September 14, 2015
Andrew Roth was tall and slender, with short brown hair, big green eyes, and a wide mouth - his was a pleasant, open face, a face you liked immediately. He smiled broadly, angered easily, and he apologized or forgave quickly. His whole emotional life seemed to be right at the surface, and what he wanted most of all was to have fun. For the first year after Lisa Styles got out of the service, he was one of her very few friends. She'd met him at a jobs fair in Northern Virginia while she was still living in an anonymous high-rise and trying to figure out what to do with her new civilian life. He introduced her to Henry Talbot soon after, and they started work at his small company. Andy knew everyone - he knew an amazing number of people - and they lined up enough contracts to keep them all paid. It looked like it would work.
Andy didn't drink. He didn't use drugs. He didn't have a failed marriage or an abusive childhood. There wasn't any explanation that Monday morning, when police from a hotel just outside Dulles Airport called Henry and Lisa and asked them to come identify Andy's body.
His note made no sense to them. And then they went to his apartment and discovered letters, entries to a journal he'd started and then given up, and a few emails on his computer that indicated he'd suffered from periods of intense depression, which he'd hid from them. But even after they'd seen all that, it was impossible to fit the image of this man together with their friend. His secrets were baffling. And at that point they would always be so.
Ghosts are real. You know this. People leave them behind when they go, and they peek out from corners in all the unguarded minutes of your lives. They sit next to you at the breakfast counter while you plan your day. They linger with you in stalled traffic, listening to your thoughts like bad radio. They watch you sleep. Ghosts are more real than anything else in your life. Anything. Yes they are.
Lisa Styles spent almost two days - it was hard to tell - trapped in a storage closet in the basement. Down there in the dark with her old friend Andy Roth. She was filthy, exhausted, and she had an excruciating headache. Time became strange. And she thought of everything Andy had ever said to her - all the times he'd made her think she had a good future, that she was as smart and hard-working as she'd hoped. That she would move on someday, maybe start her own company. He helped her put herself back together. And the whole time, he'd been lying about who he was and what he was really like.
Henry Talbot had tied her hands to a pipe, and he'd come back several times only to lift a bottle of water to her lips.
"He's here, you know," Henry said. She'd shared none of her thoughts with him, but he said it like he was continuing an open conversation. In her weakness and confusion, she believed he could simply hear her mind.
"I think we're all going to be together."
In the light of the hallway, as he helped her drink, she could see his fingernails were black.
"Check your pockets, Henry," she said. "You've been writing the messages. Just you. This place isn't... it isn't really haunted." He gave her a look like he had a secret to share.
"You think I don't know what I'm doing?"
"Check your pockets."
"You smelled the burning too," he told her.
"It was an electrical fire."
"You saw the movie."
"The electrical short probably caused it - a projector showed an image..."
"Just any image?"
She didn't know what to say to that, which made him nod.
"I closed the place down," he confided in her. "Told all the regular staff to take the week off. I'm bringing in my own people."
"Ours," he said. He was dressed in Jespersen's uniform.
"Why are you keeping me alive?" she asked him.
When he left, Henry Talbot made a mistake. He pushed the door closed, but it didn't quite latch. Lisa had had hours to study every acoustic detail of her cell, and she did not miss this. She began to violently twist her wrists together. She'd tried this hours earlier, and it had not worked. But now she tried harder than she thought she was capable of. The cords tore into her skin like blunt knives. A single trickle of blood made its way down her forearm and dripped off her elbow, and the pain made her eyes water. But she felt the binds loosen, just a little.
She heard the door down the hall open. It was from Jespersen's office, and she knew it must be Henry Talbot. She knew he was aware of his error. She worked harder, yanking violently at the ties, growing giddy in her despair... and then suddenly she was free in the dark. The door opened outward. Henry would only need to give it a little push, and then she would be trapped again. She charged at it, flung it open, and she got lucky; He was right at the other side, and the door pushed him off-balance.
Lisa charged at him, knocked him over, and she heard the gun clatter to the ground. She picked it up - her hands felt like they were dipped up to the wrists in fire - and leveled it at Henry Talbot as she took a step back.
He never lost his grin. His eyes never left hers.
"You're almost there," he said. He stood up slowly and then very deliberately reached into his pocket. He had a penknife, and he opened it just as deliberately. He advanced on her.
"Stop," she said.
"I won't," he told her.
"I'll kill you," she said.
He rushed at her, and she fired once through his abdomen. The gun had been pointing upward, and as he stumbled back, Henry made wheezing sounds. She'd nicked a lung. Henry Talbot reached behind himself and found the wall. He slid down and sat there, and that was the last thing he did.
The last thing he said though, was this:
"Just you wait."
It was at that moment that the scent of the burning enveloped Lisa Styles. It had always been here, she knew - she knew this - and only now was she aware of it. She ran. She could do nothing else.
Up the the stairs, and through the hall, she came to the great cavernous hangar that held the retired Air Force One. It faced a wall of glass, which looked out on the strings of lights that made up the sleeping Simi Valley. Or it would have. But all that had changed.
There were no lights in the valley. There was no sign of habitation. It was a plain, spotted by rocks and sparse grass. It was the world she'd glimpsed in the movie and now it surrounded the building. She popped open an emergency door and walked out of the hangar. Everything was in a kind of twilight. It was half-drained of color. She suddenly realized that she had not seen a black and white movie. Not really. The color was only partially bleached. It was the way people look in the glare of a screen, while they're watching movies or TV. A whole world like this. And it began just on the edge of the property - just past the small group of trees the museum staff had named "Gipper's Grove."
She felt a deep anxiety, and there was a buzzing sound somewhere like faulty florescent. Somehow she also knew that this sound and this feeling could intensify - that it could become as harsh as it needed to break her mind.
Don Jespersen was behind her then, just at her shoulder.
"You killed someone," he said.
"I had to."
"Yes," he replied. "But that's what they all say."
Andy was around somewhere. She could feel it. And it wouldn't be long before they'd meet.
Read Part 4 - Ghosts