Monday, February 2, 2009
The Ghost Wore Yellow Socks excerpt by Josh Lanyon
In Josh Lanyon's The Ghost Wore Yellow Socks, shy twenty-something artist Perry Foster, his romantic weekend in ruins, learns that things can always get worse when he returns home from San Francisco to find a dead body in his bathtub. A dead body in a very ugly sportscoat -- and matching socks. The dead man is a stranger to Perry, but that's not much of a comfort; how did a strange dead man get in a locked flat at the isolated Alton Estate in the wilds of the "Northeast Kingdom" of Vermont? Perry turns to help from "tall, dark and hostile" former navy SEAL Nick Reno -- but is Reno all that he seems?
The Ghost Wore Yellow Socks
MLR Press (December 19, 2008)
There was a strange man in Perry’s bathtub. He was wearing a sports coat -- a rather ugly sports coat. And he was dead.
Perry, who had just spent the most painful and humiliating twenty-four hours of his life, and had driven over an hour from the airport in blinding rain to reach the relative peace and privacy of the chilly rooms he rented at the old Alston Estate, stood gaping.
His headache vanished. He forgot about being exhausted and starving and soaked to the skin. He forgot about wishing he was dead, because here was someone dead, and it wasn’t pretty.
His fingers still rested on the light switch. He turned the overhead lights off. In the darkness, he heard rain rattling against the window; he heard his breathing, which sounded fast and scared; and from the living room he heard the soft chime of the clock he had bought at the thrift store on Bethlehem Road. Nine slow, silvery chimes. Nine o’clock.
Perry switched the light back on.
The dead man was still in his bathtub.
“It’s not possible,” Perry whispered.
Apparently this didn’t convince the corpse, who continued to stare at him under half-closed eyelids.
The dead man was a stranger; Perry was pretty sure of that. It -- he -- was middle-aged and he needed a shave. His face was sort of greenish-red, the cheeks sunken in as though his features were slipping. His legs stuck out over the side of the tub like a mannequin’s. One shoe had a hole in the sole. His socks were yellow. Goldenrod, actually. They matched the ugly checked jacket.
The stranger was definitely dead. His chest wasn’t moving at all; his mouth was ajar, but no sounds came out. Perry didn’t have to touch him to know for sure he was dead, and besides that, nothing on earth would have made him touch the corpse.
He couldn’t see any signs of violence. There didn’t seem to be any blood. Nor water. The tub was dry and empty -- except for the dead man. It didn’t look like he had been strangled. Maybe he had died of natural causes?
Maybe he’d had a heart attack?
But what was he doing having heart attacks in Perry’s locked apartment?
Perry’s glance lit on the mirror over the sink, and he started, not immediately recognizing the pale-faced, hollow-eyed reflection as his own. His brown eyes were huge and black in his frightened face; his blond hair seemed to be standing on end.
Backing out of the bathroom, Perry closed the door. He stood there trying to work it out through the fog of weariness and bewilderment. Then, eyes still pinned on the closed door, he took another step backward and fell over his suitcase, which was still sitting in the center of the front room floor.
The fall jarred Perry’s thoughts into some kind of order -- or at least action. Scrambling up, he bolted for the apartment door. His fingers scrabbled to undo the deadbolt.
He yanked open the door, but it banged shut as though wrenched away by a ghostly hand, and he realized the chain was still on. Fingers shaking, he unfastened that too and slammed out of the flat.
It seemed impossible that the hall should look just as it had when he had trudged upstairs five minutes earlier. Wall sconces cast creepy shadows down the mile of faded crimson carpet leading to the winding staircase.
The long lace draperies stirred in the window draughts. Nothing else moved. The hall was empty, yet the disturbing feeling of being watched persisted.
Perry listened to the sound of rain whispering against the windows, as though the house were complaining about the damp, the wood rot, the mustiness that permeated its aged bones. But it was the ominous silence on the other side of his own door that seemed to flood out everything else.
What was he waiting for? What did he expect to hear?
Despite his desperation to get downstairs to lights and people, he felt peculiarly apprehensive of making the first move, of making a sound, of doing anything to attract attention -- the attention of something that might wait unseen in the dim recesses of the long hall.
He had to force himself to take the first step. Then he barreled down the hallway, narrowly missing the half-dead aspidistras in their tall marble planters. Despite the reassurances of his rational mind, he kept expecting an attack to launch itself from the cobwebbed corners.
Reaching the head of the stairs, he hung tight to the banister to catch his breath. His knees were jelly. Uneasily, he looked behind himself. Nothing but the twitching draperies stirred the gloom. Perry headed down the stairs. Fifteen steps to the next level; he took them two at a time.
Reaching the second floor, he hesitated. Ex-cop Rudy Stein lived on this floor. An ex-cop ought to know what to do, right?
Mr. Watson had also lived on this floor, but Watson had died a week ago in Burlington. His rooms were locked, his belongings collecting dust waiting for a man who would never return.
Not that Perry believed in ghosts -- exactly -- or was too chicken to face another dark, drafty hallway, but after that moment’s hesitation, he continued down the rest of the grand staircase until, at last, he reached the ground floor which served as the lobby of Mrs. MacQueen’s boarding house.
Someone was just coming in the front door, pushing it closed against the sheets of rain. Overhead, the chandelier tinkled musically in the gust of the storm’s breath, throwing eerie blue and red shadows across the man’s figure.
He wore a hooded olive parka, and for a moment, Perry didn’t recognize him. In fact, he couldn’t see any face at all in the cowl of the parka, and (his nerves shot to hell) he gasped, the soft sound carrying in the quiet hall.
Shoving the hood back, the man stared at Perry. Now Perry recognized him. He was new to Mrs. MacQueen’s rooming house, an ex-marine or something. Tall, dark, and hostile.
Perry opened his mouth to inform the newcomer about the dead man upstairs, but the words wouldn’t come. Maybe he was in shock. He felt kind of funny, detached, rather light-headed. He hoped he wasn’t going to pass out. That would be too humiliating.
“What’s with you?” the man said. He was frowning, but then he was always frowning, so there wasn’t anything in that. He actually wasn’t that tall -- a little above medium height -- but he was muscular, solid. A human Rock of Gibraltar.
Finally Perry’s vocal cords worked, but the man couldn’t seem to make out his choked words. He took a step closer. His eyes were blue, marine blue, which seemed appropriate, Perry thought, still on that distant plane.
“What’s the problem, kid?” the man asked brusquely. Obviously there was a problem.
Breathlessly Perry tried to explain it. He pointed upward, his hand shaking like a Jesus freak who lacked conviction, and he tried to get some words out between the gasps.
And now the corpse upstairs was the second problem, because the first problem was he couldn’t breathe.
“Jesus Christ!” said the ex-marine, watching his struggle.
Perry lowered himself to the carpeted bottom step of the grand staircase and fished around for his inhaler.
* * * * *
Perfect ending to a perfect day, Nick Reno thought, watching the queer kid from across the hall sucking on an inhaler.
The divorce papers had arrived that afternoon, but what should have felt like relief felt like another failure. The job at the construction company hadn’t panned out, either. It was the wrong time of year for construction -- the wrong time of year for everything, it seemed. And now this. For the last few hours Nick had been hanging on to the idea of a stiff drink and some solitude, and what he got was this damn boy having hysterics.
“Kid, pull yourself together.” What was his name? Something Foster. Nick had noticed it on the mailbox in the lobby.
The kid continued to huff and puff, his thin chest rising and falling with the struggle to breathe. Maybe he’d just missed an episode of his favorite soap opera. Maybe they had discontinued his favorite flavor at Starbucks. Who the hell knew? Queers.
Nick looked around the suspiciously silent lobby. Where were all the busybodies who normally littered the halls of Mrs. MacQueen’s nuthouse?
“I could use some help here,” he called out, whether to the Almighty or the closed doors, he wasn’t sure. But after a moment he heard a chain slide. Deadbolts began scraping, latches cranking, turn knobs clicking. Old Miss Dembecki’s door opened a crack.
The kid, who had turned a lovely shade of blue, lowered the inhaler long enough to wheeze, “There’s a…dead man --” Suction resumed.
“There’s a what?” Nick demanded. “Where?”
People were now creeping out of their rooms into the hall. Miss Dembecki, wired for sound in pink curlers, pulled a gingham nylon bathrobe around her skinny body. “What’s happened?” she demanded querulously. “What did you do to him?”
“I didn’t touch him.” Nick glanced up as a floorboard creaked.
Suspended above them was a white moon of a face. Stein, the ex-cop, shone down on them. His mouth made an O as round as the rest of his perspiring face: round eyes, round mouth, squashed nose. “What’s going on? Somebody in an accident?” His voice floated down.
Dourly, Nick eyed the kid. “I don’t know.”
“Perry, whatever’s wrong?” quavered the old lady.
Perry. That figured, Nick thought grimly. A pansy name if there ever was one.
Across the hallway another door opened.
A cat wafted out of the Bridger woman’s apartment and pussyfooted toward them, white plume tail waving gently. The kid made a panicked sound and pointed with his free hand.
Nick pivoted impatiently, but Ms. Bridger, six-feet-nothing, red haired, and clad in an emerald kimono, was already scooping up the offending feline and shutting it back in the apartment.
Dembecki called, “Miss Bridger, perhaps you… Something’s happened to Perry.” She cast an accusing look in Nick’s direction.
Nick began, “Look, lady --” then gave it up, stepping aside as Jane Bridger rustled up in her silk dressing gown. There was a dragon embroidered on the back of her gown. She was doused in Poison perfume. Nick recognized it as Marie’s favorite, and his stomach knotted.
“Perry, sweetie,” she cooed, joining the kid on the bottom step. “What’s wrong?” To Nick she explained, “He has asthma.”
Foster lowered the inhaler once more and got out, “Dead man…in my…bathtub.”
He was speaking to Nick as though somehow it was Nick’s problem; maybe he thought Nick was the only one equipped to deal with a dead body scenario.
The door to the landlady’s apartment opened at last, and Mrs. MacQueen billowed out in a cloud of cigarette smoke. “What’s all the racket?” she rasped. “What are you people doing now?” A blast of canned TV laughter followed from her rooms.
“Perry’s ill,” Miss Dembecki quaked. “It’s his asthma.”
Bridger patted Foster’s shoulder kindly. Her long fingernails were bloodred against his white shirt. “Hang in there, sweetie. Take slow, deep breaths.” Her robe slipped open to reveal the outline of breasts so perfect they had to be fake. Nick raised his eyes. If Stein leaned any further over the banister he was going to take a nosedive.
Two small dogs burst out of MacQueen’s rooms, and nails slipping on the hardwood floor, scrabbled their way to Bridger’s door, barking hysterically.
Fed up, Nick stepped back, treading on Miss Dembecki’s slippered foot; he hadn’t noticed her sidling up behind them. Now she yowled like an injured cat.
“Sorry,” Nick exclaimed.
“Why can’t you look where you’re going?” moaned Miss Dembecki, hobbling to one of the overstuffed chairs by the fireplace. The fireplace was unlit. It had never been lit as far as Nick could tell. Maybe it was supposed to be décor. It just emphasized how unwelcoming the damn house was.
Foster gulped out more vehemently, “There’s a dead man in my bathtub!”
Dead silence. Another burst of televised laughter. Someone tittered nervously.
“What does that mean?” demanded MacQueen finally. She reminded Nick of James Cagney in drag, sort of sounded like him too.
“It means somebody ought to go upstairs and check it out,” Nick said.
The boy shot him a grateful look.
“Who, me?” MacQueen actually backed up in one of those you-won’t-take-me-alive-copper moves.
“You own the place. You’re the manager, aren’t you?”
“But, that’s…I mean…sure, but…” Her bug eyes traveled from face to face. She licked her colorless lips. The others were making sounds, wordless excuses, apologetic noises.
“Forget it,” Nick said. “I’ll go.” It would be a relief to escape the freak show for a minute or two. “Where are your keys, kid?”
Foster said, “I didn’t…lock the…door.” He still sounded breathy, but he wasn’t blue anymore. He kept a tight grip on the inhaler.
“It’s the third floor. The tower room opposite yours,” Bridger informed Nick.
“Got it.” Nick started up the stairs.
On the second floor, he passed Stein, who twitched him a meaningless smile but didn’t speak.
Nick continued his climb to the third floor. It was dark and quiet up here; the scent of cats and the sound of TV didn’t reach. Neither, half the time, did the heat. Lace curtains over the poorly sealed windows floated up like specters, then flattened back against the wall. Not the best visibility: the long hallway was badly lit; a pair of half-dead plants on tall pedestals provided suitable cover for ambush.
A funny feeling prickled across the back of Nick’s scalp. It was a feeling he had learned not to ignore during fourteen years in the service -- though unexpected in a broken-down mansion in the middle of the Vermont woods.
He considered, and discarded, going back to his quarters and arming. He was pretty confident he could handle any garden-variety scumball who might have sneaked in.
Approaching the kid’s apartment cautiously, Nick turned the doorknob.
The door swung open onto a large chilly room that smelled of rain and turpentine. It looked more like an art studio than someone’s living quarters. The curtains had been removed to allow more light. A spattered drop cloth covered much of the floor. A canvas half-covered with inky pine trees rested on an easel near the window. Blank canvases were stacked against the wall; painting utensils covered what appeared to be the dining room table. There were paintings everywhere: on the walls, on the floor.
In the middle of the room was a suitcase.
So the kid had been gone overnight; that meant someone could conceivably have got into his rooms and…dropped dead.
Except the bathroom door was open, the light on. Nick had a clear view of the tub. It was empty.
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