He had always had nightmares, ever since he was a kid. They were the phantasms that haunt any boy’s mind, the voices and dead faces of the horrible things that shouldn’t have been seen. But now he saw only Ray and the darkness that had claimed him. It was his empty eyes that found their way into the darkness, and even when he had awoken he could see them staring and void. When he awoke screaming in the cold and the dark he was helpless to close them.
Ever since Rhinde had approached him in front of Ray’s Hand-crafted Furniture on Seventh street, Jason had been telling himself the same thing in his head: You’re being a fool, Jason, a damned fool. And he knew it was true. Maybe even Rhinde knew it. But somehow through it Amanda still looked to him in wonder and told him to hold himself up. She believed in him, and perhaps that was why she had waited in the car.
He clutched his head and took the steps in a tottering daze. With the nightmares had come persistent headaches that followed him around in his waking hours, laughing all the while. He held to the icy railing, the cold biting his fingers and reminding him again that south of the border was warm this time of year. Why was he here even now? he wondered, toiling up these frozen steps to another rusted door like so many in the downtown ruins of Summit? Ray was gone, and there wasn’t anything else of importance, just an old, leaden knocker staring through empty glass eyes—eyes not so different than Ray’s. For a moment they were Ray’s; it was eerie. He ought to have been at home writing a letter to Marie or Jerome, or, hell anybody. The biting cold and the slippery grated steps were a hard reminder of the emptiness he felt. Why did the world have to move on?
He raised his knuckles to the peeling paint of the downtown apartment. The ring within the old, rusted metal resounded in his head and didn’t stop until the bolt was drawn and the door pulled back till the chain had caught it. From between the door and the frame her vacant, milky eyes were watching him warily, and he could not begin to guess what went on behind them—wisdom, perhaps, though long since lost in the obscure, cobwebbed pathways of her mind.
“I’m looking for the Missus Dresden,” he said.
“Aye,” said the woman through the crack. “Aye, and so you are. And what forsaken business has brought your kind face to the shinnies of Summit?” When his dry expression was turned to puzzlement she added, “Yes, I see what is behind that mask, laddy. No good pretending. If I ain’t seen it once then I seen it a thousand times.”
“I’ve—” he said.
“Oh, ‘tis so,” she hurried on dismissively. “I guess that you would be here asking about Ray? Very well, though I am getting quite beyond these well-wishers and crying hoodlums hanging at the door day and night. What can’t a woman beyond her years do to find a moment of peace here in the Droges? Very well, very well, I suppose there is little to be done. You must come in—no, do come in at once. It is the least of my insistence. If you are going to intrude, you may just as well do it in full. And no good standing there on the doorstep freezing anyway, not when I’ve a fire burning on the hearth and ample spirits to keep the Queen’s navy afloat.”
He was none too glad to be over the threshold and with the door tight shut behind him and the bolt drawn once more. (“There’s frightful creepers about here in the Droges, aye, there is,” she said). “And now,” when he had allowed her to take his coat and hang it in the closet, her old, withered hands shaking all the while and her rheumy eyes looking this way and that as if she had lost something important and her mind had never quite left it behind. “How did you know my Raymond?”
“Friends,” said Jason. “We were quite good friends.”
“Raymond never spoke much of his friends,” she said. “Now then, now then, would you mind a cup of tea? Or perhaps something a little stronger? Coffee? Or I might be able to rustle up a beer or an older brew? Aye, spirits to warm the chill, that’s as I put it.”
“I was his friend just the same,” said Jason flatly. “And tea will do, thank-you,” he added.
“Very well, very well. I suppose a lad of your age mayaswell be not drinking before lunch.” She laughed. Her sides shook and her eyes watered. And then she brought the kettle rattling along on its rusted handle in her arthritic hands and she filled it and set it on the fire rather than the stove.
“Now then, friends you say?” she asked. “Very well, I suppose, and well met to be sure. But aye, Raymond was a quiet one, whatever they may say. No one should know that better than his own dear mother, if not perhaps his Old Gran.”
“I am sorry for your loss,” said Jason.
“Never you mind,” she replied with a turn and a wave of her hand. But she could not hide the tears that had come to her eyes at those words. “Never you mind. A parent’s never ought to watch their children go, that’s as I say. But the Lord willing, and the devil takes as he may when good folks do not set him to right, and here we are left to cope with the shame of our own sinful world. Live and let die, as my mother was used to say. Was his time, whatever may be told.”
“Just the same, I am sorry,” said Jason. He hoped it was sincere—certainly he felt sincere.
“And it is well received, laddy,” said she. And then she turned on him, her eyes bright and curious. “But what is your name, sir?” she asked.
“It’s Jason Leon, Ma’am,” he said.
“Ah, Jason Leon!” she exclaimed, a note of wonder in her voice before it cracked. “My Raymond did say a thing or two about you! Though now all things fall short of my memory. Oh my, oh what a bother. There was something ever so important—was something about the way the birds watched—ah nah, now there I go again losing myself. Where was I? Oh yes, I was saying as Raymond spoke of you once or twice, I think. And when I opened the door you nearly gave my old heart a stop with that kindness in your eye. Just like my Raymond, it was!”
“Missus Dresden,” said Jason. “I’m actually here on police business.”
“Oh, a fellow in uniform is it?” she cooed. “I always did admire the law. Good chaps, them. Good chaps one and all. Now what was that boy? What’s the law got to do with Ray?”
“Did they not tell you that he was murdered?” asked Jason.
“So they did,” she said. “So they did.”
“I was just wondering was there anyone who might want to do this to him?” Jason asked. “Did he have any enemies?”
She stopped for a moment, mid-thought, midstride, and with her hand halfway to the kettle. “What? Enemies? Kill my boy Ray? None that come to mind,” she said a little emphatically. “There was a boy back in third grade who gone and beat Ray to within an inch of his life, but I hardly think that Bobby Driscan matters now. Last I heard his folks had up and moved to Alabama. And that was back in sixty-two.”
“Can you think of anyone else?” Jason persisted.
“No, nah, well, aye, I certainly can’t, well not as you might say was logical, I think,” she said, pouring the tea into china mugs. Then she stopped and fixed him with her eyes once more. “How did he die, if I might make so bold?”
“He was shot,” said Jason blankly. “Shot in the back.” There were tears working themselves into the corners of his eyes again, but he blinked them back.
“Those dastardly cowards!” Missus Dresden cried, her eyes red and swelling. “May the Good Lord turn them a full Rising beyond the Crimson Gates for what they done! Damn them! Damn them all! You will catch them, won’t you?”
“That is what we are trying to do. You can’t think of anyone else?” Jason persisted.
“Oh no, no one,” she said. There were tears shining in her eyes. “How did you find out, laddy?”
“A friend of mine in the department told me first,” Jason said. “A good friend, and Ray’s too. She and I were first to the scene after the EMTs had given up. Oh yes, Missus Dresden, they did all they could, but he was already too far gone.”
“Very well, very well I say,” said she sadly, clearing her throat and drying her eyes with a tissue. “But where did it happen?”
“In his shop on Seventh,” said Jason. “They came in through the front and he tried to get out the back and into the alley. Detective Rhinde thinks Ray might have known. But they shot him there with his hand on the knob, shot him dead and cold, and his blood ran with the wood shavings and furniture broken in their—” He fell short. He felt empty. A lump had arisen to his throat and he could no more speak than he could shut away the thought of Ray lying there all dead and pale with his own blood pooling on the floor around him, marring all his hard work.
“Did he suffer?” asked Missus Dresden.
“The EMTs said he hung on until the last,” said Jason, “said when they got there he was cold and hacking on his own blood, but when they tried to give him something for the pain he refused, said if the Lord was willing and going to take him then he was going to carry the memory of life into the afterdeath and make death pay for taking him so soon.”
“That’s my Ray!” said Missus Dresden, and her face was alight, her tears shining from the light in her eyes. “Always was a one to go right and proper with his head held high, just like his old man taught him straight. Honour and courage, that’s as I say.” She sighed and dried her eyes again. “Very well, very well,” she said, a smile turning her lips in spite of the pain. “Very well, I see. And I thankee, you and your kind face, Mister Leon. Thankee very much for seeing an old woman in her sorrow.”
“Ray meant a lot to us all,” said Jason.
“So he did,” said she. And then: “Oh my, my, my!” she exclaimed. “It almost went and slipped my mind, what with all the kind things you have gone and said. I almost went and forgot what it was I was going to say. Now look here, Mister Leon, I never was the closest thing that my Ray had to a mother. Truth be told, I loved him, but for a terrible long time I wasn’t there for him. No sir I wasn’t, and I’m terribly ashamed of it now. I scarce know where he would be now if it wasn’t for his dear Old Gran
“His Grandmother?” asked Jason.
“Yes, Old Gran!” said Missus Dresden in something like excitement. “After his father and I went our separate ways the boys were left alone. Mostly they stayed with me, but what with the needle and the bottle I was nothing but a ghost to them. I suppose it is my own fault that Billy died, and then when Ray’s father died too it left Ray horrible shook.” For a moment she looked as though she were going to cry again. “But Old Gran took care of Ray alright. She brought him up right and proper, and then in eighty-three it was Ray who pulled me back from that hateful way, Crimson Gates themselves. He and Old Gran came here from back east to be with me and he made me clean up and take care of myself—” Now it was something like awe in her face. “—and now here I am, sitting pretty and dry for nigh on seven years, and with more than a bottle or two to my name and all. Well, anyway, if you really want to know something of Ray you best be talking to Old Gran. She is terribly fretful, but she is the one who knows, and she is the one that you should be talking to, not this old codger.”
“Where might I find her?” asked Jason.
“Summit Springs,” said Missus Dresden wearily. “Them’s all that’s still good to her, poor old hapless. But what can be done? Here in the shinnies we say, when the fire’s burnt you shovel the ash and turn new logs. I suppose she has been shovelled.”
“Thank-you, Missus Dresden,” said Jason.
“Aye laddy. Thank-you the company, and do take care of yourself,” she replied.
She shut the door behind him and he heard her draw the bolt, all the while muttering through gentle sobs, “Such a kind lad, so very much like Ray.”
“What did she say?” asked Amanda when Jason had slid back into the car.
Jason didn’t say anything. His mind had turned aside and he found himself wondering how he could have known Ray so well and still known nothing about him. It was Amanda’s impatient gaze that drew him back. “She didn’t seem to know anything about the murder,” he said.
“Then we are at a loss?” she asked. “How is it that Ray’s only living relative doesn’t know who’d want to kill him?”
“She isn’t,” he said.
“Isn’t what?” Amanda asked.
“His only relative,” he said. “There is another. Missus Dresden told me. Her mother is in Summit Springs. Her and Ray were close. He moved here with her from out east somewhere in eighty-three.”
“Why didn’t she turn up in his file?” Amanda asked.
“For the same reason Missus Dresden didn’t, I suppose,” said Jason. “Someone doesn’t want them to anymore than they wanted Peter, Ray, Carl Hindenberg, or that William guy talking. Someone is trying to cover something up, and she is our last witness.”
Summit Springs, moreoft referred to as ‘the old folk’s home’ or ‘the early grave’, was not a cheerful place—that is, at least Jason didn’t think so. It reminded him of something or other that he did not wish to recall, and it brought to mind tears standing out in Marie’s eyes and her hand outstretched, reaching in some vain hope, her fingers clawing, and all the while knowing that what she sought she could never have again. And it turned him out all over again before Amanda had turned off the street.
“You sure you want to do this?” she asked.
“I have to,” he said.
“I know.” She smiled a little, only a very little. “Don’t do this for Rhinde,” she said. “Please don’t. Rhinde is an idiot. Do it for Ray, Jason.”
“Rhinde?” Jason asked. “I owe him nothing.”
“I only thought maybe you agreed to take the case to get your shield back,” she said timidly.
“I know,” he said. “I know what you thought. It doesn’t matter. You know why? I said I’d do it. I said I’d take the case. I owe Ray that much, and besides, you know I want to know as much as you do.”
“I know,” she said. “I know. That’s why I’m here.”
“Old Missus Dresden knows,” said Jason, his eyes turned toward the plexiglass doors of Summit Springs.
“Does she?” Amanda asked.
“She has to,” said Jason. “Because if she doesn’t, then we have nothing but a dead father and brother, a mother who wasn’t there for her son, and a grandmother who isn’t much better.”
They went in at the door. The old folk’s home in all its entirety was exactly as Jason had expected: depressing. And then they were over the rug and the white-tiled floor that looked and smelled like a hospital, and before them was a dark woman in white like a nurse who asked what business they had, and who they had come to see, and didn’t they have their own children now that they ought to be attending to? And it really was a shame that the kids got neglected for the witless old dodgers, wasn’t it? Old folks did wear on the young so very much, and that was a fact, she said. But oh, very well, so it would have to be, and she directed them down the endless corridors saying, “room two-oh-three, and don’t go making any unnecessary noise or there’ll be an uproar.” The old folks always were so excitable. Jason and Amanda were nearly gone from sight when the girl called out, “And what would you be wanting with old Missus Dresden, anyhow?”
“Friends of the family,” Jason called back.
“Well then you ought to know she is terribly fretful,” called the girl. “Just let her be, or it’s your funeral.”
Room two-oh-three was cold. They didn’t even need open the door to know it. There was a draft around the jam. And when they opened the door they felt the sharp chill slap against their faces, and it was visible as a mist before their eyes when they let out their breaths. There was a chair before the window, not a rocker, but a sturdy, wicker thing all piled with cushions and blankets, and amidst them and with her back toward them was the curly, white, wisps of old Granny Dresden herself looking so small and frail within the chair that they might not have noticed her at all if they had not been looking.
“Is she alive?” asked Amanda. And Jason had himself wondered the same thing.
But she stirred, and with sleepy, tired eyes she turned her head to them and watched them, her lids wavering as if between sleeping and waking, the rest of her thin, frail body lost in the cushions and blankets that were all that now kept her upright.
“Missus Dresden?” asked Amanda.
“Now don’t stand there fretting, you two,” said she. “My, my, what a surprise to see two such lovely youngsters in my room! And never mind the chill. I like it cold. And besides, couldn’t get up to shut that slit in the window anyhow.”
“We want to speak with you,” said Jason, a step nearer now, wondering if he dared.
“It’s about your grandson,” said Amanda.
“My grandson? Raymond?” asked the old woman in a thin, wavering rasp, her silvery eyes dancing about them excitedly. “What about him? Is he alright?”
“No one told her?” asked Amanda, horrified.
“I doubt that she would remember,” Jason said. Then, “Missus Dresden, we just wanted to ask you some questions.”
“About Raymond?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Amanda. “It’s about Raymond.”
“Well,” said the old woman, “you would be far better off speaking to him yourselves. He runs the furniture shop on Seventh. But I suppose since you are here already I can give you what I know. Let’s have on with it.”
“We only wanted to know, did he have any enemies?” asked Amanda. “I mean anyone who would want to hurt him here in Summit? Or from your home back in the east?”
“No, no one in Summit, to be sure,” said the old woman. “To be sure. Not as I knew of, least ways. Ray always was getting on with everyone, and they always go over to his shop on these cold days to see what he is about and have a cup or two. And I never as heard of any other. Back east, you say? Oh, down in the Breakers? Oh no, Raymond never lived in the Breakers. Not a day, and that’s a fact. No one back home would know his name if you shouted it in the street.”
“Your daughter said he lived there with you before you two moved back here to be with her,” said Jason.
“Oh no, now young laddy you don’t be telling me what I know ain’t true,” said the old woman. “Not a day, I tell you, and that’s a—” Her head fell to her breast and her eyes closed, a thick, heavy sigh and a thin raspy snore.
“Two years unaccounted?” asked Amanda.
“His mother said he came back to Summit in eighty-three to be with her,” said Jason.
“Then where was he really?” said Amanda. “Not here, not there. What isn’t she telling us?”
“Missus Dresden?” asked Jason.
Her eyes were open again, but she only stared at them in puzzlement. “Who are—?” she asked. “Oh, I don’t think I like it. Make them leave, Raymond!” She blinked, as if in hopes that when she opened her eyes they would be gone. But instead a change came over her face and her eyes shone with excitement. “Visitors? I love visits! Where is Raymond? Oh dear, I told you not to go to Dacatus, Raymond. I told you there were bad people there, didn’t I? I did, I’m sure. Yer momma wouldn’t like it if she knew, now would she? What did I say?”
“Dacatus?” asked Amanda. “Missus Dresden, what is Dacatus?”
“What?” asked the old woman sleepily. “Who the—oh, very well, I suppose I could spare some change. Come here, dearie.” She held out a very thin, pale hand, and Amanda took it in hers. “Dacatus. You mustn’t go!” she said, excitedly. “I don’t know what Ray told you, but you mustn’t go! It’s a bad place. I always said it was, ever since the—the killings—bad place, to be sure, and it was bad for my Ray to go there. His mother oughtn’t never to have left him all alone like that, and now look where it’s got him. That woman be cursed, and my own daughter and all! No, dearie, stay away, just stay away!” With a sigh and a snore her eyes shut once more and her words ceased, and this time she did not awake. Amanda let go of her hand and it sank upon the cushions looking very old and fragile.
This work is written by AD Bane and published by adbane.com. It is solely the property of ADBane.com and may not be reproduced in part or in whole for any reason except at the exclusive permission of the author.