14 Aug The Haunting of Shorty Small
“The Haunting of Shorty Small”Written by J.C. Fields Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 29 minutes
Shorty Small, a man neither short nor small, slept fitfully. With the covers thrown off, perspiration continued to soak his pillow and sheets. The woman who slept next to him grew concerned and gently shook his shoulder.
“Shorty, wake up.”
Disoriented, he mumbled something unintelligible and his eyes fluttered open. “Huh?”
“You’re having another nightmare.” She placed her hand on his forehead. “And it feels like you have a fever.”
His rapid breathing slowed as he batted his eyes to fully wake up. “Damn, didn’t mean to wake you, Claire.”
“I’m worried about you. This is the fourth night in a row you’ve experienced one.”
“Just a phase, it’ll pass.”
“This phase has lasted four weeks. I think it’s time you saw a doctor.”
His right hand automatically felt the ragged, purplish one inch scar on his left wrist. The area felt warmer than the surrounding skin. “I’ll be okay, no need to waste their time. Besides, I haven’t got one here in New Orleans.”
“I’ll make an appointment for you with my primary care doctor.”
“She’s a woman.”
“Ahh, Claire, I wouldn’t feel comfortable going to a female doctor.”
“I, uh, don’t know. It’d be weird.”
The big man remained quiet.
“You don’t have a reason, do you?”
“Other than the fact it’d be weird, no.”
“You might actually like going to her. She’s very good.”
“Shorty, I can’t find anything physically wrong that would cause your sleeplessness.” Doctor Ruth Morgan pointed to the computer monitor above her desk in the examination room. “Besides a slightly elevated white blood cell count, your blood pressure, heartrate, reflexes and metabolic measures are all normal.” She turned to Claire. “Have either of you had a cold or flu like symptoms recently?”
“No. Like I told you earlier he has bouts of tossing and turning. During those episodes, he perspires profusely while he thrashes about.”
“Hmmm.” She looked at the monitor again. “Where you in the military, Shorty?”
“Yes, but I never deployed.”
“Okay.” She folded her arms. “A CT scan or an MRI would be our next best bet.”
Claire placed her hand on Shorty’s arm. “Then let’s schedule one or both.”
Small gave her a quick glance and then returned his attention to the doctor. “What good will that do?”
“It would tell us if you have anything abnormal in your brain.”
“Beside the brain itself?”
She smiled at the comment. “Ha, ha, never heard that one before.”
“No, seriously, why do I need one?”
“It could tell us if you’ve had a stroke or restricted blood flow in the brain. You probably don’t, but I’d rather err on the side of caution.”
“Okay, go ahead, schedule it.”
The doctor noticed the scar on his left palm. “When did that happen?”
“About a month ago.”
She reached for his hand and examined the ragged scar. “Did an animal do this?”
She pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes. “Really, you don’t remember? Where did it occur?”
Her frown grew. “This could explain the elevated white blood count. I need to take a biopsy. It looks infected.”
Small returned the frown. “What do you mean infected?”
The doctor did not answer as she stepped out of the room. Claire watched her leave and then turned to Shorty. She grabbed his hand and studied the wound. “Did a dog do this?”
“Shorty, you need to tell me the truth. How did you get this wound?”
“Well, it wasn’t really a dog.”
Two Days Later
Shorty Small opened his eyes when he heard someone enter his hospital room.
Claire smiled as she stood over him and squeezed his hand. “How are you feeling this morning?”
“Better than yesterday.”
“Have you seen the doctor?”
He nodded. “She breezed through here about six thirty and said I could probably go home this afternoon or early tomorrow.”
“Good.” Claire narrowed her eyes. “What else did she say?”
“Shorty, I can always call her office.”
He looked at her and then at his hands. “She said it wasn’t rabies like she first thought. They don’t know what caused the spike in my white blood cell count the first day I was here. It’s back to normal this morning. The MRI didn’t show anything strange, either.”
“That’s good news.” Claire took his left hand and looked at the scar. “This looks less angry. Did she say anything about it?”
“No. She did tell me to stay out of the swamp for a couple of months.”
“What about working for the Tourism Board?”
“Homer stopped by last night after you went home. They’re giving me paid sick leave.”
“That’s even better.”
“I thought I’d try to finish up the third-floor remodel while I’m off.”
“Don’t you think you should rest, instead.”
“And go stir crazy? No, thank you. It will be more relaxing if I’m busy. Besides, working on the remodel will keep me out of the Bayou.” He said this last comment with a mischievous smile.
The whine of a circular saw spooled down as Shorty measured the board one more time to make sure he got the measurement correct. From behind him he heard an unfamiliar voice call to him.
He turned. No one stood at the entrance to the third floor. With a frown, he walked over to the doorway and peered down the staircase.
“Claire was that you?”
Still no answer.
He shrugged and returned to the saw horses in the middle of the soon-to-be living area.
He spun around. Once again, no one was there.
“Claire, it’s not funny.” He propped the board he had just cut against the saw horse and returned to the doorway.
No one could be seen on the stairs.
The sound of a piece of lumber clattering on the floor caused him to spin around. The board he just worked on lay ten feet from where he had left it.
“What the hell?”
A cold pocket of air breezed past him heading toward the stairwell.
He followed until he reached the first floor containing Claire’s retail shop. The stillness within the space seemed unusual for this time of the day. He remembered she closed the shop to attend a meeting held by the chamber of commerce. Placing his hands on his hips, he heard the jingle of the bell above the shop entrance. The door had not opened.
“Did you recognize the voice, Shorty?”
Small picked at his meal. “No, I didn’t.” When Claire returned home late, they decided to go out for dinner. In between ordering and receiving their food, the big man told her about his encounter earlier in the afternoon.
“You said the voice was male.”
“The only person to ever die in that house was my grandmother. But her spirit’s been exorcised.”
“I know.” He paused, took a sip of his beer and then asked, “Can ghosts or spirits travel away from the area where they died, Claire?”
She put her glass of wine down and gave him a chuckle. “Did I just hear you right? You act like you believe in ghosts.”
“For the sake of not getting into an argument, I’m considering all possibilities.”
“I’m marking this day down on my calendar. What changed your mind?”
“Let’s just say I had an encounter in the Bayou. Can ghosts travel far from where they died?”
“Of course. Why couldn’t they?”
“I’ve always heard they couldn’t.”
She shook her head. “That’s a myth.”
“This whole town seems to be a myth.”
After another chuckle, Claire grew serious. “There have been thousands of first-hand accounts of individuals encountering deceased loved one’s miles from where the individuals died. So, yes, ghosts or spirits can travel.”
“So, there’s a difference between a ghost and a spirit?”
She took a deep breath and sighed. “A spirit is the essence of a living force that leaves the body when it dies. A spirit is said to be the soul before it ascends to the afterlife. A ghost is referred to as a soul who is stuck between the living and the hereafter. It’s marooned, so to speak.”
“Is that important, Shorty?”
“Don’t know. What happens to the soul of a werewolf?”
“Once a werewolf dies, its body converts back to human form and the soul is released.” She folded her arms. “Okay, Mr. Small, what’s going on? Ever since we met you’ve considered the spirituality of New Orleans nothing more than a joke.”
“I still do.”
“Can we change the subject?”
“You started it.”
Small rubbed his eyes, placed his elbows on the table and made a steeple with his hands. “I might have been a little hasty about a few things.” He pointed toward the scar on his left wrist. “To this day, I don’t know how I got this, but it was the night I killed something large in the Bayou.”
Her eyes widened and a hand involuntarily covered her mouth. She reached for his hand and held it. “Shorty, what did you kill?”
Lowering his voice, he leaned toward her. “A rougarou.”
Her gasp could be heard throughout the restaurant.
They walked a circuitous route back to her shop. Neither said a word for the first ten minutes. He with his hands in his pockets and she holding his right arm. Finally, Claire said, “A full moon occurred last week. You would have changed then if the wound came from a true rougarou. Are you sure that’s what it was?”
Taking a deep breath, Small blew it out slowly. “Yeah, it was a rougarou. I did a lot of research on it before I went out that night. A gypsy named Adriana Nika told me how to kill it. She also gave me a potion to help attract it.”
“Then you should seek her advice again, Shorty.”
He fell back into silence as they continued to walk the streets of the French Quarter. After another five minutes, he looked at Claire. “When I spoke to her, she said that if I were bitten, I would become cursed as well.” He looked at his wound. “This doesn’t look like a bite.”
“No, it looks more like a ragged scratch.”
“Kind of what I thought. Even with all the flurry of those few moments, I don’t see how the creature could have bit me.”
“Like I said, seek out Madam Adriana.”
“Yeah, probably a good idea.”
Claire trained her attention to the big man who walked beside her. “Shorty, are you losing your skepticism?”
He returned her gaze. From the illumination of the various street lights they passed, he realized his feelings for this woman were growing deeper with each passing day. “Skepticism has helped keep me alive for a long time. So, no, I’ve not lost it. But the more time I spend here in New Orleans, the more I’m learning how to accept the weirdness.”
“I’m part of New Orleans. Am I weird?” This was said with a slight smile.
“No, you’re one of the more normal aspects of the place.”
“Good, then you may sleep with me again, tonight.”
“I’d planned on something more than sleep.”
She giggled and held his arm tighter.
The Next Day
Henri Dumont tilted his head and looked at his big friend. “You’re kidding, right?”
The lanky Cajun guide leaned over and spit a brownish wad of something onto the ground. He then tucked his thumbs in the suspender straps of his faded denim overalls. “Why the hell would you wanna go back out in the Bayou?”
“I need to talk to Madam Adriana.”
“She’s the only one who knew how to find the rougarou.”
“No one’s seen it or heard from it since you went out that night.”
“I don’t like Gypsies.”
“Didn’t ask you to go. I just need to rent your airboat.”
“You remember how to get to their island?”
“It’ll cost ya.”
“Figured. How much?”
“How long you plannin’ to be gone?”
“As long as it takes.”
Dumont chuckled. “Seeing’s how it’s slow today, have it back by late afternoon and you can take it.” He smiled. “Free of charge.”
“Be sure you bring it back in one piece.”
“Goes without saying.”
An hour later, Shorty Small sat in the small bungalow of Adriana Nika on decorative pillows in the center of a large living area. A breeze flowed through open windows creating a comfortable interior despite the warm, humid day. She looked at Small and said, “We never thanked you for ridding the swamp of the rougarou.”
She smiled and reached for his hand. “Let me see your wrist.”
He offered his hand. She held it gently in both of hers and traced the length of the scar with an index finger. “This is not the bite of a rougarou. You are not cursed.”
“How can you tell?”
“You would not have a hand.”
“Good point. Tell me something, Madam Adriana.”
“I will try.”
“Can you tell me what happened to the soul of the creature after I burned the body and placed the ashes in the swamp?”
“Why do you ask, my son?”
“Because I believe it paid me a visit the other day.”
Her eyebrows rose. But she remained quiet.
Small continued. “I heard a voice call my name twice, but no one was there. A cold breeze passed by and I followed it downstairs. There’s a small bell on the front door of the shop my girlfriend owns and it rang, but the door did not open.”
“Has this happened before?”
“It knew your name?”
“Who would have used your name around the creature?”
“I don’t recall Henri or myself using our names.”
“Then how would the creature know?”
“I don’t see how it could.”
“Then the spirit is that of another soul. Let me see your palm again.”
He offered his hand and she softly held it. After several minutes of silence studying his palm, she looked up. “As I told you last time, you are a hunter. Correct?”
“A hunter of men. No?”
“I work for the Tourism Board.”
She smiled. “Yes, you’ve said that. But at one time you made your living hunting men, for money.”
“Not proud of it, but yes, I did.”
“Were you good at it?”
He shrugged. “I got by.”
She stood and wandered into the small kitchen off one side of the room where they sat. After a short interval, she returned to her pillow. She offered him a silver chain with what appeared to be a round disc and an imbedded jewel resembling a glass eye. “Are you a religious man, Shorty Small?”
“Never had much use for it. Why?”
“But you are truthful. Most individuals, when offered a talisman, will profess being religious.” She handed him the object. “This will protect you from evil spirits.”
“What evil spirits?”
“The spirits of those you’ve hunted.”
The grin became a frown. “Excuse me?”
“Did these men deserve to die?”
Tilting his head to the side, Shorty debated within himself what to tell this woman. After a slight pause, he decided on the truth. “As far as I was told, yes, they did.”
“What were their crimes?”
“Some victimized children, others their girlfriends or wives. The majority were murderers or thieves who escaped justice.”
The old woman nodded as she reached for his hand again, palm up. She studied it carefully and then looked at him. “I sense you are a man of your word, Shorty Small. Someone my people can trust. Spirits who are caught between this world and the next may try to harm you. Wear this talisman to protect yourself and the woman you love.”
“How did…? Never mind.” With his free hand, he held up the necklace and stared at the emerald eye.
“Shorty, there is one more task you must complete. If you can identify who this spirit is, you must do one thing.” She told him.
He nodded as she spoke. When she finished, he asked, “May I seek your guidance again, someday?”
“Yes, you may. But it will be sooner than you think.”
Two Weeks Later
With the framing part of the third-floor remodel complete, Small ran electrical wiring to the various rooms. The previous week, a licensed plumber installed PVC pipes and copper tubing for the master bathroom. As twilight progressed outside, Small checked his watch. With a frown, he walked down stairs to the shop and found it empty. Claire never closed the store this early. He retrieved his cell phone from his back jean pocket and pressed the send icon below her number. No answer.
He walked out the rear door where they parked their vehicles. His Ford Escape remained in its normal spot, but Claire’s Chevy Equinox spot remained empty. He pulled out his cell phone again and called her one more time. On the fifth ring, he heard a distant metallic voice answer. “Shorty Small.”
“Who is this?”
He heard thunder in the background and then a crackle of static.
“I have Claire.”
“Where the hell is she?”
The static laced voice said, “Claire’s air is scarce. Rush you must or she will be no more.” The call ended and Small ran back into the building.
“OnStar, how can we assist?”
“I need a location of a Vin number.” Small recited the seventeen characters and Claire’s pin number. He continued. “This is an emergency.”
“Just a moment, sir.”
Shorty Small sat in his Ford Escape and waited. His left heel bounced on the floor mat.
“Sir, we have a notification of the vehicle’s airbags deploying a few minutes ago southeast of New Orleans. First responders are enroute. Do you have a GPS unit?”
“Yes, give me the coordinates. Can you communicate with the occupant?”
“Please let the first responders know her fiancé is enroute. She may be seriously hurt.”
He ended the call and backed out of his parking slot.
Highway 39 follows the Mississippi River south until it ends a few miles from the Gulf. As Small rounded a corner, flashing lights and numerous first responder vehicles could be seen to his left. In amongst these SUVs and trucks, he noticed Claire’s Equinox, the front smashed and resting against a telephone pole.
Sliding his Ford to a stop, he rushed out of the vehicle and encountered a sheriff’s department deputy he knew from his work with the Tourism Board. The man stopped him and said, “She’s alive, Shorty, but hurt.”
“She’s stable and getting ready to be taken to a hospital.”
Small’s eyes did not wander from the gurney being loaded into an ambulance. “Do you know what happened, Cliff?”
The St. Bernard Parish deputy sheriff shook his head. “She hasn’t spoken to anyone yet. There isn’t a lot of traffic this far south. When we first got here, she was barely breathing, they got her out of the vehicle and stabilized her.”
Small watched as the ambulance spun up its siren and accelerated toward the north. “What hospital, Cliff?”
“University Medical Center.”
“Thanks, I’ll follow the ambulance.”
“Uh, Shorty, do you know why she would be this far out in the boonies?”
“No, but I intend to find out.”
The Following Morning
Small dozed in the chair next to Claire’s hospital bed. After telling the night nurse he and the patient were engaged, she relented and allowed him to stay in the room. Around four in the morning, he heard. “Shorty, is that you?”
He stood and moved next to the bed. “Yes, Claire.”
In the dim light of the room, he could see her smile. “Good. We have to stop meeting like this.”
With a chuckle, he reached for her hand. “What happened?”
“I don’t know. I was in the shop and got a call from someone claiming they owned some rare gem stones I needed to look at.”
“What did the voice sound like?”
She shook her head. “It was a bad connection, there was so much static I could barely understand what they said.”
“I think so.” She paused and squeezed his hand. “The address he gave me didn’t exist, so I was headed back. I turned a corner and saw someone standing in the middle of the road. I remember swerving to miss them. Everything else is blank until just now.”
“It’s been almost fifteen hours. You’re banged up pretty bad. Let’s go back to the voice. Did it sound like it was a long way off?”
A nod became his answer.
At that moment, a nurse walked into the room. “Good to see you awake, Ms. Honoré. Your fiancé has not left your side since you arrived.” She busied herself with the things nurses do as Claire stared at Small.
When the nurse left, she said, “Fiancé?”
Small shrugged. “Had to tell them something so they’d let me stay.”
“Hmmm.” She closed her eyes, rested her head on the pillow and smiled ever so slightly.
At a few minutes after seven, Claire’s doctor entered the room. “How are we feeling this morning, Claire?”
“I have a headache and my side hurts, Doctor Morgan.”
“That’s because you have a slight concussion and four broken ribs.”
Small stood off to the side with his arms folded.
The doctor felt Claire’s wrist as she studied the vital signs monitor. “Any dizziness?”
“On a scale of one to ten, how bad?”
“Think you can stand?”
She shook her head. “I tried earlier, had to use the bed pan.”
“Okay, I think I’ll keep you here for another day. We’ll revisit going home tomorrow.” She turned to Small. “I understand you’ve been here all night.”
The big man nodded.
“Go home and get some rest, she’ll be busy until mid-afternoon with tests. They’ll take good care of her.”
Small looked at Claire. When she nodded, he followed the doctor out of the room. When the door closed and they were in the hall, Doctor Morgan said, “The broken ribs are going to cause her to be uncomfortable for a while. She’s going to need assistance with everything. Bathing, using the restroom, dressing, can you provide it?”
“That’s the plan.”
She patted him on his chest. “Good, now go home, relax and get some rest. You’re going to need it.”
After a long hot shower, Shorty stared into the mirror and rubbed his five-day old beard. He spread shaving cream over his whiskers and began to scrape them off. After several strokes, he looked down to rinse the razor. When he raised his gaze back to the mirror, the face of a long dead mark stood behind him staring at his image.
The specter’s lips moved. “You’re next, Shorty Small.”
Small whirled around. Empty space and a cold pocket of air greeted him, causing him to shiver. “Son-of-a-bitch.”
He turned to check the mirror again. Nothing, only his shaving-cream-covered face returned the gaze. He finished shaving, washed off the remaining foam and returned to the bedroom to dress.
An hour later, he sat in the chair next to Claire’s hospital bed watching as she slept. Her chest rose and deflated in a slow rhythmic pattern. Occasionally her face would grimace as the broken ribs made their presence known.
A blueish-purple bruise could be seen on her forehead. It disappeared beneath her hairline. Under her eyes, dark circles spread down her cheeks revealing more of the trauma she experienced as her Chevy struck the telephone pole.
With each passing second, his anger grew as he watched her sleep. He stood and pulled out his cell phone.
Homer Lacroix answered. “Heard about Claire. How is she?”
“Alive. I need a favor, Homer.”
“Sure, what is it?”
“I have to be out of town for a day or so. I need to hire a nurse to stay with Claire while I’m gone.”
“No problem. When?”
“She’s probably going home tomorrow morning. As soon as I can get her settled, I’m heading out.”
Two Days Later
A simple white gravestone marked the burial site of one George Russell. The date of his death and name were the only inscriptions visible. Having spent most of his life in prison for petty theft and burglary, he also held the distinction of being a sexual predator and child molester.
Shorty Small stood over the grave and remembered the hit.
A heavy drizzle kept everything wet. The glare of street lights dimmed as the moisture swallowed what little illumination they provided. He stood in the recesses of an alley across the street from a honkytonk bar on the southside of Chicago near Englewood.
A suppressed Ruger SR22 remained hidden in the pocket of his rain parka. The weapon, his go-to-gun for these types of assignments, provided a bit of solace. Waiting for his marks to emerge from a bar, office building or where ever they might be, was always the hardest aspect of his chosen profession. Tonight’s cold light rain made it miserable.
A loner by habit, Small rarely talked to anyone except the individual who assigned him his jobs. He knew nothing of the man and over the course of seven years, could remember less than two lengthy conversations. Their normal pattern was to meet on a park bench in Grant Park near Lake Michigan.
The man would be there reading a newspaper. If the paper was folded in his lap, Shorty would continue to walk. If the paper was open and a large manilla envelope lay on the bench beside him, he would sit. After two minutes, the man would fold the paper, stand and walk away. The envelope would remain. Seeing the envelope, Shorty would pick it up and pretend to try to return it to the man who would already have disappeared.
That night’s assignment, George Russell, could be classified as just another job. Nothing special about him other than he was a child molester and a sexual predator. Shorty’s conscience would remain clear after completion.
At five minutes before one a.m., the mark walked out of the bar. After looking up and down the street, he bent his head and lit a cigarette. The only thing Small remembered thinking was, while cigarettes are bad for your health, a silenced pistol is usually worse.
The man turned to his right and walked north. After a few moments, Shorty followed. Five blocks later, Russell crossed the street and saw Small hunched over and walking in the rain. He stopped to let the big man pass. As he did, Small pulled the Ruger and leveled it even with Russell’s forehead. The gun spat twice and Shorty kept walking. His pace never changed. The image of the surprised man’s face would remain with him for a long time.
Now, a decade later, standing over the grave, his anger flared. This was the creep who caused Claire’s accident.
Bending down, the ex-hitman dug beneath the grass and filled a Ziplock bag with dirt from the grave site.
Without another thought, he stood and returned to his rental car for his trip to the airport.
Twelve hours later, he arrived at the second-floor apartment above the retail shop he shared with Claire.
“How are you feeling this morning?”
Claire smiled as Small handed her a cup of coffee. “Better now that you’re home.”
“She wasn’t that bad, was she?”
“No, but I would rather have you here. I feel safer.”
He touched the bruise on her forehead. “This looks better.”
After taking a sip of her coffee, Claire shook her head. “It looked worse to me.”
“That’s because you’ve never had that severe of a bruise. Trust me, it’s looking better.”
“Where do you have to go today?”
“Thought I’d stay here and work on the third floor. Do you need to go somewhere?”
She shook her head slowly and sipped her coffee again. “No.” After a lengthy pause, she continued. “I’m thinking about selling the shop and the building.”
He folded his arms. “Okay. What are you planning to do after you sell the shop?”
“I really don’t know, Shorty. This place is starting to scare me. My grandmother died here, ghosts seem to have inhabited the place and I keep getting hurt.”
“This shop is all you’ve ever done, Claire. Besides, I haven’t finished the third floor.”
“Doesn’t matter. I spoke to a real estate broker the other day. She said we could get at least a million two for the entire building. Even with the 3rd floor unfinished.”
He sat on the side of the bed and kept his attention on her. “What am I supposed to do if you sell this place?”
“We buy something together, silly.”
“Claire, I’m not much of a catch. You might want to rethink your options.”
She shook her head. “I have thought about it. In fact, it’s all I’ve thought about for the past month.”
“It’s your building, you need to do what’s best for you.”
“Best for us, Shorty.”
“Claire, I can live anywhere. If that’s what you want to do, I’m good with it.”
She smiled and reached for him. With a grimace, she stopped when her ribs delivered a sharp reminder about being broken. After the pain subsided, she said, “That reminds me, I need to buy a new car.”
“Let’s make sure it has OnStar.”
“It saved your life.”
Four Weeks Later
“I like the place, Shorty.”
“Works for me, too. I checked. This part of East Carrolton was above the flood waters of Katrina.”
“Only you would check on that.”
He shrugged. “Doesn’t hurt to know.”
She hugged his arms as she surveyed the living area. “Let’s make the offer you and I discussed.”
“Fine with me. Why don’t you go to the car and call the agent. I want to check on something while you’re talking to her.”
Once she left, Small remained alone in the empty house. He pulled the Ziplock bag out of his coat pocket and sprinkled dirt from George Russell’s grave across the front door sill. He repeated the process on the two other exterior doors. He then joined Claire outside.
Since returning from his trip to Chicago, the ghost of George Russell remained absent. While the thought of burning sage on all floors of Claire’s building seemed silly at the time, it appeared to have helped keep the specter away.
He leaned against the front fender of Claire’s new Chevy Blazer while he listened to her discuss the house with the real estate agent. With his arms folded, he surveyed the property. Above the front porch, his attention was drawn to one of the Creole Cottage style home’s dormers. Through the glass he could see the image of George Russell, his eyes black orbs, and he appeared to be laughing.
Small took another tour of the unfinished third floor, making sure he left no tools behind. He took pictures of each room and then headed to the second floor. Everything there had been packed and transferred to a moving van. It now traveled toward their new house. He made one last swing through the empty rooms, taking pictures of each.
On the retail floor, everything remained as is, the new owner having purchased both the shop and building. Just as he reached the bottom of the stairs on the first floor, he heard a crash and the sound of breaking glass. A high-pitched laugh followed and another display case collapsed to the floor.
“Shorty Small, Shorty Small, you will never be rid of me, Shorty Small.”
“George!” Small’s voice boomed in the now quiet first floor. He stood on the bottom step of the staircase. “Do I have your attention?” He held the bag of dirt from the grave above his head. “This soil is from your grave in Chicago. Begone or it will cover your spirit here in New Orleans. Trapping your soul for eternity.”
He could not believe he had just spoken the words Madam Adriana had instructed him to say. Standing perfectly still, he did not hear a sound or detect a cold breeze. After ten minutes of quiet, he walked to the back door, got in his car and drove away from the French Quarter.
Arriving at the new house just as the moving van drove away, he entered and found Claire unpacking dishes in the kitchen. She smiled as he walked in. “Did we get everything from the building?”
“You could say that.”
“Let’s play it safe. Why don’t you burn some sage in all the rooms. You know, just in case.”
“I don’t believe in all that crap.”
“Of course, you don’t. Then why did the second-floor smell like sage for the past month.”
“I like the fragrance.”
“Why couldn’t we have met at our regular diner in the French Quarter, Shorty?”
“This place has better coffee and beignets. Plus, their po-boys are excellent.”
Six-foot-five, rail thin, hawk nose and long curly salt and pepper hair, Homer Lacroix sat across from Small in the café a few blocks from the house Claire and he recently purchased. “Since I’m the one who has to drive the furthest, you’re buying.”
Their food arrived and LaCroix asked, “How’s the new house?”
“Claire not scared anymore?” He took a bite of the shrimp po-boy and his eyes widened. “You’re right, these are better.”
“She’s fine, Homer. Why the meeting?”
“Did you hear about Claire’s old building?”
Since he was in the middle of chewing, Small shook his head.
“Burned last night.”
Lowering the sandwich, the big man wiped his mouth and swallowed. “Do they know why?”
“Fire marshal said the blaze started on the third floor. They believe it was an electrical fire.”
Small laughed out loud. “Bullshit. The wiring up there wasn’t connected to anything.”
LaCroix raised an eyebrow. “You mean you didn’t finish hooking it up?”
“Not unless the new owners did. Homer, when Claire decided to sell the place, I stopped. The only thing I did was run wiring to the main living area. I hadn’t even stripped the wires for the connection boxes, yet.”
“Do you have proof?”
“New owners believe someone sabotaged the building. Since you were the last one there, fingers are being pointed at you.”
Small pulled out his cell phone. He opened the gallery and showed it to LaCroix. “Thumb your way through those. Note the time stamp on the pictures. I took them just before I left. I’ve been with Claire ever since. That, sir, is my alibi.”
Handing the phone back to the big man, LaCroix smiled. “I told them you didn’t do it. Can you send those to me?”
“I can.” Leaning back in his chair, Small asked, “When did this happen?”
“Over the weekend.”
“That would have given the new owners plenty of time to screw something up in the wiring.”
“It would. But they left town after the closing and didn’t return until yesterday.”
Folding his arms, Small narrowed his eyes. “Lots of homeless people in the French Quarter, Homer. If the building was unoccupied, someone broke in and started the fire.”
“That’s the other theory the fire department’s working with.” He paused. “Tourism Board has a job for you.”
Returning to his sandwich, Small remained quiet as he chewed.
“They want you to find the person doing all the vandalism that’s been going on in the French Quarter.”
“Thought they had all kinds of security camera’s around there.”
LaCroix leaned over the table and said in a very low voice. “Security cameras are catching the vandalism as it’s being done.” He handed his phone to Shorty. “Only picture of the vandal is this one.”
Small studied the blurry image. The black orbs for eyes identified the figure. “They have an image of the guy, why not turn it over to the police?”
“Police can’t identify him from this grainy picture and, as usual, are dragging their feet on the investigation.”
“It’s probably the same person who set Claire’s old building on fire.”
“That’s been suggested as well.”
“Homer, are you telling me they want me to find this person and get rid of him?”
“I knew you were a quick study.”
“I need to fly to Chicago, that’ll be extra.”
“The answer to who this guy is might be there.”
“Not following you, big guy.”
“Take my word for it, the answer is in Chicago.”
“Okay, then, no problem.”
Taking another bite of his sandwich, Small shook his head and mumbled. “Shit.”
The big man spent the next day in the library of Tulane University. Carmen Fowler, PhD in anthropology at the school met him there after her last class of the day.
“Shorty Small, what has the Tourism Board got you doing this time?”
She chuckled. “Seriously?”
“Isn’t that like chasing rabbits.”
“Rabbits would be easier.”
“I thought you’d already done that for them.”
“That was a witch.”
“Oh.” She smiled and led him out of the library. “Let’s talk outside.” As they strolled the campus, she continued. “Who’s the ghost?”
“A criminal named George Russell. He’s buried in Chicago.”
She frowned and shot a quick glance at him. “You actually know who’s ghost it is?”
He nodded. “I dealt with him in Chicago. He showed up in my mirror a few weeks ago.”
“So, you know him?”
“I don’t know him, but I’ve dealt with him.”
“Do you know what his crimes were?”
“Child molester, sexual predator, and spent most of his adult life in prison.”
“Nice.” They walked in silence for a few moments. “Does he have any relatives?”
“No idea. Why?”
“You’ll need something personal of someone he loved. Preferably a girlfriend or wife.”
“Shorty, if you need to catch a ghost, you’ll have to have bait.”
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I discovered this afternoon he was never married. So, that means girlfriend.”
“Or, think about it Shorty, if he was a sexual predator, he might have had an obsession with someone. That would probably work as well.”
The big man displayed a slight smile. “Yes, professor it just might. In fact, it might work better.”
They continued walking and talking for another hour.
“Who did you say you’re with?”
Shorty Small smiled. “Private investigator from New Orleans, Ms. Newman.”
The petite woman looked at the business card handed to her by the big man. “Well, he’s not dead. I don’t care what they say. I’ve seen him. When I do, he’s staring at me like he did that night he assaulted me.”
“So, you don’t believe he’s dead?”
She shook her head rapidly. “Hell, no. I see him all the time. Sometimes he’s standing on a street corner watching me as I drive by. Sometimes I see him in the grocery store. Creeps me out. I went to the circuit court to get a restraining order, but they laughed at me. Hard to get an order if the court believes the SOB is dead.”
“He’s been spotted in New Orleans, as well.”
“Whatever.” She paused and took a drag on her cigarette. “So, why are you here?”
“Ms. Newman, may I call you Beverly?”
“If you want to.”
“Beverly, this may sound odd, but do you have anything personal he would recognize?”
She took another drag and stared at Small while she blew the smoke out. “Are you some kind of pervert?”
With a smile, Small shook his head. “No, I was hoping you might still have a necklace or bracelet he would recognize.”
She remained quiet as she studied the floor of her apartment. “He ripped them off of me, I don’t know what happened to them.” After a deep breath, she looked up. “I don’t know why, but I kept the bra. Do you want that?”
“If you’re willing to part with it.”
“You’re welcome to it. Not sure why I kept the damn thing in the first place.”
Beverly Newman left the living area of her apartment and disappeared. She emerged a few moments later with a pink laced bra. “At one time, this was my favorite. I’ve never worn it again. I’ll put it in a sack for you.”
She handed him the garment, now hidden by a plastic Target bag.
“Thank you, Beverly. I’ll return it when we’re done.”
“Don’t worry about it. I don’t want it back. Just put him in jail for the rest of his life.”
“That’s my goal.”
The clerk at the UPS Store looked at the scale. “Sixty-five pounds. What’s in it?”
Small smiled. “Dirt.”
Looking over his glasses at the big man the middle-aged clerk said, “Did you say dirt?”
“Yes, I said dirt.”
“Sir, it will cost you eighty-five dollars to ship to New Orleans.”
“That’s okay.” He offered him an American Express card from the Tourism Board.
“This must be some kind of special soil.”
“Yes, very special.”
“Okay. It should be there on Friday.”
Shorty Small walked out of the UPS Store and checked his watch. Four hours until his flight back to New Orleans. Time to return to the airport.
The sun poured through the east-facing window in the bedroom he shared with Claire. Small reached over, but her side of the bed was empty. He glanced at his watch on the night stand and saw the time to be a few minutes past seven. As he stood, he smelled the familiar odor of her blend of freshly ground coffee.
When he entered the kitchen, she was staring out the window above the sink. “Coffee smells good.”
Turning, she smiled. “Just finished brewing.”
“You’re up early, what’s going on?” He reached for a cup in the cabinet and filled it with the dark liquid.
“I’ve been thinking.”
“Last time you did that we moved.”
She smiled and took a sip of her coffee. “I know.”
He remained quiet waiting for her to continue.
“The house is paid for and we have plenty of money to keep us going for a few years. Tulane is only a few blocks from here.”
“Let me guess, you want to go back to school.”
“Is that silly of me, Shorty?”
“Nope. It might be your last chance. What are you interested in doing?”
“Claire, you don’t have to go to someplace like Tulane to become a Gemologist.”
She had turned away from the window as she spoke to him. Suddenly the image of George Russell appeared from behind the glass. His eyes resembled empty black orbs and he snarled with bared teeth. The window rattled, which drew Claire’s attention. By the time she turned around, the ghost no longer appeared in the window.
“What was that, Shorty?”
Returning to their bedroom, Small entered the bathroom, locked the door and stared at his own image in the mirror. His appearance startled him. Puffy dark circles under his eyes appeared where none were before. Even during the loneliest days as a hit-man, his appearance never looked this haggard. Getting on the bathroom scales, he noted his weight down by twenty pounds. As he turned on the shower, he mumbled to himself, “Gawddamn George Russell, your days are numbered.”
A knock at the door reminded him of it being locked. When he opened it, Claire stood in front of him, her robe open. “You look like you could use your back scrubbed this morning.”
The Next Day
Small eased the airboat onto the island in the middle of the Bayou. Madam Adriana stood waiting for him as he secured the boat with a rope.
“I take it you have returned to discuss the spirit which haunts you?”
“That’s correct, Madam Adriana.” He handed her an envelope which she accepted. “That is a small token of my appreciation for your help these past few months.”
She slipped the package into a pocket of her dress without looking at the contents. “Let us convene this discussion inside.”
He followed the diminutive woman back to her cottage in the small village. When they were seated on the pillows, she raised her hand, palm up. Shorty placed his left hand there. After a few minutes of studying his wound, she released it.
“You wish to know how to capture the spirit of the one who haunts you. Yes?”
After taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and slowly exhaled. “You have dirt from his grave, correct?”
“You have an article from someone he loves or obsesses over, correct?”
She stood and left the sitting area of the house. When she returned, she held a metal container the size of a large shoebox. The vessel featured swirling colors painted on all sides. The pattern reminded him of the colorful dress she wore.
As she handed it to him, she explained. “Place this box in the middle of a room and fill it half way with the dirt you collected. Surround it with candles and turn the lights off in the room.”
“What are the candles for?”
“First, they will attract the spirit. Secondly, they will tell you when the spirit is near the box.”
“You must be vigilant, Shorty Small. The spirit will suspect you are setting a trap for it. You told me last time we met you are not a religious man.”
“I said I didn’t have much use for it. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in God.”
The old woman smiled. “Then this spirit will test your faith. Do you still wear the talisman I gave you?”
He pulled it out from under his shirt.
“Then it cannot harm you physically. It will try to pretend it can, but it cannot.”
“Did you acquire an infrared thermometer?”
“Good. Spirits are pure energy, they feed on the surrounding heat to survive. You have told me you have felt the cold air when a lost soul passes, have you not?”
“This is the key to capturing it.” She proceeded to tell him how.
When she finished, he asked, “When I have apprehended the spirit, what then?”
“Bury it on sacred ground.”
“Kind of hard to do in New Orleans, cemeteries are above ground.”
“Place the box in a crypt within a church.”
“What kind of church?”
She handed him a small piece of paper. “Contact this individual and show her your talisman. I will let her know to accept the box without question. She will know what to do with it.”
The Following Night
A detached garage behind the new home of Claire Honoré and Shorty Small became the location for capturing the ghost of George Russell. Small placed the colorfully decorated box in the middle of the building’s floor. He then scooped enough of the dirt collected in Chicago into the empty container to fill it halfway.
With this accomplished, he placed candles in a circle around it and lit them. He then checked the batteries of the infrared thermometer gun and turned it on. With this accomplished, he sat on a wooden high-back chair and waited.
He watched a full moon rise in an east-facing window until it rose out of sight at the top. He neither checked the time nor did he move. With Claire at a friend’s house for the night, he did not have to worry about her.
By his guess, the time was past midnight when he sensed a change in the surrounding air. The window facing the west rattled, and he felt a cool breeze pass him by and then the east window rattled.
He took a slow breath as he calmed his nerves.
“Shorty Small.” The voice was tinny and angry.
The cool breeze blew past him again.
“Shorty Small.” The voice contained more anger.
“What do you want, George Russell?” His tone defiant and loud.
With a grin, Small shook his head. “Can’t have it.”
A snarling hooded ghoul appeared in front of him, laughed and flew past. Small closed his eyes as the image shot by him. The air grew colder. He could feel his heart thumping, but he kept his cool.
Turning on the infrared thermometer, he pointed it at the box. The ambient temperature within the container read seventy-two degrees. Small called out. “You can’t scare me, George. You’re the one who should be scared.”
A macabre cackle could be heard and the windows rattled again.
The image of George Russell appeared in front of Small, its face inches away. The eyes were once again black orbs, and his breath smelled of sulfur as it laughed.
Pulling Beverly Newman’s bra out from under his jacket, he tossed it into the box. The image of George Russell flew back and watched the article of clothing land on top of the soil from his grave.
A mournful cry from the ghost filled the room. Small watched as the candle flames all leaned to the right as if a wind circled the container.
Pointing his infrared thermometer at the box, the temperature now read close to freezing. Without hesitation, he rose and quickly placed the lid securely on the box and took it to a work bench. A muffled scream could be heard from within. Placing an anvil on the lid, Small used a soldering iron to seal the box all the way around. Removing the anvil, he sprinkled salt on the lid and sealed the grains in place with clear packing tape.
The screams from within the box grew louder.
With the container sealed, Shorty Small put the box in his SUV and drove to the address given to him by Madam Adriana.
The old nun who waited outside the tomb watched him approach.
“Are you Shorty Small?”
She reached for the box, which he handed to her.
Without another word, the woman entered the ancient concrete structure behind her. The last time he saw the box was when the sister placed it in a hole in the wall within the mausoleum. He watched her seal the space and say a few words he could not hear. She then made the sign of the cross and returned to his location outside. He handed her an envelope and like Madam Adriana, she placed the package in a pocket of her cloak without opening it.
He said, “Thank you.”
She nodded and closed the door to the crypt. Once this was done, she walked past him and entered the small church without exchanging any other words.
Shorty Small slept soundly until noon when he woke with a start. Claire’s side of the bed remained empty. Suddenly he remembered she would be back by mid-afternoon. As was his habit developed over the course of the past few weeks, he glanced at the wound on his left wrist. The scar was now barely visible.
As he studied it, his cell phone chirped.
“Shorty, it’s Homer. We need to meet as soon as possible.”
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableCraig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
🔔 More stories from author: J.C. FieldsPublisher's Notes: N/A Author's Notes: N/A
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