He chose a windowless room on the second floor as his office. Eighty years ago, the room had been a library. The cedar shelves had long ago lost their clean scent to age and use, but the room fit Arthur’s need so perfectly, that he fancied the long-dead builders had a person such as himself in mind.
Never mind that the townspeople called him a recluse, and whispered to each other when he infrequently visited the pharmacy for his stomach medicine. They could all go to hell with their self-righteous notions of importance and their need to be being seen and glorified by others of their kind.
Here, he neither saw nor heard them. He worked as late as he pleased, and no telltale light escaped the house to reveal his habits. Arthur McVitty was above the pious people of Larksdale in that regard. He didn’t care what they did in their homes and workplaces, yet their blatant curiosity about him had flared into reckless rumors and outright rudeness, all because he had shunned their false and desperately pitiful lives.
It had not always been so. Until ten years prior, he and Lois fit comfortably but ignorantly into the little concerns that plaque any small town. As a successful writer of fiction, Arthur had stupidly enjoyed the respect of the prideful churches, civil councils and retailers. They had been openly proud of their resident celebrity.
That pride turned to shame when eleven-year-old Amie Lark fell victim to the town’s need of scandal and gossip.
Arthur purchased cookies the little girl was selling door-to-door. He made the mistake of inviting her inside. His own daughter, dead at birth, would have been Amie’s age. He talked with her awhile and basked in the youthful glow his home had never known.
A neighbor woman—a woman typical of Larksdale’s most meddlesome—complained to the police chief that his daughter had been inside the McVitty residence for an unseemly period of time.
Chief Lark sent every available officer to Amie’s rescue. The daylight scene at Arthur’s home amounted to proof of guilt in the minds of the townspeople.
Now, Arthur McVitty lived as any shamed criminal might; he never sought the light of day, and he always expected the worst from humanity.
So be it. He had his hideaway and he had his writing.
Lois was his one regret.
At forty, she was withering. Her lack of contact with people once her friends, degraded her self esteem year by year, but she remained faithful to her spouse and never questioned his innocence in the matter of Amie Lark.
“We could move,” she often said.
As piteous as her suggestion was, Arthur steadfastly refused to run from injustice, a thing he hated more than he loved Lois. In all of his previous writings, justice prevailed, but now, injustice not only died at the end of his novels, but it also bled and suffered in horrid ways creators of fiction had heretofore never thought of. He gave his victims of wrongful actions and accusations more than the revenge he would never have in real life; he unwittingly wrote evil into the hearts of his heroes and heroines, and allowed them to utterly consume their enemies.
His publisher threatened to withhold advances on his forthcoming novels if he didn’t tone them to a believable level.
“It ends the way I say it ends,” he said to Laura Loveday over the telephone. “Besides, no advance, no contract. I’ll take my work elsewhere.”
She relented, knowing as he did that his name alone would sell his books. She would ride that train as long as it didn’t stop.
But, of course, it did. Gradually, reviews of his work deteriorated. He received no advances, no contract renewals. Even the small publishing houses shied away from printing works that had fallen to one theme—hideous revenge.
The manuscripts piled up beneath the fluorescent lighting of his office. He didn’t care. Writing was his life, not publishing. Writing was a need that publishing did not fulfill. Funds from previous works secured his future. If he never saw or spoke to another human, other than Lois, he would be happy, and gloriously so.
But the abandonment of pride and society worked against him.
* * *
Four years after the Amie Lark incident, a female child from Larksdale’s poor went missing. Her recovered corpse screamed of sexual assault and murder. Nothing similar had ever occurred in the town’s history. Whispers of “Arthur McVitty” soiled the lips of Larksdale citizenry. Chief Lark knocked at his door.
“Mr. McVitty, I’m here to discuss Angela Baker’s disappearance. May I come in?”
“You may not.”
“Then you’ll come to my office?”
“I should tell you the evidence against you is substantial. I would advise you…”
“I dislike you, sir. Either arrest me or be gone.”
“You leave me no choice. You are under arrest for the murder of Angela Baker.”
* * *
“Do you understand these rights as I have explained them to you?” Chief Lark leaned back in his desk chair and pushed a sheet of paper toward Arthur. “If so, sign this.”
“Go to hell.”
“Her bicycle was found in the woods two blocks from your house.”
“A witness saw you talking to her.”
“Try something else, Chief. Lying is a bluff I’ll call.”
“Need we talk about your history?”
“So, your substantial evidence is the recovery of the girl’s bike, and the rumors about your daughter. You’re a joke. This town is a joke.”
“The county prosecutor is ready to go to trial, McVitty. I simply wanted to hear your side of it.”
“I don’t have a side. I don’t know anything about it.”
“I suggest you hire an attorney. You can use my phone.”
* * *
The rape and murder trial of Arthur McVitty lasted ninety minutes. The judge seemed pleased with himself as he announced the verdict.
“A jury of your peers has found you guilty of rape and murder. I order your removal from this facility to the state penitentiary where you will serve two life sentences, one for each offense. I further order that parole be withheld throughout the duration of your sentence.”
Arthur jumped when the gavel came down. The prosecutor, a silly man wearing a clip-on tie, laughed openly at Arthur’s reaction.
As two slovenly deputies led him from the courtroom, Arthur saw Chief Lark and the prosecutor shaking hands.
* * *
He didn’t last a year. The noise, the vileness and the lack of privacy all contributed to Arthur McVitty’s demise. He ate little, wrote not at all, and weakened. While taking a shower, another inmate choked him to death for refusing to have sex. That prisoner’s name was John Howitz, whom Arthur added to his list.
The transition from life to spirit was seamless, surprisingly smooth and natural. Arthur quickly discovered his substance as a ghost mimicked that of a man alive, except his presence could not be detected by the living, either visually or audibly. His character and personality remained intact; his loves, hates, motivation and passions were still a part of him. He confirmed that as he released his energy on Howitz, who died alone in his locked cell, on his bunk, face up. A guard found a pencil protruding from his left eye.
“Suicide,” the warden said.
Arthur didn’t care how they recorded the death. He stayed in the cell long enough to satisfy himself that the perverted inmate’s soul didn’t linger on the earthly side of death. He watched it rise from the cooling body, a shapeless black smoke that dissipated in the stale air.
Arthur knew it was gone. Whatever or whomever gave him that knowledge was undoubtedly the same entity that made him aware of his own temporal authority to finish what life had not permitted.
He was not surprised to subsequently and suddenly find himself inside his home. To change location, he needed only deem it prudent or necessary. Earthly time progressed not at all as he made the passage.
“Lois,” he called, knowing her mortal existence lent no capacity to hear him, but the use of her name in their home comforted him.
He left a chill in his wake as he passed from room to room. Lois sat in the sunlight at the kitchen table with Police Chief Victor Lark, one of the men Arthur must kill in the good name of justice. Neither would have yet heard about his death.
I’ll do it now without trying to make sense of his presence in my home.
He didn’t. Even in spirit form, he needed to comprehend why his wife drank tea with the very man who’d wrongly accused him of murder.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Lark said. “My retirement income coupled with your inheritance will keep us more than comfortable. Amie and Luke can stay on in my house, and you and I will live here.” He reached across the table and took her hand.
Arthur waited for her response. The pause in conversation was a torment Hell might use. Surely, she would be offended.
“Or we could sell your place, and Amie and Luke could live with us. Their children would be our children.”
Who the hell is Luke? If a spirit’s direction and destiny could be altered, Arthur’s was. Doubt assailed him. Reasons to kill Lark had doubled, yet Lois’ unexpected treachery spoiled and dirtied his meaning of justice. To kill Lark, was to harm Lois. Although he’d been gone less than a year, Lois deserved a full life. His absence should not keep her from that.
But with Victor Lark?
The insanity of the situation hurled him toward the courthouse where Judge Kontz and his silly prosecutor had their offices. He slew them both unceremoniously by simply stopping their hearts with a grip that prohibited the rhythm of life. Kontz’ soul lifted easily from his spent body, milky white in the afternoon light of his office. The prosecutor’s was dark, but less black than that of Howitz.
No matter. That much of justice had been served.
* * *
Arthur visited the Lark residence that same evening. Amie and her new husband sat on the couch ignoring the movie on television. Fresh love, little different than the need inherent in newly sprung flower sprouts reaching for the sun, glowed in both their eyes. In that, Arthur saw himself and Lois years before. He thought of the many days and long nights he had worked on his novels, ignoring the only truth he had ever owned. Instead of giving his life to truth—to Lois—he had given it to fiction. The only part of living he had taken was the pursuit of justice.
I have carried my need into death.
He returned to his wife, who lay alone in their bed somewhere between a mortal’s recollections of her day, and sleep.
“Lois.” He stroked her hair. He touched her cheek. He kissed the lips he had too long neglected. “Lois, be happy. For a little while, be happy.”
Arthur placed himself in the Larksdale cemetery at the paid-for plot.
And waited. For what, he didn’t know.