Isolation, Part One
A Luminations Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
Will you miss me after I'm gone?
Will you be gone?
I guess you could say that I already am gone. But will you ever wish for my voice in your head when it's only you?
I'll be glad you found the peace you needed.
If I find it.
If you don't then you'll still be here in my head, having conversations with me like this one.
No. Life isn't forever. I suspect death isn't either. And neither is this. And I could fail at my mission here as much as I failed at life.
Mattie, have you ever considered that the reason you're here is that you consider your life a failure?
Nice bit of psychoanalysis, Chester, but I know why I'm here. I don't need to acknowledge the good I've done. I need to avenge the evil that was done to me.
Ronald Dietrich was Chester's problem, but Joe Tuckerman was mine. So when Tuckerman's name showed up in a newspaper clipping that Dietrich sent to Chester, I was the one who insisted on going out to Gloucester to investigate.
Of course I couldn't go without Chester, and it took a bit of convincing. But we're getting along better these days, and he finally agreed, with the provision that we take certain precautions.
Ronald Dietrich was a paranormal investigator, one of the top names in the field. Well, one of the top names if you rank according to book sales and television appearances. He's an old enemy of Chester's. Oh, sure, they supposedly buried the hatchet recently. They even managed to work together dealing with a fake exorcist a few months back.
Not completely fake. Hector Mendes had a connection to the spirit world. A predatory connection.
True. All the more reason to appreciate Dietrich.
Him being on our side once doesn't make him any less of an asshole.
Also true. Chester was just looking out for both of us. He had a vested interest. It was his body that we were sharing.
But the article from a 2004 edition of the Gloucester Gazette was too fascinating to pass up. It detailed the closing of a small Catholic church. After the rash of priest sex abuse scandals that had come to light in the 1990s, the Archdiocese of Boston had been closing down small parishes and schools while their money got funneled into settlement payoffs.
So in 2004, Our Lady of Victory Chapel in Gloucester was shut down by the Archdiocese, and a reporter for the Gazette wrote a two-page retrospective on the long and storied history of the little church.
Most of it was the usual sentimental walk down memory lane that you might expect from such a story. But the reporter couldn't resist mentioning one little bit of spicy local history: the chapel's connection to the Irish mob in the 1970s. Apparently there was a story going around that a mob-connected priest at the church was overseeing the secret burials of victims of the turf wars in the little graveyard out back. There was even an incident in which a couple of guys were caught burying a body after midnight. Not surprisingly, no charges were ever filed. One of those men was Joe Tuckerman.
Dietrich had attached a note giving the time his crew would be filming: A Saturday night in late August, starting at 10 PM. Just enough time to get cameras set up before the Witching Hour.
I still don't see what we gain from this.
But it was clear to me. Dietrich was investigating. Therefore, there was the possibility of a spirit haunting the church. Maybe a spirit of someone Tuckerman had murdered.
Like he murdered me.
So I guess my reason for going was loneliness. The thought of another soul out there in the same weird limbo that I was in. Maybe someone else who would be set free when Joe Tuckerman finally paid the price for his crimes.
I'd been expecting a quaint fishing village. I found myself on a strip of gas stations, fast food restaurants, and cheap motels. And all of that made the church seem even more odd. Because it really looked like it belonged in a quaint fishing village. It was set back from the road, in between and behind a couple of strip malls, with a gravel path leading to a parking lot on a side street. The church was whitewashed wood that glowed under the streetlights and the parking lot lamps.
It was only when examined closely that the cracks in the paint and the encroaching weeds betrayed the state of neglect that the place had fallen into.
Dietrich's black Hummer was parked in the gravel lot by the church. The headlights from Chester's car lit up the Paranormal-911 logo on the side of Dietrich's ride. Paranormal-911 is Dietrich's show on the Discovery Channel. Apparently it's quite popular, and I figured it must have been renewed for another season if Dietrich was still driving around in that Hummer.
I got out of the car, trying to focus on the spirit plane, or the ether, or whatever you want to call it. My world. A faint reflection of the terrain that you could never quite look at directly. There was definitely something here. Some presence. Inside the church.
Mattie. Wait. Remember? Backup?
Chester's voice came faint, isolated. Maybe the presence I was feeling was stronger than I'd thought.
I moved to the front door, up the gravel path, past where it branched off, presumably to that old graveyard in the back. The path was a corridor, lined with wildflowers that grew like they had been planted on purpose. The ground was level, but it felt like I was ascending, and I remembered missionary stories of the Pearly Gates.
Chester could have stopped me. We can do that if we really need to. He could have frozen us in indecision. He didn't. Maybe he sensed something too. Or maybe he just didn't think it could be as bad as it was.
I saw Dietrich first. It had been set up that way. The light from streetlights and parking lot lamps slid along the middle aisle between the pews as I pulled the door open until it shone like a halo, illuminating what was left of Ronald Dietrich's head. He'd been shot with a shotgun at close range.
I got two steps toward him when the butt end of that gun crashed into the back of my skull and then my face slammed into the hardwood of the aisle.
"Get the door." Joe Tuckerman's voice came from somewhere above me, and I managed to raise my head enough to look into Ronald Dietrich's dead eyes. The sweep of shadow from the closing door erased that vision just a second before a final clubbing blow completed my fall into darkness.
I don't think I was out for very long. Chester's got a pretty thick skull. Long enough, though. They had me in one of the altar chairs that the lay ministers sit in during the Mass. My wrists were tied to the arms of the chair and my ankles had been bound to the kneeler.
Tuckerman was just finishing setting up a folding card table where the altar would have been if the church had not been decommissioned.
Pretend you're still unconscious.
I knew he wouldn't be fooled.
There was light now. A couple of cheap battery lanterns had been placed in the sanctuary. They illuminated just enough to the church that I could make out Dietrich's feet halfway up the aisle, still lying where Tuckerman had shot him.
"Chester Hall, private investigator. Nice of you to join us." Tuckerman took the microcassette recorder he always carried out of his pocket and placed it on the seat beside me.
"Oh, go ahead and scream," he said. "No one will hear you. We tested that with Dietrich. It was the last thing he helped us out with. But there is a very interesting echo in here, and I'm still adjusting for the audio quality."
I wasn't about to give him the satisfaction.
Tuckerman turned away. He was dressed in jeans and an old leather jacket that should have had him sweating in the August humidity. Instead, Tuckerman just looked dry and shriveled. He dragged a duffel bag out from one of the pews, and I heard the sound of a side door opening somewhere out of my field of view.
"I'll take care of that." Hector Mendes stepped out of the darkness and took the bag from Tuckerman.
"Tuckerman! It's me you want!" Chester surged into control so suddenly that I wasn't fully aware it was happening at first. Then I was fighting him for control while Tuckerman walked back over to us grinning.
"You were never the one we wanted, Chess. If you were, you'd be buried out back by now. Or maybe at the bottom of the Mystic River in a slab of cement." Tuckerman slapped me. Slapped Chester. I hardly felt it. We were shutting down. We couldn't both be in control, so neither of us was.
"No, Chess," Dietrich continued. "When you want a person out of the way, you call a hitman, and I don't need to call anyone for that. But how do you get rid of someone who's already dead? For that, you need an exorcist."
Hector Mendes, the handsome young exorcist of the Discovery Channel, was setting up candles on the folding table.
Tuckerman smiled at me. "So I'm done talking to Chester Hall. But I know you're there too, Mattie Ives. Would you like to confess your sins before we send you away? Maybe give a delicious little talk about all of your failings? You were a lousy thief, Mattie. You got caught with your hands in the cookie jar and died for it, and that should have been the last we ever heard of you. Tonight, we're gonna see to it that you're just as much of a failure as a ghost."
Tuckerman had started recording on the tape and Chester had slipped back behind the pain I was still feeling in the back of my head, but I had nothing to say to Tuckerman.
Mendes didn't bother to pray. The prayers had always just been for show. There were four candles at the corners of the table, and three were lit. Mendes was raising a lit match to the fourth. The match had burned almost all the way down. It had to be burning Mendes' fingers, but he didn't feel it.
I braced myself mentally. I knew what was coming, but none of that helped. Mendes lit the fourth candle and then his mind tore into mine, ripping and tearing away my will. There was no way to fight this. The sanctuary, the church, the world all shimmered and faded, replaced by a light like the sun. And then I no longer had eyes to close or a face to turn away.
I remembered lying out in the dust on the Navajo reservation somewhere along the Arizona and Utah border with the sun just set and, the air cooling, and the sand still warm on my skin. I was thirteen years old, and Mama took us down to Arizona meet a Hopi elder, and I remember how he shared a vision: A spider web so big it encircled the world, and I'd live to see it.
I sat up laughing. If that elder was still alive, he probably had his own little home page on the world-wide web. So right. All but one word. I'd seen it. Just hadn't lived.
That night out in the desert, a week after we met the Hopi elder, I'd looked up at the stars and felt the cool of the air and the warmth of the sand and I'd told myself this had to be what heaven felt like.
Except there were no stars here. Just a weird glow across the sky that was enough to make out the shadows of the desert rocks and the shapes of the mountains ahead.
And I wasn't alone.
I shivered suddenly, hairs standing on end, suddenly aware that it wasn't Chester Hall's arms and legs that were feeling the chill in the air. This was my body.
Or it wasn't.
"This isn't real," I whispered, but the four mountain lions that stalked toward me out of the darkness, seeming unconvinced.
So I ran.
The cliffs ahead were an impossible distance. I'd never make it. But the big cats just kept pace with me. I was being driven, but I kept running. It wasn't over. If this was really heaven, I would have stayed there lying in the dust. But I wasn't ready for that, so I figured that it wasn't over.
The cliffs loomed up in front of me. I took a hard turn to my right and I was knocked down before I got five steps. Claws ripped into my shoulder and then I was sliding in the dust. The mountain lions came to a stop, sat and waited.
I was wearing the jeans and shirt I'd worn the night I died. The jeans saved me from most of the abrasions from the dirt and gravel. I sat up and ripped a strip off the t-shirt to cover the worst of the bleeding. It probably didn't even matter here, but I wasn't going to stop trying to survive.
I stood and started walking, scanning for something I could use as a weapon. Just about at the edge of the cliff I picked up a thick piece of dried wood. Inadequate, but it was going to be all I would get a chance to work with. The end was in sight now.
Mendes stood at the foot of the cliff leaning on a shovel. He was standing next to a hole in the ground.
Buried alive. This was how it would end. Just like it ended the first time.
I walked to the edge of the hole, turned slowly, and got ready to fight.
The cats took their time, spreading out so I wouldn't know where the attack would come from. Mendes just looked on watching, smiling.
I was telling myself to stay focused on the mountain lions when Mendes pitched forward face first into the dust. A charging body hurtled past him, bearing down on me, hitting me, shoving me stumbling while the cats all just stood there as confused as I was.
Then I remembered. It wasn't the same as the first time.
I wasn't alone.
"Climb!" Chester Hall wrenched the club out of my hand and gave me one more push toward the cliff.
Then Mendes was looking up and the mountain lions were on Chess, dragging him back toward that hole in the ground.
"Climb!" he managed to yell it out one more time, half choked off as his windpipe was crushed.
And I climbed.
I climbed until I lost my grip on the rocks.
When I fell, I fell up.
The flickering shadows suddenly darkened on the ceiling of the church in Gloucester. My eyes came open in the dimming light as the second candle was snuffed out, then the third.
I stopped looking at the ceiling and lowered my gaze to where Katy McCormic, wearing black jeans and a black sweatshirt, was facing Mendes and Tuckerman. She had her left hand poised above the last candle, the last source of light in the church. Her right hand was keeping a pistol aimed at Tuckerman.
"I'd reconsider that if I were you, young lady," Tuckerman said. He looked nonchalant, almost amused by the turn of events. Mendes looked worried. Both of them had hands on their own weapons, sill holstered in their belts.
Katy hesitated, thinking the situation through.
Tuckerman laid it out for her. "Shoot one of us, and the other one gets you. Snuff that last candle and we're all in the dark. Two of us and one of you, shooting blind. I'll take those odds. Or we could just stand here and wait for Mendes' work to be finished. You could tell me all about your worst sins while we wait."
"Cheating," Katy said flatly.
"Oh. Unfaithful to the new boyfriend already?" Tuckerman laughed.
"No. I'm cheating now." Her free hand pulled something over her head from the hood of her sweatshirt. Glasses. Special ones. I'd looked through them with Chester's eyes a few times.
Night vision goggles.
Katy snuffed the last candle and the shooting started.
I didn't hear the back door opening and closing above the gunfire, but I knew that Tuckerman was gone. Mendes was screaming somewhere near the door. I heard Katy moving near Mendes. Then she was back in front of me.
"Chess! Chess, are you okay? Tuckerman got away. Mendes is out of commission. Chess? Jesus, Chess, what did they do to you?" She was cutting me loose, still yelling for Chester.
"Mattie," I finally corrected her.
"Mattie. Yeah. Okay, Mattie. It's Katy. I'm here to help." She struggled to get to my feet loose and help me up. I was rubber-legged, nothing working right.
I still couldn't see her in the darkness, but I knew she was looking right into my eyes.
"Mattie. I gotta talk to Chess, okay?"
That was when I realized what had happened.
"Katy... Oh, my God. Katy, he's gone!"
TO BE CONTINUED
Story and image by Rick Silva, Copyright 2009