Blake might never have seen the ghosts if the women’s restroom at the McDonald’s on the highway had been in working order.
A bathroom break had been the chief purpose of the stop, so, when Elita saw the “out of order” sign, she passed on coffee, and they got back on the road.
For Elita, bladder urgency was only a tad less severe than concerns over Blake’s recent behavior. If not cold, he had at least displayed subdued emotions of late. That was uncharacteristic. He had always been quiet, moody, but once you knew him, he might rattle off dry one-liners, and he always exuded a calm compassion. Elita had attributed most of it to artistic temperament.
Now he either didn’t talk, or he did strange things. Tuesday night at a Dallas area business function, he had sunk into complete silence when introduced to several business leaders, offering little explanation when she ripped into him afterwards about how he stared.
So far he had been reluctant to talk to their doctor, but she feared some sort of depression had him in its grip. They were on their way to his cousin’s memorial, after all. A cousin, Silas, who had been a friend in his childhood. Little difference in their ages.
That had to be unsettling in ways he wasn’t expressing. Even though their families had lived in different cities, there’d been frequent visits. They had been trucked one way or the other to stay with each other over part of every summer and sometimes on Thanksgiving or Christmas vacations.
She was wondering if she should bring up the doctor again to break the silence, when the Avery exit appeared. There was no question about taking it. It was that or risk a bladder explosion. At least she was wearing black. Damp wouldn’t show.
“Is there something out there? A bird? A crow? Crows?”
Blake was looking upward. She steered down the ramp while trying to peer at what he was talking about. She saw only blue sky and white clouds, and when she looked back at the road, she realized she’d veered right into a turn lane at the end of the ramp. A right turn it would be.
That’s how they discovered the small town square. Beautiful downtown Avery, Texas, not quite desolate. It was built around oaks with low, tentacle branches that made the green area beneath them dark and shadowy. The dusty cobblestone street stretched in front of shops, some empty with streaked windows, others long ago passed from the original tenants. The open stores specialized–antiques, candles or knickknacks designed to attract a walking tourist trade.
Elita selected an antique store that looked like it had once been a small Sears, hoping for public restrooms. Since the McDonald’s had offered a working men’s room, Blake stayed on the street, leaning against the car, still checking skyward for whatever he’d imagined strafing them.
An African American shoeshine man with salt-and-pepper hair. He winked at Blake and jerked his head.
“My shoes are OK,” Blake called back.
“Come on, you won’t believe what I can do with this rag,” the man said, flagging a polish-stained cloth. “I can show you amazing things.”
With a shrug Blake followed him across the street to his stand, a single elevated chair with foot pedals that required a climb. The shoeshine man opened a small hockey puck of polish as Blake got into place.
“Blake, pleased to meet you.” His brow wrinkled. “Have I ever seen you before?” He was getting a flash of a picture in a newspaper, somewhere way back.
“Thought you might look a little familiar,” Dooley said with a smile. “Maybe I shined your shoes if you’ve ever been through here before. Got some special stuff here. Gonna bring the shine right up.”
He smeared polish on with his fingers.
“So what brings you through these parts today?”
“Where you from these days?”
“Where you headed?”
“Beaumont area for a memorial service.”
“Funeral? So you ain’t stayin’ long? Least we’ll get these fixed up nice for the service.”
He shook something from a Coca-Cola bottle with a sprinkle plug in its neck.
“Stump water. Special. Magic.”
Another flash of memory— a pair of old brogans from when he was a kid and someone splashing them as they rested on foot rests.
The old man shook a little of the water into his palm then suddenly flicked his fingers so that droplets misted over Blake’s face.
“Everyone needs a little magic,” Dooley said with a wink.
Elita emerged from the restroom in the back of the shop, having pulled her blonde hair into a pony tail. Feeling she might collapse with the bladder relief, she smoothed and re-checked her simple funeral dress, wondering if Blake’s relatives would think it too short.
It’d have to be all right now. The world seemed a little brighter with the glory of her emptiness, Blake’s emerging issues aside. She allowed herself a moment to admire an old tea set. She was checking a demitasse cup for chips when the cell sounded.
“There’s a problem with the tile for the Canfield house.”
Bobbye, her assistant.
“The supplier sent the wrong shade of beige over. Girard was in his knee pads putting the pieces in place, and the client dropped by and spotted the issue.”
“Check the invoice.”
“I did. The numbers don’t align, but the girl at the store’s being a real bitch about it. She was all `what do you want me to do, fall on my sword?’”
“Get the manager. Get the owner if you have to. Remind them how much business we do and that we have other choices. Handle it. I’m not even to Beaumont yet.”
“’K, I’ll manage somehow. How’s Blake holding up?”
Good question. She hustled to the front window.
“Sitting on an old shoeshine chair. Looks like it’s a local relic. Hope he doesn’t think he’s going to get a shine. Talk to you soon.”
“I’ll try to have good news.”
She clicked off at that. God, she needed to be back there. Blake’s endearing flakiness had been fun once upon a time, but it had compelled ambition and drive in her when she realized she was the capable one. Now a lot was riding on what she’d built, a career that had grown out of early meetings with small gallery managers and others in attempts to place Blake’s work.
He’d sold the occasional painting in the early days, and she’d found her interest in decorating and the business that surrounded it. Now that her business had taken shape, she managed to place some of his paintings with clients, but his sales were a trickle of their income. Especially of late. His work had turned gradually odd and surreal the last year or so, making it steadily more difficult to put his canvasses in dens or living rooms of upscale Dallas clientele.
Had that transition been an early symptom?
“You must be looking at old Dooley’s chair. Dooley Dobyns.”
The shop keeper had approached while she was still focused outside and heard the mention of the chair. He was a slender, gray haired man in a cardigan and horned-rim glasses. A smile graced his angular features.
“Once he was practically a local ambassador.”
“Beloved local character?”
“Fixture in downtown Avery for years. He got killed by a hit and run driver around the time his rep took a downward turn.”
“So it’s kind of a monument to his memory?”
“Well, partly. It has other, uh, conversational value these days and viewed as…well, were you interested in that serving set you were looking at?”
“It’s pretty, but I have to be…”
“My name is Park, by the way. Park Moody.”
“You sure I can’t interest you in making me a good offer? Sticker’s not carved in stone.”
“Couldn’t carry it safely.”
“I could wrap it well, or we could arrange delivery. Shipping outside of Avery’s kind of my bread and butter these days. Ebay, dealers, not the foot traffic so much.”
He was half-joking, but she detected desperation. Business had to be worse than terrible.
She offered a business card. “Cook-Yardley Interiors in Dallas.”
Yardley was a tip of the hat the furniture and accessories store to which she’d attached herself to get a toe hold with Highland Park clientele.
“I suspect things come through here that might be of interest. Maybe we can e-mail, see what we can work out, but I need to get going. My husband is waiting.”
“I’m sure we can find some lovely antique pieces. I had a wonderful buffet through here the other day, and an old dining table. Folks moving away. Let me get you my card.”
When she turned to the front window, she saw only the empty shoeshine chair.
Mr. Moody must’ve sprinted to the counter. He was back and offering a small, parchment card along with a thin gold bracelet.
“A trinket, but simple and lovely, I think. Complements of the shop, so you’ll remember us.”
She let him clip it around her wrist, but her attention was outside.
“My husband’s vacated Dooley’s chair.”
“Your husband was over there? I guess I didn’t look that way? Focused on you, I suppose.”
Nagging tendrils of concern crept up through her abdomen like a vine. She hoped he had not wandered off.
“I’d better go check on him.”
“I look forward to talking to you more. Stop in any time you’re in town.”
She left the bell on the door jangling and hurried across to the deserted shoeshine stand. No sign of Blake. Not around the corner. Not anywhere.
The girl’s face was lovely in a way that seemed basic and natural. She was maybe 19, wearing an out-of-season cloth coat over a simple print dress, a white pattern over navy. The style looked like things most people had delivered to Good Will years ago. Maybe it was a hand-me-down. Didn’t matter. It conformed to her hips and waist, and the neckline dipped just enough to reveal the rise of her breasts.
He’d walked about a block from the shoeshine stand, wiping his eyes of Dooley’s magic water and distancing himself from that strangeness. He’d been about to turn back to look for Elita when he’d seen the girl on a corner, standing on cracked sidewalk that stretched past a brown, deserted building. He started to turn away, but she looked like she wanted something from him. Or was offering.
He took a couple of paces, preparing to ask if everything was OK, but before he could close the distance, a couple of slow, gliding steps carried her out of sight.
He rubbed his eyes. Had she really been there?
He moved to the corner, thinking if he turned it and she was gone, he’d just head back to the car. But she wasn’t gone, and she wasn’t just the few paces her speed had carried her.
She was a block away, on another corner standing in the shade of an elm. Her hands were thrust into pockets, but she seemed both patient and beseeching.
“There’s nothing up there but the old Starshine Diner,” Mr. Moody said.
When she’d stepped back into his shop after calling Blake’s cell to no avail, the shopkeeper had looked up with a bit of delight then soon volunteered to put a “Back in 15 Minutes” sign in his window and help Elita search.
“It’s closed,” he noted.
“The way my husband’s been acting lately, that might not matter.”
Shrugging, Mr. Moody gestured for her to move along.
“What’s wrong with how he’s acting?” he asked after they’d moved past a candle shop.
She had nothing to lose. Once she and Blake were on their way, she’d never see this man again. Jacques Yardley wouldn’t like her supplanting too many of his selections with antiques. She’d be safe voicing to the old man things she wouldn’t say to Bobbye.
“I’m afraid he’s been showing early symptoms of schizophrenia. It’s been worse since his cousin died.”
It was terrifying to give the thought voice, but at least that’s what her Internet research and her gut feeling suggested.
“I’m sorry to hear that. That’s not good is it?”
“There are treatments, drugs, but things can get difficult. ”
She suspected Blake would be the type to eschew medication with excuses that it hampered his artistic vision, which he held sacrosanct above all else.
She and Blake had known a woman once, friend of a friend, who’d been leading an enviable life until onset. She’d been in sales, her husband running a business. They’d had a daughter, a house, great vacations. Pictures, stories, memories. And suddenly one day she started placing bizarre phone calls over imagined slights or complicated re-interpretations of events dredged up from her memory. She refused help and finally the husband took son in arms and fled.
Elita didn’t want that for Blake or for the two of them, didn’t want him to spiral downward, didn’t want him to babble crazed thoughts or craft myths. And she didn’t want to envisage the horrible what ifs that came anyway. The worst: What if it gets so bad I have to pull the rip cord?
She pushed that one away. She had to find him, get him back to the car and get back on the road to the funeral. Dammit.
“He’s probably not at the old diner,” Moody said. “It’s padlocked, at least. Things happened there.”
He tried to steer her back by an elbow, but she hesitated. Would Blake in his current state want to see an abandoned yesteryear?
The streaks on the glass became mist, curtains of mist that slowly peeled back from the gray darkness. Blake found himself looking at a scene devoid of color, booths and tables filled with shimmering figures, nebulous shadows. Then, in one corner, he thought he saw himself and his cousin Silas as boys sitting in a booth.
“What the hell’s going on?”
He turned, but his guide was suddenly no longer beside him. She was at another table, the most real figure amid the unreal, among shadows and blurs. Then she got up, glided, glided back toward a narrow hallway, back toward shadow and nothing.
He pulled away from the window and closed his eyes, trying to assemble his thoughts. Trying to organize. Had he been to this diner before?
Then he looked at the window again. He peered through the old soap swirls into empty darkness–stools lined a long counter that fronted a serving area and kitchen. Booths and tables remained, deserted and lonely.
The streaks, that’s what had done it, had played tricks with his eyes. His imagination had done the rest. That didn’t explain the street view of the woman, but the other vision couldn’t have been real.
Then the woman’s face was on the other side of the glass, inches from him.
Features weren’t as perfect anymore.
Hair matted, plastered to the sides of her skull.
Skin grey, cracking.
He tried to make it his own reflection, distorted in the glass, but that just wouldn’t be true.
It was the girl, and black shadow spread across her chin and lower cheeks. Except it wasn’t shadow – it was blood. Then she wasn’t at the window any longer. She was walking, gliding past the counter, through a narrow door that must lead to restrooms. Or further?
He looked to the building’s corner. What was around back?
She was waiting when he rounded the back of the building, standing near a narrow door. Still opaque, her horror-show face glared at him, then she gestured, wanting him to come with her, further into some dark dream.
“Why’d it close?” Elita asked, looking through the diner window?
“Mostly the same things that hit us all. Population migration, chains on the highway a few miles away. The rumors, though I guess the rumors bring a few customers for the rest of us these days.”
She stared over at decaying stools at the counter. “Rumors about?”
“Superstition, but some travelers and a waitress disappeared.”
“From the diner?”
“Not always from the diner, but it got the brunt of the reputation. So you’ve never really heard: `Don’t take the exit to Avery and definitely don’t eat at the diner?’”
“Guess I missed that, though it’s sounding like good advice.”
“Place was the spot to stop once upon a time.”
Wonderful stretch of road for a bladder emergency.
“Used to, it was the only place to eat if you were downtown, some people would go there anyway. ‘Til there just weren’t enough people comin’ through at all.”
“Is there a chief of police or a sheriff?”
“We still have a police department. We could give them a call from my shop. The station’s at the other end of Main, near the court house.”
She slipped her shoes off for faster movement and followed him back in the direction they’d come.
Her face was showing more signs of decay, purification, bits of grey flesh peeling, lips cracked and blackened, not blue. But the eyes were no longer milky. They’d taken on a red glow. A skeletal arm and hand gestured toward the edge of a wooded area that started not far from the back of the restaurant.
He moved, first to a spot on the cracked concrete apron, but then she was gone. For a moment, he thought he saw Silas standing just past the first line of trees, a Silas of about 10, dressed as he’d been a second ago in the vision.
Then he was gone, and it was the girl at wood’s edge, empty branches at her back, crows suddenly at wing over her, cawing. She wanted him to enter the forest.
He found the hint of an old path and complied after blinking back an image of a young Silas trotting through that same tall grass. By the time he reached the first patch of ground where she’d appeared, she was deeper, amid a mosaic of shadows from snaking branches.
“What’s back there?”
He had an idea, the inevitable idea, but he wanted some confirmation before he moved further. The answer was a sudden, white hot pain, like a spike driven through his skull. No need for soap streaks now. This vision forced his eyes closed, and when the lids went down, he was suddenly looking in on a scene.
The girl, un-tattered again but running, her breath visible with cold though she was bathed in sweat. Her shoes had been kicked off. Branches tore at bare legs. Her feet, cut and bleeding, padded across the wet ground and the blanket of leaves and evergreen needles. She looked back, ignoring the scrape of low branches that bit at her cheeks and swatted her brow.
Her face became paisley, painted with strands of limp hair and smears of blood.
A shadow followed, relentless but calm.
Then, though the pain didn’t subside, his eyes opened. She’d been running over this ground, and the decaying figure was leading him where she’d gone. No question they were one and the same.
No question what she wanted him to see. No question the crows that fluttered above were urging as well with louder caws.
She appeared again, still deeper amid the trees, more flesh gone now, more bone exposed.
He rubbed his forehead and moved in that direction.
As they neared the old man’s shop, Elita took her phone out again and paused on the sidewalk, shoes dangling from one hand as she thumbed the Contacts then Blake’s number. No response came to the ring sound, and she couldn’t hear the ringtone he’d set for her anywhere in the vicinity.
“Devil Woman” had been a joke when he’d found it, suggesting her developing hard-edged business style. As her patience waned, she felt more like a devil woman than ever. This whole trip was for Blake, and he was turning it into a wild goose chase.
She gave the phone a hard thumb to cut it off then pushed into the old man’s shop.
“Since you know the chief of police, could you possibly make the call?” she asked, moving to the counter.
She didn’t want to sound like a crazed city woman who’d be told to wait 24 hours for her husband to be considered a real missing person. Maybe a local could get a sweep or a canvass, or whatever cops did, started sooner.
“Sure, sure,” he said with a nod and smile. He lifted a wireless phone off his counter to tap a number.
“Hi, Roy,” he said after a brief pause. “It’s Park at the antique shop. I have a lady here…what was the name again?”
“Tell him Elita Evers.” Cook was her maiden and professional name. Might as well make the tie with Blake clear and uncomplicated.
“Elita Evers. Says her husband has wandered off, and he’s been having some problems.”
“Passing through on the way to a wedding I believe.”
His expression reflected his realization of the error.
“Funeral, funeral,” he said, correcting himself.
He paused again.
“No, no, I didn’t actually see him, but she’s pretty upset. Could you? OK, I see.
He clicked off.
“He’s got men out on an overturned truck, can’t get away from the desk at the moment. He said you could come down to the station. It’s not far.”
Come down and fill out a report, just what she’d hoped to avoid.
“You did see my husband, right? Through the window?”
“Sorry, never looked that way.”
Hadn’t there been a TV movie like this?
“Thanks for the call anyway. I’m going to stroll back toward the diner and see if Blake’s turned up. If you do spot him in the shoeshine chair again, yell at him and tell him to stay put.”
As Blake moved deeper into the forest, branches and vines began to intertwine, making passage more difficult. He lifted a protective arm, peeling back brush in order to keep moving.
He froze and his head jerked to one side with pain when another vision hit him, more of the girl running, looking backward. She stumbled…
And he flashed back to the moment, to reality such as it was, pushed through more brush and found himself looking at Dooley again.
He stood near a thick tree, face solemn now. Blake locked onto his gaze, staring into hard, cold eyes.
The man made a gesture with his left hand, a low sweep in the direction Blake had been traveling, an invitation to move on.
Had the shoeshine man pursued the girl? Blake blinked, trying to pick up what he’d seen in the vision, but it wasn’t clear. The best he could do was head on in the suggested direction.
Passing between a couple of closely spaced trees, he found a narrow stream, which he stepped over. Then he was in another thick patch of brush, little travelled.
In the midst of shadows, he saw a form. It was clad in the outfit the girl had been wearing, but the clothes were now soiled, grimy, limp, showing holes, and the distinct features were no more. Dry, wrinkled skin with no moisture clung to skull. What he could see of the arms was the same. Just bone under stretched and wrinkled leather.
He fought more small shrubs and tangles of weed and vine to find a spot slightly sunken in the moist earth.
“Did men disappear in any of these incidents?” Elita asked.
Mr. Moody had caught up with her after she’d made it only a few paces from the store. He’d volunteered to walk with her since the cops couldn’t, and they were on a stretch just past the diner now. His business had been notably slow, so he might be welcoming the diversion.
“It was mostly young women. I hesitated earlier because Dooley, the shoeshine man was sort of a whispered suspect.”
“There’s talk of hungry ghosts too, though.”
“What are those?”
“Ghosts that lure others to their dooms, or ghosts that have been hurt, and, well, misery loves company. Say one died out here, then claimed the nex victim. Then another and another. It’s in the weird Texas travel guides just like the Lady of the Lake in Dallas or the ghost lights. Some say the bodies are buried out here, but the killings all happened before the days of cadaver dogs and things like they have now. No one’s ever managed to dig in the right place.”
She’d heard of the lady but not ghost lights, but she feared Blake was the victim of his own foggy delusions and not whatever had claimed previous victims. The Dallas tale was just one more version of a hitchhiker who disappeared upon reaching a destination.
Why did this have to happen now? Not just now on the way to a memorial, now in their lives?
The guilt of the thought struck almost as it occurred. She shouldn’t be thinking of blame or flight yet. Once she had him back in safe surroundings, the thought needed to be about treatment. She reminded herself of that as the cold pavement chilled her feet.
She hadn’t dressed for a hike, but the first order of business was getting Blake back in the hold. Then they could decide about heading on to the funeral or turning back.
Just past the old diner, she noticed the breaks in the weeds and brush. She was no Daniel Boone, but it looked like a trail. The dry grass was pressed down all the way to the edge of the twisted oaks.
“You’re not going to try to go in there are you?” Mr. Moody asked. “Locals don’t even go in there anymore.”
“I don’t really have the luxury of superstition. What’s back there?”
“Just woods, I think, but really thick. You’re not dressed for it.”
“I was thinking the same thing.” The hemline wasn’t going to protect her legs, but they were probably what kept the old man interested in helping.
“I don’t have a lot of choice. It’s where he went, and there are probably plenty of ways to get hurt back there even without ghosts.”
She surveyed the grass and brush, but this was no time to be delicate.
“If you don’t join me, tell the sheriff where I was last seen.”
“It’s the police chief.”
“Best to ol’ Roy.”
This patch was essentially sandwiched between the highway and downtown. How bad could it be?
The ruined figure of the girl stood beside a tree, an oak with massive, jagged branches, some that dipped low around its trunk, almost to the ground. The space before it, where deep gloom might form in spring or summer when leaves were present, was open, a bare patch with no brush and only rickety lines drawn by shadows of branches. Those lines crawled around caved in spots where earth had sunk down, sometimes several inches.
Blake approached. The figure’s face was no more, but the shape of the head was tilted downward, as if gazing at the indentations. Then it was up again, empty, murky sockets aimed toward him.
Migraine quality pain stabbed his temples. Just an instant this time, as he caught a flash of digging, not quite a vision. When it was gone, he sensed what the figure wanted.
He looked around, saw a fallen branch that looked solid and snatched it up. Cracking off the antler-like pieces, he was left with a long, fairly straight rod. He began to probe the sunken pockets, leaning in, putting his weight on it.
He jumped and turned to see the shoeshine man standing beside him. The man’s face was now streaked with blood from a wound on his forehead, and one arm dangled at his side, twisted, limp and vestigial. But he was watching, looking on with some urgency.
“Deep,” the man repeated.
A chorus of caws from above punctuated that.
He re-positioned the stick a bit and leaned again forcing it further. It sank with more ease than it should have. The earth had been disturbed before. He began to wobble the stick about, making the hole around it bigger, just enough to get fingers in.
“How deep do these woods go?” Elita asked, pushing a branch away. They’d been traveling a while.
“We’re pretty much to the heart of them, I think. Much further, and we’ll be to the highway,” the old man said. His breathing was a little heavy.
If she wasn’t careful she’d walk the old guy to a heart attack.
“A little further, and we’ll turn back.”
“We’ll go back to my shop and get some water and figure this out. Your husband shouldn’t just disappear.”
“Shouldn’t get devoured by hungry ghosts?”
“No, no shouldn’t happen.”
The ground had stopped revealing signs of a path, and she wasn’t skilled in tracking anyway. Just a few more feet, and she’d take the old man up on his offer, whatever it meant for Blake. Maybe being pulled in for some kind of state-sanctioned evaluation was what he needed.
She pushed a few branches aside, stumbled just a little further and saw Blake a short distance ahead, in a clearing that forced her to blink. It looked like a painting he’d begun recently, a quivering, leafless oak under an ominous moon with odd and deformed crows sitting amid the branches, one near the top with wings spread, another just below it, beak open in silhouette, three on one rickety limb, two others at an unbalanced counterpoint on the other side of the tree.
Could he have seen this place before? As a kid, traveling this route with family?
“He’s there,” she said.
Why was he digging?
She pushed a broom-like branch of a sapling aside and stepped into the narrow opening for a better view of Blake clawing earth, dragging back black dirt piles.
“There used to be rumors that Dooley had a spot, but it was before cadaver dogs and that kind of thing. Just a few cops on the prowl.”
Through the next wave of searing pain, he saw the girl again, lying atop bones, body intact again, flesh pale but not decaying. Next to her, to the silent, horizontal, motionless her, a spade worked and dirt fell on her.
“Blake. Blake, what the hell are you doing?”
The voice yanked him back like a harness on a hydraulic system, pulled him through the white void of the pain, back to the cold ground biting through his slacks into his knees.
He looked up, saw Elita with an old man. Had he seen him before?
“They’re here,” Blake said.
“What is this? Have you moved to performance art?”
He stared at her, not comprehending.
“We’ve got to get out of here. Come on. Get up. Pull yourself together.”
Dooley stood at the edge of the dirt pile, still bloody, looking now at Elita and the old man.
Blake closed his eyes.
Saw Dooley’s hands, working on shoes, sprinkling them from his bottle. Then the gaze strayed, off to the side, across the street and to a shop window at a diagonal. A girl, the girl was in a shop, browsing items in the showcase window.
The man—younger, but it had to be the man now with Elita— approached behind her, showing her something small, something in his palm.
Blake rose from the dirt, looking past his wife. Elita extended a hand, trying to calm him.
“It’s going to be OK. Blake, are you listening?”
Pain ignited in his temples. His vision flooded with more waves of white. Dooley walked. Heading home? His feet plodded along the sidewalk, a small case with his essentials dangling at his side. At a corner, he checked left and right then started to cross.
At his right, a car engine roared just as headlights flared. He looked up into an almost blinding oncoming blaze, looked through the fiery white glow, through the windshield. The man behind Elita, younger, but the man was at the wheel.
Blake blinked, rose and lifted the stick, almost deafened by caws. More figures stood around the tree now. A female in a grimy pink waitress uniform. Another woman in a blood-streaked hound’s-tooth suit. A tattooed girl in jeans and a rugged bomber jacket. A crowd.
Elita thought he’d snapped. He looked like a wild man, hands and face smeared with dirt, the stick raised like a club, his eyes bulging. She threw up her hands, trying to block any blows, but he charged past her.
She felt the wind of his movement and heard the branch strike flesh before she could turn. He’d swung at Mr. Moody and, from the sound of the thunk, he’d struck the old man’s arm. Poor Mr. Moody. He must have been trying to protect himself just as she had.
But then she completed her turn and saw the small, gleaming golden dagger. A collectible of some kind, handle curved and painted with floral flourishes, yet the blade sharp and lethal. It fell from the old man’s fingers.
And Blake was swinging the club again. It struck the old man on the side of the neck, stunning him, and Elita sank to the ground. She had to process it all.
She could see bones amid the dirt where Blake had been clawing, including what looked like one bony wrist with a dingy gold bracelet like the one Moody had given her.
All this for want of a toilet? And what the hell did it mean? A 911 would let the cops sort out the old man and the bones. They’d have to come now, but what the fuck was she going to do with Blake?
She sat thinking of that and the canvass and the crows and the odd and mysterious flash of reflected light in the gloom on the painting’s ground—a little flare of gold picked up by the painted moonlight.