Authors: P.J. MacLayne
I didn’t answer, but quirked one eyebrow at her.
“You know he’s just your imagination, don’t you?” she asked, sliding into the chair across from me.
“I was ready to believe that.” I put the flower on the table between us. “But the rose isn’t. I see it, and so do you. Where did it come from?”
“I can find you a book on the relationship between bees and flowers, but that’s not what you’re asking,” she said, with a smart-alec grin. “But seriously, I asked around, and nobody else has seen this guy. Mabel mentioned the ghost in the stacks, but I wasn’t paying attention. She has a tendency to ramble.”
Mable had volunteered for the library for fifty-some years. She was as much of a fixture as the bookshelves.
“The library is haunted? Nobody ever mentioned it when I worked here.”
Janine leaned across the table and lowered her voice. “That’s what she claims. She said back in the 1920’s, shortly after the library opened, a man who taught English at the local high school dated one of the librarians. According to the story, she broke off the relationship after a few dates. He tried to win her back, but she didn’t want anything to do with him. In fact, she started seeing the owner of Mitchell’s department store. According to Mabel, the teacher committed suicide. Hung himself off the second floor railing the same day as the librarian and the businessman got married.”
We both raised our faces towards the spot and a chill ran down my back. Janine knew a lot for someone who didn’t listen. “Mabel said that every few years, there’s a report of a man on the second floor after the library closes. Someone dropping books in the after-hours book drop sees something and calls the police. The police can never locate anyone inside. The stories say the man always wears a brown suit.”
We sat silent for a moment, and I picked the flower back up and sniffed it. It smelled like a rose, unlike the ones for sale at the local supermarket. “I don’t believe in ghosts,” I said firmly. “And the library isn’t closed, and this rose is not imaginary.”
“Tell me why no one else has seen him,” she challenged.
After several hours of trying that evening, I gave up. None of the techniques mentioned on the internet restored the writing on the blank piece of paper. Not heat, not lemon juice, not even salt. All I ended up with was a sticky, half-burnt sheet of nothingness. So much for proving my ghost existed.
The rose withered and died in a day or two. My fault. I didn’t get it into water quick enough. I left it in the car while I took Janine for her ride. It was half-wilted by the time I stuck it in a glass of water. I don’t have any nice vases—I gave away the ones Jake’s flowers came in. All twenty of them.
As I pulled the car into the garage the next evening, I sighed. It had been a fruitless day working the microfiche machine, trying to find information about the suicide. With no exact date, not even a year, it was tough. And most of the obits didn’t list a cause of death. Many said things like “after a long illness” or “passed peacefully in her sleep” or “died unexpectedly.” Not a lot to go on.
Yes, Luke and Joe had cleaned out the garage to make room for Dolores. That’s what she named herself. Not because she made me sad, but because she would make anyone who tried to pass me sorrowful. They didn’t even raise the rent. Joe took one look at Dolores and said it would be a shame to leave her parked on the street. We agreed that if I’d let him take her for a drive once in a while, we would be even. Sounded like a deal to me, so I took it. He drove more carefully than me so I wasn’t worried. It was fun to watch the two of them pile their week’s worth of groceries into the tiny trunk.
And there hadn’t been any more glimpses of my mystery man. Not in the library or anywhere else for that matter. Every time I got a chill or heard an odd noise, no matter where I was, I caught myself checking for him.
I did catch Detective Thomason watching me a time or two. I also bumped into Officer Clearmont one day in the grocery store. He was in plain clothes, and it took me a moment to place the face. He pretended to be picking out a cantaloupe, but I saw the slight red flush in his neck as he examined several pieces of fruit. I tried, but couldn’t persuade myself, to believe they were just trying to protect me.
The logical part of me wanted to believe that the whole thing had been a huge practical joke. Even when the state crime lab confirmed the residue of strange chemicals in the remains of George, I couldn’t take it seriously. After all, I wasn’t a threat to anyone.
The evening’s self-defense class went exceptionally well for a change. I mastered a drop kick move that had eluded me for a couple of weeks. Afterwards, I tossed my gym bag into the passenger seat, and debated taking down the roof for the short ride home. The sky was cloudless, and I wanted to see the stars not washed out by the city lights. A long drive on a back country road was just what I needed.
The smallest sound from behind me made me twirl and crouch in a defensive posture. I shifted my keys so they extended outwards between my fingers, good for scratching faces or poking out eyes. They’re no defense against a gun, but if someone wanted to shoot me, I’d already be dead.
I searched the darkness for a sign of trouble, but didn’t spot anything. Ready to chalk it up to an overactive imagination, heightened by the dire warnings our teacher always ended class with, I let out my breath when two cats strolled out of a nearby alley, rubbing against each other. With the roof up, I headed home, not in the mood for stargazing anymore. Suddenly, however, I was in the mood to get out of town for a few days.
D.C. is hot and humid and filled with too many tourists in the summer. That makes it the perfect place to hide out. It also has wonderful museums and monuments and it had been too long since I’d been there. Besides, that’s where Keith, my financial adviser, lives. He was concerned about the money I’d dropped buying Delores. I could tell by the email he sent, asking me what was going on. Once I took him for a ride, he’d know I wasn’t crazy.
The prickly sensation people claim to get at the back of their neck when they are being watched? I ignored it the entire evening I spent with Keith, my first night in town. Figured it was my imagination. It was harder to ignore the next day as I strolled through the American Art Museum.
The Art Museum is not one of the more popular of the Smithsonian museums but still gets its fair share of visitors. Although the details of the paper bag making machine model were fascinating, I suspected the man staring at it was studying more than the machine. Every time I turned his way, his eyes swiveled away from me and back to the model.
I wasn’t done checking out the displays yet, but moved on to the Pictures in the Parlor exhibition. I pretended to be examining one of the old photos, but in reality, I had one eye on the doorway. It wasn’t long before he wandered in.
He was easy to spot. While everyone else was wearing shorts and t-shirts, he had on Dockers and a polo shirt. I suppose he might have been an office worker on an extended lunch break, but I doubted it. Why he was following me, I couldn’t imagine, but it was really starting to irritate me. I’d gotten used to the cops in Oak Grove showing up at odd times, but I was a long way from home and the intrusion was unnerving.
I wanted to spend more time in the Museum, but decided to test my theory. The Renwick Gallery had a display on my list of things to do, and the Metro had a stop nearby. A quick hop on the Red Line, a short stroll to the gallery, hoping the afternoon thunderstorms would hold off, and I would know for sure if I was being tailed. If he was an amateur I’d lose him. Jake taught me this game and this guy was way too obvious. Maybe he was a decoy for the real tracker.
That convoluted way of thinking? Yeah, a Jake thing. I surreptitiously studied everyone else in the area before leaving. If any one of them showed up at the Renwick I would know. Thanks to Jake, I’m not a big believer in coincidence any more.
By the time I got back to my hotel room, after a leisurely stroll through the exhibits at the Renwick and a relaxing supper at a small but surprisingly good diner, I decided I was imagining things. The man in the khakis hadn’t shown up at the Gallery, and I didn’t recognize any of the other visitors either. I was the only person out of place at the bar/restaurant. All the regulars knew each other’s names, but the occasional tourist like me was welcomed. The person who seemed most out of place was my waitress, Dot. Her hair was dyed with bright blue streaks.
The souvenirs I bought at the Gallery store fit in the side pocket of my suitcase, except for the book on jewelry making. I needed a new hobby and my big project for the evening centered on sitting poolside and seeking inspiration.
As I washed my hands, I realized the hand lotion and soap I brought with me had been moved from one side of the sink to the other. The soap the hotel provided is perfectly fine, I just like mine better. And because that’s the way I do things I knew I’d placed it on the right hand side.
The prickly sensation came back, along with a rush of adrenalin. If my room had been searched, every spy novel I’d ever read told me a bug had been planted as well. Without my laptop, I couldn’t research how to find listening devices on the internet. I’d have to resort to what I remembered from the James Bond books.
I started in the bathroom, because I was there, although that was the least likely spot to find anything. Bond used to hide things inside the toilet tank, so I lifted the lid to check inside. Nothing. Next I checked the towel racks and under the sink. I considered removing the shower head but didn’t have any tools with me. Besides, a bug hidden there would get destroyed the first time I took a shower. With the plastic curtain pulled, I let the water run, and then moved back out to the main room.
I didn’t have any idea what to search for, but looking helped me feel better. I checked under the bed, and in the dresser drawers. I reached behind the TV, and removed the batteries from the remote to make sure nothing hid underneath them. The light bulbs in every lamp were unscrewed as I checked the sockets. I felt between the headboard and the wall as far down as I could reach. I turned every chair upside down to make sure nothing strange was attached to the bottom of the seat.
When I recognized the silliness of it all, I threw the pillows back on the bed, plopped myself on top of them, and started laughing. Housekeeping must have moved my things when they cleaned. Why would the feds be tracking me? Who else would be operating in the nation’s capital? It wasn’t like any foreign country knew I existed. Even if someone was listening, what would they overhear? The T.V. news? Me singing off-key? The evening breeze made the curtains in the open window dance, and I giggled and prayed
would go home with nothing more than a major headache. After all, I wasn’t going to be holding any clandestine meetings in my room. My plans didn’t include spending much time in the hotel at all.
So I turned on the T.V. and found a kids channel. Let
listen to Big Bird and Oscar talk about garbage or whatever. After rinsing out all my underwear in case it had been handled, I strolled outside. I’d find an empty deck chair and relax with my new book and a tall glass of Sangria next to the pool while
sweated in their black van. The perfect revenge.
I woke up early after a restless night. I never sleep well in an unfamiliar bed. The Peer Gynt Suite by the Berlin Philharmonic was my choice of morning entertainment. I hooked my MP3 player up to the TV and played it as loud as I dared before I left, careful not to disturb anyone in the rooms next to mine. There were more Smithsonian museums to explore, and I had a Metro pass for a week. Washington on a sunny day is too beautiful to allow a little thing like being followed to bother me.
No doubt about it. I was being followed. Strangely familiar faces popped up everywhere I went, and I spotted my man in khakis a time or two. I ruined his assignment the day I waved to him across the Capitol Rotunda. He turned away and left. I never saw him again after that. Sadly, I didn’t get any reaction when I hummed a few bars of “In the Halls of the Mountain King” while standing in the whisper spot of the Statuary Gallery.
I figured it had to be one of the “three letter” agencies, because D.C. was their turf. I placed my bet on it being the FBI. I’d never been out of the country, and that seemed to take the CIA off the list of potential suspects. Or had Jake somehow earned the interest of Homeland Security and put me in their view finder? The temptation to approach one of the “persons of interest” and scold him for wasting valuable taxpayer dollars was strong, but common sense stopped me.
Ending the game and going home at the end of the week made me sad. Almost. I was running out of ideas on how to entertain my followers, so it was a relief as well. There were plenty of things to do in D.C., but I missed my apartment and my own bed too much to stay gone very long.
The drive home seemed to take forever. Always does. I don’t understand what part of the time-space continuum dictates that, but it’s a known fact. Maybe Steven Hawkins will be able to resolve the mystery one day. The trip was made even longer by the need to keep track of the black car that hung in my blind spot part of the way. Eventually, my foot pushed the gas pedal a bit harder, I changed lanes several times and lost it. Even though I maintained that speed, I got lucky, and didn’t see any troopers the rest of the trip.
My luck ran out the minute I crossed the city line of Oak Grove. It was late, almost dark, and after the long drive I was tired. Not two blocks in, I heard a siren and saw the all too familiar red and blue lights in my rearview mirror. With a tap on my brakes I eased to the right, hoping the cop would pull around me in pursuit of some other unfortunate soul. No such luck, as the police car stuck with me. I pulled into a nearby parking lot and brought down my sun visor to retrieve my insurance information. I’d slowed down when I got into town, and I planned to be very upset if they pulled me over for doing two miles an hour above the speed limit.