Martin woke slowly. It took almost a minute before he realized where he was: face down in a pool of blood. He had no idea, however, that most of the blood was not his own; soon after though, he became acutely aware of the still-bleeding corpse that lay diagonally across his back. Together, he and the dead man formed an X; as if to mark the spot. The right side of Martin’s face was covered in blood but he was in no real pain. What was left of the dead man’s head stared straight back him. His grey-blue eyes filled with righteous disdain. His swollen mouth was agape as if in the midst of a raucous laugh. Nothing much about the gruesome display made any sense at all. Then, before Martin had summoned the wherewithal to move, he heard the rumbling echo of distant voice: “Well, I didn’t see that coming.”
In a single motion Martin pushed himself clear of the dead man’s body and twisted around to see who had spoken. There did not appear to be anyone near. Suddenly Martin noticed that he had a gun in his right hand. He raised it up slowly and waited, like a sniper ready to shoot. The problem was he wasn’t sure exactly what direction the voice had come from. This was strange because, as Martin was at the dead end of long dark lonely alley, logically there was only one direction the speaker could be. Therefore, Martin’s still foggy mind concluded, whoever had just spoken must have have moved along. Martin sat up and edged himself back up against the wall at end of the alley wall for support, gun always at the ready. What the hell was going on? Had he been drinking? Had he been drugged? Had he taken a blow to the head so violent it knocked a screw loose? Martin ran the fingers of his left hand all over his skull. Nothing was missing. No cracks. Nothing seeping out. All seemed intact. So what in high heaven had happened? For the life of him Martin could not recall how he got here or anything thing that took place. He wasn’t even sure who he was for certain. He sure as hell didn’t recognize the dead guy at his feet.
“What’s your name, Bub?” Martin jumped to his feet. The voice must have come from the darkness but he still had no sense of where or how or why. The voice seemed somehow very close and far away at the same time. “You don’t have to say it out loud. Just think. Who are you, Bub?”
Martin had no intention of doing anything the stranger told him to but he could not stop his own mind from thinking. “Martin. That’s right. I expect that’s about all you can be sure of right about now. Don’t worry, Bub. It’ll all come back to you soon enough. Well, most of it.”
“Who are hell are you?” Martin hollered with all the bluster he could muster.
“Is this what you’re looking for?” A milky apparition appeared next to the dead body. Martin shot his gun then fell back to the ground in shock. “You already killed me, Bub. No use shooting me again.” The ghost was much younger than the dead body, and fitter, and more handsome, and more fashionably attired. The ghost wore a well-tailored suit, and a natty, charcoal-grey fedora.
“You’re…” Martin stammered furtively.
“Conrad. Jack Conrad. CIA.”
“A spook? Well, we in the agency don’t like that term, but…”
“No!” Martin yelled, waving his gun in the air.
“I’m just messing with you, Bub. Hell yeah, I’m a ghost; but I prefer the term spook because I am CIA as well. Well, I was… until you shot me. Well, I was… once: several bodies ago.”
“I killed a CIA agent?”
“Officially, you killed an insurance agent. He was my latest shell but he was going rogue. Frankly, Bub, I’m glad you knocked off that old bag of bones. It was a mistake ever getting tangled with him to begin with; but sometimes… well, we don’t always have a lot of options. I like you, Bub. You are obviously very willing to use a gun. This dummy was never gonna be able to shoot any body. That’s why you ended up killing him, you know? He just refused to pull the trigger… until it was too late.”
“I killed him? I don’t remember a thing.”
“It happens. It’ll come back to you. Eventually. Some of it. I’ll give you some free advice, Bub. Stick with me. Listen to me. It’ll all come back a lot quicker. This ain’t my first time through the drill.”
“Oh my god,” Martin said, dropping the gun. “I shot someone?”
“Look,” the ghost said firmly. “If it will make you feel any better. He shot himself. He aimed to shoot you but wouldn’t do it. You tried to take the gun off him. He decided to shoot you after all. You struggled. He pulled the trigger and blew off half his face. You fainted. He fell on top of you. End of story.”
“But. The gun was in my hand when I woke up.”
“Ok. So, it was a little hard to tell what was going on exactly. Sue me. Here’s the truth, Bub. It was either you or him. If he didn’t end up dead, you were going to. He’d gone rogue, I tell ya. Certifiably insane.”
“Oh, Jesus. I’m going to jail.”
“You are not going to jail. Listen to me. From the trajectory and the distance this is going be a clear-cut suicide. Or rather it can be. All you got to do is clean the gun and put it back in his hand. We’ll clear all the traces that you were here and leave him gun in hand back down in that pool of his own blood. No one will ever be the wiser…and believe me. No one is coming looking for this loser.”
Martin tried to think but nothing would happen. Nothing about this was familiar. The alleyway seemed real enough. He seemed real enough. The dead guy definitely seemed real enough. But this voice in his head and this ghost thing? What the hell is that…spook? Jack Conrad? Secret Agent man. Had he gone mad? This is all some bad dream. Martin looked up but the vision was gone. There was a brief pause, a moment of stillness, then the voice returned. Closer now, more assuring. More like the workings of his own mind.”
“You’re not crazy, bub. No more than any other man. And this ain’t a dream. This is real. And you can take advantage of this situation. You really can, bub. You just need to change your perspective. I can help you but for now you got to do what I say. We’re gonna clean this whole mess up and we’re gonna get you away from here before any knows you’ve been here. Do what I say, bub, and do it now.”
The only thing that really seemed to make any sense was the voice in his head so Martin did exactly what it told him to do. He pulled a rag from dumpster and wiped off the gun, the wall, the ground around the body, it even reminded him to wipe of the dumpster. The voice told him how and where to place the body, how to fit the gun back into the dead man’s hand, how to remove any and every trace of his own existence in this place. Just when Martin felt like he surely must be about done and that he really much get away from this place Jack Conrad, the ghost himself, suddenly appeared once more.
“Martin,” Conrad said directly and firmly. “Listen to me. You are done here, except for on very important thing. This is something you must do. I cannot stress this enough.” Martin paused awaiting Conrad’s instructions. Pull up you sleeves and reach into the inside pocket of this guys jacket. Inside you will find a key. You need to get that key. Without that key you will not get away from this place. Do you understand? Get the key, Martin.” Martin, fully used to taking direction by now, even from a CIA spook, pulled up his sleeves as directed, lifted up the body once more, and pulled a key with a large green plastic keychain attached to it. “Good work, bub.” Conrad nodded. “Now let’s get you the hell out of dodge.” With that, Conrad faded again from view but his voice remained. Conrad’s voice instructed Martin how to exit the alley without drawing attention to himself, it told him where and how to dispose of his blood-stained jacket, it directed him to a public restroom to clean himself up, and after that the voice said simply: “Bub, I’m guessing you could use a drink about now. I know a place nearby that’s dark and safe and quiet. A place you can be invisible, like me. Let’s get you a bourbon, straight up. What do you say?”
Martin, unable to concoct any other plan, continued to follow Conrad’s directions without question or emotion. He had become a blank slate. He knew his first name, or he thought he did, and he knew what the voice told him. He had no idea who he actually was or what he did or where he lived even. “Of course, a wallet!” Martin suddenly exclaimed as he walked into the bar Conrad had told him to enter. “I must have a wallet on me somewhere.” He thought while feverishly feeling his pockets.
“Good thinking, bub. They don’t ask many questions in places like this but they do expect you to pay.”
Martin quickly found a wallet in his back pocket. He whipped it out with a flourish, opened it up as fast as he could and stared intently inside searching desperately for clues.
“Easy bub. You’re acting pretty damn suspicious about now. Remember, the goal right now is not to be memorable in any way. There’s plenty of time for figuring out who you are. You need to cut the nut-job act pronto and head on over to the back corner nice and easy like.”
Martin paused and slowly dropped the wallet away from his face. The bartender and two old flies at the counter were all watching him a little too closely. He pulled a twenty from the wallet and, nodding at the barkeep, said quietly: “Bourbon. Straight up.” Frankly, Martin had no idea what in the hell he might actually like to drink so he took Jack’s advice from earlier.
“Oh Jesus,” Martin thought. I just referred to a ghost by its name. Conrad. Jack Conrad. CIA. Jesus. I am losing it.”
“You’re almost home, bub.” The voice assured him. “Now, pay the man, then go over to the corner and take a seat. Let’s think this whole thing through nice and relaxed like.”
Martin took a seat in a booth along the back wall of the bar. Out of view of any seated out the counter. He stared at the shot of bourbon for a few moments, then took it up and swigged the whole thing in a single gulp. It did not go down well. Whatever he was, he most definitely was not a bourbon drinker. “Think dammit,” he told himself. How did you end up in a dark alley in a pool of someone else’s blood with a dead body on top of you? Was it really the way Conrad said? But why was I even there in the first place? Then Martin had a moment, a memory, a point-of-view vision of shoes shuffling along a dark street, then a flash of light of some kind, then an old man – the old man at the end of the alley – pointing up at a streetlight. “He brought to the alley,” Martin thought. “But why? Who was he? Why did I kill him?”
“I’m trying to be quiet, bub. I really am…” the ghost butted in. “But this is killin’ me. Anyway, I see you’re starting to remember so maybe you want to move on to your original plan and open up that wallet of yours.
“Oh damn,” Martin muttered. “What is wrong with my brain? I just can’t think straight.”
Martin lay the well-worn black leather wallet out on the table and first pulled out the drivers licence. “Martin Warrick. That’s almost a British name? I’m not British, am I? I don’t sound British.” The address on the license was a California address. It was at that moment that Martin realized he didn’t even know what town he was in. Martin did not realize that while he was puzzling over this Conrad had returned. He was sitting in the seat across from Conrad in plain view of the bar.
“What are you doing?” Martin whispered. “They can see you.”
“No they can’t, Bub”, Conrad broke in. “None of them look like mystics to me. They can’t see a thing. Besides, I know where you are. You’re in Baltimore.”
“No. Baltimore, North Dakota. Jesus,” Conrad snorted. “This whole thing has really tapped you out.” Conrad pulled an old pack of cigarettes from coat jacket and a zippo lighter from his pants. His lit up a cigarette and leaned back against the back of the booth.
“I don’t think you are supposed to smoke in here.”
“Relax, bub. They can’t see me, they can’t see this… and don’t give me any lip about it not being good for me. I’m not exactly alive anyway, remember. Besides, it pretty much the only enjoyable thing I got left in this world, except for talking to you.”
“You enjoy talking to me?” Martin said curiously.
“Of course I do.” Conrad said while blowing a cloud of smoke from his nostrils. “What else is left for me?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know much of anything,” Martin replied. “But, I guess, as long as you are enjoying it some much would you mind calling me Martin instead of bub?
“Now hang on, bub. Let’s not get a ahead of ourselves. I don’t know how long this is going to last. This is not my first rodeo, you know. I don’t make a lot of personal connections in my line of business, if you know what I mean.”
“No, in fact,” Martin said raising his hands in surrender. “In fact, I do not know what you mean. I have no idea what your business is with me. I have not idea what is going on… and, I need another drink.” With that Martin got up and returned to the bar and said: “Ah, letsee… let me try a scotch this time. Only, this time, make it one the rocks.” He looked over and saw Conrad happily puffing away in the corner clear as day. Conrad was right though. Nobody else seemed to have any clue. “Haunted by a CIA spook, just my luck,” he said quietly.