The following story, based loosely on actual events, was originally published as a chapbook in 1988 by BoldFace Media. The cover art is by Susan Pacaud.
One But Not One
(a Susie Kale mystery)
My work took me to an area I didn’t normally frequent – an area with rundown places like the New Lyon Hotel, the Club Alexander and the Club Dancing Goat. These are all like the old Ratdale Manor on Broadway, which you may or may not remember. It’s gone now.
I had been working as a homecare worker in my own neighbourhood, going around to my clients’ homes in Burnaby North. Just when I began to feel under-employed because I’d been trained in Public Health Admin, the company shut down. I eventually found administrative work at the East End Lodge, in the heart of the part of town that makes me jumpy.
This new job involved designing health programmes for the local people, giving talks about self-care and nutrition, and working closely with the street clinic. I didn’t know how long we’d be based at the East End Lodge because the building was unofficially condemned. This means it was condemned but we were still in it.
The uptown people who were slowly creeping into the neighbourhood thought our building was an eyesore, and while it didn’t meet the new seismic standards, I felt the East End Lodge had a fading, melancholy spirit. I shouldn’t have been so alarmed when I saw a ghost one evening in my makeshift office.
It wasn’t exactly a ghost I saw; it was Ria Mootoo, the jazz singer. That was her stage-name, Mootoo; she had named herself after a local artist she admired.
Ria had been working with me at the Lodge until the day she abruptly quit. I had been in charge of Health, and Ria had been in charge of Music Therapy and General Recreation. One morning she came in and said, “I can’t keep working here. In order to get into the building I have to step over too many prone bodies, most of whom I’m acquainted with.”
I suspect the real reason she quit was because she had trouble getting up that early in the morning. She used to sing almost every night at either the Club Alexander or the Club Dancing Goat, and she never got to bed till maybe four in the morning. I didn’t have time to discuss this with her for she turned around and left. I saw how tired and distracted she looked. Our clients really liked her; what could I do?
The following Friday I was working late in the Lodge, trying to finish off the week’s paperwork. With my peripheral vision, I saw Ria standing beside the desk. I caught a glimpse of her white jumpsuit and that fluttery blue scarf she’s so fond of.
“I’m glad you’re here,” I spoke as I scribbled some figures. “I’ve been meaning to speak with you.” One second later, I looked up and Ria was not there. Not a trace of her was in that room.
I jolted forward and knocked my nameplate from the desk. It reads “Susan K. Kale”, and the white plastic letters spilled all over the floor in a meaningless anagram. I went to the front of the desk and scooped them up rather shakily. Apart from this action, I managed to keep my composure.
From there I walked to the head of the stairs which, thank heaven, had track-lighting. “Ria?” I called out to the stillness. My voice rebounded, confirming what I already knew: There was no one else in the Lodge that time of evening, and both doors were already locked. I mean, I had locked them myself.
I went back to the desk and quickly put away my papers. My common sense told me that if I were seeing things, it was most likely because I’d hardly eaten all day. All I’d had were a couple of terribly sour green apples from the tree in my courtyard, and a bit of an egg salad sandwich from the public canteen downstairs. I can never get through those horrid sandwiches. For one thing, they’re made with white bread. If I bring my own sandwich from home, everyone else tries to eat it.
The minute my desk was tidied up, I got my coat and prepared to leave. One has to go out the back way that time of night, and did I run. When I got outside and the air hit me, my head began to clear. It was one of those late autumn evenings when once the sun goes down the air gets icy cold.
Now what could I make of the spectre that so resembled Ria Mootoo? My first thought was that Ria must be in some sort of trouble; she sent out molecules looking for help. I’d read someplace that these kinds of spirits are called “crisis apparitions”. They show up to warn others of a crisis about to happen. That may sound a bit far-fetched, but I had no other supernatural episodes to compare with this one.
In fact, I’d had only one other spooky experience in my entire life, and that was when I was eight years old. I don’t mind telling you, that was twenty-five years ago. Actually, it was more than twenty-five years. “Twenty-five and change,” as one of my clients would say.
This was on a Halloween night back in my hometown, when my schoolmates and I were out trick-or-treating. Down the street from us was a house where three or four schoolteachers lived. I didn’t know them; they taught at the private school. When we knocked on the door, yelling, “Shell out,” they invited us into their living room. Their living room was decorated as a witches’ haunt, with orange and black streamers along the ceiling and a big black cauldron in the middle of the hardwood floor.
The cauldron had vapours rising from its rim, making all sorts of shapes and patterns that faded away as quickly as they formed. I moved much closer to it, and one of our hostesses called out sharply, “Look but don’t touch. That’s dry ice in there.” I remember peering into that cauldron for the longest time, feeling both scared and fascinated.
I know the vapours from a chunk of dry ice are a far cry from the image of Ria Mootoo, sharp as crystal in front of my eyes. If it did signify that she were in trouble and needed help, I’d have to find her in a hurry. The office didn’t have her address, only a box number, so I had to find the only mutual friend of ours – Kevyn Rumble. He would know Ria’s whereabouts.
Kevyn Rumble plays the bass in various punk bands. One of these bands is called “Death Sentence”; the others, I think, are nameless. Even when Kevyn isn’t playing anywhere for long stretches, he keeps in touch with the whole neighbourhood. People who don’t know Kevyn’s name say, “You know that tall guy with the attitude?”, and everyone knows who they’re talking about. He lives at the recently renovated New Lyon Hotel – the only hotel to get a facelift without all its tenants getting kicked out first.
I left my car where it was, behind the Lodge, because the walk to the New Lyon is fairly short. Beyond the intersection is a Save-on Surplus. Next to it is the new parking lot where King Rooms used to stand, and where Kevyn used to live. Next to that is the Asian cinema.
I had recently taken some clients to the Asian cinema because it was necessary to plan some outings after Ria quit. The movie we saw didn’t have any English subtitles but I followed the story: A female social worker – not unlike myself but of a different culture, and with a different lifestyle – fell in love with one of her charges. Nothing good came of this affair. By the end of the picture, her client went back to his old street gang, to the point of no return.
My clients were deeply affected by this movie, but the fact that its plot was so predictable only ruined it for me. Of course any subtleties would have gone right by us, since we didn’t know the language.
Next to the cinema, last on the block, stands the New Lyon Hotel. As I entered the front doors I wondered what sort of mood Kevyn would be in. He at least responded to my knock. “You’d better not come in, Susie,” was the first thing he said. “Wenzel Wight is coming over with the back wages he owes me. If it’s less than what it’s supposed to be, we’re gonna have a showdown.”
“I don’t intend to stay,” I told him. I had no time to be anything but blunt. “Kevyn, listen: Tonight I saw what I can only describe as a ghost. It looked just like Ria Mootoo, but when I looked again, it was gone. Vanished into thin air, as the expression goes.”
“You call that a ghost?” Kevyn opened his door a little wider. “That’s no ghost. Ria’s alive and well. Anyway, a ghost wears a white sheet over itself. You wanna know why?”
I didn’t, but I said, “Okay, hurry up and tell me why.”
“I didn’t used to know why ghosts have to wear a sheet until I read ‘Dracula’s Guest’ by Bram Stoker. Have you read it?”
I hadn’t. At the time I was about halfway through Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.
“Well, in the graveyard scene,” Kevyn continued, “Stoker talked about ‘phantoms of the sheeted dead’. Then I knew. In the morgue everyone is covered with a sheet. If someone comes back to life, the sheet comes too, for visibility. And I’ve gotta tell you something else.”
“Tell me something else,” I said. If you knew Kevyn, you’d know why I didn’t bother getting back to the subject at hand. It’s no use; Kevyn has to finish what he begins.
He said, “I found out where Bram Stoker got inspired to write about those phantoms. A librarian who is originally from Dublin told me. Bram Stoker was getting his tonsils out, and he came to full awakening consciousness on the operating table, surrounded by doctors in their surgical gear. White sheets everywhere, Susie.”
Kevyn was staring at me, waiting for a response, so I just said, “Where is Ria Mootoo? I’m worried she might be in danger.”
“Don’t worry,” said Kevyn, “everybody knows, she’s singing at the Dancing Goat tonight. If you hung around here more often, you’d know the Dancing Goat is hosting a big show right about now, to prove once and for all that we don’t need the Club Alexander.”
“Well, I’m going to the Dancing Goat then, to make certain Ria’s okay.”
“Wait, I’m coming too,” Kevyn said as he reached for his falling-apart jean jacket. “I know you don’t like going there alone.”
“But what about Wenzel Wight?” I asked him. “Isn’t he coming here with your money?”
“I’ll find him later.” Kevyn locked his dead bolt. “This might be more important.”
It was a five-minute walk to the Dancing Goat, farther along the same street, and Kevyn complained about Wenzel Wight the entire way. Wenzel was the manager of the Club Alexander, and Kevyn was a former waiter. Kevyn often loses jobs because of his hellish appearance.
It was simply a shame that the Dancing Goat and the Alexander had an unfriendly competition going on; always trying to outdo each other, instead of joining forces. They were the only two clubs left in which the local residents still felt at home. The other clubs had either closed down, or had become too upscale and expensive.
I was secretly relieved as Kevyn complained non-stop on our way to the Dancing Goat. It kept me from voicing my ominous concern that Ria would not be there.
The one-storey building at the end of Jackson Street is the one they call the Dancing Goat. I’d been inside only a few times, mostly to look for someone, and this particular time I felt like standing in the shadow of the door while Kevyn looked for Ria.
Kevyn’s clothing was mostly dark, so he disappeared instantly in the dim interior. On the platform stood Ria’s backup trio – drum kit, Hammond organ and stand-up bass – playing an instrumental version of “Dim, Dim the Lights (I Want Some Atmosphere)”. I remembered this song from when I was only four years old – that’s when Bill Haley and his Comets made it popular. I had two older sisters and they both enjoyed this kind of rhythm and blues that spans the decades. Imagine Kevyn and his crowd, all at least ten years younger than I, listening to the same music.
I could see that Ria was not up there with her band. I could make out the faces of many of my clients, however, some of whom were calling out, “Look who’s here. Can you believe it? Susie Kale.” Soon Kevyn emerged and said, “Ria’s not here. None of the staff knows where she is, and she’s been expected for the past hour.”
I pulled him outside where we could talk in private, and learned that he didn’t have her home address. “Is there any chance that Ria’s at the Club Alexander?”
Kevyn answered with an impatient look. “If you socialized around here more often, you’d know that the Alexander is closed for repairs. The money-people took it over and they’re paying Wenzel Wight to redesign it. The little sell-out.”
“I can’t keep track of everything that goes on in this neighbourhood,” I almost yelled at Kevyn because I didn’t like his not-so-subtle jab. “I do my best. I don’t work at the Lodge only so I can experience ‘helper’s high’, you know.”
“I know that, Susie.” Kevyn looked down at the sidewalk. “I’m just upset about Wenzel, and about the fate of our club.”
As the Alexander was within seeing distance from where we stood, I looked over and saw just how dismal and closed up it was. It was similar to the Dancing Goat, only darker, emptier and with a main entrance at the side instead of the front.
“Susie, look,” Kevyn pointed to the entrance of the Alexander. “That door is wide open.”
Sure enough, the Alexander’s main door was gaping at us from a distance. “We’re going in,” said Kevyn.
“What do you mean, we’re going in? You said yourself it’s closed for repairs.” I was beginning to get a panicky feeling.
“I happen to know that Wenzel has a red notebook behind the bar, with the names and addresses of his former employees. We’ll go in there and get Ria’s address.”
“No,” I told Kevyn, “no means no.” That’s the name of the East End’s favourite punk band, No Means No, and it was the most assertive phrase I could think of.
“We’re doing this for Ria,” he was trying to pull me across the street now, “think of Ria; not us.”
I went with him through the dark rectangle that was the Alexander’s entrance door. Kevyn knew where all the light switches were and he flicked on the nearest one as we entered.
Inside, the place looked as though it were about to be painted. Drop-cloths were strewn around the floor, and white sheets covered the chairs and tables. We were standing beside what appeared to be an overstuffed comfy chair. “The furniture is all sheeted, like the sheeted dead you were going on about earlier,” I said to Kevyn. My own voice sounded hollow in the vacant room, and I gave myself a case of the jitters. “Kevyn, you find that notebook and then let’s scat.”
Not a second after I spoke these words, I detected some movement from the comfy chair. It looked as though a figure were sitting beneath the sheet. Before I could think again, the figure rose to a standing position. The sheet slid away and there, between Kevyn and me, stood Ria Mootoo. Her wrists and ankles were loosely tied with packing wire, while her favourite blue scarf was around her mouth in a fairly innocuous-looking gag.
My immediate response was to look at Kevyn. He had fallen first on one knee and then the other, the way a goat does when it decides to lie down. Then he fell onto his face. It took me a moment to recognize the symptoms: Kevyn had fainted, from the shock.
I turned back to Ria and began untying the wire, which in fact was so loose she could have done so herself. When I removed the gag, she said, “Never mind me; it’s imperative that you wake up Kevyn.”
I put Kevyn in the recovery position and he came to a moment after. “Don’t get up too quickly,” I warned.
Ria certainly looked surprised to see me, but she didn’t look at all surprised to see Kevyn. She began talking to him right away: “You know what happened? Wenzel Wight kidnapped me and tied me up here so I couldn’t open at the Dancing Goat tonight. It was Wenzel who did this, Kevyn. Hurry up and get me back to the Goat so I can start singing.”
“Shouldn’t we rub your ankles, Ria?” I intervened.
“There’s no time for that; just help me get back to the club.”
I didn’t personally know Wenzel Wight, but I had trouble believing he would kidnap Ria, or anyone else. He looked so unassuming, in his Buddy Holly horn-rimmed glasses. With all the excitement, though, I didn’t bother to question anything. I mutely followed Kevyn and Ria back to the Dancing Goat.
People cheered as we made our way inside. They were saying things like, “Ria, you ought to be up there singing.” Kevyn wasted no time badmouthing Wenzel. “That no good Wight,” he said, “first he withholds my money; then he kidnaps Ria so she can’t perform.”
Ria moved away to talk with her trio, and who walked in the door but Wenzel Wight himself. “Is Kevyn Rumble here?” I heard him call, in quite a feeble-sounding voice.
“There’s the culprit,” Kevyn pointed. “Step outside, come on, let’s go.” Wenzel Wight obliged him instantly by scurrying out the back exit; as I understood, all fights took place in the alley. The customers, save one or two, followed them out so they could watch.
“There’s my cue,” said Ria to her band members. “I have to go stop that fight, so you guys keep warming up for me.”
I did not want to appear apathetic about this fight but I had to stop Ria before she went out that door. “Just wait,” I said, “weren’t you at the Lodge about 8:45 this evening? I could have sworn I saw you there. You were wearing a white jumpsuit, mind you; not that maroon satin dress.” I had just noticed then the discrepancy between what my phantom had been wearing, and what Ria was now wearing.
“No, I haven’t been there since the day I quit.” Ria scuffed her feet on the floor. “I’ve been meaning to apologize, Susie. Really I have. I quit because I got so busy doing publicity here at the club. I knew, with all the unemployment, someone else would snap up my job in no time.”
“Well, that hasn’t happened. But never mind that now,” I said. “Tonight I saw a ghost, but not a ghost. I mean it looked like you, and even if it came from my overworked brain and no place else, I assumed you were in danger.”
“Danger,” Ria scoffed, “I’ll tell you a little something, but keep it under your hat. Wenzel didn’t really kidnap me; it’s just a publicity gimmick. When the new owners took over the Alexander, Wenzel gave his notice. He agreed to finish painting the interior there, but after that he’s joining the staff here at the Goat – the last bastion for us locals. Good old Wenzel thought he’d start with a bang and stage a kidnapping, to get everyone excited. But it kind of backfired. He planned to send a messenger to Kevyn’s room, to tell Kevyn to pick up his cheque at the Alexander. That’s why Wenzel left its door wide open. Then, you see, Kevyn would go there, find me tied up in that chair, and hit the roof. But I didn’t expect to see you there, too, Susie. I had to think fast.”
“Now just a moment,” I said, trying to grasp Ria’s explanation, “was Kevyn in on this, too?”
“No way,” said Ria, “I mean, I don’t think so. He’d never do it if we’d asked him to. And Wenzel doesn’t owe him any money, either. That’s just Kevyn’s side of the story. But we figured his performance would be worth a cheque from Wenzel. Speaking of which, Wenzel came here hoping Kevyn would pick a fight and get some excitement going. So, Susie, I have to get out there and stop the action, as theatrically as possible. Time is ticking away.”
Before she reached the exit door, Ria turned around and added, “I’ve been wondering how I could get you to socialize a bit more. I’m glad something brought you to our club. See you later, Goody-Goody.”
This didn’t exactly explain the spectre which earlier had me jumping out of my skin. Utterly baffled, I took a good look around the Dancing Goat, just to see if I might fit in at all. I actually began to feel a connection to the place, possibly because the bartender gave me such a compassionate smile.
I was too tired and hungry at the moment to make a trek back to my car, so I sat at one of the tables and ordered a mineral water plus a bowl of those oversalted peanuts. I faintly heard Ria hollering stuff like, “Stop that fuss” and “I wanna see you two shaking hands.” People were slowly filing back into the club.
The clock behind the bar said 9:45. Although I’m not much of a joiner, I sat back to let myself be entertained. Ria’s band was beginning to play Al Hibbler’s “After the Lights Go Down Low”. I was only six years old when this song came out, but I warmly remembered its satin tones.