Jesse Wolford sighed and looked at the row of flashing police lights ahead of them. He should have known that he was getting pulled into a police investigation; that seemed to be his modus operandi these days. He pulled his coat closed against the cold wind that whipped down the street, then winced when it didn’t quite fit around his stomach.
His assistant, Mara Jameson, grinned. Her hair was an annoyingly bright turquoise. Yesterday, it was a bright red, which was, at least, a color found in nature. She caught him looking at her hair, and he looked rapidly away and pointedly looked down at his waistline. “You know I always gain weight during tax season,” he groused. He felt a poke in the small of his back, and glared at Mara.
“And you know,” she said, chewing her gum, “that wasn’t me.”
“I know,” he sighed. “It was the ghost of whoever pushed me here.”
Mara nodded and her eyes crossed very slightly. “She’s very anxious about what’s going on ahead of us.”
Although ghosts seemed to be attracted to him, they very rarely gave him a reason why they wanted him to go where they wanted. That was Mara’s thing — she was empathic to the spirits around him.
Well, since most of the ghosts around him seem to have been murdered, he had to ask. “Did she die up there?”
Mara seemed to listen for a second. “I’m feeling that she’s thinking no. It’s not exactly clear. Her feelings and thoughts are somewhat — unformed.”
“I don’t get it. How in the world do you know that she’s female?” Jesse asked.
Mara glared at him. “The same way that I know that you’re male.”
“So? You can see me and tell that I’m male,” he looked up at Mara. The other annoyance was that she was at least four inches taller than he was. He didn’t know why that bugged him, since most of the world was taller than he was.
Why now? He thought longingly of the pile of work that he had on his desk. It was a good thing that he enjoyed doing taxes; it was like doing puzzles to him.
“These are puzzles too, you know.” Jesse glanced at Mara. She claimed that she couldn’t read minds, but sometimes he wondered. “You want to go back to work,” she grinned. “It was in your face.”
They were coming close to the police line. One of the policeman looked back at him, did a double-take, then walked up to the line. “Jesse. Mara. I had hoped not to see you here.” He searched Jesse’s face. “Somebody pushed you here?”
The same old story. “Yes, Justin,” Jesse said. “Somebody brought us here, but the person didn’t die here.”
Justin Bowers, the police captain, looked relieved and annoyed at the same time. “Then you shouldn’t be here.”
Jesse pursed his lips and looked up at the six-foot tall captain. “You know I didn’t have a choice.” This spirit had started fooling with his computer, then kept poking his side and his back until he left the office and came the right direction. “If you could ever invent a ghost repellent, I’ll be your first customer.”
He felt a slap on the side of his leg and his hand flew up. “I was kidding.”
“I don’t think so,” Mara grinned. She shook Justin’s hand. “Personally, I love to get away from the paperwork, but Grumpy here loves it.”
Jesse sighed. “You could be fired yet, you know.”
She ignored him. “So what’s going on here?”
“You really don’t keep up with the news, do you?” Justin glanced to the side, where a couple of news trucks had been set up.
“No.” Jesse said shortly. Mara shrugged.
“This is a hostage situation. A group of young people are being held by a… a… different group of young people.” He shook his head. “It’s a weird situation.”
“How so?” said Mara.
“Well,” Justin said, “the captors claim to be a group of incels, but their behavior doesn’t pan out.”
“Incels?” Jesse said. “What the hell is that?”
Mara looked amused. “Jesse, you really need to pay more attention to modern culture.”
Jesse frowned at her.
She sighed. “Incels are the self-adopted term for involuntary celibates.”
Jesse’s eyes widened. “How can anybody these days…”
Justin broke in. “There are always exceptions, of course, but incels are white heterosexual males, who are, for the most part, young introverts.”
“Guys that live in their parent’s basements,” Mara broke in. Justin stared at her. “I’ve known a couple,” she shrugged. “They’re also rather unlikable and think that women should lay down in front of them for their sexual pleasure.” She looked disgusted.
“There have been mass murders by self-proclaimed incels, but the very definition means that they have very few personal friends. Mostly they have on-line acquaintances .”
“I see,”Jesse said, frowning. “And you said that this was a group of men holding others hostage?”
“They’re holding women hostage.” Justin looked at him expectantly, apparently waiting for him to ask the next question.
“So?” Jesse said, grumpily.
“You said he was Grumpy. I guess so,” Justin said.
Mara smiled. “It’s tax season.”
“Ah,” Justin turned to Jesse. “The group that they’re holding are a group of college aged young women who call themselves ‘The Virgins.’”
Jesse closed his eyes. “Don’t tell me.”
“They’re saving themselves for marriage,” Justin said. “Or, at least, that’s what they say.”
“You don’t believe them?” Mara said, smiling.
Justin grinned grimly back. “I’m a detective. I’m suspicious of everybody. Including you.”
“We haven’t changed your mind yet?”
“Well,”Justin said, “I’ve seen some weird things happen around you, but that doesn’t mean the same things will happen in the future.”
“What I don’t get,” Jesse said, ignoring what Justin had just said, “is why this person hanging around me thinks that I can make a difference.”
Mara looked inwards. “I don’t think that the person thinks that far ahead. I’m getting the impression that she’s somewhat of an innocent.”
“Related to somebody inside?”
“Possibly,” Mara looked troubled. “I can’t tell. All I can tell is that she’s hanging around and she’s really worried about someone inside.”
Justin looked around at the police line. The police had set up a tent across the street with various electronic items set on the table. A policeman was on a cell phone, then shook his head at Justin. “We can’t get through to anyone inside,” Justin said. “For all I know, they could all be dead.”
Mara shook her head. “Our friend says no.”
“I think,” Jesse said, “that I would have felt a bunch of spirits brushing past me, not just the one.”
“And you don’t know who it is,”Justin said.
“Well,” Justin said. “You can hang around with the police. I’ll let them know that it’s all right.”
Mara waved at the other policemen.
“How’re you doing, Larry?” she yelled. “Last time I saw you, you were on a stretcher.”
He looked at Justin, who nodded. “Not bad, not bad,” he yelled back. They walked across the street. “You’re here for the usual reason?”
“Yes and no,” Jesse grumped. He spotted a chair and sat down.
Mara smiled. “We got him out of work, and he’s grumpy.”
“Most people like getting out of work!”
“Not CPAs, apparently,” Mara said. “Anyway, no murder, far as we know. It’s a mystery spirit that brings us here.”
“So you’re just observing?”
“Yeah.” Mara looked over at Jesse, who pointedly avoided her. “Not unless we can figure out what this person wants us to do.”
Jesse closed his eyes. “It wants me to do something. It keeps hitting me on the arm.” He held up his arm and pulled up the sleeve of his coat. The skin was starting to turn red.
Larry stared at it. “Weird.” Another of the police called over to him and he excused himself.
“I’m going to have a bruise,” Jesse grumbled.
“She’s getting anxious,” Mara said.
Mara shrugged. “Hey, boss, I just report the feelings.”
“Well,” he sighed, “that’s fine, but we’re behind police lines and can’t exactly get into the house to see what’s going on.” He blinked. The pounding on his arm had stopped, which, in his experience, didn’t always mean good things.
“What did I say?” he said, plaintively.
“I dunno,”Mara said, looking around, “but you clearly gave her an idea. She shot out towards the house.”
Jesse looked at her. “Since when have you been able to follow directions?”
“Ha, ha.” She looked startled. “The spirit is back, and she wants us to do something.”
Jesse rolled his eyes. “Yeah, that’s why we’re here…” He looked startled. “Something is pulling my hand. Quite insistently.” He looked around at the police. Justin was still up front, talking with another officer. Larry had traveled over to the other side of the street.
“She wants us to follow.”
“Great.” Jesse thought longingly of the pile on his desk. “Well, the afternoon is shot, anyway. And I can always work late.”
“You work late anyway,” Mara commented, grinning. “Too late for me.”
He got up. “Let me talk to Justin.” The pulling on his hand doubled. “To tell him we’re leaving,” he growled. “So I can follow you without the police following me.” The pull let up.
Justin glanced at him when he walked up.
“I’m going back to the office. I think the person has left.”
“Getting bored?” Justin said. “You just got here.”
“I have work to do,” Jesse growled.
“CPA type work,” Mara said. “I still don’t see that that’s fun.” She shrugged. “Filing, however…”
Justin stared at her. “You actually like filing?”
“Hey,” Mara said, “somebody has to like it.”
Another policeman held up a phone. “They want to talk to you.”
“Take care,” Justin said, and walked off.
Jesse and Mara walked down the street. Mara started to turn off, but Jesse took her arm. “One more block, then we double back.”
“Right,” Mara said, looking behind her.
They walked swiftly around the block, coming up to the back of the house. “I don’t understand,” Jesse said, “why Justin doesn’t have anybody posted back here.”
“Well,” Mara said, “look at it. And,” she added, “I think our little friend has done some distraction work,”
She was right, Jesse reflected. It was basically a blank wall, with a locked door leading into a cellar. But as Jesse looked at the lock, it snapped open. He frowned. “I didn’t know spirits could do that.”
Mara breathed out heavily. “She’s desperate.”
“Hmm,” They moved swiftly into the basement, shutting the door quietly behind them.
“Just in time,” Mara said. “Ty was coming around the corner.”
They heard the lock snap.
The basement was dark, with a rectangle of light at the other end. Mara turned her smartphone light on so that they could walk across the floor. At the bottom of the stairs, they stopped. “What does she expect us to do?” Jesse whispered. “I’m not exactly a bodybuilder, and neither are you.”
“Shhh,” Mara said.
“Max,” said a young female voice, almost whispering, “you can’t do this. I’m the one you want. You have to release the Virgins.”
“Vicky,” Max said, “I can’t control the other guys.” He cursed and sounded angry. “If only you had stayed with me, this wouldn’t have happened…”
“I had to go,” Vicky said, hotly.
“Why?” Max growled. “Why did you have to go?”
Vicky was silent a second. Jesse heard a breath come in, then go out, then a choked voice. “Because I was pregnant.”
“You didn’t tell me?”
“I was going to,” Vicky said, “but I miscarried at four months.”
“Oh,” Max said. He sounded contrite. “Oh, Vicky. If you had told me…”
“I thought you would be angry. Would you have stayed?” Vicky sobbed.
“Yes,” Max said slowly. “Vicky, I love you.”
“Oh,” Vicky said. Her voiced sounded muffled. “Oh, Max.”
“That’s how I got involved with the Incels,” Max said. “I was so mad at you I couldn’t see straight. But I never stopped loving you.”
Jesse could see Mara nod her head. “Her parents,” she whispered. “The spirit,” she said, at his puzzled expression.
Jesse blinked. After all of this time dealing with spirits, he never considered that he would be contacted by the spirit of a neo-natal baby, much less that this baby would grow in understanding after death.
He guessed he was going to have to rethink the afterlife. He shook his head. Later.
“We need to get them out of here,” he said.
“We need to get all of the girls out of here,” she said. She opened the door slightly and looked. “Hey,” she whispered, holding up her finger to her mouth.
“Who are you?” Vicky whispered.
“Someone sent us,” Mara said, which was quite accurate, Jesse reflected.
“Who?” Max said
“Never mind,” Jesse growled. “Can you get the girls to this hallway?”
Max breathed out. “I don’t know, man. The other guys have shotguns on them.” For the first time, Jesse noticed the pistol he was holding.
“Well,” Jesse said, “in that case, we get the two of you out and let the police do their work.”
“You’re not police?”
Jesse shook his head and backed away from the door. He wasn’t going to explain things right now. With a backward look, the couple slipped into the basement, and padded across the floor following Jesse and Mara. As Jesse listened, the lock slid open again. He pushed the door, and saw Ty in the alley, ten feet away, staring.
“Hey,” Jesse said.
“How did you get in…?” Ty shook his head. “I don’t wanna know.”
“These two know the layout of the house,” Jesse said, and opened the door. “Don’t arrest them.” He was thankful to see that Max had left the gun someplace.
“Got it,” Ty said. He smiled slightly. “And now we have a point of entry.”
“Do your thing,” Mara said, slipping out into the alley.
Ty hustled the two couples down to the cross street and down to the corner, out of line of sight of the house. Once there, he got on his phone. Justin glanced down the street, looking startled, then back at the house. Casually, a couple of officers walked down the street as if taking a walk. Justin, after waiting a second, joined them. His face darkened as he approached Jesse.
“I thought,” he spat out, “that you were going back to the office.”
Jesse raised an eyebrow. Matching Justin’s tone, he said. “Our friend had other ideas. And now you have a point of entry.”
Justin closed his eyes, nodded, and the red spots started to fade from his cheeks. “I should arrest you.”
Jesse said nothing.
Justin sighed and went back to the front line. He got on the phone, Jesse supposed, to call more police in, or… who knows? He was a CPA, not a SWAT team expert. The other officers remained with them, eyeing Max doubtfully. At ten minutes, Jesse saw a squad go towards the back of the house. At fifteen minutes, a group of young women and young men poured out the front of the house, rubbing their eyes.
Justin, after making sure all of the kidnappers and kidnapped were straightened out, walked back down the block. “You do realize, of course,” he said to Max, “that we’ll have to take you into custody.”
Vicky grabbed his arm. Max put a hand on top of her hand and nodded. “Yes, of course.”
“Max…” Vicky said.
Justin smiled at her. “I will vouch for him, as long as he’s willing to testify against the others. I am not a judge, but I will do what I can.”
“Thank you,” Max said.
“Thank you,” Vicky whispered. She looked startled.
“What?” Justin said.
“I just felt like someone hugged me around my leg.” She looked down the same time Max did.
Justin glanced at Jesse. He shrugged and Mara smiled.
“I guess,” Jesse said, “that you don’t need us here anymore. We really need to get back to work.”
“Oh, boss,” Mara said, “must we?” She smiled at the couple.
“Don’t you have something you need to do?”
She looked down, then unfocused her eyes. “She’s already gone.”
“What?” Vicky said.
“Long story,” Jesse said, “and that wasn’t the work I was talking about.”
She stuck her tongue out at him. As they walked down the street, Jesse suddenly felt someone tugging on his arm… and it didn’t feel like a child. He looked at Mara — she was three steps behind him, still looking back at the police.
He rolled his eyes. “Mara…”
Mara focused her attention and smiled slightly. “You didn’t need to get back at the taxes this afternoon, did you?”
He sighed. He hoped this time, he wouldn’t need to call the police. “All right, all right,” he said, as he turned up the walk to a ramshackle house…