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Heron Island, British Columbia


I was fifty-four years old the first time a dead person spoke to me. Wouldn't you know it? It was the wrong one.

To be fair, he did manage to save my life. Just for -openers.

I don't actually believe in ghosts. I stopped believing in them even before I stopped believing in the Catholic church, and that puts it pretty far back. Not that many years after I stopped believing in Santa. It's just that a few decades later I stopped disbelieving in ghosts, too. My wife Susan told me that when she was in her mid-twenties, at a time when she was awake and not under the influence of drugs, her dead father appeared to her. She said he asked for her forgiveness, and she gave it.

I never knew Susan to tell a lie unless it was to spare someone's feelings, and she had fewer delusions than just about anyone else I ever met. She had been dead herself for five years now, and I still hadn't given up hoping to hear from her. She didn't need my forgiveness, and I'd had all I was ever going to have of hers, and like I said I didn't believe in ghosts. But still I hoped. So I guess I still didn't entirely disbelieve in them either.

It was about the time they are traditionally reputed to appear, too, somewhere between three and four in the morning. Despite the hour, I was, as Susan had been for her own visitation, wide awake and not under the influence of drugs unless you're enough of a purist to count coffee or marijuana.

This was normal for me. All my life I've been a night owl, and now I had a job that allowed me to get away with it, and with Susan gone and our son Jesse on the other side of the planet there was absolutely no reason not to do so. I write an opinion column called "The Fifth Horseman" that runs twice a week in The Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper, so basically I think hard for a living. What better time to do that than the middle of the night, when there's nothing on TV and nothing that isn't mellow on the radio, nobody comes to the door, the phone doesn't ring, and nobody anywhere in earshot is using a chainsaw, swinging a hammer, practicing an electric guitar or riding a motorcycle?

And what better place than my office? It's a small outbuilding that was originally a pottery studio, well-heated, soundproof enough to permit me to scream obscenities in the small hours if that's what the job calls for, though that's less important now that I live alone. The noisiest thing in it is my hard drive. It sits a whole six steps away from the house—overgrown cabin, really—which, now that's Susan's not living in it anymore, is basically just the place my coffee and food come from and go back to, and where I spend the daylight hours in a coffin of my native earth. The noisiest things in the house are the furnace, fridge compressor and cat. House and office sit together on a secluded bluff at the end of a long tire-killing pair of ruts that wind through thick woods, in an out of the way corner of an island that's forty minutes by ferry from North America, and contains a bit over two thousand permanent residents, two sidewalks, and not a single street light or traffic light. The noisiest thing on it in the middle of a weeknight is generally an owl, or a cat in love with mine.

Given this unusual tranquility, stillness and peace, this near-perfect opportunity for contemplation and reflection, naturally I play a lot of music. Jazz and blues CDs, mostly. Sometimes I sing along. Contemplation needs a little challenge, the way cookies need a little salt.

All things considered, I have an ideal existence for someone of my temperament and tastes.

That night, however, the stillness and quiet were lost on me.

That night nothing, anywhere, had any salt, or any other flavor. I wasn't writing a column, or trying to, or even trying to dream up an idea for one. I wasn't surfing the web, for either research or amusement. I wasn't reading. The walls of the office were almost totally obscured by a couple of thousand cherished books; not one contained a line I wished to reread. I wasn't even listening to music. Nearly 300 CDs lay within arm's reach; not one of them held a single track I wanted to hear. The telephone hanging on the wall beside my desk connected me directly to everyone else on the planet; I could think of none who were any use to me.

I was no longer trying to decide whether to kill myself—only how and how soon.

A perfect life without Susan in it simply hurt too much to bear. I had been denying that for over a year now, waiting doggedly for the pain to recede to a tolerable level. By now I knew it was never going to recede at all, even a little. Maybe there are no good deaths, I don't know. I know Susan had one of the bad ones.

I estimated I had at most another day or two in me.

It would call for a bit of cunning. The only thing left I could possibly give my son Jesse that he would accept from me was my life insurance benefit—and there was an antisuicide clause. So it would have to look like an accident. I was going over a short list of three finalist methods, weighing their respective pluses and minuses, when the knock on the door startled me so badly I backhanded a cup of coffee clear off the warming plate and onto the floor.

An unexpected knock in the dead of night is alarming even if you have a clean conscience—or so I imagine. I had my brain do a hasty search for Things This Could Be That Wouldn't Be Catastrophic. By the time it reported failure, a small pipe and a gray plastic film can had been rendered temporarily invisible, and I was up out of my chair, halfway to the office door, and my fist was unobtrusively wrapped around the trackball of my TurboMouse, a solid plastic sphere about the size and weight of a cueball. I can only wonder what organ directed all these actions, since my brain was fully occupied in the fruitless search for harmless explanations. Spinal cord, maybe.

Silly, isn't it? I was planning my suicide . . . and ready to kill in self defense. No wonder humans own the planet.

The knock came again as I reached the door. It was depressingly loud and firm. I could think of perhaps a dozen acquaintances or neighbors who might conceivably bang on my door in the small hours, but any of them would have done so softly, apologetically. They are, after all, all Canadians. There was a short list of maybe four friends who might feel entitled to whang away that assertively at that hour, secure in the certainty that I would be both awake and willing to fuck off for a while. But for one reason and another I was fairly certain none of them could be on-island just now.

That left only discouraging possibilities. A raid of some kind. Someone bringing the news that a loved one was dead or badly hurt. A neighbor who wanted to tell me my house was on fire. The first home invader in the history of Heron Island.

Number four was a joke; we did have a full-time RCMP officer on the island, Corporal McKenzie, but he'd never made an arrest. Numbers two or three would be bad news, but the kind I would want to open my door to. It was number one that had me hesitating at the threshold.

I had little to fear from a legitimate police raid. Nothing, really, except annoyance and brief indignity. My house and office were always scrupulously free of any seditious, proscribed or obscene materials, My hard drive never contained anything remotely questionable whose encryption I did not trust absolutely. And the contents of the little gray plastic film can, while outstanding in quality, were of a quantity nobody could reasonably call anything but personal use. By a cheapskate. If part of your job description is pissing off the powerful in the public prints, you're wise to keep a tight ship at all times.

But one of the things this knock might be was a mistake. Heron Island is about half an hour from Vancouver. The drug squad, a right bunch of cowboys, loved to make surprise busts. The trouble was, they were notorious fuckups. You probably read about the time they kicked in the wrong door, and the 20-year-old college student inside was unwise enough to be caught with a TV remote control in his hand that, in a certain light, looked not too much unlike some sort of Martian weapon; he had to be killed to ensure the safety of the officers. Who then learned that the guy they actually wanted lived next door, or rather, used to; he had moved six months earlier. If you missed that story, you must have heard about the squad that crashed their way into a house they had been surveilling continuously for days, were startled to find a child's birthday party in progress inside, and were forced to blow the family watchdog into hamburger, in front of a room full of horrified kids and terrified parents, for trying to protect them. There turned out to be no drugs or drug users present.

In both cases, an internal inquiry totally exonerated the cops of any improper actions.

If, thanks to some totally typical typo, it was those guys out there knocking on my door, I definitely did not want to open it with a weapon in my hand, even one as low tech as a plastic trackball.

But what if—as seemed more likely—it was some sort of nutbar out there? An insomniac Jehovah's Witless, say, or a tourist ripped on acid. Or a belligerent drunk, or the new boyfriend of an old girlfriend in search of karmic balance. In that case it might be better if I didn't, literally, drop the ball. I'm skinny, frail, and no fighter: any edge at all was welcome.

Most likely of all, of course, was the secret nightmare of any opinion columnist bright enough to get published: the disgruntled reader who decides to make his rebuttal in person, with a utensil. There is no opinion you could conceivably express, however innocuous, that won't piss off somebody, somewhere. It was comforting to be in Canada, where there are almost no handguns, despite everything the government can do to keep them out.

But that didn't mean that the guy who was even now knocking on my door for the third time wasn't doing so with the butt of a shotgun. Or the hilt of a butcher knife, the sweet spot of a Louisville Slugger, the handle of an axe, or for that matter the tip of a chainsaw. Maybe, I thought, I should forget my silly trackball and start thinking in terms of turning my half-liter can of Zippo fluid into a squeeze-operated flamethrower, or some speaker wire into a noose, or—

"Owww," whoever it was out there said. "Cut it out."

The voice was muffled; I could hear it at all only because he was speaking loudly. And the words were baffling, when I'd thought myself as confused as possible already. Cut it out? I was standing still, frozen with indecision—what the hell was it I was supposed to stop doing?

"Being so paranoid," he called.

I stood, if possible, stiller. A comedy voice, somewhere between Michael Jackson and a Mel Blanc cartoon character.

"You didn't used to be so suspicious."

That voice tickled at the edges of memory. Deep memory. Twenty years? No. It felt like more. Thirty, maybe. Which would make it—

Oh wow. The trackball fell forgotten from my hand to the carpet. I opened my mouth—and hesitated, caught by a ridiculous dilemma. I thought I knew who he was, now . . . and for the life of me I couldn't recall his real name. Just what everybody used to call him, and I certainly wasn't about to use that. But screw names—how could it possibly be him out there? I wanted to fling open the door, and couldn't bring myself to touch the knob.

"It's me, all right, Slim."

I stepped back a pace. For the first time I began to wonder whether I was having my own first encounter with a dead person, like Susan's visit from her father.

"You didn't used to be this superstitious, either," he said.

My words sounded stupid to me even as they were leaving my mouth, but I couldn't seem to hold them back. "How do I know that's you?"

Silence for five seconds. Then: "You never did the Bunny. But you would have."

I gasped, and flipped on the outside light and flung open the door, and gaped like the cartoon character he sounded like, and still faintly resembled.

"Smelly," I cried. "Jesus Christ, you are alive."

No question it was him. He looked much the same, only balder—but far more significant, he smelled just as unbelievably, unforgettably horrible as ever. My eyes began to water.

"I wish I could say the same for you," he said. "My god, you're at the end of your rope."

I felt I should be offended, but couldn't work up the energy. "How the hell could you possibly know that?" I demanded. "You just fucking got here."

He frowned and shook his head. "I'm going to have to fix you, first. And there's no time. But you're no use to me like this."

"Why would I want to be of use to you? Do I owe you something I'm not remembering? Look—" His name came back. "Look, Zandor, I ain't broken, and even if I was, I didn't ask to be fixed."

"I don't care. I need you to help me prevent the torture, rape and butchery of an entire family," he said, and stepped into my office.


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