Home > Downpour (Greywalker #6)(4)

Downpour (Greywalker #6)(4)
Author: Kat Richardson

I got to the Clallam County courthouse as the building opened for the day. The modern low-rise of glass and concrete was just behind and around the corner from the graceful brick-and-marble edifice of the original courthouse that had been converted into a small museum. All current county offices and services were housed in the new building, and every person who’d come to court, gotten married, lost his house to tax foreclosure, or come to file a death certificate had left shreds of emotion behind, until the modern cement buildings had accrued a thin, constant cloud of Grey energy. The new building was well lit with skylights and windows, but it still had a touch of gloom to it under the drizzling clouds.

Even though all the offices I needed were in the same building, it took most of three hours to confirm that there was no death certificate for Steven Leung and to get through the tax and property records for his house. No one was obstructive, but the county was, like all counties in Washington at the moment, short-staffed to begin with and missing a few more who’d been furloughed for budget reasons or started their weekend a day early. The people who were at their desks were buried in paperwork and most were doing someone else’s job as well as their own, trying to wrap up as much up as possible before four thirty. As I searched for information, I kept seeing the flutter of otherworldly flames at the edges of my vision. I couldn’t quite catch a glimpse of Steven Leung, though. He seemed to have faded to the thinnest remains of a ghost—even more ragged than the mysterious Anna Petrovna had been before she vanished from my room the night before.

The assessor’s office, where Leung had worked, kept track of property taxes, but with so much staff doubling up, I struck it lucky—the clerk in charge of deeds and property records was also the acting tax assessor’s clerk. Property deeds and taxes are public records, so he was able to confirm that the house was still in Leung’s name and that the property tax payments were up-to-date via automated payments direct from his bank.

The clerk gave me the location of the parcel on which Leung’s house sat. I glanced at the slip of paper where he’d written the information and shook my head. “I’m afraid I’m not familiar with the area. Where is this?”

“It’s up by the lakes.” He pulled out a map of property lines and land parcels and opened it on a nearby table, passing a finger over the printed terrain until he came to the area around Lake Crescent.

On the map the big lake looked like the silhouette of a Chinese dragon puffing out a ball of flame in the direction of downtown Port Angeles. I followed his finger across the top of the dragon’s head, past the stretch of East Beach Road where I’d seen the phantom of Leung’s burning car, and across the highway to the irregular, elongated shape that seemed to have been spat from the dragon’s mouth.

The clerk tapped the map. “Right here on Lake Sutherland. Just head up to Lake Crescent and turn left at the sign for Lake Sutherland Road. Pretty country even at this time of year, especially if you can be up on that end of the lakes when the sun’s going down.”

My interest was definitely piqued since I didn’t recall anything unusual from my last viewing of the lake. “Does something happen at sundown?”

“If the clouds break right, the sun shines through a low point in the surrounding hills and turns the surface of the water pink and red and orange just before it goes under the horizon. It’s right pretty, but you can’t see it any other time of the year.” He made a circle on the map with his fingertip, covering the western edge of Lake Sutherland and over onto the northeastern shore of Lake Crescent. A distant, muffled roaring sounded in my ears and the flickering flames that teased the corners of my vision grew brighter for a moment as the clerk said, “Someone tried to name the area ‘Sunset Lakes’ once a long time back when they opened up the first leg of the highway, but it didn’t stick since you can’t see the phenomenon during the warmer months. People don’t want to hang around to watch the sunset when they’re freezing their hind ends off,” he added with a chuckle. “Even back in the day, tourists were big business. Not like the area’s had a lot of settlement up there. Mostly lumbering in the early days, fishing, a bit of mining for a while, but not much, and the whole area’s pretty much shut down from the end of October through April, when the resorts start opening up. A few hardy types live up there the entire time, but it’s mostly just summer places and the big lodges in the national park property.”

“Any idea if Steven Leung lived there full-time after he retired?” I asked.

He thought about it for a moment. “I’m not sure. It’s hard to get by on a retirement salary if you have to pay rent in town and a mortgage at the lake, so I’d guess he did, but I don’t know.”

“Did you know him while he was working here?”

“Only to nod to. He started out in the surveyor’s office and transferred here when he started slowing down a bit. But he still did a lot of the physical work on assessments and I didn’t work directly for the assessor then, so I didn’t see a lot of him. Seemed like a nice fella, but kind of quiet, as I remember.”

“Unrelated topic: Do you have any title records for a Darin Shea?”

He looked but could find nothing to show Darin Shea had any ownership or interest in any land in Clallam County. Not that I’d expected any—roving handymen aren’t the sort to invest in real estate.

The clerk couldn’t supply much more information on Leung, either, and his paperwork was backing up while he was chatting with me. I reluctantly let him go back to it. I had a bad feeling about what I would hear next, but still I went down the hall to discover what I could about Leung’s retirement checks.

The treasurer’s office was responsible for the retirement payments, and though the woman managing disbursements wouldn’t give me specifics, she was willing to confirm that the payments still went out every month, direct-deposited to Leung’s credit union account—another case of no human hands touching a check....

I wondered what happened when people died and how long it took for the county to demand the overpayments back from the family of the deceased. Her answer was complicated and not very reassuring. It seemed all too easy for a dead man to keep receiving his pay until some other authority—usually the IRS—got nosy. It occurred to me that if Steven Leung had been dead for the past five years, even a small retirement payment would add up to a big chunk of money. If he’d been killed, would that—and the taxes—have been worth the cost of murder?

I kept on poking, though I turned my focus mostly on Darin Shea. I tried the licensing bureau, the office of business taxes, the DMV . . . but I couldn’t find anything more on Leung that I didn’t have already; nor could I find any paperwork for Shea, not even a suspended driver’s license. Neither man had any criminal record or fingerprints on file that the county resources could turn up. That didn’t surprise me for Leung, but I had to hope I could find a crack in Shea’s blank wall before Nan went to trial with him. I had to admit, though, that I was less interested in Shea than in Leung’s disappearance.

Once I was done with the county offices, I went searching for a place to have lunch and compile my notes before I drove up into the mountains that loomed over Port Angeles. As I headed back to my truck, I mentally damned the systems that both invaded our privacy and made it possible for a man missing or dead for five years to continue to collect his stipend and pay taxes. Money is a remarkable motivator and unpaid taxes would have gotten someone looking for Leung a lot earlier than this, but with no human actually cashing or cutting a check, the organizations most likely to kick up a fuss and cause trouble hadn’t even noticed. And someone may have profited by that.

I had coffee and a bite to eat at a tiny place called the Veela Café, while Chaos hung her head over the top of my bag and did her best to look cute and wheedle crumbs. The manager blinked at the ferret and then made a point of not seeing her as she handed over my plate.

“You might want to sit in the corner by the computer desks,” she said, “so nobody gets freaked-out by your . . . toy.”

“Thank you. That sounds fine,” I replied, taking the plate and sitting where she suggested, far from the window and slightly screened from the other patrons. I supposed she was concerned for her foodhandling license, or possibly the reaction of other customers—some people mistake ferrets for rats and that wouldn’t do her business any good. If it hadn’t been so cold, I could have eaten outside, but today I would have frozen, so I was grateful for the woman’s restraint and generosity. Once we were in our corner, I fed Chaos part of the meat from the sandwich. I’d have to give her some more food and water when we were somewhere more appropriate, but for now it was adequate to convince the furry kneesock that she wasn’t hungry enough to eat my purse.

The Veela Café was just off the major intersection of the original downtown. The buildings were old brick and masonry from the days when Port Angeles was a thriving customs port exporting lumber and minerals from the hills. The customhouse had long since moved, the lumber was protected forest, and the minerals were mostly gone, so the businesses that now occupied the old buildings ranged from the traditional to the bizarre. My little coffeehouse was sandwiched between a fancy seafood restaurant and a shop that catered to fans of the Twilight books and films. Across the street was the venerable Lincoln Theater—now showing second-run films and community production plays—cheek by jowl with a Chinese restaurant of the red-paint-andgilt-trim school. The eclectic collection made me smile a little even though the businesses were outnumbered by For Lease signs. County seat or not, Port Angeles, like a lot of towns on the Peninsula, was struggling under the unstable economy. It was a little depressing. By the time I’d finished eating, I was more than ready to head into the hills and look for the house. The ghost images in the corners of my eyes were growing dimmer and that worried me. While phantoms do fade over time or simply go away, they rarely do so at such a discernible rate of decay; they either linger and dwindle or they go completely in one fell moment.

Anxious to find an explanation for the vanishing spirits, I cleared up quickly. Then I put my notes and the ferret away, returned to the Rover, and pointed it up the road to Lake Crescent.

FIVE

Highway 101 hadn’t changed since I’d driven up and down it a few days earlier, but I found myself alert for signs of the strange and ghostly. Not that they would be easy to spot through the glass and steel of the truck, but I felt unsettled by what I’d seen so far and the information I’d gathered. I kept expecting something else weird to happen.

Perhaps that was why I noticed the creatures beside the road. I knew that deer, bears, and the rare mountain lion lived in the Olympic National Forest. I’d seen plenty of deer on the previous trip and they didn’t have any real fear of people—which wasn’t too smart of them, considering that they weren’t immune to bullets or speeding cars. They came right down into the ditches on each side of the road to graze the early plants that struggled up where the frost was thinnest next to the heat of the tarmac. At first, that was what I thought the things walking around on the other side of the road were—some kind of deer.

They walked on four legs and they had black horns, but deer aren’t white all over like these things and their faces are long and narrow with the horns near the fronts of their skulls. These creatures were hard to keep my eyes on; I felt an unnatural desire to turn my gaze aside, and that alone gave them away as something paranormal. I wanted to get a better look, but I admit I was a little scared and wanted to observe them with caution.

The road was a single lane in each direction, but the verges were broad enough to pull into if you didn’t fear the ice, so I stopped the truck on one of the wide spots and turned in the driver’s seat to look back at the cluster of three large, white-hided, crook-horned things on the other side of the road. I couldn’t tell too much about them through the glass, nor could I tell whether the area had the same strange, colored patches and lines of energy that I’d seen at the lake before, so I cranked down my window and peered at them through the Grey.

The ground seemed dappled with colored shadows that moved and re-formed without a visible source, the uncanny puddles of energy pooling most thickly near the white creatures. At first, the beasts ignored the Rover, continuing to walk a ragged circle around something in their midst. Their shape and movement had given me the impression that they had four legs, but when one of them reared up to bat at whatever they were surrounding, I realized they were two-legged creatures with a bent, brachiating posture. Their unusually long forelimbs ended in hands that sported black claws that dripped colors in the Grey. The one that rose up stopped walking and kept its weight on three of its limbs while it swiped with the fourth and made a shrieking noise like a heron caught in a wood chipper.

The thing they circled lurched aside, and another of the white creatures screamed at it and poked it back into the middle of their circle with its own raised forelimb. Their motion reminded me of school yard bullies shoving a smaller child around during recess. I opened my car door and stepped out onto the icy ground to get a better view, letting myself slide a little deeper into the Grey in hopes of figuring out what these things were.

One of my feet brushed a strand of wayward energy as I put it down. The third white creature suddenly jerked its head up in my direction, snorting as if it could smell me. The other two ignored it for a moment while they kept on tormenting their prey, shoving it back and forth while the third stared toward me.

Even at the width of the highway I could see that its eyes were tiny black coals under a heavy brow ridge, the kinked black horns growing out from its forehead like a cat’s whiskers. It had the jaw of a bulldog and a complement of sharp, hooked fangs. It squealed and rose onto its haunches to slap at its nearest fellow, thin strands of red light flaying outward from its claw tips.

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