March 17, 2010

Meeting the group

((Sorry for the lack of post last week. Had some minor surgery and never got the chance. Now we will continue with our regularly scheduled programming...continuing with the flashbacks, hope you enjoy them! This one is written a little weirdly, because I switched between first and third person views.. bear with me.. just trying it out. It won't be the norm.))

He hit the kid again and he nearly went down. "What do you know!"
"Man I swear! I don't know nothin!" He swung at Jaleel, connecting, but at this point all he accomplished was failing his arms in Jaleel's general direction, not causing any serious damage. Jaleel raised his fist again and the kid flinched, but said nothing.
"I will beat the shit out of you kid."
"I can't! I ain't gonna say a word!" Obviously there was something he was more afraid of than Jaleel, he could see it in his eyes, but what would be frightening enough to take this kind of beating for? Jaleel hit the kid again across the mouth and he went down, hard. All but unconscious, the kid rolled over and groaned, pulling his legs up into the fetal position.

Jaleel whirled as footsteps echo down the street, bullet whizzing by his good ear. "Muther Fucker!" He launched himself toward the newcomer, staggering as a bullet took him in the chest. He looked up and saw the other kid, the one he had labeled 'wife beater' smirk at him, holding the gun sideways, as though that made him tough, and moving closer to finish Jaleel off. Confusion passed over his face as Jaleel straightened and closed the distance between them, no blood visible. Jaleel grabbed the gun and nearly lifted the kid off the ground as they each struggled to get control of the firearm. Jaleel cursed his bad luck, being forced to leave his guns in the bag on his bike, outside the club, two blocks away.


I sat in the club at a table by myself. I didn't really know why I was here, aside from promising James I'd take some time to relax. But I was wound tight in this place..and showing it.. it kept all but a few drunks from hitting on me, which, I guess, was preferable anyway. I wasn't here to find a date. But I felt desperately out of place among the women wearing short skirts and revealing apparel. My idea of clubbing clothes was a pair of nice jeans and a tank top. Not exactly clothes that screamed "come and get it" to the men, but I really didn't care, I guess. I wasn't a fan of miniskirts, even if I did have the legs for them. I sat there with the music pulsing around me, sipping my drink and watching the crowd (it still tasted like a fucking whiskey sour. I should give up alcohol, that's all I ever taste).

I noticed the guy almost as soon as he entered. His disfigurements tended to make him stand out in a crowd. I let my gaze slide from him, and it wandered back every few minutes to avoid drawing attention to myself. He wasn't particularly remarkable once one got past the missing ear and the impressive scar. Just another black gang banger.. I absently wondered who had stitched up his face after whatever fight he'd been in. Whoever it was had done a shitty job if he still had that much of a scar. Or maybe he hadn't gone to the hospital. Yeah, that seemed more accurate. He was wearing baggy jeans and a motorcycle jacket, and seemed like he was looking for someone specific. He looked briefly in my direction, but only long enough to decide I wasn't who he was after.

I stood as he moved towards the upper levels and drained my glass. No reason to be here if I wasn't enjoying myself, and there was no one to make me stay. I moved to the exit, sliding out unobtrusively and walking to my car. The dog tags under my shirt clicked softly and I flinched as they touched my bare skin. The things were cold as ice, again. It was weird how cold they sometimes were. I ignored it and looked for my car. The parking lot was packed. It took me a few minutes to find my jeep amidst the jungle of other vehicles. As I was looking, a goth kid came bounding out of the bar, with the black guy in hot pursuit. The kid had a pretty good lead on him. I just watched them run past. I spotted the green Jeep Commander four rows over, digging my keys out of my pocket as I navigated between the isles. I unlocked the door and reached under the front seat, feeling for the bag that held my sidearm. I was always aware of the status of my gun, though I wasn't sure when I'd become so paranoid about it. It was a military issue 9mm, though not the same one I'd had while in the Army. I tracked one down after I got out. For personal security.

I started to slide it back under the seat when I heard the first shot. My hand tightened around the grip, as I scanned the parking lot, gun still concealed. The shot had come from a couple blocks down. I closed the car door, gun in hand, and broke into a run. In the back of my mind I was vaguely recalling another time I gone to investigate gun shots. In the front of my mind I was thinking, What the fuck am I doing? I briefly wondered if I did these things because I felt compelled to, like I'd been telling myself before, or if I was subconsciously suicidal. Suicidal seemed more likely. Maybe I should see a shrink.

I came up on the scene pretty quickly, my miniskirt legs carrying me the distance easily. I ducked into one of the side alleyways and watched, gun ready. I took in the scene as fast as I could. There were three people. The black guy with the scars was struggling with a teenaged white kid in a wife beater, and another kid was lying on the pavement, not moving. I trained my gun on the two struggling for control of what looked like another firearm, and drew a breath to yell when another shot echoed down the street. I watched, frozen, as the guy in white shuddered then fell slowly to his knees. The black man pulled the gun from his hands as he fell. Blood beginning to pool on the ground, a dark stain spreading across his beater. He slumped over sideways onto the asphalt.

I watched, slightly stunned as the black guy looked scornfully at the dying kid and walked over to a shape huddled on the ground a few feet away. It groaned and shifted and I realized he was still alive. I jumped as another shot rang out, but the kid was so out of it all he could do was whimper. I couldn't let the guy kill the kid. I trained my gun on the black guy and screamed at him.
"Dont move!"
But my words were drowned out by another shot. He had shot the kid in the head. I could see bits of skull and brain matter explode outward. I felt sick to my stomach as I called out again, "I said don't fucking move!"
Too slow Harper.. you're too fucking slow. Just like last time. Can't ever stop people from getting shot in the head.

"Fuck." He looked up and saw me taking cover in one of the alleyways. He saw the gun, but with two bodies on the ground, white kids no less, he wasn't about to stick around and explain himself to the cops even with a gun trained on him, I guess. He bolted down the street, I could hear him breathing pretty heavily, and wondered if he wasn't already injured. The fifth shot of the night bit into his right calf, and he was down. His momentum took him to the ground hard and he rolled a few feet before coming to a stop. He lay on his back, breathing hard, trying to fill his lungs. He groaned and clutched his calf. "Shit man, you shot me!"

I walked up, gun trained steadily on him, eyes daring him to even twitch. "Throw the gun and keep your hands were I can see them."
He tossed the gun a few feet away, out of reach, and glared at me, I could see the realization in his face, realization that I wasn't a cop, just some crazy broad with a gun. "Care to explain yourself?" I was feeling charitable tonight. Also curious. He hadn't really looked like he was out for trouble when he came into the bar earlier.
"Shit man, they fucking attacked me! It was self defense."
I raised an eyebrow and glanced back at the still form of the goth kid that he'd shot in the head. "He didn't seem to be going anywhere when you shot him."
"Man, he had a knife. I was protecting myself."
I frowned at him. knife or no, the kid had been pretty messed up already. "Then why did you run?"
He stared at me like I'd sprouted a second head.
"You kiddin me? Black man, two dead white kids, you really think I'm gonna get off with self-defense?"
I frowned, the man made a good point. "I saw you book it out of the club after the kid, makes it seem more like you were the attacker."
"I just needed information. We got out here, he wouldn't answer my question, started throwing punches, pulled a knife. I was defending myself."
"Information concerning what?" I asked. He blinked at me, like it was the least expected question that I could have asked him. I'm not even sure why I did. What did it matter what he wanted the kid for? but for some reason I felt it was important. Maybe because of my suicidal curiosity.

I looked at him expectantly. He seemed to be trying to come to some decision. I could also see him considering his options, debating whether to lie or not. Finally he sighed in defeat and started talking. "A girl named Natalie Ganier." He paused to see if I recognized the name, I just quirked a brow and gestured for him to continue.

"She's dead, and I'm trying to figure out why. She asked me to."
Doubt must have shown on my face, because he added, "It's a complicated situation."
"Apparently." I responded dryly.
"I met her... after she died."
I blinked at him, and felt something icy growing in the pit of my stomach. "Pardon?"
He scowled at me, then winced from the pain in his leg. "Man, I don't know. I don't even know whats going on myself, how am I supposed to explain it to you?"

He was fucking nuts, right? But I just kept flashing back on DJ Bullis' face, when I saw him in the crowd of people. It seemed insane that I was actually considering this guys story.. but it rang true.. which sounded weird, but it was an intuition thing.. Or a desperate thing. I wanted to believe him because it might mean I was less crazy for considering that zombies might actually exist. I needed to know if it was real.

I sighed in much the way he had, and gestured with my gun. "Take off your shirt." He looked at me incredulously, I just rolled my eyes.
"Look, you want me to fix your leg or let you bleed? I'm sure as hell not using my shirt."
He frowned at me, eyes confused but peeled off the shirt to reveal the bullet proof vest underneath. I didn't even bother asking. I had one in my car so I couldn't pretend he was weird for wearing it. And it had probably saved his life.

I eyed him like a hawk as I slipped my gun into my waistband at the small of my back. I tore the shirt into strips, always keeping one eye on the guys hands. I would never have risked it if he hadn't been so obviously injured. In addition to the gunshot wound, there was blood at the left side of his mouth, and his cheek was swelling. I could see the mark the bullet left in his ballistics vest and could imagine the grief that was causing him. My hands were quick and proficient. He tried to follow my movements, but couldn't tell how I'd managed to get the bullet out without a knife, or any tools. He tried asking, I ignored him. A few minutes later I stood back up, and his leg must have felt significantly better, because he seemed at least moderately more comfortable. Relatively speaking. I stepped away from him, scraps of his shirt still in hand.

"Can you stand?"
He shifted slightly and grunted from the pain coursing from multiple wounds. "Not without help"
"Good." I walked over and picked up the discarded handgun, then moved towards the Goth kid. I paused only briefly, not even bothering to take his pulse. His face was gone. No coming back from that. I turned away before the memories started. I knelt beside the kid in the beater and to my surprise he groaned when I rolled him over.
"Shit.." Working quickly, I tried to dress the stomach wound. He was bleeding profusely, there was already more on the street then there probably was in his body, at least that's how it seemed. Miraculously, I managed to stave off any more blood loss. Looking down at the unconscious man, I wasn't even sure how I'd managed it. I dug my cell phone from my pocket cursing under my breath when I realized my hands were soaked with blood. I was in a bit of a daze. I left little bloody fingerprints on the keypad as I dialed 911.

I heard the guy moving as I dialed and reported hearing shots and seeing someone laying in an alleyway. I hung up when she asked my name. Thankfully, the dispatcher was someone new, so she wouldn't recognize my voice. The guy had scooted towards the wall a little, probably trying to find support to stand. His face was a mask of pain brought on by moving the injured leg. I just rolled my eyes at him. But he wasn't looking at me, he was looking past me.

The new arrival moved between the bodies like they weren't even there. He was dressed impeccably, light blue suit complementing his coffee and cream colored skin. He walked with an air of authority, and two men in tight black shirts that could only be one thing followed behind him. As he passed each body, one of the two bodyguards broke off to attend to the scene. The Goth kid was slung over one mans shoulder and coke was poured over the bloodstained street. I watched as the soda ate at the stains, fizzing over the asphalt until there was no trace of red.

"Shouldn't you call the police?"
He gave me a small smile. "There is no need to bother the authorities, we will take care of this ourselves. I'm sure Mr. Smith will appreciate the consideration." The other guard picked up the injured kid carefully, and moved back towards the club. "I just called an ambulance. He needs a hospital." This was getting more and more weird.
"We have an infirmary inside where we can take care of him. He will be fine. You have done an excellent job, Specialist O'Shea, I will be sure that you are commended to your commanding officers."
I stared at the man dumbly, how on earth did he know my name? Let alone my former rank?
"Are you a friend of Mr. Smith's?"
"He's an acquaintance.." I mumbled as I glanced at the wounded man.
"Lovely. I do apologize Mr. Smith, I was not entirely truthful with you." He proceeded to give the man a few details about the Union of the Snake, which, as far as I could tell, was the name of the gang these kids were a part of. But I couldn't help but notice that the information was far from concrete, and was pretty useless from my perspective. This guy, who seemed to be the club owner, was good at talking a lot without saying a lot. I'd heard of him before, his name was Sundown, and he owned a majority of the successful nightclubs and bars in the city. He was well connected, to say the least. I heard a scrap of a conversation once where someone referred to him as the King of Neutral.. but I never found any explanation to that one..

I helped the guy to his feet, mostly to support the story that we knew each other. Sundown made me nervous. He stood with one arm around my neck and I kept an arm around his waist for support. I was a few inches shorter than him, but at 5'10 the difference wasn't enough to make supporting him awkward. At least not physically.

"I do apologize Mr. Smith." Sundown extended his hand and "Mr. Smith" shook it hesitantly. What came next wasn't so much a vision as an intense feeling in the pit of my stomach. An instinctive fear that tells a creature to bolt, an instinctive fear most sentient beings are too stupid to head. Like seeing a shark in the water above you, black, soulless eyes watching you, waiting for the perfect moment to eat you whole. Mr. Smith inhaled sharply and my eyes widened a touch. Apparently we'd both felt it. Now I really wanted to get out of here. What the fuck was going on? Sundown did not acknowledge our reactions, merely shaking the guys hand firmly, and turning back to his club.

We surveyed the scene in amazement. Two pools of soda evaporating in the night air, and a small divot in the asphalt were the only evidences of the fight that took place a few minutes prior. I cleared my throat nervously. I was very, very aware that I was supporting a guy who I'd just seen shoot two people. I needed therapy. "Lets get out of here. Where are you parked?"
"In front of the club, but I've got a bike."
I hesitated. He wouldn't be able to manage on a bike with that leg. And a nagging voice in the back of my head kept insisting I needed to know more about this whole Natalie thing. I heaved a big sigh. "Then I guess I'm your ride."

We made slow going down the street. When we reached his bike, there was a yellow post-in note stuck to the seat. He picked it up and skimmed it quickly, then put it in his pocket. It read, "Mr. Smith, Please leave the keys in the tail bag. We will contact you with a time you can pick up your motorcycle." It was signed with a small picture of the setting sun. He went to the tail bag, dropped the keys in and was about to retrieve two 45s. I had my pistol in his side in under a second. But he held up his hands and gestured for me to take them myself. The look on his face was bored. It didn't really bother him that I was shoving a gun in his ribs. I scowled at him and slowly lowered the gun, taking the two .45s.
"You do realize we're leaving these in the back right?"
"Yeah, yeah. Why're you helping me anyway?"
I shrugged and eyed him, now in possession of three guns, one tucked into my waistband. "I'm curious. Other than that? I have no fucking clue. Whats your name anyway? Or do I have to call you Mr. Smith all night?"

As we walked to the jeep, Jaleel pulled out his cell phone. He dialed and put the phone up to his one good ear. The phone volume was turned up so loud that I couldn't help but hear both ends of the conversation. "Hey C-Love. I need a place a hideout for awhile. Can ya help me out?"
C-Love, the guy presumably on the other end of the phone, didn't sound as surprised as his words indicated. "Shoot nigga, why you need that?"
Jaleel paused, giving me a sidelong glance. I gave him a bland look. "I shot a couple people. Got shot."
"Shit man, what you go and do that for?"
"Union assholes were giving me shit." Jaleel said dryly.
"Man, why you even bothering with those assholes? ...yeah I got a place for ya. Meet me at 2846 Greatven."

Jaleel gave me directions as we passed through New Orleans. I probably looked pretty skeptical as he instructed me to pull into the drive way of a building that looked suspiciously like a stand alone garage. I looked a question at Jaleel when a man walked towards the car. I rolled down the window when Jaleel nodded. The new guys didn't seem to notice me in the drivers seat, practically leaning over me to talk to Jaleel.
"Hey nigga! Got you all set up man. Get your ass inside." He paused and noticed me for the first time. "Who's this?"
"She's cool, helped me out."
C-Love looked me over and I sat there with a bland expression on my face waiting to pass inspection.
He just shrugged. "Whatever man, just get inside."

It was certainly not an impressive layout. It was a single room, a small cot taking up one corner. The bare bulb was powered from a small generator that also provided power to the mini fridge that was stocked with cheap beer, a few sodas, and some bottled water. Empty pizza boxes and discarded candy bar wrappers had been piled carelessly in the corners. It wasn't luxurious, but it was certainly unobtrusive. I perched uncertainly on the cot, while C-love brought out two collapsible chairs for himself and Jaleel.
"So what's going on?" I asked. Bette to ask questions then to be forced to sit here quietly dwelling on my own, possibly lethal, stupidity.
Jaleel regarded me with some hostility when I spoke, absently flexing his ijured leg. His calf probably still felt like it was on fire.

Jaleel fell into one of the chairs. The fabric groaned against the abuse. C-love walked to the fridge and grabbed three beers. He tossed one to Jaleel, and took one for himself, replacing the last when I declined his offer with a wave of my hand. "I told you, I was looking for information on Natalie Palmer." jaleel said as turned to C-love. As though that answered my question. "You know a Natalie Palmer?"
"Whose bitch is that? Man, I don't know. What do you care?"
"Just trying to figure out what happened to her." Jaleel said, rather non-commitally.
"By askin' those Union fuckers? Man, you don't gotta lie to me. I know you were doing that for me. You got shot for me." C-Love grinned and lounged in the folding chair. The air of ego centrism was nearly palpable. I blinked at C-Love, then frowned at Jaleel. My opinion of both men plainly written across my face. Jaleel just scowled at me. "Fine, Look, I can't explain it, I don't even know what the fuck is going on."

He pulled a cell phone out of his jacket pocket and hit the speed dial, holding it up to his good ear. The voice that answered spoke without trace of any accent, unless one considered the waves of anger and irritation that colored his voice some kind of accent. "What?"
"Hey, I got someone you need to talk to. She wants to know what's going on." "Fucking.. Who is it? Why don't YOU tell her?" The irritation increased three fold.
"Fuck man, I don't even know what's goin' on myself. Besides, she helped me out, and she's my ride, so I can't ditch her." He made a point to not look at me as he said it.
"Fine. Fucking idiots, all of you.." And the phone went dead.

My expression didn't lighten at all, and Jaleel just shrugged, putting the phone back in his pocket. C-Love kept talking like he'd never been interrupted. I'm not even sure he knew Jaleel had made the call. "You can stay here for awhile man, but try not to make it too long. Don't want no one to get suspicious and shit. Too good a hideout to lose."
"Yeah, thanks, won't be here long. Got shit to do. I jsut wanted to have a place to come back to for a few days."
"Lay low man." C-Love stood and drained his beer. C-Love tossed the can into the corner where it bounced and rolled into the growing pile. He and Jaleel participated in an intricate handshake that I couldn't really follow, then he heaved open the metal garage door and left them alone in the safe house.

I crossed my arms over my chest and frowned. "Now what?"
Jaleel pushed himself to his feet, grimacing as he put weight on his right leg. "Now we go see everyone else, so they can tell you what's going on. I still don't know why you're hanging around."
"I'm naturally inquisitive." I said drolly. Then my expression became slightly pensive and I just shrugged. "Besides, you don't seem to be lying, but this shit doesn't seem like it could be true. I'm hoping it'll shed some light on some other unexplained things I've seen since I've been in New Orleans."
Jaleel accepted that with a grunt and turned towards the open garage door. I followed as he limped towards my Jeep and pulled the door down behind them, clicking the padlock into place. So much for a normal night out.


Jackie sat on the flimsy plastic chair, typing away at his laptop. The glow from the screen made his olive skin look ghost pale, tinged with gray. He completely ignored the sullen Italian man who paced the small floor space between the magazine rack and the small desk. The back office of the auto repair shop was small and looked relatively unused. Most of the work was done out front. There were a few books used for accounting and billing customers, a few chairs, and an old computer that looked like it was an artifact from the 1980s. The men were waiting impatiently for the others to arrive, actively ignoring each other. Both looked up as voices floated back from the front.

A grizzled older man walked into the back, followed by a huge rottweiller. He looked like he might be in his late thirties, but the scruffy, shoulder length hair and the full mustache beard combination made him look older. It was stringy and rough from salt water and sea air, his skin holding a permanent red flush both from the wind and the contents of the hip flask that was in constant attendance. A much younger man dragged in behind him. He looked about 18, and might be attractive under normal circumstances, but currently he walked hunched in on himself, eyes bloodshot and red rimmed. His hair was only as neat as running fingers through it could accomplish, and his entire appearance was haggard.

Jackie grinned at the younger man, talking with a thick Korean accent. "Damn Tommy, you look like shit. Welcome back." Tommy glared at Jackie coldly, grabbed his tool box from one of the shelves and disappeared into the bathroom. Karl looked after him with disdain. "Damn junkie."
Karl sat himself down in one of the vacant chairs. Danzig padded over and sat at his feet. "So what info did race car over there find?" Jackie asked. Karl shrugged at him. "Hell if I know, I just picked him up, I didn't interrogate him."

Everyone fell silent as Jaleel limped in, a frowning Harper trailing in behind him. Jackie made a disparaging noise in his throat. "What, are we picking up strays now? Who the hell is this?"

I frowned deeper and eyed the little Asian man. "Harper."
Jackie scowled. "Well aren't you a fountain of information."
I smirked at him humorlessly and leaned back against a wall. Of the three men (and one dog) in the room, none of them looked at me friendly. I maintained an air of nonchalant disdain to try and mask my extreme nervousness. From the conversation, I gleaned that the Asian was Jackie, and the gruff looking old guy that smelled like booze was Karl. I had no idea what the Italian guy's name was. He just glared daggers at me as I walked in. Of them all, he was the odd ball out. He was 5'7ish, and he wore lack slacks and black long sleeved button down with a mandarin collar. the clothes looked custom tailored. His black hair probably came past his shoulders, and was pulled back away from his face in a ponytail. He looked very out of place.

Jaleel stripped off his motorcycle jacket and fell into a chair, grimacing as he jarred his wounds. "She's my ride, and wants to know about Natalie." Karl nodded at the bandages spanning Jaleel's shoulder and chest.
"What happened to you?"
"Got into a tumble with some Union guys, trying to get information about Natalie. Got shot."
I smirked. "Twice. Once by them, once by me."
Jaleel glared at me as I spoke up. I just smiled sweetly.
"What? I told you to freeze."

Karl looked at Jaleel with incredulity. "You were shot.. by a woman?...Pussy."
My smirk turned into a glare, and Jaleel's attempt to beat the shit out of Karl was halted only by Jackie's startled exclamation. "Hah! Got it!" He looked at all of us and dramatically hit the Enter key on his laptop.

A young haggard looking guy opened the bathroom door and peered out, blinking several times before shuffling out into the office, obviously having trouble focusing on any one person in the room. He had a small vial clutched in one hand, from which he carefully tapped two drops of clear liquid, one into each eye. He was obviously on something, god knows what the drops were.

The Italian man, who had moved to peer over Jackie's shoulder, straightened himself and regarded the rest of us sourly. When he spoke I recognized him as the one on the other end of Jaleel's phone call. His voice was not any less angry or annoyed. "Well it seems like it's story time." He turned to me.
"Miss Natalie Ganier was murdered. She was shot, and her throat slit. Unfortunately, she has decided not to stay at rest. We have been enlisted to discover the details of Miss Ganier's death."
I raised a brow. "By whom?"
"By Natalie. Until we solve this charming little mystery, her ghost will not leave us alone...which does beg the question... Why, might I ask, are you here still here, Miss Harper? You are no longer needed to escort Jaleel."

I looked down at the floor and shrugged. "Curiosity."
The man breathed out slowly and rotated his head, causing his neck to crack in a show of obvious restraint. "Very well, though I suggest you leave before Miss Ganier decides to bring you into her fold, and you no longer have that option, assuming its not already too late. Now, Jackie has been so kind as to procure us more suitable accommodations for our little meetings, so we shall retire to there." His pacing had brought him to stand right in front of me. He turned, making a sweeping gesture towards the door. "After you, Harper." My name said with an unfriendly sneer. I knew I wasn't the brightest ray of sunshine, but this guy made me look down right cheerful by comparison. Who the fuck pissed in his cheerios? I walked out in front of him and could feel him boring holes in the back of my skull with his pissy stare.

Everyone stood and moved to the exit.


The air around the abandoned church was thick with moisture. The moon gave a hazy glow, half obscured by passing clouds, providing eerie illumination. Crickets chirped loudly, unconcerned with the group gathered in front of the steps. The door to the church was closed with three boards spanning its width, all visible windows completely sealed against the elements in the same manner.

Karl crossed his arms over his chest. "What the hell are we doing at a church?" Jackie grinned proudly. "This is our new headquarters. It was put up for sale after Katrina. Something about too much damage, or foreclosure, or something like that. Bought in the name of the New Orleans Historical Preservation Society."
Karl grunted and walked over to the high kid's toolbox, (I think his name was Tommy) and dug for a crowbar. The guy was too busy scrutinizing the dilapidated church to notice.

The planks clattered to the ground and the faint scent of mold wafted out from the entrance as the door swung inward. The interior of the church was stripped bare of adornments. Debris was everywhere. The floors were bare wood, a few of the boards warped from water damage, all cushions had been taken off the pews, which seemed glued to the floor. The alter looked naked and lonely at the front of the room, free of cloth and communion articles. Pieces of the stained glass windows were missing, sections which should have included Christ's left hand, Gabriel's right eye, and the dove coming down from Heaven. The crucifix still hung above the alter, the image of Christ's murder built straight into the wall. It managed to make the gutted church seem even more eerie, as though the absent congregation had not only abandoned their church, but him as well. Or maybe I was just in a dark mood.

We filed into the room slowly, everyone taking in the atmosphere silently. Tommy stood near the back, taking in all the sights. He looked like he was examining things in the pews that weren't there. He waved his hand at about eye level, and said "Hello?" as though talking to someone no one else could see. Seriously.. what was this guy on? He looked around as mist began to roll through the room, covering the floor until no one could see their feet. Tommy blinked at the mist and looked up at the altar, waving. "Hi, Natalie."

All eyes turned to Tommy. Jaleel looked around the room expectantly. "Natalie? Where?"
"Right there!" He pointed to the altar. My breathe caught in my throat as the girl's visage swam into view. The woman stood about 5'4, wearing torn jeans and tight t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. Her throat gaped near the base of her neck, the wound forming a grotesque second mouth going clear from ear to ear. She wasn't completely solid, and the mist seemed to roll around her feet like it was alive.

No one else caught a glimmer of their poltergeist, apparently, because they all just looked around, perplexed, while I had a nervous breakdown.

"Holy fuck." I grasped the edge of the pew and lowered myself into a sitting position. Jackie scowled at me. "Now she can see her too? Christ." He picked up his feet gingerly, trying not to step in the mist that covered the floor. He sat himself down in a pew and pulled out his laptop, sitting Indian style so his feet didn't trail in the fog.

"I can't fucking believe this..." My voice came out as a whisper. The Italian man rolled his eyes at me, his voice full of scorn. "Yes, because I would spend my time with these idiots simply because I wanted too. Now that she has appeared to you it can most likely be assumed that you are just as obligated to find her killer as we are. Congratulations." He turned and stormed off into the rectory, slamming the door behind him.

I just sat and stared at the apparition. She looked at me like she was memorizing me, only turning away when Tommy said something to her, and she'd respond by moving her lips, but no sound ever came out. A bit hard to talk with a slit throat. I didn't even hear what he was saying. I was too busy trying to wrap my head around what I was witnessing. I was simultaneously thrilled and terrified that I'd followed Jaleel here tonight.

"So do you know who killed her?" I asked, and my voice was barely a whisper.
"Someone within the Union of the Snake we think..." Tommy replied, and Natalie's respond was immediate. Her face contorted in rage and everyone in the room seemed to make some minor noise of pain. I felt a throbbing behind my eye.
"Shit, do you have to piss her off? Goddammit." Jackie pressed the heel of his hand to his head and let out a string of colorful curses in Korean.

"So.. what do you know so far?" I asked, without taking my eyes off Natalie. The display of anger seemed to drain her, because she suddenly sagged with fatigue and slowly started to fade away.
Karl grunted from his pew. "Goddamn you're nosy, fucking women.."
That was enough to tear my gaze away from the ghost. "Oh I'm sorry.. should I just stare dumbly at the ghost and hope really hard that someone finds her killer for us? I didn't know that was the strategy here. My sincerest apologies." Fucking chauvinist asshole sonofabitch.
Karl scowled at me. "Us? Fucking shit. We don't need a woman's help."
I stood, Karl's attitude rousing me from my shocked stupor. "Sucks to be you then doesn't it?" I pointed to the alter, where the visage of Natalie was no longer visible. "You don't get to decide who helps. She does."
I stalked off through one of the side doors and slammed it behind me. It cut off any retorts Karl could have offered.

I found myself in one of the prayer rooms. A small, clean room that was built for private communion with God. It was empty now, stripped of its furnishings and meaning. I leaned against the wall and let myself slide to the floor. I was scared. Not of the people I was with, if they'd meant to hurt me then they would have already. No, I was scared shitless of the implication of all this. Ghosts? What else might be out there? What else might actually be real? But as scared as I was, that question only served to illicit one response from the back of my head.. that now, I had to find out. Terrifying or not, I had to know.

What the hell had I gotten myself into?

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