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A Study in Betrayal

By J. L. Ender

“Are you sure about this?” My stomach turned as I played with the sleeves of my sweater, worrying a few loose threads between my fingertips.

Eastwood paced across the cramped room where we’d been locked away. “We’re in a bit of a pickle here, Rose. I don’t see any other way. Do you have the earplugs ready?”

I felt in my pocket for the cloth strips from his t-shirt. He’d prepared them to protect our ears if there was gunfire.

We’d been investigating another string of kidnappings when we’d gotten too close to a drug cartel. Now here we sat, in a dirty room at the back of a trailer somewhere in Mexico, trapped. We weren’t sure why they hadn’t just killed us. We thought they wanted to question us for some reason.

Well, question us and then kill us.

Eastwood’s plan was to jump the next person to enter the room. His track record for wrestling guns away from dangerous men was pretty good, but I still didn’t like it.

I sighed and hugged my knees to my chest. Eastwood kept pacing.

Hours later, the door finally opened. A blond man—a stranger—stepped inside. Eastwood rushed him, but the man drew a pistol. Eastwood pulled up short, fists still raised. The blond man holstered the pistol. My partner took a threatening step forward, but two hulking men entered the room, training Uzis on us.

“Please choose your next actions very carefully, Detective.” The blond man spoke while studying his nails with a disinterested air.

Eastwood raised his hands and stepped back.

“Rose Morgan, John Eastwood. You may call me Denton. Pleased to meet the famous psychic investigators at last.” He lifted his chin and studied us with hard, brown eyes. “I know all about your special abilities, Miss Morgan. And I want you to use them. For me.”

He held out a silver ring. “Tell me where I can find the woman who owns this.”

I made no move to take it. “And if I refuse?”

“Well, then I suppose Ricky and Knuckles here will shoot the good detective and see if that makes you feel more, or less, cooperative. Humans are such interesting creatures. I can’t wait to see what you choose.”

Eastwood gave a firm shake of his head, but I wasn’t taking chances. I reluctantly held out my hand. Denton stepped forward and dropped the ring into my palm.

Normally when I touch objects, with a little focus, I get impressions or visions of the person who owns the item. This time…

A woman materialized next to Denton with balled fists, her mouth set in a firm line as she glared at him.

That’s new. I’d never seen a ghost before, but I knew instinctively that’s what she was.

I tightened my grip on the ring. “What happened to you?”

“Who are you talking to?” Denton frowned. “Tell me what you see.”

The ghost spoke, but no sound came out. Her frown deepened.

I ignored Denton. “How did you die?”

She strode forward and set a hand on my fist. The ring I held grew warm., and a flashbulb lit in the back of my mind.

I stand in a massive kitchen at the heart of a palatial mansion. Ricky grabs my elbow. Not painful, but too firm. He’s after me again. Every time Denton is out of town on business. I don’t want him. I never have.

“I’m not taking no for an answer this time, sweetheart.”

My blood runs cold. I’d known he was a dangerous man, but I’d never suspected he was capable of—

I opened my eyes and pointed at the thug to Denton’s left. “Ricky killed her.”

“What?” Denton swiveled toward Ricky, a subtle note of fury in his voice. “That can’t be true. Deny it.”

Knuckles, presumably loyal, turned his Uzi on Ricky.

Eastwood stepped close. “Block your ears.”

I did as he instructed, wincing in anticipation.

“Y-you was out on business,” Ricky stammered. “She was lonely, I just thought—”

“Kill him,” Denton said coldly to Knuckles.

Knuckles opened fire on Ricky, gunshots blasting my eardrums like little explosions. Eastwood grabbed my hand, and we barreled past Denton, who clutched his own ears, looking dazed and sick.

We raced from the small mobile home. Arid desert air never felt so good. The sun was setting. I spotted a second mobile home nearby, and a few scattered vehicles. A truck, and two rusted Jeep Cherokees, one white and one black. I slowed, studying them.

“We have to keep moving.” Eastwood’s words sounded muffled. I removed the earplugs.

“We can’t just run,” I panted. My ears were still ringing. “We’re in the middle of nowhere.”

The ghost woman appeared. She held out a hand. Despite her solid appearance, my palm went right through hers. I got a chill that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

She tilted her head toward the vehicles.

Knuckles appeared at the doorway. Eastwood and I ducked behind the truck as the henchman opened fire.

“We need keys,” I told the ghost. She pointed to the visor above the door of the white Jeep.

“I can get keys,” I shouted into Eastwood’s ear. I pointed to the vehicle.

His eyes lit with understanding.  “On three.”

Knuckles advanced.

Denton came behind him. “Let them go.”

“Sir?” Knuckles’s confusion mirrored my own.

“You’re free to leave!” Denton called out.

“I don’t want them dead,” he told Knuckles. Then he said something softer that sounded like, “I might need their services again.”

I couldn’t help expecting a trap. Eastwood kept his eyes on the pair as I started the car. We drove into the desert twilight, the Jeep weaving around scrub and tall saguaro cacti.

In the rearview mirror, the ghost watched us drive off. She slowly faded, until there was nothing but sand and starlight behind us, and a few lonely old buildings getting smaller by the second.

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J. L. Ender is the author of the superhero series Steel Fox Investigations, as well as a number of novels and short stories across several genres. Ender has worked as a dishwasher, a beef jerky labeler, a warehouse worker, a shelf stocker, a greeter, a traveling technician, a laser engraver, a package handler, a copywriter, a graphic designer, a librarian, an editor, destroyer of worlds (in an unofficial capacity), a dispatcher, and a phone operator.

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