I looked both ways, up and down the narrow dirt gap between the brick building and the high fence behind me. Bits of litter were strewn about, trapped by the tufts of grass that grew from cracks and corners. I checked the roofs and the windows all around—those that weren’t boarded up, anyway—before setting the plastic grocery bags on the ground and leaning over the slant basement doors. I pulled the wobbly handles and the wood dropped paint flecks like dandruff. The hinges creaked loudly, which let anyone within earshot know someone was there. But for me, that was a feature rather than a bug. It made sneaking inside very difficult.
I picked up the groceries and walked down the slat steps, my boots crunching tiny pieces of 50-year-old paint. I stopped at the bottom and listened carefully.
In front of me was an old boiler room whose walls at the front and sides didn’t quite make it to the ceiling for some reason. To my left and around to the back was a storage space. The two-story building had once been some kind of church assembly. The church itself stood across the weed-filled lot and was now sealed, having served as a crack house of some renown before recently becoming the scene of a double homicide. Police warnings were plastered all over it. They wouldn’t keep the junkies out forever—only as long as the folks in the neighborhood figured my colleagues and I were still likely to show up for whatever reason. That meant my visits, if noticed, wouldn’t appear terribly out of place—for a while anyway.
I was making my way to the back when I heard his voice.
“How much longer do I have to stay locked in here?”
I walked around the corner. An old bike with stripped tires and one badly bent wheel lay on its side to my right. In front of me, a sturdy crosshatched metal fence, like a grate, ran from floor to ceiling, separating me from the rest of the space. There was a single gate in the middle, painted the same sea green as the rest of the metal. The room had two thin windows on the left wall, near the ceiling, not more than five or six inches high. Sunlight entered as a pair of angled shafts that struck the opposite wall, just above the homemade wooden workbench that filled its length. There was a hutch at the near end with water damage at it base. Rags were piled underneath it, next to a few boxes.
Directly under the windows was a single fold-out cot with a striped mattress, two old blankets, and one new one, which covered the sole occupant, an African man near 60. In the middle of the room, a brown card table stood defiantly on three fold-down legs next to a pair of matching chairs, one of which had been overturned. The top of the table was nearly covered in torn wrappers, empty food bags, dirty glasses, and a bunch of crumpled cigarette packs. There was a little ceramic ashtray as well, piled high with butts and ash. On the side it said Greetings from the Grand Canyon.
I took the carton of cigarettes I’d bought out of its bag and pressed it against the grate as a peace offering.
“Is that supposed to make me want to let you in?” the man said without getting up.
He had a heavy African accent—I didn’t know what language he spoke—and wore a pair of women’s jeans that were too big for his narrow frame, held by a woven belt, into which had been tucked a pale yellow Statue of Liberty T-shirt. The cuffs of his jeans were rolled over white tube socks. His beard was grizzled, and he had a $5 Casio watch on his wrist. Covering his head was the same white kufi cap he’d been wearing when we first met.
All other things being equal, his encounter with the ghoul hadn’t left him any worse for wear—at least not physically.
“You want me to leave all this out here?” I asked, lifting the bags.
I caught of whiff of human waste then. It wasn’t strong, but it was insistent. Like the smell that wafted from the bathroom when I was a kid, after my dad was done with it. I resisted the urge to cover my nose.
He rose from the bed and slipped his socked feet into a pair of black Adidas sandals and shuffled across the concrete to unlock the gate. I glanced at the tall white bucket near the back wall. There was a plastic toilet seat fitted on top with a tight rubber seal locking it over the lip of the bucket.
“You didn’t answer my question,” he said, opening the door with a clatter. “How much longer do I have to stay in here? Like a prisoner.”
I pointed to the latch on the inside of the door, opposite the keyhole on the outside. Anyone with fingers small enough to fit through the grate wouldn’t have fingers long enough to reach the latch. But then, it wasn’t built to be a vault. It was a storage room of some kind. The lock was only meant to discourage the casual thief.
“You’re not a prisoner,” I said. “If you don’t like it here, you’re welcome to take your chances on the street. I doubt she’s going to waste too much energy trying to find you, not if you’re keeping yourself scarce. From her point of view, that’s a win. But if you’re out wandering around, flaunting—”
“Yes, yes.” He waved me off. “So you said. But here I am living in my own filth.” He motioned to the bucket. “I am not an animal.”
Since the bucket was white and had minimal writing, it was very slightly translucent, and I could see where the bottom was slightly darker, indicating it was roughly half full. Several bare rolls of toilet paper lay on the ground next to it. They had been picked clean of every last pink scrap.
“He’s supposed to come empty that every day,” I said, lifting a fresh package of rolls from the bag and tossing them to him.
“It has been five days,” he said, catching it. “That man scratches his arms and smells of his own urine. He thinks I am as unclean as he, that it means nothing for me to live like this.”
“Yeah, that’s Benny. He’s a junkie. He owes me. Big time. I’ll talk to him about the toilet.”
My guest waved dismissively to the stack of old paperbacks near the gate. Several were printed yellow at the sides of the pages. I had found them upstairs. All late 70s to early 80s.
“I don’t read English well, you know. What I can make out, it’s no sense. Silly stories about fairies and magic.” He huffed. “They don’t get anything right! I’d rather read nonsense.”
He set the package of toilet paper by the bucket. Then he shuffled back to the table.
“Fine. I’ll bring you some Carroll, then.”
“I thought this was supposed to be the land of opportunity,” he said with an exasperated chuckle, as if that were the furthest possible thing from the truth.
“Doesn’t opportunity usually entail risk?”
“Perhaps. But not at a fool’s wages. There’s a reason we burn witches in my country.”
“Centuries of sexism?” I asked.
I set my phone on the table, near the ashtray, and motioned to the image on the screen. “What can you tell me about that?”
He sat down and leaned over it as he ripped open the carton of cigarettes. I had zoomed in on the underside of the tongue, which made the picture slightly blurry. He squinted and reached a finger hesitantly toward the screen.
“Pinch two fingers on the screen to zoom out,” I explained.
He looked up at me, unamused. “We do have smart phones in Africa. We’re not all chauvinist barbarians.”
He zoomed out and then back in again, sliding the picture up and down. “I’m not familiar with the sigil, but see how the interlocking pattern is all part of the same line? No ends. I would guess it’s a binding.”
He pulled out a pack and tossed the carton on the table. He ripped the plastic immediately.
“You mean like to prevent her from revealing something?”
He nodded and handed my phone back. “It was not uncommon in the old days to give similar bindings to young people. To prevent them from speaking ill of their ancestors and so inviting their wrath. That is where lip piercings originated.”
“Well, that’s certainly one way to do it.”
He had removed the 30-year-old nudie poster from the wall and left it folded neatly on the workbench. However, he’d left the 1988 Beaches of the World calendar hanging. September was Hatteras.
He pulled a cig from the pack. “There are places where people honor their elders, where inviting them into the home in old age is an honor reserved for the first born.”
“Sorry, man. My parents more or less disowned me when I was 17, so you’re not gonna get a lot of sympathy from me.”
“I see,” he said, glancing over me once as if just realizing I was gay. “In the days when everyone lived and died in the same place, generation after generation, it was easy for the old spirits to find their distant progeny. They merely had to lift their heads from the grave.” He lit the cig and took a draw. “Appeasing them was vital to the health of community. The dead could intervene, if necessary, on behalf of the community. There was a community. Versus this place.” He waved out the windows. “Where you lock your old people away in cages to die alone. Unmourned.”
He started coughing and I lifted the rest of the grocery bags from the floor and set them on the homemade workbench.
“Thanks for your help,” I said. “I’ll make sure Benny cleans that thing more often. Hopefully you won’t have to be here too much longer.”
He nodded resolutely and I opened the gate, which shuddered in its rusty hinges every time I swung it.
“We could ask the dead woman,” he said, shaking the cigarette wedged between his fingers.
He must have guessed the picture was a homicide. Or perhaps there was something in Bobbi Jo’s mouth that made it clear she was dead—to someone like him, anyway.
“We could ask what happened to her, who killed her, if not for the binding on her tongue. I would need a bit of her flesh or hair, which means the binding would follow. A potent medium could do it by reaching to the other side, where the binding would not follow. But I’m afraid I don’t know many people here, and no one with that kind of ability.”
I stood with the open gate in my hand and waited for him. His face suggested he was thinking and might have more to say. Then he started coughing again. He set his cig on the lip of the ashtray and got up from the table and shuffled to the bench. He opened a white plastic grocery bag and found the anti-mucus tablets I’d been giving him, and a bottle of water. He cleared his throat after swallowing the pill and sat back down, picking up his cigarette immediately and taking a drag.
“You can’t figure out who she is, can you?” he asked with a single cough. “That’s why you came here. Grasping for hay.”
“Straw,” I corrected.
“Like to drink Coke?”
I had to think for a second. I wasn’t sure how to explain it.
He made a sour face. “English . . .” he scoffed.
I waited for him to snuff the cig and light another. I leaned against the metal door frame.
“But . . .” He raised a finger. “Others would not share her binding.”
“Witnesses,” he explained.
I shook my head. “We canvassed the whole area. No one saw anything. Her body went into a drainage channel during a big storm, probably at night. We figure the place was pretty deserted.”
“Of people, perhaps. But people are not the only souls in a city. There are animals. Spirits.” He turned to me. “Have you asked any of them?”
I’m posting the chapters of my forthcoming urban paranormal mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS, in order until the book is released. A blend of hard-boiled whodunit and contemporary urban fantasy, it’s been described as “Tolkien meets Dashiell Hammett for dinner in the present day.”
You can sign up here to be notified when the book is released.
You can start reading in order here: The old ones are patient.
The next chapter is: CONDEMNED