Rising above a hardscrabble childhood to become a star at one of Atlanta’s most prestigious law firms, Derek Miller is reliving The Great Gatsby in his own backyard. The spell is broken, however, when Derek’s investigation into the death of his mentor, a prominent psychologist, runs afoul of a mysterious government project involving research into psychic phenomena.
As Derek digs deeper, convinced his mentor was murdered, he is plunged into a rabbit hole of government experiments, clandestine figures, and supposed paranormal events. His investigation also puts him at odds with shadowy forces deep within the corridors of power—including those on the top floor of his own law firm.
With his career in shambles, a warrant out for his arrest, and his life in jeopardy, Derek is running out of time to unravel the secrets surrounding his mentor’s research. And if he fails, it’s not just his own life that will be at risk, but the lives of those he holds most dear.
From a theoretical physicist to a clairvoyant housewife to the charismatic pastor of a mega-church, from lavish Southern mansions to desperate urban wasteland, Derek’s investigation turns into a race for survival that hinges on one thing alone: finding, and stopping, the most powerful psychic the world has ever seen.
“Once again, Green has captured the imagination and the heart–not an easy feat for a mystery-thriller…. If you’re already a Green fan, then you won’t be disappointed. If you’ve never read him, then this is a great place to start…”
an excerpt from
The Metaxy Project
by Layton Green
Copyright © 2014 by Layton Green and published here with his permission
Southwest Atlanta, Jan. 19, 8 p.m.
I open the door of the abandoned house, and the palm of a massive hand forces me backwards. It pushes me all the way into a chair in the corner of the room.
The man’s other hand is clutching a piece of thin yellow paper, the type used for summonses and warrants. I’m an attorney, and I know that paper by sight.
And I know that this time, my name is printed on the front.
He stands above me, face rigid, eyes burning like twin medieval forges on the eve of war. I’m six-two and a buck ninety-five. I grew up rough, I’ve never backed down from a fight, and I’m not afraid of very many people.
But no way in hell am I getting out of this chair.
“You don’t understand.” My voice sounds disembodied, a voice that can’t believe it is having this conversation. “It’s not me. It’s them. Him.”
“Him?” He plants the paper in my chest, almost knocking me backward in the chair. “Is whoever-the-hell’s name on this warrant? Or does it say Derek Gabriel Miller?”
He removes his black duster and tosses it on the couch, covering the stains from the previous squatters. The bulk of his handgun is lurking in its holster.
I feel trapped in some noir dream world where normal people are criminal suspects and enraged detectives are screaming at them. My head drops and I can’t meet his gaze. I’m thirty years old, jobless, on my way to being disbarred, rotting from a broken heart. People I love are dead and dying. There’s a murderer on the loose.
I feel the bandage rubbing against my side. My own life is in danger, and I’m a suspect in two felony cases. What does one do when life disappoints this badly? How does one act? What does one say?
I’m innocent, of course. Although who is innocent and who is guilty in this twisted clown show through which we totter, alone and unsure, clawing at that cosmic veil separating us from meaning and truth? Who among us is innocent, and who among us can judge?
I say, “He’s the one I told you–”
“Shut up.” He turns his back and paces the room. A cigarette is lit in one smooth motion. Wrist curled inward, he sucks on the cigarette like it’s an oxygen tank. “I want to know about the girls. The ones you somehow failed to mention. The black one first. Where is she?”
“I don’t know.”
“That’s what the lowlifes say. You know something or your name wouldn’t be on this warrant.”
“Are you going to try and listen, or just shout?”
“I’m gonna do whatever the hell I want.”
I lower my head again. I try to find my spirit, but it’s been swallowed by that piece of paper in his hand.
“The white girl,” he says. “Did you hit her? Put her in the ward?”
“Of course not.”
“I guess this other guy did that too?”
“Or his lackey.”
I have a sudden vision of her lying in bed at the hospital, mind stricken, body slack. The image emboldens me. “You’re right,” I say. “I do know something. I know lots of things about those two girls. I know things you wouldn’t believe, things I’m not even sure I believe. But I don’t know where she is, and you know it. I wish I did.”
He snorted. “Wouldn’t believe? I’ve seen it all, champ. All the filth and piss and misery that human beings can possibly do to each other. So don’t give me that.”
A sublime calm relaxes my face, a calm born of fear, exhaustion, and desperation. The kind that comes when there is no place else to go. “You haven’t seen this.”
His voice is dangerously still. “Is that right? More of the psychic crap?”
“I tried to tell you. You didn’t listen.”
He unhooks a pair of handcuffs from his belt and dangles them. “You know what these mean? What they mean to you? To a white hotshot lawyer who killed a black girl from the hood? Once you’re in, doesn’t even matter if you did it.”
“I don’t think she’s dead. But I’ve never even laid eyes on her.”
“Then why’s your name on this piece of paper? And don’t lie to me, or you won’t make it to prison!”
“I’m not lying. Just shut up for one second and listen!”
He slams his fists on the arms of my chair, jarring my elbows. The manufactured woodiness of his cheap cologne assaults me.
My mind races, trying to figure out where it all began, deciding what to tell him and what to keep locked away. The rush of memories brings a shiver, and my eyes slink to the window.
“Don’t think,” he says softly. “Talk. From the beginning. I don’t care how long it takes.”
I stare at him, search his face for commiseration, for sympathy, for any emotion I can grasp onto.
None of which I find.
The second Saturday in June of 2011 was the first night I saw the man in the brown suit. Who he was, and his mysterious connection to Dr. Carter, would soon become an obsession. At the moment it was a flicker of curiosity amid the silky haze of the Toureau Dagmon Summer Associate program.
Manesh and I were standing at the makeshift bar in the living room of Dr. Carter’s Buckhead mansion, in front of floor-to-ceiling bay windows showcasing the arboreal splendor of Atlanta’s premier zip code. Perfect people filled the room. I flexed my shoulders against the stitching of my new Brooks Brothers suit and thought what a fine thing it was the firm was paying us two grand and change a week to attend social functions and play at being an attorney.
Two grand a week meant a six figure salary. That wasn’t even part of my lexicon. When my first direct deposit posted I could only gape. Two grand was a lot of double espressos, a lot of five dollar covers at the Dragon’s Den, a lot of loads of laundry and cheap drafts at Igor’s, a lot of secondhand novels, a lot of swings at the batting cage.
A helluva lot.
The entire first week I’d gone to work in the only suit I owned, a hand-me-down from a college roommate. I was petrified someone would notice I was wearing the same suit every day, so I wore a different color shirt each morning and took off my coat as soon as I arrived.
If I got an offer, I wouldn’t have to worry about such petty things. But I expected no such providence. The firm knew who I was and where I came from. This gig was a joke, a favor to Dr. Carter. I’d be let down gently after the summer, left to troll the legal world looking for jobs for regular people, like the vast majority of my classmates.
But that night was my night, my gossamer strand to the will-o-the-wisp realm of social legitimacy. The summer associate cocktail hour host du jour was Dr. Sam Carter, my mentor and guide through this labyrinth of privilege. Without him I’d be one more graduate of a respectable but not Ivy League school, with good but not eye-popping grades, hustling my resume to some insurance defense shop that would barely pay the note on my mortgage-size student debt.
Instead I was sipping top-shelf liquor in a modern Roman villa, standing in the same room with a former Olympian, a couple of ex-U.S. attorneys, and a state senator. Across the room, regaling a rarified pair of senior partners, was a real Senator.
Where was I?
There were forty-five summer associates at the Atlanta mega-firm of Toureau Dagmon, culled from the top ranks of the best law schools, and our life was absurd. We had a two-Martini lunch every day, a function like this every night, and playtime in between. If we weren’t at some partner’s obscene house, we were at a private room in a restaurant, or a VIP lounge, or a country club. Then there were the after-parties, and the after-after parties. Any restaurant, any bar, every night. Whenever and whatever we wanted.
Recession? These people didn’t know the meaning of the word.
We weren’t there to learn the practice of law, we were there to wine and dine. They wanted to know who had the goods, who could schmooze the CEOs and convince a jury the Easter Bunny was real and on our side. If just one of us brought in a million-dollar client in the future, the whole summer of excess was paid for in spades. And the family connections of most of the summer associates made that a certainty.
Oh, we knew we were the proverbial lambs before the slaughter. That the hollow eyes and forced smiles of the associates would one day be ours, if we made it in. That only the very best of the very best made partner, with the rest cast aside like aging buffalo, left with bruised egos and high blood pressure and gilded of-counsel nameplates.
But no one was complaining. It was still the American dream. Whatever guarded preconceptions one has of the good life, when it’s laid at your feet, you take a long hard look at it. And someone like me, who grew up in a trailer and got Christmas presents from Goodwill, didn’t need any convincing.
I called Dr. Carter my mentor because I didn’t know what else to call him. He was a prominent Atlanta psychologist, and I met his son, Jay, on a baseball team when we were kids. I was the pitcher, Jay played first base, and we became fast friends. There isn’t a wrong side of the tracks when you’re ten.
Jay stopped growing a few years later at five foot four, two inches shy of his father. When Jay hit high school, he was rich, tiny, and universally picked on. He had one trump card: me. The kids at Jay’s private school were petrified of me, which made me laugh. I was big, and knew how to fight, but I was far from the toughest kid at my school, or even in my own family. My older brother was a legend.
Dr. Carter was forever grateful for my warding of Jay, and he also respected me. Jay had a big heart, but he took his life of privilege for granted. I was hard-working and grasping for something better.
Jay died in a car wreck his first year of college. I lost my best friend, but Dr. Carter lost himself. His wife had left years ago, and Jay was his only child. I became Dr. Carter’s therapy, and he became my Havisham.
I wasn’t sure how I ended up at Toureau. I just knew that one of the partners asked me how Dr. Carter was doing before I’d told anyone I knew him. It was the first of many mysteries that would soon swirl around Dr. Carter like rare moths around a flame.
The second mystery, the man in the brown suit, had just walked through the door.
Manesh broke off his conversation with the elegant black man serving drinks, and nudged me. “Check out Sears & Roebuck.”
A middle-aged man about my height, thinner, paler, had just walked past the doorman without so much as a nod. He stepped into the library, across the foyer from us. He had a strong brow, a Roman nose, and a scar along the right side of his neck that I could see from across the house. Out of habit, I put my hand over my own scar, a two inch social stigma right in the cleft of my chin.
Men with visible scars didn’t come to this type of party. Neither did men in polyester pants and worn camel brown sport coats.
“Who the hell’s that?” Manesh said. “The help?”
Manesh was a Gujarati Indian from Tennessee. He was short and skinny and awkward as hell. Outside of work he wore cowboy boots and spoke in a rapid-fire Southern accent which, yes, was an anomaly. He loved rap music and fried food and online poker, as well as all things blond and buxom.
“Wrong color,” I murmured, and not in jest. I had yet to see a white man serving drinks at one of these functions.
I didn’t want to stare, so I positioned myself so I could talk to Manesh and keep watching the man. He didn’t act out of place; he had the same pre-possessed, self-important air the partners had. He folded his arms, looked out the window, tapped his foot while he waited.
“Maybe he’s a P.I.,” Manesh said. “I hear the firm has some on payroll. Or one of Dr. Carter’s crazyass clients.”
After Jay died, Dr. Carter scaled back his private practice. He still took on a few clients, but now he concentrated on research.
“What if he opens fire?” Manesh continued. “Maybe the firm screwed him or some shit. What if he’s got a Nine under that coat?”
“Have you ever seen a nine millimeter?” I said. “Not counting in a video game?”
“Dude, I grew up in Memphis. What do you think?”
“You’re from Germantown. I think you’ve never seen a gun, period. And I don’t think any self respecting gangster would “open fire” with a Nine.”
Manesh mumbled something into his drink. I grinned, then Cameron swished through the front door. Conversations paused, heads turned, my grin expanded. Cameron had a body that could make a eunuch sweat. She made eye contact with Manesh and me, then twirled into the maelstrom.
What a trio we were. The dregs of Biglaw. In the world of Southern privilege we stuck out like Carnies without tattoos, and that was our yoke.
Biglaw, roughly defined: Fortune 500 clients, average partner profits per year pushing a million, offensive hourly rates, the largest top-tier law firms in the world. Toureau was one of a handful of firms in the Southeast that could claim Biglaw status.
Personally, I hated that word. It conjured images of those law students who stole notes and hid library books and spent their two free hours a day surfing greedyassociates.com to find out which firm was paying the highest starting bonus. Biglaw was their nightly wet dream.
Cameron could have been one of them, if she wanted. She was white, cultured, a Northerner on the lam. She had a big-time lawyer father and an Ivy League education, that rock star body and a narrow face a few clicks shy of beautiful. I wasn’t sure why she was slumming in Atlanta, but I knew she had some issues. She had no respect for authority and even less self-esteem. She was a jaded, pill-popping, hard-drinking wild child.
But we had only met three weeks ago, so who knows what her deal really was.
I was the real outsider. Manesh claimed his family owned an entire village in India. True or not, his father was a surgeon outside Memphis. Manesh and Cameron came from money. I was the first in my family to go to college, let alone law school. My mother still waited tables, and my father was a truck driver. He trucked away when I was five and never came back.
The man in the brown suit was still tapping his foot and looking around the room. I followed his gaze until it rested on Dr. Carter. He didn’t seem to notice, and the man’s foot tapping grew more insistent.
Cameron walked over and slid her arm through mine in that cocktail chic way. Her perfume was a feathery jasmine, suggestive as always. Straight blond hair, brown at the roots, swished and then settled on my arm.
She looked sober as a Baptist, except for that half-cocked grin that always appeared when she was drunk. I’d seen that same grin every night for three weeks.
I lowered my voice. “It’s only eight o’clock, Cam. You’ve still got a lot of fake smiles to pull off.”
She gave me a squeeze and removed her arm. She was wearing clingy black pants and a silk blouse, pumps and a silver bangle, walking that fine line between hot and trashy she always managed to pull off. Even with the makeup Cameron’s face was a tad asymmetrical, but I don’t think anyone besides me noticed. The eyes of most men never reached her face.
Her diction was impeccable, and she spoke in that accent-free voice everyone affected at these functions, except the senior partners, who did whatever the hell they wanted. Cameron could pull off the firm voice with the best of them. I sounded ridiculous, like I was trying to imitate an English butler.
“Don’t worry about me,” she said. “Who do you think’s been shoving drinks in my hand? How come you’re both staring at that poor man? He needs a tailor, not a fan club.”
Manesh kept repositioning his arms, as if he didn’t know what to do with them. He had the game of a bubble boy. Even though Cameron was his friend, she still tongue-tied him. “I heard you got drunk with Buckley last night,” Manesh said.
Buckley Weatherholt was a newly minted partner, a notorious womanizer, and an arrogant prick. The rumor mill at Toureau ran like a Swiss watch, and we’d all heard it earlier in the day. I couldn’t have cared less. What Cameron did was her business.
Cameron gave a dismissive wave. “We were the last two at the bar, that’s all. Just building up a little goodwill.”
“I thought you said you didn’t care about an offer from this nest of harpies,” Manesh said, sucking his frozen margarita through a straw. I tried to tell him frozen drinks were not appropriate for the straight male, but he wasn’t interested.
But that’s what I liked about Manesh: he didn’t give a damn.
“That was last week, after the Dragon Lady gave me that summary judgment brief the night before the Rebirth show. This week is different. Derek knows how a woman’s mind works. You should take some lessons.”
“I know women,” Manesh muttered. “I bet–” He cut off as Buckley himself approached, narrow-shouldered and curly-headed, soft face stamped with privilege.
Buckley inclined his head in that stentorian half-nod partners liked to give to the serfs. “Glad y’all could make it tonight. Derek, I understand you’re acquainted with our host?”
I knew at once nothing had happened between him and Cameron. He wasn’t forcing it, and his eyes never left Cameron’s chest. If something had gone down, he’d be looking anywhere but there. “I was friends with his son,” I said. “We played baseball together.”
Buckley either missed the past tense or didn’t care. “That’s right, I heard you were an athlete. Have you seen the firm gym?” He leaned towards me, conspiratorially. “You’re not a golfer, are you?”
I’d never stepped on a golf course except to steal balls out of the ponds as a kid, but Buckley didn’t give me a chance to answer. He uttered a few more stilted questions and wandered off, his gaze lingering on Cameron’s legs.
“Douche bag,” Manesh said. “I bet he has a ceiling mirror.”
“He does,” Cameron said, and then laughed over the music as Manesh’s indigo skin purpled.
My gaze returned to the visitor in the brown coat. He had turned his head, and I saw that the scar was much longer than I realized. It ran from the side of his neck in a curve across his throat, right over his pointy Adam’s apple, as if someone had tried to slit his throat and he had survived. It made him look like a living ghoul.
I watched him open a cell phone with impatient flair, press a finger into it, then snap it shut. I scanned the room and saw Dr. Carter pulling out his own phone. Dr. Carter frowned and walked over to the man. They talked briefly, and the man in the brown suit reached into his jacket, took out an envelope, and handed it to Dr. Carter. They exchanged a few more words, and the man left. It must have been a client after all, paying his bill in person.
Except who pays their shrink at eight p.m., in the middle of a social function?
Someone who was comfortable walking into the middle of some of the biggest power brokers in the South and acting like he owned the place, that’s who.
Cameron disappeared, and Manesh and I separated to look sociable. I forgot the man in the brown suit amid the ensuing swirl of hyper-successful Type A’s and exotic finger foods.
I finished my third gin and tonic and then I loosened, relaxed, felt more myself. I almost forgot the hyphenated last names and social graces I’d never been taught, and did what came naturally. I stood with one leg turned aside, hands loose at my sides, grin wide, and put people at ease. I revealed nothing of my true self and sought nothing and left each mini masked ball on the floating cusp of laughter, merging seamlessly into the next.
I was the last to leave, and Dr. Carter stopped me in the doorway. We had barely talked that night. Everyone knew we were connected and there was no need to flaunt it.
Vertical pinstripes lengthened his stocky frame. He was compact, a juggernaut of mental energy and physical presence. His military posture helped compensate for his abbreviated stature, but it was the eyes behind the wire frames that did the most work. Dr. Carter had an intense, fiercely perceptive gaze that arrested people from all walks of life. You looked into his eyes and you felt him right there, eye-level, sucking you in, ready to tell you exactly what needed to be done.
Ever since the conversation with the man in the brown suit, the corners of Dr. Carter’s eyes were pulled tight, bottoms sagging. He reached up to put an arm around my shoulder. “How’s it working out at the firm?”
I dreaded the day I had to tell him I hadn’t been given an offer. “They treat me like royalty, Doc.” I shrugged. “It’s something else, you know? Something else. I owe you everything.”
“I wasn’t the one who got accepted at one of the South’s finest law schools, and worked my tail off once I got there.”
I got into law school because I did well on the logic games portion of the LSAT. It trips most people up, but my childhood claim to fame was that I was the youth Checkers champion of the Southeast, at one time ranked fifth in the whole country, and I was convinced it had given me a huge advantage.
My dad left one thing behind in the trailer besides some clothes, and that was a book on how to win at Checkers. It was the one thing we did together on a regular basis, and the only part of him I wanted to keep. I got a bit obsessed, even though being a Checkers champion where I was from was about as cool as being Muslim or gay.
“I don’t think hard work’s enough at this firm,” I murmured.
He snorted and removed his arm. “They’re not just looking for trust fund kids. They want someone with some elbow grease. Someone who’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves.”
I just nodded. Dr. Carter might be wealthy now, but he was a self-made man. He started out sweeping floors in a carpet mill in North Georgia. I knew where he was coming from, but I didn’t think he understood how far removed from normality, or at least my normality, these Biglaw attorneys were. It wasn’t like in the old days, when partners rose through the ranks based on their prowess in court. Now you had to be somebody.
I wanted to ask him about the man with the scar, but I didn’t. Dr. Carter wasn’t the sort of man you peppered with frivolous questions.
“Thanks again,” I said. “The party was great. And for everything else. As always.”
I reached the end of his sprawling front porch when he called out. “Derek?”
I stopped and made a half-turn. “Yeah?”
“I’m proud of you.”
“Thanks, Doc,” I said after a moment, and then walked off. I was glad I hadn’t fully turned towards him. If I had, he might have seen the sudden lump in my throat.
No one had ever said that to me before.
* * *
I met up with Cameron and Manesh at the Tree House, a little patio bar in a wooded neighborhood in Buckhead. When I arrived they were at a table with two other summers: Lance Thompson, a frat boy from Alabama who’d secured a clerkship with the Eleventh Circuit, and Monica Dawson, a socialite from Destin whose step-dad owned half of North Florida.
I wiped my brow after the two-block walk from my car. It was midnight, but it had to be ninety degrees, the air so thick and still mosquitoes were popping straight into existence.
Lance was a tool, and Monica was one of those bleached blond Southern girls with a fungible personality. I winked at Cameron and headed straight to the inside bar. Before my draft Sweetwater arrived she was beside me, pointing out her empty cocktail glass to the bartender.
“Lance and Monica?” I said. “Are you two that desperate without me?”
“They crashed our table. Manesh’ll run them off before we get back. When Lance was telling us how he got the 11th Circuit gig, Manesh put his head on the table and started snoring.”
I laughed, and she said, “Before we left Dr. Carter’s he also told Bill Levarski, the real estate partner, about his online poker addiction and that he still plays World of Warcraft. I quote: “I can’t bear to give up my gryphon mount.””
“That’s not good.”
“He’s had just a few.” She put a hand on my shoulder and bent with laughter.
“I wonder if a summer’s ever been fired before?”
“Can we even get fired? We don’t do anything.” Her Cosmopolitan arrived and she stirred it. A sly grin crept onto her face. “I have a confession.”
“You and Manesh have a thing going?”
“Would you be jealous?”
“I was taught how to share.”
She slipped me a coy glance that fell somewhere in that limbo between friends and lovers, then pulled a folded piece of paper from her purse. “Don’t be mad. I know he’s your mentor and all, but I have a curious streak when I’m in new houses. I like to see what secrets people keep.”
“It’s just a piece of paper. There were a couple of copies on his desk in the
upstairs office. The bathroom’s right beside it.”
“There’re two bathrooms downstairs,” I said. “And this doesn’t look like something he would’ve left lying around.”
“Well, he did.” Her lips curled, and she said, “Maybe you don’t know the venerable Dr. Carter as well as you think you do.”
She unfolded the copy and put it on the bar. The line on the top read Identified Phenomena. Beneath the heading was a list of thirty-five one-line entries, running over to the back of the page. All but four of the numbers were crossed out. Some were circled. Three were circled and starred.
“Check some of these out,” she said, a secret excitement filling her voice. Cameron could make yogurt seem exciting, which was why she was going to make a great litigator.
The first two entries were Bonaventure Cemetery and Dogwood Mental Institution. There were more cemeteries on the list, two civil war battlegrounds, a few addresses, a hospital, some names of people with the word medium written next to them.
“You shouldn’t have taken that,” I muttered.
“Cemeteries, mediums, haunted houses? What do you think this is?”
“He’s a psychologist. He’s probably doing a study.”
“On what? Evil spirits?”
“I don’t know, Cam. Leave it.”
A month after Jay’s accident Dr. Carter and I had finished a bottle of Scotch, and he started talking about visiting every medium in the United States until he heard from his son. I thought it was the alcohol speaking and it never came up again.
Maybe he’d been more serious than I thought.
She said, “Why do you think some of these are circled and starred? Are they the real deal? Come on, you know you’re curious.”
“He’s like a father to me. I can’t pry into his affairs. And no, I’m not curious.”
She folded the paper and eased it back into her purse, eyes dancing.
Three days later, on a languorous Saturday night, Cameron’s curiosity got the better of me.
The day started well. Atlanta was new to me, even though I’d grown up on the northern outskirts, plopped by a cruel God in the middle of those miles and miles of deadening lower-class communities that sprawl north of Atlanta. We weren’t city, we weren’t country, we weren’t suburb, we were from Nowhere, blobs of useless matter stuck in a grey and brown purgatory of traffic lights and forgotten strip malls. It was the white ghetto, without a few hundred years of slavery to blame.
We idled around abandoned stores, performing ceaseless acts of vandalism and tweaking Honda Civics until they were faster than Lamborghinis. Starting in fifth grade we drank Colt and Keystone and smoked two packs a day. In middle school we sniffed glue and paint thinner and started on dope, then learned how to cut up ecstasy tablets and our mother’s anti-depression pills and mix them with cold medicine. The worst of us, those with no hope at all, turned to crank. Then they stole things and withered and died.
My Atlanta experiences had been limited to occasional midnight runs as a teenager. Those were risky endeavors. The hoodlums and gang members that hung around the fringes of the club scene always recognized us for who we were. One of my friends was stabbed behind the Havana Club, another was shot near Five Points after he hit on the wrong girl. All of us had scars and bad memories.
So I was exploring this old neighbor of mine for the first time. Atlanta is a prodigious child of a city, thrust into an ungainly adulthood because of her precocious size, trying too hard to get where she wants to go. I liked the mix of tradition and ambition, the eclectic tree-filled neighborhoods, the gleaming glass buildings and sleek restaurants sharing block space with corner shops and soul kitchens.
It was June fourteenth, hot and muggy as a Louisiana swamp. I was renting a room in a Craftsman bungalow on Moreland, and after walking four blocks I was sweating like an ice-cold can of Coca Cola. North Georgia is America’s Vietnam. Trees fill every empty space, kudzu claims every crack, roadside, and abandoned lot. Insects hum and churn, the humid air seeps in and fills the city like a hot air balloon.
Tonight was what the firm called a “dive night”: they were taking us to Cabbagetown, a gentrified neighborhood wedged between the sketchy pillars of Memorial Drive and Old Fourth Ward. It was supposed to be edgy, so we would be tricked into thinking life at the firm had some connection to reality.
We grubbed at Agave, an upscale Southwestern restaurant that was about as edgy as Starbucks. The firm rented out half the restaurant and we did our usual damage to the liquor stock and the nerves of the staff. I recognized one of the cooks; he used to run the grill at a sports bar in Kennesaw. He didn’t notice me and I didn’t say anything. We were supposed to recognize the owners, not the hourly workers.
After dinner we spilled into an Irish pub down the street. I ended up at a cocktail table with Jessica Marin, a fourth-year associate with a pug face and a body that was thin in that rich housewife way. She was trying to discuss tax law with me. Cameron saw and saved me.
“Jessica, hi, I’ve heard you’re the tax guru. I’m thinking of taking another tax course my third year. Which one do you suggest?””
I almost snorted rum through my nose. Cameron would rather be stuck in orbit with an accountant than talk tax law at a cocktail party.
Jessica cocked a half-grin and smoothed her chiffon blouse. “Tax for corporations would be your best bet.”
“Mm. What do you think of the flat tax proposals making the rounds?”
“What I think is that a flat tax is terrible for tax attorneys.”
Cameron opened her mouth for the next question, but Jessica stood and cut her off. “Excuse me, my Blackberry just buzzed.” She let her eyes linger on mine. “Derek.”
She walked away, and I winked at Cameron. “Thanks.”
“Growing up in country clubs and boarding schools was like boot camp for vicious social skills. Besides, I need to show you something.”
I gave her body a mock overt glance. “Here?”
She moved closer and slid her hand up the side of her leg, taking her skirt with it. The way she was positioned by the bar, no one could see it but me. I stopped her hand when I saw the fringe of a red thong, and she laughed and let go. Cameron always took the game one step too far.
Cameron glanced at her watch, then rolled her eyes in boredom. “Come with,” she said, then led me to a corner with more light. She pulled a piece of paper out of her purse and unfolded it. It was the list she’d swiped from Dr. Carter’s house.
“I told you to get rid of that,” I said.
“Don’t be a prude. Look.” She ran her finger down the page, stopping near the middle, at one of the few names without a line through it.
I looked up. “Oakland Cemetery. It’s across the street.”
“So let’s check it out,” she said.
“Are you joking? We’re at a firm function.”
“We’ll go when it’s over.”
“Why would I want to go to a cemetery in the middle of the night? We’re adults, Cam. Budding attorneys.”
Mischievous blue eyes and a sly grin cut through the music and the crowd. Her hand found my knee and she said, “There’re lots of things to do in a cemetery.”
* * *
And so at two in the morning I found myself in my sport coat and fitted black shirt, buzzed and chittering like a teenager, sneaking into one of the South’s largest cemeteries with Cameron.
The cemetery wall across from Agave was too high to scale, but a block down it lowered to chest height. Cameron kicked off her heels, set them on the wall, and clambered over. Right before I followed suit, Manesh called my name. I turned and saw him stumbling across the street, his martini glass sloshing with every step.
“Wait up,” he said. “Don’t leave me with the troglodytes. What’re you doing, anyway?”
I swore under my breath. He was hammered, but even sober he didn’t have the good sense to leave a guy alone with a girl. Or sneak into a cemetery quietly.
“Hurry up,” Cameron said, from the other side.
I held Manesh’s drink while he flailed over the wall like an out of control marionette. I hopped the wall next, landing beside the stump of a dead oak that looked like a petrified octopus. We were standing in a grassy plain filled with two-foot-high tombstones, extending as far as the weak ambient light allowed. An obelisk read “Our Confederate Dead,” and the rows and rows of headstones did look like a sad little army, standing at attention to the bitter end.
If Cameron was annoyed at Manesh for crashing the party, she didn’t show it. Instead she smirked and told him she had a cemetery fetish, then led us uphill along a brick pathway that curved into the center of the cemetery. Gnarled oaks and magnolias hovered as we walked. The graves got fancier the higher we went, and the apex of the hill was a jumble of impressive crypts and sarcophagi.
Cameron was looking at the list as she walked. “Next to Oakland Cemetery it says grave of Eliza Northcut, sporadic manifestation, electrical phenomena, ideoplasm. What was that academic study of Dr. Carter’s you mentioned, Derek? The psychology of reappearing spirits?”
“It’s probably not even his,” I said, having lost all interest in the adventure. “I’m sure it’s one of his delusional patient’s lists.”
“This is his stationery.”
Manesh wasn’t paying attention, and had been mumbling to himself since we’d entered the cemetery. I’d underestimated his level of intoxication.
I shrugged out of my coat and slung it over my back. “What’s got you so worked up?”
“Ass-kissers,” he said. “Sheep-strokers. I was talking with a partner and two ass-ociates, and the partner, I can’t remember his name, Imaprick something or other, so boring he could put a crack fiend to sleep, was talking about this case he had that was very unique. I said that’s impossible, something can’t be very unique, just unique. The ass-ociates looked at me like I’d just dipped my balls in their morning coffee.”
“You don’t question the gods,” I said. “You bend over and take it.”
“If they’re smart enough to be partner they’re smart enough to use proper English.”
“You’re missing the point,” I said. “It doesn’t matter who’s right.”
One of his skinny legs darted out and kicked a tombstone. He lost his balance, and most of his remaining drink splashed on the rolled up sleeves of his Oxford. “Shit! Now I’ve-” he downed the rest of the Martini. “I don’t want this stupid job anyway.”
Manesh had told me one night that he had a family castle in Gujarat to fall back on. I had my doubts, but how should I know? I’d never been to India. Hell, I’d never been to Canada. And he really was cavalier with his future, which I could only associate with money.
Cameron shushed us. “Quiet, boys. We don’t want to get kicked out.”
Manesh wriggled his hands over his head. “Who’s gonna kick us out? We’re in a cemetery in the ghetto.”
“Cabbagetown isn’t exactly the ghetto,” I said.
“How would you know? You’re whiter than Santa Claus.”
“Because I’m not that kind of white.”
Cameron was walking grave to grave, peering at each headstone. She stopped in front of a stone statue of a little girl. The girl’s head, left hand, and right foot were missing. I couldn’t get rid of the notion that someone had snapped off the poor thing’s body parts on purpose, and it creeped me out. A young Lavinia locked forever in her agony.
“I’m done,” I said. “We snuck in, it was exciting, I don’t see any ghosts. Let’s go have a nightcap.”
Cameron looked down at her watch again and sighed. “Yeah, okay. I don’t feel like looking all night.”
When we topped the hill on the way back, I stopped and put my arms out wide, holding them back. There was a beam of light moving towards us, bobbing up and down on the path.
We hurried behind the closest tomb, a van-sized sarcophagus. The headline of tomorrow’s AJC was already running through my mind: “Prestigious Law Firm Embarrassed After Intoxicated Summer Associates Caught Sneaking Into Oakland Cemetery.”
I had my back to the tombstone and could see the tips of Atlanta’s skyscrapers glowing in the distance. Cameron was right beside me, Manesh next to her. I held my breath as the light bobbed closer. We heard footsteps, then voices. Manesh turned his head to peek around the headstone. I saw Cameron reach into her purse, take out four small white pills, and pop them.
When Manesh turned back to us, his eyes were wide. “It’s Dr. Carter,” he whispered.
I paled in the darkness and pressed my finger furiously to my lips, trying to shut Manesh up.
“He’s with three other people. One of them is that guy from the party, and he’s still wearing that stupid brown suit. There’s an older woman with them, and Dolph Lundgren’s twin brother. They’re about fifty feet away. They stopped off the path, next to that Gothic chapel with the two giant urns. They’ve got some kind of equipment with them. A fancy metal box with wires coming out of it.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. This wasn’t happening.
“The other guy is setting the box by the entrance – can you believe this? – and attaching the wires to that old bag’s flabby arms. Dr. Carter has some kind of walkie-talkie in his hands. You didn’t tell me your mentor was a freak.”
I put my hand on his wrist and my mouth next to his ear. “Manesh, I swear to God, if they hear you, I will never forgive you.”
“Don’t be such a pussy. They can’t hear us.”
He shut up, but kept watching. I didn’t care what they were doing, I just wanted to get out of there before Dr. Carter caught me spying on him in a graveyard. Go home, take a shot of Jager, and forget this ever happened.
Cameron gripped my arm. “Do you feel something cold?”
“Quiet. Or I’m gonna kill you both.”
“I’m serious,” she said. “It’s like a cold pocket of air just settled around us.”
I felt nothing, but I heard the voices pick up again. I clamped my hand over Cameron’s mouth.
The voices would murmur for a time, then quiet, then pick up again. What was Dr. Carter into? And who were those people with him?
My curiosity fell far short of my mortification. I took deep breaths of the loamy cemetery air to try to calm down.
Cameron turned her head towards Manesh, who was still watching. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing. They’re just staring at that box.”
Cameron leaned over him. I tried to hold her back, but she shrugged me off. When she put her hand up I noticed her watch, remembered her checking it at the bar, and put two and two together. Damn her.
Cameron put her hands to Manesh’s shoulders, and I saw him staring at her chest. Cameron was oblivious. She inched forward, put one hand on the side of the tombstone, and peered around.
Then she gasped.
The voices stopped. They’d heard her.
I almost stood and sprinted into the darkness. There was no way they’d catch me, that wasn’t in question. But I was afraid they’d hit me with a flashlight, and I would melt from the shock and disappointment in Dr. Carter’s voice.
It was his voice.
Manesh and Cameron hunched in next to me. The flashlight waved over our heads, and Dr. Carter called out again. Then another voice, one I didn’t recognize, but which was too old to be Dolph. It had to be the man in the brown suit. His voice was aggressive, like a bark.
I heard rustling, and I clutched Manesh. “Run away right now. They’ll think it’s just you. Find an exit. We’ll meet you at the car as soon as they leave. Please, man. I’m begging you.”
He either heard something in my voice, or he just wanted to take a risk. Whatever the reason, he earned my undying respect and friendship with what he did next.
He looked straight at me, smiled, then pulled his shirt over his head and sprinted into the bowels of the cemetery, screaming like a crazed Hun.
The flashlight wobbled as it tried to follow him, but no one gave chase. The barking voice called out, “Just some idiot kid.”
Cameron pressed her head into my chest and didn’t breathe another word. Fifteen minutes later I heard them walk away.
* * *
Manesh was standing next to Cameron’s Mercedes, grinning like it was his twenty-first birthday. My body collapsed with relief as we crammed into the car and Cameron sped away. I was flush with adrenaline.
I turned to Cameron, too relieved to be angry. “How’d you know?”
“I checked his calendar,” she said, unashamed and uninterested. Then, more quietly, “I saw something.”
I looked over to see if she was joking. She wasn’t.
“Say what?” I said.
“There was a soft yellow light coming from the grave they were standing around, like a rising fog. It rose and dissipated. I mean it didn’t have a human shape or anything. But it was there. I saw it.”
Manesh scoffed. “I didn’t see anything. And I was looking at it the whole time.”
“I don’t know what to tell you. I saw what I saw. Derek?”
“I didn’t see anything,” I said, and she pressed her lips together.
I remembered the pills I saw her pop. I was surprised she didn’t see more than a ball of weird light. I stayed away from that junk, even the mild stuff. I took my last pharmaceutical concoction the same night a friend died from one in the ninth grade.
We cracked a bottle of cheap wine at my place to release the rest of the tension. Manesh passed out on the couch, and Cameron slipped out of her clothes and onto my futon. She closed her eyes, and I covered her with a sheet.
The next Friday night Cameron and I slept together for the first time. It happened after a particularly long night of carousing, The Darkhorse and then Fontaine’s and then the patio at Smith’s. Manesh was playing pool inside with some of the other summers, Cameron was sitting on my lap. Halfway through some obscure Pixies song she took my face in her hands and kissed me. She told me to meet her at her place in half an hour, and forty minutes later I was undressing Cameron in her plush midtown condo.
She was good. Really good. When we finished, she reached for a pack of Camels. I took one as well, and it helped relieve the awkwardness. Cameron and I both knew, without it being said, that we had a mutual physical attraction and not much more. I didn’t know why not. It was just one of those things.
We drifted to Morcheeba’s Big Calm and ashed in a fancy silver ashtray she put between us on the bed. Her place was classy, full of candles and vintage furniture and soft blue frilly things. One thing, though: I didn’t see a picture anywhere. No friends, no family, not even one of herself. I’d never been in a woman’s bedroom that didn’t have a single photo.
We smoked half the pack, polished off a bottle of wine, had sex again, and passed out.
* * *
I stood on her balcony the next morning, another cigarette in my hands. I only smoked on occasion, but when I did, I did.
Seen from above, Atlanta looks like a deranged architect plopped a few skyscrapers in the middle of an enormous emerald forest. I could see the gleaming giant that housed the firm poking into the sky above the dated jumble of downtown.
Cameron joined me a few minutes later, gliding onto the balcony in silk pajamas. “Hey handsome.”
“You’re sweet, but narrow-shouldered men with scars can only get so far.”
She draped an arm over my biceps. “These make up for it. As for this,” she gave me a playful kiss on my scar, “I’d never notice it if you’d stop leaving your hand on your chin all the time. How’d you get it?”
“Fell down the stairs when I was four,” I said, leaving out the fact that there were no adults around, never were, and that my seven year old brother had to carry me on his back to a corner store to find a phone with service that hadn’t been shut off.
“Nice view,” I said.
“It’s not Manhattan, but that city’s full of trouble.”
I looked her in the eye. “I saw you pop some trouble in the cemetery.”
“God, Derek, it was just a couple of soccer mom pills.” She came beside me and threaded an arm through mine. “You’re not exactly a choir boy.”
I turned back to the view. “It’s not about that.”
“I can handle it.”
“Of course you can,” I said.
“Fine. Point made. Thanks for caring.”
I had the feeling the bitterness in her voice wasn’t for showing I cared, but for someone in her past who hadn’t.
I pushed off the balcony. “I need to run. I’ve got a few things to take care of today.”
“See you around.”
I pulled her in and smiled. “I had a good time last night.”
She smiled back, everything okay. “Me too.”
* * *
Dr. Carter had invited me to lunch. We walked to an upscale burger place – it had white tablecloths and fancy gourmet burgers that cost eighteen dollars – down the street from his house. We talked about the firm and what I was working on. I didn’t tell him that being a summer associate was like being paid to barhop. I also didn’t tell him that I’d done absolutely nothing, as far as I was aware, to impress anyone enough to get an offer.
It was a gorgeous day, uncommonly arid, and we returned to his house for coffee on the screened-in back porch. I sat in a wicker chair and gazed at the woods behind the house while Dr. Carter brewed coffee. There was a hammock to my left, and a half-open book lay in the center, spine up. Jung, Modern Parapsychology, and the Science of the Occult.
“A little pleasure reading,” Dr. Carter said, and I started. He’d returned with the coffee. It shouldn’t have been a big deal, my looking at the book. We were tight like that and he had left the book out. But I thought I saw a hint of embarrassment in his eyes as he handed me my coffee.
“Part of your research?” I asked, because I didn’t know what else to say.
He sat beside me, took a long sip of his coffee. “To answer your question, yes, I am conducting research on certain aspects of parapsychology.”
“I’ve heard that word before, but I confess I don’t really know what it means.”
“Para is Greek for “beyond.” Psychology is the study of the mind. Parapsychology is the scientific study of those things considered to be beyond the rational mind as we know it.”
It was my turn to take a sip, an even longer one.
“To any serious parapsychologist it’s simply the application of scientific principles to certain poorly understood faculties of the human mind.”
“Such as ESP?” I asked.
“ESP, telekinesis, psychokinesis, psychometry, clairvoyance, near-death experiences, telepathy, xenoglossy, cryptomnesia, automatic writing, astral projection, to name a few.” He smiled. “The list is long.”
“I see.” I couldn’t keep the incredulity from my voice. I supposed all psychologists made a certain leap of faith, but those leaps involved demonstrated aberrant behavior and decades of accepted research. Dr. Carter was a very serious man. I couldn’t believe he had just told me he was studying ghosts, psychic powers, and whatever those other words meant.
He gave me a patient smile. “You might be surprised by what some of the studies have revealed. It’s an intriguing area.”
“I’m sure it is. It just . . . took me by surprise, I guess. How long have you been researching this?”
As soon as I asked the question and saw his eyes look away, I wanted to kick myself. Idiot.
He’d been studying it since the day his son died.
We sat for a moment in silence. The breeze picked up; it was the best day of the summer. “I don’t like to keep things from you, Derek. After the accident I went through a period of irrationality. I delved into certain things, certain fringe areas of society. I was looking for something, you understand, and I’m sure you know what. Most of what I found was utter nonsense. But suffice to say that during this darkest of times, which you helped me get through, I became a believer that there are . . . let us call them mental faculties . . . not yet understood by science.” He smiled the sort of smile used to relieve tension. “Since then I have, in my spare time, sought to help explain them.”
I was probably supposed to ask what type of mental powers he was talking about, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was still a bit stunned.
“The older we get, Derek, the more mortality looks us in the face and grins. The more questions we have. And when something happens like what happened to my son–” his voice quivered ever so slightly, and his stalwart face worked overtime to reassert composure, “the questions can become overwhelming.”
I reached out and put my hand on top of his. His fingers reached up to squeeze mine.
He said, “One day we’ll sit down and discuss it in depth, if you like. This is a government project, so I can’t reveal the details yet.”
Except for the paranormal angle, that wasn’t unusual; Dr. Carter had worked with both government and law enforcement before, on sensitive cases, and given me the same spiel. I nodded and said, “I thought that man at the party looked like a fed.”
“The one in the library. He stopped by briefly and left.”
An uncomfortable look, something between nervousness and fear, twitched the corners of Dr. Carter’s eyes. He waved off my comment. “Yes, that’s my contact. He sometimes makes a surprise appearance.” He stood. “I could use a refill. You?”
“And when I come back,” he said, his back to me, “we’ll stop discussing the life of a foolish old man. I’m dying to hear about the exploits of a certain bright young star at Toureau Dagmon.”
He retreated into the house. I cradled my empty cup in my hands, staring at it without really seeing it.
Southwest Atlanta, Jan. 19, 9 p.m.
He grinds his cigarette into the cheap carpet. “Remind me why I give a damn about your relationship with Dr. Carter?”
I understand his impatience, even though I’d only related the most salient parts. “You asked for the background. I’m giving it to you.”
He starts to pace again. He lights another cigarette and his jaw grinds back and forth. I wonder at the thoughts running through his mind. I can only imagine what he is thinking, seeing me here like this, in this land of the dead.
My head swivels to the window. I take in the view, the misshapen line of ruined row houses squatting in the darkness, the absence of ambient light, the cracked pavement, the broken bottles and weeds and discarded fast food containers that will be the relics of this civilization.
I turn back to him. Soon, I think. Soon he won’t be able to turn away. He’ll be right where I was, eyes wide with disbelief as the story unfolds like a demented lotus blossom.
But he has to know why certain choices were made. Not just that: I want him to know.
I need him to.
Download the entire book now to continue reading on Kindle!
by Layton Green
4.8 stars – 4 reviews
Special Kindle Price: 99 cents!
(reduced from $4.99 only