Poltergeist! Ask the Dust

Poltergeist! Dead of Winter Book Page

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I'm not your ordinary gumshoe.

My name's Nina Cohen. Born: 1898, died: 1912. I'm a poltergeist in a human body. I work from home as a private investigator. I watch entirely too much TV, and I talk to my cat. Say hello, Djinn.


My cop buddy Cronenberg talked me into this case. I'm just saying.

Nikita Zapata had everything to live for: friends, teammates, good grades, a volleyball scholarship to college. Then she went missing.

Jenny Thordarson had nothing: abused, trafficked from a young age, family history of drugs, you name it. She went missing last summer.

On the face of it, these two high school girls have only one thing in common: they were both Morgan Whitney's best friends, and Morgan's not talking.

My job was to find Nikita. There were fifty-thousand dollars in it for me. That's why I'm undercover in high school.

Now I'm hip deep in ancient powers beyond anything I knew about, the spirits of serial killers, teachers that don't like me, and snow. Lots and lots of snow.

Nobody said the life of a high school girl was easy.


Cronenberg brought me unfinished copy from the 2022-23 yearbook in the folder with everything else. I flip through it, making notes on my notepad with a Fisher Space Pen. To paraphrase and editorialize:

Nikita Gabriela (Niki) Zapata is in her senior year at Washburn High School, on Washburn Road off Skyline, home of the Pine Martins. She's seventeen years old, born 29 December 2005. She and her family live at 1104 Glensheen Way, overlooking Lake Superior proper, in one of a cluster of closely spaced mini-mansions built over what was once the waste treatment plant. A star athlete and an honors student since her freshman year in high school, she already has a full ride scholarship to UCLA. She expects to play women's basketball for one of the best teams in the country, and to study pre-med, with an eye toward a medical degree in youth sports. Her parents have no other children. Overachiever—pushing very hard, I write in my legal pad.

Cronenberg, or one of his minions in the department, ran an NCIC search on her. No criminal records were found. However, a local search in the department turned up her name in some kind of booking log. Cronenberg and his friends really have done their homework. If they were prosecuting Zapata for anything, they couldn't touch that information.

By all accounts Nikita Zapata cleaned up her act, and has earned the Mayor's Award for Citizenship, and no less than three Youth Volunteerism awards, although none of them were during this school year. She was class president from her Freshman year to her Junior year, and ran but did not win her Senior year. Reformed four years ago. From what? Why? Slipping?, I write in my notepad.

“So what did she do?” I ask Cronenberg. “When she was in junior high?”

“I don't know. The records were sealed by the court. All we have is the photo log.”

“Did you ask her family?”

He snorts. “We did. They weren't forthcoming.”

“Sounds embarrassing. You'd think they'd spill everything trying to find her.”

“These are rich people. Appearances matter,” Cronenberg says flatly.

I write, What's up with her family? Embarrassment? What did she do?

According to her parents, Zapata is home on time every night, and spends her weekends with her family. She's a churchgoer, St. Olaf Catholic Church, on Main. Sings in the choir. She's too busy to date.

“Too busy to date? La dracu She's too busy to sleep, and she has to squeak those bathroom breaks in.” I note that verbatim.

Cronenberg gives me one of those one-chuck chuckles he'll one day be famous for. “I know, right?”

Next, I have the police report. Again, summarizing and editorializing:

On the evening of 7 December 2022, her parents got home around 6:00 p.m. She wasn't there. She didn't answer her cell phone when they called it. They called the school's emergency contact number. A quick check of the parking lot surveillance camera failed to turn up her car, and the student ID security log showed her leaving the building at 3:45 p.m., after the end of her last class. Her parents' home security cameras show her leaving for school at 6:30 a.m., and arriving back home at 4:05 p.m., which is normal. Notes, notes, notes. One of those times cut and paste would be handy. “Do you have the actual videos from her parents' surveillance system?”

Cronenberg nods and shows me his phone.

Like most of us who dress for photos, Zapata's less shiny, less on in the surveillance video, timestamped 7 December 2022, at 6:32:50 a.m. She walks with the loose-limbed, easy grace of an elite athlete—albeit one wearing insulating hiking boots—but the grainy wide-angles give away little of her facial expression. She's wearing a maroon puffer, jeans, and insulated hiking boots. She tosses her backpack in a car door in the garage, gets in, and the car backs out.

The second video shows the car pulling in. Nikita Zapata gets out of the car, same coat, jeans, and a pair of sneakers of some kind. Her hair looks perfect, her body language much more fluid. She grabs her backpack, favors the security camera with a faint smirk, then disappears indoors. I remember coming home from school exhausted and often dispirited, and sometimes with a very sore bottom from discipline. I'm not her. I was never like her.

“She changed shoes,” I note to Cronenberg.

He nods again. “It was snowing when she left. Warmer when she got home. Her parents said she was very conscious of her image, and this is normal for her.”

“You had parental consent. Did you run her cell phone, calls, GPS, and all that?” I ask Cronenberg.

“Of course.”


“Nothing. She made one phone call to her friend Morgan at 3:50 p.m., and didn't answer a subsequent call back from her at 4:30. Looks like she turned her phone off. GPS trail ends at 4:03 p.m.”

Start a new page in my notes with the heading Morgan.

“Have you interviewed this Morgan?”

Cronenberg nods, flips a few pages of the folder.

Morgan Janet Whitney. No photo. Born 5 February 2006, which makes her sixteen, almost seventeen. Not an athlete, not a great student, occasional brushes with the law, mostly for not going home when she's supposed to. Her family owns a small farm thirty miles west of the city, which I have to convert to metric in my head. Forty-eight-ish kilometers. Half an hour's drive on a good day. Whitney confirmed she got a call from Zapata saying she was done for the day and not feeling well, so she was going home. Whitney also confirmed that she called back to check on Zapata and got no answer. She figured Zapata'd gone to bed. Whitney, it says on the report, was distraught that her friend was missing, and unwilling to speak to police any further. When I've finished jotting all that down, I stop to think, bumping the top of my Space Pen against my nose. Not in Niki's expected social circle, I add. Clue?

I go on reading.

According to the report, the only other interesting thing about Morgan Whitney, is that Zapata's not her first friend to go missing. Last summer, her girlfriend Jenny Thordarson also went missing and hasn't been heard from since.

Whistle. “That's a hell of a coincidence.”

Cronenberg nods. “Yeah. I pulled the records on Jenny Thordarson. One of those kids from the wrong side of the tracks. Missing persons' best guess is she left town to be with her father, who is not her custodial parent. He's in Canada. He denies it, but Saskatoon Police Services are keeping an eye on him.”

“That's not much of an investigation.”

Cronenberg sighs. “Wasn't my case. Anyway, Zapata's parents said they've never met Morgan. She's not one of the friends who come to see Niki.”

I underline Not in Niki's expected social circle. “I don't doubt it.” Bump my nose with the pen again. Finally, I write, Odds of a female, high school aged serial killer are practically zero—but not zero. Keep that in mind. Rare unicorn among rare unicorns. “Did you get a list of the friends the parents knew?”

“Of course.”

He flips the pages to the list. My eyes glaze over. It's a big list. I just take the pages and staple them into my legal pad. Bump the pen against my nose a few more times. It makes that something—hitting—my—head—thunk every time, like a very muffled kick base drum. Like they play rock music on.

I get up and wander over to the refrigerator, pull the handle, and open it up. “I need to see Zapata's family. Interview them. Get a sense of who they are. That…” I gesture toward the folder and my notes, “…is thin. It's her high school resume, and the kind of thing you tell the police, or colleges when you apply. It's not who she is. Or at least not all of it. And I need to get to know this Morgan Whitney. What do you want for lunch?”

He looks over my head into the fridge. “Bean sprouts, yogurt, and…what is that? You eat this stuff? I thought you were a canned stew girl.”

“I was.” Tap my head. “I finally took that bullet out of my brain. Patched some things up. Now I can feel it when I'm hungry, so I had to learn to cook. Those are sarmale. They're ground pork wrapped in sauerkraut cabbage, more or less. That's what I'm having for lunch.”

Dogs, it must be said, have eyebrows. Their wolf ancestors don't have them. Nobody bred them for that. The eyebrows just evolved as part of dogs' adapting to us. It makes me giggle every single time I think about it. So when I say Cronenberg makes puppy dog eyes at me, it really means he's making the kind of expression dogs learned from us in the first place. I chuckle. “Yes, all right, you can have some.”

Copyright 2007-2024 James R. Strickland, All Rights Reserved.