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A Wee Ghost Story

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Detective Sean O’Connor thrived on the controlled chaos of a fresh crime scene, a trait genetically inherited from the four generations of Irish cops from which he had sprung, as his doctor mother liked to say. While others became tense or flustered, the flashing bulbs of the photographers and the frantic hurry of the forensics team trying to gather evidence before it got cold or destroyed actually soothed him in a way that he couldn’t explain.

Sean had seen hundreds of these in his career, from his first day as a rookie cop determined to fill his father’s larger-than-life boots, to now, a five year veteran as an LAPD detective. Most, he hated to admit, were never going to be resolved, owing to lack of evidence, or just plain lack of interest in the victim, usually a homeless person, petty drug dealer, hooker or junkie.

This fellow, though, would get the department’s royal treatment. Upstanding citizen, member of the local Rotary Club, and friends with the mayor, not to mention dozens of celebrities that had purchased his custom motorcycles, Jay Leno among them.

Sean looked at the photographs on the wall of the office where Patrick Duffy had been found murdered by a fifty cal bullet to the head, the back of which was decorating the wall behind him.

“Jesus,” a grating voice blurted over his shoulder. “Is that Stallone?”

“Looks like, don’t it?” Sean replied, looking closely at the photo of the actor on a beautiful tricked-out Harley.

“You gonna talk to the wife, or you want me to?” the voice, who belonged to his partner Jack Cummings, asked.

“I think we’re both gonna need to talk to everyone separately on this one.” Sean turned away from the wall and stretched his arms behind his back before going out into the garage area where the bikes were worked on. He knew it was going to be the fuck of a long day, but it was work that he lived for.

***
“Well, I’m outta here,” Jack said, smacking Sean on the head with his notebook. “Don’t fuckin’ fall asleep in your chair again, O’Connor. All work and no play make Seanie a boring boy. Go to a bar and get drunk like a normal cop, will ya?”

Sean merely grunted in response. Staying late at the station, finishing up reports, was par for the course for Sean O’Connor. Not that he minded, nor did anyone else in his life, except perhaps Jack.

Sean saved his work and sat back, sighing. He was damn tired. Maybe he should go home and actually sleep in the bed that he’d purchased for that very reason. Instead he reached for the Batman action figure sitting on top of his monitor.

“What would Batman do?” he asked the figure and grinned. As a fatherless young boy, Sean had obsessed about the comic book hero, seeing himself a tragic figure like Bruce Wayne, whose father had been killed by a petty criminal. Bruce had kept his rage from destroying him and instead fought on the side of justice.

The lesson was not lost on young Sean.

***

It was close to midnight, and the garage was dim and empty, except for the uniform outside the door. After the initial flurry of activity, Sean’s M.O. was to hang out at the deserted crime scene and let it “talk” to him. He wandered around, picking things up, setting them down; looking inside cabinets; letting his mind wander, getting the feel of the place.

Sean had indeed talked to everyone he could get his hands on, and so had Jack. Nothing yet that gave them any leads, but Sean wasn’t worried. The first day rarely yielded anything. He and Jack would later go over each other’s notes, comparing interviews, rehashing, and then toss out preposterous scenarios to each other, just to get the juices flowing.

There were a couple of fluorescent light fixtures hanging toward the front of the garage, but toward the back it was dark, although he could see the silhouettes of the bikes the employees were currently working on. He had a sudden urge to take a look at one of the bikes and had turned to locate the light switches when he heard the snick and soft hiss of a lighter. Without thinking, Sean reached into his jacket for his Beretta, drawing and pointing before he took another breath. The flame lit up a young man’s face in the darkness. Abruptly it died and all Sean could see was the glowing tip of the cigarette, burning bright from the man’s inhale.

“Come out where I can see you,” Sean demanded. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”

The orange tip of the cigarette disappeared and the young man stood at the edge of the lighted area showing empty hands held out to his sides. He wore beat-up, paint-splattered jeans over long legs and a black wife-beater that showed off his wide shoulders, muscular arms and chest that tapered to a narrow waist. His hair was an unkempt dark brown, as if it hadn’t seen a comb in days; his eyes were hooded and dark, but his stare pierced Sean down to his cock. The hairs on the nape of Sean’s neck stood up. His hands tightened on his gun but the man didn’t move. There was a weird sacrificial quality to his posture that Sean couldn’t grasp.

“I asked you a question,” Sean demanded in his most threatening cop voice. But the young man sneered, as if he knew what effect his body had on Sean, and that’s when Sean noticed the mole right above his lip on the left side. The man slowly raised his left arm, his eyes never leaving Sean’s, and pointed to the far wall above a beat-up countertop covered in motorcycle parts. Sean squinted in the dim light and saw that there were more framed photographs.

“What—“ He turned back to find the man gone.

“Officer!” Sean yelled. The uniform poked his head in the door. His hand went to his gun when he saw Sean had his own out. “Turn on the lights! There’s a man in here!”

The fluorescents hummed to life, revealing the motorcycles in various states of disassembly, but no man, or place where a man could hide.

***

“I’m telling you, Jack. He was standing right here.”

Jack merely nodded. He was looking at the photographs that Sean told him the man had pointed out to him. Uniforms had crawled all over the place for two hours, looking for any clues as to whereabouts of the “man”.

But there was only one way in and out of the place, and Sean had been standing right in front of it. Oh sure, the huge garage doors were another way out, but they’d have made the hell of a loud noise if lifted.

“I guess these are photos of current and past employees,” Jack muttered. “I recognize a few of them from earlier.”

“We talked to all of them, didn’t we?” Sean asked, rubbing his forehead, trying to ease his frustration.

“All of them except for the guy that’s in Hawaii on his honeymoon.”

“Fuck. “

“Well, you know, some murderers are like arsonists. They love to come back to the scene of the crime to bask in the uproar they’ve created.”

Sean reached up and started yanking the photos off the wall, stacking them next to a gooseneck lamp. It was three in the morning and he was exhausted, but he’d be damned if he was going to let this go. He reached inside his jacket pocket and withdrew the instrument that caused him to be the butt of many departmental jokes.

With a muttered, “W-W-B-D,” he switched on the lamp and put the magnifying glass close to his face, drawing the first framed photo towards him.

He could remember that man’s face as if it had been imprinted on his retinas, and he quickly discarded one photo after another.

***

They were indeed photos of current and past employees and according to the garage manager, a middle-aged biker type named Snake, who sported a huge beer belly and numerous tattoos, Duffy liked to take an annual photo of his crew with the one bike they’d all worked on. This was the reason some of the faces were different in each one.

“Who’s this?” Sean asked the man, pointing to one of the older ones. There were only a few men in this photo, and the face of the man Sean had seen stared intense and unsmiling as if he didn’t see the camera, but whoever was looking at the photo.

Snake shrugged. “Dunno, man. That was before my time.”

“So he doesn’t work here now, not even under the table?” Jack asked.

Snake pursed his lips in a girlish manner. “Look man, I don’t wanna get anyone in trouble with that shit, but no, that dude ain’t been around here so far’s I know.”

“What if this man was the guy who offed Duffy?” Sean asked.

Snake cracked his knuckles. “Fuck. You better find that motherfucker before I do, ‘sall I can say.”

“Who would know this guy?” Jack asked.

“Carlos Gutierrez, I guess.” Snake tapped the glass of the frame below the face of a Hispanic man in the photo. “He’s known Duff forever. They’re the ones who started this place. Duff bought him out long time ago. I think he’s in Arizona or some shit, racing bikes, but they talk regular, and he comes by when he’s in town.” Snake sniffled and swiped at his nose. Jack handed him a Kleenex and he honked into it. “Fuck, man. I’m still talking like he’s around.” He raised red-rimmed eyes to Sean. “You gotta find the motherfucker who did this, man.”

“We’re doing our best, buddy,” Jack told him. “We just need all the help we can get, you know?”

“Yeah, I get it. I’ll get you Carlos’s number.”

***

Carlos was out of town for the weekend at a race, his wife told Sean, but he called in regularly so she would relay the message.

Slightly frustrated at the delay, Sean busied himself with his other cases, and after another long day, went back to the bike shop again and sat in Duffy’s office, lit only by the light coming in through the door from the garage. He idly flipped through his notes, not seeing them, wondering why a man who was so respected, with a successful business, in a happy marriage with two small kids, with no record of wrongdoing, would be shot execution-style in his office.

What had he been doing alone in his office so late past closing? His distraught wife had no idea; she and the kids had been visiting overnight with her mother.

He clicked on the desk lamp and picked up the photo of the mystery man, the only one he was in, of the eight there were. Sean stared at him, wondering why he was so drawn to this face. Each particular feature, except for the eyes, was rather ordinary, but the sum of them was something extraordinary. The intensity of his eyes held a magnetism that kept drawing him. But Sean found himself looking at the man’s mouth, accented by the small mole, as if he could feel the restrained passion.

“Fucking Christ, O’Connor,” Sean chastised himself, running both hands roughly through his spiky sandy brown hair. “You are fucking losing it.”

He took a deep breath and rubbed his face. “Focus, O’Connor. Focus on the job not your d—“ There was the click again of the lighter, and the soft hiss of the flame. Sean froze, slowly placing his hands on the table. There was that face, lighted by the flame, at the far end of the office by the filing cabinets. Sean saw him clearly, dressed exactly the same, leaning languidly with one shoulder against the wall, hip cocked, long legs crossed at the ankles, sucking on his cigarette.

“How the fuck did you get in here?” Sean asked softly, every hair now standing on end.

The man smiled crookedly, the side of his mouth decorated with the mole stretching, but kept his lips closed. He shrugged with his free shoulder as if the question wasn’t important, and sucked again on his cigarette, hard enough to hollow his cheeks.

Sean found himself blushing furiously, the sight giving him thoughts he shouldn’t be having. He felt like a complete idiot when the man winked and his shoulders shook with amusement, as if he could see inside Sean’s head.

“Fucking say something!” Sean hissed, and started to stand up. The man pushed away from the wall and gestured with his head, telling Sean to follow him. He turned around and stepped to the side of the filing cabinets where there was a small space between the last cabinet and the wall. Someone had placed a fake ficus tree there to fill it up. The man looked back once, this time smiling widely, showing large straight teeth, bent under the tree and disappeared.

Sean practically jumped over the desk to get to the cabinets in time, but when he yanked the tree from its place, he found they were flush against the wall, no room for a mouse to get behind, let alone a man.

Sean stared blankly, not comprehending what he had just seen.

***

Sean didn’t mention the latest incident to Jack, who would tell him he needed to start drinking heavily if he was going to have hallucinations. Then at least he could blame them on something.

He was entering data into his computer at the station when the phone rang.

“O’Connor,” he said automatically, tucking the handset between his ear and shoulder, distracted by the ten syllable spelling of the latest murder victim’s name.

“Detective O’Connor?” a smooth male voice asked.

“The one and only. How can I help you?”

The voice chuckled. “I think there’s gotta be more than one of you with that name. Just like mine. Carlos Gutierrez here. You needed to speak to me?”

Sean sat up abruptly and gave the man his full attention. He noticed that Mr. Gutierrez didn’t have a trace of accent, sounding more like a So Cal surfer than Mexican-American.

“Mr. Gutierrez, thank you for calling me back. I’m calling in regards to Patrick Duffy. I understand that you and he were partners when he opened Hog Heaven?”

“Yes, that’s true. What’s the problem, Detective? Has something happened?”

Sean moved the phone to his other ear and cleared his throat. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Patrick Duffy was murdered four nights ago, shot to the head, right in his office at the shop.”

There was silence for a long moment. “Jesus,” Carlos whispered. “Jesus Christ.”

“We need to ask you a couple questions.” Sean clicked his pen and opened his notebook.

“Whatever you need, Detective, although I don’t know what I could tell you…”

Sean heard the man’s voice break followed by muffled sounds like coughing.

“That’s the thing, sir. You don’t know what you may know that could help. And we need all the help we can get.”

Sean gave him some time to collect himself, hoping he’d be willing to talk right now.

“I’ll be out there tomorrow. Poor Cathy, Jesus! The kids, oh my God.”

“Mr. Gutierrez? I was hoping you could answer one question for me right now.”

“Sure, sure. Fuck! God, I’m sorry, I’m just…”

“I understand. Mr. Gutierrez, there are photos of old and current employees on the wall in the garage. I was hoping that you could tell me about one of them?”

“I…I don’t know. It’s been a while, you know?”

“We can only try. In the third year of business, there are four men: Duffy, you, a Hispanic man with long hair, and a Caucasian man with a mole by his lip. Do you know who the Caucasian is?”

“Shit.” Sean heard Gutierrez sigh deeply. “Yeah, I remember him. That’s Reed Murphy. He was something else.”

“What do you mean?”

“He was an incredible artist. The stuff he came up with was amazing. That bike in the photo, that’s his baby. Fucking Ted Turner bought that one. That boy had one hell of an amazing future in front of him.”

“What happened to him?”

“He just disappeared.”

“Disappeared? What do you mean?”

“Just that. One day he just didn’t show up. We called his place for like two days and never any answer. Duffy told me he went to his apartment and his shit was cleaned out. No sign of him, nothing. Even his roomie didn’t know what happened.”

“He had a roommate?”

“That’s what I’d heard. There was gossip going around that his roomie was really his lover, that he swung both ways, but I was never one to pry into the guys’ private lives, you know? So I just heard this stuff second hand.”

“What was his name? The roommate?”

“Hell if I know. Duffy would… Shit.”

The conversation wrapped up pretty quickly after that, with Gutierrez promising to be at the station by four pm the next day for further questions.

Sean put the handset gently in the cradle.

“He just disappeared… There was gossip… that he swung both ways.”

His mind began whirling. He picked up Batman and played with his cape. Mr. Patrick Duffy, respected man of the community, was starting to look a bit tarnished.

***

The next day found Sean digging through those same filing cabinets, looking for any clue that Reed Murphy had worked there. So far, nothing, except photos of custom bikes with R. Murph handwritten in block lettering on the back, and a couple of gorgeous pencil drawings with that same signature in the bottom right corner. He put them in his briefcase.

Sean sat on the desk facing the cabinets and unconsciously rubbed his top lip with an index finger, his thumb pressing on his chin. His mother had told him long ago it was a genetic marker that he was his father’s son, since Sean was too young to have learned the habit from him.

“Reed Murphy, where are you?” Sean whispered. Even coming from a long line of superstitious Irish, he had never believed that the dead tried to talk to the living, but… The hairs on his nape slowly rose as he thought about seeing that man—ghost?—disappear behind filing cabinets that a sheet of paper couldn’t fall behind…

“I’m a fucking idiot. That’s what I get for letting my dick think for me.” He got off the desk and walked towards the cabinets again. They were tall, elegant cherrywood cabinets with brass fittings. Nothing like the industrial grey metal ones they had at the station. Four of them, side by side, filled with years of paperwork. There was no way he would be able to move them by himself.

But Reed Murphy had told him to follow. And whether he was crazy or not, he would. So Sean opened one of the drawers slightly, curled his fingers around the top frame, and pulled.

All four cabinets moved forward silently. Sean assumed they were on hidden rubber casters. But that wasn’t what he was interested in. He slipped into the space formerly occupied by the fake tree and peered behind the cabinets to find a metal door, painted the same color as the wall and nearly invisible, with the sort of concave latch you’d find on an airplane.

He pulled his cell phone out of his jacket and speed-dialed Jack’s cell.

“Jack. I’ve found something interesting.”

***

It took six hours to open the door, between the bomb squad making sure it wasn’t booby-trapped, and the locks specialist deciphering the latch without them having to cut through the metal door and risk damaging what was on the other side.

Sean sure the hell didn’t know what to expect on the other side, but it didn’t surprise him that it was four duffle bags full of cash—he estimated at least three quarters of a mil—and ten kilos of neatly wrapped blocks of heroin, with a street value way more than the cash.

The room was small, four by six, which made unnoticeable the loss of square footage between the office and the bathroom on the other side, unless one was actively looking. It was neatly finished, even painted, with chrome mesh shelving, and the same square grey slate tile on the floor that was in the office.

Sean stood there staring at it, thinking he was missing something, even after all the booty had been hauled away in an armored truck. He squatted and tapped the floor with a knuckle.

“Reed Murphy, where are you?” he asked again. A flash of something caught his eye. He reached under the lowest shelving and pulled out a gold lighter with a green shamrock embossed on it. Erin go Brach was etched on the other side.

It couldn’t possibly be Murphy's. Most likely it was Duffy’s, who was of Irish descent as well. Didn’t matter, though. Murphy was still “talking” to him.

He stood up and told Jack that the floor had to be dug up.

“What the fuck for?” Jack asked, not without reason.

“Just indulge me,” Sean told him with a grim smile.

Jack shrugged. “Hey, it’s you who’ll be the one explaining to the Loo what the bill is for.”

***

Sean sat at his desk, the chaos of the station whirling around him like the tide, but he was unmoved. He stared at the photo of a young man whose life was prematurely taken from him. They had indeed found the remains of a man, roughly twenty-five years, with a bullet hole in the back of his skull. The coroner estimated it had been there for five years.

Sean had found the old roommate, now living in West Hollywood with a new boyfriend, who told him that Patrick Duffy had come to him with an envelope full of cash and told him that Reed had skipped town in a hurry and asked that the money be given to his roommate to pay for outstanding bills. The roommate happily bought a new car with it. When asked why he didn’t enquire further, the man merely shrugged. Reed had been a rather shady character, which had turned him on at the time, so he hadn’t been surprised at his leaving abruptly.

To assuage his guilt, the man had given Sean a portfolio full of Reed’s drawings, the only thing he’d kept. Interestingly, they’d been Reed’s interpretations of comic book heroes. He had filched one before handing them in as evidence.
Sean put the photo down and picked up the thick sheaf of drawing paper.

The Batman towered like a dark avenging angel over a cowering villain, cape billowing and muscles bulging. Sean certainly didn’t fail to notice the generous bulge beneath the utility belt either. Nor the caption, written in Reed’s bold block print: What Would Batman Do?

Sean rubbed his top lip unconsciously.  Some things got resolved in his line of work, but some ended up creating more questions.   In this particular case, there were those he could guess at, but several unanswerable ones.  
Had he been chosen by Reed's ghost to resolve his "disappearance?"   Or was it simply his physical attraction to Reed that he had given any credence to what could be dismissed as hallucinations?  And what about the drawing and the caption that gave Sean the feeling that he and Reed were connected on some level?

In a strange way, Sean felt grateful to Reed for the bizarre experience.  It seemed to have opened up something inside that had been closed off.  He wished he could do more. It was out of his hands now, though. The FBI and DEA had taken over Duffy’s case, and with it, Murphy's.

Sean put the drawing in his briefcase and the photo back in the case folder and closed it.

“Rest in peace, my friend. I wish I’d known you.”

He threw the folder in his out box and picked up the next case.

FIN