody will be with him shortly.  “Shortly”, in Tennessee, apparently translates to “never”.  After he has watched the clock for what feels like an eternity, after he has examined every pamphlet on the coffee table and read every poster on every wall of the reception area, Zach goes back to the woman behind the desk.
“All I want is for somebody to take a look at this photo,” he says, holding it out to her.  “I just need to know if anybody has seen her.”
The impatience with which the woman looks at him suggests that Quentin Forrester’s constant calls have made them intolerant to out-of-town missing persons cases.
“I’m sorry sir,” she tells him.  “I wish I could help.  But I’m telling you, honestly, there are no officers here.  There’s been a...”  Her previously hard face creases and softens as she holds back a sob.  “Something terrible has happened.  To a girl.  A local girl.”
Her message is clear.  They cannot spare a man, or a single moment, for Georgina.  And Zach silently agrees.  He mumbles something that might be an apology, or a condolence, and leaves.
Back at the hotel, he tries to sleep, but the sun is still painfully bright as it descends behind the houses.  The sky is orange and violet, like that of some alien world, when he leaves his room again, driven out by pangs of hunger.
The manager at the hotel had recommended a place just a few blocks away, and Zach is grateful for the closeness.  Despite having done little more than sit since he got up this morning, he is exhausted.  As he approaches the restaurant, he spies the pretty blonde from the cafe this morning through the window, working.  Not a complete write-off, then, he thinks of the day.
His shoulder collides with that of somebody hurrying out of the entrance.
“Sorry,” he begins, just as the other man barks:
“Watch yourself!”
Their eyes meet for a second before the man turns away, striding off, and Zach’s heart leaps into his mouth.  The face looking back at him had been a perfect mirror image.
“William,” he utters, before logic or reason can tarnish what he has seen.  But his double has already disappeared around a street corner.
“William!”  He shouts, running after him.  His legs are weak when he turns the corner, but there is nobody in sight.  What had he been wearing?  Is there a doorway he might have vanished into?  Somebody gets out of a parked car, and Zach almost jumps on them, before forcing himself to think rationally.  What would he ask?  Had they seen anybody around who looked exactly like him?  Somebody who had been dead for over a year?
“I’m losing it,” he whispers, and the sheer act of talking to himself again makes him cry out in despair.  He sinks to his knees on the pavement, face burning with rage and the threat of tears.
Not places, but people.  Laura’s words from earlier that day sound in his ears.  People are haunted, says a voice in his head, and now he can’t stop hearing it, echoing and ceaseless, like a prophecy fulfilled.

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