Standing at his kitchen counter, Mike ran through the checklist one last time. It was important that he got things right. A single mistake could ruin everything.
His eyes scanned the contents of the cooler lying open in front of him. Chips and bean dip. Check. Pigs-in-a-blanket and hot wings. Check. Those stupid carrot and celery sticks his wife always insisted on sending with him. Check. Beer. Check. He gazed lovingly at the frosty cold bottles of dark glass. Then he spun around, opened the fridge and pulled out another six pack. Double check.
A glance at the clock showed that it was time. He looked forward to this time each week of the season. Thursday night, food and football at his buddy Phil’s house; it was a ritual he wouldn’t have broken with for anything. It didn’t matter that it was Halloween, that with the wife out his house would be empty, alone and unprotected from angry trick-or-treaters or pranksters. Tonight it was all about the guys, and with his favorite team playing in a critical game for division lead, it would have taken the Apocalypse to stop him. Even then, it might not be enough.
Mike scooped up the cooler, pushed his way out the back door, pausing with the heavy container balanced on his hip while he locked the door. Then he marched eagerly across the driveway and lawn, glad that the missus wasn’t there to see him take a shortcut across her slumbering flower bed.
It was only as he came around the tall hedge bordering his yard that he saw the cluster of vehicles parked around Phil’s house. Uniformed personnel, police offices and firemen and EMTs, bustled around the property, going in and out of the front door, or standing in groups talking and gesturing.
Mike slowed, but he didn’t stop. The scene before him was dreamlike, as if it couldn’t be real, couldn’t be happening, not this night of all nights. He didn’t stop until he came up to the strip of police tape, hanging suspended between Phil’s mailbox and the riotously overgrown Japanese maple at the corner of his driveway.
A police officer standing nearby came over to him, moving with the air of a man both bored with his job and anxious to do it right. “Excuse me, sir. Please stay back from the tape.”
Mike faced the policeman, a worried frown on his face. “What’s going on here, Officer? This is my friend Phil’s house; has something happened to him?” This couldn’t be real, not tonight.
“I’m sorry, sir, I can’t tell you anything.” The officer’s eyes narrowed. “Are you saying you knew the person who lived at this address?”
“Yeah, of course I do,” Mike replied. “Phil’s my best friend.”
The officer hesitated, then reached out to lift the tape high enough that Mike could walk under it. “Please come with me, sir. The detective in charge will want to ask you some questions.”
Mike followed the officer up the drive, moving in a daze, the forgotten cooler still held in front of him. Then his brain caught up with something the cop had said. “Hey, you said something about Phil having lived here. Like, past tense. Did something happen to him? Is he okay?”
“Please come with me, sir,” was the officer’s only response.
They mounted the steps to the front porch, edging past a pair of EMTs leaving the building, and the police officer opened the door.
Standing right on the other side, as if he’d been on the way out himself, was a short, heavyset man in a rumpled suit. His face was twisted in an impatient scowl, the lines of it so heavily set that it seemed a perpetual expression for him.
“Detective Hart,” the officer said, his voice crisp and respectful. “I was just looking for you, sir.”
“Yeah, what for?” the man replied, his tone about what you’d use on a phone solicitor.
The officer gestured at Mike. “This man is an acquaintance of the guy who lived here.”
Mike found the detective’s grumpy look turned on him. “That so? Well, mister, I’ve got a few questions for you.” He made it sound like Mike was suddenly the prime suspect behind a string of gruesome murders.
“Uh, Detective, can you tell me what’s going on?” Mike managed to get the words out without squeaking.
“I’ll do the asking here,” Hart said, pulling out a notepad and pen. “Your name and address?”
“Mike Sanderson. I live just next door.”
“You say you know the victim? How long?”
Mike’s eyes widened at the word “victim”. “Something like five years. Phil’s my best friend. Is he all right?”
Hart ignored the question, scribbling on his pad. “When was the last time you spoke with Phil?”
“This morning, as I was leaving for work.” Mike remembered it clearly. Every morning Phil was out sitting on his deck swing, staring around at the neighborhood, a happy look on his face. And every day he had a smile and a cheerful greeting for Mike. “He was sitting right there,” Mike pointed at the swing. “We were looking forward to getting together tonight.”
Detective Hart exchanged a quick, loaded glance with the other policeman.
“This morning, you say?” Hart said, sounding doubtful. “Could you describe your friend.”
“Oh, about my height and build, brown hair going thin on top, blue eyes, glasses.” Mike wondered where this was going.
“Looked like this?” Hart held up a framed picture of a man standing on the deck of a boat, holding up a large fish. Mike recognized as a photo that had always hung on the wall behind the couch.
“Yeah, that’s him. Can you please tell me what’s happened to him?”
“We’ll get to that. Did you know of any problems Phil was having? Marital issues, tiffs with neighbors, money troubles?”
Mike shook his head. “Phil isn’t married. He’s the nicest guy on the block. And he never complained about money, always seemed to be doing okay.”
Hart did some more scribbling, then paused, tapping the pad with his pen, his lips pursed. Finally, he let out a sigh. “I don’t know how to tell you this, Mr. Sanderson, but early this evening, our department was alerted by a neighbor to the presence of human remains on this property. Apparently, her newly acquired dog dug up a bone. We arrived and uncovered a corpse, which we have tentatively identified as belonging to Mr. Philip Waters, of this address.”
Mike suddenly felt dizzy. “Oh, no. Somebody killed Phil? Today?”
Hart shook his head. “No, Mr. Sanderson. The remains we found were fully decomposed. The medical examiner estimates your friend has been dead for roughly ten years.”
“Ten years?” Now Mike’s voice did squeak. “How is that possible?”
“We assume that someone killed Mr. Waters, took on his identity. The house bills are all on auto pay, so one’s had reason to investigate until now.” His eyes narrowed. “And the only person we’ve found so far who had regular contact with him was you.”
Mike wasn’t sure he like the detective’s tone. “Are you implying I had something to do with this?”
Hart tilted his head to one side. “You say you knew the victim for five years; I’m not sure someone could impersonate him well enough to fool anyone for that long.” He settled his hands on his hips. “Now, is there anything you’d like to tell me?”
Mike felt a slow, smoldering anger building. “Look, Detective, you’ve just told me that my best friend is dead, supposedly killed ten years ago, and that some imposter took his place. Now you’re implying that I had something to do with it. Well, personally, I think you need to do your job better. I’m betting that there’s been some mistake, and that Phil will turn up, and he won’t know anything about that body.” He shifted his weight, suddenly aware that he was still holding a heavy cooler. “If there’s nothing else you’d like to ask me, I think I’ll go home now.”
Hart eyed him for a moment longer, then nodded. “All right, Mr. Sanderson. But I’ll definitely have more questions for you later. Don’t take any trips, okay?” The menace behind those last words was unmistakable.
Mike swallowed and kept silent. The officer standing nearby tapped his shoulder and escorted him past the crime scene tape. Mike took one last look at his friend’s house, feeling a confused jumble of anger, sadness, and disappointment. He guessed he’d never get to have another Thursday night football party with Phil.
He walked back up to his house, set the cooler down, and sank to the steps. It was unbelievable, impossible, that his friend could have died all those years ago. He had to agree with Hart; no one could successfully pretend to be someone else for that long. But he knew Phil, knew he’d seen him that morning, just like every morning. And he had really been looking forward to tonight…
“Sorry about all that.”
The voice came from right beside Mike, so sudden and unexpected that he jumped. When he looked over, Phil was sitting beside him.
“Phil!” he said with a gasp. “You’re alive! I knew it! I knew they were wrong!”
“Well,” Phil ran a hand through his thinning hair. “Technically, they’re not.”
“You see, I am dead.” Phil gave him an apologetic smile. “Have been for ten years. Some guys who worked with my father knew he’d left me a lot of money. They broke into my house and worked me over. Things got out of hand. I ended up dead, and they just buried me in the back yard.” He shook his head sadly. “Dug up my vegetable garden to do it.”
Mike was speechless for a long moment. “Uh, okay,” he said at last. “Right. You’re… dead.”
“I can understand your doubts,” Phil said with a grin. “It took me some getting used to, too. But think about it. In the last five years, have you ever seen me eat or drink anything at our get-togethers? Have you ever seen me wearing any different clothes? Have I aged even a bit?”
Mike stared at his friend for a minute, thinking hard. Now that Phil mentioned it, he did seem a bit unchanging. And the food thing was weird, though when there was food around Mike had a tendency to stuff himself, without wondering who else was eating. His wife had once had to fend him off with a fork to keep him away from her own plate.
“So, you’re saying you’re a ghost?” Mike asked.
“I guess so,” Phil replied, his tone thoughtful. “I guess I was just enjoying life so much, I didn’t want to leave.” He looked at Mike. “I mean, I had a great friend, we had lots of fun together. I just decided to stay as long as I could.” He chuckled. “Turned out to be quite a while.”
Mike shook his head, still a little overwhelmed. “But… all that time, how could I not notice that something was wrong?”
“Hey, you don’t sweat the details,” Phil said. “That’s one of the things I like about you.”
Mike thought for a second, then sigh. “Okay. So… what happens now?”
“Well, the police will investigate, probably catch the men who killed me. There’s plenty of evidence to connect them to me. They may have some more questions for you, but they’ll be nothing to imply you were connected with the crime. It’ll all blow over. Don’t worry too much about it.”
Mike nodded, feeling relieved. Then he looked at his friend with concern. “What about you?”
“I suppose it’s about time I moved on,” Phil said. “I’ll miss hanging out with you, Mike. You were a great friend. But I’ve stayed too long already.”
Mike thought back on all the years they’d been friends, all the good times they’d had. He could understand Phil sticking around, even after death. They’d had a lot of fun, and he didn’t want it to end himself. But there was a time for everything, and it had to end sooner or later. He glanced at the cooler still sitting beside him, and smiled.
“Do you have to go now?” he asked, turning to Phil. “The game’s just about to start.”
Phil smiled back at him. “You know, I’ve waited this long. One more night won’t matter.” He glanced toward his house, where flashing lights streaked the walls as an ambulance pulled away. “But I think we’ll have to watch the game at your house tonight.”