The bar was nearly empty when Carlton arrived. It didn’t surprise him; most of its usual patrons were still at work, and the few who weren’t were probably on their way out of town. Still, he found the silence unbearable, so he stepped over to the jukebox and slipped in a few quarters, choosing I Ain’t Superstitious with the touchscreen.
“Waste of money,” the bartender said. “Damn thing’s broken. Will only play one song.”
“Oh well,” Carlton said, pressing play. As the song began to play, he took his seat. “Give me a Philly Steak and Cheese and a Tacoma Lime.”
“Coming right up.”
As Carlton watched, the bartender removed a frosted mug from the freezer, placed it under the tap and began filling it. When the lager’s head had reached the top of the mug, the bartender set it down in front of him, then grabbed a lemon and quickly sliced a wedge, sliding it onto the rim of the glass. He then returned to the freezer and pulled out out a frozen panini, pressing it into an electric pie iron. “It’s gonna take a second,” The bartender said.
“Not a problem,” Carlton said, taking a sip. “I’m here more for the beer anyway.” After minute, the bartender removed the panini from the griddle and placed it in front of Carlton. At that moment, the jukebox began to glitch.
Carlton gazed over at it for a second, stunned. The only sound coming out of the speakers was the faint crackle of white noise. However, he soon shrugged it off and took another sip of his beer, only for the grinding guitars of Disposable Heroes to burst through the speakers. Carlton choked; it wasn’t that he disliked the song. He just hadn’t been expecting it.
The bartender shook his head. “I told you not to bother. As I said, it doesn’t want to play anything other than that song. Kinda fitting though.”
“Yeah?” Carlton said. He took a bite from his sandwich. “And why’s that?”
“I take it you don’t watch the news?”
“Not since ’99,” Carlton said. The bartender raised an eyebrow. “What? It’s all bullshit anyway.”
“Carlton, you were on the Oceanus, right?”
“Yeah,” Carlton said. “Not the most fun debut for Haymaker to make, but it got the circuit’s attention.”
“So, you’re close with Dr. Carter, right?”
“Yes, again” Carlton said. He didn’t like where the conversation was heading. “Something happen to him?”
“Okay,” Carlton said. The conversation’s vagueness was beginning to irritate him. “Carter is my boss. His cousins are good friends of mine. So whatever it is, spit it out.”
“Carlton, Samantha Carter’s plane caught fire on the runway today. She’s dead.”
Carlton paused and stared at the bartender. After a moment, he placed another twenty on the counter and stood up to leave. “Wasn’t expecting that.”
It made sense why the man had been dodgy; Princess wasn’t well liked. Fucking figures, he thought. The town couldn’t have lost a better person, and most of them wouldn’t even miss her.
There were things about Princess that only those closest to her knew. Even then, she did a good job of hiding them; for over a decade the family was convinced she had a gambling problem, unaware that she went to casinos and deliberately blew her money on blackjack–because she was playing in charity tournaments, where the money the house earned went into the pockets of a local homeless shelter. It wasn’t until Steven turned twenty-one that they’d even realized it, and that was only because she invited him to tag along.
“You want your change?” The bartender asked, interrupting his train of thought.
“Nah, keep it,” he said. “Put it toward my tab or something if you don’t want a tip.”
He stepped out into his parking lot and slipped into his truck. After taking a moment to reflect on the news he’d received, he slid the keys into the ignition and reached into his pocket to grab a bottle of pills. As he twisted the cap, there was a knock on the window, and as he rolled it down he found himself looking into the visor of a Calusa Shores police officer.
With most of the face hidden behind the helmet and visor, Carlton almost didn’t recognize him. He had rough, brown skin and a graying horseshoe mustache; when he spoke, his voice was deceptively soft, not what you’d expect from a man who looked so rough around the edges. “Carlton, how’s it going?”
It was Arnold Gibson, the chief of police; Carlton hadn’t seen him in years. “Not bad, considering.”
“Take it you heard the news.”
“Yeah. First Anne and now Princess. Dr. Carter’s having the week from hell.”
Gibson lifted his visor and leaned down. “I wanted to speak to you,” he said, “and I figured you’d be here.”
Carlton blinked. “You did?”
“Your favorite lunch place, right?”
“Yeah….” Carlton wasn’t sure where the conversation was headed. The two of them were hardly close; Carlton only knew him through Carter, and those two went back a lot further than the incident in 1999. “I don’t mean to sound rude, but what do you need?”
“Devon asked me to talk to you,” Gibson said. “It seems that he’s got his hands full with Pepper and Ash. Roderigo and the others just got back, and Fiona’s having to babysit the twins. He’s stuck planning two funerals, and well, he wouldn’t ask but he knew you were rather fond of Princess.”
“He’d like your help getting things sorted out.”
“Actually,” Carlton said, turning the engine on, “I was on my way over there. I figured he could use some help.”
“All right,” Gibson said. “Take care.”
“I always do.” As Gibson headed back to his bike, Carlton backed the car out of the parking space and pulled out onto Bay Road. He shook his head in disbelief. No one, he thought, pulling a pack of Morley Blues from his shirt pocket, is that unlucky. He removed the lighter from the dash, lit the cigarette and drew a deep breath, savoring the taste of menthol. For a second, he was wracked with a cough, and a bit of blood formed at the corner of his mouth. He wiped it off with his finger, smearing it onto the leg of his pants.
He’d help. There was no questioning it; even though Princess treated him like crap, Carlton had been too respectful of her not to. Besides, he didn’t have much time left himself, and he could use the boost to his karma.
A sharp hiss of static burst from the speakers. Carlton dropped his cigarette, quickly reaching to grab it before it burned a hole in his seat. He pressed the cigarette in the ashtray and quickly turned the dial down on the volume. The radio wasn’t responding; the hiss actually seemed to get louder, and for a moment he could almost imagine hearing a voice speaking to him through the white noise.
Then, the engine died, taking the static with it. Carlton rubbed his eyes. He clutched the keys, twisting them in an attempt to restart the engine. Nothing–the motor wouldn’t even try to gun up. “Fuck,” he said, leaning back in his seat.
He flinched. At first he thought he’d imagined it, and the voice was distant enough that he could have believed that. But as the static returned to the speakers he quickly realized that it wasn’t in his head.
“Simon Carlton, listen to me.”
It can’t be her, he thought. Dead people don’t speak. But it was definitely Princess’ voice, just barely audible inside the static.
How was it possible? Did she record a message before she died, and was it playing over the radio? No, that had to be wrong. Even at her most vindictive, there were things Princess would never do.
No, he thought, that’s definitely her voice. “I’m… listening,” he said.
“Your house. Go now.”
“Go to my house,” he repeated.
“Get ready, and wait for my voice. She is already here.”
Her voice was gone, and so was the static. He paused for a moment, staring down at the radio; was it real? He couldn’t be sure. Still hesitant, Carlton made his decision; as crazy as it was, he would do what the voice said and head back to his house.
He paused for a moment to think about the ramifications of what he was doing. If it was just a hallucination, he had no idea what he’d do next. But if the voice was real, what would happen if he ignored it? He reached for the keys and gave them a twist, and with a roar the engine kicked into action.
Nah, he thought. You don’t believe in that shit. But she’d bug the fuck out of you until you listened wouldn’t she?
She is already here. The sudden recollection of that phrase sent shivers down his spine. Who was Princess talking about, and why did it seem like her being here was a bad thing? “To hell with it,” he said aloud. “I’m going home anyway, I’ll find out when I get there.”