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   Chapter 5 Brownie Oxford and the Ashland Affair

Brownie Oxford and the Ashland Affair: Brownie Bk1 By Valerie Gaumont Characters: 16370

Updated: 2018-03-07 14:21

Chapter 5

I still hadn't made up my mind about lunch by the time I met Swift in the lobby. I was feeling better after my shower, the last remnants of the dream washed away with the sweat from my run. My mood had also been improved by the fact that Swift had included open-backed slides with my clothing. The slides wouldn't be good to run in, but they left my blisters alone, which made me happy.

As a stop gap measure, I had used what little spare change I found in the inner pocket of my duffle bag to buy a bottle of water from the vending machine. Not only did I need the hydration, but filling my belly with water would keep it from rumbling until I could get something to eat.

Swift looked perfectly at ease as he stood slowly from his chair in the lobby. His pose was relaxed and easy. Only his eyes gave him away. They were sharp and took in every detail. They were constantly moving, searching the lobby, taking in the details of the guests and the staff. I was certain he would be able to give a full description of anyone who passed. I saw him scan my outfit, dark green, long sleeve, hooded t-shirt, faded jeans with frayed cuffs, black shoes. He nodded his approval and led me out to the car.

The car was a blue Honda civic this time. I didn't think it was his anymore than the silver Ford had been. Every time I saw him, he was driving a different vehicle. "Do you get to pick your cars or do you just grab a set of keys from a hat?" I asked. Swift clicked the button on his keychain to unlock the doors.

"Seatbelt, " he reminded me as I opened the door, ignoring my question. I got into the car and fastened my seatbelt as he got into the driver's seat.

"It was noted that several of the graves looked disturbed and this morning they took equipment in to look at them." He told me.

"That couldn't have been fun to haul, " I said, thinking of the long hike from road to cemetery and wondering if the officials noticed the disturbances on their own or if Swift mentioned something to someone.

"They used ATVs, " Swift said dryly.


Swift waited a moment to see if I had any further comments. When I kept my mouth shut he continued. "In each of the graves that were disturbed they found two bodies. One was the original occupant and one was a recent addition. The recent additions have been brought in to Dr. Harding."

I nodded, realizing that Swift would want me to talk to the spirits of the newer dead. Hopefully, he had some questions prepared. "Did Mr. Salesman speak?"

"A little, but not much. We found out why he thought you could raise a zombie though."

"Really, " I said curious. "Why?"

"Zombie is the code name we use for your file." He didn't look happy.

"What?" I asked frowning at him. "Why would you file me under zombie?"

"Because Ghost means something else." He said, the corner of his mouth twitching a little.

"Oh. Right, " I said. According to the NCS, Swift was classified as a ghost. I snorted, the name never failing to tickle me. Apparently even when they were alive, I was only supposed to talk to ghosts. A thought occurred to me. "Wait, how did he see your file on me?"

Swift lifted his eyebrow and looked at me out of the corner of his eye.

"Someone showed it to them, " I said feeling the need to state the obvious. "Well, that's just great."

"Most of your file, at least what he saw, was redacted, " Swift said, trying to be comforting even though he still looked angry about the security breach.

"How do you know?" I asked. I started picturing men like Mr. Salesman showing up on my doorstep on a regular basis. I would have to move, change my name and possibly find a plastic surgeon to give me a new face.

"I don't want a new face, I like mine, " I said out loud. Sure I wasn't going to win any pageants, but it was my face and I liked it. Swift sighed and I realized I hadn't said the bit about the plastic surgeon out loud.

"Do I want to ask?" he said.

"Change of identity, " I replied, backtracking for his benefit.

"Ah, " Swift answered nodding. "I don't think we need to go there yet. We found the file he was using. It was a copy of the office file. Your name and address are not mentioned, just your file number. There was no picture either."

"Then how did he find me? Did he just start picking up random people and testing them to see if they could raise zombies?" I shook my head and my eyes went wide as a thought occurred to me. "Oh god, the bodies aren't of the people who failed to raise the zombies before I got there are they? I really don't need that."

"I doubt it. They look like mercenaries."

"Oh, " I said, feeling relieved. "So how did they find me?"

"We think someone gave them a description and an area, but not a photo or an actual address. You may have to move to a different part of town."

I leaned back and thought about my little efficiency apartment as Swift drove. It was the same one Swift had arranged for me when I first started working for him officially. I had lived there for seven years, but it still didn't feel like home. The apartment consisted of one large room with a section separated by a breakfast bar for a kitchen and the living room sofa folding out into a bed. The bathroom was tiny with barely enough room for the shower stall toilet and sink. I thought of my apartment as a place I went to recover from injuries, not a place I lived. Perhaps it was time to move to a new place. I glanced at Swift as he pulled into the parking lot behind Dr. Harding's building. Perhaps this time, I would get to pick the apartment out myself.

The smell of Dr. Harding's office hadn't changed overnight. Underneath the astringent smell any heath care office had, there was the scent I associated with pain and secrets. It always raised the hairs on the back of my neck and made me feel slightly ill at ease. Dr. Harding met us and walked us to the morgue. Despite the colder temperature and air vents, the smell of death and decay was strong. I wriggled my nose, no matter how many times I smelled it, I never got used to the way the scent crawled down my throat and filled my nostrils like something thicker than actual air. I preferred my dead in the ground instead of laid out on tables. They were less stinky that way.

"I've finished cursory examinations, " Dr. Harding told Swift, ignoring me. "Each died at different times and in different locations. Some of the bodies show decomp levels at a few weeks, while others are a bit longer. I'd say the oldest is about six months. Some of them appear to have been buried elsewhere before being disinterred and reburied at Ashland."

"Ashland?" I asked.

"The cemetery, " Dr. Harding said dryly, not bothering to look at me, and in fact looking perturbed by the reminder that I was in the room. I had the strong impulse to stick my tongue out at his back. I restrained myself, barely.

"As I was saying, there is evidence of reburial. One of the men is missing some fingers and toes. What remains shows evidence of animal activity and I believe the missing digits were either left in the earlier grave or perhaps carried off by scavengers." Dr. Harding continued to talk of soil types and decomp rates, but I tuned him out and concentrated on breathing through my mouth. I was glad I hadn't asked Swift to stop for lunch.

Finally, Dr. Harding wound up his lecture and promised Swift a written report. He turned and left us alone with the dead. I watched him go and frowned.

"He doesn't like me, does he?" I asked.

"The Doc doesn't like anything he can't quantify, " Swift told me, walking towards one of the metal tables holding a body. "I wouldn't take it personally."

"That's why I want to be cremated, " I told Swift, joining him by the corpse.

"Because you don't want someone raising you and asking you questions?" he said, smiling slightly.

"Because I don't want Dr. Harding tinkering with my insides after I'm gone, looking for quantifiable answers." I told him. I decided not to mention that I could still raise the spirit from crematory urns as well as I could from the ground. It w

as something Swift had never bothered to test and I had the feeling such a confession would bring more work my way. I already had enough. It was only after the ashes were scattered that I couldn't do anything.

Which is, of course, why I wanted my ashes scattered. Although to be honest I was more worried about Dr. Harding than someone who just wanted to have a chat with me. I had the feeling he would put bits of me in jars.

Up close, the body looked worse, as well as smelled worse. The skin was a grayish green with lots of little black holes. Apparently wherever this man died, formaldehyde was not available. It called to mind, shallow graves in the middle of nowhere. I looked away from his face and concentrated on his clothing, it was dirty and worn looking, but it covered a host of unpleasantness, which I appreciated.

"I'm ready when you are, " Swift said, He took out a spiral notepad and a pen. In the beginning, he had tried to use a tape recorder, but all he got was static. Occasionally a breathy word would make it through the static, but often whatever words could be made out had nothing to do with the actual conversation and were just the brain's way of trying to turn the static into something recognizable. It was one of the many reasons I laughed at the ghost hunter shows and why I refused to go into abandoned insane asylums. Usually, I needed remains to call a ghost, but I figured if any place was haunted it would be either hospitals or asylums. I wasn't sure if crazy ghosts hung around or not, but I wasn't looking to find out either.

I took a deep breath and immediately wished I hadn't. I tried not to retch and ignored the stench. I placed my hand over the chest of the body. I didn't need to touch it any more than I needed to touch Mrs. Ellison. The difference was that Mrs. Ellison had a headstone with her name on it, so calling her was easy. I didn't know this man's name so proximity helped. Besides, if I just stood next to the body, Swift fidgeted. This way he could see that I was doing something.

"Hello, " I said, mouthing the words but not adding a voice behind it. The dead didn't need ears to hear me. "I would like to speak with you for a moment, if you don't mind." Politeness, at least at first, had always seemed to me like the most prudent course. I focused on the body, only this body, ignoring the others as well as Swift. That had been a trick I learned early on. If I didn't focus on just one, then all the dead would rise at once, all talking over each other, trying to be heard first.

Slowly, a vague shadowy image could be seen standing next to the corpse. I focused, concentrating on the details and his image grew sharper. It was still gray, or various shades of gray though, like a black and white photograph. Somehow I had never been able to make the sprits appear in color although with enough energy and concentration, I could allow Swift to hear the spirit and see the shadowy outline, if not the details.

The man stood a little over six feet and was well proportioned. It was clear that he was accustomed to routine physical activity. His features were plain until he smiled, and then his plain features seemed… charming. I thought it was a shame that he had died. He didn't look much older than me. I smiled back.

"I'm sorry to bother you, but my friend has a few questions he would like to ask you, if you wouldn't mind."

At my words the man's attention focused on Swift. His charm faded a bit as he took in Swift's official-ness. The man turned back to me.

"I'd be happy to talk to him for you, " the man said smiling. "Although I'd rather talk to you." He looked me over and I blushed. Swift cleared his throat.

"Why don't we start with your name, " Swift said. The man shrugged.

"Alexander Davenport, " the man told Swift. He looked at me and winked. "My friends call me Alex." Swift sighed, not amused by the flirtation. He ran Alex through the standard questions, where was he from, who did he work for, what was the last thing he remembered before I called him.

Swift had learned not to ask a spirit how they died as most of them tended to get agitated. Most would tell you the last thing they remembered before they died, but would stop a few moments before death. Some would drift off, others would change the ending. Someone who died from being run over by a car would claim that the car either narrowly missed them or that the car had put them in the hospital and they were lucky to be alive. Some would just get angry, but no one ever actually recounted the moment of death. I liked to think of it as a blessing.

Alex was the drift off kind. He remembered being shot at, but sort of drifted the closer he came to his own death. I kept my focus on Alex as Swift talked with him and I worked hard to maintain a calm, blank face. Lately, when Swift interviewed the spirits, something strange had started happening to me.

Instead of just hearing words, I would get flashes of images from the memories of the person. When Alex mentioned growing up on a horse farm in Kentucky, I got flashes of a white barn with green trim and knew that when Alex was in high school he had helped his father repair the wood shingled roof and when he was eight had broken his arm from betting his cousin he could leap across the center aisle from the top of one stall to the top of the one across.

Each time I called a spirit, the images had gotten stronger. At first they had been mere shadows drifting behind a sheet of gauze. The last time it had been like sitting in a movie theater with my own private showing of the latest film. With Alex, I could practically see the wood grain and smell the manure. I really hoped that full sensory immersion was not where this particular skill would develop. I could think of a whole host of things I didn't want to see, hear or smell, let alone touch or taste.

While most of what Alex showed me was benign, I knew many of the folks Swift wanted interviewed would lean towards the horrific. I needed to get this new skill under control fast. The problem was, I didn't know how to control it or who to talk to about it. I was certain Swift would consider it a useful skill, but there were some things I didn't want to see firsthand, so I hadn't mentioned it to him.

Swift held up a picture of Mr. Salesman. His expensive suit was gone and it was clearly a mug shot. Alex recognized him, but had never spoken to him or learned his name. As Swift quizzed him about the man, I caught flashes of Mr. Salesman speaking to someone who looked to be in charge of the band of ex-military, turned mercenaries. He was the same man from the cemetery. The one who talked to Mr. Salesman about the sacrificial aspect of zombie raising. Other than him, the thugs Mr. Salesman had brought to Ashland Cemetery were nowhere in evidence.

'Perhaps they were a later addition, ' I thought. Alex watched his boss speak to Mr. Salesman. A shadowy third figure stood next to them. He was a bit shorter than the other men. He stepped forward a little and I saw the man had black curls, very similar to mine, with the exception that they were shorter and had started to go gray. He had deep lines bracketing his mouth and fanning from the corners of his eyes. His eyes were the same shade of green as mine and even though his skin had a slight tan, there was the slightly jaundiced look about him that I was quite familiar with.

"Who is that?" I whispered, not realizing I had said the words aloud. A whisper breathed in my mind.

'Matheson, ' the whisper said in a voice only I could hear. I shivered. There was fear in the voice. Swift, still holding Mr. Salesman's photo lifted an eyebrow at me. Occasionally, I tried re-enforcing his questions with pushes of my own when we weren't getting results and Swift thought that this was one of those times. I shook my head slightly to indicate I had not had any luck.

Swift's interview wound down shortly after that and I allowed Alex's image to fade. The flirt was gone, only the corpse remained. We moved to the next body, the questions beginning again.

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