June 14, 8:30 am
“In all my years living in this city, I’ve never been up here…” Richard said.
The three ghosts were climbing the red metal stairway that wound up the inside perimeter of the clock tower at the City and County building. Richard thought they made an unlikely trio: The old native woman, the adolescent boy in the straw hat, and the aging professor. Of the three, Richard was the only one that seemed shell-shocked. He was putting one foot in front of the other without knowing where they were going or why.
“I thought this would be a good place for us to talk, out of the rain,” Billy said, as he led the way up the stairs. “Nobody is going to bother us here.”
The City and County building was right across the street from the Courthouse, and since it was a weekend, nobody was taking the very popular tour up to the top of the clock tower, with its excellent views of downtown. Richard had never bothered taking the tour, and now he felt like an obedient dog, walking behind Billy and the old woman he called Tuilla. The brown brick walls of the clock tower made Richard feel as if they were ascending out of a deep well.
“We are here,” Tuilla said, as they stepped out onto the observation level. “Thank you, Billy, for suggesting this place. It will do nicely.”
Tuilla’s voice was deep and rich, almost masculine, with a resonance that reminded Richard of his grandmother before she had died. In his previous encounters with the old woman she hadn’t spoken, and it grated against Richard’s ears to hear her speak now, almost as if he had assumed she was mute. At the very least, he had expected her to sound like the stereotype he had in his mind of an old Indian woman—an image derived, most likely, from way too many Zane Grey novels and old westerns on late night TV. But instead of broken English and a weak and craggy voice, the woman had spoken English confidently, and her diction had rivaled Billy’s. Richard had to remind himself that although she might have spoken no English at all when she died, like Billy, this woman had lived for more than two centuries. Billy had said that she’d been dead longer than any ghost he knew.
It was mid-morning by the time they reached the top of the tower. The misty and gray streets below were mostly quiet, a few umbrellas moving along the sidewalks like black mushrooms. The thunder had quieted to a distant and ominous rumbling, echoing across the gray and misty sky. The rain had become light, but the fog persisted in ghostly waves.
Richard could hear the sounds of sirens in the distance. Ambulances and police cars, zooming off in all directions.
It’s like being on an island when a hurricane is gathering, Richard thought. Like we’re seeing the first whitecaps batter the shores around us.
“Richard, it’s very nice to meet you formally,” Tuilla said, reaching out a spotted and gnarled old hand. Richard shook it, still marveling at the fact that he could touch her, just as he could touch Billy.
“You have the Third Gift,” Richard said, holding her hand. She didn’t pull away, but a satisfied and amused look washed across her face. She turned and smiled at Billy.
“I see you’ve taught him about the gifts.”
“As much as I know, yes,” Billy replied. “Which is probably not nearly enough.”
She gently pulled her hand away from Richard, who immediately felt a sense of emptiness at its passing. She reached out and put that hand on Billy’s neck in a tender, almost motherly gesture. “Thank you, Billy.” She leaned over and gave him a kiss on the forehead. She was not a tall woman, but even hunched over, she was taller than Billy. The simple gratitude and tenderness in her gesture embarrassed Billy, and he looked down at his feet.
I think when Billy speaks of God, at least part of him has been speaking of this woman, Richard thought.
There was so much he wanted to ask, but he did not know where to start. And even before he could try to prioritize his questions, he heard his own voice speaking the first of them.
“Billy calls him the Wanderer. And he thinks he’s out to destroy this city. Is he right? Who is he?”
Tuilla took a deep breath before continuing. “Make yourself comfortable, Richard. You’re already asking difficult questions, and we just met.” She indicated a bench that lined the corner of the belfry, under the eaves and out of the rain. Without even thinking about it, Richard eased down, while Billy and Tuilla remained standing.
“The one that Billy calls the Wanderer was originally a man, just like you. He was a half-breed Shawnee by the name was George Drouillard, and he was a trapper and hunter in the early 19th century. But he escaped the encroaching wave of white invaders in about 1810, and he found shelter with the Goshute tribe. My tribe.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of the Goshute,” Richard said.
“Few white men have, even in Utah. But they were one of the ancestral tribes in this region. We lived, and many of our descendants still do, on the far side of the Oquirrh Mountains. We loved this valley, long before the Mormon settlers arrived.”
“How did you know this man? The one you called Drouillard?” Richard asked.
Tuilla smiled. “I knew him, because he was my husband.”
Billy’s expression was one of shock. “Why didn’t you tell me that,” Billy asked. “I never knew…”
“I didn’t tell you, dear heart, because you didn’t need to know. It wouldn’t have mattered in the slightest, and it would have only confused you. Hadn’t you already come to the conclusion on your own that the Wanderer was just another ghost? Just one of the dead, like both of us?”
“I…” Billy started. “I wasn’t sure. But yes, I have long thought that must be true.”
“I also didn’t tell you because there wasn’t anything you could do to stop him, and I didn’t want you to try. By the time you and I met, by the time we both had the gifts, George was too far along on his dark path. He was already far more powerful than anything either of us could have dealt with, even a century ago.”
“So why are you telling us now?” Richard asked.
She looked at him and smiled. Her expression was so warm and beatific that Richard could feel himself melting under it. It was no wonder that Billy had come to worship this woman like a God. There was an undeniable charisma and power in her that gave Richard a tiny shred of hope.
“I’m telling you now, because you are here.” Tuilla said, simply. She knelt in front of Richard and took his hand. “I’ve been waiting for you, since almost the beginning.”
“And when was the beginning?” Richard asked.
“I guess you could say the beginning was in 1851. That was the year that George was taken from me. That was the year he interrupted our river journey to the home of the Great Spirit. We were both very old at the time, and we both knew that we didn’t have long for this world. We talked of our deaths often, and that was always how we described it to each other: as a journey. We’d float together on a long trip down a beautiful river that would wind through the red rock canyons, away from the mountains of men, and into the ocean of God.”
“I don’t understand. If you both died, then why are you both still here?” Richard asked.
“You assume I know far more than I do, Richard Pratt. George and I took that journey, but it was… interrupted. For us both. When I came back three days after we both died, I could tell immediately that everything in the valley was out of balance, and I knew it was because George’s rage had changed everything. The Great Spirit abhors his world being out of balance, and I knew he would someday need to disrupt the chaos and put it all to right. It’s taken more than 175 years, but finally, he has sent you.”
The word “disrupt” stuck in Richard’s mind, as if it was too big to swallow. Hadn’t Drouillard called him “Disruptor?”
“Richard,” Tuilla said, breaking his reverie, “your job is to restore the balance.”
He didn’t speak for a very long time. Everything the old woman was saying felt both immediately true, and also raised far more questions than it answered. He didn’t want to see himself as some kind of messiah, sent by the Goshute’s “Great Spirit” to right an ancient wrong. But he also couldn’t shake a growing sense of destiny, an aching familiarity, in everything the old woman was saying.
But he was still Richard Pratt, and Richard Pratt had never had a lot of patience with magical thinking.
“Fine,” Richard said, holding her gaze. “You say that I’m here to restore the balance. Whatever. How the hell am I supposed to do that? You’d think if your Great Spirit sent me, he’d at least give me some idea what I’m supposed to do.”
For the first time, he saw the confidence in the old woman’s gaze falter, as if she’d just sensed the first crack in her idol. She’s going to learn I’m not the holy man she expected, Richard thought, and almost felt sorry for her.
“I’m going to tell you right now,” Richard continued, “that the only balance I care about is keeping my partner Keith safe, and in the world of the living. I really don’t give a shit about this city, and if it is about to go to hell, then I’m going to get him out of here. Both your dead husband and your Great Spirit can be damned.”
The old woman just stared at him, her face unreadable. Finally, Billy cleared his throat and spoke. His voice was thin, as if he was revealing a secret he had promised to keep.
“Tuilla, you heard us talking earlier. Richard is planning to use the Fourth Gift to protect Keith.”
There wasn’t surprise in the woman’s eyes. After all, she had probably overheard as much outside the Courthouse earlier. But Richard wanted to make sure she really understood.
“That’s right. I’m going to either possess someone that can get Keith out of this city, or if I have to, I’m going to possess Keith himself, and frog-march him someplace safe.”
As Richard was speaking, Tuilla eased herself down onto the concrete floor, her legs folded under her. In that posture, she looked much more like the stereotypical Indian from the movies. She folded her blanket in her lap as she waited for him to finish.
“Tell Tuilla how you would do it,” Billy said.
“Well, I’ve got a bunch of ideas. We…” He cleared his throat and looked up. “Keith has a friend named Pil that is about the biggest and toughest bastard you’ve ever seen. He’s a big, tattooed Maori guy. If I were in him, then I could take on pretty much anybody that came at us.”
“And where would you take him?” Tuilla asked, her voice calm and expressing genuine interest.
“I don’t know. Out of here. Maybe Denver. Or back east somewhere.”
“A ghost can’t cross the boundary of the Hereafter, Richard. If you carried him over that line, you’d be expelled from his friend, and reset.”
“I’d tell Keith to keep going before that happened.”
“And he’d believe you? He’d do it? And what would his friend say, when he came around and you were gone? Would he be inclined to do what you had asked?”
Richard chewed on this thought. He actually hadn’t counted on the fact that he couldn’t cross the boundary of the Hereafter, even if he was in someone else. Somehow, he had hoped that the Fourth Gift was also a ticket out of this place.
“I’d make him believe me. I’d make them both believe me. But if that didn’t work, I could try something else. Maybe I’ll possess Keith, and in his own handwriting, leave him a note that explains what is happening. He’d believe that.”
“It sounds like you’ve thought of everything,” Tuilla said, but now she sounded condescending, and Richard immediately felt his hackles go up. “You’ve thought of everything, except that you said you don’t know how to possess. So unless you can master that skill, none of your plans will make any difference.”
Richard ground his teeth for a moment. “You said you could teach me.”
It was clear that the old woman could sense the frenzy in Richard, and the panic. She just held his gaze for long moments, and he thought he could almost hear her voice in his head, asking him to breathe, and to remain calm. And even though she didn’t speak any of those words aloud, that voice in his head had a profound effect. He held her gaze, and he felt his jangled nerves settle. When his breathing had slowed, she spoke again.
“Yes, I can teach you how to use the Fourth Gift. And I have every intention of doing so, if you will let me. Because to be the Disruptor, and to restore the balance, you will need to be in a physical body.” She leaned forward, and Richard expected her to take his hand again. But she didn’t. “Richard, you have an important choice to make. And the time has come for you to make it. Although you love Keith, there are hundreds of thousands of lives that will be lost if you make the wrong decision. Right here, and right now.”
“And what is that?” Richard asked, his voice strangely calm.
“The choice is whether to help this city, or just help Keith.”
Richard swallowed. “And how can I help the city?”
“It’s very simple. You will need to find George Drouillard, and you will need to help him pass on to the ocean of the Great Spirit.”
Richard’s laugh was so loud that he saw both Billy and Tuilla jump. He leaned forward and pointed a finger in the old woman’s face. “Don’t fuck with me, Tuilla. And don’t make it sound like some high and lofty thing you’re asking, because I know what you mean. You’re talking about murder, not cleaning up some messy spill. You might want me to kill him because it would stop him from taking innocent lives, but it’s disgusting to me to hear you say ‘help him pass on to the ocean of the Great Spirit.’ That’s a bullshit way of saying you just want the fucker dead.”
Tuilla and Billy traded glances, and then Tuilla rose to her feet. She wasn’t a tall woman, but Richard felt like she was towering over him.
“Yes, Richard. I want you to find George Drouillard, and I want you to kill him. ‘I want the fucker dead,’ in your colorful language. And what I am asking of you is even more brutal than that. George’s spirit has used the Fourth Gift to take an innocent. And I believe that the only way to make him pass to the other side is to kill the innocent in which he is residing. Then he will be forced to pass to the other side along with him.”
Richard’s eyes narrowed as he looked at the old woman. “But won’t he just flee that body at the last minute? That’s what Billy has told me Justin would do.”
“That is possible. But George has been in this innocent’s body for a very long time. So long, in fact, I don’t know if he can leave, even if he wants to. Possession is normally a brief thing. It is a matter of minutes, or even seconds. But George has been in his victim for more than half a century. I’m not sure he even remembers being a ghost.” Tuilla’s face suddenly looked drawn, and very old. “I certainly think he has forgotten me.”
“Are you saying he really does think he’s God?”
“That I don’t know. But it is possible.”
“Okay. So who is this innocent? And where is he?” Richard asked.
For the first time, Tuilla broke her gaze and looked down at the floor. She hesitated before answering. “I don’t know. When you possess an innocent, you exit the world of the dead. You can no longer be sensed by other ghosts, even the ones you are the closest to. Billy knows this is true, because he has often lost touch with Mattie for this reason.”
Billy nodded. “I always know when she is using the Fourth Gift, because that tug in my head winks out. It is like she’s disappeared.”
“As Billy has told you, our best chance of finding the living person that George has possessed is the hope that some of the ones he calls his angels know who he has taken, and where he is. We need one of them to betray him.”
“You want Justin to be his Judas,” Richard said.
“Yes, perhaps,” Tuilla said, with a sigh. “Justin may be our best hope. He is the only one you have a connection to that may be of use.”
“Okay. So let’s say we find him. Then what happens?”
“Once we find out where he is, we need you to be in the possessed body of a living person. As a ghost, you cannot affect George. You can only confront him in the world of the living.”
Richard put his face in his hands. “You know how fucked up this is, right? Billy has been telling me from the beginning that to possess is to violate an innocent. You’re telling me I’ll have to violate an innocent, and then use that innocent to kill yet another innocent, all in the hope that it will somehow drag your ex-husband over the line and into hell. Or Heaven. Or the river, or the ocean, or whatever. Does that about sum it up?”
“Actually, yes. I think you understand perfectly. And since you don’t like to mince words, yes, you’re right. It is indeed fucked up. I’m asking you to violate the lives of two innocents in this city, to save hundreds of thousands more.”
“It’s not only that. You’re asking me to do to someone what Justin did to me.”
“Yes. I am.” She finally looked up and directly into Richard’s eyes once again. “None of us will leave this battle unscathed, I’m afraid.”
Richard looked at the pair. The old woman with skin like tissue paper, and the young boy, with clear blue eyes, clutching his hat. He had thought of them both as wise and almost holy people. But right now, they looked weak and terrified. And they both looked at him as if he was their only hope.
Finally, he managed, “Okay. Then teach me.”
The old woman smiled and rose to her feet. Billy seemed so relieved he was trembling.
“Thank you, Richard,” Tuilla said.
“Don’t thank me yet. I’m still not convinced I can do anything to help. This all still sounds like religious mumbo jumbo to me.”
“But is it any more unlikely than the fact that you’re even here?”
Richard actually smiled. “No, I suppose not.”
“Existence in and of itself is a miracle. Or in your words, ‘religious mumbo jumbo.’ Once you can accept the fact that you exist, then perhaps the rest of it is not so great a leap.”
“Uh huh. Whatever. We can talk theology later. What do you need me to do?”
“You know much already,” Tuilla said, as she reached out a hand and helped Richard to his feet. “You’ve sensed the thread, and you’ve followed it to the door. But you lack the key to open that door. I’m here to give you that key. And in fact, there are two keys, either of which will open the same door. Possessing either will allow you to use the Fourth Gift. Which one you choose will determine your course. And the course of everyone in this valley.”
“I don’t understand,” Richard said, already feeling exasperated.
“It’s simple. There are two ways to possess. You can possess through hatred and rage. Or you can possess through love and compassion.”
Richard just stared at her. As much as he hated this kind of esoteric and new age bullshit, her words were striking a chord in him—almost as if they were touching some deep memory that he had suppressed. He felt raging emotions rushing through him, and he knew they were all showing on his face.
“Richard, what you are feeling now, and what you have felt since you returned, is fear. And regret. And sadness. And above all, loss. These are all very normal emotions for the newly dead, but I’m afraid that none of them are pathways to the Fourth Gift. If I sent you to George now, you would fail, and Keith, along with everyone else in this city, would be helpless.” She took both of his hands in hers. “Hear me: You can’t possess if you are mired in panic and regret. Healing and transcendence is possible only after we accept and embrace what we have lost. So what I really need to teach you is to quiet your mind and heart, so you can make your choice of which key to use. You have them both in your possession now.”
“Okay. Tell me,” Richard said, not really sure he was ready to hear.
“The two keys are…” Tuilla took a deep breath, “rage… and compassion.”
She paused, as if she wanted those two words to sink into Richard’s consciousness. When he didn’t speak, she continued. “They are your two keys, but you must decide which one you want to use. Do you want to harness your rage in order to possess, and in the process become everything you loathe and fear? Or do you want to harness your compassion? Those are your only choices.”
Richard smirked. “What is this, some ‘dark side of the force’ shit? Are you telling me that if I use my rage, I become Darth Vader?”
Tuilla’s voice held steady, and she did not smile “Perhaps. The human soul is a complex thing, and it is deeply connected to mysteries that we all instinctively understand. Somehow, George’s rage found a pathway through that complex maze, and now he teaches that path to his angels. His key is rage and hate, because that is the pathway he has lived and walked for two centuries. Walking it has changed him. He has taught that pathway to others, and it has changed them too. Mattie and Justin are just two examples among hundreds. Both of them were wounded, but neither of them were lost before George took them down his dark path. Possessing using George’s key destroys, both the mind that possesses, and the mind that is possessed. It is a path that only leads to more loss.”
Richard tore his hands away from the woman’s grip and turned away from her. When he finally faced her again, his eyes were full of the frustration that was threatening to overwhelm him.
“So you want me to use… the other key.”
It wasn’t a question, and Tuilla didn’t try to answer.
“How can you ask that of me?” Richard asked, his voice trembling. “You want me to follow some path of light and love, but I don’t have that in me. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m full of the same rage you’re talking about. I’m pissed at everything and everybody. I’m pissed at the danger Keith is in, and I’m pissed that I’m even in this stupid thing you call the Hereafter. Most of all, I’m pissed at myself for not keeping Keith safe, when I promised him I would!” He felt his rage working up to a fever pitch.
“Two weeks ago I was alive and happy, and I knew none of this. I didn’t even know about this fucking place. I had no idea that goddamn ghosts were roaming all over this city. And now I’m dead, and I’ve lost everything because of some cosmic bullshit that I have no control over! How in the fuck can you ask me to ‘walk the path of compassion’? Rage is a feeling I can access right now. But compassion? No, I don’t have it in me. You’re crazy if you think you can make me all Zen and loving right now. But rage is certainly something I have pretty easy access to!”
He stopped and stared at her, and he could almost feel her will weakening under his gaze. “So, what happens if I possess with rage?”
“Then you are following George’s path. And the path of Mattie and Justin, and many others. Hundreds in this valley. Can’t you see where it is leading?”
Richard was silent. But he refused to break the old woman’s gaze.
“I’ve revealed the two keys, Richard Pratt. Now let me show you the lock.”
“What do you mean?”
“Richard, it is the person you wish to possess that you must either hate, or for whom you must feel compassion and love. So let me ask you this: Who could you hate enough to possess them, and make them do your will? Who in the world you left behind do you loathe enough? Or do you think that you have it within you to build up a frenzy of hate for a stranger?”
Richard felt his hands clenching into fists. “I’m sure I could find someone.”
“It’s not as easy as you think. Not unless your nature is already dark and twisted, and I don’t believe that is true of you. Even for those who were already filled with rage and anger, like Mattie and Justin, it was not an easy thing for George to teach them to actually use that hatred.” She was holding his gaze now, and he felt his resolve weakening. “Remember, if you possess with hatred, it will usually destroy the person you have taken. Is there anyone you would wish that upon?”
“Only Justin,” Richard said, his voice weak.
Tuilla seemed saddened by his answer. “You may hate Justin right now, but he isn’t the one you will need to possess. Who among the living do you hate enough to visit this upon?”
Richard decided not to answer that question. “So the other key is somehow easier? I love Keith. I have never loved anyone more, but when I was with him, that love didn’t give me a pathway to possess him. I tried, but that door stayed locked.”
Again, Tuilla’s voice became soft and compassionate. And despite Richard’s anxiety, she crossed to him and spoke. “Because, Richard Pratt, it wasn’t love you showed to Keith. You haven’t shown him genuine love since you crossed over. You have shown him your fear, and your anxiety. You have shown him your desperate need, and your grief, and your desire to soothe your own conscience by protecting him. You have shown him only your own weaknesses, and tried to lean on him to mend your broken soul. To salve the loneliness you are feeling. To end your own pain. None of that is love.”
Richard felt his eyes squeeze shut, but it couldn’t lock out Tuilla’s words. It couldn’t drive from his brain the knowledge that she was absolutely right. Nothing he had shown to Keith since his return was truly about his love for his husband. It was all about his own fears and his own desperation.
“You’ll need to do better than that,” Tuilla said softly. “You’ll need to be more selfless, if you hope to possess out of compassion.”
Richard began to shake, but the tears didn’t come. Instead, his jaw set and his eyes narrowed. He clenched Tuilla’s hands in his own, over and over, finally looking down at her with steady, determined eyes. He felt like something had broken inside of him.
“What do you need me to do?” he asked.
“If you stay with me, I will teach you. And I will give you what you need to have a chance at stopping George.”
“How long will it take?” Richard asked, his voice breaking and his entire body now quivering. “Keith is in danger. I can’t just sit here and contemplate my ghostly navel.”
“I don’t know how long. But I need you to stay with me, and put everything else out of your mind. For as long as it takes.”
Richard paused and thought for a moment. “If I do this, I want to send Billy to watch over Keith. And Billy, you have to promise to do whatever is in your power to keep Keith safe. If Justin shows up, say whatever you need to say. Reason with him if you can. If you can’t, then lie to him. Tell him I’m coming, and that he must keep Keith alive until I get there. Tell him you’ll come and get me.”
Billy now reached out and put a hand on Richard’s shoulder. “I will, my friend. I promise.”
He took a deep breath. “Okay. Then go.”
Billy looked at Tuilla, but he did not leave until she nodded her head in a kind of blessing. Then he rushed quickly down the stairs.
When Billy was gone, Richard turned to Tuilla.
“There is one thing that you didn’t tell me. And I think maybe you didn’t want to say it in front of Billy,” Richard said. “I don’t think you’re at all certain that killing Drouillard’s host is going to do a damn thing. What if we kill him, and nothing changes? What if he doesn’t cross over? Or what if his angels just continue their rampage?”
“Yes. All that is possible,” the old woman said. “But all we can do, is what we can. The dead can affect the course of the universe far less than the living. So the actions we can take here are much more restrained. Still, the compulsion to act laid upon us by the Great Spirit is no less binding. We can only do what we can, and trust that it will be enough.”
“You sound like Billy,” Richard said. “He likes to talk about faith.”
She smiled. “Yes. Faith. That is a good word.”
“Okay, fine. Just no more talk about your Great Spirit, okay? It just… pisses me off.”
The old woman just smiled and made no promises. But she took Richard’s hands again, and said, “Now we can begin.”
The Last Handful of Clover is a supernatural thriller by Wess Mongo Jolley. Thanks for reading! If you are enjoying this story, please consider supporting the author on Patreon.
For more information (including maps of the story’s world and a contact form) visit the author’s website.
To read previous chapters of this book, go to the Table of Contents page.
If you’re interested in listening to the book, rather than reading it, the audiobook is available at the Patreon link above, and also as a podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Anchor, and all other podcast platforms. Visit the podcast page for more details.
Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.