When the kid in the movie said, “I see dead people,” Marti’s first reaction was join the club, followed quickly by don’t let them drug you—it only makes it worse.
The movie didn’t provide any answers. As far as she knew, none of her ghosts wanted anything important from her, except maybe her great-grandmother. Grandma Bertie constantly badgered Marti to clean up her act. Since Grandma died twenty-four hours to the minute before Marti was born, they had different definitions of clean act. As far as Marti was concerned, keeping up with the laundry and showering once a day qualified. She sometimes failed to meet her own standards, let alone Grandma’s.
• • •
“Why do you think you feel the need to search for answers in movies?” her shrink, the sixth or eighth so far on her lifetime list of head-doctors, asked.
The woman behind him shook her head. “Tell the pompous brat his Aunt Susan says hello, and that trashy slut he married is cheating on him.”
Marti wanted to ask where she got her dress but instead relayed the message. Dr. Calm-and-Steady’s flinch was better than the dress. Wherever the dress came from, the store was long gone anyway. As was Aunt Susan. It didn’t matter. Shopping wasn’t in Marti’s budget.
“Have you been taking your meds?” the doctor asked.
“Aunt Susan’s right. You are a pompous brat. Although I would have said pompous prick.”
She never went back, but she upped her self-medication, which was no more help than legal and prescribed drugs but a hell of a lot more fun.
Self-medication stopped being fun the morning she woke up on the cold asphalt in the shadow of the Franklinville Public Library dumpster, wrapped around the town’s most infamous homeless man-about-town. At least she was the big spoon. She disengaged herself and did a quick inventory. Her clothes were all accounted for. Her jeans were buttoned and zipped. She hadn’t done anything she shouldn’t have. Probably.
“You didn’t.” Ozzie’s voice came from behind her, but his body lay motionless on the ground beside her.
Crap. She didn’t know whether or not to believe him. The dead lied as much as the living. More. Their chances of getting caught were lower.
She wasn’t surprised to find Grandma Bertie tsk-tsking over her, but the sight of her father, his face wet with tears, shocked her. The Judge never cried. If she had done Ozzie, she hoped he hadn’t seen.
“When did you die?” she said.
“Pass. Pass sounds much nicer. Less final,” her grandmother said.
“Last night,” Ozzie said.
“I wasn’t talking to you.”
“A month ago,” her father said.
“No one called me.”
“No one knew where to find you.” The Judge turned the simple statement into an indictment.
“That’s different. And it took me awhile.” No more tears. The Honorable Thaddeus A. Mickkleson’s voice dripped with the disdain Marti—and legions of Battlesburough County juvenile offenders—knew and feared.
“Are you going to follow me home?”
“Of course.” The Judge’s powers of condescension remained intact. Death didn’t change people.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” Marti said.
“Me?” Layers of grime and a snarled beard masked Ozzie’s expression, but he sounded astonished. And pleased.
“That wasn’t an invitation,” Marti said.
“’S-okay. I hate to be cooped up.” Ozzie stepped over his corporeal counterpart without a glance.
“See you around.” She left him struggling to lift the lid of the dumpster.
It wouldn’t take him long to figure out he didn’t need to open it. In his new state, even locked dumpsters were his to explore. Not that their contents were any use to him. Marti hoped he wouldn’t be too broken hearted when he discovered he couldn’t maneuver his overloaded and ever-present shopping cart. He might be bound to the shopping cart. Or the dumpster. Marti didn’t understand how that worked, but either one would stink. As long as he wasn’t bound to her, she didn’t care. Grandma was enough. And The Judge. If she was stuck with her father for the rest of her life, she didn’t know what she’d do.
Grandma and The Judge escorted her home.
“We should call somebody about that man,” her great-grandmother said.
“We? Since when can you use a phone?”
“Don’t you have a car?” her father asked.
“I’ll tell her where it is when she sobers up,” Grandma Bertie said.
Sometimes, the dead had their uses. Mostly, they nagged.
• • •
“This place isn’t as bad as I thought it would be.” Coming from The Judge, that was as close to a compliment as Marti expected.
“At least she keeps it clean,” her great-grandmother said.
“Don’t get me wrong. It’s a dump. But after this morning, I expected worse.”
“It’s shabby chic. That’s—what do they call it—a thing you know.” The Judge had nothing on Grandma Bertie in the condescension department.
The one-room furnished apartment was shabby. Two mismatched chairs shoved up to a vinyl-topped folding table passed for a dining area. Duct-tape patches adorned a sofa bed that housed a mattress so bad Marti never bothered to pull it out. Sleeping on the sofa was fine with her. As for chic, Grandma was stretching it, but the place met Marti’s needs. Aside from a stray cockroach or two, she and Grandma were the sole occupants, and a place with no haunts was hard to find in the aged buildings within her budget. She had no attachment to the place or possessions to weigh her down. Even the dishes in the tiny kitchen corner came with the rental. When it was time to move on, she would toss her clothes into the back of her car, leave, and never look back.
Her clothes and her quilt. The faded patchwork blanket draped over the back of the sofa was the only decoration in the studio apartment—the only bit of Marti and the only connection to her childhood. It also came in handy when she ended up sleeping in her car. She hoped The Judge wouldn’t recognize it.
He did. “I thought your mother threw that away.”
She’d tried more than once, but each time Marti rescued it from the Goodwill donation bag or the trash bag or wherever until her mother gave up. When Marti left home for good, she took only the quilt and one small suitcase. The quilt always went with her. The one time she tried to leave it behind, she made it as far as her car before she felt compelled to turn around and go back and get it.
Her head hurt, and the scents of Ozzie and parking lot clung to her.
“I need a shower,” she said.
The hot water pounded the back of her neck and the three Advil she swallowed began to take effect, but Marti couldn’t relax. It wasn’t—yet—a bad day, but it wasn’t a good day either.
A bad day would be finding signs Ozzie lied about the closeness of their encounter.
A bad day would be her father following her into the bathroom. The Judge never would have done such a thing in life, but she didn’t know what to expect from Dead-Dad. About too many things, the dead made their own rules.
On a good day, her great-grandmother would have stayed in the other room and caught up on family gossip with The Judge, but she had no compunction about following Marti into the bathroom or anywhere else.
“You’re not even listening to me, are you?” Grandma said.
“Don’t you and Daddy-dearest have things to talk about?”
“Pfft. That man always was in love with the sound of his own voice.”
“Be nice. Besides, we had a long chat while you were snoozing.”
“I’ll bet you did.” If snoozing was Grandma’s euphemism for passed out in a parking lot next to a dead bum, she was gearing up for a lecture. Great-grandma Bertie was Marti’s proof the passive-aggressive gene ran strong in her family, at least on the maternal side. Alive, The Judge didn’t have a passive bone in his body. She doubted the loss of those bones changed anything.
“Your father wants to talk to you.”
“LALA-LALA. I can’t hear you.”
“Of course you can. He has a favor—”
“The worms crawl in. The worms crawl out,” Marti sang. The worm song made Grandma’s skin crawl. Metaphorically, of course. Grandma hadn’t had any skin to crawl for thirty-two years, and Marti had used the ditty to irritate her for twenty-seven of those years.
“Marcile!” The use of her formal name meant Grandma was wishing she had the ability to slap her great-granddaughter. Not for the first time, Marti was glad she didn’t.
“THE WORMS PLAY PINOCHLE ON YOUR SNOUT.” Marti suspected her own inability to carry a tune irritated the old ghost more than the worms. According to Grandma, she’d been quite the songbird in her day. She turned the shower off.
“I was cremated!” The Judge shouted from the other room.
It might take more than Advil to get her through the day.
• • •
“What the hell are you wearing?” The Judge said.
He had to be the last soul on earth who didn’t recognize Marti’s neon orange and green uniform or the smell of bacon grease and garlic pickles that wouldn’t come out no matter how many times she washed it. One of her co-workers had a theory the signature scent was woven in with the synthetic fibers of the fabric, orange for the grease and green for the pickles. Eau de fast food. Olfactory advertisement. When a Burger Buster drone in full regalia walked past, mouths watered. Dogs barked. Arteries clogged.
“I have to go to work. And since I’m walking, I need to leave now.”
They followed her. Chatted with each other. She tried to tune out her father’s updates on her mother and sister. Her family was dead to her. No, they weren’t. If they were dead, they’d probably be stalking her along with Dead-dad. She shuddered at the thought.
She clocked in with a minute to spare and took her place at the Burger Buster grill, ready to flip burgers.
“This isn’t why I paid for you to go to college.” Her father didn’t mention the part where she never graduated.
She spent her last semester as a patient rather than a student. Too many campus spirits, both the roaming and the drinkable, sent her back for her second stay at The Birches and her first round of shock treatment. On the bright side, tuition for The Birches was higher than for Marydale College, which wasn’t cheap. That had to have hurt The Judge.
She wanted to tell him at least it’s a job but kept her mouth shut. Dead or alive, The Judge didn’t need to know the things she’d done or the places she’d slept when unemployed and broke.
“We need to talk,” The Judge said.
Marti checked the screen in front of her, tossed four pre-formed sort-of-beef patties on the grill, and hit the timer. A robot could do her job, which was exactly why she liked it.
“She won’t talk to us when she’s at work,” her grandmother said. “That’s how she lost the last job.”
• • •
She stood in the parking lot and searched for her beat-up Taurus.
“Scooter’s,” Grandma said.
Oh yeah. Scooter’s Bar and Grille. The grill part shut down long before Marti moved to town, most likely at the insistence of the health department. She couldn’t imagine anyone wanted to eat there, but she did like to drink there. The bartenders all knew her and could be trusted to take away her car key when needed. She didn’t mind being seen as a falling down drunk—on occasion—but driving drunk was another matter. She wouldn’t be responsible for adding to the revenant population.
Scooter’s sat just outside of town. She had no clue how she made it from there to the library parking lot. When the bartenders took her keys, they arranged a ride home for her, and the ride always dropped her off in front of her apartment. Maybe they did, and she decided it was time for a new book or two. She did like to read. She could ask Grandma. Or not. She decided it wasn’t important.
The Judge cleared his throat. “Marti—”
“Time for a walk.” She cut The Judge off. He was about to tell her something she didn’t want to hear. He’d used the same tone every time he shipped her off to a new doctor or hospital.
“Marcile—” The Judge spoke her name slowly, as if he was talking to a problem child. His problem child. Marti ignored him and set off for Scooter’s.
“No talking while walking,” Grandma said. “People will think she’s talking to herself. Might think she’s disturbed and medicate her. Lock her up somewhere. Shock treatment isn’t a whole lot of fun, you know.”
Go Grandma! Marti couldn’t resist a glance at her father. He was either suffering from a bit of after-life indigestion or feeling sheepish. Score one for Great-Grandma Bertie.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” The Judge said. “People will think she’s talking on her phone.”
“What?” Grandma said.
Crap. Leave it to The Judge. She and Grandma spent the last ten years in backwater towns. Pretty much the only people walking around and chatting on unseen cell phones were teenagers. Since Grandma was convinced insanity was an inherent part of adolescence, Marti had no problem enforcing the no talking while walking rule. She developed a fondness for long walks. Sometimes, it was the only way to shut up her great-grandmother’s ghost, and The Judge was about to blow it.
“Her cell phone, you stupid old woman,” The Judge said.
Maybe not. Insulting Grandma was asking for trouble.
“No talking while walking.” Grandma’s command voice was the stuff ghost stories were made of. It sent a shiver down Marti’s spine, and she knew Grandma learned it from movies.
It didn’t stop The Judge. “Marcile—OUCH!”
Marti didn’t see what Grandma did—her companions had fallen behind her—but whatever it was, it worked. The Judge shut up.
They walked in silence until the sidewalk ran out. Marti kept her head down and crunched through the dry brown leaves along the roadside. She trusted the afternoon sunshine to light up her Burger Buster uniform’s combination of hunter don’t-shoot-me orange and road crew don’t-hit-me green and alert any passing drivers to her presence.
“Watch where you’re walking,” The Judge said.
She pretended she couldn’t hear him over the traffic, the honking horns, and the occasional idiot who rolled down his window and warbled “Buuuuur-ger Bust-eeeeer!” at her. The theme song was more memorable than the food.
She heard The Judge just fine. She had no choice. If Marti heard the dead with her ears, she would have long ago solved the problem. Their voices echoed in her head. It would take more than a good set of plugs or a quick jab with a Q-tip to shut them out.
• • •
Scooter’s parking lot was empty except for two pickups, Marti’s Taurus, a few dried leaves, and George. Back when he realized Marti could see him, George told her he didn’t mind being dead, but he wanted to shoot one last game of pool. Since that was impossible, he loitered at the bar’s front door and greeted customers with a doleful “Have a good time. Drink one for me. I’ll just wait out here.” No one other than Marti heard him. She classified him as an Eeyore Ghost.
“We need to talk, now,” The Judge’s orders didn’t carry the same oomph they did when he was alive.
She had a decision to make. Retrieve the spare key from its magnetic holder stashed in the wheel-well? Or go inside and retrieve the key she left behind the night before? The first was a pain in the butt. She deliberately made the key hard to get to. She didn’t want to risk using it as a backup system when her judgment—not to mention her coordination and driving ability—was impaired.
The latter carried its own risks. It wouldn’t be the first time she went in to claim her car key only to have it repossessed. The latter was definitely the more attractive option.
“I owe you an apology,” The Judge said.
“You owe me more than one.” One drink. She could go in, have one drink, get her key and leave.
“We took you to doctors.”
“You gave me drugs.” If any of the mucky-mucks from Burger Buster caught her drinking in her uniform, she’d lose her job.
“You were better when you took them.”
“I was better when you thought I took them. When I took them, I couldn’t shut out the dead. You all talked at once. I stopped.” What were the chances of any B.B. Bosses drinking at a red neck bar in mid-afternoon? She didn’t recognize either of the trucks, but that didn’t mean anything.
“We did what we thought was best.”
“Best for you. Not me.” A fellow employee might spot her. Some of them would rat her out in a heartbeat. She could send Grandma in on a recon mission, except Grandma refused to set foot in Scooter’s. She hung out with George when Marti went inside—the big reason it was her favorite drinking establishment.
“I need to tell your mother,” The Judge said.
“Tell her what? That her crazy daughter’s not totally loony tunes after all? ’Cause ‘ghosts is real and I are one?’ What makes you think she’d believe you? Or see you? You’re dead.” One drink. Maybe two. She could hide in a dark corner. Scooter’s had lots of dark corners.
“Marcile Tobias Mickkleson. Look at me.” The Judge went from apologetic to apoplectic in under sixty and along the way reduced Marti to the quivering lump of her twelve-year-old self. She couldn’t help it. She obeyed.
“I was murdered.”
She laughed. Not at her father. He was dead serious. Grandma was long dead, but not serious. In an eye-rolling contest with an army of live sixteen-year-olds, Alberta Marcile Ferguson would beat them all.
“I’m going to get my car key,” Marti said.
“Jack Daniels. And whatever’s on tap.” One drink. That was all. One drink, then she’d get her car key from Carl the bartender and go outside and go home. She’d finish her conversation with The Judge. Or not. He stayed outside with Grandma and George. Maybe they’d manage to get rid of him while she was inside. Better have two drinks. Give them time to work.
“Hey, Marti. Didn’t expect to see you again so soon.” Just Call Me Joe perched atop the cash register, his malevolent grin at odds with his friendly greeting. Marti classified him as a cantankerous old coot, even if he was dead.
Instead of putting a coaster in front of her and pouring her drink, Carl rummaged in a drawer beneath the bar, pulled out her key on its bright pink clip, and tossed it in front of her.
“Sorry. Boss says you’re eighty-sixed.” He delivered the bad news in a soothing Johnny Cash drawl. Marti knew the rich bass tones were real, but when he came into Burger Buster, the drawl was missing. She assumed he put it on and played it up for the Scooter’s clientele. Adorable as it was, it didn’t soften the news of her banishment.
Her key, with its paper tag that said Marti M along with the date and time of confiscation, wasn’t adorable either. Carl recycled tags. Hers bore six dates, and according to the most recent, she lost her driving privileges shortly after midnight, well before last call.
Just Call Me Joe hopped off his roost. The night Marti, after a few too many, confessed she saw and heard him, he wasn’t pleased. He refused to tell her his name, and she didn’t care enough to press the matter. When he said “Just call me Joe,” she went with it.
He looked mighty pleased with himself at the moment. Marti had a suspicion whatever caused her exile, it had nothing to do with the six strikes listed on her key tag.
“For how long?” The last time she was banned-for-life from Scooter’s, it lasted two weeks. A long two weeks. Not because she missed the drinking. That, she could do anywhere. Grandma wouldn’t tell her why she refused to enter Scooter’s. Maybe she and Just Call Me Joe had a history. Whatever. The dark bar, with its hidden corners and jukebox full of old-time country hits—no boy bands or twerking tarts allowed, it was all Patsy and Hank and crew—was her haven. It wasn’t the alcohol, although recently she’d been indulging in more than she knew was good for her. Some nights, she sipped a Sprite in a corner. Just Call Me Joe rarely joined her in a booth, and he was the only spirit—of the ethereal sort—in the place.
“I dunno. Could be for real this time,” Carl said.
Just Call Me Joe did a little two step. His grin widened. Crooked teeth twinkled, but neither his smile nor his eyes lit up his leathery face. Whatever he did while alive, he’d spent a lot of time in the sun.
Jimmy, Scooter’s owner, despised her, but he liked money. Regular customers meant regular cash, and Marti was a regular. For reasons he never bothered to share, Just Call Me Joe hated Jimmy worse than Jimmy hated her. Whatever she’d done, there was a good chance Just Call Me Joe either instigated it or at the least, egged her on.
“You! Crazy girl! Out! Now!” Jimmy burst through the swinging door between the bar and the unused kitchen. Whatever she’d done, it really irritated him.
“THE WORMS CRAWL IN, THE WORMS CRAWL OUT,” Just Call Me Joe sang and jumped onto the bar. “Hey, Marti? Wanna sing another duet?” Cantankerous was an understatement. He was an evil jerk.
He capered in front of her and grabbed his crotch.
Marti shuddered. It was just as well Carl and Jimmy couldn’t see or hear him. No one needed to see the scrawny old ghost shake his booty in Carl’s face.
“Come on up here and join me, Sweet Cheeks.” He planted his scuffed brown shit-kicker on top of her car key. She steeled herself for the shock, reached through his foot, and grabbed the key. Even though she knew what was coming, the icy-burn made her flinch. She let out a yelp.
Just Call Me Joe cackled.
“You prick,” she said.
“Out, crazy-girl!” Jimmy shouted.
“I didn’t mean you,” she said.
Jimmy didn’t buy it. “Out! Out! Out!” His face turned purple, and the veins on his neck bulged and throbbed.
“You really need to leave. You really pissed him off this time,” Carl said.
Marti didn’t have a clue what she’d done and wasn’t sure she wanted to know, but she did want a drink.
“My dad died.” She pulled a sad face. Jimmy had kids, and, she assumed, at some point, a father. He looked and sometimes smelled like he’d crawled out from under a swamp log, but the odds were in favor of traditional parentage. Maybe she’d get a sympathy beer. She’d settle for cheap. Milwaukee’s Best, in a can.
“I don’t care. Out! Before I call the police!” Jimmy picked up the bar phone.
He probably kept the cops on speed-dial. At least he didn’t call them last night. Knowing whatever went on wasn’t cop-level-bad was a comfort. A small comfort, since blood needed to be spilled before Jimmy willingly brought on-duty police into his bar, but a comfort all the same.
“The worms play pinochle on your snout,” Just Call Me Joe crooned, Dean Martin with a country-twang. “Come on. Sing! Dance! Last night was a hoot!”
Marti had no doubt it was. She could stop at the Iroquois on the way home. The Iroquois Lounge was better lit than Scooter’s, they played Muzak instead of letting the customers control a jukebox, and Grandma always followed her inside, but they never banned her.
“Never laugh as the hearse goes by, for you may be the next to die.” Just Call Me Joe switched from Dino to Hank Williams, and his yodel followed her out the door.
He really sang well. For a dead guy.
• • •
Grandma and The Judge waited in her car. Grandma must have called shot-gun. The Judge huddled in the back seat, arms crossed, mouth downturned, and generally pissed off. Marti unlocked the door and got in. Neither greeted her.
“Hey, guys. Have a nice chat while I was gone? Are we ready to party? Or should we aim for a nice quiet family night at home?”
Grandma gave her the evil eye.
“Somebody murdered me,” The Judge said.
“Gosh. Who could have possibly wanted to do that?” The Judge never picked up on Marti’s sarcasm when he was alive. She wondered if he’d gained the ability in death.
“There are rumors it was your mother.” He hadn’t.
“You certainly gave her enough reason.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, let’s see. You’re cheap.” Marti held up one finger. “You’re controlling.” A second finger. “And then there’s that little thing with Mrs. McDonagh.” She wagged her whole hand. The Judge and Sheila McDonagh were worth five fingers on their own.
“Who told you about her? Alberta? Was it you?”
Grandma snorted. “As if anyone needed to tell her. The whole town knew.”
No one told her. In her junior year of high school, for the first time since third grade when she’d ceased being the rich girl everyone wanted for their friend and became the crazy outcast kid, Marti had friends. Bicklesburg’s group of small-town Goth-wannabes thought her loony-bin stays were romantic. Oliver, his girlfriend Ashley-but-please-call-me-Raven, and Marti’s sort-of-boyfriend Dmitri pretended to believe her when she talked about seeing the dead. It gave her spooky-Goth-cred, and it was a relief to be around people with whom she didn’t need to pretend.
Her junior year, she was still the weird girl but that was a good thing and she wasn’t alone.
The four of them went on a Friday night double date. A concert or a movie or simply driving around town. She couldn’t remember where they’d been, but she knew she’d had fun. She’d laughed. She was happy. They might have been—probably were— a little high. Oliver parked on the street in front of Dmitri’s house. Dmitri got out, but instead of heading to the house, he jumped on the hood of Oliver’s Camaro and belted out a Misfits’ song.
Oliver honked the horn. Marti and Raven screamed and applauded. Lights appeared in windows up and down the street. They didn’t care. Loud, rowdy, having a good time, they were unwilling to let the night end—until they saw The Judge standing in Mrs. McDonagh’s front window.
“Yo! Judge! Welcome to the neighborhood!” Dmitri shouted. “Make yourself right at home—at least until Ralphy gets back!”
In the backseat, Marti ducked. She didn’t think her father saw her.
Ralph McDonagh was a truck driver. He was gone a lot.
Marti’s mother’s career was being The Judge’s wife. She sat home alone a lot.
Marti spent the weekend avoiding her father. On Monday, the school conducted a locker search. Dmitri and Oliver were busted for weed. They swore it wasn’t theirs, and Marti knew Dmitri was telling the truth. He never brought his to school. Oliver she wasn’t sure about, but it didn’t make any difference. Both boys came up before Judge Zero-Tolerance Mickkleson, who shipped them off to a youthful offender facility on the other side of the state. She never saw Dmitri again. Although their relationship was based mostly on the fact his parents hated her as much as hers did him, she missed him. Raven washed the purple out of her hair, bought a new wardrobe full of trendy, preppy labels, went back to being Ashley, and never spoke to Marti again. Marti spent her first summer at The Birches, Mom and Dad’s new Bin of Choice for Recalcitrant Daughters.
Her senior year, she was friendless but not alone. Never alone. She always had Grandma. And, according to the buzz in Bicklesburg, The Judge still had Mrs. McDonagh. Probably not as often as the gossip-mill reported. Mr. McDonagh was home sometimes.
“Don’t exaggerate,” The Judge said. “We were discreet.”
“Ha,” Grandma said.
“Discreet? Remind me to get you a dictionary,” Marti said.
A dark SUV, followed by a humongous pickup pulled into Scooter’s parking lot. Shift change time at the local factories, and it was Friday. Payday. The bar would soon be packed, and it wouldn’t do to be spotted sitting alone in her car talking to herself. Or sitting listening to Grandma and The Judge argue. If Jimmy spotted her taking up a parking place without spending money, he’d never revoke her sentence.
“You both need to shut up.” She turned the key. The Taurus shuddered and roared to life. She needed to get the muffler fixed. She waited for The Judge to point out the obvious. Grandma saved her nagging for more important issues than car repair, although she would no doubt have something to say if the muffler actually fell off the car. Neither passenger spoke a word. Their silence lasted until she was on the road.
“I left you money,” The Judge said.
Marti hadn’t thought about an inheritance. After a decade of cutting her family out of her life, she figured she was cut from theirs, and that included The Judge’s will. “How much?”
“How much?” She didn’t know how large a sum it would take to get her to return to Bicklesburg and her family, but it would need to be a lot.
“Go home. Find out. And while you’re there, figure out who killed me. You’re smart enough.”
“How much money?”
“Do it for your mother. She’s not well.”
“You know you’re a cliché, right?”
“What do you mean?”
“Dead guy. Ghost with a problem. Help me Obi-wan-psycho-daughter! You’re my only hope!” Her father had been a cliché—rich old white guy on a power trip–when he was alive, but she decided not to bring it up.
“Isn’t that how it works?” The Judge not only was a cliché, he believed in clichés.
“As long as he believes that old chestnut, he’ll never move on,” Grandma said.
“Someone murdered me,” The Judge said, “and I want to know who, even if you don’t.”
“You killed yourself,” Grandma said.
“I certainly did not!”
“All those years of drinking and eating like a pig finally caught up to you.” Grandma wasn’t cutting The Judge any slack.
“I hate to interrupt this conversation, but do you guys smell something?” A whiff of smoke—Marti didn’t know where it came from. She hoped it wasn’t the Taurus’s engine. The car was a heap, but it was all she had.
“Just you and that gawd-awful uniform,” The Judge said.
“Liar,” Grandma said. “We’re dead. We have no sense of smell.”
Sirens. Red lights in the rearview mirror. Marti pulled to the side of the road and stopped.
Two fire trucks and a police car roared past. The Taurus was good.
A few blocks ahead, the fire trucks turned, just about at—Crap. Maybe it was the CVS or the pizza place or any of the other small businesses that lined the side street. Just because they turned on Stanley Street didn’t mean it was the Burger Buster.
She slowed to a crawl as she passed Stanley. The police had the street blocked off.
“Can you guys see anything?”
“Stop referring to your father and me as you guys. And, no.”
“There’s a fire. It’ll probably improve the landscape around here,” The Judge said.
Marti turned into a tiny strip mall and parked in front of the Iroquois Lounge.
“Do you think that’s a good idea?” Grandma said.
“I’m not going in.” She wasn’t. At least not yet. On foot, she cut behind the mall and through the library parking lot. Ozzie didn’t acknowledge her. She hoped somebody had found him and removed his remains, but the dumpster blocked her view of her early morning resting place. Ozzie’s almost final resting place. She headed down the alley between Whiffler’s Insurance Agency and Color Me Crazy Stylists. A crowd jammed the sidewalk in front of the salon. She weaseled her way through the onlookers until she made it to the police tape.
It wasn’t the drugstore or the pizza place. The day officially became not simply a bad day, but a close the lid on the toilet and flush day.
“So, what happened?” a guy in a suit asked.
“How would—oh.” Her uniform. “I don’t know. I got off an hour ago. Just haven’t been home to change. Did everyone get out?”