Phantom Lake

When I picked up the phone I was greeted by a chorus of squalls, like a raging tempest on a warm summer night. I was used to bad connection on the weathered Harkwright County lines, and was just about to hang up, when I heard my own name amid the interference.

“Frank…”

“Melissa?”

“Frank… help me… beneath… lake…”

A flurry of static, and then the connection went dead.

My heart thumped in my chest. It was the first time I’d heard Melissa’s voice since she disappeared from the face of the earth eight months earlier.

On Saturday evening, Tony’s Pub was serving as many customers as they ever did, which was still just shy of a dozen. It was the town’s classy tavern, with glowing Heineken signs and a pool table in the corner. Heads turned and the players looked up from their game when I let it drop that I’d heard from Melissa.

“Said she was in a boating accident,” I told Keith, tending bar. “That’s all I could get out of her. You hear tell of Melissa taking boat rides with anyone last year?”

“Pretty much everybody in town but you owns a boat, Frank,” said Keith. That prompted some laughter from the assembled.

“Melissa never owned a boat,” I replied. “I’d love to know who was with her on the lake.”

Police Chief Avery followed me out of the bar, grabbed me, and dragged me around to the back. He gut-punched me and I fell to my knees.

He skewered me with rheumy, bloodshot eyes. “Melissa Garner’s an open case. We never managed to pin it on you, Frank, but keep shooting your mouth off and I’ll haul you in for another try.”

“Your trail’s cold, Chief. Shaking things up is the only way.”

A tall figure approached from the shadows. “What’s going on here?”

Avery stepped back. “Just remember what I told you, Frank,” he retorted before walking away.

Brady Johnson helped me up. “Frank, are you ok?”

I looked up at the big man, whose burly physique belied his gentle nature. Brady’s deep brows and firm jaw were almost handsome, but his eyes reflected a mind that was clotted and slow.

“Thanks, Brady. Everything’s fine.”

“It was about Melissa, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah.”

“Is she ever coming back?”

“I don’t think so, Brady.” Watching his head bow and the big shoulders slump, I was reminded that Melissa had tutored Brady in school and they’d become friends. It was reassuring that someone else missed her almost as much as I did.

I walked a ways with the big man back towards town.

“What keeps you here, Frank? You’re smart, you could get a fancy job somewhere. There’s nothing here.”

I considered a moment. “I guess ol’ Mel still has a hold on me.”

Four AM. Phantom Lake gleamed under a crescent moon. To the south and the west, the big pond turned to swamp. The docks were situated on the east bank, and that’s where I sat in my Chevy sedan under a gloomy grove of trees, waiting to see if a perpetrator returned to the scene of the crime.

The drifting canoes played a timpani of bumps and rattles. Beyond the docks, the silhouette of a car parked in the shadow of a great elm. Had it been there earlier?

I slid out to investigate, all my attention on the other car.

The attack came from behind. THWACK! A tree limb came down on my skull, and everything went black…

Cutting pain inflamed my wrists. I lay on the dock, bound up in fishing line, helpless.

A figure walked towards me. Brady, carrying six concrete blocks like they were lunch boxes. He stepped over me. Then he came back and picked me up, carried me down into a canoe and dropped me next to the blocks.

He launched and started paddling out to the middle of the lake.

“You did this to Melissa?” I asked.

“She was already dead when I dumped her. But you’re going in alive, Frank. Let’s see how long you can hold your breath!”

Brady’s toothy grin gleamed in the moonlight. He started stringing the blocks together with a chain.

“Brady, don’t do this!”

“It’s all your fault. Fancy college boy coming back home. Mel and me were in love until you came back!”

He wrapped the chain around my waist and padlocked it. Then he gathered up the necklace of concrete blocks and heaved them overboard. The chain went taut and towed me up the side of the boat. Brady grabbed my ankles and started to tip me up and over.

A spotlight from another boat shone on the big man.

“HOLD IT RIGHT THERE, BRADY!” shouted Chief Avery.

Brady dropped my ankles and started to pull a gun. Avery shot him twice in the chest. He toppled forward, capsizing the canoe.

I plunged into the water. The concrete blocks dragged me down as I struggled to get free…

Blue light pierced the murky green depths. It approached and surrounded me, an otherworldly vision in this watery graveyard. The chain around my waist slackened. My bonds dropped away. I was free and rising up. But the blue light wasn’t following.

I broke the surface of the water and gasped for breath. Chief Avery rowed over and helped me into his boat.

“I followed you and waited,” he said. “Then things started happening fast.”

The next day they found the murderer’s dead hulk mired in the swamp. And beneath the lake, Melissa, still wearing the pathetic tatters of her favorite dress. What dress she wore to the funeral I cannot say, because the casket was closed. I hope it was a pretty one.

I still live in Harkwright County, though there’s nothing any longer keeping me here. Nothing except the occasional ringing of the phone, and random static when I pick up.


About Joe Zabel

Joe Zabel is a comic book artist living in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. He is best known for his work illustrating American Splendor, by the late Harvey Pekar. Zabel also published his own series of mystery comics, The Trespassers, and several webcomics for Modern Tales.

>> Joe Zabel's author page

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