The Grisly Ghosts of Gruesome Time – Chapter 3
The Great Substack Story Challenge
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“All right, Joey,” Maureen said, her smooth voice filling every corner of the room with kindly acceptance. “You’ve been coming to our meetings for over three months. Why don’t you share something with the group?”
“I was a cop.”
Maureen nodded. "We're aware of your previous occupation. Something else, perhaps?"
“Not sure I care to do that today.”
Maureen frowned. “What about family? Siblings? What are your parents like?”
“You’re walking a fine line, Maureen.”
“Oh my gosh, tell them about little Joey!” Sam heckled from the back. “Tell them about the hot sauce incident and how your dad almost—”
"Thank you, Samuel. But I don't need any help," Maureen said, cutting through his voice like a swift katana strike in a samurai film. "If you don't want to share your past, perhaps we can discuss your future? What do you hope to do within the next few months?"
Joey shrugged. “Show I’m clean enough to get back on the force, I guess.”
Maureen walked around the rows of chairs, pressing her fingertips together and flexing them. "Yes, that would make sense. But have you considered striking out on your own? You seem to value independence both from the bottle and otherwise. Just because your fellow officers are a key part of your support network doesn't mean they have to be the ones cutting your checks."
“So what? Become a P.I.?”
Maureen offered a crooked smile. “Maybe? Food for thought.”
“We’ve had some new faces recently, so let’s try an icebreaker.” Maureen looked around the room, her gaze eventually resting on her target. “Joey. I want you to look each person in the eyes and guess what their favorite cocktail used to be.”
“That sounds highly inappropriate, toots.”
Maureen scoffed. “I hope you don’t play poker, Joey. You have some obvious tells for when you’re uncomfortable. I got permission from everyone to do this.”
Joey sighed. He definitely wasn’t asked about this ahead of time. But it beat talking about himself.
He nodded at a petite brunette in the front. “Gin and tonic.”
Her eyes widened, but she nodded. “Last wedding I went to, I got so juiced on them. Ended up dropping my pants during the reception. Both brides refuse to talk to me to this day.”
He offered what hopefully passed as a sympathetic nod and moved on to the next person.
To his surprise, he got over half of them right. And each came with a story of realization that they needed help. Some he’d heard before in previous meetings, though now it was like he could see them clearer in his mind’s eye.
Then he got to Sam. “You,” he paused. This should have been the easiest one. He had known Sam since before the force. “You… I’ve never seen you drink.” He blinked. “Anything. Ever.”
An electric kettle, a teacup set, and some fancy loose tea leaves. Joey stared at the boxes he had just unwrapped, fumbling for something to say.
"I know what you're thinking," Maureen said. "You're more of a coffee guy. But," she lowered her tone, almost conspiratorially. "Everyone likes tea. Anyone who says otherwise hasn't found the kind they like." Her smile held a such a saccharine quality to it, Joey felt he’d never need honey again.
“Uh, you’re probably right. Thanks, Maureen.”
“Plus, nobody feels smart drinking liquor out of a teacup, so I know you won’t use it for nefarious purposes.”
He chuckled. The old dame was something else.
"Anyway, I should get going. Happy two years of sobriety! I'm proud of you, kid." She sauntered away before pausing at the doorframe. "Oh, and Joey. Avoid making hot chocolate in the cups. It'll stain the material."
“Can you talk?” Joey half-yelled at the mug in his hands, squeezing the ceramic and shaking it like it was the shoulders of an uncooperative suspect in a Hollywood interrogation scene.
Silence. He set the mug down in the left side of the double-bowled kitchen sink, along with all of its compatriots. The right side, now reserved only for the talking tableware, was notably empty.
Also empty was the birdwatching journal he had bought. Not once did he see another bird with a camera. But at least now he could tell apart the yellow warbler from the goldfinch. Very useful.
It’s been three days after being told Sam wasn't on the force. He stepped over to the bulletin board in his office and pinned an index card labeled “talking cups” under the column he had created for “fantasy BS.”
Under the "reality BS" column (it's all BS, he had surmised), there were primarily people: Maureen, "Crystal Bacon," John the Banker, Paul… Sam's index card hung in the middle in the "Weird, Unexplained BS" column, along with cards for that blank check he no longer had and the disk that kept invading his thoughts.
His iPhone started ringing. He looked at the number, and while it was familiar, he wasn't aware of anyone that had a long string of 5s for a phone number. He looked up at his bulletin board, wondering if he'd need to make an addition soon.
“Hardcase Mysteries. They break your heart, I break the case,” he answered.
“Mr. Hardcase,” said Crystal. “I’m glad you upgraded to a Melón iPhone. I never would have been able to reach you on that Blackberry.”
“Well, the idea of money makes people do stupid things like buying overpriced junk from companies with awful logos. Nobody just takes a bite out of a melon like that. And another thing—”
“Mr. Hardcase, focus.”
"It's Joey. Mr. Hardcase hasn't been heard from in decades, and I'd rather it stay like that. Instead, let’s talk about your completely blank check, Ms. Whatever-Your-Name-Is."
“My apologies, Joey. And you may continue referring to me as Crystal Bacon.”
His heart stuttered. “Excuse me?”
“Like your wall says. I can be Ms. Bacon.”
Joey looked around, wondering if the room was bugged… or birded? His head hurt. “How?”
“Special privileges. But that’s not what I called about. I wanted to know how the case is going.”
“It sounds like you should know.”
A sigh on the other line. Crystal massaged her temples before taking a deep breath and continuing, “Humor me.” She stared at a pack of cigarettes on her coffee table and debated whether this was a time to indulge.
Wait… how did he… the vision of her vanished from his mind as quickly as it appeared. "I found your husband at his workplace. We're actually acquainted. But things got kind of hazy, and next thing I knew, I was buying a new phone and then went to my alc—a business meeting.”
“I know you go to group counseling for your alcoholism, Joseph.”
Joey stood. "Listen, lady, you know an awful lot for someone that claims the Earth is flat and the Illuminati exists."
“I think I can explain. You see, I went to see you much too quickly. I didn’t have my head on straight. I still don’t. Can’t even remember my own name.”
An amnesiac? “So you’re not a flat Earther?”
"I don't know. It looks pretty flat from where I'm sitting."
Joey glared out the window at a pigeon perched on a streetlamp. He waited for it to either take a deuce or snap a pic. “And where are you, exactly?”
She shrugged. And he definitely heard her do it. “You won’t believe me.”
“Humor me,” he mocked.
“I’m in Limbo.”
“That a new club?”
“No, the literal afterlife. Reception’s pretty good here, right?”
Now Joey wanted a smoke. “You’re dead?”
"Mhmm. Murdered. Memories and thoughts are still scrambled, but I remember now that my killer is working for the same people my husband is involved with. This is why I need you to get back on the case. Find my husband again and get him out of whatever the hell is going on, pun intended, before he does something stupid like trigger an apocalypse."
“Lady, I follow husbands involved with mistresses, not time-traveling shadow orgs or whatever this is. And I do it for an actual paycheck.”
“I chose you because you have the perfect combination of skills to do this, mundane and otherwise. I’ve been told you have over three years of training.”
“I was a cruddy cop for a few years, yeah. I spent half of it ditching my partner and sleeping off my hangovers in parking lots. Are those the skills you’re looking for?”
“No, I meant your training with Maureen.”
“She said she got you sober enough to start using your gifts and—wait. Did you not know what she was doing?”
“You’re going to tell me right now how you know her and everything she told you.”
A beeping rattled his ear. "Sorry, Mr. Hardcase! I'm out of minutes. The cell plans down here are sooo terrible! I'll phone you again soon! Ciao!" And then static.
Joey slammed the phone on the coffee table, cracking it.
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Text (c) 2022 by Anthony Lora.
Header image by Erica Drayton.
I should have known there was more to Maureen than met the eye!
Great job on this chapter. I’m wary of not only Maureen but of the teacup as well!