Mulholland Books Popcorn Fiction Popcorn Fiction - The Dead Lights by Matthew Grainger
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A woman finds herself 'returned' from the dead and wants to know how she got that way in this shot of zombie-noir from screenwriter Matthew Grainger.

The Dead Lights

1

 

dead, and Ariel was wrong: there is something in between. Sometimes, when I was floundering at the business end of a bottle of something agreeably vomit-inducing, I used to put the barrel of my police issue weapon in my mouth. Its metallic tang tasted like blood. I would imagine my own death, the bullet cauterizing its way through skull and cortex, turning out the lights one by one. Then sudden panic would set in, and I'd tear the gun from between my teeth and drop it as though it was scorching hot.

But the reality is different. I still think of myself as a man, but I also understand on some level that I'm a million fragments of sightless glass caught in an endless gale, each one howling in exquisite agony. And yet on some layer above the cacophony, I can think. I know exactly where I am and how I got here.

I can remember everything.

 

2

 

Rain falls into Ariel's open eyes. She twitches on the wet asphalt then rakes in a lungful of air, breasts rising as her chest inflates like a bellows. It's just a reflex. Two days from now she'll realize she has forgotten to inhale and a shudder of revulsion will run through her, itself another reflex.

Ariel sits up and looks around, trying to orient herself. She is wearing a white evening dress, spotted with rain. Pale streetlights flicker and beyond, the decrepit façades of urban low-rises are framed by the tombstone hulks of office blocks and tenements.

Suddenly, the streetlights go out. A single remaining light source leers through the shimmering curtain of rain: towering letters broadcasting the word SAINT from the crest of the tallest building.

Ariel gets to her feet.

 

The modest bungalow struggles to keep the chill at bay. Ariel stumbles up the front steps, then notices a candle flickering in the window. She cups her hand to the icy glass and looks inside in time to see a young boy run past. His mother sweeps him into her arms as he giggles. Ariel has no idea who these people are. Then a man passes the window, flashlight in-hand, pulling on an overcoat and Ariel's breath catches in her throat.

He opens the door, buttoning up against the chill. "I'll get the milk and come right back." He sees Ariel, hair plastered to her face, rainwater streaming from her dangling fingertips in twisting rivulets. "Oh, God."

"Michael, get her away!" the woman hisses.

"Call them," Michael says, but she's frozen to the spot, staring at Ariel. "Caroline!" he barks, and she fumbles for the phone.

"Who's she?" Ariel asks, though she is already beginning to suspect, even if she can't imagine how this can possibly be.

Caroline punches three numbers. "My husband's wife has returned," she says. "Quickly!"

"Who's that lady?" asks the boy from the living room doorway, and Michael wheels in his direction as if he had forgotten he has a son.

"Take him in the bedroom and lock the door," Michael says, and Caroline drags the boy roughly out of sight. He turns back to Ariel. "Stay there, okay? They'll be here soon."

"Who?" He just stares. "Michael, please!" Ariel grabs his arm - and shudders as a jolt of energy thunders through her, thrashing and undulating as it pours through her bones towards her fingertips then spills through her grasp into Michael.

His pupils dilate and he looses an inhuman groan. The air is thick with the aroma of spent fireworks.

Ariel lets go and Michael collapses, wracked with sobs, his eyes twin wells of despair. She looks down at her own hand as though she has never seen it before.

Blue light dapples the walls. She spins to see uniformed officers coming up the pathway behind her. One holds out what looks like a gun. The snap of an electrical ignition heralds a sickly, rhythmic thrum. A wave of nausea washes over her.

"Down on your knees," the nearest officer says. Ariel complies. For a moment she can see right through her own body to the concrete below.

The officer raises his radio and says, "We've got Emanation – one victim, male, early forties."

Another officer steps forward and addresses Ariel: "Under clause thirty-five of the Returned Ordinance, you're forbidden from contacting former associates, acquaintances or family members without prior approval."

Ariel isn't listening. She reaches out to catch the raindrops. They fall right through her outstretched hands.

 

The car smells like living things, a thick cocktail of feces and sweat. A barrier separates Ariel from two officers.

"You're not cops," she says. No response. "Listen, I haven't done anything."

The officer in the passenger seat half-turns. "Under clause seventy-four of the Returned Ordinance, officers are forbidden to speak with the returned prior to orientation," he says. "Unless citing the Returned Ordinance."

"What does that mean?" The officers say nothing.

 

3

 

Another blackout, the third today. The light from the battery-powered lamp throws the chaos at the periphery of my office even deeper into shadow.

First I show my client the pacifier. Its copper color lends it a curiously antiquated look, although prior to four years ago, no one had seen one. The barrel encases a turbine that thrums when you press the tab. A grille at the front hides its internal components from view. There's no need to load it or charge it; it just works.

I warn my client that if he tries to leave without paying me, I'll switch the pacifier on. Then I put it aside. I've never had to use it in here.

My client's name is Prowse. He once had a construction worker's build, but he seems diminished now compared to the jowl-laden photo staring at me from the cover of his file. I take out the shots and lay them on the table, one at a time, teasing out the reveal. I like them to feel like they're getting their money's worth.

"Ring any bells?"

"Doesn't even look like me," Prowse says.

"That's strangulation for you. Blood vessels hemorrhage. Your tongue turns black and sticks out, like this." I demonstrate.

He winces. "I need a smoke."

"No you don't. You just think you do."

I take a very long drag on my own cigarette, then fill the space between us with smoke. I don't know what's worse: that this is what I've been reduced to, or that right this second I'm getting a kick out of it.

 

I open the door and Prowse shuffles through the waiting room towards the stairwell. I'll never see him again. I don't notice Xavier skulking on my sofa until the power suddenly comes back on and light from the hanging bulb catches his polished pate.

"Jesus, say something if you're there!" Adrenalin pounds through me.

"This is some sofa you got," Xavier says.

I slip the cash into my pocket. "What do you want, Pete? I got somewhere to be." That's actually not true. Xavier shrugs, which irks me. "Want to just pretend sometime that you give a fuck?" I ask him.

"About what?"

"That this is my life."

"You brought it on yourself," Xavier says. "And I don't give a fuck."

This is exhausting. I try again: "What do you want?"

"I got a fresh stiff. They're bringing her in."

"That's your lookout."

"She was your case."

"Now you can get your best men onto it." I'm pulling on my coat.

"I want you," he says and when I don't respond, he tries another tack: "The crime scene snaps you've had Grieves pulling out of the archive – what are they worth?" Grieves, that loose-lipped ginger-haired mouth-breather. Next time I see him I'll shatter his cheekbone and reacquire his cut of my take. Xavier nods towards my pocket. "Looks like a few big ones."

"Too few and not big enough."

"You know the boys are calling you the stiff dick?"

Actually I do know this. It's a more sophisticated play on words than anything I would have thought those apes capable of.

"At least look at the picture," he says. He's trying to be ingratiating. Not for the first time I wonder if Xavier would want me back on his team if he knew I shot Jack on purpose, not by accident.

I allow him to hold the photograph out to me. Ariel looks more beautiful than I remember, maybe because when I saw her she was lying in a dumpster with half her hair ripped out and one of her peepers hanging from the optic nerve.

"Fuck you," I tell Xavier. I mean it, too. But the thing is, I'm taking this case anyway – I just don't know it yet.

 

4

 

The cell contains a table, two chairs, a wall-mounted video screen and a mirror. Ariel peers into its grimy surface and tugs at the skin on one cheek.

A burst of static. She spins toward the screen, where an actor in a heinous sweater and slacks stands in a funeral home foyer. He flashes a dazzling smile.

"Hello! I'm Bernard Thorpe. Right now, you may be feeling 'confusion' or 'anxiety'. You may be 'angry' or even 'belligerent'. This is called 'disorientation' and it will pass. In this brief presentation, we'll talk about 'why you're here' and 'what happens next'."

Thorpe wanders through a moonlit cemetery. The moon is a studio light. A stuffed owl watches from the branch of a silhouette tree. "You're here because you've 'returned'." He laughs. "Welcome back! No one knows why some people return. And depending on when you left, the world you're in now could be a 'new' and 'exciting' place. You might need 'orientation' to help you 'get used to things'."

Thorpe produces a slim book with a red cover. "We encourage you to pick up a copy of this booklet. It's called the Returned Ordinance. It's free, and contains important information about your rights, along with simple guidelines to help you avoid any 'unpleasantness'."

Thorpe is back in the funeral home. "Your case worker will be with you shortly to begin your orientation. He – or she – is trained to answer any questions you may have concerning your return. Until then, we encourage you to sit back and relax. Orientation is about 'new discoveries' and 'growing as a person' – I know I did! I'll be seeing you again soon."

Fade to black. Ariel stares, dumbstruck.

Thorpe reappears, porting the same knitted atrocity, teeth a row of miniature suns. The video is on a loop. "Hello. I'm Bernard Thorpe. Right now, you may be feeling 'confusion'. 'Anxiety' ..."

Ariel pounds on the door. "Hey! Somebody ... hey!" In response, a loud electrical snap gives way to a steadily increasing turbine thrum from overhead. Waves of translucency ripple across Ariel's body. Thorpe brays, "Welcome back!"

"Help me! Somebody, please!" Collapsing to her hands and knees, Ariel retches.

A pair of shabby leather shoes arrives in front of her. A voice barks, "Shut it off." The thrumming ceases and the video screen shuts off. Ariel looks up to see Xavier, a file tucked under his arm.

"Sorry about that," he says. "The new guy's kinda trigger–happy. You'll have to help yourself up." He steps over her and sits down, opening his file. Dazed, Ariel gets to her feet.

"You won't touch me, will you?" he asks her. She doesn't reply, so Xavier takes a pacifier out of his coat and puts it down on the table. Ariel eyes it warily.

"I want to see my lawyer."

"Can't do it."

"I know my rights."

"You lost 'em when you died."

Ariel stares at Xavier. He holds her gaze without a flicker and she accepts it then, as they all do sooner or later: "This is real."

"Yeah," Xavier says.

"But how –"

"How should I know? Anyway, they got people for that."

"How many have come back?"

"Miss Westlake –"

"How many?"

He sighs. "I dunno how many. A lot." She turns away, her mind a blur. "Your case is still open. Is there anything you can remember about the night you were killed?"

"Someone killed me?"

"Uh–huh. Found in a dumpster off ..." He checks the file. "Herald. Whoever it was, messed you up pretty good."

She bites her lip, trying to stop herself trembling. "You got pictures?"

"No." Xavier's matter-of-factness in informing her of the manner of her death is entirely deliberate. I like to watch them check out their own corpses; Xavier gets off on that moment of vulnerability when they realise what's really happening.

"When can I get out of here?"

"When your case-worker thinks you're –"

The power goes out, plunging the room into darkness. "Backup generator should kick in," Xavier says, and then it does.

Ariel is no longer where she was. Nor is Xavier's pacifier, which is in her hand; the other is poised above his shoulder. "Sorry," she says. "I know this hurts."

 

The lights flicker as Ariel sprints down a narrow corridor. Around her, drawn, dead faces are pressed against the tiny windows in their cell doors. She turns a corner, then another. She sees a window ahead, its glass criss-crossed with wire mesh. She looks down into a dark car park shining with rain.

She takes a deep breath and punches the glass. Cracks spider out across the mesh. She winces in anticipation of pain, but none arrives.

The sound of running feet. Ariel punches the glass repeatedly in the same spot until tiny squares of glass tumble out around the wire and she is able to push the entire pane out of the window into the car park below.

 

Ariel hits the asphalt, hands held out protectively. There's a thump but no crack of bones and no blood. She gets slowly to her feet and looks up.

Xavier watches from the window above, bent almost double, face pale and eyes sunken. She gives him the finger and runs.

 

5

 

Deep in the warren of downtown streets, Ariel is drawn to the amber glow of a bar. A sign reads: GENERATOR ON PREMISES: WARMTH GUARANTEED! Inside, people in business clothes and hats drink and conspire. Above them, a TV broadcasts a news bulletin.

 

Shielding herself from the hum of music and conversation, Ariel approaches the TV. A dolled–up interviewer sits opposite a man Ariel recognizes as Councillor Franklin, silver-haired and smug. Except below him it says GOVERNOR FRANKLIN. Governor now.

"If you're re-elected, are you prepared to meet returned rights campaigners half-way on some of these issues?"

"Of course I'm prepared to discuss relevant issues," Franklin says. His voice sounds like well–oiled flesh rubbing together. "But I have to make it clear that I consider the issues of the living to take precedence over issues that affect those who are already dead."

"But surely that's a given when the Returned Ordinance denies the dead the right to vote?"

"Should the dead have the same rights as the living? That's a difficult question. And until someone is qualified to answer it, anyone who doesn't comply with reorientation procedures will be treated appropriately." He sits back, slipping into a groove. "Listen, we're not denying anybody their rights. But these folks had their shot. Now, I don't know what gives them the right to a second chance –"

"Governor Franklin –" she says, but he holds up his hand.

"My first priority has to be to the living."

The interviewer looks down at her notes, then quietly says: "Your wife passed away last year."

"She did, yes." Franklin can see where this is going.

"I'm very sorry."

"Thank you."

"If she returned tomorrow, Governor, would she be 'reoriented' before you'd allow her to return to your home?"

Ariel smiles, immersed in the rhythm of the interview, the calculated body language, the thrust and parry of question and response. That's right, she thinks – I did this. I was a journalist. For the first time, she thinks of it as a life she has left behind.

"Hey!" The barman is staring at her, eyes narrowed. "You dead?" Ariel feels the weight of every eye in the joint coming to rest upon her. The barman flicks an overhead switch. There's a pop and Ariel's form flickers. Outed, she backs towards the door. The patrons recoil.

 

And she's outside again, adrift in a sea of umbrellas, dark coats and hats. She wheels, avoiding their touch. Ahead of her, a monolith looms out of the gloom, its venerable bronze sign tarnished and worn: CHRONICLE.

 

6

 

The echo of typewriter keys being struck at considerable speed. Ariel watches Jeremy Finch typing, hunched over his Remington like the Phantom at his organ. He's in his late thirties, bespectacled and buttoned–down. He hasn't shaved for a number of days now and it suits him.

"Did they cut the budget again?" she says at last.

Jeremy turns and peers at her matter-of-factly. He gets up from his chair, picks up his coffee mug and gulps the contents, his stubbly adam's apple bobbing up and down once, twice, three times.

"So what's with the old–school gear?" Jeremy looks down at his clothes, then realizes she's talking about the typewriter.

"The blackouts got worse," he says. "So we went back to these."

"You cooking up something big?"

"Usual bullshit. Johnny Saint reckons he can end the power crisis, blah blah blah. Tell that to my mother, freezes half to death every time the lights go out. And here I am, trying to spin a good news story. Do you know how hard it is to delete on these things?" He suddenly remembers that Ariel is dead. "When did you ... y'know?"

"Tonight. I went home."

"Ah," Jeremy says. He rakes his fingers through what's left of his hair. "They got together about three months after you ... y'know. We all thought it was pretty soon. But he seemed happy, I guess." He looks at her helplessly. "Sorry, Ariel."

She nods, trying to ignore the stinging in her gut. Jeremy slumps back down into his chair. "Jesus," he remarks.

Ariel sits down opposite him. "Don't look so pleased to see me."

"It's not that, it's just ..." He takes off his glasses and starts cleaning them, an old interviewer's trick that buys time to think. "We went through your stuff. We cried and told stories and got really drunk. There was a funeral."

"Buried or cremated?"

Jeremy looks surprised. "Uh, buried. There's a number I'm supposed to call – they can help you."

"Forget it, Finch. I've already been there."

He nods. "So what now?"

She thinks a moment. "The cops take everything?"

"Except this." He hands her a piece of paper, taking care not to touch her. It's a Xeroxed schematic: a sketch of a circular shape with three twisted points. A code number is hand–printed at the top. "I told them it was an idea I was working on for a battery–powered percolator."

"They bought that?" He nods. "Anyone follow my lead?"

"Your source went to ground. Who knows, maybe they got him too. I showed it to a couple of guys. They both said the same thing: schematic, probably a patent application, fuck knows what for. Some kind of rotor blade maybe. Could be anything."

She folds the sketch and puts it in her pocket. "Who was the cop?"

Jeremy rummages in his desk, then hands her a Homicide Detective's calling card. The name on it is mine.

 

7

 

I smell perfume as I walk through the door and I know that Derise has let herself into my apartment again.

"Help yourself to a drink," I say before I've even laid eyes on her, knowing she'll already have poured herself a vodka.

"There's no ice." The way she says it, you'd think ice was something I usually had.

"What are you doing here?"

"I couldn't sleep. I see you couldn't either."

"I was working." I look at her now, sitting on the sofa, legs curled under her. She's put on makeup. She looks good.

She contemplates her warm vodka. "Any of them remember yet?"

I shake my head. "Think how many have come back, Dee. Now think of all the people who've been alive. Billions of people. Tens of billions. What are the chances one of them will be him?"

"There's a chance."

"What do you want me to say?"

She's looking at me how she used to before. "That we didn't do it for nothing."

I meet her gaze, trying to find some echo of what I felt for her, the kind of burning need that can drive you to kill your partner just to put out the fire. She's so unbelievably naive and all of a sudden I love her again. But instead of going to her, I force myself to be cruel. No good can come of this. "We did do it for nothing." My voice chokes up at how wrong all this feels. "We fucked up."

 

I don't hear them break into my apartment. Maybe I got so liquored up after Derise walked out that I left the door open. But what really pisses me off is that the fuckers start beating on me while I'm asleep. They've hit me four, maybe five times before I slither off the mattress onto the floor. At some point I roar "Fuck!" not in pain but out of sheer disorientation.

Thick goon fingers encircle my arms from behind and drag me to my feet. Another goon's face swims into focus, whippet–thin and sick–eyed. His cigarette seems impossibly long. I'm panting like a racehorse, gulping down cloying lungfuls of his spent smoke.

"You know there's these things called manners?" I splutter. "You carcassheads should get some." The goon behind me jabs my kidneys with his knuckle and I yelp like a startled puppy.

The thin goon's eyes flick to my pacifier on the bedside table. "A detective who carries a pacifier instead of a revolver. Not much use."

"Yeah, it's a pity," I tell him. "It'd be nice to see you disappear."

"If I was dead I could hurt you in very interesting ways," he says with a smile. The goon behind me laughs. It sounds like someone gunning the engine of a broken-down truck.

"Get to the point," I suggest.

"Ariel Westlake," says the thin goon.

"Haven't seen her." His gaze pierces me, then he nods. I feel a hot flush of shame that he's able to read my honesty so easily.

He hands me a card. "You see her, call that number. Unless you want to become that of which you are most afraid."

I watch their backs as they slope towards the door. My apartment feels soiled. I want out.

 

8

 

I lurch into my office and there's Ariel, standing at the window. I don't know what irks me more – that I took a beating for her or that she broke in. "Let yourself in, why don't you?" I say. "The last guys did."

She notes my injuries. "That's not all they did."

"This is what my face looks like," I tell her. "What do you want? My calendar's full."

"Of what?"

"Self–pity."

"I want to know who killed me."

"The Grim Reaper; happy now?" She arches one eyebrow. "Listen," I tell her, "I don't work homicide anymore. And I don't work for dead people. No offense."

"Then there must be some other reason they call you the stiff dick." She's fresh, but there's none of the meekness that comes with it. I don't know whether to be impressed or intimidated.

"Where did you hear that?"

"I did some digging on you."

"Hope you washed your hands after."

"I like getting my hands dirty. I'm a journalist."

"You were," I remind her. "Get used to the past tense." She's not leaving my office, but I guess I knew that already. I offer bourbon by holding up the bottle.

"No blood flow," she replies. "No liver function. Ergo, no point."

I shrug, pour myself a breakfast-sized glass and light up a smoke.

"You must have had suspects," she says. I meet her eyes. I decide not to tell her; no good can come of it. "Don't make me do to you what I did to that Homicide cop at orientation," she says.

I don't care what she did to Xavier. I sigh and pull out my pacifier. "Don't make me –"

Ariel has lashed out before I sense she's moved from the window. The pacifier flies out of my hand and hits the wall. To the surprise of us both, it comes apart, scattering components across the floor.

A piece rolls towards her and she stoops to retrieve it. She stares at what she's holding: a tiny turbine, three blades with a jagged twist at each tip.

"What?" I ask, pissed at her for breaking my pacifier.

She takes a crumpled piece of paper out of her pocket and holds it out so I can see it. It's the schematic she got from Finch. The sketch is the same shape as the turbine in her hand. "A source sent me this – I guess at some point he was going to tell me why. Then someone killed me."

"You think, because of this?"

She thinks hard, then: "Yes – because of this."

"How do you know?"

She looks at me like I've just missed the most obvious thing ever. And I have.

"Because when I died, no one had returned yet."

A buzz of adrenalin surges through me. And I remember: this is what detecting felt like. That dizzying sensation of pieces you didn't even know you had clicking into place, followed by the rush of seeing the big picture spread out beneath your feet.

Someone knew the stiffs were coming.

I want this case after all.

 

Ariel's fingers fly across the keys. I can't see what she's looking at so I watch her eyes as they flick from right to left. I notice how good she looks when she's concentrating, eyes wide enough that I can almost see the whole iris under eyebrows that curve delicately upwards. But she's a stiff, and when I remember that a fistful of nausea clenches in my gut.

"Here it is," she says. I check the screen over her shoulder but all I see is letters and numbers. "Patent was for a portable magnetic field generator, lodged by a Mr. G Maitland on behalf of Revelation, Inc. There's an address."

"What's it like?" I surprise myself by asking her.

"Being a stiff?"

"No – before that."

She doesn't take her eyes off the machine. "I was at some tedious cocktail party. Then I woke up in the street and I was dead."

"Nothing in between?"

She shakes her head. "Sorry, Tom – there's nothing there." A shiver trickles down my spine.

Ariel goes back to the screen. Her eyes flick right to left, right to left. I watch them.

 

9

 

I kick the door in, my fists raised in anticipation of fighting. Hunched over his desk, Maitland is silver–haired, his stocky frame hanging with muscle that must one have packed a punch, his eyes like yellow puddings boring through a wasteland of pockmarks and broken veins. Seeing me, a look of surprise flickers across his face and a gun appears in his hand, the motion impressively smooth.

I assume that asking politely will get us nowhere and administer a tightly–wound jab to the soft spot below his ribcage. I'm rewarded with the contents of his lungs, heavy with the reek of tobacco and tooth decay. He sags and goes down, the gun skittering away, and I'm able to gently push him onto his back using the toe of my shoe. I straddle him while he gasps for composure. Ariel watches from the doorway, a look of curiosity on her face. It occurs to me that she might never have seen fisticuffs before.

I hold his collar in my left hand and hit Maitland with my right fist, connecting in the same spot just under his left cheekbone, his head rocking back towards me as if begging for each blow. At some point his cheek splits open and blood flicks across the floor.

"That's enough," Ariel says, and I get to my feet. She kneels and he peers up at her, eyes bobbing in his skull. "You filed the patent on the pacifiers," she says. "Who for?"

"They'll put you in the phase locker," Maitland says through a marsh of blood and spit. "You know what happens to stiffs in there? They wish they could die."

She reaches out as if to caress him. "Who do you work for? How did they know?" Staring at her hand, he shakes his head. A single stroke of his cheek is enough for her Emanation to take hold. His heels drum against the floor and he groans through gritted teeth, shaking hands instinctively torn between avoiding her touch and pushing her away.

"Ellroy," Maitland gasps at last. I've seen this before – men teetering on the precipice between taking the beating and the lights going out. Right on that edge, that's where you get the good stuff. "Ask Hunter Ellroy ... about Lazarus Hook." His eyelids flutter, a thin gruel from the corner of his mouth pooling in his ear.

"He's out for the count," I tell her. "Maybe longer."

She turns on me. "You hit him too fucking hard!"

"I know exactly how hard to hit someone," I lie. My right hand is starting to ache.

She slides the papers on his desk around, then pulls out the drawers. She spins, upending a filing cabinet and revealing a safe behind it. "Can you open this?"

"Why would you think that?" I'm irked; I quite enjoy hitting people, so I must be a thief too?

"Can you open it or not?"

Truth be told, I have cracked a safe or two in my time, but it takes me hours and total concentration. I'm in the wrong headspace. "I'll need coffee and vodka." I take a deep breath and flex my bruised fingers.

"Coming right up, Detective." She gives me a small salute, my heart chimes like a bell and it occurs to me that I might be falling for her. She starts for the door.

"Your husband," I blurt.

She stops in her tracks. "He was a suspect."

"His alibi – the woman – it checked out. But I didn't buy it. And then when they got hitched ..."

"You knew."

"I wondered, that's all." She nods, looking away. I wish I hadn't said anything. "You okay?"

"Just open the safe," she says softly, so I do.

 

Inside is a bunch of letters and paperwork, and a reel-to-reel tape. "Who the fuck uses reel-to-reel?" I wonder.

Ariel is flipping through the documents. "More patents," she says. "Why would anyone want to hide this stuff?"

"Depends who's doing the hiding."

She holds up the tape. "Maybe this'll tell us."

 

10

 

Jeremy Finch watches me through narrowed eyes. I remember him from when I was investigating Ariel's murder. He irked me then and he irks me now. "You live here or what?" I ask him, trying to get under his skin.

He points to a pile of blankets in the corner and I realize with disdain that these are his bedclothes. But I say nothing, given that there's a similar pile in the corner of my own office.

A crackling from the corner; Ariel has finished setting up the reel-to-reel. A voice, crippled with hiss but audible enough, says: "We understand your need to take responsibility for this. But we have concerns. We want to know what's being done about Spill."

"The Haven Initiative –"

"The Haven Initiative is a sticking plaster on an arterial wound."

"I've spoken with Dr. Ellroy and the accuracy of our yield is well within acceptable limits."

"Johnny, the only acceptable level of Spill is no Spill at all."

The tape runs out. I think hard. The pieces are in front of me alright, but pieces of what? And then it occurs to me: "Revelation, Inc. Like the Book of Revelation. Who wrote that?"

"Saint John," Ariel says. Then her eyes light up: "Johnny Saint. But why would Maitland have this? If it incriminates his employer, why not just destroy it?"

"Maybe Maitland's loyalty to Saint has its limits. Maybe this is his insurance policy."

"Oh fuck," she says suddenly.

I nod. "It's possible we just beat the living shit out of your informant." I make up my mind. "I'm gonna go talk to Johnny Saint."

"I've been on Saint for three months," Finch says. "You can't get anywhere near the guy."

"You got an address?"

"Sure, not that anyone's ever seen him there."

"Write it down for me?"

"I'm coming with you," Ariel says.

"Why don't you see if you can find our Dr. Ellroy and the other one?"

"Lazarus Hook," she says.

"Hunter Ellroy lectures in physics at the university," Finch says. "Supplements his income with the cash he earns selling tech patents – he's some kind of futurist eccentric weirdo, got a knack for it."

"How do you know that?" I ask him.

"Because most of his patents, he sells to Saint Industries."

"Then that's our guy." I take Ariel aside. "You gonna be okay?"

"I'm dead, remember?"

"Yeah." Like I could forget. She smiles at me and we go our separate ways.

 

I decide to get my gun at the last minute. I emerge from the stairwell and head through the waiting room. I'm halfway to the office when I catch a whiff of stale smokes and instant coffee. I look over to see Xavier sleeping on my sofa.

"Hey Pete," I say, and Xavier sits up. "How long you been there?"

"Hour or so. Did I mention I love this sofa?" He follows me into the office, scratching at his his barren scalp. I pour him a drink. He knocks it back and I pour him another. "You're mixed up with the Westlake woman." I meet his eyes. I can't deny it, but I can't bring myself to let him in on it. "Come on – it's my case."

"It's my case now," I tell him. "You offered it to me."

"And you said no." Xavier crosses to the window, sipping at his bourbon as he looks out across the pitch black skyline. "Everything's changing, Tom. I ain't the smartest guy and I can feel it. You know the homeless stiffs are moving into the Cinderblocks?"

I picture the burned–out district, haunted now by ghosts that are far more real than the memories of the people who died when it all went up in flames.

"And then yesterday they bring this fresh one in. He can remember everything, right up to the moment he got snuffed."

My blood freezes in my veins.

"I even got the plate on the car that took him out. Shame it happened forty years ago or I could've got an arrest."

I'm staring at Xavier and seeing only Jack, his eyes widening as they meet mine, his horror mounting as he realizes that I haven't mistaken him for the suspect we were following; I can see it's him and I still mean to pull the trigger.

Xavier is looking at me sideways. I look away. "I got somewhere to be," I tell him. This time it's true.

 

11

 

Ariel stands in the shadow of trees Michael emerges from the bungalow, his son in tow, and helps the kid into the booster seat in the back of the car.

She considers going over there to talk to him. She wonders what might happen if she grabs him just like last time, but doesn't let go. But then she thinks, what's the point of killing him? What's the point of killing anyone anymore?

 

The stone archway outside the Physics Faculty has long since started to crumble, as if under the combined weight of graffiti and birdshit. It feels like a forgotten place, left to ruin when its electricity began to fail.

Ariel watches Ellroy approaching. His shuffle is awkward, as though he's trying to bend light around his body to shield him from the world. He carries a sheaf of papers under one arm.

Ariel steps out of the shadows beneath the archway. Ellroy stops in his tracks, wary.

"What do you want?"

"To talk to you about Lazarus Hook."

He clutches his papers tighter. "You know about that?"

Odd choice of words. "About what?"

The penny drops. "You think Lazarus Hook is a man? That's ... interesting." He peers at her, realizing that she's dead. Disconcerted by his analysis, Ariel is surprised to find goosebumps stippling her arms.

"Don't look at me," she says.

"You have no idea what you are, do you?"

Ariel shakes her head.

"You're the great leap forward." He pauses. "I don't mean to be obtuse. It's just that sometimes I just can't get over what I've created."

"And what have you created, Dr. Ellroy?"

"You."

"You think you're God?"

"No, of course not. Would you like to meet God?"

 

The machine is gargantuan, thick with dust. Twin iron coils ascend towards the rafters of the storage space, joined at their base by a profusion of wires and copper piping. Ariel stares, trying to make sense of its design.

"This was the prototype," Ellroy says. "It brought Eichmann out of the Nether – he was the first. Saint's people said they'd take it away. I guess they forgot."

"What is it?"

"Hard to explain in layman's terms."

"Humor me."

"Okay. Seven years ago, a group of neuro-researchers at this university discovered that after brain-death, the electrical impulses that comprise our sense of self – the totality of our experiences, memories, self-awareness – slip into a collective nether state where they're in a constant state of motion. This motion creates a measurable magnetic field."

"I've been there. There's no nether state – just a big nothing."

"I'm talking about the subatomic building blocks of self. You wouldn't remember being in there, but you were. And if you drop an object into it – a hook, say – sooner or later you catch something."

She realizes: "This thing is the Lazarus hook?"

"Well, it's all metaphorical – there's no hook, just a precisely-calibrated series of interconnected magnetic fields."

Her head is spinning. "You used magnets to bring the dead back to life?"

"I'm not sure 'life' is the word. Until someone devises a means of analyzing you on an atomic level ... I mean, are you even matter as we understand it? I have no idea. This is just the beginning."

"But I'm immortal – that's the great leap forward."

"I can't shoot you with a gun, if that's what you mean. But if I were to turn off the Lazarus hook that caught you, you'd be thrown back into the Nether along with all the others."

She feels suddenly sickened, her anger mounting.

"Your instincts are saying, survive, survive, survive. That's human. But you have no control over the force that keeps you here. In that sense you're as mortal as I am."

"And you sold this to Johnny Saint."

"Saint's a good man," Ellroy says. "He has good goals. And he puts food on my family's table and keeps our lights on."

She feels suddenly vulnerable. She looks around. The doors are closed. No windows. Paranoia bites at her. "Why did you bring me down here?"

"Your friend Jeremy Finch was good enough to call ahead and let us know you were coming."

Us. Jesus. Her eyes strain into the shadows and pick out the thin goon, cigarette in one hand, pacifier in the other. His long cigarette dangles. "Time to meet your maker," he says.

 

12

 

I drive up to the gate. It's high, wrought iron with almost dainty little spikes on top, the kind that are supposed stop men like me talking to men like Johnny Saint. I haven't given much thought to how I'm going to get inside. I buzz the intercom.

"Yes?" A man's voice.

"I want to speak to Johnny Saint." Worth a shot.

"There's no Johnny Saint here." With a long, mildly insulting beep, the conversation is over. I push the button again. He makes me wait longer this time, then says: "Which part of the fuck–off beep did you not understand?"

I guess that the niceties have been dispensed with. "Tell him it's the cops," I say. "Tell him I've got a motherfucking warrant. Use those exact words."

"I can't tell him if he doesn't live here."

"Tell him I'm here about Spill." There's a long silence, but no fuck–off beep.

The gates crank slowly open.

 

The hallway is cavernous and cold. I note that even though the lights are out in the street, Saint has power. I'm irritated by the knowledge that he wants me to wait here; it feels like everything I can see, from the vile modern art to the plush rugs, has been put here just to irk me.

"Good evening," Saint says, and I turn to look at him. This man is a Jonathan, or maybe at his most casual a John. Perhaps 'Johnny' is a desperate attempt to offset his straightness with a rakish affectation. I feel sorry for him, with his slight frame holding his bobbing, too–big head aloft, piercing, slightly crossed eyes peering from behind thick glasses, hair streaked prematurely with grey.

"Johnny Saint?" I double-check.

"And you are?"

"Tom."

"Detective Tom?"

"Sometimes."

Saint narrows his eyes at me and all of a sudden I really want to punch him in the mouth. "Is that a gun in your coat pocket, Tom?" he asks.

"Yes it is," I tell him. "You wanna see it?"

"No thank you," he says. "I don't like guns."

"You got no problem with pacifiers though, right?"

"The pacifiers have been very useful in a time of need."

I make a leap: "For cleaning up Spill."

Saint narrows his eyes again. Maybe it's a tic. "A very small percentage of what the Lazarus Hooks catch appears outside the target area. We call it Spill."

As soon as he says it I know with one hundred percent certainty that he means to snuff me. But I'm committed now. I'll figure out how to not get killed later. "The stiffs?"

He nods. "Bringing people back is not an exact science. One day we'll solve Spill – we even hope to be selective about whom we retrieve – but for now, well, sometimes you catch a fish, sometimes you don't."

I should be spinning out, but to be honest I can't get past the first thing he said: a very small percentage. "How many are there?"

He smiles. "Tom, I was hoping you might ask me that. Would you like to see?"

I would.

 

13

 

I sit in the back seat of the limo next to Saint, trying to figure out how and when they're going to kill me. I wonder why they haven't taken my gun, and something occurs to me: "Are you dead, Johnny?"

"Touch me and see," Saint replies. I don't want to touch him.

The outskirts of the city have passed us by and now we're in the Greens, heading for the hinterland beyond, an eternity of rocky valleys and canyons. I never go there; too much nothing. Except that when we emerge from the tree-line I notice the facility, its titan slate–grey slabs blocking out the starfield, each one thirty stories high.

"What is this?"

Saint smiles and says nothing.

Why haven't they taken my gun?

 

I step out of the limo and it hits me right away, like the fourth of July multiplied by a thousand – the reek of Emanation. Saint and I start for the nearest building, and I'm unnerved when the goon who drove doesn't follow.

The door looks tiny set into the base of the facility wall. Saint places his palm on a sensor plate and I hear a low rumble. I have no idea what he just did, but the door slides open and we step into a narrow corridor criss–crossed with ventilation pipes and wires. The smell is intense in the confined space, at once addictive and nauseating. Every now and then we pass a door and I glimpse technicians, some working, some sleeping with their tennis shoes up on their desks.

We arrive at a large sealed door. Saint wrenches the wheel counter–clockwise and the seal breaks with a hiss of pressure.

I feel my skin prickle as the hairs on my arms lift in unison. My scalp tingles.

My brain struggles to encompass the sight in front of me: a thousand stiffs, maybe more, arranged in neat rows of brass chairs like condemned men riding the lightning. Each man, woman or child is clamped at the wrists and ankles and each is locked in the throes of a seizure, teeth gritted, spasming fingers flicking at the air as Emanation surges through them. Thick cables trail away from each chair, and I follow them up to see massive transformers hovering above like steel thunderclouds. My stomach clenches in horror and I think, My God – there must be ten of these buildings.

I turn to Saint, searching out his eyes and finding only the glow from the room reflected in his glasses. "Emanation – limitless power," he says. "Three months from now, I'll throw the switch and the blackouts will end."

"You can't do this to them," I say.

"They belong to me – they all do." He smiles. "In fact, we just brought in your friend Ariel."

"Where is she?"

"Go on and find her – I won't try to stop you."

I've spent enough time talking to him, anyway. I take off through the rows of pale slaves, their thin shoulders bobbing and twisting as the machines draw out their Emanation and store it away to power homes, factories, shops and streets and computers and phones and televisions.

"Ariel!" I shout, looking around at the drawn, intent faces, their eyes making brief contact and then looking away as though their servitude shames them. I wonder if I'll even recognize her among them.

And then there she is, thrashing in her chair. Her eyes swivel up to meet mine. I kneel beside her, trying not to touch her, trying not to touch this thing that is bleeding her dry.

The grind of heavy iron fills the air and I realize with horror that Saint has sealed me inside. The dead watch me from the near–darkness, a mute army bound to their task. And I walked right in here.

"It's okay," Ariel says. "You can get out." I look back towards the closed door, but she shakes her head. "Not that way."

I reach into my pocket and take out my gun.

She nods, encouraging me. I take a deep breath.

I put the barrel in my mouth, hoping that I won't taste the metal. Then I pull the trigger without hesitating.

I feel a dull, wet punch, oddly painless, followed by the chill of the air hitting the inside of my head. Then comes a tsunami of shock and there's something oddly thrilling about weathering it, letting it beat through me like someone else's blood pounding in my veins.

I'm dying now. I think, My God – here it comes! I hear an unspeakable noise, then realize that it's me, moaning. A wash of silver swamps my vision and I struggle to detach, to see this moment from the outside looking in.

But all at once I understand the futility of imagining my own death. I realize that there is no experiencing it, because I'm already

About the Author

Matthew Grainger lives in Wellington, New Zealand where he's lucky enough to make up stories and play with words for a living. His latest movie, Under the Mountain, is available everywhere good DVDs are sold.