I started wearing down some shoe leather the next morning. The first stop was police headquarters to dig up any files about Allison Tierney. While the desk sergeant was calling someone who could make a decision about letting me in, I was looking at the numerous wanted posters and rewards offered. I spotted a few recognizable aliases; thankfully none of them were mine.
It took me the best part of an hour to get permission to check the blotter records and less than five minutes to verify the “accidental” death of Allison Tierney two months previously. The photo in the file matched the face I met in my office the night before. The accident determination had been reached about an hour after the discovery of the body. That didn’t really mean much, I’d seen cases involving two stabs to the back and a head jammed in a toilet declared accidents. The file was entirely too thin to be real. No coroner’s report, no evidence collected whatsoever, just the one crime scene photo and a three-sentence detective’s report to put it just inside the bare minimum required. That photo was enough to show ligature marks around her throat.
I considered leaning on the detective, one Arthur Bertram, to learn to whom outside his chain of command he was answering. That was an option to save for later. That would be a situation where I might be giving more information out with my questions than I would get from the answers. As it was, I was taking a chance of drawing attention just asking for the file.
I moved on from the precinct house to speak with a contact that could give me an education on ghosts. Calling Stewart “Rubber Burnin’” Cutler a contact was stretching the word to its breaking point. He had hired me to track down a one-time partner in crime that not only took him for his share of the job but also his life. Ms. Tierney wasn’t my first ghostly client, Cutler had been the first, and that case hadn’t ended too well. I got distracted on a trail that indicated an associate of the Baron was heading the operation. In the meantime, the partner was similarly offed and both trails grew cold.
I still hadn’t come up with a plan when I reached the alleyway where Cutler had been murdered. It was where I contacted him when I had or needed information for the case. From what I knew about ghosts, he should still be haunting this place. For the rest, I needed him to talk to me.
The shadows of the alley shielded me from the street after about ten paces. It was a New York alley, dirty, trash overflowing, and that wonderful scent of ammonia that was testimony of less savory uses.
I opened my senses outward. It was a barrage of sensation that had threatened to drive me out of my mind when I was an apprentice, and that in a controlled workroom. My extra years of experience helped me ride that wave of clashing life and emotion, past and present. Cockroaches and rats, beatings and illicit meetings, fear and rage muffled under a blanket of willful ignorance. I sifted through and looked for the freshest of resonance.
I found a knot of greed and resentment. He was sitting above and to my left on a fire escape. I focused in on him, my will focusing onto resolving his image. Once he had resolved in my mind, I could hear the sound of a key ring spinning around his index finger.
“Eh, Watson. You here to tell me you’ve found my money? Or better yet that bastard Slim?”
“If anything, you’re the one in a better position to find Slim,” I replied.
“Then if you’re looking for entertainment, you are in the wrong place. Unless Ramona has a trick, but even that gets old after awhile. Kinda like Ramona.” Cutler chuckled at his own wit.
“So you wouldn’t mind a bit of conversation then?” I asked as I lit up a cigarette.
Cutler’s eyes bored down on the cigarette, the knot of resentment grew a little stronger. He didn’t bother to keep it out of his voice.
“Why should I have any reason to talk to you? You know what I want to hear, and I got nothing to say to you.”
His desire and a bit of old lore found each other in my mind and turned into an idea. I shook a coffin nail out of the pack and set it on a lidded trashcan. One small push of power into the cigarette, a second push and an invocation of Fire later the cigarette was reduced to ash. My theory had worked out, and I let a smile crook my lips.
“Come down here,” I said in response to his quizzical look.
Cutler vaulted over the landing rail. Before he completed that move, his form discorporated into mist. He reformed rather than landed two steps away from me. The look on his face deepened when he saw the ephemeral cigarette sharing the place of a small pile of ash. Cutler picked up the cigarette and rolled it tentatively between his fingers. He smiled.
“Got a light?”
I rubbed my fingertips together and wove a pattern of Fire without the power to make it material. A mere impression of flame appeared above my fingers, but it was enough for Cutler to light the cigarette.
He drew the smoke into his lungs and blew it out his nostrils. The metaphysics behind the whole process was more complex than I wanted to think about right then.
The moment played out, just a couple of pals enjoying a smoke together.
“I’ve had better butts, but not for a while now. So what is it you want, Shamus?”
“I’m looking for a bit of insight into ghosts.”
“Thought you’d go to the source, eh? What makes you think I’ve figured out anything about my…” he waved a hand through the trashcan, “condition?”
“Because you’re not the type to stay out of the know. At least you weren’t, and I doubt dying changed you all that much.”
“Heh, you’d be right on that one. I’ve seen a few things, been working things out, ain’t much else to do.”
“So what have you figured?” I prompted.
“Let’s see, I know that I get a little fuzzy when I’m out of the alley, like I can’t remember two minutes ago. There are a couple of other places where I’m clear, but I think it has more to do with stuff that’s there, things I remember real clear like.”
Cutler shot me a look as if I had just made a play on his main gal.
“Ain’t none of your look-out,” he snapped, then calmed down, looking surprised at his own reaction. “Well ain’t that queer? All I know is that they are important.”
He took a drag on his cigarette. “One time, I tried to push just how far I could go from this damned alley. I kept feeling, I guess thinner is the word, until everything just faded out. Next thing I know, I’m at one of my other places, back to normal.”
I filed that bit away and decided not to push him on the “other places”.
I tried a different topic.
“Have you heard about anything attacking ghosts?”
“Well ain’t you just full of good news? I haven’t heard anything like that happening, but then I don’t have much of what you’d call a social circle these days.”
I pulled my back off the wall I’d been leaning on.
“Thanks for the goods. I’ll keep an ear out for the stash, but you’ll be seeing me some time.”
“Yeah,” he sneered, “Don’t be a stranger.”
Despite the cordial farewell, I ashed a couple more butts for him.