When Candace MacHugh hears her dead father's voice whispering to her from the shadows, she joins a giant organization that shares the secrets of the dead with our world. But soon she's sucked into a shadowy conspiracy tying together murders, tragedies, living shadows...and spontaneous human combustion. Is her father really dead? Is she really communicating with departed spirits? And why? If she can't find the answers in time, thousands of people may go up in flames--with her life the first at stake.
TL gives an overview of the book:
A dead man spoke to her from the shadows. “Seven o’clock,” his voice rasped, barely audible over the wind tumbling through the dry heat of late summer. “The Mint.”
Even as the wind carried it away, she began telling herself it was an illusion, a ghost speaking to her from the shadows of her own mind rather than the shadows of this pothole-laden street.
She put down the garbage can and glanced at Steve on the other side of the garbage truck. He was bending down to pick up a couple of clipped branches; if he’d heard the voice, it hadn’t stopped him.
“Hold up,” she said to him as she opened her ears, opened her eyes, opened all her senses.
Steve pitched the branches into the gaping maw of the truck, oblivious to her words. She’d forgotten he liked to wear headphones while he worked, listening to the MONSTERS OF ROCK on KXKX as he toted the trash. A real conversationalist, Steve.
A sudden movement caught her eye. It was the shadow of the garbage can she’d just put down: as its shadow intersected with the shadow of the giant garbage truck, something inside it shifted. Part of the shadow--a darker shade, she could tell, even though she only saw it for an instant--moved from the shadow of her can to the shadow of the truck. Like a fish, flashing silver just beneath the surface of a brook as it darted away.
She drew in her breath and held it, waiting. Would she see the shift again? Would she hear the voice again?
Nothing happened, and after a few moments, she was startled by a tap on her shoulder.
Steve. He lifted the headphones away from the side of his head. “Hey, Canada. Whatchas waitin’ for, Christmas?” Like many people in Butte, Montana, Steve often added an “s” to every form of “you,” whether he was speaking to one person or fifty.
She shook her head, the spell broken. “Sorry, Steve. Just thought I saw something.”
“Like something. Let’s get going.” She lifted the lid back on the silver garbage can at the curb, her eyes still checking the shadows, then pounded the side of the truck with her gloved fist two times: a signal to move to the next set of cans.
Even as they moved on, she watched and listened, hoping for another glimpsed shadow, another whispered secret.
She watched and listened, hoping to see or hear something that would tell her why her father, dead for 11 years, had just spoken to her from the shadows.
Late that afternoon, she pulled her car onto the patch of bare ground next to her trailer--her version of a driveway--and turned off her ‘72 Dodge Charger. She sat, listening to the hot engine cooling and ticking.
Yes, it had been her dad’s voice. She knew it well, even though it had been 11 years since she’d last heard it. So many wonderful memories entwined in its throaty rasp. Memories of bedtime stories, tales of Butte’s earlier years filled with smoke and noodle parlors and underground bars and people and activity. Memories of his bulky frame in the wooden bleachers, yelling at her as she stepped up to bat: “Lookin’ for a dinger, Canada! Let’s have a dinger!”
She smiled. Yes, even her name reminded her of the dearly departed Bud MacHugh, copper miner. She was born Candace MacHugh, a name her mother had lovingly picked. But her father had soon twisted the name, dubbing her Canada, and it had stuck since. In Butte, you weren’t really a true resident unless you had a nickname. Barring that, you went by your last name only, even if you were a kid.
Canada gave her head a quick shake and pulled the keys out of the ignition. Time to get out of these clothes. She walked to the mailbox to retrieve her mail (nothing interesting, unless you considered bills interesting), then walked to the trailer and unlocked it. The trailer, together with the ‘72 Charger, were the two remaining threads that still connected her to the memories of her long-dead father. To the outside world, they were both heaps of junk; to Canada, they were treasured heirlooms.
She turned the key in the front door’s lock, replaying what the voice had said. Seven o’clock. The Mint. Made sense. Her father had always loved the Mint bar, had knocked back many a stale beer there after a long swing shift in the copper mines.
The front door opened wide, an entry to the darkness of her trailer. Just inside the door, a stack of newspapers, nearly eight feet tall, threatened to topple. Next to that, a stack of magazines. Behind those, more stacks of periodicals, mailers, and inserts. Just on the other side of the door sat a broken washing machine, with clothes stacked on top.
Canada walked through the narrow path between piles, making her way to her bedroom. Along the way, she passed more stacks: boxes, boards, three old televisions, more. No one but she had been inside this trailer--no one--for several years. How many? Five, at least.
Not that anyone else would be able to fit.
On the way to the bedroom, she pulled off her denim overalls. She hadn’t received her father’s physique; he’d always been thin and hard, as if he were made of strands of cable. Her own body was rounder, softer. She had his height, his freckled complexion, his red hair, but her own body carried a bit of extra padding. None of her father’s hard, sinewy physicality.
Her mother always described her form as “feminine,” which was really her mother’s way of saying “chubby.” By that definition, she was quite a bit more feminine than her mother, as well.
She shook her head, banishing thoughts of her mother. No need to go there.
She hung the overalls on the back of the bathroom door. She had three sets of the overalls, one still clean, so she didn’t need to wash yet. But maybe she’d wash, anyway. It felt like a night to wash her clothes. Something about the day had been extra gritty.
She raked the dirty clothes from the top of the washing machine, stuffed them inside with two sets of overalls, and started the water. It cascaded on top of the clothing as she poured in detergent.
Even as she did this, she knew the extra grit she was feeling wasn’t on her clothes or her skin. It was in her mind. The voice.
Seven o’clock. The Mint.
That hadn’t been her dad. Not really. Couldn’t have been her dad. Even in a city like Butte, America, filled with all the wonders and oddities of P.T. Barnum’s most famous sideshows, the dead stayed dead. Sure, the city was filled with ghost stories, tales of miners coming back to haunt the tunnels where they’d met their bitter ends. But that’s all they were: stories.
And what about those shadows? Her eyes had to be playing tricks on her, seeing things that weren’t there or warping what was. Maybe she was getting cataracts, although she couldn’t recall a history of cataracts on either side of her family.
Seven o’clock. The Mint.
She shut the lid of the washing machine, took a deep breath, and looked at her watch. About 5:30.
At a few minutes past seven, Canada walked into the Mint. Regulars joked it was a hole in the wall, because it was, in fact, just that. In the early 20th century, when prohibition had bloomed across America, the movement had only one notable effect in Butte: it forced the city’s drinking establishments underground. Literally. More than 100 lounges and speakeasy pubs flourished beneath the streets of Butte in cavernous rooms carved from rock. The Mint was a last vestige of that, and the only surviving lounge operating underground.
It had no windows, of course. But windows were never much use in a place where drinking was the main order of business. Neon signs adorned the walls, and sawdust adorned the hardwood floors. Canada hadn’t been inside the Mint for years, but it still smelled exactly the same: a little bit like musty dirt, a little bit like peanuts, a little bit like stale beer.
It all reminded her of her father. Which was to say, it smelled great.
“Well, well. If it ain’t our old friend Canada Mac.” Joe, the barkeep who had worked at the Mint roughly since the Confederacy had surrendered in the War of Northern Aggression.
“If it ain’t, then what?” she asked, trying to hide a smile.
“Just if it ain’t.”
“How ya been, Joe?”
“Better if I could figger out where Gannon is.”
“I bet,” Canada said as she pulled up a seat at the bar. Bob Gannon was the former CEO of Montana Power Company, at one time one of the most successful utilities on earth. In five short years, Gannon steered the company toward telecommunications and, ultimately, bankruptcy. In the process, he had wiped out the pensions, savings and livelihoods of many long-time Butte residents. Gannon had since departed for warmer climes--Florida, some said--in no small part to protect his safety. For Butte, it was only the latest in a string of large companies leaving its employees, and its own lifeblood, stranded.
“How long’s it been?” Joe asked.
“I don’t know. About a decade.” Actually, she knew very well. It had been eleven years since she’d visited The Mint. Eleven years since her father’s death.
“What’ll yas have?” Joe asked, the folds of his jowled face moving as he spoke. Joe had mined once long ago, Canada had heard, but she’d always known him as a barkeep.
“I suppose a cranberry juice would do me fine,” she said.
“Do me fine, too, if we had any.”
“How about a bourbon and Diet Pepsi, then? Hold the bourbon.”
“Still one a them teetotalers, eh?
“Wouldn’t you be?”
“I should wash your mouth for sayin’ such blasphemy.”
Canada smiled, shook her head. “No, I mean, if you were me? You wouldn’t drink, would you?”
“I know whatcher sayin’, Canada, and I ain’t goin’ anywhere near the subject of yer mudder.”
“I usually try to avoid it myself.”
He held up his hands, tilted his head and shrugged. “An abomination, havin’ yerself a mouth and refusin’ to ever let a drop a Kentucky bourbon touch it. An abomination against God, I tell ya. It’s a good thing Our Lady of the Rockies can’t see you down here--”
“Okay, I haven’t missed the lectures, Joe. Just get me that Diet Pepsi.”
“Diet, even.” He spat the words, looked ready to say something else, then shook his head and wandered to the other end of the dark wood bar. Canada turned to look for the window, thinking she might get a glimpse of Our Lady of the Rockies, the statue Joe had referred to.
Wait. She’d already forgotten. She was underground, in a bar without any windows. A long time since she’d been here, indeed.
In the 1980s, a group of local people had decided Butte needed a giant statue of the Virgin Mary. People outside Butte chuckled and shook their heads at the plan, but for Butte, the city that had produced fried pork chop sandwiches and Evel Knievel, it made a peculiar sense.
And so, within a few years, a 90-foot concrete visage of the Virgin Mary, dubbed Our Lady of the Rockies, had been placed atop the Continental Divide overlooking the city. Each night, white lights bathed Our Lady in a chalky glow, and Canada often found herself looking up at the statue gleaming in the night sky, longing to run into the outstretched arms that beckoned an embrace. Or maybe Our Lady was offering the city a blessing.
Canada liked that, liked the thought someone would want to bless Butte, America. God knew the city needed it.
Joe brought her drink. She pulled out the straw. “I don’t like straws, Joe. Thought you’d remember that.”
“I did.” He was rubbing the bar down with a rag, wiping up a spill. She saw a smile creasing his face.
Canada shook her head and set the straw down on the hardwood bar. Same old Joe. She picked up the glass, drank deeply, listened to the clinking of the ice cubes shifting inside the glass, then set it back down on the counter and tapped her finger on the rim. “Make this a double,” she said.
Joe took the glass, squirted more Diet Pepsi in it from the tap’s nozzle, slid the glass back in front of her. “That diet stuff’ll make yas sterile,” he said. “Aint yas never read that anywhere?”
“I’ve indeed read such things,” she said, putting the glass down after another sip and wiping her hand across her face. She wagged her finger. “But ya shouldn’t believe everything yas read.” She smiled to herself; it was amazing, really, how quickly she could slip into and out of Butte-speak, the clipped phrases, the “yas” and the “yous guys” and the “whathaveyas,” without thinking about it. It was like a second language, in many ways. But for anyone born in the Copper City, it was really a first language, like it or not.
“Amen to that,” he said as he started dipping beer glasses in soapy water, then rinsing them in hot water and putting them on a towel.
“A lot of the guys still come in here?” she asked.
“Sure. Disco, Marky, Binkowicz, Hambone--”
She chuckled. “Haven’t seen any of ‘em for, I dunno, forever. Marky and Binkowicz still have their secret stash?” She was referring to a stockpile of mining memorabilia the two had squirreled away over several years. Canada wasn’t sure how or why the whole thing started, but it was a bit of an inside joke among all the miners. When the mines finally closed, everyone agreed Marky and Binkowicz had enough junk hidden to keep mining for another two years on their own.
“Oh, yeah, they still got the stash. Talked a bit about packing up Montana Power’s headquarters with some ANFOS, sending ‘em into bankruptcy in style.”
MPC was owned by a large international conglomerate now, and had gone through a name change, but to anyone in Butte, it would always be known as Montana Power Company. ANFOS at MPC headquarters. She shook her head. Made a crude sort of Butte sense. She hadn’t heard anyone talk about ANFOS for quite a while. It stood for Ammonium Nitrate Fuel Oil Solution, which was the cheap, fertilizer-based explosive nearly all mining companies had used since the late 1980s. She had worked with it every day in the early 90s, before the pit mines of Butte shut down for good. The only time she’d heard the term since then was in April of 1995, when a group of malcontents had filled a Ryder truck with ANFOS and parked it in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The resulting explosion had disintegrated half of the building.
Canada wasn’t sure if Joe was serious or joking about blowing up the building. Perhaps he wasn’t sure himself.
She let her eyes wander over the bar’s interior. Still the same dark wood. Still the same beer signs. Still the same smoke stains on the ceiling.
“Love what you’ve done with the place since I’ve been here.”
“Change. That’s what we’re all about around here,” he said without looking up. “So, yas gonna tell me?”
“Tell you what?”
“Whatcher doin’ back in here after ten years.”
“Actually, it’s been eleven,” she corrected.
“I know. I just didn’t want ya to feel bad because ya just said it’s been a decade.”
“I said ‘about a decade.’”
He finished dipping and rinsing the glasses, snapped off the towel draped over his shoulder, started drying his hands. His eyebrows arched again.
She wondered if she should even mention anything. But of course, if you couldn’t say anything to Joe, you were in serious trouble. Over the years, Joe had counseled more people on their problems than any psychologist or therapist in Butte. Maybe more than all of them put together.
“When’s the last time you saw my dad?” she finally asked.
“Well, your mudder, I see all the time. She--”
“I thought we said ix-nay on the other-may.”
“Okay, then. Well, I s’pose the last time I saw yer pop was maybe a week before he died. And that, as ya just said, was eleven years ago.”
She nodded her head, sipped her drink, listened to a fresh sizzle from the direction of the kitchen in the back. Immediately, the distinct smell of grilling onions wafted by. Maybe she’d head over to Muzz & Stan’s Freeway Tavern for a wop chop, a variation on the pork chop sandwich that was one of Butte’s two contributions, along with the pasty, to American cuisine. The wop chop was a pork cutlet (“beat ‘n battered,” the signs above the formica bar said) served on a burger bun; Canada took hers with onion, mustard and pickles. She loved to sit at the Freeway and look at the old posters of Evel Knievel at the end of the room. One was a mural, the other a painting of his infamous skycycle he tried to ride over the Snake River Canyon in Idaho.
The famous daredevil still visited his hometown every year for a week-long celebration called “Evel Knievel Days.” Daddy had known Knievel, even worked with him in the mines briefly. Not close, but they’d grown up around each other, known each other in the way any two young men from a rough-and-tumble town would know each other.
Thoughts of the Freeway triggered thoughts of Matt’s Place, just across the street, for malts and--
Joe’s big paw was on her hand now. Gentle. “I still miss him sometimes, too.”
Canada forced a smile. “Thanks, Joe.”
“But you ain’t answered my question.”
“What’s bringing yas back here?”
“Ah. Well. I’m not so sure I like the answer to that myself.”
Joe smiled, leaned over the bar. “Try me.”
Canada shrugged. No harm, really, and well, it was Joe. She hadn’t seen him, hadn’t talked to him for years, and already all that lost time had disappeared. It was as if she’d been in here just yesterday, surrounded by the smell of cooking onions and spilled beer, the sounds of shouting voices and sliding chairs. The place even tasted the same; that ever-present sawdust, for whatever reason, always felt like it was in your mouth. Probably why people always ended up drinking more than they should here--trying to get that taste out of their mouths.
She sighed, looked down at the dark veneer of the bar. “Well, I know Daddy’s dead.” She swallowed, looked back at Joe. “But I heard him today. He talked to me.” She chanced a look at Joe’s face, searching for a reaction. Nothing.
“What’d he have to say?” Joe asked in much the same way he might ask her what the weather was doing outside.
“To meet him here at seven o’clock.”
Joe nodded, glanced at the clock as if this was the answer he expected. “Yer old man never was too good with time.”
Butte is, hands-down, the most interesting city in the Great State of Montana; I always knew I wanted to write about this town haunted by its own past. The Dead Whisper On is my attempt to bridge the kind of Butte portrayed by Dash Hammett in Red Harvest with the supernaturally-tinged creepiness of stories I grew up with--everything from television's The Night Stalker and Rod Serling's Night Gallery to books by Stephen King and Ray Bradbury.
I write "Noir Bizarre" stories, mixing elements of the crime/mystery and supernatural/fantasy genres. Blame it on an unhealthy fascination with "The Night Stalker" and "Rod Serling's Night Gallery" as a child.