The Accountant: A Ghost Story

ghost storyI’ve been a cop for twenty-seven years – a detective for the last twelve. I retired last year – had to.  I’ve had a trick knee since that raid we did in ’97.  It was good work but I was never right after that, and I hated driving a desk.  We struck a deal and I left with most of my pension and a letter of commendation and not too many hard feelings.

I still think of myself as a cop, though, and I always will.  It gets in your blood.

I know this is where an old timer like me telling a story like this is supposed to say “I’ve seen a lot of strange things”, or “I thought I’d seen it all”.  The thing is, I haven’t seen much that didn’t make at least some kind of sense once you had the facts.  As for seeing it all – well, I haven’t so much seen it all as seen the same stuff over and over and over again   People who do bad and stupid things are more alike than you might think, and they tend to do the same things when they get drunk or high or mad or crazy– it’s only in the details that you really see anything different.

So when Bryan Eiselt called me out of the blue, I wasn’t surprised – old friends have a way of turning up.  Especially old friends in trouble.  I’ve seen it before, and my guess is I’ll see it more than a few more times before I make my final payment to the tax man.

I knew Bryan in college; we shared a dorm room for a couple of years.  We were decent friends until I flunked out.  He went on to graduate and after that it got harder to stay in touch, or want to.  He invited me to his wedding, and his wife was a pretty girl with a great figure and a sweet smile.

When he didn’t come to my wedding, I let the Christmas card exchange dry up.  I didn’t even notify him of my divorce.  People move on, right? I’ve come to see that as a good thing.

When Bryan called after all that time I told him sure, I’d meet him for a drink.  Retirement wasn’t exactly keeping me busy.  The most pressing thing I had going on was painting my living room walls. I stopped smoking a couple of years ago and the place is still full of the smelly ghosts of cigarettes past.   Ghosts you can see, as it turns out -– the walls are dingy and  yellow with it.

I thought painting it a nice bright white would cheer things up. It’s slow going though – it turns out there are about as many shades of white as there are of gray.  It’s taking awhile to find one that doesn’t make me think of a dentist’s office and doesn’t have a goofy-ass name like “Alpine Meadow”.

When I walked into the bar and looked into Bryan’s twitchy red eyes, I knew right away he was in some kind of trouble.  He looked good though –his suit was expensive and his skin was smooth as a teenage girl’s, the way guys look when they’ve gotten a little too used to sucking on the green tit and think they’re entitled to the good life.

I figured Bryan was going to have the kind of problem only money could buy – getting on the wrong side of a coke dealer, something like that.

 

I knew Bryan called me as much for my being a cop as being an old friend.  It’s an occupational hazard, people wanting to use me as a kind of  crash barrier between them and the chaos they’ve managed to create in their lives.  They come to me because they want to sit across the table from The Law, personified.  They hope I can help them get back to where they were, make them stop the runaway car of their life before it smashes through the barrier at the end of the nice sane road of The Way Their Life Used To Be and drops them into a free fall with nothing but big jagged rocks and an explosion waiting for them.  They had their fun but now they see the trouble they bought is maybe more expensive than they want to pay for.  They don’t want to crash through the barrier of normal ordinary life (which now sounds indescribably sweet to them).  They don’t want off the grid.

Which was all fine by me. Like I said, retirement wasn’t exactly putting big demands on my time. I spent about a half hour a day slapping paint so white it screamed on my walls and then most of the rest of the day getting lost in the stories in the newspapers I’d spread all over the living room to protect the floor.  I’m always trying to connect something I’m reading to some case I worked on, a habit from my detective days.  Like I said, it gets in your blood.

I wondered if I’d recognize Bryan after so many years but it was dead easy.  The bar was empty except for a lovey-dovey couple in the corner –they had the look of being somewhere they shouldn’t – the bartender, a tired-looking waitress, and a dark-haired man sitting at a small round table for two right in the middle of the room.  Bryan.

I went to shake his hand and was surprised when he moved in for a hug; even when we were friends we weren’t what you’d call tight.  I gave him a slap on the back and felt the bony wing of his shoulder blade poking out from his fancy shirt – custom made by the look, with a little BSD embroidered on the pocket in dark green thread.

He stood back and smiled at me, then glanced at the door.  I glanced too, casual, wondering if Bryan was looking for someone, if he was setting me up in some way.

“How’s it going, Bryan?” I asked him.  We ordered drinks and I got a good look at him. He hadn’t changed all that much.  He was still a good-looking guy, with a little less hair. He was thinner than he’d been in high school; his skin had a funny look, like it was too loose for his face, as if he’d lost weight suddenly.  The thinness and the swatches of white at his temples made him look more like a younger old guy than an older young guy, if you get my drift.

He touched his hair where it was white.   “To tell the truth I’ve been better,” he said.  He drank off half of his drink, making a face that told me he wasn’t used to drinking – not the hard stuff, anyway – but was trying to make up for lost time.

He glanced again at the door, then back at me, then at the door and took another drink.

“You look like things have worked out for you, Bryan,” I said, nodding at his monogram.  I sipped my Dewar’s, holding it in my mouth until it got sweet on the tongue the way good scotch does.

He said he was a senior consultant at some company that was nothing but a long list of names.

I nodded, not really knowing what it meant but not really caring. The shirt, the slicked back  hair, the buffed nails all told me Bryan was sucking the green tit all right.

Bryan glanced again at the door.  “So how are you, Ken? I heard you retired.”

I nodded again.  He’d done some homework then.  Ol’ Bri was in legal trouble all right.  I waited.

Bryan took another slug of his drink and coughed. He drank like a teenager – single malt was wasted on this guy.

“Listen, Ken, I need to ask you something. Sort of off the record.”

I put up a hand. “Whoa, Bryan.  I ain’t a priest or a lawyer.  Maybe you should be careful what you tell me.”

Bryan looked at me with those red watery eyes, then glanced at the door.  He took another slug, and crunched some ice.  It was an irritating sound, maybe because it’s the kind of thing a kid does and not a grown man.  His face was so thin I could see the workings of his jaw all the way up to his temple.  It was eerie,  like  seeing the skeleton and the man at the same time.

Memory is a funny thing. You remember certain details as clearly as if you’re looking at a snapshot of what happened.  But I’ve seen people swear on their mother’s life that the killer was a black man when he was white, that the purse snatcher was a tall man when he was only five foot nothing, that the guy beating his wife  in the parking lot was bald and clean-shaven when he had a pony tail and full beard.

You know the perp is a  woman and ask, was it a fat guy? Puerto Rican? Like this picture and they nod and say yeah, it was him.  It’s not that they’re bad people either – it’s just that in their desire to feel safe, to catch the bad guy, or just to help us out, their mind obliges and constructs a memory of what happened, the blanks filled in by an imagination goosed by suggestion.

The mind plays tricks.  I’ve seen it a thousand times.

So I’d like to say I remember clearly the thought I had right then when Bryan looked at me with those pink-stained eyes, which was, this guy looks haunted.  But that might just be my mind playing tricks.

“You don’t see…anything.”

I followed his glance to the door, thinking whoever he’d been watching out for had finally come in, but the bar was just as empty as when I came in. Whoever it was could have hidden in the kitchen, or bathroom, or even outside the window, but I didn’t think so. Bryan was talking about something else.

“Who am I supposed to be seeing?” I asked, and it wasn’t just the right thing to ask, it was the right way to ask it.  Bryan’s face sagged. It was like the invisible puppeteer holding him together had just relaxed on the job.

“Oh, God,” he said.  His eyes were redder than ever.  He crunched some more ice, and that was when I realized he did that with the ice because he was trying not to cry.

Normally the sight of a guy crying disgusts me.  Another hazard of the job: you see some wife-beating asshole or drugged out shithead crying over the body of their dead woman or some poor shot-up kid and you know he’s not crying because he’s sorry but because he got caught and it isn’t fair, my daddy beat me and I got an alcohol dependency. Bottom line, they cry because they’re mad they got caught; they might be sorry but not enough to pay.

With Bryan I didn’t feel the usual disgust.  Maybe it was the surprise of seeing an old friend after such a long time – seeing the shadow of the boy I could still see lurking in the angles of his face.

So he’s crying and I said to him, “Sometimes it helps to get it off your chest.”   Because by now I was thinking Bryan was guilty. Who knew of what, but he had all the symptoms of a guy who couldn’t live with something he’d done.

That was the cop in me, of course.  I couldn’t imagine anything else and why should I? There’s enough imagination out there; people thinking up new ways to rape and murder and maim and cheat and lie every day.  You see the stuff a cop sees and the part of the mind that likes to imagine stuff just goes to sleep – all the work is being done for it.

Bryan glanced again at the door, and this time he caught me following his glance.

“You thought I was looking at the door,” he said.

I nodded, shrugged.  He’d tell me what he’d tell me.  I wasn’t going to pry it out of him.

“That’s because you’re sitting at an angle to me.  I should have realized…”  he barked a little a laugh, which made the bartender look up.  I signaled for two more.

“I’m going to the men’s room,” he said. “This is going to take awhile.”   As he walked off I noticed that his suit pants bagged in the ass and flapped around his keens.  He had lost some weight, then.

While he was gone I reached over and pulled his suit jacket off the back of his chair. Right away I could tell from the weight of it that he had a gun in the pocket. It was a derringer, a woman’s gun., the kind you had to stick in someone’s mouth to do any real damage.  What my old partner called a tampon taser.   I checked it – loaded.  The damn fool.  I took the bullets out and put them in my own pocket.

His wallet was thin, made from leather so silky it almost felt wet.  The billfold had a hundred and a few twenties. His driver’s license put him at 44 and 195 which explained the baggy pants and face – no way did he weigh more than 170 now .  There were no pictures – just a couple of credit cards and a few membership cards for private clubs. Tucked in the back was a business card for a flower shop, and a phone number written on it.  I memorized it without even thinking about it.

I didn’t feel guilt for my search.  He had called me, and he was obviously in some sort of trouble.  I wanted as much context for the story he was about to tell as possible.  Until proven otherwise, I was going to assume  he was what you’d call an unreliable witness.

I leaned across the table to put the jacket back but couldn’t reach far enough to drape it the way I found it.  I moved around the table, put it the way I found it and for some reason remembered what he had just said, how I was sitting at an angle to him.

I sat in his chair and looked over at the door like he’d been doing.  My line of sight went straight across the chair to my right and to the door. Nothing. I leaned forward, not really thinking about it, just changing the angle a little because that’s what you do when you’re a cop, you keep trying to look for what you’re missing by changing the way you’re looking at it.   I felt a brush of cold on my face  – so intense it was almost freezing, but just for a split second, before fading to a faint chill.

I looked up to see a guy just walking in the door.   His nose was red and he was wearing a long dark coot and gloves. He didn’t even glance my way, just walked up to the bar and ordered. I noticed the bartender greeted him by name.

I moved back to my seat and waited for Bryan.  My face still felt a little numb from that quick shock of cold.  But I didn’t get a chance to think about it because just then Bryan came back, the hairs around his temples were damp, and his skin had a little more color in it.

He set our drinks on the table, then took a hold of his but didn’t take a belt. Just spun it slowly in its water ring on the table and started to talk.

“A couple of months ago  – March 12, actually, it’s not a date I’m likely to forget” – he gave a nervous laugh and glanced at the door  – “I’m driving across the  bridge.  It was late, I was on my way home from a friend’s. She was, uh, a special friend. My mistress. For about a year and a half.  She lives in the Marina Cove condo complex on the water?”

I nodded to show I knew the place

“I, um,  pay for her place. I see her Tuesdays and Thursdays, and about one weekend every  couple of months. I’ll tell my wife I’m traveling out of town and we’ll hole up over there.”

He looks at me as if he wants some sort of absolution and I kind of mentally shake my head.  I don’t care if a guy cheats on his wife one way or another, but if you’re going to do it,  do it. If  you can’t forgive yourself, you can’t expect anyone else to do it for you. You can’t be wasting time wanting other people to like you for dumb decisions, much less in spite of them.

“So anyway, it’s a Thursday night and I’m driving back from Cinda’s. The wife thinks I’m at a client dinner. I’m driving across the bridge and it’s been raining a little, not much but enough that there’s black ice. I skid and the car does a total 360. Scares the shit out of me, but it’s late and there’s no traffic and I get off lucky, I don’t even hit a curb.

I float to a stop and get out to make sure I didn’t ding a bumper or scrape a sidewall or something.  I go to get back in, and I notice there’s a person standing on the bridge – up on the railing,  At first I thought he was going to jump, or something.”

He glances at the door and I notice that his forehead has started to sweat.

“I mean, what was I supposed to think? Who stands up on the railing of a bridge in the middle of the night?” his voice was belligerent now, with an undercurrent of whininess that every cop in the world knows.  It’s the sound of someone trying to convince you.  It isn’t the same as lying – not exactly.  But when you hear that tone you always know there’s something they’re not telling you.

But I let him continue. There was time enough to fill in the blanks later.

With another nervous glance at the door he continues.  “At first I didn’t really believe what I was seeing – it looked so out of context, you know? A guy standing up there on the railing.   But then he jumped down and came over to me and asked me if everything was all right.  I was surpsied.”

He glanced at the door, then me, and repeated it.  “I was surprised.  I mean, wouldn’t you be?”

I nodded. I guess I would, if it went down exactly like he said.

“I think I said yes, I was fine. I was too surprised to say anything much –  I was still in a little shock from spinning like that. Plus I was starting to feel nervous about being out there. I was supposed to be at Houston’s Steakhouse, which isn’t exactly close to the Marina. I was anxious to get in my car and get going. I didn’t want trouble.”

He cleared his throat. The sweat stood out clearly now. Even his upper lip seemed to shine a little.

“I wanted to go, but the guy wouldn’t stop talking.  I just kept saying thanks, I’m fine, it’s nice of you but I’m fine, and I got in.  I thought he went back to standing up on the sidewalk or something – I swear I did – but next thing I know he’s trying to open the passenger door.”

He glanced at the door and took a big swallow of his drink.  He drank like a person who is making a wish – his eyes squinched up tight, his mouth moving in an aftertaste of bitterness.

“I couldn’t believe it.  I hit the electronic lock before he got it open.  He started knocking on the window, yelling something, but I couldn’t understand him.  I have not idea what he wanted but I was scared. I thought, I don’t know, that maybe he was some nut or something. Wanted to rob me or car jack me or something.”

His chin started to tilt toward the door, but he kept his eyes down on his drink.

“So I stared driving off, slow at first because he had had of the door handle. I kind of swerved the car, trying to shake him off.  That was when…” he stopped for a minute, not drinking or looking at the door, not doing anything but staring at the watery ring his glass sat in.

When he started talking again, the whining “ you got to believe me” note was gone; his voice was quiet, resigned.

“This truck, it came out of nowhere.  It must have been going 70, maybe more.  The driver must not have seen him in the dark, hanging off the passenger door like that.  It’s not like you expect people to be in the middle of the road on a bridge in the middle of the night.  It hit him. It hit him.”  He paused and wiped the seat off his forehead.

“It made this sound….”  Bryan looked up at me, and whatever you want to say about memory I know my recall on this one is perfect: his eyes were haunted as any I’d ever seen.

“I’ll never forget it, the sound his head made when the truck hit him. It was like a pumpkin, the way a pumpkin sounds when you hit it with a baseball bat. Ever do that when you were a kid?”

I nodded to show I had, though with me and my friends it wasn’t baseball bats and pumpkins, it was  throwing a watermelon off the back of the truck. I was pretty sure the sound was about the same.

“The truck didn’t stop. I don’t know why – maybe the driver didn’t know what happened.  It didn’t drag him though – I thought for sure it would but it didn’t I got out to see and he wasn’t even on the road anymore- he was draped over the bridge railing, like uh, like a towel.”

Whatever was going on with him before – whether he was lying by omission or commission as we say on the force – he wasn’t doing it now.  His voice was calm, but that wasn’t how I knew.

I knew by his eyes, the way they were turned inward, the way his voice had gotten conversational. It was sort of horrible, given what he was talking about, but it was also clear: he was no longer remembering, a highly unreliable state as I mentioned earlier. No – he was in a state of total recall, not so much telling the story but narrating it as he watched it unfold again.

He wasn’t remembering, he was reliving.

“I went over to him and tried to see if he was conscious or dead or what. I didn’t know his name so I had to call him mister.

‘Hey Mister, say something!’ I kept saying.  But he didn’t move, didn’t groan.  I was afraid to touch him, in case he wasn’t dead yet.  I didn’t want to hurt him more.  I climbed up one rail of the railing so I  could bend over and get my face close to his. I wanted to see if I could hear him breathing.”

He stopped for a moment and I noticed the bar was a little noisier now. I glanced around and there were maybe a half dozen more customers.  The workday was winding down.  Bryan didn’t  notice, just kept talking.

“I couldn’t hear anything, so I put my fingers “ –  he held up his pressed-together index and middle fingers – “and tried to find a pulse.  But I couldn’t tell. I couldn’t tell.  I was yelling “Hey Mister, are you all right”  the whole time.”

He looked at me and his eyes were pained.  “I know it was a stupid thing to ask. A truck just nailed the guy. He wasn’t OK. But it was the only thing that came to mind at the time.”  He glanced at the door again, but this time with an air of ….not apology. Explanation, maybe.

“I don’t know how long I sat there yelling ‘Hey Mister.”  It felt like a long time, but I don’t know. I started to get panicky though. I started to think about being out there on my way home from Cinda’s instead of at Houston’s.  I started freaking out, I guess you could say.”

Now he was staring at his drink, rotating it between both hands.  He’d only taken one or two slugs from it; the ice had mostly melted and the amber color was diluted. I was sure it tasted something more like cough syrup by now – I never understood guys who have their scotch on the rocks.   My own drink was empty and I signaled the waitress for another.

He took a deep breath and laid his hands flat on the table. He looked up at me.

“I freaked out and I grabbed his feet and I flipped him over the railing and into the bay.  I watched him drop in. He didn’t float back up.  Then I got in my car and drove away.”   He  was watching me real close now, I guess for my reaction.  All I could think of was that now I could see better what he really looked like, and he’d changed a lot more than I thought.

When I came in, his face had looked hollow and scared-looking, his eyes all red and watery with the effort of holding in whatever it was he was holding in.  But now he looked like the guy they were used to seeing around the consulting place he worked – his eyes weren’t scared looking anymore. They were sort of flat and watchful, and arrogant.  He had his chin in the air and his nose made a perfect right angle to straight shelf of his chin.  I could suddenly see how handsome he was, in the way that only rich guys who are getting richer can be.  You looked at that jaw line and you knew he went to Wharton or Princeton or Harvard.

It was the kind of face a lot of people believe without question.  A lot of the really great defense attorneys look like that – the high priced good ones, anyway – and juries listened to them like they were God.  You could also tell he was used to being believed without question. He was used to telling people how it was and they ate it up and paid him for it.

“I drove to Houston’s.  I left my coat in the car so that they wouldn’t realize I was coming in from outside. I sat at the bar, had a drink and ordered a petite filet and a potato. I went to the bathroom and checked my hands and clothes for blood but everything seemed to be OK.  My suit was dark so I rubbed a dry paper towel all over it and there wasn’t any blood.”

Here he gave me a funny look, one I’ve seen all too often, always on a guy. It’s the look that says I’m pretty smart, aren’t I, to think of that?  He wanted my approval.   When I didn’t give it he looked a little deflated and went on with his story.

“I washed my hands and went back to the bar.  My food was waiting.  I ate half of it and then called my wife and told her I was on my way home, that I had gotten held up and was just finishing up at the restaurant. Then I finished my meal and paid with a credit card for, um, proof, and then went home. In the garage I checked the car all over but it was fine – not a scratch on it.  I put my suit in the dry cleaner bag with a note to my wife that I needed it for Monday.  I took a shower and went to bed.”

“Did your wife wake up?” I asked.

He shook his head. “I kissed her and she made a sort of welcome home sound.  But she didn’t even open her eyes.”

He put his hands back down flat on the table.  “Then I slept like a baby.  Next day I had a trip to Chicago. I checked the papers even though I figured it was probably too soon for anything to be printed.  I checked all my usual online sites.  Nothing.  Same the next day. Same the next.  There was never anything. Not anywhere.  I checked every news source.  I set up Google alerts.  But there was nothing. It was like he never existed.”

He looked over toward the door, but not with that little furtive glance I’d gotten so used to seeing that I already thought of it as one of his tics.  His eyes were distant, musing – the slick talker gone, the man that maybe only his wife saw – and maybe not even her – sitting there staring into space.

“It’s like I erased him.”

“What about the truck driver,” I asked.

“Oh, believe me, I’ve tried to find him,” Bryan said. “Hired a private detective, even. But again, nothing. Nada.”

I didn’t like him for saying nada.  It’s a casual word, not the kind of word for a story like this.  A man was dead, after all.

It was almost as if I said it out loud. Bryan kind of came to himself and glanced at the door and he didn’t look arrogant anymore, just garden-variety guilty.

“Why didn’t you call an ambulance?” I asked, figuring it was a question he’d asked himself a million times, figuring he’d have an answer for me that made him look a little less like an asshole, at least to himself.  But he surprised me.

He shrugged.  I waited for more but there wasn’t.

“Why are you telling me this?” I asked.

I admit I was really curious.  I mean, he’d gotten away with it.  Even though he wasn’t sure what “it” was, really – maybe murder but probably not.  If the guy wasn’t dead after getting his head crushed like that, he was probably close to it.  Demspey probably only shortened his life by seconds, if at all.  That made him guilty of things like failure to render aid, improper disposal of a corpse, leaving the scene of an accident – a whole list of things like that, things that made him not exactly a prince but not a murderer either.

And with no witnesses and no body, he wasn’t technically even guilty of that – if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it maybe it still makes a noise, but if a guy kills someone and there’s no body,  he is an innocent man . At least, in the eyes of the law he is.  He had to live with himself now, and people – even cops –  like to think bad guys don’t do that very well, that they’re paying in some way.  Myself, I don’t think so.  I figure people who get away with murder are pretty happy about their luck.

But here was Bryan, looking pretty tortured, so I thought well maybe I’m wrong about that.

Bryan looked at the door.  Funny, but I’d long since stopped looking around – I knew he wasn’t waiting for someone to come it.  I don’t know how I knew it but I just did.  The door watching was a tic.

“I want you to help me find out who he is.”

Not was, but is. I noticed that, but didn’t think anything  much of it. Like I said, he was stressed.

“I’ll pay you. I have money.”  For a second he looked like consultant guy again, all narrow eyes and haughty chin.

“I find out who he is, you could get prosecuted,” I tell him calmly.

He nods, cool. “If you find the body.”

“I don’t need a body, Bryan. I have a confession. That’s enough, for some judges.”

He kept the consultant mask on for about five more seconds and then the puppeteer relaxed at the switch again. He slumped over his drink.  “I thought we were off the record.”

I laughed. “There you go again, confusing me with your priest or your lawyer. Speaking of which, you need to get one. You’re gonna need some  good legal advice.”

He slapped his hand on the table hard enough to make his watery drink jump.

“I don’t care! I don’t care! I just have to find out who he is. Maybe then…”   He glanced at the door again and seemed to lose track of what he was saying.  When he talked again his voice had a calm desperation to it.

“Look, are you going to help me or not?”

I looked at him for awhile, letting him think I was thinking it over, but I’d already decided. I was happy someone was treating me like a cop again, and looking forward to acting like one.

“Open an account in my name and put couple thousand in it. Use Wells Fargo.”   I took out a couple of cards and gave him one,.  “Give me a number where I can reach you and I’ll call you in two, three days.”  I wrote down the number and took a second to jot down the one I memorized earlier, the one from his wallet.

He looked so grateful I could almost forget he just told me he as good as killed a guy so no one would find out he was getting some pie on the side.

“Better make that ten,” I told him.  I stood up and held my hand out before he could make a move to hug me again.  Three funny things happened just then.  One was that I got that same cold draft from before.   The other was the way he looked at my hand hanging out there waiting for him to take it – like I was a what-do-you-call-it. A leper.  Then he walked around the table and gave me a hug, and not one of those A-frame deals guys give each other. It was the real deal, and when he pulled away his eyes were redder and more watery than ever, but his voice was calm.
”Thanks Ken. You don’t know how much this means to me.”

“Take care of yourself, Bryan,” I told him.   When I left he was still sitting at the table, his right hand shading his eyes so that he couldn’t see me.

So what did I think of Mr. Bryan Eiselt, you might be thinking. What kind of person flips some fatally injured guy into the bay to swim with the fishes just because being a human being and helping out would mean ruining the sweet deal he had going with the mistress?

I guess I’m not much different from Bryan after all, because the only answer I have is to shrug. He did it.  Does it matter why, really? It was done, un-take-back-able as soon as that poor slob’s feet lost contact with the bridge.  In a way, I can even see how it would happen.  Bryan’s world is strictly dog eat dog, and you don’t make the kind of money he’s obviously making without being really good at eating the dogs that get in your way.  Out there on the bridge he didn’t even see a guy who needed help; he saw  a guy in his way. A guy who could maybe make trouble for him.  Instinct kicked in and he ate him.

Besides, the whole thing had me curious.  It wasn’t the first time I heard a preposterous story told by some guy frantically trying to cover his tracks.  I didn’t believe it of course –what’s there to believe, he told me a fairy tale. But I thought if I stuck around long enough I’d get the whole story at some point.  Then I could decide if I wanted to turn him in or not.  In the meantime, I figured he was punishing himself enough to suit me and the devil, so I got to work.

First thing I did was visit the mistress.  The number I lifted from Bryan’s wallet was disconnected but it didn’t take long to track it to a name that I tied to a PO Box that I tied to her. I had to hand it to Bryan – he’d set it up so that he and his money were totally invisible in the deal.

The condo association president at the Marina Cove  gave me her forwarding address. Just like that. Said she was a nice girl, spent a lot of time at the pool, but didn’t mingle much. Her name was Cinda Phillips.  He didn’t know what kind of job she had – maybe a night duty nurse, since she had her days off. I snorted at this. Maybe she wore a nurse’s uniform sometimes, but she wasn’t no nurse. I’d be money on that.

I don’t know about nice, but Cinda Phillips was a smart girl – smart enough to be a little scared of me though she tried not to show it.  She claimed Bryan broke up with her over the phone and she hadn’t heard from him since.

Her lip trembled while she talked. She did seem nice, but I had a hard time feeling sorry for her.  I’d met Bryan’s wife once upon a time and she’d seemed nice too.

She said Bryan was acting strange right  before the break up.  That he’d stopped wanting to have sex.  She didn’t explain but she didn’t have to – her red face was enough. I admit I felt a little pleasure at the thought of Bryan with a temperamental boner. He didn’t seem like the kind of guy that takes the betrayals of the body well.

“Did he say anything to you? About what was bothering him?”

“No.  But sometimes I’d catch him muttering under his breath. He said things like “what do you want” and “I can’t do this anymore”. Once he said “why can’t you just leave me alone, it wasn’t my fault.”  I asked him about it but he pretended like I was hearing things. I wasn’t, though.”

“Did he ever threaten you?”

“No, nothing like that. It was just weird being around him.  Like…like he was talking to someone only he could see. After awhile it started to feel like I could see whoever it was, if I looked just the right way.” She shivered.

“A ghost in the machine,” I muttered, though I wasn’t sure why. It was just a line that occurred to me.  But Cinda Phillips lit up.

“Yes, that’s exactly it!” she said.  “It’s like there was a ghost in Bryan’s machine.”

It was the best description of guilt I’d ever heard, poetic even (I felt a tiny stab of sympathy for Miss Cinda Phillips, thinking that)… but it didn’t shed any light on who the body on the bridge belonged to.

I guess his ghost got in my machine, because I tried with this case. I try with all of them but I pulled out all the stops on this one.  I used up nearly every contact I had.  I called in favors, ran through every trick of the trade I knew. I checked every weight station within 50 miles, but no truck came through within two hours of the time Bryan claimed. I got footage from three of the cameras mounted around the bridge: none showed a body dropping into the water, none recorded a loud splash. I burned through almost all of the advance and I came up with exactly scratch.  The guy just wouldn’t float to the surface.  I finally had to call Bryan to give him the bad news.

“What else can you do?” he asked.

I explained I’d already done everything I knew how to do; the guy must have already been off the grid before Bryan and Bre’r Truck entered his life.

“He was probably homeless, maybe a vet. Those guys are good at living under the sight line. What was he wearing, do you remember?”

“He was wearing a light gray suit, a white shirt with a button down collar, A green tie with a red stripe in it.  Brown shoes that needed a polish. A black overcoat, cheap-looking.”

I digested this meal of detail in silence.

“You’re wondering why I remember it so clearly, if I only saw him for a few minutes. In the dark.”

“You might say that.”

“It’s because I’m  not remembering. I’m looking at him.”

“Oh yeah?” I was pissed now.  “Then put him on, Bryan. I’d like to talk to him.”

There was a pause during which I thought Bryan was thinking what to say next.  And then suddenly the side of my face where the phone was pressed got cold. I don’t mean a little breeze – I mean cold. Like I pressed it against one of those old-fashioned metal ice cube trays my mom used to keep in the freezer.

I pulled the phone away from my ear and even that was like the trays – my skin seemed to stick for a minute, pulling away a little with the receiver.

Bryan’s voice came back on the line, sounding far away.

“Can you meet me? Same place as last time?”

He was sitting at the same table. This pissed me off; I didn’t want to go through the whole charade of him looking at the door waiting for whoever to come in.  I smelled a rat, a trap, a set-up…whatever it was, it didn’t smell good.

I sat in the seat that blocked his view to the door and took out my voice recorder.  Bryan glanced over at the bar. I followed his glance. The same bartender, a different waitress. The place had less than a dozen patrons. You wondered how it stayed open.

He ordered me a Scotch.  I nodded my thanks.  “Start talking,” I told him.

“You wanted to know how I knew he wasn’t homeless,” he started.

I cut him off. “I want to know why you have a photograph of him. Did you set him up for that truck hit? Did your bimbo have herself another sponsor, that it?”

“How is Cinda?” he asked. “Is she well?”

“Sure,” I told him. “Girls like that always land on their feet.”

“Don’t talk like that about her. She’s a good kid,” Bryan said.  Then: “I didn’t want her to affected by all of this.”

He glanced at the bartender and started talking.

“I don’t have a picture of him. I never saw him before in my life.  I have no idea who he is.  I know what he’s wearing because he’s sitting right here.  I can see him as plainly as I see you.”

I noticed the present tense.  “What the fuck, Bryan. What kind of game is this?”

“It’s not a game. At least, it’s not one that I’m playing. If it’s a game to him, he’s not saying.”

“You better start talking, Bryan.”

He glanced at the bartender again and suddenly I got it.

“You saying he’s sitting right here – in that chair?”

Bryan nodded, glancing again at where a man’s head would be if the chair were occupied. It gave him a straight line of sight to the bartender.

“Why would he be doing that?”

“I wish I knew,” Bryan said.  “He showed up about three days after that night on the bridge. And he’s been with me ever since.”

“Then why all this about finding out who he is? If he’s sitting here, why don’t you just ask him?”   I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation.  I’ve been a cop  more than half my life, and I’ve seen maybe two dozen people die – some of them while I was touching them. I have never once seen or suspected a ghost, or heard anyone else who has either.  People die and then they’re gone.  It’s a fact. I’m not saying that it ain’t a fact that’s kept me up a few nights.  But it’s a fact all the same.

“Believe me, I’ve tried.  He isn’t much for talking though.”

“So you’re telling me he’s sitting right there, in that chair.”

“Right there, in that chair,” Bryan agreed. “Last time we met he was sitting in the chair you’re in.  You were sitting where he’s sitting.”

“What’s he look like?” I asked.

Bryan studied the space between our heads.  Anyone looking over at us would think he was trying to get the bartender’s attention.

“He has short brown hair parted on the right side.  No gray.  He has brown eyes and light brown eye brows.  He has a wide face and thin lips and high cheek bones. His complexion has some yellow in it.  He looks like he has some German ancestry.”

I was fascinated in spite of myself.  Bryan had just given a pretty accurate  – if colorless – description of himself.  Then again, that description probably fit a million guys right here in the city. It was a description so nondescript it was practically a disguise.

“What about his clothes?”  I asked.

“Same as what I described before. Gray suit, white shirt, green tie, brown shoes, black coat.  All off the rack. He’s always wearing the same thing. I guess they’re the clothes he died in.”

“He doesn’t look like he’s from around here,” he added judiciously, and I felt a stab of annoyance.  Still such a prick.

“What does he want?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Bryan said. His voice was shaking.  At first I thought he was crying. But when he repeated it – “I don’t’ know!” I could see that he was angry.

“I’ve done everything. I’ve tried to find his body. His family.  His place of business.  I’ve spent over forty thousand.  I had a sketch drawn up, digitized it and posted it on a website: “Have you seen this man?”  I’ve stopped people in the street, I’ve put his picture up on telephone poles, coffee shops, bus stations, you name it.”

He stopped, nearly panting.  “I’ve done everything humanly possible to find out who he is. If I find out who he is, then maybe I can find out what he wants.”

“What does he do?”

“Stares at me.”  Bryan shifted his eyes from the space between us to look at me.  “Stares at me. All day, all night.”

“That’s all?” I asked.  “He just stares at you?”

“Yes, that’s ALL,” Bryan said. His voice was loaded like a gun.

“He sits and stares at me. I’m at work trying to give a presentation, he’s sitting there staring at me.  I’m brushing my teeth and he’s standing behind me, staring.  I take a shower, I can see him outside the curtain. I have dinner with my wife, he’s standing next to the table. I drive, he’s in the passenger seat. I’m on a plane, he stands next to me in the aisle.  I’m fucking my mistress, he’s standing next to the bed. I can’t fuck my mistress and he’s still standing next to the bed. If I wake up in the middle of the night and go to the john, he’s in the bathroom.  He doesn’t move. He doesn’t even blink.  He just stares at me.

“So yes, Ken, to answer you question – that’s all he does. He just…stares.”   He widened his eyes at me, eyes that were so blood-shot they looked like they’d been scratched.

I realized that calling Bryan angry was something of an understatement.  He was furious.  “Homicidal rage,”, it’s known in the business.   Which was interesting, this rage, since we were talking about a missing person presumed dead – a death Bryan Eiselt freely admitting to giving a little helping hand.

“Are you sleeping much, Bryan?”

He  barked a harsh laugh with no humor in it.  “Would you be able to sleep if someone was sitting two feet away from you staring at you all night long?”

He stared at me then, as if to demonstrate what he meant.  After a few seconds, I nodded to show that I understood, but he caught my eye as it tried to drop away from his, caught it and held it.  I stared back for about twenty seconds. I broke the glance and then looked back; he was still staring at me. Irritated, I folded my arms and gave him stare for stare. He wanted to get in a stare down, fine by me.  I counted to myself. After thirty seconds, the urge to blink was incredible. I wanted to flutter my eyelids like birds wings, anything to get away from that bloody, accusing stare.

After a minute, it seemed to get quieter, as if someone had flicked the volume knob of the bar down a few notches.  After two minutes, I started thinking some pretty  nasty things. Motherfucker, staring at me like that. Murdering bastard.  Shit heels.

After three minutes, I started thinking about hurting him – really hurting him. Testosterone, man. You can rule the world with it, right up until you destroy it.

After four minutes, his face started looking funny to me – like it was shifting, the cheekbones rising up, the hollows beneath them sinking down into their own shadows.   He must have practiced staring a lot; he never blinked.  He looked me right in the eyes – something I would have said was impossible – – your eyes can’t focus on two things at once, and another person’s eyes are two things.  My own eyes shifted from his left eye to his right.  but I never caught his eyes shifting.  Both of his eyes  seemed to stare straight into both of mine.

I was about to glance away when Bryan glanced at the space between our heads.  I was surprised when he smiled. “No fair. I’ve got two of you doing it.”

I didn’t believe a ghost was sitting at the table drinking Scotch with us…but I  was relieved. We sat in silence for awhile – me looking across the room, him looking at his hands.  I thought about sticking my hand in the space where the ghost was supposed to be. Thought about it, but didn’t do it.

“What about your wife?” I asked. “What does she say about all of this?”

“Mina left me,” Bryan said.  “about a week after he showed up. At first I thought I could deal with it – the staring. I just thought, fine, I’ll go about my life and ignore it – him – and he’ll go away.  But he never went away.  He’s always there.

“She knew something was up. I was just this side of freaking out all the time. So I told her about Cinda. I knew she’d never believe the truth – about …..” he broke off and gestured at the empty chair.  “So I told her about Cinda and she left me.  She’s out of it.”  He looked pensive.

“Where is she now?”

“With her mother in Kansas City.  I’ve been more than generous.”  There it was again, that arrogance.

“So what’s next, Bryan?” I asked him.

He looked shocked. “You keep looking.”

“I told you – I came up dry.  I’ve exhausted all the first- and second-level possibilities for locating a John Doe.  Anything else is diminishing returns.”

“I don’t care!” His voice cracked. The bartender glanced our way.  “I don’t care. I have to find out! I have to!”  His hands came together and swarmed over one another.

“I can’t live like this the rest of my life, with him just…starting at me,” he said in a lower voice. “I can’t work or eat or fuck or sleep.  I can’t even take a shit without him watching. I have to find out.  I have to.”

I shrugged. “It’s your money.  I’ll need another ten. And I’ll report back once a week.  This number still good?”

“You felt him, didn’t you? You felt him.”

I shook my head, but he stopped me.

“You jumped,” he said.  “You felt the cold and you jumped back.”

“Come on, Bryan. If this thing is always with you, then why would it stay at the table with me? You can’t even keep your story straight.”

“I saw you. I didn’t go to the bathroom. You checked my jacket – I knew you would, if you were a good cop.

And you leaned right into him – your head went right here.” Shockingly, he thrust his face right up to mine. I didn’t see it coming and scooted back, splashing Scotch onto my hand.

I didn’t answer.  If he was setting me up, or playing some kind of elaborate joke  – though I’m not sure why he’d so either – then of course he’d know what I felt – he’d be the one who made it happen.

Besides – it was the coldest February on record.  Cold wasn’t what you’d call an unnatural phenomenon. And there are plenty of strange things in the world that don’t require an ectoplasmic visitor from another dimension to explain them.  Ask any forensic scientist. They’re full of nutty explanations.  Sometimes they’re even right.

“I’ll check in on Friday, let you know if I’ve found anything,” I told him.

He nodded, picked up his Scotch like he didn’t know what to do with it, set it back down.  I noticed he wasn’t looking at the – ghost – or whatever it was so often.

“Maybe you’ll get used to it,” I told him.  He didn’t answer.  That was the last time I ever saw Bryan Eiselt alive.

I kept working for him, though.  I told him as long as there was money in the account, I’d keep searching and so I did. I gave him his updates; I talked to him two, maybe three more times on the phone, each time with the same story: nothing to report.  The last time, he got emotional.

“I can’t stand it much longer, Ken. I really can’t. I really can’t.”  His voice was just this side of hysterical.

“You don’t really have a choice, do you Bryan?” I asked.

“That’s easy for you to say!” he screamed. He went on for awhile about how it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t his fault. Then he got personal

“You have no right to judge me! No right at all! You’re making money off me, more than you ever did as a cop. You should thank me!”

“You should shut up now,” I warned him. But he kept going. He’d been under a lot of stress; I guess it was time to blow.

“I’m the ONLY one who knows! I’m the only one! The rest of you are just sheep, you think you’re safe but you’re not! All it takes is one mistake, not even your own mistake but someone else’s mistake and it’s all over, it’s all gone, you have to live in a living hell FOR NO GODDAMN GOOD REASON!”

He was shrieking now, and I held the phone away and looked at it in disgust.  I can’t stand it when guys cry, but it’s even worse when they carry on like broads.

“Knock it off Bryan,” I told him. I kept my tone efficient, a verbal slap in the face to snap him out of it.

“I can’t,” he moaned. “I can’t stand it anymore, I can’t take it anymore. I’m going to kill myself, Ken, I swear, I’m going to kill myself.  It wasn’t my fault.”

Up until then I was ready to keep talking to him as long as it took for him to get control. But there it was again – that arrogant whine, that poor me entitlement.

“Well, maybe that’s best. If you can’t deal with it then maybe that’s best, because I sure as shit don’t want to hear you whining about it anymore.”

I shouldn’t have said something like that, but I did and there was no taking it back.  There was a silence then.  I tensed up, but the line just went dead.

The next time I called him with an update the line was disconnected. I did a little work trying to find him, but not much. Turned out he’d left his job even before our first meeting. He’d cleaned out his accounts, sold his stocks, sold his house, didn’t have a car registered in his name.  He’d gone off the grid, and I let him go, figuring if he needed me, he’d find me.  He did it once, he could do it again.

With nothing much to do I went back to finish the paint job I started.  I painted and I thought about Bryan’s ghost. About some guy staring at you day in, day out.  Looking you right in the eye while you ate your cereal, took a piss, watched TV, masturbated. It was pretty creepy once you thought about it.  He’d be privy to everything going on in your life.  You couldn’t even get a blow job without him as an audience.  There’d be no secrets except your thoughts – but who could think with someone staring at them all the time?

I still had newspapers three inches deep on the floor to catch the drips.  And that, my friends, is how I finally got a break.

The newspaper under the ladder had a headline about the war, but  I didn’t care about that. There’s a war on all the time somewhere in the world, you know? What I noticed was the date: March 12, the night Bryan Eiselt went from being an adulterous asshole to a murderous one.

I got down off the ladder and started paging through the paper.  I didn’t have any idea what I was looking for, just something that might help me make a connection. And on page seven, there it was, in the bottom right hand side of the page.  Mayor Poses With Tourists In Front of New Natural History Museum, it said.  In the picture, a slightly smiling man stood next to our flamboyant mayor. The mayor was wearing a regrettable pinstriped suit of some shiny material, and a hat with a honest-to-god feather plume in it.

The guy next to him was pretty ordinary by comparison. Short brown hair parted on the right side, no gray.  Brown eyes, wide face, thin lips, high cheek bones.

A description so nondescript it was practically a disguise – that’s what I thought when Bryan described his floater.

My heart beat a little harder.  Gray suit, white shirt, green tie with red stripes, brown shoes, black coat.  Same clothes that Bryan had described.

Bryan said the guy looked German. I don’t know about that – I mean, other than Adolf Hitler, I don’t know what a German is supposed to look like.  But the rest of the description fit our floater. It probably fit about a million other guys right there in the city, but this was the right description on the right day. Wrong day, if you were him.

I went and got the police sketch I had Bryan do.  It wasn’t an exact match – those things never are – but it was close enough. It just might be our guy.

There was no caption but with a little work with my contacts at the paper I was able to identify the guy as Albert Young of Painesville. I looked it up and it was a small town downstate, one little dot on the map like thousands of others.

I drove down there the next day and it was a town as nondescript as the man. It was quiet, the kind of place  with just one of everything – one high school, one grocery store, one movie theatre.  I showed the picture around and got lucky in one of the two bars.  The bartender nodded and said yeah, he knew him.

“That’s Al, all right. We been wondering what happened to him.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. I could feel the little hairs on the back of my neck were standing at attention.

“Well, he just up and left and didn’t leave any word. I’m still getting his mail but there isn’t much coming in any more.”

“What was your relationship to Mr. Young?”

“He did my taxes last year.  He’s an accountant, his office was right on the square.  I think they’re leasing it to someone else now, since he stopped paying his lease.”

“Where did he go before he disappeared? Did he tell you?”

“He stopped in to drop off my taxes, said he was going away for the weekend. I wished him a good one, and that was it. He’s a nice guy, but we aren’t friends or anything. Did something happen to him? He in some kind of trouble?”

His eyes had taken on an interested gleam that was always one of the few things to make me genuinely not like the job.

“What about his family?” I asked, ignoring the question.

“He doesn’t have any, that I know of. At least, not here.”

“He went to San Francisco for one of those queer weekends and got himself killed.”

This came from an old fellow sporting a dirty, chewed-looking baseball hat.  He cackled.  “Serves him right.

I found where Young had lived – a room in a house run by an older woman. She’d packed his stuff up in boxes and was grumpy about the lost rent, so I made it up from the money Eiselt’s advanced me – I figured I owed the guy that much.  Once she had her money, she got that curious gleam too.  Turns out she didn’t know much more than the bartender.

It took me a few hours to go through his personal effects and the contents of the office, but there was no there there, as I heard someone once say. I didn’t know what it meant then but now I think I do.  There was just nothing to know about the guy. He was more like a pencil drawing than a man, one that Eiselt erased without a trace.

I thought the chances were maybe ninety percent that I’d found our floater.  Bryan’s number was still disconnected so I sent him an email, short and to the point:

I think I found him.  His name is Albert Young. He’s an accountant. He lived in Painesville.

I thought about apologizing for our last conversation, how I told him he should go ahead and kill himself. I feel bad about that.  Guys on the edge don’t need any help being pushed over- something maybe Bryan (and definitely Albert Young) knew even better than me. He’d been way out of line – probably drunk to boot – but I still wish I hadn’t said what I said.

But  in the end I just signed my name and clicked send and watched the message wink away. I was just going through the motions, tying up loose ends.  I didn’t really expect to hear from Bryan Eiselt any more.  He’d disappeared, erased himself trying to get away from what he’d done. Or just get away from himself.  I guess it amounts to the same thing.

I got serious about the painting after that.  While I painted I thought about Bryan’s claim that Albert Young was haunting him.  I’d pretty much dismissed it but now I held it up to the light and turned it around and around, looking at it from every angle. One thing I learned from being a cop, you have to consider there’s a grain of truth in almost every story you hear, no matter how whacked out.  It’s how your crazies – your murderers and rapists and garden variety wife-beating assholes can work themselves up so convincingly about their innocence: there’s a little grain of truth in the crackpot story they tell you, and they hang onto that grain for dear life. They believe it, and therefore the entire shifting dessert  of lies built around that one real grain.

Maybe Bryan was the one who hit the guy. Maybe the guy had something going on with the mistress and Bryan found out.  Maybe the guy knew something about Bryan’s money, that it wasn’t as clean as it should be.  And maybe after Bryan got rid of him, he was haunted by the thing he’d done. Haunted so clearly he could see the guy, actually see him.  Maybe he was going crazy because he himself couldn’t answer the question he thought Young was asking.

But sometimes in the middle of the night I remember that cold breath of air on my face and I think maybe nondescript Albert Young had accounting in his blood like I got being a cop in mine.  Maybe he didn’t like going off the grid – being flipped off the grid by Bryan, disappearing at the hands of some guy who kills him with no more thought than he’d give to swatting a fly, and boom, he’s just gone. Gone and totally forgotten – except by Bryan, of course.

What does an accountant do? He balances accounts.

I’ve also been thinking about how I’ve always said criminals who get away with it are probably happy about their luck. Now I’m thinking I might have been wrong about that.

If you think I’ve been keeping this all to myself, you’re wrong. I talk about it; I talk about it every day. I said I never heard from Bryan again and that’s the truth – he doesn’t talk much.  But he’s always here, always.  He’s wearing the same suit I saw him in that last time at the bar – that, or one like it.  There’s no sign of how he died – no blood or anything.  He looks as real as you or me, except for the staring, and how still he sits.  He looks stolid.  Like he’s in it for the long haul.

So I talk to him.  I don’t get any answers but  I talk anyway – the silence can really get to you if you let it. Bryan didn’t want me to know about that part.

I don’t hold it against him though. I don’t hold anything against him.  I think if he had any choice he wouldn’t be here. I think he’s hanging around here instead of with his wife or Cinda not because he wants to be, but because somewhere there’s an Accountant who wants him to be. Freaking out or yelling or trying to appease him isn’t going to change things, any more than Bryan is going to change that steady gaze.

I can take it, though. I know I can.

For now.

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