May 12, 2021

Winter’s Reanimation (Chapter 3)

I found her the next day hiding behind an oversized juniper tree.

Like everything else about Morland’s only indoor mall, the tree was artificial, intended to create a tranquil country atmosphere in the midst of all the chaos caused by shoppers bludgeoning each other over the best sales. Like the tree, Alexis was doing her best to blend in as she peered intently at the people in the nearby food court.

“The arch criminal returns,” she said. “Come to add stalking to your ever growing list of felonies?”

“I might say the same of you,” I replied.

She cast me a playful glance and returned to staring at the food court.

“Care to tell me who you’ve been watching for the last ten minutes?” I asked.

She glanced over at me again but this time the playfulness had disappeared. “Careful, Mr. Hughes,” she said, her eyes cutting into me again with their intensity. “I don’t recall asking you to be my chaperone.”

I considered pushing her further on the subject but decided to change topics. “I’ve never seen red eyes like yours before,” I said.

“Is that a fact or a pickup line you read in some girlie magazine,” she replied.

“I’m just saying, you have nice eyes. I like them. Contacts?”

She smiled and looked back at the food court. “When I was six, I developed cruentus ocular veneficus, literally blood eye poisoning. I was blind until I was seven and had surgery. My eyes have been red ever since. Satisfied?”

“Seems like you see pretty well now,” I said.

“Is there something I can help you with Mr. Hughes?”

“What’s with the formality? My name’s Gabriel. Mr. Hughes was my grandfather. I think you met him last night,” I said.

“I don’t make a habit of being on a first name basis with thieves and stalkers,” she snapped. “Now, is there something you want, I’m busy.”

“I just came by to apologize again for last night. I shouldn’t have –“

“That’s great. Really. Thanks. Feel better? I know I do. Now, would you mind?” she said.

“Would you just give me a second. What’s your problem?” I said.

“My problem, Mr. Hughes, Gabriel, is that I don’t have time to placate the guilty conscious of some sixteen year old kid. You broke into my home. I caught you stealing from your dead grandfather. I don’t know what you expect to hear but it isn’t going to happen, alright? Now, I’m in the middle of something a touch more important than your adolescent angst, so can we please do this another time?”

I fell silent and followed her gaze as she turned back to the food court. After a moment, she cursed under her breath and turned to me and said “Alright, since you are clearly not going to leave me alone, the least you can do is make yourself useful. And since crime is nothing new to you, I don’t imagine you will argue with me if I ask you to slip over beside those two,” she said pointing out a couple just sitting down at a table “and listen in on their conversation for a few minutes?”

The expression on my face must have conveyed my disbelief that she was actually asking me to help her.

“It’s the least you can do,” she said. “Plus, I know you didn’t find what you were looking for last night, so if you help me, maybe I could be persuaded to help you.”

I looked over at the couple in the food court. I didn’t know them from Adam and figured it was a pretty simple request. That, and despite her sarcasm, I was really beginning to like her. “Fine,” I said. “But only on the condition that you tell me what this is all about.”

“Later,” she said. “Right now, I need you to get over there and tell me what they’re talking about.”

“Alright,” I said. “Take it easy. I’m going.”

She smiled at me briefly and then pushed me in the direction of the food court.

As I moved away from her, I set my sights on the couple Alexis had directed me to and tried to ascertain what had captured her interest. The man was a ghost; in size, colour and outward disposition. He had round furtive eyes that were balanced unevenly above his hooked nose while his withered lips, twisted in a permanent sneer, were in peril of sliding past his protruding jaw. He was dressed in a dark three-piece suit that gave him an almost cartoonish look. At any other time, I might have laughed at his appearance but as I approached him, I could sense his underlying turmoil and anger, he reeked of it.

Not wanting to draw his attention, I assessed the woman seated next to him. Dressed in what I could only guess was an expensive, tailor-made suit, she was the very definition of sleek and slinky. From her dark blonde hair, salon cut just above her shoulders, to her red lips and matching nails, she was as out of place in a shopping mall food court as a lion in a kindergarten class. Leaning in deeply towards him, oozing just enough sex appeal to keep him off balance, her smile implied intimacy while her eyes demanded obedience.

As I passed by on my way to the coffee counter, I couldn’t begin to unravel the mystery of Alexis’s curiosity. The contrast between the pair could not have been more evident. Where he was a ghost, she was a shadow. Where he was the lamb, she was the lion. Where I felt certain I could guess his motivation for their relationship, hers seemed more elusive and enigmatic.

I was still pondering the matter when I sat down to drink my coffee at an adjoining table. As I did so, I could hear the woman saying “I know this is difficult for you, but you have to do this.”

The man replied in a whispered tone that only reinforced my perception of him as a ghost, thin and scary. “It doesn’t matter anymore. She’s dead. It’s too late.”

I glanced up at the both them, each too preoccupied with the other to take any notice of me.

“It’s not too late, Morris. Listen to me, the buyer agreed to give us a couple of more days. If we can find the journal, we can still salvage something from this mess.”

“She’s dead. Don’t you get it? She’s the only one who knew where the journal was.”

The woman leaned in further and began caressing Morris’ arm with her index finger. “Morris, please,” she said. “You knew her better than anyone else. You can find it, I know you can.”

“Don’t,” he said, though he made no effort to stop her from touching him.  “She was so angry at me. And hurt. I’ve looked everywhere.”

“You have to look again. It has to be there,” she said.

“I don’t know. She was so upset with me for betraying her. She might have thrown it away for all I know.”

“She wouldn’t have done that, Morris. You know that. The journal is priceless she wouldn’t have thrown it away.”

“No? Well, it’s gone. I can’t find it. She told me I wouldn’t, you know. She told me that just before she died. She –” choked by tears, Morris’ voice trailed off. He stared blankly at some unseen object in the distance before regaining his composure and continuing “Anyway. What does it matter now? She’s dead.”

The woman was undeterred. Like a hound worrying at a bone, she clutched his arm tightly, almost violently.

“Morris,” she said jolting him from his stupor. “Don’t be selfish. Think of Alexis.”

Morris’ wasn’t the only one to jump at the mention of Alexis’s name. Up until that point I had only been mildly interested in their conversation, uncertain why Alexis was preoccupied with the pair. Now, at the mention of her name, I did I double take, the entire scene reframed like a blurry photograph suddenly brought into sharp focus. Trying not to stare at Morris, I saw what should have been obvious to me from the beginning; he was Alexis’s father, Morris Winter, the undertaker of Morland.

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