I react too urgently, Watson will know he’s got something to use against me. “You said he appeared out of nowhere?”
“Never saw him come in. Never saw him go out. Always left as quick as he came.”
Someone’s definitely been phasing back. That’s how it look for dying folks: person comes out of nowhere and then goes back into it. “Wha’d he look like?”
“I don’t remember. We never talked long.”
Bull shit he doesn’t remember. “Never? Meaning you talked multiple times.”
Watson squares his brows and nods. Barely.
“So you talked to the ghost man regularly,” I hook my thumb into his throat wound, “but you can’t even say if he was tall or short or fat or skinny? I wasn’t born”—jam my middle finger into the hole in his chest—“yesterday.” Pull him up by my thumb and finger. Old boy shrieks. “I died before you lived.”
Watson looks at me. Down the stairs. At me.
“You think you wanna adjust your answer there, Jermaine?”
“Did you hear anything?”
“Nothing but your gurgle and shriek.” Never mind that I actually heard something. “But I did hear I can run out of patience real quick.” Sometimes late folks stumble onto squats by accident. Or cause they’re curious. Or nosey. “So I’ll ask again.” Just show them my badge and they stay out the way. They got no sympathy for the shitbags we go after. “Wha’d your ghost man look like?”
Watson closes his eyes. “Average height, I guess.” Re-opens them. “He wore a mask every time we—”
“A black ski mask. Swear to God.”
“Swear to no one. You sure it’s a him?”
“Sounded like a he.”
I click my teeth. “Don’t correct my grammar.” A thud travels up the stairs. “Sound doesn’t count for shit. What a man’s voice sound like?” Better make my badge handy. “You at least see if they were white, black, brown?”
“He always wore long sleeves.”
I punch him in the throat. “Don’t fucken make me fish for answers again.”
I turn around, look for anyone coming up the stairs—probably that ranger to bitch me out—but there’s no one. Not a sound but old boy’s wheeze and blood and gurgle. And that fucking birdsong again. I don’t care if it’s Dave or Devon or any other chucklefuck in the squad, whoever is doing this, I will throw them out the goddamn window.
No one comes up the stairs and the bird noise cuts out like someone yanked a needle clean off a record. “Swear to God I heard—”
“Swear to no one.”
“I swear,” I swoop down and yank Watson up by his throat wound and stand him up and pin him against the wall, “to whoever—the fuck—I please.”
“You at least get a name for your ski-mask aficionado?”
“The letter M?”
“I think so. I never got an answer.”
“Stand for something? Like Murph?”
Watson shrugs. “If you want.”
“If I want.” I grab his bony shoulders and rush him across the landing. “I told you don’t give me any shit and yet—” I break a window with his pinprick skull. “You done giving it?” Where the fuck did that gnome go? Push his head further out the window.
Watson’s mouth surrenders a yes and I drag him back through the window and stand him straight up. I look all over the room half expecting that gnome to be standing in a corner, half expecting Murph to be throwing it at me—but nothing. Just me and old boy and the walls and the floor. Then comes the shortest flash I ever seen.
Now there’s someone standing four feet away from me. Clothes look like the gnome’s. And they’re wearing a ski mask.
“Right on time,” Watson hoarses out.
Course it’s old boy’s Ski Mask. “You really think they’re gonna help you after this? Whoever they are, they ain’t gonna let you free.” Especially if it’s Murph.
“You don’t know our bargain.”
“No he’s right, Jermaine. You’ve got nothing to hold me to our deal.”
“Doesn’t sound like Murph’s voice,” I mutter.
“That’s who you thought I was?” Ski Mask laughs. “I’m not that incompetent. Or vindictive. All he can do is make your job less enjoyable.”
Don’t think I gotta worry about them running. Save the shots.
“I used to be someone who made your job easier. I made the squat profiles.”
Former Squatter’s the only thing that makes sense. “Sorry, never got close with the profile builders.” No one else keeps tabs on us. Close ones, at least. “So I don’t know your voice.” Shit. I can’t feel my toes. Perfect time to starfish.
“Nothing personal, I know. Just like my work in the squad wasn’t. Just like this isn’t. I just got a better offer from some folks who don’t care for the justice you all bring. Never got invested in it myself.”
“Cause justice isn’t worth investment.” I take a step, I’ll fall.
“How’s your foot, Antonius?”
I shove Watson out the window and drop my badge and pull out my Security Six and fire three shots. Land one in Ski Mask’s shoulder before they vanish; the other two land in the wall behind. Ski Mask reappears right next to me and snatches my spare clip off my belt. I grab for them but they vanish before I can get a grip. I have never heard of anyone phasing this quick.
One shot left. Ski Mask flashes in off to my right and I aim as they start running toward me. They flash out again, then flash back in beside me with all their momentum behind them and crash into me and launch us both through the window. In our arc we’re somewhere over Moneybags wallowing on the patio when I finally manage to swing my arm around and stick my gun in Ski Mask’s side and fire.
They shudder and groan and in their hesitation I yank off their mask with my gunless hand. The woman’s pale white face looks familiar but that doesn’t mean I remember it from the Squad. She manages to twist both of us in a way I’ve never quite fallen before. I feel infinite space in my head, my fingers, my toes, creeping to my center. I black out when we hit ground.
It’s a bird’s song wakes me up.
Ski Mask is gone. I’ve got to get back to the late world, tell Murph and them someone knows us in and out and is gonna fuck up our justice distribution but—but that bird’s song floats to me so soft it’s like it’s meant only for my ears. The pure calm invites me to lower my gun. I do. The thought of running back to Murph turns my fucken gut. He’ll shoot me down immediately, tell me I’m being paranoid. Why the hell would I trade bird music for that shit?
Maybe I can start over here—always made something of myself in my first dying life. I don’t know if I will do it again, but that bird’s song tells me I can. So I stand up and holster my gun. Don’t know why the woman didn’t take it. I ever need to get back, I could easily find more cartridges—but I’ll never shoot myself back to the late world. I’ll start trying to find out how to phase instead.
Pre-sight and phasing? Shit. No one could cross me. But I’ll let Murph sweat a good long time first.
I could stand to die for a while.
The newest project from Matador the First, 13 Tales from the Auto Squad is an anthology series about a government agency in the afterlife that handles the other side of suicide cases. Each story will be told over the course of four installments, approximately 1000 words each, posted every Monday.