The Late Blonde

A short story by David Lee Holcomb

The dead blonde in the babydoll nightie was fast becoming a nuisance.

Danny Zickell struggled to keep his mind on his playing, watching the apparition sashay among the tables. She was mouthing the lyrics to “I Surrender Dear,” her eyes half closed in what she undoubtedly believed was an expression of soulful concentration, while the ostrich-feather trim of her outfit swayed gently in counterpoint to the music.

Under any other circumstances, Danny would have been happy to look at Emily DuCaine all night long: she was five-five, curvy and blonde, with the kind of big, blue eyes that made you feel like you were the only man in the world. Silky Maloney had undoubtedly thought he was the only man in Emily’s world right up until he caught her sharing a sweet little love nest with a trombone player on the fourth floor of the Olympia Hotel.

“Together Forever,” read the inscription on the gold lighter Rick Doyle bought Emily for her twenty-second birthday. Truer words have never been spoken. Ever since that sultry June night, the young lovers occupied matching oil drums buried side by side in the mud at the bottom of the Pautasquot River. These days, the lighter sat on a shelf in Danny’s apartment, a reminder of what love can do to you if you’re not careful.

Silky’s goons rolled Emily and Rick off the North Bay Bridge eighty-four years ago last summer. You’d think that whatever it was the silly woman needed to say after all this time, it could have waited until Danny finished his solo.

“I’m sorry, Laurel. I got distracted.” Danny dragged the swab through the body of his saxophone, trying to ignore his unwelcome visitor. Emily had wandered over to the piano to stand half in and half out of the bench, passing her dainty paws over the keys, pretending to play, the tip of her tongue caught between her teeth, a delicate frown wrinkling her brows.

“No shit, Sherlock. For a minute there, you looked like you’d seen a ghost.” The stocky little bandleader thumbed down the latches on her trumpet case with a brisk double clack that made Danny wince. “Listen, baby, if you can’t stay with the program, at least learn some new riffs. You played that same Michael Brecker thing three times tonight. The crowd in this place may be dumb as rocks when it comes to music, but it doesn’t take a degree from Juilliard to know when the guy on stage is just phoning it in.” She stood, hefting the antique case, and reached over to pat the saxophonist on the shoulder. “You got three days before we come back here,” she said. “Get your personal shit out of the way before then.”

Laurel didn’t tack an or else onto that sentence, but she didn’t have to. Danny knew the score.

“I will. I promise.”

Laurel gave him a grim nod and headed down the steps to where the staff of Lizard’s Lounge was herding the last of the evening’s drinkers toward the door.

Danny watched her go and then turned to frown at Emily. The girl made a face at him and huffed—a purely symbolic gesture, seeing as how she hadn’t breathed air since 1940. Danny stood and glanced around to make sure he hadn’t left anything behind, then he pushed his shaggy blond hair out of his face and followed his boss out onto the street.

· · · 

Saxophone great Michael Brecker hadn’t even been born yet when the man who would one day become Danny Zickell met Emily DuCaine for the first time.

He had been a little taller then, a lot older, a skinny Black man who called himself Dan Ziccelli but was known to his friends as Zeke. Zeke played a mellow Buescher Aristocrat tenor with the house band at Silky’s Uptown. Light-skinned Zeke was passing for Italian to work in Silky’s all-white band—less of a challenge than one might think, given that he had lived and died in a rough neighborhood on the edge of Naples a lifetime or two ago and remembered enough of the dialect to convince the occasional skeptic. Silky Maloney’s fancy club, with all its mirrors and chrome and overdressed gangsters, was Zeke’s world now.

“Boys, this is Emily,” Silky announced on that Saturday night after Easter, just as the band was setting up. “Say hello, and then get back to work.” The petite blonde on his arm might have been Jean Harlow’s cute baby sister.

The musicians muttered, grunted, or swaggered depending on each personality, and Emily returned the round of greetings with a demure smile. While endearing, her wide-eyed, innocent manner didn’t quite jibe with her slinky backless cream-colored gown, her pink silk opera gloves, and that string of magnificent pearls, but none of the boys minded the contradiction. With a smug grin, Silky led her away to his private table up past the end of the bar.

Day-am,” Rick Doyle murmured, running his trombone slide up and down suggestively. Trouble hung in the air around Emily DuCaine like a spicy perfume, and Rick was obviously intoxicated by the scent. “How does a cold fish like Silky score a doll like that?”

“Money,” Zeke murmured back, checking through the night’s setlist.

“Money don’t keep a girl warm at night.”

“Did you see those pearls?” Zeke said without looking up. “Trinkets like that generate a lot of heat.”

“Hmph. Maybe. Still …”

The sax player glanced over at his movie-star-handsome bandmate and sighed. Rick was the sort of man who looked both ways before he stepped off the curb and then walked out in front of the bus anyway.

Please don’t do anything we’ll all regret, Ricky.” Zeke nodded toward a long-legged, auburn-haired waitress folding napkins at the end of the bar. “Isn’t Sheila enough trouble for you?”

Rick waggled his eyebrows. “There’s trouble, and then there’s trouble. I can handle Sheila.”

Meaningless banter, Zeke thought. Surely, even Rick isn’t that stupid.

· · ·

The late blonde had first appeared in Danny’s life—his current life, anyway—about a week ago, waiting on the front steps of his apartment building just as he was getting home from a gig. Glamorous women in evening gowns were not a common sight in his neighborhood, especially at one a.m. on a weeknight, but none of the passersby seemed to notice her. Danny stopped dead on the sidewalk for a long moment, staring, feeling immature and grubby and foolish, bashful in the presence of a beautiful woman. Then, all at once, memory kicked in—memory belonging to someone he used to be, a long, long time ago.

That dress. Those lips …

He was looking at Silky Maloney’s long-gone girlfriend, no doubt about it. Silky had been dead for forty years, and the woman standing on Danny’s steps had been fish food for twice that long, but there she was. The outfit she had on was the one she had been wearing when Danny—Zeke, in that life—first laid eyes on her. Everything except the pearls. Instead of pearls, her throat was now adorned with an ugly, bruised-looking abrasion that completely encircled her neck.

Emily followed Danny up to his apartment and wandered around looking at things while he put his horn away and hung up his jacket.

The tiny studio apartment was as bare and impersonal as a monk’s cell except for an antique console table that rested against the wall opposite the door to the balcony. The scarred top of the table was littered with strange bric-à-brac, such as:

… an age-yellowed pair of tickets for a Pan Am flight that left the ground at 9:05 one morning in 1953 only to return to it ten minutes later, coming down hard through the roof of a restaurant supply warehouse;

… a saxophone mouthpiece, tenor, its tip discolored by decades of boozy spit, its shank split from being stomped on;

… a set of keys, one of them broken in half;

… a fancy steak knife crusted with what might or might not have been rust;

… an antique medicine bottle, three inches tall, unlabeled, half full of a purple-black liquid that seemed to climb the sides of the bottle when the light hit it just right;

a dozen other things, equally insignificant and equally enigmatic. Little else in the apartment said anything about the occupant’s identity.

Emily fluttered her fingers over each object as if she were choosing something to buy. When she got to the dainty gold lighter, she stopped cold, frozen in mid-wiggle.

After a moment, she turned from the display to look at Danny expectantly as a cigarette unfolded from her gloved hand. Danny started to tell her that smoking wasn’t allowed in the building, then laughed, shaking his head. The smoke alarm wasn’t likely to react to a ghost cigarette, was it? He reached past her to pick up the lighter. There was no fluid in it, never had been, but he flicked it and held it out. The lighter was cold, inert, but when Emily leaned close, the reflection of a flame glittered in her blue eyes, and the cigarette ignited. She took a long drag, thanking him with a glance.

Danny turned to put the lighter back in its place, and suddenly, he was alone in the apartment. Nothing remained of his visitor but the faint smell of her cigarette.

After Emily’s appearance at Lizard’s Lounge on Saturday night, Danny didn’t see her again for the rest of the weekend. He hoped that she had moved on, drifting away to do the kinds of things dead people did in their spare time. On Monday, he bought groceries, dropped off his shirts at the cleaners, spent a pleasant couple of hours jamming with friends at their loft down by Fair Park, and then ate dinner at a little taqueria near his apartment. The kinds of things live people did in their spare time. Back home, he changed into a T-shirt and sweats and watched some TV. Around midnight, he turned off the television and strolled out onto his tiny balcony to listen to the noises the city made as it settled and cooled.

Somehow, he wasn’t even startled when Emily DuCaine stepped out of the shadows to stand next to him at the railing.

Tonight, the visitor was wearing a pale gray suit, topped by a hat that consisted of little more than a floppy bow pinned to her loose platinum curls, a scrap of veil puffing out from beneath it to overshadow her forehead. The suit was so severe in its cut that it could have served as a military uniform, yet it still managed to emphasize her tiny waist and her lush hips and bust, while the collar of the ruffled white blouse almost concealed the angry ligature marks around her throat.

“Hello, Emily.”

The late blonde glanced over with just the hint of a smile, and then she turned to look out over the warehouses and auto body shops that blanketed the landscape below. In the far distance, the running lights of a barge and its pusher boat glittered on dark water.

Emily’s gaze zeroed in on that glimpse of the river, and she tensed. She gestured toward it with a nod.

“The river?” Danny asked.

She didn’t respond to the question in his voice; she just stared, her blue eyes luminous in the dimness. He wondered whether she could actually hear anything he said. Did mere words have the power to cross the gap between them?

“The river,” Danny repeated. “Where you died. You and Rick.”

Emily sighed and brought her arms across her breasts as though she were cold, her eyes still fixed on the distant water.

“That gold lighter,” Danny said, pushing his hair back with both hands, babbling a little. “You saw it. Rick got it for you. He gave it to me to hold on to. He was afraid he’d lose it. He was going to give it to you that weekend, on your birthday, but …” He faltered.

But Silky murdered you both before that could happen, he thought.

Emily gazed at the river, holding herself. What did she see when she looked at the black water? Was she dead when Silky welded her into that barrel? Or did she regain consciousness in time to find her prison slowly filling with water as it sank? Was she facing eternity with the jagged shards of that memory tearing holes in her soul?

“Emily, I’m sorry about what happened to you.”

Without so much as a glance in his direction, she stepped back from the railing, out of the light from the street below, pulling her collar up around her jawline. When Danny turned to look for her, she was gone.

In the morning, after an uneasy night’s sleep, Danny sat down at his laptop with a mug of coffee and a mortal weariness that no amount of caffeine could address.

The things human beings will do to each other, he thought.

Online reporting of Emily’s return from the depths wasn’t hard to find: the body had only come to light a week ago. The news was still warm and juicy, even if the subject was not.

“Dredge Operators Make Gruesome Discovery” ran one headline. “Woman’s Body Found off Muddy Point Broadwalk” was another. “Shadow of the Past” was the Herald-Star’s more refined offering. The Investigator, adhering to its usual journalistic standards, titled its story “Babe in a Barrel at the Bottom of the Bay.” Apart from the Investigator, whose content was sealed behind a paywall and an age verification system, the other sources were readily accessible, and Danny was able to put together a rough overview of the circumstances:

On the morning of the day Emily first showed up on Danny’s doorstep, workers for the Pautasquot River Authority, dredging silt from the shipping channel a mile upstream from the North Bay Bridge, hauled a steel drum into the daylight. This was by no means an unusual occurrence—the mud at the bottom of the river was stiff with everything from construction debris to stripped motorcycles to old washing machines—but environmental regs required that containers of that type always be inspected for evidence of toxic waste. The PRA agent asked the workmen to cut open the barrel. Inconvenient but routine.

What they found was anything but routine. Human bodies did turn up in the river, as many as two dozen per year, but they were typically drowning victims, people who had driven off a bridge or gone down in a boating accident. In almost every case, the body was found because somebody was looking for it, usually within hours of entering the water. A human skeleton in a badly corroded oil drum was an item rare enough to justify a few headlines.

The clothing had long since disintegrated, but garter clips and fragments of a zipper, along with a distinctive diamond and sapphire ring, remained embedded in the sludge that half-filled the barrel. Dental records and the ring identified the skeletal remains as those of the daughter of a prominent Port Sebastian businessman, the young woman having been reported missing in the summer of 1940. The Herald-Star’s reporter noted dryly that foul play was now suspected. There was no mention of a second barrel.

Danny supposed that the recovery of the body had somehow liberated Emily’s wraith to come looking for him. No, not for him, for anybody she knew. After eighty-four years, the odds were slim that she’d find someone who had known her in life. Even Ziquel had died twice during that time.

Danny sighed, staring at the black and white photo—a high school portrait—that accompanied the Herald-Star article. A pretty girl, her hair blonde but not yet the startling platinum it would become a few years later. A silly, sweet spoiled face, the face of a child who had never faced adversity, who had never been hurt. Somebody’s little princess. Danny’s chest ached with a pain that went back much further than eight decades.

I can’t fix human nature, he thought, but maybe I can do something for Emily DuCaine.

He tossed back the rest of his coffee and went to get dressed.

· · ·

Zeke had known from the beginning that keeping Rick out of trouble was going to be a challenge; even so, he was deeply disappointed when the young idiot started carrying on with Silky’s girl and then lying about it.

“C’mon, Zeke. Why would I do something like that? I haven’t laid a finger on Emily. We just happened to run into each other at Blubaum’s one day and had a cup of coffee.”

So many lies. With all the practice he’s getting, you’d think he’d be better at it, Zeke thought. He felt tired, old. “Sheila saw you together at Customs Avenue Park.”

Rick’s face hardened. “We weren’t together; we were just both at the park. Sheila should learn to mind her own goddam business.”

“I thought you were her business.”

“Not if she’s going around spying on me.”

Zeke counted to ten, keeping his expression neutral. “Maybe Sheila just happened to be at the park at the same time you were. Is that any harder to believe than your story of accidentally running into Emily there? Sheila only lives six blocks away. Emily DuCaine lives all the way out in Linden.”

“Not Sheila’s business,” Rick said, his voice tight, a warning in the tone. “Not yours, either.”

Zeke nodded briefly and then slid his sax case under the stage. He clipped his horn onto the neckstrap and walked to his chair without another word.

The leader and male vocalist of the house band at Silky’s was an elegant dark-haired man with a pencil mustache and the long, expressive face of a silent film star. Toby Burns had been born Tobiah Bernstein in Odessa, but his parents had changed his name when they arrived in London in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, while the boy was still in his teens. Burns came to the US a few years later, working as a singer and nightclub host in various locations in and around Port Sebastian until Silky Maloney offered him a job in his new club. No one truly believed the biography he peddled—that of a Presbyterian Scotsman—but it was a useful fiction for all concerned and was never challenged. He had a smooth baritone voice that didn’t exactly light up the stage but didn’t irritate anybody, either, and he had been working at Silky’s since the club opened. The female vocalist was a surprisingly talented woman named Janet Laine, who claimed to be thirty-five even though she was the mother of a twenty-three-year-old daughter who worked for the phone company and dated the club’s head waiter. Janet only worked a couple of weekends a month; most nights, Burns occupied the spotlight.

He called the group to order, the lights gleaming on his brilliantined hair.

“Bob? Would you care to join the rest of us? Call was for fifteen minutes ago. Louie, please tell me you’re not chewing gum on my stage. Zeke, did you sleep in that shirt?” He scanned the group and sighed. “Never mind. I guess we have to make do with what we’ve got.”

This was a ritual, nothing more. The chaffing was intended to wake the musicians up and get them focused. Sometimes, it even worked.

“Bob, if you’re feeling musical, perhaps you could give us an A.”

The first song Burns called was “All of Me,” which was usually a crowd-pleaser, but tonight, for some reason, it fell flat. The drummer rushed the tempo, the horns dragged behind, and the bass player lost a string ten bars into the first chorus.

It wasn’t just the band, though. The whole club was off-kilter that night. The bar ran out of the good gin, and the rotgut the bartenders substituted had the customers ready to burn the place down by eleven o’clock. Silky was in a bad mood from the moment he walked through the door, and Emily left halfway through the evening, complaining of a headache, squired by one of Silky’s henchmen. The crowd couldn’t decide whether they wanted to dance or cry into their booze, and every song Burns called for was the wrong choice. The trumpeter flubbed a solo in “Cherokee” so badly that even the audience noticed, and Burns counted the band into a rendition of “Lullaby of Broadway” that was so ponderous it might well have served the purpose that the title implied. 

At closing time, as the musicians packed up, groaning and gossiping, Rick pulled Zeke aside.

“Look, I’m sorry. I had no right to talk to you like that. I know you meant well.”

Zeke nodded, accepting the apology, but still conflicted. “S’okay.”

Rick took a deep breath, clearly bucking himself up to say more. “I need a favor,” he finally blurted.

“Of course you do,” Zeke said, disappointed. He focused his attention on cleaning his horn.

“Come on, don’t be like that,” Rick wheedled. Glancing around, he reached into his pocket and pulled out something that was almost entirely hidden by his hand. “I want you to hang onto this for me,” he said. “I know I’ll leave it somewhere or send it to the cleaners with my pants or something else stupid like that.”

He passed the object over, and Zeke held it up in his long fingers. It was a gold lighter, a fancy little toy that must have cost Rick a month’s wages. He quickly tucked the lighter into his jacket pocket.

“Jesus. I’m guessing this isn’t for Sheila.”

“Just hold it for me till Friday, right?” Rick said. “Keep it safe; don’t show it to anybody. I’ll take it back before the early set.”

“This thing is a bomb, you know that, don’t you? It’s gonna blow up in your face.”

“Friday. Until then, you can forget it exists. Thanks, Zeke.” Looking ridiculously furtive, Rick finished putting away his trombone and slipped out.

The lighter sitting in Zeke’s pocket felt like ten pounds of TNT. He packed up and followed Rick out the door, grateful to put the evening behind him.

It was the last time he would see Rick Doyle alive.

· · ·

By Danny Zickell’s time, all that remained of the old North Bay Bridge was a concrete abutment that ran for almost half a mile along the shore, serving as a retaining wall for a small waterfront park. A wide flight of steps led from the park down to a concrete ledge that ran for several hundred yards in either direction. This ledge, called the “Broadwalk,” was separated from the water by a steel fence and adorned with wrought-iron-and-wood benches at intervals along its otherwise stark length.

In the winter and spring, icy breezes crossed the river to scour the Broadwalk with sparkling knives, and in summer and fall, the sun trapped in the concrete surfaces could melt lead. When Danny descended the steps, he found a few strollers, elderly people apparently unaffected by the lingering heat, passing up and down the walkway, checking their fitness trackers every few paces.

Emily DuCaine’s steel sarcophagus had been pulled from the mud very near the eastern—downstream—end of the Broadwalk. Sweating, Danny walked to the last bench and sat down to look out over the water, flapping his shirt to cool himself, waiting for ideas or inspiration, holding his hair back out of his eyes with his other hand.

They went off the bridge up there, opposite the steps, he thought, peering into the glittering sunlight. According to the news reports, Emily’s body was discovered about here. Danny frowned out at the water, but there was nothing to suggest exactly where the barrel had been found. Twenty yards from shore, they said. Over there where the riprap ends.

A movement caught his eye, a flash of white. A young woman was tucking her hair under a ruffled white rubber cap, standing on the tumbled rocks and concrete debris that protected the Broadwalk from the river’s occasional excesses. Her bare arms and legs were not much darker than her old-fashioned white one-piece.

Danny stared as she turned and waved in his direction. He looked around, but none of the half-dozen or so elderly strollers taking their exercise on the Broadwalk seemed to notice the swimmer.

Nobody swam in the Pautasquot River, certainly not this close to the port. The riverbank was reinforced with a belt of concrete construction debris, spiky with rebar. The water was filthy with fuel and oil from the port, and the currents were impossible to chart. A few foolhardy swimmers died every summer, challenging the river and losing.

Danny stood up and moved to the fence. “Hey! You shouldn’t be out there!” he called out.

The woman smiled, and he realized who she was. Even at that distance, disguised by the cap, there was no mistaking that face. She turned and dove neatly into the water.


A small pleasure boat cruised by, but the wake rolled over the swimmer without seeming to affect her. She traveled smoothly, with a relaxed, even stroke, until she had passed into the deep channel, at which point all Danny could see was a dot of white. She stopped and remained where she was, treading water for a long count of ten, then dove for another long count. When she re-emerged, she was facing the shore. She waved again, dove again, and although Danny waited for almost an hour, she never reappeared.

These days, in this life, the being known in ancient times as Ziquel wore the identity of scruffy and nervous Danny Zickell, a graceless small-town boy with none of the weary dignity of two lifetimes ago when Emily DuCaine came into his life and left hers. Instead of Zeke Ziccelli’s tight pepper-and-salt curls, clipped at Mr. Louie’s barbershop every other Thursday, his hair was now a dust-blonde shag, desperately in need of professional attention; instead of the tall, lean body he had worn on the stage at Silky’s Uptown eighty years ago, today’s Lizard’s Lounge sax man was of barely average height, lumpy, and inelegant. He was amazed that Emily could recognize him across years and lifetimes, but who knew what she saw when she turned those big blue eyes his way? What did the physical shell mean to someone who no longer wore one?

Or to someone who has worn so many? he thought.

He returned to his apartment and showered, then threw himself onto the sofa and sorted through his options.

Emily DuCaine. Eighty-four years gone, and she’s still making guys do stupid things.

He couldn’t just walk away. You don’t hide from the dead by changing your email address. The only way to escape her would be to help her, to bring a proper end to her story. But how? Her body—what there was of it—had already been grieved over and cremated by her brother’s grandchildren. What was there still to do?

Even as he framed the question, he knew the answer. Free Rick, of course.

Rick Doyle’s body was still buried in the mud at the bottom of the Pautasquot estuary. Danny, swept away by the tragic romance of the story, was certain that Emily wanted him to liberate her lover from his prison, to bring his remains up into the light and air. What he was supposed to do with the body once he had it was anybody’s guess, but he’d burn that bridge when he came to it. He hauled himself off the sofa with a grunt and went looking for his phone.

He was going to need help. Expensive help.

During the first thousand years of his punishment, the angel Ziquel learned to remember, to carry his memories from one human lifetime to the next—only to find, too late, that the weight of that knowledge drove him mad. Returning to sanity during his second millennium, he learned to forget, teaching himself to recall only the last few lifetimes in any detail, along with such useful facts as who and what he was and why this was happening to him, meanwhile consigning the rest to the mists of time. In the third millennium of his punishment, Ziquel learned about long-term investment. He amassed great wealth and found that he could, with proper planning, take it with him from one lifetime to the next. In the fourth millennium of his punishment, he found that unexplained wealth, while pleasant, was often inconvenient and occasionally dangerous. During the lifetimes of his fifth millennium of punishment, he learned how to be discreet.

Now, in the sixth millennium of his ten-thousand-year sentence, Ziquel had ceased to care much about material pleasures, but if he needed money, he knew where to get it. He was about to need some now. He sat down at his Formica-topped kitchen table to make some calls.

· · ·

On that second Friday in June, 1940, Rick didn’t show up for the early dinner show from six to eight-thirty and was still missing at nine o’clock when the band assembled for the second set. Silky came in late, just as the band was about to start, and settled onto his throne with a face that kept even his closest lieutenants silent and twitchy.

Burns bowed slightly toward his employer, then turned to face the band. “Get that goddam chair out of here,” he hissed, gesturing at Rick’s empty seat—then he quickly reversed himself. “No! Leave it. We don’t have time to rearrange the furniture.” He was visibly unsettled. Tradition dictated that an empty chair was left in place for a musician who had died, but otherwise, an unoccupied seat on the stage was bad luck. “That bastard better have a good excuse,” he muttered.

None of us noticed that Emily also had failed to put in an appearance.

· · ·

Douglas “Dino” Dinovitz was not what Danny had expected. He had assumed he’d be dealing with a big, rough river rat, all tough talk and tattoos, like the guys he saw hunting sunken treasure on the Discovery Channel, but Dinovitz looked more like an accountant who had been left out in the weather too long.

He frowned at Danny through his heavy, black-rimmed glasses.

“All right, Mr. Zickell. You say you want something fished out of the river. As it happens, I fish things out of the river for a living,” he said, twirling a pencil between bony brown fingers. “So far, so good. Past that, however, you’re being kind of evasive. No more bullshit, please. What, in twenty-five words or less, is it you want me to retrieve?”

Danny fidgeted. Putting his plans into concrete terms made him painfully aware of just how unlikely the whole situation sounded.

“It’s… It’s a barrel, a 55-gallon steel oil drum. You know the kind I mean,” he stammered.

Dinovitz poked his glasses back up his long beak of a nose. “Yes, I do. You can buy those on Amazon. They’re not worth more just because they’ve been in the water.”

“This one has a … has something inside. Something I want to recover.”

Dinovitz smiled. Each change in expression brought a new swath of fine wrinkles into action. Only the leathery expanse of his scalp was persistently smooth. “How long has it been in the water?” he asked, now tapping the pencil on the edge of his desk.

“It went off the Bay Bridge in June of 1940.”

“The Bay Bridge was built in 1979.”

“The old bridge. The one they tore down. Upstream.”

Dinovitz nodded thoughtfully. “Okay. It went off the old bridge. It didn’t jump, presumably.”

“Um, no. It was thrown off. A nightclub owner had it done.”

A chuckle. “Oh, for joy. Mobster stuff. Where’s Eliot Ness when you need him? Who else is looking for this thing?”

“Nobody. The only people besides me who even know the barrel exists are dead.”

Dinovitz’s eyebrows popped up, just clearing the tops of his glasses.

“You don’t say.”

“Yes. I mean … well, yes.” Any attempt at explaining Danny’s privileged knowledge would just tie the conversation in knots, so he didn’t try.

Dinovitz went back to twirling the pencil, gazing at Danny thoughtfully. After a time, he started doodling on the pad in front of him.

“The barrel should have washed out into the bay by now.”

“It didn’t.”

“And you know this how?”

Danny squirmed. “I just do,” he said.

“Shit. I guess you could be a whacko. Or you could know what you’re talking about. I make the odds about eighty-twenty in favor of whacko. I charge double for working the Twilight Zone.”

Danny grimaced, unable to reply to that. What could he possibly say that wouldn’t just reinforce the salvage man’s conviction that he was crazy?

“There were two barrels,” he said, finally. “One has been recovered. The … circumstances tell me where the other one is.”

“Jumpin’ Jehosaphat. That was just last week or the week before, right? ‘The Babe in the Bay,’ or some such shit. That’s your barrel?”

“One of them. I want to find the other one.”

“I’m guessing the second barrel isn’t full of old fryer oil, either.” Dinovitz grinned into Danny’s face. “Never mind. So, the Babe in the Bay has a friend. And you know where this second barrel is?”


Dinovitz leaned forward. “How approximately?”

“Within twenty yards or so, I think.”

“You think.”

Danny pushed his hair out of his face. “Look, Mr. Dinovitz; If I knew exactly, I wouldn’t need an expert.”

The weather-beaten little salvage operator spun his chair around and gestured at the enormous map of the lower Pautasquot River and its estuary that covered the wall behind his desk. “Show me.”

Danny came around the desk and stood peering at the map for a minute, then drew a small circle with his fingertip. “About there.”

Dinovitz nodded and made some notes on his pad. “Okay. The edge of the channel. It’ll have gone down into the deep water. Otherwise, the dredgers would have caught it when they found the other one. That’s a navigation lane, so we’ll need permits. Crew’ll be me and two guys. We’ll need half a day to locate, half a day to retrieve.” He turned the pad around to show Danny a dollar figure that made his eyes water.

“You’re kidding.”

Dinovitz’s narrow bookkeeper’s face tightened. “I never kid about money. That’s the price.”

“Half up front, half when we find the barrel?”

“You watch too much TV, bucko. The whole wad, up front, or you can take your story to some other motherfucker with a boat.”

For reasons he didn’t bother analyzing, Danny found the salvage operator’s obnoxious personality reassuring. After a few minutes of pro forma haggling, he agreed to the price. The only concession he extracted was that half the money would be paid now and the other half on the day of the dive. At the end of the interview, Danny paid the fee, and the two men shook hands.

The dive would take place in two weeks.

· · ·

The end of the evening wasn’t so much the orderly conclusion of the day’s activities as a slow disintegration, like an engine malfunctioning: gears spiraling off in different directions, belts flapping loose, forward motion interrupted. Burns stomped off the stage at the end of the last set, reappearing a minute later in his coat and hat. He stalked out the front door without a word to anyone.

Zeke packed his horn without cleaning it, anxiety churning in his gut, making him careless. He had walked with Death often enough during the countless lifetimes of his punishment that he could smell her scent if she were anywhere nearby: cloves, mothballs, vanilla, bitumen. The cloying perfume of ancient chemistry and sweet, terrible flowers. Her presence in the club was so overpowering that Zeke struggled to breathe. As he dragged on his coat and hurried to the door, he could almost feel her cool fingers caressing the back of his neck.

Out on the sidewalk, he took a few deep breaths and started walking. He peered into the first alley as he passed, his heart pounding.

The club’s old truck was parked next to the loading dock. A couple of the regular goons stood next to it, smoking and flipping pennies at the rats darting in and out of the trash cans. This was the truck the club’s employees used when they picked up kegs of beer, cases of wine and liquor—whatever Silky needed to move from one place to another. Tonight, the load consisted of nothing but a pair of metal barrels and a small pile of other oddments.

Among the items in that latter assortment were a trombone case and two or three cheap suitcases.

The blood was rushing in Zeke’s ears and his face felt hot, even though from the neck down he might have been immersed in ice water. He counted to ten, then to twenty, calming himself, then turned and walked back around to the front of the club where a couple of green and black taxicabs waited for the last drunken stragglers.

Zeke pulled a ten-dollar bill out of his wallet and showed it to the driver of the first cab he came to.

“Pretty,” the man said. “I got a few of those, too. Not as many as I’d like, though.”

“Get me where I need to go, and you can have this one for your collection,” Zeke told him.

“Hop in.”

Zeke shoved his sax case into the back seat and then folded himself in behind it.

“Where to?” the driver asked, catching his eye in the rear-view mirror.

“There’s a truck parked in the alley behind the club. I want to go wherever they’re headed.”

“Izzat so? I don’t guess you know where that is.”

“Not yet. Can you follow them? Without being too obvious about it?” Zeke felt foolish, as though he were playacting, pretending he was in a movie.

The cab driver laughed. “Maybe. I don’t want trouble.” He nodded toward the club. “‘Specially not with Silky.”

“Me, neither,” Zeke said.

The cabbie nodded. “Okay. Anything happens to make me nervous, it’s gonna cost you more. I got delicate nerves.”

“That’s fine. I’ll see to it that your nerves are looked after.”

Zeke’s nerves, while not delicate, were under a strain. When Silky walked out of the front door of the club, the musician flinched and hunkered down in the seat. The cabbie glanced back at him in the rear-view mirror with a grunt but said nothing. The tuxedoed club owner strolled over to his waiting car and bent down to speak to the chauffeur, then turned and walked around the corner of the building as the black Buick rolled away without him. A couple of minutes later, the truck nosed out of the alley; Silky and one of the goons in front, a second hired man riding in the back, snuggled up to the barrels.

“Showtime,” the cabbie said, wrestling his own vehicle into gear.

Silky’s truck wound its way into a riverfront district of warehouses and trucking companies, then turned onto the Bay Highway to drive out onto the North Bay Bridge. Zeke told the driver to take a detour before he got too close to his quarry.

“I’ll get out here,” he said once they were out of sight of the bridge.

“You sure?”

“Yeah.” Zeke handed the cabbie the ten plus another couple of singles.

“Your funeral,” the cabbie said with a shrug, tucking the money into his shirt pocket. “I don’t even like driving through this neighborhood. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be walking around here at this time of night. Not if I was a Eye-talian in a cheap tux, looking scared.”

“I know, I can’t help it. I’ve got business here.” Zeke climbed out, hefting his instrument case.

“You want me to wait?” the cabbie asked him.

“No, I could be here all night,” Zeke replied. “I’ll be okay. Thanks, though.”

“Your funeral,” the driver said again, putting the car into gear.

It might well be, Zeke thought, watching the cab round the next corner and pass from view.

The truck was parked at the near end of the bridge, hugging the parapet. The terrified saxophone player crouched behind a stack of empty fruit crates in front of a warehouse a hundred yards away, shivering with fear. I’m too old for this, he thought.

One of the men climbed up onto the back, and another stood at the tailgate while a third remained near the open door of the truck. That third man lit a cigarette, and the flare of the lighter illuminated Silky Maloney’s big, handsome face and white scarf. The man up on the bed of the truck held up a suitcase. Silky nodded, and the man flung it out over the water. Zeke couldn’t hear the splash at that distance. Another suitcase and the trombone followed it. A moment later, a smaller bag sailed out into the darkness. Silky nodded again, flipping his cigarette butt out onto the pavement, where it lay smoldering like an angry red eye.

The men now wrestled the first of the two steel barrels back to the tailgate, and then down to the pavement. The clang echoed off the nearby warehouses and Silky snapped a curse. With an effort, the two men moved the barrel to the parapet, then up onto it, then over it.

This time, Zeke heard the splash.

The other barrel received the same treatment, but by the time the workmen had lifted it up onto the parapet, Zeke had turned to stagger away from the scene, his sax case clutched against his chest like a shield.

He didn’t hear the second splash, but he didn’t have to. Two blocks away, he staggered and threw up all over his shiny black shoes, the smell of camphor and dead gardenias filling his nostrils.

· · ·

Danny arrived at Muddy Point Marina promptly at seven-thirty in the morning. Dino Dinovitz met him on the dock with two assistants, both named Mike. Mike One was what Danny had been expecting all along: shaven-headed, heavily tattooed, and with at least a pound of stainless steel hardware embedded in his ears, his eyebrows, his nose, his cheek, and his nipples. Mike Two was a short, stocky man with a military crew cut and a stop-start way of moving and talking, condensing all activity into five-second bursts separated by intervals of total immobility. Dinovitz introduced everybody to everybody else and led the way onto the boat.

In the life immediately preceding this one, as Wall Street wunderkind Dan Sickle, Ziquel had spent quite a few weekends on clients’ yachts, wallowing in booze, cocaine, and sex; although he had learned a great deal on those outings, he had come away knowing nothing about the boats themselves. Working-class musician Danny Zickell had not been presented with such opportunities; he could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times he had been more than fifty feet from shore. To Danny, the boat was a strange and terrible machine that would have his life in its figurative hands for the next several hours. He meekly went where Dinovitz told him to go, did what Dinovitz told him to do, and sat down gratefully when Dinovitz told him to settle in and stay out of the way.

Mike Two piloted the boat away from the slip while Dinovitz and Mike One manhandled the cables and winches that occupied the rearmost spaces of the boat’s deck. When they reached the search area, Mike One allowed a package of equipment to drop into the water, trailing a braid of cable. The two Mikes communicated back and forth in a series of grunts and hand gestures, and Dinovitz came over to sit across from Danny.

“Okay, my young friend. If we find something, and it turns out to be what you think it is—no, shut up, don’t tell me what you think it is, I don’t want to know—I’ll have to notify the cops, first thing. I need to know what our story is. How did you know where to look?”

Danny had worked this out in his head the night before. He could stay very near the truth and still keep his secrets safe.

“I’m a saxophone player,” he said. “A few years ago, I bought a vintage horn from a junk shop in South Bay Docks. I got it fixed up, and that’s what I play. Along with the other stuff you always find in an old sax case, there was a sheet of paper with a kind of map drawn on it. It showed the old bridge and marked a spot near the south end with a note that said, ‘Emily and Rick went into the water here.’ I didn’t think much about it at the time, but when I heard about the barrel that turned up last week, the dead girl’s name being Emily …”

“Geez, loueez. You’re shelling out a lot of money on this little expedition. What’s in it for you?”

Danny shrugged. “I don’t know. I just felt like it was something I had to do.”

“All from a map you found in a junk shop. Do you really think the police will buy that malarky?”

“I don’t know what they’ll buy. It’s all I’ve got to sell.”

Dinovitz nodded, grinning. “Good answer.” He stood and called up to Mike Two.


“Too much. The bottom here is covered in junk. It’ll be hard to pick out something like an oil drum in this mess.”

“Any possibles?”

“Yeah, a few.”

“Are you using some kind of radar?” Danny asked.

“Nah,” Dinovitz told him as he climbed up to squeeze into the cockpit with Mike Two. “We’ve got a couple of really bright lights and a camera down there. It’s like we’re giving the river a colonoscopy.”

Mike One left off fiddling with gear and climbed up to hang on the steps and peer at whatever Mike Two was showing Dinovitz.

“That right there,” the tattooed man said after a minute, pointing past his boss’s shoulder. “It’s hanging right on the edge of where the dredger came through. See it? Kinda sticking half out of the mud where it’s all been stirred up? I’ll bet you that’s our prize.”

Dinovitz nodded doubtfully. “Maybe. Rewind that a little bit, Mike. Go slow. Little more. There. I like that one better.” He slapped Mike Two on the shoulder. “Good job, Mike. I like having choices. Let’s take a closer look at all the likely candidates, and tomorrow we’ll go down and do some poking around.”

· · ·

Zeke packed quickly. There wasn’t that much that he had to take: his horn, some clothes, his good suit, an assortment of souvenirs of his past lives.

He would go to New York, start over.

Goddam it, Rick. You and that poor girl. So fucking stupid. 

He stuffed a pile of small items into the saxophone case alongside the horn and snapped the latches down, then opened it back up and scribbled on the back of a scrap of paper. He tucked that into the case and closed it.

Running away. The Watcher Ziquel. Brother to angels. One of the Twenty, the Sons of God. Yes, indeed: a power in heaven, once upon a time. Now a middle-aged mortal with a headache and watery eyes and snot running down his lip, unmanned by fear and disgust. 

A thousand lives, he thought; a thousand lives, and yet I still cling to each one so desperately. A thousand lives, and in none of them have I ever learned courage.

New York. He knew some people. There were always gigs for a reliable musician. He’d settle in, become invisible. Die quietly in his bed, twenty-seven years, three months, and five days from now. Be buried in the welcoming earth. 

I’m sorry, Rick. One day, I’ll make this good, I swear. One day.

The train would be pulling out in an hour. He took one last look around the apartment and hefted the saxophone and his suitcase. 

He left the key in the apartment door and headed out onto the street, heavily burdened.

· · ·

The second day of the search for Rick Doyle’s remains dawned warm and sunny, with a sky of such a heartbreaking blue that it seemed sacriligeous to be engaged in such a squalid task beneath its canopy.

“Mike will go down and check out each of the three sites we’ve tagged,” Dinovitz explained to Danny as the boat pulled away from the slip and out into the open water. “If and when he finds the barrel—or at least, a barrel, don’t fool yourself that yours is the only one in the river—he’ll strap a cable to it, and we’ll winch it up.” He peered over at the younger man. “You’re going to want to open it, I assume.”


“Just checking. We’ll open it up on the spot so we can toss it back if it’s not our baby.”

Danny nodded. He was nervous, his stomach doing flip-flops, even though he wasn’t going to be the one down in the water. Mike One was caparisoned in a heavy suit, not skin-tight, but bulky and stiff, like a boiler suit made of leather. His mask covered his entire face, with a cowl covering his head. Not an inch of inked skin was showing anywhere.

“A river like this can be dangerous,” Dinovitz explained when Danny asked about the gear. “The water is loaded with pollution: bacteria, chemicals—even things like hormones and pharmaceuticals. There are also objects down there, chunks of construction debris, metal, you name it. You need a suit that can take a little punishment.”

When they reached the first site, Mike One didn’t just tumble into the water, as Danny had expected, but instead hooked his feet into the cage of webbing straps attached to a cable dangling from a stubby crane extending over the side of the boat. He checked himself over one last time, then gave a thumbs-up gesture. As the mechanism rumbled and Mike Two worked the controls, the cable began to play out, and Mike One descended into the murky waters of the Pautasquat River.

The first target proved to be a large water heater, its bottom completely dissolved away, a colony of zebra mussels occupying its interior.

The second target was a segment of galvanized steel drainage pipe.

The third target was partly buried, and Mike One had to use his hands to scrape away enough mud and algae to see what he was dealing with.

“It’s an oil drum,” Mike Two announced, tapping the headset he wore. “He’s attaching the cradle now.”

Dinovitz moved over to the winch controls, and when Mike Two gave him the signal, he started slowly reeling in the cable.

To Danny, it seemed as though hours passed before Mike One’s head popped above the surface. The entire boat rocked as the winch lifted the diver and the barrel out of the water and onto a steel mesh platform that ran partway along the side of the boat, just inches above the level of the water.

Most of the muck clinging to the barrel had washed off during the trip to the surface. Traces of green paint were visible, along with the letters “SPT.”

Silly Pampered Temptress? Danny thought, pushing his sweaty hair out of his eyes, his anxiety fizzing and popping in his head and his gut. Sinister Spiffy Thug? Stupid Perished Trombonist?

Dinovitz assisted Mike One up the ladder to the deck of the boat, then helped him climb out of the great mass of gear. By the time the diver was down to a blue Speedo, revealing acres of densely scribed artwork, Mike Two had come down from the cockpit, and the men laid the barrel down on its side and secured it with straps. Mike Two fetched a tool from somewhere, a thing like a massive flashlight with a disk-shaped blade attached to one end. He handed the device to Mike One, and the tattooed man turned it on and pressed it against the metal of the drum, just behind the end cap.

After a few minutes, the grinding, shrieking racket subsided. The blade had cut a neat slot into the barrel, about a foot long. The men rolled the barrel over, and Mike One cut an identical slot toward the other end. Air whistled in through the new slot while brown water gushed from the other, draining through the mesh of the platform to return to the river.

“We’ll drain the water out first,” Dinovitz explained to Danny. “Then Mike will cut one end cap off.”

Danny nodded. Since the barrel had risen from the water, he had drifted beyond anxiety and anticipation into a detached, dazed feeling. All he could do now was watch and wait as the process unfolded.

Slicing off the end of the barrel took a surprising amount of time, and the sun was almost directly overhead when Mike Two lifted the end cap away and set it aside, and the two Mikes levered the barrel upright.

Danny glanced over at Dinovitz just as Emily DuCaine moved up to the railing on the other side of the wiry little man. She didn’t look at Danny but instead stared down at the barrel as sunlight illuminated its contents for the first time in more than eight decades. She was wearing gray flannel trousers and a white blouse. A white straw hat shaded her face, and a smear of mud stained one of her sleeves. Her expression was hungry, eager. To Danny, she had never looked more real, more alive than she did at that moment.

“Go take a look,” Dinovitz told Danny, nudging him with his elbow. “It’s your prize.”

Danny looked at him, momentarily blank, then collected himself. He climbed carefully down the short ladder to the platform and stepped over to the barrel.

Sludge. A human skull perched atop a collapsed scaffolding. Mud. Rags. A hotel key on a metal fob with the number 410 engraved on it.

All the flesh had been nibbled away from the corpse, leaving nothing but water-stained bones and cartilage. Rick’s clothes had disintegrated, but bits and pieces still remained recognizable: the waistband of his trousers, the elastic from his boxer shorts, his belt and shoes, the collar of his shirt, and most of his jacket.

A glint of white showed through the remains of Rick’s jacket. Danny reached down, his stomach churning, and pulled a handful of dreams out into the sunight.

Emily’s pearls. 

Although his mind was clear as he held them up to the light, tears were blurring his vision. Zeke Ziccelli’s tears, waiting eighty-four years to finally fall, mourning the meaningless death of a friend.

“Whoa.” Mike One reached out and brushed away a viscous swag of algae with one finger. “They’re real, aren’t they,” he said.

Danny nodded. “I’m sure they are. They were Emily’s. I don’t know how Rick ended up with them.” He looked up to see Emily staring down, her eyes on the pearls.

“‘Rick’?” Dinovitz was frowning. “You know who this fucking guy is. You knew he would be here. You knew about the pearls.”

“No. The pearls are as big a surprise to me as they are to you.”

Dinovitz made a sour face. “Whatever, man.” He nodded toward Mike Two. “Let’s get this mess secured and head back to the marina. We’ll call the police when we dock. You,” he added, returning his attention to Danny, “can take that time to get your story straight. Once we dock, my job is done, and this is your show and yours alone. Capiche?”

Danny nodded, and Dinovitz moved away from the railing, out of sight. The two Mikes strapped the barrel to the platform and left Danny alone with Rick.

Not quite alone. As soon as the men were gone, Emily was at his elbow. She reached out for the pearls, and Danny automatically snatched them back. The girl’s pretty, vapid face became a mask of rage, and she made as if to claw his cheek.

“No one has ever refused you anything, have they?” he said. Emily’s beauty and poise had evaporated, leaving only a greedy little girl.

Danny held up the pearls, and she folded herself around them like a wisp of fog, then stood back. The wounds at her throat were gone, and pearls gleamed through the open collar of her blouse. She glanced once at the barrel and its sad contents, dismissing both, and vanished, giddy with delight.

Danny looked down at his hand, expecting to see nothing but mud and river slime, but he was still holding seventy-five pearls threaded onto a platinum chain hardly thicker than a strand of Emily DuCaine’s hair.

The police were reluctant to accept Danny’s explanations, but in the end, there was little else they could do. A murder had been committed, but presumably, everyone involved was long dead. There was absolutely no reason to suspect Danny Zickell of anything even remotely illegal. The case was closed, and the body was released to the next of kin, the granddaughter of Rick’s maternal aunt, a woman who had never heard of her cousin and who had no interest in getting involved in the whole sordid undertaking. She eagerly agreed to leave Rick’s final disposition up to Danny.

Richard Everett Doyle was laid to rest in a small cemetery near the river. There was no ceremony, and Danny Zickell was the only mourner at the graveside.

Zeke Ziccelli’s here, too, Danny thought, feeling his past self hovering close.

As the cheap casket was lowered into the ground, Danny watched for Emily, any sign of her, any indication that the end of the story mattered to her, but he watched in vain.

Danny left the cemetery and walked down to the river. He took the necklace out of his pocket and looked at it, then out at the murky water. For a moment, he thought about simply flinging the pearls back out into the river, but he knew that he owed it to his future selves to keep them. One more item for his gruesome collection. One more link between one life and the next.

One more reminder of what it means to be human.

# # #

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