A few weeks ago, The Ceaseless Reader Writes asked for four writers to collaborate with him on a short story. I threw my hat in, and lo and behold, was invited to participate.
Our work is now complete. I present to you A Dead Man Walking: A WordPress Anthology.
Darla Nyte plugged her PalmPal into her car’s navport and set her office as the destination. The car drove, and she half-heard the radio report of the mysterious death of the young heir to the Bond family business fortune while she observed the faces of other riders as they passed. Most were lined with worry or concern. Darla smiled, pleased with her own good fortune.
America had endured a long, difficult recovery following 20 years of the disastrous Great Again wars and the resulting Trumpocalypse that finally prompted the Joint Chiefs to forcefully remove the ancient, senile President from the Oval Office handcuffed to his hospital bed. Darla was one of the MPs escorting the removal detail. She had been appalled by the corpulent, ranting despot as he raged, apopleptic and foaming at the mouth, unwilling or unable to accept his ignominious end.
While the country worked to heal and recover, Darla had remained in the Army. When her final term of enlistment was up, she had enough money saved to buy a small apartment and an even smaller office in the city, where she achieved her dream of opening the Nyte Detective Agency.
She parked and took the stairs 5 floors up to her lobby. Her assistant, Steve, greeted her. “You’ve got a doozy of a case in there today, Boss.” She sat down behind her desk and was struck by the strange pair across from her. The older man wore a white lab coat with a name tag identifying him as a coroner, and the extremely handsome younger man was uncommonly pale. He stood and extended his hand. Darla stood and shook with him. His hand was dry but shockingly cold. “I’m Franklin Bond,” he said, “and I want you to figure out who killed me.”
Darla covered her surprise by taking a sip of the coffee that Steve had left for her. She made a face at the awful taste. She was going to have to teach him how to make a better cup of joe. Sighing to herself, she lifted her gaze to Franklin. “It would seem to me that if you are dead, you would be your own best witness,” she said.
Franklin gifted her with a beatific smile. Her breath caught in her throat. He was completely not her type, but he made her heart skip a beat. “I assure you that I am quite dead,” Franklin said. “I brought Dr. Dawson here to testify to that fact.”
Dr. Dawson, looking a bit shell-shocked, said, “By every scientific test we ran, he is dead.” He handed her a signed death certificate. “Thank you, Dr. Dawson, I think you can leave now,” Franklin said. Dr. Dawson, looking much relieved, headed out the door.
“So, Ms. Nyte, now that I have assured you that I am indeed dead, will you help me find my murderer?”
Darla tilted her head and looked hard at Franklin. “Before I agree to accept your case, I will need to hear more,” she said. “First you must to agree to this,” Franklin replied, pushing his PalmPal across her desk. She looked down and saw what appeared to be a standard non-disclosure agreement. After reading it, she had the AI notarize it with her thumbprint and retinal scan, then handed it back. Her PalmPal chirped to let her know that it had her copy and that it had been filed.
Franklin sat back looking satisfied. “I am cursed with being a draugr until our family heirloom is recovered and returned to my family,” he told her.
A draugr? That’s a new one. Darla sat, careful to remain professional. No need to vex the crazy. “What do you remember?”
Franklin ran a hand through his thick blonde hair, frustration marring his handsome face. “I don’t know. It’s all a blur. The last thing I remember is dinner the night I died. It was at my Uncle Jeff’s home with him, his new wife Alina, my sister Ingrid, and her husband Malcolm.” He grimaced. “It was bad. Ingrid and Alina were at each other’s throats.” He paused. “I’m sorry. That’s probably not relevant.”
It wasn’t, but it made for some lucrative gossip she could sell later. One good thing that came of the Trumpocalypse was the demise of NDAs. These days only fools thought non-disclosure agreements had any power. “Why doesn’t your sister like your uncle’s wife?”
“Alina was a strip… Uh, exotic dancer.” He chuckled. “Jeff’s got a thing for exotic dancers.”
“Don’t we all?” Darla winked, then swallowed a burp. Damned acid reflux. Where are my Rolaids? “Anything else you remember?”
Franklin shook his head. “Other than the fighting, no. I was tired, so I went to the summer house. When I awoke, the room was dark, and I was dead.”
“That’s it?” The Rolaids were hiding under her calendar. She took two, then two more just in case. “You died in your sleep?”
He nodded. “Pretty much. Oh!” He snapped his fingers. “And the Spear of Destiny was missing!”
Oh, for God’s sake. Darla felt a headache coming on. “You’re saying that your family has the Spear of Destiny? The Spear that supposedly…”
“… killed Jesus Christ, yes, my family has…er, had, the Spear of Destiny,” Franklin finished. “My great-grandfather brought it back after World War II.”
Darla stood. “Frank, you need a therapist, not a P.I. I can’t help you.”
“You must help me, Ms. Nyte. I’d hoped you would do so voluntarily, but I took a precaution in case you wouldn’t.” He smirked, “How was your coffee?”
Darla felt a cold feeling in her stomach, a feeling of dread, as she caught the threat in his question. “What did you put in my coffee, you freak?!”
“Nothing that will harm you permanently, dear, there’s no need to call me names. Have I not suffered enough? It’s not easy being dead, you know? I have a dose of the antidote to the potion, and I will give it to you if you help me. Please find out who murdered me and help me retrieve the Spear of Destiny. Then I can rest.”
“I don’t seem to have much choice, now, do I? I think we should start at your uncle’s home, the scene of the crime. By the way, how did your uncle and the others react when you woke up dead?”
“I don’t know. No one else was there.”
“Tell me more about your uncle, his wife, your sister, and her husband. They are after all the chief suspects here.”
“Uncle Jeff has always been an eccentric, but then, most of us are in our family. You don’t become guardians of a holy relic without it affecting you. Alina is a tramp on the make, nothing more. I believe Ingrid, who’s ten years older than I am, rather resents me, the heir, but I don’t think she would have murdered me. Her husband Malcolm has always been … distant. I never knew what went on in his head.”
“Well, let’s get back to your uncle’s and start looking around. What is that stuff you put in my coffee going to do to me exactly?”
“It’s a hallucinogenic. Ancient Mayans supposedly used it to see the future. Some people say it opens your mind to unimaginable possibilities.” Franklin stood, ignoring the perplexed and worried look on Darla’s face. “Will you drive? The law doesn’t look kindly on deceased drivers.”
Darla nodded and gathered her belongings as quickly as possible, her mind counting down the minutes until she might start hallucinating.
On the ride over, Darla was increasingly uncomfortable, noticing her breath was the only sound between the two of them. They arrived at a large stone mansion surrounded by wrought iron gates. Security cameras swiveled about and turned toward the car as they drove up to the intercom. Franklin reached over her and placed his forefinger on a scanner. Darla arched her head back to stay out of his way. She noticed he smelled like sandalwood and citrus. She quickly reminded herself that the shoulder that grazed her chin was cold because he was dead, not because of the weather.
The gates creaked open, and they drove just a few feet inside when a tall man with a fur coat and skinny blue jeans held up his hand to stop them. His thinning hair was greased back, and he wore a gold ring on every finger.
Franklin stuck his head out the window and hollered, “Uncle Jeff! Is something the matter?”
“You’re not welcome here, Franklin! You are a thief! I’m filing a police report! Stay back now, don’t come any closer!” Uncle Jeff remained planted with his hands out in front of him. Darla checked Franklin’s expression, unsure if she was starting to hallucinate or if she really did see a smirk as he lowered his head back into the car.
Her gaze drifted back to Franklin’s uncle. Darla leaned out of her window and directed the mass of fur blocking the driveway. “Mister Bond… Do you mind if I call you Jeff?”
“You get away from here, you hear me? I’m warning you, Franklin!” The rings on Jeff’s fingers clinked as his hands shook, the sound crashing like thunder in Darla’s ears. She winced as she stepped out of the car. Her thoughts went … fuzzy.
She took a step forward. “Look, Jeff, I need you to step aside. My name’s Nyte, and I’m here to – oh, god. Oh, god!” Darla sank to her knees, eyes wide, as the rotting corpse of an animal slithered its way out of Jeff’s fur coat. Matted fur dripped off its skin like oil. A slimy tongue smeared itself between black, jagged teeth. A sound like bones on metal pierced the air as the creature fell to the ground and began dragging itself toward Darla.
A collision of sounds – screams, claws on gravel, dragging limbs – forced its way under her skin. She covered her ears and shut her eyes before an ice-cold slab of flesh gripped her arm. Darla cried out, tried to pull away, and then … nothing.
She woke to the smell of cinnamon. Slowly opening her eyes, she saw Franklin kneeling beside the couch she found herself on. He held a steaming cup of tea up to her.
“Welcome to my humble abode.” He smiled. “Well, Uncle Jeff’s humble abode.”
“What?” Still groggy, Darla’s words slurred together. “Wha’appened?”
“Well, you see, the thing about hallucinogens is, well, they make you hallucinate. Sorry ‘bout that.”
Darla groaned and reached for the tea. “Wait, you said we’re inside. He let us in?”
“Hm.” The corner of his mouth twisted upward. “Not exactly.”
“What do you mean, ‘not exactly’?”
“Shortly after you stepped out of the car and politely introduced yourself to nice Uncle Jeff, the hallucinations started. You fell, and my previously unwelcoming uncle was so startled by your altered disposition that he bent down to see if you were alright. Who knew you’d almost kill the guy?” Darla’s eyes enlarged as she sprayed Franklin with the gulp of tea she’d been about to swallow. Franklin reached for his handkerchief and annoyingly dabbed his pale face dry. Darla would have apologized, but since Franklin was the reason she had lost control of her faculties in the first place, she held back. “Like I was saying, you fought valiantly. Unfortunately for Uncle Jeff, he got a little too close. I’m pretty sure your punch to his throat is what sent you both into darkness, which is why I maintained my place on the sidelines.”
Darla set her cup of tea on a nearby end table that looked a few hundred years old. “Before becoming a detective, I served in the Army.” Darla stood up; although still shaky, she was ready to gain momentum in Franklin Bond’s case. “Is this the same room where you woke up and realized that you were dead?” Darla began her search before Franklin could respond.
“No, this is the parlor.”
Spying several gaudy antiques, Darla said, “Seems like you and your family really admire objects with a bit of history.”
Franklin smiled. “Yes, but we most prize the Spear of Destiny.” After perusing the room with no luck, Darla decided they should visit the kitchen and interview the cooks to determine whether Franklin had been poisoned, but before exiting the room she glanced back at a portrait on the mantelpiece. The subject’s eyes reminded her of Dr. Dawson’s.
Leaving the room, Darla stumbled and had to lean against the door frame. “Wait,” she commanded, “you want me to solve your murder, but you’re withholding facts. Why did your uncle accuse you of theft and threaten to call the police? That’s not exactly the reaction of someone who thinks you’re dead.”
“Ahh, Ms. Nyte,” Franklin chuckled, “here are the shrewd deductions you’re famous for. It’s true, I have been economical with facts. I was hoping you would solve my murder without incriminating me.”
Darla ground her teeth. Coherent thought was becoming difficult. “If you want me to solve this, give me the antidote. I can’t proceed if I can’t think.”
“Very well. I’ll give you half now, which will abate your symptoms, and the full dose upon revelation of my murderer. If you take too long, I’ll be stuck as a draugr forever.”
He gave Darla a small vial of clear liquid. She wouldn’t normally take anything without knowing what it was, but she’d never been in a situation like this. She felt her mind sharpen. “Where were you when you started to feel sleepy? Were you in this house? Why did your uncle accuse you of theft?” She had more questions plus the niggling feeling there was more to Dr. Dawson, but she had to start somewhere.
“You’re correct in guessing I wasn’t inside the house. I was in the summer house near the tennis court.” “I’ve had a bad run at the casinos lately, and my creditors were pressing for payment,” he whined. “I’d arranged to sell a couple of treasures that I would’ve inherited anyway. It wasn’t really theft.”
Darla wasn’t surprised at his attitude. She’d seen his type before. “Surely you weren’t selling the Spear of Destiny? Is that why you’re still here?”
“Do you know how much the Vatican would pay for it?” Arms crossed and frowning, Franklin’s façade of victimhood had vanished. “Anyone would’ve done the same.”
Darla was reminded of the former president thrashing in the Oval Office. His comb-over had flapped around like a wounded vulture’s wing, its white roots long overdue for a dye job. “Don’t you know who you’re dealing with!?” Trump had railed. “None of you will ever work again! Believe me!” The Velcro straps had held, but that hadn’t stopped his mouth. Nyte had to listen to that sewer-pipe overflow as she escorted his gurney to the waiting ambulance.
Why are the rich such egomaniacs? Darla wondered. If Bond is a draugr, she thought, it’s due to sheer stubbornness. Everyone owes a death, but when his came due, he’d been too arrogant to succumb.
“You can’t buy your way out,” Darla said, wrinkling her nose. “And holding me hostage won’t change facts. Your cologne won’t cover the stench of your decomposition much longer.” Franklin glared. “But you were murdered, and the culprit must be brought to justice.”
“Right. To the summer house then, shall we?” Franklin gestured. As they approached, they heard a woman’s screams. Darla kicked the door in, gun drawn. A man had a woman pressed against the wall, in flagrante delicto. Her screams weren’t of fear, but passion.
“Alina…really?” Franklin said. “With the gardener?”
The gardener’s pants slipped down farther than they already were. A metal object fell from his back pocket.
“The Spear!” Franklin yelled. “Thief!”
“What, this?” the gardener said, picking up his pants first then the object. “This is just a Hori-Hori.”
“What did you call me?” Alina shrieked.
“Not you,” he said, brandishing the Spear of Destiny, “isn’t this a weeding knife? I need it to weed the rose bushes.”
Darla stared at the gardener. She felt her mind going fuzzy again. “Doctor … Doctor Dawson?”
“What doctor?” Alina squeaked.
“D-Dawson,” Darla stuttered, pointing a shaky index finger at the gardener.
Franklin shook with fury. “That’s not Dr. Dawson, that’s our son of a bitch of a gardener who’s stealing MY inheritance. Focus, Nyte!”
The gardener stared at Darla, his eyes burning a hole in her skull. His lips slid into a crooked smirk. Darla tried to visualize his scheme: he’d seduced the distressed Alina after dinner, coercing her while Franklin slept in the summer house. “Let’s bend the rules a bit”, he teased, sensing that Alina ached to be mischievous. After acquiring the Spear, he had spiked the air purifier with Dragon’s Breath and zombie powder. Overnight the substances numbed Franklin’s senses, made him pale, ghostly cold, and clouded his perception of reality.
“I am Dr. Dawson,” he’d whispered as Franklin lay in a drugged stupor, “you have been unjustly murdered and robbed of your most precious inheritance. Seek revenge within 12 hours or forever remain a draugr. I have retained an apt detective to solve this mystery. Give her this potion, and she’ll be compliant.”
Darla’s vision swiftly evaporated into floating shreds. The sound of cracking bones on metal reverberated in her ears once again. She shifted her gaze, and the creature revealed itself anew, hauling a horrid pile of disintegrating flesh and bones.
Darla pointed her gun at the repugnant creature and pulled the trigger repeatedly without hesitation.
“NOOO!” Alina screamed.
Franklin dropped like a stone.
Uncle Jeff ran in to the room. “What’s with all the—“. The sight of the half-naked Alina, the exposed gardener, and Franklin’s lifeless body in a spreading pool of blood scorched him mad. “MURDERER!”
Darla saw only stars, spinning in infinite spirals.
Dawson pulled his pants up and sauntered out, simpering as he fondled the Spear in his pocket.